Leland drove to Belle Meade to confront the only woman he’d ever truly loved—convinced that if she loved him back, she would give him another chance to explain. He owed her more than a heartfelt apology. He owed her a glimpse into his past, a snapshot of his life before he’d met her. He’d kept from her what he’d withheld from so many friends along his journey as a single father and a struggling artist trying to balance his obligations with his music dream. He wrote songs to touch lives and bring people closer together. Not tear them apart.
He rolled his window down when he found himself at the gate to Melissa’s property and reached his arm out to press the keypad on the access control system. He hesitated with his finger an inch away from the box. Was he chasing something better left alone? Should he turn around and leave his past behind or confront his fear head on?
He punched the code Sid gave him and waited for the iron gate to open inward and grant him access to the long, swooping driveway with a “SOLD” sign prominently displayed in the lawn.
When he reached the house, he parked beside a black BMW and got out to see Martin advancing toward him, his aggressive posture loaded for bear. “I need to speak with Melissa.”
“You’re trespassing on private property,” Martin asserted himself before Leland could take another step.
“Then who opened the gate?”
“Mel’s not here.”
“When will she be back?”
“This property belongs to me now.”
Leland scanned the windows on the front of the house. “Where is she? I’ve been trying to call her—”
“You should leave now,” Martin dictated as Paula emerged from the house barefoot in a T-shirt and shorts.
“What are you doing here?” Leland directed his angst at Paula.
Paula shuffled toward him. “The second flood is coming. Only I can save our daughter.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Abby needs her mother. You can’t be with her anymore.”
“Her mother needs to take her medication.”
Paula avoided eye contact with one arm bent behind her back. “You can’t be seen with her,” she said in a monotone voice. “You think you have all the answers, prancing around like some kind of God, Mr. big shot rock star. They canceled you like a bad check. You aren’t fit to be her father.”
“You need help, Paula. Taking Abby away from me won’t solve your problems.”
Paula remained expressionless; her face an empty page. “I’m not the problem, and you’re not the father.”
Leland followed Martin toward the house. “What did you do to her?”
“I’m her attorney. Anything you need from Paula, you go through me first.”
“She’s not right in the head.”
“Get off my property.”
Martin pointed toward the driveway. “You’ve got one minute before I have you arrested for trespassing.”
Leland climbed in his truck and dialed Sid’s number. “We need to talk,” he started when Sid answered.
“Where are you?“
“You need to pick up Abby.“
“Is she all right?”
“Paula’s attorney filed a motion for an emergency custody order.“
“He can’t do that!”
“The judge granted the order to have Abby removed from your care. Children’s services sent an officer to your house. The state is planning to take temporary custody of Abby, today.“
Melissa locked herself in her tour bus, physically depleted from the rigors of endless preparations and daily rehearsal schedules at the start of her East Coast festival tour. After struggling to reclaim her career, she finally found her stride, regardless of her looming regrets about selling the house to Martin and uprooting her boys from the only home they’d ever known. In her haste to end her relationship with Leland, she had candidly dismissed her own addiction issues and her self-centered views. Now she found herself alone on a custom coach with more accouterments than a five star hotel. She knew the demands of life on the road; how the lure of fame and fortune overshadowed any notion of an honest conversation about the unsettling monotony of the music business mired in poor judgment, bad taste, and chronic indulgence in illegal drugs. She had everything she wanted and more, with no one to blame but herself for feeling rejected at a time when she needed Leland the most.
* * *
Leland charged inside the Nashville recreation center to find Principal Hendrix engaged in conversation with a Davidson County Deputy. “Where’s my daughter?” he vented loud enough to draw the principal’s attention. “Abby’s supposed to be here.”
“I want to see Abby now!”
Principal Hendrix maintained an aggressive stance with her large frame physically obstructing Leland’s path. “Mr. Presley—”
“Where is she?”
“Abby’s safe. Let’s go somewhere private and talk.”
A vein in Leland’s temple throbbed. “I’m not going anywhere without my daughter. Bring her out here now, or this is going to get ugly.”
