Appealed, p.9
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       Appealed, p.9

         Part #3 of The Legal Briefs series by Emma Chase
 
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  But still Kennedy’s not convinced. “The messages—they came from your school account.”

  “It had to be Cashmere. She was always in my room, and she knew all my passwords. She was the only one who . . . would want to hurt you like that.”

  There’s never a good reason to lay your hands on a woman. But if my ex-girlfriend was here now, I’d have a hard time holding to that.

  Kennedy’s face is blank as she examines the evidence from all angles. “How did she know about the kiss on the roof? I didn’t believe it was really you, until that moment.”

  I rub the back of my neck; the muscles are tight and knotted. “Maybe I told her about it at some point? Or during one of the stupid Truth or Dare drinking games we used to play. Somebody probably asked me about my first kiss.”

  Her eyes soften just a bit. “You considered me your first kiss?”

  The corner of my mouth quirks. “You were a girl, your lips were on my face—so yeah. I’ve always remembered it that way.”

  She nods.

  Slowly I reach out and cup her jaw, holding her. “Do you believe me? I need you to believe me, Kennedy.”

  She searches my eyes. “I don’t know. All these years, I was so sure. Now . . . talking to you . . . what you say makes sense.” Her jaw goes tight. “But I won’t be anyone’s fool ever again.”

  I drop my hand, drain the rest of my beer.

  Kennedy’s silent for a moment. Then she says, “I’m ready to call it a night. Can we get out of here?”

  I hear her. Revelations are fucking exhausting. I feel like I’ve taken a sledgehammer to the chest. Bruised and drained.

  “Sure.” I throw the bills on the table, slide my chair back, and hold out my hand to her.

  Out on the sidewalk, I offer to grab Kennedy a cab.

  “My place is only a few blocks away. I’ll walk.”

  “Okay, then I’ll walk you home. Lead the way, Lassie.”

  She cracks a smile and pushes her hair behind her ear. “You don’t have to—”

  “Yeah, I really fucking do, okay? Just . . . let me do this. Please.”

  She looks at me, eyes crinkling, nose scrunching up, like I’m a puzzle she’s trying to figure out. It makes her look younger—cuter.

  “All right. I’m this way.”

  We walk side by side in easy silence, and about ten minutes later, we arrive. The house looks like a Victorian dollhouse, with a rounded tower on one side, a wraparound second-floor balcony, arched windows, and a spiked wrought-iron fence framing the roof. The same fencing surrounds the big corner lot. The house needs a paint job, new shutters, new steps where the old ones are sunk and uneven—but there’s so much potential. With a little love, it could be magnificent.

  “I’m having it restored—which is about as miserable as it sounds when you’re living here,” Kennedy says. “But it’ll be worth it. My Aunt Edna left it to me.”

  My head turns sharply. “Aunt Edna died? Shit, she was cool. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

  Kennedy nods. “You were on a skiing trip—I overheard someone talking about it at the wake. Your mother probably forgot to mention it when you came home.”

  I look back toward the house. “I’m glad she left it to you.” Then I grin, easily imagining her as a kid in that big old house with its cobwebs and secrets. “I bet you had a blast going through the attic.”

  Her eyes widen. “I did, yeah.” Bull’s-eye.

  Because people really don’t change when it comes to qualities like that. A love of adventure, of exploration, even if it’s of the past. She hasn’t changed.

  “Maybe you can give me a tour sometime?”

  She still looks a little wary, distrustful of my intentions. Old habits die hard, and this one’s gonna go down screaming.

  She unlocks the front door, then turns. “Good-bye, Brent.”

  I run my hand down her arm, ’cause I just can’t help myself. “Good night, Kennedy. I’m . . . I’m glad we talked. Cleared the air. And if I didn’t say it before, I’m really fucking glad you’re home.”

  Her smile is small—but it’s there.

  “Me too.”

  I give her arm a gentle squeeze, then walk down the front steps toward the gate. Halfway there she calls, “Brent?”

  I turn around.

