Oh. My. God.
Dean is the guy in the wheelchair.
What did Betty tell me? There’s stuff you don’t know about him. Yeah, no kidding. It all makes sense now. Why he never stood up and stretched during our breaks. Why he wanted to spend his lunch in Santa’s cottage. Why he refused all my invitations even though I was certain he was flirting with me, wasn’t gay, and didn’t have a girlfriend.
He didn’t want me to know.
And now I see the other guy being cornered by a security guard is the father of that boy Joey who wanted the science kit. That was the guy who was fighting with Dean? What happened? I can see Dean telling the security guard something in a low voice, and the man screams at him, “You’re a goddamn liar!”
And then one of the guards is leading the kid away.
Dean looks up at the crowd, glaring at us—rightfully so. His left cheekbone is very red, on the verge of bruising, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Then his eyes fall on mine and all the color goes out of his face.
“Callie,” he gasps.
I push past the other people in the crowd so I can go to him. Other than his bruised cheek, he looks okay. I can see Joey’s father has a swollen, bloody nose, and I want to give Dean a pat on the back. Maybe he’s in a wheelchair, but he really slugged the guy.
“You’re still here,” he says weakly, looking up at me.
“Yeah,” I say. I glance over at the man, who looks like he’d go for Round Two if not for the security guard. “What happened here?”
Dean just shakes his head. “Long story.”
I offer a tiny smile. “You need a lawyer?”
“Me?” He snorts. “No, not me. Talk to the other guy.”
At that moment, the other guard returns with Joey. There’s a furious look on the guard’s face as he addresses Joey’s father. “I’d like you both to come with me.”
Any anger the man harbored for Dean seems to vanish. The man’s face turns as white as a sheet. “Look, he plays softball. He gets bruises.”
“I need you to come with me right now,” the guard growls.
Dean doesn’t say anything more about what happened, but I’m starting to figure it out. Some people are too evil to live.
The other security guard approaches Dean, putting his hand on his shoulder. “The issue with the boy is probably something that should be dealt with privately, but if you’d like to press charges…”
Dean shakes his head. “No. I just want the boy to get help.”
The guard squints at his face. “You don’t look so good, Mister. Are you sure you don’t need me to get someone for you?”
I put my hand on Dean’s shoulder. He looks surprised, but not displeased. “I’m with him,” I say.
Now is the guard’s turn to be surprised. He looks between the two of us, as if trying to figure it out. Finally, he says, “Okay, as long as you have someone.”
Now that the excitement is over, the crowd starts to disperse. Except for me and Dean. I look at his face, at the blossoming redness on his cheekbone. It probably hurts like hell.
“Well, thanks for getting rid of the guards,” Dean says. “I didn’t think they were going to leave until my mommy came to pick me up or something.”
He lowers his eyes, rubbing his knees. “Well, I’ll see you around. I guess.”
No. No way. I’m not letting him do this to me again.
“You have to ice your face,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows at me. “My face?”
“Yeah, you look like someone just slugged you.”
He manages a smile. “It’s okay. I’ve gotten punched harder than this.”
He has? I look him over, wondering how he ended up in the chair to begin with. I probably don’t know him well enough to ask yet.
“You look awful though,” I say.
“No, I mean, your face looks awful.”
“Please stop flattering me,” he says, but he’s smiling now.
“I’m going to get you some ice,” I say. “Don’t move, okay?”
“I have to go get my grilled cheese sandwich.”
“Well, okay, but don’t move after that.”
While Dean goes to fetch his sandwich, I find a place that gives me a cup with ice in it. I wrap the ice in enough paper towels so it won’t hurt him when it touches his skin. Either way, he’s going to have a shiner from that punch, but at least this way maybe his eye won’t swell shut.
