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Authors: Rhiannon Frater

dead spots

 

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Dedicated with much love to Annie and Valentina.

Special thanks to my husband for his encouragement throughout the process of writing this novel.

Also eternal gratitude to Janet Rogers, Tim Kirk, Kody Boye, Alexia Purdy, Lori Parker, Erin Hayes, Emily Goodwin, and Amy Fournier for being such outstanding beta readers and helping me refine my vision.

 

CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Epilogue

Author's Note

Tor Books by Rhiannon Frater

About the Author

Copyright

 

PROLOGUE

The crib was full of hopes and dreams.

Standing at her husband's side, Mackenzie Babin stared at the display of baby shower gifts: onesies covered in dinosaurs, cartoon animals, and trucks; soft mittens to keep the baby from scratching his delicate skin; miniature shoes in various styles; socks in many colors; and a variety of soft, plushy toys in bright hues.

Tucking a dark lock of hair behind one ear, Mackenzie cocked her head and grinned at her husband. “Impressive, huh?”

Leaning his elbows on the rail of the crib, Tanner replied in awe, “That's some haul. Wow!”

The hour was late, and the last of the guests had just departed, leaving the couple to admire the beautiful and overwhelming display of the generosity of their family and friends. Instead of a regular baby shower, all their family, friends, and a few coworkers were invited to a big barbecue. Tanner relished hanging out over the pit cooking the meat and drinking beer with the men while Mackenzie enjoyed the baby shower games in the living room. It worked out well for both of them.

“We got everything on the list. I told you it wasn't a lame idea to register for baby gifts.” Mackenzie teasingly jabbed her husband in the ribs.

“I thought after we nailed the friends and family for all those wedding gifts last year they'd be kinda scrimpy on the baby stuff. Boy, was I wrong. They came through in spades!”

“That'll teach you to listen to me.”

“Oh, I listen, honey. I just forget that you're way smarter than me.”

“And much prettier,” she said, poking at his vanity.

“Oh, no. I
know
I'm way prettier than you!”

The soft light from the Winnie-the-Pooh lamp highlighted Tanner's razor-sharp cheekbones and finely shaped lips, features Mackenzie hoped her son would inherit from his father. Her husband's strong bone structure and dark hair were attributes from his grandmother, a member of the Caddo Tribe. Like many in Louisiana, the Babin family was a mix of many ethnicities.

“Seriously, Mac, this makes the baby even more real. I mean, you're as big as a house—”

“Hey!”

“—but this makes this whole parent thing feel even more legit. We've got stuff! Baby stuff!”

“You're so drunk.” Mackenzie rolled her eyes, but his excitement pleased her.

“I had … uh … eight beers. I am a little toasty.” Tanner winked. “Just a little.”

“Right. Just a little my ass.”

“A proud pa-to-be has every right to get a bit plastered in celebration of his future son. And, boy, we've got a lot to celebrate.”

“I couldn't agree more, Tanner. It's wonderful.”

Just two years ago Mackenzie had been a lonely single woman wondering if she'd ever find love. Now she was blissfully in the honeymoon stage of her marriage and joyously awaiting her firstborn son. How had so much changed in just two short years?

Straightening, Tanner cuddled her close. His job as a construction worker made him lean and hard and she loved the way his body felt against hers. Of course, she was anything but lean. She was soft and round. At eight months pregnant, her baby bump was enormous under her pale pink dress. Right after their guests had departed after the baby shower, she had kicked off her flats to give her feet a rest. She felt as if every part of her body was swollen and puffy, but she didn't care. It was all worth it to know that soon she would be holding her infant son in her arms.

Tanner affectionately kneaded her aching lower back with his strong calloused fingertips. One of the things Mackenzie loved about Tanner was his demonstrative nature. She'd grown up starved for physical attention, and he lavished her with it. Her husband couldn't walk through a room without giving her a little kiss or a quick hug.

“I have to say, babe, this is awesome. I won't have to worry about getting more overtime to afford buying stuff for our boy.”

“Well, you
are
spoiled rotten, you know. Favorite son and all that. Of course your family is going to spoil the baby, too!”

“Only son and youngest,” Tanner corrected, winking. He was the golden child of his family. His five older sisters adored him, and as far as his mother and father were concerned, he could do no wrong. It made him a little arrogant, but Mackenzie ignored this flaw. “Mom's dying to get her hands on baby Joshua, and Pa is already planning fishing trips with him. All the sisters are lining up for babysitting duty. We've got it made when it comes to family.”

