Tru blue, p.9
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       Tru Blue, p.9

           Melissa Foster
 
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  “Or, he got tit and gave you a tat? The tat on his big, fat—” Crystal fell forward laughing. “Finally those girls of yours got some action.”

  It felt so good to get out of her own chaotic head, Gemma had tears in her eyes.

  Crystal picked up one of the paperbacks from the coffee table, her laughter quieting. “Four women’s fiction books is not a good sign. Come on.” She pushed to her feet and pulled Gemma up with her. She grabbed Gemma’s keys and dragged her out the front door.

  “Where are we going?” Gemma asked, trying to keep up as Crystal pulled her down the stairs.

  “Luscious Licks. One way or another I’m going to find out why Truman said you could pick up your car and leave the keys to the loaner on the seat so you wouldn’t have to see him.”

  Gemma stopped at the sidewalk. “He said that?”

  Crystal looped her arm through Gemma’s and tugged her toward the corner ice-cream store. “He did,” she said softly. “He said he knew you wouldn’t want to see him, but that he’d finished fixing your car and he’d leave the keys on the front seat and for you to do the same with the loaner. Gem, what happened?”

  She still couldn’t get herself to verbalize what he’d done. “I’ll tell you. I just need a few minutes.” Or a lifetime.

  They walked in silence to Luscious Licks, the scent of sugary goodness bringing an air of happiness Gemma wasn’t ready to accept.

  “Hey, girlfriends,” Penny, the perky woman who owned Luscious Licks, looked up from the freezer. She had hair the color of walnuts, and it was pinned up in a funky twist, held in place with a big clip. Her bright smile dropped into a firm line. “Uh-oh, what’s going on?”

  Crystal put an arm around Gemma and said, “We’re not having a great day.”

  “Then we’d better get some ice cream on tap. Stat!” Penny waved to the flavor board. “Want me to mix you up a Go Away Gloomy Day special? Or is this a man problem? I could whip you up a He’s a No-Good Pile of Poop sundae. Lots of chocolate with mashed-up Oreos and gumdrops.”

  Gemma stared at the flavor board. “I don’t think I could stomach either, but thanks, Pen.”

  “Oh, one of those days.” Penny turned and filled a cup with ice cream, then she went to what she called the hard-knocks cabinet, where Gemma knew she kept tiny bottles of liquor, and poured something over the top. She handed it to Gemma. “Eat this. Brown sugar and brandy. A little delish dish to take the edge off.”

  “Thanks, Penny.” Even the thought of eating made Gemma’s stomach churn, but she couldn’t refuse Penny’s offer. Gemma had spent countless hours chowing down on her ice cream while writing her community newsletters. Penny had been the subject of her first article when she’d moved to the Harbor, and she always felt inspired when she was here. But tonight all she felt was the desire to head down to the other end of town and see Truman.

  Crystal ordered a four-flavor soft-serve cone, and practically drooled when Penny handed it to her. The colorful layers of mango, pistachio, blueberry, and lemon were Crystal’s favorites. The combination made Gemma feel sick.

  Penny came around the counter and hugged Gemma. “This one’s on the house for my two favorite princesses.”

  A group of teenagers came through the front door laughing and joking around.

  Penny lowered her voice and said, “The little redhead has a thing for the guy with the trendy haircut.” Then, louder, she said, “Good luck with whatever’s gloomin’ on you today. I hope the ice cream helps, and if not, there’s a liquor store around the corner.” She winked and went to tend to the customers.

  As Crystal reached for a chair, Gemma headed for the door. “Let’s sit down by the water instead.”

  They ate their ice creams in silence as they made their way down to the beach. She loved that Crystal knew her well enough not to prod her for information. She also loved that her friend knew her well enough to drag her out of her apartment. It was just what she needed to try to refocus and figure things out.

  They took off their shoes and walked down to the edge of the water to sit in the sand. Being near water never failed to put Gemma in a good mood, but today it barely dulled the ache.

  “When I didn’t hear from you last night, I thought…You seemed so into Truman.”

