Damaged Goods: Epilogue


Lev

Seven months later

“You going home this early, bro?” Bryan, my bunkmate, raises his eyebrows at me, like it isn’t eight thirty in the evening and I haven’t been on my feet since five.

Frowning at my watch, I swing my bag over my shoulder. “Gotta make it in time for a flight to Florida.”

First-year cadets get just about zero time off, and Bailey and I have been rocking the long-distance thing since we picked things up when she got back from rehab, so to say I’m in a hurry is putting it mildly.

I’ll only have a couple weeks with her, and I’ll have to spend the first one pretending to like her college roommate, Sienna, who is just a little less boring than plain toast with a nice layer of unsalted butter smeared on top.

The second week we’re spending in Jackson Hole with our families. And—thank fuck—sans prescription drugs.

Bryan rolls his eyes. “How do you have time for a girlfriend?”

The truth is, I don’t. One thing that I learned in life is that you make room for things that are important to you. Sleep is for the weak.

“She’s worth it. A’ight. See you here in two weeks.” Bryan and I fist-bump and I dart like an arrow to freedom. To the civilian world. I get a cab to the airport, where Grim is waiting for me, looking rested and smug as all fuck. He goes to Boulder. Strong football team, and he shines there, despite being a total asshat when he wants to be.

“Wow, Lev. I’d say you look like shit, but I’ve met dumps fresher than you.”

I believe him. There’s a cadet saying that the Air Force Academy is a $150,000 education stuck up your ass a nickel at a time.

Clapping his back in a bro-hug, I release him and step back, laughing. “You look happy.”

“I am happy,” he admits seriously. “Thanks for getting your head outta your ass just in the nick of time.”

“Can we stop with the shit metaphors?” I grumble.

He slaps a brown paper bag with a bagel inside it against my chest and hands me a coffee.

“We can, but I’m not done just yet with busting your balls.”

We both start making our way to our gate. I bump my shoulder into his. “Still feeding yourself the lie that this thing with the Miami Grand Prix race driver is casual?”

This is why he’s headed to Florida right now instead of spending his vacation days with his family in Todos Santos. At least I’m going to see the love of my life.

He met this dude literally five seconds ago and is already trying to find a way to transfer to Miami for him.

“It’s casual,” he maintains. “And for the millionth time, it’s not the Miami Grand Prix. It’s the Key Biscayne Motorpark. More prestigious than F1.”

“All I heard was he has a jet lane in his backyard.” I smirk.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale is painfully slow. I spend the entire duration texting Dove.

Lev: What are you wearing?

Bailey: A pair of black Lululemon leggings, your Moschino sweatshirt, and fluffy socks. Sienna puts the air-con on 70! So not environmental, and I’m always freezing.

Lev: Okay. I’ll rephrase: what are you wearing for the sake of my warped fantasies?

Bailey: Nothing but a pair of Jimmy Choos and an edible thong.

Bailey: Bacon flavored, of course.

Lev: I LOVE YOU SO FUCKING MUCH I AM GOING TO MARRY THE SHIT OUT OF YOU.

Bailey: I love you so much I am going to have your babies. Like, literally five hundred of them. My stomach is going to look like cookie dough by the time I’m done.

Lev: I love cookie dough. How do you always get even more perfect?

Bailey: What are YOU wearing?

Lev: My heart on my fucking sleeve, ofc. You rob me of my cool.

Bailey: How long until you land?

Lev: Forty minutes, baby.

Bailey: K. Gonna go see if I can find an edible bacon-flavored thong by then.


The sun is almost up by the time we land.

Bailey waits for me at the airport, wearing a checkered pleated skirt, sneaks, and a white cable-knit Polo sweater. Her yellow hair is wrapped in a big, black satin bow, and she looks every inch of the girl I used to secretly glance at during dinners and high school functions and pinch myself that I was allowed to talk to her freely.

She hops on me, wrapping her legs around my waist as my fingers sink into the back of her thighs and I devour her mouth in a starving, wet, and sloppy kiss.

“There better be an edible bacon-flavored thong under these clothes, Dove,” I growl into her mouth.

She giggles into mine. “Only one way to find out.”

“Get a room,” Grim moans behind me. “Actually, make it an entire bunker.”

Bailey is still wrapped around me, kissing my face, oblivious to the looks we’re getting as I give Grim my back and a middle finger and walk off toward where she parked her car. “See you in two weeks, fuck-face.”

“Not if I can help it,” Grim mumbles.

As soon as we get to Bailey’s apartment, Sienna makes an executive decision not to be a total waste of oxygen and announces, “I’m going soap shopping! Be back later.”

Yup. Soap shopping. As I said—blandest of the bland.

Not that I’m complaining. It gives Bailey and me the opportunity to rip each other’s clothes off right there in her living room.

