Chapter Four: The Art of Judgement

The Poison Ilee Column

Some say critics are those who wish they could but didn't. Others say it's the expertise of looking inside from the outside. Either way, Artsies, you're on the inside. Unless you want to become an outsider, let's hold the judgments and learn how to fire your weapons instead.

Dixie avoided looking at Professor Delany. The smudged paint on her hands spoke of how much she had been practicing music. Delany had noticed it as soon as Dixie had walked in and her frown was deep with disappointment. For a school of creators and talent, Dixie found that most people struggled to understand double majors. Her music instructors were constantly disappointed in her whenever she took the time to focus on her artwork and the same could be said for her art peers.

"You're both falling behind," Professor Delany said, her hands carefully on the desk as she leaned in towards Dixie and Landon.

He was sitting low in the chair beside Dixie, legs spread and eyes looking everywhere in the office but at the two women.

"You know, red suits you, Professor Delany," he said, motioning to the scarlet walls. "I like it."

She gave him a smile of gratitude, which Dixie rolled her eyes at and went back to staring at her hands.

"It's already the end of September," she continued. "Most students have at least something figured out, being the harmony or melody, the first measure, or at least an idea of what they want. What do you both have?"

"To be honest, I have a lot of original pieces that I would love to show you," Landon said.

"What do you have together?" Professor Delany corrected.

Mutual hatred? Disinterest? Dixie didn't think she could answer the question honestly so she kept her mouth shut. Landon took an exaggerated breath, leaning forward and meeting Professor Delany's eyes. His shoulder-length hair was tied back that day into a bun. Dixie's caricature of him would include a large head and an even larger mouth, but to nod towards his talents, she would also draw his hands disproportionally bigger. With his eyes, though, she would leave them closed.

"Listen, Professor Delany, we tried working together," he said. "It's just not compatible. The way she thinks about music… it's just not something I can work with. I will be happy to do the project on my own if everyone else is already busy with their own projects."

Professor Delany looked at him silently for a moment. Dixie blanched when she could see that she was actually considering Landon's words to be true.

"And why was it not compatible exactly?"

"Okay, that was bullshit," Dixie said, speaking for the first time since she entered the professor's office.

"Language, Dixie," Professor Delany said. "You're part of a symphonic orchestra and we represent class if anything else."

"I'm sorry, but he's lying," she said, pointing at Landon. "We have never worked together since you partnered us."

"Well, do you plan to?"

Dixie and Landon looked at each other. "No," they answered in unison.

Professor Delany exhaled, putting her hands up in defeat. "Okay, this is the deal. We can still expel you. Being a senior does not give you any immunity. You're both acting like children and we won't let you taint this school with a bad reputation. Dixie, the only thing saving you is your double major status. The art department would have our heads if we kicked you out, but I am willing to risk it. But as a warning, if you guys don't have something concrete by this time next month, I'm pulling you out of your London trip. And Landon, I figured you wouldn't care about London as much, so with you, I'll call your father on top of that. I'm sure he'll be pleased to pull you out himself."

Landon stood up immediately, any niceties leaving him at Professor Delany's threat. Dixie sat still until the door opened and closed behind Landon. She looked at Professor Delany, trying to understand the woman, trying to understand her decisions, but she couldn't. Her professor knew how much London meant to her. The art, the museums, the culture, the history, the architecture, but most importantly, she was going there for an interview with the prestigious University of the Arts London. Even though she didn't think she would get in. Half of her heart was settled in New York, but it was something she had to do, something she owed to herself and nobody else. This was hers and no one could take it away. Except for Professor Delany.

Before she could start begging to change the conditions, Dixie grabbed her bag and left the office silently.

The ocean in her painting reflected much of what she was feeling. The foamy white edges of the waves gave way to a textured, tumultuous storm. The greys and dark blues of the ocean blended until it was just colors and lines, moving together and combining to make one picture. She wished she could go into those waves and let the ocean carry her so far away that her worries would seem so small they would cease to exist entirely.

She went to dip her paintbrush in the jar when she saw the dark figure from the corner of her eyes. Dixie turned, her eyes landing on Landon Poulton leaning against the door of the small studio.

"You know, photos are a lot easier to make," he said, nodding towards the painting.

"Not making stupid comments is a lot easier, too, but here you are," she said, flashing him a fake smile.

She turned back to her painting as he grabbed a chair, flipped it, and straddled it, placing his arms on the back as he watched her.

"I remember you," he said. "Wild hair, freckles all over, kinda shy. I guess nothing's changed."

Dixie touched her messy bun that was being held out of her face by a bandanna. She could still remember struggling to read the music, her hands becoming too confused to follow along. Then she remembered her bow being ripped away from her hands and broken into two by Landon while he yelled at her that she wasn't good enough and never would be.

"Is that why you're not nice to me?" he asked. "Because I broke your bow when we were five?"

Dixie turned to him. "I'm indifferent to you, Poulton."

"I think you wished you were, freckles," he said in return. "But you hate me, don't you?"

"If I don't like you, Poulton, it's because you're extremely arrogant, you often take advantage of girls, your talent, your inheritance, and anything else you please. You expect the world to bow down to you. Always have, always will."

