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Home / Romance / The Next Best Thing / The Next Best Thing – Page 7/55

The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing – Page 7/55

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“No, no,” Jeremy said. “We’re…old-fashioned. You know. Might wait till we get married.”

Levi choked on his beer. “Oh,” he wheezed. Jeremy just shrugged, a smile still on his face at the thought of Princess Super-Cute.

Then, out of the blue, there came that week where Jeremy and Faith “took a break.” Shocked the whole school. Jeremy was uncharacteristically glum and didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, Levi imagined, Faith had snapped out of it and figured out that something was off where her boyfriend was concerned.

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He had his own stuff to deal with—a Division III college in Pennsylvania suddenly offered him a decent scholarship (thanks to Jeremy making him look so good all season). Between their offer and what he had saved, all Levi needed was five grand, and they could make it work.

He didn’t ask his mom; five grand was still way too much. He could’ve asked Jeremy or the Lyons, and they would’ve fallen over themselves handing it to him, but it didn’t feel right. He didn’t want to owe anyone.

And so, he asked his father. Figured Rob Cooper might owe him, instead. Tracked him down and found that the guy lived two towns over. Levi hadn’t seen him in eleven years. Not one phone call, not one birthday card, but the guy lived twenty miles away in a nice ranch house painted dark blue, a new-model car in the driveway.

Rob Cooper might’ve been a deadbeat dad, but he recognized Levi right away. Shook his hand, clapped him on the shoulder and brought him into the garage.

“So, um, I’ll get right to it,” Levi said. “I need five grand to go to college. I have a football scholarship, but it’s only a partial.” He paused. “I was hoping you might be able to help.”

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His father—shit, his father had the same green eyes that Levi had, same solid arms—his father nodded, and for one stupid second, Levi’s heart leaped.

“Yeah, I’d like to help you, man. How old are you now? Eighteen?”

“Nineteen. I stayed back in third grade.” The year you left.

“Right, right.” His father nodded again. “Well, the thing is, I just got married. Fresh start and all that.” He paused. “My wife’s at work. Otherwise, I’d introduce you.” No, he wouldn’t. “Wish I could help you, son. I just don’t have it.”

There were a lot of things Levi wanted to say. Things about back child support coming to a lot more than five grand. Things about how Rob Cooper had surrendered the right to call him son eleven years ago. About how he’d stayed back in third grade because he’d spent f**king hours after school every day, sitting on the stoop, waiting for that mustard-yellow El Camino to turn into West’s Trailer Park because Levi knew, he knew his father wouldn’t just go away forever.

But his mouth stayed shut, and shame burned in his stomach because he’d let himself hope.

“I played football, too, did you know that?” his father asked.

“No,” Levi said.

“Wide receiver.”

“Cool. Listen, I gotta go.”

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“Sure. Sorry again, Levi.”

It was hearing his name said by that voice, a voice still so well remembered, that almost broke Levi. He walked down the driveway carefully, as if he’d forgotten how, and got into Asswipe’s battered truck. Didn’t look back at his father and drove straight to Geneva to enlist. He wouldn’t let his father take any more away than he already had. Got a little drunk with his old pals that night, had to have Jess put him to bed, but otherwise, no harm done.

By the end of that week, Faith and Jeremy had gotten back together, anyway. Blip on the screen.

When graduation came around, Levi had passed the Army’s tests and was looking at sixteen weeks of basic training come August. All of a sudden, home suddenly became…everything.

Summer took on a bittersweet quality. He found himself sitting by his sister’s bed while she slept, hoping she’d do okay without him. Took her swimming, visited her Girl Scout troop and made all the little girls promise to send him notes and cookies. Brought his mom flowers one day, only to have her burst into tears.

The dense green hills and rows of grapevines, the sweet smell of the air were all abruptly precious. It was hard knowing things would never be the same, knowing that he would change and leave behind his old life, that this perfect last year would never be repeated.

The night before he had to head off to Fort Benning, Mr. and Mrs. Lyon threw him a party, told his mom that she’d raised a great man, and the three parents cried a little together. Jess broke up with him during the party, nothing big, just “Hey, there doesn’t seem like a point in keeping this up, do you think?” Levi agreed that no, there really wasn’t. She kissed him on the cheek, told him to be careful and said she’d write once in a while.

Jeremy picked him up the next morning. Levi kissed his mom goodbye, hugged Sarah tight and told them both to stop crying. Might’ve wiped his own eyes, too. Then Jeremy asked him if he wanted to drive the Beemer, and hells yeah, he did.

They were quiet all the way to Hornell, where the bus would take him to Penn Station, then to Fort Benning. Jeremy was heading for Boston College next week to start football practice, where he’d be backup QB to the senior starter. The gulf in their lives, the one that Jeremy never acknowledged, suddenly yawned between them. Jeremy would be a football god at a cushy school, possibly get tapped by the pros and, either way, would live a life of ease and privilege. Levi would serve his country in a war that most people didn’t think was doing much good and hopefully not get killed.

Jeremy bought a couple of coffees and waited until the Greyhound pulled up in a cloud of exhaust and the driver got out for a smoke.

“Looks like this is it,” Levi said, hefting his duffel bag onto his shoulder.

