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Becca held Braxton, burying her face in blonde hair. She wanted to cry along with the smaller woman, knowing this must have been what it was like for her mother and brothers the day she was escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs, on her way to a women’s correctional facility. The words still echoed in her head:
Rebecca Molly Steiner, you have been found guilty of a DWI, Aggravated Assault, resulting in the paralyzing of Richard Rodriquez. I hereby sentence you to eight to ten years in the Tremont Women’s Correctional Facility, and a ten thousand dollar fine.
She could still hear the anguished cry of her mother and the cheers of her victim’s family. She shook herself from some of the most painful memories of her life as she knew right now Braxton needed her. This was about her, not Becca.
The front door suddenly burst open and Jared ran in, out of breath. He looked around with wide, wild eyes before settling in on Braxton and Becca, worry and fear warring on his handsome face. He hurried over to them.
“What happened?” he asked, gulping in a lungful of air. “I just passed a police car and swore I saw Margot in the back of it.”
Braxton nodded, leaving Becca’s embrace, though reluctantly. “She turned herself in,” she said, voice rough and raw from her racking sobs. She used her sleeve to wipe at her eyes and face. “They just took her away.”
Jared fell back against the arm of the couch, looking dejected. “Wow.” He looked up at her. “Are you okay?”
Braxton shrugged. “I will be. It was her choice.” She laughed bitterly. “I just wish she would’ve given me some advance warning.”
“She didn’t because she knew you’d be upset, Braxton. She didn’t want you to do anything stupid,” Becca said softly. She found all attention in the room on her. “We talked this morning. I tried to talk her out of it but she wouldn’t budge.”
“Who the hell are you?” Jared asked, pushing up from his perch on the arm. “Who are you to get involved in this? What the hell do you know?”
“Jared!” Braxton said, stunned at his behavior. She watched in horror as her best friend walked over to Becca, who hadn’t moved a muscle, and got right in her face.
“You stay out of this. From what I heard about you, you should keep your nose clean and stay out of our business.” His voice was a low growl of warning.
Becca held her ground, meeting her gaze unwavering. “Do you have a problem with me, Jared?” she asked calmly.
“Yeah. I got a problem with you playing the nursemaid to Braxton. She doesn’t need to be poisoned by you.”
“Jesus, Jared!” Braxton insinuated herself between them, back to Becca as she looked up into Jared’s face. She’d never seen him like that before, and was torn between being completely pissed off at him and concerned at his words. “What has gotten into you?” She grabbed his arms, shaking him just enough to get his attention. “What are you doing?”
“Ask your new friend.” He stepped back Braxton’s grasp and headed toward his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Stunned, Braxton couldn’t move for a moment.
“He’s right, Braxton. You should probably stay away from me,” Becca said softly, her voice filled with pain. She turned and headed up the stairs, her own door slamming behind her.
“What the fuck just happened?” Braxton asked the suddenly very empty room. She turned toward Jared’s bedroom and slammed into it.
“Fuck, Brax!” he cried out, holding the sweats he was about to change into in front of himself. “Can you knock?!”
“Nothing I haven’t seen before, Jar. Trust me. Now I want some answers.” Braxton held her ground, arms crossed over her chest.
Having no choice, Jared quickly tugged on the sweats and a t-shirt over his bared chest. “Why don’t you go ask your buddy upstairs. She can fill you in.”
“Because I’m asking you.” She walked up to him, demanding an answer. “You’re the one who acted like an asshole. She has been nothing but kind to me during all this, especially since you couldn’t be found! I won’t let you treat her that way, or talk about her like that.”
“She’s a fucking criminal, Braxton,” Jared hissed.
Braxton was too angry to feel any emotion or reaction from his words. “Explain.”
“Jack? You believe anything he has to say?”
“He’s good friends with Alicia’s boyfriend, Brax. He heard it from him.”
“Fine. Heard what?”
“She just got out of jail. She was there for four years! No wonder she and Margot got along so well.”
The sound of the slap echoed in the room, both Braxton and Jared staring at each other in shock. Braxton bounced back first. “You can be a real asshole sometime, Jared. Maybe you need to figure out what it really means to be a friend. I remember how you hung up on me that night, and I won’t forget it. I always thought you were one of the best, kindest guys I’d ever met, but I have to say, this past year, hell, these past six months, you’ve proven me wrong.”
“Oh, and you’re the saint?” Jared fired back, his cheek still flared from the slap. “What about the way you treated me when you were with that wasted piece of shit, Andrew?! How many times did you stand me up? How many times did you ditch all of your friends for him?”
“A mistake that I very nearly paid for with my life!” Braxton shouted back. “Now, you can’t even manage to turn your goddamn phone on, let alone spend any time with us! You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself.”
