Sustained, p.8
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       Sustained, p.8

         Part #2 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  the corner stone-top table.

  She looks confused. “Robbie and Rachel didn’t keep any alcohol in the house.”

  “I had it in my car.”

  A smile tickles her lips. “Wow. Wine, a fire—you’re like seduction on wheels. Do you keep candles in the trunk?”

  “I just figured you might enjoy a drink, maybe a little conversation.”

  I get the feeling Chelsea hasn’t had a conversation with an adult in a long time.

  “I’ll enjoy that more than I can say.” She sighs. “I’ll go grab the glasses.” Chelsea walks toward the door that leads into the kitchen but stops before exiting. Looking over her shoulder back at me, her reddish hair glowing like gold in the firelight, she raises an eyebrow. “So . . . you’re not trying to seduce me?”

  I meet her gaze head-on. And wink. “I didn’t say that.”

  “Good to know.”

  Then she turns back around with a flip of her hair and walks into the kitchen with an extra swivel of that fine ass.

  • • •

  Later, I add another log to the fire and we’re both working our way through glass number two. Chelsea’s long legs are tucked snugly beneath her; one hand holds her glass and the other elbow is propped against the back of the couch, her head resting in her hand. The position exposes the smooth expanse of her neck, and I’m fascinated by the pulse that thrums beneath her skin. It makes me feel like a vampire—I want to put my mouth right there, I want to taste her and feel that spot throbbing against my tongue.

  I asked her about what she was getting her master’s in, and the fucking crazy thing is, I’m actually interested in what’s coming out of her mouth—not just fantasizing about what I’d like to put in there.

  “I’m an art history major.”

  I snort. “So you paid thousands of dollars in tuition to look at pretty pictures?”

  “No, Mr. Cynical. There’s so much more to it than that. Art tells us about culture, what was important to the people of that time. The things they valued, the things they hated or feared—their image of what was beautiful.”

  I frown. “You sound like a philosopher.”

  She frowns back. “And you sound like you don’t respect philosophy very much.”

  “All philosophical questions can be answered with one concise statement.”

  Chelsea refills her glass. “Which is?”

  “ ‘Who gives a fuck?’ ”

  She laughs, and it’s an amazing sound.

  “Do you do . . . art . . . yourself, or just study other people’s work?”

  Her cheeks blush. “I sketch, actually.”

  My eyes are immediately drawn to the framed pencil sketch to the right of the fireplace. It’s an incredibly realistic likeness of young Riley, holding twin babies on her lap. I noticed it when I first walked in—you can practically hear the childish, smiling voice.

  “Is that one of yours?” I point.

  Chelsea nods, still shy.

  “You’re good.” I don’t give compliments lightly.

  Later, later—she talks about her brother.

  “Robbie was fifteen years older than me. I was my parents’ midlife-crisis child. My dad had a heart attack when I was about Riley’s age. My mom passed a year later when I was in high school.” She sips her wine, a mischievous shine in her eye. “I was kind of a wild child after that.”

  I raise my glass. “Weren’t we all?” I drink the Merlot. “So, you lived with your brother after your parents passed away?”

  She nods. “Not here though. We were in a smaller place off Cherry Tree. It was just Riley and the boys then—and me, Robbie, and Rachel.”

  “You and the kids kind of grew up together, then?”

  “Yeah. Rachel was like a big sister and a second mother all rolled into one. She was incredible.” And there’s a mournful note in her voice.

  Then she blinks, brightens. “She was the one who really pushed me to travel. Study abroad. I spent a semester in Rome, summers in Paris . . .” Her eyes drop from mine self-consciously. “God, I sound so spoiled. Poor little rich girl, right?”

  I shake my head. “No. There’s a difference between privileged and spoiled.”

  And Chelsea McQuaid doesn’t have a spoiled bone in her body. She knows she’s fortunate, and she appreciates every blessing.

  “I’d love to take the kids to Europe one day. To show them how big the world really is.”

  I chuckle, thinking of a Liam Neeson movie. If some idiot criminal tried taking one of the McQuaid kids, it’d be an hour, tops, before he’d be begging to send them back.

