Overruled, p.20
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       Overruled, p.20

         Part #1 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
slower 1  faster
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  But safety, like so many other things we think we can control, is an illusion. Because when I turn around to open the truck door and get her inside, keeping Sofia shielded behind me, a sharp, piercing pain explodes against my temple . . .

  And the world goes dark and silent.

  20

  Sofia

  It’s funny, the things you remember. The moments that are branded in our minds, the minutes you wish you could forget. I don’t remember being afraid during that childhood plane crash, though I’m sure I was. I don’t recall the pain when my side was sliced open. The shock, the adrenaline probably left me numb.

  What I can still hear though, even after all these years . . . is the sound. The crash of the impact. The roar as we slid across the runway. It was thunderous and inescapable. I remember reaching up to cover my ears, when I should have been holding on for dear life.

  And this sound—right now—is almost the same. The shrill screech of wind.

  The rushing.

  So loud. Deafening.

  But that’s not what stands out the most this time. The image that will haunt me from this moment on is Stanton, unmoving, on the ground. Eyes closed, his body slack and terribly still.

  “No! Stanton!”

  It’s funny, how quickly clarity comes when life or death is at stake. When whipping, dirty, cold hell swirls all around you, bending the trees, flinging scraps of wood and metal through the air. And you realize—suddenly so absolutely sure—how deeply you feel for someone, how much they mean to you, when you’re faced with the possibility of having already lost them.

  “Stanton, wake up!”

  I was so angry when I walked out of the house, just a short while ago.

  “Can you hear me? Baby, please wake up!”

  No, that’s bullshit. Time to put on the big girl panties.

  I wasn’t angry—I was hurt.

  “Oh God, stay with me, Stanton. Don’t you dare leave me!”

  When I heard Jenny’s admission, it felt like a steel poker had been plunged into my stomach. Because what had happened between us at the river last night—the way he looked at me, touched me, held me—seemed like more, felt like it meant more, than all the other moments we’d shared. And deep inside me, I’d hoped that it was the same for Stanton.

  Apparently I’m a dummy after all.

  And all the mental excuses I’ve made over the last days—the explanations, justifications, defenses—were just lies I told myself, feelings I pushed away and ignored.

  Because I didn’t want to admit it. Didn’t want to face the complicated truth.

  “I love you,” I whisper.

  It’s horrifying. A mess. And the most true, pure thing I’ve ever felt in my life.

  “I love you, you big, stupid idiot!”

  If I was thinking clearly, I’d recall all the reasons I shouldn’t: his story about Rebecca, the pedestal he has Jenny on, and how to him we’re nothing more than “friends who fuck.” These feelings are the last thing a guy like him would want to deal with.

  But none of that matters. ’Cause I’m pretty sure we’re both about to die.

  I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz. Twister. Sharknado 1 and 2.

  Any minute now a house or a cow is going to fly by and do us in.

  “Please, Stanton, I love you!”

  I don’t realize I’m crying until I see the drops on his perfect face. His head rests on my thighs, my back is curved, leaning over him, sheltering us both beneath my wildly blowing hair. I kiss his forehead, his nose, and finally linger at his warm lips.

  Then I feel Stanton’s fingers flex against my waist, clutching the material of my shirt. And I lean back just enough to look at his eyes as they finally open.

  His pupils are wide, confused and searching. But within seconds they contract in understanding, realizing where we are.

  In one fluid motion he rolls me underneath him, his weight pressing down on top of me, protecting me from the cutting wind and debris that churns around us.

  I grip his shoulders, my voice still clogged with tears. And fear.

  “You’re all right? Thank God you’re all right! I thought—”

  Stanton smooths my hair with his hand and murmurs soft, calming words against my ear. “Shhh . . . I’ve got you, Sofia. I’m right here. We’re okay now. I’m right here.”

  Though I know we’re still in danger, I feel warm from the inside. Safe. I’m perfectly content, because he’s in my arms and I am in his.

  “You’re lucky you woke up—you would’ve been on my eternal shit list if you hadn’t.”

  His chest vibrates as he chuckles and lifts up to gaze down at me. His eyes caress my face, and his tender smile makes my chest squeeze tight. “Couldn’t have that.”

  He sighs, then tucks my head under his chin.

