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Betting on You: Chapter 51

Bailey

Fall formal was the day after we officially moved into Scott’s house. Lucy, his daughter (whom I’d met the week before and who didn’t seem awful), was at her mom’s that weekend, so I was able to put off the stepsister bonding a little longer.

I was grabbing a soda out of the fridge when Scott came in through the back door. The cool autumn breeze snaked in around him. “Hey,” I said.

He smiled and closed the door behind him before taking off his coat and putting it on the back of a kitchen chair. “Hey, yourself.”

I shut the refrigerator door. It felt surreal that this was the new normal.

“I’m starving,” he said, opening the pantry and pulling out a bag of corn chips. “If there’s a God, there will be bean dip in the fridge.”

“Well, then, praise Jesus, because it’s on the top shelf,” I replied, reopening the fridge to grab it and toss it toward him.

He gave me a grin as he caught the container. “Smart-ass.”

“No, I’m serious,” I murmured distractedly. “I feel God in this Chili’s tonight.”

“Okay.” He laughed. “Quoting The Office is only going to make me like you more, Bailey, so knock it off.”

I blinked in shock, not sure of what he meant by that.

“Oh, come on,” he said, tilting his head a little. “I know this isn’t what you wanted.”

“What?” I asked, fully aware of what he was getting at.

He gave me a knowing smile and dropped into a kitchen chair. “I mean, it’s not what my daughter wanted either.”

“Scott, I don’t—”

“I just love your mom—that’s it.” He shrugged, and his smile slipped just a little as he opened the bag of chips. “I love her and want a life with her. I don’t want to hurt you—or anyone—and I don’t want to change your life.”

He made it sound so simple, so easy. I didn’t know what to say, so I took a sip of soda and made a noise of understanding in my throat, like a hummed version of I know.

“I don’t expect you to be into this whole combined-family thing from the get-go, but I hope you’ll talk about it.” He took the lid off the dip and laid it on the table. “If there are things you hate, I want to know. And if there are things you love, I want to know that, too.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding like we were on the same page, when I just wanted to get out of the kitchen. He was being nice, but I wasn’t ready to talk about the reality of the situation, especially not with him. I clutched my soda and nodded again. “Sounds good.”

Disappointment crossed his features, making his smile disappear, and I headed for the exit.

I was in the doorway when he said, “My parents got divorced when I was fourteen, Bailey.”

That made me stop and look back.

“My mom started seeing a guy a year after they split up, and we moved into his house a few months later,” he said, staring into space as if watching a memory being played back. His face was relaxed, like the story didn’t hurt him anymore. “I can still remember the way I felt in his house. Like everything was wrong and smelled weird and like I was forced to live with strangers in a house that didn’t feel like home.”

“Really?” I said, turning around, surprised by his words and the fact that he was sharing that memory with me.

“Oh yeah,” he said, nodding as he dipped a chip. “I hated it so damn much. Which, honestly, is why I waited so long to propose to your mom. I don’t want that for you.”

“Waited so long?” I said, trying to sound teasing when I added, “What’s it been—like three months?”

“Uh,” he said, tilting his head like he wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, here’s the thing.”

I pulled out the other chair and sat down at the table, curious. “Yes…?”

He made a little noise, his head still tilted like he was considering whether or not he should spit it out. “The thing is, I started seeing your mom last year.”

He looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for my reaction. “But we agreed I wasn’t going to come over to your place until things were serious.”

Wait a second. Last year? I stared at him in disbelief as I tried keeping up. “So you’re saying that the first time I met you, you’d been already seeing my mom for months?”

He nodded. “We weren’t trying to keep it a secret, but we also didn’t want to make it a thing for you if it didn’t work out.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that.

“That’s kind of, um, thoughtful,” was what I came up with, and I genuinely meant it. He’d stayed away from the woman he was seeing for months, just to help her daughter adjust.

“Now, I don’t know how things are going to go on a day-to-day basis, but I promise I’ll do everything in my power to make it feel like home here, okay?”

“Wow.” I nodded and said in a thick voice, “Um, thank you. Thank you for telling me that.”

He watched me for a second, and then somehow, he was hugging me the next. It was a big, all-encompassing hug that made me feel a little better about everything.

A little hopeful that things might just be okay.


