“Hey…” Deacon spoke softly as he walked into Maddie’s bedroom to Rayna, who was lying down on the bed, curled around Maddie’s sleeping form. Rayna looked up and over her shoulder at the sound of him entering the room and slowly disentangled herself from Maddie to sit up. Careful to not wake Maddie, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up, making her way over to him as she put a finger to his lips in a “shh” gesture.
“Hey,” she replied softly and motioned with her head that they step out of the room. “Sorry,” she said as he closed the door part-way and turned to her. “I-I don’t want to wake her. She finally passed out. Or cried herself to sleep, I should say,” she said ruefully.
Deacon swore under his breath as he clenched his jaw and flexed his fists. “I swear to God, I wish I’d done more than just hit that jackass reporter when I had the chance,” he said angrily, fuming inside.
Rayna shook her head, her eyes filled with tears. “It wouldn’t have done any good, Deacon. We both know it only would have added fuel to the fire. That’s exactly what he wanted. God,” she said with a ragged sigh as she glanced through the open door space to reassure herself that Maddie was still sleeping. “The things she was saying, Deac…”
He nodded as he reached out and drew her into his arms, holding her gently. “I know, Babe. I know. Just try not to think about it,” he soothed, rubbing the small of her back in a gesture of comfort.
She buried her face in his neck and hugged him tightly as she wept. “I can’t help it…” she said on a broken sob…the sound not unlike the ones Maddie had made just a short while earlier…
Deacon shut the door as he followed Rayna and Maddie inside and through the house to the kitchen in the back where Tandy was waiting with Daphne. “Oh my God,” he heard Tandy exclaim softly when she saw the state Maddie was in. Her eyes flashed questions at his lifted ones and he looked pointedly at Daphne, who was staring at them with wide, frightened eyes of her own. Tandy bit her lip and nodded before putting her hands on Daphne’s shoulders and suggesting that she go upstairs to her room for a little while. Naturally, Daphne resisted, her blonde ponytail swinging as she shook her head in refusal. “No…I want to stay. Is Maddie okay? Why is she crying?” the little girl demanded, chewing on her bottom lip nervously as she stared at her sobbing sister.
Stepping forward, Deacon crouched down in front of Daphne, forcing a smile to his lips as he faced the little girl that had so much of Rayna’s stubbornness and beauty in her that it was impossible not to completely adore her. “Maddie will be just fine, darlin’. She’s just a little sad right now and needs some alone time with your Mama, just the two of them, okay?”
“But I wanna stay with her,” Daphne insisted.
He softened his smile and reached out to tuck a stray strawberry-blonde strand of hair behind her hair and tapped her on the nose like he always did. “I know, sweetheart, and that’s awfully nice of you to care about your sister so much, but right now, it’s really important that you go upstairs for a bit. Okay kiddo? C’mon, how about I give you a ride up to your Mama’s room and you can watch a movie on the big screen in there?” he asked, getting a relieved and approving nod from Rayna as he made the suggestion.
Daphne, smart enough to realize she wasn’t going to win that particular battle to stay downstairs, relented with a heavy sigh. “Okay,” she grumbled as she let Deacon pick her up and carry her up the stairs.
Rayna said a silent prayer of thanks as Deacon took Daphne upstairs. The last thing she wanted was for her youngest to witness and overhear what had happened to her sister. Daphne, though bright as a whip, was still innocent to so many ways of the world and of the cruel, heartless individuals that existed within it. And Rayna wanted to keep it that way for as long as she possibly could. Especially when she was witnessing first-hand the aftermath of the reality of that cruelty right then with her sweet, sweet Maddie, who at that moment was openly sobbing into her hands, her shoulders shaking with the force of her cries.
Rayna shot Tandy a helpless glance as Tandy hurried to Maddie’s side. “God—Maddie—baby—what did they do to her?” Tandy asked as she lifted her eyes, the question directed at Rayna.
