"I . . . what?" Don blurted out, stunned as the question hit him like a freight train. Grace Warren is what the Judge said, Warren was her last name. Another wave hit him as Warren was the last name of the only girl he had ever loved. Could she be Libby's child! But why would he have to give up rights to her daughter? Mommy went to heaven, that was what the little girl said. "Libby," he whispered quietly as the implication came to him "Libby, oh God Libby, no Libby, no."
Sinking into his seat, he barely noticed the voice from the attorney starting again. "Your honor if I may. We do not believe that Mister Duncan is the type of man to have contact with, let alone raise a young girl."
The lawyer continued on, but it became a blur to Don as he buried his face in his hands. Elizabeth Warren, the girl he had loved so much, was gone, this time for good. The memories he had tried so hard to suppress came rushing back. The wonderful times with Libby, their long walks together, talking late into the night, making love under the stars, the plans of marriage, of family, those were great memories. But then the other memory came through, the rage he felt as he watched the woman he loved fighting off another man, the madness that swept through him as he pummeled her attacker until he was a bloody pulp, the hands tackling him, pulling him away. Then the worst, the aftermath, dismissed from school and Libby gone. He had tried to find her, but she had disappeared. With nowhere left to turn, he joined the Army.
He felt the tears run down his face and he wiped them away. The lawyer was still going on about what a terrible person he was, how unfit he was to raise a child when another dot connected. The blood test! The blood test showed Grace was his daughter; turning to her, he saw why she looked so familiar. It was Libby, that was what he saw in her face, younger but the same features, the same face, it was Libby's little girl. Libby's and his!
Suddenly as he stared at her, she looked back at him and he saw that sadness again in her face. The lawyer kept rambling on as Don looked over at him, then he turned to the Judge and then back to the forlorn little girl looking back at him. Catching her eyes, he saw another young girl in them, Libby, and it was as if a switch was thrown inside of his heart!
"NO DAMN IT NO!" He blurted out forcefully. His exclamation suddenly halting the voice across the room. Shaking his head, Don got to his feet, knowing what he had to do. He would not allow his daughter to be abandoned the way he had been, left to fend for herself, alone in the world. She had a father and he was damn sure going to be her father. He had failed Libby once, for whatever reason this chance had come to him, he would not fail her again.
"YOUR HONOR, I WANT MY DAUGHTER!" He bellowed out, momentarily stunning everyone in the room.
Looking over, Don saw the one person that was not stunned, Grace. She looked back at him with a huge smile that melted his heart and took away any doubt from him. Turning back to face the Judge he repeated himself calmly. "I want my daughter."
Judge Baker looked down at the hulk of a man standing before him and wondered what the hell he was going to do now. On one hand this was the little girl's father, on the other, he was one of the most angry and violent men to ever step into his courtroom. It was only through good luck, and the Judge's respect for what Don had gone through, that saved him from serious prison time. Several times in the past years he had come before him and the Judge had been easy on him, hoping against hope that something would calm him before someone died at his hands. The Judge wondered each and every time that he let him off lightly, whether that decision would be the one to result in a terrible tragedy.
But this was something entirely different, a young child placed in the hands of a man of Donald Duncan's temperament. No, this was a step the Judge could not allow. "I will see you all in chambers," nodding towards Grace, "without an audience." Before anyone could even react, the Judge disappeared.
Ten minutes later they were all crowded into the Judge's office. "Your honor, I believe we have made our case that Mister Duncan is unfit to care for a child, I believe his outburst is a testament to that fact." The older lawyer said, looking with obvious contempt at Don.
Don bristled at the words but then quickly realized that this was not the time for anger. He knew that any hope he had of getting his daughter was going to have to be by his wits and intelligence, not by his brute force. That thought caused him to pause as he saw that he needed a strategy. Quickly he started to think like his former self, a college linebacker and infantry squad leader.
The plan came to him, he needed to do the unexpected, but first he wanted to whittle down the opposition. "Your honor." He began calmly, but with sincerity in his voice. "It seems to me that it is four to one here, and with the small office and much to discuss, may I suggest that instead of dealing with a pack of lawyers, we may be better served if there is just three of us."
Judge Baker looked at Don in surprise, amazed that he had allowed the lawyers remark to roll off of him and was instead presenting a very logical point.
