Gina Guy’s daughter witnessed a murder. Now the murderer is after the little girl. Child Protective Services is manipulated into the picture, and Jarvis Martin, a manager within the agency, steps in to protect the Guys’ rights. From the moment Gina meets Jarvis, she feels she can depend on him, but life has proven to her that the only person she can count on is Gina. Will they be able to stop the murderer? Can Jarvis earn her trust and love?
Events usually wake those voices in my head and cause them to start speaking to me. The voices from For Keeps came about as the result of two incidents. A few years back, I noticed more reports of children being murdered down here (Arizona) by abusive parents on the news. This was a very noticeable increase. There was actually an event that correlated to the increase in deaths and abuse. I can’t remember the number, but there were like 2,500 reported cases of abuse that were never investigated during that time period. Big time scandal. Lots of people fired over that.
In incident two, I know someone who was reported to CPS by the hospital she delivered her baby in because there were narcotics in the baby’s system. Actually, hospitals must report when babies are born with drugs in their system. That sounds like a good thing, right?
Well, the hospital neglected to inform CPS that the mother had been a patient in the hospital and administered the narcotic by the nurses. The mother didn’t even realize what they were giving her was a narcotic until after CPS contacted her and told them they’d be taking her child from her for him testing positive for narcotics. This mother went into a panic. She did everything her CPS case manager asked for, but CPS didn’t do their part. Then the case manager’s boss came into the picture and took steps to take this child away from the mother. It got really ugly.
To make a long story short, the original case manager came back into the picture and stopped the insanity. Had it not been for that case manager, this woman’s child would have been taken from her even though the hospital had supplied the paper work requested by CPS. Sounds crazy, huh? Yeah, I couldn’t believe what was happening as it unfolded.
These incidents breathed life into Gina and Jarvis. There are good parents caught up in the system every day. There are bad parents that children need to be protected from. There are bad case managers and there are good case managers.
I don’t know, this seemed like the perfect backdrop for a romantic suspense. Next thing you know, Gina and Jarvis telling me their story. I hope you enjoy For Keeps.
Here’s a little sample for you.
He squinted at the seven-story condominium complex. She thinks by moving into a secured building she can protect you from me. His gaze traveled along the building and settled on the third floor, second unit from the right. Humph, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Brenda ran out of the building.
Quickly, he ducked behind a tree. Reveling in a surge of satisfaction, he returned his focus to the third story window. Soon all of my worries will be over. Whistling a happy tune, he walked away.
* * *
The superintendent flipped through his keys, unwilling to select the correct one. “I assure you, she didn’t leave her child. I would know. There must be a mistake. Miss Guy is one of my best tenants. Someone made a prank call.”
Arms folded over her ample chest, Mrs. Clark tapped her foot and waited beside the police officer. “I hope you’re correct, but someone reported a baby being left alone for hours, so we must investigate.”
“Benda!” he heard the voice of a little girl on the opposite side of the door cry. It sounded like Tiara, Miss Guy’s daughter. “Where you at? I ascared.”
“Hurry.” Mrs. Clark pressed herself against the door. “Don’t worry, honey. Someone’s here.”
The superintendent’s fat, fumbly fingers worked the keys double-time to unlock the door. Something wasn’t right. Miss Guy wouldn’t leave Tiara alone. Maybe Miss Guy had fainted or was injured. He opened the door.
Mrs. Clark rushed into the apartment toward the screaming toddler and tumbled over the edge of the coffee table. Tiara stopped screaming, spun around and ran into a bedroom.
The officer helped the social worker stand. “Are you hurt?”
Mrs. Clark rubbed her shin. “It smarts, but I’ll be fine. Thank you.” She limped into the bedroom with the others following close behind.
Tiara was nowhere in sight.
“Come out, honey,” said the social worker.
She pointed at the twin-sized princess canopy bed. The officer knelt and lifted the comforter to check under the bed. No little girls.
The small bedroom only contained one other potential hiding place. The case manager searched through the closet, but still no child.
Confused, the superintendent sat on the dresser. It creaked under his weight. “Well, she couldn’t have disappeared.” A faint groan caught his ear. He nodded toward the space between the dresser and the wall. “I think we have mice.”