Rayna shook her head--again a helpless response--as she struggled to hold back the tears that threatened to fall at the sight of Maddie’s tears and hold on to whatever strength she had—for Maddie’s sake. “I-I don’t know—“ she bit her lip and crouched down so she was eye level in front of Maddie. “Maddie, sweetheart, please—baby, it’s Mama. You’re okay and it’s over. Maddie, sweetheart, please look at me, talk to me…” she pleaded with her.
Slowly, Maddie lowered her hands and Rayna’s heart broken into a million little pieces. Her face pale and stained with tear streaks, Maddie looked utterly lost. There was a shattered innocence in her eyes that tore at Rayna, cutting her to the core. She watched as Maddie bit her wobbling bottom lip and choked back a sob. “I-I’m sorry Mom. I’m so sorry…” she sobbed, fresh tears streaming down.
Rayna took her hands in hers and squeezed them tight, shaking her head. “Sorry? Baby, what are you sorry for? You have nothing to be sorry for, you hear me? Nothing.”
Maddie continued as if she hadn’t even heard Rayna, shaking her head. “I-I just wanted to help. I wanted them to understand that it—that i-it wasn’t your fault. It was mine. I-I put that video up and I-I’m sorry. I’m sorry everyone knows now. I-This is all my fault. I just…make everything worse. I ruined everything for you and Deacon a-and that reporter was right…it was all a mistake. Even my being born. Everything…” she sobbed.
Rayna gasped in shock and rocked back on her heels a moment, feeling as if someone had literally knocked the breath right from her at Maddie’s words. Feeling like her heart was being ripped from her chest, her eyes and throat burning from her pent-up tears; she shook her head and framed Maddie’s face in her hands. “No…oh God, no baby girl. Don’t ever say that. Don’t even think it. What that reporter said is not true. It’s not. Your Dad, Deacon, and me—we all love you. And you were wanted, Maddie. You are wanted. Do you hear me? You’re the best thing that ever happened to us. That is the truth. C’mere, baby…shh…” Rayna soothed as she pulled a sobbing, apologizing Maddie into her arms and held her against her chest, whispering softly to her as she tried to comfort her broken-hearted little girl.
Hearing a muted curse, she looked up in time to see Deacon standing at the bottom of the back stairs, his hand covering his mouth, his eyes teary and wild as he shook his head and stared at her. By his reaction, she knew he’d heard what Maddie had said…and that it was tearing him apart just as it was doing the same to her.
Worse for Rayna though was the knowledge that it was all her own doing. That she was responsible. She’d done this. Not Maddie. It wasn’t the video she’d posted or the world finding out the news that had caused the irreparable pain Maddie and they all were feeling right then. It was her choices. Her actions. It was the decision she’d made all those years ago, in the very beginning…the decision to lie. She’d done that. She could have said no to Tandy and Coleman when they’d insisted she keep the truth about the pregnancy from Deacon. She could have told them they were wrong when they claimed it would best for Deacon’s sake if he didn’t know. She could have trusted and had faith in Deacon that he would have gotten sober regardless of whether he knew the truth, on his own…just as he had done.
She could have told the truth. If only she had…so much would be different right then. She and Deacon could have gotten married…just like she’d dreamed about in all those dark, late moments at night after they’d made love and she’d lain in his arms, feeling sated and safe and most of all--loved. Despite everything else and whatever other doubts there might have been in their relationship—there was never, not even for a second, a doubt in her mind that Deacon loved her, or she him. On that love alone, they could have made it work. They would have made it work. She knew it. In her heart, in her soul…hell, in her bones…she knew it.
They could have lived in the beautiful lake house-turned-cabin that Deacon had bought for her—her “dream house” that she’d always talked about buying that elusive “someday”-- that’d he’d gone out and surprised her by buying right before her first CMA nomination and awards show. They could have prepared for and celebrated and raised their sweet baby girl together—as a family. Whatever fears Deacon might have had in relation to fatherhood, stemming from his own childhood—Rayna knew they’d have been inconsequential. Deacon was a great father…just as she knew he always would be.
