Storm Warning

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Conversations To Be Had

AT RAYNA’S…

Expecting to see Rayna, Deacon was surprised when he rang the doorbell and the door was opened a few moments later by Maddie instead. “Oh Deacon! Hey,” she greeted him with a wide smile. “I didn’t know you were coming over. Are you here to see Mom?” she asked, holding the door open for him, still dressed in her pajamas.

He nodded as he stepped inside. “Yeah, sweetie, I am. Is she around?” he asked as he glanced around for Rayna.

She nodded. “Yep,” she answered, in true teenage fashion. “She’s in the study with Bucky and some people from the label talking about market research analysis…or something boring like that,” she said with a grin. “They’ve been in there for hours. Did you want me to go let Mom know you’re here?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Nah, that’s okay. I’ll just wait ‘til she’s done. I’m sure they’ll have to stop soon. Mind if I hang out with you a bit then while I wait?” he asked amiably. At her easy and full smile, his heart swelled and warmed with love. “I know we already had a lesson this week, but if you want to go grab your guitar, I’ve got mine in the truck and we can play a bit. I’ve got a new song or two that I’d love to get your opinion on and that could still use some tweaking…if you’re interested,” he suggested.

Her eyes went wide with unbridled excitement. “Really?” she asked.

He nodded, then shrugged with mock indifference. “Well yeah…if you’re not busy. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your Saturday morning or anything…I remember when I was your age and I’d—“ he stopped and chuckled as she shrieked excitedly and whirled on her heels, running off to get her guitar. “And I’ll take that as a yes,” he said out loud to himself, grinning as he headed for the door.

Just as he’d expected, by the time he’d gone out to his truck to get his own guitar and returned, Maddie was already seated, ready and waiting for him on the sofa in the family room, fingers poised and guitar in her lap. And the biggest grin on her sweet face that just made him melt with happiness. As he settled himself across from her on the matching loveseat, he shrugged a shoulder towards the direction of the back stairs that ran directly across from the room they were in. “Miss Daphne didn’t want to join us?” he asked as he pulled his guitar out of its case and adjusted the fret.

Maddie smiled and shook her head. “She had a sleepover at a friend’s. She won’t be back ‘til tomorrow night,” she explained. “I stayed at Talia’s last night and would’ve stayed tonight, too…but her Dad got called into the hospital for a surgery so yeah…” she said, nodding.

“That sucks,” he finished for her, grinning when she grinned. “So it’s just you and your mom tonight then, I guess, huh? That should be fun, right? Some one-on-one time with your Mama.”

She nodded, rolling her eyes. “Oh jeez, don’t remind me,” she said with a groan.

Deacon laughed. “What? Spending time with your Mama can’t be that bad,” he reasoned.

She gave him that raised-brow look. “Wanna bet? Mom’s idea of fun is ordering a movie and eating popcorn in our PJ’s...” she said with a grimace.

“What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “Isn’t that what all you girls like to do? Watch those girly movies and giggle all night…” he stopped when he saw the look on her face—like he’d gone crazy. “No?”

She shook her head, holding up a hand for emphasis. “Um…no way…that’s like way more Daphne’s age-group…and I hate chick-flicks,” she said with a shudder. “But Mom gets creeped out by the scary movies I like, so that’s pretty much all we can ever watch,” she said with a scowl, then a shrug. Deacon only laughed, knowing full well about Rayna’s aversion to horror films. “I’ll probably just do some writing anyhow. Nothing too exciting,” she said as she adjusted her own fret to where he had adjusted his. “How about you? What are your plans for tonight? Taking Megan out dancing at a cool nightclub or something?” she asked with a mischievous, interested smile.

He managed to shake off the involuntarily wince at the mention of Megan’s name and gave Maddie a narrowed, mock scolding look. “No, no I’m not…and just what do you know about “cool nightclubs” missy?” he asked, switching the focus deliberately.

She laughed and rolled her eyes. “Oh Please, Deacon, I’m not a little kid anymore, you know,” she reminded him.

He pouted a little, nodding and hanging his head sadly. “I know…believe me, I know. But try not to be in such a hurry to grow up on me, alright? Trust me, darlin’…it’s not nearly as exciting out there as you think it is,” he said.

She nodded patiently. “No worries. I’m good with fourteen. Fourteen’s complicated enough,” she said with a part-grimace, part-smile.

