“ROSIE, YOU need to hurry or you’re going to miss the bus.” Newton DeSantis checked his watch for what felt like the millionth time in the last minute.

“I’m coming, Daddy,” Rose called back, coming down the stairs. She had insisted on dressing herself, and Newton thought his eyes were going to bleed out all over the floor. Pink, orange, neon purple—all on his kid at the same time. “I dressed like a unicorn,” she said as she reached the bottom, then turned around as though she were a ballerina on stage.

Newton wiped his brow of the sweat that threatened, but then shrugged the worry away. So what? If she wanted to wear that outfit, he wasn’t going to fight her. Newton was smart enough to pick his battles with his seven-year-old daughter, and this wasn’t one of them.

“Eric,” he called.

His son came in from the family room with a soft grumble, where he had undoubtedly been playing video games. He had his backpack, was dressed, and even looked ready. “Are you ready to go, Rosie?” Eric asked as he came over to take her hand. She pulled her hand back. Rosie wanted to be a big girl and was at the “I want to do everything myself” stage. Eric, at nine, just wanted to get where he wanted to go, frustration building.

“Remember the rules, Rosie,” Newton admonished lightly. Both of them had said they were big enough to walk themselves to the bus stop. Apparently some of the kids at school had been giving Rosie a little grief and calling her a baby or some such crap. “You need to stay with Eric until you get on the bus.” Not that he wasn’t going to be watching, but neither of the kids needed to know that.

“Yes, Daddy,” she said with an epic roll of her eyes.

He got a hug from each of them, and then Rosie and Eric left the house and walked just down the street. They would get on the bus in front of Mrs. Tanner’s house, and Newton knew she would be watching as well. She always made sure the kids were safe. It was probably a habit from when her kids were little. Newton watched from the front door and waited for the bus to come down the street. His kids got on, and he turned away. He closed and locked the front door before taking his bag and heading through the house toward the back, using his cane to take some of the weight off his aching left foot.

Newton got into his car in the garage, putting his things inside, and backed out, grateful for the new door opener he’d gotten himself for his last birthday. With the door closed, he continued on to work.

Today was a courthouse day, and he was never a huge fan of those. Newton had given testimony on many occasions, and that never bothered him too much—it was familiar territory. What he didn’t like was the uncertain outcomes. As a social worker, he spent his days mostly with women who were trying to get themselves, and often their children, out of bad home situations. The case today should be fairly cut and dried, but with hearings, attorneys, and judges, he had learned he could never truly predict an outcome.

The unpredictability was what he hated. Newton had come to rely on order, routines, and as much normalcy as he could get in his life. As few surprises as he could muster was an incredible pleasure. Still, he loved his job and the fact that he was helping people. It was what he had been driven to do for the last nearly eighteen years.

He parked in the courthouse lot, took a deep breath, and slowly got out of the car, bringing his case and his cane along with him.

Newton hated the fact that he had to use the damned cane, but it was becoming a fact of life and there was very little he could do about it. He’d asked about surgery, but he’d had plenty of those already, and now the doctors simply shook their heads, telling him there was nothing more they could do. Just another in a long line of issues he had to incorporate into his life. So that was what he did—worked with what he had and kept moving forward.

“Morning,” Newton told the security officers at the courthouse door as he placed his things on the belt to be scanned. Then he walked through the scanner, which of course went off the way it did each time. Newton stepped to the side, and they wanded him before letting him get his things and move on. It was the same routine each time, and even though all of the security men knew him, he went through it because it was their job. In a way, the routine made him feel safer inside the building, even though deep down he knew it was a false safety. If someone were determined…. He pushed that thought from his mind and headed for the elevator to the second floor.

 

 

TWO HOURS later, Newton sat on a hard seat in the back and tried not to squirm and drop his cane from his lap, even though his leg kept falling to sleep. The lawyers were arguing the merits of their cases, and since Newton had already testified, he got to sit in the courtroom. He kept his hands in his lap, but his fingers were restless, since he channeled all his nervous energy into them.

The client involved in this hearing wasn’t one of Newton’s, but because of the circumstances, he had been asked to testify, and now he was invested in the outcome. By rights, he should have left and let the justice system do its thing, but he couldn’t.

Okay, if he was honest with himself, part of the reason for him staying was the case and another part was because he got to watch Chase Matthews in action. Chase was an attorney, and in this case, he had been assigned by the judge to represent a client of Newton’s colleague Jill. The man was eloquent and passionate, and when he turned to where Newton could view him, Newton swore he could see his intense blue-gray eyes from across the room. The man had presence and was a legal force of nature. He didn’t just talk—he used his entire body, his whole being, putting everything he had into each sentence, each argument, and did it with the sheer magnetism of his presence. It was enticing and enthralling to watch, like an actor giving the performance of their life as Hamlet, or a figure skater presenting a program in the Olympic final that left the viewers breathless.

