Sustained, Page 18Emma Chase
Chelsea with a few of the kids.
But it’s not.
She stands in my office doorway, blond hair perfectly coiffed in an elegant knot at the base of her neck. Her blouse is white, just a shade darker than her skin tone. French-manicured nails decorate delicate hands, one of which is still graced with a shiny engagement ring and wedding band. They rest at her sides, against a Democratic-blue skirt.
Mrs. Holten is Senator William Holten’s wife. The one he’s accused of beating to a bloody pulp in the US attorney’s case against him. The case I’m representing him in. And she’s in my office.
“I need to speak with you, Mr. Becker.”
Mrs. Higgens tries to explain, “I told her you can’t see her, Jake. I—”
I hold up my hand. “It’s all right, Mrs. Higgens. I’ll take care of it.” She closes the door as she leaves.
Mrs. Holten lets out a quick relieved breath and steps closer to my desk. “Is it true?”
“I just came from the prosecutor’s office. They said at my husband’s trial, certain . . . indiscretions . . . from my past could be made public. By you. Is that true?”
I stand up. My voice is even but firm. “I can’t speak with you. You are the complaining witness in a felony assault case against my client.”
“I need to know!”
My palm moves to my chest. “I could be accused of tampering with a witness. You can’t be here.”
She grinds her teeth, on the verge of tears, hands shaking—but more than anything she looks utterly terrified. “I married William when I was eighteen years old. I’ve never had a career—my only job was to be his wife, the mother to our children, his prop on the campaign trail.” Her throat contracts as she swallows reflexively. “He’s capable of tying up our divorce for years. He knows all the judges. When this is done, all I will have to rely on is the kindness of affluent friends and the admiration of my children. If you know what I suspect you know, and if that comes out at William’s trial, they will never look at me the same way again. I will have nothing. Please, Mr. Becker, I just need to be prepared for what’s to come.”
I scrape my hand down my face and gesture to the chair in front of my desk. Mrs. Holten sits down but remains stiff as a frightened board. “Would you like a glass of water?”
“Thank you, yes.”
I pour her a glass and set it on my desk within her reach. Then I sit back down and when I speak, I choose my words so very carefully, doing my damnedest to bend the rules without breaking them, and in the process wrecking my entire fucking career.
“Speaking purely hypothetically and not referring to this particular case at all, it is standard practice for this firm and myself personally to employ private investigators who vet potential witnesses. They look into their backgrounds and recent histories for information which could possibly be used to impeach their credibility.”
“ ‘Impeach their credibility’?” she repeats. “So, once a liar, always a liar—is that right?”
I look into her eyes—they’re gentle brown, like a doe’s. “Depending on the circumstances . . . yes.”
Mrs. Holten sips her water and asks, “So if a potential witness had an affair and lied to her husband, her children, her friends about it? If she developed a reliance on pain medication and had to attend a live-in rehabilitation center? Would you use those facts to impeach a witness’s credibility, Mr. Becker?”
She’s asking because according to the report in my desk drawer, Mrs. Holten has done all those things.
My stomach twists, angry and sick. But I won’t lie to her. “As much as a judge would allow, yes, I would absolutely bring those facts up at trial.”
“That’s the law.”
She starts to pant, hand to her throat—almost hyperventilating. Stanton approaches her from across the room. “Is there anything you need, ma’am?”
She closes her eyes and forces her breaths back to even. “No, I’ll be fine. I’m just . . . I was a fool to ever think . . .” She pats her perfect hair and turns back to me. “Tell William I’ll fix this. And I’ll come home. Tell him—”
“I can’t do that. I can’t pass messages. I—”
“It’s important that he knows I’m willing to come home!” she says, pushing. “And that I will clean up this mess I have made.” She stands abruptly. “I can show myself out, gentlemen. Thank you, Mr. Becker, for your . . . honesty.”
And her eyes go flat. Like a death row inmate, just waiting for someone to come along and flip the switch.
Then she sweeps out of my office, closing the door softly behind her. I stare at the closed door for a few minutes . . . remembering.
Until Stanton calls my name. “You all right, Jake?”
