Appealed, p.18
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       Appealed, p.18
 

         Part #3 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  “Yes,” Jake says simply and without hesitation.

  And then Kennedy sounds defensive. Maybe even . . . offended—on my behalf. “Why? He doesn’t need it. He takes care of himself just fine. If you think patronizing him is helping—”

  Jake’s deep, rumbling laugh cuts her off. “I have no doubt that Brent is fully capable of handling his own shit. It’s not about that.”

  “Then what’s it about?”

  Now Jake pauses. And I know he’s analyzing the angles, choosing his words to efficiently convey his position. “I never had brothers . . . not until I met Brent and Stanton.”

  That’s when I make my presence known. Stepping from the hallway to the living room, still wrapped only in a towel. Which Jake doesn’t appreciate.

  “Jesus—I’d rather not go blind from an accidental glimpse of your nut sack. How about putting some clothes on?”

  I shrug and lob an arm around Kennedy’s shoulders. “Clothes are senseless at this point. What brings you by, big guy?”

  His black eyebrows lift, and reproach reflects in his steel-gray eyes. “I’ve been calling—is your phone broken?”

  I tease, “Mom, you look different. Did you change your hair?”

  He flips me off.

  Then I give him the real explanation. “I’ve been busy—a lot of sex has been happening.”

  Kennedy pinches my chest—and it fucking hurts.

  While Jake’s face remains blank. “Congratulations.”

  I raise my eyebrows. “So what’s up—why the house call?”

  I’ve barely seen him at the office this week. He’s been in court a lot, working a murder case. And he’s been really busting his ass over it, because he truly believes his client is innocent. That’s an uncommon, double-edged luxury we aren’t often afforded.

  “We’re having a barbecue this afternoon. You’re invited,” he tells me. Then he turns his rare, charming-Jake-Becker smile on Kennedy. “You’re invited too.”

  • • •

  That afternoon, Kennedy and I head over to Jake and Chelsea’s place for the barbecue. Their house has a great layout for entertaining—a built-in pool, a gorgeous garden, and an outdoor kitchen Jake just installed.

  Sofia smiles warmly at Kennedy, the bond of being a woman in the legal profession overcoming any lingering animosity from their showdown in court a few weeks earlier. The fact that Kennedy is here with me, that she’s important to me, probably helps too.

  I introduce Kennedy to the McQuaid brood, and her head is practically spinning by the time I get through Riley, Rory, Raymond, Rosaleen, Regan, and down to the littlest, three-year-old Ronan.

  We enjoy the clear sky, the hot sun, and a few beers, until Jake sets a platter of burgers and hot dogs in the center of the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and we all sit down at the picnic table to eat. While the pleasant hum of kid chatter fills the lower end of the table, Riley McQuaid sits down with a huff in the chair across from me, her mouth fixed in a pout and unhappy blue eyes throwing sharp glances in Jake’s direction. A palpable silence flows between the teenager and her father figure—it’s heavy and awkward.

  So, of course, I have to mention it.

  “Everything okay here?” I ask, looking to each of them.

  Jake takes a bite of his burger. “Yep.”

  Riley’s eyes narrow. “If you consider living under the fascist rule of a dual dictatorship ‘okay,’ then yeah, I guess it is.”

  Jake’s mouth pulls up at the corner. “Fascist? That’s cute.”

  I lean into Kennedy and whisper, “This sounds juicy.” Then I lift my chin at Riley. “I thought we’d moved passed the angry-nobody-understands-me-teenage phase and were happily settled in the responsible-working-part-time-young-adult stage. What gives?”

  Riley and Jake go silent—a Mexican standoff if I ever saw one.

  Chelsea, doll that she is, fills in the blanks.

  “Riley and Jake had a disagreement yesterday. She had a friend over. A friend who is a boy. In her room. With the door closed.”

  And it all becomes so clear.

  I turn to Jake. “Did you flip out?”

  He shrugs, face deceptively blank. “I don’t flip out. I just got the drill from the garage. Problem solved.”

  “Solved how?” I’m already grinning at what I’m sure will be an entertaining answer.

  And I’m not disappointed.

  “He took off my door!” Riley shouts. “I have no door! I’m sixteen years old with five little brothers and sisters, and no door!”