Nekesa came over and we got ready in the basement, and it felt so good having her back in my life. I felt buzzed on happiness as we laughed and did our hair, and yeah—having the whole lower level at my disposal was not the worst. We sucked down mocktails at the wet bar while getting ready all over the rec room.

And after my mom took too many pictures, we met Dana and Eli at Brother Sebastian’s for our fancy dinner.

Only, as we were being seated by the hostess, we walked by a big table of kids from our school, and Aaron was one of those kids.

No date, thank God, but still.

“Seriously—what are the odds?” Nekesa said, kind of loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear.

And it was one of those dark, quiet restaurants, big on candlelight, white linen, and quiet ambiance.

We sat down at our table, and even though she was laughing and talking and appeared to be having fun, I could tell by the wrinkle between Nekesa’s eyebrows that she was very aware of his presence.

“We can go somewhere else if you want,” I said quietly. “I’m great with Chipotle in formal wear.”

She gave her head a tiny shake. “First of all, I love you for saying that. Second of all, it’s okay.”

“Well, let me know if you change your mind.”

The waiter came and took our orders, and Nekesa and I got swept into the delightful entertainment that was Dana and Eli. They were telling a hilarious story about her falling down her stairs, finishing each other’s sentences, when Aaron walked over.

I was instantly nervous, worried he was going to cause a scene, still not over her kissing Theo. And so I cleared my throat and said, “Hey, Aaron.”

“Hey, Bailey,” he said, looking uncomfortable, which relaxed me a little. He appeared to be nervous, not confrontational, and I leaned back in my chair and exhaled.

Then he looked directly at Nekesa and said, “Hey.”

“Aaron. How’s it going?” Nekesa smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.

“You look stunning,” he said, his blue eyes unblinking as they moved all over her face. “Seriously.”

Her smile fell just a notch, and she replied with a breathy “Thank you.”

“You made that dress, didn’t you?” he asked, his eyes wide and filled with pride. “I can tell.”

“Aaron?” she said, her tone asking what it was that he wanted.

“I know I said what I said, but I take it all back,” he said in a rush, moving closer to her and lowering his voice just a little. I scooched my chair over so he could fit between us as he lowered himself to a squat and said to her with a trembling voice, “Everything sucks without you, and nothing matters but being able to talk to you every day.”

Nekesa just nodded noncommittally, but I saw the relaxed set of her lips and knew she was going to give in to him.

Eventually.

“I was a jerk and don’t deserve another chance, but this is me, officially begging.” He put his hands on the edge of the table and said, “I don’t want to interrupt your night, but I just wanted you to know.”

I glanced around, and it appeared that half the restaurant was watching as he stood, turned, and started back toward his table. I was hoping she’d forgive him, but I didn’t expect her to get out of her chair so fast that she knocked it over.

“Aaron.”

Not only did she knock it over, but she literally ran and jumped onto his back.

Without missing a beat, Aaron’s hands came up and grabbed her legs, supporting her piggyback landing as if he’d been expecting her. He stopped, slid her to her feet, and turned, and they were both laughing as they looked into each other’s eyes.

Then he had her in his arms and they were kissing.

I was so happy for her, for them, but my heart burned with longing. The entire restaurant broke out into applause, and I blinked back happy tears as he hugged her hard and lifted her off her feet.

Aaron got an extra chair and joined us for dinner, which was fun because I loved Aaron but not ideal because it made me feel like a total third wheel, especially when I sat in the back seat of Nekesa’s car after he ditched his friends so he could ride with us to the dance.

Once we arrived at the venue, it got even worse.

Nekesa and Aaron danced to every song, and even though she kept coming over to check on me, I told Nekesa that I wanted her to dance. I did, but I also felt like a total loser sitting at a table by myself because Dana and Eli were also dancing to every single song.

“Hey, gorgeous,” I heard, and when I looked up, it was Zack. “You look amazing.”

Of course. I was sitting alone like a total derf, so why not have Zack say hello, Universe?

I hadn’t responded to him after our tiny text exchange at Target, but that seemed like an eternity ago because things with Charlie had eclipsed everything else in my life.

Zack was wearing all black—black suit, black shirt, black tie—and it occurred to me that his shirt was a little tight. Charlie’s Baby Gap comment slithered through my head, even as butterflies went wild in my stomach.

“Thanks,” I said, my cheeks getting warm. “So do you.”

