Chapter 1

AS THE jurors filed into the courtroom, Adam Lancaster slipped one arm around Kollin’s shoulders and gently nudged Elijah Langley to remind his partner he wasn’t alone. Elijah leaned into the touch but didn’t let go of Kollin’s hand to reciprocate.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the judge began, nodding to the panel. “I am informed that you have reached your verdicts.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Please hand the verdicts to the clerk, and Mr. Marshall, will you hand the verdicts to me?” The clerk handed the verdicts to the judge, who silently read the small piece of paper and handed it back. “I direct the clerk to read the verdicts.”

“We, the jury, find the defendant, John L. Haverty, guilty of child abuse, class E felony offense.”

Adam closed his eyes and slowly exhaled. One down. One to go. Beneath his arm, Kollin sank further into himself.

The clerk continued. “We, the jury, find the defendant, Susan S. Haverty, guilty of child abuse, class E felony offense.”

Tears sprang to Adam’s eyes as Kollin fell forward and buried his head in his arms. Adam gripped Kollin’s shoulder and tugged him into a one-armed hug. Elijah didn’t let go of Kollin’s hand, but he tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling. With a heavy sigh, Elijah closed his eyes while the judge continued.

“I’d like to thank the jury for their service and diligence. Sentencing will be announced at a later date and is dependent upon the defendants’ cooperation. Court is adjourned.”

Kollin’s parents shuffled out the side door without a spare glance in his direction, and the handful of people in the audience filed out the back, murmuring quietly to one another. Kollin didn’t stand, so Adam and Elijah remained in their seats, flanking him on each side, protecting him from the worried eyes of their extended family huddled in the corner. Adam’s and Elijah’s parents, Adam’s foster sister, Kirsten, and her husband, Derek, insisted on attending the court reading for moral support. When Kollin started to shake beneath Adam’s arm, he wondered if allowing them to come was a mistake.

After several more minutes of silence, Elijah knelt in front of Kollin and Adam. Wrapping an arm around each of them, he huddled them all together.

“I’m so sorry, Kollin. I’m so fucking sorry. I’d spend every last dime I have if it meant ensuring you never had to go through this. I don’t want you to ever doubt you’re wanted and loved exactly the way you are in my home. It’s already our home to me.”

Kollin choked out a sob and threw one arm around Elijah to bury his face in Elijah’s neck. “I love you,” he whispered so quietly Adam barely heard him.

“I love you back, buddy,” Elijah said. “Let’s go home.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2

“BULLSHIT, KRIS!”

Kirsten threw down her cards and glared at Adam. “How in the hell are you doing that?”

“I’ll never tell,” Adam sang, pitching his voice high to mimic Brittany Murphy in Don’t Say a Word.

“Ahhh, la la la la la.” Kirsten plugged her ears. “Stop it. You know that creeps me out.”

“I’ll never tell.” He mimicked the chant again more softly.

Elijah sat back in his chair. “I will never understand how you two lived together.”

Pushing himself off the couch where he’d been watching everyone play cards, Kollin said, “I think the real question is how Matthew and Amelia put up with them.”

Kirsten scrunched up her face and made a sound closely resembling that of a dying seal. “You guys are so funny. Seriously, though. Adam’s the worst Bullshit player ever. Like ever, ever in the history of time. How are you kicking my ass right now?”

“I’ll—”

“Don’t you dare.”

Derek collected the cards and peered at Adam through the shaggy blond hair that always seemed to cover his eyes. “She’s right. In the six years I’ve been around you two, I’ve never once seen you win this game.”

“That doesn’t mean he can’t,” Kollin said, leaning against the La-Z-Boy.

“Thank you, Kollin.”

Kirsten flumped back against her chair. “I guess the sun really does shine on every dog’s ass once in a while.”

Elijah eyed Kollin and took the deck of cards from Derek. “Why’re you defending him? You’re usually the first one to make fun of Adam.”

Kollin shrugged. “Y’all are being kinda mean.”

Widening his eyes, Elijah pointed at Kollin. “You helped him. Didn’t you?”

“Whaaaaat?” Kollin held his hands up and shook his head. “I would never.”

Derek flickered his eyes from the couch, where Kollin had been lying, to Kirsten’s seat. “You could see her cards.”

“Whaaaaat?” Kollin said again.

“Oh, please. Don’t even try. You’re a horrible liar.”

Kollin’s face broke into a grin, and he clamped his hand down on Adam’s shoulder. “Sorry, man. I tried. Oh, and FYI, I could see your cards in the mirror too, Derek.”

“You dirty cheater,” Kirsten said.

“You set this up beforehand,” Elijah said and pointed at Adam.

“That’s just sad, Adam,” Derek said. “Involving a minor in your deceit. You’re supposed to be a role model.”

