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All About Zane

Travis County Legal: Book One

Copyright © 2017 Avery J. Moon

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce, copy, or distribute this work in any form without express written permission from the author.

Cover Image: Please note that this is a work of fiction. All characters contained within these pages are fictional and have no connection to the models on the cover.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two


Author’s Note

Other Books by Avery J. Moon

CHAPTER ONE: Colin's Homecoming

If I became a father, it wouldn't be through the conventional way most men accomplish that feat. No delivery room, no loving wife, no supportive family for me. If I became a father, it would be in a courtroom. If I became a father, it would be tomorrow.

I'm not quite sure how long I sat in the car just looking at the house, dreading going in. I hadn't been there in over six months. A lifetime in more ways than one.

My sister and I had at one time lived in separate apartments. When she learned that she was pregnant, she asked me to go in with her to buy a house. A place to raise a family.

She wanted her baby more than anything in the world, but the thought of raising it alone scared her. In my opinion raising a child alone in this world would scare any sane person, including me. So I was recruited as a live-in father substitute.

Any doubts I may have had about the arrangement vanished the second I laid eyes on Zane. It would not have been possible to love him more even if he truly were my own son.

The house we bought was nice enough. My sister had always wanted a Cape Cod home, so that was indeed what she got. The front of the house was bordered by a covered front porch, complete with swing, two rocking chairs and a convenient table for drinks and snacks. The perfect place to sit and sip a soda, talk about the day, and just unwind.

I smiled remembering some of the conversations we had had sitting in that swing. And later, after Zane was born, how we'd had to switch out the swing for a larger one so that all of us could fit comfortably. It had been worth it.

Zane loved that swing. At night, he didn't want his bedtime story read in bed. That would have been too sleep-inducing. So instead, we would head out to the swing with a pillow and blanket, and I would read his book of choice. It usually involved pirates, ships, and horrible (but ultimately friendly) sea monsters.

Finally, sitting there was no longer an option. I had to move or my stiffened body would lead to my great embarrassment when I had to call for help. I glanced around to see if anyone was watching, as my leaving the car after such a length of time was bound to be quite a show, but the street was empty. I'd timed my arrival well.

It was mid-morning. The school buses had all come and gone, and the commuters had left for work. The lucky women who were full-time housewives were probably sitting down for a much needed rest after their hustle and bustle of getting everyone off for the day. That meant a little privacy for me.

I grabbed my cane from the passenger side floorboard and pushed my door fully open. Turning in the seat, I placed one foot firmly on the ground, then the other. With my cane in my left hand and grasping the car with my right, I leveraged myself into a standing position. It wasn't nearly as easy as it sounded.

Just that little exertion left me gasping. But as I was out of the car and still standing, I counted that as a win.

After a minute to catch my breath, I maneuvered myself out from behind the car door, leaning heavily on my cane. Eventually, I'd be able to upgrade to a nice, cool-looking walking stick. Maybe one with a dragon's head and a hidden dagger. But for now, I was stuck with function over appearance. So my cane was plain black with four little rubber tips at the bottom. An old man's cane.

I paused again at the gate, then pushed it open and went through and up onto the porch. Not able to resist the call of the swing, I sat for a while. At least that's what I told myself. If I was more truthful with myself, I might have admitted to really, really not wanting to open that door to a home my sister no longer lived in.

Some people, fools mostly, thought my sister was still alive. That she had simply picked up and left, abandoning her son as well as her home. I knew differently. There were some ties that twins shared that were just too hard to explain. I had known the instant that Becca died.

In a weird twist of fate, I'd been free-falling from the sky at the exact same moment. But while I had managed to trick Death this one time, Becca hadn't been so lucky. Maybe, in the end, I would turn out to be the unlucky one after all.

Eventually, the call of nature made entering the house a necessity, and I sorted out the front door key from my ring and took the three steps to the screen door. Within seconds, the front door swung open and the eerie stillness of an empty house settled over me.

The furniture remained untouched, sitting exactly where I remembered it. I had to swallow past the lump in my throat and force my steps to the small half-bath under the living room stairway. Other than the layer of dust covering everything, it looked as though Becca had only left moments before. The guest towel was hanging on the back of the door, and the toilet paper roll was still half-full. Lucky for me.

Finished with my nature's call, I stepped back out into the main room. The house featured an open room design, Becca's preference. The stairs were to the left of the front door, the living room to the front and right. Past the living room was a half wall before the kitchen area. Two tall bar stools were pushed under the wall's counter area. To the right of the kitchen was the dining table, sitting directly in front of two large glass French doors that led out to the back patio.

The three bedrooms were all upstairs, a fact I now regretted to no end. Those stairs would be a bear for the next few months. Of course, if I lost in court tomorrow, there would be no reason for me to remain here.

I could head anywhere I wanted. Live anywhere I wanted.

Heaven help me, but I was starting to think that didn't sound so bad. After all, surely my step-brother had changed in the past eighteen years. Maybe he and his wife would do a better job of raising Zane than I could, being single and all. I was trying hard not to even think about the whole invalid aspect of my parenting skills.

Then something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. There in the corner of the room, at the bottom of the stairs near the front door lay a soft pile of fluff. I swallowed again as I recognized that fluff as Mr. Cuddles, Zane's prized stuffed bunny. No way would he have willingly left his best friend behind.

I hobbled over and lowered myself slowly to the floor, laying my cane beside me and picking up the rabbit. Holding it close to my chest, I felt the tears coming and didn't even try to stop them.

