Carter sat on the pool deck watching the sunrise like he remembered doing when he’d worked in the laundry at the prison. He wasn’t surprised it looked a lot better without the bars. Unfortunately, his reason for being there that early wasn’t just to enjoy the freedom of watching a sunrise and being grateful for the dawn of a new day. It was much more serious.

They were leaving to go on a camping trip that morning—the McCord men, the Riggs men, and Denny Nash. The McCord women were also coming to town, along with Mark’s fiancée, Callie and her daughters, Ella and Rose. Carter knew Danita was very nervous about meeting new people, so he’d asked the girl if she’d feel better coming with Denny, but she’d said no because Tasha had told her they were going to get manicures and pedicures in Springfield. She had even made an appointment for Danita to get her hair styled by a lady Tasha knew who specialized in shorter styles, and Danita was very excited.

Carter had noticed her speaking voice had risen about an octave and was a bit softer, nearly mimicking the tone of Tasha’s voice. Danita had also started moving with a bit more confidence as she’d spent more time with Tasha, picking up on more feminine mannerisms. Carter believed it was definitely a step in the right direction for the young girl.

The ex-con was still worried about the weekend with Mack’s father and brothers because he knew they didn’t realize he and Mack were a couple, and Carter had never been a good actor. Mack kept telling him to have faith, so he was going to try.

Carter had started working at the church with Manny and Creigh, and he had honestly come to like and respect them. They’d explained the church’s mission to him, and he could understand better why Mack was drawn to it. The man needed some sort of connection to God in his life because it had always been there for him.

Maybe those church people didn’t want Mack in their Catholic church, but Mack wasn’t going to abandon his love for spirituality due to their narrow minds. Mack wouldn’t categorize it as such, but Carter sure as hell would.

The man Opie had suggested to remove the stained-glass windows at Sacred Heart had worked all day on Friday, and Mack, Denny, Danita, and Carter had carefully packed them up once they were removed from the structure. The Diocese had contracted with a trucking company to pick up everything on Friday evening, so they’d been at the church until late. Opie and Tasha had brought them hamburgers and helped with the tasks, but as he observed Opie staring at Danita while she worked with Denny to carry the boxes to the truck, Carter started getting angry.

He knew Opie enjoyed his coffee on the pool deck early in the morning, so Carter sat waiting for his brother because they needed to have a discussion. If Opie wasn’t even going to try with Danita, Carter needed to figure out alternative plans pretty quickly regarding what they could do to keep the State from taking the Nash kids away from them. They’d go into the system, and there was no way Carter or Mack would ever be able to find them. They’d had enough hurt and disappointment in their young lives. Carter was determined to save them from more of it if he could.

When the sliding glass door opened behind him, Carter stood and started up the stairs, stopping when he saw his brother standing there in that dress Tasha had bought at the discount store the previous week. Carter couldn’t help the laugh because to see big Opie Riggs in a dress was the last thing he thought he’d see that morning.

He walked into the family room to see the couch strewn with sheets and a blanket, along with a pillow. He followed Opie into the kitchen and took a seat at the island as Opie poured him a cup of coffee. His brother looked like hell, and Carter couldn’t wait to hear the reason why.

Finally, after a few sips of the steaming, magical liquid, he looked up at Opie and smirked. “I’d have figured you for more of a fall color wheel, but I guess that’s nice. What’s the occasion?” Opie shot him the bird before he went to the front door and returned with a couple of newspapers he still subscribed to, not offering an explanation regarding the dress.   

Carter took another sip of his coffee and placed it on the white quartz counter. “You know, you can get that stuff on your tablet or your computer and save a slew of trees. Hell, I thought a printed newspaper was a fossil in this day and age,” he tried again.

Opie slammed his hand on the island, his wedding ring against the quartz making an echoing sound throughout the first floor of the large house. “I don’t appreciate being ambushed in my own home. I don’t appreciate having to sleep on the couch when I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t appreciate being called a closed-minded bigot and made to wear a dress to keep my wife from taking my son to stay with her parents until I get my head out of my ass. And I’ll read the goddamn news any-fucking-way I want, you got it?”

It was then Carter had an inkling of the reason Tasha had bought the ugly thing in the first place, but he wasn’t sure what she thought the endgame might be with her ultimatums. Opie was stubborn, just like their father, the old crackpot. He could tell by the look on Opie’s face, he wasn’t done with his list of things he didn’t appreciate.

“I wouldn’t appreciate any of that either. What else is pissin’ you off?” Carter asked, knowing it was best to get it all out.

