Jason hesitated, held himself back from speaking. He knew if he answered Michael right now, the answer would be yes and that was wrong.
Wasn’t it? Sonny was Michael’s father.
But Sonny was irrational–had said things that Michael never needed to hear. The damage was done and it would take a very long time for Michael to trust him again.
But hadn’t Jason promised Michael long ago that he’d never let anyone hurt him?
“Jason?” Michael broke into his thoughts. “You don’t want me either do you?”
“No, Michael, that’s not it at all,” Jason stood up. “I can’t–I don’t have any legal right to have custody of you.”
“But that’s not what I asked,” Michael protested. “If the judge said it was okay and Mommy does, too, can I live with you?”
“If that happens, yes,” Jason agreed finally–confident that it wouldn’t. No judge would give the child to the brother-in-law. Right?
“Okay,” Michael remarked satisfied. “That’s all I wanted to know. I’ll talk to the judge then so I can tell him I want to live with you.” He slid off the chair and disappeared into the living room.
Jason heard a sound coming from the other side of the room and turned to see Elizabeth in the doorway. “I forgot my water,” she murmured as she went to the counter. She grabbed it and hesitated. “Jason?”
“Yeah?” he asked, praying she’d say nothing about Michael and the custody situation.
“When I write to Emily…can I tell her what’s going on?” she asked. “I want her to know the truth.”
Jason hesitated and considered it. “I trust Emily–she won’t say anything. And I’ll give her my help in getting Nikolas acquitted. Yeah, you can tell her.”
“Thanks.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll just go back to my room, then.”
Two Days Later
“Take care of the baby,” Michael said solemnly as he hugged Elizabeth tightly.
“I promise if you promise to take care of yourself,” Elizabeth kissed the top of his head. “Be good.”
“Okay.” Michael looked at Jason. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
“Yes,” Jason remarked with a small smile. “Go wait in the car.”
Michael ran over to the passenger side and climbed in. Once the door was shut, Jason looked back at Elizabeth, all traces of humor and emotion gone from his face. “Do you have the letters?”
“Yeah.” She pulled them out of her pocket and handed them to him. “Is there anything else?”
“I don’t know how soon I can come back–there’s a lot going on at home so if you need anything, just call me and I’ll get it set up. There’s no one here but you but I arranged for a local woman to come in twice a week and she’ll probably leave some pre-cooked stuff. I set you up with a doctor who’s on vacation here for the next few months. He’ll come by sometime next week.” Jason rubbed the back of his neck. “I think that’s everything.”
“Sounds like it,” Elizabeth remarked dully. She thought about telling him good luck with the custody hearings and whatnot but he’d made it clear two days ago that this was no more than a repayment of old debts.
“Goodbye,” Jason said.
“See you later,” she murmured watching him walk to the car. She wrapped her arms around herself.
“She looks sad,” Michael commented, sitting on his knees and looking into the rearview mirror.
“Put your seatbelt on and sit right,” Jason remarked, consciously not looking at Elizabeth standing by the front steps.
“But she looks sad,” Michael protested. “We can’t leave her while she looks like that.”
“Michael, put your seatbelt on,” Jason repeated.
“No.” Michael crossed his arms. “Did you apologize for what you said?” he asked.
Jason closed his eyes and sighed. “You’re only seven years old. How can you possibly be this smart?” he muttered. He glanced in the rearview mirror and his heart sank at the sight of Elizabeth standing there, looking completely isolated and alone.
“Why don’t I stay here with her?” Michael suggested cheerfully.
“Why don’t you stay in the car, sit right in your seat and put that seat belt on?” Jason countered. He opened the door and went back to Elizabeth.
“Is something wrong?” Elizabeth asked concerned.
“Yeah. I need to apologize for the other day,” he told her. “I’m not doing this because you saved my life or let me stay with you or did any of the other hundred things you did before, okay?”
“Okay,” Elizabeth said, frowning. “Then why are you doing this?”
“Because you would do it for me–because you didn’t really need a reason to pull me out of the snow all those years ago other than you didn’t want to see me die. I don’t want to see you in jail. I’m doing this because I can.” He hesitated. “Because you’re important to me and I protect the people who are important to me.”
She managed a weak smile then. “Okay. Friends?” she asked hopefully.
“Friends,” Jason confirmed.
“Then I can do this.” She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around neck, embracing him tightly. “Take care of yourself, okay? And take care of Michael. He needs you.”
“He needs his parents,” Jason said softly, burying his face in her long, silky hair.
“He needs you,” Elizabeth repeated. She pulled away and kissed his cheek.