  We continue talking, drinking—I lose time admiring the way her skin glows in the firelight. And before I know it, it’s almost four in the goddamn morning. Chelsea sets her empty glass on the coffee table and yawns.

  “I should get going,” I say, even though I don’t want to. “I’ve kept you up past your bedtime. When does the human alarm clock usually rise?”

  “Ronan wakes up around six. But . . .” Her eyes trail over my face, down my chest and lower. “But this was worth losing sleep over. Thank you for the wine—the conversation. I had a really great time, Jake.”

  She has no idea the kind of great time I’m capable of giving her.

  But not tonight.

  “Me too.” I stand up and Chelsea walks me to the foyer.

  Beside the door, we stand facing each other. And there’s a pull—like a fucking magnet—dragging me closer. “Chelsea . . . ,” I whisper—with no idea what I’m about to say.

  I just like the taste of her name on my lips.

  My heart hammers . . . and I lean forward . . . she raises her face and closes her eyes and—

  “Aunt Chelsea!”

  The blond pixie’s voice washes over us from upstairs, like a cold shower.

  Goddamn it.

  “I had a bad dream! Will you lay down with me?”

  Chelsea steps back with a resigned groan, and I feel her pain. Literally.

  “I’ll be right up, Rosaleen.” She shrugs at me apologetically. “Duty calls.”

  I rub my lips together, making a frustrated smacking sound. “Yeah.”

  She puts her hand on my chest; it’s warm and electrifying. “Thank you again. I really owe you now. Multiples.”

  And I just can’t resist. “That’s my line.”

  Chelsea giggles. “Good night, Jake.”

  “Bye.”

  I walk out the door and head home.

  9

  On Sunday, during breakfast at Sofia and Stanton’s place, there’s an expected visitor. “Hey, Sunshine,” I greet her, walking into the dining room.

  “Hey, Jake!” Presley Shaw wraps her arms around my waist.

  Presley’s almost thirteen now, and in the year or so since I last saw her—when Brent and I visited Mississippi for her mother’s wedding—she’s lost some of the cute baby roundness in her face, moving one step closer to a full-fledged golden-haired southern beauty.

  Her teen years will be fun. Stanton’s gonna lose his fucking mind—and probably his hair.

  We sit down to eat and he asks, “Remember that band manager I represented last year? The DWI.”

  There are nods all around.

  “Turns out he works with One Direction now, and they’re in town. He sent me four front-row seats to the concert tomorrow. Sofia and I were gonna take Presley.”

  “Who’s One Direction?” I inquire, but don’t actually care.

  Presley’s eyes bug out. “Who’s One Direction? What, y’all live under a rock?” She holds up the magazine she’s been flipping through and flashes me a picture of four punks in skinny jeans. “This is One Direction. I’m so excited!” she squeals. “The concert is gonna be so on point.”

  My eyebrows rise to Stanton. “Have fun with that, buddy.”

  Stanton chews a cheese ball, his green eyes alight with humor. “Soph and I were talkin’—we thought instead of tossing the fourth ticket, it might be nice if you came with
me and Presley instead. You and that Riley girl.”

  “Are you nuts?” I ask, because—obviously.

  “Please, Jake?” Sunshine begs. “It’ll be so much fun havin’ a girl my own age there with me.” She turns to her father. “No offense, but you and Sofia just don’t get it.”

  Stanton shrugs. “No offense taken. I still know I’m the cool daddy.”

  Presley puts her hand on his arm. “I love you, Daddy, but whatever you think cool is? It’s not that.”

  Stanton gives her a mock frown.

  And her bright blue eyes plead with me. “Come on, Jake. I bet you’ll like them. Their music is amazin’—better than the Beatles.”

  I fear for today’s youth.

  “It might be good for her,” Stanton says, pressing me. Because I told him all about Riley’s Friday-night misadventures with Jägermeister.

  I sigh, already knowing I’m going to regret this.

  But I pick up my phone to call Chelsea anyway.