“I don’t appreciate you shacking up with a priest and leading the man away from the church. I don’t appreciate you bringing two kids into our lives and guilting my wife into adopting them, especially since I’m going to have to explain to my son why his friend Donnie who he liked playing Legoswith is now called Danita and wears dresses and bows in his hair. It’s not normal, none of it. It’s like all hell has broken loose right here in my own home, and I got no say so in the matter. I don’t recognize my own life anymore,” his brother spat out.

A lot of the words cut into Carter’s soul, especially the part about Carter leading Mack astray and away from his religion. He also didn’t like the things Opie said about him forcing Tasha to try to adopt Denny and Danita, so instead of lashing out as his body ached to do, Carter Riggs stood calmly from his seat.

“Well, Oren, I’m sorry. I suppose I shouldn’t have moved here when I got out of prison. I should have stayed in Brimlee and left your family alone. I know I’m no good, and I shouldn’t have brought my unworthiness to your family. I won’t… I’ll get us out of here. We’re going camping with Mack’s family, but I’ll take Danita with us, and I’ll have Mack tell his mom and sisters plans have changed. I won’t be a bother to you guys anymore. Excuse me,” he said as he turned to leave the house.

He walked out the pool gate and started to head toward the garage apartment, but he couldn’t take his anger inside because no one in the garage apartment that he and Mack had started to call home deserved the rage that was building inside him and would eventually force its way to the surface without his permission.

Carter walked around the side of the garage and over to the small, wooded grove separating Opie’s house from his neighbors. He found the most massive tree he could, and then he began to prepare. He kicked off his shoes and attacked the elm with hands and feet. Every bite of the bark into his skin was a release of everything his brother had said about leading Mack away from the church and bringing the Nash kids into Opie and Tasha’s lives.

It was for all the feelings of guilt that ate away at Carter’s very soul for what had happened to Sebastian Davis and then what Carter had done to Louie Parsons, along with the damage he’d done to the men in prison who’d provoked him.

His first thought was to go bust in the front window of the first store he could find so he could go back to Farmington. Everyone would be better off without him. Opie was right, he’d fucked up everything he ever touched, and he shouldn’t be allowed around honorable people.

Every crack against bone and tear of skin was exactly what he deserved. He didn’t have the right to expect decent people would accept him for the man he was trying to become and forgive him for the man he’d been. That bright future Carter had dreamed of having with Seamus McCord was just a fantasy that only existed in Carter’s simple mind, but it would never be a reality.

Even Mack’s own mother wasn’t convinced he was good enough for her son. She was worried about Carter losing his shit sometime and hurting Mack, just as he was doing to that fucking tree. She was right to be concerned. If Mack weren’t having his own crisis of spirit, he’d see the truth, and he’d leave Carter behind, too.

Carter felt gentle arms around him, holding him tightly but not nearly tight enough to stop him. He turned, ready to unleash unholy hell on the poor bastard who had prevented him from inflicting as much harm to himself as possible.

When Carter looked into the worried brown eyes of the man he loved more than his own life, he sunk into the leaves and the moss-covered mud of the forest floor and closed his eyes as tears and snot ran down his face. He’d never been as ashamed of himself as he was the moment he’d seen tears rolling down Mack’s handsome face.

“Baby, my god, what’s wrong? Please, tell me what happened,” the man begged as his hand rubbed up and down Carter’s back. The sight of him in a broken heap on the ground must have been pretty brutal considering the way Mack was clawing at him, trying to pull him closer as if to protect him—even from himself.

Carter sat up and wiped his face with dirty hands, looking into Mack’s distraught face. “I need you to take Danita and Denny away from here. I don’t deserve any of you, and I’m not safe to be around. I won’t try to find you or be a bother to you ever again, but please, Father McCord, don’t abandon those innocent kids.

“I’m not a good influence on anyone, but you’re good. You’re good… inside and out. You’re a… good man. I’d bet your church… would help you find a place for those… sweet kids if they don’t let you keep them,” Carter bit out between the sobs racking his body.

There were stronger arms around him, more than one pair, and he was entirely overcome with grief at the losses he was facing. Carter had to accept it was his own fault.

Their god had no mercy for a sinner the likes of Carter. He’d been the one who’d led them all astray, and it was time he professed his guilt in the matter, just as he’d done when he’d nearly killed Louie Parsons. He was ready to accept his punishment.

“Carter Lee, I’m so sorry. I was just pissed at Tash, and I just didn’t… I’m sorry,” he heard Opie whisper next to him as he tried to help him up.

“What happened, Opie?” Mack asked as he pulled Carter’s arm over his shoulders and helped him up from the mud. Carter’s blood was coursing through his body, but he knew he’d be in pain once the adrenalin burned off.