Newton checked his watch and sighed. As much as he wanted to stay, he needed to get back to work. Sitting around watching Chase do his job was not the best use of his time. He quietly got up, walked to the door, pulled it open, and stepped outside. He made sure it closed silently and then went down the hall, where he placed his things on a bench. He took his phone out of the bottom of his bag and turned it on. There were four voicemails, and he skimmed through the text-to-speech so he could return the call that was most important.

“Angela, what’s going on?” he asked as soon as she answered. He could almost feel her panic coming through the phone. Gasps reached his ears, following by heaves of breath.

“His parents—” She gulped, then gasped some more.

“It’s okay. Just take a minute and breathe. Whatever it is, we’ll be all right. I promise you.” Newton sat down, his patience coming forward. “Are you okay? Do I need to get you some help?”

“Yes. But I’m okay. I can talk now.” She was still seconds from breathlessness. “I’m sorry to bother you.” She now sobbed into the phone, and Newton wished he was there with her to try to comfort in person. But that wasn’t possible at the moment.

“Are you home alone?” Newton tried to think who he could get to be with her. Angela was a new client, and she had been left very much alone after her world, and everything she thought was real, had been pulled out from under her nine months ago. Her case had been reassigned to him a month ago because the previous caseworker had been useless and was let go.

“Yes. I’ll be okay.” She seemed stronger now.

“Put down the phone, go get yourself a tissue, and have a drink of water. Don’t forget to breathe, and then you pick up the phone again and tell me what happened.” He kept his own worry out of his voice. Angela needed him to be strong and calm and to keep the darkness that lingered around the edges of his consciousness like constantly moving tendrils at bay. Most of the time he was very good at that, but strong emotion seemed to give them force, and they’d try to grow and work their way forward. He could already feel his jitteriness increasing, but he looked around the marble-lined hall, with its imposing size and decoration, drawing strength from the solidity of the building.

She stepped away, and when she returned, she spoke more clearly. “Reggie’s parents have decided that they’re going to fight me for custody of Marcie and Debbie.” She sniffed but remained in control. “They’re going to try to prove I’m unfit.”

Newton had heard this tactic before. “First, that’s very difficult to do and isn’t going to happen.” Angela had issues with alcohol as well as mental health, all of which she was getting help for. She was eight months sober and had her AA chip to prove it. She carried it with her everywhere she went. And she had been taking her meds for years.

“They told me they are also going to enter the divorce as Reggie’s advocates. They feel that their son’s rights need to be protected and that he should be able to see his children.” The quivering in her voice was back.

“Okay. First thing, grandparents have no parental rights in this state. And second, do they understand that Reggie isn’t interested in those girls? He admits he never wanted to be a parent. Are they completely stupid?” He shouldn’t have asked the last question, but it slipped out. “They do realize that he actually said that in court? What do they expect, that they’re going to force him to see the girls?” Reggie had left when the strain of the kids became more than he could stand.

“I don’t know. But I need to get a lawyer, and I can’t afford one. There’s barely enough money to keep the girls and me fed and a roof over our heads.” She sniffed. “I actually thought about walking to the store around the corner as soon as the girls left for school. I called my sponsor instead, but….” The tears were so close once again, and Newton wanted to try to help her feel better.

“They can’t do anything right away. You stay calm and go to a meeting. Get yourself surrounded by supporters. As for a lawyer, I’ll check at the office and see what resources I can call on.” He wasn’t sure what he could do, but Newton would try. Angela and her family had already been through hell for the last year after being abandoned, and they didn’t deserve more. “I need to go because court is letting out and I need to be quiet, but I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” He hung up after she agreed. Newton dropped his phone in his bag and would have gotten up to hobble to the exit, but his foot ached, so he turned to elevate it on the bench for a few minutes and closed his eyes. He just needed some time for the blood to start flowing normally again.

The door to the courtroom opened, and Chase Matthews strode out, looking amazing in a suit that probably cost as much as Newton made in a month. The man had style and knew how to dress, which made him look damn fine, that was for sure.

Newton scrambled off the bench and hobble-ran up to him. “Mr. Matthews.”

Chase stopped, turning around, his electric gaze falling onto Newton, sending a thrill running up his spine. “Can I help you?” he asked in a voice that could melt butter.

“Not me, but one of my clients,” Newton said as he used the cane for balance. “She needs a lawyer, and….”

