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Appealed: Chapter 20

“How fucked up is that?”

Early the next morning, Waldo’s eyes follow me like a spectator at Wimbledon as I pace back and forth in front of his couch, recounting my argument with Kennedy word for word. I barely slept last night—I was too busy replaying it in my head. And waiting for her to call. To tell me that she’s come over to my side of sanity and she’s dropping the case.

But my phone stayed mute.

Waldo clears his throat. “Throughout your impressive rant, you didn’t utter a single word about Kennedy’s perspective. Have you given any thought at all about what she may be feeling right now?”

Petulantly, I snort. “No.”

I’ve been too busy being pissed off to analyze how she might feel about me being pissed off.

He nods. “Let’s examine that. Kennedy is the one who was attacked and injured. She’s the one who opened herself up to you when you fought so hard to regain her trust. The one who believed you when you professed your love. The one who watched you walk away when faced with your first challenge as a couple. How do you think she feels about all that, Brent?” His fingers thrum against the arm of the chair. “Afraid? Hurt? Devastated?”

Guilt trips from a seasoned therapist are a hard thing to resist, but I manage.

“She wouldn’t feel any of that if she’d just do what I fucking tell her.”

His lips hint at a smile, but not the good kind. He reminds me of Jasper, when he’s got his mousey toy trapped between his claws—and he’s about to screw with it. “But relationships don’t work that way. You know this. Kennedy needs your support, not your direction.”

I open my mouth to argue, but he talks right over me.

“Let’s not waste our time here. How about you try being honest—and tell me what you’re really feeling.”

I rub at the frustration knotting the back of my neck. “Are you kidding, or just blind? I’m angry, Captain Obvious.”

His gaze is steady and calm. Knowing. It’s fucking annoying.

“You don’t look angry to me. You look terrified. What are you actually afraid of, Brent?”

I throw my hands out. “I’m afraid she’s going to get hurt!”

“That she’s going to be hurt, or that you won’t be able to prevent her from being hurt?”

I almost laugh. “Is there a goddamn difference?”

“Yes. One involves your concern for her. The other revolves only around yourself. The fear that you’ll fail her. That you won’t be able to protect her.”

The truth is a relentless, ugly little beast. It scratches and gnaws, driving you crazy—until you let it out.

“I didn’t protect her before, did I?”

I think about the night of the senior dance, Kennedy’s face—muddy and bleeding. I think about years of poisonous taunts and hissed insults, which can break a soul as easily as sticks and stones break bone. “I left her to the wolves, and they had a feast. That’s not going to happen again. No fucking way. I’m trying to protect her this time.”

He nods. “You failed her before because you were selfish. An adolescent, thinking only of yourself.”

“I know that!”

He spreads his arms—the big reveal. “And yet here you are—repeating yourself. Thinking of your wants. Your feelings. Like an irritable teenager all over again.”

“I’m thirty-two years old—I’m a grown man, for Christ’s sake!”

He leans forward in his chair. “Yes, you are. And for the last few weeks, you’ve been acting like one. So it’s disappointing to see you regress overnight.”

My teeth grind, and I jab a finger toward him. “You know something? Fuck you, Waldo.”

Then I walk out his door too.

•  •  •

After that disaster, I go to the office, still pissed. Actually, more pissed, because he didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. Doesn’t see my perfectly rational point that tucking Kennedy safely away in my house, in my bed—is the best, the only acceptable course of action. There are women who’d sell their soul to live in my gilded cage. But I don’t want any of them.

As I stand in front of my desk, shuffling papers and banging drawers, Jake steps through the doorway.

“As far as temper tantrums go, yours is pretty pathetic. You should talk to Regan—she can give you some pointers.”

“Fuck off, man.” I don’t even look up.

He folds his arms across his chest. “Can’t do that, buddy. You’re screwing up way too badly for me to just sit back and watch.”

I slam my top drawer shut with a bang, then point at him. “Give me a motherfucking break! Like you’d be any different if it was Chelsea? How would you react if it was her walking into the lion’s den?”

Jake’s voice is low and lethally calm. “Chelsea can walk into any damn den she wants. Because I am the lion. And I’d make sure I was with her.”

I breathe hard as he comes to stand in front of my desk.

“Your problem is you underestimated her. You threw down a marker you never intended to pay, and she called your fucking bluff. She’s going, Brent—nothing you say is gonna stop her. So the only question left is, what are you going to do now?”

Then Sofia walks into the room. “Hey . . . guys? I think—”

I immediately cut her off. “Et tu, Sofia? Not now, okay?”

“I know, but listen—”

“Contrary to what you all think, I’m a big boy. This is between me and Kennedy. We’ll work it out, and I don’t—”

“My water broke.”

There are few words in the English language that are capable of grabbing immediate and undivided attention. Fire is one. Bingo is pretty high on the list. I’m going to come is my personal favorite. But, much like the One Ring, my water broke rules them all.

Jake and I spin around and face Sofia, who’s now leaning up against the wall. The bottom back of her green dress is noticeably saturated and liquid drips down her legs, leaving a trail on the carpet behind her.

“Wow—that’s a lot of water. You could drown a puppy in that much water.”

“I’ll call Stanton,” Jake volunteers.

Sofia holds up her hand. “No! He’s in court, and I don’t want him driving the Porsche to the hospital—he might kill someone or himself.” She takes a deep, cleansing breath and assumes her drill sergeant persona. “Jake, go to court and bring Stanton to the hospital. Mrs. Higgens knows where he is. Brent, have Harrison bring the car around—then take me to the house to get my bag and then to the hospital.” Her lips pucker and she exhales slowly—almost whistling.

