Part 1 – Another Sunday In The South

***Wilson ranch in East TX***

Chad Wilson looked out over the brown grass, gently blowing in the crisp autumn breeze, towards the tall pine trees that covered most of the twenty acres of his East Texas home. It might not be much, but this property was the culmination of his lifelong dream. A place all his own. A tiny piece of history. His history.

He stared at the newsfeed on his phone as he brought the cup of scalding black coffee to his lips. Or as close to his dream as this old jarhead was going to get. That was what you got when you were a cowboy who gave your heart to a millionaire’s dream. Of course, that turned out to be a billionaire with interest accrued over fifteen years. But by the looks of things, her luck might not hold for much longer.

After that first time, running across her name and face in the society section, Chad had carefully avoided a repeat. But the downfall of her husband and his illegal business dealings was all over the news. There was no avoiding it.

She had aged well. Of course, Chad noticed the small lines on her forehead and about her mouth. Those were likely from the stress of the past few months. He could not tell from the photograph if her blond tresses held any gray. But her body, encased in the beige designer suit, showed no sign of her thirty-nine years or her pregnancy with the child she had borne her husband. No, the woman had most definitely aged well.

Not that he had thought she wouldn’t. Fifteen years ago, even in her mid-twenties, she had that fresh innocence that bespoke of graceful aging. There was some fancy word for it. He searched his memory for one of his grandmother’s ‘fifty-cent’ words as she called them. Ingénue – that was it.

He smiled at the memory of the old woman’s word of the day. It had been a game they played when he visited each summer. His Nan had placed the thick and tattered old dictionary on the breakfast table each morning. He would randomly open it and scan the page for a word he was not familiar with.

She would ask what the word of the day was as she ladled scrambled eggs or pancakes onto the plates. Then she, he, and Grandpa Jake would have a contest to see who could use the word most often throughout the day. Even his cousins would join in if they were around that year. The prize was always the same: an extra-large slice of cake or pie with dinner.

It seemed such a shame. That this place, what tiny bit of it, Chad had managed to salvage from his cousins’ cupidity, another of Nan’s fifty-cent words, would never know another generation of Wilsons. The two-hundred acres that had been in his family for generations had been divided equally in his grandparents’ will between him and his four cousins. They had insisted on selling most of it and distributing the proceeds. He was the lone holdout, bargaining instead for the old farmhouse that held so many good memories and the few acres on which he raised horses. Yeah, it wasn’t much, but it was his.

The problem was when he was gone, so too would be this small slice of family history. He was sure that was what his cousins were counting on when they finally gave in to his pleas. With no children of his own, no wife, or even steady girlfriend in so long that he could not remember a face or name, they knew that eventually, this land would fall back into their greedy hands as well. Hubris and greed seemed to be what this world was coming to.

Chad ran his hand through his primarily gray hair. It was probably time for another haircut. While he no longer kept it high and tight as the Corps called it, he still preferred it unfashionably short. He brought the mug to his lips and blew across the steaming surface. He was getting old. Fifty-four in a few days. Perhaps that was the root of this pensive mood?

But he knew otherwise. It was her face. The photograph was all over his newsfeed. He chuckled as the words of one of his favorite country songs flitted through his mind like the morning breeze through the pines whistling its tune. ‘Stand by your man, and show the world you love him. Keep giving all the love you can. Stand by your man,’ he hummed along with an old owl that was late getting to bed.

It was one of the things that had made it so damned impossible to get the woman out of his mind and heart. Loyalty and duty were things that Chad Wilson knew well. They were the creed not just of the Corps that he loved so much but also of the grandparents, who had been the refuge from his parents’ strife-ridden marriage and bitter divorce.

He had known that night that it would be just the once. As she had said, it was her fantasy, her secret dream to be ‘just a good ole’ boy’s girl.’ But life had other plans for Cassandra McBride. Plans of which he could never be a part. He was alright with that. He took his one night. He held more woman than most men could ever dream. Then he, too, did the right thing and walked away. Never looking back.

Well, not often. But on mornings like this, when the years ahead stretched out further than the lonely prairie, it was hard not to wallow in old memories. Ponder the might-have-beens of life. But he had horses to tend. Chores to do.

Perhaps he would even go into town for that haircut. Damn, it was Sunday. Maybe tomorrow? But he was sure the upcoming trial would be all the old men in the barbershop were talking about. Perhaps it was best to put that one off for a while.

Chad turned and was heading back into the old farmhouse when he saw the cloud of red dust that marked the arrival of visitors in this part of East Texas. Who could that be? He was not expecting anyone. He rarely got company. And since it was Sunday, the mail did not run.

He frowned as an unfamiliar and expensive SUV came into sight around the bend in the dirt road. Who the hell could it be? Maybe some city-slicker got lost? He thought about running into the house for his grandfather’s old shotgun that he kept above the kitchen door, just as the old man had. But at the speed that vehicle was moving, there was no time. He was feeling anything but neighborly this morning as the car came to a stop right in front of him.

After tours of duty in places like Kosovo, Kenya, Afghanistan, and even a brief one in Iraq, there was not much which surprised Chad. But the face of the man who stepped from the driver’s side door did. And the woman clad as she had been that night in jeans and an old sweater almost brought him to his knees.

But it was the petulant teen girl that emerged from the back of the car that had Chad grabbing for the old wooden porch pillar, hoping it was strong enough to bear his total weight. The girl was as beautiful as her mother with the same blond hair. But it was her eyes that held Chad’s attention. They were the deepest green like leaves in the spring. Just as his grandfather’s had been. And his father’s. And his own. Wilson green.

Cassie McBride studied the profile of her husband of almost twenty years. Gerald had aged decades in the past few months. Of course, at sixty-four, he was no young man. But until this whole mess, he had never seemed to age, caught somewhere in mid-life just as he had been when he took her as a young bride.

How had it come to this? It was the question that she had been asking herself since he had confessed to the federal investigation and his impending arrest – what seemed like a lifetime ago. Sure, she knew that Gerald was nefarious in his business dealings, but she had never suspected he would stoop to criminal. Although, perhaps she should not be all that surprised.

Hell, their marriage was her dying father’s last-ditch attempt at a poison pill to keep him from taking over the family oil business. Obviously, Daddy had miscalculated, and in the process, lost his company and only child. But he had sworn it was all to ensure her future and her mother’s. She chuckled under her breath, wondering what Daddy would think if he saw them now. Things hadn’t exactly turned out the way he promised. But except for one stolen moment, she had learned to make peace with the cards that life had dealt her. And she would this time too.

It was not herself that she was worried about. Cassie looked in the rearview mirror to catch a fleeting glance at her fourteen-year-old daughter. As usual, Callie had earphones in, tuning out the world. Cassie envied her daughter that ability. Though truth be told, these past few months and especially weeks had been hard for her child as well.

The suicide of Gerald’s sons, Callie’s half-brother, had come as a shock to them all. Yes, Stephen was scheduled to stand trial with his father, a trial that almost assuredly would end in a lengthy prison sentence. But their attorneys had been in negotiations from the beginning for a plea bargain. No one had suspected how much it was weighing on her step-son. At just a couple of years her junior, the man could hardly be considered her ‘son.’

She shook her head; once more, it all came back to the same thing: how had they come to this? And where were they going?

After Stephen’s death, her husband was a broken man. He had instructed the attorneys to make the plea deal, though it meant life in prison for him. The only thing that he had requested in return was assurances that she and Callie would be protected. From what or whom he had not told her.

