Tru blue, p.18
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       Tru Blue, p.18

           Melissa Foster
 
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  Her cell phone rang, and her thoughts skidded. Truman was supposed to be at the rehab center in ten minutes. He’d been so worried about Quincy checking out early or refusing to see him, she hoped he wasn’t calling with bad news. She pulled her phone from her pocket and groaned when “Mom” appeared on the screen.

  “You still haven’t told her?”

  Gemma set the phone down on the table. “No, and I can’t do it now. I’m too stressed.”

  Crystal picked up the phone and handed it to her. “Then it’s the perfect time, because she’s not ruining a great day.”

  “God, I hate it when you make sense.” She took the phone and walked toward the stockroom as she reluctantly answered it. “Hi.”

  “Gemaline, darling. Did you get a dress for the fundraiser?”

  Gemma should be used to the way her mother skipped over asking how she was and dove straight into checking in about the fundraiser, but even after twenty-six years, her lack of interest hurt.

  “I’m fine. Busy at work. Thanks for asking,” she said, despite her mother’s disinterest. “I did get a very nice dress. How are you?” She pushed open the stockroom doors and paced, bracing herself for her mother’s typical lengthy list of events she’d attended lately. God forbid her mother ever tell her how she feels or that she misses her.

  “I’m doing well. Daddy and I just flew to San Diego for a retreat with the Merbanks, and the spa was magnificent—”

  Gemma listened for a full five minutes before cutting her mother short. “Mom, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m at work, so…”

  “Oh, dear. I’m sorry. I forgot you run that little-girl shop.”

  “Princess boutique.” Just once it would be nice to hear that her mother was proud of what she’d accomplished instead of mocking it. She had a bank account that her mother fed money into the way normal parents doled out hugs, but as far as Gemma was concerned, it was dirty money. Sugar daddy money. Gemma had worked through college and saved nearly every penny to be able to afford to open the shop.

  “Yes, well, you wouldn’t have to do that if you’d go out with one of the eligible bachelors I’ve tried to set you up with over the years.”

  The annual stuck-up setup. Gemma drew in a deep breath and said, “About those guys, Mom. Please don’t do that this year. I’m seeing someone, and I’d rather not have to turn away another friend of yours.”

  “Seeing someone? Is it serious? What does he do for a living? Would I know of him?”

  “Yes, it’s serious. He’s a mechanic, and no, you definitely wouldn’t know of him.” Thank God, because you might scare him away.

  “I’m sorry, darling. Did you say a mechanical engineer?” she asked hopefully.

  Gemma rolled her eyes. “No, Mom. A mechanic, as in, he works on cars.”

  Her mother fell silent, and Gemma imagined the manipulative gears in her head grinding, trying to figure out how to get her daughter out of the clutches of a mechanic.

  Gemma paced until the silence became unbearable. Sucking up the hurt she loathed feeling from her mother’s disapproval, she said, “Is there anything else you needed?”

  “Oh, Gemaline. You know what you’re doing.” The accusation came across loud and clear.

  “What are you talking about, Mom?” She couldn’t contain her annoyance.

  “You’re rebelling. Just like that little business of yours. You’re trying to…to…hurt me.”

  “Hurt you?” Gemma raised her eyes to the ceiling.

  “You’ve always tried to prove your independence by denying what’s best for you.”

  “Here’s a news flash, Mom. I’m twenty-six years old. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone but myself. And I’ve already proven that I’m smart, capable, and—” Why the hell am I explaining myself to you?—“I have to get back to work.”

  “Does this ‘mechanic’ have a name?” She said mechanic as if it were a disease.

  Choking back the urge to tell her mother off for using that disgusted tone, she said, “My boyfriend’s name is Truman Gritt, and please, Mother, the next time you say what he does for a living, don’t make it sound like a dirty word. Perhaps you should have taken those essential etiquette lessons with me.”

  “Gemaline. Is that any way to speak to your mother?”

  She closed her eyes, willing herself to be nicer than her mother deserved. I learned from the beast—I mean best. “I’m sorry, but Truman is important to me, and I wish you would show him the same respect you expect me to show Warren.”