Sometimes, grown men cry.

I'm sorry, Zane. So very, very sorry.

CHAPTER TWO: Battle of Two Fathers

Our appointed court time was nine o’clock, as we had somehow managed to be the first on the judge's docket for the day. I had spent the better part of my arrival day cleaning, but as slow and awkward as I moved, not a lot actually got accomplished. At least the living room was dusted and swept and the few crusted dishes I had found in the kitchen sink had been dealt with too.

Even that little bit of housework about did me in, and in the end I simply couldn't face the prospect of climbing those stairs. Luckily I had a pair of dress pants and a button up shirt in my garment bag, so I wouldn't need to trudge up them this morning either.

I wouldn't exactly say I'd slept on the couch, but at least I had given it a shot. Thoughts of Zane and the discarded bunny made my night a fitful one at best. So when the antique grandfather clock by the small fireplace chimed six, I gave up and started getting ready for the day ahead.

My friend, and sometimes partner, Joshua Penbrook was due to pick me up at seven-thirty. We planned to be at the courthouse early just in case my bully of a stepbrother decided to try something we hadn't been forewarned about. Of course, knowing Michael, he was probably sure he would win anyway.

Taking a look at myself in the mirror, I was afraid to admit that he just might. Becca's wishes to the contrary or no. Was I kidding myself that I could take care of an energetic five-year-old boy? It had only been a week since I'd been able to take care of myself.

Then I glanced over at Mr. Cuddles sitting on the couch I'd abandoned earlier and knew that I was definitely going to give it my best shot. I had always been good in crisis situations. Which is one reason I would never forgive myself for not being there when Becca had needed me the most.

But for Zane? I'd damn well make it work. Now all I had to do was convince the judge.

I debated leaving my cane behind but decided against it. Better to be seen walking and functioning with a cane than to be seen making a fool of myself without its support.

Joshua was punctual as always. I had already locked the front door behind me and was halfway down the porch steps when he pulled into the short drive in front of the garage.

His car door flew open and he came barreling up to greet me, throwing his arms around me and knocking me a bit off balance. It was a very good thing I'd decided to rely on the cane.

"It's so good to see you, Colin," he said, his head resting on my shoulder.

I reached up with my free hand and patted his back. "The feeling's mutual, Josh." I hesitated. "I really appreciate you doing this."

He pulled back, putting a hand on each of my shoulders. "And just who else could you trust this to?"

I smiled. "No one. But I appreciate it all the same."

Joshua Penbrook was the Travis County Prosecuting Attorney and a very big name in the town. Having him take a day off from his important job to represent me in my plea for the right to adopt Zane meant a lot to me.

My step-brother, Michael Lawson, had decided to represent himself. In my mind, proving the old adage that anyone who represents themselves in court has a fool for an attorney. I was really hoping that it would make a difference.

It was almost unheard of for two different people to petition to adopt the same child. Usually, one case would be dealt with at a time, but things had gotten a bit mixed up as I wasn't in Travis County at the time I put in my petition.

Josh was looking past me to the bag I'd laid by the front door. "Does that go too?"

I nodded and he scooped it up, then hesitated. I gave a short laugh. "I'm okay, I can make it to the car."

He stowed the bag in the trunk and went around to open the passenger side door for me, then stood there awkwardly as I made my slow and somewhat painful way to him.

With my slow moving, it was a good thing we'd given ourselves extra time. As it was, by the time we got sat down at the table in the courtroom we had only minutes to spare. Precious minutes at that. I needed some time to gather my strength.

Glancing around the room, I saw Gabriel Green sitting beside the court reporter. He looked good in his freshly pressed sheriff’s uniform. Though I did wonder what his presence might mean. Then again, it probably didn’t have anything to do my case. Likely he was here for the next one up after our hearing.

Gabe and Michael had run in the same circle of friends all through high school. Of all the members of that circle, he had been the only one I had any kind of respect for. I had always thought he was an honorable man, as well as a very good-looking one. A lot of men let themselves go after high school. From the fit of Gabe’s uniform, that wasn’t true of the sheriff.

Just before nine, the courtroom started filling up with onlookers. Smiling, I noted a fair number of old friends in attendance. They nodded to me and all of a sudden I didn't feel quite so alone anymore. Then I saw my mom and step-dad.

Lawrence just stared at me and shook his head, as if disappointed that I was making them go through this. Mother wouldn't even meet my eyes.

I turned back to face the front again, taking a deep breath as the door to the judge's chamber opened and Judge Freeman stepped into court.

"All rise."

Gripping my cane in a strong grip, I shook off Josh's offer of his hand. Now wasn't the time to show weakness. At least no more than I had to.

As the judge settled into his chair and the bailiff read the case announcements, everyone sat back down. I heard the door at the back of the courtroom open and didn't even bother to look. Michael always did like to make an entrance. Trust him to try to upstage even the judge.

It was hard not to grin when I noticed Judge Freeman give my step-brother an evil glare. "Nice of you to join us, Mr. Lawson." Then he nodded to Joan. "Mrs. Lawson."

Michael gave him a big grin, all the confidence in the world. "Sorry we're late your honor. Construction held us up a bit." Then he turned to me and gave me a small smirk as he sat down, not even bothering to pull out Joan's chair for her.

The judge took a few minutes to review the papers before him. While Josh and I sat and patiently waited, Michael began drumming his fingers against his table.

