“I’m five minutes behind you,” John promised. He gave Rodney a quick kiss.
The order of protection hearing was over, and Rodney was going back to Jeannie’s house with her and Kaleb; Madison was staying with Kaleb’s parents for the night. John had one quick stop to make before he joined them, but he also wanted a few words with Jeannie’s lawyer. The one she didn’t hire.
“I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Mr. Sheppard hired me.”
Everyone looked at John.
“The other Mr. Sheppard.”
John didn’t know how his father had even found out about the hearing; they hadn’t spoken since that night at Red’s. He felt a little twinge of guilt about that. His father had seemed sincere, had opened up about things in a way he never had before. Maybe once things settled down with Rodney they could talk again. Have that dinner Patrick had mentioned.
Jeannie’s lawyer finally stepped out into the hall.
“Mr. Sheppard.” He held out his hand and John shook it.
“It’s just John. I wanted to thank you for everything you did in there.”
John hadn’t been sure how the hearing would go. Rodney said Jeannie never reported their mother, and so it would’ve been their word against hers. Not to mention that Helen had showed up to court in a nice dress, and spoke very clearly and coherently about why the whole notion of her being kept from her family was ridiculous.
As it turned out, Kaleb had been keeping records of everything. Even Jeannie had been surprised. He’d documented every time Helen had taken Madison without asking, every time she’d shown up drunk, had recordings of phone messages and copies of emails. And Woolsey was a top-notch lawyer. He’d finally gotten Helen to show her true colors under questioning. The judge had signed the order of protection.
“It was my pleasure,” Woolsey said, smoothing a hand down the front of his very expensive suit. “I’ve dealt with plenty of people like Helen McKay. It doesn’t usually take much digging to get them to reveal their true selves.”
“How do you know my father?”
“I worked for Sheppard Industries for several years, before opening my own firm. I was surprised to get his call.”
“I bet.” John had always known that his father had a vast web of contacts and connections at his fingertips, but it wasn’t often he was on the receiving end of it. “Did he say…you know what, never mind. It was nice meeting you.”
John nodded at Woolsey and started to walk away. He didn’t want to be too long getting to Jeannie’s.
“He said Mr. McKay was important to you, and so the outcome of this hearing was important to him.”
John turned, looked back, but Woolsey was already heading deeper into the courthouse, briefcase in hand.
“Do you want me to leave?” John asked, though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.
Rodney sighed. “No.”
“Hey. It’s okay.” John pulled him into a one-armed hug, and pressed a kiss to the side of his head. “I want to be here.”
The situation with Helen had been difficult for both siblings, John knew that well enough. Jeannie bore the brunt of her mother’s attention, but Rodney was the one who had to constantly fix things. John sincerely hoped that the order of protection would give everyone a little breathing room.
“You didn’t have to bring anything,” Jeannie said when Rodney ushered John into the kitchen. She was wiping down the island countertop, which already looked pretty spotless.
“You won’t say that after you try it.”
“What is it?” Rodney asked.
“Evan Lorne’s tiramisu,” John replied. “He made it for a faculty thing a few weeks ago. It’s amazing. Seriously, this stuff is life-changing.”
“The art teacher cooks too?” Rodney rummaged through Jeannie’s cabinets for plates and forks and a serving spoon.
“He probably could’ve been a chef if he’d wanted to.”
Evan had turned out to be a pretty interesting guy. He and John occasionally hung out, and always on campus. John had gone to the college art gallery and seen some of Evan’s work, and he was an amazing artist. His paintings were vibrant and full of life, and he did some really innovative found-object sculpture as well.
“Is there citrus in it?” Jeannie asked.
“I don’t think John would bring me a death dessert,” Rodney replied dryly.
“And you’re never wrong, are you? Brilliant Mer, always right and always knows what’s best for everyone.” Jeannie threw her dishrag into the sink. “It must be nice to be so perfect.”
John exchanged a look with Kaleb, who’d just come into the kitchen from the other room. Kaleb shook his head ever so slightly, so John held back and didn’t jump to Rodney’s defense the way he wanted to.
“If by perfect you mean logical and reasonable, then yes, it’s damn nice.” Rodney set the plates on the counter with a loud clang. “Don’t get mad at me because you finally stood up to her.”
“She’s our mother!” Jeannie snapped. “We’re supposed to protect her!”
“No. She was supposed to protect us! It wasn’t our job to look after her then, and it’s not our job to make life easier for her now! Jesus, Jeannie! Were you going to wait till she took Maddie across state lines? Or killed her because she was driving drunk and doesn’t believe in seat belts? You need to be a better mother than she was!”
Jeannie slapped Rodney across the face, and the sound of it was like a gunshot. John was around the side of the island and pulling Rodney back before he’d even had time to think. Kaleb was on the move, too, wrapping Jeannie up in a tight hug and holding her while she cried.
“I’m fine,” Rodney said when John tilted his head to get a better look. But the red mark left by Jeannie’s hand stood out starkly on his pale face. “Jeannie, it’s my job to protect you. And Madison. And I’m sorry that means we can’t protect Mom, but she’s an adult. She has to be held accountable just like anyone else.”
“I’m sorry.” Jeannie’s words were muffled against Kaleb’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Mer.”
“You stood up for our daughter today,” Kaleb said. “You’re a strong woman. You always have been. I’m so proud of you.”
Jeannie pulled back and wiped at her face with the back of her hand. “This sucks. Who wants dessert?”
John dished out the tiramisu while Jeannie and Rodney hugged, and held a murmured conversation. It hadn’t been like that when John was growing up. There was no outpouring of emotion, and no forgiveness for words said in anger. Just stony silence and the weight of disappointment.
For the first time in a long time, John thought about calling his brother.
The tiramisu was well received. Rodney made such pornographic noises while he was eating it that John wondered if he could take a little home and feed it to Rodney when they were in bed together.
After they’d finished, Rodney pulled John into the living room.
“Thank you,” he said. He wrapped his arms around John’s neck and kissed him breathless.
“What was that for?” John asked. His hands were on Rodney’s hips, fingers splayed across his ass.
“For being here, even though you didn’t have to be.”
“Yeah. I did.” John stole another kiss. “I’m here. No matter what.”
Rodney let out a shuddering breath. “Good. Later we’ll talk about your dad hiring us a lawyer.”
Much later, John told himself.
“But first, I’d really like to go home. With you.”
John couldn’t agree more. Jeannie gave him a hug and a kiss goodbye, and an apology that John told her was completely unnecessary.
And one small serving of the tiramisu.