Win One

***The Hospital, Houston***

J. T. paced the waiting area. What if she didn’t show? Sure, he was qualified to represent himself in these negotiations, but there was truth to the old saying about the lawyer who had himself for a client. And this was too important to mess up. His son’s life could depend on it.

But he couldn’t blame Laura. She had a new baby. She was getting married tomorrow. Maybe he should have tried the Montrose Center for one of their attorneys? But it was too late now.

Priscilla, his mother, her attorney Mitch Taylor, and another young woman entered the waiting area. Cat’s friend, the social worker, was with Jeb now. So much rode on this meeting. Yes, none of it was binding. He could always take things to family court if this did not work out. But he realized that Laura and Jaycees were right. Even Cat knew his chance there were even less.

He pulled out his phone. Fuck, not even a message from Laura or Jaycee. That was not like them.

A middle-aged woman came through the double doors. “Tyler? Is anyone here from the Tyler family?”

Mitch Taylor stepped forward with his business card in hand. Was he some kind of magician? Did he keep the damned things up his sleeve? “I represent Mrs. Tyler.”

J. T. was not surprised by that. But which Mrs. Tyler? Though in this case, he supposed it did not matter. His mother’s and his wife’s interest were the same. Screwing him. “I’m Jeb’s father,” he held out his hand.

She nodded at him; J. T. though he caught a slight smile. But it was hard to tell with these damned masks. “If you will all follow me, we can discuss the situation more privately.”

“There is nothing to discuss. I have arranged for my grandson to receive the best of care at a private facility.”

The woman smiled at his mother and nodded, “I’m sorry, but this is no longer a family matter. The Department of Family and Protective Services will have the final say in all matters related to Jeb Tyler, pending a full investigation. For the sake of confidentiality, I cannot say anything more here. If….”

“I’m sorry, I’m running late,” J. T. breathed a sigh of relief at the petite, dark-headed woman in a dark blue business suit. “Laura Reynolds-Ranger, I represent J. T. Tyler,” she held out her hand to the older woman as she looked at him.

“It’s fine, Ms. Reynolds-Ranger. We have not begun yet. As I was just suggesting, we retire to the conference room to discuss matters more privately.”

“Of course,” the woman turned, and Laura fell in step behind her. J. T. looked over to the other group where Mitch was whisper arguing with his mother and wife. He was not waiting for them as he followed behind the women.

The conference room that the woman led them to was large and a bit better furnished than the one the doctor had used the night before. “We’ll give the others a moment to join us before we begin,” the woman took the chair at the end of the conference table and waved them towards the seats on the far side of the door.

Laura nodded, and they took the seats offered. “I’m so sorry I was late, J. T. It won’t happen again. I had everything planned. Except I could not squeeze my post-pregnancy body into a single one of my suits. I had to make an unexpected trip to Crooks Sisters. A step-down from my private tailor, but what the hell? I’m not doing corporate law anymore. Did you find a place to live?”

This was the first personal day he had taken in over fifteen years with the US Attorney’s Office. But between this meeting, visiting Jeb earlier, and finding a place for them to live, it had taken all day. “Yeah, it’s just a two-bedroom modern crappy apartment in Montrose. But it’s close to downtown and my office. And….” How did he phrase it?

“In an area that is more open-minded and accepting of differences than the Woodlands?” He nodded at Laura’s tactful assessment of the situation as the others entered the room, taking the seats across the table and near the door.

The woman nodded to them, “Thank you for coming today. For the record, this meeting is being recorded,” the woman laid her phone on the table. “I’m Cora Miller, an Investigative Supervisor with CPS. We’re here today regarding an ongoing investigation into the care and welfare of Jeb Tyler.”

“I don’t know what my son has told you, but as I said earlier, I have made arrangements for Jeb’s care already,” Mitch gently laid a hand on his mother’s arm as she spoke. But no one interrupted Marianne Buford Walker Tyler when she got started. “I have a car waiting to transport….”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Tyler, as the grandparent, CPS recognizes you as an interested party in this matter. You are, of course, welcome to remain. But as both Jeb’s parents are present and have representation, please allow them to speak for themselves.” Well, maybe someone did.

“Mrs. Tyler, may I call you Priscilla to make things more clear?” His wife nodded; she looked much better than she had last night. She was dressed in one of the many designer slacks and silk blouses in her closet. “CPS has grave concerns about the safety and welfare of your children.”

“He’s lying. And he’s gay. He’s leaving me for another man. You can’t give my children to someone like that.” Well, so much for doing better. J. T. might not smell alcohol on her, but obviously, Priscilla’s judgment was impaired by something.