  “This doesn’t change anything. About the case, I mean. On Monday, I expect you to come at me with everything you have. If you go easy on me it’ll mean you don’t respect me—that you think I can’t handle it. And I’d never forgive you for that.”

  I give her a quick nod and she goes inside, closing the door behind her.

  My eleven-year-old self was right: girls are weird.

  • • •

  I wake up earlier than usual on Saturday, with the echo of Kennedy’s words in my head. Curiosity rubs me raw, like two jagged sticks sparking a fire. So I skip my morning run and spend an hour in my home office doing online research.

  It’s amazing, and kind of fucking frightening, how much of our personal information is floating around out there, and how simple it is to access. After I get the info I wanted—an address just an hour outside of DC—I tap the address into Google Maps, then I head out.

  When I knock on the door, I hear muffled voices inside, then the sound of walking feet.

  And then the door opens.

  And Victoria Russo, Kennedy’s old boarding school roommate, stares at me. “Brent Mason?”

  I nod. “Hey, Vicki.”

  She looks good, almost exactly the same. Her laugh lines are a little more pronounced, but her shoulder-length hair is still jet black with a streak of bright blue, her nose is still pierced with a diamond stud, and she still has that sharp, no-bullshit-taking shine in her eyes. The last time I saw her she tried to kick me in the balls.

  “Why are you here?” she asks.

  I look her straight in the eyes. “I need your help.”

  9

  Ten minutes later, Vicki sets a coffee cup down in front of me at her kitchen table. She has a nice house—a family house—in a development with green lawns and brick-paved driveways and swimming pools in yards lined with arborvitaes to have some privacy from the neighbors. Her kitchen’s huge, with mauve-colored walls and cream cabinets. There are framed pictures all around—some of dark-haired little girls, some of Vicki and Brian Gunderson.

  Brian was a student at Saint Arthur’s too. A tall, lanky kid who sagged his pants, listened to Snoop Dogg, and attended on scholarship. I remember seeing them together around campus—he was her date the night of the senior dance . . . and it looks like they’re married now.

  In the den off the kitchen, there’s a cluster of book covers with shirtless men in various stages of embracing equally hot, half-naked women. And the author is V. Russo.

  “You’re a writer?” I ask, sipping my coffee.

  “Yeah. I write romance.”

  I glance at the pictures again. “Brian’s a lucky guy.”

  She chuckles. “Yes, he is.” Then her expression turns thoughtful. “A romantic hero with a prosthetic leg would make for an interesting story.”

  “Well, if you need a technical advisor, give me a call.” Then I ask, “Do you still talk with Kennedy?”

  She lifts one perfectly penciled brow. Then calls down the hallway, “Louise! Come here please.”

  A tiny little thing, maybe about five years old, with long black messy hair walks into the kitchen and stands next to Vicki. “Yes, Momma?”

  Vicki crouches down next to her. “Louise, this is an old classmate of Mommy’s—Mr. Mason. Can you say hello?”

  The little girl smiles, not at all shyly. “Hello, Mr. Mason.”

  “Hi, Louise.”

  “Can you tell Mr. Mason your full name, honey?”

  “Louise Kennedy Gunderson.”

  I nod in understanding. “That’s a beautiful name.”

  Vicki pats her daughter’s shoulder. “You can go back and play now, baby.”

  As Louise leaves
the room, Vicki raises her coffee cup to her lips. “Kennedy’s the godmother to all our girls. And she gets full custody if we kick the bucket, even though I have two married brothers and Brian has a sister.”

  That’s going to make this conversation slightly more complicated, but it shouldn’t be a problem.

  “I assume Kennedy’s told you about our court case?” I ask.

  “The case where she’s wiping the floor with you? Yeah—heard all about it.” She smiles a little too broadly for my liking, but I let it go.

  “She also told me about your chat last night. How you proclaimed your innocence.” There’s a bite to her words at the end.

  “I didn’t have anything to do with what happened to her at the dance.”

  “You had everything to do with it. Your girlfriend and her friends made life hell for Kennedy because of you—and you did nothing.”

  “I didn’t know it was that bad.”

  “You knew enough.”

