His for Keeps

By: Theodora Taylor

Prologue





THAT NIGHT



“Cool. Let’s meet up at my house around eight. Parents will be gone.”

That was the text that started it all. It was from Mike Lancer. My boyfriend. Well, sort of, but not really. We’d been hooking up all summer, and he only ever invited me over when his parents were out. But his parents were out a lot, so we’d settled into a routine: I was the girl he called when his parents weren’t around. And if I wasn’t due to perform with my mother that night, I was the girl who went over to his place.

He’d called me his “secret girlfriend” a few times while we were making out, before he stuck it in me. So I guess that made us… something.

This was his first text message though, because I’d just gotten a new phone the day before. My first cell phone, an early birthday present from my mom, bought because she was feeling optimistic.

She’d finally landed a gig for the following weekend at The Rusty Roof, one of Birmingham, Alabama’s oldest and most legendary country music venues, and she’d just gotten a call from the club’s manager that Lee Street, from Big Hill Records, was coming all the way down from Nashville to see her perform. Really, he was coming to see the band of twenty-year-olds slated to go on right before her—the club manager told her that straight up. But Valerie Goode had always been on the crazy side of confident about her career prospects.

She didn’t care who Lee Straight was really coming to see. He’d be in the room. And for a magical thinker like Valerie, that had been enough to make her buy the daughter she called her “right-hand guitar,” her first cell phone. Of course she did it with money she didn’t have, because she was banking on Lee Straight making her a big star after he saw her perform on stage—and/or in bed if need be. In Valerie’s mind, she was always just a performance and one really good fuck away from becoming the world’s first black female country music star.

As far as she was concerned, the only reason she hadn’t made it to fame and fortune before the age of thirty-five was because she’d gotten pregnant with me in her prime contract-signing years. According to her, my birth ruined everything: her relationship with my father, her ability to get the gigs she needed in order to be seen by the right people. Everything Valerie deserved but had never gotten was because of me.

We got along just fine for the most part, but whenever Valerie drank too much—which was often—she let me know just how far I’d set her back. I and I alone was responsible for where she was now: thirty-five and pinning every last hope she had on one gig at the The Rusty Roof.

In reality, this would end up being the gig that finally convinced Valerie she would never, ever make it in country music. The gig that would finally convince her to toss out her “right-hand guitar” and go to L.A. by herself to try to make it there.

But she didn’t know that the weekend before what happened happened, so she bought me a phone. And the first thing I did after I got my new cell phone was text the only other person I knew my age who also had a cell phone. Mike Lancer, the rich boy I’d met at the state fair. On purpose. I’d cornered him at the cotton candy booth after I’d seen him walking around with Beau Prescott, the quarterback of the Forest Brook Vikings. Beau was the boy I’d been secretly watching from afar for years now. The boy I’d never been able to bring myself to talk to.

So I’d gone after his friend, a beefy blond who was more than happy to hook up with me as long as I was okay with going straight to the servants entrance when I came over, because, “No offense, my parents would freak if they knew I was hanging out with a black girl.”

Which was why I was surprised to receive a text message right back from him, just a few seconds after I sent mine.

“Who’s that?” my mom asked, hearing the ding of my phone. “Somebody about a gig?”

She was on the couch, one shapely leg bent beneath her as she painted her toenails. Valerie might have been thirty-five, but she looked at least ten years younger thanks to an insane eating regimen, a wardrobe made up of Southern party girl staples, and her insistence on wearing toenail polish the color of candy. Today she was painting them neon pink.

Pretending to be her manager, so she looked like she’d already had one, was one of the duties my mother had given me, along with playing guitar for her sets and singing back-up when needed. Thanks to an extra serving of T&A that had come in over the past school year, I looked a lot older than fifteen years, especially when I wore stage make-up. Like Valerie, in reverse.

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