Twenty-nine. Sephy

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Jaxon's house wasn't hard to find. In fact it was only a twenty-minute walk from Meggie's house. It was a long walk, though, not in terms of distance, but due to the looks I was getting. Some hostile glares, a few welcoming smiles, but mostly curious stares. There weren't very many Cross faces around Meggie's neck of the woods. And I was already missing Rose – really badly. Callum was right about that at least. Rose is a much better name for her.

Callum . . .

Don't think about him, Sephy. Ever again. He's dead and gone.

I had my daughter Rose. I didn't want or need anyone else.

Not Callum.

Especially not Callum.

I'd snatched his letter out of Meggie's hand when she began to tear it up. I didn't want her to dispose of it. I wanted to keep it, to look at it if ever my heart threatened to rule my head again. It would serve to make me realize just what a fool I'd been. I went to Chivers boarding school and Callum went off to God knows 'where to do God knows what. I was stupid, stupid, stupid to think he'd feel the same way about me after over two and a half years apart. People can change in the space of two and a half minutes. Callum became a terrorist and worse in those years. No wonder he and the rest of his Liberation Militia group had picked me to kidnap and terrorize. They couldn't've have selected a softer target.

And yet . . . if I were truthful, I couldn't deny that part of me still clung to the hope that it was some kind of sick joke or mistake. Did I really believe what he'd said? Oh, Callum had written the letter all right. I knew his writing too well to doubt it. But he'd never write such a letter to me.

Except that he had. And I had it locked up at the back of my journal to prove it.

Did he mean what he said?

Did he hate me?

Did he mean it?

Or did he love me?

Why'd he write it?

Did he mean it?

Did he spend the entire time we'd been together at the cabin laughing at how he was going to use me?

Did he mean it?

And round and round and round. Why couldn't I get past the letter? Like poison it had seeped into every image and every memory I kept of Callum, polluting them until I couldn't tell what was real and what was just wishful thinking any more. Until at last, I was forced to face the inescapable fact that, for whatever reason, Callum had written the letter.

That told me something in itself.

Because never in a million years would I have been able to write the same letter to him if our roles had been reversed. Each night I told myself to scrunch it up and chuck it in the bin. Or burn it. Or at the very least – don't read it. But every night, Callum's letter seemed to find its way into my hands. And I was a fish being gutted every time I read it.

But it didn't stop me doing it.

So I wasn't going to think about it. Not any more. I had to get on with my life and stop living a stupid lie. Callum didn't love me, didn't want me, didn't need me. He was just using me to get some kind of revenge against my dad in particular. He was even more ruthless than his brother, Jude. I was tired of being used.

And I was tired of being hurt.

No one would ever do that to me again. Ever.

Time to close my mind and throw away the key.

Jaxon's house was all on one level, a small, neat bungalow with flower boxes outside filled with pink geraniums and yellow polyanthus. He didn't have a bell so I knocked on the door and waited. And waited. I knocked again. Moments turned into minutes. I shook my head as I turned away. I'd only taken a few steps when the front door was flung open.

'Hello,' Jaxon said, surprised. 'To be honest, I wasn't expecting you.'

'Well, like you and Meggie said, I have to do something to earn a living.' I shrugged.

'The gig's tomorrow night.' Jaxon frowned. 'You took your time making up your mind.'

I raised my eyebrows. And sod you as well, I thought sourly. No amount of money was worth the aggravation of putting up with this twerp.

'I'm glad you could make it,' he said quickly. 'And I'm sorry if I'm a little tetchy. It's just the way I am when things haven't been going too well. You'll have to get used to it.'

'Tetchy isn't the word I'd use,' I told him.

He laughed. 'Point taken. Come in and meet the others.'

He led me through his house, which smelled deliriously of beans and toast. The walls were painted plaster, cream-coloured and decorated with cracks just below ceiling level throughout most of the hall. The floor was wooden boards and I could smell lavender air spray. It all felt very homely.

'I like your house,' I said.

'Liar,' Jaxon replied.

'Listen, if I didn't like it, I wouldn't've said anything,' I told him, annoyed.

'In that case, thank you,' said Jaxon.

'Do you live here alone then?'

'No, I live with my family.'

