Overview: What happens when you marry the bad boy the reckless, irresistible cowboy who steals your heart and throws it back to you, the one you should have called it a day with after the affair?

When Cole, a gorgeous ne'er do well horse trainer and stereotypical bad boy, proposes to Hannah, daughter of a wealthy Southern family, it comes as a shock to everyone. After a twenty-year marriage, Cole leaves Hannah for one of her best friends and they play out their passions on a ranch in Kentucky, where old secrets and sentiments spring forth to unsettle their relationship. Caught in the middle are their beloved daughter Mattie, and Georgia, the hired hand debutante who casts their fate.

 

The Bad Boy's Wife by Karen Shepard Book Chapter One

 

July 2000

The evening the state trooper game with the news of Georgia’s accident, Hannah was sitting on a stool in the open doorway of her ex-husband’s barn. The early evening cicadas had just started up. It was July, and it was Kentucky, so it was hot and humid. She could taste the heat.

She was crossing items off her list. Her therapist said that lists would help her feel more in control. (He was teaching her how to take care of herself.) She had just checked off Ride Blue and circled Make paper butterflies. She liked to circle the next item. When she went home, she was going to make paper butterflies with Mattie, their ten-year-old. She’d been promising for weeks.

The state trooper pulled up to the front door of her old house and rang the bell. Her ex-husband came to the screen, his new baby on his hip. It was hard to make them out in the seven o’clock light. The trooper chucked the baby under the chin as he talked. Cole listened, and cupped the back of his son’s head the way he used to cup Mattie’s. He looked towards the barn. He called Hannah. Her name in his voice was still intoxicating. There he was, gorgeous and worried and calling her name.

There’d been an accident. The new wife was in the hospital. Could Hannah stay with the baby?

She took Sam from him. Their fingers touched, his hands a parody of a horseman’s. Knuckles like knots in rope. Skin the texture of rawhide. His hair was a flurry of blond. It always looked like he’d spent time styling it with mousse and texturizer. He used neither. Of course she could stay. As long as he needed.

Cole tucked a piece of her dark brown hair behind her ear and thanked her. Her hair was layered, chin length; she’d been trying to grow it out for months. It never stayed behind her ears.

She watched the two cars pull out of the driveway, and then went inside, closing the door with her foot the way she had when hefting baby Mattie around.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

When she was ten, she had gone snorkeling with her best friend, Ellie. Hannah had never even been to the beach before, and here she was in Florida with her best friend and her best friend’s family.

The two girls and Ellie’s dad stood in the calm thigh-high water, and he helped them wrestle their flippers on over wet feet, and stretch and pull their masks into place.

Hannah’s mask was black and smelled of the shower curtain back home. It felt like nothing she could think of. It was tight and stiff. The mouthpiece felt too big. She gripped hard with her teeth and tried not to taste the rubber.

“Okay?” he asked the girls.

They nodded.

The surf picked her up and set her back down. She was standing on the back of a rocking horse. She was a circus rider in a sparkling leotard. The sand under her feet felt completely dry. It puffed around her in slow-moving clouds. She reached her hand under and watched it disappear in the swirls.

Ellie tapped her on the shoulder. Her mask was in place too. She went cross-eyed at Hannah. Hannah smiled.

Ellie’s dad leaned down. He looked silly in his mask without his glasses.

“Remember my instructions,” he said.

The girls nodded. Stay within sight of him. Don’t touch anything. Don’t stand on the reef.

With her hands by her thighs, she quietly practiced their emergency signal.

“Okay, then,” he said, and the three of them pushed forward into the blue, blue water.

Years later, she would bring that twenty minutes out like a favorite sweatshirt: its scary safety like riding a roller coaster in slow motion. The slightly blurry view through her mask. The sound of below water. The way the reef seemed to shift and surge beneath her. The way she could be staring at a rock or a crevice or the sand for minutes before seeing something. She brought her head above water, oriented herself in terms of shore, light, sound, only so that she could enjoy dropping into that other world over and over.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

She’d lived in this house for fifteen of the twenty years she’d been with Cole. She’d been moved out of it for two. When Cole had left her for Georgia, he’d offered to move out, but she’d told him that he could live with the memories, and anyway what could she do with two barns, three pastures, and forty head of horses? She’d rented a small place for herself, Mattie, and the dogs: Potpie, the Jack Russell, and Pete, the Lab mix, five miles away. A cottage on the grounds of the thoroughbred farm whose books she kept.

