Once Kissed - Chapter One
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I nail my brother with my best cop face. Any perp would freeze, curse, or take off running. Declan doesn’t so much as blink. It shouldn’t surprise me. He’s never been the type to run from a fight, even before he earned his title as assistant DA.
“Curran, quit your bitching. It’s a cake assignment,” he says. “Look at it as a break until you’re back on the job.”
“You sayin’ I can’t do the job?”
Declan’s jaw tightens hard enough to stiffen every muscle in his face. Either I pissed him off or I’m onto something. “I’m saying it wouldn’t hurt to have more time before you’re back on the streets,” he answers, keeping his voice low. “What happened to your partner Joey isn’t something you just get over.”
“Who’s saying I’m over it? I know I fucked up.” And so does everyone on the force, I don’t add. “That doesn’t mean I’m washed up or can’t do my job.”
Declan’s already stiff posture tenses even more. “I never said you were washed up, or that you can’t—”
“Might as well have.”
“Curran, don’t you get it? It’s not a punishment.”
“Don’t you get it? While you’re sitting here behind a desk, I got dealers and gangbangers offing people left and right—and you’re asking me to play bodyguard to your librarian.”
Declan leans back in his office chair, clearly annoyed, but also worried. “She’s not a librarian, Curran. She’s an intern in her last year of law school who’s helping me with research in the Montenegro case.”
“Like I said, librarian.”
“Jesus. Just help me out, will ya?” he snaps, rubbing his forehead hard.
Ya? Okay, now he’s pissed. Behind that new suit, clean-shaven face, and hundred-dollar haircut, my brother’s Philly through and through. One more smartass comment from me and the “youz” are going to drop like water ice and his fist will swing my way.
With a groan, Declan pushes away from his desk and stands to face the window. Useless gesture, if you ask me. His view is a brick wall. But I suppose it’s either that or pace, and his closet-sized office isn’t big enough to take more than a few steps.
The thing is, I can read faces. He knows as much and doesn’t want me to read his now. “Curran. This is my chance to move up,” he says. “Zabrinski, head of Homicide, is retiring in a few months. I’ve paid my dues, worked the shit cases, and won trials seasoned DAs thought I should plead out.” He looks at me then. “If I can put Montenegro away, it would upset organized crime from here to Jersey.”
“And seal your position in Homicide,” I finish for him.
“Yeah. It would.”
I cross my arms. “So why the hell do I have to babysit your librarian? If anything, I should be watching your back. You painted a bull’s-eye on your forehead by taking this case. Vincent Montenegro isn’t just a mob boss. He’s a legend only a dumbass would cross.” I roll my eyes at his glare. “Calm your shit—you know what I mean.”
“Don’t you think I know that? It’s the reason I don’t want anyone else helping me with this case. No other names. No one but me for the mob to target.”
“And no one else to steal your glory,” I add, which earns me yet another glare. “Declan, I know you want the promotion, just like I know you want the street cred. But don’t be stupid and get yourself killed in the process. Let me watch your back. The librarian can get another badge to shadow her.”
“I already have someone watching me.” I straighten. “One of the boys in blue?”
“Actually a few. They alternate nights. When I’m at the office, or courtside, the detectives and sheriffs here have my back. Contessa will be—”
“Contessa? Is that even a real name?” Declan coughs into his fist in a lame attempt to muffle his laugh. “Damn. If it doesn’t mean ‘I have a stick rammed up my ass,’ I don’t know what does.”
My remark only makes my big bro laugh harder. “She’s . . . intense, and at times rigid, I’ll give you that.”
“Like I said, stick up the ass.”
“She’s a hard worker and a nice young lady, I assure you.”
I assure you, I repeat in my head. Okay, the Philly boy has officially left the building.
“Curran, just take the assignment. From what we hear, Montenegro isn’t going to go to prison without making a lot of noise. The badges assigned to this case have the smarts to watch my back and theirs.”
“But no one’s guarding the poor homely intern’s back. I get it.”
A sly grin edges across his face. “I never said she was homely, bro.”
“No idea. I have more experience. So does Tyler, and Emily’s been here longer.” “We’ve all been here longer,” Emily adds, jumping in.
They’re all talking about me—not just the other interns, but every law clerk here. I get that the Montenegro case is one most attorneys would kill to say they were a part of—one that will make history and open doors to a successful career in law, and one that provides an opportunity to work with Declan O’Brien, the gorgeous assistant DA who’s on his way to becoming a legend. I get it, I really do—and I’m thrilled that I was selected to be a part of it. What I don’t understand is why they have to be so mean-spirited. I would never treat someone this way.
