Sustained, Page 19Emma Chase
“He’s not dead—he’s still breathing.”
“Can you breathe if you’re dead?”
“No. Well, maybe. But you’d need a ventilator.”
“He smells like he’s dead.”
There’s pressure against my eyelid. And then it’s pried open—revealing Rosaleen’s blurry, peering face.
“Are you dead?” she yells.
Apparently she suspects I’m also deaf.
I reclaim my eye with a jerk of my head.
“Yes, I’m dead.” I roll onto my side, away from the voices. “Let me rest in peace.” Pounding doesn’t being to describe what’s going on in my head right now. It feels like sharp-clawed parasites have burrowed under my skull and are prying it open from the inside. My stomach churns, and although I haven’t puked from alcohol since I was twenty-two, today just might be the day it happens again.
“I could make you feel better, you know.”
That came from Raymond. I shift slowly to my back and crack open my eyes. The four of them—Raymond, Rory, Riley, and Rosaleen—gaze down at me, dressed in their school uniforms, with expressions of curious disgust. Mostly disgust.
“Our mom was really into homeopathic cures and supplements. I could mix something for you.”
And this is how desperate I am—listening to a fucking nine-year-old.
I use the walls for support as I make my way into the kitchen. Chelsea’s there—dressed in tight black leggings and a Berkeley T-shirt that makes her tits look fantastic. If only I felt well enough to show my appreciation properly.
She scoops nasty-looking green slop into Ronan’s mouth—and I almost vomit all over the floor. He seems to enjoy it. “Oh, you’re up,” she says cheerily. Then, less so, “You look awful.”
“That makes sense,” I mutter. “Awful is how I feel.”
I sit at the island while Raymond gets out the blender and starts dumping various juices, capsules, and gelcaps into it. Then he turns the blender on. And my head explodes. After two long minutes, the brown, grainy concoction gets plopped into a glass and set in front of me. They stare at me—even the baby—like I’m the wolf man at those freak-show olden-days carnivals.
“Is this really going to work?” I ask Raymond.
“Well . . .” He purses his lips. “It’ll either work or you’ll throw up. But either way, you’ll probably feel better.”
He does have a point.
I choke it down, trying not to breathe, in a few gulps. Then I burp nastily and my stomach groans. I put my head on the counter. “Somebody fucking kill me.”
“Okay, kids, time for school,” Chelsea tells them, passing out lunch bags and backpacks amid disgruntled moans. I hear them trudge down the hall and out the front door. I think I fall asleep for a few minutes, because the next time I open my eyes and lift my head, it’s just me and Chelsea in the kitchen.
She sets a tall glass of water in front of me, her expression neutral.
I don’t remember everything about last night, just a few words and images. But I still feel the need to say, “I’m sorry about last night.”
“Why?” she asks, stacking dishes in the sink. “It’s not like you accosted me.”
“No—I definitely would’ve remembered that.”
She glances at me with a quick, fleeting smile.
“Chelsea.” There’s a desperation in my voice that makes her stop and meet my eyes. “I’m sorry about what I said the other day, too. You’re not just a ‘good time’ to me—you know that, right? You have to know that, you’re . . . so much more. And I don’t handle . . . more . . . very well.”
Her stiff expression melts and her eyes go soft and warm. She licks her lips, considering her words, then says, “I missed you. I know it was only a day, and I know that’s probably going to freak you out . . . But I like having you around—and everything that goes with it. We don’t have to . . . move forward if that makes you uncomfortable. I’m good with keeping things just as they are. I think they’re . . . pretty awesome.”
I take her hand, sliding her closer. I press it between my two hands, watching it disappear. So small. So beautiful. “I think they’re pretty awesome too.”
And her smile grows. “Good.”
I yawn and stretch . . . and goddamn, I’m actually beginning to not feel like a dump Death took anymore. Raymond may be onto something with that drink; hope he wrote the recipe down.
“I have to get to work, but before I head home for a change of clothes, I really want a shower.”
Chelsea runs her fingers through my hair, massaging my scalp. “There are five showers in this house—take your pick.”
I grin. “I like the one in your room.”
