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The Sacrificial Lamb

Rayna stared at Deacon with both confusion and disbelief. “Wh-wait—what do you mean she’s not in her room?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I mean, I checked…she’s not there. Her balcony door was open, but she’s not out there either. I haven’t checked the rest of the house yet, but Ray—I gotta tell ya, I got a bad feeling about this…what with the reporters and everything being out in the open and all—“ he let his words trail.

“W-What—you think she got upset and ran off or something, Deacon? She wouldn’t do that,” Rayna said, shaking her head.

He sighed. “Look—I’m not saying that’s what’s happened. I’m gonna go check downstairs, see if she’s down there somewhere. Tandy can double check up here and Ray, you should probably call her phone. You know she doesn’t go anywhere without it,” he said, nodding before he turned and left the room to head downstairs.

Rayna’s hand shook as she tried Maddie’s cell a second and then a third time. Each time, it just rang and rang before eventually going to voicemail. Worried tears filled her eyes as she listened to Maddie’s “Hey it’s Maddie, leave a message…” message prompt and fear slowly coursed through her as she remembered the night of the Symphony Gala, when Maddie had run off. Granted, Maddie had only been missing for a couple of hours before she’d gotten the phone call from Juliette reassuring her that Maddie was alright and letting her know that Maddie was with her. But those couple of hours had been pure hell for her, not knowing where Maddie was or if she was okay. She’d nearly gone out of her mind that night just imagining the horrible things that could have happened to her little girl. It was an experience that had left her shaken to her very core…and one that she hoped to God wasn’t repeating itself. As much as she wanted to trust in Maddie and believe that she wouldn’t put her through that again—especially knowing how worried Rayna had been that night—she knew that everything was different now. Maddie was different. She’d been through so much in the past year…more than any 14 year old girl should ever have to deal with. She was confused and angry and still trying to process everything and adjust to the facts. Rayna knew that Maddie still had so many questions…questions that Rayna didn’t know how to answer because, in truth, she was still trying to answer them for herself.

Standing there, phone in hand, she considered the possibility that Maddie had actually run off…really considered it…and realized with horror just how possible it was. In fact, now that she thought about, Maddie had been acting different for some time now. She’d been pulling away for months, and Rayna hadn’t even realized it. She’d wanted to give Maddie her space—to give her time to process the truth and come to terms with the fact that she was Deacon’s daughter. And she thought Maddie was doing that, she really had. She was still taking guitar lessons and spending time with Deacon, writing songs together and talking and learning more about each other. They were getting on great and Maddie had seemed happier than she had in a long time. But now that the secret of her paternity was out there and the whole world knew that she was Deacon’s biological daughter and not Teddy’s—though indirectly a result of an act that was her own doing—Rayna feared all the resentment and confusion of those truths that had been kept from Maddie had come roaring back up to the surface. That and with the reporters and getting into it with her sister today, maybe Deacon’s fears were correct in that maybe it had all been too much for her and she’d run off. She hoped not, but she had that nagging sense of fear that wouldn’t go away.

Call it mother’s intuition…she knew.

Even as she dialed Maddie’s number and listened to it ring and go to voicemail again…

Even as Tandy came back into the room, shaking her head, guilt in her eyes…

Even as Deacon showed up in the doorway, worry etched into the lines of his face, without Maddie…

She knew.

Maddie was gone.

And it was all her fault…

“O-Oh God, she’s gone, isn’t she?” Rayna whispered brokenly as her legs went weak beneath her. She clutched the little white nightstand beside Daphne’s bed for support as the tears streamed down.

“Ray—“ Deacon started forward.

“Hey—“ Tandy said at the same time, moving to Rayna’s side. “Guys, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere,” Tandy began.

“Here where?” Deacon asked pointedly, taking Rayna’s hand and rubbing circles in her palm in a comforting gesture. “I looked downstairs. She’s not down there.”