“Do you think she knows someone?” Brett mutters.
“Probably,” Sarah offers. “It would explain why she thinks she’s better than us.”
I don’t think that, I want to say. But I don’t say it. After all the times I’ve passed on lunch and happy hour with them, they wouldn’t believe me anyway. I have my reasons. Yet those reasons are too personal to share, especially with people who think so little of me.
The comments continue as if I’m not sitting close enough to hear. I’d like to say their remarks have no effect on me, but they do. They kick at the pride I feel being the law clerk selected to help Declan. According to DA Miles Fenske, Declan and I will be the only non- investigators on the case. All those nights of staying in, studying, and working hard are finally paying off. My path to independence is close—I can see it. No, I can taste it. All I have to do is get through the next few months.
And probably a lot more jabs thrown my way.
“Well, looks like U Penn steals it from us again,” Janice chimes in.
I cringe, wishing the comments would simply roll off my back. But I never could ignore insults. They’ve always hurt. Yet unlike in high school and college where I could hurry away, pretending to bury my face in a book, there’s nowhere to run. So I focus on finishing the deposition I’m working on and do my best to ignore their harsh words.
“What makes her so special, anyway?” Brielle adds.
“Not her clothes, that’s for sure,” Burton mumbles, causing the others to burst out laughing.
Their comments are bad enough, but their laughter is more than I can take. This time, I don’t stay quiet. “You don’t have to behave this way,” I say aloud, keeping my back to them. “I’m sure there will be other opportunities—”
“Other opportunities?” Burton mocks. “Oh, yeah, because cases as epic as this one come along all the time.”
I used to stick up for him. I suppose it’s too much to expect the same in return. “I’m not saying that it’s not a good case to have—”
“Then what are you saying?” he demands.
I force myself to continue typing, even as I speak. “I’m only saying you don’t have to be so rude.”
“And you don’t have to be such a bitch,” he barks back.
I whip around, stunned. The huddled group disperses to the rows of desks occupying the center of the law library. No one bothers to glance my way, not even Burton. It’s as if I don’t even matter, and he’d never called me what he did.
If I report him, it’ll come down to my word against his. That much is clear given how they’re all now back at their stations, pretending the past several minutes never occurred.
My voice quivers from anger, and from the humiliation heating my body. “I didn’t realize you thought so highly of me, Burton. I’ll make a note of it in case it happens again.” It’s my way of warning him that I’m documenting this incident in case his behavior continues, but of course, he doesn’t care.
He lifts his head from his work and smiles. “I’m sorry, Contessa. Did you say something?” Angry tears burn my eyes. You asshole.
His smile vanishes. Not because of me, or because he realizes he’s being a monstrous prick, but because of who he sees approaching.
The door to the library opens and DA Fenske walks in, his status and presence drawing everyone’s attention, and rescuing me in more ways than one. “Hello, sir,” we all say at once, because that’s the type of respect this man evokes.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” he says, smiling. “Contessa, may I see you a moment? It’s with regard to the Montenegro case.”
“Yes, sir. Right away.” I reach for my iPad and purse, trying to collect myself.
DA Fenske opens the door to allow me through and I rush forward. I smile when he joins me in the hall, thankful to be leaving the law library. “I truly appreciate this opportunity, sir,” I say. “I’ve already begun to prepare the deposition and have requested the case files from the records department.”
“Excellent, Contessa.” He nods to several staff members as we proceed down the hall. Some are renowned attorneys, some hold modest clerical positions. Yet Miles Fenske greets everyone by name while managing to stay on task. “I’m sure you’ll be a tremendous asset to Declan. However, as you may know, Montenegro’s reputation is one of extreme violence. While we think he’ll ignore you given your minor role in the case, we’d like to assign you after-hours police supervision.”
I trip in my alligator loafers. DA Fenske manages to steady me, although the action clearly causes him pain. He releases me slowly, pressing a hand to his side.
My attention travels from his hand to his face. “Sir, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
He lowers his hand and continues forward, forcing a smile. “I’m fine,” he says. “Just an old football injury acting up.”
Based on his hunched posture and strained expression, I don’t believe him, but I don’t dare press. We cut right, past the Homicide Unit and down the row of cubicles, as I carefully gather my words.