  • • •

  The next day, Stanton, Sofia, Presley, and I arrive at Chelsea’s house after work. She hasn’t told Riley about the concert yet, wanted it to be a surprise. And she said she didn’t want to risk Riley’s shattering the windows with her screams of excitement.

  Oh—and Brent tagged along too. Because I’ve mentioned Chelsea and the kids at lunch and he wants to meet them. Also, because he has no life.

  We gather in the foyer and I make the introductions. Chelsea greets each of my friends warmly. She’s wearing a casual, pale blue shirtdress that displays miles of smooth, succulent legs. And I fantasize about Stanton taking the girls on his own, and Sofia and Brent taking the rest of the rabble. Far, far away.

  “Hi,” Regan says to Sofia, toddling into the room and holding a stuffed bear who looks like he’s seen better days.

  “Hi,” Sofia replies, smiling.

  “Hi!” Regan squeaks.

  “Hi!” Sofia laughs.

  And here we fucking go again.

  For my own sanity, I’ve gotta teach this kid another word.

  Stanton and Brent pick up their conversation from lunch—the ongoing “perfect murder” game. “Drowning,” Brent says insistently, ticking off his points on his fingers. “Chances are the body will be too decomposed to retain any useful evidence, and there’s a built-in alibi because the defendant can always claim the person slipped. It worked like a charm for Natalie Wood’s husband.”

  Stanton shakes his blond head. “I’m still stickin’ with an allergic reaction.”

  Raymond adjusts his glasses and jumps into the conversation. “Are you guys talking about the best way to off somebody?”

  They nod and Raymond’s face turns eager. “I know a way. You make a high-powered bullet out of ice. And fire it from a sniper’s rifle. After it passes through the heart, it’ll melt. No fingerprints. No footprints.”

  We’re silent. Shocked.

  And kind of freaked out.

  “I just got goose bumps.” Brent shivers. “Did anyone else get goose bumps?”

  Rosaleen steps forward, her eyes focused on Brent. “Why do you walk like that?” she asks innocently.

  “Rosaleen!” Chelsea chides. “That’s rude.”

  But from experience, I know it’s fine and I tell her so.

  Brent explains to the seven-year-old. “I got hit by a car when I was a kid, lost part of my leg.” He lifts his pant leg, showing off his titanium prosthetic. “So be careful riding your bike.”

  She regards him with a tilted head. “So they gave you a fake leg?”

  “Yep.”

  “Can you take it off and show me?”

  “No.” Brent shakes his head.

  Rosaleen considers this. Then she asks, “You wanna come see my playhouse outside? It has curtains.”

  “Sure.” Brent checks his watch. “I’ve got time.”

  Riley comes down the stairs, her eyes taking us all in. I introduce her to everyone. She smiles at Presley with a friendly, “Hey.” And Presley waves.

  “Sooo”—Chelsea grins—“Jake has a surprise for you, Riley.” She gives me a look, tilting her head toward Riley, nudging me on.

  I clear my throat and stick the tickets in the teenager’s hands, trying not to make it a big deal.

  “Oh my god!!!” Riley screams.

  And Cousin It howls in response.

  “These are One Direction tickets! Front-row One Direction tickets!” Huge blue eyes brimming with elation look up into mine. “Are you serious?”

  “Unfortunately.”

  The twittering, enthusiastic, unintelligible chattering between her and Presley begins. And goes on.

  And on.

  Rory smirks at me. “You have to go to a One Direction concert?”

  I nod reluctantly.

  “Ha!” He laughs, pointing his finger. “Sucker.”

  I glower. “Shut up, kid.”

  • • •

  Four and a half hours of screaming girls later, I can’t hear jack shit. Even driving back in Stanton’s car everything is muffled—the shouting, singing girls in the backseat sound like they’re annoying me from underwater.

  The four of us walk in the front door and find Brent, Sofia, and Chelsea having coffee in the den. Sofia holds Ronan, asleep in her arms, and a fierce, hungry look crosses Stanton’s face as he gazes at her.

