Overruled, p.21
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       Overruled, p.21

         Part #1 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
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  Brent clear his throat. “No . . . I’m a lawyer. An old, boring lawyer.” When she just continues to stare adoringly, he adds, “Very old.”

  “I really wish you boys would stay with us,” Mrs. Shaw laments as she finally sits down to eat her own breakfast. “Doesn’t seem right to have y’all stayin’ at the hotel.”

  The hotel—’cause like the stoplight, there’s only one.

  “Brent can stay in my room,” Mary announces. Before her mother can respond with more than a frown, she giggles. “I’m jus’ jokin’.”

  Then she turns to Brent and mouths No I’m not with a Lolita-like wink.

  I cover my mouth at Brent’s horrified expression and look around to see if anyone else noticed. Jake’s intent on finishing his food, and Stanton . . . Stanton stares dejectedly into his coffee cup.

  “Thank you, Mrs. Shaw, but really, the hotel is great.”

  Mary leans back, her hands disappear under the table—and ten seconds later Brent jumps up like he’s been electrified.

  “Whoa!”

  All eyes turn to him. Mary bats her lashes innocently.

  “What’s your problem, nervous and jerky?” Jake asks.

  Brent opens his mouth like a fish searching for water. “I . . . just can’t wait to see the rest of the place! No time like the present. Let’s go!”

  I bring my dishes to the sink and the four of us head toward the door.

  “Bye, Brent,” Mary sings.

  Brent waves uncomfortably, then whispers to me, “That’s it—I’m growing a fucking beard.”

  • • •

  We spend the rest of the morning showing Jake and Brent around the ranch. Stanton is quiet—distracted.

  Later in the afternoon, Stanton takes Brent and Jake out to the pastures to help his father with the clean-up. While they’re gone, Mrs. Shaw tells me we’ll be heading to the one local tavern for the evening and that I should get ready. The sun is setting when I step out of the bathroom, wearing my favorite red slip dress, to find that Stanton’s back. Waiting in my room.

  And he’s alone.

  He stares at me like it’s the first time he’s seeing me—long enough for a whole host of butterflies to dance in my stomach.

  “You are beautiful,” he says in a low, awed voice with just a touch of southern.

  Three words.

  Such a simple compliment. But because it’s him—it feels like the most wonderful thing anyone could ever say to me.

  The tavern is a small place, with wooden floors, a worn oak bar, a few scattered square tables, and two pool tables in the back room. Five of us sit together at a table—Jake is having a loud, raucous time with Ruby Monroe, Jenny’s sister, and Brent seems more relaxed without having to dodge the wandering, underage hands of Mary Shaw.

  I excuse myself from the table and head to the ladies’ room. When I walk back out, I stop in my tracks. Because through the crowd I see Stanton rise from his chair and walk to the jukebox. He fills it with quarters from his pocket, and the twinkling sounds of piano keys override the noise of conversation in the crowded bar. He strides to where Jenny and JD are sitting side by side, and his lips move—asking a question I can’t decipher. JD nods his head and after a moment, shakes Stanton’s outstretched hand. Then Jenny stands and together they walk to the dance floor. Willie Nelson’s mournful voice fills the air singing “Always on My Mind.”

  I watch as he takes Jenny in his arms—the strong, beautiful arms that have held me, made me feel cherished with their warmth. The arms I’ve gripped in pleasure and passion more times that I can remember. He gathers her close to his chest, the chest I laid my cheek on just last night, lulled to sleep by the sound of his steadfast heartbeat.

  And together, they sway.

  I don’t feel the tears rise until they’re blurring my vision and streaming down my face. My throat constricts, and the purest of pain squeezes my chest like a cruel vise.

  I can’t do this anymore.

  I know it now. I can’t stand by and pretend to help him fight for her.

  Because I want him to fight for me.

  More than anything.

  For him to want me—not just as a friend or a lover. But as his forever.

  Like she is.

  Jenny looks up into his eyes. Their expressions are tender as they speak, and I thank God I can’t hear the words. Then Stanton raises his hand to touch her face . . . and I squeeze my eyes closed, blocking the intimate gesture.

  A moment later I’m heading for the door. Self-preservation compels me, Willie’s lyrics of love and regret chase me, but I don’t look back.

  Outside, the air is moist, thick—I gulp it in with pathetic hiccups and seek the comfort of my own arms, wrapped around my waist.

