#0 Broken Hearts

(free read)

"Passion and pain collide as tragedy unfolds."

~ * ~

Claire Huxley is a dedicated social worker. After a failed adoption, she becomes consumed with protecting children from harm, but something is missing in her life. After rescuing a child at risk, her maternal instincts kick in, and she is finally ready to discuss adopting another child with her husband. However, the father of her most recent rescue vows revenge.

***A prequel to Seasoned Hearts, the first book in the Love & Sacrifice Series

Short Story

3,500 words

Read full story here:


Claire Huxley’s work schedule was unpredictable at best and insane at worst, so spending time with her husband Blythe was a luxury she indulged in by getting up at dawn with him. If anything, his workload was as crazy, and while they both left home at the same time in the morning, neither knew when the other would return home at night.

Coming to work early gave her the chance to catch up on paperwork in the relative tranquility of her office on the second floor of Children’s Services. As a social worker, Claire felt great pride when she closed a file following a successful resolution or a permanent placement.

Two sets of documents had materialized overnight on her desk and both cases brought a smile of satisfaction to her face. A young single mom had regained custody of her toddler after cleaning up her act and moving back with her supportive parents, and a ten-year-old girl in foster care had found a permanent family.

Claire had known the involved parties for years and was delighted to close these two files.

Steps resonated in the corridor. Curious as to who could be on her floor this early, she looked toward the door, which she kept ajar when she was alone.

Aline, the multilingual receptionist whose desk was located in the lobby on the first floor, peeked a head crowned with silver hair in the opening. “I know it’s early, but would you have time for a visitor?”

The receptionist, who was already on the payroll of Children’s Services when Claire joined the team fifteen years ago, wasn’t in the habit of leaving her post unless it was important.

It didn’t matter the office wouldn’t officially open for another twenty minutes, Claire took Aline’s visit and request seriously. “Of course. You can send him, or her, in right away.”

Aline ushered a young woman inside. “Teresa, this is Claire Huxley, one of our best social workers. She’ll take good care of you.”

With the strap of a purple purse slung over her shoulder, the woman inched toward the padded chair across from Claire’s desk. The color of her purse matched the purple highlights in her short blonde hair. The woman couldn’t be more than twenty years old.

The door closed behind Aline.

Had Teresa not held a large cup with both hands, Claire would have offered her a coffee to put her at ease.

“Hi, Teresa. You can call me Claire.” Smiling, she gestured toward the chair. “Please, have a seat.”

Without making eye contact, the young woman sat with her back erect and her knees pressed together. “I...I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. Maybe I’m just making a big deal out of nothing.”

Through her career, Claire had noticed that people who were the most reluctant to talk tended to be the ones with deeper secrets. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Teresa? Then you and I can see if it’s a big deal or not, okay?”

“Okay...” The young woman sipped on her beverage, as if courage could be found at the bottom of a cup. “I’m a university student. I...I want to become a teacher. I like little kids, so I’m thinking early intervention. You know...three to five years old. I started my first practicum in an elementary school, but with preschool children.”

The more Teresa spoke, the calmer she became, but Claire knew better than to rush her or put words in her mouth. She needed to listen and wait for the truth to unfold.

“I know I’m not supposed to play favorite, but there’s that little boy with a missing front tooth.” A faint smile touched the young woman’s lips. “He’s four and he’s a handful, but when he looks at me with his big blue eyes and mischievous grin, my heart just melts. Yesterday, he drew this picture of himself and another boy playing in a treehouse.”

Her cup set aside, Teresa pulled a folded sheet of paper from her purse and unfolded it on Claire’s desk. Two stick people with oversized heads were drawn in crayons surrounded by a square topped with a triangle. One of the faces had a huge gap between his tooth and curly yellow hair while the other sported sparse spiky brown hair and a purple blob instead of a left eye.

Claire surmised the four-year-old in Teresa’s class was the blond boy, but the purple blob on his friend’s face puzzled her. “Which boy is which?”

“This is David, my little charmer.” She pointed her index toward the blond child on the left. “He told me this was his friend Aaron. It was the first time I heard the name, so I asked him why one of his eyes looked funny. My first thought was an eyepatch. It’s a common occurrence among preschoolers, but David told me his friend’s eye was big and purple, like the other spots on his arms and legs.”

Bruises were the first things that came to Claire’s mind. “Did David say how Aaron got those spots on his arms and legs?”