  “I was into him. I am into him.” The admission rocked inside her like a paddleboat in a storm.

  “So? What’s the issue?” She watched Gemma mix the remaining ice cream in her cup into mush. “I’ve never seen you like this. Usually if you’ve had a bad day, you gobble your way through as much ice cream as you can handle. What happened?”

  Gemma set the cup in the sand and glanced at the people on the beach and the waves rolling up the shore, trying to put words to what she felt, as she’d tried throughout the day—and failed. Epically.

  She shook her head, her voice failing her.

  “It’s okay. I’ve got all night. When you’re ready to pour your heart out, I’m here. Or I could, you know, go beat the shit out of him.”

  Gemma laughed and patted Crystal’s leg. She was wearing what Gemma called her skeleton jeans, which were black with horizontal slashes all the way up each leg. “He could squash you with one hand tied behind his back.” She thought about what she’d said and added, “But he never would.”

  Crystal finished her cone and changed the subject to the shop, giving Gemma a little reprieve, until the conversation circled back to last night.

  “I saw the new baby gym was still at the shop and wondered what was up.”

  “You should have seen him when we were playing around at the shop. Kennedy picked out all these outfits for him to wear. The dark prince, the flower prince, which was hilarious, and of course, Prince Charming. He didn’t fight it like some of the guys do. He looked at that little girl’s face and told her he’d be whatever she wanted him to be.”

  “Sounds like he loves those kids,” Crystal said.

  “He does. So much, Crys. He wants them to feel safe and loved, and I have no doubt he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they are.” Just like he did for his mother and brother. The ache in her heart intensified with the thought. “I fell really hard for him last night.”

  “Then why did he sound like he’d lost his best friend on the machine, and why are you alone instead of spending the day with him?”

  Gemma looked out at the water. She’d debated going over and talking to him all afternoon. She had so many questions, but every time she thought about voicing them, sadness consumed her.

  “Have you ever wanted a guy so much that the thought of not having him made you feel like you wanted to cry, only you couldn’t pinpoint the reasons why—you just felt it in your bones?” she asked tentatively.

  “Yeah. Remember Thirteen-Inch Theo, the guy I told you about from high school?”

  “So many escapades, so little time,” Gemma said. “I’m serious.”

  “Then the answer is no, because I’ve never met any man who could deal with who I am and not think I’m a freak for one reason or another.”

  Gemma looked at her gorgeous raven-haired friend. She had several piercings in one ear and dressed like a punk rocker from the eighties most of the time. But she was funny and kind and generous. She was loyal and honest and the best friend a person could have. So what if she was an adrenaline junkie who would probably walk a tightrope across the New York skyline if someone dared her to?

  “I don’t think you’re a freak,” Gemma said.

  “That’s because you like my freakiness. And because you’re the least judgmental person I know.”

  “I thought I was, but now I’m not so sure.” She drew in a deep breath and told Gemma about her conversation with Truman. By the time she let it all out, she was as teary-eyed and flustered as she’d been last night.

  “Holy. Shit.” Crystal dug her feet into the sand.

  “I know.”

  “His own mother put him in prison after he saved her ass?” Crystal said angrily. “Who does that?”
/>
  “A drug abuser, I guess. That’s the thing that stood out most to you?”

  “Well, no,” Crystal said. “The whole story is crazy, but he walked in on some asshole raping his mother, and you said he tried to pull the guy off. He did what he had to do. He wasn’t just protecting his mother. You said his younger brother was there, too. I could see doing that,” she said easily. “If someone were raping my mother, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to stop them. I don’t think it would take any thought, either. Mom. Raped. Kill the fucker.”

  Just hearing her say it like that made Gemma’s heart race. It was hard for her to think like that about her mother. Truth be told, it was hard for her to think about her mother at all. And the really messed-up thing was that part of her wondered how she’d tell her mother she was dating a man who had been in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

  “That also explains much about what you’ve said about him. No wonder he’s so protective.”

  It did. She knew it did. “But…he killed a man.”

  “A drug-dealing rapist,” Crystal pointed out. “Not exactly a pillar of society.”

