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He looks down at the ground. “No. You won’t.”

And I didn’t.

Not ever again.

Chapter One

Sydney, Australia. 2014.

The knocking on the door won’t quit.

Burying myself deeper into the mattress, I pull the covers tighter around me and sigh dreamily.

Knock knock knock…

“Alexa, get your arse up! Did you forget what today is?” That sounds like Drew.

My eyes snap open and I gasp.

“Shit.” I jump out of bed as if I was ejected. “Shit!”

Running down the hall to the front door, I undo the latch and swing the door open. An annoyed looking Drew stands there. He takes one look at my body and his mouth gapes.

Brow furrowing, I look down and yell, “Shit!”

I don’t like to sleep in anything too bulky. A spaghetti-strapped tank and panties are my usual bedding combo. Running back to my room, I hear Drew chuckle and I shout, “Laugh it up, Drew! You’ll get yours.”

Drew is a fellow case worker, and I forgot – I f**king forgot – that we need to be in court early this morning.

I moved to Australia from the US when I was eighteen. My foster mom took care of me from the time I was sixteen, and when her health started to decline, she wanted to move to be closer to her family. Being Australian born, that’s where she was headed, and I accepted that I was losing my mama.

Only, that’s not what happened.

After days of being depressed over her impending departure, she stated, “You need to pack your things into boxes so I can send them ahead of us. You should only keep a suitcase full of clothes. I’ll make sure I don’t send everything too early, but I still want our stuff to meet us when we get there.”

My head snapped up.

Say what now?

Mom’s face fell at my dumbfounded expression. “You don’t want to come with me?”

Blinking a few moments, I let out an excited shriek and jumped on her. “Yes! Yes! I do, Mama!”

Thus ending our little miscommunication.

Undressing, I spray my body with deodorant for a good thirty seconds before tossing the can aside and rummaging for something decent to wear. I settle for a long-sleeved white shirt tucked into black slacks, and add a thin black belt.

Definitely courthouse chic.

Slipping on a pair of low heels, I swipe the sleep from my eyes, release my hair from its ponytail, shake it out, and look at myself in the mirror.

Not bad. It could be a lot worse.

Pursing my lips, I nod my head in affirmation.

It’s going to have to do. I don’t have time right now.

Stepping out of my room, Drew turns to me and does a double take. His blue eyes widen. “You seriously got…” he gestures to my entire body, “…all of that done in not even five minutes?”

Rushing to grab my purse in the kitchenette, I say, “Uh huh.”

He shakes his head, muttering, “I gotta have serious words with my girl. Seriously, though. Who needs two hours to get ready to go to the movies?”

That is a long time.

Finally having located my purse and files, I walk back out to him. “Don’t start anything that’s going to backfire. She only takes so long because she wants to look nice for you.”

Walking to my front door, he scoffs, “I prefer her without all the shit all over her face.”

Stopping in my tracks, I place a hand on my hip and tilt my head. “Have you told her that?”

Drew’s lips purse indignantly.

Just as I thought. No. He hasn’t.

Lifting my brows and pointing my finger at him, I instruct, “You need to tell her that.”

We exit my unit and head out to his car. On the way over to the courthouse, he asks, “You know what you need to say?”

Nodding, I tell him, “It’s straight forward. In and out. Tahlia takes better care of herself than her parents do. And besides that, she’s seventeen. If she wants to be emancipated, I think she’s got a great chance. We’re not talking about a thirteen-year-old here. We’re talking about a seventeen-year-old who left home at fifteen, got a job, and found a place to stay. On. Her. Own. She’s responsible, and…” turning to Drew, I add with a smile, “She’s such a nice girl. So sweet and charming. I think she’s got what it takes to stay out of the system.”

Drew turns back to the road, smiling, “I think this one’s in the bag.”

A shit-eating-grin spreads across my face. “I know.”

I’m giddy.

As soon as we exit the courtroom, I lose my poker face, rush over to Tahlia, and whisper-shout, “Congratulations, honey!”

She laughs quietly and accepts my hug. I hold her tight, smiling all the while.

I love my job.

She mutters into my shirt, “Thank you. Really. Thank you so much.”

Pulling back, I place her hair behind her ear and admit, “It was my pleasure.”

Releasing her completely, I run her through the plan. “So what happens now is that you’re free to do as you please. That is not an invitation for you to have all-nighters and get wasted, you hear?”

Tahlia rolls her eyes. “Yes, mum.”

I chuckle. I love how blunt the Australian accent is.

Smiling, I place my hand on her forearm and squeeze. “You know you can call anytime. Even if it’s not important.” Shrugging, I tell her, “It could be something silly, like advice about a boy, or even what laundry detergent to use for a particular type of stain.” She laughs at me and my smile softens. “Anything, honey. You’re not on my books anymore, but you’ll always be one of my kids.”

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