  “Like I said, problem solved,” Jake says evenly.

  “I have rights, you know,” Riley counters.

  Jake’s smile is patient. “Yes, you do—and not one of them includes having a door. Or a window, for that matter. You might want to keep that in mind, and quit while you’re ahead.”

  Riley grinds her teeth, but goes quiet. And I just bet she’s sticking her tongue out at him in her head—or, more likely, flipping him the bird. I know the feeling.

  “Come on, Riley,” Stanton says, “don’t be like that. It could be worse.”

  “I don’t know how,” the teen grumbles, folding her arms.

  “You could be Presley—that’s how.” Stanton’s referring to his fifteen-year-old daughter, who lives most of the year in Mississippi with her mother. She’s been considering colleges in the East, and he’s been positively giddy with excitement.

  Riley’s face loosens with curiosity. “I texted her the other day, but she hasn’t gotten back to me. Where is she?”

  “In her room, without Internet, TV, or phone, where she’s gonna be for some time.”

  At our questioning gazes, he elaborates. “It seems she tried sneakin’ Ethan Fortenbury up the oak tree outside her window to her bedroom.”

  I notice eleven-year-old Raymond frowning deeply.

  Then Jake reads my mind and tells Stanton, “You seem surprisingly calm about that development.”

  The former teenage father waves his hand. “Jenny and I have been anticipating it for years. Had it all planned out. The little shit, Fortenbury, showed up and found Jenn waiting for him by the tree. Her—and her shotgun.”

  I whistle.

  Stanton winks at Riley. “So you see, darlin’—it could always be worse.”

  Riley sighs and shakes her head. “None of you understand us.”

  “Au contraire, Fresh Prince, they understand all too well—that’s your problem,” I tell her wisely.

  But she just looks confused. “What’s a Fresh Prince?”

  I groan. “I feel so frigging old. Thanks, Riley.”

  Kennedy pats my hand. And her eyes sparkle as she teases, “You are old. It’s good that you’re finally realizing it. We should hang out with these kids more often.”

  It’s the first time she’s ever referred to us as a “we.” A unit. A couple. And as fucking girly as it makes me sound, I like the words on her lips.

  “We should, huh?”

  Her smile hits me right in the gut. It’s warm and sexy, tender and naughty all in one. “Yeah, we should.”

  We gaze at each other for a few moments in that annoying way new couples do—in our own little shining bubble of lust. Then little Ronan McQuaid pops it.

  “Daddy!”

  He throws himself across Jake’s lap fearlessly, secure in the knowledge that strong hands will always catch him.

  “Up, Daddy, up!” he demands.

  Without rising from his seat, Jake scoops the toddler under his arms and tosses him high over his head, catching him as he squeals. And Jake’s smile is so wide and big, a weird mixture of happiness and envy surges through my chest. He sets the kid on his feet and Ronan toddles off toward the swing set. Finished eating in record time, the rest of the kids follow suit—leaving us six old people at the table alone.

  Stanton asks, “Daddy, huh?”

  Jake’s eyes flash to Chelsea, warming to liquid mercury when he catches the adoring look she saves just for him. “Ye
ah.”

  “When did that happen?” I ask.

  Chelsea puts her small hand over Jake’s immense one and explains, “This weekend, Regan and Ronan sat us down for a talk.”

  “Regan did most of the talking,” Jake interjects. “But Ronan nodded a lot.”

  Chelsea continues in a soft voice. “They said they knew that Robbie and Rachel were their parents and that they were in heaven, but they don’t remember them—not like the other kids do. And they said all their friends got to have mommys and daddys . . .”

  When she trails off, Jake finishes for her. “And then they asked if we would be their mommy and daddy.”

  “Wow,” Stanton mutters, and Sofia’s eyes are brimming with sentiment.

  “Yeah.” Chelsea sighs.

  “Did you cry?” I ask Jake. Because I’m man enough to admit if I had been in his position, with those two adorable, chubby faces gazing up at me, I would’ve fucking lost it.

  “It was pretty damn close,” he admits.

  Chelsea raises her hand. “I cried like a baby.”