Judge Freeman looked over his glasses at Mike and raised an eyebrow. "Are we keeping you from something more important, Mr. Lawson?"

Again, Michael answered with a big grin. "Actually, yes, I've got a noon tee-off time at the country club and I'd hate to miss it. But I'm sure this won't take long." He threw a pointed glance at my cane. "It looks pretty cut and dry to me who will be able to give Zane the best home."

Joan elbowed him and whispered something in his ear, and Mike looked back up to the judge. "Not that golf is more important than this, your honor. I surely didn't mean to imply that."

No, you didn't mean to imply that, you moron, I thought. You outright said it.

Judge Freeman gave him another glare, then continued his review. When he raised his head again, it was to look me directly in the eyes. "First of all, the court and I would like to offer deepest condolences to the family of Rebecca Shepard. It is our sincerest wish that she be brought home to you safely."

"Thank you, your honor," I said gruffly. There was so much more I wanted to say, but I left it at that.

He lifted a sheaf of papers. "These are the documents that Rebecca Shepard signed, notarized, and put through the proper channels a few years back." Adjusting his glasses, he peered closely at the page on top. "Actually, it would appear these were processed even before Zane was born."

"They were, your honor," I said quietly. "She didn't want to take any chances that her baby would fall into the wrong hands." As much as I wanted to glance over at my overly smug step-brother, I didn't. I was doing my best to take the high road as hard as that was.

"And yet here we are," Freeman said gravely. "Due in part to your absence of the past six months. Would you mind sharing with the court exactly where you were?"

Gripping my cane, I stood to face the judge. "I've been in the hospital and undergoing extensive physical therapy, sir. During the time my sister disappeared, I was undergoing re-qualification for my reserve Seal team. While doing a routine jump, my parachute malfunctioned, and I free fell quite a distance." I swallowed past the big lump in my throat. "The day she went missing was the day of my fall. Otherwise, I would have been here." My eyes met his.

He nodded. "I'm sure you would have been, Mr. Shepard." The judge gave a sigh. "Which I gather brings us to the real reason why we are here. While the paperwork documenting your sister's wishes is all very clear and concrete, at the time she processed it, you were hale and healthy." He looked at me sadly over his glasses. "This does not seem to be the case today. Raising a five-year-old requires a certain amount of strength. Do you truly believe yourself capable?"

I heard Michael's snort of laughter and gritted my teeth. This high road of mine wasn't getting any easier.

"With all due respect, sir, six months ago I should have died. I didn't. The doctors said I'd never walk again. I did. Yes, it's taken me six months to get to this point. But every day I grow stronger, and Zane needs me now."

Michael couldn't take the attention on me any longer. "He doesn't need you. Not now, not ever. He has a home now. With a mother and father. He's better off now than he ever has been."

To hell with the high road. Injuries or no, I took a step toward Michael. If Joshua hadn't physically detained me, I'd have probably been charged with assault. Right there in front of the judge and everyone.

"Mr. Lawson, the court would very much appreciate you keeping your opinions of your fine parenting skills to yourself." Once again he gave Mike an over the glasses glare. "As the court is certain you didn't mean to imply that the child is better off without his own mother."

Mike hesitated, then backpedaled. "No, of course not, your honor. But since she is no longer here to take care of him, the benefit of a two-parent family can't be denied." He patted Joan's hand. "We were here when Zane needed us. While my stepbrother Colin was off chasing his macho dream of being a Navy Seal."

Joshua stood but waited patiently for the judge to acknowledge him. It didn't take long.

"I take it you take exception to Mr. Lawson's statement, Mr. Penbrook?"

"I do, your honor, on many levels. The first being the fact that my client's 'macho dream' of being a Navy Seal helped keep this country free and safe. The second, your honor, is that Mr. Shepard took appropriate steps to ensure the boy was taken care of in his absence. As soon as he received the news, he telephoned his parents and arranged for them to care for Zane for six months to give him time to recuperate."

Joshua glanced over his shoulder towards Colin's mother. "They agreed, your honor. However, they did fail to mention that they were going to give the child over to Michael and Joan. That my client only learned very recently." He picked up a folder from the table and walked the few steps up to the judge's bench.

"This, your honor, is record from Mr. Shepard's bank showing that he directed them to issue a monthly check to his mother in the amount of one thousand dollars to pay for Zane's preschool and daycare, as well as any other expenses they might incur on his behalf." He gave Michael a scathing glance. "So, you can see your honor, that even while in a considerable amount of pain and while lying in a hospital bed, my client still took measures to see to the child's care and well being. And as soon as he could convince the doctors to release him, he returned here to collect Zane and see to his care personally."

"All very commendable, Counselor," the judge said. "But unfortunately it doesn't answer the question as to whether or not Mr. Shepard is now capable of caring for Zane. The court acknowledges the wishes of Zane's mother, however, it is our duty to make the best decision in the interest of the child. Regardless of personal preference."

"With all due respect, your honor, if we didn't want what was best for Zane, we wouldn't be here today," Joshua said, then he sat down.

"Noted," the judge said, turning his attention to Colin. "Mr. Shepard, is there any reason you would like to share with the court as to why Zane would be not better off with the Lawsons?'

I hesitated, then stood. "There is, your honor, but it will require a little back-story." At the judge's nod, I went on. "Our mother remarried when we were ten, bringing the Lawson's into our home. Michael was two years older than us and often put in charge of the two of us when the grown ups went out for the evening." I paused, looking Judge Freeman dead in the eyes. "To say his parenting skills were lacking would be a vast understatement.'