  “Sofia?”

  Brent’s voice approaches from my left, coming closer as he calls my name again. I don’t try to hide my . . . sadness? That’s not a strong enough word. Devastation hits the nail on the head. I feel like a building that’s about to collapse, the foundation I built, the structure and support that I thought would keep me standing falling away beneath my feet. And Brent sees it all.

  His head angles in sympathetic reflection, but what strikes me most is—he’s not surprised. Not even a little.

  He sits on the sidewalk bench and pats his lap. “Looks like somebody needs a ride on the therapy train. Hop on. Tell Dr. Brent all about it.”

  There’s no shame as I perch myself on his thighs.

  “He doesn’t dance,” I whisper.

  Brent nods slowly. Waiting for me to continue.

  “But he’s dancing with her.”

  The words sound completely ridiculous said out loud, but I don’t care. The dam breaks, and my face crumbles. “I thought I had a wall, you know? I didn’t think I’d be the woman who wanted more. I’m an idiot, Brent.”

  A low chuckle reverberates through his chest. “You’re not an idiot, sweetheart—that designation belongs to the blind southerner you’re crying over.”

  I raise my head and look into Brent’s forever kind blue eyes. He’s always reminded me of my brother Tomás. They share that same comforting attitude that makes you feel that anything coming their way, no matter how devastating, will be handled.

  “How can he not know?” I ask. “Why can’t he see how hard this is for me?”

  Brent brushes my long hair off my shoulders. “In fairness to Stanton, you’re a good actress. And . . . sometimes it’s hard for guys to read between the lines. To pick up on all the things that aren’t said. Some of us need it spelled out.”

  Brent holds me for a few minutes more as I soak up his calm, making it my own. Then I drag my fingers under my eyes, wiping away the melting mascara that probably makes me look like a raccoon.

  “Soph?” That voice comes from the shadows behind us, deep with worry. I feel him move closer, without turning to look. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

  Having all of Stanton’s attention, sensing his concern and knowing in my heart that he’d rain down hell in my defense—I admit it feels good. For a moment. But it’s only an emotional crumb. One that used to satisfy me, but now will only end up magnifying the emptiness. Leave me starving for all the things he doesn’t feel for me.

  Clawing myself together, I stand from Brent’s lap and face him head-on. Stanton reaches out to touch me, but I step back. “I’m fine.”

  “You’re obviously not. What the hell happened?”

  I shake my head. “I don’t feel well.” That’s true, at least. “I want to go back to the house.”

  “All right, I’ll—”

  I step further back, bumping against the bench. “No. Not you.”

  The thought of being in the closed space of a vehicle with him is horrifying. I need more time to collect myself, so I’m not reduced to a quivering mass clinging to his leg, begging him to love me.

  Wouldn’t that be attractive?

  Confusion displaces the concern clouding his eyes. “But . . .”

 
“I’ll drive her.”

  We all turn to the door of the bar, where tiny, blond, and perfect Jenny Monroe stands beside her fiancé. I didn’t realize we’d drawn an audience. And although she’s not exactly my favorite person at the moment, I’ll take her.

  “Thank you.”

  Brushing past Stanton, I follow Jenny as she fishes keys from the purse slung across her shoulder, walking briskly to the parking lot.

  Stanton doggedly trails us. “Hey! Just wait one damn—”

  “Go back to the bar, Stanton,” Jenny calls. “Have a beer with JD and talk about how y’all are gonna keep your brother from takin’ his clothes off.”

  In a conspiratorial tone, she tells me, “Carter tends to get overheated when he’s drunk, and his nudist tendencies come out. The idiot’ll be bare ass by midnight.”

  With a touch to her key ring she unlocks the doors on the shiny black Ford pickup, and I scramble into the passenger seat like a teenager fleeing a machete-wielding maniac. The engine roars to life, she shifts into drive—and the headlights illuminate Stanton Shaw, stubbornly bracing his hands on the hood of the truck, blocking our way.

  Jenny opens the window. “Boy, if you don’t move, I’ll run you down. Won’t kill you, but you won’t be nearly as persuasive hobblin’ around a courtroom on crutches.”

  Keeping distrustful hands on the truck, he moves around to Jenny’s open window. I keep my eyes trained straight ahead, but I feel his gaze on me.

  “Sofia.” His voice is harsh but pleading at the same time. “Sofia, look at me, damn it!”

