A Cowboy for Christmas

 

A Cowboy for Christmas October 30, 2012
Jubilee Texas Series, Book 3

It’s Christmastime in Jubilee, Texas, but Lissette Moncrief is having a hard time celebrating . . .

Especially after she accidentally smashes her car into Rafferty Jones’s pick-up truck. Yes, he’s a whole lot of handsome—from the tips of his boots to the top of his Stetson. But he’s no Christmas present. Lissy’s not about to let herself get whisked away by his charming ways and words . . . only to watch him drive away in the end.

But what Lissy doesn’t know is Rafferty’s in town just to meet her—and to give her a share in a windfall that doesn’t rightly belong to him. At first, he just wants to do his good deed and get out. But one look at this green-eyed beauty has him deciding to turn this into a Christmas to remember . . . making promises he’s determined to keep—whether she believes in them or not.

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When she got right down to it, Lissette Moncrief’s infatuation with cowboys was what really started all the trouble.

There was just something about those laconic alpha males that stirred her romantic soul. Their uniforms of faded Wranglers, scuffed cowboy boots, jangling spurs and proudly cocked Stetsons represented rugged strength, fierce independence and a solemn reverence for the land. Their stony determination to tame wild horses, tend broken fences and take care of their families made her stomach go fluttery. Their cool way of facing problems head on, no shirking or skirting responsibilities weakened her knees.

A cowboy was stalwart, and steady, honest and honorable, stoic and down-to-earth. At least that’s what the movies had taught her. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Sam Elliott, she’d crushed on them all. She loved Wayne’s self-confident swagger, Eastwood’s steely-eyed ethics and Elliott’s toe-tingling voice.

When she was sixteen, Lissette and her best friend, Audra, had snuck off to see a fortuneteller at the Scarborough Renaissance Fair in Waxahachie. Inside the canvas tent, Lady Divine, a pancake-faced woman in a wheelchair, spread spooky looking cards across an oil-stained folding table. She wore dreadlocks tied up in a red bandana and a flowy rainbow caftan. On the end of her chin perched a fat brown mole with long black hairs sprouting from it like spider legs. The tent smelled of fried onions and the farty pit-bull mix stretched out on a braided rug.

Lady Divine studied the cards’ alignment. She tapped her lips with an index finger and glanced up to grab Lissette’s tentative gaze. She didn’t say anything for a long dramatic moment.

“What is?” Lissette whispered, gripping the corner of the cheap greasy table, bracing for some horrific prestidigitation like, you have no future.

“Cowboy.”

“What?” Lissette blinked, thrilled to the word.

“I see a cowboy in your future.”

“My husband?”

“Only you can say.”

“Is he handsome? What’s he like?”

“Dark.” Lady Divine’s voice turned ominous.

“In personality or looks?”

“I can’t say. But this cowboy will deeply influence you in one way or the other.”

“A bad way?” Her anxious fingers knotted a strand of fringe dangling from the sleeve of her western jacket.

Lady Divine shrugged. “What’s good? What’s bad? You can’t avoid this cowboy. He is inevitability. Surrender.”

The fortuneteller continued on with the reading, but Lissette absorbed none of the rest of it. She was so stunned by how the woman had zeroed in on her cowboy infatuation. Later, she and Audra had dissected the woman’s uncanny prediction. They were in Texas, after all. The likelihood of running across an influential cowboy at some point in her future were far above 50/50. Not such a mystifying forecast when you thought about it. Yet, Lissette couldn’t shake the feeling that this woman knew unexplainable things about her future.

Most people would have blown off the reading, forgotten about it, dismissed it as nothing more than the silly pitch of a woman who made her money telling gullible people what they wanted to hear. But for a girl who’d been besotted with cowboy culture from age seven when her family had moved from Raleigh, North Carolina to Dallas, Texas the fortuneteller’s prophecy had not only mesmerized Lissette but set her up for heartache.

If she hadn’t been convinced that a cowboy was her future, she would never have ignored the warning signs in regard to her late husband, Jake. If she hadn’t romanticized him into a modern day version of John Wayne, she wouldn’t have married him. If he hadn’t sounded like Sam Elliot on steroids, she wouldn’t have heard to the lies he told her. If she hadn’t duped herself into thinking that he was the second coming of Clint Eastwood, she wouldn’t have had a child with him. If she hadn’t swallowed the cowboy mystique hook, line and sinker, she wouldn’t be here in Jubilee, Texas, the cutting horse capital of the world, dealing with this new life-shattering situation alone.