I remembered how Roxie had told me she had a big family.

'How's Roxie doing? And her son?'

'Oh, they're fine,' said Jaxon. 'They live just round the corner so she pops in a lot.'

Jaxon took me through the kitchen, where the smell of toast and baked beans was strongest, and out into the garden.

'We practise in the work shed at the bottom of the yard,' said Jaxon.

I nodded, looking around. Threadbare patches of parched grass were surrounded by larger patches of dirt and outdoor toys. At one side of the garden was a swing, dangling from the thick, tall branch of an oak tree.

'Are you going to tell me you like our yard too?' asked Jaxon.

'No,' I said dryly.

'Fair enough.'

We made our way across the dirt to the wooden shed at the bottom of the garden. It was huge. My idea of a shed was a reasonable space to keep the lawnmower, a bench and a few gardening tools. This was bigger than my last flat. As Jaxon opened the shed door, I painted a nervous smile on my face. He was only going to introduce me to his friends and maybe we'd do a bit of singing. They weren't going to eat me, so why did I feel like there were dive-bombers in my stomach?

We went into the shed. Noughts were scattered around the room like points on a compass.

A shorter-than-average skinny boy sat behind a full drum kit. He had crew-cut mid-brown hair and warm dark eyes. His face was lean to the point of being thin. I reckoned he was no older than his late teens. He was reading a girlie magazine which he shoved behind his back as soon as he saw me. If this was Rhino, then it'd obviously been someone's idea of irony. He looked like a gusty wind would whisk him up and away.

'This is Rhino,' said Jaxon, confirming the name. 'And that over there is Sonny, master keyboard player. He's not as good as me on the guitar though.'

'Jaxon, is anyone as good as you at anything?' Sonny asked, making me smile.

Sonny was another blond like Jaxon but he was built like a nuclear bunker. This one could definitely take care of himself.

'Hi. I'm Sephy,' I smiled.

Rhino waved a drumstick in my direction. Sonny came over to shake my hand.

'Welcome to our merry band,' said Sonny.

A redheaded girl with impossibly long, blood-red nails sat on an upturned wooden crate, glaring at me.

'And that over there is Amy,' said Jaxon.

I smiled at her but the temperature of the look she sent my way dropped even further. Was she the girlfriend of one of the band? What was her problem?

'We were just rehearsing before you arrived,' Jaxon told me.

'Well, thanks for inviting me along,' I smiled, before turning to the others. 'Jaxon said you're looking for a singer?'

'What?' Amy jumped to her feet.

'Oh-oh!' Sonny said quietly.

I'd've had to be as insensitive as a politician not to pick up on the sudden atmosphere in the shed.

'What d'you mean – singer?' Amy asked. 'That's what I am.'

'Not any more,' said Jaxon. 'Is there any food? I'm starving.'

'Now wait just a minute, Jaxon,' I began. 'You said-'

'What the hell is going on?' Amy started coming towards me.

I held my hand out. 'Whoa!' I said quickly. 'Jaxon told me he had a band who're looking for a new singer. That's all I know.'

'And it was the truth,' Jaxon shrugged. 'Our group needs a lead singer.'

Amy glared at him and scowled at me and my heart plummeted. So much for that then.

'You have one already,' I pointed out. 'And I don't think she's looking for female company on stage.'

I turned away, ready to head for the door. All the way over to Jaxon's place, I wasn't sure if I was doing the right thing but now that the whole idea had petered out, I felt strangely disappointed. Deflated. Coming over here in the first place had been a big decision.

'Now hold on, Sephy,' said Jaxon grabbing my arm and turning me round again. 'The guys and me have already discussed it. We've been talking about finding a new voice for ages. And Amy just isn't up to it.'

'And you pick now to tell her?' I asked.

'Since when have I not been up to it?' Amy quoted back at him furiously.

'Oh, Amy, get a grip! You've got no range – anything half an octave above or below middle C and you're lost. You've got no looks, no figure and worst of all you've got no stage presence.'

'What d'you mean, no looks and no figure?' said Amy. 'That's not what you've been telling me every night for the last few months.'

Jaxon shrugged. 'Winter nights are long and cold. But spring is finally here.'

Both Amy and I gasped at that. Why was he behaving like such a jerk? Or was he always like that?

