True for You

By: Marquita Valentine

Prologue

Jackson

There’s no other place I’d rather be than on stage, singing to a full house. Women scream my name. Guys want to be me, though they’d never admit it out loud.

But tonight, they’re yelling for an entirely different reason. They want a reunion   between my ex-girlfriend and me. She’s the only woman I’ve ever loved.

Glancing to my right, I nod at the stage manager. He moves out of the way, but my ex-girlfriend isn’t standing there. Bliss Davenport is. She’s dressed like usual, loose jeans and a loose top with curly hair falling over her shoulders.

She’s watching me, like always. Only I don’t mind. In fact, I want to join her in the shadows... I want to put my mouth on her again and make her cry out my name.

Suddenly, Violet appears, holding her guitar and waiting for her cue. She rolls her eyes when she catches me staring.

I’m not staring at you, I want to shout, but I can’t, because we’re on stage and I have to pretend I love Violet.

I mean, I do love her.

Violet sashays on stage, waving at the crowd and flirting with me. She’s pretending she loves me, right now. She’s pretending that, as we sing, there’s no one for her but me. Only I know she’s wishing she was singing for another guy. The one she really wants to be with, the one that has her heart now.

But that’s not going to stop me. Oh, no.

After the song is over and we exit the stage, I search for Bliss, but she’s not there anymore, and try as hard as I might to prevent it from happening, my heart sinks anyway.

“You’re supposed to look at Violet, not the damn wardrobe girl,” Everett growls.

Looking around, there’s no one for miles it seems. The hallway is empty. “I’ll do better tomorrow night.”

“Damn right you will.” Out of nowhere, he hits me in the back of my head. Black dots dance in front of my eyes. “Just in case you forget, there’s more where that came from.”

Refusing to give him the satisfaction of seeing me in pain, I make my hands stay at my side, and I make my face remain neutral. “Just in case you forget, I’m bigger than you now,” I snap.

Everett barks out a laugh. “You won’t hit me back. Hell, you won’t hit me first.” He walks away, confident that I won’t take a swing.

Impotent rage fills me. I’m twenty-four years old and still afraid of the one man that was supposed to keep me safe.

How messed up is that?

I head to my bus, throwing open the door, and immediately heading to my favorite cabinet. Bypassing a glass, I hit the bottle. When the first pull of whiskey burns my throat, I smile. And by the time half the alcohol is gone, I’m floating a million miles away.



***



Fifteen years earlier

A little girl with big green eyes and curly brown hair holds out her hand. “I won’t hurt you,” she whispers.

“How did you find me?” My fort is the same color as the bushes, hard to find unless you know exactly where to look.

She wiggles a foot, her hand falling to her side. “I heard you crying.”

I swipe the back of my hand under my nose. “Boys don’t cry.”

This morning, I’d made breakfast for my momma’s birthday. Only she’d gotten mad when I’d tripped in her room and spilled syrup all over her new rug. She’d shoved me down, face first into the rug, and smacked my bottom until it burned, and then started smacking my legs.

Then she screamed something about her hand hurting and reached for one of her slippers. My daddy had been the one to save me from her, but I’d run away as soon as they’d started fighting.

This is where I always go when they fight, or I’m feeling scared. One day, though, I’m going to have my own house. A special place that only the people I love and love me get to stay.

“I’m Junie. What’s your name?” Junie gets on her knees and crawls in beside me.

“Jackson.” While I was making breakfast for my momma, I saw Junie and her dad pull up. Her daddy had gone into my daddy’s garage. She’d skipped alongside them.

“That’s a nice name.” She holds out a bag of hot snaps. “Want some?”

“No.” One time I ate a bag of those, and my stomach felt like it was on fire for the rest of the day.

“How old are you?” she asks and eats a handful of those spicy things.

“Eight and three-quarters.”

“I’m just five, no quarters.” She smiles at me, big enough so I can see that there’s a tooth missing from the top of her mouth. “Wanna swing?”

I do, but my butt hurts too much. I’m wiggling around a lot, like when I have to go pee, but can’t, because I’m not done practicing my music lessons. “Swinging is for girls.”

She gets all quiet again, then, “What would you like to do?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh,” she says, and then sighs. “My daddy and your daddy used to go to school together. They were bestest friends.”

“Do you like school?”

“I guess.”

“I like school. My teacher is nice.” She keeps talking and I keep listening, until she hands my guitar to me. “Play for me?” she asks, batting her lashes at me.

With my guitar in my hands, I feel better. Playing music always makes me feel better. “What song would you like to hear?”

She shrugs. “I dunno.” I play a couple songs for her. She claps for me, and my chest puffs up.

“Last one,” I say.

“Play something happy!”

Try as I might, I can’t think of a single happy song to play. Instead, I set the guitar down and glance at her. “Does your momma hit you?”