Chase shook his head. “Oh no. I’ve done my pro bono work for the year, and I have real clients that I need to get to work on.” The eyes that Newton had thought so intense and expressive grew cold, and he suppressed a shiver. “I only took this case because I was required to by Judge Harker.” He turned to walk away, but Newton was pissed off enough that he grabbed his arm. “Now see here—”

“Look. I have a mother with two kids who need help, desperately. She’s trying to keep her children. Her husband, soon to be ex, is in prison for abusing those adorable girls, and now she’s got to fight his parents because they feel their son’s rights aren’t being represented.” Newton didn’t let go, and he did his best to ignore the woodsy cologne that wafted around him.

“I’ve done my part. I have a practice that I need to return to and clients who are paying me to represent them. I can’t just take on another case like that right now. I’m sorry, but I’ve done what I can.” Chase shrugged off Newton’s hand, strode toward the elevator, and pressed the call button. Newton got his bag and made his way over to join Chase as he waited. “God, this is slow.”

“Yes, I know. That gives me plenty of time to try to convince you to change your mind.” Newton flashed a little smile.

“You don’t take no for an answer, do you?” Chase asked, turning back to watch the doors, probably willing them to slide open so he could get away.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be able to help my clients. And these people need help. Angela’s in-laws have money, and they are willing to use it to get their way and do what isn’t in the interest of these girls. They were five and seven when their father abused them.” Newton was laying it on thick, but in his job, often all he had was the human angle, and he was very good at tugging at people’s heartstrings.

The elevator doors slid open, and they stepped inside. Chase pushed the button to go down, and the doors slid closed. Newton knew he had just a few seconds to make his case before Chase made his escape. “You know justice isn’t fair, as much as we hope it can be….”

“Life isn’t fair,” Chase said, then sighed. “I can’t take on any more work right now. My caseload is full and I’m working twelve-hour days as it is.” He shifted his weight.

“And you’re not the only one.” Newton looked down at his old suit and partially rumpled shirt because he hadn’t had enough time to iron it that morning, with breakfast to make, getting the kids off to school… everything.

“I’m sorry.” Chase stepped off the elevator and was about to walk away.

Newton was desperate. “When was the last time you had a home-cooked meal?” It was a Hail Mary shot, but he had to go for it. Guys like Chase ate out or at their desk, and the food they consumed could be pretty crappy. Newton would know, because he did the same thing when he was at work.

Chase stopped and turned around.

“Come over to the house, meet Angela, and then you can decide. I’ll even cook.”

Chase rubbed his temple, and Newton could tell he was trying to make a choice. “I….”

“What have you got to lose, except your taste buds?”

Chase smiled, and Newton knew he had him. He reached into his bag, got a card, and handed it to Chase, who got a card from his pocket and handed it over after writing a number on the back as well.

“I know I’m probably going to regret this,” he said with a half smile.

“Maybe,” Newton teased, pleased he had gotten a shot. “I’ll text you my address. So, tomorrow at six?”

Chase agreed, then turned, striding hurriedly out of the courthouse.

His mother had been right: “If you feed them, they will come.”

Granted, he wasn’t totally convinced that Chase wouldn’t blow him off with some excuse that sounded really urgent, but he had gotten his foot in the door, and that was probably all he could expect.

Newton left the courthouse, heading to his car. Once he was inside, he texted Chase his address, the time, and asked if he was allergic to anything. Then he made a call to Angela.

“I think I might have found you a lawyer.”

“A good one?” she asked.

“If he’ll take the case, one of the best. I’ve lured him to my house with the promise of food, but I’m not a really good cook. I’ve spent the last decade either making bottles or cooking for the kids and eating what they have.” Newton felt a little bad about misrepresenting himself, but he could get high-end takeout and serve it on his own plates if he had to. “You and the girls come to dinner tomorrow. I want him to see your family and see it’s worth his while to help you.” It was harder to turn someone down face-to-face. “He’ll be here at six, so come a little early. This is a full-court family-and-kids press.”

Angela laughed. It was still tense, but with a hint of happiness around the edges. “You’ll sure go to lengths to get what you want.”

“I try.” Newton ended the call and started his car, going to his office to try to get a full day’s work done in an afternoon.

 

 

“DAD, WILL there be kids?” Eric asked as he set the table.

Newton rolled his eyes. “Yes. I already told you.” He put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “You need to listen to me. You get involved in the television or in your games, and you don’t pay attention to anything around you.” He pulled out a chair and sat down, grateful to be off his feet. “You’re getting older, and you need to listen. You’ll be a lot happier if you pay more attention to what’s happening around you.” He made sure that Eric was watching him and that he had his full attention. “There are two girls coming. They’re six and eight, but they have been through some bad things. We don’t ask about them, and you need to not yell or run around.” That was like asking the tide to stop rising, but he had to try.