  “How does a person move past that?”

  “How does a person, or how do you?” Crystal asked. “Because it sounds like he’s been moving past it for months, and the way you talk about him, it sounds like he’s got his shit together better than most of the guys I know.”

  Gemma lay back on the sand staring up at the graying sky as the sun began to set. Crystal lay down beside her.

  “If you didn’t feel anything for him, or if you thought he posed a danger to you or those kids, you would have already called someone—Social Services to protect the kids, or me to protect you. Are you afraid of him?” Crystal asked.

  Gemma shook her head. “No,” she said honestly. “Not even a little.”

  “What are you afraid of? That your gold-digging mother will have a conniption, or that he’s as uncaring or unstable as your father was?”

  Gemma turned to face her. Even though those things were true about her parents, she hated hearing them said aloud. “No. I mean, we know my mother would probably lock me up in a tower and throw away the key if she found out, but that would mean she’d have to leave her throne. We both know that’s not happening. And Truman is more than caring, and I don’t think he’s unstable. If he were, I would see it, right? They wouldn’t have let him out of prison early. Besides, an unstable person doesn’t make his younger brother a priority after he moves out, or stay away from drugs because he knows what they do to a person. An unstable person would take the easy way out and do drugs to escape their life.”

  “That’s what I was thinking, but what do I know?”

  “You know me, and you’ve known people who were in prison before. Your brother, for one.” Crystal hated talking about her brother, Jed, but she knew her friend wouldn’t mind, given what she was going through.

  “He was a thief. Is a thief.” Crystal stared up at the darkening sky. “From what Jed told me, if you are a certain type of person, no amount of time in prison will change you. He was arrested two months after being released—and that was only because he got caught. He told me that he was stealing days after he got released. So based on that, if Truman were the type of man who could kill without remorse, he’d probably have flown off the handle lots of times, not just one time when his mother was being raped.”

  “He grew up with her bringing men in and out, and from what he told me, he never lashed out. Even after he moved out, a guy threatened him with a gun to keep him away from the house, but he didn’t retaliate. He just kept on going back and watching out for Quincy. But I don’t know how you accept that type of thing. He killed a man. It doesn’t even feel real. When I looked at him after he told me, I didn’t see a killer. I saw the man who didn’t think twice about raising siblings he never knew existed. The man who was ready to refuse my help because he thought I might want to harm them. But he did kill a man, and he was in prison. Prison, Crystal.”

  “Yes,” she said sternly. “He killed a man to protect his shitty-ass mother and his younger brother. He went to prison because he was protecting his family, but in a sense, you’ve both spent time behind bars. You grew up in a gated community you rarely left, you were guarded twenty-four seven and forced to do things you despised. Which is worse? Being imprisoned in a life you hate by your parents, or being imprisoned because you stopped a man from possibly killing the only parent and brother you had?”

  “It’s not the same,” Gemma said lamely.

  Crystal drew in a deep breath, and her eyes turned serious, the way they did when there was no room for kidding in their conversation. “No. Nothing is the same as being the person who drove a knife into the man who was raping your mother. Imagine living with that for the rest of your life.”

  Tears filled Gemma’s eyes.

  “Now,” Crystal said softly, “imagine raising the babies of the woman who sent you to prison.”

  A tear slid down her cheek. “Is it wrong that I like him so much? It feels like he’s so good. He stopped us from fooling around to tell me what he’d done. He could have slept with me and told me later. Or not at all. But he said he wanted us to be honest about everything.”

  Crystal turned onto her side and faced her. “That tells you so much about him, doesn’t it? It’s not wrong that you like him so much. You see in him what you’ve never seen in anyone else. Something worthy of that big heart of yours. In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you shed a tear over any man.”

  TRUMAN LAID LINCOLN in the playpen and sat down in the lawn chair beside it. He glanced at Kennedy, sitting on Bear’s lap with her head on his shoulder. Bear had come to the shop earlier in the afternoon to get some work done on a motorcycle and had stuck around for dinner. They’d grilled burgers and had been shooting the shit ever since.