The judge smiled. "You do realize that you are talking about the parenting skills of a teenage boy, do you not?"

I gave a short nod. "I do, sir. However, bullies seldom change even as they age."

Freeman's smile disappeared. "Are you making an allegation of abuse by Michael Lawson?"

"Not physical, no. Other than to pull and push us into place, he never laid a hand on us. But he found other ways to make our lives unbearable, sir."

"Can you give us an example?"

I thought briefly and settled on one point in time. "My step-father won a weekend getaway through his company. We were twelve and Michael fourteen at the time. They left on Friday morning and returned on Sunday night." I swallowed, remembering. "My mother made sure to stock the fridge and cabinets with sandwich makings and snacks, and she left enough money for us to order pizza Friday and Chinese takeout on Saturday."

I heard Michael moan, "Not this again." But I ignored him.

"Michael had wanted a new game for his console for a long time, so the money didn't last long. He decided to cook for us instead. His great culinary skills meant that he took a frozen chicken from the freezer and threw it into the oven. The result was absolutely inedible your honor, and probably would have made both of us very sick had we eaten it. So we refused. That earned us Mike's extreme displeasure."

"Wah, wah, wah, here we go," Mike said out of the corner of his mouth. I don't think it was loud enough for the judge to hear, so again I ignored him.

"He dragged us upstairs and into our rooms, then locked us in. Neither of us got a bite to eat for the rest of the weekend. Not until my mother got home Sunday. The only liquid we got was water that we drank straight from the tap of the bathroom sink."

Michael jumped up. "That's a lie, your honor! I offered them food several times, and each time they refused. They were being little brats."

The judge looked back to me, one eyebrow raised in question.

"Oh yes, your honor. He offered us the chicken, which was quickly starting to smell in the heat, several times. But not a single bite of anything else. He even slept outside our bedroom doors to make sure we didn't get out in the middle of the night and raid the kitchen."

"The chicken wasn't that bad, your honor. They could have eaten it," Mike said. "The two of them were just trying to get me into trouble. They didn't like me being in charge."

"Did you eat the chicken, Mr. Lawson?" Freeman asked. "And do remember that you are under oath here."

Mike hesitated, throwing a quick glance over to Sheriff Green. What the hell was that about?

"Chicken isn't my favorite, your honor, so I just had a sandwich instead." His chin went into the air. "But it wasn't nearly so bad as he's making it out to be. They could have eaten the damn chicken."

Freeman closed his eyes briefly and shook his head. "Still, that was many years ago, and surely Mr. Lawson has matured. And he has the help of his wife, Joan, to do the cooking now."

"I had hoped he had changed, too, your honor, but he hasn't." My eyes were swimming with moisture as I pulled Mr. Cuddles from the bag and held him up for the judge to see.

"Oh for heaven's sake, what did you bring that hideous thing here for?" Michael asked, disgust dripping from his voice.

I never even looked at him, keeping my eyes on the judge. "This 'hideous thing', your honor, is Zane's best friend in the whole world. He sleeps with it every night, talks to it in the middle of thunder storms, and takes it everywhere he goes." I felt a single tear slip down my cheek, but I couldn't stop now. "He was in a heap by the front door of the house, your honor. Zane would never have left him willingly."

My voice caught and sounded strangled even to me. "His mom gone, taken from the only home he'd ever known, and he wasn't even allowed the comfort of a stuffed animal."

I wiped my now wet cheeks and prepared to sit back down. "Please, your honor, keep your word. Make the decision that is by far in the best interest of my nephew. Please."

I sank back in my chair to the sound of clapping. Michael was being his jerk self again. I really hoped the judge was taking notes because the rest was up to him.

Judge Freeman turned to Michael with a scowl. "And now the moment you've been so anxiously awaiting, Mr. Lawson. Would you please state for the court why you feel your home would be the best environment for raising Zane Shepard?"

"With pleasure, your honor. And I promise not to cry and use theatrics while doing so, too," Michael said standing. He must have been boning up on his legal shows because rather than staying behind his table, he began pacing in front of the judge's bench.

"There are several reasons that make my adoption of Zane the only logical choice, your honor. First and foremost, of course, would be the fact that Zane would be gaining not only a father but a mother as well. Secondly, both my wife and I are able to control Zane as we," he gave me a pointed glance, "have full use of all our faculties. Plus, my wife has money left from an inheritance from her grandfather and that combined with my position at the bank," he puffed his chest out, "would ensure Zane a secure financial future."

One round up and back before the bench in silence. Definitely too much Perry Mason watching. Just as the judge opened his mouth to speak, Michael went on.

"Now let us take a look at the flip side of that coin. What would Zane's life be like if adopted by a single, and openly homosexual, man?" I'd been wondering when he would play that card. Joshua reached over and squeezed my hand under the table.

"While I have nothing against homosexuals in general, your honor, I'm sure if God had intended them to raise children, he would have set things up a bit differently, don't you think? And whether we like it or not, children these days can be cruel. Having a father that dates men could cause young Zane a lot of teasing and abuse when he starts school."

Only from kids with fathers like you, I thought.

