Sustained, p.22
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       Sustained, p.22

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  I wouldn’t do for her. For them.

  “I care about you, Chelsea.” I gesture toward the house. “I care about you all very much. But a family—that kind of responsibility was never part of the plan for me. My role models were a drunk whose favorite pastime was punching his wife, and a cranky womanizing workaholic who was married to his bench. I don’t know how to do this.”

  I’ve taken plenty of risks in my career. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. But I can’t risk . . . them. They’re too important, too precious. The risk that I could screw up, harm them because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing—even the possibility terrifies me.

  I lick my lips, not looking at her. “And now that I know the kids are safe, that you’re okay—I need to back this way up.”

  It was always going to end. Today, or a month, or six months from now—and it was never going to end well for her. I should’ve pulled away a long time ago.

  But she was so . . . her.

  And I was a selfish fucking idiot.

  She inhales a breath, then lets it out slowly, the way she does when she’s trying to calm her heart. I hate that I fucking know that. I hate that I can already imagine what she’s thinking, what she’ll say.

  “Jake, I know it’s scary. I’m scared too. But some things are worth being scared for. And together, we could be . . .”

  Do it right . . . or don’t bother.

  So I force myself to look into those heartbreaking blue eyes. And lie through my teeth.

  “I don’t want this, Chelsea.”

  She gasps, like the wind’s been knocked out of her.

  “I don’t want this life. I can be a friend to you—to them—but this thing between us, whatever it is . . . needs to end now.” I scrape a hand through my hair, tugging hard, the pain giving me focus. Resolve. “You’re the kind of woman who’s gonna want to get married someday. You should be out there looking for that guy. But I’m not him. Any time we spend together will just . . . be a waste.”

  Her voice is dull. Barely there. “I see.”

  And I can hear the tears. I won’t look—I fucking can’t. But I can practically feel them slowly streaking down her face.

  She clears her throat. “The boys—they idolize you, Jake. They all do. Please don’t—”

  “I won’t,” I promise. “I’m not going to abandon them or you. I still want to help.” My voice picks up and I start to talk faster.

  “Anything you need. I’ll take them to practice, I’ll be there at games, babysitting or just being with them. I won’t leave you hanging, Chelsea.”

  I finally get the balls to look at her face.

  But I shouldn’t have.

  She’s moonlight pale, her lashes dark with wetness. A tear leaks silently from one corner, leaving a silver trail down her porcelain cheek.

  “I’m sorry.”

  And I am—so goddamn sorry.

  Chelsea raises her chin, and her shoulders straighten with that bravery—that quiet, ceaseless strength. Her fingers wipe away tears. “I understand, Jake. Thank you”—she swallows—“for your honesty.” Her voice goes even softer. “We care about you too—so much. If friendship is all you want, then we’ll make it work just as friends.”

  Hearing the words from her lips makes me fucking cringe.

  But I cover it with a silent nod.

  Chelsea steps toward the door, and every cell in my body screams to stop her. Grab her—spin her around and kiss her until she smiles again. To drop to my knees and take it all back. To undo the last five minutes.

  But I’m trying to do the right thing. Even though it’s harder than I ever could’ve imagined.

  As Chelsea walks away, I squeeze my eyes shut, force my feet and my hands to stay still as stone . . . and let her go.

  26

  Days go by and bleed into weeks. I keep my commitments to the kids. Sometimes I’m there when they get off the bus from school, nearby during Rosaleen’s piano practices. Once in a while I take Regan and Ronan back to fucking Mommy and Me, and I go to Rory’s Little League games, cheering louder than any father there. Things between Chelsea and me are . . . civil. Perfectly polite. I almost wish she’d curse at me, yell, tell me I’m a dick. It’d be so much better than the impersonal, tightly measured exchanges we have. She talks to me the same way the Judge does on the days when he has no goddamn idea who I am.

  Like I’m a stranger.