He smirked, leaning back slightly. "Are you jealous? Is that it?"

Dixie wanted to cry. Not because Landon made her sad, but because talking to him was like hitting a brick wall over and over again. He didn't listen, didn't observe what was around him, and lacked empathy. She could feel the heat coming off her face as impatience seeped deep inside her and threatened to spill out.

Landon laughed, snapping her out of her mind in confusion. He stood and put the chair back in its place. "You're too serious, Tennyson," he said. "Grab your stuff and let's go."

She stared at him as if he had grown another head. Had she been in her mind so much she had missed something? When she didn't move fast enough, he grabbed her bag from the base of her painter's stool.

"Where are we going?" she asked as he left with her belongings.

Dixie looked at her painting for a quick second and after dropping her paintbrush into the jar, she followed Landon out. She grabbed her bag from him, trying to avoid the curious looks she got from the few students that were in the hallway.

"I want to see what you've actually got, Tennyson," he said as they stepped outside. Landon pulled out a pair of sunglasses and after slipping it on, he flashed a smile at her.

"So now you want to work together?" she asked, crossing her arms over her chest and standing her ground.

Landon sighed dramatically. "Look, there's no way out. I've talked to Professor Delany and the school's dean. We're stuck rather if you want to admit it or not. I'm assuming England is important to you. So, let's go."

Dixie hesitated. Especially when Landon got to his car and she noticed the flashy convertible. She groaned audibly, looking around her to see if anyone was watching. That was a mistake, though. Landon Poulton was always being watched. She just hoped Bel wasn't one of them. She would never hear the end of it from her friend if she knew Dixie had to work together with Landon.

He got in and looked pointedly at her, raising an eyebrow full of impatience from the driver's side.

"I'm not getting in until you tell me where we're going," Dixie said.

"To my house, Tennyson," he said with a sigh. "Just get in or would you like to drive yourself?"

After biting her cheek and weighing all of the possibilities in her head for several seconds, Dixie opened the car door gently and got in. The leather seat she sat on spoke of high comfort and luxury. She felt out of place immediately. More often than not, Dixie's belongings came with streaks and smudges of paint and she stuck out like a sore thumb in the spotless car.

"You don't care if I get paint on your seat, do you?" she asked Landon haughtily.

He shrugged as he pulled out fast, making one of her arms shoot out to steady herself.

"I wouldn't, but my father might since this is his car," he said.

Dixie turned pale and then she started feeling nauseous as he sped out of the school's parking lot and into the road.

"Speed limit or I get out now," she said.

Landon turned to look at her, ready to make a joke, but whatever he saw on her face, he slowed down, throwing a hand up in defeat.

"Tennyson, you really need to relax," he said. "You act like everyone is on the verge to hurt you."

Dixie turned away from him with that comment, choosing to focus on keeping her hair out of her face as they zoomed through the streets of Charleston. She was grateful when he turned on his playlist. It avoided the need to talk. As classical music filled the space around them, she saw the curious glances they received from other drivers. She couldn't tell if it was the flashy convertible or the odd choice of music blasting through the speakers.

Looking at Landon, he was all kinds of contrasts. Although the car spoke of old money, his leather jacket, jeans, and white shirt pointed to an attitude tendency. Then there was his long hair, always thrown mainly to one side that made him look disheveled. The music playing promised sophistication, culture, history, and knowledge that neither the person driving it or the type of car really matched. Landon Poulton was a walking contrast. If she didn't know him and his personality, Dixie would say he was his own piece of art and she would have loved to capture it into a painting.

When they pulled to the gates of his house, Dixie raised her eyebrows and sunk into her seat a little bit. The bricked mansion loomed over at a distance, rows of hedges lining the driveway. Some yard workers were out trimming bushes and fertilizing plants, but none looked up as they drove past. Landon pulled up to the front door, circling the car around the water fountain. When Dixie got out, she looked up at the red-bricked house with white shutters and black railings. It was based on an English Tudor style, something that she wouldn't have appreciated the last time she was there when she was only four. Although she had been a kid when she had last seen the Poulton Mansion and had expected the house to seem smaller now that she was grown, that was not the case.

The Poultons were old money. She knew their history just as anyone who lived in the area all their lives would. They had been an Irish family that had migrated for the oil business in the west. Then they got into the bootleg trade. Every generation seemed to make their own fortune, investing what their ancestors passed on to something that encompassed that generation. However, for nearly a century now, the family was involved in the hotel industry. It was Landon's father, Viktor Poulton, who had made his corporation global. He was studied in most schools for being a business tycoon, someone who was envied for his expertise and audacity. She knew that this house was almost humble for how much money they actually had, but it was historic and it had been in the Poulton family since they settled in North Carolina.

It suddenly hit her who Landon really was. It was easy to ignore his fame and his background when they were at school. But he was an heir to someone who had turned millions into billions. She wondered what he would do with his inheritance or if he would keep the hotel going. She looked to him, almost as if to ask, but thought better of it.