I blink and shake my head clear. Then I move closer to my desk and refocus.
“Yeah, I’m good.” And my voice is as lifeless as Mrs. Holten’s eyes. “Just part of the job.”
• • •
A few hours later, after pitch black fills my office window, another commotion stirs outside the door. It opens and the young prosecutor Tom Caldwell stands there, fuming.
His noble steed is probably parked outside.
I tell Stanton dryly, “Must be dramatic entrance day. Lucky me.”
I wave Mrs. Higgens away as Tom practically charges my desk. “What did you say to her?”
I lean back in my chair. “I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about, Tom.”
His finger stabs the air. “You know exactly what I’m talking about! Sabrina Holten came to my office—to recant her allegations against her husband. Said she couldn’t risk her indiscretions coming to light.”
I shrug. “Flip-flopping witnesses are always a pain in the ass.”
“I know she was here!” he rails, eyes burning into me.
“She stopped in, yeah. Seemed pretty distraught.”
He leans on my desk. “Did you discuss the case with her?”
I still don’t bother to get out of my chair. “Of course I didn’t—except to say that I couldn’t discuss the case with her. Otherwise we spoke of hypotheticals. And then she left. Stanton was in the room the entire time.”
“ ‘Hypotheticals’ . . . ,” he spits, like it’s a dirty word. “I bet.”
From across the room, Stanton asks, “Are you accusing my colleague of something, Caldwell?”
Caldwell addresses his answer to me. “Yes, I’m accusing him of being a scumbag.”
I stare him down. “I really don’t like your fucking attitude, Tom. It’s been a rough day—you don’t want to push me.”
He backs down, but only a little. His hands are still balled into fists, his gaze still throwing knives. “I told her I could proceed without her testimony—I would submit her statement as evidence.”
“Which I would never let you do,” I say, interrupting him. “I can’t cross-examine a statement.”
“She was scared out of her mind, Becker! Doesn’t that bother you at all?”
I don’t answer. Because sometimes, there’s just nothing you can say.
“She went so far as to tell me that she would testify on her husband’s behalf if I went forward,” Caldwell goes on. “That she would claim she was confused and it was all a political witch hunt against him. I said I could charge her with perjury.”
Stanton laughs. “Wow, prosecuting your victims? That’s gonna make you real popular with advocacy groups.”
“I wasn’t going to actually do it,” Tom tells him. “I just wanted to see if she’d change her mind. She didn’t.” He glowers at me for a few seconds, then he asks, “Have you looked at her medical history? She’s not his wife—she’s his punching bag!”
I rub my eyes. Suddenly . . . so fucking tired. Of all of it. “What are you looking for here, Caldwell? I don’t get it—what do you want me to do for you?”
His eyes rake over me, filled with loa
thing. With disgust. “Forget looking at yourself in the mirror—I just want to know, how do you live in your skin?”
The words hang heavy in the quiet of the room, until Tom shakes his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter and you’re not worth my time.”
And he marches out of the office, slamming the door behind him.
I run my hand over the back of my neck. Then I stand and pack files into my briefcase. “I’m heading out,” I tell Stanton.
“You want to come over tonight? Have dinner with me and Sofia?”
“Not tonight, man. The faster I get to sleep, the faster this fucking day will end.”
• • •
But I don’t go home. Instead I drive over to a small hole-in-the-wall kind of place—a real dive bar—with grouchy staff, almost nonexistent clientele, and fantastic scotch. Instead of having to deal with friendly, tip-hungry bartenders and female patrons looking to hook up, here I know they’ll leave me the fuck alone. Which is exactly what I need at the moment.
I sit on the threadbare stool as a muscular bartender with a thick, black goatee pours me a double scotch—neat. I toss several bills onto the rotting wood bar, more than needed.
“Just leave the whole fucking bottle.”
Hours later, I find myself stumbling onto Chelsea’s stoop, without any clear recollection of how I got there. I glance back at my car—parked crookedly.
And on the lawn.
Glad that valet gig didn’t work out—I obviously suck at it.
The lights inside the house are out, and all is silent at the McQuaid compound. It registers that it’s probably too late to show up here, and it’s damn straight too late to knock on the door.
