Schooled

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Chapter 36

After sleeping on it, I was more convinced than ever that everything had changed with the website and Ava’s revelation. And the more I thought about Kirsten’s advice the more empowered I felt. Even before launching, we had done everything we could for the label and the pieces were coming together. A new fear had entered my mind: what if we were successful? Did I want to have a fashion empire completely alone, especially when there was someone nearby who could make everything seem better?

Now I had a plan.

I worked up what I was going to say. Practiced it. But it didn’t matter if I was just saying it to myself.

So next I tried texting.

Hi. Are you around?

Lamest text ever.

After the first hour I stopped waiting for a reply. After the first day, my fear of not knowing what to say when he texted back was overcome by a sadness thinking he just wouldn’t text back.

The next day Ava tried him. “He’s not responding to me either.” She offered. It was part comfort, part apology.

“Tell you what. Let’s spend the rest of spring break at my parents’.” I knew she meant on the off chance Dylan would stop by.

I gratefully agreed.

When we entered the house, Christine greeted us. “Hi girls. This is a nice surprise.”

Ava didn’t waste time. “Mom, is Dylan here?”

Christine looked between me and Ava for a moment. “No, honey. He’d been waitlisted for an Engineers Without Borders trip over spring break. It came through last minute. He’ll be back Sunday night. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you.”

Wasn’t a huge mystery as to why he hadn’t.

“I’m going to go take my bag to my room. You coming?” Ava asked me.

“Actually, Lex, can you help me with something in the kitchen first?” Christine asked. I shrugged, nodded.

I followed her to where she was putting the finishing touches on a quiche. “Put some tea on?” she asked. I complied, moving easily around the familiar space.

Christine didn’t look up from where she was adding cheese to the top of her creation. “I know it’s not my place, but I heard about you and Dylan. At least, I heard there was a falling out.” I tried to keep moving but inside I was frozen, hanging on her words. How had she known?

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out. We adore you, and you would’ve been wonderful for him. You’re already practically a daughter to us, Lex. I hope you know that.”

I swallowed. “Thanks, Mrs. C.” Something in me swelled up to hear that she felt that way. “He was actually pretty good for me too.”

* * *

Three weeks had passed since our visit to the Camerons’. Still nothing from Dylan. It was possible he was still mad at me. Or maybe he just didn’t care.

Somehow it was end of April already. The semester had flown by and finals were almost upon us.

Jane and I consumed record amounts of banana bread at Bart’s and other fuel we smuggled into the library as we grilled each other on course material. I kept volunteering to do the Bart’s runs, secretly hoping I’d run into Dylan there, but no such luck.

The one shining spot was Travesty. Things were clicking into place. We now had ten LA boutiques committed to carrying the items Ava had produced for the next season. The pieces were already manufactured, and Ava and I were going to be delivering them personally to the stores starting next week.

It hadn’t been without hiccups, though. Ava had a falling out with our manufacturer when she didn’t like the topstitching on a jacket. I’d smoothed that one over using the same hard-won diplomacy that had gotten me through more than fifteen years of best-friend-ship.

At Kirsten’s suggestion we were taking a moment to pause and enjoy things. This “pause” came in the form of a small friends-only launch party the Saturday before finals started.

Blake, who’d taken us under his wing over the past few months, had phoned a friend and gotten us a loft downtown. Kirsten had sent a case of champagne with a handwritten note saying she wished she could’ve been there with us. Blake had invited some names from the local fashion industry, and most of our close friends from school were there.

While Ava had agonized over clothing, I had fewer options and only one that I wanted to wear: the green dress I’d worn in New York, my Christmas gift from Ava. Because of the weight and color, it was really a spring piece. And, the only people who’d seen it were Ava and Dylan, so it was probably a safe bet. My heart hurt a little as I put it on, thinking about the last time I took it off. But I brushed the feeling aside.

Ava also insisted we needed some arm candy for the event, which was why Kent’s car appeared in the driveway just after six.

We had run into each other a few times this winter and he was always friendly. Now I secretly wanted to pump him for information about Dylan but thought I’d better wait for the right moment. I was starting to get a bit desperate for scraps, anything that would tell me what he was doing.

Kent radiated California preppy in a suit that showed off his surfer body and tan. His tie was a teal color that, through coincidence only, almost matched my dress.

I suspected he’d picked it to set off his eyes. And he did look good. I wished it affected me in some small way. But my interest in the opposite sex seemed to have completely dried up.