Tandy sighed. “I don’t know, Deacon, but I checked on both her and Daphne shortly before the two of you got here. So if she did run off, then she hasn’t had much of an opportunity to go far, time-wise. And honestly, I don’t think she ran off,” she said, looking at Rayna. “That pillow of hers—the one she can’t sleep without—it's on her bed. Plus, I checked her closet and none of her clothes are missing or rifled through that I can see. Her backpack is hanging on the back of her desk chair. And her guitar and writing notebook are on her bed…where they were when I checked on her. She was working on a new song, so I didn’t interrupt her, but yeah. I’m sorry, but I don’t see Maddie just out-of-the-blue up and deciding to run away in the span of like a half-hour, with nothing but the clothes on her back and shoes on her feet. Do you?” she asked, softly.

“Then where is she?” Rayna asked with her voice choked with tears, even as she tried to calm herself enough to consider her sister’s words.

Tandy sighed and shook her head. “I-I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe she went to clear her head or—oh, hold on,” she said as the house phone she held in her hand that she’d brought up with her rang. “Hello—no-no, she’s right here…one moment,” she turned and held out the phone to Rayna.

“Who is it? Is it about Maddie?” Rayna asked, her expression hopeful. “Hello?”

“Ms. Jaymes—this is Aiden with security. I hate to bother you, Ma’am, but I was doing my rounds and noticed a disturbance outside your gate just now that I thought you should be made aware of,” the voice on the other end spoke.

Rayna’s hopes fell and she sighed with disinterest. “The media…yes, I-I know they’re a nuisance. I’m afraid you’ll have to deal with them as you see fit, Aiden. I have a family situation that’s come up and—“ she started, her tone dismissive.

“Actually, Ms. Jaymes—“ he interrupted. “That’s why I’m calling. I believe your daughter—Miss Maddie—is at the center of it all. The reporters are all gathered around her and—“

“W-wait—what?!” Rayna asked, her eyes going wide as she gripped Deacon’s arm, her fingers digging into his flesh as he asked her what was wrong, waiting for her response. “Are you sure it’s Maddie?” she asked, getting and holding the attention of both Deacon and Tandy.

“I’m pretty certain, yes,” he responded. “Should I intervene or—“

Rayna shook her head. “No that’ll just—it’s—just stay there ‘til I get there, please. I’m on my way,” she said, hanging up the phone and tossing it on the bed.

“What? Who was that?” Deacon asked, eyes wide and searching Rayna’s face for answers.

“It was Security. Maddie’s down at the gate with all the reporters,” she said, her voice rushed.

“What?!” he and Tandy both exclaimed. “Why?” Deacon asked.

Rayna shook her head. “I-I don’t know. But she is. We gotta go down there, Deacon. They’ll—Jesus, they’ll crush her with all their questions,” she said, her bottom lip wavering. As relieved as she was to know where Maddie was, she didn’t like it one bit that Maddie was anywhere near those media vultures…a naïve 14-year-old girl…God, they’d eat her alive. Hearing Daphne’s hushed whimper, she immediately turned to Tandy. “Can you—“

Tandy just nodded, ushering Rayna towards the door as she reached for Daphne. “I got Daphne. You two go!” she said, putting her hands on Daphne’s shoulders as she stood behind the little girl.

“We’ll be right back,” Rayna promised, even as she and Deacon were rushing out of the bedroom.

Maddie blinked rapidly in the light of all the camera flashes, her eyes watering, and took a step backwards as someone quickly thrust a microphone at her. “Maddie! Maddie Conrad! What’s it like to be Deacon Claybourne’s daughter? Are you going to change your last name? When did you find out about your biological father?” Maddie bit her lip and swallowed hard at the onslaught of questions that were thrown at her, all at once, and coming from every direction as the reporters circled around her with their microphones and cameras and recording devices.

Suddenly, her idea to go down and try and talk to the media and to reason with them so they’d leave her family alone, didn’t seem so great…or so smart…as it had just a short while earlier when she’d been standing out on her balcony. She’d taken a break from her writing to get some fresh air and to clear her mind, so she’d stepped out onto her balcony deck for a minute. As she’d been watching, the throng of reporters that were still gathered outside the gate at the end of the drive grew larger in size by the minute. She knew it was only going to get worse…especially now that her mom, dad, and Deacon had gone on Good Morning America that morning to explain that she was really Deacon’s biological daughter.