He was briefly tempted to inquire a little further into the statement and ask her why that was, but decided matters such as those were better left to the expert…as in Rayna. He had no business giving life advice to anyone…let alone a fourteen-year-old girl who’d only just recently begun to view him as a father figure. “Right,” he said noncommittally. “Well…” he glanced down at his guitar. “How about that new song I was telling you about? It’s called “Like New”. Want to hear it?” he asked.

She grinned wide. “Heck yeah,” she said, her eyes intent on his guitar as he started strumming, watching so she could learn and imitate what he played.

It’d take about a million midnights

And a good long whiskey rain

It’s gonna take a hurricane

A sky so blue

And I’ll be just like new

It might take every inch of Texas

And the dark side of the moon

I’m gonna find a place I ain’t missing you

And I’ll be just like new

When the sun stops shining

When the liars quit lying

When I finally face the truth

I’ll be pushing up roses

When I start getting over you

And I’ll be just like new

I’m praying for a tree to grow a dollar

I’m hoping for a cold California summer

I’m wishing for a heart that ain’t broken in two

And I’ll be just like new

When the sun stops shining

When the liars quit lying

When I finally face the truth

I’ll be pushing up roses

When I start getting over you

And I’ll be just like new


“And the chorus again…” Deacon instructed, nodding as he continued strumming the final chorus. “Just like new…” Maddie’s voice harmonized at the end. His grin was wide as he finished. He was teeming with pride as he watched Maddie’s own face break out into a shy smile. She’d caught on to the chord and joined in on her own at the last verse and then sang the chorus with him, adding the one-line riff at the end that had rounded out the song perfectly. “Wow,” he said as he clipped his pick and placed a palm over the strings to mute the reverberating sound of the instrument. “That was better than I imagined it. Think your Mama will let you come out on tour with me and sing harmony?” he asked, teasing but sincere about her talent.

She laughed. “I wish…but seriously wow, Deacon, that was such a great song,” she complimented him. “The melody was so much more rock and roll than your usual music. I love it,” she said, smiling and nodding.

“Thank you. And yeah?” he asked, smiling at the enthusiastic review. “Better than “A Life That’s Good” you think?” he asked, teasing again. He knew she was partial to that song.

She laughed and crinkled her nose, thinking. “Um…” she laughed again. “I don’t know. I like them both,” she answered. “ ‘A Life That’s Good’ is just so different though. More…soulful. I guess that’s probably ‘cause you wrote it for Mom…or about her, right?”

He smiled, nodding. “Yeah. Probably. It’s a good old song,” he agreed, recalling not for the first time the night he’d written it on a napkin, sitting at the bar at the Bluebird Café while he listened to Rayna perform on the stage. He remembered she’d sounded like an angel and the words had seemed to just flow from the pen….as if the ink had had a line to his heart. When he’d looked up, blue smudges on his fingers, his eyes had met and held Rayna’s from across the room and she’d smiled. He’d fallen a little bit in love with her at that moment, he realized. He smiled at the memory.

“You know, when I asked Mom about A Life That’s Good, she said you wrote it on a napkin at the Bluebird when she was playing at an open mike one night…that she fell in love with you in all of like ten minutes or something like that,” Maddie said, a sweet smile on her face. “Is that true?” she asked.

His breath hitched at how close her trail of thought was to his own and he swallowed hard, clearing his throat as he shifted the guitar in his lap. “Yeah um…I did do that. Your Mama’s singing just inspired me to write, I guess,” he said. “She sounded like an angel,” he told her softly, smiling.

Maddie smiled. “That’s so romantic. Is ‘Like New’ about her, too?” she asked, eyes bright.

Deacon’s eyes widened and he was silent for a moment, a little surprised by the question—or where it came from, to be precise. He wasn’t going to lie…it was a little uncomfortable talking to his daughter about her Mama, especially with the omnipresent wave of emotions and feelings he had running through him about Rayna right then. He cleared his throat again, the sound awkward. “Um, yeah…in a way, I guess it is. Why do you ask?”

Maddie shrugged. “I don’t know. I just…talking about A Life That’s Good…it kinda makes me wonder whatever happened with you guys, you know? I mean…I know you two aren’t together, but clearly you still care about Mom if you’re still writing songs about her and all and I just…” her voice trailed off as she looked away, slightly embarrassed. “Never mind, it’s stupid, forget I asked…” she said, her tone sheepish.