Not that that was anything new. The man had treated her like a child for their entire marriage. Perhaps a China doll would be a better description. A prized possession that was kept safe on a high-shelf and brought out only on special occasions to be seen and admired by others. The proverbial trophy wife.

And for nineteen years, it was a job at which she excelled. Dinner parties, charity auctions, the right church on Sundays, and even the president of the parents’ committee at their daughter’s independent academy, she had done them all.

Not that any of those things qualified her for a ‘real’ job, which she would need very soon. She had not even finished college, quitting in the middle of her second year to marry Gerald on her father’s orders. She chafed at the mess her life had become. Trusting first her father and then Gerald had gotten her nowhere. But more importantly, her daughter was paying for her mistakes.

At first, they had tried to maintain as normal an existence as possible for Callie’s sake. Though Gerald no longer left the family home in Piney Point Village for the office before dawn, she still kept the daily routine of school runs and the gym. Of course, lunches with her ‘friends’ were out. They did not even return her texts. Gerald did not go to the country club for his weekly round of golf with the boys, either.

Soon, Cassie noticed that her daughter’s once busy social calendar had increasingly large chunks of free time as well. It all came to a head just before school let out for the summer. They were called to the office. Callie had been in a fight, something that had never happened before. Both the Head and the Dean were sitting in the conference room with a visibly battered Callie.

But rather than being the supportive educational professionals they had always been, they suggested that perhaps the best course of action ‘for everyone’ was if Callie did not return in the fall. Maybe she could finish the year through home study, as well.

Cassie used the back of her hand to brush away the tears that had gathered there. She would not allow either her husband or daughter to see her cry. Although she supposed she could blame the tears upon the red dust that seemed to hang like the cloud of suspicion about them. They had left Houston hours ago, snuck out in the middle of the night. Though given the reporters that were camped outside their gate, that might have been a wise decision.

Gerald had been especially pensive this weekend. She supposed that was to be expected. The plea bargain had finally been reached and would be announced this week. Her husband would appear before the judge and plead guilty. It was unlikely that his bail would be continued pending sentencing. So, he would be taken from the courthouse to jail, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Cassie inhaled deeply as she pondered her own future. Hers and Callie’s. Gerald had not said much about the details of his plea bargain, only that he had made sure they were taken care of. Of course, the money was gone, as was the house. Their cars. Would she be allowed to keep even one of them? What would they do for transportation otherwise? Would they be given new identities? Placed in witness protection?

She felt the ire rising. As always, Gerald had told her virtually nothing. Just to trust him. Trust him? After the string of affairs that he thought she did not know about? The lies about their finances? His illegal business dealing? She was supposed to ‘trust’ him to see to her child’s safety and happiness?

She wanted to scream. Throw things. Stomp her feet. Beat her husband. Of course, she would do none of those things. Instead, she would do as she always did. Be a good girl. Keep it all safely bottled inside. Not for Gerald’s sake, or even her own. For Callie’s. She reminded herself that her daughter was all that mattered now. Perhaps she would not have the life they had planned for her, but it was her job to see that Callie had as good a life as possible. Given that, her father was a lying, cheating bastard who deserved everything he got.

She inhaled deeply, forcing the air deep into her lungs, trying to clear her mind as she studied the unfamiliar East Texas scenery outside the closed, tinted window. “Where are we going, Gerald?” It was the same query she had demanded of her husband at least half a dozen times.

“We’ll be there in a moment,” was all he said as he turned the rental SUV down a small dirt road.

Cassie caught another glimpse of her daughter in the rearview mirror. Her head bobbed to whatever music she was listening to. You might think the young teen did not have a care in the world, but Cassie knew it was only an act. Her daughter was almost as good an actress as she was. Playing her part in this charade, they called life.

No, whatever happened this week, Cassie was through just playing along with other people’s plans for her life. As soon as the media frenzy quieted down, she was taking her daughter and getting as far as she could from all of this. Somehow or the other, they would start a new life. Someplace where no one knew their names or faces. If such a place existed, given the amount of coverage this story was getting, not just in Texas or even America, but worldwide. There had to be someplace, though.

She was lost in those thoughts as the SUV came to a halt before a slightly weathered-looking, old farmhouse. Its porch extended the entire length of it, even wrapping a bit around the sides. But its aged wooden columns had seen better days. The center section seemed to sag just a bit beneath the weight of the roof that extended from the second-floor windows.

It reminded her of an old television show, one of her favorites as a child. That family’s struggles seemed so much simpler to that little girl; they still did. She could almost hear the sing-song cadence of childish voices as they called to one another through the dark, ‘Goodnight, John-Boy.’ But the terrain was all wrong. While there were plenty of pine trees, there were no mountains: just grass and the red dust of East Texas.

There was a man on the porch, a big man. Something about him seemed familiar. The stiff way that he held himself? She could not see his face clearly as she squinted into the early morning sun. “Where are we, Gerald?” Her tone this time demanded answers.

But her husband ignored her, turning his body to look over at their daughter. “Calypso, get out. We’re here.”

Her daughter frowned; being called by her full name was one of her least favorite things. Or had been since she first learned of its origins in Greek mythology and some of the interpretations of those roots. The name had been Gerald’s choice. He said that he just liked the way it sounded. But maybe, it would be best if her daughter used her middle name, Grace, in their new lives. She would talk to her about it – when their lives settled down – if they ever did.

“Come on, sweetie. Let’s stretch our legs. Let your father handle whatever business he has here.” Cassie implored her daughter’s cooperation, though that had been increasingly hard to acquire lately. Not that Cassie blamed her. Her own anger still boiled like lava just below the surface, just waiting to erupt.

When the petulant teen stared out the window, Cassie prepared for another round of battles. But the girl just shrugged and reached for the door handle as her parents emerged on either side of the car.

Cassie was eternally grateful that she had taken only a single step away from the vehicle when the man stepped out of the sun’s glare. Her breath caught in her lungs, burned like the bitterest bile, as she choked on the irony.

It had been fifteen years. His hair was practically gray but still as short as it had been that night. There were more lines, crevices across his broad forehead and around his mouth, that was pulled down into a frown at the moment. He carried a few more pounds than he had all those years ago, especially around his mid-section. But his body still showed muscles, borne of hard work rather than sculpted by a personal trainer in a gym.

Overall, the man was every bit as much her fantasy of a ‘good ole’ boy’ as he had been that night so long ago. She swallowed back the years, the dark fantasies that she had relived a million times, and the pain of her lies. She forced her eyes to leave that too familiar face, turning to her husband, her voice more vociferous, “What are we doing here, Gerald?”

Chad was not sure what game the woman was playing. He was not sure he even wanted to find out. But he could not take his eyes off the girl that stood next to her. A miniature of the woman that he could never forget. His brain tried to make sense of it all.

She looked around the right age. Thirteen? Fourteen? Yeah, that would be about right. But how? They had been so careful to use protection that night, each and every time. Yeah, he knew that condoms weren’t perfect. But ninety-nine percent was damn near. Until you came face to face with that one in a hundred, and it was staring back at you with your eyes.

He heard the woman’s question, her tone spoke louder than words, and her body language screamed her unease. Obviously, she was as surprised as he was to be confronted like this with her past. He turned to the man instead, the ruthless bastard whose face filled the newspapers. “Afraid you made a wrong turn somewhere, fella,” playing dumb seemed his best option, at least for now.

The man shook his head, “I don’t think so. You are Buford Wilson, correct?”

He bristled at the name, which, despite its long family history, had garnered him more than one black-eye until he learned to fight better than any of the other boys. “Chad. I prefer Chad. What can I help you with, Mister? We’re not in the breeding business anymore, I’m afraid.”