"Plus, there is his security to consider. Not only would Colin not be able to handle emergencies well, how does he propose to take care of Zane financially? Up to his accident, he has worked construction and drawn military reserve pay. Where will his money come from now? I understand that he and his sister have a joint bank account and that she was doing pretty well for herself. But what happens when that money runs out?" Michael shook his head.

"No, your honor," he continued. "Becca's wishes simply cannot pass into being. Not the way things stand today. And if she were here beside me today, she would be saying to you the same thing I am. Do what is best for Zane. Give him a stable home with two loving and financially capable parents."

With that and a small bow to both the bench and his captive courtroom audience, Michael sat down. Judge Freeman turned back to me. I pushed the file to Joshua, and he took it up to the bench while I once again struggled to my feet while trying to give the appearance of not struggling. All of this up and down was beginning to be painful.

Freeman took the folder from Josh with a raised eyebrow. "And just what is this?"

"Proof of my own financial stability, your honor," I said. "My sister and I shared a bank account because we shared a business, sir. We write and publish digital books on several platforms." I coughed, hoping that I wouldn't have to go into too much detail about the type of stories those books contained. "They are extremely popular with our readers. That file will show that the bank account Michael referred to has continued to have consistent deposits made to it from our publishing efforts, even after Becca's disappearance."

Freeman glanced through the file and gave a low whistle. "I didn't realize the writing business paid so well," he said.

I shrugged. "We were lucky to find an audience that likes what we write. There is also a spreadsheet that shows the income that has been earned so far for the last book I published. It might help you to know that book was written in entirety while I was still in the hospital. So I am capable of supporting Zane very well, sir. You don't have to be able to win a race in order to write."

I watched the judge's eyes widen as he checked out the spreadsheet. He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but there appears to be a rather large typo here. This simply can't be right."

"My bank statements are in the previous file, your honor. I’ve stapled the deposit’s breakdown reports to each statement. You are welcome to check the deposit amounts."

He did so and cleared his throat. "I stand corrected." He closed the files with a sigh. "The two of you have left me with a very difficult decision to make. Before I make a choice that will determine the young boy's future, I think perhaps I should have a little chat with him."

Michael literally bounced out of his seat. "With all due respect, your honor, children under the age of twelve are generally not consulted about whom they wish to live with. They are far too young for such responsibility."

Judge Freeman gave him the benefit of his full judicial stare for several seconds before replying. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption that you did not follow the court order that stated you were to bring Zane with you today?"

For the first time, Michael seemed to be unsure of himself. "He woke up not feeling well, your honor, and with the law being what it is, I didn't think it necessary. Surely you can make the determination in favor of a stable home without talking with him?"

"You didn't think it necessary to follow a court order, Mr. Lawson?" Michael stuttered a few times, but nothing coherent came out.

I tried, but I just couldn't keep the smile off my face.

"Sheriff Green, would you be so kind as to run out and pick up Zane Shepard and bring him to my chambers?"

As the sheriff stood, Michael tried one last thing. "No need for that, your honor. I'll go and get him right now." He tried to leave his table before giving the judge time to respond, but Freeman wasn't having any of that.

"You will do no such thing, Mr. Lawson. You will, however, provide the address where the boy can be found to the sheriff." The judge hesitated and then said, "One more thing, Sheriff. Could you please collect Mr. and Mrs. Lawson's cell phones? I don't want my little chat with the boy to be tainted with instructions from the two of them."

Sheriff Green collected the phones with a small smile, handing them over to the judge. Then he stopped by the table as Michael grudgingly wrote down an address and left to collect my nephew.

"The court will now adjourn for a short recess." Freeman glared at Michael. "And I do not recommend that you try to contact your nephew prior to my meeting with him. Is that understood?"

Michael nodded, looking a bit ill.

Maybe, just maybe, I stood a chance.

CHAPTER THREE: In the Judge's Chambers (Gabe)

When he got back to the courthouse, Sheriff Gabe Green took Zane in a back way. The boy was nervous enough already, he didn't need to be marched down an aisle of curious people. And he sure as hell didn't need to be seeing that jackass of an uncle of his. Or step-uncle to be more accurate.

Personally, he was rooting for the Navy Seal. Well, ex-Seal now. If he was any judge of men, which was kind of given in his line of work, it wouldn't be long before Colin Shepard was back fully on his feet again. And there wasn't a doubt in his mind that his home would be the best one for young Zane.

He was hoping the judge felt the same way. As much as Gabe hated the thought of foster care, even that would be preferable to sending that boy back home with Michael Lawson.

Mike and Gabe had shared several friends in high school. That resulted in his spending a lot more time around the jerk that he would have preferred. Mike had been overly proud of himself back then and had bragged to them about the very weekend Colin had spoken about.

Gabe smiled. He had seen Mike’s hesitation and glance before he answered the judge. It made him feel that he had done the right thing by being there. At the very least, he had been able to keep Mike honest in that one instance.

He held the boy's hand as they walked and he could feel Zane trembling. "There isn't anything to be afraid of, Zane," he said. "You are just going to have a little talk with Judge Freeman. He's really a very nice man." Gabe leaned down and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "And I happen to know he has a stash of Little Debbie snack cakes in his desk drawer."

Zane bit his lip. "But I'm not supposed to talk to him. I'll get in trouble, and I've got to save my toys up."

What the? "I promise you that it's okay to talk with him. And I want you to answer whatever the judge asks you truthfully, okay? Even if someone told you to say something different like a fib. Just tell the truth and I promise you it will be okay."