"Your honor, surely you are not going to take advice from." The lawyer began.
"Mister Evans!" The judge said forcefully, cutting him off in mid-sentence. "While we may be in chambers, DO NOT in any way forget who is running this meeting. I will decide when I need advice and who I take it from, do we understand each other?"
Don held his composure; but he really wanted to laugh out loud as he saw who was being chastised now.
The Judge hesitated for a few seconds and then continued. "Mister Evans, take your team out in the hall and send back one representative to work this out. It can be you or anyone you choose to appoint."
"Your honor I object, we have prepared as a team and I request that we be allowed to continue that way."
"Mister Evans, you choose, we either try to sort this out now with just three of us and the court reporter or I will schedule a full hearing where we will start from scratch and take this from the top." The judge said, knowing full well that the lawyers would not want to risk a full hearing where Donald Duncan might show up with his own attorney!
"No your honor, we will go with your suggestion." Evans hustled them out the door quickly, leaving the two men alone.
"Your Honor -"
Don started but the Judge cut him off. "Don, it would be inappropriate to discuss anything without the other council present."
"I understand Sir." Don replied quietly.
As they waited, Judge Baker looked at Don in a way he never had before. He wondered about the last few minutes' exchange, did Don just lead an experience lawyer right down the path he wanted or was it just dumb luck? Could there be more to this huge man than just the brawn he showed?
But outside in the hallway, there was chaos. "Fuck, I really pissed the judge off!" Evans spat out as they stood in the hallway. "One of you is going to have to handle this."
"Anne!" one of the young lawyers blurted out quickly.
"What?" The woman who was singled out exclaimed.
"Wait a minute, listen, it makes sense."
"How does it make sense? I am the one least familiar with the case." Anne replied.
"You're a woman, mother figure and all that, you've been keeping track of Grace, you can talk better on why you would be a better choice than that psychopath in there."
"Yeah but it's not me, it's about custody to the firm so the firm can determine what's best for Grace." She retorted.
"Hold on, you may have something Paul." Evans jumped back in nodding his head at the young lawyer. "It makes sense Anne, you are a woman and can represent that way, a mother's perspective."
"Look, this is a bad idea, I don't know why I say this, but this guy is smarter than we're giving him credit for." Anne said to the other three. Then turning to the senior partner she added. "He sure got you in trouble in a hurry."
Roger Evans bristled at the young associate calling him out, as a senior partner he was unaccustomed to having an upstart point out a mistake. "You'll do it, damn it!"
"Fine, give me all the files." Anne said and the two junior lawyers breathed a sigh of relief. They cared little whether this was actually going to work, they were just glad if it didn't they wouldn't be blamed.
As for Roger Evans, he realized too late that his anger may have caused another bad decision, a decision that could have consequences that the other three could have no concept of. He could not believe that this had gone so badly, it all seemed too perfect but now it had to be saved before it unraveled completely.
Grabbing Anne before she walked in the door, Roger spoke quietly to her. "Whatever happens, come to some agreement that keeps us out of court, we have to get this settled."
Anne looked at him quizzically. "Don't you think we can win in a full hearing?"
Roger seemed suddenly very nervous as he replied softly. "That's not the point, there is too much at stake for all of us. Just get an agreement!"
Anne Summers walked back into the room wondering about the conversation with the senior partner. She glanced up huge man standing in front of the desk, and then turned to address the judge. "Your Honor, whether there is four of us here or just one, the course is clear, Mister Duncan is obviously unfit to care for a child. We ask that you appoint our firm as guardians of Grace Warren.
The judge eyed the young lady carefully. "That may be miss, however I think we need to start fresh here." He glanced back and forth between the two people standing before him. "Both of you pull up a chair and sit down," motioning to a couple chairs in the room.
Once they positioned the seats before his desk, he spoke to his court recorder. "Miss Haynes, please note that I am joined here today by Donald Duncan and -?"
"Anne Summers, you honor."
"Anne Summers." The judge repeated. "This is an informal meeting to try to come to an agreement between the parties on the custody of the minor child, Grace Warren."
The formality entered he looked to the two people seated before him before nodding to the young lady.