“You look terrific,” he said with a grin, bending for a kiss that was ambiguously destined for some part of my face. I turned slightly to guarantee that it hit my cheek.

“Thanks, Kent. You look pretty great yourself.” I smiled back at him. He opened the car door for me and we set off.

Ava had left a couple hours earlier, saying she’d meet us there. She felt particularly invested in the décor so had insisted on going earlier and doing it without my help, saying it was a “designer thing.” Somehow she’d even twisted Blake’s arm and he had committed to helping, no matter how much I insisted he was beyond hanging streamers.

We arrived at the loft, a walkup right downtown. It took up the second floor of a large building. Blake and Ava had outdone themselves, which was saying something. The space was super modern and industrial, with exposed brick and great metal ceiling fixtures. Our logo was projected in ten foot font up against a stark white wall and my breath caught when I looked at it. A bartender was setting up at the far end of the room behind a long chrome bar, and a DJ was at the opposite end.

Ava had made up temporary tattoos that looked like graffiti versions of our logo. They were laid out on the table by the front. I held one out to Kent and quirked an eyebrow.

“You want me to put this on?”

“I expect you to show your support,” I said solemnly.

“I will if you will,” he grinned. “Where should I put it?”

Three hours later there must have been at least two-hundred people in attendance. Ava had been in charge of invitations, so it wasn’t a surprise that I didn’t know a lot of them.

Everyone was congratulating everyone else. Ava’s mom and dad were both there beaming with pride. Even Mom and Grant had sent a gorgeous flower arrangement, though they didn’t come in person. It was probably for the best.

I’d found some respite in a corner to take a breath and look around the room. Then the same breath was squeezed out of me as someone grabbed me from behind in a giant hug.

“We really did this, didn’t we?” Ava’s voice contained awe.

“Yeah, now we just have to sell clothes.”

“You’re the best friend ever, you know that, Lex? It’s been a shitty year for you but you’ve been great.”

I swallowed as emotion welled up. “You’re pretty great yourself.”

“I know it’s still not going to be easy. But we’ll work it out.”

And I realized this time, we would.

I excused myself to use the washroom. I’d pulled my gloss out of my clutch to touch up when a vaguely familiar face appeared in the mirror.

It took me a moment to place her. She looked every part the college cheerleader, long blond hair left straight to hang down her back, a gold dress showing off her curves. She was talking to another girl as she reapplied lipstick.

“Yes, my boyfriend’s the designer’s brother,” Marcia said, oblivious to me. I nearly dropped my gloss in the sink. What the fuck? Then, chased by another thought quick on its heels: Is he here?

My insides contracted at the news that they were dating. But the biggest part of me just wanted to see him, in the flesh. I didn’t know what I’d do once I saw him but would worry about that later.

I dashed out of the washroom as quickly as my four-inch heels would carry me. It was hard to make people out, especially guys, in the dark lighting. While the women sparkled in every shade of the rainbow, the men were a mass of faceless, dark suits.

Except for Kent. I saw his blond head by the bar and started to make my way over. I wanted to ask whether he’d seen Dylan. He spotted me and grinned, came over and grabbed my hand. “Let’s dance,” he said.

He knew I’d been in the washroom so I could hardly make the excuse I had to go back. “Sure.”

Kent pulled me onto the dance floor in the center of the loft. It was just turning into a slower song, and he took one of my hands in his and wrapped the other around my waist. Suddenly it didn’t feel right and I couldn’t keep it in any longer.

“Kent, don’t read too much into this, OK? But … is Dylan here?”

He pulled back so his hands were resting only lightly on me. His blue eyes looked at me with an expression that looked slightly resigned. “Yeah, I think he came. Lex, I have to ask you something.” He paused. “Are you and Dylan …? I always kind of thought there was something, but after Christmas he was a total bear for a month. I kind of figured you’d ended it.”

“We did. But it was a mistake. I just need to talk to him, have you seen him?”

“Ahhh … yes. But you might not like what you see.” He inclined his head and I turned to follow. I’d give anything just for a glimpse of Dylan.

Suddenly there he was. My gaze locked with an achingly familiar one. He was on the dance floor about twenty feet away, dancing with Marcia. Dylan turned fully to look at me and I stopped breathing.

His dark hair was longer than I’d remembered, curling against the collar of his tailored suit. It was the first I’d seen him in anything formal and it fit him perfectly.