He was pretty sure he’d broken some bones in his left hand, and his right foot was mangled to hell. Once again, he’d allowed his temper to get the best of him and bring out the worst in him even though he’d tried to control it. And, once again, he’d failed.

Carter stood on his own two feet and looked at his brother and Mack. “None of this is anyone’s fault but my own. I fucked it up for all of you. I’ll get out of your way so you can fix things because apparently, I’m unable to do anything right.”

“Mack, what happened?” they heard behind them. They turned to see Danita and Denny, both with fear in their eyes.

Carter jerked away from Opie and Mack and started walking toward the road. He had to get away before he did any more damage. He was picked up and tossed over a broad shoulder, so he started fighting to get away. “Stop it. You’re getting blood on my dress, and I’ll really be pissed because it’s not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be,” he heard. He looked down to see the red fabric he’d seen his brother in earlier, and he started laughing.

“Why are you wearing a dress?” Carter heard Danita ask as she followed them out of the woods.

Opie chuckled. “Well, as you’ll learn in life, Danita, there are many ways to teach a lesson, and this happens to be how I’m learning mine. My wife is one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, and she was trying to help me understand how you felt when you had to dress and act in a way that just wasn’t natural for you. I hate that you had to go through something like that, but everything changes right now.

“Will you run to the house and wake Tasha, sweetheart? We all need to have some breakfast and get ready for our camping trip, and now we have to clean up Carter Lee. I need to see if he’ll have to go to the doctor before we leave with Mack’s family.” She nodded and took off running, her open robe flying behind her.

A minute later Carter was flopped onto Opie’s makeshift bed on the large couch in the living room before Opie hurried upstairs to retrieve medical supplies to clean him up. Denny followed him upstairs to keep Paul entertained, and Mack was staring at Carter from his seat on the tufted ottoman, Paul’s go-to hiding place.

“I won’t ask you what happened because it seems like it was something between brothers, and I know how that sort of thing can escalate. I have two of my own, so I get it. What I want to know about is why you were trying to leave me behind, Carter? I love you. It’s been NASCAR fast, sure, but I don’t care. When it’s right, it is right, sweetheart.” Mack seemed so certain, but Carter still had his doubts.

Mack looked into his eyes. “I don’t know what you think you did or what you told yourself you did, but you’re wrong. I am so blessed to have you in my life, do you hear me? I can’t… I can’t lose you, Carter. I’ve been waiting what seemed like an eternity for you to find me, and you have. You fixed all the cracks in me, and you’ve soothed all of the doubts I had about my life’s purpose.

“No, everything isn’t perfect, but honey, nothing is ever perfect except our Heavenly Father. This life is precious, but it’s not going to be easy because it needs to remind us what a wonderful gift we’ve been given, and we can’t take it for granted. The love we share redeems our weaknesses, Carter. God created every one of us in his image, so none of us are wrong. Even Opie in that ugly dress. What’s that about?” Mack asked as he stroked Carter’s hand, examining the damage Carter had done to it during his fit of anger and self-punishment.

Just then, Tasha and Opie came downstairs with gauze, cotton, and antibiotic ointment. Tasha looked at him and shook her head. “You idiot. Go take a shower upstairs in our bathroom. Mack, help him. Did you break anything?” she asked Carter.

Carter looked at his brother, sister-in-law, and the man he loved. All of them were worried, and he felt embarrassed for causing so much drama. Beating the shit out of a tree wasn’t his usual method of coping, and even though it hurt like hell when the hot water stung his skin as Mack washed him gently, he felt like the water was cleansing his soul as well. It was almost as if Carter could feel the redemption Mack had alluded to earlier.

It felt as if the muddy, bloody water washing down the drain was taking Carter’s sins with it. Mack stood and took his face in those graceful hands so full of compassion and love. He looked into Carter’s eyes and blinked away the tears. “We’ll work things out, Carter. Separately, all of these things look like mountains to climb, but with you by my side, we can climb them together, supporting each other. There’s nothing I can’t accomplish with you by my side, and I hope you feel the same way. Together, we can do many things—great things,” Mack whispered.

When his lips touched Carter’s, it was soft and gentle. They shared a deep passion, Carter knew, but the sweet things between them meant just as much to him. The love, the laughter, the support. It was all a soothing salve to his damaged soul.

Mack was right. Their love could redeem them and make them whole. It was a secret Opie and Tasha shared, and Carter finally knew it. He would be grateful to know that truth or secret or joyful revelation for the rest of his life, as long as he had Seamus McCord.

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