Jared felt his anger boil. His voice was low and gravely. “I spent every day at that hospital with Margot after your accident. “Every day! How dare you tell me I don’t care? Fuck you, Braxton!”
“No, fuck you!” Braxton turned and slammed out of the bedroom, running up to her bedroom and slamming the door so hard the wall trembled.
Lydia locked her car and trotted up the walk, mindful of the deep puddles that had formed in the broken concrete during the storm earlier. The house was quiet, too quiet. A heavy tension hung in the air that made Lydia’s brows draw. Jared’s bedroom door was closed, all quiet in the room behind it. That wasn’t unusual, as he was likely with Karen. She did, however, notice that her bedroom door was open, which was unusual, as Margot typically had it closed.
Walking over to the darkened room, Lydia clicked on the bedroom light and looked around. The bed was neatly made, not a wrinkle in sight. Margot’s overnight bag was gone, though Lydia knew she had seen the older woman’s car out front. Something felt off.
She walked over to Jared’s closed door and knocked. “Jar, you home?” No answer. “Ookay.” She headed into the kitchen, which was clean and empty. On a table next to the love seat was an envelope with Braxton’s name written across it. Tucking it under her arm, she headed up the stairs, her hand running along the time-worn banister. Both Becca’s and Braxton’s doors were closed, loud music pulsating out of both. “Jesus,” she muttered, walking over to Braxton’s. “How can either of them hear anything?” She knocked, but it was not answered, as she figured Braxton probably couldn’t hear it. She decided to pound.
Braxton glanced up from her work at the pounding on her door. For a moment she considered ignoring it, as it might be Jared, and honestly, she wasn’t in the mood to see anyone. When the pounding persisted, she groaned and tossed her sketchpad aside, uncurling herself from the armchair. Lydia stood on the other side of the door, stepping back in surprise when Braxton threw the door open.
“Hey,” Lydia said, hugging the envelope in front of her like a shield. “Uh, this was downstairs for you.”
Braxton looked down at it, having totally forgotten it was there. “Thanks.” She took it.
“What’s going on? Is everything okay? Where’s Margot?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather wait until everyone is here tonight so I can tell you guys once. Okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Is she okay?”
“’Okay’ is a relative term, I think. But basically, yes.” Braxton leaned her shoulder against the doorframe.
“You don’t look so good, Braxton,” Lydia commented, concern filling her voice.
“I’ll be fine. A lot has happened.” She felt tired, and her soul was worn raw. She wanted nothing more than to just curl up and sleep for a month.
“Okay. I’ll have to take your word for it. I’m home for the rest of the day, and Carrie should be in an hour or so.” She turned to leave but stopped, chewing her lower lip before speaking. “You and the battling rocker might want to turn things down a bit. You guys are shaking the rafters.”
“Okay. Sorry.” Braxton immediately turned her stereo volume way down, pounding the wall separating her room from Becca’s at the same time. Within a moment the music was turned off.
Left alone again, Braxton headed back to her chair, moving her sketchpad aside and curling up with the envelope her mother had given her. She carefully opened the sealed flap, barely catching the set of keys that slid out into her palm. She recognized them as the keys to her mother’s car parked outside. A thick stack of papers was inside as well, including the signed over deed to her childhood home, as well as the sedan. There was also a smaller envelope, which contained a folded up letter and a cashier’s check made out in the amount of ten thousand dollars, made out in Braxton’s name.
“My god, Mom,” she whispered. Unfolding the note, she read:
I can’t apologize enough for what I’ve taken from you, though I can’t say I mean your father, exactly. Anyone can donate sperm to create a life, but only a true bastard can destroy a life, as he tried to do to us both. I don’t want you to cry for him, as he’s not worth your tears.
I, however, will forever be sorry that I’m away from you. I love you, my only child. You’re the only one who’s ever truly had my love, Braxton. I hope you know that. You were always loved and wanted by me. I’m sorry I was too weak to be the mother you deserved. Let that be my cross to bear, not yours.
I want you to take this money and make yourself a life. I know it’s not much, but it’s something. Fletcher’s life insurance will take care of the house and the rest of our bills, so I don’t want you to worry about that. Keep the house or sell it, it’s all yours free and clear.
I only ask that you don’t hate me. I’ve done many things in my life that I’m ashamed of, or wish so badly I could redo. There are only two that I will never regret: having you and ridding my life of your father.
Braxton set the letter down with a sigh, looking over everything that she had spread out on her lap. It was such a bitter/sweet feeling. It was a relief, as money was so tight, and now she was in for more education costs that her scholarship wouldn’t cover. But, at the same time, it was heartbreaking that her mother’s loss of freedom was the price.