Landon threw the keys to a butler standing near the door before motioning her inside. He didn't leave her anytime to acclimate to the marble floors, high windows, and décor in the foyer.

"I'm home!" he shouted to no one in particular, his voice booming around the house and echoing off the walls. "With a girl!"

He immediately went up the staircase, taking two steps at a time. After following him through rows and rows of hallways, they finally arrived at a door.

"That's my room," he said, pointing across the hall, "and this, Tennyson, is where the magic happens."

He opened the door to a music room. Dixie raised her eyebrows at the numerous instruments he had lined against the back wall; cellos, violins, violas, guitars, basses, and even a harp. It seemed he had two of each, one in it's traditional built and then an electric version. By the tall, French windows, he had a large, black piano. There was a small seating area in the middle of the room and the seats all pointed to rows of bookshelves. At close inspection, however, she noticed it wasn't books at all that the shelves kept. It held rows and rows of thin boxes that held written music inside.

"Some would die to see this room," Landon said, crossing his arms and looking around as if he had just seen it for the first time himself. "I've had to keep a lot of reporters from seeing it."

So it was true. Landon Poulton knew more than three instruments. Not knew, dominated. For the first time since they had met, Dixie felt a little nervous. She was good with music, but working with Landon Poulton would mean she would be criticized by Landon Poulton, a prodigy within his generation and age.

"Can I use your bathroom?" she asked.

"Across the hall, in my bedroom," he said.

While his music room was all white and light, his bedroom was painted a dark gray. His bed sat on one end of the room, his navy covers neatly made and then at the other end was another living room with its own fireplace and TV above it. Between the bed and living room was a desk with a computer and a sound system. The bedroom smelled like him; like cigarettes and cologne.

When she saw a door next to the fireplace, she opened it and turned on the lights. His closet came into view, a space as big as her own room at home. She shook her head, shutting the lights before finding the bathroom on the other side of the living room. Once in it, she sat down on the edge of the large bathtub and pulled her phone out.

"Hey," Sam answered on the third ring.

"I'm not in school and I'll need you to pick me up whenever you're done," she said, her eyes still roaming the luxury around her.

"Where are you?" Sam asked, worry spiking his voice.

"I'm fine," she said hurriedly. "I'm working on a project… I'm at the Poulton Mansion."

"The Poulton—are you insane?" Sam asked. Dixie shut her eyes, rubbing her forehead with her fingers. She should have known he wouldn't like it. "Do you know what kind of guy he is, Dixie? Tell me this is a group project and there's more than you two there?"

"He and I were put together on this project," she said. "I didn't have a choice. And the only reason you know him is that you guys attend the same parties, so don't act higher than him."

"Yes, which means I know what kind of guy he is, D," he said. "I'm picking you up now. You guys can work at your project at our house."

"No, Sam," she said, her voice lowering considerably in fear. "No, please. Not at home. It's unsafe."

There was a long pause and she could hear whistles and the voices of his team members around him. She knew he would have practice and being captain, he would have to stay.

"How long do you need?" he eventually asked, hesitant.

"Just until practice is done," she said. "Pick me up then. Sorry, Sam, if I knew I would have told you earlier."

"It's fine," he said. "Call me if anything happens."

After hanging up with Sam, Dixie stared at her reflection in the mirror. The lights were so white and bright that she could see every pore, every tiny splatter of paint on her skin, and every imperfection. Her freckles stood out against her pale skin, her blue eyes and red hair the only vibrant colors on her face. After swallowing and guessing she had no other choice but to work with Landon, she left the room.

She was startled when she saw a native American woman, brushing her hands on the already made bed. She was wearing an athleisure outfit, her hair done up in a neat bun. She was around her mid-thirties and for a moment Dixie tried to jog her mind to remember if Landon's dad was married, but everyone knew he was the most sought-off bachelor.

"Oh, hi," she said dryly. "He told me he had a girl in here."

"Sorry," Dixie said. "I was just using the bathroom."

The woman opened up his bedside table and took a handful of something. Dixie couldn't make out what they were until the woman was in front of her, thrusting it into her own hand.

"Make sure you guys use them," she said with a raise of an eyebrow. Then she paused, looking at Dixie from head to toe. "You're not his usual type."

Dixie stood there, caught between wanting to laugh and cry with a handful of condoms in her palm. She watched as the woman exited, a shocked sigh escaping her chest. She was still staring at the door when Landon poked his head in, looking annoyed.

"Tennyson, don't snoop—what are you doing with my condoms?" he asked, coming into the room and leaning against the doorway.

"This woman just randomly gave them to me," she said, her voice still carrying the shock she felt.

"That's Eliza," Landon said with a roll of his eyes. "You can take some if you need it, freckles."

Dixie finally looked down at her hands. The aluminum of the packets was poking against her skin. She dropped them on the floor when she got over her shock, a shudder running through her body.

"That is so gross," she said, walking past Landon and going back into the music room.

Landon laughed at Dixie's red face. The way she had dropped the condoms was if she had been holding a spider.

"Oh, come on," he said as they entered his music room. "Don't act like you wouldn't enjoy it with me, Tennyson."

"I would rather die," she said.

