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Damaged Goods: Chapter 24


Bailey

Age seventeen

It’s been seven hundred and forty-six days since Rosie died.

Seven hundred and forty-six days since Lev and I have started sleeping in the same room. In the same bed. In each other’s arms.

Seven hundred and forty-six days since our scents began mixing together into a perfume called love.

Seven hundred and forty-six days since I promised to never leave, to never betray him, to never disappear.

Humans are adaptable creatures.

Designed to mold themselves into shape even in the harshest conditions. You’d think things would get easier for me. You’d be wrong.

The complications keep piling up. The warm, inviting morning wood that keeps bumping into my flesh under the blankets.

The way I notice things about him I had been blind to before. Like his cheekbones, that have recently chiseled into perfection.

the way his hair turned from straight and silky to coarse and floppy over last summer.

The way his body filled out everywhere—biceps, abs, shoulders, back. Biology is doing a number on me.

Shut up, evolutionary psychology. I’m trying to do the right thing here.

But it’s terrifying. To see a hot-as-hell man spurting out of your cute, unassuming BFF.

I see the way he looks at me. With unapologetic hunger. I want him to eat me whole.

To gorge on his forbidden fruit, seeds and all.

But I’m stuck in this stupid, boring role. I’m his best friend, his saint, his salvation.

I cook his favorite meals, hug him to sleep, and send him reminders for important games and homework that’s due.

Like right now, I am sitting on the bleachers, cheering him on as he wins the state championship against St. John Bosco, making history for All Saints High.

The game is over. The crowd is on its feet, cheering.

I jump the highest and shriek the loudest. Uncle Dean grabs me by the jacket and pulls me into a hug, ecstatic. I have tears of joy in my eyes when his brother points at Lev and roars, “That’s my brother over there! What a freaking legend!”

Happiness alters into pent-up sexual frustration as Dean, Knight, and I make our way down the bleachers and I catch the sight of Lev peeling off his shirt, exposing his abs, every ridge and curve so defined he looks Photoshopped.

His skin is golden, glistening, and demands to be licked to its last inch.

His hair is a mess and I want to comb it with my fingers. I stop a foot away from him and wait patiently as he spits out his mouthguard and hugs his brother and father.

There’s a bottle of his favorite iced tea in my hand. Then he turns to me.

“I’m so proud of you!” I exclaim, opening my arms wide, expecting a hug.

“Screw your polite hugs. We just won the state championship!”

He picks me up by the back of my thighs and hoists me in the air, spinning around.

I laugh and shriek as he tickles me, elated, and there’s a good chance I’ve never been this happy my entire life. Not even during my own victories.

“Lev!” I squeal as he tosses me in the air like I’m a toddler, grinning, his eyes coated with tears.

I know those tears are there not only because he brought his dad happiness but also because his mother couldn’t be here to see it.

Lev keeps his hands firmly on my waist when he brings me down, tucking my head under his chin, nestling me close. “Couldn’t have done it without you. Thanks for being the ground beneath my feet…or, you know, some shit.” He winks.

“Are you calling me flat?” I scrunch my nose.

“I’m calling you gravity.”

“Sounds like a stripper’s name.”

He laughs so hard, his dad thinks he’s choking.

I urge him to go celebrate with his friends and promise him a thousand times that I’m okay, that I don’t mind we’re not spending time together, that I have homework to do anyway.

But as I drive home, for the first time, a selfish thought pops into my head.

The idea of him partying it up with hot girls right now makes me nauseated.

And the fact that this bothers me is a huge red flag. I cannot afford to be jealous.

Jealousy leads to impulsiveness. Impulsiveness to chaos.

I do my homework, clean my room, read a book, and glance at my watch every two seconds. I do that until two in the morning, which is also when I check my phone.

No texts from Lev. Still out, partying.

I’m not sure if I’m more worried or jealous about it.

Let him be. He literally just won the state championship.

Trying to keep busy, I go outside to get the mail.

I pull out a fat envelope, my heart racing in my chest.

Could it be?

How long has it been sitting there?

Holy best news ever.

I rip it open in the stark darkness, aiming my phone’s flashlight at the words.

And there it is. The acceptance letter I’ve been waiting for since I learned how to walk.

Juilliard.

I’m in.

One of the seven percent of applicants who actually gets accepted. Up against the most talented people in the world.

A piñata of emotions bursts inside me. I want to announce the news, but Mom and Dad are asleep and Daria and Penn are in Paris, doing hot-couple shit.

I could call one of my friends, but it feels wrong sharing this important news with someone random.

My fingers quake when I type the text message.

Bailey: Guess what?

Lev: Chicken butt.

Lev: So apparently I Benjamin-Button into a six-year-old after a few beers. Sorry about that. What’s up, B?

Bailey: Can I call?

Lev: I mean, it’s super noisy here at Finn’s. I’m about to head back home in about an hour though if it can wait.

Bailey: It can’t.

Lev: Uh-huh. What is it?

Bailey: I GOT ACCEPTED TO JUILLIARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My grand announcement is followed by big, fat nothing.