  And I’ve got no comeback. Because she’s right. It’s easy to look back, with the knowledge and confidence of an adult, and see everything that we should have done differently.

  My words are strong and demanding. “That’s why I’m here. I need you to tell me what else I don’t know.”

  She tosses back, “Why?”

  My hand runs through my hair. “Because I don’t think she will—not all of it. Because I want to make it up to her. Because, I feel like a black-out drunk who just sobered up, and I need to hear about the chunks of time I’m missing. Because . . . she was always the one.”

  Vicki rolls her eyes. “The one? Seriously? I’m a romance writer and even I’m about to gag.”

  I shake my head, trying to be clearer. “Didn’t you ever have someone that you compare every other person against? This one’s nice, but not as nice . . . that one’s smart, but not as smart . . .

  “She’s always been in my thoughts, even when I didn’t realize it. The one every other woman has gotten compared to, and fallen short. And I . . . I’ve missed her, Vicki. I want to know her again.”

  She stares me down, biting the inside of her cheek. And then she nods.

  “Okay.”

  • • •

  For the next hour, Vicki Russo recounts two years of psychological and emotional torture. Some of it was schoolyard stuff—dirty looks and shoulder bumps. Some of it was more sinister—notes slipped under dorm doors telling her to kill herself, calling her ugly, freak show, worthless. It was calculated, organized, and relentless.

  “Why the hell didn’t she complain? Report Cashmere to the headmaster?” I ask, frustration in every word.

  Vicki shrugs. “Lots of reasons. Call it the Pretty in Pink Syndrome—Kennedy didn’t want Cashmere to think she’d won, that she’d broken her. Plus the bitch had her pack of mean girls behind her—if it came down to their word against mine and Kennedy’s, who do you think the headmaster would’ve believed? And if she had reported it and the school sided with Cashmere, it would’ve gotten so much worse. Things like that always do.”

  Jesus fucking Christ

  Somebody needs to burn Saint Arthur’s to the ground. Scorch the earth and never rebuild.

  My fists clench on the table. “Why didn’t she tell me?”

  “Because your head was so far up your girlfriend’s snatch, Kennedy didn’t know if you would’ve cared.”

  I pin her with my eyes. “I would have.”

  “She was embarrassed. You have to understand . . . you were everything to her, Brent. When you started to drift away . . . even if she couldn’t have your friendship anymore, she never wanted your pity.

  “It messed with her head for a long time,” Vicki says. “I mean, Kennedy knows who she is, but it knocked down her self-confidence. How could it not? And her ability to trust—after what happened to her in college—that was obliterated.”

  I look at Vicki warily. “What happened in college?”

  She flinches, not meaning to have said it.

  Every statistic I know flickers through my head, and I go taut with preemptive rage. “Was she . . . was she raped?”

  “I shouldn’t—”

  My voice rises. “If she was raped, Vicki, I swear to God I’m gonna fucking kill someone.”

  “She wasn’t raped,” Vicki assures me quickly. “She had a boyfriend in college—her first ‘real’ boyfriend if you know what I mean. A frat guy. They dated for a few months, and she thought they were in love. And then one day he told her that he’d started dating her because of a bet.”

  “A bet?”

  She nods. “A competition at the frat. Who could bag the most girls—extra points if she was a virgin.”

  I rub my eyes. I don’t know how women do it. I don’t know how they even like any of us—a significant portion of the male population deserves to have their dicks cut off. And don’t think I say that lightly.

  “The sad thing is,” Vicki continues, “the bastard genuinely ended up having feelings for her. That’s why he told her—he didn’t want to base their relationship on a lie. But after Kennedy knew, she broke up with him. And now, no one gets in. Me, Brian, and her sister—we’re the only ones she trusts.”

  • • •

  Later, at her front door, I thank Vicki for filling in the gaps of information. She’s still unsure about me, reserving judgment, but I can live with that.

  I say, “You’re going to tell her I was here, aren’t you?”

  Vicki smiles. “In the spirit of full disclosure—I’m going to be on the phone with her before you get to your car.”

