Tru blue, p.8
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       Tru Blue, p.8

           Melissa Foster
 
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  Thank God those babies had him. Tears welled in her eyes, and when she touched his back, he bristled and lifted his eyes toward the sky, blinking repetitively.

  “Yes, you do,” she said softly. “You know their birthdays. Thursday the fifteenth of September. The day you rescued them.”

  He turned with tears in his eyes and a blatant lack of embarrassment that cut straight to her heart. He didn’t say a word, simply leaned forward and wrapped her in his arms, holding her so tight it was hard to breathe. He held her for a long time, and after he’d been so honest with her, it felt right to be in his arms. When he drew back, the tears were gone, the hard set of his jaw in place once again, and her stomach sank, realizing there was more.

  How much more could one man endure?

  He set a serious, and once again apologetic, gaze on her. She wanted to tell him there was no apology necessary, that they didn’t get to choose their parents. But that would mean speaking, and her throat was too thick with emotion to manage a single word.

  “After Quincy was born, a string of men came in and out of our lives. Never for long, and not good men. Users, pushers, collectors, in for a day, a night, a week. My mother would come home bruised and high. She’d disappear into the bedroom with a guy and tell me to watch Quincy, which was a joke. That woman never paid him any attention. She’d shove a bottle in his mouth to shut him up, but that’s about as far as it went. I won’t bore you with the details of my shithole life, but I moved out when I was eighteen and tried to take Quincy with me. She sicced one of her crackheads on me. He had a gun and pretty much told me to stay the fuck away from the house. I didn’t listen.”

  “Jesus. Your own mother did that to you?” She couldn’t hide her disbelief.

  He nodded. “Bear Whiskey, a guy I’d met, took me under his wing and taught me to work on cars. When I moved out, he rented me this apartment. His family became my family. He and Dixie, his sister, run Whiskey Automotive, and they run the bar with their other brothers, Bones and Bullet.” He must have caught her curious expression, because he said, “Biker names. Anyway, I grew up across the bridge, and I was afraid of causing trouble for Quincy, so we worked out a schedule of sorts. Our mother would go out for hours, supposedly for work, but…”

  He drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Anyway, for two years we saw each other every few days. I gave him money for food, bought him clothes, whatever he needed. And then one day I showed up and heard screaming coming from inside the house.”

  Truman covered his mouth and closed his eyes, as if whatever he was going to say made him physically ill. His hand dropped to his thigh, and he turned so his whole body faced her.

  “My only thought was Quincy when I barged through the front door.” His voice was low and contemptuous. He pushed to his feet, pacing the deck, rubbing his hands on his jeans, wringing them together, and raking them through his hair, every determined step heightening the tension rolling off him.

  “Quincy was huddled on the floor with a gash on his cheek and blood on his shirt, shaking uncontrollably.” He gritted his teeth as he spoke, the veins in his neck bulging, his hands fisting so hard his knuckles blanched. “A man I’d never seen before was violently raping our mother. I tried to pull him off and he swung back, knocking me away. There was a knife on the table…”

  GEMMA GASPED, TEARS streaming down her cheeks as Truman leaned his palms on the railing and his head dropped between his shoulders. Memories slammed into him, momentarily sucking the wind right out of him. He wanted to tell her he didn’t do it. That the knife was already bloody, the deed was already done when he’d walked in the door, but the words wouldn’t come—and he knew they never would. His brother might be fucked up, but Truman couldn’t give up hope that one day Quincy would find his way back to a cleaner, better life. And Truman would not be the man who fucked that up for him. He’d keep their secret until he breathed his last breath, no matter what the cost.

  Lifting unseeing eyes toward the dark abyss before him, he said, “I wasn’t supposed to go to prison. The guy was involved in some big-time drug ring. The public defender called it a ‘heat of passion’ murder. But my mother lied in court. She said she wasn’t in any danger. For twenty-two fucking years she couldn’t clean up her act enough to be a proper parent, and she somehow managed to get clean for long enough to send her son to prison.”

