Tea stopped and turned around in the hallway outside the courtroom, barely able to muster up a smile for the old friend approaching her.
"What brings you to court today?" Nora Buchanan asked pleasantly. "I didn't think you were doing much around here these days, what with how busy Clint's been keeping you with all the B.E. mergers and acquisitions he's been cooking up."
Tea nodded. "Yes, well, this is a special case."
Nora frowned and looked at the courtroom behind Tea. "Wait a minute…Judge Myers is hearing Natalie's custody suit today. Tea, you're not representing John in that case, are you? Do you really think that's such a good idea after…well, you know, after…"
"After losing my baby?" Tea asked. "It's okay, Nora. You can say it. It hurts, but it happened, and pretending like it didn't doesn't make it hurt me any less."
"Alright," Nora said hesitantly. "Do you really think representing John McBain in a custody suit is a good idea so soon after losing the baby?"
"I never let my personal life interfere with my professional one," Tea said, frowning as Nora arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Okay fine, with the exception of Todd Manning and Victor Lord, Jr. I have never let my personal life interfere with my professional work. I don't intend to start today."
"If it'll make you feel better, Nora, I'm not here representing John."
Nora nodded, a hint of relief as she looked at Tea. "That's good. The last thing you need right now is to be involved in a messy custody case."
"I didn't say I wasn't involved in the case," Tea said. "I just said I wasn't representing John. I'm here to represent Natalie."
Nora sighed. "Oh Tea…"
"Don't lecture me, Nora. I'm a grown woman, I can pick my own cases."
"But John McBain is a friend of yours, Tea. How can you try to take his child away from him?"
"It's a messy situation, Nora," Tea pointed out. "Natalie is family. She's my daughter's cousin. How can I stand by and watch John try to take her child away from her?"
"I didn't think you even liked Natalie."
Tea shrugged. "I don't dislike her. I'll admit we were never exactly friends, but most of that was because Victor didn't like her much. And the last few months…well, she's been very good to Danielle."
"Dani has not been taking Victor's death well. None of the kids have, but I think it's been especially hard for Danielle," Tea said. "After Todd was acquitted, everything sort of came to a head, and she couldn't take it anymore. She ran away. She was gone for four days before Natalie just happened to find her trying to hitchhike her way to Boston."
"What's in Boston?"
"You know, I've never really been clear on that part," Tea admitted. "And I don't know what Natalie said to get her to come back to Llanview, but whatever it was, it worked. She came home, and she actually apologized to me. I don't know what it was, but Natalie was able to get through to my daughter when I couldn't. I owe her for that."
"You'd take away John's son to repay some imagined debt to Natalie?" Nora asked in disbelief. "John would never take Liam away from Natalie in that way."
"Nora, he's suing for sole legal and physical custody."
"You're kidding," Nora gasped in surprise. "That doesn't make any sense. Why would he do that?"
Tea shrugged. "I'm not sure. He's on a war path that I wouldn't have expected from John McBain. I always thought he was the type to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. And from what I've seen, John's been a good father to Liam, even if he hasn't been around much the last few months. But this case…well, it looks like it's going to get very nasty very quickly."
"From your side or his?"
"Both," Tea admitted. "I only took the case a few hours ago, so there's a lot more I still need to do to get familiar with the specifics, but from what I've seen so far…well, let's just say it looks like the John McBain that Natalie knows isn't exactly the same man the rest of thought we knew."
"Mommy, watch me!"
Natalie leaned back on the bench and laughed as she watched her son pump his legs back and forth, pushing his swing higher and higher.
"Be careful, Liam!" she called out. "Not too high!"
Hearing footsteps behind her, she turned her head and smiled as her husband sat down next to her, a tiny pink bundle in his arms.
"Any problems changing her?"
John rolled his eyes. "One time. I have a problem with your squirmy daughter one time, and I never live it down."
Natalie laughed and pulled back the blanket, leaning forward to kiss her daughter on the forehead. "Daddy's a little sensitive, don't you think, Theresa?"
"He's on the…" Natalie felt her heart stop as she looked over at the empty swing set. "He was right there. He was on the swings."
"Natalie, where's Liam?" John asked more forcefully, grabbing her shoulders and shaking her as his voice rose. "What the hell did you do with my son?"
"He was right there!" Natalie insisted, panic in her voice as she broke away from him and sprinted toward the swings. "Liam! Liam, where are you? Liam!"