Since her father abandoned her mother when she was pregnant, Mackenzie didn't know her father's family, and relations with her mother's were always strained. Mackenzie was glad her son would have Tanner's family to love and support him while he grew up. A close-knit family was not something she'd experienced in her childhood.

Noticing her silence, Tanner added, “It's a shame Estelle couldn't make tonight.”

Tanner's attempt to sound sincere failed miserably. Of course, he was also a little tipsy from all the beers he'd drank during the barbecue, so his usual determination to like Mackenzie's very difficult mother was ebbing under the influence of alcohol. As soon as he'd met Estelle, they'd clashed. When Mackenzie had eloped with Tanner to Las Vegas, Estelle hadn't spoken to her for nearly a month.

“It's the obsessive-compulsive thing. You know how difficult it is for her to leave the ranch in someone else's hands. She's convinced something horrible will happen if she leaves.”

Mackenzie had anticipated her mother not traveling to Louisiana for her only child's baby shower, but it still hurt to not have anyone from her side of the family in attendance. While some aspects of Estelle's disorder made her horse ranch very successful, her paranoia had infused Mackenzie with a good dose of self-doubt and anxiety. Mackenzie vowed to not be the same kind of mother as Estelle. Her son wouldn't be subject to constant fear and anxiety. He'd know love and stability.

“Too bad she doesn't have it like that guy on that one show. A total neat freak.” It was difficult for Tanner to understand her dysfunctional childhood when his had been so great. Mackenzie gave him a lot of credit for trying to grasp the crippling power of her mother's anxieties.

But he still had no idea.

“The neat freaks are much more entertaining to Hollywood. They ignore the hoarders and the people with extreme rituals,” Mackenzie said with a shrug.

“Like your mom doing that thing with the keys?” Tanner lifted an eyebrow.

“Yeah, exactly.” One of her mother's most irritating rituals was to lock and unlock the outside doors exactly three times before leaving home. She was also notorious for turning back halfway to her destination to make sure the front door was locked despite the repetition rite.

“At least you're not like that! You're all normal and shit. Just like me.” Tanner nuzzled her cheek lovingly. “Totally amazingly normal. That's us. Married, having babies, building a life. Isn't it freakin' exciting?”

“Definitely. Without a doubt.” His exuberance amused and pleased her. It helped alleviate the tiny knot of anxiety that always haunted her.

“You know what else I'm excited about, Mac?” her husband asked, releasing her so he could bend over the rail.

“I'm afraid to ask.”

“This!” Tanner held up a small Dallas Cowboys outfit. “He's wearing this home from the hospital. Show his allegiance right off the bat!”

“Honey, you're in Louisiana. You're going to get our kid lynched for not supporting the Saints.”

“Babe, how many times must I remind you that the Dallas Cowboys are
America's
team? Besides, you're Texan. Shouldn't you be supporting your home state?”

“You know my mom bought that just to piss off your family, right?”

“And instead, she made me very happy. Ironic, huh?” Tanner kissed her one more time, then snatched up a plushy toy football from the gifts. Tossing it into the air, he pretended to run for a touchdown, ducking around Mackenzie and darting for the doorway. He made an extravagant show of crossing the threshold and dancing as he mimicked the sound of a cheering crowd.

Rubbing the tiny protrusion just below her rib cage, Mackenzie smiled contentedly. She was sure it was a little foot. “You know you're crazy, right?”

“Crazy for you and baby Joshua.” Tanner tossed the football into the crib and snagged her wrist. Pulling her into his arms, he kissed her lovingly. “I've got everything I ever wanted right here in my arms. My life is fuckin' perfect.”

Guiding his hand to the raised bump on her belly, Mackenzie gazed tenderly at him. “I think it's his foot.”

“That's the moneymaker right there. When he's a Cowboy, oh, yeah, that foot is gonna make his old man proud!”

“You know, he could end up being a baseball player.”

“Hush, woman! No cursing our future quarterback.” Kneeling before her, Tanner took her belly between his hands and pressed his lips against the softness of her dress. “Joshua, this is your old man. You don't listen to your mama. You're gonna be a football player like your pa was in high school. But don't blow out your knee doing stupid shit like I did.”

