The Way I Hate Him: Chapter 23

HAYES

“How much do you want from me?” I step into the living room but remain standing as I fold my arms across my chest and stare down at the woman who, unfortunately, is my mother.

And fuck does she look even worse than the last time I saw her.

That’s what greed will do to you. It will pull your soul from your body, leaving you a useless sack and a drain on society. Nothing about my mother is worthy. She doesn’t offer any value to this world, and right now, as I stare down at her, I know that whatever she’s about to say will take a toll on me.

Because she always does. And I refuse to let Hattie see that.

“Who says I want any money from you?” she asks, mildly insulted.

“The only fucking reason you ever come see me is because you want something. So just tell me what you fucking want so I can get you out of here,” I reply, raising my voice.

I can feel my skin start to itch from standing in the same room as her. This intense, guttural pain occurs in my stomach, like feeling homesick but on steroids. A dread falls over me, and the little boy inside me, the one who watched her drive away without a worry that she was leaving me behind, begging her to stay, is replaced with the man I’ve tried to become since then.

Deep breaths, Hayes.

Don’t let her get to you.

Don’t let her take you back to a dark place.

“Do you want me out of here so you can fuck your girlfriend more?”

My molars grind together. “She’s not my girlfriend,” I answer, knowing that’s a bald-faced lie. The last thing I need is for her to hold that over my head. The less she knows about me, the better.

If she knew I had a girlfriend, someone I actually cared about, she’d find a way to use it against me. And then torture me.

Torture her.

It’s best she thinks we’re nothing.

“She seemed pretty intimate with you.”

“She’s delusional,” I say. “Just a good fuck.”

“Your father used to say things like that, you know? Look where that got him.”

“Wouldn’t know,” I say. “He drove away before I could get to know him.”

“Lucky you,” she says. “At least I had the common decency to find you a home before I left.”

“Common decency?” I ask. “You treated me like a discarded pet. How is that decent?”

“Could have taken you with me,” she says. “Not sure you’d have gotten where you are today if you’d come with me. I saved you from a life of drugs and alcohol abuse.”

“Is that what you tell yourself at night so you can sleep?” I nod. “Okay.”

Her eyes fall flat, anger simmering in her facial expressions. “You might think I was a terrible mother, but I was selfless by deciding to leave you with your grandma.”

“How is that selfless? If you were any bit of a good mother, you would have stayed here and raised me. You had a good job. You had friends and a support system. You left because you were selfish. Not selfless.”

“You have no idea what I was going through when I made that decision.”

“Yeah, an early midlife crisis, where you thought your life could change if you just got rid of me.”

She dramatically rolls her eyes. “Here we go, playing the victim card again.”

“I’m not playing any card,” I shout, losing what thin-veiled cool I had. I pat my chest. “I am the victim.”

She shakes her head. “Sorry you see it that way, but from where I’m sitting, I see you in a beautiful, large house, your wallet full, and everything you could possibly want at your fingertips. You would not have had that if it wasn’t for me.”

“And I’d trade it all fucking in to have one ounce of a parents’ love. Do you realize the trauma I’ve gone through, the abandonment issues I have because of you?” I say before I can stop myself. It’s almost as if seeing her, knowing she’s here to ask for something, has unleashed a part of me that I’ve suppressed for many years.

“Well, then, your grandma has filled your mind with delusions.” She stands from the couch and holds out the envelope to me.

“What’s that?” I ask, not taking it.

“Something Ray came across. Thought you might want to see it.”

Fucking Ray, my mom’s husband. He’s just as much of a drain on society as my mom. They met one weekend when she was still around, and he was one of the main reasons she moved away. Because she’d rather be with him. Period.

I take the envelope from my mom and open up the back. There are pictures inside . . . fuck me.

Blackmail? She’s here to blackmail me now?

Fucking Christ.

I slip the pictures out, and it’s of me from when I was on tour this past year. Couldn’t tell you the night, but there’s an empty bottle of tequila in my hand, a naked woman on my lap, and a dead expression on my face. You can’t see anything but her butt crack, but she’s naked, that’s for damn sure.

