Nate fidgeted as he sat in the hard, uncomfortable hospital chair. He tried, he really tried to sit still, but he couldn’t stop his knee from bouncing. Ever since Sam, he really couldn’t stand hospitals. And then when Sophie found out that she couldn’t have kids…
They’d both gotten stupid drunk after that hospital visit.
His head popped up at the sound of the social worker’s voice. “Yes ma’am?”
She looked around, and he read confusion in the way the corners of her eyes wrinkled.
“I’m sorry, your wife…?”
“Right here!” The hurried tapping of heels was headed right for them. “I’m right here! Sorry, I was on a location shoot that had no bloody reception. But I’m here.”
Sophie Devereaux (“Because as much as the name Lara Ford might be appealing to friends of insurance investigators my darling, it just won’t do for an artist!”) breezed in, arms going around Nate and lips placing a hurried peck on his cheek.
Their social worker, Ms. Jacy, gave a small smile that disappeared in an eye blink.
“I understand that this is your first foster situation, but from now on, neither of you are unreachable. Understood, Ms. Devereaux?”
“Yes, yes, of course!” Sophie was still breathing a little too hard. Nate gave her a small squeeze around the waist, reassuring her that everything was going to be alright. She squeezed back, trying to share her enthusiasm.
Not that Nate wasn’t excited about having a foster kid, but hey, hospitals.
“If you’ll follow me?” Ms. Jacy was already turning and walking away as she spoke. The couple had to hurry to keep up with her ground-eating strides. Sophie’s flouncy blouse and his work suit made Nate feel out of place, but then again, did anyone ever really feel in place in a hospital unless they worked there?
“Now, I know that she’s a little outside the age range you requested to work with-”
“She?” Nate finally spoke up for the first time since Sophie’s arrival. The knot in his stomach loosened infinitesimally. He knew that they would love this child, whatever their age range might be, but for half a second a wave of gratitude washed over him that his first experience parenting since Sam would be a girl.
“Yes, she, Mr. Ford. Her name is Sarah-”
“For the last time, lady, that isn’t my name!”
Ms. Jacy closed her eyes and heaved a rather large sigh before turning towards the occupant of the room to her left, one that Nate and Sophie couldn’t yet see inside of. “We had to put something on the papers, dear.” She stood outside of the room, intentionally blocking their view still, even as they drew up on her. The harried look on her face told Nate all he needed to know about the attitude of this particular child that she was assigned to. “Her name is Sarah Parker, but when she went into the system all we had was a note that said ‘Parker’, didn’t know if it was first or last. She prefers to go by that name. We think she’s about twelve, but she hasn’t ever picked a birthday. From what the doctors figured when she came to us, it was sometime in the fall.
“You were listed as being capable of handling emergency placements and also handling difficult cases. She’s here,” Ms. Jacy waved an arm to indicate the hospital, “Because one of her last foster parents caught her trying to pick the lock on his gun safe and broke her fingers in retaliation.” Nate saw her eyes go hard. “I’ll be dealing with him down at the police station.”
She turned back to the room and at the look on her face, Nate was viscerally reminded of why he and Soph had not only decided to work with foster kids but with Ms. Jacy as well.
She was one of the good ones.
“Parker, quit picking at the cast. These are Mr. Ford and Ms. Devereaux. You’ll be staying with them at least for tonight. Possibly longer if things work out.”
And then Ms. Jacy was off, probably to go take care of the bastard who’d broken the girl’s fingers.
Sophie couldn’t hold back her gasp as they saw Parker for the first time.
The asshole had done more than just break her fingers. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut from the massive bruise that ran down her cheekbone. Her lip was split from what had to have been a backhand to the face, and the cast around her right hand and wrist couldn’t completely cover the handprint shaped bruises on her arm.
Nate tucked away his anger at her former foster father, trying not to let it show to the angry preteen in front of him. She had long blonde hair that braided past her shoulders; her skin, where it wasn’t covered in bruises, was pale as a doll’s. Her one good eye was large and green and full of suspicion.
Sophie’s hands managed to come down from her mouth. “I want to tell you, right here and right now, darling, that neither of us will ever raise a hand to you. You’ll never miss a meal, and any rule breaking will only put you on restriction from television or such.”
Nate could see the impact the words had on the girl, his girl now, see her still eyeing them with distrust. It was his turn to speak.