One minute turns into four, which turns into fifteen. No response.

I go back into our chat to see if maybe my last message didn’t go through. It did.

I stare at the screen until it dies. Then blink, realizing for the first time, I’m still outside my house, engulfed by the night.

Weird things are happening in my body right now.

The piñata that just burst inside me? It was full of rusty nails.

A century and a half later, a reply finally pops up.

Lev: That’s great news. Proud of you, B.

I don’t know why, but his message sinks into my skin and spreads like a lethal injection.

After my undying support, my undivided attention, serving as his human alarm clock every morning so he’d never miss practice, cooking his chicken breast the way he wanted because he was superstitious about eating it before big games, when it was time to be happy for me…he wasn’t. He isn’t.

My big life news, my celebration isn’t even worth a FaceTime…

I take the stairs back to my room and curl inside my bed, facing the wall and closing my eyes. I really don’t feel like waiting for him in his bed tonight.

Hot tears roll down my cheek and into my mouth. I cry myself to sleep.

Sometime later, I feel my mattress dipping under familiar weight.

A muscular body presses against mine from behind. He’s warm and delicious and smells like home. That unique Bailev scent we both carry, mixed with a tinge of alcohol.

His arms circle around me and I’m helpless against his pull. I curse my inability to resist him when Lev nuzzles his face into the crook of my shoulder.

Tears sting the backs of my eyeballs. Is there such a thing as loving someone too much?

I suspect there is. I think he steals my sunshine. Swallows my light.

I might be feeding myself mean stories to convince myself to leave for New York and not stay here with him, but seriously?

Maybe we both need to find out who we are without each other.

“Dove.” He burrows against my skull, sending shivers down my spine. “Fuck. What am I going to do without you? I need you. You’re not supposed to leave. You’re supposed to…I don’t know. Be a good girl and stick around for me. Put me first.”

He is drunk and I’m heartbroken and this is not a good combination for either of us.

He also thinks I’m asleep, which is the only time the truth tumbles out of his mouth so easily.

“I should be happy for you, getting into Juilliard. I always knew you would. But my selfish ass can’t see past the idea that you won’t be close to me anymore.”

He swallows audibly and I wonder if the universe forgot we are young and stupid and decided to descend every wrathful punishment God has in store on us.

“I used to lay awake with you in my arms for weeks and months and years, praying that you would break a leg. Tear a ligament. Get injured so you have to stay back here.” Lev chokes on the admission, talking into my hair. “I’m so fucking awful, but I still hoped that. Hoped something would stop you. Because that someone can’t be me. I can’t do that to you.”

A storm brews inside my body. He keeps talking, growing stiff in his briefs between my ass cheeks, which are clad in a pair of boy shorts.

And I can admit it to myself now. How we haven’t been platonic friends for a long time.

Sex has hovered over our relationship for the last few years.

We’ve been skimming the line of dry humping wordlessly every night. Accidentally brushing each other’s abs, and nipples, and everything.

He came close to the edge a few times. So did I. And we never spoke about it.

We’ve been playing with matches for months. Now? We’re drenched in gasoline. Soaked to the bone.

It’s time to set this lie between us on fire.

We lie there for a long time, until I’m sure he’s asleep. For one thing, he stops talking.

Pouring all his secrets, about all the times he not-so-accidentally got off while we were in bed together.

How he scared off all my potential suitors at school, how he once beat a guy from Las Juntas to a pulp for following me home when I didn’t pay attention.

His breaths even out. I mull his words in my head all night.

Bailev.

Best friends.

Thick as thieves.

Always have each other’s backs.

And it’s all bullshit. We’re not friends. We’re two people obsessed with each other, trying to hold one another back.

He doesn’t want me to become a ballerina, and I don’t want him to ever find true love.

If we stick together, we’ll end up resenting each other, then hating each other…

I know what I need to do and how I’m going to do it.

The sun slinks up from between fluffy, marshmallow clouds. The sky is painted pink and blue, and the moon is as thin as a fingernail dent.

I gather my courage like the hem of a ballroom dress, turn around from the wall, and make a move to kiss Lev. To ruin everything.

I’m startled when I see he is already up, wide-awake and staring at me.

By the red spiderwebs on his eyeballs, I can tell he didn’t sleep at all.

“Stay.” His throat bobs with a swallow when he says, “Please, Dove. Just…just stay here. One more year. Then we can go together to New York when I graduate. Please don’t leave me.”

“Lev,” I say. “You don’t… You wanna go to Colorado for school.”

But what I really want to say is how dare you?

What I really want to say is I’d never ask you something like that. How can you do this to me? You know how serious I take my promise to Rosie to always take care of you.

“Yeah. I know. You’re right.” He licks his lips. “Look, I got you something.”

He turns around and rummages in his jeans on the floor. I hear rustling, my eyes focused on his corded, muscular back.

In a few moments, I am going to ruin us—if he hasn’t already. Lev turns back to me, plants something in my fist, then brings the fist to his mouth and kisses it. “Whenever you’re ready, Dove.”

