“Mr. Chambers, there’s an important call for you on line one,” my secretary called out the moment I emerged from my office.
I hustled past her, not bothering to stop. “I’m on my way to a lunch meeting with the CEO of Lerner Enterprises, Brittany. It will have to wait.”
“But’s it’s important.” She sounded like a petulant child who couldn’t fathom the idea being told no, even though she was probably in her mid-twenties.
I gritted my teeth. “This meeting is more important than anything else right now. Take a message.”
“But it’s about your daughter.”
I sighed and kept walking. “I don’t have a daughter, Brittany.”
Ten months this girl had worked for me, and she hadn’t picked up on the most basic details of my life? What other obvious things has she missed? I thought I’d finally found a decent secretary, but she was clearly not as competent as I had hoped.
“According to Child Protective Services, you do.” She looked at me like her respect for me had just dropped tenfold.
I shook my head and frowned at her. “It must be some mistake. They have the wrong person.”
“That’s what I told her, but she says the mother claims the child’s father is Declan Chambers, age 30, owner of Chambers Holdings.”
My steps faltered. What was going on here? Was this some scam to bilk me for money? “Who’s the mother?”
“I think her name was Farrah something. Or maybe she said Sarah.”
My body froze at the name I hadn’t heard in several years. The name of a woman I wouldn’t let myself think about. The only woman who could possibly have a child by me.
I turned around and held out a hand for the phone, too shocked to say anything. It couldn’t be true. It was still most likely some kind of scheme. But there was a remote possibility. Either way, I needed to get answers, or I’d be imagining the worst the entire time I was supposed to be convincing LJ Lerner to sell me his company.
“This is Declan Chambers.” My voice came out cold and hard, an automatic defense mechanism against a supposed threat.
“Mr. Chambers, this is Melanie Long, a social worker from CPS. Miss Farrah Halverson was arrested this morning, and her daughter was brought into protective custody. I’m sorry to deliver this news in this manner, but Miss Halverson named you as the child’s father, although she admitted you might not be aware of this fact. The child’s birth certificate names you, as well.”
I stayed silent, too dumbfounded to deny it. Could it be true? While my world fell out from underneath me, the social worker continued.
“In cases like this, we prefer to place the child with the other parent as opposed to putting her in a foster home. Are you willing to assume temporary custody of your daughter, Mr. Chambers?”
“I have a lunch meeting.” The words fell out of my mouth automatically while my brain was trying to process the information. She wanted me to take the child?
“Alright. Well, the child can stay here for a few hours until you’re able to come for her.”
My mind swirled with memories of my time with Farrah, those tumultuous years filled with as much conflict as there was passion. I’d loved her intensely, but loving Farrah was like riding a roller coaster with a loose wheel, a thrilling rush of highs and lows, but with the threat of flying off the track always imminent. I thought I’d gotten off the ride a long time ago, but apparently I’d only been coasting through a straight section. I pinched my eyes shut, trying to regain my equilibrium as I hurtled down the track.
“Could you be here before 5?” the social worker’s voice broke through the haze of my dizziness. I opened my eyes and shook my head to clear it.
“I’ll come now. Where are you?” As important as my meeting was, I knew I’d never be able to focus on anything but this twist my life had just taken.
She rattled off an address. I repeated it and gestured for my secretary to jot it down then promised to be there within the hour. When I hung up, Brittany stared at me, wide-eyed. At least she was smart enough not to butt her head in by asking a bunch of questions I didn’t know how to answer.
“Call Lerner and reschedule for tomorrow. Er, maybe the next day. Actually, just tell him I’ve had an emergency and I’ll be in touch as soon as possible.”
“Should I clear your schedule for the rest of the day?”
I winced and ran a hand through my hair, mussing the perfectly coiffed strands. I had no idea how long it was going to take to deal with this. What was I going to do with a child?
I hadn’t even thought to ask her name or how old she was. If she was mine, she would have to be around four since it had been close to five years since I’d seen Farrah. Would she be in school yet? When did children start kindergarten?
“Yes, please do. I’ll be in touch later about tomorrow.”
Brittany gave a quick nod, biting her lip. I whirled around and headed out of the office. The elevator ride from the tenth floor wasn’t long enough for me to wrap my head around what was happening. In fact, I stayed in a fog the whole way to the CPS office.
I managed to find the old, brick building downtown and parked my glossy, black, year-old Mercedes in a lot full of decade-old, dusty, blue Fords and Toyotas. I hit the lock button on my key fob the moment I stepped out of the car then once again before I entered the building, just in case.
Inside, I somehow managed to remember the name of the social worker I’d spoken to and was granted admission. The receptionist pointed down a long hall and said, “Fourth door on your right.”
My dress shoes clicked loudly on the hard floors as I marched down the hall like a suspect on his way to trial. I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t cut out to be a father. I didn’t know anything about kids. I didn’t think I even liked them.
At the door to the social worker’s office, I took a deep breath of the musty air before letting myself in. The door swung open with a creak. It caught the attention of the woman sitting at a battered wood desk.
I couldn’t tell you what she looked like, either because she was forgettably average, or, more likely, because the sound also caught the ear of the small girl kneeling on a chair beside her, coloring a picture. My eyes immediately focused on the child, and everything else in the world ceased to exist. I could no more deny this child than I could deny my own reflection in the mirror.