She glanced at her two-year-old son, Kyle, who was seated in the grocery cart. Unable to draw in a full breath, she ran a hand over Kyle’s curly brown hair as he sat in the grocery cart eating cheddar goldfish crackers from a lidless sippy cup decorated with images of gray Eeyore. Cheesy, yellow crumbs clung to his cupid bow lips and there was a grape juice stain on his light blue T-shirt. Her heart catapulted into her throat.

Genetic non-syndromic autosomal recessive progressive hearing loss.

The words were a mouthful that boiled down to one gut-wrenching truth. Kyle, was slowly going deaf. Medical science could not cure him, and it was all her fault.

Turns out both she and her late husband, Jake, unwittingly carried a recessive connexin 26 mutation and poor Kyle had lost the genetic lottery. So said the audiologist, geneticist and pediatric otolaryngologist whose Fort Worth office she’d just left with the astringent smell of cold antiseptic in her nose and a handful of damning paperwork and referrals clutched in her fist.

Deaf.

Such a frightening word. It sounded too much like dead.

Deaf.

Her poor fatherless baby.

Foggy as a sleepwalker, Lissette pushed her grocery cart down the baking products aisle of Searcy’s Grocery, past an array of orange and black cupcake sprinkles, candy molds in the shapes of ghosts and pumpkins, and haunted gingerbread house kits.

Her lips pressed into a hard line, resisting any stiff attempts she made to lift them into a smile for fellow shoppers. Misery bulged at the seams of her heart until it felt too swollen to fit in her chest. It beat, as if barely stitched together, in halting ragtag jolts and a sense of impending doom pressed in on her, hot and smothering.

It couldn’t be true that her child was losing his hearing in slow, agonizing increments, never to be reclaimed. She had to seek a second opinion. A third. And a fourth if necessary.

With what? Consultations did not come cheaply.

Blinking back tears, Lissette refocused on her goal. Shopping for baking supplies. It was the answer to her money troubles.

Searcy’s was the only locally owned and operated supermarket in Jubilee, the cowboy-infused town Jake had settled her in over four years ago before he first shipped off to the Middle East. In the beginning, she’d embraced the place, the community, the culture, the cowboys, but then, bit-by-bit, her eyes had been opened to the truth. Cowboys were like everyone else. Some good. Some bad. All fallible. It had been a mistake to romanticize a myth.

The store, with its narrow aisles, sometimes felt like a womb—comforting, cozy, communal—but today, it felt like a straight jacket with the straps cinched tight. Maybe it was the candy pumpkin molds, but an old nursery rhyme popped into her head.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her. Put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.

“Da…” Kyle gurgled with the limited vocabulary of a child half his age. “Da.”

Guilt suffocated her. Was he calling for his lost father? Or did he even remember Jake? Maybe he was trying to say something else entirely but simply lacked the auditory tools to do so.

Shoppers crowded her. She needed over by the flour, but Jubilee’s version of two soccer moms—i.e. Little Britches rodeo moms—stood leaning against the shelves gossiping, oblivious to those around them.

Lissette cleared her throat, but the moms either ignored her or didn’t hear her. Something she’d grown accustomed to as the middle-child, book-ended by more attractive, gregarious sisters. When her mother had arranged them in stair-steps according to height before ushering them out the front door on one venture or the other, her eyes grazing from Brittney to Samantha without noticing Lissette sandwiched in between.

Brittney possessed straight glossy blond hair, inherited from their mother’s side of the family, while Samantha resembled their father with spiral curls the color of roasted chestnuts. Lissette’s own hair was a plain mix of light brown with dull blond strands and wavy in an unattractive way, necessitating countless hours with either curlers or a flat iron. Lissette’s skin was pale and unlike her sisters, she did not tan well. She spent her childhood slathered in sunscreen, her face hidden by wide-brimmed hats. While Brittney boasted a precise, straight profile and Samantha had a cute up-turned nose, a small bump ran the bridge of Lissette’s nose. Her mother told her that her lips were her best feature, not too big, not to small, full in the right places. “You’re face lights up when you smile, Lissy, so make sure to smile often.”

“Um,” Lissette ventured, surrendering a smile. “Could one of you ladies please hand me a ten pound sack of cake flour?”