As she held Maddie close, stroking her hair and murmuring words of comfort, tears fell down Rayna’s own cheeks and she closed her eyes against the images of what could have been. Like the image of Deacon smiling with elation and wrapping her in his arms when she told him she was pregnant. And the image of him holding a tiny, just-born, blanket-wrapped Maddie in his arms…a smile on his lips and his eyes filled with fatherly pride and love and wonder. Like the image of him rocking Maddie to sleep and singing sweet lullabies to her. And of him holding his breath and holding out as his hands for her as Maddie took her first wobbly steps and spoke her first words. Or the image of Maddie clinging to his leg in front of a stranger…and on her first day of school.
So many images…so many memories and moments that he’d missed out on. That all three of them had missed out on. All because of one decision—one bad decision—that she’d made. Her. Not them. Her. And now, because of that decision, Maddie had been terribly hurt. Only this time, there was no Band-Aid to heal that hurt…no easy words to make it all better. This was more….so much more. And so much worse.
Sensing Deacon’s nearness, she opened her eyes and blinked through the tears. He was there, next to them. His eyes searching hers, he just nodded and without words—wrapped them both in his arms. She leaned into him, trying to draw strength from him because in truth, she had none left herself. Standing there…they were finally a family…just a broken one that in time, she hoped she could repair. It was that hope….and Deacon…that gave her strength. She just hoped that it would be enough…
Rayna slowly stepped back from Deacon’s embrace, spent from crying. “Thank you,” she said, feeling a little sheepish at having completely broken down in front of him.
He gave her a small smile as he gently brushed away a trace tear from her cheek with the pad of his thumb. “Ray,” he began softly. “You don’t have to thank me. And you don’t have to act so tough all the time either,” he said. “Not with me.”
She inwardly scowled. He could read her so well. Biting her lip, she shrugged. “Yeah…um, you know…you don’t have to stay. I mean, if you have things to do you can just take the car. I doubt I’ll be going anywhere anytime soon,” she said, rambling.
He gave her an undaunted look as he placed his hands on her shoulders. “Ray…stop,” he said.
“No, really Deacon, it’s fine. I’m sure she’s gonna be out for a while, anyhow and I—“ she continued, unheeded.
His hands moved up to cup her face. “Ray—no more talking,” he said, firmly. “I’m not going anywhere. She’s my little girl. It’s time I get to be her daddy. Besides, she’s going to need both of us to get her through this. So stop trying to give me an out here, because—and listen to me, Ray because I’m only going to say this once—I don’t want one. Understood?”
She searched his eyes, finding only the truth and sincerity in them. She felt fresh tears start to burn at the back of her eyes as her heart swelled. After the events of that morning and Deacon finally stepping up to the role she wished he could have taken years ago, she couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed with emotion. “Deacon—about last night…” she started.
He stopped her with a curt shake of his head. “Ray…let’s just focus on one worry at a time. I think we’ve got enough our plate at the moment, don’t you think? What happened last night…and this morning…,” he said lightly, “was incredible. But we’d both be kidding ourselves and belying the issue if we said it solved everything. We need to have a talk…and actually talk...soon. But right now, I’d rather focus on Maddie. And you—“ he added. “Which is why I think you should go and get some rest,” he said, gesturing down the hall towards her room.
She immediately opened her mouth with a refusal. “I-What? N-No—I’m fine. I want to stay with Maddie in case she wakes up,” she said.
He smiled, nodding. “I know…but you’re exhausted…and don’t say that you’re not,” he said, just as she was about to do exactly that. “Look, Ray—I know you. I can tell when you’re worn out…and you are. Not that anyone could blame you after the past few days. Hell, the past few months. You said yourself that Maddie will probably be passed out for a while, so what’s it going to hurt if you get some shut eye?” he asked, the question more rhetorical than not. “Exactly. Now Maddie’s gonna need her Mama at her best when she wakes up…so you go get some sleep and I’ll stand watch over her,” he said.