Rayna, who’d been listening unnoticed to the conversation from the doorway, shivered a little from the unspoken tension she felt radiating off of Deacon as he sat across from Maddie. After Bucky and the others had wrapped things up for the label, she’d gone off in search of Maddie to ask who had been at the door. She’d been on her way up the back stairs, headed for Maddie’s bedroom, when she heard the sound of a guitar strumming from the family room and then the familiar sound of Deacon’s voice as he began singing. Quietly, she’d retreated down the stairs and went to listen from the doorway of the room, smiling as Maddie joined in on the chorus, playing and singing. Her heart had fluttered in her chest as they’d started talking about A Life That’s Good. She’d almost laughed out loud at the look on Deacon’s face when Maddie if the new song was about her as well. Instead, she smiled at how comfortable Maddie was getting in Deacon’s presence…and how well they were getting on. It warmed her heart in ways she couldn’t describe, seeing them together…playing and singing together, talking. They’d come so far in the months since the accident and Maddie learning that Deacon was her biological father. That someone or something could jeopardize that was just one reason, of so many, why this whole plea blackmail situation with Luke infuriated her to no end.

Saving Maddie and Deacon from the awkward silence that was lingering, she stepped into the room, announcing her presence. “Well there you are sweet girl…” she said, crossing over to them. “Hey Deacon,” she acknowledged as he stood in surprise. She stopped at the sofa and leaned her hip into the armrest. “I wondered who was at the door. What are you guys up to?” she asked, acting as if she hadn’t been eavesdropping and already knew.

Maddie popped up as well, gesturing towards Deacon and smiling, the awkwardness still a little there. “Oh hey Mom, Deacon’s here,” she said.

Rayna smiled, as did Deacon. “I can see that, sweetie,” Rayna replied with a laugh. “What are you guys playing?” she asked, gesturing towards Maddie’s guitar that had once been Rayna’s from her own mother.

“One of Deacon’s new songs. It’s called “Like New” and it’s really good, Mom. Deacon, you should play it for her. It really is so good, Mom,” Maddie suggested and commented happily, her mouth going a mile a minute.

Rayna laughed again. “I’m sure it is, sweetheart and I’d love to hear it…but right now, someone’s got a soccer scrimmage to get ready for and get to…” she said, grinning as Maddie’s eyes flew to the large clock on the wall and she shrieked something about being late before hastily excusing herself to Deacon and running out of the room. Rayna turned and shared a laugh with Deacon at Maddie’s none-too-graceful exit before reaching down and grabbing the guitar Maddie had tossed on the sofa cushion in her hasty exit. She picking it up and walked over to put it in the guitar stand that stood in a corner of the room by the wall. She trailed a finger down the smooth wood, smiling as she remembered her Mama for a moment. “That girl has a one track mind when she’s got this guitar in her lap, I swear,” she said, smiling as she turned and walked back towards Deacon. “Reminds me of myself when I was her age…well, minus the guitar,” she said, sharing a chuckle with him.

He nodded. “Yeah…she’s something else. Kinda like her Mama. So, how much of that did you hear?” he asked with a knowing smirk.

She crinkled her nose, smiling. “Um well…that was a pretty great song,” she said in answer, laughing when he groaned and then laughed himself, a little embarrassed that she’d heard that last part of his and Maddie’s conversation.

“Yeah thanks…I figured…” he smiled at her. “It’s good to hear you laugh, Ray,” he said, reaching out and touching her arm. “It’s been too long since you have,” he said.

Her gaze dropped and she nodding. “Yeah, well…need a reason to do that and as you know, I haven’t had much of one lately,” she said, the smile fading. She swallowed hard and looked up. “I take it that’s why you stopped in…to finish last night’s conversation?”

He tightened his lips, nodding. “Among other ones,” he admitted, referring to the whole Megan fiasco that he really wanted to discuss with her. He stepped forward and placed his hands on her upper arms when she crossed her arms across her chest, recognizing her trying to put up that guard of hers again. He stooped down so that he was eye level with her and gave her a pleading look. “Ray…don’t take the deal,” he said, his gaze imploring.

She sighed and tried to step out of his embrace, but he held firm. “Deacon…this really isn’t the time for this discussion,” she said. “Maddie will be down here any second and I think you can agree that she doesn’t need to know about any of this,” she said, her own voice pleading as her eyes kept a perceptive watch in the direction of the stairs through the doorway behind Deacon.