Her mom and Dad had explained to her what they were going to do before they did the taping, so she’d known, but it hadn’t really sunk in until she’d seen the video clip of the segment herself that morning. After her Aunt Tandy had brought her and Daphne home from the failed-attempt at taking them to school that morning, her aunt had explained to her and Daphne that it was probably going to be like it was with all the reporters around because of the show announcement. Daphne had asked how long it was going to take for them to go away and Tandy had apologized and said she didn’t know…leading Daphne to turn and lash out at Maddie. She had to admit that it had really hurt, hearing Daphne tell her that she hated her and blamed her for what was happening…mostly because Maddie herself knew that it was true.

It was her fault. All of it. If she hadn’t gotten upset at her Dad and posted that video of the song she and Deacon had written during one of their guitar lessons together, none of this would be happening. She’d been a brat, especially by using Deacon’s last name in the video post when they’d asked for her name. She’d done it deliberately, of course, to get back at her Dad for trying to take her music away from her like he had. She’d known it was wrong…but when she’d uploaded it to the internet, all she could think about was how mad she was. Not just at her Dad, but at her Mom, too. Mad…and hurt because they’d lied to her about whom her real father was for so long, and then acted like it didn’t matter and that it changed nothing even after she found out. When to her—it meant and had changed everything. Finding out that she was Deacon’s daughter had turned her whole world upside-down. Deep-down, she’d always had a feeling…a sense, really…that something wasn’t right. Like something was missing. There were little things that she’d often wondered about…like where she got her love for guitar-playing from…and why she preferred the quiet and being alone, compared to always being the center of attention like her mom and her sister. Even her Dad reveled in the spotlight of being the mayor. But as much as she loved performing, she loved the music more. Now that she knew the truth, it made sense that she’d gotten that trait from Deacon, who’d confessed to her one during one lesson that even if his solo-career didn’t take off, he would still be content writing music and playing at the Bluebird just like he’d always done. He didn’t need more and neither did she, she realized. As much as she loved her Dad and always would, she was also glad that Deacon was her biological dad. She knew she could always count on him to know how much music meant to her…to understand how much a part of her it was. That was something her Dad didn’t understand. And her mom…well, her mom thought she was too young. But she wasn’t. She was old enough to know what she wanted. Just like she was old enough to have been told the truth.

But she hadn’t been told. She’d had to find out herself, when she’d gone snooping through her mother’s things. While she was glad that she finally knew the truth…she hated that her finding out had caused so much pain to those around her. Especially to her mom and Deacon. Sure, she’d had a right to know…and it had made sense to ask Deacon if he could be her father…but she hadn’t realized when she’d gone to his house that day what finding out would mean to him. She didn’t know that it would make him start drinking again. But it did. And it was his drinking that caused the accident that nearly killed both of them. At the very least, it was most likely the reason he and her mom had split up. So indirectly, them not being together—their not being a family like they could and might have been before the accident--was her doing. That, like everything else that had happened…was her fault.

And now she’d made it worse with the video. She wasn’t ashamed that she was Deacon Claybourne’s daughter and part of her had posted the video because she had wanted the world to know…but her mom was right when she’d said she hadn’t completely thought it through. She hadn’t realized the chaos posting the video would bring or the fallout it would cause. She hadn’t been prepared for the damage or hurt it would cause. She certainly hadn’t expected that it would hurt Daphne or make it impossible to do normal things…such as simply going to school.

When she uploaded the video, she hadn’t thought about the media…or how it would affect her mom and Deacon—what with them being public figures and all. When she’d watched the video clip herself of the announcement, she’d cried. She couldn’t help it. She’d felt so bad for Deacon, having to admit to the world that he was an alcoholic…to have everyone know something that was so personal about him. She’d seen the look on her mom’s face when he’d said that and for a moment, she looked as though she might cry. It was a hard thing to watch and in truth, she hadn’t even been able to finish the clip. She’d been too ashamed and too overcome with guilt. So, she’d tried writing a little. She’d heard her Aunt Tandy come to her room while she’d been playing and waited until she’d left before putting down her guitar and taking a break.