  I nod and nudge the big hulk with my elbow. “So you’re officially a daddy now.”

  His mouth quirks up into a slow, humble smile. “I guess so.”

  “That’s awesome, man.”

  He nods. “It really fucking is.”

  • • •

  A while later, Rory bounds up to the cleared table with a big red kickball in his hands and his twin brother, Raymond, close behind him. “We’re gonna play kickball—you guys wanna play?”

  With my arm resting around Kennedy’s shoulders, I reply, “Count me in. I’m a champion kickball player.”

  “Cool.”

  The normally timid Raymond adjusts his glasses and aims his bold gaze at the hot girl on my arm. “You wanna be on my team, Kennedy?”

  Kennedy smiles. “Sure.”

  I wrinkle my nose. “Ewww, why’d you pick her—she’s a girl. She kicks like a girl too. I speak from experience.”

  Raymond shrugs. “She’s prettier than you. And besides, you like her, so you’ll probably take it easy on her.”

  “Not a bad strategy, Raymond.”

  “I’m all about the strategy.”

  Kennedy stands and takes the ball from Rory, spinning it in her hands and challenging me with those gorgeous eyes. “My girl kicks were enough to beat you back in the day.”

  I scoff, “I let you win. Even at eleven, I was a gentleman.”

  She laughs and leans down, closing in for a kiss. “And at thirty-two, you’re a liar.”

  Just as I’m about to get a taste, Rory kiss-blocks me.

  “Dude—no kissing. I have to put up with enough of that from those two.” He jerks his thumb at Jake and Chelsea, who don’t look the least bit ashamed.

  Poor kid. The things he must hear from their bedroom.

  Then he points his forefinger at me. “And you have to kick righty—no bionic leg allowed.”

  I shrug. “Makes no difference to me.” I tell Kennedy, “Perfect male specimen that I am, I’ll still beat your ass without it.”

  Mmm . . . beat her ass—now there’s an idea.

  She rolls her eyes. And it makes me hard.

  “I’ll play too,” Sofia pipes up. “I love kickball.”

  Rory’s head jerks back, frowning toward Sofia’s burgeoning belly. “Are you nuts? You should be taking it easy.”

  Stanton throws up his hands. “Thank you!” He looks hard at his wife. “From the mouths of babes.”

  But Sofia isn’t fooled. She looks closely at Rory. “Did Stanton tell you to say that?”

  Rory smirks. “Nope. Jake paid me five bucks to slip it into the conversation, though. But even if he hadn’t, you still couldn’t play. I’m not throwing a ball at a pregnant lady.”

  Rosaleen comes tearing across the patio, snatches the ball from Kennedy’s hands, and consoles Sofia. “You can be referee.” She tilts her head toward five-year-old Regan. “Keep an eye on that one—she cheats.”

  Regan frowns and stomps a foot in response.

  Then Ronan scurries up to Rosaleen, butting his forehead into her stomach and reaching for the ball. “Me!”

  Rosaleen holds the ball up out of his reach. “You can’t play, Ronan, you’re too little.”

  His freckled face turns pink with resentment. “Me!”

  Jake scoops Ronan up and over his shoulder. “Come on, buddy, let’s go kill a watermelon.”

  But as Jake carries him away, the little boy stretches his arms out toward the ball, wailing pitifully, “Meeeeeeeeee!”

  • • •

  Raymond and Kennedy’s team ended up crushing us. We were left two men down when Riley bailed for an “urgent” phone call and Regan got ejected for arguing with the umpire.

  I could’ve pegged Kennedy twice—but when my competitive instinct and my dick went head to head over the issue, the dick won out. ’Cause he knew we’d be rewarded later on. And watching her ass in those tight shorts as she ran the bases just wasn’t something I could bring myself to interrupt.

  Rory called me a chump, and he was totally right.

  But I was a chump who was getting laid—so that makes it all better.

  Later, after I threw Kennedy into the pool and she in turn tried her damnedest to drown me, after the kids cannonballed in with us and we played a fierce game of Marco Polo, we said our good-byes and headed out.

  I pull my car up to the curb in front of my townhouse and kill the engine. Kennedy’s eyes are a satisfied kind of tired, and her cheeks and nose are pink from the hours in the sun. Her hair is pulled on top of her head in a messy bun, with a few loose golden strands brushing her neck.

