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Damaged Goods: Chapter 13


Lev

I wake up with a stiffy from last night’s scene with Bailey and a headache from my bargain with Thalia. I flip my phone on my nightstand and check my text messages.

Thalia: Thanks for agreeing to do what we talked about last night. <3

Thalia: When do u wanna hang out?

Bailey: I know what I want for my birthday.

This last one from Bails makes me smile. Her birthday isn’t until December. I immediately yank my phone from the charger and text her. What do you want?

Bailey: For you to undergo selective memory suppression to forget last night.

A laugh bubbles up my chest.

Bailey: Hear me out.

Bailey: The procedure has been tried and tested. I calculated the success rate and it’s only 28%. But 28% is still better than nothing.

Bailey: You’ll have to go under drug-induced amnesia, where they basically fry your neurons, and there may be lasting damage.

Bailey: Sold on the idea yet?

Lev: Shockingly, not really.

Bailey: It IS the big 2-0 so I feel strongly that you should step up your game.

I can’t stop laughing because she is back to being Normal Bailey and Normal Bailey is my favorite thing in the whole entire world.

Lev: I’m never getting rid of that image. It is locked in my spank bank, in a 22-ton blast vault, with machine gun wielding guards, armed artillery, and surveillance cameras.

Bailey: I hope you know eye contact is out of the question for us.

Bailey: For eternity and beyond.

Lev: Why would I need to look at your eyes when your ass is so fine?

I’m flirting with her because I can. Because Thalia is no longer my girl-something. And because yesterday, it was clear that Bailey and I are done being platonic. Forever.

Bailey: I’m talking if-we-ever-meet-in-heaven-I’ll-pretend-I-don’t-know-you.

Lev: You weren’t you.

Bailey: Is it too late to tell you I have an evil twin sister?

Lev: Your evil twin sister is fun.

Lev: Mind if I hook up with her?

Bailey: Lol. What’s wrong with you?

Lev: Mommy issues, separation issues, trust issues, and I think I’m too much of a people pleaser. Your turn?

Bailey: I love too hard.

Bailey: Stay away from my sister, Cole.

Lev: Come on. Daria isn’t that bad.

I put my phone away, adjust my hard-on, then go to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face.

Famished, I make my way downstairs. The house is a total graveyard in the mornings, since it’s only Dad and me and Dad jogs ten miles every day. Which is why I’m surprised to see a silhouette of long hair and a pencil skirt standing in the kitchen, sipping coffee.

Dixie? She spent the night here?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the idea that Dad’s getting some action. It’s been four freaking years. I love Mom and miss her every day, but Dad needs to move on.

Mom was hell-bent on the idea of Dad marrying again. She said he was too young and too hot to stay single. I don’t know why he is keeping Dixie a secret.

It’s not like they aren’t going to restaurants and movies together, or spending holidays together. Dixie is like family. Ridiculously fuckable family.

I’m about to enter the kitchen and make myself known when she checks the Cartier on her wrist (a birthday present from Dad), sucks in a quick breath, and drains her coffee in one gulp. My goodness, Dixie. Pull yourself together.

She plucks her jacket from the back of the stool and hurries out the door, closing it with the softest click.

Dixie spent the night here. Damn. How often has that been happening?

They were counting on me to never find out because on weekends, I usually wake up at sunset. But somehow, I still can’t imagine Dad moving on after Mom.

I tug my phone out of my pocket and call Knight. He answers, drowsy and irritated. “This better be good or I’m decapitating your ass.”

“Holy anger issues.” I roll my eyes. “Are you talking to me mid-sex? Because gross.”

“Morning sex is a luxury people with toddlers don’t have. Den finally let us sleep in today for the first time since he was born.” Den—or Cayden—is Knight and Luna’s three-year-old. He has more energy than a nuclear weapon. Causes about the same amount of damage too.

“Well, this is actually good. Or maybe just weird. Dunno yet.” I throw the fridge open and grab some milk, gulping it straight from the carton.

“Hit me.”

“I’m aiming low, so prepare your nuts.”

“Lay it on me, motherfucker.”

“Dixie spent the night here.”

Beat. Silence.

“When I said motherfucker, I wasn’t being literal. That’s my biological mom. What the fuck kind of joke do you think you’re making?”

“With Dad, you dumbass.” I slam the fridge door shut.

A callous laugh escapes Knight’s mouth. “Get the fuck out.”

“Yup.” I pop the P, my eye catching the ghost of a lipstick smear on the mug Dixie left behind. I didn’t imagine it. She really was here.

“You think they’re bumping uglies?” I can hear Knight scratching his stubble.

“Why else would she spend the night here?” I ravish a granola bar in one bite. “But then why doesn’t Dad just fess up? It’s not like we’ll be mad at him.”

“Nah, but he’ll be mad at himself.” I can hear Knight gurgling toothpaste and water in the background. “Hate to say this, but I think there’s an innocent explanation to her stayover.”

“He needs to move on,” I mutter.

“Yeah, like somebody else I know.” Touché. “By the way, how’s Bails doing? Heard she’s back in town, but Mel said she isn’t accepting any visitors.”