  Jenny leans forward, obscuring his view. “Let her be, Stanton. Sometimes a woman just needs another woman. Give her space.”

  From the corner of my eye, she pats his forearm, and after a moment his hands fall away from the truck. She doesn’t give him a chance to change his mind; the spinning tires spit gravel and dust as we pull out of the parking lot.

  • • •

  Except for my occasional sniffle, it’s quiet inside the cab of the truck as we drive down the dark, empty roads. I don’t quite know how I’m supposed to feel about the woman beside me. In basic terms, she’s my competition. I’m well acquainted with rivalry; I live it and breathe it in my career—outperforming the prosecutors at trial, outshining my fellow attorneys as we all vie for a coveted partnership. There are moments when I know I’m better than my opposition, and times when I have to dig deep to surpass those who are my equal, if not more talented.

  The difference here is I actually like Jenny. If circumstances were different, she and I could’ve been friends. She’s smart and fun to be around. I understand why Stanton loves her. And the part of me that’s his friend—that wants his happiness more than my own—doesn’t want her to marry JD.

  But then there’s the other part—the one who loves Stanton—who wants to scratch Jenny’s eyes out. Who wants her to disappear, or even better, to have never existed in the first place.

  “How long have you loved him?”

  The question is gently posed, like a pediatrician would ask the parent of a sick child how long they’ve been like this.

  “From the beginning, I think. I didn’t . . . admit it. I thought it was just physical attraction . . . friendship . . . convenience. But now . . . I realize it was always more.”

  She nods. “There’s just somethin’ about a man from Mississippi. Damn southern charm is in the DNA—they don’t even have to work at it.” She pauses as she turns the truck onto an equally desolate road. “And Stanton . . . he’s even more overwhelming. Brilliant, hardworkin’, handsome, and he fucks like a beast.”

  I bark out a shocked laugh.

  Jenny laughs too. “My momma would smack the teeth out of my head if she heard me say that, but god help me, it’s true.”

  Our giggles quiet and Jenny sighs. “A woman would have to be ten times a fool not to fall in love with that man.” She glances at me knowingly. “And you don’t look like a fool to me.”

  After she turns away, I continue to stare. “How did you do it? How did you stop loving him?”

  The last few days have been like torture. Every profession of his affection for her stung like the lash of a barbed whip. The yearning I’ve seen in those stunning green eyes, the tenderness they hold for her, burned like an electric shock, stealing my breath.

  Sex with Stanton is exhilarating; working beside him is a privilege. But loving him . . . that just hurts.

  Her mouth twitches. “I don’t think I ever did stop. It just . . . changed into somethin’ else. Somethin’ quieter, less crazed. When you’re young, you love fireworks ’cause they’re loud and bright and thrillin’. But then you grow up. And you see that candlelight isn’t so thrillin’, but it still makes everything better. You realize that the glow of a fireplace can be just as excitin’ as fireworks—the way it burns low, but lights your home and keeps you warm all night long. Stanton was my fireworks . . . JD’s my fireplace.”

  “But Stanton’s in love with you.”

  She glances at me sideways. “You really believe that?”

  “It doesn’t matter what I believe. Only what he does.”

  She shakes her head. “You should talk to him—tell him how you feel.”

  It’s easy for her to say—she lives across the country from him. I’ll have to see him and work with him every day after this weekend. Right now, I have his friendship, his admiration. His respect.

  I’m not sure I could live with his pity.

  Jenny drives the truck behind Stanton’s parents’ house, up to the entrance of the barn. Before I get out, I turn to her. “It was really nice meeting you, Jenny. You have a beautiful daughter, and I hope . . . I really hope your wedding day is perfect.”

  Her head tilts. “You won’t be around for the weddin’ tomorrow, will you?”

  I confirm her suspicions with the shake of my head.

  She nods, understanding. “I hope . . . well, I hope you come back here one day, Sofia, and when you do, I hope you’re smilin’.”

  Then she wraps her arms around me and gives me a hug. It’s warm and kind, and above all—genuine.

  • • •

  Packing takes longer than I’d thought. Why, why did I bring so much? Three bags down, two to go. I grab the last of my T-shirts from the drawer and turn to place them in the open suitcase on the bed. But I freeze when I hear the hoarse, fraught voice from the doorway.

  “You’re leavin’?”

  Did I actually think I’d be able to pack and leave town without facing him? Without having this conversation? Stupid Sofia.