"Your honor, Mister Duncan is obviously an unfit parent for a young girl. He lives in the worst part of town in a run-down mobile home. He is barely employed, that being only through the benevolence of his uncle. His criminal record shows a continual lack of regard for the law. His appearance here today is shocking to say the least; his arms are adorned with tattoos that are offensive with graphic images and words that are certainly not fit for a child to even see. " She began, looking at Don with disdain.
Taking a deep breath she continued on. "Your honor, if I may point out, you yourself have presided over at least a half a dozen cases with Mister Duncan. He has come before you on multiple cases of Drunk and Disorderly, Public Intoxication, and has been arrested numerous times for acts of violence."
As she was speaking, Don took time to notice her. She appeared to be late twenties, maybe thirty years old. He had noticed that she was tall and thin when he saw her across the courtroom. He remembered her impeccable dress in a black pantsuit that hugged her slight frame. Now up close he saw that she was pretty, not drop dead gorgeous by any means, but just pretty. That was the word, pretty. She had long brunette hair that curled slightly at her shoulders before cascading down her back, her face was thin with a small upturned nose and high cheekbones. Unfortunately her eyes were cold and hard every time she looked over at him. Her lips were full but again seemed to be formed into a sneer as she spoke of him. He couldn't help but wonder what her face would look like if she actually smiled.
The judge though was taking notice of something else entirely. As Anne rambled on and on about how Donald Duncan was an unfit father and violent criminal, Don sat there passively with a slight smile on his face. The judge knew that bringing him in here was risky and assumed that he would blow up at any moment, and then the decision became an easy one. Yet that was not the case, as the lawyer made stab after stab at his character, Don's demeanor never changed. He sat there stoically awaiting his turn.
"And your honor, in view of all of these facts," Anne concluded. "We ask that you sign the order promptly."
Don sat there calmly as the attorney concluded her presentation. He knew that the only way he could win was to keep himself under control. She was baiting him, but could be baited herself? "Your honor, I'm not an educated attorney but I feel that I should be allowed to answer the charges that this lady is making before you render a decision that will affect MY daughter." He was careful to speak clearly and deliberately, adding special emphasis to the fact that Grace was his daughter.
The judge looked at Don and was momentarily taken back by the eloquence of his request. "Mister Duncan, you are quite correct, you may make any statements or ask any questions in rebuttal to Miss Summers claims."
"Your honor, Miss Summers claims that I am violent. However I ask if she has any evidence that I have ever perpetrated any violence towards a child." He asked succinctly.
The judge turned towards Anne, who was busy searching through her files. "Ah . . . ah . . . no your honor, however violence is violence." She finally answered smugly.
"Miss Summers are you saying that any violent action is unacceptable for a person who is to raise a child?" Don asked.
"Yes, I would say that, a person who has used violence in the past should not be allowed to be around a child." Anne answered quickly.
Don seemed to consider her answer for a moment. "So Miss Summers, as I used violence in the defense of my country and others in a war zone, you feel that those actions should disqualify me for parenthood?"
Before she could think, Anne blurted out. "God knows what you Army types did over there against children."
Don turned quickly to the Judge and saw his face turn red. The bit of information that his cousin had given him this morning had proved valuable as he saw the Judge trying to reign in his anger. The fact that the young attorney had just called both Don and the Judge war criminals was plain for both of them to see.
Don couldn't resist a small smile as he watched the Judge's reaction but he pressed on. "Your honor, I admit that I have been in violent confrontations in the past, however never involving children. I would also like to point out that I am a single man who works construction. I do go out with the guys to the bars and have gotten in some trouble; however I do want to add that I did not have a daughter to take care of. That would, of course, change things."
"How would that change things?" Anne blurted out. "How do we know that you wouldn't leave her alone and go drinking? It is obvious that you are unable to control yourself." Her voice rising as she tried to make her point.
"Miss Summers please; it seems YOU are having trouble controlling yourself here." Don said quietly.
Anne couldn't believe she had just stepped right into a trap. She struggled to contain herself as the Judge showed a small smile of amusement. "Your honor, Mister Duncan doesn't know the first thing about the needs of a child."
The Judge turned to Don as he pondered that statement. "Your Honor, she's right, I don't." He admitted. "But I believe Grace knows what she needs and that's a father."
Anne saw the Judge nod slightly and knew she was losing. "Your honor, this man has no idea how to take care of a little girl!" She threw out quickly.