* * *
Fear raced through Gina’s veins as she dragged Brenda into the back office for privacy. “What do you mean they took her? Who took her? Calm down and tell me where my baby is.”
Shaking her head, Brenda rocked back and forth. “I… I saw the police and panicked. I’m so sorry. Please don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
She grabbed Brenda by the shoulders and shook. “If you do not tell me where my baby is this instant, I swear I’ll kill you.”
* * *
Hollering, Tiara darted for the pile of blocks that sat on the middle of the toddler table in Observation Room three.
Helen Clark shook her head as she lowered herself to the couch. “Play with the blocks like a good girl.”
Jarvis watched the little hellion through the double mirror. Knowing she hadn’t finished yet, he grinned. Her screams when they’d entered the office were what had drawn his attention. This child had a serious set of lungs on her.
Now quiet and calm, Tiara carefully sorted through the blocks. Jarvis was rarely wrong where children were concerned, but it looked as if he’d been wrong this time. Tiara had found something more interesting than screaming her head off. Meticulously, she measured the blocks, then selected the largest one and threw it at the case manager.
Shocked, he rushed for the door as the block soared through the air and slammed square into Helen’s nose.
“Leave me ‘lone you mean o’ crow.”
Holding her nose, Helen cursed the child and stormed out as he entered.
“I hate you, you mean o’ meanie!”
Standing in the doorway, Jarvis remained silent. He’d deal with Helen for cursing in the presence of a child later. Tiara stopped yelling. Her eyes traveled from his shoes, along his legs, torso, then she craned her neck way back to see his face. Over six feet, he knew he was huge to the little girl. Hands shaking, she held up a block.
Arms folded over his chest, he raised a brow. “If you throw that at me, I’ll throw it back.”
She swallowed hard, then dropped the block, crossed her arms over her chest and raised her brow, impersonating his stance. “My mommy gonna get that mean o’ crow.”
“I’m sure she will.” He stifled a grin. “Let’s clean this mess.”
She stood still, blinking away the tears, fighting the oncoming cry. “You find my mommy? She doesn’t know where I’m at. She’ll be ascared.”
“She’ll be afraid.” He lowered himself to her level and held his hand out. “I’ll find your mommy.”
She ran to him, jumped into his arms and hugged him tightly. “I like you.”
“I like you, too.” Tired of the neglect, he shook his head. He became a social worker to protect children. To give them the childhood he had in a loving family. All children deserved to be loved. “What’s your name?” He released her. Though he already knew her name, he wanted to continue breaking the ice with her.
She stepped away and curtsied. “Tiawa Wose Guy.”
“Jarvis Neal Martin at your service.” Heart smiling, he placed his hand on his chest and bowed his head slightly. “You may call me Jarvis.” He settled on the floor beside her and helped pile the blocks on the Big Bird toddler table. “Do you know where I can find your mommy?”
Tugging on his arm, she tried to pull him toward the door. “You go get her? She’s at work. With the pancakes.”
Lifting Tiara, he stood and placed her on his hip. “How old are you?”
“Twee. Go get Mommy. She’s at the pancake place.” She pointed at the door. “She doesn’t know I’m here with you. You go get her. I’ll show you. That mean o’ crow took me. My mommy’s gonna get her.”
He walked to the front desk. “Where’s Helen? I need the file on Tiara.”
Mary, the office assistant, smiled at Tiara. “This can’t possibly be the little terror who came in kicking and screaming earlier. Oh no. This young lady is much too beautiful.” Tiara hid her face in the crook of Jarvis’s neck and giggled. “She’s in the process of being told off by,” she nodded toward Tiara, “a certain young lady’s mother. Helen may need to be saved. Room six.” Mary took Tiara from Jarvis.
Just what he needed, another substandard parent who didn’t give a darn about her child until the authorities were brought in. He stopped his train of thought. Just because the overwhelming majority of cases he’d seen of late had been proven cases of neglect and abuse, didn’t mean this one was also.
* * *
The raised voice Jarvis heard as he rounded the corner was typical of what he heard on a daily basis from parents who beat, emotionally abused and neglected their children except there were usually several curse words laced in. When his office took steps to protect the child, he had to fight through red tape with a reduced staff to protect the children. Let harm come to one of the children, or God forbid, one die, then his office was held to blame. But someone had to be there for the children. He had to try. For now, he prayed Ms. Guy was calmer around Tiara.