He sighed and nodded, but lingered a moment before dropping his hands. “You’re right, sorry. Fine. Tomorrow afternoon, by the bridge then,” he said. “I want your word that we’ll talk about this before you go to see Jensen on Monday,” he said, letting his hands slide down her arms to encircle her wrists. “Promise me, Ray,” he said, squeezing her tiny wrists firmly when gave no reply.

She scowled at him, then sighed. “Fine,” she answered, relenting. “Tomorrow by the bridge. I’ll see if Tandy can watch the girls and I’ll text you a time that works in the morning. Satisfied?” she asked.

He let go of her wrists and shook his head, raising a hand to push a runaway strand of her hair that had fallen out from her messy ponytail and tuck it behind her hair. His finger lingered an extra moment, tracing her cheek bone as he shook his head. “No, Ray…not at all. But that’s a whole other conversation,” he added, his eyes darkening as his gaze dropped to her mouth. When her lips parted on a little gasp of surprise caused by the sudden shift of heat that she saw in his eyes, he leaned forward…only to stop and pull back quickly at the sound of a pair of cleated feet running down the stairs at half of a clip. “Later,” he said as he stepped away from Rayna and turned around.

“I’m ready!” Maddie announced as she practically came skidding into the room, dressed to the nines in her soccer turnout and gear, her soccer ball under her arm. “Hey Deacon, sorry I totally forgot about my scrimmage. Actually, you should come you know. You and Mom can talk there if you want. I mean, it’s just a scrimmage so it’s no big deal. It’s more like a practice session than an actual game so it’s not important if you watch the whole thing,” she explained hurriedly.

Deacon was on the verge of accepting the invitation when he tossed a glance back in Rayna’s direction. Seeing the darting look in her eyes and the way she bit down nervously on her lip, he could tell she needed a bit of space from him right then. He could use a bit of his own, for that matter…especially after the unexpected and slightly heated little conversation segue they’d just exchanged moments earlier. Biting his lip, he turned back to Maddie and shook his head. “Actually darlin’, I just remembered I was supposed to meet Gunnar down at the studio in a bit, but I’d love a rain check. Tell you what, you just let me know the time and place of your next game, and I’ll be there. How’s that sound?” he asked.

She grinned, nodding. “That’d be awesome,” she said, then ducked forward to give him a parting hug. “Thanks for stopping by and playing your new song for me. I loved it!”

He hugged her with one arm, chuckling. “Right. All time second favorite…” he teased. “I’m just kidding. Thank you for the awesome review. Good luck with your scrimmage. Knock ‘em out, darlin’,” he told her, smiling down at her.

She laughed. “It’s just a scrimmage, Deacon,” she reminded him, but he saw the way her eyes lit when he wished her good luck. She looked behind him. “You coming, Mom?” she asked impatiently.

Rayna nodded as she stepped forward. “Right behind you, Maddie. You go get in the car and I’ll swing by the kitchen and grab your water bottle out of the fridge that I’m guessing you didn’t grab yet,” she said with a knowing smile.

Maddie laughed. “Oops, yup. Thanks Mom, you’re the best,” she called out as she told Deacon goodbye, then turned and hurried out of the room, her ponytail bouncing back and forth as she went.

Deacon shot a look at Rayna. “Yeah Mom, you’re the best,” Deacon mimicked.

Rayna smirked and rolled her eyes. “Oh shut it and get going,” she said, lightly pushing him forward towards the doorway, laughing softly…


LATER THAT NIGHT…

Rayna stood in the doorway of Maddie’s open bedroom door, smiling as she watched Maddie. Maddie, who was sitting cross-legged on her bed with her guitar in her lap, nibbling on the end of the pen in her hand as she stared thoughtfully down at the open notebook beside her. She glanced down at the big bowl of freshly-made popcorn tucked under her arm and contemplated interrupting her since Maddie was obviously in the middle of writing something. And Rayna, knowing full well herself what it was like, didn’t want to get in the way of the creative process. She was about to turn and leave her to it when Maddie glanced up and spotted her, smiling. “Oh hey, Mom,” she acknowledged. “You can come in if you want,” she offered, eyeing the bowl of popcorn with great interest.

Rayna started forward, then stopped. “Are you sure, ‘cause you look kind of busy writing and I wouldn’t want to interrupt. I can just skedaddle if you say so and—“

“Mom, it’s fine,” Maddie insisted, putting down the guitar and closing the notebook. “I was going to take a break anyhow,” she said as she cleared a spot on the bed for Rayna.