'Jaxon, that's harsh,' said Sonny. 'There's nothing wrong with Amy's figure.'

I noticed he didn't say anything about her singing.

'Look at her,' Jaxon dismissed. 'Her boobs look like two aspirins on an ironing board and she's got no bum. Her legs stop and her back starts and there's nothing in between.'

'Why, you-'

If Sonny hadn't leapt into the fray and held Amy back, Jaxon would've lost an eye for sure.

'If I had any sense I'd let her go,' Sonny said angrily. 'Damn it, Jaxon. You can't treat people like that.'

'Oh Amy, grow up. We had fun but you knew it wasn't going to be for ever,' said Jaxon.

'You are a pig, Jaxon Robbins, and I hope this girl rips your heart out,' Amy spat at him.

She stormed out of the shed and I for one didn't blame her. I scowled at Jaxon, wondering if he realized how lucky he was? He'd got off light. If he'd done that to me, he'd be rolling on the floor clutching his tenders.

'Jaxon, what's wrong with you?' Sonny shook his head. 'Amy's been good to you. She deserved better than that.'

'Oh come on. We all agreed that we couldn't carry on with Amy as our lead singer,' said Jaxon.

'That's not what I'm talking about and you know it,' said Sonny.

He looked at me like somehow what had just happened was partly my fault.

'Jaxon, when you said you wanted me to sing with your group, I thought that was the A to Z of it. I didn't realize you were going to use me to get rid of someone else,' I told him stonily.

'That wasn't meant to happen,' said Jaxon. 'You said you weren't interested. If you'd phoned me first to let me know you'd changed your mind then she would've been long gone before you got here.'

'Your relationship with Amy is your business and I'm not getting involved,' I told him. 'But if I join your group and you ever try to deal me out that way, you'll regret it.'

'Ooh! The mother is a lioness as well, is she?' Jaxon pretended to quake in his walking boots.

I shook my head. What a horse's arse!

Turning to Sonny and Rhino, I said, 'If you two would rather I left so you can get Amy back or bring in someone else, just say so.'

'I'll reserve judgement until after I've heard you sing,' said Sonny. Which was fair enough.

Rhino didn't say anything. I might've been slow on the uptake but I always got there eventually. Rhino wasn't convinced about me, to say the least.

'If you don't think this is a good idea, please say so,' I said to him directly.

'It might work,' said Rhino carefully, leaving a lot unsaid.

'So what do we do now?' I asked Jaxon.

'D'you want to sit down for three hours and talk so we can all get to know each other?' asked Jaxon.

'Hell no!' The words were out before I could stop them.

'Neither do we,' Jaxon laughed. 'So let's get to it. D'you know Red to Green?'

'The Gibson Dell song?'

'That's the one,' nodded Jaxon.

'Yeah, I think so,' I replied.

'Let's try that first then. D'you play any instruments?' Jaxon asked.

I shook my head. Three years of saxophone lessons couldn't compare to what professional musicians like this lot could do.

'OK, let's do it!' said Jaxon. 'Sephy, your microphone is in the middle there.'

I walked over to it, my heart pounding. What was I letting myself in for? I sang when the mood took me, like in the bath or the shower or in front of the mirror when I was messing about. What was I doing here? I was about to make a damned fool of myself, that's what I was doing here!

Jaxon counted the others in. I waited for my musical cue, my heart bouncing. I was so wound up, I missed the start of my line completely and tried to cram the first two lines of the song into about two seconds.

'Hold it.' Jaxon put up a hand to stop the others.

'Sorry,' I mumbled.

'Let's try it again,' smiled Jaxon.

I took a couple of deep breaths to steady my nerves and my voice. Then I launched in. I was so determined not to miss my cue this time that I belted out the first line of the song – only the microphone couldn't take it. It squeaked and hissed in protest.

'Sorry,' I muttered.

'Jaxon, this is hopeless,' said Rhino, opening his mouth for the first time. 'She doesn't have a clue.'

'Give her a chance,' said Jaxon. 'Let's take it from the top.'

I glanced around at Rhino and Sonny, who were both looking incredibly unimpressed. I turned back to the mic and closed my eyes. Jaxon came over to me, surprising me with the genuine smile on his face.