I uncoil my fingers to find…a bracelet? No, two of them. With little wooden dove pendants. They’re identical, with a simple black leather string.

“Carved it myself at the party. That’s why it took me so long,” he admits, blush creeping onto his cheeks. I thought he was hooking up with girls…when this is what he did? I’m speechless. “That way you’ll never forget about us in New York when you become a superstar.” He winks.

The smile on my face feels hollow. I gently rest the bracelets on the pillow between us.

“Where did you get the wood?”

“Is now a good time to make a boner joke?”

“No.”

“In that case, let’s just say Finn’s house has a credenza in need of replacing.”

“Well, thank you,” I say primly. “It’s beautiful.”

“That’s it?” He quirks an eyebrow. He’s used to my constant cooing and praising.

“No, that’s not everything.” We are so close, I can feel every inch of him, and I want to laugh that I told myself we were ever just friends.

“What else?”

I swallow hard. “Kiss me.”

Lev’s mouth falls open. “Kiss you?”

Nodding, I trail the tip of my fingernail along his neck. My fingers are trembling.

I’m ruining us together, to save us individually. To give us a chance to blossom apart, not just together. “Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?”

“Yes.” His pupils dance frantically, searching my face. “But I have a feeling this is a punishment, not a reward. Is this about my asking you to stay?”

It’s about our entire relationship. It’s about sacrifice. Redemption. About us finding who we are without being attached at the hip.

“It’s just a kiss, Levy. Don’t read too much into it. I just want to feel good.”

He slides his long fingers through my hair, bringing my face close to his, and he is arrestingly beautiful—always but now especially. “I was born to make you feel good, Bailey Followhill.” His breaths are slow, his heartbeat fast. “But I won’t take a kiss from you. Not right now.”

“Why not?” My lips curl in annoyance. Seems like he is very good at denying me everything I want.

“Because I don’t want our first kiss to be like that.”

“Like what?”

“Tinted by my anxiety and your anger.” He brushes the tip of his nose over mine, holding my shoulders in his big bear palms. “When I kiss you, you will believe every unspoken word the kiss will say. You’ll believe the I love you, the It was always you. You will see that I mean the You and I are forever. There will be no second-guessing.”

His lips slant to the edge of my jaw, then move down to skim the column of my neck.

The initial touch is an electric shock, and the world is thrown out of focus.

The entire room is holding its breath—walls, furniture, ceiling.

Then his lips move back up and close in on mine. It’s a perfect lock-and-key match.

His lips taste divine, but it’s not them that make our kiss a once-in-a-lifetime event.

It’s the fact that it symbolizes the complete destruction of what we were until now. Best friends.

“Bailey?” Dad asks from behind my bedroom door.

I gasp into Lev’s mouth, panicked, but all he does is pry my mouth open and slip his tongue into my mouth, slowly and sensually exploring the area.

Dad presses. “I heard noises from your room.”

Lev is chuckling into our kiss. I try to bite him, but that only makes him laugh harder.

Bastard.

“Um, yes, Dad!” I call out, voice muffled. “Everything’s fine!” More than fine, to be honest.

“Everything okay?” Marx, so rude. Why can’t I have a neglectful family that leaves me to my own devices when they hear random whimpering coming from my room?

“I…was…crying?”

Awesome job, Bails. Nothing screams certainty more than finishing a sentence with a question mark.

Lev is nibbling on my lower lip leisurely before returning his attention to the inside of my mouth.

“Why were you crying?”

Who died and made you the Spanish Inquisition, Dad?

“It’s…happy tears.”

“You fucking bet,” Lev mumbles into the side of my mouth, kissing and biting and teasing. As my father drones on about his patience running thin with my shenanigans, I focus on the magic unspooling between me and my best friend. The way he holds me in his arms.

“Why?” Dad insists.

“I’ll tell you when I come out.” Thank you, Juilliard, for giving me news to break to him and inadvertently saving Lev’s life. “Just give me a few minutes.”

“All right, baby.”

Lev stops snacking on my skin and pops his head far enough for us to look each other in the eye.

He is pressed on top of me. We’re both grinning like lunatics.

Then I remember what caused all of this, and my heart drops.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to take a kiss from me?”

“This wasn’t a kiss.” He shakes his head. “This is a foreplay for a kiss. A declaration of intention. When I kiss you—yes, just kiss, nothing more—you won’t be able to think straight for weeks.”

We both grin like two idiots.

“You may stop crushing me to death now,” I whisper, patting his shoulder awkwardly.

“Not before you tell me this changes nothing.”

“It changes nothing,” I lie.

“Why don’t I believe you?” His eyes—green with a drop of hazel around each pupil—scan me.

“Because you’re paranoid?” I offer with a sweet smile.

“I didn’t mean what I said about Juilliard. I want you to go.”

“Good, because I’m going.”

Reluctantly, he rolls off of me.

I put the bracelet on.

He dons his too.

“How’s the sky looking, Dove?”

“Clear as day.”


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