Rayna smiled as she continued forward and climbed onto the bed, sitting cross-legged, same as Maddie. “Good, ‘cause I thought you might like a snack,” she said, offering Maddie the bowl.

“No salt, extra butter?” she asked, blinking her lashes hopefully.

Rayna laughed as she grabbed a handful of kernels of her own to snack on, nodding. “Of course! Is there any other kind?” she grinned.

“Sweet!” Maddie replied, delving in.

As they snacked, Rayna gestured towards the now closed notebook and the guitar. “So how’s the writing going, or should I not ask?” she asked.

Maddie nibbled on a kernel, shrugged. “It’s going. I just wish I could write as well as I do when I’m playing with Deacon. He just makes it so easy,” she said.

Rayna chuckled, nodding. “Yeah…he does have a way about him when it comes to writing music,” she agreed.

Maddie nodded and tipped her head, looking at Rayna thoughtfully. “Do you ever miss it?” she asked. “Writing with Deacon, I mean?” she asked.

Rayna lifted a brow in surprise, but recovered quickly. She paused for a moment, considering how to respond, then sighed and went with what felt natural. She nodded, shrugging slightly. “Yeah…sometimes, I do. Yeah.”

“Then why’d you stop?” Maddie asked, unrelenting in her quest for information and answers.

“Well,” Rayna began slowly. “It’s complicated, sweetie. I mean, we did a lot of the writing that we did when we were dating, obviously. And when we stopped dating well…things came up. Life got in the way. I was with your dad and we had you and your sister to worry about, not songwriting.”

“And now?” Maddie asked.

Rayna sighed. “Well, now…you know that now I’m busy with the new label and everything. And Deacon—he’s busy, too with his life and it’s…it’s hard to find time just to write, sweetie,” she said, pursing her lips together and hoping that would be enough for Maddie. But she knew her daughter and of course, it wasn’t.

“Yeah, but if you really wanted to, you could find the time,” she said, insistent. “If you wanted to.”

Rayna drew her brows in as she shifted and looked directly at Maddie. “Maddie, what’s this really about?” she asked, sensing something brewing beneath the surface in her girl.

Maddie shrugged. “I-I don’t know. I just—playing with Deacon was a lot of fun today and I don’t know, I think it’d be great if he was here more, that’s all. Not just to play guitar, but for other stuff, too. Like Dad stuff,” she said quietly.

Rayna bit her lip and reached out to take Maddie’s hand. “Oh sweetie, I know this whole situation is hard to get used to…that’s it complicated for you. But it’ll get better…we’ll make it better,” she promised.

Maddie shook her head. “It’s not that…okay it’s partly that yeah, but it’s not just that. I mean, don’t you miss it? Don’t you miss him?” Maddie asked, direct. “You’re not with Luke anymore and Deacon’s so nice. I know he’s with Megan and everything but well…he still writes songs about you, so he obviously still cares about you,” she pointed out. She hastily mumbled something under her breath that Rayna couldn’t make out. “You guys should be together, like you were before I screwed everything up and he got drunk and you guys got into that stupid accident,” tumbled out moments later.

Rayna inhaled sharply at the words and the brimming tears she saw in Maddie’s eyes before she quickly looked down at her lap. Suddenly something so innocent had turned into so much more and Rayna was at a loss. Confusion coursed through her as she put her hand under Maddie’s chin to lift her face to look at her. “Oh sweet baby girl, what are you talking about?” Rayna asked, searching Maddie’s hurting gaze.

“It’s my fault,” she cried, biting her lip when a stubborn tear fell down her cheek. “Don’t tell me it’s not because I know it is, Mom,” she argued when Rayna opened her mouth to do just that. “If I hadn’t found that letter about the paternity test and Daddy not being my real dad and gone to Deacon—none of that stuff would have ever happened. Deacon wouldn’t have gotten so upset and started drinking again…the accident wouldn’t happen…you guys would still be together…” she cried. “I’m sorry I screwed it up,” she said, her voice breaking on a sob.

At the sound, Rayna’s heart broke with it. “Oh c’mere baby, no…” she cried as she pulled Maddie into her arms to comfort her. Pain coursed through her as her little girl wept, realizing that Maddie blamed herself for Deacon and her splitting up. She hadn’t even considered that Maddie would feel she was to blame and knowing that it was a pain Maddie had obviously been harboring in secret on her own for months killed her. That Rayna had been completely obvious made it even worse. Suddenly so much made sense. Like the closed-off way Maddie had responded to her after the accident. Rayna had accepted the anger, understood it even. But there had been something else that she hadn’t been able to quite put her finger on at the time, that she now knew was Maddie’s guilt towards a domino effect she believed she’d caused. Rayna struggled to find the words to make it right, to ease Maddie’s pain.