“We know that you don’t trust us yet, and that you may never fully trust us. But we promise you, you won’t bleed, starve, or hobble while you live with us.
Parker’s mouth stayed in a thin line. God, Nate wished he could get his hands on whoever had made her that suspicious of others.
“We’ll see.” She hopped off of the hospital bed with surprising ease given the amount of pain she had to be in. As she moved towards Nate and Sophie, she slung a backpack over her good arm.
“We gonna get me out of here or what?”
Nate was grateful that as soon as he’d gotten words that a foster kid was waiting he’d put in for that six weeks of vacation time that he’d earned. Because two days after coming home from the hospital and attempting to get Parker settled in (not a success so far; she refused to let her backpack out of her sight and only came out of her room for meals) Ms. Jacy was on his and Sophie’s doorstep. And not just for one of her promised home checks.
“I know that you all said that you’d be willing to take in more kids. Is now too soon?”
And that was how Alec Hardison came to live with them.
While Ms. Jacy was upstairs talking with Parker, Nate and Sophie sat on one side of their kitchen table, facing the ten year old on the other, both sides staring.
“Guess we’ll never be mistaken for bios, huh?”
Nate had to laugh a little at that, even if it made Sophie give him a little tap with the back of her hand and shush him.
“Naw, lady, it’s okay. I wanted him to laugh. ‘S how I gauge people, ya’ know?” Alec’s teeth were very white against his dark skin when he grinned. His fingers never stopped tapping on the table. “Here’s the deal. I been in foster care since I was three. Don’ really remember much about my bios, and since they never refiled for custody, I’m assumin’ they don’t remember much about me neither. I bounced around a bit, but the last five years I been with a wonderful lady we all call Nana.
“Few months ago, Nana got sick. She couldn’t take care a all us no more. So I been bouncin’ again. I don’ really like it. Now, y’all got a nice house, nice cars. Tells me y’all got some money. Means you can afford to take care a what you got. You ain’t doin’ this for that little bit a dough social services gets ya for takin’ care a us. That means on a two things; you’re either goody-two-shoes lookin’ for church points or y’all are really doin’ this cause you wanna. And man, I gotta hope it’s the second one, cause I’m runnin’ outta pranks to pull.”
Sophie couldn’t do more than blink at the kid’s speech. That made Nate smile. “As long as you don’t destroy anything, feel free to prank away. Just be careful around Parker. I don’t think that she’s up to pranks just yet.”
The ten year old (God, was he only ten?) nodded, then froze. “Wait, wait, Parker? As in the Parker? Dude, she’s famous bro! been in and out of more homes than any other of Ms. Jacy’s kids put together. Ain’t never been to juvie neither!”
“Either, Alec.” Ms. Jacy herself appeared in the kitchen, followed by Parker. “The correct word is either. And you know that. Your IQ is 135. You aced all of your classes last year. You’re going into seventh grade in the fall, despite your age. Would you please act like it? Mr. Ford and Ms. Devereaux won’t be scared off by your street act.”
Now it was Nate’s turn to blink stupidly. Sophie laughed at him.
“The only thing that we’re afraid of right now is that you’ll find us dumb and boring. Neither of us have skipped grades.”
“’S cool. Long as you got video games I’m set. Oh, and food. I got a particular addiction to gummy frogs and orange soda I’m not too keen on breaking.”
“They do feed us here. Three times a day, even. Like clockwork.”
The corner of Nate’s mouth crooked up. It was kind of nice to hear Parker defending them. He pushed back from the table slowly. In just the two days that she’d been here he’d already learned that Parker would bolt if he moved too quickly.
“Why don’t you two help Sophie get lunch started while I walk Ms. Jacy out?”
Alec jumped up with almost unrestrained glee, while Parker followed at a much slower, more stubborn pace. Nate just shook his head as Sophie showed Alec where all of the supplies for sandwich making were.
“Mr. Ford, thank you for being willing to take both of these kids in last minute. You guys are lifesavers.”
“Any time, Ms. Jacy. The more the merrier.”
“I swear, I won’t be back tomorrow with a new kid.”
And Ms. Jacy kept her word. It was a full week before she showed up on their doorstep again.
“I am so, so sorry that I keep showing up like this.”
Nate finished off a yawn before he answered her. “It’s okay. Who needs sleep, anyway?”