We have sex twice in a row before she offers me something to drink and three more times before we reluctantly DoorDash the first thing that pops on our phone screen.

Cuban—thank God. A salad would have sucked. Then, finally, eight times later, when it’s evening and Sienna is back with a bag of dessert-scented soaps and a lot of uninteresting anecdotal information about how her day has been, Bailey and I cuddle in her bed and talk.

During the weekdays, all we do is talk. But it still feels different with her warm body draped over mine.

“How’s school, Dove?” I stroke her daffodil hair, breathing in her warmth.

“I love it.” She runs her nails over my chest, giving me shivers. “Yours?”

“Hate it. But they say the years get progressively less awful as you go along.”

Bailey and I are going to do this long-distance thing for a long time. Until she graduates, at least. It will be hard, but it will be worth it. Our forever was hard-earned.

Failure is not an option. Which is why I have to do to her what I’m about to do to her.

“Hey, Dove?”

“Hmm?”

“How would you feel about taking a trip to California before we go to Jackson Hole?”

“I would feel…” Her eyebrows are drawn into a confused frown. “Slightly jet-lagged, I guess. Why?”

I pull the two tickets I bought for us from my bag under her bed.

Her eyes widen. “Lev, it says our flight leaves in four hours. From Miami.”

I blink at her innocently. “You’re a fast packer.”


When we land in California, I don’t even bother to visit home first.

There’ll be time for that later. As requested, Dad left me the Tesla parked at the airport, along with the key.

Bailey spends the entire drive staring at me with a mixture of suspicion and excitement.

“This is not the way to our houses,” she says when I pass both turns into the gated community of El Dorado.

“Very perceptive.” I pat her thigh lightly, immediately getting a semi. Fuck military life. “You’ve always been incredibly smart.”

“You’re dodging.” She narrows her eyes.

“See? Insightful and quick-witted.”

“Lev.”

“That’s my name.”

“It’s also going to be your most important organ, dumped on the car floor if you don’t tell me where you’re taking me.”

We pass by downtown. More gated communities. The library.

“Do you really think the heart is the most important organ in the human body? I mean, it is, don’t get me wrong, but you also can’t function without your lungs or liver. Yet they don’t get even half the glory—”

“Lev!” Bailey laugh-yells in frustration. “Where’re we going?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I hate those.”

True story. Bailey thrives when in control. But she’ll have to indulge me, just this time.

“Well, you love me, so suck it up, buttercup.”

Ten minutes later, we’re in our spot in the woods.

Now, this part required some preparation. Dad and Knight had to pull some strings. Get some work done. They cleaned up the canvas, hung light strings from tree to tree, and brought a generator to make the place look like something out of a fairy tale.

The combo between dusk and the lights really brings out the magic of our secret spot. Or maybe I’m just feeding myself some bull crap to convince myself she’ll say yes.

I lead her by the hand and watch as her face lights up at the sight of our spot.

“Lev!” She turns to hug me. “This is wonderful.”

“You’re wonderful,” I reply gruffly. Sulkily. I’m a little nervous, okay?

“Who did all this?” She looks around.

“Dad and Knight. They owed me.”

“For what?” she asks with a smile, exploring our beautiful surroundings. What is she, the CIA?

“I dunno, existing.” I glance around. “hm, you’re getting away from me. Come back here.”

I’m really nailing this, aren’t I?

But I’m stressed. And hopeful. And fuck, my entire life is on the line here.

Bailey turns around, looking alarmed and a little amused. She ambles over to me, resting a hand over my shoulder with a smile. “I’m here.”

“Good. Stay this way. No wandering off.”

“Why are you sweating, baby?” She grins.

Because I might have my heart destroyed in about thirty seconds.

I gather her face in my hands like it’s precious diamonds and glide the tip of my nose over hers. I’m not going down on one knee. She already knows I’d crawl for her.

“Bailey. You’re my one. You’re my only. You’re my everything. Life without you was something I’ve tasted for a short time, and it was by far the worst of my life. If there’s one thing my mom taught me before she passed away, it is that time is too rare to spend away from the one you love. Our doves are gone—and not by accident. We don’t need them anymore. There’s something else to remind us we’re in it for forever—us. So make me the luckiest motherfucker on planet earth and say yes.”

Slipping Mom’s engagement ring out of my pocket, I hold it between us, staring deep into Bailey’s eyes. Dad initially refused to give away anything of Mom’s—especially the ring he gave her—but I reminded him the kind of shit he put me through and added that at least with Bailey wearing it, he’d be able to have it in front of his eyeballs all the time and be reminded of her and the love they shared. I think it’s the latter that convinced him.

But Bailey still hasn’t said yes.

She is looking at me now with an expression I’ve never seen before. Then she does something I wasn’t expecting.