“Do they play dolls?” Rosie asked. Newton smiled and nodded. “Then I’ll get some of mine that they can play with while they’re here.” She ran away toward the stairs and then came back. “I’ll share, but they can’t keep them. They’re my dollies,” she pronounced and raced toward the other room.

Newton chuckled under his breath. That was both happy and sad at the same time. “Of course not. Those are your toys, and it’s really nice of you to share.”

Rosie had been in a foster home, and because of her vision issues, which were largely corrected by glasses and regular visits to the eye doctor, she hadn’t been adopted. Newton had taken one look at the special little girl with the Coke-bottle glasses perched on her little nose and the band around her head to hold them in place and had fallen in love instantly. Dozens of appointments and a number of prescription changes had corrected some of her vision issues, but the trauma of the foster homes lingered, including the fact that her toys had often been appropriated or simply hadn’t been hers and hadn’t moved with her.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll try,” Eric said.

Newton’s brain shifted back to their conversation. “Okay.” He hugged him. “Go ahead and finish setting the table, and then you need to help me with dinner.” Newton needed all the help he could get. He’d pulled out a number of recipes and decided to try one for something called Hawaiian chicken. It was currently in the oven, and the scent was even more enticing than he had hoped it would be.

“Okay,” Eric said and got back to work.

Rosie joined him in the kitchen a few minutes later, and Newton gave each of them a task. They were easy, but making dinner, even something as simple as chicken nuggets and salad, was usually done together.

Newton checked his phone, expecting a cancellation from Chase at any time, but it stayed quiet. He was almost finished getting things ready when the doorbell rang. Newton let Angela and the girls in the house. He introduced the kids, and Rosie took the girls up to her room to play.

“I brought some dessert.” Angela followed him into the kitchen and set a cake carrier on the counter. She lifted the lid, and the scent of rich chocolate had his stomach rumbling. “I figured I’d pull out all the stops.”

“Awesome.” Newton was a little nervous and checked his dish again, thinking he’d give it ten more minutes and then it would be ready to come out, just about the time Chase should arrive. Newton closed the oven and went to finish the salad Eric had abandoned to go back to his video games. “I suspect he’s going to ask you about your case. Be truthful and don’t be afraid to lay it on thick. He needs to know what Reggie did and what you’re up against.”

She pursed her lips and nodded. “I know I’m going to have to tell this story a lot, but it’s not easy. It sucks knowing their father could just walk away from them.”

“It’s going to be even harder in court.” The doorbell rang, and Newton girded his loins, as it were, and went to answer it. The girls came down the stairs, probably to see who was there.

Chase stood on his steps in sharply pressed tan slacks and a dark blue sweater smoothed over his torso. He looked like something straight out of a magazine.

“Thank you for coming,” Newton said when he remembered he was supposed to be talking and not just staring. He motioned, and Chase stepped inside. Newton had made sure the kids had picked up their toys and that the house was relatively clean, but it was difficult to sweep away the effects of two young kids completely. “This is Angela Wilson,” Newton said by way of introduction. “And her daughters. Marcie, and this is Debbie.” He smiled at her youngest, but she tried to hide behind her mother.

“Chase Matthews. It’s good to meet you.” They shook hands as Newton closed the door. “Dang, it smells good in here. I love pineapple… and chocolate.” He knelt down to say hello to both of Angela’s girls, but they stayed close to their mother, their eyes as wide as saucers.

“Why don’t you have a seat? I can bring you something to drink and then finish up dinner.” Newton peeked into the family room. “Eric, I need your help.” This time Eric turned off the television and followed him into the kitchen. “Find out what our guests would like to drink while I get dinner out.”

Eric hurried away, and Newton got the Pyrex dish out of the oven and set it on the burners. The sauce bubbled nicely, and the topping was golden brown, just like the recipe said it should be. He took off his oven mitts, closed the door, and together with Eric, got waters for his guests and brought the glasses into the living room.

“Girls, it’s about dinnertime,” he called into the other room, and the three of them trooped in. Newton and Angela ushered them into the dining room and to places at the table. Angela sat between her daughters, and Newton did the same with his kids on the other side of the table, with Chase at the end. Since the casserole was superhot, he dished up for Chase and then handed the spoon to Angela.

“Daddy, what do we call him?” Rosie stage-whispered, pointing to Chase.

“How about Mr. Chase, and you can call her Ms. Angela, okay?” Newton looked at the others. Angela nodded, and Chase seemed surprised, but nodded as well.