“They’re screenshots from a video that was taken.”

“Wait, what?” I ask.

She nods. “A sex tape.”

I drag my hand over my face, the realization hitting me.

“And that’s the mayor of Nashville’s daughter on your lap.”

“What?” I ask.

She nods, her smile all the reason I hate this woman. A parent should be supportive, not thrilled that she’s about to blackmail her own son.

“It was brought to our attention that it will be released in the next week if the demands are not met.”

I grip the photo tightly in my fist and meet my mom’s eyes. “What demands?”

“Seems like Ray has a way to stop this all from happening, but you know . . . it’s going to cost something.”

Of course.

“How. Much?” I ask through a clenched jaw.

“Three quarters of a million.”

Jesus fuck.

I tear away from her and push my hand through my hair. Sure, do I have the money? Of course. That’s a drop in the bucket from what I have at this point, but the fact that I’m going to have to just hand this over because of my careless actions, because I thought drowning my sorrow and pain in a bottle and between random legs was the way to go, makes me feel physically ill.

“How do I know it won’t be put out there?” I ask.

“Because I have the only file of it, and I’ll hand it over to you.”

“How can I trust you?” I ask. “How could I possibly believe that this won’t get out to anyone else? And how do you even have a copy?”

“Because only one was taken, and it’s from a trusted source.”

“How fucking trusted? And how did you fucking get it?”

“They came to us, knowing we could reason with you.”

“They came to you?” I ask. “How would they even gain access to my dressing room? The only people who were allowed back there were Ruben and my—”

And that’s when it hits me.

Matt.

No fucking way.

I know it couldn’t be Ruben. He’d never betray me like that because he’s practically a brother. But Matt took everything he could get—shirts, albums, signed paraphernalia, empty bottles. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’d take a video of me to use it against me.

But why now?

Why not when I fired him?

Why did he wait this long? Probably to try to keep his name out of it, but he must be hurting if he’s using it now. And how the hell did he find my mother?

Trying to keep my expression neutral—because this is a huge invasion of privacy and a legal battle waiting to happen—I take a deep breath and say, “Why not a million?”

My mom’s eyes light up. “You’d be willing to pay that much?”

“I would, to guarantee there’s no slip of this anywhere, and there’d have to be a confidentiality agreement signed as well as an NDA, but yes, I’d pay one million to make sure this never sees the light of day.”

“Well.” She stands taller, pure pride surging through her, probably assuming that she has me in a chokehold when, in reality, I’m about to make her, Ray, and Matt’s lives a living hell. “I think I could go back to my source and make sure we guarantee this never reaches anyone else.”

“Good,” I say. “Do it. Let me draw up the contract with my lawyer, and I’ll get back to you.”

“How long will that take?” she asks, looking impatient.

“Given this is time sensitive, not long.”

“Good to hear,” she says. And there it is again—that smile. How do I share DNA with this woman? I’m no angel. I’ve never pretended to be either. But this? Blackmailing her own son for her own gain? She’s despicable.

What person, let alone a mother, takes joy from causing her child harm? How could she honestly live with herself if I wasn’t willing to pay her off? To know what the tabloids would say—how they’d smear her own son’s name—for money?

I fucking hate her. Gran’s right. I do not need her approval. She’s not worth shit.

“Well, Ray is waiting for me. We’re headed up the coast but made a pit stop here. You have my number, right?”

Unfortunately.

“Yes,” I answer.

“Great, call me when your lawyers draft everything up, and we can go from there.” She pats my arm. “Always great seeing you, Hayes.”

And then she walks toward the door, ending the business transaction she came to make, not the visit she should have been making with her son. And as she gets into her car and pulls away, I stand there, lifeless in the middle of my living room, crumpled photo in my hand, feeling so . . . so fucking brokenHow can she still do that? How does she still have the power to shatter my heart?

Robotically, I move toward the kitchen table where my phone is and pick it up. I dial Ruben’s name before crumpling to the floor, where I pull my legs up to my chest and lean against the kitchen island.

The phone rings twice before he picks up.

