Tru blue, p.21
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       Tru Blue, p.21

           Melissa Foster
 
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  “Your mother is quite good at convincing people to part with their money.”

  Something in his tone made Gemma’s stomach twist a little tighter, but she couldn’t get a read on what he really meant.

  “Yes, well. At least she has some talents.”

  “Mothering was never one of them,” he said more kindly.

  Gemma glanced at him, his attention still on her mother across the room. He had the look of a contented man: a small smile that almost reached his eyes, deeply tanned skin, and no telltale signs of stress anywhere on his face. This never failed to surprise Gemma, given whom he was married to.

  She chose to let his mothering comment go rather than ask the nagging questions it spurred. Namely, Why? Why wasn’t I enough for her?

  “The dress was a nice touch.” He didn’t look at her as he said it, but his smile widened, like he was in on her little rebellious secret. “She noticed.”

  Gemma smiled inwardly at her small triumph, though she wouldn’t have known her mother had noticed if he hadn’t told her. Her mother hadn’t said more than, Good to see you, Gemaline, before moving on to brownnose the guests.

  “That’s a surprise,” she said evenly. Why did she put herself through this every year? She was unhappy here, and even though her stepfather wasn’t being unkind, just being in the presence of her mother made her unhappier by the second. Sadly, she always hoped her mother would change. That just once she’d show up at one of these events and her mother would actually be happy to see her. She should leave and go back home to Truman and the kids, where she was happiest. Where I belong.

  “Is it?” Warren nodded toward a group of younger men who had been eyeing Gemma all evening and arched a thin brow.

  A sarcastic laugh slipped out before she could stop it. “She noticed because attention was drawn away from her.”

  “Perhaps. Or perhaps because it’s the first time you’ve crossed her on her own turf.” He paused as his comment settled in like lead.

  Her mother started across the floor in their direction. Jacqueline Benzos knew how to work a room. Her black silk gown clung to her curvaceous figure as she moved, blinking long, fake lashes and flashing practiced smiles.

  Warren lowered his voice and said, “For what it’s worth, the dress suits you far better than this environment does. Thank you for making the effort and coming tonight.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek, disappearing into the crowd before her mother reached them.

  Her mother’s smile remained in place as she took up the space beside Gemma, sucking all the air from the room. “Darling.”

  An asp. That’s what her mother’s voice reminded her of, a slithering creature full of poison.

  “Mother.” She tried to hide her distaste but feared she’d failed.

  “I’ve abided by your wishes and did not try to set you up with any of these gorgeous, wealthy men.”

  Though she’d been visually devoured by many of the men here all night, Gemma had noticed the lack of direct come-ons. “Thank you. I appreciate you respecting my request.”

  Her mother lifted her chin and her champagne glass to a woman passing in front of them and said under her breath, “Yes, well. We don’t need these people catching wind of the derelict you’re rebelling with, now, do we?”

  Ice chilled Gemma’s veins. “Excuse me?”

  “Oh, Gemaline. Surely you didn’t think I would let you see a man without having him thoroughly checked out. I can only assume you didn’t know about his felony conviction.” Her mother did not look at her as she spoke with maddening casualness. She was too busy nodding and smiling at her guests.

  Anger assailed Gemma, stomping over the mild embarrassment that came with her mother’s unveiling of Truman’s dark past. “You would let me?”

  “Of course, darling. You are my daughter. Someone has to watch out for you.”

  When have you ever watched out for me?

  “The man is a convicted murderer. You’re not safe with him, Gemaline. Now, you’ve had your little rebellion. It’s time to move on and find a more suitable man.”

  Gemma’s stomach plummeted, not at her mother’s newfound knowledge or the casual way she delivered it, but at her mother demeaning her relationship with Truman. “And you were so worried about me, you chose to wait and tell me this at your fundraiser, where you thought I wouldn’t make a scene,” she seethed. “The truth is, Mother, I’m very safe with him. Safer with him than I ever was with you, because he’s a good person. He knows how to love with his whole heart, and he cares about me, not what I look like or what anyone else thinks of me. Do you even know why he was in prison, or don’t you care?”