The man caught his wife’s gaze, “This is about a mare you bred some time ago. Can we go inside and speak in private?” He turned to his wife and spoke as if to a child or employee, “Cassandra, why don’t you take Calypso for a walk? Look around the place. Do something. I don’t know anything.”

Chad’s fists tightened at this side. Though why he should care how this man spoke to his wife was beyond him. One night. Fifteen years ago. It did not give him any rights. But looking at those green eyes on the girl, maybe it did.

He could see that the woman wanted to argue. Hell, so did he. Except that he wanted answers more than he wanted a fight. And it seemed that she needed to protect her daughter, more than she wished to argue. At least at the moment.

“Horses are over in that field,” he motioned with his head to the cleared grass next to the trees. “Just be careful of Inferno. He’s the big red stallion and a mite territorial until he knows you.”

She only nodded as she cast a look at her husband. Was it anger? Curiosity? Fear? He could not tell. It had been so long. And they had never really had the chance to get to know one another. “Come on, Callie. Let’s leave your father to his business. I’m sure he won’t be long.” Yeah, anger. No mistaking that in a woman’s voice.

He frowned as he watched the woman and girl walk away. What did they want? And why now? It wasn’t like he had the kinda money this man needed to buy his way out of trouble. If that was even possible. It wasn’t as if his skills as a rancher, Marine, or bouncer would be much good to a man that could afford the best private detectives and security team there was.

“What do you want?” Time Mr. Nice was over. Best to cut to the chase now.

“The same thing you do. To protect them,” replied the man, not moving from the bottom step.

“I don’t see what that has to do with me.”

“Don’t you? I saw the way you looked at the girl. You saw it, too. You know exactly what this has to do with you.” Chad heard the anger and betrayal in the man’s voice, but there was something else there too.

The front porch was no place for this conversation. And as much as he did not want to taint his home, his grandparents’ legacy, with the likes of this greedy and hubristic man, even more, he did not want that little girl overhearing this conversation. “Come inside.”

The man nodded. Was it his imagination, or did his shoulders slump as if in defeat or relief? He led the man into the house, through the living room and kitchen to the back porch as his grandmother called it. He had remodeled it into a study. He took his favorite seat.

The bay window looked out onto the back meadow. They could see Cassie and the girl standing by the old wooden fence. He studied them as he motioned for the man to take the old rocking chair next to him. “What do you want?”

The man, too, stared out the bay window that Chad had installed to catch the sunrise each morning. The silence stretched out for a couple of minutes as if the man was no longer sure what to say. Chad waited. This was not his show. This man had come to him. Let him do the talking. He could almost hear his grandfather’s sage advice.

But this was not a cattle sale. This was the life of the woman he had loved for nearly fifteen years. And unless he was mistaken, his daughter. But Chad knew in his heart that he wasn’t. That girl out there was a Wilson. His child. The how did not matter. At least not to him.

“The prosecutors announce our plea bargain tomorrow.”

Chad shrugged as if it did not matter to him and looked back out the window.

“I can’t protect them.”

“From what? And whom?”

The man shook his head. Chad noticed that he rubbed his hands together in his lap. “That does not matter. Let’s just say neither my old business partners nor the government is getting what they want.”

“And what do they want?”

“Money. The money, I don’t have. But they don’t believe that.” The man shifted in the chair, turning and meeting Chad’s gaze. “I’ve lost one child to them. I don’t want anything happening to them, too.”

“Isn’t that the government’s responsibility? To put them in witness protection or something?” Chad did not want to examine too carefully why that idea did not appeal to him.

“I’m assuming you read the news. You know that my son was killed.”

“Suicide, I think they said.”

“And do you believe that? I thought you would have seen more of the world in the Marines than to believe everything you’re told.”

“And if I do believe you? What then? Why me? What the hell can someone like me do that the US government can’t?”

The man sighed, and this time there was no doubt, he actually seemed to deflate in front of Chad. “I don’t know. All I know is that Stephen was planning to give them what they wanted. All of it. And then he was dead. Less than twelve hours, and he was dead. The security cameras in his cell were erased. Hell, even the guard that was on duty that night died in a car accident a few days later before he could be questioned under oath.”

The man looked up at him; his voice broke. “He was my son. My only child. I know I’m a bastard. Perhaps I deserve everything I get and more. And no, Stephen was no saint either. But we didn’t do anything that others have not done, are not still doing. Stephen sure as hell  didn’t deserve to die for it.”

Chad knew that more than one person who had lost everything in the stock swindle these men had perpetuated might disagree, but the man before him was broken, and he did not have the heart to point that out to him.

“That still does not explain why me. What are you doing here today?” The man’s words had registered, ‘my only child.’ But Chad needed more than that.

The man looked out the window as the girl bent and picked up some grass, holding it out to the enormous red horse that seemed only marginally interested. “Cassie never knew that I had a vasectomy after Stephen.”

Any sympathy Chad might have felt for the man fled with those words. He wanted to grab the bastard, shake him, wrap his hands around his throat, and squeeze. He had played them. Played them all. He thought about that innocent, idealistic woman-child that he had held in his arms so briefly. How excited she had been at the idea of having a baby. Her husband’s child. She had been so adamant about using protection for that reason.

“I had a son — someone to leave my legacy to, to carry on the family name. I didn’t want any more entanglements. So, I made sure I wouldn’t have. No one knew except the doctor and me. Not my ex-wife and certainly not Cassie.”

“What were you going to tell her?” He forced the question past the bitter bile that gathered at the back of his throat, and his hands tightened into fists in his laps.

“A couple of years of trying, a few fertility tests. It would be easy to find a doctor to tell her whatever I wanted.”

“You were going to let her believe that it was her fault?” He had to know the depths of this man’s deception and darkness.

McBride only shrugged, “So, you can imagine my shock when she announced that she was pregnant.”

“Those things do happen.” While he did not for a moment doubt that the girl was his, he had to know all the truth.

 “Yes, I did consider that. So, I had a DNA test run along with the amniocentesis. I knew for sure then that the baby was not mine.” He chuckled, “You can imagine my shock and anger then. My perfect little trophy wife, the sweet and innocent princess, was a whore.”

Chad’s fists tightened even more, “So, why didn’t you divorce her? Too ashamed to be made a cuckold. A laughing stock and a bad joke. The old rich man with the cheating younger wife?” He did not believe any of that for a moment. He always trusted his gut, and it told him that he was Cassie’s one slip-up.

“Something like that. I had new business partners, and they did not want any extra publicity. Divorces can get nasty, and lawyers can stumble on things they shouldn’t. Besides, I’d done a bit of homework. I had a pretty good idea of when the baby was conceived. So my investigators did some digging. Hell, I made sure they excavated her whole fucking life.”

He stared directly into Chad’s stony gaze, “You should feel special. In almost twenty years, you’re the only time that woman ever strayed. And I can damn well promise you that.”

“I bet the same can’t be said of you,” Chad had to get his dig in at the man.

“A man has his needs. Cassie was getting a bit long in the tooth anyway, and I certainly never liked that whole Madonna thing. My tastes run more to innocence that can be trained to please. But we are getting away from the story.”

“Does she know?”

“Who? The girl? Cassie? No, neither know the truth. It served my purposes to let the world and them think that we were just the perfect little family.” The man’s hands fidgeted faster in his lap as he carefully avoided all eye contact. “The woman really was born to the role of the perfect wife. And as long as she didn’t go whoring anymore, that was good enough for me. Besides, she got the kid she wanted. So she left me alone. What did it matter?”