“Maddie, sweetheart, listen to me,” she cajoled as she held Maddie tight to her. “None of this is your fault, okay? None of it. With Deacon and I—it’s always been complicated,” she said. “Always. You didn’t cause anything to happen. We made a decision to do what was best for us both…and that unfortunately happened to be that we needed to be apart. It wasn’t anything you did or even the accident…it was just…complicated, that’s all, sweetheart,” she repeated, honestly. She knew it wasn’t much of an answer, but it was the truth. Granted, the accident had changed things and opened her eyes to a lot…but it wasn’t just the accident that made her walk away from Deacon that night at their accident site. There had been so many other factors that had played in as well. All of which that had seemed so right and had seemed to make such sense at the time, she mused. Now…and not for the first time in the months since the accident…she wasn’t so sure about that decision…or many that had followed…



CHAPTER TWENTY: “SINS OF THE PARENTS”

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON…

Deacon looked up from where he was perched on an outcropping rock wall in the park that had long ago become his and Rayna’s go-to spot for privacy. He heard Rayna’s truck pull up and park behind his on the overlooking rock bridge. He watched her movements as she got out of the car and started down the worn path that led from the bridge to where he waited, sensing her hesitation immediately in her uncharacteristically short-legged stride, as if she were trying to put off the inevitable for as long as she possibly could. Which he knew she was.

“Hey,” she acknowledged with a nod of her head as she approached, taking a seat next to him on the rock wall with a heavy sigh.

He turned and glanced over at her as she slipped her sunglasses on top of her head, rubbing her eyes. He could see that she was pale and if the dark smudges beneath her eyes were any indication, she apparently hadn’t gotten much rest the night before. “Girls’ night get a little rough?” he asked. The smile on his lips faded when he caught the slight waver in her chin and trembling of her lips before she quickly looked down in her jean-clad lap. “Wh-whoa,” he said as he cupped her chin with the lightest touch of his fingers and lifted it, turning her face to look at him. When she lifted her lashes, he saw the tear-filled blue orbs and knew instantly that something was wrong. Every instinct in him went on alert and he raised his other hand to cup the other side of her face. “Ray—Jesus Rayna, what is it?” he asked, eyes questioning.

She bit down on her full lower lip that still trembled with emotion and shook her head. “I-It’s…I didn’t sleep much last night,” was what she offered in explanation.

He narrowed his eyes, searching hers. “Because of today? Look Ray, if you don’t want to talk about this, I’m not going to force you. I mean, hell—the last thing I want to do is cause you any more grief over this. I just wanted to—“

He stopped when she shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s not that Deacon…it’s…it’s Maddie,” she said. At his wide-eyed, questioning look, she began to explain. “We were talking last night about writing songs and she started asking me all these questions about you. Us. Why we didn’t write together anymore…why we aren’t together…and then out of nowhere she just broke down. It was…God, it was horrible.” She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers to try and stem the tears she knew were coming. “She thinks it’s her fault, Deacon,” she continued, her voice rough with emotion and gritty with her unspent tears. “You drinking after the CMA’s, the accident…us splitting up…she blames herself for all of it. She’s convinced that if she hadn’t gone through my things and found that paternity letter saying Teddy wasn’t her biological father and confronted you with it, then everything would be the same. That you and I would still be together…that we’d all be a family or something…” she shook her head, her words trailing.

He took a sharp breath, shame and guilt tearing through him. “Oh jeez…” he shook his head. “Ray—I’m sorry. This is—it’s my fault. It was that song yesterday, my new one I played for her. She started asking me all these questions about you and me and if the song was about you and…damn it, I should have known something was up. I’m sorry, Ray. I should have said something to you…I should have seen that there was more to it…” he apologized, mentally berating himself for not seeing it.

She shook her head. “It’s not your fault, Deacon. You couldn’t have known that it was anything more than her asking questions,” she said in an instinctive attempt to alleviate his guilt. “But me—I should have. I’m her mother. I see her—I should have seen it. I mean, I-I did. I thought I did. I knew she was upset and that she was angry but—“ she shook her head, still in disbelief. “I never thought for a second that she’d think it was her fault. I can live with her blaming me…even hating me. But the thought of her blaming herself—of her hurting at all over this—God, Deacon—it’s tearing me apart,” she cried.

