Read an excerpt of Rhiannon Frater’s Dead Spots, publishing February 24th.
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—”
“—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 youn gest,” 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.”
“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?”
“Then believe me.”
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.”
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.
Copyright © 2015 by Rhiannon FraterPre-order Dead Spots today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell's