Overruled, p.12
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       Overruled, p.12
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         Part #1 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  “Remind her of your history—all the years you have together.” A drop of sarcasm drips into my voice. “And most importantly, show her what an amazing guy you are.”

  Stanton smirks. “That last part won’t be hard at all.”

  I flick the brim of his hat with more enthusiasm than I’m feeling. “Go get her, cowboy.”

  He turns, but pauses in the doorway. “Thanks, Sofia. For everythin’.”

  And then he’s going down the stairs. With a big breath, I sit on his bed and get to work, all the while imagining what it would’ve been like if he had stayed.

  11

  Stanton

  I pull up the drive, climb out of my truck, and lean back against it, arms folded, taking it all in.

  Jenny’s parents’ place is like the land that time forgot—it never really changes. The white paint on the house is forever peeling in the exact same spots. The big oak tree on the side still hangs the same swing I used to push her on—and still has that one perfect branch that reaches just close enough to Jenn’s window to climb through.

  Her family—like mine—has worked these acres for generations. But where cattle ranching is slightly more lucrative and dependable, crop farmers like the Monroes have a tougher time. You can harvest a thousand acres of corn, but if all you’re getting is pennies a pound, there won’t be much to show for it.

  “Jenny!” Nana calls from her perch on the porch. “That boy is here again.”

  That boy.

  Nana was never exactly my biggest fan. She always eyed me with a certain suspicion—and annoyance. The way you’d watch a fly buzzing around your food, knowing exactly what his intentions are, just waiting for him to land.

  So you can smack his guts out with a newspaper.

  After Jenny got pregnant—after we didn’t get married—all bets were off. Nana became downright hostile. But the shotgun that’s lying across her lap as she rocks back and forth in her wicker chair—that’s not for me.

  Well . . . it’s not just for me.

  Nana’s husband died when Jenn was still in diapers. Thrown from a pissed-off horse, old Henry just happened to land the wrong way at the wrong time. Nana’s kept Henry’s shotgun with her ever since—she even sleeps with it. Should the day come that robbers, hooligans, or Yankees drop from the sky, Nana’s determined to take out as many of them as she can. It’s not loaded, and every member of Jenny’s family does their damnedest to keep it that way.

  Some say Nana has dementia, but I don’t believe that for a second—her mind’s as sharp as her forked tongue. I think instead of walking softly and carrying a big stick, Nana just feels better stomping loudly and carrying a goddamn shotgun.

  Jenny pokes her head out the screen door—hair tied up in a messy bun, still wearing pink hospital scrubs from the night shift she just got off working. She stares at me for several moments before the worry on her face slips into a small smile.

  Friendly—a little guilty—but not surprised.

  Now that we’ve both had a few days to cool off from our telephone conversation, she knew I’d come. I hold up the six-pack of Budweiser, raising my brows in question.

  She nods, then jerks her head toward the inside of the house. “Let me just go get changed.”

  This is our tradition. Since we were sixteen years old, whenever I’d come home, when we wanted to be alone or if there was something big we had to talk about—it was a six-pack of Bud and a ride to the river.

  A blanket on the bank is our therapy couch. Hasn’t failed us yet, and I have no intention of letting it fail us now.

  After Jenny disappears from the doorway, I climb slowly up the porch steps—the way you’d approach a hibernating, crotchety old bear. You’re fairly certain it’s safe, but it’s best to be ready to bolt just in case it has one good swipe of its claws left.

  I tip my hat to Nana in greeting. “Ma’am.”

  Her eyes thin to razor-sharp slits. “I don’t like you, boy.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  Her crooked finger juts out at me. “You’re a Satan. Slitherin’ in to trick Eve out of Paradise.”

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  “My great-grandbaby is the best thing you ever done.”

  One side of my mouth pulls up in a smirk. “Can’t say I disagree with you about that.”

  “Shoulda shot you years ago,” she grumbles.

  I take the seat beside her, bracing my hands on my spread knees—like I’m giving her statement its due consideration. “I don’t know . . . if you shot me, there’d be nobody left to bring you your favorite drink.”

  I lift my shirt, flashing the small bottle of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength hidden beneath, like a drug dealer on a corner. Citing her health, Jenny’s mother cut Nana off from the bourbon years ago—or at least tried to. But Nana’s a sneaky, crafty old bird.

  Like a vulture.

  She stares at the bottle, licking her thin lips the way a man who’s sighted an oasis among miles of desert would do. It might seem unbecoming to bribe an old woman with liquor. Tasteless to pump her for information. But this isn’t about manners, or respect, or doing the right thing.

  This is about fucking winning.

  Plus . . . I would’ve brought Nana the revered Cask Strength anyhow. I’ve been sneaking her bottles of top-shelf brands for years. And she still hates me.

  “Tell me about Jimmy Dean.”

  She tilts back with confusion. “The sausage? We got some in the freezer.”

  I roll my eyes. “No, the guy Jenny thinks she’s marrying—James Dean.”

  And it’s like I’ve spoken the magic words. Years fade from Nana’s countenance as her scowl falls away and a dreamy smile takes its place. The first one I’ve seen in decades.

  “You mean JD? Mmm-hmm, he’s a fine specimen of a man. If I were forty years younger, I’d make a play for him myself. Handsome, polite . . . he’s a good boy.” Then the familiar glower is back in place. “Not like you—Satan.”

  I just chuckle. “What’s good ole JD do for a livin’?”

  “He teaches at the high school. Chemistry or such . . . He’s a smart man. And talented—only been there this past year and he’s already assistant football coach. When that Dallas Henry gets booted from the head coachin’ position, I imagine JD’ll take his place.”

  Mmm . . . old Sausage Link is coaching football at the same school where he used to be the jock-strap collector. There’s irony for you.

  Nana eyes my hand as it rubs the bottle of bourbon, like a genie might spring out of it.

  “What else?” I push.

  She sighs, mulling it over. “His daddy passed on a few months ago. JD sold their farm and is havin’ a great big house built, brand new, in that fancy development out on 529. That’s where he’s takin’ Jenny to live . . . and Presley.”

  My boot hits the porch with an angry thud. Over my dead fucking body.

  Nana reads me well. “Don’t you take that tone with me, boy. You got no one to blame but yerself.” She folds her arms and straightens with a haughty sniff. “You’re not a bad daddy, I’ll give ya that much. But . . . Jenny needs a man . . . a man who’s here.”

  “I am here,” I tell her softly.

  “Humph. And from what I hear told, you’re not alone. Brought a pretty little city girl with ya. A La-tina.”

  Jenny’s mother’s voice hollers from inside the house, proving once again that a small town is a lot like the Mafia—ears everywhere.

  “Momma! Be nice.”

  Nana gives as good as she gets. “Don’t you tell me how to be!” Then she offers me a pearl of wisdom. “One good thing about dyin’—you don’t need to be nice to no one.”

  Oh yeah—Nana’s dying. For as long as I can remember. She’s just taking her time actually getting to the dead part.

  “I did bring someone,” I confess. “A friend—Sofia. You two will get on real well—she doesn’t suffer fools any more than you do.”

  I tap the bottle of Maker’s Mark with my fin
ger. “Now tell me somethin’ . . . uncommon about JD. Somethin’ the whole town’s not privy to.”

  She looks at me thirstily. And admits, “Well . . . he don’t drink much. Can’t hold his liquor. But I don’t think that’s a bad quality in a man—nobody likes a drunk.”

  That’s interesting.

  “Anything else?” I nudge.

  She strains her memory for a moment. “Oh—he’s allergic to peppers. His face blows up like an overfed tick if he tastes just one.”

  And that’s even more interesting.

  Satisfied, I hold the bottle of bourbon out to Nana, keeping my hand low, out of the view of the window behind us just in case Jenny’s momma is looking. She snatches it from me like a spoiled child takes candy, slipping it under the blanket across her lap.

  Jenny steps outside, dressed in cutoff denim shorts and a simple white T-shirt, as toned and fresh faced as she was at eighteen. I may be pissed at her, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s sexy as hell, and sweet, and . . . I’ve missed her.

  “Ready?” she asks.

  I stand and tip my hat to Nana. “Always a pleasure, ma’am.”

  Her only farewell is a frown.

  Jenny walks to her grandma and kisses her cheek. Then I hear her whisper, “Don’t let Momma smell that bourbon on your breath. She’ll send you to bed without supper.”

  Nana cackles and taps Jenn’s cheek with love.

  We walk toward the truck, but pause at the bottom of the porch steps when Jenny’s momma comes out. Despite the deep laugh and worry lines that wrinkle June Monroe’s face, she’s a good-looking woman—attractively full figured, long blond hair with streaks of silver.

  She gives me a tight, forced smile. “Stanton. You’re lookin’ well.”

  “Thanks, June. It’s good to be home.”

  June doesn’t hate me as much as her mother does, but I wouldn’t say she particularly likes me either. Unlike Wayne, Jenn’s daddy—I’ve always been the son he never had. But I doubt either one is thrilled to have me back, disrupting the grand wedding plans. Ruby still lives with her parents too—five kids and counting—so I imagine the Monroes would be happy to have at least one of their daughters married off and out of the house.

  “Jenny,” her mother says, high pitched with warning, “we have the dress fittin’ this afternoon. Can’t be late.”

  “Don’t worry, I’ll be back before Presley gets home from practice.”

  I hold the truck door open. Shutting it behind Jenn, I climb into the driver’s seat and we head to the river.

  • • •

  On the drive, I go over in my head what I’m going to say, like I do the night before a closing argument. Jenny sits on the plaid blanket, cross-legged, while I stand, thinking better on my feet, both of us holding open cans of beer.

  “You could’ve sprung for bottles,” Jenn says, squinting at the can in her hand.

  “I was being nostalgic.”

  She lifts her shoulder. “Nostalgia tastes better from a bottle.”

  She turns her face, catching the sun, and I spot her freckles, scattered across the bridge of her nose, along her cheeks, so tiny and pale they can only be seen when the light is just right. And it feels like yesterday that I was counting them, here, after a long swim and an even longer screw, while she was asleep, covered in nothing but my shadow.

  She raises her hand to take a sip and the small diamond twinkling on her left hand stomps on my memory like a big motherfucking elephant.

  Splat.

  “Did you forget to give him the ring back? After you told him you made a mistake?”

  Her eyes tighten. “Is that how you want to do this, Stanton?”

  I can almost see Sofia’s notes on her yellow pad, telling me to treat this like a case, and Jenny just any other witness. I need her talking—to know how this happened so I can tear it apart piece by piece.

  “No, it’s not,” I relent with a sigh. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  A small smile comes to her lips. Just a little sad. “Because I knew you’d try to talk me out of it.”

  Hit the bull’s-eye on that one, didn’t she?

  Jenny licks the beer from her lips, and in a regretful voice says, “I should’ve told you. You deserved to hear it from me. My momma mailed out your invitation because she said I was draggin’ my feet—and I was.” Fair-lashed blue eyes move over my face before meeting my gaze. “I’m sorry, Stanton.”

  I pick up a stone, bouncing it in my hand. “Apology accepted—as long as you don’t go through with it.”

  She tilts her head, watching as I skip the rock. “I heard you brought someone home with you.”

  I can visualize the chain of communication that sent that tidbit to Jenny’s ear in record time. Miss Bea telling Mrs. Macalister, who works at the pharmacy. Mrs. Macalister whispering to old Abigail Wilson when she drops off her heart medication, because Abigail’s half-blind and can’t drive anymore. Abigail Wilson phoning her cousin Pearl, who just happens to be best friends forever with none other than June Monroe. I wonder if June let Jenny walk in the door before telling her, or if she called her while she was driving home from work.

  “She’s a friend.”

  Jenny scoffs. “What kinda friend?”

  “The kind who comes home with me when my girl says she’s marrying someone else.”

  With the flick of my arm, another stone skips across the water. “I told you mine, you tell me yours. Who the hell is this guy?”

  She plays with the sand, scooping it up then letting it fall between her fingers. “After high school, JD went to college in California. He moved back here last year, when his daddy was diagnosed with cancer. We ran into each other one day at the hospital and he remembered me. He visited every day, and when I was there we’d talk. Then talkin’ turned into coffee in the cafeteria, then dinner after my shift.” She pauses, thinking back, her voice going soft. “It was bad in the end. When his daddy passed, JD took it real hard. I was there for him. He . . . needed me. It felt nice to be needed. After he didn’t need me anymore, he still wanted me. And that . . . felt even nicer.”

  “Did I cross your mind at all? While you were busy being wanted ?” I shoot out.

  And she fires back, “Have I crossed your mind? While you’re busy fuckin’ your way across the capital?”

  “It’s not like that.”

  “Of course it’s like that—because you think time stands still when you’re not here. You’ve got me tucked away, raisin’ our daughter, just waitin’ on you to come back.”

