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Appealed: Chapter 8

The present, in the pub

“I went to your room that morning. She answered the door in your jersey—said you were in the shower. She offered to let me wait, but she warned me that you two were back together. That I’d look really desperate just showing up at your room like that.” Kennedy swallows hard and breathes deep. Like the memory alone is causing her actual pain.

“She never told me—”

“No, she wouldn’t have, would she?” Kennedy looks into my eyes, smiling bitterly. “I was going to wait. I thought I at least deserved to hear it from you.” Her voice strangles at the end, her eyes shinier than they should be. “But then Cashmere asked me what I had really expected. She said you were a hero and I was a zero and nothing was going to change that. Did I really think you would leave someone like her for someone like me?” She licks her lips slowly.

“I was still reeling from the night before. From the excitement, the total fucking joy over what we’d done. But when she put it like that . . . I believed her. So I left. William stopped me in the quad on the way back to the dorm. He asked me out . . . and I said yes.”

I can’t speak; I’m too busy reliving those moments, seeing them now from her side. And realizing all the things I didn’t do, all the things I never said.

“I liked you,” I whisper to the table. Then I look at her. “I liked you so much.”

I still do. Behind those contact lenses, under makeup and designer clothes, she’s still her. I can still taste her, feel her on my fingertips, so smooth and slick. Fearless in the way she wanted me, clutched me close like she’d never wanted to let go.

Her forehead crinkles with confusion. “But you did get back together with Cashmere. You didn’t speak to me that whole year until—”

Kennedy obviously still doesn’t understand jack shit about men. Or boys—because back then, I was definitely a boy.

“You told me our hookup meant nothing to you. That I was nothing and you were dating William. When I got pissed about it, you told me you hated me.” I wipe a hand down my face. “I got back together with Cashmere because you didn’t want me and she did. She was a substitute. I didn’t want to look like a loser. And I didn’t speak to you because it was too fucking hard.”

“We were friends—”

“Not to me.” I shake my head, capturing her gaze and holding it tight. “Not after that night. I didn’t want your friendship, Kennedy—I wanted you. And if I couldn’t have you—I had to pretend you didn’t exist. Because then I could tell myself I wasn’t missing out on everything I knew I was.”

But I’d still thought about her. I’d dreamed about her.

And I missed her—all the time.

She gazes at the table, lost in her thoughts. Then she looks up, wetting her lips—seeming like she’s decided something.

“So that’s why you did it,” she says softly. “You wanted to get back at me, and hurt me. Congratulations—you succeeded.”

Something in her tone puts me on alert, and I lean in closer. “What exactly do you think I did?”

Her mouth is hard. “You set me up. You humiliated me. You . . . broke me that night, Brent.”

I double-check. “The night of the senior dance?”

“Yes.”

This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting fourteen years to know.

I tell her, “Pretend that you’re a witness on the stand. Start from the beginning and tell me about the dance. Make me understand.”

Kennedy scrapes her lip with her teeth. “In April, I started getting instant messages when I was online. From you. They said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I miss you.’ You talked about how you wanted to be with me, but you couldn’t break up with Cashmere right then. You said it was a family thing—something about a business deal between your fathers.”

She takes a drink of her beer, then goes on.

“I didn’t believe it was you, at first. I thought it was a prank. But the messages kept coming, and they sounded so much like you. So as a test, I asked you about our first kiss. Where it was.”

She pauses and I hold my breath.

“You said the roof, on New Year’s Eve, when we were nine. And that’s when I knew it was you. I was so excited. For so long, I’d wanted . . .

“Anyway, the week before the dance, you sent me an IM saying you wanted to see me. You wanted to dance just one dance with me. You asked me to meet you by the lake behind the auditorium. Vicki didn’t like it, but I was too far gone to care. I called Claire and asked her to come help me with my makeup and a dress. She was so happy—like a fairy godmother.”

Her voice cracks on the last word, and I feel sick. Because I know how this story ends.

“My dress was white—it was lovely, and it made me feel lovely too. My hair was down, curled and shinier than I ever remember it being.”

She looks at my face with the saddest smile.

“And I wore contact lenses, for the first time in my life.”

My hands fist on the table; my throat so dry I can barely swallow.

“I waited by the lake—I could hear the music from the auditorium. I heard a sound, like a footstep, and I called your name. But no one answered.”

She takes a deep, slow breath.

“And then, I got hit in the chest with mud. There was more than one person and they were laughing. It seemed like it came from all directions, all at once. It was cold and gritty. It hit my arms, my dress, my face. A stone cut me.” She motions to a tiny scar on her cheek. “It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like forever. I fell down and I begged them to stop. And I cried.”

She’s not crying now. Her eyes are dry and far away.

“I didn’t even realize it had stopped at first. I stayed there on the ground for a long time. I couldn’t believe you had done this to me—and I was so angry with myself for believing you. Eventually, I stood up, wiped myself off as best I could. I knew I’d have to walk past the auditorium. And of course, it was just my luck that the entire senior class was outside when I did.”

I remember seeing her—her eyes wild and wounded. I didn’t know what had happened, and she wouldn’t talk to me.

“You looked so horrified, Brent. So devastated—and when you wrapped your jacket around me, I almost believed you really didn’t have anything to do with it. But then Cashmere came up, offered me a tissue, and pretended to be so sympathetic. I could see in her eyes that she was laughing, but she sounded really convincing. So I knew you must have been a part of it too.”

I can still hear her, her voice a raw whisper when she told me, “You’re sick. There’s something wrong with you. Stay away from me. Just . . . stay away.”

“Then Vicki and Brian came and took me to the infirmary, then back to our room.”

And there it is.

Rage makes my hands shake on the table. So fucked up.

Did I say sometimes kids are assholes? No—sometimes they’re sociopaths. And apparently I was dating their queen.

“I should have followed you,” my voice scrapes out. More than anything, I want to go back in time and kick the shit out of my seventeen-year-old self. “That night—I should have gone with you to the infirmary. I’ve always regretted it.”

She says nothing.

“When I went to your dorm the next morning, you were gone.”

“Claire came to get me,” she answers quietly. “She tore into Headmaster Winston on the phone and convinced him to let me finish my classes online.”

“I waited for you—all summer, I kept going to your house. You never came home.” It’s important that she knows I looked for her.

“Claire and I spent the summer in Europe. The whole thing actually made us closer.”

“I didn’t know.”

Her head tilts to the side and she shakes it in doubt. “Brent, come on . . .”

I just barely keep myself from shouting. “Why would I lie? After all this time—all these years, what could I possibly have to gain from lying to you now? I wouldn’t do that to you. I didn’t know.”

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.”


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