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Bring Me Back: Chapter 14

PHOENIX

Daily Affirmation: “I am letting go of people that no longer serve me peace.”


I get my brother’s voice mail for the second time today.

“Merry Christmas to you too.” I end the call and let the sadness overcome me for a moment. Though I’m hurt over his choice to keep me out of the baptism, he’s still my brother.

I bend down and clip the leash on my adorable puppy. “At least you love me, Wilbur.” He licks my face, and I can’t help but smile. “Who needs family when you have dogs, am I right?”

We head next door, and the Russo’s door flies open before I can lift my hand to knock.

“Merry Christmas, Nixie!” Leo wraps me in a bear hug and spins me around on the porch.

“Be careful. I’ve got presents here.”

He sets me down and takes the gift bags from me. “Which one’s mine?”

I smack his wrist as we walk into his house. “Who says I got you anything?”

“You should’ve gotten him coal.” Jim stands from his recliner and gives me a hug. “Merry Christmas, Miss Bridges.”

I relish in the warmth of his embrace, missing my own father a little bit extra today. “Merry Christmas, Jim. Thank you for having me.”

“Of course. And who might this little guy be?” He leans down to pet Wilbur.

“This is Wilbur.”

Leo scoffs. “I can’t believe you named him after a pig.”

I shield Wilbur’s ears. “You leave him alone. He loves his name.”

Leo scoops the puppy up into his arms. “You’re a cute piggy though, aren’t you?”

“He’d be even cuter if he stopped stealing my shoes and destroying them in his crate.”

Jim laughs, his round belly shaking with the movement. “Did you get him any chew toys? He’ll stop messing with your things if he’s occupied with something else.”

“Oh, yes. I gave him many chew toys. The only toy he wants is my shoe.”

“Ah, let him have your shoes.” Leo holds up Wilbur like Simba. “Look at this face. How can you deny him anything?”

I ruffle Leo’s hair. “Well, we know you’re not going to be the disciplinarian when you have kids.”

A dark-haired woman sitting on the couch chuckles. “You should see him with my daughter. She could ask him for the sun, and he’d figure out a way to give it to her.”

I offer her a knowing smile. “Sounds about right. Leo is go big or go home.”

She stands and offers me her hand. “I’m Denise. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Leo wraps his arm around her. “This is my mom’s sister.”

“It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Nix. I live next door.”

“Oh, I’ve heard an earful about you and I’ve only been in town for a few hours. I feel like I know you already.”

My cheeks burn. “Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

She laughs. “Anyone who can make these boys smile is a very good thing in my book. Plus, you have a kick-ass name.”

“Told you.” James waltzes into the room with a young dark-haired girl sitting on his shoulders.

I stick out my tongue at him, and the little girl laughs. “She stuck her tongue out at you, JJ.” Then her eyes go wide. “Is that puppy for me?” We all laugh as she squirms to get down, and James sets her on the floor.

I kneel down beside Wilbur. “This is my dog. I brought him over because I heard you loved puppies.”

She gives me an emphatic nod. “I do. Mommy said I can get one when I’m old enough to pick up his shit.”

Denise tries to hide her mortified expression behind her hand. “Madison, remember what I said about cursing?”

Madison nods. “Not in front of other people because they’re going to think you’re a bad mommy.”

Denise grins. “Good girl.”

Madison crawls into my lap as if I’m her own personal chair, and Wilbur climbs on top of her to lick her face. “What’s the puppy’s name?”

“Have you ever read the book Charlotte’s Web?”

“That’s the one where the spider dies at the end. It was really sad.” She points up at James. “JJ cried.”

His jaw drops open. “That was supposed to be our secret.”

She giggles. “Oops.”

I bite back a smile. “Well, I named him Wilbur, because he was the smallest puppy in his litter.”