Then I remember the spare key. ’Cause I’m a fucking genius.
I lift the mat and see the silver, sparkling little piece of metal. I unlock the door and tiptoe in—as much as my two-hundred-twenty-five-pound frame allows, anyway. The fur ball approaches, tiny nails clicking on the hardwood floor, smelling my feet.
“Hey, Shaggy. Where’s Scooby?” I laugh—even though that wasn’t really funny.
I walk into the kitchen and grab a bottle of water from the fridge. Midchug, Chelsea jumps through the kitchen door, a baseball bat in her hands, raised and ready.
The panicked look on her face fades when she sees me, shifting to annoyance. But at least she lowers the bat. “Jake? You scared the hell out of me!”
I swallow a gulp of water and slur, “How many times have I told you to move that goddamn key? It’s the first place burglars will check. I mean—sheesh—look at me. I got in and now you’re stuck with me.”
Her head tilts and her brow puckers. It’s adorable. I want to kiss the pucker. And her whole face. I want to lick her, lather her, rub myself all over her until she smells like me. So anyone who’s near her knows she belongs to someone.
Is that as gross as it sounds?
“Are you drunk?” she whispers.
Does she really need to ask? I used the word sheesh—of course I’m fucking drunk.
“Oh yeah, off-the-ass drunk, I am.”
“Are you . . . is everything okay?”
“It was a rough day at the office, honey. I deserved a shitfacing.”
I avoid her question and say softly, “I had to see you. You just make everything . . . better.”
She stares at me for a few seconds. Then she props the bat in the corner. Her hand reaches for me. “You have to be quiet, okay? Don’t wake the kids.”
That would be terrible. I lock my lips with an imaginary key.
But as she starts to lead the way, I yank her hand—turning her around, making her crash against me. Because there’s something I have to tell her.
“Chelsea . . . I didn’t mean what I said. I am on your side.”
She searches my face, smiling gently. Her hand runs through my dark hair. “I know you are.”
We make it to Chelsea’s room undetected. She closes the door while I sit on the bed, yanking at my tie. Chelsea comes to my rescue and lifts it over my head. Then she goes to work on my shirt, my pants—stripping me down to boxers and my T-shirt.
I watch her through hooded eyes, relishing the admonishing smile dancing on her face, the way she moves with effortless grace.
“You’re so beautiful,” I tell her, because I can’t keep the words in a second longer.
She looks up at me from the floor, throwing my socks over her shoulder. “You’re not so bad yourself.” She cocks her chin toward the middle of the bed. “Go on. Scoot over.”
I do as I’m told and she climbs onto the bed behind me. I lie back against the pillow, one arm bent behind my head. Chelsea nestles up close, her cheek resting above my heart.
“What’s going on with you, Jake?”
Somewhere deep inside lies the truth. It’s curled up into a tight, black ball, under heavy blankets of disappointment. Fear. And shame. But it wants to show itself the way a wounded animal exposes its tender underbelly when it knows it’s beaten. Just to hasten whatever comes next.
“I’m not a good man.”
The whispered confession echoes in the still room. Chelsea lifts her head and I feel the point of her chin against my ribs. “You’re one of the best men I’ve ever known. In every way possible.” There’s disbelief in her voice—playfulness—like she thinks I’m teasing her.
I don’t bother arguing. She’ll know soon enough. The truth will set you free. What a fucking joke. When the truth is ugly, it holds you prisoner, and when it’s revealed, it tears the whole world down around you.
“Did I ever tell you about my father?”
“You said he left when you were eight.”
I snort. “Yeah, he left all right.” I shake my head as I dive back into that dark lake of memories best forgotten. “He was a mean bastard, even on a good day. But when he drank . . . he was truly dangerous. My mother . . . she used to sit so still, I’d watch her chest, just to make sure she was still breathing. It was like she was trying to blend into the wallpaper, so he wouldn’t have a reason . . .”
But guys like my old man don’t need a reason.
They make their own.