He muttered a harsh curse under his breath as he watched the tears spill over and fall down her cheeks. Unable to shake off that familiar helplessness that always crept in at the sight of Rayna’s tears, he slid his arm behind her shoulder and pulled her towards him, holding her against his chest as she cried. He smoothed her hair with his hand as he whispered soothingly to her. “It’s okay, Ray. She’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay, I promise. We’ll just talk to her and explain—“

She pulled back at that, lifting her head to meet his gaze. “Explain? How are we going to explain all of this to her, Deacon? What are we supposed to say?” she asked, her tone a little accusing.

He sighed, running a hand anxiously through his hair. “I don’t know, Ray. Hell, I’m no good at this…sort of thing…obviously. But I’m trying though…and I-I feel like I know Maddie so much better now from all the time we’ve spent together in these past few months. She’s a sweet, bright girl. And perceptive as hell, Rayna. In fact, she’s a lot like you. She feels everything, but only lets a little bit show,” he said, his tone softening. “Like with her songwriting when she’s having her lessons—I just assumed all those emotions boiling under the surface in those melodies were well…teenage angst and stuff, you know? But now that I know that it’s not…” He shook his head and cleared his throat, catching a bit on his emotion. “When I put it all together and knowing Maddie as I do now…I honestly think she just wants to hear the truth, Rayna. As much as it kills me to say it, she’s not a little kid. She’s smart and intuitive and clearly is sensing that there’s more to the story than what she knows right now. She has questions that honestly, I mean, you can’t blame her for having. So I think—I just feel like if we sit her down and try to answer some of those questions—maybe it’ll help ease some of this anxiety she’s feeling, you know? I think it’s our only option, Ray,” he pointed out.

She stood up, shaking her head as she brought a shaking hand to cover her mouth. “I-I don’t think I can do that, Deacon. I don’t—“ she shook her head more forcefully as she turned her back to him. He could see her shoulders slump and shake and he stood, turning her to face him and lifting her chin so that she’d look him in the eyes.

“Ray—what’s wrong? What are you so afraid of?” he asked softly.

A lone tear slid down her face. “Everything,” she whispered on a broken sob. “How am I going to answer questions that I don’t even have the answers to myself, Deacon? She’s going to want to know why I didn’t tell you that she was yours. What am I supposed to tell her? That I was so weak-willed that I allowed myself to be manipulated by my sister and Teddy and Coleman…that I was scared and too much of a coward to tell you the truth after you got sober…that I was selfish and didn’t want to lose you all these years even if it was just as a friend?” She looked away. “Will it even make a difference why I did it, Deacon? All she’s going to see is that I lied to her for her entire life and kept her from knowing her real father…from knowing you. I took those 13 years…from both of you. And now—because of me—she could lose you all over again.”

“Ray…” he started to interject, reaching for her when she pulled away. She evaded him, stepping just out of reach.

“D-Don’t,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t try and talk me out of it, Deacon. I’ve already made my decision. I’m dropping the charges,” she said, exhaling deeply.

He stepped forward. “No, Rayna, listen to me…” he insisted, shaking his head.

She held up her hand, holding him off. “No, Deacon. I’m done listening. I’m sick and tired of having no control over what happens in my life and with people telling me what’s right for me. Do I want Luke to pay for what he did? Of course, I do. But not at the expense of your freedom, Deacon. It’s not worth it. He’s not worth it. But you are. More importantly, your relationship with our daughter is. And I won’t risk that. Not for him. I won’t give him the satisfaction of taking you away from her,” she said firmly.

“So that’s it, Ray? He just gets away with what he did to you? With hurting you?” he asked, incredulous.

She shook her head. “Deacon, it’s not--I’m not dropping the assault charge,” she pointed out.

He swore. “You shouldn’t be dropping anything. That’s the point.” He stepped forward, taking her hands in his when she held them up to ward him off again. “Don’t do this, Rayna. Hell, I’ll get a lawyer and take my chances with a damn judge, if it comes down to it. I don’t care. He doesn’t get to win, Ray. Not this time.”

“What?” she asked, pulling away. “Y-you don’t get it,” she said, shaking her head as she looked away from him.

“You’re right, I don’t get it. So explain it to me, Ray. Tell me how you can just…concede to this jerk. The Rayna I know—“he began to argue.