"Liam…" Natalie groaned as she opened her eyes, her heart racing as she slowly realized it had been a dream. Another night, another nightmare.
When Allison had taken her, she'd told her she was being punished. If that was the case, Natalie had to admit that as crazy as Allison was, she was doing a stellar job. Natalie couldn't think of a worse punishment for a mother than not knowing where her child was, or even knowing if her child was still alive. After all, it had been days - probably weeks, although she'd long since lost any track of time - since she had seen her son. For all she knew, the hole she'd seen one of Allison's henchmen digging during the night had been for Liam.
Shaking away the dark thoughts, Natalie slowly sat up and looked around the room. Sometimes she wondered why she did it. Every day, she spent the day looking over every inch of her little slice of hell, trying to find some way to escape. And every day she came up empty.
But to not try would be giving up, and as her father would tell her, she was a Buchanan...and Buchanans don't give up. So spent her days surveying the empty bedroom, hoping to find something that had been left behind when it had been stripped of all its furniture. And at night, she'd curl up on the floor by the barred window and restlessly dream of her family. It was all she had left of them, and every day she felt as though her chances of ever making it home to them were slipping further and further away.
"All rise! Court is now in session, the Honorable Judge Helen Myers presiding," the bailiff called out as Tea rose to her feet, refusing to turn her head to look across the courtroom where she knew John was standing with Alexis Davis. If she looked, that nagging feeling that there was something very wrong with the case she'd been handed might come back to her, and she couldn't have that feeling if she was going to be on her game for the hearing.
"Good afternoon," Judge Myers said as she motioned for everyone to be seated, then took a seat herself and pulled out her glasses. "Ms. Delgado, I'm surprised to see you at the table today. I was under the impression that Nicholas Parker was Ms. Banks' attorney?"
"He was, your honor," Tea said. "Mr. Parker unfortunately had a conflict that prevented him from continuing with this case. I've been fully briefed on the matters at hand and am prepared to move forward as Ms. Banks' attorney of record."
"Very well. The clerk will please note the change of counsel," Judge Myers instructed. "And with that, we are now on the record in the matter of John McBain vs. Natalie Banks, a petition for custody of the minor child known as Liam Asa McBain. I see that Mr. McBain and counsel are both present. Ms. Delgado, are you expecting Ms. Banks to join us today?"
Tea shook her head. "No, your honor. As her presence is not legally required at this early stage of the proceedings, Ms. Banks felt it was best to remain with her child this afternoon."
The judge frowned but nodded. "In that case, I suggest we get started. I'd like to remind everyone, especially those observers or parties who may not be familiar with the stages of a custody suit, this is only an initial hearing. We're not here today to argue anyone's complete case, and we're not here to make final decisions on custody of the child. We're here to establish the basic requests of the parties and to determine if there is a need for any intermediate or temporary custody orders to be in place while the case proceeds. Are there any questions?"
The courtroom was silent in response.
"Excellent. In that case, I understand that Mr. McBain has…"
"Actually, your honor, if I may…" Tea stood up and waited for the judge to nod before continuing. "Your honor, before the court expends any more of its valuable time, I wish to formally move that the custody claim of John McBain be dismissed without merit and sole legal and physical custody be retained by my client, Natalie Buchanan Banks, without further challenge."
"Your honor, needless to say, my client wholeheartedly opposes counsel's motion," Alexis interjected, standing up to face the judge. "My client is a loving and devoted father who is only asking for the court's due consideration of his legal right to be a part of his child's life. Ms. Delgado's ridiculous motion is entirely without merit, and quite frankly, offensive to both my client and to this court."
"Ms. Delgado, explain yourself, please," Judge Myers said.
"Your honor, John McBain has no legal standing upon which to make any custodial claim for the child in question."
"What the hell are you talking about?" John exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "He's my son! Liam is mine and you know it, Tea! Natalie has no right to keep him away from me!"
"Ms. Davis, I suggest you control your client," the judge instructed impatiently as Alexis pushed John back into his chair and shot him a warning look.
"Your honor, I apologize for the outburst, but Mr. McBain has a point," Alexis said. "Ms. Delgado is grasping at straws. As the child's father, the law is very clear here - my client has every right to ask for custody."
"If her client were the child's legal father, I would agree with Ms. Davis, your honor," Tea said.
"Ms. Delgado, do you know something opposing counsel doesn't?" Judge Myers asked curiously.
"Yes, your honor," Tea said, taking a breath and pointedly looking at the judge and away from John. "John McBain is not the legal father of this child."