Tru blue, p.10
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       Tru Blue, p.10

           Melissa Foster
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  Gemma slowed as she drove around the running vehicle. Truman waved her on, not wanting anyone to get a look at her. She continued driving to the far end of the parking lot where her car was parked, and pulled in beside it.

  “Get the fuck out of here. And don’t bring this shit around my family again.”

  Quincy looked past Truman toward Gemma, who was climbing into her car. Truman stepped into his line of sight.

  “You wanna know when I lost my way?” Quincy said with a voice full of hate. “The day you went to prison. Mom offered me a hit of crack, and there was no one holding me back anymore.”

  Truman grabbed him by the collar and slammed his back against the car. “Don’t you ever blame me for your shitty choices. I was there for you every fucking day.” He gritted his teeth and lowered his voice. “I rotted in a fucking cell so you wouldn’t have to.”

  “And I rotted in mine.” Quincy wrenched out of Truman’s grasp and climbed into the car. The car sped around Truman and drove away, leaving a spray of dust in its wake.

  Truman looked across the parking lot at Gemma, who was wide-eyed, having witnessed the whole ugly scene. In her hand was the note he’d left in her car, flapping in the breeze. His feet were rooted in place. He wanted to go to her, to apologize for his whole fucking life. To convince her to give him a chance.

  Their eyes held, and that electric burn he’d come to expect seared a path between them despite everything—his confession, the ugly scene with Quincy.

  He didn’t deserve the conviction that had forever changed his life.

  But as she climbed into her car, severing their connection, he knew she didn’t deserve it either.

  Chapter Twelve

  MUSIC ECHOED OFF the boutique walls as seven little princesses took their final strut down the catwalk Tuesday afternoon. Strobe lights flashed like magical stars as Crystal moved like a professional photographer, snapping one shot after another. With her long black hair, and wearing layers of gray and silver taffeta, she was the perfect ghostly princess and a talented photographer. Gemma was lucky to have her on board. After the catwalk, Gemma would make a big deal of presenting the birthday girl with a special jeweled tiara. Then the group would have their photographs taken with Crystal and Gemma. And finally, Crystal would photograph the girls with their parents—the ones who actually stayed for the event. Today there were only two parents. One more than usual. Parents were quick to escape for a few hours of freedom. That had always bothered her. Shouldn’t parents want to see their children in a state of sheer happiness? It surprised her that they were totally fine with leaving the children in the hands of strangers, even though she knew she and Crystal were perfectly safe.

  Gemma checked the goody bags one last time. The leafy skirt on her Princess Gardenia outfit swished noisily with each step. She reached across the table, lifting the colorful blooms and ivy that snaked around her arms to keep them from tangling in the bows on the bags. Then she swished her way to the registration desk to get the special tiara for the birthday girl and couldn’t resist sneaking another peek at the drawing Truman had left in an envelope taped to the front door of the boutique this morning. Her eyes swept over the image of the dragon she’d first seen in his sketch pad and the note he’d left with it. Her heart lurched, as it had the first three times she’d read it. He’d left a picture on the door yesterday morning, too. Another dark and telling drawing from his sacred sketch pad. Shades of angry blacks and grays, without a spec of color on the page. Pictures he’d made clear he didn’t share with anyone. And yet he’d left two for her here at the shop even after she’d run out of his apartment without a word of explanation. The first picture he’d left taped to the door had been the face pushing through a tight opening, contorted in a scream, teeth bared, with two hands trying to force the tight space open wider. The note he’d written on that one had been straightforward and heartrending—You know my story. I have nothing else to hide. She imagined the picture was Truman’s self-portrait of life behind bars, or maybe it was him trying to break free from the life he’d been born into. She didn’t know if she was right or if she was on the wrong path altogether, but she wanted to know.