Don had been waiting for this, he knew it was a gamble and it could actually backfire on him. He had to get the focus off of his violent past and numerous run-ins with the law and get it directed elsewhere. He was taking a chance, but he needed some luck and he'd appraised the young lady for several minutes and felt he could make an educated guess on an important point.
Don saw the opening and jumped on it. "Miss Summers," he asked, "how many children do you have?"
For some reason, Don immediately felt bad asking the question. Anne's demeanor changed instantly and he caught a flash of pain register across her face. Sorrow was in her eyes and he thought he saw them moisten slightly. Quickly though, she threw back her head and regained her composure. "THAT is irrelevant!"
The judge was watching Don intently and missed the pain on Anne's face. However he turned to her and with a nod acknowledged her objection. "Mister Duncan, why do you feel that would be relevant?"
Don took a deep breath to get himself under control, he felt that the tide was with him, so he had to be very convincing as he explained his position. "Your honor, we can go back and forth all day but it seems to me that the real issue is whether I can care for my daughter." He started slowly and after receiving a nod from both the Judge and Anne, he continued. "Miss Summers claims I'm unfit to be a parent because I lack the skills necessary to care for a child."
"That's right your honor," Anne quickly threw out and then silently cursed herself as she realized that Don had once again led her down a trail. In agreeing that his inability to carry for Grace was the issue, he had gotten her to dismiss his violent past.
She knew she made a mistake as the Judge looked over at her and raised an eyebrow. She could see in his expression that he was aware that she had been out maneuvered again.
"You honor, she claims I lack the abilities, I'm simply asking if she's truly aware of what those abilities are." Don answered.
The Judge sat back in his chair and was deep in thought for several minutes. He could not believe the fact that Donald Duncan was sitting in his office calmly and methodically out lawyering an actual lawyer. Add that to the fact that no matter how many insults, slurs and accusations were hurled at him, he had remained in complete control of himself, never raising his voice, or cursing. Looking at him sitting in the chair in his work boots, jeans and sleeveless shirt, he saw only a vicious anti-social criminal. But listening to him clearly state his case with intelligence and eloquence, he saw a well-mannered young man with an obvious high intellect. As to the objection, while it certainly may not hold up in court, at an informal discussion, it certainly may be relative.
The Judge leaned forward in his chair. "Answer the question Miss Summers."
Don again saw that sadness in her eyes before she looked down and softly said. "I have no children."
However she recovered quickly and blurted out with a force that startled both of the men. "But if I did, I would learn how to care for them!"
Don immediately jumped on her answer. "Your honor, I feel as Grace's father, I should be given the opportunity to learn, just as Miss Summers pointed out. "
Don heard the sharp intake of air from Anne as she once again realized she had stepped into another hole. In admitting that she would have to learn to be a parent, she gave Don the chance to claim the same right.
'Your Honor -," Anne said forcefully.
"Enough," the Judge said quickly, cutting Anne off. "I've heard enough."
The Judge paused as he thought of what he could do here. Donald Duncan had built a solid case, he had answered each point and had thoroughly and effectively out argued an attorney from one of the state's top firms. Yes she was a young attorney, but still he had made an impressive argument.
However, no matter what was said here today, Donald Duncan was an angry and dangerous man who lived in filth and alcohol, putting a young girl in that situation seemed a recipe for a tragedy. At times he lost a bit of sleep showing leniency towards Don but the judge felt his service earned him a bit of a pass. But now, placing a little girl in his hands, could he really do this?
The Judge leaned forward in his chair and looked back and forth at the expectant faces in front of him. Turning to his court recorder he said. "Miss Haynes, stop recording."
Looking back at Don he started. "Don, you've made a good case, but I cannot in good conscious award you custody of a little girl."
Don started to speak but the judge put his hand up to stop him before continuing. "Don, listen to me, I know you, I know your history and unfortunately in life, you are haunted by your actions. This isn't a bar fight or a night out drunk damn it, this is a six year old girl. I looked the other way when you busted up some idiot who ran his mouth in a bar, but you hurt her and none of us will ever sleep well again."
Don hung his head as he had no argument, the Judge was right. The old cliché, you reap what you sow, came to his mind.
Turning to Anne, the Judge noticed a smug look on her face. "You can wipe that look off your face young lady."