“Get a window seat,” Jeremy advised, as if he was experienced in the world of bus travel.

“Will do. Take care, dude,” Levi said, shaking his hand. “Thanks for everything.”

It was a shitty little phrase conveying nothing. Thanks for not caring where I lived, thanks for trying to get  me noticed by recruiters, thanks for sending me that pass, thanks for your  parents, thanks for picking me to be your friend.

“Thank you, too.” Then Jeremy hugged him hard and long, pounding him on the back, and when he let him go, Levi saw that his eyes were wet. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” Jeremy said, his voice shaking.

“Right back at you, bud,” Levi said. “Right back at you.” A long minute passed, and for whatever reason, Levi thought maybe he should crack the door a little, now that he was leaving. “That wouldn’t change, either,” he added.

“What do you mean?” Jeremy asked.

If you came out. The words stayed stuck. Levi shrugged a little. “I just…I’ll always be here for you, man. Whatever happens. And you know…you can tell me anything. Call me. Email. All that good shit.”

“Thanks,” Jeremy said. They hugged again, and Levi got on the bus.

He didn’t go back to Manningsport for almost five years.

CHAPTER FOUR

“THANK YOU FOR TAKING me out,” Faith said three days after she’d landed in town. “I’m not sure how my grandparents haven’t killed each other yet. When I’m trying to fall asleep at night, I can still hear them in my head. ‘You want mustard. You always have mustard. How can you make a sandwich without mustard? Take the mustard.’ I could be on fire, and they’d still be fighting over the French’s.” She took a generous sip of her martini, one of the best things about Hugo’s Restaurant. “I’m starting to think that moving in with them was a fast road to suicide.”

Colleen O’Rourke grinned. “Oh, you Hollands. Such a cute family.”

Colleen and she had been friends since second grade, when Faith had had a seizure and Colleen had faked one, jealous of the attention Faith got. Colleen had been much more vigorous, the tale went, and ended up bumping her head on a counter and needing four stitches, which had made her very happy indeed.

“So, aside from the grandparents, how is it, being back?” Colleen asked now.

“It’s great,” Faith said. “My dad took me out to dinner last night, and it was great. The Red Salamander. Those pizzas are to die for.”

“I’d marry your father if you’d let me.” Colleen raised an eyebrow. “I mean, if he’s tolerating that horror show, think of how he’d feel about me and all this.” She gestured to her face and torso, which, admittedly, were beautiful.

“Don’t you even look at my dad,” Faith warned. “And for the love of God, please help me find him somebody. We’re worried that Lorena will take him for a drive and they’ll end up married, and Dad won’t quite notice because it’s harvest time.” She took another sip of her drink.

“I’ll keep an eye out,” Colleen said. “No one good enough leaps to mind at the moment.”

That was the problem. Good enough for Dad meant sort of a Mother Teresa/Meryl Streep vibe. Rare, to say the least. She’d spent three hours on eCommitment/SeniorLove last night and came up with only one possible candidate.

“And how’s your project?” Colleen asked. “The thingie? The barn?”

“Well, I’ve been tramping around our land for the past two days, taking photos, doing land grade studies, water drainage tests. Get that look off your face. It’s fascinating stuff.”

“So this is a building for weddings and stuff?”

“Yep. But there are plenty of great places to get married or have a party around here, so the barn has to be special. That’s what I’m calling it. The Barn at Blue Heron. Do you love it?”

“I do! Very classy.” Colleen smiled. “So you’re back, Faith! You’re here! This is so great. I’ve missed having you around. You’re staying for two months?”

“Give or take. I talked to Liza last night and get the impression that Wonderful Mike is living there.”

“Don’t let him kick you out. I love having a place in Frisco.”

“San Francisco. Only the tourists call it Frisco.”

“I stand corrected, you snob.” She waved to the server—they’d gotten their drinks at the bar from Jessica Dunn, who’d barely said hello, but this guy was male, and as such, nearly fell over himself running to the table.

“Hi, Colleen,” he said warmly. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You look incredible.” He ignored Faith completely and leaned against the table, his ass on Faith’s bread plate. This was the problem with having a beautiful nymph for a friend. Men swarmed around Colleen like mosquitoes around a hemophiliac. “I get off in an hour,” the waiter added.

“Great!” Colleen said, tossing her dark hair back so he could see her boobs a bit better. “Do I know you? You’re very cute.”

The waiter made a huffy noise and straightened up. Faith pushed the plate away with the blunt end of her knife. “You don’t remember me?” the waiter asked. “Wow.”

“Why? Did we have a baby together? Are we secretly married? Wait, didn’t I give you a kidney?” Colleen smiled as she spoke, and Faith sensed the waiter softening.

“You’re such a tramp,” he said warmly.

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” Colleen said, batting her eyelashes. “Can we get another round?”

“I also need another bread plate,” Faith said.

The waiter ignored her. “Greg. My name is Greg.”

“Greg.” Colleen said the word like she was tasting it. “Can we get another round, Greg? Time’s a-wastin’. And at my bar, I wouldn’t keep the customer waiting.” O’Rourke’s was indeed the place to be, home of the best wine list in town as well as seventeen different microbrews and fantabulous nachos to boot. They’d come to Hugo’s because Colleen wouldn’t be able to talk if she was at her own place.

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