“Words of wisdom to our infant son,” Mackenzie said, rolling her eyes.

“Well, skateboarding drunk isn't the smartest thing I've ever done.”

“I'm not too sure how smart barbecuing drunk was tonight.”

“I only set that one patch of grass on fire,” Tanner said petulantly. “It was a
small
fire.”

Tanner liked to drink, but it didn't bother Mackenzie. Tanner was not a mean drunk. When sober, he was friendly to everyone he met. When he had a few drinks in him, he was everyone's best friend. Tanner's mom always called him her overgrown boy, and it was a pretty accurate description. To Tanner, life was fun and full of friends. It was a refreshing difference from her mother's dreary outlook on life. Until Tanner sauntered into her life, she'd been working at her mother's ranch as a bookkeeper with very little social life. His charismatic grin and flirtatious manner had unnerved her at first, but she'd soon fallen hopelessly in love with him. He inspired her to believe in happy endings.

Tanner climbed to his feet, favoring his knee, and ambled over to the dresser. “I just love what Granny made for Joshua.
This
is awesome.” Tanner lightly touched the quilted cloth letters lined up on the dresser that spelled out the name Joshua. “Joshua Tanner Babin. That's a damn good name.”

Mackenzie carefully rearranged the gifts in the crib, setting the football on the little outfit Tanner loved so much. “It's a beautiful name for a beautiful boy.”

“I can't wait for him to be here, Mac. Damn, I got chills just thinking about it. He's going to be the best kid ever. Just you wait and see.” Tanner picked up the framed 3D/4D ultrasound photo. The face of their unborn son was amazingly vivid in the sepia and brown tones of the ultrasound image. “He's definitely got my nose and your lips. I wonder if he's got your pretty eyes.”

“Or yours.”

“He's awesome. I can tell already. He's got that Babin stubborn chin. He's going to be a hell-raiser, but a mama's boy all rolled into one just like me.”

Mackenzie gazed at her husband and sudden tears swelled in her eyes. Despite the euphoria of the night, a small niggling bit of fear shadowed her thoughts. It was her mother's voice whispering in the back of her mind.

“Baby, don't cry!”

“I can't help it! I'm so happy! Everything is just so wonderful. I love you and Joshua so much! I never thought I would feel like this. I never thought my life would ever be this good. And it's scaring me shitless!”

“Ignore your mother's dire warnings of doom and gloom, Mac. We have a good life. You and me and Joshua are going to be the happiest damn family in the whole world. Nothing bad is gonna happen. I'm here. I'm going to protect you and Joshua from all the bad shit your mom is always going on about. I promise you.”

Snuggling into his arms, Mackenzie sighed with contentment. “I know, honey. I just … I'm so emotional. I guess it's the hormones.”

Tanner planted kisses on top of her head and rubbed her back to console her. “Trust me, Mac. Everything is going to be okay. Do you trust me?”

“Yeah, always.”

“Then believe me.”

“I do.”

Together they finished cleaning the remaining mess from the baby shower. Their family and friends had done most of the hard work, but they still had a few things to tidy up. As Tanner broke down all the boxes and stuffed the wrapping paper and bows in a trash bag, Mackenzie stacked the Hallmark cards adorned with storks and babies in one pile and put store gift cards in another to be sorted through later.

There was plenty of leftover food in the refrigerator, and a second trip out to the trash can removed the last of the dirty paper cups and plates. Feeling hungry and craving sugar, Mackenzie snagged a cupcake out of a Tupperware container. The chocolate and raspberry goodness was a godsend.

“Okay, this place almost looks back to normal,” Tanner said, studying the kitchen. “I'll get the rest of it in the morning.”

“Thanks, honey,” Mackenzie said over a yawn.

“Babe, you're wiped out. I can tell just looking at you. You go to bed and I'll clean up the grill and stuff outside real quick. We don't need to attract vermin.”

“You're the best.”

“Of course I am,” Tanner said with a wink.

“I'm going to need help getting out of this dress.” Mackenzie flexed her swollen hands and grimaced. “The zipper is in the back.”

“I'll never argue against getting you undressed,” Tanner teased.

“Oh, shut up. I'm a blimp.”

“A sexy blimp,” he assured her.

