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Loretta got a new dress for Christmas that year. It was hideous. Mustard yellow, thick polyester, with only the saving grace of black velvet cuffs and collar as soft as kitten’s fur. Mama had got it from the ladies who worked at the Goodwill, and she looked apologetic when she passed it over.

“It will do for church tonight,” she predicted, which was how Loretta came to understand that this was meant to be a public humiliation. Either she was to wear the dress in full of view everyone, or she would refuse, and her mother would be humiliated in her stead.

Loretta wore the dress.

Her father had suffered the indignity of a shave for the same occasion, and Mama, lips pinched, struggled into a dress that had been bought for a slighter woman than she.  They presented themselves at candlelight service along with the rest of the town, and Loretta chafed quietly through the service. The room smelled of rarely-washed bodies, aftershave and dollar store perfume. The same blend of fragrance hung over every important event in town, so there was a warm comfort to it, overlaid gently with candlewax.

Loretta fell asleep on the pew somewhere between the warbling solo of an unreasonably talented child and the heartfelt if misguided enthusiasm of an elderly choir. She stirred as the night air kissed her cheeks, and her Daddy settled her gently on his shoulder. She stirred again as they laid her into bed that night, at some point having been relieved of the mustard yellow dress, and the sheets were tucked up warmly under her chin.

Then she settled deeper into sleep, and knew nothing more.

 


 

The next time Loretta went to church with her parents, her mama was a slighter woman. She didn’t hardly make a dent in the soft satin cushions of the casket, and her father was not in his most sober state of mind.

He began to cry, loud and uncontrollable, about halfway through the service. They were the deep, gulping sobs of a small child, shoulders heaving with each mournful wail.

Loretta tried to coax him out of the sanctuary, to take a walk with her and calm himself, but he only sobbed louder, and everyone could hear.

Loretta’s skin got warm and itchy. This was worse than an ugly dress. This was like being naked with all the town there to watch. But she couldn’t leave her daddy to that scrutiny without her, and besides: she was scared to walk past them all, and see what they must think. So she gave up on trying to coax him and just stood, tall and stiff, at his side, until they were able to leave the church for the graveside.

She looked down at the casket, like she was laid heavy and low with her mourning, so she did not have to see their stares. But she felt them anyway, burning into her, as her mother was lowered into cold dark earth.

She got her daddy home with the help of a woman from higher up their hill, and when the next day found him too drunk to even stir from his bed, she just let him lie there.

She knew how to clip the bud well enough on her own, now. Let Daddy come ‘round in his own time. She’d have everything waiting and ready for him when he did.

 


 

Raylan Givens, damn his bones, walked out of Bennett’s store all easy height in a suit you could tell he didn’t care for, shadowed and straight as an arrow underneath his hat, like a man who had never cared for the burning stares of strangers. Which, naturally, attracted Loretta’s.

“Sir,” she said, before her brain could think the better of it, “would you think I'm bold to inquire what you do as your job?”

Should she have done it?

Spoken to him?

She’d wonder about that for the rest of her born days. True enough it had saved her life. She might otherwise well have died in James Earl Dean’s trunk or, more likely, in whatever destination he had planned for them both. Some nights she would awake with her fists upraised before her face, clenched, mid-strike, the phantom roof of that prison mocking her from the depths of her memory, from which she could not run it out.

But in the same corner of her mind there was Raylan, a voice in the darkness, unromantic, unrefined, and all the more reliable for it. Broken in the wrong places, to be sure, but still whole in enough of the right ones that you knew it was safe enough to count on him.

Safer, anyway, than a lot of the rest.

She did not like how comfortable she was able to feel in his presence. How safe. It was too like something she knew should by rights have been owed to her daddy, but had not belonged to him since she was a tiny girl. Raylan’s ability to be relied on felt like a betrayal, and the guilt of it gnawed at her gut.

That she had nobody to whom she could express this was also her daddy’s fault. She knew it, but knowing it didn’t make it any better.

Instead of unburdening her soul, Loretta took to sleeping with the light on, and it helped.

But not much.

 


 

It was Christmas Eve in Harlan County, and for the first time in the longest time, Loretta would be home to see it.

She had split on the place for a while, after everything that happened with Markham and Boon. That ugly dark-of-the-trunk feeling she’d had as a kid found her more often, after that lonely stretch of highway, except these days it crept up even in daylight and there was nobody left to chase it away.

So Loretta ran, and she ran her business as she did, keeping in touch with the people she had on the ground back home. She made a few contacts she was glad to have, and a few she’d come to regret, but being on the road as a matter of course allowed her to get out in front of those and stay well clear of any mistakes she didn’t know better than to make.

And it worked.

For a time.

But after a while the distance weighed on her as much as the memory itself, and near the end of December she quit Louisiana and found herself turning northeast again, putting her foot down on the accelerator with the comfort born of almost a year on the road.