“Did you hear about Denise?” the shorter of the two women asked the other as if Lissette hadn’t uttered a word. “She up and left Jiff for a man eight years younger than she is.”

“Get out! Denise? No way.”

“I tell you, losing all that weight went straight to her head. She thinks she’s God’s gift to men now that she can squeeze into a size four.”

“My cousin, Callie, is single and searching,” the taller one mused. “I wonder if Jiff’s ready to start dating.”

Feeling invisible, Lissette sighed and bent over, trying to reach around to get to the flour, but the ten-pound bags were on the bottom shelf. The woman with the single cousin had her fashionable Old Gringo cowboy boots cocked in such a way that Lissette couldn’t get at the flour.

Normally, she would have stopped at Costco for a fifty pound bag when she’d been in Fort Worth, but those big bags were so hard for her to lift and besides she’d driven the twenty-six miles back to Jubilee in a such a fog she didn’t even remember leaving the medical complex.

She straightened. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask the women to kindly step aside when a ten-year-old boy on wheeled skate-shoes darted past, almost crashing into Lissette’s elbow. She jumped back and gritted her teeth, anxiety climbing high in her throat.

Kyle was staring at her, studying her face.

Calm down.

She was on edge. Kyle was picking up on her negative energy and that was the last thing he needs. If she thought her morning had been lousy, all she had to do was imagine what it feels like to her son—poked and prodded and unable to understand why.

It hit her then, how confusing life must be when you couldn’t hear. How much communication you missed. Then again, in some regards, that might be a blessing. Did she really need to hear about Denise and Jiff’s crumbling marriage? Her own marriage had been filled with so many thorns that the occasional sweet bloom couldn’t make up for the painful sticks.

“Da.” Kyle raised his small head, his usual somber expression searching her face through impossibly long eyelashes—Jake’s eyelashes—as if seeking an answer to the silent question. Why can’t I hear you, Mommy?

Why hadn’t she suspected something was wrong? Why hadn’t she realized that her baby could not hear? Why had it taken a nudge from her best friend, Mariah Daniels, for her to make a doctor’s appointment?

She’d been angry at first when Mariah said, “It’s funny that Kyle doesn’t respond when you ask him to do something.”

Lissette told herself Mariah was jealous. Kyle was so much quieter than her son, Jonah, who was six months younger. But then she started noticing how Kyle watched her hands more than he watched her face. How he never cared for toys that made noise. How his language skills lagged behind Jonah’s. How he often seemed so willful, never listening when she cautioned.

Her chest tightened. Her son hadn’t been ignoring her. He wasn’t willful. He simply had not heard her warnings. At times, she’d been so impatient with him. She pressed her lips together, her throat clogged with shame and regret.  How could she have been so clueless?

“Sweetie,” said a tiny elderly woman with a severe, blue-tinged bun piled high on her head and tortoise shell glasses perched on the end of her nose. She wore a lumpy floral print dress that scalloped around saggy calves and didn’t quite hide the coffee-colored, knee-high stockings. “Would you mind reaching that box of powdered milk on the top shelf for me?”

Lissette forced a smile. She wouldn’t be rude like the rodeo moms. Her best friend, Mariah Daniels, was five foot nothing, so even though she wasn’t particularly tall herself at five-foot-five, Lissette was accustomed to retrieving things off top shelves. “The blue box or the red?”

“The blue, please.”

Lissette had to stand on tiptoes to reach it, but she got the box down.

“Bless you my dear. Be proud of your height.”

“I’m not that tall.”

“To me, you’re a tower.”  Her blue eyes twinkled. “And who is this little man? How old are you?” she asked Kyle.

Busy eyeing the baking chocolate, Kyle crunched a goldfish and did not respond.

The elderly lady bustled closer. “Are you two years old? You’re about the same size as my great-grandson. You look like you’re two years old.”

Kyle never reacted.

The woman cocked her head like a curious squirrel. “Is something wrong with him, Sweetie? He’s not answering me.”

A dozen impulses pulsed through Lissette. The defensive part of her wanted to tell the woman to mind her own business. The ‘nice girl’ started thinking of a delicate way to explain. Her shell-shocked psyche curled the words, “He’s deaf,” around her tongue, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. Not yet. Not when she hadn’t even practiced saying it in private.

Instead, she completely surprised herself by blurting out, “His father got blown up by an IED in Afghanistan on the Fourth of July.”