“His mom came to pick him up before I had a chance to ask him, but as he got his coat and boots, I asked his mom when was the last time David played with Aaron.” As she took another sip from her cup, Teresa’s eyes lost their focus. “Upon hearing the boy’s name, she tensed like...like I’d hit her or something. She became defensive and said she didn’t know any Aaron. I might have dismissed her behavior if it hadn’t been for another mom who overheard us. She said there was a boy named Aaron in the preschool program last year that was friend with David and her own daughter, but the boy didn’t return this fall.”

The mother’s lie raised Claire’s concerns. “Did that mom happen to mention Aaron’s last name?”

“No, but I...” Teresa pulled another folded sheet of paper from her purse, which she presented to Claire. “I looked at the enrollment records for last year. A boy named Aaron Clark was registered, but he stopped attending on May 6th. The reason listed was broken leg. Have a look at his address—and David’s.”

Claire perused the document which contained the names and addresses of both boys on the picture. They lived on the same street. One at civic number twenty-seven and the other at twenty-nine. “The boys are neighbors?”

“Their houses are side by side. I made a detour and drove on their street last night on my way home. I even spotted a treehouse in David’s backyard near the fence separating the two properties. Maybe I’m making a big deal out of a purple eye. Maybe they were playing pirate and Aaron fell from the treehouse and broke his leg. There could be plenty of explanations, right? But then, why did David’s mom say she didn’t know any Aaron when the kid lives next door?” A loud sigh escaped her lips. “In class they tell us it’s our duty to report any suspected abuse, but it’s not like I’ve ever met David’s friend. It feels weird to be here because of a purple drawing.”

In many cases, the rescue of a child started with a word, a sign, or a hunch. Claire had investigated reports that provided less evidence than this one. “I know it’s not always obvious, Teresa, but you did the right thing.”

* * *

Good thing I closed two files because I have a feeling I’m about to open a new one.

Hoping to catch him at the police station, Claire called Detective Drew Dalton on his private line. The phone rang once then an audible click resonated in her handset.

“Detective Dalton, speaking.”

“Good morning, Drew. It’s Claire.” An enduring friendship had developed between them after he provided her protection in her first case with the agency. At the time, he had been a constable and she had been terrified to enter the home of a suspected child abuser. “Am I catching you at a bad time?”

“The day you catch me at a good time, Claire, I’ll be in a canoe fishing with my girls.” Diligent and dedicated, Drew had climbed the ladder faster than any detective before him without losing his wife and daughters to his work. “What’s up?”

She recounted the details of her conversation without naming her source. “So, off the record, do you have any members of Aaron Clark’s family on your radar?”

“Let me run the name and address in the database. Can I get back to you?” Only once had Drew failed to call her back the same day, but then he had reached out to her the following morning after he dealt with the aftermath of the murders of six gang members.

“Yes and thank you. I appreciate your help.”

While she waited to hear from him, she called the school Aaron attended last spring. The secretary confirmed the four-year-old boy was pulled out of the preschool program by his mother Martha Clark after he broke his leg. The request was made by phone, not in person. No father was listed on his school record and his address matched the one Teresa provided. As Claire noted all the details in a new file, her phone rang.

“Claire Huxley, speaking.”

“Claire, it’s Drew.” With his deep cavernous voice, it was hard to mistake him for anyone else. “You won’t like what I found.”

To be proven right didn’t make her feel good. “I’m listening.” And taking notes.

“We visited that address twice in the last six months. First on a drug raid, then on a family disturbance complaint. The drug raid yielded limited results. Two adults were in the house at the time. A man and a woman. We suspected Kevin Roswell of trafficking, but with the minute quantity we discovered, we could only bust him for possession. His wife Martha Clark Roswell was high, but no charges were laid against her.” Though Drew hadn’t mentioned Aaron yet, his emphasis on Martha’s name confirmed a connection with the boy. “I can’t tell you if she sported signs of abuse when the raid took place, but when we visited the house a few months later, she was red, blue, and purple. A concerned neighbor had reported the assault, but Martha refused to lay any accusations. That night, the concerned neighbor’s house burned to the ground. No one on the street knew, heard, or saw anything.”

Retaliation for speaking up. Intimidation was a tactic that Claire had encountered too often. “Fear would explain why the mother next door pretended not to know any Aaron.”

