This week’s trip into hell was over.
Blake Matthews tightened the straps on his daughter’s car seat, her sweet face wet with tears, her tiny chin quivering, her dark eyes downcast. How much longer was the court going to torture her like this? How much longer was he going to allow it? The title “Family Court” was laughable. The people running this show didn’t have the faintest idea what “family” meant. If they did, they wouldn’t be ripping his family apart.
He dropped a kiss on top of Gia’s head and slammed the door. He could use a drink right now. Just to take the edge off. His mouth watered contemplating it. First things first. Get the hell away from this place.
The hour visit with Gia’s mother, his ex-wife, was excruciating. Feeling Gia tremble in his arms while Lynne tried to cajole her closer, seeing those long red fingernails come through the air at them both, sensing his daughter recoil—it was too much. How had he ever loved that woman?
He jammed his foot to the gas pedal. The tires screeched his departure from the parking lot.
“We’ll be home shortly, Peanut. Noreen is waiting for us.” He needed the woman’s arms around him more than a scotch. More than Gia needed her.
No response from his little ray of sunshine. It crushed him. These visits left his baby girl morose. Him too. He practically tasted that scotch.
“It’ll be okay, sweetheart. Daddy will figure out a way to fix it.”
How, he didn’t know. He had the chance last year. He should have killed her mother then.
The door to Blake’s truck slammed in the driveway with a bang as loud as a cannon shot.
Noreen laid her book aside, straightened her position on the chaise lounge to support her leg, and gingerly braced herself against a pillow. The burns on her back and arms had healed, but the pain remained.
Sparkly rainbow-colored sandals pounded across the kitchen tile and the hinges on the screen door squealed when Argia shoved through it, hurling herself onto Noreen’s lap.
“Weenieeeee.” The trembling child buried her face in her chest, and rounded fists bunched her cotton shirt into a sweaty ball. Despite the circumstances, the nickname made her smile. Gia couldn’t pronounce the r-w combination in her name at first, and instead started calling her Weenie. The pet name stuck. She wrapped her arms tight around Argia and rocked slowly from side to side.
“Shh, it’s okay, honey. You’re home now. It’s okay.”
They rode this emotional roller coaster every time Argia returned from a court-ordered visit with her mother, sobbing, shaking, and clinging to Noreen’s shirt until she was cried out. There’d be a few hours of silence with Argia simply nodding yes or no or not responding at all. No amount of cajoling or bribery coaxed her out of her self-imposed muteness unless her father worked his special magic, employed his “twofer” kisses, and shared his soulful gaze with his daughter.
But these visits took their toll on Blake too. Even over Argia’s sobs, chunks of ice dropping from the icemaker into his glass reverberated out to the patio. Next, he’d walk to the liquor cabinet.
She eyed the screen door while she rocked Argia, whispering comforting words to reassure her that her daddy loved her, and she loved her, and everything would be better soon. Would it?
Blake needed the same assurances but cradling him in her arms like a child wasn’t the answer. She was at a loss as to how to help him. Why didn’t he walk out onto the back deck? Gia needed him.
Argia’s outburst subsided to sniffles, her eyes wide and staring at Noreen. The child spoke volumes through those expressive chocolate eyes. She harbored a fear no six-year-old should have to bear. A child shouldn’t be so afraid of its mother.
Finally, the hinges squeaked and Blake strolled out, the alcohol in the tumbler already half consumed. He dragged a chair close to them, leaned over to drop a scotch-laced kiss on Noreen’s mouth and sat, taking a hefty swallow before setting his now empty glass on the table. When he opened both hands and gestured with his fingers, Argia crawled from her lap to the security of her father’s arms, settling her beloved stuffed animals against his chest and nestling her head in the crook of his arm. In seconds, her eyes closed and her breathing evened.
There was no point in asking how the visit with his ex-wife had gone. It always caused Argia to have nightmares and Blake to drink. He’d been doing that a lot more lately.
She laid her hand over his on the chair’s arm. “Can I get you anything?”
His gaze at her lacked focus. Like his daughter, Blake could communicate his feelings through his gunmetal gray eyes. He was lost.
“Another drink would help. But I don’t suppose that’s what you meant. And you wouldn’t be happy about that.”
She smiled without feeling any joy. “We both know that won’t help.”