She’d left almost all their stuff. A lot of it was still here. Since the divorce, she’d stood in the doorway a couple of times—picking up or dropping off Mattie—and after the baby was born, she’d been in the nursery, but other than that, she’d stuck to the barn. She checked herself out in the entryway mirror, which was hung too high for her. She came up to Cole’s chest. Once, she’d stood back-to-back with Georgia, and the top of Hannah’s head hadn’t even reached the nape of Georgia’s neck.

Even so, standing in this house made her feel like she’d been dropped into the middle of her kindergarten classroom, everything about it too small, everything about herself the wrong size.

Blue was Georgia’s horse. She’d bought him about six months ago and had asked if Hannah would be interested in training him. Hannah hadn’t had much to do with training in years, and wondered why they weren’t doing it, but had agreed without asking any questions because she needed the money. The weirdness of the situation hadn’t fully occurred to her right away; she assumed it hadn’t to Georgia, either. She wondered if Cole had noticed this as a significant similarity between the two women. She looked in the mirror again. She wished she could see similarities between her and Georgia.

Sam yanked on her earring. He was eight months old and looked like his mother. Red hair, blue eyes, round face. A painting out of an art history book. When Georgia wasn’t training horses with Cole, she was a painter. Hannah didn’t know what to make of the baby. Mattie adored him.

She sniffed him. “You smell like you’ve had a bath,” she said. “Have you eaten?”

He stared.

She carried him into the kitchen. There was her pot hanger. There were her copper pots. The high chair tray was streaked with blueberry yogurt and something orange.

She held Sam out in front of her. “Well,” she said. “Well.”

She put him on the floor and began cleaning up.

Cole had wanted kids. She hadn’t. She hadn’t trusted herself with them. They were just like horses, he had told her. No, they weren’t, she’d answered.

Here’s what we’ll do, he’d proposed. We’ll have sex every day for two months, and if we get pregnant, we get pregnant, and if we don’t, we don’t.

He had a way of saying things like this that made her feel surges of good feeling for him. At the time, she’d found it an endearing proposition.

She’d been standing at this kitchen sink when he told her he was ready to leave. That’s how he put it: as if he’d been preparing for twenty years, and now the packing was done, the travel arrangements settled, and all that was left was to say good-bye to the wife.

Her hands had been wet, and she’d stood there letting them drip. He’d handed her a dishtowel and left the room.

Later, she’d wished she’d told him that if anyone was doing the leaving, it was going to be her. Think back, she wished she had suggested. Think back to when he’d wanted her and she hadn’t been so sure about him. But she hadn’t said any of that, because that woman had been gone for a long time.

When he’d told her, she’d been wearing her red clogs. He liked when she wore clogs. They made her taller.

Sam was on his back. He reached for a piece of crud and put it in his mouth. She watched.

She had to call Mattie. In the old days, the phone nook at the far side of the kitchen had been covered with a mess of thoroughbred and polo magazines, gardening catalogues, and pencils with chewed tops. Now it was bare. A mug to hold pens, a message pad, two phone books, and a phone. She decided it was a sign of sterility in the marriage.

Once she laid out the situation to Mattie, Mattie was disconcertingly skeptical about her mother taking care of Sam. She kept proposing possible disaster scenarios. Since the divorce, disaster scenarios were Mattie’s thing.

Hannah imagined Mattie in the cottage on the phone. The receiver looking giant next to her small face, like she was a baby with a prop.

Sam shimmied across the floor on his belly. “All right,” Hannah said. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Maybe not,” Mattie said matter-of-factly. “Georgia could be in bad shape. Georgia could be finished.”

Mattie was frank about her jealousy. Before Georgia, her father had always referred to her as his slow-dance partner.

“I think she’s going to be fine,” Hannah said.

“Nobody knows who’s going to be fine,” Mattie said.

It was moments like that that made Hannah know, with a fierceness that surprised her, that despite everything, going back to Cole would be the right thing to do. If he asked.