'Sephy, forget we're there. Just sing it for yourself. And have fun. OK?'

I nodded. Jaxon went back to his mic and the music started again. My cue came up. I started singing in my normal voice. The mic didn't squeal at me, so I carried on singing, my eyes still closed. Red to Green is one of those songs that starts off softly but gets louder and louder, just the way I like it. By the time I hit the second verse, I'd forgotten about everything but my enjoyment of the song. It took a few seconds after the song had finished for me to realize that I wasn't alone. The shed echoed with the dying strains of the guitar which finished the song. I forced myself to turn and look at the others. If they started laughing, I'd walk straight out of there.

But they weren't laughing. They were staring at me.

Silence.

'Was I that bad?' I asked after no one said a word.

'Wow!' Sonny breathed.

'I think we've found our lead singer,' grinned Jaxon.

And without being prompted, Sonny and Rhino started clapping and cheering. OK, so Rhino started hitting his drumsticks together but it meant the same thing.

'Not bad,' said Rhino.

'Thanks!' Coming from him that was high praise indeed. A warm rush of pleasure swept over me, before I felt a warm rush of something else start to leak from my boobs.

'Hell!' I exclaimed.

'What's the matter?' Jaxon asked.

Milk from my boobs was beginning to show on my shirt. I was lactating.

'Have you got any tissues?' I asked.

'Why?' frowned Jaxon.

'Jaxon, mate, when a girl asks for tissues you don't ask why,' said Sonny. 'You just hand them over.'

I couldn't help but smile at the sudden look of panic on Jaxon's face.

'Do you really want me to tell you?' I asked in a sudden fit of mischief.

'On second thoughts – no.'

'Because I really don't mind-' I began. Part of me just longed to pull him down a peg or two. I bet if I told him, he'd be just as grossed out as any other guy – Nought or Cross. Not so different, after all.

'Please don't!' Jaxon put out a hand. 'The tissues are over there.'

He pointed to a work bench at the side of the shed.

'Once you've sorted out. . . whatever it is you have to sort out, we'll do a full rehearsal of all the songs we'll be singing tomorrow,' Jaxon rushed on.

'Not too many all at once,' I told him as I headed for the bench. 'My voice won't take it.'

'Then we'll do a full rehearsal now and you're not to do any talking or singing until our gig tomorrow night,' said Jaxon. 'We're singing at the Dew Drop Inn at eight.'

'Fine.' I turned my back on all of them as I folded up the tissues and slipped them into my bra. 'Ready?' I turned round, then burst out laughing as they all made a great show of looking everywhere except at my front. And the sound felt strange and alien to my ears, as if it was coming from someone else and me – the real me – was just standing back and watching. But that was OK. I could do that. I could be two people if I needed to be. The real me deep inside, and the false, fake one that would hide the real me from the world.

'So what's the band called then?' I asked.

'The Cockroaches,' said Sonny.

His straight face told me he was serious.

'That's dire!' I sniffed. 'Who likes cockroaches, for heaven's sake?'

'What would you suggest then?' Sonny asked me.

'How should I know? The Midges,' I replied to be flippant.

To my surprise, Jaxon, Rhino and Sonny actually considered it. Then they looked at each other and nodded.

'The Midges it is then!' said Jaxon. And just like that, it was agreed.

'And by the way, I don't want to use my real name in the band,' I told them.

'What's wrong with your name?' Jaxon said quickly. Too quickly.

'I mean it, Jaxon,' I said with belligerence. 'If you're hoping to make some money off my name, then forget it.'

'So what d'you want to be called?' Sonny asked before Jaxon could argue.

I considered. 'Ridan – if anyone asks. Which they won't.'

'Ridan? What's that supposed to mean?' said Jaxon.

'It means nothing at all,' I told him. 'It's just an end-of-sale name.'

'A what?'

'A rock bottom, all-time low name,' I smiled.

He glowered at me, still disappointed he couldn't announce that he had Kamal Hadley's daughter up on stage with him.

'It's Ridan or I walk,' I told him straight.

'Ridan it is then,' said Sonny quickly.

'It doesn't even mean anything . . .' muttered Jaxon.

I shook my head. 'No, it doesn't. And that's the point.'