He grinned and ran a hand over the front of his shirt. “Me and the guys wanted to go all Prom Mafia with the black; totally Ford’s idea.”

I nodded and smiled, unable to remember which of his friends was Ford. “Well, it was a good one.”

“Who’s your date?” he asked, looking around. “Mr. Breaking Bad?”

I felt a stab of satisfaction at that, but of course, it immediately reminded me of Charlie. I said, “Nah—it’s Nekesa.”

I glanced over and saw her dancing with Aaron. “Well, it was.”

He laughed at that, and I realized that everything had changed.

And hadn’t changed at all.

Because I still found him to be beautiful. And charming. And kind.

But I didn’t feel anything.

“Well,” he said, his eyes moving down to my dress for a second before returning to my face. “I better get back to the group, but I just wanted to say hey. I miss talking to you.”

“Same,” I said breathlessly, and as he walked away, there wasn’t even a tiny part of me that wanted to stop him.

“Are you guys getting back together or what?”

I looked to my left, and Dana and Eli were coming back to the table. Dana was smiling at me as she said it, and I quickly shook my head. “No, he was just saying hi.”

“I heard he and Kelsie broke up,” she said, plopping into the chair beside me. “So I wondered.”

“Wait, what?” I squinted and asked her, “They did? When did they break up?”

“I think sometime last week.” She leaned a little closer and said, “Why—are you interested?”

This was the news I’d been waiting for, yet my we-need-to-get-back-together desperation had left the building.

I literally didn’t care.

Before I could answer, Eli asked, “Are you still pissed at Sampson?”

“What?” I looked at his bow tie and wondered how much he knew. “What do you mean?”

“When he had people over, I asked if you were coming, and he said no because you were pissed at him.”

God, that’s right—he was having people over the day after blanket fort night. I guess I’d forgotten. I gave him a noncommittal “Yeah.”

“That’s okay, you’re not alone,” he said, smiling. “Austin was so fucking livid when Charlie called off the party the night before that I still don’t think they’re talking.”

The night before? “There were going to be two parties?”

For some reason that irritated me, thinking of Charlie being a party-bro on the same weekend he broke my heart.

He shook his head. “It was supposed to be Friday night. We brought the beer over, we told everyone, and it was just about to pop when Charlie got a text and was suddenly like I gotta go—no party.”

I blinked. “Wait, what? What happened?”

He shrugged. “No idea. He goes, Something important came up and I have to go, and he kicked us out.”

“But we went to Dave and Buster’s instead and it was super fun,” Dana said, “so it turned out okay.”

I heard a roaring in my ears. Had Charlie called off a party to go get me at Walgreens? I felt a little light-headed as I remembered how quickly he’d said he was on his way when I asked for a ride.

No questions, no I have to rearrange some things, just a solid On my way.

God. That couldn’t be what happened, could it?

But as quickly as that thought formed, the thought So he could “get” you negated the action.

Shit.

I made it about an hour after that, but as soon as they played “The Last Time,” I had to leave. The entire Red rerelease reminded me of Charlie, and just hearing it made me think of pine trees and tree-climbing boys.

I told Nekesa that I didn’t feel well and was getting an Uber, and even though she was sweet and offered to take me, I could tell she was having the best night of her life and didn’t want to ever leave.

Good for her.

I let out a sigh as I walked through the enormous lower level of the downtown convention center. I felt like I’d somehow failed at fun, and now I had to take the Uber of shame back to Scott’s house. I was almost out the door when I saw two security guys standing in the way of someone who appeared to be trying to get in.

“You have to be a West High student, sir. We can’t let you in,” the bigger of the two guys said.

“I don’t want to go to the dance. I just want to fucking talk to someone.”

Oh my God! My pulse took off at the sound of that voice. Was that Charlie?

I stopped walking and craned my neck to try to see around the guards. Was Charlie here, trying to crash our formal?

“We can’t let you in, kid,” the smaller guy said. “You need to leave—”

“I just need two minutes,” he said, sounding agitated.

“Oh my God, Charlie?” I took a step to the right, and holy shit, it was definitely him. My body betrayed me by setting free a hundred butterflies in my belly as I drank him in, letting my eyes soak up the formal wear, as well as the dark eyes and thick hair that I’d missed so fucking much, it was suddenly hard to breathe.