She’d been on the verge of going back inside when she’d seen the gates open and saw her mom’s car at the end of the drive. She watched as her mom was forced to drive slower than usual because of all the reporters surrounding the car. At first, she’d been angry with the reporters for being so rude and so intrusive. Then she’d felt guilty again. She knew how much her mom valued her privacy…and how much she disliked reporters. She’d overheard her mother once say that if there was one thing she could do without when it came to fame and her music career, it would be the press. Though a necessary evil, she hated the interviews and being written about in magazines and all the publicity, Maddie knew.

It’d been the guilt for putting her mom through that that had her deciding to do something, on her own, about it. Granted, she could have gone to her parents and suggested that she talk to the reporters and explain why she posted the video…but she knew they would have vetoed the idea right off the bat. They would have said she was too young…or something along those lines. But as far as she was concerned, the reporters were there because of what she’d done. It was her mistake. And she couldn’t just sit around and do nothing. She owed it to the people she loved to try and fix the mess that she’d made. Determined to do just that, she’d snuck down the stairs and slipped out the front door while her mom and Deacon had come in the back and greeted her aunt Tandy, heading right for the reporters. She didn’t know what she’d say when she reached them…she just knew that she had to say something. Then maybe they’d be satisfied and leave her family and the people she cared about most alone.

But standing there, being bombarded with questions that she had no idea how to respond to, she realized how wrong she was…and understood why her mom disliked reporters so much. Fear crept in as they all seemed to join ranks and close in tighter around her. She winced when someone stepped on her foot and bumped into her with a microphone. All the flashes and the voices—some yelling to be heard over others—started getting to her and she went still as fear and anxiety started to creep slowly in. She swallowed hard and struggled to speak as she raised her hand in front of her eyes and used it as a shield against the camera flashes that were almost blinding at that point. “Please…please stop,” she said, her voice sounding strangled, even to her own ears. “Please, I’ll answer your questions if you’ll just stop yelling and…and promise to leave after. Okay?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over all the others.

When the racket seemed to die down a little, she bit her lip and nodded at the closest reporter to her. “Wh-what’s your question?” she asked, repeating what she’d seen and heard her mother and father do and say in the press conferences she’d attended with them over the years.

“Maddie, what’s it like to know that you’re the daughter of Rayna James and the Deacon Claybourne—once deemed country music’s power couple?” the woman reporter asked, holding out a microphone at Maddie.

Maddie hesitated. “I-um—it’s good. I mean, I really like Deacon and he and my mom are both really talented and have written some pretty great songs together…so yeah, it’s pretty cool,” she answered.

“Are you going to change your last name to Claybourne now?” another reporter asked.

Maddie bit her lip, shaking her head. “No. I mean, I don’t think so. I mean, my Dad is still my dad so…”

“Who do you prefer as your dad—Mayor Conrad or Deacon?” came from another reporter.

Insulted, Maddie narrowed her eyes as the rude man. “That’s a horrible thing to ask,” she said.

“Is it true then that Deacon’s drinking caused the accident that nearly killed him and your mother the night of the music awards—that learning he was your father caused him to throw away his sobriety?” came from the same reporter.

Hot tears sprang to Maddie’s eyes and she shook her head. “That’s—it wasn’t like that—it was an accident—Deacon would never purposely hurt my mom…he made a mistake…”

“Did your mom keep the identity of your real father a secret because she didn’t want anyone to know she’d had an illegitimate child with an alcoholic?” Maddie heard.

Her eyes went wide at that as the tears finally started streaming down her face. “Stop,” she said then. “Please…just stop. It’s not true. That’s not true,” she insisted, even as the words sank in and she wondered herself if there was any truth to them…if maybe that was why her mom hadn’t said anything. Maybe that was the case all along and the secret was to protect her mother’s career, and not her, as her parents had claimed.

Her head spinning with what-ifs, Maddie turned to escape…but there was nowhere for her to go…no way to get out. Fear crept in and all she wanted was to get as far away from where she was as possible…away from everything and everyone. “I-Please, let me through…please stop,” she pleaded, her voice barely audible as she tried to push her way through the reporters. Some stepped aside, but others refused to even budge as she struggled to move around them. “Move…please,” she begged. Just one more question…one question, Maddie… she kept hearing. Shaking her head, she cried out when someone grabbed her arm to get her attention so she’d answer his question. “Stop it! Leave me alone!” she cried. “Please…just stop…” she screamed as she covered her eyes and dropped down to the ground...wishing the ground would swallow her up and she could just disappear.

“…Please…just stop…” Rayna heard Maddie cry as she and Deacon ran down the driveway and got close. Even in all the noise, she could hear Maddie voice, pleading and scared. As she and Deacon pushed their way through the clamoring reporters to get to Maddie, she finally spotted her and grabbed Deacon’s arm, pointing in Maddie’s direction.

“Son of a bitch!” she heard him say when he saw Maddie, who was crouched down on the ground with her hands covering her ears and head, sobbing. In that moment, all she saw and felt was red hot anger herself.

“Hey…get away from her…” she said, following Deacon as they pushed through to get to Maddie, shoving at microphones and cameras as they did. “What the hell is wrong with you people? She’s a child you—you twisted vultures!” she cried at the cameras. If they wanted a comment, she was damn well going to give them one. To hell with the label and her image. Right then, she didn’t give a damn about either. All that mattered was getting to Maddie and getting her away from those people.

Deacon reached Maddie first and helped her up, holding her close to his body and doing his best to shield her from the unrelenting mob that seemed determined to make their escape as difficult as possible. He couldn’t count the number of people he nearly had to shove aside to get out of his path…not that he cared. Like Rayna, Maddie was his one and only priority right then. With his arm around Maddie’s shoulders and Rayna holding on to his shirt from behind, they eventually made it out of the throng. By that time, Aiden and several of the other security guys on duty had managed to form a line to hold back some of the more persistent reporters, so they weren’t on their own, at least.

When they’d made it a couple of feet from the crowd, Deacon stopped and turned to check on Maddie, who was visibly shaken and sobbing. “Maddie…sweetheart…are you hurt? Did they hurt you?” he asked, remembering that they’d literally found her crouched down on the ground, shielding herself.

Maddie shook her head, sobbing. “No—no…I’m sorry. I just wanted to help. I’m sorry…I’m sorry…” she kept crying and repeating over and over, like it was her fault.

Deacon’s heart broke at how wrecked his little girl looked and his veins burned with hot fury at the misery she was feeling…that those media piranhas had caused her. He flashed a glance at Rayna over Maddie’s head and saw the tears in her eyes, knowing she was feeling the same emotions as he was.

“Deacon…let’s just get inside,” she said, wrapping her arm around Maddie. Deacon nodded and just as they took a step, one of the reporters pushed past the security guards, thrusting a microphone towards Rayna before he could stop the guy.

“Ms. Jaymes! Rayna—did you ever consider having an abortion?!” Deacon heard the guy ask.

Deacon heard Maddie’s strangled cry and Rayna’s audible gasp…right before the cracking sound of his fist catching the guy square in the jaw. “You sonofabitch!” he yelled as the guy stumbled back, swearing and rubbing his jaw.

“Deacon—no!” he heard Rayna cry as he stepped towards the guy, his fist raised again as he started to advance. Were it not for the look on Maddie’s tear-streaked face and her soft plea of “Dad…please don't…” he would have hit the guy again. His hesitation gave the security guards enough time to grab the guy and pull him away. Rayna grabbed his arm and tugged him towards the house.

“Deacon…he’s not worth it…please…” she cried tearfully.

Looking between her and Maddie, he nodded. “I know. C’mon darlin’,” he said as Maddie tucked herself between him and Rayna and the three of them headed for the house…
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