Torn between wanting to be there for Maddie and knowing that Deacon was right and she wasn’t doing anyone any good in the state she was in, she still tried to argue. “But Babe—“
He shook his head. “No ‘but Babe’s’ Ray…now go. I’ll get you if she wakes up, I promise,” he assured her.
Still, she hesitated. Glancing through the opening created by the slightly ajar bedroom door, she reassured herself that Maddie was sleeping soundly…and that she’d be fine under Deacon’s—her Dad’s—careful, caring watch. Realizing that he’d more than earned her trust with Maddie and that he deserved the benefit of the doubt regardless, she relented with a sigh, nodding. “Okay…but the second she wakes up, I want to know,” she insisted.
He smiled and nodded. “Got it,” he agreed, and then pulled her close to hug her and gently kiss the top of her head.
They parted ways…albeit with a little reluctance on Rayna’s part, with her heading down the hallway towards the master bedroom and Deacon into Maddie’s room, where he took a seat on the chaise across from the bed. For a long moment, he just sat there watching Maddie—his daughter—sleep, thinking she was probably the most beautiful thing on the planet—in addition to her Mama, of course. It still threw him for a loop sometimes, that she was his. That he and Rayna had made something so perfect. In sleep, curled on her side with her palms folded up under her cheek on the pillow, she appeared so child-like. Innocent. Her still-pale features and traces of tears on her cheeks hinted at a fragility that cut at him, deep. He leaned forward, put his heads in his hands, and closed his eyes against the memory of seeing her in that crowd; Maddie huddled on the ground with her hands over her ears and head to block out the questions of all those pushy reporters…the fear and despair in her eyes when he’d reached her and pulled her away. He could still hear her sharp cry and gasp of breath at that final reporter’s question to Rayna. In that moment, he could have killed the guy. All he could hear were Maddie’s soft cries…and with that sound in his head, all he’d seen was red. The fact that Maddie and Rayna had been standing there was the only—the only—reasons the guy had gotten off with a single blow to the jaw. Godknows Deacon had wanted to do worse. Much worse.
A Little While Later…
Deacon stood to stretch his legs, having been hunched over sitting on the chaise too long, and squinted in the glare from the sunlight that was reflecting off the glass of a picture frame perched on the bookshelf, one of the dozens of picture frames that were scattered around Maddie’s room. With a sigh, he walked over to adjust the frame, smiling when he noticed the picture of Maddie and Daphne in it. They were both a few years younger and making weird faces in the photo, but they were adorable regardless. With a smile, he scanned the other photos that lined the top two shelves on the bookcase. A couple of them were of Maddie with her friends, but the remaining ones were more recent photos of Maddie and Daphne. He thought it was the sweetest thing, how close the two girls were. It almost reminded him of the closeness he and his sister Beverly had once shared, back when they were younger…before he’d escaped to Nashville with little more than his old beat-up guitar and the clothes on his back…and hadn’t looked back. Granted, most of their closeness had developed out of the shared need for companionship in a bleak world of abuse and anger and violence, but still.
In the center of one of the shelves was a large white picture frame that held a black and white image of Rayna and Maddie. In the photo, Maddie couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old; evident in how tiny she seemed all swaddled up in a blanket, fast asleep. Rayna held her close against her breast as she sat in a rocking chair and had her cheek rested atop Maddie’s downy little head, her eyes closed, and the slightest hint of a smile on her lips. If he had to guess, Teddy or someone had probably captured the sweet moment after Rayna had just finished breast feeding Maddie...just one of many moments he’d have given anything to have been a part of. A bittersweet wave of longing coursed through him as he traced his finger over the photo, before his gaze dropped on the scrapbook-like photo album the frame sat upon. Curious, he slid the album out from under the frame and saw that it was a baby book. Maddie’s baby book. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he took the book and went back to chaise, sitting down as he opened the front cover to the first page.