Dammit—my reaction annoyed me, and I said, “What are you doing? Knock it off before you get arrested.”

His head whipped around, and he looked at me like he couldn’t believe his eyes. His hair was messed up, his cheeks a little red as he blinked, stepped back from the security duo, and said, “Bailey?”

You have no right, I thought. He had no right to say my name like that, like he’d been hoping to see me. He had no right to look at me with his eyebrows up. He had no right to make me ache for him.

“G’night, Charlie,” I yelled, pushing the door and going outside.

The cool air pricked at my warm face as I looked for my Uber driver in the darkness. The downtown area smelled like spicy food and fire pits, and I tried to calm my racing nerves. So Charlie was there in a gorgeous suit—no big deal, right?

Surely his presence had nothing to do with me.

“Bailey.” The sound of his voice hit me right in the middle of my chest, pinching my heart and filling me with longing for… something.

I turned around and there he was, looking like everything I’d been missing as he stood there in his black jacket, his gaze intense. I didn’t know why he was there, but I wanted it to be for me at the same time I wanted him to disappear. I breathed in through my noise and said, “What?”

He came closer, so close that I could smell the Irish Spring soap I knew he used because he’d left it in the shower at the condo in Breckenridge. His face was unreadable—closed off and serious—as he said, “I need to make things okay with us.”

I shook my head and shrugged, looking over his shoulder because it was too hard to see his face. I had perfect memories of that strong nose, of those chocolate eyes, and remembering it all still destroyed me. “It’s too late, Charlie.”

“Please don’t say that,” he said, looking down at my dress distractedly, like he was gathering his thoughts, and then his eyes came back to mine. He put a hand on the front of his coat and said, “I miss my best friend. I miss you. The whole reason I ignored my feelings for you and what went down in the blanket fort that night was because I was scared of this happening. How’s that for irony?”

“It’s not irony at all. You made a bet and got caught; that’s called a consequence.” I sighed, wondering when everything with Charlie was going to start hurting less, and I said, “It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does.” He looked intense, like he was trying to convince me, and then he made a groaning sound and put both of his hands over a different spot on his jacket. “I’ve never had a good relationship—ever. They all go to shit in a big way. So when I started falling for you, I forced myself to ignore it, to deny it, because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing you from my life if we got together and then split up.”

“You thought hurting me—and ignoring me—would ensure you’d never lose me?” I was pretty sure he was just bullshit spitballing an excuse to get me to forgive him. “You’re smarter than that, Charlie—come on.”

“I know.” He sighed and said, “I thought if I could just avoid you until I had a plan, then I could fix things. But then…”

He trailed off, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

“The bet.”

“The bet had nothing to do with anything—ever; swear to God. It was just Theo being Theo.” He flexed and unflexed his jaw while he looked down at me. “You and I, though—we were us.

“Us?” I asked breathily, wanting so badly to believe him.

“Magical, comfortable, Colorado us,” he said, his voice a little scratchy. “We were everything together.”

I shoved my hands into the pockets of my dress, confused as I felt a tiny frisson of hope streak through me.

“Do you know how long ago I fell for you?” He looked like he found himself ridiculous as he said, “I think I fell for you that day at Zio’s, when you showed me the proper way to eat pizza.”

“You called it pizza desecration,” I said, not really even registering what my mouth was saying as I looked at his serious gaze and long eyelashes.

He shook his head, like the memory still baffled him. “I remember watching your face as you patiently explained it to me, and I thought, How can someone be so interesting and irritating, all at the same time?

Was that supposed to be a compliment?

“And then I tried it,” he said, his eyebrows scrunching together like he was looking at an equation that didn’t make sense. “I tried it with the sole intention of mocking you, but then the flavors hit and you were spot-on and I realized just how unique you are.”

“Unique,” I repeated numbly, still unsure of his point.

“Bailey, you are, hands down, the most engaging person I’ve ever known.”

My heartbeat skittered in my chest as he spoke the words like he really had fallen for me. “Engaging?”

“Wholly.” His eyes burned into mine and he said, “When you’re in the room, every single cell in my body—every nerve, every muscle, every breath—is lost in you.”

My knees literally went weak, as in I felt like I was about to collapse.

A car honked, which made Charlie hiss out the word “Christ,” and I looked away from him and saw my Uber. The guy gestured with his hands like he didn’t have all night, so I dizzily—hazily, numbly—said, “That’s my Uber.”