  I don’t look at him—if I do, I’ll disintegrate into a blubbery mass. I need time—distance.

  “I have to go home. I’m so behind, a lot of work to catch up on . . .”

  He moves in front of me. I stare at his chest, as it rises and falls beneath the soft cotton T-shirt. He takes the clothes from my hands. “You’re not goin’ anywhere, until you talk to me.”

  I close my eyes, feeling my pulse throb frantically in my neck.

  “What happened, Sofia?”

  Against my will, my gaze rises, meeting his. It swims with concern, overflows with confusion . . . with affection and caring.

  But it’s not enough.

  “What happened? I fell in love with you.” The words come out in a whisper—everything I feel for him a sharp, rigid thorn lodged in my throat. And the pain that he doesn’t feel the same is a noose cinching tighter and tighter. “I love everything about you. I love watching you in court—the way you speak, the way you move. I love how you scrape your lip when you’re trying to think of what to say. I love your voice, I love your hands and the way they touch me. I love . . . the way you look at your daughter, I love how you say my name.” My voice shatters at the end, and my eyes close, releasing a flood.

  “No, baby, don’t cry,” he begs.

  His hands rise to my face, but I step back, afraid the contact will completely break me. The words rush out. “I know that isn’t what this is f
or you. And I tried to ignore it, to push it away. But it just hurt so much to see you with. . .”

  His head is bowed from my pain. “Sofia, I’m sorry . . . just let me . . .”

  I shake my head and squeeze my eyes closed again. “Don’t be sorry—it’s not your fault. I have to just . . . get over it. I will. I can’t . . . I can’t be with you anymore that way, Stanton. I know you’ll be hurting from Jenny . . . But—”

  “That’s not what I meant! Slow down, please. Listen to me.”

  But if I stop to listen, I’ll never get it all out. He’ll never understand. And I meant what I said—I don’t want to lose him.

  “We’ll be friends again. This won’t come between us. We can go back—”

  I never finish the words. His mouth covers mine, cutting them off, swallowing them whole. He grasps my face, pulling me to him—touching me like he never has before. With desperation, like he’ll die if he has to let me go.

  His desire for me is a palpable, throbbing ache between us—and I submerge myself in it, willing to drown. His fingertips are hot on my skin, scorching enough to scar. And I hope they do. I yearn for remembrance. Proof that I was here, that this is what we felt. That even for a moment . . . we were real.

  He turns us and we fall to the bed, the feel of his strength, his rigid length pressing down on me, a welcome weight. I writhe beneath him and Stanton tears at my clothes like they’re the enemy.

  It’s not a smart thing to do; it’ll hurt in the morning. But I won’t say no. This . . . this I get to have.

  The pant of his breath, the scrape of his teeth, the sound of his moans, the pressure of his wet, perfect kisses. These are the moments—the memories—I’ll hold on to and cherish.

  Because they’ll be the last.

  22

  Stanton

  Everyone always talks about how quiet and peaceful the country is. But that’s not totally accurate. The cacophony begins at dusk—grasshoppers, mosquitoes, crickets, and scurrying vermin, louder than you’d ever think possible. And at dawn, there’s the baying of animals, the machine-gun clicking of cicadas, the thumping of hooves, and the deafening sonata of chirping birds.

  It’s the birds that pull me from sleep—the deep slumber of a man who’s at peace with a choice he’s made.

  Even before my eyes crack open, I know she’s gone.

  I feel it in the empty space beside me, the missing scent of shampoo and gardenia and Sofia. I bolt upright, squinting, and look around.

  Luggage? Gone.

  Jeans on the desk? Nowhere in sight.

  Red dress from the floor? Vanished.

  Fuck.

  How the hell could I fall asleep without talking to her first? Without telling her—

  “Sonofabitch!”

  I jump into a pair of jeans and run shirtless and barefoot down the stairs. I jog into the house—hoping.

  But when I get there, the only person in the kitchen is Brent, sipping a cup of coffee and eating one of my mother’s blueberry muffins.

  “Where is she?” I growl—pissed at myself, but all too willing to take it out on him.

  He swallows the mouthful of muffin, regarding me with distant, assessing eyes. “She called the hotel about four this morning. Asked for a ride to the airport. Jake wouldn’t let her go alone and changed his ticket to fly back with her.”

  My chest goes hollow. I’ve fucked up so badly.

 
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