Rolling her eyes, Mackenzie left Tanner to his chores. In the bedroom, she slid out of her dress, and, too tired to shower, pulled on a soft nightgown. After her nightly routine of washing her face, brushing her teeth, and combing out her hair in the adjoining bathroom, she returned to the bedroom. On the bed stand, the yellow baby blanket she'd been painstakingly embroidering sat next to her cell phone. She just had one more flower to complete before the blanket was finished. It was her nightly ritual to work on the blanket before settling down to sleep while Tanner surfed the Web on his Notebook.

Checking her messages, she saw that most were from her mother and one was from her best friend, Erin. Mackenzie texted Erin that she'd call her the next day with full details of the party, but didn't bother to respond to Estelle. The last thing she wanted to deal with was yet another lecture. Sometimes Mackenzie wondered if her mother thought her endless warnings were good parenting. Mackenzie could agree with her mother's every edict until she was blue in the face, and still Estelle would continue her long-winded speeches. She doubted her mother would ever regard her as competent.

“I will talk to you tomorrow, Mom,” Mackenzie muttered, setting the phone aside.

Scooting into bed and picking up her embroidery hoop, she listened to the sounds of Tanner cleaning outside. The base of her spine pulsed with pain and her swollen fingers made stitching difficult, yet she kept to the task.

Exhaustion hit her like a two-ton truck a short time after, making her eyelids feel heavy. She'd have to finish the blanket another night. She had time. Joshua wouldn't be born for yet another month.

“Tanner! I'm going to sleep now.”

Whenever one of them turned in early, the other spouse always came in for a hug and kiss. It was a Babin family tradition that Mackenzie was glad to carry on. It made her feel safe and wanted.

Her husband scooted in the door and over to the bed. Taking the blanket, he set it on the bed stand. “Almost done?”

“Just a little more.”

“It's beautiful. He'll love it.”

“I just can't wait to hold him in my arms.”

Tanner rubbed her belly affectionately. “It's all going to be good, baby doll. I promise.”

“I know.”

In his more somber moments, Tanner's appearance took on a more mature look. It was reassuring to see the strong man beneath the boyish liveliness. She believed his words and knew he would do his best to take care of her and Joshua. “Love you,” Mackenzie whispered, her fingers tracing over the small bump she was sure was her child's foot.

“I love you, babe. It's all good. And getting better. Remember that.” Tanner kissed her lips one last time, then her belly. “'Night, Baby Joshua.”

As her eyes fluttered shut, Mackenzie watched Tanner retreat to the bedroom door, turn off the lamp, and quietly close the door. The angel nightlight on her bed stand gave off a warm, peaceful glow as she finally fell asleep feeling loved, protected, and blissfully happy.

It was her last moment of joy before she woke to a world of nightmares.

While she was sleeping peacefully in her bed, her baby's foot slowly withdrew from the press of her fingers as Joshua's little heart ceased to beat.

 

CHAPTER 1

Six Months Later

The crib was empty.

Mackenzie couldn't tear her eyes from the spot where her child should have been playing with his toes and cooing at the Winnie-the-Pooh mobile rotating above his little head. Instead, the mobile was packed in a box along with all the clothes he would never wear, the toys he would never play with, and the soft, yellow baby blanket that he would never snuggle in. The crib and house were as vacant as her hollowed-out heart.

Feeling faint, she gripped the crib rail and clung to it for stability. This was it. The end of everything she had held dear. Today was the day she closed the door on the life she had shared with Tanner. It was time to build a new one alone.

“Mac?” Angie, her sister-in-law, called out. “Are you okay?”

Turning, Mackenzie saw Angie leaning against the doorjamb. Her pink blouse was sticking to her ample chest and full arms though the matching crop pants still looked crisp from ironing. Angie's look was distinctly that of a mom. Mackenzie, meanwhile, was clad in tight jeans, her favorite high-heeled boots, and a pale blue silk T-shirt. Her lightweight navy blue leather jacket was set aside with her purse and keys for the cold weather that would soon be blowing into the area.

Knowing that a truthful answer was not what Angie wanted to hear, Mackenzie mutely nodded.

“The men from Goodwill are here, Mac.”

Mackenzie didn't answer, not sure she could speak quite yet. It was so hard to remove all traces of Joshua from the house that should have been his home. Yet, the house was an empty shell now, devoid of everything that had once given it life. Her son had been born without once taking a breath or opening his eyes. Her husband and all his possessions were in another woman's home now. All that was left was the remnants of her broken dreams.

