Jaycee woke at ten and straightened her stiff limbs slowly, grateful for the warmth of the sun coming in her bedroom window. She stretched luxuriously and listened to the birds singing in the oak tree beside the house before sitting up and inspecting the damage to her arms and legs. Just another beautiful Saturday in the Stevens household.
She listened at the door and didn’t hear any evidence of Jake’s being up, so she unlocked it and stepped cautiously into the hall. His bedroom door was ajar and she listened for his snore, but the only thing she heard were the birds that were starting to annoy her with their frigging cheeriness. She tiptoed toward the kitchen to put on water for a bath and came face-to-face with Jake coming down the hall.
“I . . . went and got the gas turned back on,” he said without looking at her. “Should be enough hot water for a bath in about an hour.” He stared at the floor as if he were waiting for Jaycee to thank him or something, but she just turned and went back to her room.
She answered the knock on her door a minute later. “What do you want?”
“I bought some of them cookies you like. Them twinkles or whatever you call ‘em.”
Jaycee stared at herself in the cracked mirror on the wall and shook her head. What a touching gesture. Beat your kid with a belt because you’ve been lusting after her, then buy her Twinkies to apologize. Who wouldn’t love a father like that?
“Thanks, Jake,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll put some coffee on in a minute.”
She spotted the letter while she got dressed after an hour-long soak in the tub. Her legs had taken the majority of the licks and bruises were already starting to show, but the hot water had helped the stiffness. Still, she had to sit gingerly on the bed to put on her jeans, and the letter caught her eye as she eased a foot into one leg. She pulled up her pants with a grimace and picked up the letter, gasping when she saw the return address.
“Oh my God! How the hell did I miss this yesterday?”
She ripped open the envelope and unfolded the stiff letterhead of Winters College, the small school in northeast Florida that her softball coach had written to on her behalf as a scholarship candidate. Jaycee’s gaze flew over the words and widened as she read the part that said they wanted to come see her play when the season started in March.
She threw the letter in the air and jumped up with a whoop, her sore legs forgotten in her excitement. What did a few lousy bruises matter? She had a chance for a scholarship to a school with a journalism program that would get her out of this one-horse town for good.
She wished she could tell someone, but since Cole hadn’t called yet, it meant he was indeed grounded. She briefly considered a trip to the restaurant, but she knew his parents would be watching him like a hawk and would never let her near him. Shit, she would even settle for telling Jake, but he’d gone out again while she was in the tub.
Jaycee got along well enough with her teammates, but there was no one she could really call a friend. She knew they respected her playing ability, but she could tell they still thought she was weird like everyone else did. No big deal. It wasn’t as if she wanted them for friends or anything, because they were the same girls who’d made fun of her chopped-off hair and hand-me-downs throughout elementary school. She didn’t need friends anyway. She had Cole.
She hoped he would consider the letter good news. They’d never really talked about college, but she just assumed he would want to leave Surplus as much as she did. Maybe he could get a baseball scholarship and go to Winters with her if he wasn’t already planning to go somewhere else.
Jaycee hadn’t prayed since her mama died, when she’d decided that God either didn’t like her or didn’t exist, but she actually considered asking for His help in this case. Maybe He would do it if He thought it was for Cole.
She got a call from a phone booth Monday night while Cole made a delivery for the restaurant. He told her his folks were going to the market in Chilton county on Tuesday and wouldn’t be back until late afternoon, so he wanted Jaycee to skip school and spend the day with him at his house. And yes, he’d bought an economy-sized box of rubbers.
He was waiting for her in front of the school the next morning when she got off the bus. It took them an extra ten minutes to get to his house, because he used the subdivision’s rear entrance and parked in the back in case any neighbors were around. Jaycee had never been to his house before and couldn’t help noticing how much it differed from hers with its roses and azalea bushes and—oh God—a swing in the back yard.
When they went inside, she felt like a germ unleashed into a sterile environment and realized the expanse of the gulf separating their worlds. For the millionth time, she wondered what the hell Cole was doing with her when he could have a normal girl who was actually good enough for him. But when he picked her up in his arms and kissed her, she knew she didn’t care why he was with her as long as he stayed.
“Where to, Mistress? Your slave awaits his orders.”
“Take me to your room,” she said in his ear. “I want to do it over and over in your bed so you’ll smell it tonight and have a wet dream about me.”
He laughed as he carried her down the hall. “Happens all the time anyway.”