  “First of fuckin’ all, you’re not raisin’ our daughter alone, so don’t act like that’s the case. Second, this is the deal we made. Do what we want when we’re apart, but this”—I motion between us—“this was ours. No one else touches it—no one else comes close. If it wasn’t workin’ for you anymore, you should have told me!”

  And she’s on her feet. “I’m telling you now! I’m twenty-eight years old, Stanton, and I still live with my parents.”

  “Is that what this is about? Jenny, if you want a house, I’ll buy you a house.”

  We’ve never had a formal child support order, because I send her money every month without one. Anything she needs beyond that—anything—all she has to do is ask.

  “JD wants to make a home with me—a family, a marriage—all the things you never did.”

  I clench my fists, the muscles in my forearms bulging. And I can’t decide if it’s better to kiss her or shake the shit out of her. “You and Presley are my family. And I would’ve married you ten years ago. I told you that, right here—in this goddamn spot!”

  “Wanting and would have are two different things.”

  “You told me to go! ” I yell, pointing at her. “You told me to leave! For us—our future, our family.”

  And then there are tears. Rising in her eyes, glistening on her lashes, making them shine like sunlight on the water. “If you love something let it go, if it comes back to you it’s yours.” She s
hakes her head. “You never came back.”

  “Bullshit! I came back every chance I could—”

  “Not after Columbia. You changed, then. You started to like it—the work, the women, the city . . .”

  “I was killing myself, Jenny! It was law school, for Christ’s sake—work, classes, internships, you have no fuckin’ idea.”

  The yellow pad flashes in my head like a neon sign. Fighting isn’t fixing. Talk to her, not at her.

  I take a few breaths, calming down. Then I step toward Jenny, catching her eyes.

  And I see her—my sweet girl, my best friend. The love of my life. “My head was there, it had to be, but my heart has always been here with you. It never left.”

  She sniffs, but still the tears don’t fall. “Didn’t you ever wonder why it was so easy?”

  “Lovin’ someone’s supposed to be easy.”

  “I don’t mean bein’ together. I mean bein’ apart.” She turns her back on me, staring at the water, watching it run, lapping at the shore. “All that time, all these years . . . bein’ apart was easier than it should’ve been.” She crosses her arms, and a smile seeps into her voice. “After JD gets off work, he comes to the house and he runs up the path—because he can’t wait a second longer to see me. He burns for me. Can’t bear the thought of bein’ away, leavin’ me, for even a day. Have you ever felt that way, Stanton?”

  There’s a terrible, malevolent voice in the back of my mind whispering that I have felt that way—once. But it wasn’t for her.

  I block it out and step around so Jenny’s facing me. “I love you.”

  “You love a seventeen-year-old girl who doesn’t exist anymore.”

  “That’s not true. She’s right in front of me.”

  Jenny tilts her head and gives the littlest of smiles. “I’m not nearly as fun as I used to be.”

  I step forward and take her face in my hands, stroking her skin. “I look at you and I see a thousand summer days. The best moments of my life.”

  Emotion chokes me, making it hard to speak. Feelings for this woman crush me, making it hard to breathe. “I have loved you since I was twelve years old, and I will love you until the day I die.”

  Her face crumbles and the tears fall. She presses my hand to her face, soaking it with her cries, then she kisses my palm. “And I love you, Stanton—I do. What I feel for you, who you are, is so precious to me. I don’t want to lose you.”

  And I think I’ve done it. I’ve convinced her—won her over. Jenny belongs to me and all is right with the world. Have to admit, it was easier than I’d anticipated. I knew I was good—but I didn’t realize I was that good.

  Until she puts my hand down, wipes her cheeks, and looks me in the eyes. “But I’m in love with JD.”

  Fuck.

  I shake my head. “You’re just lonely. I was gone too long.”

  “No,” she insists. “I’m in love with him. It happened fast, but it’s strong and it’s real. You need to accept that.”

  My next words are past my lips before I have time to think them. “I’ll come home. I’ll quit the firm, Jenn. Set up an office in town. I’ll come back.”

  Her lips part, her voice breathy with surprise at hearing the words she never expected. “There’s not much of a need for a defense attorney in Sunshine.”

  “I can practice other types of law.”

  Her eyes narrow. “You would hate that.”

  I cup her jaw. “I’ll do it—for you and Presley. If that’s what you need, I
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