“Hi, Wilbur.” Madison scratches behind his ears, and his tail goes wild. “Can you tell me when he has to poop? If I can show mommy that I can pick up his poop, then maybe she’ll let me get a dog soon.”

“Don’t push your luck, kid,” says Denise.

Leo lifts Madison and tosses her over his shoulder. “Let’s go play with Wilbur and let JJ get to cooking so we can eat.”

James grumbles as he heads for the kitchen. “Calm your tits, it’s almost ready.”

Madison giggles. “Yeah, Leo. Calm your tits.”

Denise pinches the bridge of her nose as she flops down onto the couch. “Great. I’ll be getting another phone call home from school about that one.”

I brush off Wilbur’s fur from my pants as I stand and follow James into the kitchen. “I’m helping, and you can’t tell me no because it’s Christmas.”

He arches a brow. “Is that so?”

“It’s a rule. You can’t be bossy on Christmas.”

He pulls me in for a hug and lowers his lips to my ear. “I think you like it when I’m bossy.”

A shiver dances down my spine, and my breath hitches in my throat. “I’ll never admit it.”

He pulls back wearing a smug smirk. “Grab that head of romaine over there and start chopping.”

I do as he says and start prepping the salad. “It’s so nice that your aunt spends Christmas with you.”

“It helps us all feel like a part of Mom is still here.”

I nod. “The last good Christmas I had was the year before my dad passed. Then my brother moved away, and after that, my mom stopped decorating or even acknowledging that it was a holiday—even though I was still there. It was like I wasn’t worth the effort.”

James sets down the knife and comes to stand behind me at the counter. He wraps his arms around my waist and presses a kiss to my temple. “Hopefully we can make this a better Christmas for you.”

I close my eyes and relish in his warmth. “I’m happy to spend it with you.”

“Phoenix, I—”

“Oh, look at you two!” Denise saunters into the kitchen wearing a smile like the cat who ate the canary as James and I break apart. “Don’t mind me. I’m just coming in to steal a piece of bread.”

Madison bounces into the kitchen. “JJ, can we play Twister?”

James glances at the timer. “You’ve got seven minutes. Then it’s time for dinner.”

She squeals and yanks his arm until he’s out of the kitchen.

Denise sidles alongside me at the counter. “Okay, I know we just met, but I need to know the scoop because James tells me nothing.”

I laugh. “The scoop about what?”

“About you two.”

I slide the lettuce off the cutting board and into a bowl. “I don’t really know that there is a scoop. We’ve been… friends since I moved in last month.”

She pops a cherry tomato into her mouth. “But you like each other as more than friends.”

It’s a statement, not a question, and I can’t deny that my feelings for him have been growing.

“I’m not sure how he feels.” I shrug. “He hasn’t told me anything.”

“James doesn’t say it with words. He shows it.” She jerks her chin in the direction of the living room. “Like that puppy in there. You think he hands out puppies to everyone like Oprah?”

I look down at my feet and smile. The whisper of doubt still lingers in the back of my mind—why would someone like him want to be with me? What do I have to offer anyone? But James has done nothing but show me how much he cares, and his flirting has been more obvious lately. Maybe it’s time I believe the signs in front of me instead of going down the same self-sabotaging road I’ve been on all my life.

“That man has a heart of gold, but he locks it away behind a steel gate.” Denise frowns and lowers her voice. “My sister would hate to see how devastated he’s been since she left us. This isn’t the life she’d want for him.” She squeezes my hand. “Just be good to him, whether you’re a friend or more.”

“I will.” I say it with absolute certainty, because I know that’s what James deserves.

“Come on,” she says, linking elbows with me. “Let’s go see what kind of pretzel Madison has James twisted into.”

I burst into laughter as soon as we step foot into the next room. Leo is holding himself up like a crab with James’s ass in his face.

“Bro, I swear… if you fart right now, I’m kicking you in the balls.”

James grunts. “If you would put your left hand on red already, we’d be out of this position.”