"I could show you a great time," he said, giving her a wink. She blushed all over again, causing him to laugh again.

"Poulton, why am I here?" she asked. "Can we get on with the music, please?"

He smirked at her, folding his arms across his chest and walking closer to her. Landon loved to make her squirm and as soon as he towered over her, he watched as some of her boldness escaped her.

"You're not a virgin, are you, freckles?" he asked quietly, a smile playing softly on his lips for he already knew the answer.

"You are so grossly rude," she said, shaking his head at him.

She moved fast as she grabbed her bag from its place beside the couch. Before she could leave, he grabbed her arm, pulling her back.

"Relax, Tennyson," he said. "You're not my type. I'm just winding you up."

Before she could think about leaving, he went to his shelf and found the piece he had already been thinking about. He went back towards the room, pulling two of his music chairs until they were facing each other. His eyes met hers as he fixed a music stand in front of one of the chairs and propped the music piece on it. She looked nervous and in a way, it was refreshing to him that she could have other emotions besides discomfort and anger.

"Well, come on," he said, motioning at the chair.

She dropped her bag and took a seat as he removed his cello from its stand and handed it to her along with its bow. He sat across from her, resting his elbows against his thighs. He watched as she fixed the cello's height, propping it on his rockstop and then carefully twisting the end of his bow until the hairs pulled tightly.

"Did you write this?" she asked, after skimming it.

"Yes, don't butcher it," he said.

She threw him a look of impatience before taking a breath, her eyes squinting behind her glasses in concentration. As she started playing the music, Landon couldn't help but notice that she was no longer the young four-year-old he had yelled at. Her bow movements were impeccable, her fingers hitting the notes on the cello to perfection. He could tell that she had practiced most of her life and had spent hours honing the skill. He understood, although he would never admit it, why Professor Delany had given him Dixie. She could play almost as well as him.

As the song rose to a crescendo, she pursed her lips, focusing harder on the notes. He tucked a piece of his hair behind his ear that fell out of the tie as he listened on, the music he had created sounding almost strange as she played it. It was as if he was sharing a secret with her and she was telling it back to him. An emotion filled his chest, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Was he nervous or sad? But as she continued to play and the feeling increased, he was finally able to understand it. He felt nostalgic and melancholic for something that would never be. After he was done with high school, his music would cease to exist.

When Dixie finished playing, he leaned back on the chair. "Not bad, Tennyson," he said. "Any improvements?"

She bit her cheek, her eyes running through the music again. It was a while before she spoke.

"Well, with this piece I see someone running from something or towards something," she said. "But towards the crescendo, I feel like there is some resistance, but it's not very clear about that. I think if you made it staccato—"

She paused, playing a few measures of the crescendo using staccato.

"—then it would be more obvious," she said. "And then in the end, when it seems like the person reached where or what they wanted, I think you could add some slurs to soften it and uplift it."

Landon smirked. She was good. He pulled out another piece from that same box and handed it to her. "Play that one now," he said.

Dixie played the piece again, this time with changes he had made to the final draft. Changes that included exactly what she had said and more. This time, she played it more a bit more relaxed, knowing the notes that would come next and the melody she needed to follow. When she was done, he smirked at her.

"My music does have depth, Tennyson," he said, remembering her comment towards him that first day of school.

She rolled her eyes. "Sometimes," she said. "Other times you need to branch out. Use other people's talents to make something more… original. While classical music is great, we're going to need a lot more originality to pass. Professor Delany is expecting not only collaboration but innovation."

She removed the cello from between her legs and laid it on its side beside her chair. Landon motioned for her to follow him to his couch, where Eliza had laid down finger sandwiches, lemon water, and fruit for them. Dixie immediately grabbed a cherry, her lips rounding around the fruit as she took a bite.

"And what do you suggest for innovation, freckles?" he asked.

"Well, we'll have to work with other departments," she said. "Have you ever done that?"

Landon scoffed. He had more important matters than to go around school seeing what people were up to and who had what kind of talent. He was expected to perform at his best level with any string instrument and being pulled into so many directions had made time very limited to him.

Dixie raised her eyebrows at him after his reply. "It'll be easy because everyone is looking for collaborators, as well," she said. "The dancers will be looking at music, the actors will be looking at the dancers, and the artists will be looking at anything that is fair game. Have you been invited to the Azuli club yet?"

Finally, she was speaking his language. Landon smiled, the fond memories reminding him that he had to go back there at some point.

"Of course," he said.

"Every Thursday night is Genre Fusion night," she said. "Different people from school collaborate, blend their talents, and present it. You should check it out."

"Wait, you've been there?" he asked. Dixie Tennyson was the unsocial girl he knew. The scene he had experienced with teenagers making out in every corner, prolific dancing, and outfits that took a considerable amount of time to put together was not the messy redhead's type. "How do girls get invited, anyway? Mine was a pretty sexy invita—"

Dixie went red again, taking another cherry from the bowl. Landon chuckled. "Was that your first kiss, freckles? Did some girl or guy shove their tongue down your throat and you were admitted into Azuli?"

