Sustained, p.4
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       Sustained, p.4

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  I shake my head. “Lawyer.”

  “I’m Rory.”

  “Rory what?”

  “McQuaid.”

  I look him over. White button-down shirt, beige pants—a private-school uniform. Add in the two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar sneakers and J.Crew backpack and I have to ask, “Why’d you steal my wallet, Rory McQuaid?”

  He kicks at the pavement. “I don’t know.”

  Of course he doesn’t.

  His shoulders lift. “Just to see if I could do it, I guess.”

  Here’s the moment when I wonder what the hell I’m supposed to do with him now. Keeping him out of the system feels like the right move, but letting him skate scot-free doesn’t. He needs to learn stupid actions have consequences—bad ones—and he needs to know it now. If not, there’ll be worse decisions in his future, with more severe penalties than he’ll be able to pay.

  I gesture with my hand toward the end of the block. “All right, let’s go.”

  Rory stays right where he is. “I’m not going anywhere with you. You could be a child molester.”

  I scowl. “I’m not a child molester.”

  “Said every child molester ever.”

  My eyebrows rise. “A pickpocket and a smartass, huh? Perfect. Must be my lucky day.” I raise my arm toward the end of the block. “I’m driving you home. I’ll tell your parents what you did, and they’ll deal with you.”

  My mother used to get frequent house calls in the same vein—from teachers, guidance counselors, benevolent police officers. It never changed my attitude or my fucked-up behavior, but she always appreciated knowing what her son was really up to, even though she had to work too many hours to do anything about it.

  A shadow falls over Rory’s face. “You don’t have to do that. I’m not going to steal anymore.”

  “Said every thief ever.”

  That gets a short, grudging laugh out of him. But he still hesitates.

  “Look, kid, either I take you home and you face the music with your parents, or I bring Officer Noblecky back over here. It’s your call.”

  He kicks at the sidewalk again and curses under his breath. Then he hoists his backpack higher on his shoulder and meets my eyes. “Where’s your car?”

  • • •

  When we get to my Mustang, Rory climbs into the backseat and buckles his seat belt without being told. He gives me his address—only about ten miles outside the city—and we head out.

  “Is your name really Becker?” he asks after a few minutes.

  I meet his eyes in the rearview mirror. “Yeah—Jake Becker.” Then I ask a question of my own. “How old are you, kid?”

  “I’ll be ten in five months.”

  I nod slowly. “Also known as nine.”

  He smirks. “And you called me a smartass.”

  Otherwise, he’s quiet during the drive, staring out the window. But after we turn off Rock Creek Parkway, when huge, ancient oak trees line the road and the street names turn to Whitehaven, Foxboro, and Hampshire, and the driveways become gated and long, Rory turns even more sullen. It comes off him in brooding, hostile waves, in the clench of his hand and the tensing of his shoulders.

  “They’re not gonna come down too hard on you, are they?”

  I mean his parents. Just because he seems to be well-fed, clean, and injury free doesn’t mean it’s impossible that something more sinister might be waiting for him at home.

  “No,” he answers without fear. “I’ll be fine.”

  When I pull up to Rory’s address, the wrought-iron gate opens automatically. The extensive driveway is flanked by lampposts and cherry trees and curves around into a horseshoe. The house is a majestic brick Georgian, completely restored with black shutters and detailed white moldings around its fourteen windows. There’s a three-car attached garage, a large front courtyard surrounded by a natural-stone wall, and bright green shrubbery.

  I kill the engine and stare at the house, thinking he might be trying to pull one over on me. “You live here?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Are you, like, the gardener’s kid?”

  Rory frowns with confusion. “No. It’s my parents’ house.” Then, softer, under his breath, “Was . . .”

  He doesn’t elaborate but instead hops out of the car, backpack in tow. I take long strides to catch up and we stand before the massive oak door. I put my hand on the back of his neck, just to be ready in case he makes a run for it. Then I ring the doorbell.

  A protracted string of yappy barks ensues immediately after. There’s a shuffling from inside, then the door swings open.