  “I think this clinches it,” I tell him, snuggling even closer. “I’m not cut out for prairie living.”

  He chuckles again. My fingers stroke up and down his back. We cling to each other, holding on tight, making it through the storm. Together.

  • • •

  As we drive back down to the Monroes’, I look around. The damage isn’t as bad as I’d imagined. Some downed trees, a lot of broken fences, but no real destruction to the house or the barn. In the back, the leftover signs from the party—overturned tables, bent chairs—are scattered around the yard. A tablecloth flaps in a tree, caught by its branches. Stanton drives around to the front of the house, just as Mr. Monroe, Jenny’s father, is hustling into his own truck, his wife in the passenger seat beside him. Then he pulls out, tires screeching, driving like a bat out of hell. I catch his face as they pass—drawn, tight, terrified. Then Jenny hurries into her own truck, JD beside her, Presley and her redheaded sister in the back—and she’s driving off too.

  “What’s wrong?” I wonder aloud. “Did someone get hurt?”

  Stanton parks and jumps out of the truck quickly. I’m right beside him as he jogs over to his mother, her face every bit as dazed and worried as the rest of his family’s.

  “Is everyone all right, Momma?”

  She puts her hand on his arm. “It’s Nana.”

  21

  Stanton

  When I was young, the preacher would give sermons about hell. He made it sound like the inside of an erupting volcano with its burning lakes, molten lava, and painful depths. But I don’t think hell is fire and brimstone.

  I think hell is a hospital waiting room.

  Interminably slow, every second ticking by like a clock with dying batteries. Frustration, fear—even boredom—so potent your head throbs.

  “Is Nana gonna die, Daddy?”

  Presley sits beside me on the bench, leaning against me, my arm around her. Sofia’s on the other side, holding my hand. Jenny’s been chasing down information, but even working here, the only answer she’s able to get is “waiting on tests.” JD gets her coffee, tells her to try and sit down. Jenny’s parents and mine are scattered through the waiting room, along with a handful of neighbors who had family injured in the storm.

  “I don’t know, baby girl.” I stroke her hair. “Nana’s a strong woman. You should think good thoughts, say a prayer.”

  Just then Dr. Brown comes out and June, Wayne, Jenny, JD, and Ruby converge. “It was a heart attack,” he says, looking at Jenny’s mother. “A big one. But she’s stable. She’ll be here a few days. We have to run several more tests, but there doesn’t appear to be any lasting damage.”

  There’s a collective sigh, heavy with relief. June asks, “Can we see her?”

  The doctor replies, “Yes, she can have visitors, one at a time. But she’s asking for Stanton.”

  And the sighs turn into a wave of what the hells.

  I stand. “Me? Are you sure?”

  The look on his face says Nana’s been quite the pain in the ass about it. “She was very insistent.”

  My eyes meet Jenny’s—both of us puzzled. Then I shrug and follow Dr. Brown down the hall, leaving Jun
e Monroe clucking in the waiting room like a hen whose egg’s just been taken away.

  He leaves me outside the closed door of Nana’s room. I open it slowly and step in cautiously—aware that I’m entering the room of a crone who’s threatened to shoot me on more than one occasion—and it’s possible she’s pocketed a needle or a scalpel that she has every intention of launching at my head.

  Or somewhere lower.

  But when I get inside, it’s just Nana, in a hospital bed with covers pulled up to her chin. And for the first time in my life, she seems . . . frail. Old.

  Weak.

  When I swallow, I taste tears in the back of my throat. I don’t think it makes me any less of a man to admit it. It’s been one hell of a day.

  And a hero needs his foe. It’s only in this split second that I realize what a wonderfully formidable foe Nana has always been to me. How wrong it would be—how much I would miss her—if she couldn’t fill that role anymore.

  Her next words, wheezy and feeble, bring those tears straight to my eyes.

  “Hello, boy.”

  I smile, my voice a bit strangled. “Ma’am.”

  Her brittle hand pats the space beside her and I sit in the chair next to the bed.

  She regards me with a tired but determined expression—bent on having her say.

  “You know why I never liked you, boy?”

  I clear the knot from my throat and reply, “Because I knocked up your granddaughter?”