She shook her head and he made a point to stare at her mouth. "Mmm, no," he said, shaking his head. "Not only are you a virgin, but you've also never been kissed, have you?"

Dixie turned to face him fully, chewing the fruit in her mouth carefully before swallowing. It was when her lips relaxed that something hit his chest. The realization came flooding through him and he dropped all of his pretenses because he knew that upper lip, he had traced that perfectly shaped cupid's bow with his own tongue. His own lips had framed her plump ones.

"I don't need an invite because I work there, Poulton," she said. "Besides, my personal life is none of your business so drop the rude comments or you'll be seriously working on your own, London or no."

"You work there because you sing there?" he asked, his mind recalling that memory of kissing her.

He thought the girl he had kissed was a brunette, but the stage lights had been green, and red hair would look brown. He let out a breath, running a hand through his hair. She had felt soft under his hands, her mouth had kissed him back. Hesitant at first, but she had caught on. He should have known a first kiss when he felt one. He had kissed many girls and knew that split hesitation of uncertainty of what to do before giving in.

"Yes, how do you know that?" she asked.

Landon opened his mouth to tell her it had been him, but he closed it and shook his head. She would kill him. She would throttle him and he knew it. Her breasts, her legs. It was all he could think of. None of her clothes had come even close to hinting what was beneath. Even now she was wearing a loose overall with an army jacket over it, but he knew what was beneath it all and he had been entranced by it.

He cleared his throat. "People talk, in school," he said. "You must know Andrew then."

"Yes," she said. "We actually work on a lot of things together. He was here when we tried learning the cello, so yes, I know him."

"Son of a bitch," Landon said, realizing his friend knew. He had talked to Andrew about Dixie and the whole time, his friend had just laughed it off. That night at Azuli, Landon had pointedly asked him if he knew the girl on stage and Andrew had swooped in on a chance to humiliate his friend. Landon would have done the same, but it was Dixie. In a lot of ways, Landon felt betrayed that the girl he had kissed didn't exist.

"Excuse me?" Dixie asked. "I thought you and Andrew were best friends?"

"We are," Landon said, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. "Sorry."

But then he turned to her, watching as she bit into another cherry. She had tasted like cherries that night, too. "You don't have an issue with Andrew, but you do with me?"

"He's quite nice," she said with a shrug. "And funny. You're arrogant, self-absorbed, and incredibly stubborn."

"Well, I can't disagree with any of that," he said. She turned to him, her eyes narrowed.

"It doesn't bother you that you're those things?"

Landon pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. "What I am and what you think are two very different things, Tennyson. You're fleeting,as everything else in life, so no it doesn't bother me."

"That's a really sad way to think," she said, watching him as he lit his cigarette.

"Is it?" he asked through the cigarette in between his teeth. "Is the way you do things any better? How is life turning out for you, freckles? I've asked around about you. Skipped a grade, double major status, 3.9 GPA, and now you're telling me you're a vocal music minor. Who are you trying to impress or prove yourself to and has it worked?"

"Wow," Dixie said, laughing dryly. "I don't know, Poulton. Maybe I'm just trying to impress myself. To make something of myself. Not everyone is born with millions to their name. I have to work hard."

"I know what hard work looks like," he said, "but you're on another level. You stay home most of the time, you don't have friends, and you walk around like the world is your enemy. You're focused, Tennyson. And while that would be a compliment to anyone else, it's not for you because the things that you're focused on are ultimately on yourself and your future."

Landon watched as her face turned from angry to hurt. Had he hit the devil where it hurt the most? He regarded her closely, not backing down from what he had said. It was the truth after all.

"You don't know me, Poulton," she said softly. "I work hard to prove people like you wrong. It was you, after all, you who said I was too dumb to read music, remember? Now look who's good enough to be your partner, the famous Landon Poulton's partner?"

"So you're trying to prove people like me wrong? People who won't ever even think twice about you?" he asked, anger slowly bubbling inside him. "Seems like a waste of time."

Landon was slow to anger but there was something about Dixie Tennyson that set his blood on fire.

"I don't care if you think about me or not," she said as she stood and grabbed her stuff. "But when people as callous as you tell me I can't do something, I like to prove them wrong. For myself. And I do have friends, asshole."

Landon cocked his head to the side, watching as she started heading for the door. "Do you mean Bel? Who do you think gave me all the details on you? She was so happy to spill, so if she's your friend she's not a very good one. And siblings don't count, Tennyson."

She froze in place, her flushed face drained of color, her anger seeping out of her body as if someone turned on a faucet. She stared at his face, fear and tears filling her eyes.

"We're done," she said. "I don't care if we fail or if I don't go to London. I don't care because any alternative is better than having to be around you."

"Tennyson—" he said, rising to his feet, her tears surprising him. He had cracked a wall he wasn't even trying to breakthrough. While he had meant all he had said, he hadn't meant to hurt her. She had seemed tough as steel, so he hadn't expected her to break so easily.

"No," she said, cutting him off briskly. "I'm done. You don't talk about my family. Ever."

"Dixie?"

Landon and Dixie both turned to the doorway. Sam stood there, eyebrows furrowed at his sister's state. A maid stood shyly behind him and at Landon's wave, she quickly left.