  And the air rushes out of my lungs.

  She’s five five, maybe five six, with long, toned legs in snug black leggings. The outline of a trim waist teases beneath the cotton blouse, with buttons at the top that strain to encase full, firm, perfect breasts. Her neck is elegant, creamy pale, and her face—Jesus—it puts the Victoria’s Secret Angels to shame. A stubborn chin; high cheekbones; plump, ripe, gloss-free lips; an impish nose; and two ice-blue eyes that sparkle like fucking diamonds on a sunny winter day. Multifaceted auburn hair is piled high on her head, with a few escaping strands around her face. Dark-rimmed, square glasses frame those striking eyes, giving a sexy-academic, sultry-librarian kind of impression.

  I try to swallow, but my mouth just went dry.

  “Rory,” she breathes with relief, focusing on the boy beside me. And then she’s pissed. “Where have you been? You were supposed to be home hours ago! And why isn’t your phone on?”

  The kid pulls out of my grasp, walks across the black-and-white-tiled foyer, and marches straight up the stairs, not even looking at her.

  “Rory! Hey!” she calls after him. Futilely.

  Her knuckles turn white where they grip the door frame, then she turns to me. “Hello?”

  It’s more of a question than a greeting.

  “Hi,” I respond, just staring. Enjoying the view.

  Fuck, I’m horny.

  Then I shake my head, snapping out of the idiot stupor of being denied sex for too long.

  I start again, extending my hand. “Hi. I’m Jake Becker. I’m an attorney.” It’s always good to volunteer this fact because—as with police officers—there’s an instant trust that’s afforded to those of us in legal professions, even if it’s not always deserved.

  “Chelsea McQuaid.” My hand encapsulates her small one as she shakes it with a warm, firm grip.

  “I drove Rory home.”

  Her head tilts and her lips purse with suspicious curiosity. “Really?”

  “I need to speak with you about your son, Mrs. McQuaid,” I tell her, going with the most logical connection between her and the would-be thief.

  Her eyes examine me and I can see the judging wheels turning. Debating whether to, in this day and age, let an imposing, unknown man into her house. I have no doubt that my expensive suit and dark good looks help tip the scales in my favor.

  “All right.” She steps back. “Please come in, Mr. Becker.”

  I step over the threshold. “Jake, please.” She closes the door behind me, reaching up to engage a child safety lock at the top. Then a tiny blur of long caramel-and-chocolate fur surges out from behind her and pounces on my shoes, sniffing and barking, sticking out its chest and snarling.

  A clear case of small-dog syndrome if I ever saw one.

  “It, stop it!” Chelsea scolds.

  The corner of my mouth quirks. “Your dog’s name is It?”

  “Yeah.” She smiles. And it’s fucking stunning. “Cousin It. Like The Addams Family?”

  It gets more riled, looking like a mop gone insane.

  I meet her eyes. “About your son—”

  “Nephew, actually. I’m Rory’s aunt.”

  My ears perk up. Because by the look of her naked hand, there’s a good chance she’s Rory’s single aunt.

  Best news I’ve heard all damn day.

  A baby’s wail comes from another room, piercing and demanding. Chelsea
turns her head. “Could you come with me? I have to . . .”

  She’s already walking and I’m right behind her.

  We pass by the arched entryways of a library and a conservatory with a grand piano, then go into a spacious den with a huge fireplace and cathedral ceiling. The furnishings are tasteful and clean but in earth tones, warm. Dozens of framed photographs of children cover every wall. Chelsea pushes through a door into the kitchen, where the crying gets louder.

  The kitchen is about the size of my whole apartment. It has hardwood floors, mahogany cabinets, and a granite-countered center island with a second sink, and it’s chock-full of stainless-steel appliances. A round kitchen table for eight fits in an alcove backed by French doors that open out to a stone patio and garden, with a cobblestone path that leads to an inground pool farther back.