Braxton glanced over at the wall she shared with Becca, wishing she could see through it, see what her roommate was doing. What she was thinking. Was she angry at Jared? What was he talking about? All those questions had been swirling through her head since the moment Jared had made his accusations, but she’d decided to let herself cool down before talking to Becca. Now she felt ready.
Becca was lying on her bed, booted foot tapping to the beat that echoed through her head, her hands playing air guitar as her MP3 player blared in her ears. Somewhere off in the distance she thought she heard someone knock at her door, but wasn’t sure, so she ignored it. She didn’t really want to see anyone anyway. There it was again.
“Damn it,” she muttered, tugging the earbud headphones out of her ears and wrapping them around the tiny music player as she walked toward the door. Opening it, she found Braxton standing on the other side.
“Hi,” the blonde said. “Can we talk for a minute?”
Becca said nothing, simply walked back into the room, leaving her door open for Braxton to enter or not. Braxton followed, softly closing Becca’s door behind her. She looked around, noting how vastly different it looked from when it had been Jared’s room. She’d spent almost as many hours in there as she had in her own room back in those days.
Becca’s bed wasn’t Jared’s king-sized monstrosity that had nearly taken up the entire room. Instead, she was sleeping on a more practical twin, considering the small space. Plastic, multi-colored crates were stacked in the corner, which Braxton assumed held Becca’s clothing, considering there was no dresser anywhere. Piles of books littered one wall, no bookcase to stow them in. The walls were lined with framed scenic photographs, eleven by fourteen or bigger. One even had her in it.
“I’m guessing you know the photographer?” Braxton asked softly, turning in a small circle to take in the wonderful pictures.
“Yes. My brother, James,” Becca answered from her seat on the bed.
“Can we get to it, Braxton? Somehow I don’t think you came in here to talk about wall art.”
Braxton nodded, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Nope, you’re right. I didn’t.” She looked around for somewhere to sit, and chose the end of the bed, as the only other place was the floor or a stack of books. Becca pulled her legs in to make more room. She met Braxton’s gaze dead on. “What was Jared talking about? Is this what you weren’t able to tell me that one night? After my nightmare.”
Becca nodded. “Yes. What he said is true. I am a criminal. Well, was, anyway. I did my time. Four years. I did my time, and it pissed me off to no end that he threw that in my face.”
Braxton was surprised by the fire in Becca’s eyes and growl in her tone. “I’m sorry he did and said that, Becca. It wasn’t right. I don’t know what’s gotten into Jared lately. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know him at all anymore.” They were both silent for a moment before Braxton got them back on track. “Will you tell me now? What happened?” she asked softly.
Becca nodded, blowing out a breath in preparation for her story. “I need to start at the beginning so you get a clear picture of everything.”
“Okay.” Braxton braced herself for the worst.
“I grew up in a very tight-knit family: mother who worked real estate, father who was a dentist, and four brothers- two older, two younger. The oldest is who took those pictures. Anyway, we were the all-American family, very Normal Rockwell, and very conservative. When I was 15 I went into modeling. At first just local stuff, then eventually I was picked up by an agency out of New York. I moved there at 17, leaving my family and all my family values behind.
“I met Paula. She was nearly 30, beautiful and quite worldly, which I was decidedly not.”
Braxton smiled at that.
“She not only taught me how to drink and the world of drugs, but she also introduced me to the world of sex between two women. It was easy for me to experiment with her there, after all, I was nearly two thousand miles away from my mother’s Sunday school classes. We were together off an on for about two years before I came back home. I had no idea that I had broken her heart, as mine certainly hadn’t been in the mix.
“Anyway,” Becca continued, “I came back, deciding I’d had enough of the modeling world, as I’d already been in it for six years. I was ready to get a normal life back, start college, discover girls, the whole nine yards. My parents had no idea the things I’d done while in New York. All they knew was they were the proud parents of what my mom called a ‘super model’, which was hardly the case, but I did alright.”
“I bet,” Braxton added. “You’re beautiful.”
Becca smiled, somewhat shy. “Thank you. Paula decided to come surprise me with a visit. Pretty needless to say that it went over like a lead balloon, and suddenly my secret was out. I denied the whole thing, of course. Denied that Paula and I were ever anything other than neighbors in the same building back in New York.” Her eyes took on a far away, glazed look. “I was so afraid they’d treat me just like they had Barbie all those years. My father’s one and only sister, and completely disowned the day she came out. Then, to add insult to injury, she becomes a tattoo artist! Not a good time for her. But I digress. Where was I?”
“Paula came to visit, denial.”
“Right. Anyway, no matter how much I denied it, they looked to Paula, this older woman who was suggesting the impossible.” Becca looked away, her voice cracking on the last word.
Braxton moved until she was sitting shoulder to shoulder with Becca, their backs resting against the cold wall, as Becca had no headboard attached to the bed frame her mattress rested in. Feeling an acute need to comfort this wonderful, gentle woman who had come to her aid so many times, during so many nightmares. She grabbed Becca’s hand, holding it between both of her own. “They listened to her, didn’t they?” she asked softly.
Becca nodded, closing her eyes at the surge of warmth that shot through her at Braxton’s kindness. “Why wouldn’t they, I guess? It was true; I was the liar, not Paula.”
“But even still, you were their daughter, not Paula.”
Becca sighed. She felt so tired, the memories weighing her down. “Anyway, me and my father got into a huge fight. He told me to leave, never to return until I could shake my ways, and that he didn’t want me to turn out like Barbara. Alright, so be it. I was young and stupid. I jumped into my Porsche,“ - she glanced at Braxton – “which my parents had a fit about, and peeled off into the night. I picked up a couple friends that I’d grown up with and we scored some booze and some weed, and went out like the idiots we were.”
Braxton felt a sense of dread at what was to come. She could feel the sorrow washing off Becca in waves, and squeezed her hand tighter. “What happened, Becca?” she whispered.
Becca looked down into her lap, trying desperately to blink away the sting behind her eyes. She could see that night before her mind’s eye so clear. It had rained, and the streets were shiny, reflecting everything from the traffic lights to the storefront signs along the drive. “He came out from nowhere,” she said, her voice hoarse with regret. She looked at Braxton, her eyes nearly neon blue from the gathering tears. “I swear it, Braxton. I didn’t see him.”
Braxton met the tortured gaze. “What happened to him?” She reached a hand up, brushing the tears away that rolled down Becca’s cheeks. “Is he…”
Becca shook her head, looking away. “No, though I’m sure his family wished he were.” She let out an explosive breath. “Richard Rodriquez. I’ll never forget that name as long as I live. Nor the wheelchair I put him in.” With those final words, the last of Becca’s strength faltered, and she shattered. She hadn’t told the entire story out loud before, not even to her cellmate, her lover, during their long nights of talking and dreaming.
Braxton felt her heart break for the devastated woman sitting next to her. “Come here,” she whispered. At first Becca fought against her comfort, but eventually gave in, allowing herself to be taken into willing, strong arms. “Cry it out,” Braxton whispered, stroking Becca’s back and kissing the crown of her head. “Let it all out.”
Becca clung to Braxton, her body finally doing what she hadn’t done since her first night in prison- cry. After a long moment her tears began to slow then stop. She sniffled then slowly pulled away from Braxton, unable to meet her gaze. “I’m sorry. I feel like a baby.”
“Don’t you dare apologize. How many times have I cried on you in the past month? I think you must think I’m emotionally unstable.”
Becca laughed, glad the tension was broken. “Well, there you have it. My secret, and why I don’t drink.”
Braxton smiled at the beautiful woman, her hand still running through thick, light brown locks. “I think you’re very braze, Becca. You’ve been through so much, and paid such a heavy price. And yet, here you are, reclaiming your life.”
“No, Braxton, I’m not.” Becca let out a heavy breath. “I’m just going through the motions. I don’t have a life anymore. I don’t feel like I deserve to be here, to be completely honest. I just don’t know who I am anymore.”
“How long have you been out?”
“Not quite four months. I was staying with my aunt for a bit before I found this place. She gave me a chance to save up some money.”
“that was nice of her,” Braxton said softly, brushing strands behind Becca’s ear.
“She knows what it’s like to be a family reject. I never turned my back on her when her entire family did. Good thing, I guess.” Becca reached across Braxton to the bedside table and tugged a tissue from the box that rested there. She blew her nose after wiping her face free of tears. “She’s a good lady. She never deserved to be treated like that.”
“Then I’m glad she’s here for you now. And now I am, too.” Braxton stilled her hand, resting it on Becca’s knee. “I like you, Becca. I did from the start. You’re a good person, have a good heart. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Becca met Braxton’s gaze for a long moment, just as surprised as she was pleased by the generous offer. “Thank you. And the same goes for you. Anything. Okay?”
“Okay.” Braxton turned so she was facing Becca and opened her arms. The two embraced for a long moment before Becca released her with a tight squeeze. “I think I hear talking downstairs. I gotta go fill everyone in on what’s going on. Wanna come or will you be okay?”
“I’m alright.” Becca gave her a brave smile. “What about you? Need some back up?”
“Honestly?” Braxton said, a bit sheepish.
Becca laughed, nudging the blonde to get off the bed. “Come on. Let’s go.”
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