Rosie seemed satisfied and took a bite of the chicken. “Mr. Chase, are you a teacher? You dress like Mr. Baxter.” She smiled.

“No. I’m a lawyer.”

Rosie frowned. “That’s too bad.”

“Honey.” Newton had no idea what was going on. “That wasn’t nice.”

Rosie leaned close, near tears. “But we’re supposed to kill all the lawyers. That’s what they said on television.” She puffed out her lower lip, and Newton turned to Eric.

“What were you watching that you weren’t supposed to?” Newton demanded, and Eric had the grace to look sheepish. “If it was Law and Order, I’m….” He swallowed the threat because Eric got the message. “Honey, that was a show for grown-ups, and it was meant as a joke.” Oh good Lord.

“Oh.” Rosie went back to eating like there was nothing wrong.

Chase turned away from the table, trying not to laugh but failing. The sound was like the ringing of a large bell: deep, resonant, clear, and a joy to listen to. Rosie seemed completely happy now, and Newton and Angela shared a look of understanding.

“You never know what these kids will say,” Angela said, then bit her lower lip. Newton knew what she was thinking, but that conversation was for when there weren’t little ears around. Her daughters ate but didn’t say much. Newton wondered if it was because Chase was a stranger. Not that he could blame them.

Angela’s youngest, Debbie, whispered something to her, and Angela nodded. “Why don’t you ask Rosie if she’s done, and then you can all go play.”

Rosie slipped off her chair, and the three girls went upstairs to Rosie’s room. Eric was still eating—that boy was developing a hollow leg, which Newton was pleased to see. He cleaned his plate and then asked to be excused.

“Of course, but keep the volume down.” He knew his son well.

“This was wonderful,” Chase said as he took a break from eating. “I haven’t had anything home-cooked in a while.” He smiled and turned to Angela. “I think we should talk about your case. That is why I’m here.”

She nodded but seemed to pale.

“This is hard for her still,” Newton said.

“Yes, I know. But I need the facts in the case, and it’s unfortunate, but the justice system has little concern for feelings or how much people are hurting. Take your time.”

Angela glanced toward the stairs. “My husband, hopefully ex-husband soon, he just left us. Reggie….” She used her napkin to wipe her eyes. “My youngest, Debbie, told me that he would leave them alone when I wasn’t there. While he was away, the house caught fire because he left something on the stove.”

“He’s legally neglectful, tried and convicted,” Newton added quietly.

“I filed for divorce because I need to separate my life from his, and the girls deserve a chance at some distance and to be able to recover. Reggie said he wouldn’t contest it. But then his parents decided to throw their money around, and now they are trying to say that I’m an unfit mother, that I’m trying to cut away their son’s rights and their rights…. He neglected his daughters and left us to try to save his own skin—how can he have rights?” She sipped some water. “I only want my daughters to have a chance at some happiness.”

Newton stepped in for Angela’s sake. “We have Angela and her daughters in therapy, and the girls are progressing. I know they’ve been quiet because you’re a new person, but….” As if on cue, laughter drifted down from upstairs, all three girls giggling and squealing in delight. It was a gorgeous sound. “You can hear that things are improving.”

“I’m doing my best to keep all of this from them. They don’t need this ugliness. But my in-laws are making it hard.” Angela set down her napkin. “They actually told me that they wanted the girls to spend the weekend with them, and that while they were there, they could take them to visit their daddy.” She blinked, her expression growing fierce. “Like hell they will. Those idiots want to take my girls to visit someone who almost got them killed. Over my dead body.” She shook with justified rage.

Chase sat quietly, listening. “Family law in Wisconsin isn’t as convoluted as most states. Thank goodness. Since he’s been convicted of neglecting the girls, we can petition to sever his parental rights. As for the grandparents, we can allow them visits, but with conditions and, if necessary, under supervision. We can also petition the courts for a ruling that the girls are not to see their father until they are old enough to decide on their own if they want to.”

Angela half smiled. “Is it that easy?”

“Things are never that easy, but we can make a good case.” Chase drank some water himself and seemed to be thinking. “Grandparents have no particular rights here. This happens quite often. Grandparents step in, thinking they have some special legal dispensation, but they don’t.”

All three girls traipsed in carrying dolls and sat at their places. “Can we have cake, Daddy?” Rosie asked.

“It’s chocolate,” Debbie offered, her first words to the adults since arriving.

“Do you like chocolate?” Chase asked her.

She nodded, clutching one of Rosie’s dolls to her. “I like it this much.” Her arms went out for a few seconds and then she clutched the doll again.