“Quite possible.” A smidgen of frustration pierced through his voice. “Martha wasn’t on our radar until the drug raid. She married Roswell last fall after her first husband, George Clark, died in a work-related accident. I found records indicating Martha gave birth to a son, Aaron Clark, four year ago, but none of the officers who entered the family house on these occasions reported the presence of a child.”

Today’s November 9th. The raid dated back six months, which coincided with the time Aaron was pulled out of preschool. “Back in May, Aaron lived in that house, but there are no records at Children’s Services that he was ever removed.”

“Are you asking me to provide you with an escort so you can check on the boy’s welfare?” The detective read her mind. “I have two officers at the station right now who’d love an excuse to enter that house.”

“Can they meet me there at 11:00 a.m., or do they need more time?” She would wait at the corner of the street and only approach the house once the officers arrived.

“Hold on.” Drew barked some orders without muting his phone. From the sound of it, Officers Muller and Chen had been drafted to accompany her. “They’re leaving now. Be careful, Claire.”

* * *

Claire waited for the police cruiser to stop behind the truck in the driveway, blocking its escape route, before she parked in the street in front of Aaron’s house.

The two police officers exited their cruiser. One of them accompanied her to the door while the other stayed by the truck.

She knocked and rang the doorbell. Steps resounded from inside the house then the door opened.

A bare-chested man stepped on the snow-covered porch despite the cold temperature. “What do you want?”

“Children’s Services is conducting an investigation into the welfare of Aaron Clark.” Officer Chen took a threatening step toward the man. “Stand aside, Mr. Roswell.”

The man hadn’t introduced himself, but the officer had recognized him. The glaring battle escalated, then all of a sudden, a scuffle erupted between Roswell and Chen. She took a few steps back as the second officer intervened.

“Touch my kid and I’m gonna kill you.” More unsavory threats directed at her spewed out of Roswell’s mouth as the officers subdued him. “You’re dead, bitch.”

The belligerent man was shoved on the back seat of the cruiser. Officer Muller stayed with him while Chen stepped inside the house with her.

In an upstairs bedroom, hidden in a closet, a distraught woman hugged an emaciated child. The woman’s bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils spoke of her situation as clearly as the bruises, scratches, and cigarette burns marring hers—and the young boy’s—skin.

“Martha? Aaron?” With his big brown eyes, the child reminded her of her nephews. “I’m here to help you. I won’t let him hurt you or Aaron anymore.”

The woman recoiled into the closet, growling. “Leave us alone!”

Claire suspected fear and drugs of clouding Martha’s mind. “I can’t leave, Martha. You and your son are hurt. You both need help.”

One arm coiled around her son’s neck, she snatched a coat hanger. “Go away!”

“I can’t force you to come with me, Martha, but I’m not leaving without Aaron. Let me protect your son. Please?” With a tilt of the head, Claire forewarned the officer by her side to be ready to step in while extending her hand. “Aaron? Come with me, sweetheart.”

Tightening her grip on the boy, Martha brandished the coat hanger. “He’s mine.”

The officer caught Martha’s forearm and twist it behind her back. The coat hanger fell to the floor and the child broke loose.

Claire picked him up. Shocked that he weighed nothing, she hugged Aaron close to her bleeding heart. “It will be okay, sweetheart. From now on, we’ll make sure you’re safe.”

The erratic mother spitted and yelled at the officer, but as Chen pulled her out of the closet, she bolted away and clawed at Claire’s sleeve. “I want him back! Give him back!”

Officer Chen grabbed Martha by the arm. “Ma’am, you need to let go or I’ll have to arrest you.”

Claire left with the little boy gripping the front of her coat.

* * *

Not all foster families were created equal. There were some special ones on which Claire could rely on any day and any time. She was pleased when the family at the top of her list welcomed Aaron with open arms and hearts. The child would be safe and loved while a case was built against his stepdad.

Aaron’s mother was a wild card, a card that would remain wild until Martha received the professional help she needed.

So much for a quiet evening at home. With all the paperwork she needed to fill, Claire wouldn’t be home for dinner.

Alone in her office at Children’s Services, she called Blythe at the studio. She looked forward to share a glass of wine with him before bedtime to celebrate a successful rescue.

Her husband’s phone rang once. “Hux, speaking.”

“Hello, sweetheart.” The buzzing activity in the background told her he was on set at the studio, but she also knew Blythe wouldn’t have answered had he not been on break. “How’s your evening shaping up?”