The boy's head dropped. "Grown-ups don't always keep their promises to little kids."

Gabe stopped just outside the back door to the courthouse and bent down on his heels to look Zane in the eyes. "Maybe some grown-ups don't, but I do." He hesitated just a moment, then decided to go for it. "Did you know your Uncle Colin is here?"

The boy's eyes lit up. "He's really here? Can I see him?"

The sheriff nodded. "I'll make sure you get to see him, but only if you agree to be honest with the judge. Deal?"

Zane thought it over and it looked like he was doing math computations. At least that's what it looked like to Gabe. He was pretty sure the boy was counting on his fingers, but what he was counting he didn't have a clue.

Finally, he nodded. "Deal." He paused. "You really keep your promises?"

"Every single one of them, especially the ones I make to little kids."

The judge's chamber was a small room, with barely enough space inside to house his desk, one small bookcase, two visitor chairs and a small love seat. Of course, part of the reason the room looked so small was that the judge himself was a very large man.

Freeman stood as they entered and Zane moved back a step, placing Gabe between them. His trembling increased. The judge could be intimidating as hell, especially to a five-year-old.

"Zane, this is Judge Freeman." Gabe threw the judge a small smile. "I hope you don't mind, judge, I let Zane in on your secret snack stash. He looks pretty hungry, doesn't he?"

The boy peeked out from behind Gabe. Freeman sat down and ruffled through his desk drawer. "He does at that," he said absently. "Let's see, I've got brownies, oatmeal creme pies, and one last blueberry muffin." He looked up at Zane, who licked his lips. "Which would you like?"

“Could I have a brownie, please?”

Freeman tossed the small package to Gabe, who handed it down to the boy and then turned to leave. Zane sniffed, and Gabe turned back to the judge.

“Why don’t you stick around too, Sheriff? I’ve been told I’m kind of scary to children.” The judge looked down at his considerable paunch. “Though I really don’t understand it. I mean Santa Claus is bigger than I am, and kids actually want him around.”

Zane gave a small giggle, and Gabe smiled. Judge Freeman was a very good man.

“Sheriff, would you stick your head out into the clerk’s office and ask them to bring Zane a soda?” He looked down at the boy. “What’s your favorite drink?”

The boy looked wistful. “I’m not supposed to have soda, ‘coz it has too much sugar. But I guess if all you have is soda, it would be okay, wouldn’t it?”

“Of course it would. And we just happen to be fresh out of everything but… now what did you say your favorite was?”

“Pepsi?” Zane’s voice sounded so tiny and unsure to Gabe.

“Yup, I’m sure the clerks have drunk everything else but the Pepsi.”

Gabe ducked out and made the request. A girl pulled one out of the small fridge and he took it into the room, closing the door once again.

They gave Zane a chance to take a swig of soda, and as Gabe watched, the boy shut his eyes and sighed as the soda slipped down his throat. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the brownie.

“Go ahead and eat it,” Freeman said. “In fact, I might just have one too while we talk.”

At the word talk, Zane stiffened, looking at the Sheriff over his shoulder. “Okay.” He slowly peeled back the plastic and took a tiny bite. The judge grabbed another one out of his desk and did the same.

“So, what do you want to talk about?” Zane asked, his voice shaking.

“Well, why don’t we start with your Uncle Colin?”

The boy grinned and nodded. “I like to talk about him. The sheriff said I can see him later as long as I tell you the truth. He promised, and he told me he always keeps his promises to little kids.” He paused, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Does he?”

The judge looked up to see Gabe’s face-splitting grin. “Now, do you think for one minute that we would have an important person like a Sheriff that didn’t keep his promises? Not a chance. And I’ll even add my promise to his.” Freeman leaned over the desk, lowering his voice to a whisper too. “Some people think I’m even more important than the Sheriff, but don’t tell him that. Ego, you know.”

Another tiny giggle and the boy’s shoulders relaxed a bit.

“Your Uncle Colin used to live with you, didn’t he?”

The boy nodded, his eyes filling up with tears. “Back when Mommy was alive, we all lived together at home. Uncle Colin would tell me bedtime stories and let me help him with his jigsaw puzzles.”

“So, he likes to do jigsaw puzzles, huh?”

“Yup, some real big ones too.” Zane got quiet and didn’t say anything for a minute. The judge waited him out. “One time I lost the last piece, and Uncle Colin didn’t get mad or nuthin’. He didn’t even take a toy away.”

“When your Uncle Mike gets mad does he take a toy away?”

The boy nodded.

“For how long?”

Zane looked up from the last of his brownie, his face tilted to the side. “For how long what?”

“How long does he wait before he gives you the toy back?”

He still looked confused. “The trash man doesn’t give the toys he takes back.”

Freeman’s voice grew quiet. “When he’s mad, he throws a toy away?”

A nod and a single tear slipped down the boy’s cheek. “And I’m scared, ‘coz I’m running out of toys, and it’s a long time until Christmas.” Zane shivered, wrapping his arms around his tiny body.

Gabe’s fists clenched. He really hoped sometime in the near future he would catch Michael doing something unlawful. It didn’t even have to be a big crime. Just a reason to do something to make the jerk pay.

"If you don't have many toys, then what do you do?"

"Read, mostly, I guess. Dad doesn't think I can really read the words, but Aunt Joan—I mean Mom—knows I can. She takes me to the library and lets me pick out books every Friday."

"How did you learn to read before you even got to go to Kindergarten?"