This was a discussion they’d exhausted over the last four weeks. Since his ex-wife’s release from a psychiatric hospital to a halfway house designed to transition her back to self-sufficiency, the happy ride through daily life that she and Blake shared was jarring, like a car that suddenly gets a flat tire. They still bumped along each day making a home for Gia and nurturing a growing love for each other, but the wheels were threatening to fall off. Father and daughter dealt with the upheaval differently. Argia, they preferred the shortened Gia, went silent and reverted to sucking her thumb, a habit Blake said she’d quit two years earlier. Blake silently deflected his emotions with single-malt scotch, tamping a simmering rage. But for how long?
Noreen squeezed his hand. “Besides, you don’t drink when you have Gia on your lap, remember?”
The corners of Blake’s mouth lifted. An urge to kiss him, smother his mouth with hers and absorb all his pain, washed over her right then. God, how she loved him. His biceps popped when he drew his daughter closer, protecting her from an unknown. His ex-wife was a demon all three of them still battled.
Noreen’s curiosity won. “How’d it go today?”
Blake’s fingers flinched ever so slightly, tightening his hold on Gia. “Remember last week I told you Lynne kept attempting physical contact and Gia resisted? She wouldn’t sit on her mother’s lap or hold her hand. She wouldn’t even share a cookie.
“Today, Lynne insisted that Gia sit on her lap and that witchdoctor of a counselor supported the idea and said the intimate contact would advance Lynne’s acclamation with her daughter and serve as a building block toward their reconciliation. It was pure BS. Then the counselor politely reminded me that the court orders for visitation require cooperation. Lynne smirked at that. What a coincidence that she just happened to have a copy of the judgment in front of her. I’m sure Lynne eagerly provided it. The smug look on her face said it all. She orchestrated the whole thing and there was nothing I could argue against. All the while, Lynne rocked in the rocking chair, feigning innocence.”
Noreen caught her breath. “Did you make Gia do it?”
He shrugged and sipped only melted ice. “I didn’t have a choice. At first, Gia flat out refused, shaking her head and covering her face with Mr. Dog and Mr. Fox.” Subconsciously, Blake nudged the stuffed animals closer to his daughter. “I finally negotiated a deal with her. Ice cream every night for a week in exchange for five minutes on her mother’s lap.”
He squared his shoulders. “Lynne didn’t make it five seconds. I swear Gia stared at me as if to signal ‘watch this.’ She dropped her stuffed toys in my hands, plopped on her mother’s lap and started swinging her legs back and forth, rubbing her shoes against Lynne’s designer pants, and bouncing as if she played in a fun house. Lynne was mortified. Her shoulders jerked and she attempted to reposition Gia’s legs. But my sweet girl was having none of it. Her legs swung like a pendulum.”
He chuckled at the recollection.
“Finally, Lynne snapped at Gia and said something like if you can’t sit still you can’t sit here and Gia was like a rocket launched off her lap and back into my arms. She refused to look at her mother again. I almost laughed in her face. But Gia was shaking like a leaf. I was so angry, I was shaking too.”
“What happened then?”
“Of course, Lynne blamed me for turning Gia against her. But she was careful to conceal the rage we know she is capable of. That therapy they’re forcing on her must be sinking in. Either that or she remembered the security camera in the corner.
“She didn’t fly off the handle like the old Lynne. No, her accusation was more calculated, especially when she suggested that monitored visits with Gia in the future should exclude me. She wondered out loud if her visits would be more successful if only the counselor was present. Predictably, the counselor was quick to validate that notion. I tell you, the whole thing was a set up.”
Noreen’s heart stuttered. “Blake, you can’t let that happen. Gia can’t go in there alone.”
“I know. I’m going to call our attorney first thing in the morning. Maybe he can figure out how to convince the judge that protecting a mother’s rights in this instance will destroy the child.” Gia stirred in Blake’s lap, curling tighter into his embrace. “I hate to say this, Noreen, but I should’ve killed her when I had the chance.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. “Please don’t say that.” She tightened her hold on his hand. “We wouldn’t have been able to overcome those consequences. We’ll figure out a way through this.”
There was that hopeless look in his eyes again. She eased off the lounge chair and placed a soft kiss on his lips. Blake’s eyes darkened with desire, sending a tingle to her thighs. They were her family now, Blake and Gia, and she’d do anything to protect them. But the only way to keep them safe was to rid their lives of Lynne Matthews.