Chad was unsure whether he was relieved that she was not part of this whole conspiracy or angry on her behalf. Either way, it was for sure that the girl had no role in anything. She was the innocent in all this, and he would do whatever it took to make sure that she stayed that way. “So, what do you want? I don’t have any money. Well, not enough for your taste. So, there’s no point in blackmailing me now.”

“Didn’t you listen? I don’t want your money. I need your help to keep them safe.”

“One more time – what do you think I can do that the government can’t? Besides, what does it matter to you what happens to them if what you say is true? As you say, she ain’t your child?” Chad knew he would do whatever it took to protect them both. But he wanted and deserved the whole truth.

“Yes, I’m a bastard. Hell, maybe I didn’t even love my son. If I had, well, what father lets his only child get messed up with people like that? But I’m not completely heartless. Cassie was a good wife to me.”

He nodded to where Chad sat, “Except, of course, for that one night. And the kid might not be my own, but I have fed and clothed her, played the good daddy role, as much as I could. Hell, probably better than I did with Stephen. When he was little, I was focused totally on building the business. I barely knew him until he came to work with me.”

“But Cassie made damned sure I was at every PTA meeting, recital, and livestock show that girl ever did. So, whether you believe me or not, I do care. As much as I can. I sure as hell don’t want to see them dead the way Stephen is. Or more likely become pawns, our beloved government uses to try and squeeze more information from me. Not that it matters. I know that they won’t let me live. I’m a loose end, and these people don’t leave those.”

“These people? Who are they? Don’t you think if I’m going to protect them, I need to know at least what I’m up against?”

“No. The more you know, the more she knows, the more dangerous it is for you all. The only chance you have is for them to be convinced that she knows nothing. That she does not have the money.”

“The money? Where is it then?”

“Gone. There never was as much as they thought. The markets, businesses, those things go down as well as up. And our lifestyle wasn’t exactly frugal either.”

“You expect me to believe that? That you don’t have any squirreled away somewhere, for just this eventuality?”

“I don’t give a damn what you think. All I want to know is, will you help? Will you keep them safe? If not for me, or even the woman you spent one night with, then do it for your daughter.”

They heard the gasp and turned just in time to see the woman collapse against the door frame. Chad turned to the window, assuring himself that the girl, his daughter, had not heard. But she was petting Inferno. Damn, the girl was all Wilson.

He moved far quicker than he thought he could. His arms went about her, drawing her into the room and his vacant chair. He lowered her gingerly into it. “Let me get you some water, Cassie.”

He fled into the safety of the kitchen. It was more than running a glass of water. He needed to collect his thoughts and formulate some plan as to how to handle this situation.

She was in tears when he returned, her head buried in her hands as she fought off the man’s attempts to hold and soothe her. He did not blame her. But what worried him was the jealousy that surged to the forefront of his still confused mind.

This was her husband of almost twenty years. As big a bastard as the man was, it was still his right and responsibility to comfort his wife. Not Chad’s. But somehow or the other, that did not sit well with his sense of chivalry. This man had no rights. Not where this woman was concerned and indeed not where his child was.

He brushed past the man, knelt next to the chair, and pressed the glass into her trembling hands. His hands covered hers, and together they lifted the glass to her lips. She took a sip. Her eyes searched his. The way that they misted with even more unshed tears tore at his gut. “Did you know?”

He shook his head, “I had no idea. Until you drove up. I promise. You have my word, my solemn oath as a Marine. I did not know that the child was mine. If I had…” If he had, what then? Would he have torn their world apart? Destroyed her marriage? What did he have to offer them? At least next to this man?

Honesty. Hard-work. Loyalty. His protection. And hell, yeah, love. Genuine love. Something this man admitted he did not, could not feel. Maybe what he had to offer was more valuable than he thought. It was undoubtedly the values he wanted to instill in his daughter. If he got the chance. And it seemed that Fate was conspiring to give him just that.

“Cassandra, I know you’re angry with me. You have every right to be. I won’t deny that. But listen to me. I can’t protect you or her anymore.” That man’s voice grated on his nerves as it intruded.

“Witness protection? I thought you convinced them to place us in witness protection?”

McBride sighed, “It was only a ruse. They can’t be trusted. Cassie, they knew that Stephen was willing to make a deal, and in less than a day, he was dead. They have someone on the inside. I can’t trust them.”

“So, you bring us here? You lied to me, Gerald. You’ve been lying to me for years.”

“And you didn’t? You went to New Orleans and cheated on me. You whored. And you had another man’s baby.”

Chad wanted to strangle the man as he watched what little color had returned to her cheeks drain once more.

Cassie was struck dumb. She shivered but was not sure if it was from anger or fear. “I’m taking my daughter and the rental and leaving.”

“Where would you go? With what money? What kind of job do you think a spoiled socialite can get? And how are you going to protect her when they find you, the way they did Stephen?”

Her heart pounded so loudly that she could not think over the sound. The very idea of something happening to Callie was paralyzing. She knew he was right about everything he said, but after a lifetime of allowing others to make decisions for her, a lifetime that led to this point, this moment, she had had enough.

“So, you expect me just to trust you again, Gerald? The man who has cheated and lied to me for twenty years. Yes, I admit I stole one moment, one fantasy for myself. Am I proud of what I did? Of breaking my vows to you? No. But it was once — a little girl’s dreams. And I have been a good and loyal wife otherwise. How many other women have there been? If you can even call them women. Not much older than Callie.”

“As for not having any skills to fall back on, who’s fault is that? Yours and my father’s. I wanted to continue my education. Become a teacher. But no, that was not an appropriate career for your wife. Well, now look where that has gotten me, Gerald.”

“And you tell me, this is all for our own good. That you want to protect us. Since when? If you had truly wanted to protect us, don’t you think that being more careful about who you did business with might have been a good place to start?”

It was like a dam had burst inside of her. There was no holding any of it back now. “How much cash do you have on you, Gerald? How much can you get your hands on? I want it all. Call the prosecutors, have them come and pick you up. But I’m taking Callie and leaving here. We’re starting over, fresh, somewhere of my choosing.”

As if he knew what she would say, Gerald pulled a white bank envelope from his pocket. “Five thousand. That honestly is all I can get my hands on, Cassie. Take it.” His gray eyes that had always seemed so cold, so calculating, held some other emotion. Defeat? Fear? Resignation?

“But answer me this. How far will that get you? How long can the two of you make it on that? Even if you drove South, crossed the border into Mexico, and lived like paupers, that won’t hold you for a year? What then?” His gaze held hers; it never wavered, “And how are you going to protect her when they come for you? And they will come. Just as they came for Stephen. Just as they’ll get me. And the others. These people aren’t going to leave any loose ends.”

His shoulders slumped, and he exhaled so deeply it seemed his last breath. “Please, Cassie, you have every reason to hate and distrust me. But I have lost one child already, and that one may not be my flesh and blood, but I have watched her grow, cared for her as best I could. Please, as a mother, think about what is best for her.”

His words rang true. Perhaps the only true ones in their whole twenty years together. He was right. Five grand, even if they lived incredibly frugally, would not go far. Two months. Like he said, maybe six across the border, but her Spanish was rusty.

What frightened her most was her inability to defend her child. Sure, she was Texan. She knew how to shoot a gun. Sort of. But even that had been years. She had not even held a weapon since her father’s cancer put an end to their hunting trips and target practice.

“Cassandra, I’m not asking you to trust me. I know I don’t deserve that.” Gerald paused, his eyes shifted to the man who had knelt at her side during the whole incredibly intimate exchange.