  “Daddy,” she corrected her.

  The man had never been any type of father to Gemma, though he wasn’t awful to her like her mother was. He was rarely around, but when he was, he wasn’t unkind. He had a wealthy air about him, the kind that kept his dollars close and warmth at bay, allowing only a few words to slip out now and again.

  “Warren, Mother. My father committed suicide. You do remember my real father, don’t you?” She knew she was being a bitch, but her mother was just plain pissing her off.

  There was a beat of silence, and when her mother finally spoke, her tone was almost believably sad.

  “Yes, of course. He chose to leave us, Gemaline.”

  Fisting her hand at her side, she refused to cry down memory lane with the woman who hadn’t been there for her when she first took that painful walk. “Yes. He did. But he was still my father. As I said, let’s try to be civil when speaking about our significant others.”

  “Yes, darling. Is this…Truman coming to the fundraiser?”

  Not on your life. “No. It’s just going to be me.”

  “What kind of man lets his girlfriend attend a function of this caliber alone?”

  “The kind that has children to care for. I have to go, Mom. I’ll see you next week.” She ended the call, knowing her mother would stew over her last comment, but she didn’t care. She checked her watch, relieved to see it was closing time, and stormed out of the storeroom.

  “Luscious Licks. Now,” she said as she gathered her purse.

  Crystal grabbed her purse and did a fist pump. “Hate binge. I love it!”

  Gemma gave her a deadpan stare, working hard to stifle a smile at her friend’s support. “So much joy over my pain…”

  “I mean…”

  After a beat of silence they both burst into laughter and said, “Hate binge!” and headed out the door to bury the awful conversation below miles of ice cream.

  TRUMAN STOOD STOCK-STILL while being searched at the rehab center. His heart pounded so hard he was sure the guy searching him thought he was hiding something. The urge to bolt was so strong he curled his fingers into fists, trying to squeeze the frustration out, and reminded himself he was doing this for Quincy.

  “All right. You’re clear.”

  Truman followed a woman down a sterile hallway. He focused on her feet, counting her steps, because if he didn’t, he was afraid he’d turn and leave. The process was too reminiscent of his years in prison. He reminded himself he was there of his own free will. Hell, everyone was. No one here was a prisoner.

  Except to their addictions.

  Quincy is my addiction.

  He entered a small, comfortable room that resembled a living room. His eyes sped over the couch against the far wall, a table and chairs to his right. It all blurred together, like the thoughts going through his mind as he paced. When the door opened, he stilled, lifting his eyes to his brother. A wave of apprehension swept through him, quickly followed by the relief he should have felt when he first announced who he was visiting. But he’d been too stressed to slow down and appreciate the fact that Quincy was still there. His biggest fear was that his brother would give up and check himself out of rehab before completing the program.

  Quincy was no longer covered in dirt and grime. His skin was marred with yellowing bruises, and the gash on his cheek was nearly healed. His hair held the sheen of a fresh shampoo, falling just above his shoulders and shading one eye. Truman wasn’t prepared for t
he overwhelming emotions engulfing him at the sight of his brother looking like, well, his brother. He stepped forward, opening his arms to the man whose dull, tortured blue eyes were full of warning, like his body language, both of which Truman chose to ignore.

  “Quincy.”

  His brother took a step backward, holding Truman’s gaze and sending a clear message. Truman dropped his hands to his sides, while disappointment, sadness, and anger battled inside him.

  Quincy pulled out a chair and sank into it. Truman did the same, taking a moment to look at his brother more closely. Time had a way of playing tricks on the mind. All those years in prison he’d kept an image of thirteen-year-old Quincy in his head. Held on to it like a security blanket. Like if he believed he’d stay kind and good and clean, it would happen. But walls and bars and miles had created a vast, impassable sea, and a part of each of them had drowned in the space between. Quincy was no longer that boy—or maybe even the same person. He was a man, with stubble over a strong jawline, shadows of too many drugs marring his handsome face, and track marks up his arms. He was almost twenty, not much younger than Truman had been when he’d been hauled off to prison.