"Uncle Colin taught me." The boy smiled sadly. "Guess I asked for too many stories at bedtime. Once I learned to read, he'd only read me one." The smile brightened. "But he let me pick which one, and I always picked a long one, so it was okay."

Freeman laughed. "Smart thinking, Zane." The boy's smile got even bigger.

"Does your Uncle Mike read to you too?"

The elusive smile disappeared altogether, and Zane just shook his head. "Dad says only babies get bedtime stories."

"Why do you call your Uncle Mike Dad?"

A shudder passed over the boy. "He gets mad when I don't," the boy whispered. "And I don't have many toys left."

The judge's face clenched and his eyes narrowed. "He takes a toy away when you don't call him Dad?"

A small nod. No wonder the boy didn't have many play things left. Sounded like he just couldn't win with the jerk. And Gabe was starting to understand the boy's fear. What happened when he didn't have any more toys to take away? He locked eyes with the judge and saw the same understanding in them.

No sodas, because kids shouldn't have too much sugar. No bedtime stories because at five years old he was too old for them. No best friend stuffed rabbit because it was a 'hideous thing'. And every time he crossed some arbitrary line like forgetting to call the man he'd always known as Uncle Mike Dad, he lost a toy.

Gabe would be the first to admit he had never liked Michael Lawson. But he had never so actively disliked the man as he did right at this very moment.

Even with a normal child, this behavior would be borderline abuse in his opinion. But to treat a child who has lost everything he ever held dear this way? The man must not have a conscience at all.

When the judge was silent for a full minute, Zane asked in a small voice. "If you don't have anything else to ask me, can I please see Uncle Colin now?"

The judge had to swallow before answering. "Not quite yet, I'm afraid. Us grown-ups have something to take care of first. But I promise you some time with him very shortly, okay?"

"Okay, I guess."

Freeman arranged for one of the clerks to sit with the boy while he and Gabe prepared to reenter the courtroom. They were standing outside the clerk's office when the judge turned to face Gabe.

"You think Colin can handle raising the kid?"

Gabe hated having to say it, but this was the judge. "I know he'd give it everything he has, but... no, I'm not sure he's up to it quite yet. Not by himself, and his parents are on the jer... I mean the step-brother's side. No help for him there." Gabe shook his head. "But I'd rather see the kid in a foster home than back with that family. At least then he has a chance of getting a decent home."

Freeman nodded. "I hate to see it come to that, but I'm beginning to agree with you."

"There is another alternative." Gabe and the judge turned to find Joshua Penbrook standing behind them. "Sorry, your honor, I really hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but I was trying to find you before court went back into session."

"As long as you realize that the words just spoken are strictly confidential, you are forgiven," Freeman said. "Now what is this alternative you have in mind?"

CHAPTER FOUR: The Conditions (Colin)

When the judge called the court back into session, he didn't waste any time getting down to it.

"As I've stated before, it is the court's fondest desire to adhere to the wishes of the parents. Especially ones who did absolutely everything in their power to see that their children are raised by a person of their own choosing rather than the court’s. We respect that. The only reason that was questioned in this case was due to the fact of Mr. Shepard's physical state. Which, in all hopes, is purely temporary in nature."

The judge settled back in his chair and gave Colin a smile. "Due to that temporary nature, the court is willing to grant only provisional custody at this time. And the custody grant comes with conditions."

The judge paused, with a meaningful glance to Joshua, then continued. "Mr. Shepard has proven that he is quite capable of providing Zane a loving and financially secure home. Should he recover fully physically, as in gain the strength and dexterity required to raise a young and active child, he would make in our eyes a near perfect parent for Zane."

I liked where this was headed... I thought. It sounded to me like the other shoe was about to drop. And it did.

"It has been brought to our attention that it is entirely possible for Mr. Shepard to hire the help he needs to take care of the boy."

Michael bounced up. Unlike me, he obviously didn't like the direction the judge was going. Even with the oncoming shoe. "Your honor, I do not want Zane raised by hired help. Not when we are perfectly capable of caring for him full time ourselves."

"Your wishes have been duly noted, Mr. Lawson, and now please take your seat and remain quiet unless and until the court addresses you. A further outburst on your part will be considered contempt of court. Are we clear?"

Michael glared at me, but gave a sullen nod and sat back down. I do believe the thought of losing Zane had never even occurred to him up until that very moment. Funny, that's been all I could think about for months. That and finding Becca.

Judge Freeman seemed to be waiting for some type of response from me. I nodded to him. "What kind of help does the court request? Like a nanny?"

The judge smiled. "Today's nannies are actually multi-functional. You can hire one that will not only help you take care of Zane but also do light housekeeping and cooking." His smile grew bigger. "Kind of like a wife without the fringe benefits." His eyes bore into mine. "Are you willing to hire such a helper? It appears that a single book would take care of all the fees involved."

There was no reason to hesitate. "Absolutely, your honor." Then came the hesitation. "But finding a quality person, if they are going to be living with us, will require time for interviews and background checks. It will take some time to set it up."

Freeman nodded. "Indeed it will. However, a friend of the court has volunteered to pinch hit, as they say, for a few weeks until you can find the right person for the job."

My heart sank as I finally realized what that meant. My eyes glanced over to find Joshua positively glowing. He'd finally gotten his wish. Joshua Penbrook was going to be my new roommate.