After she hung up she realized she hadn’t apologized about the paper butterflies.

Sam had his hand under the stove. It came out gray with dust. She took him to the sink to wash his hands. He started to cry. She tried to talk him out of it. His cries escalated. She carried him up to his room and put him in his crib. He made his whole body stiff and screamed some more.

The phone rang in the middle of this.

She answered the extension in the master bedroom. It was Cole. She told him to hang on, put the receiver under a pillow, and went to close the doors to the nursery and the bedroom.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m back.” She stretched out on her side of the bed. Mattie’s drawings were taped to the opposite wall.

“What were you doing?” he asked.

“The kettle was boiling,” she said.

“How’s Sam?” he said.

“Fine,” she said. She was pretty sure he couldn’t hear the crying. She asked about the accident. One of Mattie’s drawings featured a square-headed man with an expansive chest and a tiny waist. It was captioned Daddy.

They were still running tests. It was pretty bad. She was unconscious.

She asked how it had happened.

Georgia had been coming back from a gallery in town, asleep in the back seat. Her friend was driving. On that stretch of 29, right before Crestwood, that patch with no shoulder that could get hairy.

Hannah knew what Georgia looked like asleep in a car. Georgia could sleep anywhere. She’d tuck her long, thick hair under her head, and in minutes, she’d be gone, her freckled skin smooth across her face.

Hannah nodded, saying nothing, but he went on anyway.

The friend had dozed long enough to run into the concrete retaining wall. How the friend had remained unhurt, he had no idea.

Hannah was light-headed. Her skin was tingling. She had her eyes closed. It was like one of Mattie’s disaster scenarios. It was like being a horse in a starting box waiting for the bell.

So when he told her that Georgia had been thrown over the front seat and through the windshield it was pay-off. The electricity on her skin broke. She thought of the morning after Mattie’s birth when Cole had wanted to have sex, and she had let him. At some point, years ago, she had stopped asking herself why she felt the things she felt, and did the things she did.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

By the time she got off the phone, Sam had stopped crying. She checked on him. He was asleep; his face was splotchy and wet, and she found herself blowing on it, like a human hair dryer. If someone had asked, she wouldn’t have been able to explain herself. Other people never seemed as baffled by her as she was by herself.

Downstairs, she fixed herself a drink. One of Mattie’s unitards hung over a baby’s rocking chair near the liquor cabinet. The juxtaposition annoyed her. Georgia had told Mattie that black was her color because it set off her white blond hair. Since then, Mattie had insisted on black unitards to replace the pink and purple ones she’d wanted before.

Cole wasn’t going to be back until late, if at all. The bottle of Maker’s Mark in the cabinet was her old one. Her Magic Marker lines were still on its side. After his announcement that they were splitting, they hadn’t for months. The marker lines had been her way of tracking her downward spiral. She should’ve marked the NyQuil bottle. One night, waiting for him to get home, she had downed the NyQuil and what was left of the Tylenol PMs and flopped onto the couch. She’d wanted him to find her, one arm flung over her head, her face to the ceiling, the skin of her throat white and cold. The room had spun, her head had fogged, and she’d thrown up. Cole had stayed out the whole night and she’d never told him about it. She’d felt stupid. The eighteen-year-old boy who kills himself imagining the eulogies at his memorial service.

The ice in her glass rearranged itself with small cracking noises. The unitard still bothered her. She went to the phone and called the cottage. Lois, their baby-sitter, answered.

Hannah told her to bring Mattie over.

“She’s asleep,” Lois said. She waited. “It’s after ten,” she added.

Hannah told her to bring her anyway. “Wrap her in a blanket,” she suggested. “She’ll sleep in the car.”

“Why?” Lois said.

Hannah had no response.

Lois got her testy maternal voice on. “Why should I wake up a happily sleeping little girl and take her out in the middle of the night?”

Hannah pushed at an ice cube with her finger. “Because I can’t afford to pay you for all this time, and because I need some company over here.”

She could hear Lois softening. Lois was near sixty and had sympathy for the kind of damage men inflicted.

“All right,” she said after a minute. “We’ll be there in a bit.”