My voice goes flat and faraway. “The last time . . . it was because she sneezed.” I see it in my mind. The way he upended the tray, the way his dinner splattered across the TV and clung to the walls, leaving a greasy mashed-potato trail as it slid down. The way he grabbed her. “Can you believe it? She fucking sneezed.”
For the first time since I began, I look at Chelsea. She gazes at me with sympathy, sadness. Her brows are weighted, the corners of her mouth heavy with compassion that doesn’t feel at all like pity.
“And she was so little, Chelsea. Even as a kid, I could see she was so much smaller than him.” I moisten my lips, so the rest of the words can pass. “He threw her down the stairs and I remember thinking he wasn’t going to stop this time. He’d told her he’d do it one day. That when it happened, he’d bury her where no one could find her. He’d said no one would miss her . . .” My eyes sting with the memory and my throat squeezes. “No one but me.”
I blink away moisture and clear my throat. “So I went to the box under the bed—the dumb fuck stored the thing loaded. And I walked back to the living room and pointed it at him. It wasn’t heavy; my hands didn’t shake at all. But when I cocked it, the sound it made—it seemed so loud. He stopped, right away—froze. He knew exactly what that sound was. He turned around, slowly, and I kept it aimed right at his chest. I told him to go, to get away from us . . . or I would kill him. And I really fucking would have.”
At some point, Chelsea’s hand started rubbing soothing circles on my chest, my stomach, but I didn’t feel her touch until just now. It gives me the motivation I need to finish.
“I guess it’s true what they say about cowards. They only prey on easy targets, the ones who don’t fight back. Because he left and didn’t come back.”r />
For a moment, the only noise in the room is the sound of our breaths moving in time. Then Chelsea says with admiration, “That’s why you do what you do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a defender. You defend people. Like you defended your mother . . . and Rory. You gave them a chance, to have a new start.”
My eyes squeeze shut. “Most people don’t see it that way, Chelsea.”
Her warm hand cups my jaw. “I see it that way.”
The look on her face is everything I want it to be. Gentle, adoring—like I’m the hero of the story. And god, I want to be fucking selfish. I want to roll us over, peel her clothes off, and eradicate any chance she’ll ever look at me any differently than she is at this moment.
I want to get to keep her.
But ugly truth always comes out eventually. And she deserves to hear it from me.
“Today I defended a man exactly like my father.”
Her stroking hand stutters. Stops.
“His wife . . . she’s stayed with him for thirty years—took everything he dished out—and she finally got the courage to leave. To tell him to go screw himself.” I pause, swallowing. “And I took that away from her.
“He hurts her—I know he does—and because of me, he’s going to keep on hurting her.” I look into her eyes, hoping that in them I’ll find an answer I can live with. “He’s a monster, Chelsea, and I defended him. What does that make me?”
Her heartbeat quickens, like a fluttering bird who’s only just realized it’s in a cage. She searches my face . . . searches for the words to say.
In that quietly confident voice she tries, “Jake . . . sometimes, in life, we have to make hard choices—”
I grip her arms, pulling her closer. “But that’s just it. If I was a good man, it wouldn’t be a hard choice. Sometimes . . . sometimes things are so right . . . they should be easy.”
Something inside me crumbles, under the weight of all the things I want. I want her—this fearless, stunning woman. And I want the kids. Those perfect, awful, amazing children—whom she loves with every inch of her soul. I want them to be mine. Mine to hold, mine to protect and teach. Their joy, their laughter, their love. I want to come home to it, bask in it, be the reason for it.
But even more than that, I want to deserve them.
To be worthy.
And all today did was point out the stark, cold fact . . . that I’m not.
“I shouldn’t even be here,” I tell her, my voice aching. “You deserve a man who knows what the right thing is, and who does it. I want . . . Christ, I want to be that for you.”
Wordlessly, Chelsea slides out of my grasp and moves higher up the bed, above me. So she can guide my head against her breast.
She’s soft and warm and smells so fucking good. She whispers to me, rubs my temple, the back of my neck, fingers sliding through my hair. And there is nowhere else in the entire world I would rather be.
“It’s okay, Jake. Go to sleep. Shhh . . . it’s okay.”
I think he’s dead.”