  “Murder, Gemaline. Nothing matters beyond that.”

  Gemma stepped in front of her mother, forcing her to see her, maybe for the first time in her life. “His mother was being raped. He saved her. That matters. That’s the only thing that matters. Do you know what doesn’t matter, Mother?”

  Her mother’s jaw tightened. She lifted her chin and looked down her nose at Gemma in cold silence.

  “My dress,” Gemma said through gritted teeth, tears of anger and hurt filling her eyes. “What these people think of me, or—and it pains me to say it, even though it shouldn’t—what you think of me. None of that matters, because none of it is real. I’ve spent my life attending these functions because they’re important to you, and on some level I always hoped I’d become just as important. But it’s clear that all you see when you look at me is someone to marry off so you can throw a wedding or be connected with another rich family. Well, guess what? I’m done.” She held her mother’s steely gaze. “I’m done with trying to do the right thing by you when you have never done right by me.”

  “Don’t you take that tone with me. What would your father say?”

  Gemma scoffed, a bitchy, loud, attention-grabbing jeer. “How would I know what he would say? He never talked to me. And neither did you, except to tell me the litany of things I needed to improve. And you know what? I grew up just fine despite the two of you and your rampant need to be stoic and oppressive.”

  Too carried away with the truth to stop, despite the guests now gaping at them, she continued her rant. “I know how to love, and I’m lovable, which I wasn’t really sure of for a good part of my life. I’m done coming to these ridiculously snobby events, and next time you speak to me, you will call me by my name. Gemma. And you’ll ask me how I am, or you won’t call me at all.” Under her breath she added, “Maybe a fake birth certificate isn’t the worst thing a child can have.”

  “What?” her mother snapped.

  “Nothing. Goodbye, Mother.”

  On shaking legs, she made a beeline for the exit before her mother could misinterpret her tears for anything other than what they were—final acceptance of how little she meant to the woman who had given birth to her and finally moving on from it.

  Waiting for the valet to bring her car was hell. She threw herself into the driver’s seat, and sobs erupted as she scrambled to pull her phone from her purse. What was she thinking, making Truman decide between keeping his children and doing what she thought was the right thing? He was the right thing. For the kids and for her.

  She drove out of the parking lot and powered up her phone, intending to call and tell him just that, when her phone vibrated with a call and Truman’s face appeared on the screen, bringing more sobs.

  “Tru—”

  “Quincy’s gone missing. He checked himself out of rehab an hour ago. I have to go find him. The kids are staying at Bear’s.”

  How much more could one man endure?

  Before she could find her voice, he said, “It’s my fault. I begged him to stay in the program so he could apply for guardianship and the kids could stay in the family. It was too much pressure. I’m a fucking idiot.”

  “No,” came out like a plea. This wasn’t his fault. It was hers.

  “Go to your place in case he gets high and shows up at mine. I’ll call you when I know something.


  “Tru—” The line went dead.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  TRUMAN FLEW DOWN the driveway at breakneck speed. He’d been out looking for Quincy for hours when Gemma had called and said she was with him. He’s at your place. Come home. He slammed on the brakes in front of Whiskey Automotive, cut the engine, and bolted toward the back of the building.

  Gemma stood in the yard facing away from him. She turned as he approached. His eyes moved past her to Quincy, though he spoke to Gemma. “I told you to go home.”

  “I didn’t listen,” she said with a shaky voice, drawing his attention from his brother, who stood rigid and tense before him, to her.

  Gemma’s eyes were red and puffy, and fresh tears streaked her cheeks. Fire flamed inside Truman. He took a step toward his brother, ready to wring his neck if he’d touched her. “What have you done?”

  Gemma grabbed his arm, stopping him from advancing on Quincy. “He told me. He told me everything.”