I watch Dean making his way across the food court in his wheelchair. I wonder how long he’s needed that chair. I’m guessing not long, considering how awkward he felt about revealing to me he needed it. Yet he seems to have a good handle on it, steering it easily between tables, grabbing chairs to propel himself past tight spaces. I watch the muscles in his shoulders working under the fabric of his T-shirt. I was right—he did have a great body under that Santa suit. I’d gotten used to seeing him with that pillow-induced bulge of a gut.
I join Dean at a table near the grilled cheese stand. My stomach growls when the smell hits me. I love grilled cheese. I can make that myself though—two slices of bread and a slice of cheese from the grocery store is way cheaper than this five-dollar mall sandwich. My version won’t be as good as his sandwich, but it’ll be good.
“I made you an icepack,” I tell him as I slide into the seat across from him.
“Let me eat first.”
“It’s going to swell up if you don’t ice it.”
When he doesn’t have any response, I gently place the icepack on his cheekbone. He looks at me with his good eye with an unreadable expression on his face. After a minute of me holding the ice against him, he brushes my fingers away so he can hold it himself. With his other hand, he gives me half his sandwich.
“You don’t have to give me half your dinner,” I say.
“You look hungry.”
He rolls his good eye. “I’ll hold the ice on my face if you eat the sandwich, okay?”
I’m not going to argue with that. Especially since I really do want half the sandwich.
We sit there, silently eating our grilled cheese while Dean keeps the ice pressed against his face. All I can think about is how sexy he’s going to look with a black eye. And how I’m determined not to leave without his phone number this time.
“So be honest,” I say to him. He looks nervous at the question until I say, “Who threw the first punch?”
He snorts. “He did. Obviously. He didn’t like me telling him not to beat up on his kid right after I saw him do it.” He hesitates. “But I did lunge at him and knock him to the ground.”
“I think you broke his nose.”
“I hope so.”
I take another bite of the grilled cheese. God, this is good. I’ve got to learn how to make them this way. Maybe I’ll ask the grilled cheese people to give me some tips.
“So,” I say. “What did you think was going to happen if you told me you needed a wheelchair? Did you think I was going to be like, ‘Ew, not interested. Get away from me, perv.’”
Dean looks up at me, blinking his blue eyes a few times fast. “Um, well… not that exactly…”
“Then what exactly?”
He shrugs. “I just thought… well, I just figured you didn’t know what you were asking.”
“Um, you were in a Santa costume with a pillow stuck down your shirt. I knew there were question marks.”
He makes a face. “Come on, Callie. You know it’s not the same.”
“All I know,” I say, “is you never gave me a chance to be a better person than you assumed me to be.”
He’s quiet for a moment, chewing on some grilled cheese. “Okay, that’s fair.”
I reach into my purse and fish around for a moment. I pull out some crumbled bills and lay it down between us. “This is the money you gave me for the bet I won. I want you to take me to dinner instead.”
Dean looks at the money on the table. “That’s only seven dollars. I gave you ten.”
“Well, I bought a necklace.”
He laughs. I remember when I met him, what now seems like an eternity ago, how it was the first thing I liked about him. I’ve found a lot more things to like about him since then. And I’m betting I’ll find a lot more. I hope he gives me a chance.
“Let’s take a look at that eye,” I say.
Dean lowers the icepack from his face. His cheek is still pretty red, but it might not be as bad as I first thought. It’s hard to say.
“So?” he says. “Am I deformed now?”
I grin at him. “No, you’re still just as good-looking as ever. How’s it feel?”
“Cold. Mostly numb.”
I reach out and gently touch the bruised skin under his left eye. He leans forward a little, probably so I can get a closer look, but something just takes me over. I lean forward too, and before I know it, my lips are on his. He smells like peppermint and tastes like grilled cheese, and his face might be cold, but his mouth is hot. He’s hot. I don’t think I ever want to stop kissing him.
I’m kissing Santa. I’m kissing Dean.
Holy shit, I’m kissing Callie Quinn.