Helen slammed the door as she exited. “That woman is horrible!” She paced in front of the door. “I’m sick and tired of these no-account women putting their children in harm’s way. I’m not the one who left her baby alone. I don’t have to take her verbal abuse. Wait until I finish my report. We’ll see who gets the last word.”
Hands lifted slightly, he cautioned, “Let’s slow down a bit. Emotions are running high.” He understood Helen’s rage. Just as he’d had to put his emotions in check, she needed to do the same. “We don’t want to jump to conclusions. First there needs to be an investigation—”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” Shaking the file at him, she bit out, “I’ve been at this for twenty-five years. You think because you’re a manager you can interfere in my investigation?”
Brows lifted, he could chastise without saying a word.
“I’m sorry, Jarvis.” She lowered her voice and held the file and her hand to her chest. “I was out of line. After I take a few minutes to calm down, I’ll finish this interview and set up temporary custody for the minor immediately.”
He held no love for neglectful parents but, “How do you know temporary custody will be in order if you haven’t conducted an interview yet? Hand me the file.” He held out his hand.
“But this is my—”
“I will not ask again.” She handed over the file. “I wish to speak with you before you leave tonight.” Known for his fairness, he always investigated before considering taking a child out of the home. He expected the same from his case managers.
* * *
Gina stared out the window at the people on the street running between their cars and storefronts to escape the rainy July day. She wanted to run. Run away from the memories of being taken from her mother by social services. Life with her mother had been a beautiful fantasy, then she’d been thrown into a nightmare where her foster father tried to violate her.
“Excuse me, Ms. Guy.”
She glanced over her shoulder and saw a tall, dark, handsome man step fully into the small, dimly lit room. Fear of losing Tiara strangled her, making it hard for her to speak. “Where’s my baby?” she finally managed. She couldn’t lose her baby. Someone had to listen to her.
“Won’t you sit with me?” He pulled out a chair. “The sooner we finish the paperwork, the sooner I can take you to Tiara.”
The sound of her baby’s name sent excitement through her. She sat at the table with him. “How do you know her name? That mean old crow acted like she didn’t know anything.”
“You sound like Tiara. She’s a great kid.”
Proud of her baby, a smile touched her lips. “Yes she is.” Their gazes locked and held — big browns to big browns. Gina shook the heat passing between them off and reached her hand over the card table. “I’m Gina Lynne Guy. And you are?” She found it strange how his slow smile calmed her.
“My apologies for not introducing myself, Ms. Guy.” He shook her hand. “Jarvis Neal Martin.” He bowed his head slightly, then opened the file and skimmed through it.
“I want to know why you all took Tiara out of our home. She must be scared to death.”
“Actually, I heard you having,” he paused, “difficulty with Mrs. Clark and decided to intervene before you two came to blows.” Peeking over the file, he winked.
She’d never been more terrified and angry in her life, but he somehow got a genuine grin out of her. Unnerved that he had this affect on her, she focused on getting her baby back.
“This is my first look at your case. I’ll be ready in a few seconds.” He returned to skimming the file.
“I can’t believe you can just yank a child out of her home like this.” She sucked air through her teeth. “Did you know she threatened to take Tiara from me permanently? Of all the nerve. She kidnaps my baby and expects me to sit still about it.” Gina’s mother hadn’t been able to fight back, but Gina was not her mother. History would not be repeating itself today.
“According to this,” he tapped on the file, “Tiara was home alone for hours. The person who initiated the report phoned several times, worried. It says you do this all of the time.”
“Why those lying sons of…” She drew in a deep breath. After that so-called case manager ran out, she’d told herself to remain calm. “Who the heck told you that? I have a babysitter for Tiara who is usually extremely dependable. This makes absolutely no sense. If someone called several times, why didn’t that mean old crow call the super or police the first time? My usual babysitter could have been injured or anything. Yes. I need to know who started this nonsense.”
“By law, I can’t divulge the name of our source.”
There was something he wasn’t telling her. Something he was covering up. She could tell, but what?
“Why did you just start her shots a few months ago?” he asked.
“She doesn’t go to kindergarten until next year. How did you know I began her shots?”
He turned to the next page. “Someone from the clinic called.”