“Sorry.” She said again, a touch of humor coloring her voice this time. “We just got word about him, and-”
“Never apologize for getting a kid out of a bad situation, Ms. Jacy.”
“I’ll try not to aim for three am on my next visit.”
“Your consideration is both noted and appreciated.” He stepped outside and blinked at the wash of flickering red and blue that suddenly fell over him. “Why is there a cop car in front of my house?”
Ms. Jacy sighed. “It was the only way that they’d let me bring him over. Technically, he should be headed to juvenile detention, but I fought to keep him out. He was only fighting to keep his dad off his sister, but the Judge that we unfortunately tapped at this time of night won’t let him stay with her. Fat lot of good that’s going to do.”
Nate had the feeling that those last words weren’t meant for him.
“Their mom passed a few years ago. Her sister said that she’d take the daughter in, become her legal guardian, but flat out refused to take him. “Too much of his dad,” or some other such bull.”
Nate stopped her tirade briefly. “Is he going to be a danger to my wife or the other kids?”
Ms. Jacy looked him full in the face. Nate knew that look. It was the look that con artists gave him when they were trying to figure out if he was scamming them. She was reading him.
“Only if you give him a real reason, Mr. Ford. He might react in the extreme, but his moral compass is solid; his mother gave him that much.”
“That’s all I needed to know.”
“Good.” She continued her brisk walk to the police cruiser. “His name is Eliot Spencer. He’s fifteen, almost sixteen, and until recently was on the football team at- Oh, for chrissakes, why is he in handcuffs?!”
“Standard policy, ma’am. He commited assult-”
“On a man who was assaulting him and nine year old! You couldn’t even cuff him in front?”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what Judge Dubenich does or doesn’t rule. I catch another report of him hitting his wife or daughter again, I’ll have him arrested and disbarred. Uncuff him, now, or I’ll have your fucking badge, Officer Taggart.”
Nate’s eyebrows nearly flew off his face. He’d never heard Ms. Jacy even use the word “crap” before. As if she were reading his mind, she paused, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I apologize for that outburst, Mr. Ford.”
“No need. I’m certain it was entirely justified.”
She gave a small ‘heh’ of laughter before continuing. “Like I was saying, Eliot’s basically a good kid. He doesn’t deserve all of what’s happened to him. I’m hoping that you, Ms. Devereaux, even Alec and Parker will be good for him.”
“You should know that he now prefers Hardison.”
“When he figured out that Parker was going by her last name… he thought it was cool. Especially if he’s going into middle school.”
“Oh. Joy.” Nate couldn’t help the tired smirk that spread across his face at the look on hers. Then he turned to watch his and Sophie’s newest charge make his way out of his vehicle escort.
He wasn’t all that tall, despite being nearly sixteen, as though he hadn’t quite finished his growth spurt, but Nate didn’t figure he’d get too much taller. His body seemed proportional, like he had control of his limbs. Unlike Hardison, who was just now hitting his growth spurt. That boy was all limbs, all over the place.
Eliot was bulked up, muscled like you’d need to be in order to be a good football player. Or a boxer, Nate’s brain added. The poor kid had a mouse blooming on his eye, and blood running down into what Nate sort of assumed was a beard on a good day from his probably broken nose. His shirt still had blood stains all over it, some of which seemed physically impossible to have come from the one wearing it.
“They wouldn’t even let him change?”
“Nope.” The irritation was palpable in her voice. “We were able to run him by the hospital. Nothing’s broken, but he’s going to have some impressive bruising on his ribs in the morning as well as what you see here.
“All he’s got in the world is what’s in that backpack, what I could grab for him.”
“We’ll take him shopping as soon as he’s up for it.”
“Knew you would.”
Eliot had kept his head down as the officer uncuffed him and as Ms. Jacy and Nate discussed his other pertinent details. His hair was long, and helped to obscure his face. Nate couldn’t see the color of his eyes until Eliot shook his hair out of his face and gave a defiant glare to the neighbors Nate could see peeking out of their windows at the black and white.
Then he fixed Nate with that piercing blue gaze, as if daring him to send him back.
“Hi Eliot. I’m Nate. Why don’t we get you inside and get some ice for that nose while I wake my wife. She still needs to make up a bed for you while I got over the ground rules we have here, okay?”