I didn’t think my day would end this way. No way. Not when I woke up this morning. Not when I saw Callie stride into Santa’s Cottage wearing that ridiculous elf costume. She’s still wearing the costume now, which I’ve grown really fond of during the course of the day. But she’s taken off the hat, which is a shame, because the hat looked adorable on her.
This is a great day.
Then again, my fist hurts from when I punched that child-beating asshole, and now that the ice is off my face, that’s starting to hurt too. And I’m stranded at the mall because of my idiot brother. So I deserve some good stuff to happen to me.
We kiss for a long time. It’s been a long time since I’ve kissed a girl. Not since before. I don’t know how long it’s been for Callie—couldn’t possibly be as long as for me. But she seems just as into it as I am.
I heard after losing sensation in half my body, the parts I could feel would be more intense. I hadn’t noticed that before. But now… just from this kiss, it’s like every nerve in my body is standing at attention. This is the most amazing kiss I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know if it’s my injury or Callie or what, but I don’t want to ever stop kissing this girl.
Making out with a beautiful girl in the food court of the mall. Life isn’t terrible right now.
“Well, well, well,” a voice says from behind me. “Can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can I, Dean?”
I jerk away from Callie. I know my brother’s voice without having to turn around, but I do anyway to glare at him. “Thanks for interrupting,” I say.
He smiles broadly. “Well, how long was I supposed to sit here twiddling my thumbs while you make out with an elf?”
I look over at Callie, who is sitting there with a silly grin on her face that probably mirrors my own.
“Rich Palmer,” my brother says, sticking out his hand to her. “Dean’s brother. And his ride home.”
“I’m getting a car soon,” I mumble. And now I actually have to do it. If dating is in my immediate future, I need a car.
“Need a ride?” Rich asks Callie.
She shakes her head. “I’ve got a car. And most of the time, it even starts. Well, some of the time.”
“Let me give you my number,” I say quickly. “So you can call us in case your car won’t start. And I can get yours so I can call you to… um, you know…”
My fingers are shaking when I program Callie’s number into my phone, and she does the same for me. I make sure to get it right, so I can call her to arrange that dinner. This is the most nervous I’ve been asking a girl for her number since I was in high school. When is the right time to call a girl you really like, anyway? Do I really have to wait three days? I can’t wait three days. It will take all my self-restraint to make it till tomorrow.
“Anyway…” Callie rises to her feet. “I better get going. Nice meeting you, Rich.” She touches my shoulder gently and my whole body goes nuts. “And Dean… I’ll talk to you later.”
She backs away from us, that grin still on her face, waving intermittently while I wave back. It’s only when she disappears through the doors to the parking lot in a blur of green felt that I notice Rich is smirking at me.
“That was really adorable,” he comments.
“So, so cute.”
“I said shut up.”
He laughs. “You’ll have to tell me what happened today. Because I definitely didn’t expect to come here and find you making out with an elf.”
“Yeah, well.” I back away from the table, and Rich’s eyes go wide.
“Jesus Christ, Dean!” he exclaims. “What happened to your face?”
“Oh.” I touch my cheek and wince. Shit, it must look bad. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
He stares at me. “Did someone punch you in the face? Because that’s what it looks like.”
I shrug again. It’s too long a story and I’m tired. “You should see the other guy.”
Actually, I probably look worse than the other guy. But I don’t care. I got to kiss a hot girl and he’s hopefully going to jail or something.
“Hey,” I say to Rich as I follow him to the parking lot. “You want to go to O’Toole’s?”
He raises his eyebrows at me. “Really? This from a guy who I had to bribe to get out of the house today?”
I shrug. “It’s still early.”
He grins at me. “That it is.”
I punch my fist into the wheelchair button that opens the automatic doors to the parking lot. Even though my cheek is throbbing, I feel good right now. The best I’ve felt in a long time, actually. The first time in a while where I can say I don’t secretly wish I’d been crushed to death in my car a year ago. Everyone told me I’d make peace with my injury, but I never entirely believed it. Maybe I’m not a hundred percent of the way there, but for the first time, I can envision getting there.