The gnomish woman stepped back as if Lissette had slapped her. She gasped and put her hands to her mouth. “Oh, my Lord, you’re that poor young widow. I read all about it in the Jubilee Caller. Oh, Sweetie, I’m so sorry. I know exactly what you’re going through.”

You have no idea what I’m going through, Lissette wanted to scream, but she pasted a taut smile in place. “Thank you.”

“I’m so sorry,” the woman repeated and patted Lissette’s forearm, and then burst into tears. “I lost my boy in ‘Nam.”

“I…I…” Lissette stammered, unable to find the right words. She could not imagine—never wanted to imagine—losing her child. She clenched her jaw, unable to find the right words.

The elderly woman dug into a purse the size of Vermont and came up with a crumbled tissue clutched in arthritis-gnarled fingers. “They never did find his remains.” She pressed a knobby knuckle against her nose, blinked through the tears. “Johnny Lee’s been gone forty-four years, but I think of him every single day. He was only eighteen when the Lord called him away. Just a baby. My boy.”

Their gazes locked. Two mothers united in loss.

Lissette squeezed the woman’s shoulder. ““Is there anything else I can get you from the top shelf?”

The great-grandmother dried her eyes with a sleeve. “Why, thank you for the offer, Sweetie. I am running low on baking soda.”

“Big box or small.”

“Small. There’s nothing big about me.” Her congenial chuckle was back, but her faded gaze stayed caught in the past. Then she raised her chin, met Lissette’s eyes. “I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me. Don’t try to be brave. Don’t hold it all in. I know the grief is immense, but don’t fight it. Cry hard when you receive bad news because this is how you will make way for tears of joy. Then you can accept your losses, accept your mistakes and embrace a happy future.”

The woman turned and vanished so quickly, that for one startling second, Lissette wondered if she imagined the whole exchange.

Accept your losses.

She glanced to her son who was losing his hearing. How could she accept that? And by accepting it, how could that possibility lead to second chances? The medical team had assured her there was no way to restore Kyle’s hearing.

Accept your mistakes.

It was a strange thing to say. It felt like surrender. Lissette was familiar with surrender. She was, by nature, accepting of the circumstances she found herself in. It was far easier to give in than to put up a fuss.

When Jake had told her that instead of quitting the Army as he promised, he reenlisted and was going back to the Middle East, she’d not only accepted it, she’d been secretly relieved. It was something she would never admit to another living soul. But when he was home on leave Jake had been restless, moody. He had frequent nightmares and would get up in the middle of the night and disappear. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home for days at a stretch, never told her where he went and if she pressed for an explanation, he’d grow surly and curt. It had been easier to tiptoe around him. She suspected he might be having an affair, although she tried not to think about it too much.

Fearing he was suffering from post-traumatic stress, she’d suggested counseling, but Jake yelled at her and even put his fist through the wall, proving to her that he did need therapy. But she’d been afraid of his rage and she’d backed down, never knowing what was going to set him off or what he was capable of. He was no longer the cowboy she’d fallen in love with, but she was loyal to the bone and she kept hoping that once he was back home for good that eventually he’d heal and they could become a real family. Peace at all costs. Even if it meant burying her own needs.

Subjugating her desires.

Yes, for the most part, she was easy to get along with. Her friends valued her opinion because she could see both sides of an issue. They liked her company because she rarely rocked the boat. Accepting. It could have been her middle name.

But that was where the elderly woman was wrong. Lissette should not accept what was happening. What she should do was rail against the injustice of it all. Accept nothing. Do the opposite. Deny, deny, deny. Kick and scream and fight and speak up for what she required.

The gossipers were still hogging the flour shelf. She took a step forward, cleared her throat, and opened her mouth, determined to ask them to please move, when a sudden announcement came over the store public address system.

“Attention shoppers!” announced the store manager. “It’s Searcy’s five for five. For the next five minutes, any five items on the baking products aisle will sell for five cents. You have from three p.m. until three-o-five to get your purchases and check out. On your mark, get set, go!”

Before the announcement finished, the baking goods aisle flooded with customers. A sea of shoppers pushed against her, tossing her farther from the flour as they snatched and grabbed at everything in sight.

Fine, she’d go for the sugar. It was right behind her. She spun her cart around, but a handholding young couple with matching facial piercings and tattoos, halted right in front of her.