“First off, I’m only ‘sir’ at work. Here, I’m Nate, or Mr. Ford if you feel the need to be really formal. I get that it sucks to be separated from your sister, especially given all that’s happened. But we have two other kids here that are younger than you, one of which just crashed from a three day sugar high. They’ve been in the system for a while, so we need to be quiet.”
His next words were cut off by the blipping of the siren as the car pulled away from the curb. Nate sighed. He understood the officer’s need to get away from Ms. Jacy’s wrath, but if Alec woke up, he wouldn’t go down again for days.
Speaking of Ms. Jacy, she’d gone white as a sheet. “Oh, shit.” Eliot turned to look at her as well. “Go check on Parker, now. I’m going to kill Dubenich for sending you over in a police car.”
By the time Nate made it up the stairs, Sophie had beaten him to Parker’s door.
“I woke up when I heard the siren, and then I saw the lights flashing. By the time that I got over here, she’d already locked the door.”
The social worker dropped to her knees in front of the door, heedless of what it might do to her pantsuit. “Parker, it’s Ms. Jacy.”
“And you’re here to take me away again, right?”
The heartbreak and resignation in the little girl’s voice made Nate want to cry. Sophie was crying. A glance back at the Spencer boy showed Nate a stance that said he really wanted to punch something.
It was a pretty distinctive stance.
Nate would have to deal with that later.
“No, sweetie. I’m not here to take you away. I’m here dropping someone else off. You want to meet him?”
Nate sucked in a breath as he realized what Ms. Jacy was doing. Damn, she was good. Not exactly conning the kids, but if she could get Parker and Eliot roped into this thing, life would be a heck of a lot easier, of that Nate was sure.
“His name is Eliot. He’s here because he protected his little sister from someone bad. The cops are only here because the bad man raised a fuss. I brought him here because you told me that Mr. Ford and Ms. Devereaux were good people.”
Nate and Sophie looked at each other and then back at the woman kneeling in front of their foster-daughter’s door. That was news, big news to them.
“I also brought Eliot here because I know that he’ll protect you too, just like his sister.”
Eliot shifted behind them at that. He acted as though he might say something, but stopped as Parker opened the door a crack.
“Really, Ms. Jacy?”
Nate could hear the relief in the woman’s voice as she spoke. “Yes Parker. Would you like to meet him?”
The door opened wider and Nate kept one eye on Eliot. When the boy saw Parker’s face (and the remnants of bruises on it) he tensed, but his fists went slack.
Ms. Jacy was a damn miracle worker.
And it was that moment that Nate knew that though they might have some fights, some rough patches, things were going to work out. For all of them.
Sophie spoke up.
“Eliot, this is Parker. Parker, this young man is Eliot.” She too turned to the Spencer boy. “Parker doesn’t really do touch. But you promise that you’ll protect her? And Hardison?”
Nate started a little as the other young boy appeared out of seemingly nowhere.
Eliot looked at all of the faces that were looking back at him. Parker and Hardison’s curious, Nate, Sophie and Ms. Jacy’s nervous but really wanting the truth from him.
“You’ll protect them?” Sophie repeated.
The corner of Eliot’s mouth quirked up a little as he nodded. “’Till my dying day.”
There was a collective sigh of relief at his answer.
“Well, nobody’s dying tonight.” Ms. Jacy recovered first, efficient as ever as she managed to rise without using her hands. And in heels no less. “Why don’t we let Eliot get settled while Parker and Al-” she sighed. “Parker and Hardison get back in bed and try to get some sleep?”
Sophie helped Parker put the things she’d quickly grabbed away and Nate put Hardison back in bed, while Ms. Jacy spoke in low tones to Eliot. When they all met back up in the hallway, she sighed again, fight draining out of her and leaving exhaustion in its place.
“I say we get some ice for Eliot’s nose and get him settled into a bed for the night, and then we all do the same. Ms. Jacy can come back once everyone has gotten some sleep.”
The relieved look that she sent Nate made him feel just a little bit better.
So that was how Nathan Ford and Sophie Devereaux came into the lives of three children who didn’t always get along, but would become tighter than most siblings. All in that big old house down on Leverage Road. They had many more stories and adventures together, but this was their first. The one that set up the foundation for everything else, that bonded them in that fire of need.
This was not the end, no. This was