Hannah hung up, took a sip of her whiskey, and threw the rest of it into the sink.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

Ten minutes later Lois called back to remind her that her car was in the shop. “I’ll stay,” Lois said. “Free of charge.”

Hannah glanced around the kitchen. “No,” she said. “I’ll come get you. I’ll drop you off on the way back here.”

“What about Sam?” Lois asked.

Hannah told her Sam would be fine.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

She grabbed her keys and went upstairs. He was still asleep. She watched him breathe. She imagined the scene in a movie. What would she think of a woman doing what she was doing? She knew what she used to think. Now, it was like how she felt when she had a cold, staring out at a world full of the healthy. It was like she’d had a cold for years.

She went back downstairs, closed the front door, eased the screen door shut, and got in her car. She pulled down the driveway slowly, wincing at the crunch of the gravel beneath her tires, and didn’t turn on her lights until she had pulled onto the road.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

The cottage looked small in the moonless night, and the air had cooled considerably, and she didn’t want to go inside. She honked, and Lois came out carrying Mattie bundled in a cotton throw. Mattie had gotten long and lanky in the last year. Her arms and legs hung out of the blanket like a baby giraffe’s. Potpie stood on his hind legs, watching from the front window. Hannah reached over and opened the passenger door. Lois settled Mattie carefully and strapped her in. “I’ll just go lock up,” she said.

Mattie opened her eyes. She stared blankly at her mother, then peered into the backseat. “You left him?”

Hannah said, “I knew you would say that.” She put the car into gear. “It’s ten minutes.”

Mattie kept staring at the backseat, as if she could make her brother appear.

The porch light went off, and Lois came back to the car. “Fingers and toes,” she reminded Mattie as she swung the door shut. She climbed into the backseat.

Mattie said, “She left Sam in the house by himself.”

Lois looked around her.

Hannah backed down the short driveway.

“You left him?” Lois finally said.

“That’s what I said,” Mattie said.

Lois ran her hand over the empty seat next to her.

“He’s a baby,” Mattie said.

Hannah accelerated. “Ten minutes,” she said again. “He’s asleep; he’ll be fine.” Part of her believed it. Part of her didn’t.

They were quiet until they pulled into Lois’s driveway. Her husband had left the kitchen light on. Hannah could see a sandwich and a beer waiting on the table.

Mattie rolled her window down. “I want to stay here,” she said.

No one answered.

Lois got out and leaned through Mattie’s window. Mattie reached a hand up, and Lois kissed her knuckles.

“I like you, Hannah,” Lois said. “You’re not the kind of woman who leaves babies in houses by themselves.”

She hadn’t asked for an explanation, but Hannah knew she was waiting for one. “The longer you keep me, the longer he’s on his own,” she said. She couldn’t explain herself. The fact crept through her like a thrilling surprise.

Lois backed away from the car. She said, “You call if you need anything,” and when Hannah didn’t say anything, Mattie answered for them.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

It was almost eleven by the time they got back to the house. Mattie ran upstairs. Hannah stayed where she was, standing in the entry.

When Mattie was two, Hannah had been maneuvering around her in the kitchen with a pot of steaming water. Some of it had landed on Mattie’s hand and foot, and there’d been screaming and blistering and a trip to the emergency room. She still had small scars on her heel and palm.

Cole hadn’t said a word. When they got home, he put Mattie to bed, and Hannah followed him to their bedroom, apologizing, and he’d told her she’d been right not to want kids, and it was his fault for thinking she could handle it. He’d pointed at her, and said, “Stupid.”

She’d retreated downstairs and had found herself standing in the entry, taking her clothes off piece by piece. Naked, she returned to the bedroom, stood in the doorway, and said, “I know I’m stupid,” and while she spread her legs for him and he made himself hard, they’d traded synonyms for the word.

She heard the nursery door close. She looked down at her riding clothes. Her hands still smelled of leather and sweat and horse.

Mattie appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Let’s take a bath,” Hannah said.

“He’s all right,” Mattie said.

“I’ll run the water,” Hannah said.

Her daughter held on to both banisters. “Why should I do anything with you?” she asked.

“Because,” Hannah said.

Mattie stared.

Hannah felt tears starting. “Because sometimes you make me feel better about myself,” she said.