Releasing an exhale, I admit, “I guess you know why too.”

He groans. “Painkillers, right? That shit is the worst. Easy to get your hands on too.”

The door swings open and Dad waltzes in, plucking his AirPods out of his ears.

He’s shirtless and sweaty, in running shorts only.

“Breakfast should be delivered in about five minutes. Get the door, will ya, Levy?”

He breezes past me but not before brushing his sweaty shoulder against mine deliberately. I slam the fridge shut and roar, “Dad! Gross.”

“That’s rich, coming from someone who is literally an evolution of my spunk.” He evil-laughs on his way upstairs.

“Talk later. I gotta go barf, then find a new family,” I murmur to my phone.

“Too late!” Dad yells, his feet pounding the stairway. “You’re eighteen and not all that cute anymore.”

Knight cackles on the other line. “Never have I been happier to be adopt—” But he doesn’t finish the sentence because I hang up on his ass.

Ten minutes later, Dad is all showered and we’re both unpacking the breakfast we get every Saturday from the bougie bakery down the street.

They have the best coffee, hands-down. The table is laden with pastries and fresh kiwi juice when Dad initiates a conversation about his favorite subject in the whole wide world besides Mom—football.

“Saw my buddy Jim while I was out last night. Guess what? He says Nebraska is desperate for quality QBs for next year. I think they’re gonna have an offer for you, along with Notre Dame and Michigan, probably.”

“Dad, I’m not moving to Nebraska.”

“Don’t be a snob. It’s a good team.”

“It’s in Nebraska.”

What drives me nuts is that I’m one of the few people in this country with the physical ability, GPA, and SAT scores to make it into the Air Force Academy.

Of course, Dad is going to go nuclear if I mention I wanna join the military. Heaven forbid a Cole pursue a “blue collar” profession—or worse yet, risk spilling blue blood by dying prematurely.

Even though Dean Cole would deny this through his teeth, I know that’s what he thinks. No one at school is contemplating applying. It’s what the others do.

Those without cushy trust funds and a timeshare in St. Regis Residence Club.

Dad thinks I can make it to the NFL. Knight almost did, and I’m his last chance at fulfilling that bucket-list dream two generations of Cole men failed to do.

“I’m surprised you haven’t received any acceptance letters so far.” Dad sucks his teeth in, taking it as a personal slight.

Shrugging, I take a bite of my bacon and brie-covered, scrambled egg-filled croissant. “All Saints High is ranked fifth in the country. They’re probably making offers to the kids from Bosco first.”

“You’re in better shape than all of them combined. We’ve played them, remember?” Dad leans across the table, fire dancing in his eyes. “There’s no ‘see’ about it. You’re in a league of your own. Any college team would be lucky to have you.”

“Which is why I should be applying to the Air Force Academy,” I can’t stop myself from blurting out.

I want to swallow the words back.

Dad looks up from his croissant, his face whiter than a ’90s boy band member.

He is scared. And that’s when I remember it is not really my blue blood Dad is worried about—it’s his own blue heart. He lost a wife. He sure doesn’t wanna lose a son too.

And being a fighter jet pilot guarantees I’d be putting my life at risk on the reg.

I’ve only broached this subject with him once before, and he basically dismissed it as a childish dream, like I told him I wanted to be a cowboy astronaut.

He told me to get real and to take my life seriously, and to plan for things that make sense, then moved on to the next subject.

He never asks me about my aviation simulator. About volunteering at the airport. Any of those things that bring fire into my eyes.

“Not this again, Lev.” Dad’s jaw nearly jumps out of his skin, and his emerald eyes darken. “Look, I get the appeal. But aside from supersonic rides and the fact the Cole ass definitely looks bomb in a flight suit, military life is tough.

Boatload of stress, being hurled from one place to the other every couple years, no permanent residence, whacky schedule, family on the go. Not to mention being sent to war zones. Tell me when to stop.”

“Now’s a good time.” I violently stab my food with my fork. “I get it, being a fighter jet pilot sucks.”

“Not to mention, as I said, having a heart attack is gonna throw my schedule way off.”

“Nothing’ll happen to me,” I grind out. But I can’t really promise him that, can I?

“True that because you aren’t enlisting.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

“You’re right, I can’t. But I can tell you what would kill me. Do with it as you wish.”

As I said—the pressure is on.

Anyone else would probably tell their dad to take a hike all the way to Dante’s seventh circle of hell. I turned eighteen in February, so it’s not like I need his permission to apply to the Academy. But I have this intense sense of responsibility. Leftovers from being the Good Kid.

Knight’s addiction nearly ruined this family. Mom dying buried it under rubble of suffocating depression.

I’m not gonna be the one to deliver the final blow. Knight begged me not to apply. And my inclination is to put my happiness behind Dad’s, even if it kills me.

Knight would murder me, then resurrect me just to murder me again if I tell Dad I’m thinking of applying, never mind actually applying, so I decide to change the subject. “Knight and I vote you start dating again.”

“Oh yeah?” Dad slaps his newspaper open with a deep frown and decides to let the military stuff rest, for now. “Well, I vote you stay out of my business. In fact, I veto that shit.”