  Chapter Ten

  GEMMA THOUGHT HER father’s suicide was the worst thing she’d ever have to face. She thought the worst thing a person could do was choose to leave their loved ones behind. But this? Truman being thrust into such tragic surroundings, having no choice but to rescue his mother and brother from the horrific situation she brought into their home? And his mother not only turning her back on the son who put his own life in jeopardy to save her, but also sending him to prison? She couldn’t wrap her mind around such a dreadful scenario, much less what his upbringing must have been like. She was trembling all over, breathing hard, tears raining down her cheeks, and when she finally found the courage to look at him, Truman was still standing with his back to her. His shoulders rounded forward, as if all the air had deflated from his chest.

  A chill spread through her as she tried to grasp what he’d told her. He had killed a man.

  Killed.

  He had taken a knife and ended a man’s life.

  To save his family.

  How does a person process that information? She had a million questions—and about as many fears. Would he do it again? Was he unstable? Was he telling her the truth?

  Breathe in. Breathe out. That was about as much as she could handle.

  Lincoln’s whimpers came through the baby monitor. Truman turned slowly. His gaze never came near her as he walked into the house, as if on autopilot, and disappeared into the bedroom.

  She exhaled a long breath and gripped the edge of her seat, trying to make sense of the overwhelming pieces of his past he’d just revealed.

  When Truman returned to the deck, she stood on wobbly legs, trying to reconcile the man she’d come to know with the person he’d just admitted to being. It was all too much, his painful expression, the ache in her heart, the weight of his confession.

  “I didn’t expect you to still be here,” he said solemnly.

  Her eyes filled with more tears and her hand flew to her mouth, untrusting of what might come out. Emotions bubbled up inside her as her thoughts swam—his bravery, his loyalty, his crime. Hearing his confession didn’t wipe away what she felt for him. The words weren’t delete buttons; they were painful, heavy truths, each one landing like lead on the good she saw in him, weighing it down, driving it deeper into a sea of unknowns. At the same time, all the goodness that had drawn her to him since the get-go and magnified with every moment they spent together refused to sink. They flailed beneath the negative weight, trying to win, trying to rise above the darkness, leaving her gasping for air.

  He nodded silently, a look of resigned acceptance in his eyes. He picked up the baby monitor and turned to go inside.

  “Truman—” His name flew desperately from her lips, and when he turned, her heart cracked open. She knew what devastation looked like. She’d seen it in her mother’s eyes after her father took his life, and she’d seen it in her own reflection in the mirror in the weeks that followed, when their world crumbled down around them and her mother became even colder, losing herself in anything but caring for her daughter.

  “I don’t…I can’t…” Too overcome with emotions, she took a step back and pressed her hand to the railing to stabilize herself from the spinning world around her.

  “It’s okay, Gemma,” he reassured her. “That’s why I stopped us from going any further.”

  You stopped us. Even amid all that passion, you were thinking of me. She didn’t think as she touched his hand, needing the connection despite her confused state. His fingers were shaking as much as hers were. “It’s…” She gulped a breath to try to calm her nerves. “It’s a lot to take in.”
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  He nodded solemnly. “I couldn’t mislead you.”

  “Did you…? How long were you…?” She couldn’t even say the words. Saying them made it even more real.

  “I served six years of an eight-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, and I’ve been out for six months. Every Thursday morning I call and check in with the parole office, and I’ll continue to do that until the full term of my sentence is complete. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about that man. I wanted to save my mother and protect Quincy, but no part of me wanted to kill him. I wanted to stop him. I needed to stop him.”

  He was breathing hard, like everything he had rode on those words. What was it like for him, living with that on his shoulders, made worse by the complete and total loss of his mother’s love? How many times had he been forced to explain his past? Voluntary manslaughter. Six years in prison.

  Prison. The word echoed in her mind.