“If you say so. I should go, though.” He kissed her forehead. “Take care of yourself and call…so I know everything’s okay here, all right?”
When he got back in the car, Michael smiled at him. “Much better.” He put his seatbelt on. And this time when he looked in the rearview mirror, Elizabeth was smiling.
Michael cleared his throat and held his mother’s hand tightly. “I already told you who I want to live with.”
Judge Peters took a deep breath and studied Carly’s blotchy face. “Mrs. Corinthos, is this a satisfactory solution for you?”
“Yes,” Carly said. She looked down at Michael. “It breaks my heart but I love my son and if this is what he needs to be happy, then I want to give it to him.”
“Michael, please sit down.” Michael obeyed the judge and Carly stood behind him. “I want you to tell me exactly what happened the night before you left for your vacation on Monday.”
“Mommy and Sonny were arguing,” Michael began. “Aunt Courtney were telling them to stop it and when Uncle Jason got there, he convinced Mommy to leave.” He smiled then. “Everyone always listens to him. He’s really smart.”
Carly smiled through her tears. “Yeah, he is, baby.”
“I didn’t want to go home with Sonny because I knew he’d be angry and sometimes he throws things and it’s scary. So I went to Uncle Jason’s and he made me something to eat and I watched cartoons. I fell asleep. When I woke up, Uncle Jason was gone but I could hear his voice across the hall. He and Sonny were arguing.” Michael hesitated. “I–I went over and I heard Sonny say that he wished he never adopted me. That I was just a whore’s bastard and if I loved Uncle Jason so much, why didn’t I just live with him?”
Carly closed her eyes, tears streaking down her cheeks. “You can’t let Michael go back there,” she pleaded with the judge. “Anywhere but into that home.”
“I agree, Mrs. Corinthos. Michael, the last time we talked, you were not calling your father by his first name. Why did that change?”
“Uncle Jason told me that a daddy is someone who loves you and always protects you. And I don’t think Sonny is my father. He’s mean and he yells a lot. I asked Uncle Jason that if he’d be my daddy again like he used to be.”
“Used to be?” Judge Peters inquired.
“When Michael was first born, I experienced post-partum depression. A very bad case of it and I left my son in Jason’s care. He named him, took care of him and for the next year, Jason was his father. He would have remained that way had a third party not informed the biological father who then sued for custody.”
“And Jason was a good father?”
“The best,” Carly whispered. “He took a picture of Michael every single day so I could see how much he’d changed when I wasn’t there. He read to him–books about different countries and he has this stuffed giraffe from that time with Jason. You have it still right?”
“Yeah, I still sleep with it,” Michael admitted with a sheepish smile.
“I have albums of pictures of Michael with Jason when he was a baby. I could show them to you if you’d like.”
“There’s no need. I will need to speak with Mr. Morgan about this but I’m just about ready to make my decision about the custody arrangements. I will more than likely award custody of your younger son to you, Mrs. Corinthos. He is but a few months old and he needs to be with his mother but…” Judge Peters glanced at one of the documents. “Michael’s birth certificate still has Jason listed as the father, were you aware of that?”
“No…I thought that changed when Sonny adopted him.”
“Well…it should have.” Judge Peters frowned. “I’ll look into the adoption. It might not have been finalized. Well, in any case, I will award custody of Michael to Jason once I have had a chance to speak with him.”
“He’s outside,” Michael jumped up and dashed from the room. Carly stared after him and wiped her eyes.
“It’s strange.” She turned back to the judge. “It tore me apart thinking that I’d lose my boys to Sonny but knowing that Michael’s going to Jason…it only makes me feel good inside.”
Judge Peters smiled. “It’s clear Michael knows what he wants. He obviously still loves you very much, Mrs. Corinthos.”
Michael all but dragged Jason in. “Here he is. Uncle Jason, the judge says I can live with you.”
Jason stared at the judge for a moment before looking Carly, stricken. “I–”
“No…it’s okay.” Carly kissed his cheek. “I never should have let Michael be taken from you in the first place, Jason. You are the only person in Michael’s life who’s ever put him first.”
Carly knelt in front of her eldest son. “Mr. Man, I love you so much and I am so proud of you.”
“You’re really not mad at me?” Michael asked hopefully. “Because I’ll live with you if you really want it.”
“I do want it but I–I think you’re making the right decision, baby.” Carly hugged him tightly. “But you visit me all the time and maybe spend some nights. I’ll miss you too bad otherwise.”
“Carly…I don’t want to separate you from him,” Jason said, shaking his head. “I can’t do that.”