“It’s cool if you move on. Mom would be pissed if she knew you were sitting here regrowing your hymen.”

“That’s not… Wait, what are they teaching you in sex ed?” He scowls.

I toss a grape into my mouth. “You mean, other than the Pop Rocks blow-job trick?”

Dad laughs and picks up his paper again. “Mom’s not here to bitch-slap me for regrowing my hymen, so unless you know a medium to contact her in heaven, no harm done.”

“Don’t you want to have sex again? Go on dates? I dunno, live?”

He shakes his head. “Living is an invitation people without jobs made to justify their existence.”

“Be serious for a sec,” I groan.

Dad lowers the Financial Times and glares at me with annoyance. “Look, this is probably a terrible life lesson to pass on to your kids, but it’s not gonna happen, okay? I’m not gonna magically get over Rosie LeBlanc. I’m never getting over her, I’m never moving on. There won’t be a second chapter because the minute I met this woman, my epilogue was already written. I’ve accepted my fate and find my pleasures elsewhere. I have you. Knight. Cayden. Football. Plenty of friends. I have big family vacations. I love my job. Taking it one day at a time is manageable for me.”

“I’m going to move out at the end of the year when I graduate,” I remind him. Just the thought of going off to some college to break my back playing ball makes me wanna punch my own face.

“I know.” He works his jaw, touching it like I slapped him with my words. “I’ll survive.”

“Look.” I sit back, huffing. “You can cut the crap. I know Dixie spent the night here. I saw her taking off this morning. Knight and I are happy you’re getting some.”

Dad chokes on his chia seed pudding, grabs his coffee—four shots of dark roast, basically tar with some Stevia—pops the lid, and chugs it. “You think I’m hooking up with Dix?”

“Why else would she spend the night?” I fold my arms over my chest. “And can you please stop calling her that? Every time you do, I imagine a bouquet of cocks squeezed together into a pencil skirt.”

“First of all—great imagery.” Dad wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Really selling me the whole Dixie idea. Second of all, dating is not on the menu for me.”

“You messing around with her?” I eyeball him, surprised. “Look, if you wanna play the field, maybe don’t do it with your best female friend? Kind of a fuckboy move. I’ll introduce you to Tinder. It’s a—”

“Sit down, boy. I ruled Tinder when you were still swimming in my nuts.” Dad balls a napkin and tosses it at me. “I’m a widower, not a boomer. And I’m not fucking Dix…Dixie. Or anyone else for that matter.”

“What about self-love?”

“Rarely,” he grumbles into his food.

“Dude, you have no sperm circulation. Your spunk must be so stale.”

He cocks his head, frowning. “You do look a little crusty.”

“I am getting emancipated,” I gag dramatically.

He reaches to steal my coffee, and I’d be mad if I wasn’t sad for him. No sex for four years straight sounds brutal. “Dixie stayed here because her apartment is getting repainted. She’s selling it. She’ll be crashing here tonight too. Tomorrow she goes back to her place. Where she belongs.”

“Don’t you like her?” I press.

“Love her.” Dad takes big bites of his food to keep his mouth full. “I also like this chia pudding, and I don’t wanna fuck it.”

“The temperature’s a little off-putting,” I agree.

He doesn’t say anything.

I sigh. “Gotta be honest, I’m disappointed.”

“Why?”

I don’t want to make it even more cringy for him. He’s allowed to lead his life in whichever path he chooses, even if it’s straight to the arms of blue balls, so I lighten the mood by slumping my shoulders. “I just…”

“You just what?” Dad frowns, leaning closer.

“I…”

“Out with it, Lev.”

“I just really wanted a new mommy.”

He stares at me in confusion, before he sees the smile creeping on my face.

“You little shit.” He sits back, kicking me under the table. I cackle. “I almost had a heart attack for failing you in a whole other way.” That only makes me laugh harder.

“So. Dumped Thalia yet?” Dad pops a strawberry into his mouth.

“Am I that obvious?” My laughter dies.

Dad shrugs. “It was a question of when, not if, once Bailey set foot across the street. It’s the Cole curse.”

“To be in love with women who don’t want our asses?”

“To try to substitute our heart’s desire before we wear her down.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever wear Bailey down.”

“You can always wear her skin, then. You seem obsessed enough to do that.” But when he sees I’m not in the mood for jokes, he tilts his chin down. “Look, our vacation in Jackson Hole next week will be a good opportunity for you two to reconnect.”

“She hates me now,” I rasp. “I mean, Sober Bailey still likes me, but the one hooked on painkillers thinks I’m an asshole.”

“She doesn’t hate you. She hates what the drugs are doing to her. The cravings. The lack of control. She’s a good kid, Lev. She’ll figure it out, but it might be a long journey, and I’d advise strongly against seeking love from someone who is struggling to love themselves right now. Keep her safe. Don’t take advantage of her situation—and don’t let her slip. If anyone can help her, it’s you.”

I don’t know if I can, but I know I must. Bailey saved me when I needed her the most.

I’ll die before letting her down.


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