Was this where Tara had grown up? Morgan couldn’t help but feel the inadequacy of his own past in comparison. She entered after everyone else had gotten settled, hanging back by the door.

“This is ridiculous,” Sylvie started to say as soon as everyone stepped inside. “Brooke and I are leaving. Now.”

“You’re welcome to leave, Sylvie,” Morgan said through clenched teeth. “Brooke isn’t going anywhere with you.”

“Wanna bet?” Again, Sylvie reached for their daughter.

“That’s enough.” Emily might be small, but her voice carried across the room. She’d come in at the head of this group and was seated behind the massive desk.

“And who the hell are you?” Sylvie stood with her hands on her hips. Morgan thought he actually saw the woman’s lips twitch with a smile.

Brooke clung to Morgan’s neck, her arms nearly too tight.

“It’s okay, baby,” he whispered, wishing this weren’t happening in front of Brooke. She didn’t need to see this.

Needing to feel grounded, he looked at Tara, who was leaning against the wall just inside the doors. She wasn’t looking at him, but seeing her there eased some of the tension in his chest. She glared at Sylvie with more venom than he’d thought possible.

“I’m Emily Hawkins.” She looked directly at Sylvie. “Judge Emily Hawkins, senior magistrate in family court.” She didn’t even blink. “I took temporary custody of your daughter last evening, when it was apparent neither of her parents were around to look after her well-being.”

“Excuse me?” Sylvie glared. “I left her with a babysitter. She—” Sylvie pointed at Tara. “She took her and…and kidnapped her.”

“You sure that’s the story you want to go with?” Emily looked at Tara, then at Sylvie.

“It’s true.”

“No, it’s not.” Brooke said, lifting her head but not loosening her grip. Her bottom lip trembled, but it didn’t stop her from speaking. “I went there all by myself. She made me grilled cheeses.”

Morgan wanted to hug his daughter tighter. For once, that independent streak of hers was a blessing.

Sylvie turned and frowned at Brooke. “What have I told you about talking when you’re not supposed to?” Sylvie snapped. “We’ll discuss your disobedience later. We’re leaving. Now.”

“Not so fast.” Emily stood then. “Dutch. I’m pretty sure my courtroom is unavailable due to the flooding.”

“Yeah. The entire courthouse is closed off today.”

“Can you give me a hand? I’m calling an emergency hearing here. Now.”

“What are you talking about?” Sylvie looked around the room as if they were all crazy.

Morgan almost felt sorry for her. Almost. “Sylvie, quit while you’re ahead. Judge Hawkins said she works for family court.” He walked over to her, still not letting go of Brooke. “Right now, neither of us has custody. Sorry, baby.” He patted Brooke’s back, wishing he could protect her from what was going on.

“You can’t do that,” Sylvie told Emily.

“Actually, she can.” The sheriff stepped forward. “And she is.”

“Brooke is my daughter. Mine.”

“She’s our daughter,” Morgan corrected her. “But we could both lose her if you don’t cut it out.”

“You’re the one screwing this up, Morgan. Just like you’ve screwed up everything else.”

“Stop it!” Brooke squirmed and let go of Morgan’s neck. “Let me go.”

Morgan instantly put his daughter on the ground, his heart hurting as he waited for her to go over to Sylvie. Everyone in the room watched as she yanked the purple dragon from its spot on the couch, then ran over to Tara. Thankfully, Tara knelt beside the girl and gave her a hug.

“Daddy?” Brooke’s voice wobbled, shaking his heart just a bit. Her eyes were wide and frightened.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he lied. He hadn’t a clue how any of this was going to work out.

Sylvie stared at Tara, like angry darts flying through the air. “What do you think you’re doing?” Sylvie took a step toward Brooke and Morgan went to follow.


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