“I like it that much too.” Chase winked at her, and she smiled a real smile. “How about you?” he asked Marcie, who nodded.

Angela sighed, putting her arms around both of them. “They used to be such happy girls, but then they changed. Now they’re quiet and shy.” She hugged each of them. “It’s okay. Mr. Chase is a nice man, I promise you.”

Both girls nodded but didn’t say much more to Chase. It seemed he’d gotten what he was going to get out of them. Newton had met them more than once, and he hadn’t gotten either of them to talk much more than tonight either.

“I’ll cut the cake,” Newton offered, and went into the kitchen. He brought plates to the table and then the cake, setting it in the center. The scent must have drawn Eric, because he came and sat in his place. Newton cut small pieces for the girls and Eric, then ones for Chase, Angela, and himself. He got forks and refilled glasses before sitting back down.

“This is awesome,” Chase said as he ate.

“Angela baked it. She’s amazing with things like that.” Maybe he was laying it on thick, but Newton wanted Chase to take her case. He hadn’t known her that long, but if she could make this amazing cake, one where neither of his kids said a word while wolfing it down, she knew her stuff.

“Is it good?” Chase asked Debbie, who smiled and nodded, her lips covered with chocolate.

“Mama bakes real good,” Marcie said, and she took another bite. At least both girls had said something and seemed to be relaxing a little.

Newton slowly ate his cake, watching that Eric didn’t gulp his and that Rosie didn’t make a huge mess. “Are you all done?” Newton asked the girls. “Then go wash up and you can play.” He cut Eric another small piece of cake because he didn’t seem to be able to get enough to eat. Eric took his plate and left the table to play video games, leaving the adults alone once again.

“Do you think you can help?” Newton asked Chase. He could see the indecision in his eyes.

“Yes,” he finally answered, sharing a smile with Angela before turning his intense gaze on Newton. “You sure don’t take no for an answer when you really want something.” He didn’t seem angry or upset. Chase passed Angela a business card. “Call my office and make an appointment for next week. Bring all the documentation. We’ll develop a strategy and counter these arguments before they can really take hold.” Chase pushed away from the table. “I need to get going.” He stood, with Newton and Angela both doing the same.

Newton saw Chase to the door. “Thank you for helping her,” he said softly. “I know I came on strong, but….”

Chase actually smiled. “You’re a man who follows his passions, I can see that. You have strong beliefs and are willing to fight for them. That’s something worth admiring, and—”

Angela hurried over. “There’s something wrong with Eric. He’s having trouble breathing.”

Newton hurried to the family room, where Eric sat in the chair, gasping for breath. Newton took his pulse and found it racing.

“What do you need me to do?” Angela asked.

“I need to get Eric to Children’s Hospital right away,” Newton said with remarkable calmness.

“Should I call an ambulance?” Chase asked.

“No. They aren’t going to know what to do for him,” Newton said as Chase lifted Eric into his arms and carried him through the house. “Rosie,” he called, “go get in the car, right now! We have to take care of Eric.”

“I’ll get him into the car,” Chase said.

“We have to go. Rosie, hurry, we need to go.” His heart raced as Chase carried Eric to the car, thinking only of his son. This had happened before, but it had been months since he’d had an attack. They used to scare the hell out of him, but he knew what to do now. So did Rosie, who brought the backpack he kept in Eric’s closet and climbed into her car seat. Newton got Eric settled in the back and told him to stay calm. Angela was already leaving the house with the girls as Newton climbed in the car. Chase raced back and locked the house.

Newton jumped when the passenger door opened and Chase got in, buckling up. “Let’s get going.”

“You don’t need to….” Newton began even as his hand put the car into reverse and he backed out of the drive, then took off down the road like a bat out of hell.

“Can you talk to me, Eric?” Newton asked.

“Yes,” he said raspily.

“What do you need me to do?” Chase asked, turning toward the back seat.

Newton didn’t take his eyes off the road. Time was of the essence. “He needs to stay alert if possible. Eric, we’re only ten minutes from the hospital. Just concentrate on breathing as best you can.”

Eric started coughing—wet, painful coughs that Newton felt right along with him. He knew his lungs were filling with fluid and he had to get him to the hospital.

“Eric, buddy, are you still with me?” Chase reached back. “Just nod for me. Great. Keep your eyes open if you can and take my hand.” Chase held Eric’s hand, and as soon as they reached the freeway, Newton floored it. Traffic was light, and he knew this route well, pulling off five miles down, exiting, and making the turn into the hospital downtown and right into Emergency.

Newton ran around, lifted Eric out of the back, and carried him inside. He and Rosie had done this enough that he knew she would be right behind him with the backpack.