She punches me in the chest. “Lev!”

Oh shit. “What?”

“I thought you’d never ask!”

I blink, confused. “So…is that a yes?”

“It’s a heck yes!” She rips the ring from between my fingers, putting it on. She doesn’t even look at it. She doesn’t even care about the diamond. God, I love this girl. “I love you!”

“I love you too. Now, Dove?”

“What?”

“Stay very still and give me a kiss.”


Bailey

“Oh my Marx, Bailey. This ring is obscene! So huge. So flashy. I love it.” Daria clutches my hand in a death grip, drooling all over my engagement ring. We’re having dinner after a long day of skiing. Last time I went to Jackson Hole, I was at the height of my addiction.

I still find this place triggering, but not as much as Lev obviously suspects I do, since he keeps throwing me his golden retriever glances, making sure that I’m okay.

Lev, who is sitting next to me, clasps my free hand—the one not held hostage by the women under this roof—and drops a casual kiss to the tip of my shoulder.

“No joke.” Lenora’s eyes widen as she studies the ring. “I could sculpt a life-sized toddler with this thing.”

“No more babies,” Vaughn mumbles.

“It screams money,” Luna agrees.

“It screams Rosie,” Dean corrects from across the table, spearing a brussels sprout and popping it into his mouth.

This is the part where he chides all of us and calls Rosie his wife—present tense—but when we all stare at him, all he does is shrug and get back to his food.

Without realizing it, the entire room breathes in relief.

Dixie puts a hand on Dean’s shoulder, smiling at me. “You look wonderful, Bailey. Healthy and happy. And the ring suits you very well. How lovely that you and Rosie are the exact same size.”

“Thank you, Dixie.” I smile back. “You look radiant. I…” I catch myself, desperate to say the right thing. “You look right at home.”

The rims of Dixie’s eyes gleam emotionally. “Excuse me.” She starts to stand to bring herself a tissue, but Dean produces a handkerchief from his suit and hands it over to her. She pats her eyes dry, laughing. “Sorry, I get so emotional these days. And seeing Lev and Bailey so happy…” She trails off.

“Yes,” Uncle Vicious drawls, staring at the bottom of his wineglass, his arm slung over Aunt Emilia’s shoulder. “I’m sure that’s why you’re emotional and not because you’re seven months pregnant with the devil’s spawn.”

Dean gives him a scalding look. “Watch your mouth.”

“Physically can’t,” Vicious quips tersely.

“So, are you guys ever gonna tell us how you two got pregnant? Turkey baster, or…” Knight points his fork between Dean and Dixie.

Dixie turns bright red and stands up. Her big bump is covered by a black evening dress, and she caresses it protectively. It was definitely IVF. I know, because I was there on the phone with her when she complained about the bloating and the pain. “This is my cue to declare heartburn and go hunt for Tums. Thanks for dinner, Millie.”

Dean glances at her from behind his shoulder. “Be right there, Lady D.”

Lady D is a better nickname than Dix. I’m sure she appreciates it. I know Lev does.

Dean turns to stare at Knight. His nostrils flare. “What is wrong with you?”

Knight sighs and sits back. “Oh God. There’s a long list. Make yourself comfortable, Dad.”

“Who asks something like that?” Mom interferes, unhappy with where this conversation is headed. “That is Dean and Dixie’s business. Where are your manners?” What she doesn’t add is that everyone knows that Dixie’s unrequited love cost her her sanity before they settled on their arrangement.

“I have the answer as for the whereabouts, but you’re not gonna like it,” Vaughn grumbles.

“But they’re not even together,” Knight whines.

“Even so, Dad did buy her the house,” Lev adds thoughtfully. “And not as a loan. He straight up paid in cash so she could live down the street from him, close enough that he can see her and the baby all the time.” Lev pauses.

The truth Knight and Lev can’t seem to accept is that Dean and Dixie absolutely did not conceive their unborn child in the biblical way. Dean isn’t ready for that. This whole moving on from Rosie part. Never will be. He is ready to love again, though. And he needs someone to take care of. Someone to receive all the love Rosie left behind.

Another child. Another member of his family.

Dean and Dixie have a unique relationship. They’re somewhere between friends and found family; their appreciation for one another morphed into something sibling-like. I trust they’ll be amazing parents to their child, but the Rosie-shaped hole in Dean’s heart will never mend. Which is fine. He looks content. Fulfilled. Excited for the new baby.

“Do you know what it is yet?” I squeak, trying to change the subject. My fiancé throws me an I-see-what-you’re-doing look in my periphery.

Dean grins, and for the first time in five years, he doesn’t just look content—he looks happy. “It’s a girl,” he says, pink spreading to his cheeks. “And,” he adds, “we are going to name her Rosie.”


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