Dylan held my gaze for a moment and he was too far away for me to tell if there was anything in it. Then he turned back to her.

No. This was not happening. But what had I expected? That he’d be alone? That he’d take one look at me and come racing to my side, spouting admissions of love or need or anything?

“Do you want to …” Kent trailed off, reminding me we were still in the middle of a song. I nodded tightly and resumed moving with him and the music. But my eyes were unfocused, looking over his shoulder at the wall, or people, or the DJ, I wasn’t sure which. He seemed to get the message and just went with it.

When the song ended I looked around again. Clearly a glutton for punishment. Were they kissing?

It took me a moment to realize I couldn’t find Dylan but saw Marcia at the bar chatting to another girl. Where was he? Now that I knew what he was wearing, that it was burned into the backs of my retinas, I quickly ascertained he wasn’t in the room. Had he left?

“Kent, I’m sorry, I just have to. Um. Sorry.” I pulled myself out of a surprised Kent’s grasp and turned to make a dash for the door. There was no reasoning in my mind, just that I needed to find him.

Pausing in the corridor by the washrooms, I glimpsed the back of his head and suit. He seemed to be going outside. “Dylan!” I caught up with him at the coat closet by the door and nearly bowled him over in my haste to get to him.

He turned, surprise on his handsome-as-ever face. I grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and tugged him indelicately into the closet.

Now what was the plan? The closet was all but empty given it was May in San Diego. The odd shawl and light jacket hung around us but my back was up against the door. He was looking at me like he didn’t know if I was going to jump him or murder him or yell at him.

“Lex.”

“You came,” I started lamely.

“I did.”

“You were leaving. You didn’t even—” my breath hitched “—you didn’t even say hello.”

“I was just going outside to make a call. The reception’s crap in there.”

“Oh,” my voice trailed off. “Dylan, I need to talk to you. I mean, obviously. As evidenced by the, um—” I gestured to our surroundings “—closet.”

Why had I dragged him in here again? I was nervous now. He waited, his eyes on me, and folded his hands into his pockets. He was standing, looking tall and cool and delicious, in the center of the small room, just a few feet away. He didn’t make any move to get closer to or further from me.

“Thank you. For the website. It’s the most amazing thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

“You found it.” His face softened a degree. “You’re welcome.”

I blathered on. “Dylan, about New York. And everything. I just needed to say that I’m sorry. And I was wrong. I should’ve known you weren’t out to get us. And you’re not that person. And … I’m kind of an idiot.” This had been much smoother when I’d rehearsed it.

Dylan’s eyebrow rose the tiniest amount. “Are you?”

“Yes! I blamed you for everything. For my relationship with Ava, for getting distracted from my work, for missing the interview. It was wrong of me to put that on you. And I think part of me never believed you were trying to sabotage me. But the worst part was that I didn’t give you credit for any of the amazing things you brought into my life, the way you made me feel.” I rushed on, afraid he’d leave before I finished.

“I was scared. After Jake I thought I didn’t want to be with anyone else. That I couldn’t, not while also trying to achieve my dreams. But there you were—you just appeared out of nowhere and hit me like a Mack Truck.” I took a deep breath, focused on a swirl of the paisley print of the carpet. “And even though I tried, God I tried, I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t stay away from you.” It felt like I’d opened the floodgates and everything I had been thinking for months was spilling out.

I raised my eyes to his. “You snuck up on me, Dylan. I didn’t know what to do with that, I still don’t if I’m honest. But I needed to talk to you. To tell you I’m sorry for screwing this up. Whatever this was. And to thank you, for making me better, and happier than I’ve been since I can remember. To show me that I can be better, and happier.”

I could see the rise and fall of his chest as he processed, could see things flitting through his eyes.

“So.” I had built up some steam now and had to keep going. “I know you’re with Marcia now and I’m glad for you, I am. I care about you, Dylan. So much. I want you to be happy. I mean, I’m not glad about Marcia, because even if you’ve made her better like you made me better, she’s probably still dumb as a post, but I’m sure with time and perspective and maybe a couple of pints of Häagen-Dazs I will be,” I finished lamely. “And I know you didn’t want to talk to me or you would have texted or returned my calls, but I had to say that.”

Dylan’s face looked puzzled, and then something else. I could see emotions drift through his eyes, but there was so much there, and confusion, that it was impossible to separate the pieces.

He stared at me for a few beats before speaking.