“You can and you will.” Carly stood. “He needs you, Jason. And you’ve always needed him. Please–let me make this right.”
She kissed the top of Michael’s head and left.
Judge Peters cleared his throat. “Mr. Morgan, I need to know if you’re willing to take custody of Michael if I award it to you.”
“Please, Uncle Jason?” Michael asked, slipping his hand into Jason’s. “I’ll be good and I’ll eat all my vegetables and do my homework, I promise.”
Jason shook his head. “Michael, you don’t have to do anything extra. Of course I’ll take custody if that’s what Michael wants and what you think is best.”
“I’ve been meeting with Michael for the past two weeks and the only time I’ve seen him this excited and happy is when he talks about you. I’m making you Michael’s legal guardian, Mr. Morgan. There is some paperwork for you to sign which I’m sure your lawyer can take care of with you.”
Michael ran into the elevator and jumped up and down. “Come on, come on. You promised I could call Liz if I ate all of my green beans.”
Jason entered the elevator and pushed the floor for the penthouses. “First of all, I need you to do me a favor and don’t talk about Elizabeth unless we’re in the penthouse, okay?”
“Okay, why?” Michael asked.
“Because it’s sort of a secret that she’s on vacation. And secondly, I didn’t say we were definitely going to call today, okay?”
Michael pouted. “But I wanna tell her that I’m living with you for good. Hey, when can we get my stuff from my old room?”
“As soon as we can, buddy.” Jason led him out of the elevator on their floor and fished his keys out of his pocket.
“Michael!” Sonny called from his side of the hallway. He smiled and stepped towards his son. “Hey–hey, I was hoping we could talk.”
Michael shook his head and moved to Jason’s side. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
Sonny frowned. “Listen, Michael, I know you met with the judge today and I wanted to tell you that I was sorry. It’s been–it’s been really tough this last month without your mom around and I didn’t mean to say those things to you.”
“Sonny, now’s not a good time,” Jason tried to caution him.
“Jason, look I appreciate your concern but this is between me and my son, okay?”
“You’re not my daddy anymore,” Michael declared. “And I’m not your son. Remember? You told Jason that I was just a whore’s bastard.”
Sonny paled. “You heard that?”
“I heard everything you said to him,” Michael said accusingly. “And I didn’t understand a lot of it but I’m not stupid. You don’t love me. You don’t love Morgan. You like using us to hurt Mommy and I’m letting you do it anymore. I told the judge what you said and I told him that I wanted to live with Jason because he’s my real daddy.”
Sonny shook his head. “No, Michael, I’m your father. Jason’s just a friend, remember? We talked about this.”
“Fathers don’t say things like that and they don’t leave their kids’ suitcases in the hallway and they don’t say they wished they’d never adopted their kids,” Michael retorted. “I don’t want to live with you anymore. The judge says I can live with Jason.”
“Sonny,” Jason began, “this wasn’t the way I wanted to tell you but the judge awarded me custody of Michael and…I’m sure you already know that Carly got custody of Morgan.”
“Morgan’s with Leticia…” Sonny said faintly. He blinked and his eyes darkened. “You think you’re going to get away with stealing my son?” he yelled.
“Michael, listen, go inside, okay?” Jason said. He handed him the key. “Go inside and make that phone call we were talking about.” He fished his cell phone out of his pocket. “Do you know how to use the address book on this?”
Michael nodded. “Yeah, what’s she under?” he asked, remembering the fact it was a secret.
Jason leaned forward to whisper it in his ear. “Spain.”
“Okay.” Michael fumbled with lock for a moment but then he was inside.
“I’ll appeal this decision,” Sonny raged. “That’s my kid–”
“You listen to me, Sonny and you listen good because I am only going to say this once,” Jason said softly. He stepped towards his best friend. “You are in no condition to take care of your boys. When I arranged for Carly to have full custody of Michael, you promised me that you would take care of him and love him like your own–”
“I have,” Sonny cut in bitterly, “until you came home and kept trying to out do me–”
“But all you’ve done is hurt and confuse him. I warned you I wasn’t going to let you use the boys to hurt Carly. After what you pulled last weekend, I’m more than willing to keep Michael away from you. Stay away,” Jason warned.
Michael accidentally called someone else before he finally managed to call Elizabeth. The phone rang a few times before a sleepy voice answered it. “Jason? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Michael,” he announced. “How come you knew I was using Uncle Jason’s phone?”
“Caller ID…and he’s the only one with this number.” Elizabeth sleepily sat up in her bed and rubbed her eyes. “What’s up? Is anything wrong?”