  “Ha!” She waves her hand. “No. My Juney was bakin’ in my oven for two months before I got around to sayin’ my own vows.”

  That’s more information than I ever needed to know.

  “Is it because I didn’t marry her?” I try again.

  She shakes her head. “No.” And pulls in a ragged breath. “It’s ’cause, even when you first came sniffin’ around my grandbaby, a twelve-year-old nothin’ carryin’ a football . . . even then, I could see you were goin’. Had that look in your eyes, a hankering for somewhere else—the way a colt looks at a closed gate, just waitin’ for someone to leave the latch off. Rarin’ to go.”

  I nod slowly, because she’s not wrong.

  “And I knew . . . if you had the chance . . . you’d take her with you.” Her cloudy eyes look into mine, seeing straight through me.

  “But you’re not takin’ her with you anymore, are you, boy?”

  I blow out a breath and sit back in the chair. All the things that have been twisting me up, swirling in my head the last few days, have suddenly straightened out. So clear. Such a simple answer.

  “No, ma’am, I’m not.”

  Nana’s face relaxes a bit and she seems relieved to have the confirmation. “Some horses like bein’ penned. Belongin’ to someone, grazin’ on the land they know—don’t have the desire to venture out.”

  And I think back to every late-night riverbank talk Jenny and I shared, filled with fire and dreams. Of different. And my mind’s eye sees what that seventeen-year-old boy didn’t—Jenny’s enthusiasm was always for me, but never for us. Because her heart was here, in this small town with its warm people. She didn’t have any need for more . . . and I was already gone.

  “It’s important,” Nana says, patting my hand, “that a woman doesn’t feel like the ugly sister. The second, lesser choice. That’s a bitterness that won’t sweeten.”

  I blink down at her. “How did you . . .”

  “Jus’ ’cause I’m goin’ blind, doesn’t mean I don’t see.”

  I close my eyes and it’s Sofia’s face that comes alive. Her smile, her laugh, that sharp mouth, those arms that can hold so tight and tender, I would gladly stay within them for every moment of a lifetime.

  I cover my face with my hands.

  Fuck me.

  “I have screwed up, ma’am. Everything. Badly.”

  “Well then, fix it,” she gibes. “That’s what men do—they fix things.”

  “I don’t know where I’m supposed to start.” My hand rises. “And before you say ‘at the beginning,’ we’ve already begun. How am I supposed to show her that it’s always been her—when everything I said, everything I did, told her it wasn’t?”

  A grin blooms on Nana’s lips. “My Henry, God rest his soul, was not a handy man. Bought me a gardenin’ shed once, to keep my tools. Came with directions in ten languages. Henry put it together—and it was the most pitiful thing I ever saw. Crooked walls, upside-down door. So . . . he took it apart piece by piece and started all over again. Took a bit of time, but it was worth it, ’cause in the end, that little shed . . . turned out perfect. You have to start all over again, too—from the beginnin’.”

  I think about being back in DC. All the things I want to do for her, all the words I want to say . . . to start over. To show her. But it’ll have to be after the wedding. After things are settled here with Jenn. That way, Sofia will see with her own eyes that I’m past it. That what I share with Jenny doesn’t diminish what I feel for her. So she won’t have any doubts—and she’ll believe me.

  Nana scowls. “Now, don’t you go tellin’ anyone what we discussed. It’s private. I have a reputation to uphold.”

  I laugh. Both from Nana’s warning and because now I have a plan.

  She points at the door. “Go on, then. Bring my daughter in here before she busts the door down.”

  I lean over, take my life in my hands—and kiss Nana on the cheek. “Thank you, ma’am.”

  “You’re welcome, boy.”

  • • •

  Back in the waiting room, I give June the go-ahead. Then I answer Jenny’s inquisitional stare. “She’s all right.” I squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry—that woman’s too goddamn mean to die.”

  Jenny laughs, hugging me with relief. When we step back, I tell her I’m taking Presley back to my parents’ for the night. Then I put my arm around Sofia, and the three of us walk out the door.

  21

  Sofia

  On Friday morning, I’m pulled from the deep sleep of the emotionally spent by sunlight on my face . . . and a tickling on my nose. My eyes crack open . . . and Brent Mason’s face, smiling as big as Pennywise the evil clown, is the first thing I see.