“Are you looking for a response?” Dylan’s voice was low and composed.

“Oh. Yes. Or, you know, you could keep staring at me like you think I’m crazy. But I wish you’d just say something,” I said on a whoosh of breath. My impromptu speech had emotionally exhausted me. And on reflection it wasn’t clear whether it had done more harm than good.

He appeared to be listening but his gaze had fallen to the floor. He pivoted away from me to walk the few steps toward the side wall of the small room. Three strides in he turned to walk back in the other direction.

I’d never seen him pace before.

“So first, I didn’t get your texts. I was on the waitlist for a school exchange to work on a bridge in Africa, and got bumped up when someone backed out.” He glanced at me as he paused. I didn’t add that I’d already heard this particular piece of info. “I took my phone, but like an idiot, managed to lose it the first day.”

I tried to absorb this information. He hadn’t frozen me out. Just lost his phone.

“Second,” he pivoted on his heel and walked back the other way. It was his jungle cat walk. Slow but purposeful. I could picture him in ten years, an executive, on that walk alone. “Marcia … Marcia and I aren’t dating. Not for her lack of trying.” He shook his head ruefully. “Rick and I came here to support Ava, and Marcia and a couple of other girls came with us, but that’s it.”

Dylan paused. “And also I might’ve heard you were coming with Kent. Is there something …?” he asked, looking into my eyes now.

My heart had started beating funny. I shook my head, not trusting my voice. His eyes narrowed.

“So you aren’t—”

“God no. Dylan, don’t you get it? It’s only ever been you. This whole year, since that stupid party.” Laying it all out terrified me but I had nothing to lose now.

Dylan nodded, satisfied, and resumed his pacing. “Third,” he started, “you are one hundred percent right. We had something great. And breaking us up when we’d finally figured things out was a bad move.”

He stopped and turned to face me again, took a step toward me so we were only a foot apart. Those fathomless chocolate eyes, shot with caramel, were on mine.

“It killed me to think that you didn’t trust me. Can’t you see that?” Months later I could still hear the hurt that tinged his voice. Hated that I’d put it there, even if he wasn’t blameless in all of this. “You were an idiot,” he declared, with a softness that had me wondering where this was going. That gave me the tiniest amount of hope.

“The biggest,” I agreed softly.

Dylan nodded. “The biggest idiot. And you’re bossy. And sarcastic. And stubborn. And—”

I started to argue “Now wait a minute—”

“Can you just let me talk for a second, Lex?” Dylan’s voice was impatient. “You’re completely maddening. And you think you have to have control over everything. And that if you don’t, you’re doing something wrong.

“Well you’ll just have to get used to it. Because what’s between us? You can’t control it. And neither can I, though I’ve tried a million ways. I just love you. I have for months. Even after flying halfway around the world, literally, it doesn’t seem to be going away.”

My heart expanded. Or the room got smaller. Suddenly I felt like I was bursting. Dylan actually loved me? Still? Despite all the shit I’d put him through?

He ran a hand through his hair in a way that was endearingly familiar. “Lex, I’ve never done this before, so this is kind of new to me. As much as I thought it’d go away if I left, it hasn’t. So I guess I don’t have a lot of options.” He stood facing me, this gorgeous guy I’d sort of known for years yet somehow never seen at all. Now that I knew him, Dylan looked like everything I’d ever dreamed of. “I’ll give us another chance if you will.”

“For real?” I whispered.

“For real.” Dylan stepped forward and his arms came around me, his hands resting at the small of my back. My body loved every second of it. It was like coming home after being gone for months. Years.

I reached up to run my fingers through his hair. “I love you too. Even though you’re a—” His mouth came down on mine, silenced my thoughts. It felt like heaven, our lips and tongues entwined, sweetness with a hint of hunger that was always just below the surface with us. A sense of desperation. We pulled back minutes, maybe months later.

“So what does this mean for us? Are we …” I looked up at him, dazed from our kiss and our exchange. My heart was flying and my head was running to catch up.

“It means that any Häagen-Dazs you’re planning on consuming—” he bent his head to run his lips along the edge of my ear “—you’d better be ready to share with me.”

I laughed as he backed me into the wall. “But I’m going to New York! What about—”

“I like New York. We’ll figure it out,” he murmured against my mouth, sliding his lips along my jaw.

He said something against my throat that might’ve been “nice dress.” And then I couldn’t laugh anymore as his hands went under the hem and I stopped caring about words.


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