  “How was it?” Chelsea asks, grinning at me in a fuck-hot, teasing sort of way.

  I hold up my hand. “Don’t make me relive it. I’m trying to block it out.”

  But that cat’s already been sprung from the bag. Presley and Riley tell Sofia and Chelsea every single detail, talking together and over each other. They’re big on terms like “OMG” and “can’t believe,” “best ever,” and . . . “OMG.”

  “And then . . . ,” Riley screeches, grabbing her aunt’s hand, “Harry looked right at me!”

  I squint Stanton’s way. “Which one was Harry again?”

  “The one who needs a haircut.”

  I try to distinguish them in my mind, but they all need a haircut.

  “Daddy,” Presley asks, “can Riley sleep over?”

  “Yeah, Aunt Chelsea—can I sleep over at Presley’s?” Riley asks at about the same time.

  Because apparently One Direction’s superpower is instant friendship. Someone should ship them to the Middle East so they can get to work on that Israel-Palestine thing.

  Stanton gives the go-ahead and Chelsea says it’s fine. And then there’s more screeching—yay—before they charge up the stairs to get Riley’s stuff.

  “Where are the other kids?” I ask Chelsea.

  “They’re asleep,” she gladly informs me. “Brent tired them all out with flashlight manhunt.”

  Brent pats his own back. “I’m the reigning champion.”

  When the girls come back down carrying a sleeping bag, pillows, and a duffel bag, Riley stands in front of me, looking genuinely, sparkling happy.

  “Thank you, Jake. This was like . . . the best night of my life.”

  I could say it was my pleasure . . . but that wouldn’t be true. “Don’t mention it.”

  Sofia hands Ronan to Chelsea and she gently lays him down in the small dark green portable crib in the corner. As they get ready to leave, I decide to hang around a little longer. Or a lot longer. Chelsea and I won’t exactly be alone, but minus one child is better than nothing.

  Until Brent shoots my plan to shit. “Stanton’s car only seats four, so I need a lift home, Jake.”

  Fuckin’ A.

  I glance at Chelsea and it’s like she can read my mind. Because she’s smirking at me with humorous disappointment. “Thanks again, Jake. Good night.”

  I reach out my hand, brushing her hair back from her face. “Good night.”

  Then Brent slips in front of me. He bows slightly, takes Chelsea’s hand, and lifts it to his lips, kissing the back. “Thank you for a lovely evening—you were the hostess with the mostest.”

  She giggles, while i
n the back of my throat, I snarl.

  And the idea of breaking his jaw seems even more attractive than it did a few weeks ago.

  Chelsea closes the door behind us and we walk toward my car, Brent skipping as best he can. It’s fucking annoying.

  “Well . . . ,” he breathes slowly, suggestion strong in his tone, “Chelsea seems nice.”

  I say nothing.

  “And that ass,” he goes on admiringly, “mmm, mmm, good—I could bounce quarters off that tight—”

  My hand lashes out, twisting the front of his shirt, dragging him forward till we’re nose to nose. “Shut up.”

  He searches my eyes, his smile slow and knowing. “You like her.”

  I drop him like a Hot Pocket straight out of the microwave and brush past him to my car. “Of course I like her. She’s a nice girl.”

  Brent sticks close to my side, wagging his finger. “Nooo, you like her—not just in the sense that you want her riding reverse cowgirl on your dick. You like her, like her.”

  “What, are you twelve?”

  “Age is just a number. Or at least that’s what my uncle said when he married lucky, nineteen-year-old wife number three.” He nudges my shoulder. “But seriously, you’ve got this whole knight-in-shining-armor vibe going on.”

  I shake my head. “My armor was tarnished a long time ago, Brent.”

  “A knight in tarnished armor is still a knight.”

  When I don’t respond, he pushes—because he actually believes I won’t punch his pretty face. “Then let me know when you’re done. I’d like to see if I can hit that.”

  I step toward him. “She’s off-fucking-limits to you. Now, during, and after. Don’t even think about it.”

  And the son of a bitch looks pleased with himself. He smiles wider. “Yeah—you
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