What are rules good for, anyway?
Not a damn thing, that’s what.
Rules don’t keep you safe; they don’t shield you from yourself and whatever you can possibly do to sabotage your own life. They don’t care who you are or what you deserve—they only care about the ways they can hurt you and how quickly your life can fall apart.
Rules are supposed to keep your world balanced and help keep you from wrecking everything good in your life. But rules are only as good as you make them, and mine destroyed everything I’ve ever believed in. Not that breaking the rules wasn’t worth it…or sometimes, fun. It’s just really hard to enjoy life when you’re looking over your shoulder, wondering what bad thing is going to happen next.
I’ve done this shit to myself.
I’m Oliver Jackson, Grade-A asshole.
Always and forever.
Rule number one didn’t stand a chance. I let my guard down and let Julie into my life…despite it being the best damn decision I’ve ever made. Little did I know she would end up being the little girl I met years ago when I was coming out of my worst period—and she was just going into hers.
Rule number two literally almost fucking killed me. I took everything—including the love of my life—for granted, and before it was too late I tried to fix it…but ended up nearly slipping away from her altogether. The pain I caused her by ignoring my second rule doesn’t even compare to the dark mark that’s been stained on my heart from it. I’ll never stop trying to make it up to her…as long as I live and breathe and she’s by my side.
By the time the first two rules were broken, it only made sense to start backing away from them for the sake of my sanity and my love for Julie. Not that anything any of us ever do makes any damn sense.
Rule number three had everyone keeping secrets—mine were especially fucked up, and I still haven’t told Julie about Lucy in my apartment yet—and now look where we are. I’m sitting across from the woman who gave me life and then tried to take it away, and all I can think about is the damn rules.
Why? I don’t even know.
…Wait. Yes, I do know.
She’s everything to me. She’s always been everything to me. I can’t imagine a day where I can’t see her or talk to her. I don’t want to think about a world where she isn’t in it, and I damn sure don’t want to wake up one day without her. A different me would’ve been shy to admit that she’s literally the only reason I care to breathe. Maybe in a different lifetime I could admit that to someone out loud, but for now, it’s my own little oasis inside my head. I keep memories of her there that I don’t want anyone else to share: little things, like the way the sunlight hits her honey-colored hair just right and forms a glow around her. It’s so fucking magical it electrifies my entire body sometimes. She’s the one I’ve been looking for before even realizing it.
And she’s mine.
All fucking mine.
I’ll do anything for her.
Even if it means sitting across from my wretched mother as she deteriorates in a ratty, orange jail jumpsuit. Her stringy, badly bleached hair mats to her face as she sweats from the anticipation of speaking to me this closely. She'd received treatment for the gunshot wound in her shoulder that Mary, the crazy bitch, gave her in the woods. She’s lucky it missed anything vital, but I know it’s gotta still hurt like a bitch.
I see myself in her tired eyes; they match mine and it’s like looking into a spooky mirror. She doesn’t deserve to look like me, and she damn sure doesn’t deserve to call herself a mother.
I can’t say that I’m surprised that we’re here after everything she’s done; I can say that I’m surprised it’s taken her this long to get here.
She taps her jagged fingernail on the table in front of me. “Did you hear me, kid?”
No, I’m fantasizing about Julie.
I nod. “Yeah, you want me to drop the charges against you. And, like always, you’re delusional and you’re not getting what you want. You’re an accessory to kidnapping—think about it.”
I recap everything in my mind like a bad movie about why my mother is even in jail.
She wanted money.
I said no.
She kidnapped Julie and hurt her.
If she hadn’t already been dead to me, she fucking would be now.
My teeth grind together and I can hardly look at her. I know that some of this is my fault for being so stubborn and acting on my “mommy issues”—to be fair, I was right about her all along. “I can’t drop the charges. You can rot in here for all I fucking care. It might be the best thing for you if we’re being honest.”
Her tone changes instantly from what it was before. She’s sweeter now, or maybe she’s just too tired to put on a show—either way, it’s like another personality staring back at me now.
“I didn’t expect that you’d try to drop the charges, Ollie Bear. I just wanted to see you one last time before they send me to Brownsville.”
My veins crawl with ice; it makes me shiver and take a deep breath. “Why there? Isn’t that a place for murderers?”
“I committed a felony, kid, and it’s not my first offense. I don’t think they discriminate against who goes there or not. I’ll be in there until I get sentenced and then, who knows.”
I feel bad, but I know I shouldn’t. Her being in here isn’t my fault—this is her own damn fault. Still, no matter how much she hasn’t been, she’s still somewhat my mother, and that means something…I think. I wouldn’t know, honestly, since I’ve never had a real mother, but I know what Julie would want me to do in this situation. She would want me to think about someone else besides myself.
“I’ll talk to Julie, but I’m sure she’ll want to make sure you don’t end up at Brownsville.”
She shakes her head. “No, you go and you live your life with that girl. You love her like there’s no tomorrow and you treat her like she’s the only one in the entire world you care about.”
“She is the only one in the world I care about.”