“I know it's hard, Mac,” Angie said sympathetically after an uncomfortable moment of silence. “But it's time to let go.”

The ludicrousness of her sister-in-law's comment hit her like a bad joke. Mackenzie had no other choice than to let go of her dead child, her empty house, and her soon-to-be ex-husband. There was nothing left to hold on to and keep her in Shreveport. Yet, she couldn't verbalize these morose thoughts. Though she knew Angie sincerely cared about her and was attempting to be supportive, the truth was that Angie could never truly understand what Mackenzie was experiencing. It was a very lonely thought.

With a sigh, she made a point of releasing the rail and stepping away from the crib she'd long ago painted pale blue when the world still seemed perfect and full of hope.

“Are you sure you're okay?” Angie tilted her head, worried.

“I'm trying to be.” It wasn't a lie. After months of surrendering to her grief, she was finally moving forward. It was a daunting endeavor, but she was determined to claw her way out of the black pit of depression she'd fallen into when the doctor had been unable to locate Joshua's heartbeat.

Angie's tawny hair stuck to her neck and cheeks as she shuffled into the room. Behind her were the men who had come to cart away all the objects from Joshua's unlived life. The electricity was disconnected and though it was morning, the air was thick and humid inside the house. Sweat pooled between Mackenzie's breasts and trickled down her back. Angie's skin was beaded with moisture and she fanned herself with one pudgy hand. An early-autumn cold front was about to sweep into Shreveport and Mackenzie couldn't wait for the break in the heat though she dreaded the thought of the storms. She'd never been able to shake her childhood fear of thunder.

“So everything, right?” The big black man with the silvery hair leaned over to pick up several boxes stacked against the wall.

Mackenzie found it hard to speak, so she nodded instead.

The younger of the duo, a tanned boy with lots of shaggy blond hair and freckles, snagged the high chair and a bag of baby clothes. He sauntered out of the room, his head bopping to the music pouring out of his earbuds.

Mackenzie fought the urge to follow and rip the items from his grip. Her eyes were throbbing, but thankfully tears didn't fall. Angie rubbed her back, a consoling gesture that Mackenzie found annoying. It was the same thing Tanner always used to do to calm her. She used to love how tactile the Babin family was with each other, but now she just found it irritating.

The older man stared at the baby items, then studied Mackenzie's expression. She could see him fitting all the pieces together and searching for words to say. At last he opted not to speak at all and picked up several boxes in his burly arms. With a slight nod, he carried his burden out the door. Mackenzie's gaze followed, her heart breaking all over again.

“Maybe you should wait in another room,” Angie suggested.

With a sigh and a nod, Mackenzie acknowledged the wisdom of these words. She walked toward the door, hesitated, then snagged the unfinished yellow baby blanket from the top of a box before escaping to the empty kitchen. It had been foolish to believe she could give up the small thirty by forty inches of fabric that she had poured so much love and time into. That terrible day when she'd realized Joshua hadn't moved in hours and the doctor instructed her to go into the clinic for an ultrasound, she'd left the blanket behind on the bed stand. Tanner had kept reassuring her that Joshua was just a deep sleeper like he was and not to worry. All the way to the clinic, she'd gently poked at the baby bump, willing him to wake up. The ultrasound had confirmed her worst fears and all that followed was a nightmare. She hadn't seen the yellow blanket again until she had returned home with empty arms from the hospital a week later. A fresh rush of tears had spilled when she'd realized that Joshua had traveled to the funeral home wrapped in one of the generic baby blankets from the hospital.

Her notebook sat on the kitchen counter with the lid open. She'd been chatting on a forum for mothers of baby loss when Angie had arrived earlier. To speak with other women who'd experienced stillbirth had been a lifeline in the midst of the disintegration of her marriage, her mother's endless lectures, the painful platitudes people spouted in the face of her grief, and the seemingly endless well of sorrow in her heart and soul. It was the encouragement and sympathy of women that Mackenzie had never met that had helped her finally crawl out of bed and put together the pieces of her shattered world. With a sigh, Mackenzie typed in a quick update, then turned off the computer. Private messages were delivered to her email, so she would be able to check them and respond from her phone. Already this morning there was a slew of messages wishing her a safe trip to Texas.

