A/N: This is an A/U story and contains characters first introduced in my previous story, "A Family Affair".
Hearts, Family, Friends, and Balloons
"Well, I just don't believe it," Mark said with a smile on his face as he saw a very cute little girl heading in his direction out side the main house door.
Crystal came running up to him with the biggest smile painted on her face. She had on a white dress with red hearts all over it. As she came closer, she said "Hi, Daddy." Doreen held her hand walking alongside of her.
Mark picked Crystal up and hugged kissed her. Mark turned and said "Hello, Doreen, how are you?"
Doreen said, "I'm fine, Mark. How are you?"
"I'm doing great, thanks," Mark replied.
As they entered the house Mark whispered in Crystal's ear, "The judge is in the kitchen. Go in there and say Hi to the judge."
Mark put her back down and she went very quietly into the kitchen and just stood there.
Milt was by the coffee maker with his cup in hand, pouring his coffee. After he was done he turned around and he saw her. His face lit up very brightly. A very adorable curly-haired little girl was smiling sweetly as he turned and saw her.
Milt stood there, continuing to smile, then he said, "Crystal, what a nice Daddy never told me you were coming. How are you?"
Crystal ran up to him and said, "Hi Milt, it was suppose to be a surprise Daddy told me."
Just then Mark came in and said, "Yes, I did say that, honey, but you weren't suppose to tell the judge that."
Crystal looked at him and said "I'm sorry, Daddy."
Mark said, "Crystal, it's okay."
Milt picked Crystal up and hugged her. Then he put her back down and he saw Doreen and said, "Hello, Ms. Armstrong."
McCormick looked at Crystal and said,"Hey, I've got some stuff for you for Valentine's Day. How about I go over to the gatehouse and get them and meet you back here?" She nodded and he left immediately, returning in just a couple of minutes with his arms full of bags.
Doreen rolled her eyes and said "Mark, it isn't necessary to buy the whole store out just for her."
Mark turned around to look at Doreen and thought for a moment before he said,"Doreen, it's only a few things and besides it's Valentine's Day."
Milt turned to look at Doreen to see how she was going to reply.
Doreen looked at Mark and said "Well, okay, Mark, let's just not make it a habit everyday."
Mark looked a bit disappointed but he said, "Yeah, sure, Doreen."
Milt was so very pleased with them sorting that out nicely for a change.
They all watched as Crystal began pulling things out of the bags. First she took out a small heart-shaped box of chocolate candy. After that she pulled out Valentine's Day Coloring books and sixty-piece little puzzles with Hello Kitty wearing a sweater with hearts, and (last but not least) a Care Bear.
Mark decided after a few hours playing with Crystal that it was time to order the pizzas for dinner. He went into the den and ordered two pizzas with pepperoni and cheese. He was going to get sausage on it as well and decided against it thinking his daughter might not be able to eat it cause it's very hot.
Hardcastle yelled from the kitchen "Hey, McCormick, where are ya?"
Mark walked back in the kitchen and said, "I'm right here, Judge. Hey, Crystal, if I get your car seat and put it in my car do you want to ride with me to get the pizzas?"
Hardcastle spoke up and said,"Why don't you use the truck, kiddo? You are gonna have a few bags to bring home with the snacks and stuff."
Mark looked at Hardcastle and said,"Yeah, okay, want to go with Daddy, Crystal, in the judge's truck?"
Crystal said yes immediately. She took her Daddy by the hand and started to head out the door, but he quickly turned when he realized that he hadn't asked Doreen if it was okay to take Crystal with him.
As he turned around to do so the judge just stood there with his arms folded across his chest and Doreen just stood there looking at him and wondering how long it would take him to realize that he had to ask her permission before taking off with their daughter.
Mark looked at the judge and Doreen and said, "I just got caught up in the excitement of everything. I got carried away. Doreen, I am sorry I didn't ask you yet if I could take Crystal with me. Doreen, can Crystal come with me in the judge's truck to get the pizzas and other stuff for tonight's dinner?"
Doreen said, "Well, okay. I suppose. Just next time ask me first."
"Yeah, okay, I will, responded McCormick. Thanks." and he took Crystal's hand and headed out the door.
Doreen followed them out and said, "Hey Mark. You need to get her seat out of my car don't forget."
Mark stood there, counted to ten quietly, and then turned and said, "Yeah, Doreen, I'm gonna do that right now."
