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I'm not sure what's worse. Losing someone you've known all your life or a loved one you never knew at all.
After thirteen years of marriage, Matt Boyd finally knew the answer to the question Rachel had posed on their wedding dayboth were equally bad.
Steeped in despair, he sat alone in the barren nursery with his back against the wall, a miniature baseball glove in one hand, a glass of smooth Kentucky bourbon in the other. He visually tracked the multicolored wild horses that ran along the pale blue wall, each one carefully painted by his wife. Then his gaze came to rest on the black letters stenciled above the empty space where the crib had been.
Caleb. His son.
He'd known him for only a few short hours. He'd known his son's mother much of his life. Now both were gone. Four months ago his child had left this world at the cruel hand of nature. A month ago Rachel had left because he'd given her little choice. Or so she'd said the day she walked out on him.
Since that time, he'd awoken every morning in their bed and reached for her. The space beside him was always empty, exactly as he felt right now. He'd tried to convince himself her absence was only temporary. After all, most of her clothes still hung in the closet, and her shoes still lined the shelves. Everything in this house that they'd built together reminded him of her.
Turning to the bottle had been the only thing to help tune out the memories of her bitter accusations. Maybe he was an emotionally closed-off bastard. Maybe lately he did drink too much. Maybe he was unreadable. Unredeemable. But disposing of their marriage like yesterday's news made her pretty damn unredeemable, too.
After coming to his feet, Matt set the glove on the vacant shelf, left the room and stood in the hallway outside the master bedroom. He raised the almost empty glass for a toast to his estranged wife. "Congratulations on running home to your daddy, darlin'."
After he downed the rest of the whiskey that burned as badly as the unshed tears, Matt hurled the tumbler with the force of his fury. Shards of crystal rained down the closed door in splinters and shattered the silence. He stared at the scattered glass, hating his total lack of control. He had a good mind to leave the mess, but Rachel would be madder than a wet hen if he did. Like she was there to notice.
He gathered the largest pieces of crystal in his open palm and headed down the hall toward the kitchen, muttering a few oaths aimed at his stupidity, followed by a few indictments of his wife. So what if she'd left for good? He could get by without her. No use having her around if she didn't want to be there. Goodbye and good riddance.
Still, when the doorbell chimed, the same old hope came calling again. Hope that she'd come to her senses and wanted to reconcile, canceling every negative thought he'd entertained only moments before. His fist automatically tightened, jabbing a jagged glass edge into his thumb. The cut stung like a scorpion bite, but he didn't care. He cared only about getting to the door before she turned and left.
Then again, he didn't want to seem too eager, so he tossed the fragments into the trash, turned on the kitchen faucet to rinse the trickle of blood from his finger and finally made his way to the front door after the third ring.
But he didn't find Rachel waiting on the thresholdonly a good friend he hadn't seen in a while.
Sam McBriar had always been the serious type, and he seriously looked as if he might be on a mission. "Got a few minutes to spare?" he asked.
Matt mentally ran through a laundry list of excuses not to let him in, but the questions about his and Rachel's recent breakup were inevitable. Might as well get it over with. "Sure. Come on in."
He stepped aside and guided Sam through the great room to the dinette adjacent to the kitchen. "Sit," he said as he gestured toward a chair.
Sam grabbed a seat and surveyed the take-out boxes from the local diner and the crumpled beer cans spilling out from the overflowing garbage can. Then his gaze came to rest on the open whiskey bottle set out on the counter. "Did you tie one on last night and fire the maid in the process?"
Matt pulled out the chair opposite Sam and collapsed into it. "Yeah, I know. I'm a freakin' cliche. Wife leaves husband. Husband wallows in self-pity and garbage."
No sense in denying the obvious. "I have a couple of beers after work, just like I always have."
"But you've been hittin' the hard stuff today." Sam posed the comment as a statement of fact, not a question.
"It's Saturday." The only legitimate excuse he could come up with. "I don't have any calves to pull or colicky mares I have to treat. Besides, I only had one drink."
Sam made a show of checking his watch. "It's barely past noon."
Matt's anger began to simmer right below the surface. "Who died and made you my guardian?"
"I'm not telling you what to do, Matt," he said. "I'm just questioning why you feel the need to drink whiskey after what you've been through with your dad."
His friend could have gone all day without mentioning that sorry subject. "Look, I'm not my dad. I'm not hanging out in the bars every night and getting so drunk that I can't work. I still put in ten-hours-plus a day down at the clinic. I see no harm in having a drink now and then. Nothing better to do."
Sam shook his head. "Man, this isn't like you at all. You've always been a scrapper, ready to fight for what you want. You're never gonna get her back if you just sit around feeing sorry for yourself."
The chance that Rachel was going to come back grew slimmer every day. "I can't make her do something she doesn't want to do. And right now she doesn't want to have anything to do with me."
His friend sat quietly for a few moments before he said, "Tell you what. Chase gets off patrol at seven. We'll pick you up and do a little night fishing at Potter's Pond. That way you'll have something to do, at least tonight."
Matt could see several flaws in that plan. "First of all, Rachel's dad owns that place, and if he knows I'm there, he's going to have me hauled into jail. Secondly, I can't imagine your fiancée and Chase's wife letting you take off for a fishing expedition without them. Lastly, I'm not interested in fishing today."
Sam held up his hand and counted down, one finger at time. "First of all, Wainwright isn't going to know we're there, and if he finds out, we'll have the law with us. Secondly, Savannah's making an afternoon trip to Memphis with Jess and your wife to take care of some wedding stuff. Lastly, you need to get out of this house even if you don't want to bait a hook."
Matt could just imagine the conversation going on between Rachel and her friends. No doubt he was the featured topic. "I'll think about it."
Sam pushed back from the table and stood. "I'm not taking no for an answer. We'll be here around seven-thirty. Just bring your pole, and Chase can take care of the bait. I'll bring the hot dogs."
Maybe getting out of the house for a little male camaraderie wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. It did beat trying to find something decent on TV, or staring at the ceiling, wondering how everything had gone so wrong. "Okay, but I'll meet you there on the chance the fish aren't biting."
"It's April. They'll be biting."
"I'm still going to bring my truck." In case his friends took it upon themselves to lecture him about saving his marriage. "And I'll bring the beer."
Sam frowned. "Are you sure that's such a good idea?"
Damn if the guy wasn't treating him like some worthless reprobate. "We've always had beer on hand before. I'll only bring a six-pack. That's two apiece. No one's going to get drunk on that."
"Fine. Only two apiece. That'll keep us all out of hot water."
Maybe for Sam and Chase, but not Matt. He'd been up to his ears in hot water with his wife for weeks. Tonight he planned to relax and forget all about his problems. Forget that Rachel had left him high and dry. Forget that he harbored a four-month-old secret that kept him drowning in guilt. A secret that could destroy everything, especially the woman he loved.