She felt the heat rise in her cheeks. Her whole life laid bare for a man that she barely knew. A man that she had spent one night with almost fifteen years ago. A man that she knew next to nothing about. The father of her child.

“I’m asking you to trust the man that you choose. The man that was your fantasy.”

She started to shake her head, but Gerald continued, “A man that I’ve done enough research to know has the skills to give you and that girl at least a fighting chance. A man with a vested interest in keeping at least Calypso safe. Please, think about it.”

She had had enough of Gerald controlling her life. Honestly, enough of men doing it. If it weren’t for her daughter’s safety, she would do exactly as she had said. Take the money and drive away. But she had a fourteen-year-old to protect and care for. Common sense and maternal instinct won out.

She turned to the man she had not seen, except in her dreams, for almost fifteen years. “What makes you think you can keep us safe any better than witness protection or just running?”

Those deep green eyes, how had she not put two and two together before now? She had looked into those same eyes a million times, every day. But she knew the truth. She had not seen it because she did not want to.

She had wanted to forget that night. Not because it had been a disappointment, but because it was everything she had ever dreamt of. And more. She had tried so hard to forget it, him, and move on. To be content with her life, her child, her marriage. But it was all a lie.

“Honestly, I’m not sure I can. Especially since he won’t tell me who or what we’re up against.” His gaze drifted to her husband, for a moment, before returning to hers. “But, I believe him that there is a mole in it somewhere. And I don’t want to take that chance with my daughter.”

She could almost see how hard those words were for him. What must he be thinking? Did he think she had used him? To have a child? At least Gerald had not sown those seeds of distrust. She supposed she should be more thankful for his belated honesty.

The man who was her fantasy reached out and took her hand that rested on her leg and squeezed it, “Or you.”

She did not want to read too much into those words. She was not looking for anything with this man. Or any man for that matter.

“But he’s right,” he blushed a bit, and she found that incredibly sexy. “I do have certain skills. Twenty years in the Marines. Sharpshooter and hand-to-hand combat. I might not be as young or as fast as I once was, but I can still handle myself pretty damned well if I do say so myself.”

“And this place,” Gerald interrupted him. “This place is pretty isolated, Cassie. I’ve made sure that no one knows about it or him. I’ll wipe the GPS on the car before I get back. Yes, they’ll have an idea of how far I’ve traveled. But that’s a helluva a lot of ground to cover, even for the government.”

“Callie’s gotten used to homeschool already. Keep her out of school for a bit longer. Dye your hair, hers. Change your clothes — some glasses. I don’t know different make-up or something. But as long as you don’t go into town too often with him, it might work.”

“Prisoners? You want me and Callie to be virtual prisoners here in the middle of nowhere? Going nowhere? Seeing no one? No friends?” She felt her anger, which she had just barely begun to get under some control, boiling over. “So we’re as much prisoners as you are.”

Her husband waved his hands around, “I think your cell is a lot nicer than the one I’ll have. If I ever make it to jail. You always said you wanted a simpler life in the country.”

While she resented Gerald throwing it in her face, especially in front of this intimate stranger, he was right. Under different circumstances, this place would be perfect. Everything she ever dreamt of or wanted. But being isolated, a virtual prisoner, even in a gilded cage, was not her first choice.

But it might be their best one. She did not doubt Gerald. She had always wondered about the timing and facts of Stephen’s suicide herself. It just did not make sense; the man was not the type. He was too much of a coward to kill himself.

And her first obligation was to Callie. The thought of losing her child was unimaginable. Maybe it was old-fashioned, some people might even say it was wrong, but her daughter was her life, what she had lived for since even before that little stick turned blue. She would do whatever it took to keep her child safe, right down to laying down her own life.

She studied the man who had been surprisingly quiet during this whole conversation. What was he thinking? Feeling? It must have been a shock for him to learn he had a child. Not that this news was not a shock to her too. But she had not suddenly had a teenage daughter dropped in her lap.

“Is this what you want? Don’t feel obligated. Responsibility for a child was not part of our deal. So, please don’t do this because you feel like you have to. I don’t expect anything from you. Callie is my responsibility. I’ll find a way somehow.” Though, she was not sure how.

Chad knew that his response to her question might be the most crucial moment of his life. Not only his destiny but perhaps hers and their daughter’s rested upon his answer. He needed to convince this woman that he wanted, needed, to be a part of this situation.

The problem was he had never been all that good with those fancy words. Sure, his grandmother made certain he knew them, but knowing them and being able to share what was inside your head and heart were two different things. But that was what he had to do now.

He took a deep breath and did his best. “Yes, I want you and Callie to stay. I don’t know what I would have done if I knew that she was mine before. But now that I do, I know that I want a chance to get to know her.”

“Right now, you need a safe place to go. Not just safe from whoever might try to harm you, but I’m guessing a place where no one knows you, knows your story. No one is judging you. A place to heal and get your life back together.” He looked around, realized how very different this place was from where she or their daughter had grown up. “I know it ain’t fancy, but it is quiet.”

He paused and frowned as he considered her argument with her husband. “I don’t want ya’ll feeling like prisoners here, though. I don’t go into town much myself, just when I need something. But I’ll do whatever I can to make it as comfortable for you as I can.”

He knew that his words were probably not enough, not what she wanted to hear. They certainly had not adequately expressed how very much he wanted and needed this opportunity to protect and care for her and their child. But if she knew that, it might do more to scare her off than reassure her.

She looked from him to her husband, then out the window to watch their daughter as she slowly made her way back to the house with her head down. “Okay, but I want your word that you’ll teach us both how to defend ourselves. Guns and hand-to-hand.”

Chad nodded, “That’s a damned fine idea.”

“So, what are we going to tell her?”

Gerald spoke up, “The truth.”

The look that passed between the McBrides was lethal. Then the man chuckled, “Not all of it, of course. But I was going to tell her that Buford was an old friend of yours. A man that I knew could do a good job of protecting you. So, I made arrangements for ya’ll to stay with him for a bit. Until things settle down.”

Cassie sighed and nodded, “That seems reasonable enough. But we don’t have anything, Gerald. Not clothes or toiletries. Books, personal items. The only thing Callie brought with her is her tablet.”

“And that has to go. All your emails, social media, everything has to go dark. From this moment. As if you had both just dropped off the face of the earth, had died.”

Cassie shook her head, “That ain’t happening with a teenager. She’ll have enough trouble adjusting to the country after a lifetime living in Houston. You know how she has been moping around the house without her friends and after-school activities. You can’t ask her to give up gaming, YouTube, and all the rest.”

“Not give it up. Just start over. A new identity. New accounts. New passwords. Ones that have nothing to do with our old life. Since you won’t be putting her in school, you shouldn’t need birth certificates or anything. At least not right away.”

McBride shook his head, “Hopefully, well, maybe in a couple of years, things might blow over. Or maybe you can get forged documents. But right now, we need to focus on the immediate problem of keeping you both safe. And this is the best option for that. Trust me; I have spent weeks thinking all the options through.”

The man looked at Chad, eye to eye; he had to respect him for that much at least. “And I figure he’s the only one I can truly trust right now. Like I said before, he has a vested interest in keeping that girl safe. You, too, unless I miss my guess.”

“You have my word. I’ll do whatever is necessary,” Chad ignored the man’s final comment.

Cassie sighed and looked out the window again. Chad noticed that the girl was almost to the house, but she had stopped. She had turned and was staring off across the field. His heart broke at the turmoil this was causing her. “So, how do we do this?”