Shoving the small laptop into its sleeve, she listened to Angie's voice drift through the house. Mackenzie wondered what Angie was saying to the men, but then shrugged it off. It didn't matter. Soon she would be leaving behind the house, the city of Shreveport, and all her memories, both good and bad.

On the counter resting next to Angie's purse was the divorce decree. Angie had been kind enough to bring it over for her final signature. Mackenzie couldn't bear to see Tanner and Darla, his new girlfriend. It was a small world when it came to gossip. It hadn't taken long for Mackenzie to hear about Darla's pregnancy. She would never begrudge a woman the joy of motherhood, but the news had hurt. Tanner had definitely moved on with his life and it was time for her to do the same.

It was just so hard.

Picking up the pen Angie had left on top of the document, Mackenzie lightly touched the little flags marking the spots where she was supposed to sign. If only she could turn back the clock and somehow fix everything that had gone wrong. Failure weighed heavily on her shoulders as she began to scrawl her signature and initials. With each jot of the pen, she hoped that the tight knot inside her gut would vanish, but it didn't. The enormity of the situation crushed her. All her hopes and dreams of a beautiful life with Tanner were abolished bit by bit with each swipe of the pen. When she signed the very last line and dated it, her handwriting was barely legible. Feeling overwhelmed, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. It was a trick her grief counselor had taught her. Gradually, her trembling hands stilled.

The noise of the truck pulling away from the house reached her ears. The finality of the sound brought tears to her eyes. Gruffly, she rubbed her eyelids with the heels of her hands. She was so damn sick of crying.

“Did you sign it?” Angie's voice asked.

Wiping her damp hands on her jeans, Mackenzie nodded. “Yeah. All done. It's over.”

“Mac, I want you to know that you'll always be my sister in my heart.”

The comment was said sweetly, but it didn't hold the weight of sincerity. Mackenzie could hear in Angie's voice that she was tired and ready for Mackenzie to move on. In the last six months Mackenzie had learned a painful truth. Everyone had a limit on how long they'd allow a mother to grieve. The furniture store where she'd been a bookkeeper had the shortest limit. She'd only worked there for less than a year and hadn't been particularly close to her coworkers, for she primarily worked alone in a back office. Physical complications from the birth had eaten her sick and vacation days since her maternity leave had been canceled due to Joshua's death. Losing her job had only added to her feelings of worthlessness.

Tanner had been next. When she'd been unable to shake off her depression, he'd grown weary and distant. And then he was gone. With him followed the support of most of his family, friends, and coworkers, except for Angie. Mackenzie soon realized she hadn't truly built a life with Tanner, but had merely become a part of his. Once he was gone, her world had become a very dark place indeed.

Mackenzie gestured toward the divorce decree. “I wish it hadn't come to this.”

“Once Tanner makes up his mind, you can't change it. I tried to talk him into giving it another shot with you, but…” Angie sighed.

“He met Darla.”

“Yeah.”

Tanner's carefree and almost reckless way of careening through life enabled him to easily move on. As quickly as he fell in love, he also fell out of love.

“I just wish we could go back to the good times. Tanner and I were so happy together.” Mackenzie crossed her arms over her breasts, hugging herself. “Then Joshua died and Tanner just…”

“My brother doesn't deal well with difficult emotional situations. He never has. Tanner likes to be happy and to have fun.”

“I should have tried harder to not be so depressed.” Mackenzie folded the divorce decree and laid it next to Angie's purse. “I let Tanner down.”

Tanner had wept at her side when she'd delivered their dead child and over the tiny little coffin, but after the funeral he had shut off his emotions. Tanner had immediately tried to box up everything in the nursery and sell it. Mackenzie hadn't been able to cope with that change and had fought him. Tanner had wanted her to get pregnant immediately, but she had been too sick physically and frozen with fear to even want to try. When she lay in bed sobbing, he had gotten up and slept on the sofa. If she was honest with herself, Tanner had emotionally abandoned her almost immediately. Yet, she couldn't help but feel it was her fault. Her grief had driven him away.

“I love you, Mackenzie, but my brother can't be the man you need him to be. You need to wise up and see that truth, honey. I know he's hurting in his own way, but he can't deal with what you're going through. That's why he left you. I know it sounds like I'm making excuses for him, and maybe I am, but in my heart I know the divorce is better for both of you.”

