"Doreen, that would be wonderful!" Mark exclaimed. He went over to Crystal. "Hey, sweetheart, would you like to stay with Judge Hardcastle and me for a few weeks while your Mommy goes back to Ohio to get your stuff?"
Crystal jumped up and kissed Mark. "Yes, Daddy!"
Mark turned back to Doreen. "Thank you so much. Just wait. You'll see this is the best thing for her… for all of us."
"Okay, Mark. I do want to have her with me at the hotel, but she'll be back tomorrow to stay with you."
Mark nodded. "Bye."
"Bye, Daddy." Crystal said.
After Doreen and Crystal left, Mark turned his attention to Hardcastle. "Okay. What made you decide to talk to her privately?"
The judge shrugged. "As your lawyer, I decided it was best to work things out one on one. Every time the two of you are in the same room, all hell breaks loose. We were getting nowhere, and this needed to get settled fast."
Mark grinned. "Thanks, Judge. I really appreciate your help."
Hardcastle simply nodded and continued, "Iwas thinking maybe you and Crystal should sleep over here. There's plenty of room. What do you think?"
Mark readily agreed, "She'd love it; I'm sure."
"Good. Let's get dinner started, and then we can get the rooms upstairs fixed up for you both."
The two men headed to make their preparations.
x x x
The next morning, Mark walked into the kitchen. "Morning, Judge."
"Morning." Hardcastle indicated the skillet in front of him. "Scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon. Hope you're hungry."
"Yeah, of course."
"Oh, by the way, Doreen called and said she'd bring Crystal by at 11:00. She has a one o'clock flight."
Mark nodded. "Sounds good. That'll give me time to clean the pool and trim the hedges before she comes. I'll get to it as soon as I'm finished here." He looked over at the judge, who was sitting silently across the table. "I know what you're thinking, but the chores still need doing, and I want it to look nice for Crystal."
"Yeah, I know."
Mark loaded the dishwasher and headed out to do the rest of his chores. When he finished a few hours later, he went over to the gatehouse for a quick shower and then returned to the main house. As he entered the kitchen, he saw Crystal sitting at the kitchen table with Hardcastle, chattering away.
Mark watched the pair for a few minutes before he finally spoke, "Hi there! Sorry I'm a bit late. I really wanted to be here when you arrived."
"Hi, Daddy!" Crystal cried out, her eyes lighting up.
"Hey, baby. You having fun talking to Judge Hardcastle?" Mark smiled as he sat down.
The little girl nodded vigorously.
A few minutes later, Crystal spoke up, "Daddy?"
"Yeah, sweetie?" Mark prompted.
"Why don't you call Milt 'Milt'?"
"I know you hear me call him 'Judge,' right?" At the child's nod, Mark continued. "Well, when I met him, he was a judge, and that's a respectful name to call him. So, even though he's not a judge anymore, I still like calling him that."
Crystal looked up at him solemnly. "Should I call him that, too?"
Mark shrugged. "Well, since you've met him, you've been calling him 'Milt,' right? I think you can still call him that. He'll like that."
Crystal smiled brightly. "Okay, Daddy."
The judge broke in, "And I call your daddy 'McCormick' because I've always called him that. Sometimes I call him Mark, too, but not very often."
Crystal shrugged. "Okay. Hey,Milt? Can I have some chocolate milk now?"
The judge laughed at her easy acceptance. "You'll have to ask your daddy if that's okay."
The little girl turned to Mark and piped up, "Daddy, can I have chocolate milk, please?"
"Sure, honey." Mark and Hardcastle shared a grin over Crystal's head.
After lunch, the three played "Candy Land" on the dining room table, and even Hardcastle had fun, although he wouldn't admit it. Then, they sat down to watch a videotape of "Cinderella."
"After the movie, I'll show you your room upstairs." Mark told Crystal.
"Okay, Daddy," she agreed.
"Then we can unpack your clothes, too," Mark continued.
"Okay, Daddy," Crystal repeated.
A few hours later, Mark showed her the room and helped her get situated. "Honey," he said seriously, "I don't want you walking up and down the stairs without me, because I don't want you to fall down and get hurt. Okay?"
Crystal nodded. "I won't."
"Your Mommy also left rules about your bathing; so after dinner, we'll get washed up and ready for bed. Then, I'll read to you before you go to sleep."
Crystal nodded and hugged him.
They came downstairs together, finding Hardcastle in the den. Mark grinned at him. "She loves that room, Judge." Glancing down at Crystal, he continued, "Maybe Judge Hardcastle will color with you while I get dinner started."
"Will you, please, Milt?" The little girl had the same expression on her face that Mark sometimes wore when he really wanted something.
"Sure, honey," the judge agreed.
Mark came in after a little while and helped Crystal color until it was time for sat down to a meal of spaghetti, meatballs and rolls and butter. When they were done eating, Crystal helped Mark load the dishwasher.
After that, Mark waited while Crystal kissed Hardcastle goodnight. Then, he walked her upstairs, bathed her and helped her into her pajamas. Somewhere during the second reading of "Bambi," the child's breathing deepened, and Mark set down the book.
"Good night, Daddy," the little girl murmured sleepily as she settled under the covers
"Good night." Mark smiled down at her, switched off the light and tiptoed back downstairs.
x x x
That evening, Mark and the judge sat in the den for a long while, talking about how nice it was having Crystal in the house with them. Mark knew that when Doreen came back, they would work things out, and he'd always have his daughter in his life.
Suddenly feeling too happy for words, he leaned back in his chair and flashed Hardcastle a contented grin. At long last, it seemed, things were finally looking up for him.