  Two weeks after the custody hearing, Brent strolls into my office. “Dude, tonight—me, Lucy Patterson, you, and her friend, we’re going to grab a bite to eat after work.”

  “I don’t think so,” I answer, not bothering to look up from my laptop.

  “And therein lies your problem, Jake. Too much thinking. It’s time to get back on that horse, little camper. And ride her.” He fiddles with a pen on my desk. “I’ve taken Lucy out a few times already—we’re chugging full steam ahead. She says her friend likes you, has been asking about you.”

  I rub my eyes. “What was her friend’s name again?”

  He shrugs. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter—you’re going. I won’t take no for an answer.”

  When he gets an idea into his head, Brent can be as tenacious as Sofia’s Rottweiler’s jaws—he just won’t let go. So, in an effort to get back to work as quickly as possible, I give in.

  “Fine.”

  “Sweet.” He smiles. “We’re meeting them at six.”

  • • •

  Dinner with Brent, Lucy, and her friend with the tight ass, whose name I still don’t know, is once again casual. Easy. And forgettable. We meet up at a sports bar, have hot sandwiches, then move to the adjoining room to shoot some pool. The friend flirts with me, tries to get me to teach her how to hold the cue. But I’m just not into it. It’s an effort not to be rude.

  After what seems like forever but is in actuality only two hours, we call it a night. The four of us walk out the door of the bar onto the sidewalk.

  I turn to the right, and find myself staring into stunning, crystal-blue eyes.

  “Jake!” Chelsea says, as surprised as I am.

  “Chelsea . . . hey.”

  The kids flank her on all sides. Raymond is pushing Ronan in his stroller on her left, Riley holds Rosaleen’s hand on her right, Regan is held in Chelsea’s arms.

  “Jake!” Regan shouts, using her new favorite word.

  “Hey, kiddo.”

  Chelsea’s expression goes from surprised to awkward as she takes in Brent, the blond Lucy, and the brunette at my side. She pales slightly, looking . . . wounded.

  Not to be outdone, Rosaleen bounces and says, “Hey, Jake!”

  I smile at her as the brunette crouches down. “You are sooo cute! My sister is going to have a baby soon and I hope she looks just like you.” She taps Rosaleen’s nose—which scrunches distastefully.

  “Who are you?” Rosaleen asks with all kinds of attitude.

  “Come on, Rosaleen.” Riley tugs at her sister’s hand, giving me the cold shoulder and an even colder glare. “Raymond, let’s keep walking. Aunt Chelsea, we’ll catch up with you down the block.”

  The three of them walk around us while I’m still staring at Chelsea.

  “What . . . what are you doing here?”

  “Rory’s therapist had to push back his session. He’s in there now and I promised the kids ice cream while we wait, so that’s what I’m doing. We’re heading that way”—she points over my shoulder—“to get ice cream.”

  As an afterthought, she glances at Brent. “Hi, Brent—it’s nice to see you.”

  “You too, Chelsea,” he answers softly.

  She hoists Regan higher on her hip and pushes hair behind her ear. “Well . . . I should get going. Have . . . have a good night.”

  She walks around me. But she only gets a few steps.

  “Chelsea!” I call, her name sounding like it’s been torn from the deepest part of my lung. I step quickly, moving in front of her. “I can explain. This isn’t—”
r />   “Jake, you don’t have to explain,” she tells me gently, shaking her head. “You don’t owe me anything.”

  And I know that’s true—so why does it feel like I’ve been kicked in the nuts?

  We stand that way for a few seconds. Then I reach for Regan. “Let me help you get the kids ice cream.”

  But Chelsea steps back. Out of my reach. “No. It’s okay.” Her smile is so soft. So sad. “I can do it on my own.”

  She walks away. Leaving me standing on the sidewalk. Alone.

  • • •

  A few days later I’m in the office; Stanton’s at his desk. “Are you and Sofia coming over to watch the game tonight?” I ask him.

  “Ah . . . no. Change of plans.”

