Callie finished the first part of her story and sat quietly with her head bowed, unable to meet either Stef or Lena’s gaze. She was deathly afraid of what she would see—pity, scorn, disgust?—and what they would say. Liam had been her personal boogeyman/skeleton for so long that even she had experienced moments of doubt. Maybe it had been her fault; after all, she had been fourteen and in the throes of her first crush. So she had worn more skirts around him, and Mrs. Olmstead had been pleased to indulge her with a new wardrobe, including a bright red halter top bikini with a matching cute little ruffled skirt with white flowers decorating it.
He had kissed her for the first time while she was wearing that bikini; she could remember the feel of his hands, rough with calluses and riding low and hard on her slim hips in the water as he pressed her against the wall of the pool, his tongue thick and insistent in her mouth. Like any teenage girl, she had been dazzled by the attention of an older, handsome boy, especially one that her friends all giggled and gossiped about.
Jude didn’t like him, but she had brushed him off with older sister disdain, until Liam pushed too far. When she threatened to go to his parents, Bill, anyone, he sneered and threatened to turn his attentions to Jude if she didn’t keep quiet.
And so it went. Her grades declined, she became moody and defensive. Her foster parents despaired of the change, begged her to tell them what was wrong.
“Just when I was about to, Liam walked in. He said that he knew exactly why I was so different.” Callie swallowed hard, felt Brandon shift next to her, but didn’t look up at him. “He said that I was mad because I had snuck into his room and seduced him, and he was feeling uncomfortable around me now.” She laughed bitterly. “he admitted to his parents that he had given in, of course, being only human, but it was always consensual.” She dug her nails harder into her thighs. “They didn’t bother asking me about my side. But the next day, CPS was called. They told Bill that I had been caught stealing from them and pawning the items. They would’ve kept Jude, but Bill didn’t want to split us up just yet, so he kept looking. You know the rest.” She closed her eyes, suddenly exhausted, needing to end the tale.
“Um, the reason that I’m telling you all of this is that Sarah, one of the girls in my group, is now living with the Olmsteads. She’s thirteen.” She looked up, and Stef caught her breath at the sudden fierce resolve and pleading in the teen’s eyes. She was instantly transported to the night they had rescued Jude, and experienced a sense of déjà vu as Callie repeated almost those same words.
“I know you can’t keep us. But Jude deserves to have a home where he is safe.” She looked directly at Lena for the last part, silently reminding the woman of the conversation they had the day Jude got pushed around for wearing nail polish. “Sarah doesn’t want my help, but she’s not safe there either. Bill won’t listen to me. Please.”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Stef was the first to move, catching Callie by the shoulders and pulling her up and into her arms. They were of similar height, so it was easy for the teen to bury her face in the older woman’s shoulder and sob, finally releasing the fear and stress and anger and resentment of the past couple of years.
Lena, her own eyes burning with unshed tears, gently led Brandon out of the living room and upstairs to his room before pulling him into a hug as well.
Surprised, for Lena didn’t often initiate hugs, he squeezed back, and felt her sigh heavily into his chest. When she pulled back, she smiled up at him. “I’m proud of you.” She said quietly. “That can’t have been easy, listening to all of that. You’re a good man, Brandon Foster.”
His surprise grew, even as pleasure lit up his face. Lena wasn’t usually as free with her verbal compliments and approval, though she shared her love in other ways, so this was high praise indeed. He frowned as she took at seat at his desk and motioned for him to sit on his bed.
“But Brandon,” she continued gently. “No matter what your personal feelings are for Callie, she needs a brother and friend more than a boyfriend right now.”
Pleasure turned to shock, then bewilderment and denial. “There’s nothing going on—“
“Brandon.” She reproached warningly. “Even if there’s nothing actually going on right now, the potential is still there. And, house rules and significant others or exes aside, I think you would be good for each other. But not right now.”
His lips pressed tightly together, suppressing his instinctive response.
“I mean it, Brandon. That girl is vulnerable right now and you will not take advantage of her!” She glared and held a finger up in warning when he opened his mouth to hotly protest.
“That is exactly what you would be doing if you made your feelings known to her right now. You would never resort to rape, but you would coercing her, all the same. House rules aside, do not put that girl in another position like she just described to us! Do not force me and Stef to choose between you two, because we will always choose you.”
Which meant a group home for Callie and Jude, and another black mark in Callie’s file, he realized. And no hope of being fostered again and finding that forever family.
All of which she would blame and resent him for—not for herself, but for ruining Jude’s chances at happiness.
“So what am I supposed to do?” The words burst out of him. “I really care about her, Mama. I can’t just be a brother to her forever.” He winced at the confession, but couldn’t take it back.
Lena didn’t get angry. She sighed softly, and tilted his chin up so that his stormy hazel eyes met her own calm brown ones.
“DNA doesn’t make a family; love does.” She reminded him. “Callie and Jude are a part of this family, as your siblings—for now. But I will tell you this—adopted siblings or not, if you both feel the same way when you turn eighteen, then you will have my—and Stef’s—blessing to be together.”
She watched the emotions flit across his face as he considered the implications of her statement. Most parents would never had been so bluntly open about their child’s relationship, but Lena had never been ‘most parents’.
“It won’t be easy.” She warned. “She’s comfortable with you, and I have no doubt that she’s going to push boundaries and test limits as her confidence in herself grows. But Brandon,” she smiled gently into his eyes. “If it’s meant to be, then it’ll be worth the wait.”
She stood up and kissed him gently on the forehead, brushing his tousled dark hair off of his face. “Good night, my love. Don’t stay up too late.”
She left him alone, deep in thought.
In the living room, Stef had coaxed Callie into moving with her to the couch, where they were now curled up together under a blanket. Stef was humming softly, Callie’s head on her shoulder, one hand absently stroking a soothing hand through the girl’s hair.
“Are you ready to listen now?” Stef said quietly, feeling the girl nod against her shoulder. “Okay. First of all, thank you for trusting me, and Lena, and Brandon, enough to come to us. You are an incredibly strong and extremely brave young woman to have experienced what you have and still have the compassion to step up and do the right thing for Sarah, even if it means exposing your own secrets.”
Callie slowly raised her head.
“Second, I will be taking it from here. No more talking to Sarah, or confrontations with Liam. I want you and Jude to stick close to Brandon and the twins for a while, okay? I do not trust this Liam character at all, but it will take some time to gather enough information to build a case against him. Sarah will be out of the house immediately,” she said, forestalling the instinctive protest in the teen’s eyes. “But we have to make sure that no other child is ever sent into danger in that house ever again, and that means not accusing Liam before we’re ready. Yes?”
She waited until she received a reluctant nod, and kissed Callie gently on the forehead.
“Good. Now, I think you would feel better with a quick shower, and then off to bed with you. Go on, now.”
Callie hesitated, then threw her arms around Stef in a tight hug before nearly running away.
Blowing out a long breath, Stef closed her eyes for a long moment, trying to quell the pain in her head and heart.
This changed everything.