  Truman’s gut wrenched, stealing the air from his lungs. “What…?”

  “Everything, Tru.” She tightened her hold on his arm.

  Truman couldn’t breathe. He’d gotten the best news of his life only a few short hours earlier at the courthouse, and now his world was crashing down around him again. He glared at Quincy, disbelief weighing down every word. “What have you done?”

  Quincy stepped into the path of the porch light. His eyes were damp, his expression sorrowful and unmistakably relieved. “I couldn’t do it, bro. I can’t let your life fall apart because of me. Not anymore. Not if I want to stay clean.”

  Truman’s world shifted on its axis. He sank to the steps and buried his face in his hands. “You have no idea what you’ve done. Now she’s part of it.”

  “No,” Gemma said. “He’s going to the police tomorrow. He’ll tell them everything. I won’t get in trouble.”

  “Why, Quincy?” Truman implored, unable to look at Gemma, afraid his lie had ruined everything. “Why would you do this? I told you I’d figure something out.”

  Quincy drew his shoulders back, holding Truman’s gaze with confidence and determination Truman had never seen. “Because you are still my stronghold, my straight arrow to follow, man. Because if I don’t get this shit out of my head, I’ll turn back to drugs to escape it. Why do you think I tried them in the first place? It’s too much, knowing I fucked up your life. And, bro, it’s the right thing to do.”

  “You can’t do this, Quin,” Truman pleaded. “I’ll go back to prison for perjury. So will you. God knows how long they’ll put you away for what happened, and I’ll lose the kids. Then what? What happens to them? What happens to you?”

  “I don’t have all the answers,” Quincy said. “But I need to do this. And I’m not done with rehab. Not by a long shot.”

  “I can’t save you or help the kids if you do this,” Truman said more to himself than to Quincy.

  “You can’t save me, Truman. Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? Only I can save myself,” Quincy said. “And I’ve been thinking about the kids. Maybe Bear or Dixie can raise them if this goes south.”

  “You won’t need Bear or Dixie. I’ll step in. You know I will.” Tears slid down Gemma’s cheeks as she crouched before Truman, who was still sitting on the steps. “You didn’t commit the crime.” It was a statement, not a question, said with awe, not accusation.

  He shook his head.

  “But you were willing to risk your freedom again to protect and raise the kids. To risk everything. Including me.”

  Truman shook his head. “No. I wasn’t willing to lose you. I went to the courthouse to find out the process, like you suggested. You were right, Gemma. There is another way.” He glared at Quincy again. “Was another way.”

  Gemma covered her mouth, fresh tears tumbling down her cheeks. “You went to the courthouse?”

  He nodded again, trying to calm the storm within him long enough to tell her what he’d learned before he’d been thrown into searching for his brother.

  “Since the state’s not involved and the kids have been in my care, all I have to do is submit a Complaint for Custody to the court. They said if I turn in our mother’s death certificate and sign an affidavit stating the father can’t be found, I should be fine. The court doesn’t typically do investigations with custody complaints unless a party to the litigation requests it. There’s no one to oppose this. They said it would typically be granted without a hearing in the normal course of the court’s business. But now…”

  He looked at Quincy, standing more confidently and clearheaded than he’d ever seen him. He was torn between his brother’s sobriety and the cost to everyone involved.

  OVERWHELMED DIDN’T BEGIN to touch on the emotions reeling through Gemma. Between her blowout with her mother and learning the truth about Truman’s—Quincy’s—crime, she could barely think. But it didn’t take much thought to know that if Truman and Quincy had a chance in hell of coming out on top of this nightmare, there was only one way to handle it. And she wasn’t even sure what she had in mind would help.

  Or if I can make the call.

  Truman reached for her hand. “I’m sorry for all of this. For lying to you about killing that man and for getting you involved in this situation at all.”

  God she loved him. She loved his loyalty, the depth of his love, and everything else about him. She wasn’t about to let him feel bad for doing what he had to do to protect his brother, not when he had proven himself to be the best man she knew.