Anne's face fell as he continued. "What right do you have to come in here and take a daughter from her father based on supposition and vague predictions? You don't know this man or anything about him. You come in here and basically accuse him of war crimes, do you know that this man was awarded the Silver Star for bravery while your skinny ass was warming a seat in some Ivy League College." At that Anne's head popped up and she looked over at Don in wonder. "That's right; four YOUNG men are alive because of him. Yet you sit here all self-righteous and claim that he is unable to care for a child, I know of at least four families that would tell you how wrong you are!"
Finished with his tirade the Judge paused as each of the two chastised people awaited his next words.
Nodding to his recorder, "Miss Hayes, pick it up here."
Looking at them both he began again. "This is not an official ruling; this is a Judge offering a settlement." He gave them a stern look as he met each of their eyes in turn. His intent was not lost on them, the look made it clear; this was the way it was to be.
"I propose awarding temporary custody to Mister Duncan with the following VERY specific criteria. Don, you have a week to move out of that pig sty you live in and get something suitable for a little girl. You will call me and give me your new address and Miss Summers will make a complete inspection agreeing to it BEFORE she brings Grace. Next, you will not smoke, consume alcohol, use drugs or curse, DONE, TODAY. You have a job and you will be a model employee, citizen and father. Your Uncle is a personal friend, I will verify with him your work ethic."
Don was leaning forward in his seat as the Judge gave him his orders, however suddenly the Judge turned deadly serious. "Donald Duncan you listen to me RIGHT NOW, I am placing with you the most precious thing I have EVER laid in a man's hands, any and I mean ANY incident and I will take her away and you will NEVER see her again."
Don nodded his head but the Judge was not satisfied. "DONALD DUNCAN . . DO . . . YOU . . . UNDERSTAND?"
Don sat up straight and stared back at the Judge for a moment. "I understand your honor." He answered firmly.
Turning to Anne, he began again. "Miss Summers, next Tuesday, after you are satisfied with the home, you will bring Grace and deliver her to Mister Duncan." He saw her face start to contort in shock as he continued. "When you drop her off, you will get a set of keys to the house. You will have twenty four hour, seven days a week access to inspect the house, Mister Duncan and Grace. If at any time you feel that she is not being cared for properly, you will call me immediately. If she is in immediate danger, you may take her. But let me warn you, if you do, you better be prepared to justify it."
Anne's mouth dropped open as she heard the Judges words, and she tried to regain her composure but Don jumped in first. "Your honor, you mean she can just walk in anytime she wants?"
"Damn right, hell she can move in if she wants to."
"But," Don started.
"But nothing, this or no custody at all." The Judge barked at him.
"Your honor, I object. How can I keep a constant watch on what he does?" Anne asked quickly.
"Your choice Miss Summers, I can schedule a full hearing." The Judge answered back.
Anne thought back to the conversation with the senior partner. "No your honor, this will be fine with us."
Looking over at his recorder, "Miss Haynes, note that we will schedule a hearing in six weeks from next Tuesday, in order to determine permanent placement of the minor child Grace Warren."
"Miss Summers, call me next Monday for Mister Duncan's new address, thank you for helping us make this work." The Judge told her, and with his dismissal, she left the room.
"Miss Haynes, that's all for now, thank you." After the recorder had also gone, the Judge got up and walked around the desk, and Don got up to meet him.
"Your honor, I don't know what to say." Don said to him, his face still showing shock over the turn of events.
The judge reached up and put his hand on the big man's shoulder as he looked up at him cautiously. "Son, don't fail me, but for God's sake don't fail her."
Don knew that he meant Grace and then it suddenly hit him; he was a father with a child. "Judge, what do I do now?" He asked sheepishly.
"I don't know Don, but let me tell you this as a parent, get help; you're gonna need it." He replied with a smile.
Don reached out and the Judge shook his hand. He turned and left the room wondering how his life had turned in only a couple of hours.
Walking through the hall he spotted Bobby still sitting on the bench outside the courtroom.
"Jesus Christ what happened?" he asked as Don walked up. "Ben told me you went into the Judge's office. You aren't in trouble are you?"
"Well, I guess I might be." Don said to him with a smile but then he remembered the Judges final words. "Can I buy you lunch?"
"Serious?" Bobby asked in surprise.