Unable to control his laughter any longer, Adam threw up his hands. “It feels so good to finally win, I don’t even care. My losing streak started long before you came around.”

“That’s pretty lame,” Kollin said.

“Yeah. Well, you didn’t have to fold so quickly. All you had to do was deny with a modicum of believability.”

“Whatever, dude. Can you please tell them why you asked them over so I can go to my room?”

Kirsten grinned at Kollin. “Phone date with Jase?” she asked.

Kollin narrowed his eyes at her slightly, but Adam didn’t miss the way his cheeks tinged a darker shade of pink. Jase showed up at HOPE for the first time about three weeks before, and Kollin glommed onto him quickly. They bonded over their mutual love of basketball, but Adam saw the flirtatious glances the boys sent each other when they thought no one was looking. He was one of the few black kids at the center, and Adam hoped Jase’s presence was the result of their efforts to reach the entire community, to let them know everyone was welcome.

“No one has phone dates anymore, Kirsten,” Kollin said with all the derisiveness a sixteen-year-old boy talking to a stone-aged, out-of-the-times adult could muster. “We text or Snapchat.”

Raising one eyebrow, Kirsten spoke primly. “Is that so? I’ll be sure to remember for future inquiries.”

“Anyway,” Adam said, “we wanted to let you guys know I’m officially moving in with Elijah and Kollin—”

Kirsten shot up from the couch and threw her arms around Adam’s neck. “Oh my God. You’re getting married.”

Adam’s eyes widened, and Elijah choked on his drink and quickly pounded himself on the chest three times.

“Um, no, Kris. But thanks for that,” he said, gently pushing her away.

“Shit. Sorry.” Kirsten sat down and covered her face in embarrassment. “But you’ve basically been living here for two months. I didn’t think it required a big announcement.”

Having regained his breath, Elijah stepped next to Kollin and Adam. “There is a little more to it—we hope.” Elijah cast a sideways glance at Kollin and continued. “Adam probably should’ve started by telling you that I’ve contacted my lawyers about formally adopting Kollin. After talking it over between the three of us, Kollin and I decided this was something we felt we needed to do, even though he’s almost an adult. We’re trying not to get too excited, because a lot could still go wrong—particularly Kollin’s biological parents refusing to sign over rights.”

Adam could count on one hand the number of times Kirsten was rendered speechless, but there she sat on the couch, hand covering her mouth, several slow tears sliding down her cheeks. She placed her hands in her lap and offered them a watery smile. “Well, that’s even better news.”

Kirsten stood, hugged Kollin first, and then Elijah, whispering to each of them. Derek followed behind her to offer his congratulations.

“I guess it’s time we go home before I weep all over your house,” Kirsten said.

Derek hugged Adam and offered a simple “Congrats, man,” and then followed his wife to the foyer.

“See you guys later,” Kollin said as he jogged up the steps with a wave over his shoulder.

“Thanks for coming tonight. We’ll have to do it again sometime soon.” Elijah one-arm hugged Derek and bent down to hug Kirsten again. “I have some stuff to do in the office before I turn in, so I’m going to head up. Be safe.”

Kirsten turned to Derek. “Can I have a minute?”

“Of course. I’ll be in the car.”

Adam waited until the door shut behind Derek. “You okay?”

Kirsten nodded. “Are you?”

Adam shoved his hands in his pockets. “’Course I am. This is the best thing for Kollin.”

“Well, duh. But what about you? Why aren’t you doing this together?”

“Come on, Kris. Elijah and I have been together half a year. Adopting a teenager with me is not even close to being on his radar.”

“I doubt adopting a teenager fell on his radar at all a year ago, but life happens, and things change. There’s nothing you could say to make me believe Elijah and Kollin wouldn’t be 100 percent on board if you wanted to adopt him as well.”

Adam sighed. “Even so, it’s better for everyone involved if I stay out of it. And Elijah and Kollin agree. We’ll set up the legal papers so I become his guardian if something happens to Elijah. But I don’t feel the need to do this the same way Elijah does. I’ll always love that kid as if he were my own, but this is Elijah’s thing with Kollin. This is a healing thing for them that I’m not a part of, and I’m more than okay about it. Besides, I know Kollin’s different, but I’d feel weird legally adopting someone I met through the center and guilty I couldn’t do it for the next one who comes through and needs a home.”

Kirsten stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Adam’s waist. “You’re right.”

Adam rested his chin on her head. “Really? That’s it?”

“Yeah. That’s it. I get it.” She looked up to meet Adam’s eyes. “I guess I always assumed if this happened, it would be all of you together. You’re so damn selfless…. Are you sure this is what you really want?”

“I promise. I’m excited and happy for both of them. I can’t think of two better people who deserve this more.”

Kirsten pursed her lips as she pulled away. “Hmmph. I can.”

“Yeah, yeah. Trust me on this one. Okay? Now get out of here. It’s not nice to keep your man waiting.”