“Is that why you were crying?”

“Maybe.” I grab one of my ARMY men and pretend to shoot the bad guy, not wanting to look at her.

“One time I tried to get my ball from the road, and Mrs. Willis almost hit me with her car. My momma hugged me, popped my bottom, and then hugged me again,” Junie says, and my head jerks up.

“What did your daddy do?”

“He popped my bottom, too, and then fussed at me for not listening.”

I scrunched up my nose. “That’s it?”

“Well, he hugged me later and I promised to listen next time.” Her eyes get even bigger. “I’ll never, ever go in the road again.”

She gets quiet again, and so do I. I wonder if she’s lying to me, because sometimes kids do that when they don’t want to get in trouble. I lie all the time so I don’t get in trouble with my momma.

“If they hit you again, I’ll come save you.” Like my daddy would. He always saves me. “Or if you just need me, I’ll save you, no matter what.”

Junie looks at me and leans close. She has freckles on her nose and cheeks. “If you need me, I’ll save you, no matter what.”

Before I can tell her boys don’t need saving, her daddy calls her name.

“Coming!” She gives me a hug and leaves my safe place, pausing at the front to whisper, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Junie shows up again and again to play with me. Mostly we play big kid games, but sometimes, Junie wants to play baby games, so I let her be the mommy and I’m the daddy.

“You can’t tell anyone, or I won’t play with you anymore,” I warn, not meaning it. My parents never let any of my friends from school come over. I’m only allowed to go to their house. For some reason, I don’t get invited very many places.

“I promise. “ Her face is serious as she hands me her baby doll. “Hold her like this so she’ll feel safe.” She brushes my shoulder with her hand, and I make a noise.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Before I can stop her, she lifts up my sleeve, revealing the four adult-sized fingerprint bruises on my skin. “Did you fall down?”

I hold on to her baby doll, trying to not to cry. “No.” I hadn’t fallen. I’d gotten in between my momma and her pills. I thought that if I threw them away, she’d be nice all the time.

“Do you want me to save you? I’ll tell my daddy—”

“No,” I shout, throwing her doll to the ground. “I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore.”

June starts to cry and picks up her doll, carefully checking her. “You didn’t have to hurt my baby.”

“It’s not a real baby. It’s pretend and stupid.”

Her lower lip pokes out, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. “Friends aren’t mean to each other, and they don’t say stupid.” She starts walking away, and I can’t stand it.

“Stop. I didn’t mean it.”

She turns around. “Say you’re sorry,” she sniffs.

“I’m sorry.”

She holds out her doll to me. “Now tell Teresa you’re sorry.”

“Sorry, Teresa,” I mumble.

“Good job,” she says, like I’m her dog or something. Then she holds out her hand. I stare at it, and then take it. “I hope your boo-boos go away.”

“I have more of them,” I blurt.

“Does your daddy know?”

Looking around, I lower my voice, “He sent my momma away again so she won’t hurt me anymore.”

“Maybe when she comes back, she’ll be nice, like mommies are ‘sposed to be.”

Maybe, but I’m not counting on it. She’ll come back and be nice for about a week, two if I’m lucky. Then I’ll do something dumb like cut the wrong flowers or forget to feed my goldfish, and she’ll put her hands on me again.

Just like always.

The next day, Junie doesn’t show up. I even go the swings to wait for her, but give up when it turns dark. When I ask my dad about her, he tells me Junie’s daddy got a job in North Carolina.

I go outside, to my safe place, and sit down. For some reason, I miss Junie. For some reason, my heart hurts when I think about her not coming back. So, I take my guitar and play all the songs I know.

But none of them are happy.



***



“Get up,” my dad roars at me. I’m lying on the floor mat, staring up at him through the one eye not swollen shut. My wrist burns, and my side has a stitch in it. We’ve been at this for a while now, and the day seems endless.

I whimper. Big mistake. He kicks my arm, and I screw my eyes shut against the pain.

“You’re fourteen, not four. Get up.”

I’m big for my age, too. Almost five feet eleven inches, all arms and legs. Maybe that’s why he’s started sparring with me like this. We used to wrestle, like other sons did with their dads, but since my birthday last year, things have changed. My dad has changed. He no longer saves me from anything.

I think he actually wants to hurt me.

Staggering to my feet, I look at him. “My arm hurts.”

He punches me in the gut, and I double over. “Better?”

Feeling like I’m going to puke, I breathe through my nose and straighten slowly. “Yes, sir.”

Everett grins, assuming a boxer’s stance. “I’ll make a man of you, yet.”



***



I sit in my hotel room, guitar in my hands, while I practice the song Everett wrote for me. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not what I want to sing.