“I–I don’t know. I talked to the judge today and he gave me to Uncle Jason so he’s my daddy again except Sonny was waiting for us when we got home and now they’re outside yelling at each other.”
Elizabeth hesitated, wondering what to deal with first. “Hey, Michael, you know your uncle can take care of himself. He and Sonny are friends–I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
“Sonny sounded really angry though…” Michael sniffled. “I didn’t mean to make him mad, Liz. Do you think he’ll hurt Uncle Jason?”
“No, no, sweetheart. And hey…don’t you think Jason’s pretty smart?”
“And he’s strong, too, right? I mean–I bet between you and me, he’s the strongest person I know, right?”
“Me, too,” Michael said sounding a little brighter. “Thanks, Liz.”
Jason entered the penthouse at that point and locked it behind him. “Hey, did you get through?”
Michael nodded. “I told her that you’re my dad again and that Sonny was yelling at you.”
“It’s all okay,” Jason assured him. “I promise. Here…let me talk to her. Why don’t you go get changed out of your court clothes, okay?”
“Okay.” Michael handed him the phone and ran upstairs.
“Hey…I’m not sure whether to say congratulations about Michael or I’m sorry about Sonny.” She stifled a yawn.
“I guess both kind of apply. Did Michael wake you?”
“Yeah–but it’s okay.” She shoved the covers off her legs and struggled to her feet. “Why’d Michael call me anyway?”
“I guess–he really became attached to you last week,” Jason admitted. “The whole flight home and the last three days, he’s been talking about you and how much he likes you. If it’s a bother–”
“No, no, no,” Elizabeth said quickly. “God, it’s fine. I was just surprised. He has so many people there who love him. I didn’t think I really registered for him.”
“Well…you did. As soon as we left the judge’s chambers, he wanted to call you.” Jason cleared his throat. “I gave your letters to Emily, your grandmother and Ric. Emily–she was pretty angry.”
“Yeah…” Elizabeth shifted the phone to her other ear. “I thought she might be. I’ve been thinking about it Jason a-and I want to come home. I want to face the charges. Maybe I’ll get leniency from the court–mitigating circumstances–“
“No, absolutely not, Elizabeth,” Jason refused. “You can’t be sure that you’ll be acquitted and I don’t want to take that chance.”
“But Nikolas doesn’t deserve this,” Elizabeth choked out. She pressed a hand to her chest. “He’s not guilty and because of my selfishness, he’s suffering–“
“Emily was angry,” Jason told her. “Angry that you didn’t come to her before you left. She doesn’t want to see you in jail either. I’m going to help get Nikolas acquitted and she’s agreed. You need to stay away until we’re sure it’s okay for you to return.”
“What did my grandmother say?” Elizabeth asked, changing the subject. “I kept it brief with her–I don’t want her knowing what’s going on so I told her that I wanted to get away from the winter season.”
“I mailed your letter to her,” Jason admitted. “I thought it’d be less suspicious.”
“No, that’s a good idea. Better that way.” She hesitated and he knew why. She wanted to ask about Ric but she didn’t particularly want to ask Jason about him.
“Ric’s having seconds thoughts, too,” Jason volunteered. “But he eventually realized that it’s already done and all he can do is ride it out. This was his plan to begin with.”
“Right.” Elizabeth sighed. “Does the guilt go away?” she asked softly and he knew why she was asking him of all people. “Every time I take a step or feel the baby kick–I think of him and this little ball of acid turns inside of me. I feel like it’s eating me up inside.”
“It never goes away,” Jason admitted in a low voice. “It fades and eventually it’s so small, you don’t notice it and you learn to live with it. But it never really goes away.”
“I guess that’s the best I can hope for. I should–I should let you go. I have to eat breakfast anyway. Give Michael my love…and Jason?”
“I really am happy that you got custody. Call me selfish but…I remember when we were first becoming friends and the way you used to talk about being his father…it broke my heart because I didn’t think you were ever going to really get over losing him.” She hesitated. “And I’m just glad…that you’ve got a second chance.”
Jason didn’t know what to say in return to that. She’d been the first person he’d talked about Michael with and she really remained the only one who’d ever really understood what it was like to lose him.
And somehow, he knew she understood exactly what it felt like to get him back. To be happy that Michael would live under his roof again, look at him with all the love and adoration in his eyes–all that trust. To be his father again.
Thanks really couldn’t cover all that he wanted to say to her and because he thought he might tell her all of that–in addition to a few other things, he mumbled something about calling her later and hanging up the phone.