About an hour later, Mark and Crystal still weren't back yet and Doreen was very worried; so was the judge. It wasn't like McCormick to not call if there was a problem.
Doreen finally said, "I'm calling the police. He has my daughter out there and God knows what's going on."
Milt said "Ms. Armstrong, in case you have forgotten that little girl isn't just yours. She is McCormick's too and you had best remember that."
Doreen looked at Milt with a scared look after she heard his words and said, "Yes, Judge Hardcastle, I know."
Milt started talking again. "The only thing they could pick him up for is being late and he isn't a teenager out past curfew. Let's give him more time. Then if they aren't back, you and I will go looking for them, or better yet, I'll make a call and get Frank Harper to put out an APB just to find his location, not to bring him in, and we can go there if you want."
In about a half an hour Milt and Doreen heard a noise. Then they saw the kitchen door open and in ran Crystal over to her mom and Milt and she said "Mommy, I helped Daddy." She was so excited she went on in a rush, "Mommy, I helped Daddy with tools. Isn't that great?"
Doreen said, "Yeah, honey, it is. Crystal, let's take these coloring books and crayons in to the living room. You can sit on the couch and color while Daddy and I have a talk. Is that okay, Judge Hardcastle?"
Hardcastle nodded with a serious expression on his face.
After getting Crystal set up in the living room, Doreen came back in the kitchen with a very serious expression on her face.
The judge spoke up before Doreen had a chance to and he said "Ms. Armstrong, just remember there is a little girl in there and I think you should hear him out before you decide to chew him out for being late with her."
Doreen shrugged, then she spoke. "Okay, Mark, what's your excuse now?"
Mark's blood was starting to boil and with clenched teeth and a deep low voice he said "My excuse? How dare you say a thing like that to me when you were the one who kept Crystal from me in the first place and before you think of taking her away from me, you can think again, lady, and furthermore-"
Mark was cut off when heard the judge clear his voice like he was about to yell.
Instead of yelling, though, Milt said with a growl, very seriously, "Ms. Armstrong, I want both sets of your car keys. McCormick and I are going into the den here to talk." He left no room for discussion."Come to think of it, Crystal can come too so you can keep your keys, Ms. Armstrong. We'll be back in a few minutes."
Milt walked into the living room with McCormick and said "Hey, Crystal, honey, come into the den with your Daddy and me. I need to talk to him about something and Mommy is waiting in the kitchen."
Crystal gathered her stuff and followed them in the den.
Milt told Crystal she could go sit there on the couch if she wanted to and color. Milt then sat in his chair behind his desk and told McCormick to take a seat.
A second or two later he said, "Alright, McCormick, where were you and what happened?"
"Well, Judge, Crystal and I went to a grocery store for a bag of cheese curls. I thought they would be better for Crystal to eat and than we got soda's." Then we picked up the pizzas."
"McCormick, for crying out loud, just tell me what happened."
"Well, Judge, we had two different flat tires somewhere between the pizza shop and the grocery store."
Crystal spoke up and said very proudly, "And I helped Daddy fix them."
Milt smiled at Crystal and said, "That was very nice of you, honey."
Crystal went back over to the couch to continue coloring.
Mark looked at the judge and whispered, "Judge, she only handed me the tools I asked her to hand me. I would never put her in danger."
The judge said, "Yeah, I know that, McCormick. I didn't bring you in here to yell at you. I brought you in here 'cause you two needed a time out."
Crystal burst out laughing and Mark and the judge rolled their eyes and looked at Crystal. Mark asked her, "What is so funny?"
She said, "Are you and Mommy in time out, Daddy? Were you bad?"
Mark got up from his chair and walked over to her and said, "Well, honey, no. Mommy and I weren't bad. We just were upset with each other and the judge here gave us a time out to cool off so everything will be okay."
Crystal looked up at Mark and said, "Okay, Daddy." Then she smiled and started coloring again.
A few minutes later, Milt, Mark, and Crystal went back in the kitchen and Crystal said, "Hey, Mommy, time out is over."
Doreen looked at the guys and asked, "What? I was in time out?"
Milt said, pointing at Crystal, "We explained it to her that way."
Doreen said nothing.
Milt sat at the kitchen table and said, "Ms. Armstrong, they had two flat tires between the pizza shop and the grocery store and she helped by handing him tools. She was never in any danger. He would never put her in danger."