I notice Randy on the other side of the glass on the door. He taps his watch and makes a swirling motion with his finger to hurry me up. I know this is going to be my only chance to ask questions that I’ve had locked away in my mind for years.
“Our time’s almost up.” The sadness in her eyes draws me in, kneading at the soft spot Julie’s created inside my rock-hard heart.
I bite my inner cheek. “I have questions and I want answers.”
Her tongue wets her lips and she looks thirsty, so I push the small cup of water in front of me toward her. She smiles at my kindness and sips the water like it’s going to poison her instead of nourish her. She has trouble tipping the glass to her lips because of her hands being cuffed together, but she somehow manages. I’m not sure what the fuck I’m even looking at—she’s changed so much from the last time I saw her that I don’t even feel that weak connection we once had anymore.
“Ask away, we don’t have much time.”
Now, I’m speechless.
What do I ask first?
Fifteen million snippets of questions zip around my brain and it’s starting to give me a fucking headache. I can’t be a disaster about this. I have to ask something.
“Why did you leave me on the floor when I was five?”
She sighs—deeply. “I know you think I have these elaborate answers for everything, kid. I wish I had an excuse for everything, I really do. I’m sorry that the answers are going to be nothing like what you think they’ll be.”
“Stop stalling. I see right fucking through you.”
“I left because I loved Mac and drugs more than you.” Her tongue clicks against her teeth. “Is that what you want to hear? I was weak and scared. Colin—your father—he wanted me so badly that it suffocated me…do you know what that’s like? It’s scary, kid. Really scary.”
I scoff. “I love Julie with every fiber of my fucking body; you’re not telling me anything I don’t know. The difference is, I’d never leave her. I’d never choose anything over her. Not a damn thing.”
“For what it’s worth, she’s a good match for you.”
The anger fills my head so quickly that I nearly explode all over the table. “Don’t speak about shit you know nothing about. You don’t know her, and you sure as fuck don’t know me. Kidnapping her and holding her for ransom doesn’t get you a free pass to talk to me like a mother about my fiancée.”
She nods. “I understand. I crossed a line. Anything else you want me to answer? Any more dreams you want me to crush?”
You’re fucking kidding me.
“If you loved drugs and Mac more than me, why did you come back for me and try to take me from Mrs. Atchley’s house?” I notice Randy again and wave him off.
She shakes her head, her thin fingers tapping lightly on the cool metal table. “Just because I felt that way doesn’t mean I kept feeling that way. I missed you—you’re my son. I got clean for three months and the night you looked at me like a stranger…” A tear forms in the corner of her eye. “That was the night I relapsed and never looked back. I’d lost you for good, and that hurt.”
I growl and slam my hands on the table. “Stop trying to make me feel sorry for you.”
“You’re not going to like any answer I give you, but I’m telling you the truth.”
My hands slam down again. “Enough! None of that shit matters now; you’re going where you belong. I don’t ever want to see your face around Julie again, you hear me? You’re not going to be locked up forever. I’ll see what I can do about getting you out of this mess, and when you get out, I’m giving you twenty grand and you better fucking leave and never, ever come back.”
Her shoulders slump down in defeat. “Okay, kid. I promise you’ll never see me again.”
I feel so damn guilty.
I sigh and cross my arms over my chest. “Julie would’ve liked you if you hadn’t done what you did, just know that. If you would’ve gone about this in a different way, maybe I would’ve eventually forgiven you. I’m not perfect, but this shit is unforgiveable.”
Her smile is actually warm and inviting. “I’m glad you have her, kid.”
The door opens and someone comes in. Veronica’s face grows grim and she holds her arms up to be taken. Randy, Julie’s brother and a detective for Rockford PD, comes around into my view and narrows his eyes down at me like he knows I’m starting to cave into her once again. They don’t let her speak to me before they usher her from the room and the door slams behind them. Randy remains.
“What the hell was that about?” He lowers down into the seat where Veronica had sat seconds ago. “Did she threaten you? What did she say to you?”
I run my tongue across my teeth in annoyance. “That’s none of your fucking business.”
He sighs. “Look, I’m just trying to help you out, okay? Where’s Julie?”
“She’s with Staci.”
He breathes in deeply and holds it for a few seconds; his eyes glaze over and I know what he’s thinking. I’ve seen that look before plenty of times, especially when I’d catch Casey—my former best friend—making those eyes at Julie. “What’s that face you’re making?”
Randy isn’t one for making a scene, but the atmosphere between us is so strange that it’s hard to ignore. “What face? That’s just my face.”
“No.” I narrow my eyes at him. “What? Do you have a thing for Staci, or something?”
He clears his throat. “This really isn’t the place—”
My laugh overpowers his voice. “Isn’t the place? Have you met me? Weirder shit than this has happened no more than an hour ago.”
“I’m not talking about this with you.”
I cross my arms over my chest. Randy is a stoic sort of person, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can see right through him. I know what it looks like to like someone and try to put her out of your mind. Hell, sometimes I feel like I’ve created that look that’s on his face right now.