  “Don’t. I’m not upset with you about not telling me the truth. I know you couldn’t.” She glanced at Quincy, who had been carrying so much guilt it’s a wonder he’d survived at all. How had he found the courage to come forward, knowing Truman would be livid, in order to give his brother the future he deserved? He’d confessed all his wrongdoings, with unabashed tears and doleful regret. He told her how the crime had happened, how Truman had stepped in to take care of everything, and how their mother had turned against him. The strength and conviction of these two men was immeasurable, and she knew that despite the long road ahead for Quincy to recover from his drug addiction, and the legal battles they would face, they were a family she wanted to be part of.

  Returning her attention to Truman and their conversation, she said, “The same way you can’t be mad at Quincy for wanting to do the right thing. You’ve shown me that the line between right and wrong can be blurred, but that protecting those you love is the right thing no matter what the cost.”

  She opened her purse and withdrew her phone.

  “Who are you calling?” Truman asked.

  “You need the best legal counsel money can buy, and my stepfather is the best.”

  “Sweetheart. I have no money left,” Truman said regretfully.

  Thinking of that huge bank account her mother had been dumping money into for her for more than a decade, she said, “I do.”

  Epilogue

  GEMMA PICKED THROUGH a rack of dresses at a sidewalk sale with Crystal and Dixie, looking for something for Kennedy to wear to the Easter parade next weekend. She’d really come into her own over the past few months. They’d been slowly introducing her to crowds, taking her to the zoo, for walks on the beach, and out to the mall, and she was excited about the Easter parade. It had been five months since Quincy confessed, two months since the court granted Truman post-conviction relief and vacated his sentence, and five weeks since Truman had been awarded guardianship of the children. The state could have placed both Truman and Quincy on trial; however, the prosecutor had exercised what Warren had called his prosecutorial discretion and declined to prosecute either of them. Warren had said that Quincy’s age at the time of the crime and Truman’s prison sentence had factored heavily into that decision.

  “How about this?” Dixie held up a pink dress with giraffes and flowers on it. “She loves wild animals and flowers.” Kennedy’s newest obsession was wild animals, and Truman had been working hard on new animal-centric fairy ta
les. Although they’d decided to start introducing her to more mainstream fairy tales, since she’d be starting preschool in the fall.

  “Or this!” Crystal held up a tie-dyed dress with lace around the edges. Thanks to Crystal, Kennedy loved edgy clothing as much as she loved frills.

  “Why don’t we ask her?” Gemma suggested as Truman, Quincy, and the kids came out of Luscious Licks. As Truman’s eyes caught hers, a sinful smile spread across his handsome face, inciting a flurry of butterflies in her belly. They’d been living together for months, and she still got fluttery at the sight of him. She knew that would never change.

  He blew her a kiss and knelt beside the stroller to feed Lincoln a spoonful of ice cream.

  “Dada.” Lincoln waved his arms up and down excitedly. He’d been calling Truman Dada and Gemma Mama for the last two weeks, and although Truman had at first tried to correct him, he’d since given up. Both he and Gemma ate up the endearments. Lincoln was hitting all his milestones, waving bye-bye and pulling himself up to stand while holding on to everything from a coffee table to Truman’s leg. His favorite game, besides pulling Uncle Bullet’s beard, was peekaboo.

  Lincoln reached for the spoon and Quincy laughed. “He’s got my appetite.”

  Quincy had filled out in the past few months, rivaling his older brother’s massive frame. After several stressful months, Quincy had completed rehab and was working full-time at a bookstore, which Gemma was thrilled about. It turned out that where Truman excelled at art, Quincy excelled at academics. He’d even aced his GED and enrolled in the community college and was doing exceptionally well in all of his classes. Two weeks ago Truman, Gemma, and the kids had rented a house on a residential street near the preschool, and Quincy had taken over Truman’s apartment. His relationship with Truman had been up and down during those first few weeks, but now they were closer than ever.

 
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