The man passed him the wad of cash, but he shook his head. “I don’t want your money.”

“They’ll need things. Like she said, clothes, make-up, hair dye, glasses, I don’t know what all. And trust me, those tablets ain’t cheap. Laptops, either.”

Chad pushed the money back at him, “I might not be rich, but I can take care of my… Of them.” He had come so close to saying family. But that was not right. At least not yet. Maybe one day. If he played his cards right.

She covered their battling hands with hers, reaching out and taking the money from her husband. “I’ll take it. It’ll be my Plan B. Something to fall back on if I need to.”

The man nodded and released it. “I might have underestimated you.”

She folded the bills and stuffed them in her jean pocket. “Damned straight, you did, Gerald. You and Daddy both did.”

She turned to Chad and spoke, “But no more. That’s my daughter, my very life. I make the decisions from now on. Understood? No keeping secrets or protecting us from the truth. You tell me everything like it is. And we decide together. Full partners.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Her smile was tight, stressed. Those tiny lines around her mouth were more pronounced.

Gerald spoke up, “Glad that is settled. Cassandra, give the man a list of things you and the girl will need for the next few days. He’ll need to get those somewhere. You can’t be seen on surveillance cameras.” He turned to Chad, “Maybe give her a bit of a tour of the house, where she and the girl will sleep. She can get them settled a bit. I’ve discovered she’s a surprisingly good cook.”

The man sighed as his daughter rounded the corner of the house and disappeared out of sight. “I’ll talk to the girl. Explain things to her. Take the hit for this decision, so at least she won’t be too mad at either of you.” They heard the front door open.

“Her name is Callie.” Chad said, irritated at the way this man always referred to her as ‘the girl.’

Cassie shook her head, “Not anymore. Her name is Grace.”

Chad could barely stand. It seemed Fate, almost right somehow, that his daughter bore his grandmother’s name. But how? “Grace? Why, Grace?”

Cassie shrugged, “It’s her middle name. So, it shouldn’t be too big an adjustment for her. She always preferred it to Calypso anyway. Callie, she doesn’t mind. But Calypso, she’s hated ever since she read the story in English class and learned what it meant in Greek. ‘To cover or conceal,’” she looked at her husband. “I guess now I understand why you insisted we name her that. But no more. Neither of us is without sin in this one. But she’s a child. None of this is her fault.”

The man nodded, “I know, Cassandra. And I know I can never make any of it up to you. But I did care – for you both, in my own way.”

She shook her head and sighed as if the weight of the world rested on her tiny shoulders. It tore at Chad’s heart, and he swore he would do whatever he could to take some of that weight from her. Perhaps too little, too late. But sometimes Fate was a funny thing. He had always thought that.

He smiled as he remembered his earlier thoughts. It seemed Fate had pulled a fast one; his cousins might be shit out of luck this time. Cause as of an hour ago, he had someone to leave this place to. Of course, whether she would come to love it as much as he did or see it as money in the bank, the way his cousins did, was undecided.

“Hey, Mom, are we leaving soon? I’m kinda bored just hanging out in a field. There’s not even internet out here.”

Okay, another thing to add to his list. A few of those little boxes that boosted his signal. He might even have to call tomorrow and upgrade to that faster package they’d been trying to sell him for years.

“You aren’t leaving, Calypso.” At least, Gerald was true to his word. Too little, too late. But still, if he took the heat for this one, that would perhaps make things easier for Callie. No, Grace, Cassie had to start thinking of her daughter as Grace. It had, after all, been the name that she had chosen for her.

She was not naïve enough to think this was going to be easy. Some perfect solution. Her chance to start life afresh as that ‘good ole’ boy’s girl.’ This man might feel obligated to her daughter, maybe even have fond memories, as she did, of that one night. But the obstacles they faced were immense. People, rich, powerful, people whom they did not even know, were after her and her daughter. If that was not enough, from the look on Grace’s face, her daughter was having none of it.

“I’m not staying here, old man.” It was the name that Callie used when her father had pushed her too far.

“Please, just listen…” Cassie began, but Gerald shook his head.

“I’ll talk to the girl. You have Buford show you around. Give him that list of the things you’ll both need.”

She wanted to argue. Wanted to stay, talk with her daughter, try to make the situation more palatable to Grace. But the look on her daughter’s face said that she was not in a mood to listen.

Perhaps Gerald was right. Maybe if he took the full brunt of Grace’s anger, then she could come in later. Cassie was more than familiar with the concept of good cop, bad cop by now — as many times as she had been interviewed.

“Buford?” Her daughter laughed. “And I thought Calypso was bad.”

Cassie blushed; her daughter was not a naughty or disrespectful child. Or she hadn’t been until all this started. She had been loving, kind, everything that a mother could ask for. But Cassie had watched this cold, cruel side emerge over the past few months. Of course, she understood what it was, a self-defense mechanism, a way for her daughter to protect herself by pushing people away.

But this man did not know that. What would he think of his daughter? Of the way that she had raised her child? She turned to look at him.

He smiled and chuckled, “It could be worse. Johnny Cash had a hit song called ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ But you can call me Chad.”

“Whatever.” Her daughter shrugged.

“I guess it is lucky for you, young lady; you won’t have to hear that name again. Calypso McBride is gone. Hand me your tablet.” Gerald held out his hand.

Her daughter looked a bit dazed and vulnerable. Cassie knew the toll that these last few months had taken on her. But Callie had always been a good girl, so she did not hesitate to hand her tablet to her father, to Gerald. When he dropped it to the floor and stomped on it with his expensive cowboy boots, though, Cassie knew there would be trouble. She was not wrong.

“What the fuck, old man! Why did you do that? You bring us out to the middle of nowhere and dump us like stray dogs. Then you destroy the only thing that I have left. Do you hate us so much? Just because we aren’t going to jail, too. Or maybe that is what this is? Our prison?”

“Callie, apologize to your…” She could no longer bring herself to call him that. But she need not have worried.

Gerald waved them off, “I’ll handle this.”

She did not know what to do. She wanted to stay and protect her child. But that had not been going so well lately.

A firm hand on her shoulder turned her around. She looked up into those familiar green eyes, “We should leave them alone for a bit,” was all he said as he drew her out of his study and closed the door behind them.

She collapsed against the wall. She felt the tears spilling over and down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around herself. She did not know how much more she could or would have to take, but this latest shock was beyond anything she had imagined. Her husband of almost twenty years was not the father of her child.

She could hear them arguing loudly on the other side of the door, but she could not make out the words. Her maternal instincts demanded that she barged back into the room, protect her child from this ‘stranger.’ But she was simply in too much shock herself. She would not be much good to her daughter until she got her own shit together. As much as it hurt her, she knew that.

The gentle hand on her shoulder roused her just a bit, “Please, please let me help.” It was such a foreign concept. Rather than being like her father or Gerald and just deciding what was in her best interest, this man asked. It won him a bit of ground in her heart.

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, squared her shoulders, forced a smile, and turned to face the man that had filled her fantasies for almost fifteen years. That was the embodiment of dreams well before that. “Show me around. Then I’ll make that list for you. I’m not sure what will be open around here on a Sunday, though.”

He laughed, and it danced like a Texas two-step through her mind. “Same as everyplace else – Walmax. I’m sure I’ll find everything I need there, even a new tablet. And pizza? I’m assuming that our daughter is like every other teen and likes pizza? I figure we’re gonna need as many bribes as we can manage to smooth this one over.”

She nodded her head, “Yes, pizza, a big tub of Blue Bell, a tablet, the internet, and maybe even a horse.”

“I think I can handle those. I suppose it is the least I can do to make up for all those missed six a.m. feedings and dirty diapers.”

She knew he was trying to make a joke, but the words cut a little too close to home. “I’m sorry. I really, honestly, never had any suspicions. I mean, we were so careful about using protection. And Gerald and had I been trying for so long. I…”

But what did you say to the man who you just found out had fathered your teenage daughter?

Chad was reminded of why he had not dated in so long – he sucked with women. His rough good looks were fading, but even those could not make up for the fact that every time he opened his mouth, he put his foot in it. “I’m sorry. That was supposed to be funny. I know that you are as much a victim in this situation as our little girl. Hell, a few months after…”

What did he say? A few months after our one-night stand? The best sex of my life? Meeting you certainly did not cover it. “After New Orleans, I saw a photo of the two of you in the Houston newspaper. It announced you were pregnant. If I had bothered to do the math, but would that have made any difference? A Marine and broken down rancher, cowboy, didn’t have much to offer either of you.”

She shook her head as she took his hand in hers and squeezed gently. “Yet, you have exactly we need, when we need it most.”

He nodded and smiled weakly, “Yeah, I reckon. I know for damned sure that I would not change that night, though. I’m not gonna lie and say that missing fourteen years of my daughter’s life doesn’t bother me. But there is nothing that either of us can do about the past. The best thing we can do is let that sleeping dog lie and work together as partners to protect and care for our daughter. I get the feeling this pain goes deeper than some computer thingy, and I want to understand.”

“I honestly do want to do everything I can to help. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that Fate, hell, that even the old bastard in there brought you both into my life now. That I have this opportunity to make it up to her. I don’t want to screw that up.”

He was careful that his little speech and his actions avoided one thing – her. In almost fifteen years, he could never forget that night and this woman. But he was not naïve enough to think they could take back up from there.

During his time in the Marines, he had spent enough time in countries and cultures where women had no control over their lives or their children’s. Her words earlier had hit home. Though she lived in America during the twenty-first century, this woman had not had much more control than women in places like Kosovo, Kenya, and Afghanistan.

He had served side-by-side with some fine Marines who were women. Even his grandmother had been a strong woman who ruled her family with love and discipline. She and his grandfather had always worked as partners to solve whatever problems life threw at them.

And while he would like nothing more than to have a future with this woman, he was not going to be another asshole, just stepping in and taking over. If, and he knew that was a helluva big if, this woman wanted a relationship with him, he wanted that – the full partnership like his grandparents had.

She looked back at the door when they heard a loud thud. “Maybe I should go, check on them?”

“Or maybe the old man’s right? Maybe let him take the heat for this one, then we can pick up the pieces. Play the heroes with those iPad thingies and pizza?”

She stared at the door one more time before turning and stepping into the kitchen, “Maybe you’re right. Let Gerald play bad cop for once. How about you show me around?”

They sat at the old kitchen table. Cassie wondered how many generations of his family had eaten off its scuffed but obviously well-loved surface. The whole place was like stepping back in time to a different world. A simpler time.

Of course, there were modern conveniences like a washing machine. Even then, Chad had apologized. His grandmother had never seen the point in wasting good money on a device to dry the clothes when the good lord put a sun in the sky that did the job just fine.

The way he spoke of his grandmother, the woman reminded Cassie of Aunt Rose. She remembered holding Callie when she was just a baby and thinking how much she wished Aunt Rose had lived to see her.

She had to stop that. She could not keep thinking of her daughter as Callie. Otherwise, it might slip out and cause problems. No, she was Grace now. It seemed some cosmic joke that the woman who had lived in this house and raised her grandson shared that name with her daughter. Her knees had almost buckled when she asked him his grandmother’s name.

But she would have long days and nights to ponder the vagarities of life later. Right now, she needed to focus on the present. She shook her head as she contemplated the list. Clothes, toiletries, an iPad, food. She had not bothered with cosmetics. She had never been especially fond of them, and it hardly seemed worth the bother in someplace like this.

Not that she minded. That was just it. Gerald was right. Under different circumstances, this place was just about everything she could hope for. Quiet. Surrounded by nature. A few animals. If she were not worried about someone showing up to kill her or her daughter, she could be happy here.

The question was, could Ca… Could Grace? After a lifetime in the bustle of Houston, could her daughter adjust to a different lifestyle? Thinking back over the past few months, her troubles at school and abandonment by supposed friends, maybe this what she needed as well?

She snuck a glance over at him as he made a pot of coffee. What about him? She believed him. This man was the type that would honestly want to take up the mantle of fatherhood. She did not even doubt that he meant it when he had said that he would die for them. Though, she hoped it never came to that.

That was the problem — Buford ‘Chad’ Wilson, funny that she had never known his full name until today. Chad was indeed her good ole’ boy fantasy made flesh. And oh, what lovely flesh it was too. The man had to be in his early to mid-fifties now, but still, his ass filled out those dusty, old Wrangler jeans to perfection.

She knew that she needed to get her libido under control. She had not dared to add a Rabbit vibrator to the list. But she might wish she had. It had been too many years to count since she and Gerald had sex. She did not mind. The man had never done much for her. No, only one man had fueled her fantasies, and he was handing her a steaming cup of coffee at this very minute.

Perhaps he would even welcome a repeat performance? It was not like she had seen any sign of another woman, and he had not mentioned anyone. She passed him the list, “I think those are the basics.”

He looked it over, then frowned, “It doesn’t seem much. I mean, ya’ll are going to be here, at least for the foreseeable future. And I sure don’t want this place being a prison the way ya’ll said. You put down an iPad for Grace. But what about you? What you gonna do out here? I mean a couple more TVs, a new laptop, one of those Kindle things?”

Those green eyes held her gaze, “I mean, I know this ole place ain’t no fancy mansion, but I want ya’ll to be comfortable here. To have as much of the things ya’ll are used to as I can afford.”

She felt the tingles race up her spine as her hand covered his on the table. “You’ll be surprised at how much all that will cost. Replacing that tablet alone is going to be close to a grand. But that is the one thing not worth scrimping on.”

She toyed with the idea. She knew that he had his pride, but even at Walmax, the items on that list could quickly come to three-thousand dollars or more. She reached for the wad of bills in her pocket, “I know you told Gerald no, but please, take this.”

He shook his head firmly, “No, I meant it. I ain’t rich. But my grandparents left me this house and land. Free and clear. I have my retirement from the Marines. And I don’t do too badly on the horses I breed and sell.” He turned her hand in his and squeezed, “If it takes ten grand to make this place feel like home for the two of you, I’ll do it. Just tell me what you need?”

Considering how her nipples chafed against the soft silk of her bra, she should definitely add a vibrator to the list. Though she was pretty sure you couldn’t find those at Walmax. Her poor fingers were going to get a hell of a workout with this man around. Especially if he kept being everything she had ever dreamt a man should be.

But now was not the time to become involved with anyone. And after a lifetime of being under a man’s control, she was in no hurry to trade one master for another. He was right, though, if only for Grace’s sake. “A television. Do you have cable out here?”

“Satellite. It’s just as good, most of the time. I’ll need to do something about the internet, though. What I have now was good enough for me to do email and manage the breeding, but I’m sure it can’t handle three people or her gaming.”

She nodded, how mundane it all seemed, talking about the practicalities with this man. But it wasn’t. These were the very types of everyday decisions that Gerald and her father had simply made for her. She realized then that she had no idea how something as simple as getting internet service worked.