“Hey, I was just going to call you. I heard back from the lawyers, and the loophole I thought we could use to get out of your contract actually is going to work. So I didn’t send them Electric Sunshine. I want to keep that close to our chests in case you want to go a different route. I think producing it yourself is the best idea at this point. You have the popularity and the fanbase—”

“Ruben,” I choke out, my emotions taking over, that little boy inside me fucking breaking with every breath I take.

“Hayes . . . are you okay?”

“No, man,” I say, the flash of my mom’s smile vivid in my mind.

“What’s going on?” he asks, his voice growing more intense.

“She came back.”

“Who?” he asks. “Hattie?”

“No.” I shake my head even though he can’t see me. “My mom, she came back.”

“Fuck,” he breathes into the phone. “I’m in LA right now, so I can be up to you in an hour.”

“No,” I say as I press my head against the cabinet. “I don’t . . . I don’t want you here.”

“Hayes, you don’t sound good. I don’t want you doing anything stupid. I’m packing my things right now.”

“Please don’t,” I say. “I just need you to work on something for me.”

“What is it?” he asks. “I’ll do anything.”

“She has a sex tape of me, a sex tape I’m pretty sure Matt took. I need security footage from the nights we were in Nashville. I need to see if there was anyone else in that dressing room besides me and . . . the mayor’s daughter.”

“Jesus,” he mutters. “Okay, I’m on it.”

“And if Matt was in there, I want you to handle it with the lawyers. They’re extorting money from me, and I want everyone brought to justice.”

“Understood.” He clears his throat. “Is Hattie there with you?”

“No,” I say, my throat growing tighter. “I sent . . . I sent her home.” Her sad expression finally comes to the forefront of my mind, and it nearly breaks me.

“Do you want me to text her, contact her, get her back to your place?”

“No,” I say, just above a whisper. “I don’t want her involved.”

“She might be able to help—”

“No,” I snap. “She can’t help.”

After a moment of silence, Ruben says, “Hayes, I know you, don’t let this make you spiral. We’ll get it figured out, but don’t spiral. That’s the last thing you need to do right now. Go find Hattie.” Not a chance.

“Just figure out how to pin them for this,” I say. “We’re working on days, not weeks.”

“Hayes—”

He doesn’t get to finish as I hang up and drop the phone next to me. I push my hands through my hair, my eyes squeezed shut as I attempt to take deep breaths and even my skipping pulse.

Nausea rolls through me.

Memories of my mom leaving me behind flood my mind so rapidly that I can’t control my thoughts or emotions.

I recall the smell of her perfume that clung to me throughout the night when I wondered why she’d leave me with my grandma.

I could feel the stiff pat on my shoulder she gave me before she left, not even a parting hug.

And I could taste the stale pretzels she left me with as a snack, a parting present.

This woman who I was supposed to trust, who was supposed to be there for me every step of the way, she just . . . left.

My dad left, not even taking one look back.

Ryland left without hearing my side of the story.

It feels like everyone leaves, everyone who’s supposed to love me, supposed to be there for me. They extinguish any trust I might form, and they leave me.

They leave me with a broken heart, a damaged soul, and a mind so fucked. I’m reliving every moment I’ve ever been hurt, scared, or obliterated by the few people who should always love me for me.

But they don’t love me, and that realization fucks with my head.

I stand from the floor, my stomach roiling, and before I can lose all contents on the concrete beneath my feet, I run to the trash can, where I throw up, just as the doorbell rings.


HATTIE: Are you okay? I’m worried. Please let me know you’re okay. I love you.

I stare down at the text, feeling the physical pain of reading those words from her.

She loves me.

I had a feeling that she might, that there might be something there with her. And this morning, when I told her I loved her, when I admitted to my true feelings, nothing had ever felt more freeing.

But what a couple of hours will do to a person.

I open my car door and step out onto the dark pavement behind The Almond Store. Hattie’s car is parked in one of the spaces, and thanks to one singular street lamp, I don’t trip along the way to the back of her door, where I plug in the code to get in.

With my chest feeling heavy, I move up the stairs to her apartment. She must hear me approach because before I can knock on the door, she whips it open, a relieved look on her face.