"What's going on?" Sam asked, looking from his sister to Landon.

"Nothing," Dixie said. "Let's go."

She walked over to her brother, tugging his shirt to get him to leave with her. However, Sam only looked at Landon, as if wanting an explanation but when Landon gave none and only put out his cigarette, Sam shook his head and came further into the room. Landon faced him, his arms loosely at his sides in case he needed to defend himself. Sam didn't look a lot like Dixie, but he carried the same blue eyes and the same anger in them.

"What's going on between you and my sister?" he asked lowly.

"If you have to ask me it means you don't trust your dear sister," Landon said in reply.

"You're walking a thin line," Sam said, his face contorting into a snarl. "Just because I know you doesn't give you immunity. Mess with my sister, and I'll mess with you. She's off-limits. Got it?"

"Sam," Dixie said a warning tone in her voice as she stood in the doorway.

"Is she off-limits just to me or everyone else?" Landon asked, raising his eyebrow slightly.

Before Sam could reply, Dixie grabbed his arm urging him out. She threw one last glance at Landon although her face was expressionless.

As Sam left, Landon couldn't help the feeling that came over him that he had stumbled into something that was not his business, something that Dixie held close to her heart. She was certainly not an open book, but what kind of secrets did a girl like Dixie Tennyson have? A girl, that as far as he knew, had never crossed any line she wasn't meant to. Who spent her weekends with her head in books or practicing her talents. A girl who thought so highly of her family that she would and did do anything for them.

Landon was confused. Talking to Bel had not enlightened him on the kind of girl she was. The blond had given him superficial answers, completely distracted by who he was instead of focusing on what he had been asking her. So, it was time for plan B. No one knew more about their town than Eliza. The woman had not only a museum worth of historical artifacts, but she had also written books about Charleston and its surrounding areas.

Landon knew exactly where to find her. Although she was the manager of the house and basically kept it in its pristine condition, Eliza was much more than that. Landon couldn't remember a time where she wasn't around. Since birth, her face was the one he remembered the most and because his father was gone most of the time, Landon had been raised by her. He could remember being disciplined, being scolded, being taught, and being loved all by Eliza. Although she had her own living quarters in the house, it was always the kitchen where Landon could find her. She loved cooking and baking. It set her thoughts into place, she would say.

When he went into the kitchen, she looked up from a steaming pot on the stove. He pulled her close into a hug, placing his chin on top of her black hair that was slicked back into a bun. She patted his back.

"Eliza, how many girls that I bring home do you have to embarrass?" he asked.

She pulled away, her eyes crinkling as she laughed out loud. Landon took a seat at the island, leaning forward and grabbing the wine that was next to the pot and taking a swig.

"However many it takes so that none of them walk through the front doors claiming their baby is your baby," she said, pointing towards the entrance of the house with her spoon.

Her dark skin spoke of her Native American heritage and she was still one of the most beautiful women he knew. But as he grew older and realized how different they looked, it had upset him. He had grown up wanting to believe Eliza was his mother.

"Well, Tennyson is not one of those girls," Landon said pointedly. "She's just an unfortunate event in my life right now."

Eliza furrowed her eyebrows. "Did you say Tennyson? I should have realized red hair like that came from Linda."

"So, you know them?" Landon asked, itching to get to the point.

"Of course," Eliza said, stirring the pot. "I went to school with Linda, her mom, and she's been in this house several times helping advise your father on legal matters. I think she's switched recently though and is doing criminal law."

"What's their history?"

Eliza turned down the heat on the stove and leaned against the counter, her hands joining together at the center. "Well, Alan and Linda were high school sweethearts. Linda graduated pregnant, but they stuck around. Went to Duke University despite everything and just traded off when they could watch the baby. I admired them for that, you know. They beat all odds and continue to do so with seven children and two very demanding careers. And for the most part, their kids are good. I haven't heard anything. I mean, last summer two of their kids got in a horrible car crash and one of them became paralyzed."

Landon narrowed his eyes at this. "A car crash? Do you know who it was?"

"I can't say that for sure, but I might have paper clippings," she said.

Eliza pulled the pot of soup off the stove and Landon followed her out. Once in her quarters, Landon sat on her couch and waited for her to find what she needed. Her walls were lined with bookshelves, books of all kinds filling every space it had. Some even threatened to spill from the shelves, as if Eliza had overfed it and it was gagging it all back out. Her quarters were on the second floor and it looked different from the rest of the house. The walls were painted a light yellow and the furniture was more modern and cozier.

"Here it is," she said, bringing a binder to him. She always got enthusiastic if it meant she got to share history.

She pushed the open binder towards him and Landon was met with a gruesome photo of a car completely turned over, windows shattered. The doors on the side that was visible seemed to have been crumpled like it was thin aluminum. A breath left his body. The way Dixie had grabbed onto the car when he started speeding had elicited a curious look from him, but it would have made sense if she had been in the crash. Had she been the one driving?

He tried to scan the newspaper for names but soon found that because the people involved were minors, they hadn't been allowed to publish it. It was only on the bottom, with Eliza's handwriting, that he saw the word 'Tennysons' scribbled.