Milt told Mark to get the pizzas warmed up and he would set the dining room table.
As they were eating at the table, Milt said, "Ms. Armstrong, why don't you stay over here in the main house tonight. I have plenty of rooms and if McCormick wants to, he and Crystal can be at the gatehouse or we all can stay in the main house. McCormick comes over for breakfast anyway. It'll give them one-on-one time."
Doreen replied, "Sure, if she would like to."
Mark saw the smile on Crystal's face. He didn't even have to ask her. He did so anyway. "Honey would you like to stay over at Daddy's tonight?"
Crystal shook her head yes. She was very pleased with the idea and so was McCormick, of course.
After their evening meal, Mark and Crystal said their goodbyes to Doreen and Milt and then they headed over to the gatehouse.
Mark helped her bathe and then put her pajamas on and he fixed his bed up for her. He read one story to her, then kissed her good night and told her he loved her. Then he got his sleeping bag out and lay on the floor by the bed so she wouldn't be scared.
The next morning, Mark walked in with Crystal in his arms and they were both smiling.
Crystal said, "Hi, Mommy. Hi, Milt."
They both said good morning to Crystal and Mark.
They all sat at the kitchen table and ate breakfast. Then Mark suddenly said, "Ah, Doreen, is it okay with you if Crystal goes into town with me? I need to run some errands today for the judge and there are a few things I need as well."
Doreen said, "Yes, I suppose so."
"We won't be gone more than two hours."
Later on that day, Mark was over at the gatehouse calling people for the judge's surprise party tomorrow. The list of people that were to be invited were Barbara Johnson, Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora, Frank and Claudia Harper. Mark had called Aggie Wainwright but she wasn't at home.
Mark had put the birthday mail the judge hadn't seen yet in a safe place 'til the right time.
Mark walked back into the main house and as he did the phone rang. "I'll get it, Judge. Hello!" As he said that, a smile arose on his face and he said, "Hello, Barbara. Yeah, it's still on for tomorrow. Hey, guess what? There's someone special here I want you to meet."
"Well, Mark, I'll be happy to meet any friends of yours."
"Barbara, she isn't exactly a till you meet her." .
"Okay, Mark. I'll be there at the party tomorrow."
"See you then, Barbara. 'Bye." Then he hung up the phone.
Mark walked into the den and said, "Doreen, Crystal and I are gonna go now and do some errands. Okay?"
Doreen looked at him and said, "You watch her good. Do you hear me?"
Milt could tell McCormick was about to say something smart, so he said, "Just go on, McCormick. Just go and enjoy your time with your daughter."
Mark said, "Can I take the truck again, Judge? It'd be easier."
Doreen replied, "You aren't taking her in a truck that just had flat tires last night and run the risk of more problems. How do you know it won't happen again?"
Mark stood outside the den door and Milt could hear him counting to ten. Then he walked back in and said, "Okay, fine. The Coyote isn't big enough to get all the things on the judge's list and the things I need to do you want me to do, Doreen; leave her here?"
Doreen said, "That works for me."
Mark looked over at the judge with a look that said 'I need your help here'.
Milt got up from his desk and came around the front of it. He stopped walking and said, "Ms. Armstrong, I think we have all had enough of you two bickering; I know I have. Those tires on that truck are fixed and the chances of it happening again are slim. McCormick knows how important it is to call immediately should it happen again. He will find the nearest phone and call me. Right, McCormick?"
The judge nodded his head in reply.
Doreen said, "Well,okay, Mark, she can go with you in the truck. Just be extra careful."
Mark said, "Of course I will, Doreen. I will have the most precious thing in the world to me along with me."
A few hours later, Mark and Crystal got back from their errands. They headed over to the gatehouse to put some things where they wouldn't be spotted by the judge if he came over. Then they walked over to the main house with their arms loaded with bags.
Mark told the judge and Doreen that Crystal and he ate out at Burger Man and that they brought food back for them as well.
Later that evening, Mark took Crystal back to the gatehouse with him for the night.
The next day was February sixteenth, the judge's birthday. Mark got Crystal to ask Milt if he would take her for a ride in the 'Vette. She also gave him the same look Mark did when he really wanted something or for him to do something and Milt couldn't resist it anymore when she did it then when her Daddy did it to him.
