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Damaged Goods: Chapter 35


Dixie

The day of the Air Force Academy deadline

Lev leaves, a trail of his expensive aftershave lingering in his wake. I hear the door slam behind him and loiter in the kitchen for a few more seconds.

I know he told me not to butt into his business. Several times, in fact. I heard him loud and clear. But I can’t stand here and watch this bright, beautiful, overwhelmed kid make the biggest mistake of his life.

Take it from me—opportunities have the tendency not to knock on your door twice.

I know Dean doesn’t want Lev to join the military, become a pilot, put his life on the line.

But that stems from Dean’s inability to move on. To embrace risks, new prospects, and changes. If Dean chooses to be stuck in the same place forever, that’s on him.

And on you, for dallying around, waiting for the leftovers Rosie left behind.

Point is, none of it is Lev’s fault. He deserves a shot at happiness. At devouring the world greedily, sinking his teeth into it like it’s a juicy fruit rather than a bite of something he never wanted to sustain another man’s vitality.

He’s worked hard for it. But he’ll never go against his father’s will.

Pushing the hesitation and self-doubt to the back of my mind, I swiftly make my way to the laptop sitting at the table. I slide into Lev’s deserted seat and double-click on the browser again. The Air Force Academy website pops in front of me.

There are only a few more seconds before the browser will automatically refresh and everything Lev put into this is going to disappear. It is now or never. And never is a terribly long time.

Not your circus, not your monkeys, Dixie.

Leave the kid alone; he’s dealing with enough.

Dean is going to kill you. Violently. Gradually. And eagerly.

Maybe I am ready for motherhood this time around. Because instead of thinking about the man I’m in love with, I think about his son, who I cannot bear to see sad.

And about his late wife, who brought me here to take care of her family. And that includes Lev.

Squeezing my eyes shut and turning my face from the screen, I click on the apply button.

When it’s all done and dealt with, I’m not even sorry for overstepping this red, shiny boundary.

The tension rolls off my shoulders.

The room becomes warmer, lighter. It’s a new dawn. At least for one Cole member.

When Rosie died, Dean’s heart died with her.

But Lev? Lev can still live.


Present

I find Lev in the backyard, working on one of his many RC planes. He’s flying it, making impressive loops, nosediving, then picking it right up inches from the ground.

The kid has some serious skills, and I’m mad at Dean for overlooking them all these years.

I still haven’t spoken to Dean since he walked out on me. I have nothing to say to him, actually. I came here for Lev.

Pushing the back door to the Coles’ patio open, I close it silently behind me and wait until Lev notices my presence.

With his back to me, he asks, “How’d you get in, Dixie?”

“Your dad gave me the key back when my apartment got repainted.” A blush creeps up my cheeks. I could’ve waited with the paint job. But I had wanted an excuse to lodge here, hoping it would bring me closer to Dean. In reality, we only drifted further apart. His uncanny ability to see through me, like I’m air, wounded me beyond words.

I’m starting to come to terms with what Dean told me three years ago, the first time I drunkenly almost kissed him, only a year after Rosie died.

“Don’t waste your breath and hopes on someone like me, Dixie. I’ll never be yours. I can be your friend. But never ever your partner.”

Sticking around was a mistake. I thought he’d change his mind. Figured we were bound to have some sort of a relationship, anyway, because of Knight.

Back in reality, Lev uses his remote to shoot the RC high up in the sky, then have it loop around three times in perfect circles. His eyes are laser focused on it, not me. “Figures. Dad’s not here.”

“I’m not here for your father.”

He doesn’t say anything.

“How is Bailey feeling?”

Lev shrugs. “Dead-ish.”

“Lev.”

He lands the small airplane safely on the manicured lawn, sets his remote down, and turns to look at me. “She’s in a medically induced coma. They’re not sure when they’re going to bring her back. And they aren’t sure what she’s coming back to. Like, they don’t know if there’s any neurological or intellectual damage or whatever. Oh, and her leg is apparently fucked forever or something.” He pauses. “Just as well she’s in a coma, since I have nothing to say to her.”

I’ve never seen him behave this way. So lethargic and yet angry at the same time.

“You’re at the hospital twenty hours a day,” I point out. “You don’t even go to school.”

“I don’t want her dead, yeah, but…I’m pissed.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because I’m still stuck somewhere between I’m so fucking glad you’re alive, and by the way, extremely in love with you to I hate your guts for what you’re putting everyone through. You know?”