“What’s going on here? Why is everyone trying to make me look like a bad mother? I had Brenda take her to the clinic for shots, early. I’m not sending her to preschool, so I have another year.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, but doctors like to start children’s shots at two weeks.”
“Really? Are you kidding?”
He cocked his head to the side. “Didn’t the pediatrician ever mention shots?”
“She was born at home and never been sick enough to take to the doctor. I didn’t start my shots until I went to school.” Gina remembered her first set of shots. She had been home-schooled, but the case manager had said there was no way her mother could have given her a proper education. After extensive testing, the authorities decided Gina was ahead of the learning curve for children her age. Though Gina was only eight, her foster mother had been instructed to enroll her in sixth grade at a school for the gifted. Before Gina could start class, she’d been taken to the health department for shots. There were lots of children and adults there getting shots that day. “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
“I know exactly what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t matter. You said Tiara was born at home?”
“Yes. So was I, why?”
“Does she have a birth certificate?”
“Yes. I had to get one to prove she was my child for my health insurance at work.”
He looked so perplexed, she couldn’t help but laugh.
“I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I don’t mean to laugh.” She stifled her laugh. “I have a tendency to laugh and giggle at the most inappropriate times.”
“No… no. I’m the one who’s sorry. I’m just figuring things out here, so I don’t make a fool of myself and send you into a fit of giggles.” He flashed a quick smile. “Are you one of those people who like to fly under the government radar as much as possible? You don’t like records on yourself or Tiara?”
“The government took me from a loving home and gave me to a child molester. So no, I don’t trust the government and would rather not be on their radar. I don’t know what you mean by records. When I need something, I get it.”
Concern and confusion marred his handsome face. “I’m missing something. Let’s get back to this case. Who was supposed to be watching Tiara?”
She told him everything about Brenda, including how she’d panicked and ran when she saw the police at the apartment. “I still don’t think Mrs. Clark should have taken Tiara. Even if I had been a neglectful mother, Tiara is used to me. Having strangers barge into our home…” She held building fury at bay. The last time someone barged into their home, Tiara witnessed a murder. Her poor baby still had nightmares from time to time. “This isn’t right. The super has my number, but she told him not to call me or he’d be charged with obstruction.”
“How do you know?”
“He called me and said he didn’t care what you charged him with. He knows I’m a good mother.” Emotionally drained, she drew in and released a long breath. “This is so frustrating. She should have called me at work. I’d have been there in five minutes. If she still wanted to bring Tiara in for observation, or whatever, it could have been done without traumatizing my baby. My super said he’d be writing a formal complaint against Mrs. Clark and that I should do the same thing.”
“I assure you, there will be an investigation, and proper measures will be taken. I’ll speak with your super.”
She wanted to believe in him, but couldn’t. Experience had taught her not to trust the government, especially Child Protective Services. “So far your example of proper has been greatly underwhelming.”
He flinched. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Tired of the whole ordeal, she sighed. This wasn’t his fault, so she shouldn’t be taking her anger out on him. “Just give me my baby, and I’ll be on my way.”
“I know this has been a difficult day for you, but I assure you I will—”
“I’m not trying to be rude, but you’re right. This has been a difficult day. I’m exhausted. Tiara must be starving by now, and it’ll take us at least an hour to get home from here.” She’d been dropped off by one of her co-workers and would have to return home on the bus or have to wait for a taxi. She didn’t want to spend a second longer in this office than she had to, so she’d brave the monsoon rainstorm and hop the bus.
He looked at the first page of the report. “You live on my way. How about I drop you off? While there, I can do a quick cursory check of your accommodations while my team speaks with your co-workers and the super. Who knows? I may be able to close this investigation tonight.”
“I don’t want to be an inconvenience.”
Writing a few notes, he asked, “What will you do about child care?”
“I don’t know. Once Brenda shows her face, I’m liable to strangle her. I’ll talk to Harry.” For a second she thought she saw a tinge of jealousy in his eyes. She shook it off as her weariness playing tricks on her mind.
“Where is her father?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
He shuffled the paperwork. “Oh, I see… She’s old enough to enroll in preschool. I’ll see if you’re eligible for free daycare and give you a list of facilities in your area.” He paused. “But her shots must be up-to-date.”