Milt said, "Yeah, okay, honey, if it's okay with your Mom." Then he looked at Doreen.
Doreen said, "Yes, it's okay".
Milt then looked at Mark and said,"McCormick, that'll leave you and Doreen alone here. Just behave yourselves."
Mark replied, "Yes, Judge. I'll be on my best behavior."
Doreen responded, "Judge, everything will be fine."
While the judge and Crystal were out in the the 'Vette, Mark and Doreen got the house all decorated with balloons and lots of other decorations put up and they all got the food and things ready with the help of Barbara, Aunt Mae, and Aunt Zora.
Milt decided he would take Crystal over to Frank's so the Harpers could meet her.
Milt walked with Crystal hand in hand up to the Harpers porch and rang the door bell.
Frank opened the door and said, "Hello, Milt. Who's this little lady you have with you here today? She looks familiar."
Hardcastle said, "Well, she should, Frank. You know her Daddy, very well Frank." The judge whispered, "Crystal, this is my and your Daddy's friend, Frank Harper."
Crystal put her little hand out to Frank and said, "Hi, Frank, I'm Crystal."
Frank put his hand out to her and said, "It's nice to meet you, Crystal. Milt, come in and let Claudia meet Crystal, then you can tell me all about her."
As they walked in, Claudia said, "Who do we have here, Milt?"
Milt said "Well, Claudia, Frank, this little girl here is Crystal and as I've told you, Frank, you do know her Daddy quite well, and before you start jumping to the wrong conclusions, no, she isn't mine. She's McCormick's."
Frank said, "Well Milt now I do see it very clearly. So you're Crystal McCormick."
Crystal looked up at Milt so he could explain.
Milt said, "No, Frank. It's Crystal Armstrong. The last name hasn't been changed yet since McCormick found out about her."
Frank said, "Well, what's the hold up on that, Milt?"
Milt said, "It's D-o-r-e-e-n." He spelled it because Crystal was there. "It'll be taken care of soon."
Claudia asked Crystal if she would like some milk.
Crystal asked, "is it okay, Milt?"
Milt replied, "Sure, honey, it's fine."
Crystal asked, "Do you have chocolate milk?"
Claudia replied, "Yes we do honey. Come on in the kitchen with me and I will get you some."
She handed it to Crystal and Crystal said, "Thank you," then she looked at Milt who also sat down at the kitchen table and she whispered, "What's her name, Milt?"
He smiled at Crystal then he whispered, "Her name is Claudia."
Crystal turned back to Claudia and said, "Thank you for the chocolate milk, Claudia."
Claudia said, "You are very welcome Crystal."
Milt and Crystal arrived back at the estate two hours later and Mark and Doreen were in the kitchen sitting at the table.
Milt poured himself some coffee and all of a sudden everyone came out and yelled S-U-R-P-R-I-S-E!
Milt said, "What's going on here?"
Mark replied, "Well, it's a surprise birthday party for you. Happy Birthday, Judge."
Everybody came out with gifts and happy birthday wishes.
The Aunts brought out a huge cake that said 'Happy Birthday, Milton, and everyone sang "Happy Birthday," and Milt opened all the gifts including a huge picture from Mark and Crystal. It was a very nice one, an eleven-by-fourteen-inch of Crystal and Mark together he could put up on the wall in the den. Milt also opened the birthday mail McCormick had brought over from the gatehouse.
They ate lots and lots of food and had cake and ice cream and chips.
Then Mark said, "Hey, Judge, you wanna stand over against the wall so we can play Pin The Tail On The Donkey?"
The judge looked at him and said, "Ha! Ha! Very funny, McCormick."
Mark said, "Well it was just a thought, Judge." He said with a smile.
Hardcastle responded, "McCormick, I can give you lots more thoughts." Then he smiled and walked over to Barbara to talk to her. He hadn't seen her in a while.
Everyone did a lot of mingling and had a good time. Mark got to introduce his daughter Crystal to Barbara Johnson, a good friend of his.
Barbara said, "It's nice to meet you, Crystal."
Crystal replied, "It's nice to meet you, too, Barbara."
Hours later, the party was coming to a close. Everyone was leaving - even the Aunts just came out from Arkansas for Milt's surprise birthday party because some family members were flying in to Arkansas in in a few days so they had to get back and they had just suddenly had heard about this party being thrown for Milt. .