  “What are you guys doing?”

  Sofia brushes into the office, timing as impeccable as ever. “We’re watching the kids for Chelsea.”

  I lean back in my chair, my work totally forgotten.

  “Why? I mean . . . why didn’t she ask me?”

  Sofia hands Stanton a folder. “Probably because she has a date and didn’t want things to be uncomfortable.”

  “A date?”

  My first thought is she’s doing it to get back at me, because she caught me out on my own stupid double date. But Chelsea’s not like that. She’s not petty. Which means she’s going out on a date because she’s moving on. Just like I told her to.

  Fuck.

  “Do you . . . did she tell you who she’s going out with?”

  Sofia’s hazel gaze regards me with no sympathy whatsoever. “She did actually—Tom Caldwell.”

  “Tom Caldwell? Get the hell out of here! How did that happen?”

  “Apparently, Chelsea ran into Tom at the grocery store. They started talking, he asked if she was available . . . then he asked her out.”

  Motherfucker.

  “And how do you know this?” I ask harshly.

  Sofia shrugs. “Chelsea and I talk. We’re friends—she doesn’t have a lot of friends here, Jake.”

  I know. With six kids to look after she doesn’t have a lot of time for friends. But—bitterness stings sour on my tongue—I guess she’s making time for good old fucking Tom.

  “I’ll watch the kids.” I don’t leave any room for discussion in my tone.

  That doesn’t mean Sofia won’t try to discuss it. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

  “Why not?”

  She points to my fists, which are clenched tightly on the desk. And she doesn’t really have to say anything else.

  I force them to loosen, shaking them out. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. I just want to make sure he knows not to mess with her.”

  “Stanton and I are fully capable of putting the fear of God into him. Not that he really needs it—Tom is a nice guy.”

  I scowl at her. “I want to watch the kids.”

  “I don’t—”

  Luckily, Stanton has my back. “I think Jake should watch the kids, Soph. If he and Chelsea are going to be strictly friends, he’s gonna have to deal with her dating. If he thinks he’s up for it, I think we should let him have at it.”

  And he smirks at her. The smirk gets her every time.

  “O-kay.” She looks at me hard. “But don’t be an asshole, Jake.”

  I look right back at her. “Who, me?”

  • • •

  That night, I knock on Chelsea’s front door. It’s locked—and she finally removed the key from under the mat. The door opens, and it feels like déjà vu—like the first time I saw her in this doorway. And just like that time, the breath is knocked out of me.

  Her dress is dark green, simple and understated. Utterly stunning. Her long, delicate arms peek out from tiny cap sleeves, a shiny belt shows off her trim waist, and her legs—Jesus—they look fucking endless beneath the short, slightly flaring skirt.

  Chelsea’s eyes go round with surprise and I’m guessing Sofia didn’t give her the heads-up about the babysitting switch.

  “Hi.”

  “Jake—hi. What are you—”

  “Something came up with Stanton and Sofia . . .” Which would be me. “So . . . I’m going to watch the kids—if that’s okay with you.”

  She recovers from her shock and opens the door wider. “Of course it’s okay. Come on in.”

  The kids are in the den. “Hey, guys.”

  “Cool—you’re watching us?” Rory exclaims. “You owe me a Halo rematch.”

  Chelsea says she has to fill Ronan’s bottles and heads to the kitchen. After greeting the rest of the rug rats, I follow her. She’s at the counter, staring harder than necessary as she fills the bottle in her hands. Silently, I move to stand beside her. Just inches away.

  Close enough to touch her.

  “You look beautiful.”

  She glances at me quickly, smiling self-consciously. “Oh . . . thank you.” She tightens the cap on the bottle, places it on the counter, and turns to face me. “This is weird, isn’t it?”

  “No, it’s not.”

  “It’s totally weird, Jake. You know what I look like naked—”

  Do I ever. The image is seared into my brain. My favorite memory.

  “—and now you’re here watching the kids while I go out on a date with another man. That’s, like, the definition of weirdness.”