  • • •

  On the drive back to DC, one thought sticks in my head like the blade of a knife: I never said I was sorry. All the shit Kennedy and I talked about last night, all the things we got straightened out . . . but I never said I was sorry. And I should have.

  Because I am. And she deserves to hear it.

  I didn’t defend her when it mattered. I didn’t stick my neck out for her. I didn’t shield her. I didn’t even try.

  And it’s the biggest regret of my life.

  I think about the things Vicki told me. The shit Kennedy dealt with and, on some level, still has to live with. Kind of like my leg: it is what it is, and it doesn’t stand in my way. But it’s something I have to deal with every day. Part of what makes me who I am. A part I’ll never get back.

  And I think there’s a part of Kennedy—a piece of her childhood, her self-confidence—that’s forever altered because of Saint Arthur’s.

  I need to tell her I’m sorry. It can’t wait another day.

  That’s how I end up in the ballroom of one of DC’s poshest, most look-how-much-money-I-have-because-I-can-stay-here hotels. It’s a fund-raiser for David Prince, ten thousand bucks a plate. I had to call a few cousins who know a few people to get the last-minute ticket, but I got one.

  Wearing my tuxedo—and looking pretty fucking James Bond, if I do say so myself—I weave through the tables, scanning the crowd, looking, looking. Prince stands at the front of the room, giving a speech. And I spot Kennedy in the back, near the bar. She’s wearing a snug, strapless white gown that ends at her calves, accentuating sexy, strappy silver high heels. Her hair is down, a shiny curtain of gold.

  She’s talking to someone, smiling, just on the verge of laughing. And she literally takes my breath away.

  As I walk toward her, she sees me approach. And she doesn’t look anywhere else. When I reach her, the other person has stepped away, so it’s just her and me, standing a few inches apart.

  “What are you doing here?”

  “I had to see you.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “I’m sorry, Kennedy.”

  Whatever she was going to say is lost in a breath. And there’s a softening in her features, the slight curve of her mouth, the relaxing of her jaw that tells me she’s relieved. That even if she didn’t realize it, she’s been waiting for this. Wanting the words.

  “I should have stuck up for you. And I
will always be sorry that I didn’t. I was selfish and stupid, and you deserved better.”

  She looks away, like it’s all too much. But when her eyes turn back to me, there’s a peace in them that I haven’t seen for a very long time.

  “Thank you.”

  And it’s only then that I notice what’s different about her. Why every cell in my body is content to just stand here and watch her.

  It’s her eyes.

  The turquoise contact lenses are gone—her gaze washes over me in pure, breath-stealing brandy-colored beauty.

  And even though she didn’t know I’d be here tonight—I want to believe it’s for me. Some kind of sign. Because those eyes are mine—the girl behind them, once, was mine.

  And maybe she’s willing to be mine again.

  While I happily drown in the eyes I haven’t glimpsed in so long, all the other eyes in the audience are focused on Prince. Microphone in hand, he works the room, his white teeth gleaming beneath the lights.

  “And I can think of no other announcement more precious to me than to proclaim that the beautiful Kennedy Randolph is going to be my wife.”

  My head snaps up. “What did he just say?”

  Kennedy’s head snapped even faster. “What did he just say?”

  The room explodes into thunderous applause.

  I lean in so she can hear me above the noise. “You’re engaged?”

  Her head tilts. “No?”

  “Sure about that?”

  She doesn’t sound very sure, and it seems like the kind of thing she should have the inside track on.

  “David flew out to speak with my father last week. He said they had to discuss something important,” Kennedy explains, her eyes squinting like she’s trying to decode ancient hieroglyphics in her head.

  “But he didn’t actually ask you?”

  “No. I guess he skipped that part.”

  The crowd comes at us like a tsunami, and Kennedy’s swallowed up in a sea of well-wishers and carried away toward the front of the room.

  I scowl so hard my face hurts.

  The ever-elegant Mrs. Randolph appears beside me, in the spot her daughter just vacated, watching the hubbub with a smile.

  “It seems congratulations are in order,” I tell her.

  “It appears so.”

 
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