“I wish my evening would take your shape, darling, but today’s keyword is retake. It feels like we’re shooting every scene a dozen times.” As one of the main characters of Wild Rescue, a popular Canadian television show fictionalizing the lives and tribulations of a search and rescue team, Blythe appeared in most scenes. As a result, he spent as much time at Arctica Production Studio as she did at Children’s Services. “I’m afraid I won’t be home until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. We didn’t have anything plan for tonight, did we?”

“No, but now I feel less guilty.” She gave him a quick summary of her day. “I need to make a dent in Aaron’s paperwork, so I’ll take advantage of your retakes and stay at the office for a while.”

“Don’t work too late, darling. I’ll see you home.” A female voice summoned her husband. His break appeared to be over. “Need to go. Love you.”

* * *

“Am I disturbing you at home?” Drew’s call came on her personal cell phone as Claire prepared to leave the office. The detective wouldn’t have called her in the evening unless it was important.

“I wish.” If another layer of paper landed on her desk, she would need to call Emergency Services to dig her out before she suffocated. “What’s going on?”

“It’s about Kevin Roswell. We charged him for uttering dead threats and assault on a police officer, but he posted bail before we could add assault causing bodily harm to a child to the list.” His tacit warning wasn’t lost on her.

The angry stepfather was a threat and Drew didn’t want her to underestimate him, but what struck her the most in the conversation were the added charges. Claire had stayed in the room while the doctor had examined and talked to Aaron. The child hadn’t said much, but what he said incriminated his stepfather. The foster parents had been informed that an officer would visit them tonight to talk further with Aaron. The fact new charges were added so quickly meant Aaron had provided enough physical and verbal evidence.

“Roswell isn’t the first man who wants me dead, Drew.” And he won’t be the last. To receive threats was an integral part of her job. “I take you will ensure Aaron’s safety until his stepfather is apprehended?”

“Yes, but I thought you’d also want to know Chen and Muller found Aaron’s mother unconscious on the kitchen floor when they went back looking for her husband. It looked like a drug overdose, though we’re not ruling out Roswell’s involvement yet.” The latest developments affected Drew’s investigation as much as her case. “She was admitted to the hospital, but the prognosis isn’t encouraging.”

Though he married Aaron’s mother, Claire discovered that Roswell never adopted the boy. Martha’s death would change Aaron’s status. The child would become a permanent ward of the province therefore making him eligible for adoption.

“Thanks for the heads up, Drew.” While she didn’t wish Martha to die, Claire needed to prepare for such eventuality. “Keep me posted, would you?”

“Of course. Good night, Claire.”

Leaning back in her chair, Claire fidgeted with her phone. Many years ago, she and Blythe tried to adopt a baby, but the birth mother changed her mind at the last minute, breaking Claire's heart. From then on, she had devoted her life to protect children. Maybe the time had come to give adoption another try before she and Blythe were too old.

Blythe would make such a wonderful father.

In seventeen years of marriage, he never said anything but she had been aware of the secret yearning burning in his heart. At this stage in their lives, it would make more sense to adopt an older child. She suspected her husband would prefer to teach their son or daughter how to ride a bike or skate than change diapers.

Tonight she would broach the painful subject she had avoided for years.

* * *

Children’s Services was located in a brand new professional building in the industrial district. At night, the area was deserted.

With hope in her heart and spring in her steps, Claire breezed through the empty lobby and exited into the freezing night. Swayed by the wind, fat snowflakes twirled in the light of the lampposts. The weatherman forecasted a winter storm beginning tonight. His predictions were right on target.

As she neared her car sprinkled with snow, the only vehicle in the parking lot, Claire noticed a shadow by the passenger side. “Hello? Is someone there?”

A silhouette—a hooded silhouette extending an arm toward her—advanced in her direction. “You shouldn’t work alone at night. It’s dangerous.”

The chilling voice stopped Claire dead in her tracks. It sounded oddly familiar, still it took her a few seconds to recognize it.

What are you doing lurking in the parking lot? You shouldn’t be here. Despite the erratic beating of her heart, Claire forced herself to remain calm. “What do you want?”

The hood fell back, revealing a sickening smirk. “To kill you.”

A detonation resonated in the air and pain exploded in Claire’s head. She collapsed in the parking lot.

Blood reddened the snow on the ground. Satisfied, the shooter walked away.

TO BE CONTINUED in Seasoned Hearts – Love & Sacrifice #1