  I chuckle. “It doesn’t have to be. We’re adults. We’re friends. This is what . . . friends do.”

  She looks up into my eyes, her cheeks flushed, her expression so much more than friendly.

  The dog goes nuts barking at a knock from the front door. With another quick smile, Chelsea goes to answer it. I make my way back out to the den just as Chelsea leads Tom Caldwell in, introducing him to the kids, his white teeth gleaming like shiny pearls as he smiles at each one of them.

  Then, under his breath, I hear him whisper to Chelsea, “You look ravishing.”

  Who says that? Who the hell uses the word ravishing?

  Douchebags—that’s who.

  “I just have to grab my bag and then we’ll go.” She blows a kiss at the kids. “Be good, guys. I’ll be home in a little while.” Then she leaves the room.

  And I make my move. “Caldwell.”

  “Becker.” He grins, holding out his hand. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

  I grip his hand hard when I shake it. “You shouldn’t be. I’m here a lot. I’m watching the kids for Chelsea.”

  “That’s nice of you.”

  Yep—that’s me. Fucking nice.

  I guide him toward the front door, needing a moment alone. In the foyer, my voice drops low and menacing. “I just want to make a few things clear. If you treat Chelsea with anything less than perfect respect . . . if you ever think about doing something that will in any way hurt these kids . . . when I’m finished with you, there won’t be enough left to bury.”

  My stare is unwavering.

  He leans back. “Are you threatening me, Jake?”

  “I thought that was pretty fucking obvious.”

  Then he chuckles, smacking my back like we’re old friends. “Message received. You have nothing to worry about with me.”

  Chelsea comes down the stairs and Caldwell opens the front door for her. He salutes me as he walks out. “Have fun babysitting, Becker.”

  I stand there for a few moments after they leave, glaring at the closed door. Rory comes up next to me, looking in the same direction.

  “He seems like a douchebag.”

  “You’re an excellent judge of character, you know that, kid?”

  Rory nods. And I tap his shoulder. “Come on, let’s go play Halo. I feel like annihilating something.”

  • • •

  It’s about eleven when Chelsea comes home. Blessedly alone. She walks through the front door and into the den—where we’re waiting for her.

  All of us.

  She kicks off her shoes. “Wow, hey—you guys are still up.”

  I sit in the middle of the couch, Regan on my lap, Rory and Raymo
nd on either side, Riley leaning against the back.

  “The kids wanted to talk to you about something,” I explain.

  Her gaze flickers to each of them. “What’s up?

  “We don’t like him,” Rory says.

  It takes a moment for Chelsea to understand. “Him?” Her thumb points over her shoulder. “Tom?”

  “He’s a douche,” Rory confirms.

  “He doesn’t seem very smart,” Raymond adds.

  “He’s booooring,” Rosaleen chimes in.

  “He’s cute,” Riley says. “But you could do better.”

  And Regan ties it all together. “No!”

  God, she’s eloquent.

  Chelsea laughs. “All right. Well, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your feelings are duly noted. Now”—she sweeps her hand to the stairs—“go to bed.”

  When the predictable groans and complaints begin, I back her up. “Go on, guys, just make it easy on yourselves. Rory, help Regan brush her teeth.”

  “I’ll be up to tuck you in in a minute,” she tells them as they file past her like baby ducks in a row. Then her eyes fall on me, locked and loaded. “Can I speak with you outside? Now.”

  And her tone means business. Guess her panties are twisted, but that’s fine with me—’cause my panties are pretty goddamn twisted at the moment too.

  Okay, that didn’t come out right . . . but you know what I fucking mean. If she wants a fight, I’m more than happy to give her one. Or more than one.

  Multiple.

  Long, sweaty, bed-breaking . . . shit! What the hell is wrong with me?

  Once the kids are upstairs, I follow her out the back door, my stiff strides matching her stomping ones, onto the dark patio. The French door slams with a
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