“Hayes, oh my God,” she says as she wraps her arms around me. “Are you okay?”

My body goes stiff from her touch.

My breath becomes labored as I stare down at her.

And dread fills my stomach as I realize what I have to do.

What needs to be done.

“Hey,” she says, running her hand over my chest. “I asked are you okay? You’re very stiff, and I know today must have been—”

“I can’t do this,” I say.

Her nose scrunches up in confusion. “What?”

It’s her goddamn birthday.

We just said we love each other.

And yes, as I stand here on her doorstep, staring into her mesmerizing eyes, I know for a fact that she has the potential not only to hurt me but to obliterate me. I don’t think I’ve ever trusted anyone the way I’ve put trust in Hattie.

I’ve let her into my home.

I’ve counted on the fact that even though she was my enemy’s sister—for a moment—she wasn’t going to sabotage me in any way, especially after my former assistant betrayed my trust.

I’ve told her about my past. I’ve invited her into my insecurities.

She knows more about me than anyone else on this planet, and I know, with one word, with one slip-up, she can be the one person who takes me down.

Not my mom.

Not my dad.

Not an old feud or an assistant who seems to use my fame for his benefit.

Her.

And as much as I love her, I can’t . . . I just fucking can’t.

“Us,” I say. “I can’t do us.”

Panic sets into her eyes.

“What do you mean you can’t do us?” she asks.

“I mean, this is all too much for me, and I don’t think we should do this anymore.”

Her lip quivers, and she asks, “Are you breaking up with me?”

I can’t look her in the eyes as I nod.

“No,” she says, pushing at my chest. “You look me in the eyes and tell me you’re breaking up with me.”

Caught off guard by her forcefulness, I slowly look up at her and say, “I’m breaking up with you, Hattie.”

She rubs her lips together, folds her arms at her chest, and then she says, “You fucking coward. You just told me you loved me. Was that all a show?”

“No,” I say. “I do love you.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, her voice rising. “If you loved me, Hayes, you wouldn’t be standing at my doorstep, attempting to break my heart because you’re too scared to put yourself out there.”

“I’m not scared to put myself out there,” I say. “I’m scared to trust anyone. Every person I’ve ever trusted has ripped that trust right out of my chest.”

“So you’re assuming I’m going to do that?”

“I can’t stick around to find out.”

“Wow.” She shakes her head. “So just like that, your mom shows up, and we’re done?”

I stuff my hands in my pockets, and I sigh. “I wish I was stronger, Hattie.” I lift my eyes to meet hers, and seeing the tears well in them nearly breaks me. “I told you I wasn’t good for you. I warned you.”

A tear cascades down her cheek. “Don’t, Hayes. This is about you.”

“This is about trust,” I say. “Look at Ryland. The moment something went awry, he walked away. My mother walked away, you . . . you walked away.”

“I didn’t—”

“You did,” I say. “When Ryland found out about us, you left.”

“I was confused,” she defends, wiping her tear.

“Didn’t hurt any less.”

“So . . . you’re just going to give up, just like that?” she asks.

“I’m not giving up, Hattie. I’m just . . .” I look away. “Fuck, I’m trying to stay afloat here. I don’t think I could take one more cut to my heart. It’s already bleeding.”

“I’m not going to stomp on your heart, Hayes. I want to heal it. I want to be there for you. I want to show you what true love really is.”

I nod slowly, and then after a second, I say, “And I want to believe you . . . but I can’t.”

I take a step down, that small distance causing her to take a short intake of breath.

“Hayes, don’t do this,” she says, and I take another step down. “Hayes, please.” Her hand reaches out, but I take another step down, the steel armor I’ve resurrected around my heart to keep it beating protecting me from the tears streaming down her face and the reach of her hand.

You need to leave.

You need to get out of here.

And that’s just what I do. Without another word, I turn around and head down the rest of the stairs, just as I hear Hattie say, “Please don’t do this, Hayes.”

But I ignore her and move forward.

I put her behind me.

I hold on to what little sanity I have left.

What little life I have simmering deep within me because the light keeping me running is burning out.

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