“I’m getting the shots.”
“Until then, you’ll need another sitter.”
“I’m tired and want to see my baby. Please, please, can we leave?” she drawled.
He chuckled. “Yes, ma’am.
* * *
Jarvis agreed with Gina’s assessment. Mrs. Clark shouldn’t have taken Tiara without further investigation. At the minimum, Gina should have been contacted at work and given a chance to explain. Gina was also right about no one being sent over for the first call. This whole thing stunk to high heavens.
Gina. She moved him in the oddest way. When he’d entered the room, she’d been standing at the window with her back to him, hugging herself. Then she’d glanced over her shoulder, and he couldn’t help but admire the beauty before him. Her dark hair was cut in a modified pageboy. High in the back, it lengthened to follow along the angle of her jawbone and framed her lovely face. He’d had to force his mind back to business.
An internal investigation would separate those who needed protecting from those who needed punishment, he decided. He continued down the hallway to the observation room. His fair yet no-nonsense approach had made him a star of the agency. Helen had been one of the case managers who’d felt passed over when he’d been given the promotion and was always looking for ways to point out his mistakes.
For all of her twenty-five years, Helen sure made a mess of things. She’d possibly placed the agency in the position to be sued while she enjoyed retirement. Helen’s retirement party was next week. He hated to admit it, but she was the type of person to do something out of spite just to make the office look bad under his leadership. After he took Tiara to Gina, he’d be sure to call their internal affairs and get the investigation started.
He stood at the double mirror and watched Tiara coloring. Why had we even been called on this case? The only part of the file completed contained the informant’s account of Tiara being left alone, consistently, for hours at a time and note of the three times they’d called today.
He tapped on the door and entered. “I’ll take over now, Mary. Thanks.”
She hugged Tiara. “You be a good little girl now.”
“I will. I pwommis.”
Mary left the two alone. Tiara jumped up and down. “Look, look, Jawvis. I made this for Mommy.” She displayed the picture she’d been drawing.
Kneeling at the Big Bird toddler table, he examined the picture carefully: a large black scribble circle with a yellow triangle in its center, two smaller scribble triangles attached on either side, and two brown squigglies hanging down. He had no idea what the picture was, so took the safe route. “Interesting.”
“What’s that mean o’ crow name?” She set the picture on the miniature table, then took her time to select the sharpest crayon.
Tiara was the cutest little thing he’d ever seen, and her mother… He shook his head. He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life. Her soft, sexy voice made it hard for him to concentrate on the business at hand. He admired how Gina controlled her emotions. She had to be terrified and enraged. After seeing the report and hearing that Helen told the superintendent not to call Gina, he understood her raising her voice with Helen and why she was underwhelmed by their performance.
“It’s not nice to call people mean old crow.”
With wide-eyed innocence, she said, “I’m not tying to be nice.”
He smothered a laugh. “Mrs. Clark.”
Tiara wrote M S C L R K and a squiggly line under the picture of the three linked black blobs. “Okay, now Mommy will know who stoled me away.” She held up the picture. “This look like a mean o’ crow, Jawvis?”
This time he couldn’t hold in the laughter. He laughed so hard, his stomach hurt. Tiara threw her head back, imitating his motions, and added her little laugh.
He lifted her. “You are too much, Tiara Rose Guy. There’s someone here to see you. She says she misses you.”
“Is she pwitty?”
Scratching his head, he pretended to consider the question. “I guess you could call her pretty.”
Giggling with dancing fingers, she sang, “Jawvis and Mommy, sitting in a twee…”
“Who said it’s your mommy, Miss Smarty Pants.” He carried her out.
“You think my mommy’s pwitty. You’re nice. I like you. I’ll let you mairwee her like the prince in the Cindewella story.”
“What if I’m already married?”
Copying him, she scratched her head as if deep in thought. “Then you can’t mairwee Mommy. You mairweed?”
“You are too young to ask such questions?”
“Why? Mommy says if want to know something, then ask. You mairweed?”
He grinned. “No, Tiara, I’m not mairweed, and don’t tell your mommy I said she is pretty.” Outside of dropping her ’r’s, Tiara was advanced for her age. The dropping of the ‘r’ could be some sort of speech impediment.
She smiled broadly. “Okay. It’s our secwet.”