“Stop it! Deacon…just stop, right there…please,” she interjected, cutting him off. She shook her head at him tiredly. “I don’t want to fight or argue with you about this anymore, Deacon. I know you have an opinion about this—and you’ve made it, loud and clear—but this isn’t your decision to make. It’s mine, and I’ve made it.” He started to say her name again and she cursed quite uncharacteristically, shaking her head vehemently. “No. This isn’t your fight, Deacon. I got myself into this mess with Luke. I made the mistake of trusting him and letting him into my life. I let my guard down and for lack of a better way to say it; I learned my lesson from it. I made a mistake and it’s my responsibility to rectify it. Not yours. I appreciate it more than you know that you’re willing to sacrifice so much to protect me, but I can’t let you do it. This is my battle to fight, Deacon.” She gave him a slight smile and raised her hand to his cheek, stroking it softly. “In terms of winning and losing—I’d say the odds are pretty much stacked in my favor here.” She slowly dropped her hand to her side and gave him a nervous smile. “So let’s just agree to disagree here and put this discussion and that whole mess behind us, okay? It happened. It’s over. We can’t change it, but we can move forward. Please Deacon, promise me you’ll let this be,” she said, her soft tone pleading.

He stared deeply into her eyes for a long moment before sighing. “Okay. If that’s what you really want, Ray, then alright. I won’t press the issue. But I need to know that you’re really okay with this. And don’t just say that “it’s fine” or that you’re fine because you think it’s what I want to hear you say, Ray. We’ve known each other way too long and been through too damn much together for that to fly with me and you know it. So tell me, Ray and be honest. Are you doing this for yourself, or to keep Wheeler from coming after me? Because if it’s the latter, then I’m sorry, Babe, but then no, this conversation is NOT over. Not by a long shot,” he said, his tone direct, and he meant it.

Rayna sighed. “Deacon, what Luke did—manipulating me like he did for his own twisted amusement—it was wrong. I hate that he did it. But honestly, I just feel foolish for having been manipulated like that. I really do. I think he bruised my pride more than anything else. As for what happened that night after the festival…it was horrible. I’m not going to lie…I was terrified of what he’d do. But as far as I’m concerned, all that matters is that it didn’t go as far as it could have…because you stopped him. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you for that. I’m eternally grateful. But Deacon, I can live with what he did and what happened…with what almost happened. What I can’t live with is the guilt of knowing that my foolishness or that punishing him for what he did to me is what took your freedom away…or at the very least, risked it. Whatever he took from me…it doesn’t compare to what he’d be taking if he goes after you for this and wins, Deacon. It’s just…it’s not. I’m sorry if you can’t understand that, but your freedom and your success…your happiness…they’re worth far more to me than any justice ever could be. You’re finally getting everything that you ever wanted, Deacon and I’m so happy for you. I’m proud of all that you’ve accomplished, I truly am. You’ve earned it. You deserve it. You deserve…everything,” she finished softly, lowering her gaze sheepishly for having been so honest in her response.

He took her hands, gently massaging the space between her thumb and index fingers with the pads of his own thumbs. “Ray,” he spoke gently, waiting for her lift her head and meet his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you what an impossible…amazing woman you are?” he asked, smiling.

She crinkled up her nose in reflection, and then grinned as she shrugged. “Oh, I think they have…maybe a couple of times…” she answered playfully, then smiled gently at him as she searched his gaze before stepping forward and wrapping her arms around his neck, hugging him. He embraced her back, holding her close against him as he buried his face in the crook of her neck, breathing in the fresh, intoxicatingly sweet scent that was all hers and hers alone. “Thank you,” she whispered tearfully against his ear.

“Always, Babe…Always,” he said back, holding her tighter.

They stood there for a long while before Rayna eventually broke the embrace and stepped back, sniffling. “Okay…now what are we going to do about Maddie? Should we sit her down and explain everything to her or just…” she asked.

Deacon smiled as he trailed his hands down her arms to take her hands. “Ray…relax. We’ll figure it out. We always do…besides, she’s a teenager…how hard can it really be…” he asked, his tone confident.

Rayna chuckled a little before she could stop herself. “This parenting with you is going to be interesting, to say the least…”

He laughed. “When you say it like that, why do I get the distinct impression that I should be expecting trouble?” he asked, grinning widely.

She just shrugged and laughed without reservation as she linked her arm in his to start the walk back towards their respective cars. “Oh, Deacon…let me tell you a little about our daughter…” she began…


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