He blinked back tears of confusion and surprise when he read the 3-word inscription on the inside cover. He recognized Rayna’s handwriting immediately. Our Baby Girl. Under the words was an old, worn photo of him and Rayna. Not Rayna and Teddy, but of her and him. His brow furrowed, he glanced at the next page where it displayed a family tree. Rayna’s name of course was written under MOTHER, but to his absolute shock, it his name was written in the place reserved under FATHER. Completely at a loss, he slowly thumbed through the first few pages…his confusion and emotion growing with every photo and inscription he read. Like with Rayna’s sonogram photo taped to the page with a little handwritten note beneath it…and all the milestones in her pregnancy with Maddie. There were dates highlighted with captions like “Heard our baby’s heartbeat!” and “Our little girl kicked for the first time!” All the little moments that he’d missed, Rayna had apparently documented in writing. As he made his way through the scrapbook, the lump of emotion grew in his throat and tears slowly filled his eyes. As he flipped the page and came to a large photo of him and Maddie, he stared at it, smiling. He remembered the exact moment that had been captured there in black and white. Rayna had snapped the photo, catching him unaware as he’d been cuddling a 6-month-old Maddie in the back of their tour bus, having quieted her down with a song one night. Beneath the photo, Rayna had written a sweet inscription. “Daddy and his girl.” A tear escaped and slid down his cheek as his finger traced the words. His eyes were filled with emotion and confusion when he heard Maddie’s soft voice a moment later and looked up.
“Mom gave me that after the accident. She said she made it for you...but that I should have it,” Maddie explained from where she lay.
He swallowed hard as he glanced down at the book and nodded, closing the cover. “It’s—it’s beautiful. I didn’t know she’d made something like this,” he said as he ran his fingers over the smooth cover. “I’d love to look through the rest of it sometime—if that’s okay with you,” he said as he started to rise from his seat.
She nodded, and then bit her lip as she dropped her gaze to the pillow beneath her folded hands. At her silence, his concern grew. Placing the book on the seat, he then moved towards the bed. “Maddie, sweetheart? Are you okay?” When she said nothing and he heard her sniffle, he bit back an oath. “Darlin, hold on, just let me go get your Mama, okay?” He turned and had just reached the door when Maddie’s voice stopped him.
“No! Wait don’t…please don’t get her,” she said, her voice wobbly and tearful as she sat up in the bed.
He stopped at her plea and turned back. He saw the desperation in her eyes and though he knew he’d made a promise to Rayna, he had no choice in that moment but to do as Maddie asked. He had to respect her wishes, especially then, he knew. If he didn’t, she’d only withdraw into herself as she tried to process everything that had happened in the past few days, and in the last few hours especially. With a sigh, he nodded and slowly walked back to the bed. “Alright, Darlin’…I won’t get your Mama just yet,” he said as he perched a hip on the edge of the bed at her side. “But I need you to do something for me.”
He saw relief fill her features and she nodded. “What?” she asked softly.
He placed a hand on her blanket covered leg. “Don’t shut your Mama out over this, okay? She loves you more than anything, you know? And she might not show it—but she’s hurting, too.”
Maddie hesitated, biting her lip as tears swam in her eyes. “I just—I don’t want to hate her. I really don’t. And I-I don’t think I do, I just—I don’t understand her. Why she did it…how she could do it. It’s one thing for her not to tell me, but she didn’t even tell you. If she loved you as much as she says she did back then…how could she not tell you? How could she lie to you all these years?” she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief.
He sighed, struggling with the right words in which to say. “Maddie…Darlin’…it’s complicated, you see…”
Hot fury filled her features as the color rose in her pale cheeks. “Stop! Don’t say “it’s complicated”. I’m so sick of hearing people say that like it’s an answer or an excuse for what she did, because it’s not either of those things!” she said, her voice raised. “I’m fourteen years old, Deacon. I’m not a little kid and I’m not stupid. I’m tired of everyone telling me what they think I should hear or what they think I can handle. I just want the truth. Please. Just tell me the truth,” she said, sounding far older than her fourteen years in that moment.