Hands clutching the wheel with the uneasiness born of the same.

Home was . . . well. Nothing you could write on a teacup or stitch on a throw pillow would ever come close to describing what home was to her. You’d run out of room, first.

Her car crept up into the Smokies on Christmas Eve. She did not have to go that route, and by any estimation another would have been more direct, but she set her detour all the same and took her time winding her way through the stark gray waste of the trees, sweetened with the deep unending green of pine and the ghostly blue of spruce. It was close enough to freezing that more than one puddle cracked and crunched under the tires, but she rolled the window down anyway and let the smell of woodsmoke and fresh fir blow in.

She breathed it in until her chest hurt, her cheeks stung, and her eyes smarted with tears.

It was in that highly questionable state of presentation that she pulled off the road at a filling station. She adjusted the necessary parts and, as the tank gulped away at her offering, was just in the act of swiping fiercely at her cheeks, mopping up the salty aftereffects of windburn, when a lazy drawl cut through the cold.

“Don’t tell me some feller done you wrong.”

She’d had some time to perfect the concealment of her emotions, and more motivation for the same. But Raylan Givens predated nearly all her most useful skills, and so she whipped around like a girl of fourteen, green, guilty, easy to spook.

He had more gray hair than she imagined he should, and he did not wear a suit. The hat was there, set well back on his head, and when she made eye contact he raised it in some gesture of greeting.

She snorted.

“If there was ever a feller hadn’t done me wrong, I’d probably keel over and die of shock.” Her attention danced sideways, watching the numbers roll over on the ancient gauge. “In any event, Marshal, I do not prefer the company of men. So if they intend to do me wrong, it will not be in matters of the heart.” Her gauge slowed its clicking, then stopped. “Only business.”

She removed the nozzle with finality, and so almost missed the slow smile that curled up one side of Raylan’s face.

“Well, that does warm the heart to hear; I had not figured you for a young lady that had the ability to steer clear of trouble, and yet here I am, suddenly bursting every hope of being proven wrong.”

Loretta shrugged.

“Must be Christmas going to your head.”

“They do say it’s the season of miracles. Among other things. So who knows?” He pushed off from the side of his own vehicle, a nondescript sedan that might as well have born logo and flashing lights, so plainly did its lack of personality announce its purpose.

Loretta considered the car, but made no comment. If he was here on business he cared to disclose, he would surely disclose it in due time. And Loretta did not like to seem nosy. They settled their debts at the counter inside, Loretta waving aside Raylan’s offer to pay for hers and suggesting if anybody was to cover the expenses of the other, it was surely her turn to do so.

“Out of consideration for all services rendered,” she explained, and this time his smile made it all the way across his mouth.

“I cannot accept private considerations for professional services rendered,” he said, and sounded so affectedly pious that she laughed, after a fashion: a rusty snort exploded from somewhere behind the roof of her mouth, surprising them both.

“That’s right, Marshal, I did forget. You are the law, after all.”

Her words dripped with such irony that he seemed to feel a need to step high to avoid the flood.

“Christ,” he said companionably, “am I so disreputable a figure as that?”

“Well now, Marshal, I would not like to say,” she decided, leaning up against the driver’s side door. “It being so close to Christmas, and all.”

“Yes, goodwill for your fellowman,” he agreed, understanding her perfectly. “And, I suppose, it’s worth taking yourself with a clean conscience to church tonight.”

That arrested Loretta’s curiosity. She paused, her hand on the doorhandle, to study him.

“You figure me for a churchgoer, Marshal? Of my own volition?”

He made a facial expression that was the approximate equivalent of a shrug.

“Oh, I don’t like to rightly say what I figure you for right now, Miss McCready. Being so close to Christmas.”

She could not find the energy to resent that, nor the umbrage to try. She only smiled, inclined her head, and slid behind the wheel.

She could not restrain a sigh of relief, however, when she saw him return to the highway heading in a different direction than her own.

 


 

Turned out they were right. You really couldn't go home again.

She made it one year, to the day, before it all went to shit. The kid who followed her from Louisiana trying to sell protection, the one she kept telling to piss off and leave her be, did not consider her rejection—both professional and personal—to be a forgivable sin.

She had fully expected he would not, but she had also expected he would return to his father, who could be relied upon to knock some sense into him. Instead he had poured his heart out to a lower-ranking lieutenant and ill-advised mentor figure, and the man had thought he saw a chance to strike.

She very nearly did not see it coming. Only a chance word coming down the line, a delivery driver who had little understanding of what he had overheard repeating it, carelessly, had set her on the alert.

She bit her nails to the quick, reviewing her options, knowing what was on the way, knowing how little chance an operation the size of hers stood against what was about to roll over it.

She made the call.

Then she went to church, because it was Christmas Eve and why the hell not, she was home after all, and that’s what you did when you were home, wasn’t it? Except, after all, you really couldn’t go home again.

Not to the way you’d left it before.

Or, possibly, to too entirely just the way you had left it before, like nothing had changed, would ever change, and damn the stagnation of it all.

One firefight outside the church hall might not have made that clear, but the actual fire that followed, damn near threatening her crops, sure did.

Hence the safe house, hastily prepared in advance of what she had predicted would come, when she dialed that number she had a hundred times sworn to throw away, only to fail to follow through, each and every time.

He had not hesitated. Quipped only, “I’ll be home with—” obliging her to hang up before he could finish, and make himself ridiculous.

Which was how she came to have Raylan Givens babysitting her, like she was all of fourteen again, and not a grown up lady of nearly thirty with a few truly spectacular explosions ringing in her ears and a burn freshly bandaged all up her left arm, stinging under the salve, tempting her to scratch it despite her better judgement.

She did not scratch it. She focused instead on the set shoulders of the man she was following around the house; on what she felt she needed to explain.

“It is important to me, Marshal, that you know I did not solicit this man’s intervention in my business.”

Raylan did not pause in his perusal of the evening street beyond the living room window, but something in the set of his shoulders changed, as if sudden and unexpected good humor had taken hold of him and he did not care to make it seen.

“That a fact.”

“Yes, sir.”

This time he did turn around, blinking at her in quiet, surprised amusement.

“What did you just call me?”

Loretta McCready, considerably older than she had been when US Marshals had entered Mags Bennett’s store in Harlan county, and older still than she had been when she rode her Daddy’s shoulder out of the church on Christmas Eve, stared back. She folded her arms in a manner she intended should look casual and slightly superior, but also knew might just look defensive.

“You have a problem with me observing the social graces, Marshal?”

“Well, no, not to speak out against it. I just wasn’t aware we were on those kinds of terms. Ma’am.” And he tipped his hat before wandering through the front hallway, checking the door, and moving on down back to the kitchen.

Loretta followed, feet sinking into the plush gray carpet of the living room until she reached the hallway, then followed the cold white tile all the way through to the back of the house.

Raylan was drawing curtains across the back window, and did not look around as Loretta crossed to the fridge, squinted into the clean white depths as though the sparse furnishments of bottled drinks, milk and cold cuts.

“You hungry?”

He was not. But he was thirsty, and so was she. Two bottles later they were tucked up on the couch, the pair of them, like the road had always led here, this house that did not belong to either one of them, with whatever kind of relationship you can call something that's all history, no present.

She asked about his kid, cause she had heard around home that he had one. Turned out she was an almost-grown girl herself, fourteen, headstrong, with her face all over her daddy's phone.

Willa Givens was long and lean for her years, with a profusion of artfully-tousled long dark hair. In the frame she leaned against a wall made of weathered gray boards, beaming at the camera with all the easy air of a young lady who has not once been given cause to doubt she was adored.

Loretta stared a long moment, wondering where the polite rejoinder she had resolved to make had fled to.

Wondering what the polite rejoinder was, when you were a grown woman suddenly jealous of a child.

Settled for, “school pictures sure have come a long way.”

Raylan retrieved his phone, gave the image on the phone a smile of his own, and tucked it safely back in his pocket.

“Oh, they don’t just stop with school photos, nowadays,” he said, neatly extracting himself from any imagined role in the arrangement of such matters. “They do ‘em in the spring as well as the fall, and then everybody hires some kind of what they call ‘lifestyle photographer’ too, follows ‘em around and gets pictures of you brushing your teeth and some bullshit like that.”

Loretta considered this, and marveled silently at the ways of the rich.

“They want a photo of them brushing their teeth so bad, they can’t take it themselves?”

“Guess not.”

Raylan leaned back on the couch and extended his feet so that they rested along the sturdy support of the coffee table.

Loretta considered another long moment, then:

“You got a picture of her brushing her teeth?”

He didn’t twitch, but a guilty stiffening was perceptible along the width of his shoulders and somewhere in the area of his calves. Loretta gave her own, small smile and tucked herself up snug against the cushions.

Course he did. Harlan County turned out its share of doting fathers just as well as any other place. It just hadn’t been able to make a good one out of hers.

“Next round,” she decided. “Your turn to bring it in.”

He made a face, but didn't argue. Just unfolded himself from the couch and ambled out to the kitchen, muttering something about the hangover being no less than she would deserve, if she couldn’t hold her liquor like she should.

Loretta smiled, listening to the curl of his complaints wafting out from the kitchen, and finished off the last few drops in the bottle she held.

It sure wasn't candlelight and evensong. Hell, it was barely even Christmas.

But it was comfortable, and it was safe.

Loretta settled a little deeper in the couch cushions.

For a girl whose life could so infrequently have been called either, for tonight, it was more than enough.