“Like you know anything about keeping my man happy.”

Adam laughed and then pulled Kirsten back in for a hug. “I love you.”

“I love you too, brother.”

 

 

ADAM’S PHONE rang, jerking him out of the haze of inputting expenditures. He checked the time and saw the “So You Want to Go to College?” course he’d signed up to teach that month had started five minutes before. He’d never remember anything without HOPE’s receptionist’s constant reminders.

Adam grabbed his desk phone as he locked his computer. “I’m coming now, Chloe. Thanks for the reminder.”

“Wait, Adam. You have a call on line one. She wouldn’t leave her name and didn’t want to leave a message when I told her you were getting ready to step into a meeting. She said she’d call back, but I told her I’d check with you first.”

Adam groaned. He didn’t want to be late—later—for his class, but he never knew what kind of trouble the person on the other end of the line could be in.

“I’ll take it, but can you let the group in the training room know I’ll be a few minutes?”

“Of course. She’ll be there when I hang up.”

A moment later the line clicked over, and the loud background noise of the center disappeared.

“This is Adam. How can I help you?”

Silence followed his greeting, and Adam’s heart sank. Calls starting out this way rarely ended well.

“Hello? Are you okay?”

Silence.

“Listen. I’ll do whatever I can to help you, but you have to talk to me first. Okay? I promise whatever you tell me right now is strictly confidential.”

“Adam?”

The voice sounded scared, or maybe skeptical, and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“Yes. This is Adam. Is there something I can do to help you?”

“Adam… Lancaster?”

Adam’s heart sped up and butterflies fluttered around his stomach as his mind searched for the owner of the somewhat familiar voice on the other end of the phone.

“Yes,” he all but breathed out. “Who is this?”

“I… I can’t believe I actually found you.”

The butterflies danced and twisted, threatening to empty everything in his stomach as his mind led him to a door he’d not only closed but locked long ago.

“I never thought I’d hear your voice again,” the woman continued.

Slowly shaking his head, Adam fell into his chair and pleaded for his brain to back away from that door.

“Adam? Are you still there?”

Adam squeezed his eyes shut and tightened his grip on the phone as he held it to his chest. The voice on the other end called his name one more time, and Adam could no longer take the sound. He slammed his phone down in the receiver and tried to take a deep breath. But it turned out choppy and short, so he drew another right behind it.

Same result.

He struggled to suck in oxygen, but once again was unable to breathe deeply. So he tried again.

And again.

And again.

True panic crept in. Adam had no control over his body. He was going to pass out.

Calm down.

Breathe slower.

But his lungs wouldn’t cooperate. He struggled to remember what he needed to do to pull himself out of a downward spiral, but he hadn’t had a panic attack in so many years that everything he knew felt fuzzy and out of reach.

Panic filled every nook and cranny in his body.

Adam could barely inhale before his body forced him to gasp for another breath. Lightheaded and desperate for more oxygen, Adam dropped his head between his knees. Several moments later he was able to take his first deep breath. Closing his eyes, Adam pressed his palm against his chest and began counting, slowing his breathing a little at a time.

A light tap sounded on his door, and the loud squeak of the hinges quickly followed. “Oh my God.” Chloe rushed around the desk to kneel at Adam’s side. “What happened? Are you okay?”

Adam took another long, slow, deep breath and nodded gently.

“What can I do? Do you need water?”

He shook his head and then rested his forehead on his knee and turned to look at Chloe. “Can you apologize to the kids in the application course and tell them I can’t make it today?”

“Of course. Anything else?”

“Umm. I hate to ask, but could you call Elijah for me? I don’t think I’ll be able to drive for a bit, and I need to go home.”

“I’m on it. Don’t you move.”

“Thanks. And Chloe? Please don’t tell the kids why I can’t be there.” No need for them to worry. Chloe would do enough of that for everyone.

Chloe left, and Adam managed to raise his head enough to lay it on the desk in front of him. True to her word, Chloe returned in less than two minutes with a bottle of water.

“Elijah’s on his way. He’s likely to break the sound barrier getting here. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t worry him, so I told him you’d explain.” She fussed with the pitiful limp throw pillow Adam kept on his couch and then kneeled next to him again. “Want to try moving to the couch?”

Adam accepted her shoulder to lean on, fumbled his way over to the couch, and then took the water she’d opened.

“Thanks. I’ll be fine if you need to get back out there.”

Chloe sat on the edge of the couch by Adam’s feet and patted his leg. “Nope. Julie’s covering the desk for me. I’m not leaving you until Elijah’s here.”

Adam nodded, feeling guilty for keeping Chloe in the dark, but exhaustion from his panic attack kept him from explaining. Adam hadn’t heard his mother’s voice in almost twenty years, and he knew, without a doubt, he could’ve gone twenty more without hearing it again.