“Your husband’s sexuality is not the issue that concerns us. The bruises on your son’s face, arms, and shoulders are,” she passed a stack of photos across the table.

Mitch Taylor took them and rifled quickly through them before passing them towards his mother. “Those photographs don’t prove how Jeb Tyler received them. Perhaps he was involved in an altercation outside of school….”

“Jeb Tyler is prepared to testify before a judge that your client was the one who inflicted those injuries. We have additional witnesses….”

“That woman is nothing more than an illegal alien in the employee of my ex-husband. She can’t be trusted….”

“First of all, I did not say who those witnesses were. Secondly, please refrain from prejudicial language and character assignations. Mr. Taylor, please speak with your client.”

Laura reached across the table and took the photos from his mother with a smile. Her face hid nothing as she shuffled through them, “Did you know, J. T.?” His stomach sank at the accusation in her voice.

He did not blame her, “No, but I should have. There’s no excuse.”

“Damn straight there isn’t, but we can’t change the past. I expect you to do better in the future.”

“Ms. Miller, my client would like to stipulate that temporary custody of her son be placed in the Timothy Center in Tomball until this matter can be resolved by the Family Courts,” Mitch spoke as his hand rested over Marianne’s.

The woman nodded her head slowly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Taylor, but those arrangements are not acceptable to CPS. Is your client aware that facility is under investigation in the deaths by suicide of three young people either under their care or who had been? Considering that it was her son’s suicide attempt that brought this matter to light, that would be highly unadvisable.”

“As I said before, this is a private family matter. I will be speaking with your supervisor and the governor’s office,” his mother glared at the woman.

The woman lifted her chin and looked Marianne Tyler directly in her eye as she calmly spoke, “Mrs. Tyler, both the governor’s office and the Director’s Office are aware of this case. Do you think it commonplace for initial abuse allegations to be handled by Investigative Supervisors or recorded? I assure you it is not.”

“When it comes to the welfare of children and young people, my office and the governor’s cannot be seen to show partiality regardless of race, socio-economics, religion, or sexuality. You are, of course, welcome to call anyone you wish. But it won’t make a difference to my ruling or CPS. Now, if we can get back to the central issue today, a young man’s life.”

“My client is prepared to accept temporary custody of his son,” Laura spoke up.

The woman nodded her head, “It is CPS’s policy to place a child with family if possible. But I have grave concerns about your client’s complacency if not culpability in this situation.” Cora Miller turned and looked directly at him, “Mr. Tyler, did you know about your son’s injuries?”

J. T. dropped his head, “No, I saw only a slight pink mark on his cheek the night I left our family home. I had no idea about any of the other injuries. I could not even be certain about the pink mark as Jeb admitted he had been experimenting with his mother’s make-up.”

He sighed and reached deep inside to lift his chin and meet the woman’s gaze, “But that is no excuse. I should have. As his father, it was my responsibility….”

“His father? Some father you have been. Working all the time. Or was that all just a lie? Maybe you’ve been meeting your gay lovers….”

“Mr. Taylor, I won’t warn you again about your client’s behavior. The allegations against her are damning enough.”

J. T. almost felt sorry for Mitch Taylor until he remembered how much money the man’s firm made each year on retainer and for administering his grandfather’s estate.

“As I was saying, I have reservations about placing the minor child in the care of his father. As an officer of the court, Mr. Tyler had a sworn duty to report even the suspicion of abuse.” She turned back to him, “If this investigation finds any evidence that you were complicit in child abuse, I won’t hesitate to refer the matter to the state bar.”

J. T. nodded; maybe he should be more concerned with his career. He had spent his whole life working towards this point. But frankly, she was right. He should have called CPS himself that night or at least taken his son with him. If it weren’t for needing the income, especially now that his mother was certain to cut him off from the trust, and those couple of loose ends with the McBride case, he wouldn’t give a damn.

“But not only is the foster system over-burdened, but your son has also expressed his wishes to be placed with you. Hear me now, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, both of your homes will be fully investigated by me personally. If I have any further concerns for the welfare of not only Jeb but the other children, I won’t hesitate to remove them from the home and place them in foster facilities. Am I clear?”

“Of course, these are only temporary arrangements. The Family Courts will be responsible for the final disposition of the minor children. But I will be submitting a full report to them.” J. T. could almost see Laura smiling behind her mask at this as the woman turned to him, “Mr. Tyler, I need your new address. Dr. Stone informs me that your son can be released into your care tomorrow. I will be there by nine to inspect the facilities and finalize all details.”

Laura looked at him, but he shook his head, “That’s fine. But my attorney won’t be able to be present.”

“She should not need to be. This is a home inspection only, but you are welcome to have a witness present or record the meeting.”