The hot water feels amazing on my tight muscles. I hang my head under the rain-shower spout, letting the water run over me, and yesterday washes away. My conversation with Mrs. Holten and Tom Caldwell and the feelings they resurrected circles the drain and goes down.
I step out into Chelsea’s room with a towel around my waist. She’s there, putting sexy scraps of folded lace and satin into drawers. She watches me, staring at the drops of water that trail down my chest, across my abs. My cock preens under her gaze.
And she definitely notices that.
Looking hungrily at the hard outline beneath the towel, she asks, almost breathlessly, “Feeling better?”
I run my tongue along my bottom lip. “Much better.”
And the towel doesn’t stay on my hips for long after that.
• • •
In the days that follow, Chelsea and I find our rhythm again, in and out of the bedroom. My life goes back to normal—a strange, different kind of normal that includes her and the kids. One day, Chelsea joins Brent, Sofia, Stanton, and me for lunch—and Sofia holds Ronan on her lap the whole time. I take Rory to Little League tryouts and we all celebrate with pizza on the back patio when he makes the team. Rosaleen starts lessons with a new piano teacher who comes to the house—and I supervise to make sure there’s not a ruler in sight. Riley discovers 5 Seconds of Summer and One Direction gets downgraded—though to be honest, they all look exactly the same to me. Ronan starts sleeping through the night—a huge plus—while Raymond enjoys his torment-free days at school. And Regan flexes her power with her newly expanded vocabulary, telling us all “no” every chance she gets.
It’s pretty great.
But then . . . a day comes along that changes everything. And it all goes to hell.
• • •
After Mrs. Holten’s strong repudiation of her statement and her refusal to assist the prosecution in any case against her husband, Caldwell had no choice but to drop the charges against the senator. And that was recorded as a win in my column. It’s a big fucking deal for me professionally. I’m now Jonas Adams’s pet employee and the favorite guy in the whole world of Senator Holten—a man with considerable influence in DC. Late one Friday afternoon, the senator makes room in his busy schedule to come to our firm, to Jonas’s office, for a meeting with me. To hobnob and discuss my future.
To talk about all the deals the devil wants to make.
We sit on the leather couches in Jonas’s office, enjoying an afternoon scotch. Holten talks about a good “friend” of his who’s being investigated for money laundering. His eyes are dark, bottomless, almost soulless. And it’s kind of creeping me out.
As the senator drones on, my phone vibrates in my pocket. I glance at it discreetly—Chelsea’s name glows on the screen. I send the call to voice mail. But a few minutes later, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when her silent call comes again.
My thumb hovers for a second . . . and then I send it to voice mail again. This may very well be the biggest meeting of my career—hearing about how many feet Ronan crawled today is just going to have to wait.
We finish our drinks, and the talk turns to my recent cases—my latest acq
uittal. And then Veronica, Mr. Adams’s private secretary, walks into the office, her voice hesitant at interrupting us. “Pardon the intrusion, gentlemen.” She looks at me. “Mrs. Higgens is on line one, with an urgent call for you, Mr. Becker.”
My first thought is of the kids, that Rory has gotten himself into some fresh brew of trouble or that one of them, maybe Regan—she’s due—has had an accident. Something minor, of course, a broken bone or a cut that needs stitching.
But I cover the concern with a shrug, eyeing Holten and my boss. “My apologies. The cost of being in high demand.”
Mr. Adams nods his head. “Use my phone, Becker.”
I stand beside his desk as their chatter resumes and press the button under the blinking, waiting light. There’s a click over the line, a pause as it connects . . . and then Chelsea’s voice.
I hear a lot in that one syllable. Her voice is . . . off. Somehow flat and high-pitched at the same time. And she’s exhaling hard, like when you twist an ankle or slice your hand . . . and have to breathe through the pain.
“Janet’s here. With . . . officers. They have an . . . an order . . .”
And the floor drops out from under me.
“They’re taking the kids, Jake.”
Nausea slams into my stomach and I feel like I’m falling. Grappling, grasping for a perch to stop the descent.
I swallow bile. “I’m leaving right now. Tell them . . .” I choke down a curse. “Tell them I’m on my way.”
“Hurry,” she begs in a whisper. And the line goes dead.
I replace the phone on the cradle. It takes every ounce of control I have not to sprint out of the fucking room or break my way straight through the wall.