Leo stretches his hand, and his fingertips are just shy of the red circle. “I can’t reach it.”

“Then fall and let me win!”

“Never!”

And all the while, Madison cackles with the spinner in her lap like it’s the funniest show she’s ever seen.

I slip my phone out of my back pocket and snap a quick picture.

Jim howls with laughter. “Send me that picture, Miss Bridges. I’m going to need it for blackmail one day.”

“You got it, sir.”

“Why don’t you come and play with us, Nixie.” Leo shoots me a wink. “I’d rather your ass in my face than my brother’s.”

James elbows him in his side, and Leo’s wrist gives out. He crashes onto his back, and James jumps to his feet, pumping both fists in the air.

Madison cheers. “JJ is the winner!”

Leo frowns as he stands. “That’s cheating. You should be disqualified for violence.”

James nudges him with his shoulder. “Watch your mouth, and I wouldn’t have to resort to violence.”

“Maybe you’re just worried I’m going to steal your girl.” Leo drapes his arm around me. “What do you say, Nix? I’m the younger stallion with way more stamina than this old man.”

Before James can move toward him, I twist Leo’s nipple.

“Ow! Jesus, fuck, that hurts.”

Madison giggles. “Jesus, fuck!”

“Okay, that’s enough with the cursing.” Denise lifts her daughter and hauls her out of the room like she’s carrying a football.

Jim wipes the corner of his eye as he laughs. “This is the best Christmas we’ve had in a long time.” He rests his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Emotion settles in the pit of my stomach. “I’m glad to be here too.”

If my own family doesn’t want me around, at least this one does.

Everyone clears out of the room, but James pins me with a devilish look.

I arch an eyebrow. “What?”

He walks me back against the wall. “That makes two compromising pictures you have of me now.”

A shit-eating grin spreads across my face. “You can’t blame a girl for looking when you have a rear end like yours.”

His hands ball into fists at his sides, like he’s restraining himself from reaching out for me. “I don’t think that’s very fair.”

“I guess you don’t always get your way, Mr. Bossy Pants.” The timer beeps in the kitchen, and I pat his chest before squirming out of the way to head for the dining room.


“Presents! Presents! Presents!”

Leo lowers himself in front of the tree next to Madison and puts on a Santa hat. “Who said you’re getting presents?”

Madison rolls her eyes. “It’s Christmas. Everyone gets presents on Christmas.”

“Only the good children get presents. Have you been a good child this year?”

She purses her little lips. “Yes. And I’ve been very response-a-vull.”

Leo laughs. “Response-ible. With a b.”

James sits on the couch beside me. I smile and he gives my knee a squeeze but lets his hand rest there. Goose bumps fly up my leg, and I’m glad he can’t see them. I don’t want him to know the way every little touch affects me.

Madison tears into all of her presents within minutes, and she jumps into my arms to thank me for the dog stickers I gave her with a matching dog notepad.

James leans over and whispers, “Thank you. You didn’t have to get her anything.”

“I wanted to.”

Next, Leo sets a shallow square box in my lap. “Your turn, Nixie.”

I peel the tape on the silver wrapping paper and slide out the box from inside. I gasp when I pop open the top. “Leo, this is beautiful.” I inspect each of the charms on the silver bracelet: a dog, a book, a sneaker, and a police shield.

“I got each of your favorite things.” He shrugs. “I couldn’t find anything to remind you of me though. I’ll have to keep looking.”

I blink to keep the welling tears at bay. “This whole bracelet will remind me of you. This is so thoughtful. Thank you.”

“You’re always scratching that scar on your wrist. I wanted you to have something better to play with when you feel anxious.”

I fling my arms around him and let a few tears fall while my face is buried in his shirt.

“Why are you sad?” Madison asks. “Do you not like the bracelet?”

I chuckle as I wipe my eyes when I pull back. “Sometimes people cry when they’re really, really happy.”