I do. I know better than he can ever imagine. I plop on the edge of the hand-carved white wooden swing Rosie left behind. Her favorite reading spot.

It is strange to be so familiar with the possessions of a woman who is no longer with us, but strangely enough, I miss her every day. I am so grateful that she gave Knight the life I couldn’t give to him at the time. All through fighting her own battle.

She was the one who called me into Todos Santos. It was as though she was putting placeholders in her loved ones’ lives.

And what do you know? I fell in love with her entire world. Dean. Knight. And…yes, Lev too.

Guess Rosie LeBlanc had a talent for making the men in her life extremely easy to love.

Lev stares at me sitting in his mother’s spot. For a moment, I think he is going to bark at me to get up and leave. But he takes a deep breath and joins me. My shoulders sag with relief.

“How do you feel about missing the Air Force Academy deadline?” I ask tentatively.

He tugs at his bottom lip, scowling at the grass. “Doesn’t fucking matter, does it? I have bigger fish to fry.”

“Like what?”

“Bailey,” he says. “I know Dad says he is fine if I go—this does me little good now that I missed the deadline—but if she…when she wakes up, I still have to take care of her.”

“You shouldn’t,” I blurt out.

He rears his head back. “What did you say?”

“I said you shouldn’t.” I shrug. “Take care of her.”

A storm brews in his eyes. “You have no idea. She’s done so much for me. When Mom died—”

“It was out of your control,” I interject. “You didn’t choose to lose your mother. Bailey has—will have a choice now. When they bring her back, she is going to have to make some tough decisions. And if she wakes up every day knowing you are there, by her side, babying her, I’m not sure she is going to make the right ones. You’re enabling her. Putting pressure on yourself by constantly trying to save someone who might not want to be saved. You’re setting both of you up for failure. It’s one thing to help someone through a journey. It’s another to willingly strap yourself into a vehicle with a deranged driver veering off the road—which is exactly what you’re doing.”

My face is heated, my voice is high-pitched, and I’m pretty sure I’m half screaming at the poor kid. And still, I’m in a can’t-stop, won’t-stop trance. “You have to stop living for other people. It’s not only being kind to yourself; it’s being kind to them too. Let Bailey go. Be there for her—always one phone call away. But don’t cancel your entire existence to nurse her. You will only fall out of love and happiness with her, the more of yourself you abdicate for her.”

He stares at me blankly, blinking. I feel like he can see through me. Like he is reading every single thing that’s on my mind.

“You speak from experience,” he says gently, kicking his feet back on the ground to give us a push on the swing.

The afternoon breeze caresses my face. I close my eyes, the faint scent of the ocean hitting the back of my nostrils. I don’t know how I survived all those years in Texas. Living next to the ocean is truly magical.

“I do.” I try to swallow the lump in my throat. “Yeah.”

“Yet you’re not letting Dad go.”

Smoothing an invisible crease on my pencil skirt, I say, “I am letting him go, actually. This morning, I signed up with a sperm bank website. I also decided to extend my lease on my apartment, so I’m not buying the place next to yours anymore. How is that for do-as-you-preach?”

The sympathy in his eyes makes me so uncomfortable, I have to look away.

“It’s…unfortunate.” He clears his throat. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”

“Yeah.” I smile. “So am I.”

We both stare ahead, at the orange peaks of the mountains bracketing the town.

I’m the first to speak again.

“So how do you feel about me right now? From one to ten. One is loathe the sight of you, and ten is love you like a mother.”

He frowns. “Between seven-and-a-half to eight.”

Am I blushing? It feels like I’m blushing. I was bracing myself for an average five. “Yay me. Well, get ready. I’m about to knock it down to around minus thirteen.”

Lev’s face hardens. “Dixie,” he is already chiding me. “You overstepped again, didn’t you?”

I wince.

He kicks the ground again to give us more momentum. “What’d you do?”

“I feel like I might have to stand up and put some distance between us before I tell you.”

“Oh, shit.” He looks down. “You’re wearing sneakers. You never wear sneakers. You know I can catch your ass if need be, right?”

Chuckling awkwardly, I plant my feet on the ground, stand up, and walk over to a spot near enough to the patio door.

Lev stares at me from the swing like I’m crazy. I probably am. I mean, who signs up a kid who doesn’t belong to her to military school? Against his father’s wishes? This idiot. Nice to meet you.