She looked like a miniature version of Farrah, with long hair the color of rich coffee and eyes just as dark and deep. But I recognized myself, too, in the way her large eyes narrowed and her brow wrinkled as she looked at me. It was the expression I wore most often, though at the moment my eyes and mouth were wide with shock.
“I’m Declan Chambers,” I muttered to the social worker, not taking my eyes off the child.
“May I see some ID, Mr. Chambers?” The woman stood up and held out a plump hand. I glanced at her long enough to notice she was middle-aged, with curly brown hair, wearing a loose, polyester blouse in an ugly pattern.
I reached in my coat pocket to retrieve my wallet then handed over my drivers’ license. She examined it carefully before handing it back. Then she put a hand on the child’s shoulders and looked down at her.
“This is Callie Halverson. Callie, this is Mr. Chambers, the man I was telling you about. You’re going to stay with him for a while.”
Out of habit, I stuck out a hand but then quickly pulled it back with an awkward smile. I had no idea how to greet a child, but I doubted it was with a handshake. “Hello, Callie. It’s nice to meet you.”
She stared at me mutely, half hiding behind Melanie.
“Can you say hello, Callie?” the social worker murmured.
But the girl stayed still as a statue. Only her bottom lip quivered. After a long moment of silence, the social worker turned her towards a corner of the office stocked with toys.
“Callie, why don’t you go play with those toys while I talk to Mr. Chambers for a few minutes.” Melanie gave the child a nudge, and Callie quickly walked away, keeping her eyes on me. Once she settled on the floor with a doll, the social worker turned back to me.
“It might take her a while to warm up. This type of situation is very traumatizing to children. She’s been taken away from her home and everyone she knows.”
“Why was her mother arrested?” I asked quietly since Callie was still staring my way.
Melanie sat down and gestured towards the chairs in front of her desk. I took one. I had a lot more questions to ask before I walked out of there with a child in tow.
“Miss Halverson and her boyfriend were arrested for possession of narcotics with attempt to sell.”
Although I had no desire to rekindle my relationship with Farrah, the news of a boyfriend jabbed at me. It shouldn’t have surprised me; we’d been apart for years. But since my relationship with her had soured me against starting another, I hadn’t considered that she might’ve taken up with someone else.
Once I got over the news about the new boyfriend, I was able to consider the charges. Farrah hadn’t been on drugs while we were together, but I could easily see her falling into something like that. She was always looking for excitement.
“So, what happens now? Will she get custody back if she gets out on bail?”
“That is typically our goal. Although you do have a right to seek more permanent custody since you are the legal father.”
That idea was so far beyond where I was at, I couldn’t even fathom it. I was still struggling to accept that the child was mine. Caring for her while Farrah was in jail was definitely more than I could handle. My first instinct was to tell the woman to find someone else, foster parents who had training in how to deal with kids in this situation. People who had some clue how to care for children.
I had no idea what to do with a child. I never had a brother or sister, a niece or nephew, never babysat. I didn’t even have friends who had children. I lived in a child-free bubble. After my relationship with Farrah ended, I told myself I was better off alone. I never expected to have a relationship again, let alone have children.
But some natural, parental instinct rose up inside me, and even though it was likely more dangerous for her to be with me, I felt the compulsion to protect my offspring. Farrah would probably be out on bail in a few days. I could take care of the child until then. How hard could it be? She looked old enough to feed herself, and she didn’t appear to be wearing a diaper under her cotton leggings.
“She’s potty-trained, right?” I blurted out.
Melanie raised an eyebrow and snorted. “She’s four.”
That didn’t mean anything to me, but I wasn’t about to embarrass myself more by asking for clarification.
“Does she go to school yet?”
Melanie pursed her lips together like she was trying hard not to say what she was thinking. “She’s not old enough for school yet. And she isn’t enrolled in preschool. Her mother stayed home with her.”
“Oh, okay.” I stared at the child playing in the corner. What was I supposed to do with her all day? At least she seemed capable of amusing herself. Maybe I could put a few toys for her in the corner of the office and let Brittany keep an eye on her. I didn’t think she had kids of her own, but she had to have more of a maternal instinct than I did.
“This will give you a good chance to get to know your daughter,” Melanie said, like she could read my mind and didn’t approve of my idea.
I forced a smile, trying to pretend I was looking forward to it instead of feeling terrified. “Right, yes. Of course.”
“Alright, we just need to do some paperwork.”
I sighed and pulled my coat sleeves back. I was much more comfortable with paperwork than I was with children. An hour later, I’d signed my name on the dotted lines, officially taking custody of a child I knew nothing about. Even if she shared my DNA, I couldn’t believe they were entrusting her to me.
Melanie called the child back over. “Mr. Chambers will take good care of you while you’re mommy’s away. You tell him if you need anything.”
She handed me a small bag. “Here are some of her clothes and a few of her toys.”
I took it, feeling awkward carrying a ragged, pink and purple bag while wearing a black, Armani suit. The child looked just as out of place by my side in a pink tee shirt and flower-patterned leggings.
Then the social worker ushered us out into the hallway, shutting the door behind us. I stared down at the girl, and she stared back up at me, fear tightening her face and her body shaking. I quickly kneeled down, expecting her to start crying any moment.