She scrunches her nose. “That’s confusing.”

We laugh, and I scoot forward to reach for Leo’s gift. “Here you go, little bro.”

He opens the membership to the gym I bought him. “Is this that new MMA place that opened up in town?”

I nod. “Now you can have somewhere safe to get out all that pent-up energy. I signed up for it too, so we can go together.”

He plants a kiss on my cheek. “Thank you, Nixie.”

I toss Jim the gift bag with the slippers I got him, and he wiggles his big toe that’s sticking out of his current slippers. “Are you saying I need new slippers?”

I laugh. “These will keep your toes warm.”

Madison scampers under the tree and comes back with the present I got James. “This is the last one. It’s for you, JJ.”

James stares down at the recipe book I half filled with his mother’s recipes that I got from Jim. I also stuck in a few pictures of his mother.

“It’s kind of like a scrapbook, so you can keep your mom’s memories in one place.” I flip to a blank page. “And then you can start adding in your own recipes. Create your own dishes to pass down one day.”

“Thank you.” He blinks and clears his throat. “I love this.”

“Are we done now?” Madison asks. “I want dessert.”

Denise shushes her. “You’re going to make Phoenix think I haven’t taught you any manners.”

I smile. “It’s fine. You should never stand in the way of a girl’s dessert.”

I help James dole out the desserts—a variety of pies and Christmas cookies—and when it’s just the two of us in the kitchen, he reveals one last dessert.

“My mother used to make this. It’s a homemade chocolate cake.”

“You had me at chocolate.” I don’t even wait for him to hand me a fork when he cuts me a slice. I pick off a chunk of it with my fingers and pop it into my mouth. I hum, closing my eyes. “Damn. This is good.”

“Is it? I haven’t made it in a while.”

“See for yourself.” I slide the plate across the counter, but James takes my hand instead. He lifts my fingers and sucks my chocolate-covered thumb into his mouth, keeping his eyes locked on mine as his lips wrap around it. His warm tongue skates over my skin, and wetness pools between my legs.

I almost let out an audible moan.

“I thought you wanted to try the cake.”

James releases my thumb from his lips with a pop, but he holds on to my hand. “I don’t want the cake, Phoenix.” He pulls me closer and flattens my hand against his chest to feel the thundering rhythm under my palm. “Does yours race this way when we’re together too?”

I place his hand on my chest so he can feel it for himself. “Every time.”

He slides his hand around to the back of my neck, drawing my mouth closer. I lift up onto my toes to close the distance between us and press my lips against his. A spark of electricity shoots through my entire body.

But Madison has other plans for us as she bursts into the kitchen. “Can we play hide-and-seek now?”

James and I jump back, flying to opposite sides of the island.

James clears his throat. “Sure, kid. Go hide, and I’ll start counting.”

She runs out of the room, and he gives me a tentative smile. “I didn’t pick the best time to kiss you, with my entire family in the next room.”

I let out a nervous laugh, still in shock from what just happened. “I didn’t mind it.”

“No?”

I shake my head and bite my bottom lip to keep the goofy smile from spreading across my face.

“So, you wouldn’t mind if I kissed you again sometime?”

I squeeze his shoulder. “Just don’t make me wait too long.”

“I don’t hear counting,” Madison yells from somewhere in the house.

James shakes his head and walks out of the kitchen. “Aunt Denise, your kid is a cockblock.”

Madison’s head pokes out of the closet. “What’s a cockblock?”

“Jesus Christ,” Denise mutters.

We play several rounds of hide-and-seek, and then Madison declares it’s time for teams. James and I hide so she and Leo can find us. James yanks me down the hall, pulls me into his bedroom, and we crouch down inside his closet.

I peek out from behind the door to get a look at his room. No surprise, it’s neat and simple. Navy-blue comforter on his bed, plain white walls, and wood furniture.

On his dresser, I spot a picture of his mother. “Your mom was so beautiful. You have her eyes.”