"Wait, how do you know it was them?" Landon asked.

"People talk no matter if it's printed or not," she said with a shrug. "I paid a visit to Linda to drop off some food. She was so distressed. Two of her kids escaped death by a thread. One became paralyzed and whoever was driving had a piece of glass embedded into their liver."

"And you have no idea who was driving?" he asked, making sure.

"They have a lot of kids," Eliza said with a sigh. "And even then, Linda didn't really want to talk about it. She wanted her privacy. Are you thinking it was the girl that was here today?"

Landon shook his head. "Maybe. She seems fine, though."

"Not all wounds are superficial," Eliza said with a pat on his knee. "I better go finish dinner."

Once Eliza left, Landon looked at the picture more closely. How anyone survived a car crash like that was beyond his knowledge. But somehow, it answered most of his questions. Dixie would be overprotective of her family if she came to the brink of losing them and if she had been the one driving then she would certainly blame herself for putting her brother in a wheelchair. And if her family had come very close to losing her, he could understand Sam's protectiveness over her. He was often regarded as level-headed and a peace-maker. He rarely got into trouble and was often breaking up fights that his team got into. So what could cause someone like that to suddenly be making threats?

Landon shut the binder and ran a hand through his hair. Although he already knew he had been in the wrong, now he actually felt like he should apologize to Dixie. She had got under his skin because she acted as if she knew him when the reality was that she didn't. While her comments weren't hurtful, it had angered him. But having judged her in return had put him into a dark hole full of remorse and regret.

That evening, when Landon finally retired to his bed, he opened his bedside drawer and pulled out the mask from Azuli. He stared at it, the hollow, blank spaces for the eyes staring back at him. He had to go back to that club, but if Dixie saw his mask, she would know it was him that had kissed her. If it had been any other girl, Landon would already have made it known. There was something about Dixie, though, that he knew she wouldn't like it that it was him. Her throwing her water in his face had spoken volumes and while it had been entertaining, he still remembered the way she had walked away. Landon had stolen something from her that night and while he had enjoyed it and could still recall how full her lips were beneath his, how soft her hair was between his fingers, and how small her waist felt in his hands, he knew that it was tainted.

Dixie looked up at the ceiling of their makeshift fort. Raina was nuzzled between her and Evan and as her two siblings giggled about something, all she could think of were Landon words. She felt exposed as if he had ripped open a wound and all her dark nightmares had oozed out. Most importantly, she felt as if he was pointing and laughing at her as she tried to patch it up together with her hands. She shook her head, trying to eliminate the dark thoughts from her head. In the fort, it was easy to ignore what was out there. It felt safe.

"Dixie," Raina said, her small hands shooting up into the air. "Do you really have to leave for college?"

Dixie moved her head until she was looking at her sister, at a younger version than her. "I do, but we still have so much time left. It's months and months away."

"Why can't you go to Duke?"

"Maybe I can," Dixie said. "It depends if they accept me."

The ten-year-old giggled. "Of course they will accept you."

Dixie kissed her button nose and looked over at Evan who was watching her carefully. He was too mature, wiser than any of the Tennysons. She could already see it in his eyes that he knew she would apply to the farthest place. Not to get away from her family, but to break away from her guilt and her past. But somehow, he didn't blame her and he had voiced that same thought many times before.

"Hey, Raina, do you mind grabbing us some cookies from the kitchen?" Evan asked.

Raina was up and out of the room in a heartbeat, leaving Dixie and Evan alone in the fort, their feet sticking out slightly of the flap. Evan turned to Dixie almost immediately.

"Dixie, what were you and Sam arguing about when you got home?"

Dixie sighed, rubbing a finger up her nose and forehead until it hit her hairline. "I have a project to work on and Sam doesn't like who it is with. I don't either, but they nearly got into a fight today. In the guy's own home. The whole thing was just… it sucked."

"Who is it with?" Evan asked.

"Landon Poulton," she said quietly.

Evan looked at her and burst out laughing, his shoulders shaking from it. "That is priceless," Evan said. "Landon Poulton."

When Dixie didn't answer, Evan nudged her with an elbow. "And why don't you like him?"

"He's arrogant and condescending," Dixie said, shaking her head. "I won't work with him. I'll have to find another way."

"Dixie," Evan said, his tone cautious, "could this be you trying to push anyone away?"

She sighed. "Maybe," she said, "but you haven't met him, Evan. He's a jerk."

"If you say so," he said.

When Raina came back, Dixie closed her eyes. The house was so quiet with just the three of them. The last three Tennyons. They had always been closer to each other than their older siblings. Maybe it had been due to the fact that they were the most similar in personality or maybe because by the time they came along, everyone else was grown. Sam was on that cusp, the middle child, and while he leaned sometimes towards them, he was often out with Charlie, Andrea, or Margaret. However, Margaret had been the only child for a long time and it was no secret that she leaned more towards her own parents, although Dixie had found a best friend in her.

They heard the front door open and close, their parents' voice filling the house.

"Kids?!" Linda shouted from the bottom of the stairs.