“I take it you’ve done this before?” Chase said.

Newton nodded as he helped Eric up to the desk. He gave his name and Eric’s, and was escorted right into the back. Thank God Jerry Young was on duty. He had helped Eric before, and while the nurse got the admission information, Jerry was already issuing instructions for an IV with saline. He put it in and got it going.

Newton sat next to the bed while the nurses hooked Eric up to the monitors. Usually the first thing that they would do under the circumstances was administer oxygen, but that wasn’t going to help Eric. His lungs were flooded, and getting him saline and regulating his internal fluids emptied his lungs. Oxygen alone wasn’t going to do anything for him.

Newton stressed as he watched Eric’s once-elevated heart rate, now very low, start to come up again, and as the minutes passed, his breathing improved. Only then did he look around and realize that Rosie wasn’t with him.

“Where is Rosie?” Newton asked Macy, one of the nurses he’d come to know. Hell, by now he knew most of the ER staff.

She leaned closer. “She’s out in the waiting room sitting next to a gorgeous man with the most intense eyes I have ever seen. Are you dating him? Because if you’re not, I’d like a shot at his fineness.” She winked.

“He’s a lawyer, and no, I’m not dating him.” Newton never dated anyone. Between the kids and his own issues, they didn’t stick around for very long. “He was meeting with one of my clients at the house when Eric had his episode, and he came along.”

“Do you want me to bring them back?”

“Would you?” Newton didn’t want to leave Eric.

Macy nodded, leaving the room. She returned a few minutes later with Rosie and Chase behind her. Rosie certainly seemed to have opened up to Chase, rattling on about God knows what, with Chase listening to every word.

“Hey, buddy, are you going to be okay?” Chase asked, coming to stand near where Newton sat. Rosie set the backpack beside his chair and climbed onto Newton’s lap, settling in as though she had had enough excitement.

“Yes,” Eric answered. “Needles suck, though.”

Chase leaned closer and stage-whispered, “I don’t like them either, so you’re pretty brave.” He patted Eric’s shoulder and got a smile in return.

“Do you need me to arrange a ride home for you?” Newton asked Chase. When he’d come to dinner, Chase most certainly hadn’t been expecting this kind of action.

“I’m fine.” Chase smiled at Eric, who closed his eyes. The monitors told Newton that he was just sleeping and not losing consciousness, so he let him rest. These episodes took a great deal out of him.

“Do you want to see if we can find a cafeteria where we can get something to drink?” Chase asked Rosie, who perked right up and took Chase’s hand. For a second, a jab of jealousy stabbed at Newton, but it died quickly, even though he wondered what it would be like to feel that hand in his. “We’ll be back in a few minutes,” Chase said as he and Rosie left the ER area.

“Are you feeling any better?” Newton asked quietly when Eric opened his eyes.

“Yes.” It was apparent that Eric was breathing much better, and his color was improving.

Newton sat back, his heart rate returning to normal as the danger to Eric passed. The IV drip continued, and Newton tried not to stare at it. But with Eric now dozing and the room quiet, he had little to look at.

“Daddy,” Rosie said as she came in the room, followed by Chase, who handed him a cup. “We brought this for you.”

“Thank you,” Newton said to Chase and sipped from the cup. “He should be all right now.” Rosie climbed onto his lap.

“How often does this happen?” Chase asked.

“The last time was six months ago.” Newton smoothed the hair away from Eric’s forehead. He needed to get him a haircut. “He has POTS—postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome—and is one of the youngest people ever diagnosed with it.” Newton took Eric’s hand. “It’s been two years since diagnosis, but we’ve been dealing with it for longer. They tell us that it might be getting worse right now because of the prepuberty hormones and things. But they’re guessing, since most of the people who have this syndrome are women.” He was dreading Eric’s teenage years because of the sheer unpredictability. Newton set his cup on the stand next to the bed and held Rosie’s and Eric’s hands.

“Isn’t that a disease where people get dizzy when they stand?” Chase asked.

“No. It’s a syndrome with a collection of symptoms that can vary. Eric has it worse than most, who just get dizzy when they stand. The doctors have been reluctant to put him on medication because they don’t know what it will do to someone so young. We’ve been holding off as much as we can. He was having them every three months or so—this was six, so it’s working in our favor, at least for now.” This was so much for a young kid to go through.

Rosie curled against his chest, and the room grew quiet. Newton wasn’t up to talking, and once the IV was finished, they discussed running a second, but it seemed it wasn’t necessary. Eric was stable, and giving him too many fluids only brought him additional issues later.