  Her mind traveled back to the note he’d left in her car the night she’d picked it up at the shop, when she’d seen him slamming some guy against a car. That note had been heartfelt and simple, though she knew it had probably been terribly difficult for him to write—I’m sorry for my past, and I understand why you wouldn’t want any part of me or my life, but I promise you, I’m not a bad guy. The kids and I miss you. Tru. She had no explanation for what she’d seen, and strangely, that didn’t scare her. For Truman to treat a person like that, she imagined they deserved it. She wasn’t sure why she had such faith in him, especially after hearing about his past, but something inside her told her she should. And no matter how many times she told herself she shouldn’t, she ignored the advice.

  Each note had revealed a little more of the man he was. But the note he left today with the picture of the dragon contained a piece of his soul—Chasing the dragon is slang for inhaling the vapor from heated morphine, heroine, oxycodone, and other drugs. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to slay the dragon that lured my mother into death and swallowed my brother whole. We miss you. Tru.

  She stared at the note. I miss you, too. All three of you.

  “Princess Gardenia,” Crystal called from across the room, startling Gemma out of her stupor. “It’s time for the birthday girl’s crown.”

  She snagged the tiara, pasted on the practiced smile that had gotten her through her youth, and went to give the performance of a lifetime.

  “DO YOU THINK I need to hire a babysitter?” Truman asked Dixie as he fed Lincoln. The shop had been closed for an hour, but he and Bear were working late, and Dixie had stuck around to play with the kids.

  “Absolutely not,” Dixie said, lifting Kennedy into her arms. “These are Whiskey babies as much as they’re Gritt babies now.”

  “She’s right, you know. We might need someone to come in and help when the little guy starts to crawl, but right now we can handle it.” Bear reached for Kennedy and Dixie turned her shoulder so he couldn’t take her away. She nuzzled Kennedy’s neck, causing an eruption of giggles.

  “I was hoping you’d say that.” Truman had been thinking the same thing. He hated the idea of having someone else watch the kids. He couldn’t imagine not having them with him twenty-four seven. He thought all he wanted was for the kids to be safe and happy, but he realized that wasn’t enough. He and Kennedy both missed Gemma. And although Lincoln couldn’t ask for her, like Kennedy could, he had a feeling he missed her, too. Truman missed everything about her. Her smiles, her sassy repertoire, and even her annoyingly invasive questions. But most of all, he missed the way she looked at him, the way she touched him—a hand here, a finger down his cheek—and he missed the love she showed the children every minute of the day. Longing filled him every time Kennedy said her name.

  He hoped by sharing the parts of himself he’d never shared with anyone else, Gemma would eventually come around and give him a chance to prove to her who he really was. Part of him wanted to tell her the truth, that it had been Quincy who had killed the man, but he’d never throw his brother under the bus. Not even for Gemma. He’d spent six long years in prison. He knew how to bide his time. Bear had reminded him too many times to count in the past forty-eight hours that he might never see her again, but that didn’t mean he was going to give up. No way in hell would he ever give up on her.

  Truman handed Lincoln to his forlorn buddy, Bear. The smile his friend flashed when he nestled the baby in his arms brought warmth to Truman’s heart. He knew without a shadow of a doubt, if something happened to him, the Whiskeys would care for the babies. At some point he’d have to deal with the legalities of all of that, but there was no way he’d gain legal custody of the kids with a felony conviction, and he wasn’t ready to figure that out yet.

  “I was thinking,
” Truman said. “We have the old office that we use for storage, and we have acres of yard. If I pay for it, what do you think about fencing in a play area right outside the door and fixing up the office for the kids, like a playroom? It’s already got carpet, so all we’d need is to clean it up and paint it. It’s got two nice windows to let fresh air in. And I was thinking we could replace the lower half of the wall with Plexiglas so we can keep an eye on them.”

  Dixie and Bear exchanged an approving smile.

  “Crow can get us deals on everything,” Dixie said excitedly.

  Bear scowled. “If he thinks he can get in your pants.”

  Dixie rubbed noses with Kennedy and said, “Do you hear how silly Uncle Bear is? He’s a goof, isn’t he?”

  Kennedy giggled, and Truman arched a brow at Bear.