  “Surprised?” Quincy said.

  He’d never been good at hiding his emotions. Truman cleared his throat, grasping for something to say. He’d spoken to Quincy’s counselor and had been advised not to bring up family drama, money, the future, or anything else that might be stressful. She’d said that Quincy needed to live “in the moment” and that added anxiety would hinder his recovery.

  “No. I’m not surprised,” he lied, and Quincy arched a brow. “Okay, yeah. I am. Man, I’m not sure how this is supposed to go.”

  “Think I do?” Quincy ran a hand through his hair and looked away, the muscles in his jaw bunching. “Man, this place sucks.” He pushed to his feet and paced.

  Truman rose with him, watching as he stalked back and forth across the room like a caged tiger, his hair curtaining his face. “I’m proud of you for doing this.”

  Quincy scoffed. “Proud of me? I don’t need your approval.”

  “I didn’t mean that.” He didn’t want to fuck this up, but he had no idea how to handle his brother’s comment. “I meant I know it’s not easy.”

  “When has life ever been easy for me?” He lifted angry eyes to Truman.

  “I didn’t mean to imply—”

  “Is anything ever what you mean, Truman?” Quincy stormed across the room, stopping inches from him. “‘Don’t say a word, Quincy.’”

  A chill ran down Truman’s spine at hearing his own words from that fateful night being thrown in his face. The words he’d meant for Quincy to take comfort in. The words that had sent him to prison.

  “‘You’re not taking the fall, Quincy. I’ve got this,’” Quincy said through gritted teeth. “You had it, all right. Six years of meals and a roof over your head. Six years of not watching your mother get fucked by every cretin under the sun.”

  “Quincy, you can’t believe it was better to be in prison than to—”

  “Can’t I?” Quincy stormed across the room, his shoulders rounding forward. “Was it better to be thirteen fucking years old and handed a crack pipe?”

  “You could have—”

  Quincy turned, rounding on Truman fast. Truman took a step back. This was exactly what the counselor had said to avoid. He’d somehow managed to fuck his brother over again by riling him up.

  “What? What could I do at thirteen? Call Social Services and go into the system after you spent years telling me why that wasn’t the way to go? You were my stronghold. My straight arrow to follow. You made sure I relied on you, man, and you did such a good fucking job that when you left, I was fucking lost. I would have followed Satan straight to hell.”

  The air left Truman’s lungs. The room vibrated with the demons of their past, alive and clawing at them, pitting them against each other.

  “I was trying to help,” he said sternly. “I wasn’t supposed to be convicted. You were there. You heard what the public defender said. I was supposed to get off and then take care of you, like I always had. You know she lied on the stand.” It killed Truman that he’d never know why she’d lied and sent him to prison, but that wasn’t Quincy’s cross to bear.

  Quincy’s silent stare cut like a knife.

  Truman lowered his voice. “You know the truth, man. You’re the only one on this fucking earth who knows the truth.”

  “I had to kill him.” He shifted his eyes away. “He would have killed her.”

  Maybe that would have been better. Truman felt his heart break right down the center, and guilt poured out for the hateful thought. And in the next breath he realized their mother’s death would have meant that Kennedy and Lincoln would never have been born. He uttered a curse, wishing he could take that initial thought back. He loved those kids.

  Forcing those thoughts away, he focused on the brother standing before him.

  “My only thought was that if you were there, you would have killed him.” Quincy’s words were laden with venom. “I did what I know you would have done to protect Mom despite everything she was. I did what you ingrained into my fucking head. Protect family.”

  “You did what you had to.” I wish I had been the one to do it. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so fucked up. “I thought they’d try you as an adult. I couldn’t even stand the thought of you in juvie. You were just a kid, and you were a good kid, smarter than anyone I knew, and by the time I realized they wouldn’t have tried you as an adult, it was too late. But we don’t know that Mom wouldn’t have fucked you over like she did me, and I wouldn’t have been able to stand that. You have to know I’d never do a damn thing to hurt you. Not ever. I’ll take our secret to my grave to protect you.”