Hands locked, they stared her down. The young man had a Mohawk. The girl’s hair was Barney the Dinosaur purple with glow-in-the-dark neon green streaks. Neither said a word, just glowered in simpatico, their gazes drilling a hole through Lissette. Apparently, they wanted her to move rather than force them to let go of each other’s hands so they could continue on their way undivided.

Fine, Syd and Nancy. Let it never be said I stood in the way of punk love.

Lissette tried to maneuver her cart off to one side, but people jostled each elbow and the cart wouldn’t roll. Some sticky crap stuck to the wheels. Flustered, she picked the cart up and tried to eek out a couple of inches.

“Hey!” complained a woman she bumped against who was tossing a handful of garlic salt into her cart. “Watch where you’re doing.”

“I’m so sorry,” Lissette apologized.

The amorous duo wrinkled their noses at her, turned and stalked back the way they’d come, never letting go of each other in the about-face, even though they had to raise their coupled hands over the heads of other shoppers.

Ah, true love. Once upon a time she’d been that young and dumb.

Someone stumbled against her. Someone else smelled as if they’d taken a bath in L’air Du temps. Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence” trickled through the music system. The irony was not lost on Lissette.

Claustrophobia wrapped around her throat, choked her. She broke out in a cold sweat. She stood frozen, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her whole so she didn’t have to deal with any of this. She would have unzipped her skin and stripped it off if she could have. Her hands shook. Panic clawed her chest.

It took everything she had to curb the impulse to abandon the grocery cart and sprint like a mad woman to her quaint Victorian home in the middle of town. Grab Kyle up, clutch him to her chest, tumble into the big empty four-poster bed, and burrow underneath the double-wedding ring quilt that her mother-in-law Claudia, had made.

She ached to go to sleep and wake up to find this whole thing was just a wickedly bad dream—Jake’s death, the fact that he left his four hundred thousand dollar life insurance policy to a half-brother she never knew existed, and now today’s striking blow of learning that Kyle was going deaf. Her son would never be a concert musician. Never speak three languages. Never hear the sound of his children’s voices.

She’d been utterly shocked when she’d learned her husband had not named her his beneficiary. Then bone deep anger. Followed by marrow-chilling dread when the government informed her that because she was not his beneficiary she and Kyle were no longer eligible for Jake’s VA health benefits. After that blow, she’d taken out the only health insurance she could afford—a catastrophic policy with a massive deductible. None of today’s medical expenses would be covered or any further expenses until she hit the ten thousand dollar annual threshold.

The only thing she knew for certain was that the money she’d been anticipating to provide for her and Kyle would not be forthcoming.  Beyond a tiny nest egg in an untouchable retirement account, Jake’s untrained cutting horse and her Queen Anne Victorian, she had only five thousand dollars left from the money the Army had given her to bury Jake with and if he hadn’t told her numerous time that he preferred cremation to burial, she wouldn’t have had even that small sum.

In this real estate market her house was more liability than asset. The only thing she had of any worth to sell was Jake’s cutting horse and the accompanying horse trailer, but she just hadn’t made herself go through the motions yet. She had to do something and soon. Today, she’d worked out a payment pay for the medical services Kyle had undergone, but this was only the beginning.

“Damn you, Jake,” she whispered. “For treating us this way. Damn you for refusing to get help and killing what little love we had left.”

It struck her then, that she couldn’t really remember what Jake had looked like. Big guy. Strong. Muscled. Smelled like protein. John Wayne swagger. The whole nine cowboy yards.

They’d been married for over four years, but he’d been in the Middle East for a big chunk of that time. If she broke it down into consecutive months, they probably hadn’t been together more than six months total. She’d had his child, but she’d known nothing about the secrets he kept tucked away under that Stetson. She never asked about the war. She believed in letting slumbering dogs alone. Besides, she hadn’t really wanted to know what horrors he’d seen. The things he’d done.

Ostrich. Sticking her head in the sand.

But now? She had to do something to stretch her budget. She had no one to depend on but herself and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. She turned the novel thought around in her mind.

What bothered her most about losing the money was that the mysterious half-brother had never shown up. He didn’t call nor had he even written to express his condolences. You would think four hundred thousand dollars would at least earn a sorry-your-husband-got-blown-up-in-Afghanistan-thanks-for-the-money card.

“I’ll help you as much as I can, Lissy,” Claudia said, but her mother-in-law was little better off than she was.