Mattie looked worried, then she said, “Lois says that’s not my job.”

Hannah didn’t say anything. Mattie looked even more worried. Her dark brown eyes made slow sweeps, tracking like a radar. Hannah loved her eyes. They were dark, dark. “She doesn’t miss a trick,” she used to marvel about Baby Mattie.

The girl didn’t move. “Are you mad?” she asked.

Hannah stared at her feet. The urge to cry was gone; she tried to will the tears back. Then she said, “I’m not mad. Go to bed; I’ll see you in the morning.”

“I want to call the hospital,” Mattie announced.

“It’s too late,” Hannah said.

“I want to talk to Daddy,” Mattie said. Her expression was unpleasant.

“He’ll be back any minute,” Hannah said. Her daughter waited. “They don’t have phones in the operating room,” Hannah pointed out.

Mattie looked skeptical, but finally went back down the hall.

Hannah stayed at the bottom of the stairs, listening to her daughter’s noises. After a silence, the water ran in the bathroom. The toilet flushed. The water ran again.

She went back to the liquor cabinet and grabbed Mattie’s unitard. On the way up to the master bedroom she found herself holding it to her nose. It smelled like Cole’s aftershave.

When she reached the master bedroom, the door to Mattie’s room clicked shut. She dropped the unitard in the hall and took off her shirt and bra, adding them to the pile.

In the bedroom, she sat at Georgia’s dressing table and took off her paddock boots and britches. In the mirror, her features seemed drawn tight like the cord on a backpack. She’d become someone pinched and parched, she thought. Her socks were still damp. Sawdust and hay came off with them. She swept them into the cracks between the floorboards with her foot.

She stood up, naked. She went into the bathroom. Cole’s side of the double-sink counter was unchanged: a cheap razor, and Edge shaving cream for extra-heavy beards. A toothbrush, bristles worn and splayed like a tiny, sad bouquet.

Georgia’s side was filled. Lotions, bath salts, hair gels, aromatherapy candles, Q-tips and cotton balls in glass jars. Ribbons and scarves poured out of the drawers. A lipstick case like the ones on cosmetic counters in department stores held twenty or thirty different shades. An old juice jar for makeup brushes. Perfumes lined up behind them, snaking over onto Cole’s side.

She wiped one of the larger brushes across her cheek. She closed her eyes and dusted them. She picked up a tiny comb whose use escaped her and after a moment tested it on her pubic hair.

Perfume was something Cole had complained about. Her lack of it. She hadn’t known it was a problem until they’d talked about his decision to leave. She’d said, I can wear perfume. He’d looked at the floor.

A drawer in the lipstick case held labeled circles of eyeshadow—Pink Chocolate, Gold Apple, Perfect Amber. Some were more used than others. The Gothic Eggplant was almost completely worn away. The white plastic revealed in the center made it look like a peculiar eye.

Mattie came home from weekends here with her nails polished. She’d also taken to colored lip glosses. Hannah hunted around in the cupboards. She found the polish lined up in one of the drawers, in a display case that allowed them to be tipped back.

She chose a lime green and sat on the bathmat cross-legged to apply it. The smell gave her an immediate headache. She breathed deeper.

Sam was crying again. She had one more finger to go on her right hand. She finished and reached up to the counter for a Q-tip to fix the edges.

The crying was louder. Mattie appeared in the doorway, Sam balanced on her tiny hip. “What are you doing?” she said.

Hannah screwed the top back on the polish and stood, flexing her wet hand away from her body like someone imitating a penguin. “Here,” she said, reaching with her other arm. “Give him to me.”

Mattie hesitated. Sam continued to scream, arching his back, and stiffening his arms and legs.

“Mattie,” Hannah said.

The girl passed the baby over, struggling under his weight.

“I’ll take care of it,” Hannah said. “Go to bed.”

“He sounds sick,” Mattie said.

He was overheated and his pajamas were soaked. He wiped tears and snot on Hannah’s shoulder. His hand found her breast, which seemed to calm him a little.

She turned to block Mattie’s view.

“Where are your clothes?” Mattie asked.

Hannah concentrated on the baby. “I’m taking a bath.”

Mattie looked over at the dry tub.