“Can I call you later?” he asked, then muttered “shit” before his hands moved to the top of the jacket and his head jerked over onto his shoulder.

“What is wrong with you?” I asked, watching as his head rested on his shoulder like it was holding a phone in place and his hands were plastered against his own chest. “What are you doing?”

As if to answer, Puffball’s tiny head popped out of the top of Charlie’s jacket.

“Puffball?” I said, looking at that adorable fluffy gray face and stepping away from the car door.

“I don’t want to be a dick,” the Uber driver said, “but I’m going to take another rider if you’re not going to get in.”

“Oh.”

“Let me drive you home,” Charlie said, holding the cat against him with one hand over his coat while scratching the little guy’s head with the other. “Please?”

The cat did it. I looked at that little furry baby, and then I leaned down and said to the driver, “I am so sorry.”

“Forget it—bye.”

I watched the Uber driver pull away before turning around toward Charlie. “Why do you have your cat?”

He looked down at his shoes, then just past my shoulder—anywhere but my face, it seemed—and then he said, “So how was the dance?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Why were you hiding Puffball under your jacket?”

He made a frustrated sound, like a groan and a growl, mixed together in the back of his throat, and he said, “I just, uh, had an idea, and then I realized it was stupid but it was too late to take the cat back to the car.”

I don’t know why, but his absolute discomfort in whatever was going on made warmth bloom inside me. This vulnerable side of him was my favorite, even after everything. “Tell me what your stupid idea was—the honest truth.”

He held Puffball against his chest and petted his head for a second. Without looking at me he said, “I was going to give him to you.”

What? But you love that cat.”

He sighed and finally summoned the courage to look at me, embarrassment in his eyes.

“Wait—did you think you could make me forgive you by giving me a cat?”

“No—it’s worse than that,” he said, looking back down at Puffball. “I wanted to show you that you can trust me to never disappear again. So I thought if I gave you my cat, it would be this big gesture because you know how much I love him. I figured it would prove that I’d be around because I’d want to see him every few days for, like, forever.”

I looked into his eyes and didn’t know what to say. My hands were shaking and there was a buzzing in my ears, because Charlie almost gave me his cat.

His cat that he adored. Was obsessed with.

“But on the way downtown, as I was practicing what I was going to say to you, I realized I couldn’t do that to Mr. Squishy.”

I nodded and my eyes felt a little scratchy, because that made sense.

Charlie would think of my cat’s feelings.

Charlie was a cynical jerk, but he was a cynical jerk who did things like save animals from trees and make pasta for my mom and drive drunk girls home and—

“Why did you cancel your Friday-night party?” I stepped a little closer to him, suddenly remembering what Eli had said and desperate for Charlie to confirm it. I felt ready to burst as I breathlessly asked, “It was supposed to be Friday, but you kicked out your friends and moved it to Saturday. Why?”

His eyes traveled all over my face, and I swear to God I could feel his gaze like a physical touch. He set his free hand on my cheek and just said, “I had to.”

I very nearly purred as I leaned into his palm. “Because…?”

He swallowed. “Because you needed me.”

Because you needed me.

“You actually canceled the party so you could come get me?” It was too much, too wonderful, and I was hungry for him to say it.

“Nothing else mattered,” he replied, setting his forehead on mine.

“I think we should kiss now,” I said, emboldened by his actions, by his willingness to just dump everything when I’d needed to be rescued.

“So smart,” he said, his voice a little growly as he lowered his mouth to mine. I felt breathless as Charlie kissed me, because this time, it felt absolutely real. Truly, madly, undeniably authentic. The shake in his breath, the tremble in my fingers, the thoroughness of his devouring kiss; it was perfection.

He pulled back and looked down at me, his eyes alight with that Charlie Sampson tease. “God, I love the Moldova.”

“You remembered.” I laughed, thinking back to Breckenridge.

“Of course I remembered,” he said, an earnestness creeping into his voice as his thumb swept over my cheek. “When I’m a hundred years old, I’ll still be able to picture you in that black dress with your bare feet and wild little smile.”

“And I thought you were just using me for kissing practice,” I teased, melting against him.

“So did I,” Charlie admitted, lowering his head until his lips hovered just above mine. “Until your Moldova special made me never want to kiss anyone else ever again.”


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