It was difficult for Mackenzie to accept that Angie was right. “I just don't know how this all happened.” Mackenzie knew she sounded like a broken record, but couldn't stop herself. “We were so happy and everything was perfect and then Joshua just died. How can the doctors not be able to tell me why he died? All those tests and no answers.”

“Sometimes babies just die, Mac. Joshua's little heart just stopped and we don't know why. Like Pastor Lufkin said, maybe Jesus just wanted another angel in heaven.”

“Then I wish Jesus would have made another damn angel instead of killing my baby,” Mackenzie snapped.

Immediately Mackenzie feared she had insulted her only remaining supporter in Shreveport. Maybe she should have tried harder to hide her pain, but it was so hard to maneuver through a life that should have contained her child. Even her body had been a constant reminder of her pregnancy. She had leaked milk for quite some time and her stomach was a road map of stretch marks from her baby bump. Yet, there was no baby to feed, or to hold.

“Now that you say that, I can see how that sounds wrong,” Angie said finally. “It really, really does sound just wrong.”

“Sometimes I feel like people don't want me to mourn. That they want me to act like everything is just peachy keen.”

“People just don't like the idea of dead babies,” Angie replied. “They don't like talking about it
all
the time.”

Mackenzie pressed her lips together to prevent saying something she'd regret. What Angie didn't understand is that people didn't want her to talk about her dead son at all. It was as if they just wanted to pretend he had never existed.

“Your mama will be real happy to see you, I'm sure,” Angie said, attempting to change the subject.

Everyone
always
wanted to change the subject.

“Mom is determined to get me back on the road to health and happiness. I'm sure by the time I get home she'll have a schedule ready for me. A list of do's and don'ts. And plenty of barbed comments.”

“Your mama loves you. I'm sure she just wants to help you start a new life.”

“I suppose. I don't know. I just have nowhere else to go.” Mackenzie was out of a job, nearly out of money, and had lost the circle of friends that had really been Tanner's and had only been hers by default.

“Who knows,” Angie said with a sly smile, “maybe you'll meet some handsome cowboy back in Kerrville.”

Forcing a smile, Mackenzie said, “I'm sure my mother is hoping for the same.”

“Oh, before I forget.” Angie reached into her big purse and pulled out an envelope.

Mackenzie flinched.

“I'm sorry, hon, but he doesn't want them.”

Holding out her hand, Mackenzie reclaimed the photos she'd sent Tanner. After Joshua died, labor had been induced. It took nearly twenty hours to finally deliver him. Later, a nurse brought Joshua into her hospital room so she and Tanner could spend a few precious hours saying goodbye to their son. A volunteer photographer had arrived and taken photos of them holding Joshua. Joshua was so perfect Mackenzie irrationally hoped he'd awaken. Though she had been warned decomposition would become evident because Joshua was so tiny, it had been difficult to watch his tiny lips gradually darken. It was only after his lips turned black that she fully accepted he would not miraculously awaken.

Weeks later, she received beautiful black-and-white photos in the mail. The images had been touched up to remove the unseemly aspects of stillbirth such as the tears in Joshua's delicate skin and his blackened lips. After Tanner had filed for divorce, per her request, the photographer had been kind enough to send her a second set. Now Tanner had returned the only photos of their son, another clear indication of him moving on.

“Did you want a photo of Joshua?” Mackenzie dared to ask though she knew the answer.

“I have him in my heart,” Angie said diplomatically.

Mackenzie hesitated, then nodded. “I had better be going. I have a long drive.”

“It'll all work out. You'll see,” Angie said, her smile a little forced.

Mackenzie collected the yellow blanket and her laptop before striding through the archway connecting the kitchen to the dining room and over to the built-in bookcase where she always kept her purse, keys, and sunglasses. She'd bought the huge Betsey Johnson tote with the intention of using it as a diaper bag, but now she used it as a purse. It was black and white striped with a big heart with ruffles and studs. After tucking the rolled-up blanket and laptop inside, she pulled out a small leather journal. It contained the lists that now ruled her life. When she'd been in her darkest, deepest despair, it was making a short list that had helped her start to claw her way out.