Principal Hendrix waved off the deputy sheriff who took offense at Leland’s fighting words. “Mr. Presley, I’m on your side. I realize you’re frustrated. I promise you, Abby is safe.”
Leland followed Principal Hendrix inside a small equipment room. “Whatever it is you think you’re doing to protect my daughter, it’s not helping.”
“Mr. Presley, I’ve worked in education for more than thirty-five years, including most of my summers spent with youth programs like these. I’ve seen a lot in my tenure, and there are two things I know as certain truth: first, I don’t believe you pose any threat to Abby; and second, I wouldn’t be here if I thought otherwise.”
“I’m taking Abby home with me.”
“Right now that would do more harm than good.”
“You’re not hearing me, Mr. Presley. I’m on Abby’s side. She has issues, of which I am well aware, but abuse at home is not one of them.”
Leland drew a deep breath. “I’m not leaving here without her.”
“Child services has a court order granting the state temporary custody until a hearing can be held to determine—”
“This is wrong! They have no right.”
“They have the law.”
“No law gives them permission to come in here and threaten to take my daughter!”
“It’s not a perfect system.”
Leland lunged for the door when he saw Abby emerge with a sheriff’s deputy and a man in a tie with a government ID around his neck. “Abby!”
“Dad!” Abby screamed.
Leland approached the officer. “My daughter’s coming home with me.”
The officer reached for his taser gun. “Sir, I need you to step back.”
“You said no one would take me away!” Abby cried.
“I’m sorry,” Leland pleaded. “I’ll figure this out. I promise!” He followed Abby and the officer until Principal Hendrix intervened.
“Mr. Presley! You’re no good to your daughter in jail.”
“This isn’t right.”
“You’ll have your day in court.”
Leland stood helplessly as the men ushered Abby from the building to a government sedan outside. He wanted Paula in a straight jacket, and the judge who sided with her case, in jail.
“Go home, Mr. Presley. Meet with your lawyer. If there’s anything I can do to help, I will.”
* * *
Sid entered Leland’s house and followed the sound of acoustic guitar played at a heated tempo. “Leland?”
“In here,” he heard Leland call out.
Sid stepped around unpacked boxes and a curious orange tabby who jumped on a window sill for a glimpse at the squirrel festivities outside. “I’m sorry about what happened. I tried to get there before child services arrived.”
Leland stopped playing when Sid entered the room. “They took her away from me.”
“They had a court order.”
“How soon will I get her back?”
“I’m working on it.”
Leland picked at the guitar strings indifferently. “I feel empty inside.”
“You can’t blame yourself.”
“I blame my wife!”
“The burden of proof falls on her attorney. Their case is flimsy. I’ve already filed a motion to dismiss.”
“How long will that take?”
“Depends on the court’s schedule. Maybe ten, twelve weeks at most. But there’s no guarantee they’ll grant it.”
“I’m not waiting three months!” Leland set his guitar in the case. “There has to be something more you can do. This is my word against hers. There’s no way the courts would side with Paula. You know she’s lying.”
“Only if we can prove it.”
“You said the burden of proof was on her attorney.”
“And her attorney will make a strong argument that you’re not fit to be Abby’s father.”
“But I am her father.”
“Not biologically, which makes the situation more complicated.”
“Abby needs me.”
“She’ll be safe in the state’s care.”
“Bullshit! I’ve been in the state’s care.”
“We’ll get her back,” Sid assured him.
“I’ll worry about that. You stay close to your phone.”
* * *
Leland reached for the bottle of bourbon stashed in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Behind him, the orange tabby sauntered from the hallway to Abby’s room and howled. “She’s not here,” he told the cat and unscrewed the cap. He took a swig and left the open bottle on the counter. He retrieved his guitar and played through a new chord sequence, hoping to find the words to match the music. But every string played sharp or flat, out of tune and out of touch with every melody he composed in his head. Instead of solace in his music, he found emptiness, an emotional void where fear transformed into sadness, sadness devolved into anger, and anger appealed to apathy.
He clenched the guitar neck in both hands and raised the prized possession above his head. Rage swelled within him until he slammed the vintage instrument to the floor, again and again, pounding the handmade Gibson into a pile of splintered wood and broken strings.