  An infant seat sits inside a mesh portable crib beside the island with a vocal, unhappy passenger. “Here ya go, sweetie,” Chelsea coos, bending over to pick up the pacifier that’s fallen to the baby’s stomach and plugging it back into his mouth.

  At least I think it’s a him—it’s wearing dark blue pants and a shirt with boats on it, so, yeah, it’s male. She caresses his blond, peach-fuzzy head and the crying is replaced with satisfied sucking.

  An immense silver pot bubbles on the stove and the air smells of heat and broth.

  “Hi!”

  I turn to my right, where a toddler—this one definitely a girl, with golden wispy hair and a stained pink T-shirt—sits on the floor, surrounded by books and blocks.

  “Hi,” I answer, straight-faced.

  She gets louder. “Hi!”

  I nod back. “Hey.”

  Her face scrunches, her voice drops lower, and she leans forward like she’s about to tell me something serious. But all that comes out is, “Hiiii.”

  “Is there something wrong with her?” I ask.

  “No,” Chelsea answers, sounding slightly affronted. “There’s nothing wrong with Regan. She’s two.”

  And Regan is back to smiling at me. “Hi.”

  “Doesn’t she know any other words?”

  “No. She’s only two.”

  “Hi, hi, hi, hi!”

  I give up and walk away.

  “So, how can I reach Rory’s parents? It’s important that I talk to them.”

  Her face goes tight. Pained. “You can’t. They . . . my brother and his wife were in a car accident almost two months ago. They passed away.”

  And all the pieces fall into place. The comments Rory made, his unsubtle anger at the entire world. But it’s the name that stands out most—the name and the accident. I point at her gently. “Robert McQuaid was your brother? The environmental lobbyist?”

  She smiles, small and sad, and nods her head. “Did you know Robbie? DC’s such a busy city, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s like a small town too. Everybody knows everybody.”

  When it comes to political circles, and legal ones, it’s exactly like that.

  “No, I didn’t know him. But . . . I heard good things. That he was honest, sincere. That’s a rare thing around here.”

  And suddenly she seems younger somehow. Smaller and more . . . delicate. Is she on her own in this huge house with the kids? Just her, Rory, One Word, and Baby Boy?

  Chelsea looks up from her hands. “I’m Rory’s guardian, so whatever you were going to say to my brother and his wife, you can say to me.”

  I nod, refocusing. “Right. I drove Rory home because—”

  But I don’t get the chance to finish the sentence. Because the rumble of feet, like a stampede of rhinos, booms over our heads, cutting me off. Chelsea and I eye the ceiling—like it’s about to fall down on us—as the sound travels, getting closer.

  And there’s screaming. The atom-splitting, banshees-from-hell kind of screaming.

  “I’m gonna kill you!”

  “I didn’t do it!”

  “Get back here!”

  “It wasn’t me!”

  Even the two-year-old looks concerned.

  The racket reverberates down the second staircase and spills out into the kitchen, and the two screeching, running kids who are making it do laps around the island like a fucked-up Hunger Games version of ring-around-the-rosy.

  “I told you to stay out of my room!” one of them, a tall girl, yells. She’s a curly-brown-haired predator, ready to pounce.

  “I didn’t do it!” the shorter one squeals, arms outstretched, searching for cover.

  Jesus Christ, what kind of madhouse is this?

  Chelsea steps between them, grabbing them both by their arms and keeping them separated. “That’s enough!”

  And now they’re yelling at her, pleading their cases at the same time, each trying to be louder than the other. I can’t make out what they’re saying; it just sounds like: hiss, blah, she, hiss, squeak. But the aunt appears to speak the native tongue.

  “I said enough!” She holds up her hands, bringing instant blessed silence.

  It’s impressive. There are sitting federal judges who can’t rally that much respect in their own courtrooms.

  “One at a time.” She turns to the taller girl. “Riley, you first.”

  Riley’s finger slashes the air like a saber. “She went in my room when I’ve told her a thousand times not to! And she went through my makeup and ruined my favorite lipstick!”