After the last person had left, Doreen noticed Crystal had some ice cream on her shirt and it was chocolate. Doreen said, "Crystal, you know better then to eat like a slob," and Mark heard her say it. By the time he started to come closer to them, Doreen gave Crystal a smack on the butt and she started to cry.
Mark ran over to Crystal and hugged her and kissed her and then he whispered something to the judge. Mark said, "Judge, you do something with that monster or I will have her arrested."
Milt said, "Just simmer down, McCormick. Crystal is upset enough now."
Mark replied "Look, Judge, time outs are okay but this isn't."
"McCormick, just slow down or you are headed for a time out."
Crystal started laughing then.
Mark said, "Oh, great. I have a judge here wanting to put me in time out and my three-year-old daughter thinks it's funny. This just isn't my day."
"Stop clowning around and take Crystal in the dining room and sit at the table and find something fun to do. You both need to calm down."
McCormick took Crystal in the bathroom to clean her up, then he put her dirty clothes in the washer after he used stain remover on her shirt. Then he colored with her. He did also check to see if she had a bruise on her butt. He found none.
Meanwhile Milt talked to Doreen in the den and said, "Ms. Armstrong, I think what McCormick is upset about more than anything is this. Number one, that was not the best reason to spank a child and, number two, he saw it happen. I am sure he was spanked as a child. It isn't the best form of discipline, but I used it on my son sometimes. Maybe McCormick will sit down and talk about this when he cools off."
Milt walked into the dining room ten minutes later where Mark and Crystal were and he said, "McCormick, do you think you can talk to Doreen about this without blowing your top?"
Mark replied, "Judge, I don't condone spanking and, yes, as you probably figured out I was spanked as a child by my mom. It doesn't mean I agree with it."
"McCormick, I used to be spanked before and I spanked our son sometimes as well. There is a right way and a wrong way. I know Doreen didn't do it for a good reason and she knows it now."
McCormick said, "What constitutes a good reason, huh, Judge?"
"Well, McCormick, safety purposes sure have to protect children and when they wanna do something dangerous tell them no. If they still do it or try to you have to do something to teach them right from wrong and it's spanking, sometimes, that does it."
Mark said, "Yeah, okay, Judge. I can understand that."
"McCormick, come on, let's talk to Doreen now and let her talk with Crystal, too."
Milt, Mark, Crystal and Doreen all talked it over and finally it was all talked out once and for all.
Milt then changed the subject and said, "Ms. Armstrong, when are we getting this little girl's last name changed to McCormick?"
"Well Judge Hardcastle, in all this confusion since we got here, I haven't had time to tell Mark this. Mark, since we all have gone to court to get the application and signed it to get Crystal's last name changed to McCormick, the papers have come in. She is now officially Crystal Donna McCormick. The papers are right here. See?" Doreen handed Mark a copy of the paper as she got them out of her purse.
Mark was stunned. He said in a shocked voice. "What? Crystal Donna McCormick?"
Doreen said, "Mark, didn't I ever tell you her middle name?"
Mark said, "No, Doreen you didn't. Doesn't surprise me though."
Milt responded, "Alright, that's enough."
Doreen replied, "Well, I didn't know a lot about you but I knew your Mom's name. I thought you'd like that for her middle name."
"Yes, I do, Doreen. It's very beautiful - just like our daughter."
Doreen smiled and said, "Finally something we can agree on."
They all smiled at that.
Doreen and Mark and Crystal sat quietly for a second then McCormick said, "Well, I know this has been quite a day but happy birthday again, anyway, Judge!"
Milt said, "Thank you, McCormick."
Crystal went over to Milt and hugged and kissed him and said, "Are we all family now?"
Milt said, "Yes, honey, we are."
Crystal said, "Milt, can I call you Grandpa Milt?"
Mark spoke up, and walked over to Crystal and got down on his knees to her level and said, "Milt here isn't my Daddy, but he is as close as I'm gonna get. I suppose if it's okay with him you can call him Grandpa Milt."
Mark looked at the judge and the judge was looking at Crystal and he had a huge smile on his face and he said, "Crystal, I would love it if you call me Grandpa Milt," and he got up and picked her up in his arms and hugged and kissed her and told her he loved her.
Crystal said, "I love you too, Grandpa Milt."
Milt said, "This was the best Valentine's Day and birthday ever."