  “Gemma, I swear to you, I’ve never used drugs a day in my life, and—”

  She held up her hand, unable to listen to more. Not now. It was too painful after feeling so much so fast. Too scary to think his past had actually happened to him. To anyone. Too overwhelming to think he’d witnessed and been through all that he had. She needed space, time. Air.

  She needed to breathe.

  “I’m sorry,” she said as she pushed past him and made her escape.

  TRUMAN STOOD ON the deck long after he heard Gemma drive away. He’d spent six long years honing his ability to turn off his emotions, and tonight, as pain coursed through his veins and anger gnawed at his gut for all the parts of his life he hadn’t chosen—and the parts he had—he realized he’d been repressing his emotions for a hell of a lot longer than that.

  When his mother had irreparably screwed him over, he’d felt like she’d stabbed him in the chest. When he’d found out Quincy was using, that knife had jammed in deeper. When he’d tried to help Quincy and his brother had turned him away with hatred in his eyes, it was like he’d yanked on the knife, slicing him open from naval to sternum. And when he’d found out he had two siblings who had been living a life no child should ever have to, he felt like someone had grabbed each side of that gaping wound and torn it open, allowing his guts to pour out.

  Gemma walking away should feel like a pinprick. He hadn’t known her long enough to validate the way she sucked the air out of his lungs.

  His next move took no thought. He had to move on, to push past the fucking self-loathing for the choices he’d made. Only he didn’t think he’d made the wrong decisions, because he would do it all over again to protect Quincy. But this time he’d be smart enough to turn his mother in to the police and get Quincy into a stable home, instead of leaving him there without anyone to protect him from his mother’s dirty habits. She’d always left Quincy alone. She’d left Quincy to him. And then she’d put him in jail.

  At the threshold to his bedroom, he crammed all those awful memories aside, forcing himself to leave them outside. He couldn’t allow any of those noxious emotions to touch the kids. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply, using all the mental techniques Bear had taught him to clear his mind. The techniques that had carried him through his adult life. Only then did he enter the bedroom and turn on the radio very softly, making sure he could hear it through the monitor. Bear had given him the long-distance video monitoring system as a gift when he’d come by earlier. He’d also watched the kids so Truman could shower before seeing Gemma. Bear was as taken with the babies as Truman was. When Truman had gone to jail, he had offered to try to fight for custody of Quincy, but Bear’s past wasn’t exactly clean, and Truman worried that the truth would come out. He wasn’t willing to chance his brother being tried as an adult, and he wasn’t about to implicate Bear in the crime by telling him the truth about what had happened.

  He brushed a kiss to Kennedy’s forehead. “Love you, princess.” Leaning into the crib, he touched his lips to Lincoln’s forehead and was relieved to feel his fever had relented. “Love you, buddy.”

  His heart swelled within his chest. He didn’t know if he’d ever see Gemma again, but he knew there was no way in hell he’d ever look at these babies again and not think of her.

  With the monitor in hand, he locked the front door, turned on the porch light, and headed out back. He carried the metal box from the deck and made his way down the steps and through the wooden gate to the junkyard. The weight of his painting supplies was familiar and unsettling. He stopped inside the gate, checked the video reception on the monitor, and turned up the volume. Hearing the radio loud and clear, he made his way to one of the cars he hadn’t yet released his demons on, set up the monitor, and unpacked his supplies.

  Eleven shades of black, including his favorites, raven, spider, obsidian, grease, and soot. Seven shades of gray. Gauntlet and meteor shower were his go-to grays. Images of Gemma suddenly burst into his mind—Gemma admiring his drawings, holding Lincoln, looking up at him after he stumbled into her in the bedroom, and finally, with tears in her eyes as she pushed past him, fleeing from his apartment. He trudged up to the shop, monitor in hand, and retrieved another box of paints. Truman didn’t plan his artwork. He didn’t think about style or design or much of anything. His art was an extension of him, born of wars, old and new. As the familiar sound of aerosol soothed his ravaged soul, he disappeared into the zone.

