The Rocker That Holds Her (The Rocker #5) by Terri Anne Browning

Chapter 1

Meeting Emmie

I’m not sure what made me look out the window.

Mom was in the kitchen washing dishes, making sure that the place was her standard of clean before sitting down. It was a nice change to the way my old man had kept the place before he died a few years back. Back then it had smelled like stale smoke, beer, and at times the old bastard’s own waste. Now it smelled like sweet pine and some kind of floral spray that Mom couldn’t seem to leave the grocery store without.

I was lying on my bed just glaring up at the ceiling. My best friends weren’t home this weekend. Jesse’s dad had dragged him to some poker game across the bridge in Huntington, West Virginia, and they wouldn’t be back until the next day. Drake and Shane were on a camping trip with their mom and stepdad since their mother had the weekend off. Meanwhile, I was stuck here.

I hated it here. Hated this rundown trailer, in this rundown trailer park, in Nowhere, Ohio. Maybe it was the memories of my dad and birth mother. Of being beaten in the middle of the night for no reason. My Mom, who was really just my aunt, had been my saving grace when the old fucker died. She had given up her life and moved into this crappy trailer to take care of me.

For that I would always be grateful. Which was why I wanted out of Ohio. When I got out of Ohio, I would make it big. I knew I would. Drake and I were crazy good at music. We could get a record deal, and I would be able to take care of my mom the way she deserved to be taken care of.

Big dreams for a small town boy with nothing more than a passion for singing and playing around in the band room at school, but it was all I had. I was determined that it was all I would need.

I sat up, not sure if I wanted to go into the living room and watch some television, or maybe go across the trailer park and see if I could talk Missy Snuffer into taking a walk down by the train tracks with me. It wouldn’t be the first time I had asked, and it wouldn’t be the first time I would attempt—and more than likely succeed—in getting to second base with the sixteen-year-old.

Before I could make up my mind, my gaze caught something outside of my bedroom window, and for some reason I felt like I was sucker punched in the gut. There, on the grass that separated my trailer from the one next door, sat a little bundle of rags. At least at first glance it looked like rags. Moving closer to the window, I saw that it was a little girl, maybe four but no more than five. Her hair was a mess, tangled and dirty, but that didn’t disguise the pretty auburn color. Her clothes were old and tattered. There was a hole in the knee of her leggings and a bleach stain on her pink shirt.

The little girl’s face was dirty and streaked with tears. She looked lost and sad as she held on tight to a teddy bear that I couldn’t tell if it looked better or worse than the girl. It was raggedy, missing its right eye, and its left ear was just hanging on by a thread. I was transfixed as the little girl rocked the teddy bear and whispered to it like it was her only friend in the world. My chest ached just watching her.

I was walking through the trailer before I even realized my feet were moving. Mom raised an eyebrow at me when I opened the freezer and pulled out two Popsicles. Instead of answering her unspoken question, I just kissed her cheek and headed outside. The little girl hadn’t moved. Relief filled me seeing her still sitting on the grass by my window.

The sound of my shoes crunching on a few rocks caused the girl’s head to lift, and big green eyes snapped up at me. She looked frightened, nervous. I took a few steps toward her and could see that she was pale under her dirty face and had to hide my frown the closer I got.

“Hey,” I greeted her. I hadn’t dealt with many young kids, so I wasn’t sure how to approach her.

She looked hesitantly at me, those big eyes of hers pulling at something in my chest in a way that was almost painful. “Hi,” she whispered softly, her grip on the nasty old bear tightening.

I opened up one of the Popsicles—cherry, my favorite. “It’s hot out here. Want something cold to eat?”

Her gaze went to the already melting Popsicle and she licked her lips, but she hesitated. I thought that was incredibly smart for a kid her age. “I …”

I took a few steps closer and sat down on the dry grass beside her. “Here, it’s good. Cherry is the best flavor in the box.”

Little fingers latched onto the stick, and I noticed that they trembled a little as she took the cold treat from me. As she lifted the Popsicle to her lips, I saw the first bruise. It was big, or maybe it was just because her arms were so little it looked big. The bruise was all kinds of colors starting with dark blue on the outside and ending with a yellow-green in the middle. It looked like it still hurt, even though it had to be at least a week old.

I could tell how old the bruise was easily enough. I had spent years with those same bruises all over my body. My dad wasn’t happy unless he was beating on me. My birth mother had sat back and let him have his fun. For a while, even after she had killed herself, I had thought she enjoyed watching her only kid being smacked around for sport. It wasn’t until her sister—the woman I felt was my true mother—had come into my life that I had realized that my birth mother had probably just been happy that the old bastard wasn’t using her as the punching bag.

“My name is Nik,” I told the girl, feeling sick as thoughts of her being hit like I once had been filled my mind. “What’s yours?”

“E-ember.”

“That’s a cool name.” I smiled, trying to let her see that I was harmless. I would never hurt anyone the way I had been hurt, especially this little baby. “How old are you?”

She held up her left hand. “Five,” she said before biting into the Popsicle.

“I’m fifteen.” I opened the second Popsicle and bit it in half. Orange wasn’t my favorite, but it would do. “When did you move in?” I hadn’t seen her before, and the trailer beside mine hadn’t been rented out in a while. I could hear movement inside the beat up home on wheels, so assumed her parents were in there.

“This mornin’.” She took another big bite of the sweet treat. “We used to live in West Virginia, but Momma said we had to move.”

I couldn’t help but smile at her country accent. One more bite and the snack was gone. When her gaze went to my half-finished Popsicle, I quickly offered it over. “Here, take it.” I wiped my sticky fingers on my jeans. “I don’t want it anyway,” I lied.

Midnight Caller

I wasn’t asleep.

How could I knowing that she was in that trailer? With that bitch? That monster? I hated Emmie’s mother at first sight: the way she had smelled of smoke and booze and something more sour; the glassiness in her eyes; the stagger in her step; and her tone she took with Emmie when she had seen the little girl talking with me.

“Get in the trailer, girl. Clean your room, before I …” She hadn’t finished the threat, but Emmie had been trembling ever so slightly before going into the trailer, and her mother slammed the old storm door behind her.

I wanted to bundle Emmie up then and there and bring her home with me—protect her, feed her, take care of the little baby doll that she was—but I knew that I couldn’t. My mom wouldn’t understand, and I wasn’t sure if I should tell her or anyone else what I suspected—knew!—was going on with our new neighbors. I had been taken away from my parents once, when the bruises were too many to count and hard to explain away. I knew what the homes were like. Foster parents could be just as bad as real parents.

And a pretty little girl like Emmie?

I shuddered and pulled the covers up over my stomach. My eyes closed and I started to drift off…

A tap, tap, tap at my window made my eyes snap open. Earlier I had told Emmie if she needed me, day or night, to knock on my bedroom window. I had even shown her how to do it. I’d told her it was our secret when she looked lost and more than a little frightened after her mother had gone back inside.

Heart pounding, I jumped up from my bed and peeked through my window. Emmie was standing on the bucket I had set up for her. I couldn’t make out more than the outline of her thin little body in the darkness, but I knew it was her. Quietly, I lowered the window and reached out to help her inside.

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