Everything else disintegrates in the light of this monumental development. Because even though Sofia is chanting everything is fine to no one in particular, her face is tight and pale. She’s shaking scared, and she’s one of my best friends in the whole world. She needs me.

Jake and I move at the same time—him out the door, me sweeping Sofia up into my arms. Her hands clasp around the back of my neck even as she says, “I’m in labor, Brent, not an invalid. I can walk.”

“Of course you can—but why should you have to when you have a manly man like me around?”

As I head down the stairs, I adjust Sofia’s considerable mass in my arms. And of course, she notices.

“If you tease me about how heavy I am, I’ll rip your beard hairs out.”

“Tease? Me?” I grin. “I would never tease a woman about her weight—especially a pregnant woman.” I make it down the last step, then add, “Although . . . I think my titanium prosthetic just bent under the strain.”

She pinches me. On my neck, my arms—anywhere she can reach.

“Ow, Jesus! No pinching! Pinching is not cool!”

Sofia’s got a lethal finger grip. Her older brothers, who teased her mercilessly, must’ve looked like Dalmatians growing up, ’cause I doubt she took that shit lying down.

But as I carry her out to the sidewalk, she’s laughing. So my mission for now is accomplished.

And sixteen hours later, Sofia’s mission is accomplished too. Because that’s when our law firm’s first baby comes screaming—arguing—into the world.

•  •  •

“Samuel, huh?”

I peer down at the bundle of sleeping, sweet-smelling baby in my arms. People always talk about how newborns have their mother’s lips or their father’s nose, but I never got that. They all just look like babies. Insanely cute, but pretty much the same.

“So, you guys are doing the S thing? As if Sofia and Stanton Shaw wasn’t nauseating enough?”

Stanton tilts back in the pleather recliner beside Sofia’s hospital bed. He picks a green grape from the bag on his lap and pops it into his mouth. “Nah, he just looks like a Samuel.”

“He looks like an alien.”

At Sofia’s frown, I amend that statement. “An adorable alien, but still, he’s got a head on him. How’d that feel coming out?”

Sofia smiles sweetly. “I hope you get kidney stones, so you can find out.”

Then we sit in companionable silence for a few moments. Until Sofia gently prods, “Have you talked to Kennedy?”

My heart squeezes until my whole body throbs. My anger bled out sometime last night. Now I just ache for her.


Stanton pops in another grape. “Why not?”

“I’m still hoping she’ll come to her senses.”

“Do you love her?” Sofia turns to her husband with an open mouth. “Hit me.”

He effortlessly lands a grape in her mouth.

I brush my knuckle across Samuel’s perfect hand, imagining how it’d feel to hold a tiny newborn girl with blond hair. “Yes, I love her.”

“Then fucking fix it, man,” Stanton insists. “You had a fight; you said things you didn’t mean—welcome to Relationship Land. But you don’t break up over a fight. Not if you love her.”

Sofia talks as she chews. “He’s right. If we broke up every time we disagreed about something, Samuel’s home would’ve been broken a long time ago.”

Stanton nods.

Sofia’s voice is sincere with experience. “It’s scary, I know. Giving someone that kind of power over you—accepting that your happiness will forever hinge on theirs. But it’s worth it.” She reaches out and Stanton takes her hand, giving her a secret smile.

Words from two decades ago echo in my head and slip out of my mouth. “The ride is the only thing that makes the fall worth it.”

Sofia’s head tilts curiously and I shrug. “A smart, fearless girl told me that once.”

Stanton grins. “She sounds like a keeper.”

Damn straight she is.

•  •  •

In my head, I act out every sappy grand gesture teenage girls fantasize about. I stand outside her bedroom window with a boom box over my head. I run through the airport, catch her moments before she boards the plane, and profess my undying love. I completely redecorate my home office, put her desk right next to mine, to prove to her how much I want her in my life.

In reality—I don’t do any of those things.

Because this isn’t a movie—this is real life. And Kennedy and I are the realest thing I’ve ever known.

What she needs most from me isn’t over-the-top gestures or expensive gifts I could buy her without a second thought. She needs the words. And she needs to look into my eyes when I give them to her, so she can see that I mean every single one.

I nod to the federal agent stationed at the gate of her house. He lets me through and I march up the steps of her porch, knocking on her door. After what feels like forever and a day, it opens, and shiny eyes—one still swollen—stare up at me from her bruised, beautiful face.

A guilty blade thrusts up under my rib cage—because she’s still hurting. And I’ve made her hurt more.

The words rush from my lips.

“We’re not done. I didn’t—” My voice cracks. “I didn’t mean it.”

Her face softens in fucking sympathy—for me. And the blade plunges deeper, twisting cruelly.

“I know, Brent.”

I touch her cheek, because I can’t not touch her for a second longer. “I’m sorry.”

Her breath hitches. “Me too. I’m sorry I can’t make this easier for you.”

“No. I was an ass. You don’t have to make it easier for me—I don’t want you worrying about that. I love you, Kennedy.”

“I love you too.” She takes a deep breath—then her chin rises and her voice is stronger. “Don’t ask me not to go again. I don’t think I could stand it.”

“I won’t. The only thing I’ll ask is”—my head dips, moving closer—“let me come with you.”

Her face crumbles and she surges against me. I hold her as tight as I dare as her tears soak into my shirt, and she nods against my chest. “Yes. Please come with me.”


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