  When Lincoln whimpered, he was surprised to see three hours had passed. He gathered his things and headed up to the apartment—never once looking back. He never looked back. It was the only way to leave the demons behind—and still they slithered after him, sneaking under the crevice of doorways, through cracks in his armor, and sticking to him like glue.

  Chapter Eleven

  SUNDAY EVENING GEMMA threw open her apartment door, set her hand on her hip, and glared at Crystal. “How many times do you need to hear ‘I’m fine’ before you believe me?”

  Crystal rolled her eyes and clomped into the house.

  “I’m sure my downstairs neighbors appreciate your combat boots.”

  “You think so?” Crystal stomped her foot three times. “I hope they like my torn jeans and skull shirt, too. If not, I’ll send my boot right up their ass.” She stalked into the living room and looked around, lifting the couch cushions, checking behind the curtains and under the table.

  “What are you looking for?” She was not in the mood to play games. She’d spent the day trying to get lost in one of her women’s fiction novels to escape thoughts of Truman and ended up re-creating the characters of every story in her head, imagining how the story would change if the hero was an ex-con who had killed a man.

  “My bestie, Gemma Wright. Maybe you know her? She’s your doppelgänger, but she calls me when shit goes down in her life. She doesn’t hole up in her apartment and give me some line of crap about being fine.” Crystal plowed forward, invading Gemma’s personal space. “Gemma doesn’t say she’s fine when she is fine. She says girly words like ‘fantabulous’ or ‘peachy.’ And she doesn’t say ‘fine’ when she’s not. She says she’s ‘pissed’ or ‘angry’ or wishes she could smash something.”

  Gemma rolled her eyes. “I was graced with a call from Mommy Dearest earlier. I hit my limit and couldn’t fathom another discussion.” Her mother would probably have a heart attack on the spot if she knew Gemma was dating a man who had been in prison. Why does that give me a slight ripple of joy?

  “What happened? Did her servants forget to serve her tea and she wanted you to run your ass two hours to her place to fetch it?”

  “I didn’t answer it. Her message said”—she drew her shoulders back and used a high-pitched proper tone—“Gemaline, darling. Don’t forget the fundraiser is only two months away. Be sure to wear your pearls. All proper girls wear pearls, blah, blah, blah.”

  “Oh, Mommy Wright, you are a little minx, aren’t you?” Crystal waggled her brows. “A pearl necklace is a killer idea, but it might get a little sticky.” She motioned with her hand like she was
jerking off a guy.

  They both cracked up, and boy did Gemma need that laugh.

  “Why does she bother calling you? She knows you’ll show up for your annual daughterly commitment, and she knows you’ll do all the right things. Wear your pretty pearls. The shiny kind, not sticky heat-of-passion cumdrops. Don a new fabulous gown, and you’ll leave right after dinner.”

  “I’ve got a better one for you,” Gemma said flatly. “Why did she bother having me at all?” Gemma trudged over to the couch and flopped down.

  Crystal followed her to the couch but remained standing. “Because everyone knows rich people need children to fit in with the Joneses. God forbid anyone should have something they don’t. After all, money can buy anything, right? Even nannies to fill in for absent parents.” She set her hand on her hip and stared at Gemma. “I just came from the shop.”

  “So?”

  “So…your badass tattoo man left a message. Do you care to explain why he’s leaving you a message at the shop and not texting you?”

  Gemma’s stomach tumbled. She was happy he had reached out but sad at the same time. Still too overwhelmed to think straight, she fidgeted with the edge of the cushion. “We never exchanged numbers.”

  Crystal plunked down beside her and studied her face. “Mm-hm. What happened last night?”

  “What did his message say?”

  “Tit for tat?” Crystal lifted her chin.

  Gemma’s emotions were all over the map. She’d been reining in her sadness all day, and every time she thought she had it under control, anger pushed in, followed by heartache again. It was a race to the finish line and she was climbing over each unwanted emotion and falling on her ass time and time again.

  “Titty for tatty?” Crystal arched a brow, and they both laughed.

  “Yes, he got tit and…I like his tats?” Gemma choked out between laughs.

 
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