“I’m sorry, I have to leave.” My briefcase is in hand and I’m already walking to the door as my boss calls, “Becker, Senator Holten is only available for this afternoon.”
Gripping the doorknob, I make myself turn and answer. “Again, I’m very sorry we couldn’t speak longer, Senator. But”—I don’t even have to think about my next words—“it’s a family emergency.”
I burst through the door, wild and seething, struggling to pull my shit together. Because emotions make you sloppy, careless. And I really need to be on point.
The foyer is empty—I stalk into the living room. There, the first thing I see is Riley, a packed blue canvas duffel bag at her feet, rubbing her little sister’s trembling back as she buries her face against Riley’s stomach. The fourteen-year-old looks up at me, her eyes filled with tears being kept at bay.
“It’s okay.” She nods, trying so damn hard to be brave. “I’m okay.”
I notice a uniformed police officer in the corner—he looks young, just out of the academy. I wonder if when he signed up he imagined protecting and serving would include sweeping scared kids out of their home. He picks up a framed photograph from a coffee table in the corner.
“Don’t touch that,” I bite out.
He replaces the frame and raises his hands in surrender. I brush past him to Chelsea, with Regan beside her, oblivious to the turmoil, and Ronan in the baby carrier at her feet, taking it all in. Chelsea’s eyes are wide and terrified, her hands twisting together. She sighs with relief when she sees me.
“What the hell is this, Janet?” I bark at the social worker standing beside her.
Janet shakes her head. “It wasn’t my call. This came down from the top.”
“Who’s at the top?” Whose head do I need to cleave in two?
“The director of CFSA reviewed the case file and petitioned to have the children removed from the home. Dexter Smeed.”
I take the court order from Chelsea’s hands. “ ‘Neglect and child endangerment ’?” I read. “Is this a fucking joke?”
Janet rubs her lips together, looking anything but happy. “I’m really sorry.”
I look over the paper again, checking the date, the wording, the signatures. Looking for something. Fucking anything.
“You can do something, right?” Chelsea asks, begging me with her eyes. “A response, a postponement? So they can stay?”
There’s hope in her voice. Faith. So much trust. And it destroys me.
I grasp her elbow and swear on my soul. “We’ll get them back. I promise, Chelsea . . . we’ll get them back.”
She stares at me for a moment, unblinking. Like she can’t comprehend what I’m telling her. Until she does. Her eyes pinch closed and she inhales harshly through her nose. Then she opens her eyes, and I see a wall being erected within them. Brick by brick, she shores it up—so she can take the hit. So she can be strong for the kids, until . . . after.
Chelsea nods and forces a wet-eyed smile. Then she scoops up Regan and moves to Riley and Rosaleen, stroking their hair, telling them they’ll be staying with friends of Janet’s for just a little while. How wonderful it’ll be. How much fun they’ll have.
I pray they can’t hear the tremble in her voice.
“Where are you taking them?” I ask Janet.
I read an article to the Judge last month about the crowded group homes, the shortage of adequate foster families in DC. And I envision three cars, each with two of them inside, driving away in different directions. Tearing them apart.
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Then tell me they can stay together, Janet,” I growl. But my voice is so strained, it sounds more like pleading.
She takes pity on me. “There’s a family I’ve worked with before. They’re good people. The real deal. They’ve agreed to take all six of the kids . . . for the weekend.”
I look up sharply. “The weekend? That’s it?”
Janet faces my heated expression head-on. “After that, it’ll depend on what’s available.” Her voice falls back to professionalism. “Everything’s in the packet—Chelsea’s rights, her options. She can request an emergency hearing.”
“God fucking damn it.”
Footfalls clunk down the steps. Raymond appears first at the bottom, wearing a stoic mask, but his red-rimmed eyes and sniffling give him away. He lets the bag in his hand go and rushes over to Chelsea, where he’s immediately enveloped in her arms.
I try to think of something to say. Words that could make this less of a nightmare for them. Before I can say the first word, Rory comes down the stairs, his blue eyes round and shaken. I expect him to join his brothers and sisters in their close-knit cluster. To run to Chelsea. But he doesn’t.
He runs to me.