I have to admit that the judge's reasonings were sound, and all-in-all the decision was definitely workable. The provisional custody would last for an initial six months during which time I would continue physical therapy to regain my strength. Within that time frame, a court appointed inspector would visit periodically without notice and make sure the home was in order and Zane properly cared for.

At the end of the six months, if my health improved sufficiently, and we kept the inspector happy, my request for adoption would be approved and finalized. While it would make things incredibly awkward with Joshua, it was a price I was willing to pay to be able to bring Zane home.

When the gavel finally sounded, Joshua slapped me on the back before he thought. I stifled the flinch and moan as best I could and he apologized profusely.

"Don't worry about it, Josh. I'm excited too." While Michael, Joan, my mother, step father, and all of their supporters slunk out of the courtroom, all the ones that were there in support of me came forward.

It took several minutes of well-meaning congratulations before I could finally break free to do the one thing I really wanted to do. See my nephew for the first time since all this craziness began.

It would have taken longer if the Sheriff hadn't seen my plight. As it was after a few minutes he stepped in and basically told everyone to bugger off. Nicely, of course, but his meaning was clear.

Joshua, being the considerate person that he is—as well as an intelligent manipulator of current events to get his way—said he would wait for us out at the car. I followed Sheriff Green into the judge's chambers, leaning far too heavily on my cane, and clutching the bag holding Mr. Cuddles.

As we walked, the Sheriff looked over at me. "It true you make more than decent money at writing?"

I nodded. There really wasn't anything to say.

“Good. Because you need to make a stop on the way home and buy that boy some toys." I gave him an odd look, but he didn't seem willing to elaborate other than to add, “Lots of toys.”

"Sure thing, Sheriff," I said, grinning up at him. "We'll hit Walmart so I can hitch a ride on one of those blasted motorized carts." I shook my head. "They don't seem nearly so funny now that I need to use one."

He nodded. "Use it and everything else you can get your hands on to help you. You need to get better and fast. Save your strength for that boy and your physical therapy."

"I will. And just so you know, I plan on getting Zane some new clothes too."

He grunted. "Just don't forget the toys." He was quiet for a couple more steps. "And maybe some books."

I was just about to question the importance of the toys when the door opened before me and there sat Zane. The question died on my lips as I looked at the small little boy. The boy I remembered was full of life and never still a minute, even when sitting. That boy bore little resemblance to the one before me now.

Oh sure, he looked the same, but the energy and life were simply not there. At least not in near the quantity it had been only a few months ago. I swallowed trying to figure out the best way to approach him when he looked up and saw me standing in the doorway.

He was off the chair and barreling toward me in a heartbeat. Only the Sheriff's quick thinking and steady arm saved me from taking quite a tumble. The sinewy strength of his arm circling my back and supporting me was both comforting and unsettling. But I'd save the unsettling part to deal with later. Right now was about Zane, not me.

The boy was clinging to me, crying. I put my hand on the back of his head and stroked his baby fine blond hair.

"Hey, Z-Man," I said, tugging at his hair playfully.

He sniffed and moved just far enough to allow him to look up at me, his hands never leaving me as if he was afraid I'd get away from him. "Hey, Unca Colin." Then one small hand moved and wiped his face dry, his bottom lip still trembling. The other hand remained with a firm grip on my pants leg.

"You were supposed to come for me," he said, his voice breaking. "Momma said if anything ever happened to her, I'd be okay 'coz you'd take care of me. But you didn't come."

I took hold of the tiny hand grasping my leg and led him over to the love seat, sinking gratefully into its softness. "I'm real sorry about that, Z-Man. I wanted to be here, but I was in an accident. A bad one. I had to learn to walk all over again, and it isn't quite as easy the second time around."

Some of the accusation faded from eyes, "You couldn't walk?"

I shook my head, showing him my cane. "And I still have to use this old thing to keep steady on my feet. But I'm still working on getting better." I paused, looking deep into his sky blue eyes. "I could sure use your help if you aren't too mad at me."

Zane sniffed again, and I handed him my handkerchief. He blew his nose and handed it back. I had thought he would jump at the chance of helping me, and I was confused when instead he hesitated.

"I'd like to help you, Uncle Colin, but I'm not sure Uncle, I mean Dad," he said glancing nervously about, "will let me."

I smiled at him. Should have known it had something to do with Michael. "Well, you see, he doesn't get to make that choice. The judge said that as long as I hire someone to help me out while I get better, I can take you home."

"Home?" Was that a touch of hope I heard in that one, soft word? "Where you and Mommy and me used to live?"

I nodded. "I'll warn you the place is pretty dusty, so you'll have to help me fix it up a bit until we can get someone to help us. And my friend Joshua will be staying with us for a while, too."

Anything else I would have said was emptied from my mind as for the second time, Zane barreled into me. At least this time he didn't have quite the running start as before and I was sitting down for it. That's not to say it didn't hurt like hell.

I was starting to see the court's point. We were definitely going to need help.

CHAPTER FIVE: Zane's Homecoming (Colin)

It's a very good thing people liked my books because our short side trip to Walmart cost me several hundred dollars. But it was worth every penny. As I hadn't made it upstairs last night, I had no idea how many clothes were still there... or anything else for that matter. And the very last thing I wanted to do was face Michael and Joan for Zane's things.

So we bought several outfits for him to wear to preschool, some pajamas, jeans, and t-shirts with super heroes plastered all over them. (I got some of those for myself as well.) Then we hit the toy aisle and tried to contain ourselves.

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