It had contained five lines:

1. Get out of bed.

2. Take a shower.

3. Get dressed.

4. Eat.

5. Don't go back to bed.

The fifth entry had forced her to write yet another list to keep her from retreating to bed. That first list had been her first rung on a ladder back to life. Being a bookkeeper by trade, Mackenzie liked organization. The lists had brought order into the chaos that had destroyed her life.

With the pen she kept hooked to the cover, Mackenzie crossed out two lines: “Goodwill” and “sign divorce decree.”

Angie stepped into the dining room, waiting. “Do you have a list for when you get home?”

“Oh, yeah. It's a long one.” Mackenzie flicked the bright blue tab attached to that list. She was almost finished with the journal. Each page contained a crossed-off list. It would be nice one day to not depend so heavily on it.

“Add that handsome cowboy to it.” Angie gave her the famous Babin grin.

Angie's desperation for her to move on was both reassuring and exasperating. Mackenzie stored away the journal and collected her things for the last time. It took all her willpower not to prowl through the empty house one more time. It was fruitless to do so. This life was over. Another waited in Texas. Taking a deep breath, she strolled out of the house, Angie close on her heels. The screen door banged shut behind them.

The symbols of her broken marriage were all around her: the
FOR LEASE
sign on the lawn, her old car filled with her possessions, the empty house behind her.

Time to let go.

“You are such a good person, Mac. One of the nicest, sweetest people I know,” Angie said as she trailed behind her to the old Ford Taurus sitting in the carport. “Life just … Sometimes things just don't work out the way you think they should.” Angie made a face. “Why is it that everything I say to you sounds like the wrong thing?”

With a sad smile, Mackenzie enfolded Angie in her arms. “You always try to say the right things. I appreciate it.”

“But it doesn't really help, does it?” Angie asked sadly, patting her back.

“It does help,” Mackenzie lied. “Thank you for everything, Angie.”

She drew away and handed Angie the house keys. One more thing off her list. Tanner would be the one to turn them in to the landlord. The lease had been under his name and he had been kind enough to let her stay until it ran out. At least he had been decent in that regard.

As Mackenzie unlocked her car door, she caught sight of her reflection. Dark chestnut hair framed a face that was a little too thin from not eating. For once her blue eyes weren't rimmed with red from crying. Her lips were dry and chapped. When nervous, she licked her lips repetitively. Pressing them together, she tried not to swipe her tongue over them again. She opened the car door, tossed the purse across to the passenger seat, and donned her sunglasses.

“Mac, you be careful on the road. That storm coming in is awful fierce. Will you go see Joshua?”

Mackenzie nodded as she slid behind the steering wheel. It was hard not to look at the house and yearn for better times. She felt as though she was trapped in a whirlwind and it was taking all her strength to not fly apart.

“I'll take him flowers every month like I promised. I'll always tell him they're from you.”

“I appreciate it.” Turning on the ignition, Mackenzie forced a smile onto her lips. “I'll call you when I reach Kerrville.”

“I love you, girl! You'll always be my sister!” Angie leaned in to kiss her quickly on the cheek.

“And you'll always be mine,” Mackenzie promised even though she knew they would drift apart.

She pulled the car door closed and shifted into reverse. As the Taurus rolled down the driveway, Mackenzie returned Angie's wave. The house with its pretty blue trim and big windows already felt like a distant dream.

 

CHAPTER 2

“Are you okay?”

It was a question Mackenzie was asked often nowadays. Sitting in her parked car with the phone to her ear while staring at the cemetery, she wondered if she could ever give a truthful positive answer. She hoped so.

“Mac?” Erin's voice asked worriedly. She'd called to make sure Mackenzie was emotionally in a good space before her long journey back to Kerrville. It was a sweet gesture, but not unexpected. Her best friend had made a great effort to provide long-distance comfort during Mackenzie's mourning.

“No, not fine. Not yet. I will be though.”

“That's the spirit! One step at a time. I know you can do it. You're stronger than you think you are. Don't listen to your mother's nagging. Just keep to your list.”

In the background, Erin's baby was making slurping noises. Mackenzie smiled, delighted with the sound of Samantha's cooing despite the slight sting it brought to her heart. The friends had been thrilled to find out they were pregnant at the same time. Erin's daughter had been due a little after Joshua. They'd joked about arranging a marriage between the infants while sharing the ups and downs of pregnancy through phone calls, text messages, and long emails. It had been fun being on the journey together, but Erin finished the final leg alone.