  It’s almost scary, how beautiful she is. Even more stunning than the first time I saw her in that red dress, and I really didn’t think that was possible.

  “You’re not even going to ask me if I want to go home?” she inquires with a smile and a raised brow. “Kind of presumptuous, isn’t it?”

  “I prefer to look at it as deductive reasoning.” I hop out of the car, come around, and open her door. She takes my hand and I pull her straight into my arms. “Plus, you have to shower, I have to shower, there’s a drought . . .”

  “In California.”

  Ever so slowly, I lower my lips to hers—just a teasing touch. “We all need to do our part.”

  I feel her smile against my mouth. “You sound like my uncle Jameson.”

  This disturbs me. From what I remember of her conservationist uncle, he was a cross between General Patton and Cheech & Chong. An odd-duck, militant hippie who I don’t want her thinking of while I’m kissing her.

  So I ditch the bullshit and go for honesty.

  “I don’t really care about saving water.” I skim my nose up her neck, scratching the delicate skin along her collarbone with my beard, leaving goose bumps in its wake. Then I whisper in her ear, “I just want to fuck you in the shower until neither one of us can stand.” My tongue traces the shell of her ear, making her shiver in the best way. “Is that wrong?”

  When she answers, her voice is shaky. “That sounds . . . not wrong to me.”

  I pull Kennedy tight against my side and smack her ass. “Let’s get on that, then.”

  • • •

  The first thing I’m aware of the next morning—before I open my eyes—is the sensation of soft, smiling lips trailing up my jaw, the tickle of breath against my neck, and the teasing brush of hair along my shoulder.

  And this time, it’s definitely not the cat.

  Kennedy buries her face in the crook of my neck and inhales me. I stretch my arms back, grab her, then roll over so I’m facing her, cocooned in my arms. I kiss her properly on the mouth—morning breath and all.

  Then I notice what time it is. The sun is up—but just fucking barely.

  “I have to go into the office,” she says.

  I smooth her hair down and smother her face against my chest so she’ll stop saying silly things.

  “Shh
h . . . you’re dreaming. Go back to sleep.”

  “Brent,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t get any work done yesterday. I really have to catch up today.”

  Unhappy growls tumble around in my throat. Kennedy soothes them with gentle hands and a kiss for my mouth.

  “I’ll come back tonight. But I’m going to bring the boys with me.”

  One eye cracks open. “They have food and water. Cats don’t need anything else.”

  “They need love. Attention,” she insists.

  “Cats disdain love and attention. It’s beneath them.”

  She laughs again. “Not mine. I’ve been neglecting them—and if this is going to work out, I don’t want them resenting you.”

  The woman knows how to deliver a convincing argument. “Fine. The cats can come.”

  A sweet peck of a kiss gets planted on my sternum. And then she slips away . . . like sand through my fingers.

  I must have dozed off again, because in the next instant Kennedy’s dressed. Her clothed breasts press against my back and she whispers good-bye as she kisses the bed-warmed skin at the nape of my neck.

  I mumble back, still half-asleep, “Bye, baby. Love you . . .”

  • • •

  It’s past noon by the time I drag my ass out of bed. I don’t have to tell you this is completely fucking weird for me. My only defense is that Kennedy was a wildcat last night—completely wore me out. A few hours and one Red Bull later, I have enough energy for a run, and head down to my favorite jogging trail near the National Mall.

  Afterward, I walk back to the townhouse, grinning like an idiot every step of the way. Because I’m thinking of a certain tiny blonde who totally owns me. I’m looking forward to hearing her bitch and moan about her day, watching her eat, listening to her laugh. She has such a great laugh.

  Damn, I’m pathetic. I’m starting to annoy my fucking self.

  When I get to my front steps, Jake, Stanton, and Sofia are there, waiting. Looking way too serious for a Sunday afternoon.

  “Why the long faces?” I joke. “Who died?”

  Not one of them cracks a smile, and a cold chill slithers up my spine.

  Stanton averts his eyes and Jake watches me, ready and tense, like he’s anticipating a reaction. Sofia steps forward.

 
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