“That’ll be fine then,” Laura answered for him.

“Alright then, that’s all for the moment. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the office and my job supervising other investigators,” the woman made her displeasure plain after she had turned off the recording device on her phone.

Laura turned to him with a broad smile, “That went better than I hoped.”

Before he could respond, Priscilla broke free of the restraining hand that Mitch had on her shoulder. “Don’t think I’ll let you get away this, you fucking queer asshole. You’re not having anything to do with my children. Just see how easy it is to find a place to live with nothing in your bank accounts.”

Mitch had the dignity to look almost embarrassed by his client’s outburst as Marianne Buford Walker Tyler rose from the table with more grace than her daughter-in-law, “Mitchell is under strict orders not to release additional funds to you either.”

By sheer will, J. T. managed to keep his head up as they stood and walked out the door, but the moment they did, he laid his head on the table. Why hadn’t he considered that? All the accounts, including the checking that his salary was direct deposited into and his savings, were joint. If his sense of fair play kept him from clearing them out, he should have at least put a hold on them.

All of this was for nothing if he could not provide a decent home for Jeb. Even if he could afford to pay for a hotel room, that would not be sufficient for CPS. And honestly, if Priscilla had cleared out their accounts, there wasn’t much he could do about it at this point. His choices were limited – sleep on the couch at his office and shower at the gym, or go to a homeless shelter. At least for the short term. Would he even have time to open new accounts and change his direct deposit before he got paid again?

He was spiraling closer down that drain, rethinking all those things on his coming-out to-do list and other things he might have missed. But this wasn’t about him. This was about Jeb. What would happen to his son now? He checked his phone and saw three missed messages. One from the apartment complex, he could guess what that was about. Another from the office. And the third from Josephina.

Before he could hit the button to return the call, Laura’s sister and former agent Williams entered the room with a crying baby. “I’m sorry, sis, but I don’t think she can hold out much longer.”

“It’s okay, my meeting is over anyway. Give to her to me.” J. T. looked away as his attorney began to unbutton her silk blouse, but the only other place to look forced his eyes into direct contact with the man whose career he had ended.

He had not enjoyed that, but Will’s actions had left him no other recourse. It was one of those tough times when justice and fairness did not align. Thankfully, the other man seemed to be as concerned with looking away from bare boobs as he was. Though the silence was uncomfortable, it was not hostile.

“Can you and Will take Chloe to her father? His shift should be over soon, and I’m going to need his help with something.”

“Sure, no problem. What time should I tell Mama you’ll be back?”

“Tell her I’m not sure….”

“No fucking way. I’ll dump a squalling kid on Ryan, but I’m not telling Mama you’ve gone AWOL the night before your wedding. That woman has gone totally bridezilla, and it ain’t even her wedding,” they all laughed, though J. T. was in no mood to join them.

“I have a couple of calls to make.”

“J. T., wait a minute. Mercy, will you hand me my wallet from the side pocket?” Laura held out her hand and took it. Somehow, she managed to get it open even one-handed.

It took J. T. a moment to realize what she held towards him. Then he shook his head, “No, I couldn’t. Hell, I’m not even sure how I’m going to pay you for today.”

“You did that already. With the lives of my baby sister, my husband, Will, and that innocent girl. Now, take the damned thing. Call that apartment complex and have them put it on my card.” He started to shake his head again, “If you won’t do it for yourself, think of your son and swallow your fucking pride. Looks like it is a good thing that the U. S. Attorney’s Office weren’t dicks about keeping my accounts frozen.”

He had to smile at that one, “I promise, Laura, I’ll pay you back every penny. I don’t know how to thank you for this….”

“Don’t worry about it. This is why I decided to take Jaycee up on her offer. I have a lot of legal karma to erase. We need to go shopping for furniture too.”

He shook his head, another thing that had not made his coming-out to-do list. “I don’t know who will be able to deliver this late in the day.”

“No one before nine a.m. tomorrow morning. Good thing, I’m my mama’s daughter. You’re going to have a real edu-me-cation, J. T. Bet you never been to the Betterwill store, have you? A rental van and a couple of hours and your new apartment will be all set.”

J. T. did find the will to laugh at that one. He had to wonder what Marianne Buford Walker Tyler would say if she knew her gay son was outfitting his new apartment with second-hand furniture.

“I’ll have Ryan bring Chloe and meet us at your house tonight. Collecting your things and some of your son’s can’t wait until the weekend now. I’m just hoping she ain’t burned them already.”

J. T. needed to re-evaluate his list-making skills. It seemed the number of things he had forgotten just kept growing. But there was one he had to do first, “Let me just make those calls while you….”

She laughed, “The word is breastfeeding, J. T.”

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