Lissette’s own family was upper middle class, but their investments had gotten caught in the real estate crash and they were cash strapped as well. So far, she’d been too proud to ask them for money, but she was going to have to get over her pride. She had a part-time job making wedding cakes for Mariah’s wedding planning business, The Bride Wore Cowboy Boots, but her salary barely covered the mortgage.

Which was why she was at the grocery store.

Survival.

On the way home from the medical offices in Fort Worth, an idea had occurred to her.  Cowboys had been her downfall, but clearly she wasn’t the only one mesmerized by the fantasy. Why not take advantage of her flaw? Do what you know, right? Why not add cowboy oriented baked goods to repertoire to supplement her wedding cake business?

Her mind had picked up the idea and ran with it. Pastries straight from the heart of Texas made with indigenous ingredients. Velvet Mesquite Bean Napoleons. Giddy-up Pecan Pie. Lone Star Strudel. Bluebonnet bread. Mockingbird Cake. Chocolate Jalapeno cupcakes. Prickly Pear jellyrolls. Frosted sugar cookie cutouts of cowboy boots and hats, cacti, longhorn cattle, spurs, and galloping horses.

Even though it meant going out on a limb with the remaining five thousand dollars, she’d grasped at the idea. It gave her something to think about besides Kyle’s diagnosis. But now she was here amidst the five-minute sale madness, the idea seemed stupid. Throwing away good money.

What else are she going to do? Baking was all she knew. It wasn’t like she possessed the skill set for anything else.

Bake.

It was an edict. She fixed on the word.

Bake

Something comforting. Something sweet. Something life saving. Cookies and cakes, doughnuts and cream horns, strudels and pies. Salvation in pastries.

Bake.

“Lissette,” a familiar voice called to her.

She glanced over to see Ila Brackeen. A friend and fellow member of the Jubilee Cutters Co-op. Normally, she enjoyed Ila’s outspoken company, but right now, with her nerves so close to the edge, she needed tact, not frankness.

Ebony-haired and six-foot tall, Ila wore her deputy sheriff uniform like an Amazon warrior. Gun on her hip, handcuffs in her back pocket, tan Stetson cocked back on her on her head. A blue plastic grocery basket filled with hamburger meat, hot dogs and buns, lay slung across her forearm.

“Ila.” Lissette couldn’t hold the smile on her face for long. She flashed it, felt it slip away.

Ila touched her arm in an uncharacteristically sympathetic gesture. “Lissy? You okay?”

God, did she look so haggard that even tough Ila was tiptoeing on eggshells around her? “Fine,” she chirped, pretending everything was okay, but her voice went up a whole octave at the end of the word.

“How’d it go with the doctor?” Ila’s gaze shifted to Kyle.

Here it was. The question she dreaded. “You know about that?”

“Mariah,” Ila explained.

Why had she told Mariah she was taking Kyle in for testing? She knew Mariah had only talked about her circumstances out of concern, but now Ila knew and probably all their other friends knew too. No reprieve from reality in a small town. Not even for a minute.

She tried to answer, but her reply tangled into a throat-excoriating knot.

“Lissy?”

“You’re having a cookout?” Lissette nodded at Ila’s basket.

To her relief, Ila said nothing more about Kyle. Which was alarming in and of itself. The cop in Ila usually wouldn’t allow her to let things lie. “Yes, you and Kyle are invited. Cordy and I are just having a little backyard barbecue tomorrow. Come on over around three.”

“Can’t. Wedding.” It was true. She had to deliver a wedding cake tomorrow, although the wedding was in the morning. She could make it to Ila’s by three if she wanted. She did not.

“Well, the offer is there if you want to drop by.”

“Thank you.” Please go away before I start crying right here.

“Call me if you want to talk,” Ila gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and moved off.

Briefly, Lissette closed her eyes. Her friends had been so kind, so understanding after Jake’s death but she was tired of being treated like a victim. Tired of people whispering behind her back. Tired of flowers and sympathy cards and pity casseroles. Especially, when a small part of her had felt strangely relieved that it was all finally over. Her husband had found peace in death that had escaped him in life. Guilt stabbed her and she hauled in a deep breath.

Bored, Kyle arched his back, let out a screech of frustration and dropped his sippy cup. One high bounce off the cement floor sent goldfish splashing up and down the aisle.

A woman behind Lissette let out an exasperated huff and pushed past her, crunching goldfish underneath the wheels of her cart.

