A Family Affair

By JeanneZ84

Chapter One: A Surprise at Gulls' Way

It was a very pleasant, but very early Sunday morning, and Mark McCormick was still comfortably asleep in his bed, when he woke to the sound of someone knocking on the gatehouse door. Looking at his clock, the young man saw it was only 6:00 a.m.

As he climbed out of bed, Mark mumbled to himself, "Hardcase, if you know what's good for you, this had better not be you, y'old donkey!" He fumbled his way downstairs, pushing his curly hair back into shape before pulling his robe on over crumpled pajamas. Then, he moved toward the door to see who could be there at such an early hour.

Mark could barely stand the knocking; it was driving him crazy after only three hours of sleep the night before. Of course, the night had been worth it, as he'd been out with his newest girlfriend, Sandra.

When he opened the door, Mark was surprised to find not the judge, but a woman, standing on the landing. She glanced up and smiled at him sweetly. The woman was young and had fine blond hair that brushed just past her shoulders. And her eyes… familiar blue eyes.

"D-Doreen?" Mark stammered. "What are you doing here?"

Flustered, the woman tilted her head. "Hello, Mark. It's been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Come in," Mark invited, recovering quickly. "What can I do for you?"

"Well, I know it's been almost three years since we've seen each other, Mark. But I have something to talk to you about, something that I've been keeping from you for a while. And, now, I think it's time you should know about it, too."

Mark handed Doreen a cup of coffee. "Whatever it is, let's sit down and talk about it. Okay?"

Doreen perched nervously on the edge of the sofa, before starting right in on what she had to say. "First of all, let me tell you, it's not a what we need to talk about. It's a who!"

Mark was puzzled. "What do you mean a 'who'?"

"Remember, right after we broke up, I moved away?"

"Yeah, you did…."

"Uhm… yes, well about a month after that, I started feeling really sick. So, I went to the doctor thinking I had the flu, but it wasn't the flu, Mark. I was pregnant." Doreen paused, looking down, and smoothed a strand of hair behind one ear. "Mark, I… we have a little girl, and sh-she is beautiful," the woman finished in a rush. "Her name Crystal. I'm very sorry that I never told you when I found out."

Mark was so shocked that the first words out of his mouth were, "Are you sure she's mine?" Of course, he regretted them instantly.

Doreen looked put out. "You mean 'ours'?" she snapped, her temper starting to rise. "What kind of question is that? Do you think I sleep around with every guy in town? My God, Mark, give me some credit!"

Mark just sat stunned, trying to absorb all the information he'd been given.

"Look, I know this is a shock. But I just knew I had to tell you. So, I took off a few days off from nursing school to come out here and talk this out." Doreen glanced back up, searching Mark's face. "You know I want to be an RN, and…"

Mark's own anger grew, as he heard his ex-girlfriend stacking up excuses for not telling him sooner about his daughter. He jerked upright off the couch, fury blazing in his eyes. "Stop making excuses! I'm sick of hearing this. You had no right keeping my daughter from me… if in fact she is my daughter." His voice rose higher and higher, and his tone kept getting harsher as he went on. "It's not like I'm the only – "

As the argument reached its peak, the front door suddenly slammed open. "Hey, McCormick! Where the hell are all those files we were goin' over last night?"

Mark spun around, his expression a confused mixture of anger, surprise and embarrassment. Hardcastle was standing in the gatehouse doorway, one foot on either side of the threshold, as though he'd been forcibly halted in mid-barge. Caught too off-guard for once for a cocky joke or a smooth cover-up, the young man just stared stupidly back at the judge as a long minute passed.

Hardcastle, however, had apparently grown used to walking in on strange situations in his own gatehouse. Clearing his throat, he awkwardly acknowledged the lovely, if shocked, visitor on the couch, "Er… uhm… oh, hi … uh, Doreen, isn't it?" He waited while she nodded, then entered the room with a firm step. "I had 'em on my desk last night while we were working on 'em, and now they're gone!"

"What?!" Mark finally found his voice. "Judge, can't you see I'm in the middle of something?"

"See it, McCormick?" Hardcastle bellowed. "I could hear it all the way outside!"

"Judge," Mark snapped back, "I have no idea what happened to your files, and at the moment, I couldn't care less." He sighed and then shook his head ruefully. "Whatever happened to knocking before you come in, anyway?"

That was obviously the wrong thing to say. "This is still my house, McCormick!" the judge thundered. "I can come in anytime I want – with or without knocking. You got that, sport?"

Mark's tempered flared hotly again in response. He was suddenly so angry the room seemed to shake as he glared at Hardcastle. "I know this is your house. How could I forget? You make the rules! You tell me what to do… every day! It's sure to have sunk in by now, don't you think?

No, obviously you don't, or maybe you'd've noticed how sick I am of all this. You bark your orders and expect me to jump – never mind what I might be doing at the time. Well, ya hear me, Hardcase? I'm not taking it anymore!" He slashed the air fiercely with the edge of one hand. "No more!"

"No, you listen to me, McCormick!" Hardcastle returned, just as hotly. "As long as you're living under my roof, in my judicial stay, you'll do as you're told – when you're told."

Mark lowered his eyes, his fury dying as rapidly as it had sparked. "Hey look, Judge," he said softly. "I think we maybe just need a little space between us for a while. I gotta think over some things, y'know. You have to admit we are in each other's way a lot around here. How 'bout it? Please?"

"Okay," the judge agreed and quietly left the gatehouse.

Awhile later, Mark saw Hardcastle heading out the door of the main house toward the garage. "Hey! Hey, Judge!"

Hardcastle stopped in his tracks and turned toward his friend, an irritated scowl on his face. "What now? I thought we agreed to give each other some space for the next few days."

The judge continued to stand there for several seconds, wondering what was on the kid's mind.

"All right," he finally said, "first you get all pissed off at me for invading your space, and now you wanna start up a conversation. Okay, hotshot, what did you do now? What are you involved in? You know, I find it funny, McCormick; you want me to leave you alone one minute, and the next it's 'Judge, I need your help…'"

"Hey… uh, Judge, I really need your advice."

Hardcastle waited for a long moment, still scowling. Then, he said, "Aw, for crying out loud, McCormick! You're just like a kid: You do somethin' wrong, and you want someone to help fix it. When's it gonna stop, Mark?"

McCormick always got nervous when the judge called him by his first name. Now, he totally froze when he heard it. "Judge," he said quietly, "I'm going back in the gatehouse to finish talking to Doreen." Then, he turned and walked away.

Hardcastle was so puzzled about what was happening, he never even tried to stop the younger man.

Inside the gatehouse, Mark sat back on the couch. "How could you have done this to us?" he asked Doreen angrily.

"Mark, you and I both decided it was best to call it quits because I was moving away and we wouldn't see each other very often."

Mark shouted back, "I wasn't talking about you and me, Doreen. I was talking about 'us,' as in our daughter and me! You knew how I felt about growing up without my dad around. Didn't you think that our daughter – my daughter – should know about me? How selfish can a person get?"

Doreen jerked upright from the couch. "I don't have to stay here and take this! I told you now, because Crystal does deserve to know her father… even if he is a jerk!"

"I'm leaving," she continued with force. "If you want to get in touch with me, here's my number." Doreen handed him a card with her name, address and phone number.

As she left, Mark just stood still, thinking of what he needed to do now. Finally, he decided to go over to the main house to explain what was going on to the judge. Maybe, he could help sort this whole mess out.

(TBC)