“We’re going to let him rest and keep him for a little while longer before we let him go,” Jerry explained, and even coaxed a smile from Eric when he promised he’d remove the needle soon.

 

 

THERE WAS another hour at the hospital and then the drive home to get through. Newton had both kids in bed, with Eric’s upper body propped up slightly on pillows. He watched him for a few seconds and then left the room. It was going to be a night of little sleep as he got up every hour or so just to make sure Eric was okay. Half closing the door so he could hear if Eric was in distress, he returned downstairs to where Chase waited on the sofa.

“I know this was more than you bargained for.” He didn’t sit down, because he wasn’t likely to get back up. “Would you like something to drink? I have a bottle of juice, water, a few diet sodas I hid from the kids….”

“Soda would be great. That’s all I usually like to drink when I’m driving.”

Chase had a point. Newton grabbed both sodas out of the back of the drawer in the refrigerator, took them to the living room, and handed one to Chase. Then he sat down with a sigh. “I appreciate you going tonight. Rosie really likes you.”

“She’s pretty special,” Chase said. “Both of your kids are.” He opened the can and sipped.

“Yeah. They’re the center of my life.” Newton closed his eyes. So much for so long had been near chaos. “Eric crossed my path when he was in foster care—they both did. Eric had breathing issues as a baby, and his allergy profile is off the charts. You won’t find nuts of any kind anywhere in this house, or coconut—none of that. When I first got him, he wheezed and coughed a lot. But with the help of doctors, we eliminated a lot of his allergens from the house, including the fact that the home where he was living had a cat and he’s allergic to those too.” He drank some of the soda and set the can on the table. “No one wanted to adopt him and take on all the issues he had.”

Chase smiled to his incredible eyes. “And you took one look at him and that was the end of it.”

“Pretty much. I knew he was going to be a challenge, but we eliminated the allergens from the environment and his diet, made sure we limited sweets and spicy food, and added sodium because it helps regulate and retain fluids and actually helps prevent attacks. At least we think so.” Newton sighed. “And Rosie… she wound me around her little finger with ease.”

“So neither of them is biologically yours?” Chase asked.

“No. I haven’t had a partner in….” He rolled his eyes. “A very long time. I have my work, and since I adopted the kids, they have my energy.” They gave love without expecting something else in return. Newton was under no illusions; he knew what his life was, and he had his feet planted firmly on the ground. There was the work he loved, and Rosie with her needs, and Eric with his. The love those two children gave him was more than he ever thought possible. “Rosie’s adoption was finalized a year ago. Do you have kids?”

Chase shook his head. “I guess I’m too busy. I want to be a partner in my firm, so I work way too much and I’m too danged career-focused. I had a boyfriend in college, but that crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. Since then….” He shrugged, and Newton nodded. He understood. “Sometimes it’s just easier to work on other things. Like anyone is really going to want to see me after eight o’clock at night and then have me up at six and out the door by seven.”

He’s gay. For some reason a flutter raced through Newton and sent his belly into little butterfly wings of excitement. Of course it didn’t mean anything, and he had enough in his life at the moment without getting involved with anyone. He’d told himself many times that his life was full enough. But lately those reassurances hadn’t rung as true as they once had, especially when the kids had been younger. “Yeah, well, there are no off hours with being a parent.” The room grew still, and he listened for any sound from upstairs, but all remained quiet.

“Well, maybe you could take a little time off to go to dinner?” Chase asked.

Newton stilled, wondering if he’d heard properly. “You’re asking me out?” he asked, almost pulling on his ears to make sure they were working properly.

“Why not? You must need a little time for yourself every once in a while, and I sure as hell could use a chance to go out with someone who isn’t a colleague or a client.” Chase finished his soda.

“Sure. We can try to do that.” Newton could attempt to find someone to watch the kids for a few hours. Newton tried to think of the last time he had been out with anyone for any reason. “But I don’t get it. Why you’d want to go out with me?” He had plenty of baggage, more than just two amazing kids.

Chase chuckled as he walked to the door. “You’re tenacious, Newton. I haven’t met anyone in a long time who would take me on the way you did at the courthouse the other day. I told you no, and you didn’t give up and pled your case anyway.” Chase pulled open the door. “I’ll call you tomorrow, and we can set up an evening for dinner.” He paused. “And just so you know, don’t expect me to cook like you did tonight. Not unless you want to end up in the hospital for a very different reason. My cooking is lethal.” Chase said goodbye and left the house, closing the door behind him.

Newton locked it and made sure Chase was gone before turning off the outside lights and then heading up to bed. He was inordinately pleased that he was going to be seeing Chase again, and it put a smile on his lips that lasted until he fell to sleep.