Evan was the one who replied for them and a few seconds later, her parents stood in the doorway. Dixie looked at her dad, refraining herself from running to him and crying on his shoulder after a bad day like she used to do as a child.

"This looks cozy," Linda said, her red hair catching the hall light behind her and making it seem like her hair was fire.

"It's a school night," Alan warned them. "Make sure to get in bed soon."

"Oh, Dixie, darling, I could use your help with Margaret's wedding decorations," Linda said. "Let's talk about it this weekend, yeah?"

Dixie nodded and they watched as their parents left and followed the hallway into their own bedrooms, their giggles softly mixing into the walls and air of the home.

"I guess date night is not over," Evan said, amused.

Dixie hit him softly with her pillow. "Gross," she said, eliciting a chuckle from her younger brother.

The next morning, before school, Dixie found herself trying not to yawn while she sat in her therapist's office. Megan Miller sat across from her, her dark-skinned legs elegantly folded one on top of the other as she regarded Dixie carefully. The thirty-year-old looked the definition of success, something that Dixie had found aspiring about her. Every week, Dixie met with Megan. It was one way that she was trying to heal, to cope, and to move forward.

She hadn't had any news for Megan besides the regular things at school, at home, at her work. But then Landon Poulton came in, and Dixie wasn't too sure where to channel her anger, confusion, and hopelessness.

"So what if Landon found out?" Megan asked, interlacing her fingers and cupping one of her knees. "How would that change things for you?"

Dixie shrugged. She had just finished telling Megan the update on the boy and what had happened the day before. "Why should he know?" she asked in return. "It's private, it's my life."

"Yes, but let's pretend for a moment that he did find out about the crash. Just the crash, nothing else," Megan said.

Dixie sighed, looking down at her hands. "I guess I'm just afraid of what people will think or that they will admit that it was my fault. I know it was, but… when other people believe it, it becomes more real… I don't know. I just don't want to get personal with him."

"It seems like you'll have to on some level if you're going to be working with him for the next six months," Megan said gently.

"Well, can't you write a note or something that I can give my professor so that she can change who I'm partners with?" Dixie asked. She hated to be asking that, knew it was a low blow, but she couldn't face Landon again. "It's unsafe."

'Safe' and 'unsafe' were two words that Megan had first started Dixie with when things happened. For hours and days, Dixie would sit there and describe things that were safe and things that weren't. It had helped her family understand a piece of what she was going through when she couldn't quite put into words. Being home was labeled safe. Family was safe. School could be unsafe. Cars could be safe, but her driving was unsafe. Friends were unsafe. Being alone somewhere was unsafe. And now Landon… he felt unsafe.

Megan smiled sadly at her. "Dixie, I understand that you're scared. But if it's not Landon it'll be another boy, maybe not now, but some other day. Can this be because that he's the first boy you've talked to since it all happened?"

"I've worked with plenty of guys at school," Dixie said defensively. If Dixie were being honest though, Landon was just the first guy that got under her skin after everything that had happened.

"Yes, but I think they were all supervised by your professors, right? And all of them just talked about the project at hand?" Megan asked, but then leaned back, deciding to change the subject. "Can you tell me how you felt when Landon insisted that you got into his car and took you to his home? Did you feel threatened in any way?"

Dixie bit her lip, bringing her leg up to sit crisscrossed as she thought back to that event. "Not really," she said. "I—I hesitated, but I told him to go the speed limit and that helped. At his house, I didn't feel unsafe."

"When did you start feeling unsafe?"

Dixie wiped a tear from her eyes as memories piled into her head, memories that she hated thinking of. "When he started talking about me and saying things that…"

She let herself trail off, his words had cut her like a knife. She sniffled, looking up at Megan as she blinked her tears away.

"It was mainly when he said he had been asking about me," she concluded. "I just felt like… he betrayed me, somehow."

"It's okay to feel that way," Megan said. "If he had a question, he should have turned to you about it. Not your friends. So not only did he betray you in that regard, but Bel did too because she told him. Is this right?"

Dixie nodded, wiping her runny nose on a tissue.

"Are you ready for me to give you an exercise?" Megan asked, leaning forward.

"Yeah," Dixie said, shaking her head as if to clear everything from her brain and heart.

"Try doing the project with Landon just once more. Set boundaries if you have to," she said, meeting the younger girl's eyes. "If you don't want to talk about personal things, you don't have to. If meeting him at his house is too much, suggest meeting at school. Start small, Dixie, but do start. You're in control. You know that."

I'm in control, she thought, although she felt anything but. She left Megan's office once again feeling a weight had been put on her shoulders. Every week recently, she promised herself that she would talk to Megan about the kiss at Azuli, but she never did. The kiss hadn't made her feel unsafe, strangely. It had made her feel angry, though. Who was the guy and who had given him the right to do that? Dixie knew, though, that the reason she had kept failing to tell Megan was that although it was all sorts of wrong, it had felt good, it had felt right. Partially because the way the eyes behind the mask had looked at her was as if she was beautiful and not a prey caught in a trap.


A/N: Review and share your thoughts!