  “You know him as Lance Burke, the guy who owns Mid-Harbor Housing Supplies. Crow’s his biker name and he’s had a thing for Dixie since we were kids.”

  “And the plot thickens,” Truman teased. “What’s wrong with Lance? He’s not a good guy?”

  Dixie rolled her eyes. “Is any man good enough for me in the eyes of my big brothers?” She sighed dramatically and set Kennedy down to play in the playpen. Crossing her arms, she glowered at Bear. “He’ll give us a good price.” She dropped her eyes to Lincoln, his little hands going for Bear’s chin. “Are you going to turn that away because you think he’ll ask for something in return? Because if you are”—she swung her wild red hair over her shoulder with a confident smirk—“then you clearly have no idea how well y’all have raised me.”

  Bear’s eyes dropped to Lincoln. He lowered his face, letting the baby stick his fingers into his mouth. “Okay, but I’ll call Crow. Not you.”

  “You’re impossible,” Dixie groaned. “But fine. Anything for these little muffins.”

  They talked out their ideas, and once they agreed on the layout, they began putting a game plan together to start renovations. Bear and Dixie insisted on sharing in the costs of supplies, since the renovations would have an impact on the value of the business.

  Later, Truman fed and bathed the kids. He was getting the hang of things, thanks to his refusal to let them down. The baby bath Gemma had suggested he buy at Walmart certainly helped where Lincoln was concerned. And as long as he added bubbles to Kennedy’s bath (another big thank-you to Gemma), she was willing to take one alone. After getting the kids to sleep, he went to the tool chest and pulled out the bottom drawer. Adrenaline spiked through him at the piles of sketch pads before him. He also had boxes of them stored in the master bedroom closet. He fingered through them, knowing what each contained without ever having gone back to look at the pictures after drawing them. He could hide them in the closet, leave them out back in the pitch-dark, or shove them away in drawers, but the images never left him.

  Lifting out the sketch pad he was searching for, he fingered through the pages and found the picture he wanted to leave for Gemma tomorrow morning. He carefully removed it from the sketch pad, wrote a note in the margin, and tucked it into an envelope. Gemma’s beautiful face sailed into his mind as he wrote her name on the envelope. He set it on the coffee table, gathered his painting supplies and the baby monitor, locked the front door, and pulled open the glass door to the deck—and his world careened at the sight of Gemma standing before him, her hand stopped in midair, as if she were getting ready to knock.

  Chapter Thirteen

  “GEMMA?” TRUMAN SAID in a husky whisper, losing his grip on the metal box and catching it before it dropped to the deck.

  Gemma had gone over this moment in her head so many times she thought she had her emotions under control, but nothing could have prepared her for the pulsing knot clogging her throat, or the currents of heat drawing her closer to him. She lifted the baby gym she’d brought from the boutique. Her excuse to come over. A lame one, but it had gotten her there. Weak-kneed and more nervous than she’d ever been, but there nonetheless.

  “I. Um.” Needed to see you. “I brought this for Lincoln.”

  He looked at the baby toy, his brows knitted, disappointment weighing down his features. He set the box down, then pulled the door closed behind him. Ignoring the toy, he stepped closer, like he couldn’t stand the distance between them either. Like nothing mattered but closing the gap.

  “Gemma,” he whispered. His blue eyes were warm and grateful and so full of longing she could feel it wrapping around her and carrying her another step forward. “I’ve missed you.”

  He lifted his hand, as if he was going to touch her cheek, and she sucked in a sharp breath, the familiar buzz of electricity searing through her. When he lowered his hand without touching her, she wanted to kick herself for that breath.

  “I…” She set the baby toy down on the deck. “Can we talk?”

  He nodded, waving to the sofa they’d been sitting on when he’d revealed his past to her. Her heart raced as he sat beside her. She didn’t know where to start or what to say. She had so many questions, but now that she was here with him, all those questions seemed to have taken flight, pushed away by the desire to be in his arms again. She wasn’t afraid of him, not one little bit. She’d seen too much of who he was before knowing the truth of his past to change all that goodness into malice.