His warm little body crashes against me, arms wrapping, holding on for dear life. His voice is muffled against my waist, but I hear every word. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll be good. I swear I’ll be good.”
My eyes sting as this poor, lost kid pours out his heart . . . and tears mine to pieces.
I slide to my knees in front of him and pry him back. “This isn’t your fault, Rory. Nothing you did made this happen.”
“It’s not your fault, kid.”
He hiccups. “Don’t let . . . them take . . . us.”
My voice is low and irrefutable. “I’ll bring you home. I’ll bring you all home.”
His eyes flicker between mine, searching for honesty. “When?”
And I curse the time of day and the court schedule and a thousand other things that force my answer. “Monday. I’ll bring you home Monday.” I push his hair back and brush his tear-streaked face. “Do you remember what I told you, about a man and his word?”
He nods. “All a man has is his word. That he says what he means and does what he says.”
An aching smile tugs at my lips. “That’s right. I give you my word, Rory. I’ll bring you all home on Monday.”
I glance up at Chelsea and at each of the kids around her—all of them watching, listening. Then I look back to Rory. “But between then and now, you’ve got to hold it together. I need you to be tough, okay? Take care of each other. Don’t f
ight. Help each other.”
After a slow moment, Rory clenches his jaw. Then he gives a small nod and wipes his cheeks with the back of his hand. He’s ready.
• • •
We load the kids into the van. Chelsea hugs and kisses each one before they climb in, barely able to make herself let go. Rosaleen’s face is red and wet with big, streaming tears. “I want to stay here.”
“I know, kiddo.” I brush her cheek with my knuckles, wiping at her tears as I buckle her in. “It won’t be long. It’ll go really fast,” I lie.
Regan’s lip quivers, though I’m not sure she understands why. “No . . . ”
And I can’t force out any words to answer her. All I can do is kiss her forehead.
We step back as Janet closes the sliding van door. It’s loud—echoing—like a jail cell locking. Then she climbs in the driver’s seat.
Chelsea waves, and she keeps talking, even after the kids can’t hear her anymore. “I love you! Be good, guys. I’ll see you really soon. Everything’s gonna be all right. Don’t worry. I prom—” Her voice falters. “Promise everything will be all right.”
Her hand is still raised as the van pulls away, led by a police cruiser, down the curved driveway, through the gate, and out of sight.
As soon as the blue van disappears, Chelsea’s face crumbles. A wheezing gasp comes from her throat and she hides her face in her open palms. I put my hands on her shoulders so she’s knows I’m right here with her.
And she screams. A horrible, piercing wail that I’ll never forget as long as I live. Pain so bare, so raw, that thoughts aren’t even possible—just an endless flow of agonized sobs.
Her knees give out, and I catch her.
She twists my shirt in her hands and hides her face against my chest, soaking it with tears by the time we get into the house. Her shoulders shake as she cries her heart out. “They were scared, Jake. Oh god, they were so scared.”
It’s horrible. Every word lands like the lash of a whip, cutting me, turning my insides into a raw, bloody mess. I take her straight to her room. The kids are everywhere in this house—their toys, their faces smiling back from pictures on the wall—but there it won’t be as haunting. I sit on the bed and cradle Chelsea in my arms. Stroking her hair, kissing her forehead, whispering words of reassurance that have no fucking meaning at all.
She sobs, long and loud. And I know this isn’t just about the kids—it’s the outpouring of everything that’s built up inside her these last months. All the grief, pain, loneliness, and fear she never let herself feel.
“My brother was a good brother,” she chokes out.
“I loved him.”
“I know you did,” I answer in the softest voice.
“And he’s gone. And I miss him . . . so much.”
I hold her tighter. “I know.”
Her voice scrapes her throat. “I had to do one thing, just one thing for him . . . and I couldn’t! I lost them . . .”
“Shh . . . it’s okay.” I press my lips to her forehead.
“They’re gone. Oh god . . . they’re gone . . .”
“We’ll get them back. Shhh . . . I promise.”
Eventually Chelsea wears herself out, crying herself into a deep sleep. I stay awake all night and hold her. I whisper to her when she whimpers, when her brow wrinkles with panic, until she’s calm again. And I think about the kids,