“Sir, my apologies, but did you say I would be assigned a police escort?”
DA Fenske adjusts the button to his suit jacket, graciously appearing to miss my grimace. “Correct,” he answers. “While we believe Declan will be Montenegro’s sole focus, Declan feels it would be in your best interest to have protection in case Montenegro becomes aware of your presence and misinterprets your role.”
I clutch my iPad tightly against my chest, not wanting to believe this is happening. Don’t I have enough people watching my every move? “And if I refuse, sir?”
DA Fenske stops a few feet from Declan’s closed office door. Although I’d tried to keep my tone casual, I couldn’t stop my voice from shaking. “Then another law clerk will take your place.”
Unlike my voice, his is firm, making it clear this matter isn’t up for negotiation.
Another collar wound around my neck, another leash pulled taut. I want to cry. Yet I know I can’t. So instead of fighting, or crying, or pleading, I quietly obey. Just like I’ve done a thousand times before. “Very well, sir. I’ll accept the conditions of my assignment.”
Miles Fenske takes a moment to consider me. He’s not blind, he knows something is wrong. Thankfully, he releases me from his scrutiny and knocks on the door. “Declan, it’s Miles and Contessa. May we come in?”
“Ah, Miles. Yes, please come in,” Declan calls from behind the door.
I adjust my tiny black-framed glasses and take a breath before stepping forward. For all my nervousness, the heavens seem to part as the godlike Declan O’Brien greets me with a dashing smile. He and the hulking male sitting directly in front of him rise from their seats and—
No . . . not . . . No!
The police officer in full uniform turns his six-foot-plus frame my way, his light blue shirt tight against a dense mass of muscle, his blond hair shaved close to his scalp, and his light blue eyes staring straight at me. But it’s not his physique, those eyes, or even that humongous gun strapped to his hip that cements me where I stand. It’s his face.
The same face that had dipped between my spread legs all those years ago. Holy. Shit.
“Hello, Contessa,” Declan says, keeping his smile. He was so busy greeting DA Fenske that he didn’t catch my stupefied response.
I jerk my head and pull the strands of my blond hair forward before nodding Declan’s way. “Hello, Assistant DA O’Brien.”
He chuckles. “I told you, just call me Declan.” He motions to the police officer. “This is my brother, Curran. He’ll be watching you.”
Brother? Cold sweat pours down my spine. Murder me, Jesus. I beg you.
My hands clutch my iPad, hard enough to crush my minute breasts. I bow my head, hoping to shadow my features. “Ma’am,” he says.
Declan motions us to sit and immediately begins discussing his progress on the Montenegro case with Miles. I open my iPad and type feverishly. Or at least, I try. Curran is looking at me. Right at me.
I adjust my position to angle away from him. Damnit. Why him? Why here? The one time I let loose—the one time I slept with a man I barely knew—the frat boy I avoided, the loudmouth I did my best to ignore—of all people, he’s assigned to guard me?
I pinch the bridge of my nose. This is the same man I tied to bed with my argyle socks!
I stare hard at my iPad, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks as I envision my future and reputation imploding around me.
“Montenegro’s second was arrested this afternoon,” Declan adds. “And we have a lead on his third.”
“Do you think either will talk?” Miles asks him.
Declan widens his grin. “They will once they know how much we have on them.”
Both men laugh. I shift my weight and steal a glimpse Curran’s way. The prosecutors may be talking mob bosses and arraignments, but his attention is all on me.
“Contessa, make a note that I’d like the records clerk to bring everything they have on Gus Mancini, starting from his first arrest.”
My fingers sweep across the screen. “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
“Do I know you?” Curran asks, his deep voice cutting through the other men’s chatter and tensing every ridge in my spine.
My fingers pause their erratic typing. “No,” I answer quickly.
The old wooden chair creaks as he leans back. “I could swear I’ve seen you before. You hang out at Lou’s Barbecue or Romeo’s Pizzeria?”
“N-no, not at all.”
“What about Frank’s Bar? Or— I know, O’Malley’s Tavern?” “No,” I mutter, doing my best to shield my face.
“Curran, do you mind?” Declan asks.
“Oh—sorry. I thought I knew Contessa here from one of my stomping grounds.” “I assure you, I’ve never been to those places,” I stammer.
My nervousness and direct eye contact totally give me away.
Curran straightens as stunned recognition spreads along his features. “Argyles?” he asks.
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