“That’s about all I got from her. I look more like my dad, but Leo is the spitting image of her.”

Maybe it’s because we’re crammed into a dark closet that I get the courage to ask, “Do you mind if I ask how she died? You’ve never mentioned it before.”

He’s quiet for a moment. “She committed suicide.”

My throat goes dry at the sound of those three words, and my heart plummets to the floor.

His hand finds mine, and he grips it as he continues. “I was at my friend’s house playing video games. She called my cell, but I sent it to voice mail because I was leaving soon. I figured she was just calling me home for dinner.” He pauses. “I was the only person she called that day. My dad was at work, and Leo was at the skate park. By the time I got home, she was gone. I found her hanging by a rope in the bathroom.”

My lungs constrict, and I can’t get in any air. I can barely hear his voice over the sound of my pulse roaring in my ears.

She killed herself.

James’s mother had depression.

She took her own life.

“I-I’m so sorry, James. That’s… that’s awful.” I fight to keep my voice even as the tears stream down my face, but I can’t make this moment about me. He just shared something tragic with me, and I need to be here for him.

“It’s all I see sometimes when I close my eyes at night. The vision of her, just hanging there.” He sucks in a deep breath. “I’ll always wonder what she wanted to say to me when she called. Maybe she was calling for help. Maybe I could’ve stopped her if I’d answered. I’ve hated myself for ignoring her call.”

This poor man. That’s why he’s always running around trying to save people. He couldn’t save the one person who mattered most to him.

I take his face in both of my hands and press my forehead to his. “Don’t hate yourself. Please, James. It’s not your fault, and if your mother were here, she’d tell you the same thing. You are not responsible for what other people are going through.”

“Why?” His voice sounds strained. “Why would a mother choose to leave her children?”

I swallow a sob. “It wasn’t her choice. Depression isn’t a choice. It’s a sickness in your brain. I know because—”

Madison comes barreling into the room and flings open the closet door. “I found you! I found you!”

James wipes his eyes before we crawl out of the closet. “Good job, Mads.”

“Let’s play again!”

Denise leans against the doorframe. “That’s enough fun for one night. We have to get back home before Santa comes.”

“Santa! Santa! Santa?” Madison bounces out the door into the hall.

I feel like I’m going through the motions as I say goodbye to Denise and Madison, like I’m underwater and I can’t really hear what anyone is saying.

“I’m going to head out too.” I give the Russos a hug and thank them for allowing me to spend the day with them.

I clip Wilbur’s leash to his collar and all but run back to my house. When I’m inside, I close the door and lean my back against it, letting out a long exhale. Thoughts swim in my head, worry churning like a brewing storm.

But a knock on the other side of my door pulls my attention. I swing it open and see an out-of-breath James standing on my porch.

My eyebrows press together. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

His hand wraps around the small of my back, and he pulls my body against his. “I wanted to give you a proper good-night kiss.”

Then his mouth is on mine.

This is more than the tender kiss we shared earlier. It’s a deep, frantic, passionate kiss—like we’ll die if we stop.

I just might.

He lifts me up and walks me backward into my house. My shoulders hit the wall in the entryway, and I wrap my arms and legs around him. My lips part as James slides his tongue against mine. He groans into my mouth, sending a delicious shiver down into my core.

I lose track of time, relishing in the feel of his hard body pressed against mine, his hand in my hair and the other gripping my waist, as our tongues wrap around one another’s.

Finally, James pulls back, panting, and rests his forehead against mine. “I could kiss you for days.”

“I wish you would.” I lower my feet onto the floor, grounding myself as the reminder of our conversation about his mother creeps back into my mind.

How would he feel if he knew I tried to do the same thing his mother did?

What would he think of me?

Should I tell him? Does it even matter?

“Good night, Phoenix.” He places a lingering kiss on my lips, and I wonder if it’ll be the last.


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