  “I just wish Gemma would get here.” Truman ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair.

  Kennedy lifted her head. “Gemma?” The fire’s glow cast dancing shadows across her sweet face.

  “No, princess,” Truman answered.

  Bear kissed her cheek and gently guided her head back down to his shoulder. “She’s not coming, man. It’s a lot to deal with. You might not ever see her again.”

  “She’s got to pick up her car at some point.” Truman had hoped to catch a glimpse of her when she arrived. “I just want to know she’s okay.”

  “She’s not okay. How can she be? The dude she likes just admitted to being in prison for killing a man. Regardless of the chivalric reasons, to a girl like Gemma, you’re the Big Bad Wolf.”

  Truman leaned his elbows on his thighs. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

  Bear rubbed Kennedy’s back as her eyelids grew heavy.

  Truman’s hands felt too empty, like the rest of him. “You ever think about having a family? Before these two, the thought never entered my mind, and honestly, before Gemma, I never wanted a woman in my life, either. But now I can’t imagine a day without them.” And I miss the hell out of her.

  “It has entered mine plenty.” Bear looked thoughtfully at Kennedy. “Someday I want what you stumbled into. I love kids. I love family. But I also love variety. You know me.”

  “Yeah, I do.” He chuckled at the term variety, but he knew how loyal Bear was. “You saved me, man. Too many times to count.”

  “No I didn’t. No one can save anyone else. You know that. You saved yourself. You dragged your ass on that bus and got yourself here, and you dragged your brother here. Man,” Bear said, “even as a teenager you worked harder than half the men I know.”

  Truman smiled, remembering the thrill he’d gotten from learning and accomplishing whatever task he’d been given. “You gave me a chance to get out of that hellhole I grew up in. You taught me what it was to have a sense of pride.” He got up and paced as headlights beamed down the driveway. His pulse sped up.

  “That her?” Bear asked.

  “Who else
would come around this late? I’ll be right back.” He’d put a note in Gemma’s car for her, but he wanted to see her face when she read it.

  “Dude,” Bear called after him. “You told her she wouldn’t have to see you.”

  Truman stopped walking, and an unfamiliar car pulled into the parking lot. The passenger door swung open and a tall figure stepped out, staggering slightly.

  “That’s not her.” He glanced back at Bear. “Stay with them for me?”

  “You know it.” Bear rose to his feet and stood between the parking lot and the playpen.

  Truman’s eyes froze on Quincy’s long, lean frame moving slowly toward him. His brother’s hair hung in front of his eyes. His body swayed like a tree in the wind as he stumbled forward.

  “That’s far enough,” Truman commanded, trying to catch a glimpse of who was driving the old boxy sedan, but it was too dark.

  “Hey, man,” Quincy slurred.

  Truman crossed his arms. “Who’s in the car?”

  “No one.” Quincy put a hand in his front pocket, then took it out, then slid it in again.

  “I take it you’re not here for help to get clean.”

  Quincy looked away, and Truman stepped forward, taking a long hard look at his brother’s glassy, heavily lidded eyes.

  “I used my food money on Mom’s cremation.” His words ran together. “I was hoping you could help me out.”

  “Bullshit. I gave you money for that.”

  His brother looked away again, then back at the car. “If I don’t pay…”

  Headlights turned off the main road onto the long driveway. Gemma. Truman’s gut fisted. He didn’t want Quincy or his cohorts anywhere near her or the babies. He stepped closer, smelling the rancid stench of not enough showers and too many drugs. The world he’d grown up in and fought against. The world he’d tried to save his brother from.

  The world that had fucked up his entire life.

  He couldn’t even lie to himself. He’d made the choice to save his brother’s ass, but that didn’t stop the anger and frustration from pouring out.

  “I told you to stay in school. I told you to stay straight. Where did you lose your way?” Acutely aware of Gemma’s car approaching, Truman’s patience snapped. “You made this fucking mess of a life you’re living in. Unless you want to get out of it, don’t show your face around here again. Mom is dead. Do you get that, or are you too fucked up to care?”

 
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