“Jaxon?” the female in my bed murmurs sleepily. They all call me Jaxon Hunter now, instead of Jackson Morgan. It’s like that part of me doesn’t exist anymore.

“Go back to sleep,” I say, standing up to head outside to the balcony.

The girl, someone Everett introduced me to last night at a party, is twenty-one. She doesn’t care that I’m seventeen. Most likely, she’ll be gone before I’m done out here.

Soon, I’ll make my debut at the Grand Ole Opry, like every other country singer before me. I don’t care about tradition or all the greats. I mean, I respect them, but I don’t play like them. I don’t sing like them. And I sure as hell won’t wear a ten-gallon hat like them.

Besides, it’s Everett’s dream, not mine, to play there. If I had my way, I’d be in a rock band, lead guitarist, wearing leather pants, tattoos on my chest, and a kiss-my-ass attitude.



***



I’m backstage, at the Country Music Awards, just having accepted my fifth award, when my dad comes walking up.

“This is Violet Lynn,” Everett says, like he’s all proud. Proud of what, finding his next bed partner?

Violet smiles at me, all blue-eyed innocence and long, blond hair. Just my dad’s type. Just my type.

“Hi.”

I let my gaze travel down her body. She’s tiny, barely over five feet, and all girlish curves. Her face turns red when my gaze settles on her mouth. So that’s what he likes about her.

“She’s headlining with Country Rhythm next week, at the Square,” Everett says, and Violet smiles bigger.

Nonplussed, I turn off my lecherous thoughts. “You play?”

“I don’t just play.” That smile of hers turns confident. “I make gold records.”

“That’s not bad for a—”

“Seventeen year old.” She rolls her eyes. “Actually, it’s amazing for anyone, including someone who’s the ripe old age of twenty.”

A real grin kicks up the corners of my mouth. “Why don’t we go play something together, some place a bit more private?”

“Sure!” She smiles brightly. “Let me find my mom and dad, and then we can go.”

Her parents are here? I watch her run off and swing my gaze to Everett. “Are you shittin’ me?”

“It won’t kill you to keep it in your pants,” he says, which means he hasn’t had her yet, and plans to real soon. “Besides, she’s good. She won the American Talent Show at thirteen. The girl can sing and play, better than you.”

“What do you need me for?” I grumble.

Everett hands me my guitar. “Your job is to take real good care of her, son. Violet Lynn is your June, the one we’ve been waiting for to make you a star.”

My newest single just went platinum, and I need her to be a star? Resentment at the perky, little blonde starts to build.

“She’ll save your career, no matter what mistakes you make.” For some reason, the image of the little girl I’d met when I was eight flashes in my head.

I’m Junie.

I’ll come save you.

If only that June could see me now… then all thoughts and images of June disappear when a hot chick walks by, with the promise to see me later in her eyes.

Everett walks to Violet, putting his arm around her shoulders.

I take a pull of my beer, studying her. Maybe I’ll seduce Violet for the hell of it. Normally, I stay away from the girls my dad screws.

Violet breaks away, hurrying to me. She actually looks excited to be here. “I can’t believe it. This is amazing.” Her eyes round. “Oh my gosh, did Sugarland just walk by?” Something tugs at my heart, but I ignore that feeling.

“Ready?” I hold out my hand, and she takes it.



***



“Please, help me,” Violet moans, not even aware it’s me with her. She’d been driving drunk and rammed her car into a tree.

“I don’t know what to do.” I try to pull out the windshield embedded in her stomach, but all it does is make her scream and cut up my hands. She’s crying so hard that her entire body is shaking. More blood runs out from her body.

“Oh God, please don’t move, baby, I’m trying to help you.” I swipe my hands on my jeans, and cradle her head in my lap. The girl I’d grown to love over the past two years is most likely going to die in my lap. “Help is on the way. Just hang on.”

“What the hell are you still doing here?” my dad says, appearing out of nowhere.

Relief rushes through me, making me cry like a baby. “We have to help her, Dad.”

Finally, I hear the sweet sound of a couple of sirens.

“Help her my ass. She drove drunk and crashed into a tree.” He begins to pull me away. “You can’t take this kind of publicity once it gets out about you and Callie.”

I shrug him off. “It’s not true, and you know it. I’m tired of lying for you.”

“They’re almost here. Get up.”

I shake my head in answer.

He lands a punch to my ear, and it starts ringing. “Get up.”

When I don’t move, he hits me again, in the back of my head, where he knows it won’t show.

“No.”

The punches come harder and faster now, until he grabs me by the back of my neck and hauls me away from her. Violet’s head hits the ground, and she whimpers.

“You’re killing her,” I shout, fighting back now. “Let me go.”

“I didn’t want it to come to this, but you’re being a little shit.” His winds back his arm, lets it fly. Pain, hot and searing, bursts from my eye, and then nothing.