  “Rise and shine, cupcake!”

  “Ahh!” I yell, snapping back—hitting the back of my skull against Stanton’s forehead. Presley came back with us last night—and he tucked her into bed in Carter’s room across the way. Then the two of us came in here together, and promptly fell right to sleep.

  What in God’s name is Brent doing here? In Stanton’s bedroom? In Missi-freaking-ssippi?

  Stanton’s arm pulls me against him and his hand pushes my head back down on the pillow. “It’s a nightmare,” he murmurs. “Go back to sleep and they’ll go away.”

  They?

  I sit up. Jake Becker waves at me from the corner chair. “What are you two doing here? And more important—where the hell is my dog?”

  Brent peers at Stanton’s football trophies. “Sherman’s fine—he’s with Harrison, they’re best buddies.”

  Harrison is Brent’s butler. He’s an endearingly young, rigidly proper, twenty-one-year-old butler who comes from a long line of butlers. Harrison’s father is Brent’s parents’ butler—like a happy indentured servant family. Part of Brent’s life mission is to get Harrison to act like a normal twenty-one-year-old—just once.

  “But why are you here?” I ask, my voice still scratchy with sleep.

  Brent shrugs. “I’ve been to Milan, Paris, Rome—but never to the Gulf Coast. I thought it’d be interesting to see Shaw’s hometown for the weekend. Broaden my horizons. Jake’s visited before; he knew the way. And we missed you guys—the office has been lonely without you. You made it sound so great on the phone, I knew I had to come experience it for myself.”

  Then Jake tells us the real reason.

  “Brent’s parents are flying into DC for the weekend. He hauled ass like the running of the bulls was behind him.”

  Brent turns to Jake with a scowl. “Don
’t judge me. My mother is a frightening woman.”

  “She’s a four-ten, ninety-pound socialite who doesn’t speak above a whisper,” Jake scoffs. “Terrifying.”

  “Two of my cousins just announced their engagement, and a third sent out birth announcements for their first child. My mother was going to show up with a list of debutantes and refuse to leave until I chose one. It would’ve been brutal.”

  Jake stands. “Speaking of mothers, Momma Shaw sent us up here to grab you two for breakfast.” He throws a pair of jeans at Stanton’s head. “You might want to put pants on.”

  With this wake-up call, I’m grateful to be wearing my more conservative pajamas.

  “How’s Operation Wedding Destruction going?” Brent asks as Stanton and I climb out of bed.

  I make my tone lighter than I feel. “Well, there was a tornado yesterday. That should throw a wrench into things.”

  Stanton rubs a tired hand down his face. “No, it won’t.”

  I turn my head—genuinely surprised. “Really? You don’t think so?”

  He pulls a T-shirt over his head. “If there’s one thing citizens of Sunshine know how to do well, it’s make the best with what you’ve got.”

  • • •

  We fill Brent and Jake in on the tornado on the way into the house. In the kitchen, Stanton’s mother is setting down plates of food on the table and Marshall shovels oatmeal into his mouth, yelling up the stairs for his sister to hurry. Mr. Shaw had left hours earlier to tend to an outbuilding damaged in the storm. I close my eyes as I sip from a cup of much-needed hot coffee. Brent comments on the beauty of the ranch, and thanks Mrs. Shaw for her hospitality. Conversation turns to the summer weeks when Stanton was in law school and would come home to visit, and bring Jake with him.

  Then, much to her brother’s relief, Mary comes skipping down the stairs, dressed for school in a beige skirt and pink tank top. She greets me, Stanton, and Jake—then her eyes light up like a jack-o’-lantern when they land on Brent.

  “Why have I not been introduced to this piece of deliciousness?” she teases. She holds out her hand. “I’m Mary Louise . . . and you are?”

  Brent swallows a bit of biscuit and shakes her hand. “Brent Mason; it’s a pleasure.”

  As Mary sits in the empty chair beside him, she hums under her breath. “I’m bettin’ it will be.”

  He looks at me questioningly, and all I can do is shrug back.

  “You work with my brother?” Mary asks, leaning over.

  “That’s right,” Brent says.

  “That’s so interestin’.” She sighs, resting her chin on her hand. “Are you a college intern?”

 
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