Kyle wailed, made a gripping motion toward the scattered crackers. “Mine.”

The gossiping women still hogging the flour shelf glared at her.

Yes, I’m the villain.

Finally, they turned and stalked away.

About time.

Kyle howled, tears dripping down his cheeks.  Lissette snatched the sippy cup from the floor, and then thumbed through her oversized purse for more goldfish crackers, but the bag was empty.

Get the ingredients and get out of here. He’ll calm down in a minute.

Ignoring everyone else, she started grabbing what she needed. Let’s see. Cake flour, check. Pure cane sugar, check. Vanilla, vanilla. Real vanilla. Not that fake stuff. Where was the real vanilla?

She searched the shelves, going up on tiptoes and then squatting down low, pawing through extracts and flavorings. Almond, banana, butter, coconut. No real vanilla. Dammit. The locus of budget-conscious shoppers had wiped it out. Now, she’d have to drive to Albertson’s on the other side of town.

Couldn’t one simple thing go right today?

C’mon, c’mon there had to be one bottle left.

Without real vanilla she couldn’t start her new baking project. Without her new baking project she couldn’t afford to get Kyle the best deaf education. Without getting him the best education, her son’s future was indeed bleak.

Oh, there was so much to think about! She had no idea where to start. The medical brochures and jargon only confused her more. She knew nothing about deafness. She’d never even met a deaf person. How could she help her child? The pressure of tears pushed against her sinuses and an instant headache bloomed, throbbing insistently at her temples.

She couldn’t let her son’s life be destroyed. She had to get that damned real vanilla.

But the cupboards were bare and Kyle was shrieking.

“Ma’am, ma’am,” a pimple-face stock boy in a Black Keys T-shirt came over. “Your baby is disturbing the other customers. Can you please take him outside?

Harried, Lissette looked up from where she crouched, the floor strewn with baking products and crushed goldfish crackers. It was all she could do not to let loose with a string of well-chosen curse words. The mother inside her managed to restrain her tongue. She stood, wrapped her arms around her sobbing child and tugged him from the cart.

Head down, she rushed toward the front door.

“Would you like a sample of Dixieland cinnamon rolls?” called a woman at the end of the row dishing out samples.

Lissette spun to face her, Kyle clutched on her hip, his face buried against her bosom. “I bet it’s made with fake vanilla isn’t it?”

The woman looked taken aback. “I…I…don’t know.”

“That’s what wrong with the world,” Lissette said. “Fake food. Nobody knows what they’re eating. We’re all getting artificial, prepackaged garbage dished out by corporate marketing departments…”

Stop the rant, Lissette. This woman is not the enemy. Canned cinnamon rolls are not the enemy. Fake vanilla is not the enemy.

Three months of anger and shock surged to a head. For three months she’d been in at loose ends, not knowing where her future was headed, but there in Searcy’s Grocery, three weeks from Halloween, everything she’d ignored, tamped down and shut off, erupted. She stormed from the store, leaving slack jaws hanging open in her wake.

Her heart slammed against her chest with jackhammer force. Her negative energy flowed into Kyle. He fisted his little hand in her hair, yanked on it, his hopeless shrieks piercing her eardrums.

Calm down, calm down.

But she’d lost all ability to soothe herself.

Bake. The no fail solution to runaway emotions. Bake. How could she bake without real vanilla?

Get real vanilla.

It was a nonsensical edict. Of course it was, but the command stuck in her brain. She made it to Jake’s extended cab pickup truck. She’d wanted a Prius and this was what she ended up with. The key fumbled at the lock, but she finally wrenched the door open and got Kyle buckled into his backward facing car seat.

By the time she slid behind the wheel she was only breathing from the top part of her lungs. Her diaphragm had shut down, paralyzed, seized. Puff, puff, puff. Short, fast pants swirled through her parted lips.

Hyperventilating.

Real vanilla, whispered her mammalian brain.

Go home, commanded her last shred of logic.

She started the engine, put the truck into the reverse and stamped her foot to the accelerator. Her worn leather purse rocketed into the floorboard, sending the contents scattering—make-up, hairbrush, wallet, plastic Happy Meal toys.

Dammit! She reached down for her purse.

Instantly, she felt a jolt. Heard the jarring crunch of bending metal. Tasted the wiry flavor of alarm. She lifted her head, saw a big red pickup truck filling her rearview mirror and realized she’d just hit someone.