  She blinked several times, trying to clear her mind, but the way he was looking at her, like he needed her just as badly as she needed him, wanted her just as desperately as she wanted him, shattered her thoughts.

  It turned out she didn’t need to think. The truth spilled out. “I can’t stop thinking about you and the kids.”

  A half smile lifted his lips, tugging at her heart.

  “I have so many questions, but they seem rude or selfish, like how you moved on afterward and what it feels like to have done what you did. But that’s morbid curiosity, because of course you were devastated and horrified. You told me as much the other night. I just…I’m still putting it all together.” Her words came so fast she couldn’t stop them. “I never imagined myself getting involved with someone who had been in prison or had done what you did. But I doubt you imagined your life turning out the way it has either.”

  She lifted one shoulder and said, “But I don’t want to walk away because you tried to protect your family. I’ve seen you with the babies, and I’ve spent enough time with you to know you’re not violent. But I need to understand it. All of it, until you’re sick of explaining. I won’t blame you if you get fed up with my questions, because you know how I can be.”

  “It’s natural to want to know, and I like how you are, so don’t worry. I won’t get sick of explaining. We’re past that. I was afraid to tell you, but now that I have, I’ll answer whatever you want or need to know.” He paused long enough to try to gather his thoughts. “You asked about how I moved on. Every morning I wake up and see that scene—my mother, my brother, the blood, that rapist. And I have to consciously remind myself how it happened, because it doesn’t feel like I’m the one who actually did it. I’m not a violent person, despite my incarceration. Once I remember the scene, moving on starts to happen. I can’t explain it, but there’s no choice. I just keep going, and the remorse never goes away, even though he was raping my mother. I wish…I wish things had been different.”

  She pressed her finger to his lips, the emotion in his voice too raw to listen to anymore. “I don’t want to make you relive it. I want you to know, I’m not afraid of you. But I may have more questions over time, and I have to know you’ll be okay with that.”

  “Gemma.” He closed his eyes for a beat, breathing deeply. When he opened them, he moved his fingers over hers. “Those pictures I sent you might seem like nothing, but they’re everything to me. I have nothing to hide anymore. You’ve heard the worst of it.”

  “I know how much they mean to you,” she said softly. “Thank you for sharing them.” She looked down at his hand, all that blue ink covering his skin. She wanted to know more. Were his tattoos like his drawings? Did they represent
the horrors of his past? “What do they mean?”

  “The pictures?”

  She shook her head, wanting to know everything there was to know about him. “Your tattoos.” She lifted her gaze to his. Her fingers curled around his. “Is that okay?”

  His lips pressed into a straight line. He was breathing so hard his chest inflated with each inhalation, and then he turned his hand under hers and laced their fingers together, holding her tight.

  “Everything you do is okay. I’m just so glad you’re here, and you’re speaking to me, and you’re not afraid of me.”

  “I’m not afraid of you,” she repeated.

  Without a word, he brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it. His scruff tickled her skin, but it was the look in his eyes that made her glad she was already sitting down, because the emotions she saw slayed her.

  He guided her fingers over his tattoos, explaining them one by one. “Ace of spades, the death card. A reminder. I got it after I was released from prison.” He moved her finger over the image on his left hand. “The symbol of the Whiskeys’ motorcycle club. They saved me in so many ways. I owe them a lot.”

  As he worked his way down one arm and up the other, moving her fingers along his skin, explaining each tattoo, more of his life unfolded before her. Tattoos symbolizing strength to remind him that even at the worst of times he was strong. Hundreds of tiny dots formed an explosion on one hand, coming outward from a camera, depicting the shattering of his world as he’d known it, and a thickly inked tattoo of a net to catch the pieces, because he wasn’t ready to let it all go. These marks she’d initially seen as visual warnings meant to keep people at a distance were a detailed map of the man before her. His ability to overcome his heartache and pain proved his strength. His loyalty to his family and friends spoke to all the lonely parts Gemma had tried to hide, even from herself, for so many years they felt like they’d never fill up.

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