“Go back to bed,” Hannah said. “I’ve got it.” She cupped Sam’s head with the back of her hand, and rocked it back and forth.

“You’re getting nail polish in his hair,” Mattie said.

Hannah kept her hand where it was.

“You’re painting your nails,” Mattie said. She shook her head. “Maybe we should call Lois,” she said.

“Bed,” Hannah said.

She led her out of the room and down the hallway, then watched her get into bed and closed the door behind her.

Sam was still crying.

She took him back to the bathroom and set him on the counter while she searched the cupboards for medicine. There was a bottle of children’s Benadryl at the back. It was half-full. She picked him up and sat back down on the floor, leaning against the bathtub. The porcelain was cold.

She read the box for dosage directions. Under age two: consult your doctor.

She tried to remember how much she’d given Mattie. She couldn’t remember Mattie ever needing this kind of medicine.

Sam’s head tipped back towards the floor.

She filled the dropper and lifted him up. He seemed to like the taste of it. He opened his mouth for it. She thought of fish. She thought of Georgia and that concrete wall. The crying was winding down. She thought of Cole’s way of asking Mattie for a kiss. She thought of the way she’d copied that, had made it her way of telling him she was ready to perform oral sex.

Sam’s thumb was in his mouth. He was calming himself.

She could put him in the crib now. He would drop off to sleep. She pulled his hand away, and held it down by his side. He protested.

“Shh,” she said. “Shh.” With her free hand, she lifted her breast to him. He took her into his mouth as if he had always known her this way. She stretched her legs out in a vee in front of her. His foot dropped between them. His mouth worked around her. His eyes were closed. His saliva ran slowly down the outside curve of her breast. Her skin was alive with goosebumps and heat. She could smell baby and horse. She could smell herself.

She imagined herself as a twenty-year-old witnessing this scene. She imagined her confusion. She imagined her shame. How had she become someone who did something like this? If someone had shown her this, she wouldn’t have believed it.

The phone rang. Sam jumped, but his eyes stayed closed. His mouth continued to suck. She got up carefully, and went to the bed. She lay down in her spot and resettled him across her.

Cole was suspicious. “What took you so long?” he said.

“I was taking a bath,” she said.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. He sounded suddenly worn out. “She’s not doing so well. Something about a bleed in her head. They’re talking about surgery to release it.”

She slid her pinky into Sam’s mouth. He frowned. She could feel his tongue and her nipple.

Even after everything she and Georgia had been through, she still cared about her. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Cole took a breath. “Well,” he said. “What can we do, right?”

It sounded like he was rubbing his cheek with the receiver.

“You’ve been great,” he said. “Thanks.”

She took her finger out of Sam’s mouth and held her hand out in front of her. The polish had dried all scratched and ruined. “When are you coming home?” she asked.

He exhaled. “I don’t know. They say I should, that we’re not going to know anything for a while. But, I don’t know.” He hesitated. “I don’t know. What if she wakes up and I’m not here? What if she needs me?”

A tightness worked its way up her throat. What did she want? she thought. What had she ever wanted, and what had she been willing to do to get it?

She took Sam from her breast and laid him on the bed next to her. She swallowed. The tightness wouldn’t go away. “You should come back,” she said.

“You’re probably right,” he said. “It’s just I want to be here, you know?”

She heard the hospital intercom behind him.

She waited.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”

He told her he’d call in a little while, and then he hung up.

She was cold. She got under the covers, turned on her side, and tucked a pillow between her legs. “We’ll see,” she said. She watched Sam’s eyes move from side to side under almost translucent lids.

She got out of bed and put on one of Georgia’s robes. She went and got the Benadryl. She gave him some more, and then slid the empty dropper between his lips. In his sleep, he sucked and swallowed.

She left him in the bed and went to take a shower. The dirt from riding ran off in streams. She washed her hair with a shampoo that had things like papaya and coconut in it. The water was hot and made her dizzy.

She dried off, put the robe back on, and stood in front of Georgia’s lipsticks. Minutes went by. Her reflection registered neither pleasure nor displeasure. She chose a perfume by the shape of the bottle and dotted her wrists and her inner thighs.

She headed down the hall to Mattie’s bedroom.