  “I can’t escape the guilt, man. It’s always there. I look in the mirror and I hate the person I see. Your life is fucked because of me,” Quincy seethed.

  Truman grabbed him by the arms, imploring him to hear the truth. “No, Quincy. My life was fucked because of her. But my life is no longer fucked.” Thinking of his record, and of the kids, he said, “I’ve got restrictions and responsibilities, but I’m not fucked. My life is actually pretty damn good right now. I’ve got the kids, and I’ve got Gemma, who I love so much it’s insane. And, Quincy, she loves me back, man. Despite the conviction, despite our fucked-up past, she loves me and the kids. I can’t imagine my life without her. And your life can be just as good. Just as normal. You’ve never had normal. It’s unfuckingbelievable. I’m telling you, bro, there’s a whole world waiting for you that has nothing to do with Mom or her effed-up life. All you have to do is make it through rehab, and I’ll be there to help you stay clean. I know you can do this.”

  Quincy twisted out of his grasp, pushing both hands into his hair and fisting them with a tortured groan. “Just get out of here, man. Please. Get the hell out.”

  “Quincy…” What could he say? Beg him to talk it out? That’s exactly what the counselor said not to do. He’d done enough damage. Hell, he’d done even more damage than he’d ever imagined.

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  WHEN TRUMAN ARRIVED at his apartment, he was surprised to see Gemma’s car in the parking lot. She’d sent him a text earlier saying she’d had a crappy day and was going out with Crystal. He breathed a little easier knowing she would soon be in his arms. He felt like he’d been dragged through quicksand, and as he stepped from his truck, he was still knee deep in it. He’d spoken with the counselor before leaving the rehab center to fess up to the stressful confrontation with his brother so they would be prepared for any backlash. And more importantly, in case his brother tried to check himself out, they’d know why and try to reason with him. He wished there were someone he could talk to about Quincy’s guilt. He’d tried, in a roundabout way, to discuss it with the counselor, and she said part of recovery was acceptance and making amends to all the people their drug use had affected and that was part of the therapeutic process. But Truman knew
Quincy could never make amends for what he’d done. They were both locked into their lies forever. Locked into my lie. It was his genius idea to take the fall for his brother. Now his brother was mired down in guilt and he was stuck lying to Gemma for the rest of his life. And to top it all off, he was worried sick that Quincy wouldn’t be able to deal with the guilt and he’d give up on getting clean. If that happened, Truman would never forgive himself.

  The counselor, though concerned, wasn’t surprised that their visit had blown up. It’ll get worse before it gets better. Nature of the beast. Truman absently rubbed his chest, wishing he could slay that fucking beast once and for all.

  Needing a moment to get his head on straight before seeing Gemma and the kids, he went into the shop. He was working on a ’69 Mustang, one of his favorite cars. He ran his hand along the sleek hood, remembering the first day he’d brought the kids into the garage with him. He’d had no idea what he was doing, just like when he’d taken responsibility for the stabbing. He’d thought he was doing the right thing and trusted that he’d figure out how to handle it as he went along.

  He crossed the room to the playroom they’d renovated for the kids and flicked on the light. The bright yellow walls brought a smile. How could they not? They reminded him of the reason he’d been able to figure out how to handle the kids. Gemma. His pushy, sexy ray of sunshine.

  Quincy’s words slammed into him. You were my stronghold. My straight arrow to follow. You made sure I relied on you, man, and you did such a good fucking job that when you left, I was fucking lost. I would have followed Satan straight to hell.

  He leaned against the doorframe, his chin dropping to his chest. Quincy blamed him for everything—the killing, the drugs, my own prison sentence. His mind turned to the kids. Was he going to fuck up the kids by trying to make things good for them? Was he doing instead of teaching? Was it wrong to buffer Kennedy from the dark parts of fairy tales? Would they be as lost without him as Quincy had been? Had it been wrong to do whatever it took to keep Quincy safe?

 
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