“I couldn’t help it.” I raise my palms in surrender.

“What did you do?” He stands up. Stands right in front of me.

“I…”

“Spit it out.” A few more steps in my direction. I’m sweating.

He is not going to murder me, is he? The Coles are all teddy bears. Big on the outside but mushy within.

“I applied to the Air Force Academy. Uh, on your behalf. Obviously.”

He freezes, his mouth hanging open. “What?”

I squeeze my eyes shut, bracing myself for a hit. “You left. The laptop was there. Everything was filled out. Mistakes were made.”

Silence.

Shock.

Panic.

Not nearly enough oxygen.

I push through with my explanation.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I…I just… You deserve this win. You earned it.”

“Dixie.” He blinks in confusion. “It wasn’t even… All the documents…”

Good news is, he seems more speechless than…murderous. Small victories and all. “I didn’t even finish attaching all the… I mean, I don’t know if they’ll even have me.”

Then something wonderful happens. Well, wonderful and a bit disturbing.

Lev throws his head back, his shoulders shaking with glee. He is laughing, I realize, because he is relieved. Because not all is lost.

Because he’s probably regretted not applying every single moment since he walked away from his laptop.

He picks me up in his arms and spins me around, looking at me with a twinkle in his eyes. It is the first time I’ve seen him happy since Bailey came back. I smile back at him. His smile dissipates as we both remember why we’re here.

Bailey. Dean. Heartbreak. Right.

He puts me down slowly on the porch.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

“You’re welcome, honey.” I press my palms over his cheeks, squishing them like he is a toddler.

The noise of something being dumped on the counter comes from the house. I snap my head to where it comes from and see Dean looking like a feral predator, ambling toward us.

I instinctively take a step back. Lev doesn’t move an inch.

“What’s happening here?” Dean looks between us.

“Just hitting on Dixie, is all.” Lev flashes a hedonistic smirk and, in that moment, looks like a carbon copy of his father. Sheesh, those genes.

Dean rushes over to us. I’ve never seen him like this before. Alert. Alive. I can’t believe he actually thinks this isn’t an innocent, loving moment. What’s wrong with him?

“He is kidding!” I narrow my eyes. “You really think I’d make a move on your son?”

“I don’t think you’re making a move on my son, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a move on you to prove a point.”

“And what point would that be?” Lev folds his gigantic arms over his chest, amused.

“That Dixie and I should be together,” Dean spits out.

“Yeah, I stand corrected. This is entirely not a childish display of jealousy.” Lev’s chest rumbles.

Dean’s eyebrows furrow. “Dixie, can I speak to you for a second?”

I glance down at my watch and frown. I have a showing in thirty minutes. I really didn’t think my moment with Lev would turn into almost an entire hour. “Actually, now’s not a great time.”

Dean looks like I just kicked him in the face. I don’t know if I want to laugh or cry.

I’ve never denied him anything. But the truth is…now isn’t a great time.

And maybe I should be taking my own advice. The one I just gave Lev, about not being dragged down with the people you love.

“Okay…” he says slowly. “Tonight, then?”

“Oh, man.” Lev puts his fist to his mouth, chuckling. “This is painful.”

“Shut up.” Dean squints at him.

“Tonight’s no good, either.” I shake my head, a blush creeping over my face. “I’m filming this realtor show in LA, remember? Our office is taking part in one of those parties. Good for PR, they said.”

“Yeah. Uh-huh.” Dean rolls his tongue inside his cheeks. “Guess I’ll call and schedule an appointment with your assistant, since you’re so busy all of a sudden.”

“Perfect.” I ignore his sarcasm, feigning cheerfulness. “Jessica has access to my calendar. While I have you in such an accepting mood, I should also warn you that I sent an application on your son’s behalf to the Air Force Academy.” I deliver the news matter-of-factly and lethally.

Dean stares at me with an odd expression. One I’ve never seen on him before.

Somewhere between wonder and awe.

I think I see some hate thrown in too. But I manage not to cringe.

Ignoring him, I rise to my tiptoes to pinch Lev’s cheek. “I think he is going to get in. He’s more than qualified.”

For the first time, I leave the Cole residence not feeling like I’ve been sent away shamefaced after trying to steal something that isn’t mine.

Dean Cole’s heart may not be beating again quite yet…

But I think we all heard a faint pulse.


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