"Very . . . let's go." Don replied as he started walking away.
Bobby followed him, shaking his head. Having lunch with Donald Duncan, what could come next he wondered.
During the next hour, sitting in a small diner down the street, Bobby was astounded as Don laid out the morning's activities.
When he was finished with the story, Bobby was quiet for a while before he finally asked. "So Libby is really dead?"
He could see the tears well up in Don's eyes and he just nodded slightly. "Don, I'm really sorry, I am, that must have been a hell of a way to find out." Bobby said softly. "She was a nice girl."
Again Don nodded and then stared out the window for a few minutes. Without turning back to the Sheriff, he started talking. "What have I done Bobby, how am I going to take care of a little girl, I mean look at me, a little girl, I got so caught up that maybe I should have . . . oh hell I don't know what I should have done."
Bobby looked at his older cousin for a moment before answering. "Maybe, just maybe, you did the right thing for once."
Don quickly turned to face him and so Bobby continued. "Look Don, you have a chance to turn your life back around, to be a dad, to raise a child, to be the man that every one of us always expected you to be."
"Expected!" Don shot back. "Who?"
"Don, all of us, mom, dad, me, we thought you were destined to be something and damn it, this gives you the chance to be something. To be a father."
"How?" Don threw out at him.
"Just like the Judge told you, get help." Bobby said with a chuckle. "Who's the best dad you know?"
"Yours!" Don answered quickly with a grin.
"Damn right! Let's go find him!"
About that time another situation was brewing across town.
"Mister Evans is waiting on you in the main conference room." The receptionist said as soon as she saw Anne walk through the doors of the law firm.
"Let him know I'm back and I'll be in as soon as I get organized." Anne replied as she walked by the desk.
"I'm sorry Miss Summers; he said that he wanted you in there as soon as you walked through the doors."
Anne just stopped and stared at the receptionist as she tried to get her bearings. Although she was still a junior associate, she had never been treated this way in the five years she was with the firm. "Fine," she finally answered and stalked towards the conference room.
Walking in to the room, she was surprised to see Roger Evans peering out the window, nervously playing with the blinds.
"What happened?" He turned and blurted out before she could even set her briefcase down.
"Well hello to you too." Anne replied, with a hint of sarcasm.
Roger ran his hand through his hair nervously. "Sorry, please have a seat."
After they were both sitting down, he once again posed his question.
"The judge wants to give him a chance." Anne answered, her own nervousness now showing. She knew that failure in this firm was not tolerated.
"What!" He exclaimed before getting up and stalking back to the window. "How the fuck did that happen?"
Anne spent the next few minutes explaining the meeting in the Judge's office. She was careful to minimize her mistakes, hoping that she could dodge the condemnation that she thought was surely coming.
"So all we have to do is not approve where he is living and this is all over?" He asked with a huge grin.
"Ah . . . I suppose, but he could move."
"No, I don't think so. Who would rent something nice to that gorilla? He's probably already drunk somewhere. We may never even hear from him again. This'll still work out." Evan's said quickly, obviously thrilled. He knew that it was his loss of control in the Judge's office that caused the predicament they were in now.
"If you think so." Anne replied, glad her boss was taking it so well.
"All right, I will brief the other partners, you just write up your report and be ready to turn down wherever he lives." Roger told her, before dismissing her.
Later as she finished her case notes from the meeting, her mind worked through the conversation in the Judge's office. Shaking her head, she wondered how it had gone so badly. How did that dirty, nasty, greasy, construction worker get the best of her?
Anne thought about her stint with the firm, for five years her work had been impeccable. She had won cases that were considered unwinnable and even when she lost, she had been able to get a better deal for her clients. Her administrative work had been stellar and she felt she was on her way to a partnership. Now she was questioning her own abilities and she was embroiled in a child custody case of all things!
But something else was tickling at her, the lecture she got from Judge Baker and the words that he had spoken. Silver Star for bravery, four young men whose lives were saved by that hulking giant who took her to school today. Could it really be true, was it possible that there was more to this tattooed up monster than it appeared?
Startled by a thought, she suddenly recalled the words she used right before she went into the Judge's chambers. "I don't know why I say this, but this guy is smarter than we're giving him credit for." She couldn't help but worry about how prophetic those words might become!
May 17, 2018 in romance