Two hours later, Jaycee woke with a start and took a moment to reorient herself in the dimly lit room. Cole lay beside her with one arm under his head, his hair falling across his face in shiny brown strands, and his other hand resting on her hip as he slept the blissful sleep of the sexually spent.
He was so tall that there was barely room for the two of them in his bed, but as big as he was in comparison to her own petite body, his nature was so inherently gentle that she’d never had the slightest fear he would ever hurt her or take advantage of her. She mouthed I love you as she brushed back his hair, and when he opened his eyes and smiled at her, she decided she would tell him for real before their day together was over.
“Hey, you,” he said. “I wish you were always the first thing I saw when I woke up.”
“Did you get enough sleep?”
“Enough for what?”
She pushed him onto his back and straddled his waist. “Enough to recharge your batteries, silly boy. That was just intermission.”
He laughed. “Don’t you want to eat first?”
“Not really.” She ran her hands over his chest. “I want you a lot more.”
“I’m flattered, but I want to cook lunch for you. Spaghetti the way you like it, with lots and lots of mushrooms.”
Her stomach growled and belied any further denial of hunger, so she let him up and watched him dress.
“You’ve got nice legs, Cole. A ballplayer’s legs.”
“Thanks, I kinda like yours too.” He bent to run his hand over her thigh and saw the bruises he’d been too preoccupied to notice earlier. “Oh my God, Jaycee. What happened to you?”
“Don’t ask, Cole.” She pulled the sheet over her legs. “Believe me, you don’t want to know.”
He sat beside her on the bed and held her face in his hands. “Yes I do, and I want you to tell me right now.”
She looked up at him and thought his eyes were probably what she loved most about him. Not only were they beautiful, they always made her feel as if there was nothing in the world he’d rather be looking at. She sighed and took his hands from her face.
“I smarted off to Jake, and I guess he decided I needed a little discipline.”
Cole’s expression went quickly from concern to shock to rage, but his voice was oddly calm when he spoke.
“I’m gonna kill him.”
“For God’s sake, Cole, don’t even think about it. He’d kill you first, and it’s not a big deal anyway.”
“Not a big deal? He beat you, Jaycee.”
“He’s my father and he whipped me with a belt. If I told the cops, they’d take one look at me and give him a medal.”
Cole flung one of the pillows across the room. “Then I’ll make sure he never touches you again!”
Jaycee sat up and put her arms around his neck. “Hey, you’re a peace-loving guy, remember? I’ll be okay, Cole. All I need you to do is hold me.”
He wrapped his arms around her. “I won’t let you go back there. You can stay with me. I’ll tell my folks what he did and—”
“And they’d have me shipped off to juvy before you had time to blink. They think I’m a slut out to trap you into marriage, Cole. They came right out and said it.”
“They just don’t know you, Jaycee. All you ever let people see is the wild girl who loves a fight and talks like a sailor.”
She turned her face away from him. “That’s all there is.”
“No, there’s another Jaycee. One who’s smart and sweet and funny. The Jaycee I fell in love with.”
He sounded so convincing that she almost believed it. She put her head on his shoulder. “Liar. You fell in love with the one who groped you on the first date and lets you play with her boobs as much as you want.”
She dozed until lunch was ready, and when she tasted it, she rolled her eyes ecstatically and told him it was the best spaghetti she’d ever eaten. She helped him clean up, then they sat in the swing awhile with Jaycee’s head in Cole’s lap and her feet on the back of the swing, feeling so happy and contented that it scared her to death. Something bad had to be coming.
Cole ran his fingers through her short blonde curls. “I wish you’d let your hair grow out, Jaycee. It’d be so beautiful.”
She shook her head. “I keep it short to remind me of something.”
She opened her mouth for the kind of callous remark she usually hid behind, but she decided that if she were finally going to admit she loved him, she could trust him with a little bit of why she was who she was.
“After my mama died, I thought maybe Jake would like me better if I looked more like the son he wished I’d been, so I cut off my hair with the garden shears.” She paused for a disdainful laugh. “It got his attention just long enough for him to tan my hide, but at least I learned how to keep from being ignored.”
“I wish I’d known you then,” Cole said, his fingers on her cheek. “I wouldn’t have ignored you.”
“I wish you’d known me too,” she said. “Maybe I wouldn’t have grown up to be such a bitch.”
“You’re not a bitch.” He bent to kiss her. “You just do a damn good impression.”
Back in his bed after a last romp before they had to leave, they lay beside each other with their legs and their fingers entwined, and Jaycee decided it was time to tell him about the letter.
“Cole, I have a chance for a softball scholarship.”