Mattie was asleep, wheezing a little with each breath. She’d been officially diagnosed with asthma when she was four, but Hannah had known she had it well before then. She’d recognized the signs from her own childhood. She’d talked Mattie through her first nebulizing visit to the emergency room. She’d taught her to use her inhalers. They’d walked around the house together, placing inhalers in strategic spots that they called “breathing stations.” She’d explained in language Mattie would understand what was happening inside her straining little lungs. Watching Mattie under attack, a miniature version of herself, made her feel closer to her daughter than at any other time.

She pulled Mattie’s hands out from under the covers and arranged them across the bedspread. The nails were tiny and bitten. She bent over them, moved.

A car was coming up the road. She went to the window, but it passed their driveway.

Cole, she thought. She wanted Cole. Even in the early going, when she’d seemed tough on him. Whatever else there’d been, she’d always wanted Cole.

She returned to stand over Mattie for a minute, and then she went to the window seat to wait.

*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *

She waited until the sky was predawn blue. The first night she’d been with Cole, the sky had gotten this color before he’d even tried to kiss her. He’d turned out the light, and said, “But the bad thing is now I won’t be able to see you.” And she’d answered, amazed at herself, “But you can still feel.” And he’d found her mouth with his, and her nose against his lip, the smell of him, had gone right to the center of her like a sip of whiskey when you’re still too young to drink.

Her hand against the windowpane felt the beginnings of morning heat. The tightness returned. She imagined all of them in Georgia’s car the day before, Cole at the wheel. Those few months before Hannah had finally moved out, he’d had sex on a regular basis with both women. Hannah had known, Georgia hadn’t. Look what an asshole he is, Hannah had told her friends. Your father can’t keep away from me, she’d told Mattie. Had that been the beginning of doing things she’d never imagined being capable of? No, she thought sadly, for that, she’d have to go back much further.

Mattie was asleep on her side, her knees tucked up.

Hannah was crying. She went to the bed and tightened the sash of her robe. She knelt, lifted one of Mattie’s hands and pulled it to her. She pressed it to her forehead and then to her cheek. It was damp and smelled of dirt.

Maybe she knew things now that could’ve helped her then. But what did she know? What?

She buried her face in her daughter’s hair and inhaled until she stopped crying. Mattie rolled onto her back. Mattie was so great.

Hannah stood up and backed out of the room.

She was crying again. What kind of man did the things he had done? What kind of woman let him?

She knew the answers. The other question was, when had she become one of those women?

“Mommy?” Mattie murmured in her sleep.

Her heart shied at the sound. “Shh,” Hannah said. “I”m right here.”

Mattie quieted.

I’m a mother, Hannah thought over and over, as if thinking it enough would make her feel it as real.

The first time Mattie as a baby had slept through the night, Hannah had snuck into her room to nurse her. All that quiet had been a rejection she couldn’t stand.

Mattie’s breathing was regular and louder now. Hannah crept down the stairs, remembering which creaking ones to skip. She stopped at the front door. She was listening so hard it felt like her head was underwater.

She was about to leave two children in the house alone because she felt like it.

Her thoughts moved from What could happen? to What about me? and she found herself somehow calmed.

She was barefoot and naked beneath her robe, and made her way gingerly down the gravel driveway to the barn. Her skin glowed an unearthly shade in the moonlight. The dirt of the center aisle was like a balm on the soles of her feet.

Blue’s head appeared in his stall door. His ears twitched at her. His eye regarded her.

She ignored the ladder and shimmied up a post into the hayloft. It made her feel young and able to do things. Her eyes weren’t yet used to the dark.

The hay pricked her hands and knees as she found her way to the corner where Cole kept old tack and blankets. Bridles hung like the empty armor of sentinels on the back wall. She recognized the smell of his first working saddle before she felt its shape. It was on its back against a pile of hay bales. She sat inside the wide reach of its flaps. She closed her eyes and apologized to everyone for things she never would’ve imagined herself being responsible for.

Tonight had been a train wreck. Her life had been a train wreck. How had she gotten here? What would happen now?

Old mistakes, new mistakes, she thought sadly. And then she opened her eyes, sweeping the darkness in front of her, searching for whatever other familiar objects she could find in the time she had left.