His eyes widened at the unexpected brevity in her tone, but he softened his gaze when he realized that she was right. She wasn’t a little kid. She was old enough to know what had happened and why Rayna had done what she did. Maybe not everything, but she deserved to know some of it. With a sigh, he nodded. “Alright. Um…well, you already some of it, Darlin’. You know that I had--have a problem with alcohol. That I’m an alcoholic,” he continued at her slow nod. “Well…back then, before you were born…I didn’t have the control over it like I do now. In fact, I didn’t have any control over it, to tell you the truth. I was, well...to put it nicely…I was a mess. And your Mama—she was a saint because she put up with me…for years…even when I wasn’t so nice and when I sure as heck didn’t deserve it. She tried to get me help, a few times…but I just wasn’t ready to take control of my problem, I guess. So when she found out she was pregnant with you—I think more than anything, she was scared. Scared of me and my problem…but mostly, scared for you. She wanted you to have the best life possible and she knew that I was in no condition to provide that…not for you or for her. Not the way you both deserved, anyhow,” he explained, his voice quiet.
“So you’re okay with what she did?” Maddie asked, incredulous.
He shook his head. “No—no, that’s not what I’m saying at all, Maddie. What I’m saying is that I understand why your Mama didn’t tell me. She maybe went about it in a way that I don’t necessarily agree with—but she did what she thought she had to do to protect you,” he said.
“But you were my father. Don’t you think that mattered? That maybe it would have changed everything if you’d known?” Maddie asked.
He smiled at her. “You know, Darlin’—I’d really like to think that it would have…I do. But the truth of it is—I was a different man back then. I was bitter and reckless and mad at the world and in being that way—I hurt a lot of people around me. Especially your Mama,” he said.
She hung her head a moment. “Did you break her heart?” she finally asked, lifting her gaze to his.
Tears filled his eyes as he met hers and nodded. “A thousand different ways, I did yeah,” he said, regret singeing his voice.
“Even though you loved her?” Maddie asked.
He nodded. “What you’ll come to learn and understand better when you’re older, Maddie—is that sometimes we hurt the ones we love the most…whether we mean to or not,” he said softly.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
He nodded in agreement. “Yeah. So how about I go get your Mama now and you two can talk a bit?” he asked, getting ready to get up from the bed.
She hesitated, then nodded, but grabbed his arm before he moved away. “Deacon…can I tell you something first?” she asked.
“Anything,” he said, smiling.
She swallowed hard, nodding. “I-I love my Dad—I do. But sometimes…sometimes I still wish you could have been my real Dad. That you, me, and Mom could have been a real family back then. Is that wrong?” she asked, her bottom lip wavering as she nervously met his gaze.
He gave her a sad smile as he shook his head and reached for her, wrapping his arms around her. “C’mere.” He kissed the top of her head as she hugged him. “No, sweetheart…not at all. Believe me when I tell you, there’s not a day that goes by….that I don’t wish the exact same thing. Not a single day.” He held her close for a long moment, then slowly pulled back and put his finger under her chin, tipping her head up to look at him. “We can’t go back, Darlin’. But we can go forward. And Teddy might be your Dad. But you’re my daughter,” he said. “Nothing and no one is ever going to change that. Okay?”
She smiled, ducking her head. “Okay…thanks…”
He crinkled his nose at her and tapped her on hers, smiling as he stood and went to get Rayna. For some reason, he walked with a lighter step…feeling as though a heavy burden had been lifted. And in a way, he guessed it had. In telling Maddie the truth, he realized his own…which was that he’d forgiven Rayna. As much as it hurt what she’d done…he finally understood it. He knew he owed Rayna one hell of an apology, considering all the hell he’d given her for not telling him. Everything she did—she’d done for Maddie….to protect their little girl. And though it stung to admit it--if he was being honest with himself…he was grateful to Rayna. Truly and without a doubt…grateful.