“If you don’t talk to me about it, you know Julie will find out and grill you.”
He groans. “Fine. I’ve asked her out.”
I snicker and press my lips together so nothing regrettable falls out. “I see. When did this happen?”
“A few weeks ago, when you were in that accident. She came over to the house to update me on everything and we sort of…hit it off. I realize it may be a little weird for everyone to get used to, and I’d like to be the one to tell Julie if you don’t mind.”
I scoff. “Fine by me. You know she’ll want to know about this, though. She’s not going to be happy that this was kept from her by either of you.”
“I know.” He taps his fingers against each other. His eyes shift back and forth nervously, making the air in the small room stagnant and awkward. “Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Uh…sure.” I wipe a smirk off my lips. “Ask away.”
“Well, it’s been a long time since my wife—ex-wife—Marianna left, and I haven’t exactly been on a proper date since then—”
Well, this is unexpected.
“And you want help with planning a date?”
He clears his throat and unfastens the top button of his shirt. The redness of his face amuses me; Randy isn’t exactly an emotional man, and planning a date probably isn’t even in his mental wheelhouse.
I furrow my eyebrows and his cheeks turn red. “Wait, you said, ‘exactly.’”
“What?” The scratchiness in his voice bounces off the walls and smacks me in the face. “What do you mean by that?”
The laugh catches in my throat; it’s going to be fucking hard to keep this one in. “You said ‘exactly.’ You haven’t exactly been on a date since she left. What does that mean?”
The horror on his face is so amusing that a snort escapes from my locked-up laugh. “I’m not exactly sure of what you’re getting at.”
I can’t hold it in anymore. “You’ve had sex since then, right? Didn’t she leave when Clyde was like five?” The pit of my stomach is sour when I realize Clyde and I have something in common—being abandoned by a mother at such a young age. “Tell me you’ve had sex in the last eight years.”
He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he finds his words, they’re hardly over a harsh whisper, but the annoyance wrapped up inside is enough to scare me a little. “Of course I have, you idiot. I’m just not public about it like you are.”
I snort. “I have no issues having sex in public.”
“This is awkward enough being where we are and asking this, but can you at least pretend that you’re not amused by this? Julie trusts you for some reason, and I’d like to think that since we’re going to be in-laws soon, you’d respect me enough to help me without making a scene.”
He’s right. We’ll be in-laws soon, but Julie and I haven’t talked about that lately, and now that there’s the problem with her pseudo marriage to Brandon looming over our heads…who knows when the subject will come back up. I’m not exactly thrilled about the idea of talking about it anyway, and I’m going to stall for as long as I fucking can.
“Okay, look…” I rub my chin and think of something to say that will actually help him. “Staci likes the finer things in life, right? She’s spoiled without showing it. So, take her to a dimly lit fancy restaurant, order the most expensive bottle of wine you can afford, and afterwards…take her on a swan boat ride on that lake in the park.”
“Swan boats?” His voice cracks. “What’s a swan boat?”
“Oh, Jesus.” I shake my head and tell myself that there’s no way he can be this oblivious. “You’re a cop in this city and you don’t know about the swan boats? They’re those pedal boats that people rent to go out on the lake and make out in. It’s like a classic first date move.”
He nods. “Okay, yeah…that’s good. Any suggestions on the restaurant?”
I shake my head. “Maybe Dilaggio’s or something fancy like that. Plus, I know Julie loves the chocolate cake there, so it’s safe to assume Staci does, too.”
He accepts all of my suggestions and makes a sour face. “Okay, thanks for the help. I know it’s not the best place or time, but I didn’t know when else to ask, really. I assume that you’ll be seeing Julie sooner than I will, so maybe you should mention this to her.”
My eyes narrow. “I thought you wanted to be the one to tell her?”
“I do. I just never see her anymore, so maybe you should tell her.”
I snicker and place my palms on the cold table, lifting my body up to stand. He doesn’t bother joining me because he already knows I’m saying no. “You’re the one dating her friend—you’re the one who gets to tell her. What are you so afraid of? It’s not like she’s going to care.”
Randy groans. “She may care that I’m considerably older than her friend.”
I walk around the table, put my hand on the doorknob, and twist it. Before I leave him alone in a room full of his own wicked thoughts…I stop and think about what kind of man Julie would want me to be in this situation. After all, she’s the expert on creating a better version of me.
“If you think Julie will be upset about something like that, you don’t know her at all. She’s going to embrace the fact that you and Staci are happy and she’ll be happy. I still think you should be the one to tell her, but don’t wait too long. She’ll kill me for keeping this from her.”
“Hey,” he calls me back before I walk through the now open door, “you’re good for her. I know I haven’t always shown you the respect you deserve, but now I see it. You really love her.”
I nod. “She’s everything to me. No questions asked, no explanations needed.”
He smiles, but I leave him behind before he can say something that will make us both more uncomfortable. The truth is, I don’t mind Randy that much. He’s protective over his sister and that’s admirable, because I’m also protective of her. Maybe a little bit more, if I’m being honest.
I have to protect her.