  Chelsea’s head turns to the smaller one, who, now that she’s not a screaming lunatic, reminds me of a blond Shirley Temple.

  “Rosaleen, go.”

  One Word and I watch eagerly, waiting for the rebuttal . . . but all she comes out with is:

  “I didn’t do it.”

  Which, in my professional opinion, wouldn’t be a bad defense . . . if her mouth and chin weren’t completely covered with thick, blazing pink, like she’s Ronald McDonald’s illegitimate daughter.

  “You are such a—” Riley starts to yell.

  But Chelsea’s raised hand stops her cold. “Tut, tut—shush.”

  She scoops the little one—Rosaleen—up under her arms and perches her on the counter. “And I’d almost believe you,” Chelsea tells her, plucking two baby wipes from a tub next to the sink, wiping the girl’s chin, and showing her the pink-stained cloth, “except for the evidence all over your face.”

  Great minds think alike.

  The little girl stares at the cloth with quarter-sized blue eyes. Then, like any defendant who knows she’s nailed, she does the only thing she can—throws herself on the mercy of the court.

  “I’m sorry, Riley.”

  Riley is unmoved. “That won’t give me my lipstick back, you little brat!”

  “I couldn’t help myself!” she pleads.

  And I unconsciously nod. That’s it, kid—go with insanity. It’s all you’ve got left.

  “The lipstick was in there, calling to me . . .”

  Voices. Voices are good. Always an easy sell.

  Her hands delve into her blond curls, ruffling and tugging at them, until they’re wild and crazed. “It made me nuts! It’s so pink and pretty, I had to touch it!”

  Chelsea closes her eyes and breathes deep, making those fabulous tits press against her blouse even more. I enjoy the show, praying for a button to pop or for the sink to spontaneously spurt water all over that white shirt.

  A guy can dream.

  “Riley, what are your chores this week?”

  “I have to set the table for dinner.”

  Her voice is kind but firm. “Okay. Rosaleen, you’ll do your sister’s chores for the rest of the week. And when you get your allowance on Sunday, you’ll use it to replace the lipstick you ruined. Understood?”

  “Okay. Sorry, Riley.”

  Chelsea runs a tender hand through Rosaleen’s messy curls. “Now, go upstairs and wash your face, then come set the table.”

  With a nod, she hops off the counter and skips past me up the steps.

  Her sister vehemently objects. “That’s it? That’s all you’re doing
to her?”

  Chelsea sighs, a little annoyed. “She’s seven, Riley. What do you want me to do—beat her with a stick?”

  “It’s not fair!” she bellows. So much fucking louder than necessary.

  “Sometimes life isn’t. The sooner you understand that, the better off you’ll be.”

  Riley smacks the counter. “I hate this family!”

  In a whirl of brown hair and fury, she stomps up the stairs, glaring at me along the way. Like I ruined her fucking lipstick.

  “Sweet girl,” I tell Chelsea dryly.

  “She’s fourteen. It’s a tough age.” She looks wistfully up the steps. “She’ll be human again . . . eventually.”

  5

  Sorry about that,” Chelsea says, grabbing a block that was kicked across the floor during the skirmish and handing it to the toddler. Next she walks back to the stove, dumping a heap of chopped greens from a colander into the boiling pot. Her movements are effortlessly graceful, and I wonder if she’s a dancer. “You started to tell me about Rory?”

  “Right. He—”

  But of course I don’t get to tell her. That would be too easy.

  Instead I’m cut off by the appearance of a young boy walking through the kitchen door—a boy with Rory’s face. He’s slightly thinner, a little taller, with round, wire-rimmed Harry Potter glasses perched on his nose.

  I can’t keep the horror out of my tone. “There’s two of him?”

  Chelsea grins. “If that’s your way of asking if Rory has a twin, then the answer is yes.”

  “I see you’ve met my brother,” the boy says, apparently used to this reaction. “Don’t judge me just because we share the same DNA. You’ve heard the term ‘evil genius’?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Rory’s the evil. I’m the genius.”

 
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