He turned to look at her. “To what school?”
“Winters College in Clayton, Florida, just south of Jacksonville. Coach Lauton wrote to them for me, and the head coach is coming to see me play in March.”
He sat up and stared at her a moment. “Isn’t there a closer school you could go to?”
Jaycee’s stomach clenched. She didn’t like the way this was going already.
“Winters has one of the best journalism programs in the Southeast. That’s why I picked it.”
He looked at their joined hands. “So, you’re gonna leave me.”
“Why can’t you come with me, Cole? I know you could get a baseball scholarship.”
“I’m not going to college, Jaycee. My folks are counting on me to run the restaurant when I graduate, if not sooner.”
“If not sooner? What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve been thinking about dropping out of school. Getting my G.E.D. so I can start working full time.”
She pulled her hand from his. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, Cole. You’re gonna give up your whole life for your parents?”
“You don’t understand, Jaycee. I’m all they have. I can’t desert them.”
She felt the world crashing around her and wanted desperately to curl up and cry, but she would never let Cole see her like that. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her knees with her head down so he couldn’t see the terror in her eyes.
“Give me a frigging break, Cole. You’re gonna stay in this shit pile of a town to run a dump nobody even cares about except you and a couple of geezers with one foot in the grave?”
“Don’t talk about them like that, Jaycee.” He got up and started to get dressed. “They’re my parents and I love them.”
“Funny, I thought you said you loved me.”
“I do love you,” he said without turning around. “You know I do.”
She threw a pillow and hit him in the back of the head. “I don’t know shit, except that you’ve been lying to me so you could keep fucking me!”
He wheeled around angrily. “Stop it, Jaycee! You’re not even trying to understand. You don’t know what it’s like to have real parents who love you!”
Her eyes widened a second because she couldn’t believe he’d said it. But why was she surprised? Hadn’t she known something like this was coming because she was too close to happiness?
“You and your goddamned loving parents can all go to hell!” She got up and grabbed her clothes. “Stay here and be your mama’s baby boy until you die for all I care, but nobody’s keeping me in this shitty town!”
“Jaycee, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He tried to take her hand, but she turned and pushed him as hard as she could.
“Don’t touch me! We’re through, Cole! Get your mama to find you a nice respectable girl to fuck so you can knock her up and get her to marry you!”
“Jaycee, please.” His eyes filled with tears. “I do love you, I just can’t go with you to college. The restaurant’s been in my family for three generations. Why won’t you try to understand?”
She sat on the side of the bed to put on her shoes and wait for her anger to subside a little so she could say at least one rational thing to him before she left.
“I do understand, Cole,” she said finally. “You’re the one who doesn’t get it. I knew from the beginning we’d never stay together because we’re too different. I want to be famous and make more money than I could ever spend, and I want to write something that’ll knock the world on its ass. You’re satisfied with running a restaurant in a hick town in Alabama. We’re like night and day, and we’re better off apart.”
He knelt in front of her and held her hand.
“That sounds real convincing, Jaycee, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing because neither of us knows what we’ll be doing in five years, and things change sometimes. People change, and even though our lives might be taking us down different roads right now, I know we’ll find our way back to each other.”
He paused to bring her hand to his lips.
“I believe things happen for a reason, Jaycee. I have to believe that to survive, because I love you and I’m not gonna stop just because we have to be apart for a while. And I don’t know why you can’t admit it, but I know in my heart that you love me too. When you finally know it, that’s when your roads will lead you back to me.”
Jaycee pulled her hand from his. “Pick a better girl next time, Cole McGee.”
He couldn’t persuade her to get in the car so he could take her home, and he couldn’t hang around because he was supposed to be at the restaurant by the time his parents got back. Jaycee started walking, and when she came to the turnoff for where they usually parked, she ran until she reached the clearing and fell to her knees amidst the myriad tracks left by Cole’s car.
How could she have been so stupid as to think he was hers and that he loved her? Maybe he even believed it himself, but she should’ve known he was only addicted to the sex. She was glad to be done with it so she could focus on college and her career, because those were the important things—the things that would get her everything she’d always wanted. The things that would finally make her daddy glad she was his daughter.
And at least she hadn’t made a fool of herself and told him that she loved him. Or that he was the best thing she’d ever had in her life, or that the only place she’d ever felt she could be herself was in his arms. And that when he was holding her, she almost believed she was just as good as all the girls with real parents who loved them.
Jaycee curled herself into a ball and cried until she ran out of tears and her heart was numb again, the way it had been before Cole had shown her how to love.