But it was getting late; he needed to head off into whatever passed for a town around here. Hell, she had not even followed closely where Gerald had taken them. All she knew was that she was deep in East Texas, somewhere. There were dozens or hundreds of questions she needed to ask the man, but now was not the time. “Well, if you’re sure about the money, I suppose a TV in her bedroom and a laptop might make this place less isolated for a teen.”

“But one thing that you do have, and I know it would make a lot of difference, is a horse. Cal… Grace is quite a horsewoman. She’s placed third a couple of times in barrel racing at the Livestock Show and Rodeo.” She looked down at their hands, interlocked on the table. Her voice dropped a bit, “Gerald had invested in a pony for her. But the government seized Romeo along with all his other assets. She misses that horse.”

His smile broadened, “Must be in the DNA. Horses and Wilsons. She seemed pretty good with Inferno, and he’s one difficult piece of horseflesh.”

“I want you to know she’s a good kid. An exceptional one, actually. Smart, kind, and happy. Or she was until all this.” Cassie stammered, trying to figure out how to say it and finally deciding that the truth was her best option. “I just want you to know that the girl you saw today, pouting and screaming, that’s not who she really is.”

He squeezed her hand and brought it to his lips. Her stomach dropped to her knees at the tender kiss he brushed across the back of her hand. “How could she be anything else with you as a mother. And I’m sure that given time, stability, and more patience than Jesus Christ himself had, she’ll come out this thing a stronger human being than before. It’s just up to us to see she gets those things as well as iPads, televisions, and laptops.”

He released her hand and stood up, “I better head out. I’m afraid I’ll need to go to the store in Nacogdoches for some of this stuff, and that’s over an hour away. Make yourself at home until I get back.”

That was the problem for Cassie. It would be far too easy to make herself at home here – with this man who indeed was her fantasy in the flesh.

*** 5 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Laura Reynolds folded the tiny white scrap. It was difficult seeing anything as the moisture gathered in her eyes. She laid it on top of the growing stack and lifted her trembling hand to brush the tears away. She had not expected this — a baby shower.

But her sisters and mother had pulled one together nonetheless. Women from the warehouse where her mother worked, a few stalwart patrons of the town library that her baby sister ran, and even a few tight-lipped women from her middle sister’s church.

It was not that Laura needed the gifts they had brought for the baby. She was not that desperate, not yet anyway. In this case, it really was the thought that counted. In her almost two decades away from this place, she had forgotten that there was some good to be found in Sebida, Texas.

She leaned back in the rocking chair that had been one of her first purchases. Her hand caressed the cyclopean mound that had once been her relatively flat abdomen. The baby was quiet. After four and a half months of gymnastics, dance, and Olympic training in there, the past couple of days, her daughter had been exceedingly well-behaved.

So much so that she had called her curandero twice to make sure that nothing was wrong. The first time the older wisewoman had completed the half-hour trip fully laden with gear to check up on her client. It only took a moment with the fetoscope to quash all her fears. Her daughter was very much alive. All would be fine, Guadalupe assured her.

The bebita was merely finding her position, getting ready for her entrance into the world. That could not come soon enough for Laura. Her back hurt. She had not slept in months. She simply could not find a comfortable position. Not that she was not eternally grateful for this little blessing.

Especially now. When she felt lost and adrift for the first time in her life, this baby had given her existence purpose and meaning. She knew too how fortunate she had been. Most women her age took months, years to conceive. She had managed it in a single night.

She shook her head as she lifted a cup of the nasty herbal tea that Guadalupe had recommended she drink to help her body prepare for this birth. There was not enough sugar in the whole state of Texas to make this stuff palatable. Maybe she would discuss that metaphor with her shrink during their next video session.

Her life had changed so much in the last nine months. None of this was how she planned it. Which was why she had gone back into ‘therapy.’ She looked around her small but neat little wooden frame house. Who would have ever thought she would be back here? Sebida, Texas. When she graduated high school two decades ago, she had run so far and so fast from this place. And until nine months ago, she had never looked back.

It was incongruous the twists that her life had taken. She fought back those tears once more, swallowing the bitter bile that rose in her throat every time she thought about him. Ryan Ranger. Her baby’s father. Backstabbing, supercilious, duplicitous bastard. But would she have done any different? The woman that she had been then, anyway. That hardened, career-driven, self-sanctimonious bitch was a far sight from the person she had become these past few months.

That morning played like some bad movie in her mind. His only answer had been, “It’s just a job.” Whether that was his justification for his actions or some paltry offer of condolence, she never knew.

Laura had gathered her composure along with her personal laptop and the few belongings in her temporary office. She had been able to fit them all into the oversized purse she carried. With her head held high, she had left the building without another word to the man or a backward glance. She had gone back to her hotel room and packed. She had opened her laptop to book a flight to Houston.

Then, she realized there was nothing back there for her. She had no job. No apartment. She could not even count as friends the few people she had kept in touch with over the past few months on social media with its likes, emojis, and the occasional comment. She had even gone so far as to sell her car before this temporary move. Nothing and no one was tying her to the city that she had called home for over a dozen years.

But where did she belong? What would she do next? And the most pressing question at the time, where did she go?

As she sat on the plane for ten hours, a plan had begun to form. By the time she stepped into the terminal at George Bush, she knew exactly what she was doing. For the next week anyway. She had rented a car, found a Mexican restaurant, and stuffed her face as full as her stomach would allow. Even though it was after nine by the time she finished, she drove straight through. It was only a couple of hours after all.

It was almost midnight when she drove up to the small trailer just outside of town, on the wrong side of the train tracks. Her courage had faltered then. She questioned what insanity had pushed her to come back to here. Of all the places on the earth that she could have gone, why here?

She was just about to start the car and drive off again when her baby sister, wearing a ridiculous t-shirt style nightgown that said ‘Book Boyfriends are the best,’ appeared on the front porch. Mercy had squealed, and her mother had come running in an equally outrageous nightgown that proclaimed, ‘Life is what you make it.’ The die was cast. That was how Laura found herself back in Sebida, Texas. Well, sort of.

She leaned her head back against the cushion that her mother had sewn for the antique rocker. Her hand still resting on her baby mound, she closed her eyes and welcomed the brief respite of a nap. Even if it was filled with lustful fantasies of the man, she should hate but could not bring herself to do so.

***5:30 p.m. Road from Nacogdoches, TX***

The sun was setting over his shoulders by the time Chad was back on the road home. It had taken him far longer to shop for them than it did himself. He found himself second-guessing every decision from the type of iPad that she had listed right down to what nightgown to buy her.

The young man behind the counter in electronics had talked him into the top-line model of the tablet, but what the hell, he had thirteen or fourteen Christmases and birthdays to make up for.

A nightgown for Cassie had been a bit more challenging to manage. He saw plenty of sexy lacey things that he would love to see her in, but he did not want to give her the idea that his assistance came with strings. On the other hand, fuzzy pajamas and oversized nightshirts didn’t seem like her style, either. In the end, he had found a black satin nightgown with thin straps that would come to at least her mid-thighs.

The hair dye was another difficult choice. He loved the blond that they both had, with rich darker undertones as well as the lighter shades. But dying their hair would be the quickest and easiest camouflage. Still, making that decision for them was too personal. He finally decided to buy a couple of boxes of several different shades from black to red to brown, even pink, blue, and purple. What teen wouldn’t love parents who willingly approved such things?

Even the clothes had been tough to choose. When he finally broke down and bought clothes for himself, it was always the same. Same jeans, same shirts, even the same socks and underwear. Even his boots, though he could repair them for a decade or more, when he did replace them, it was from a farm catalog that had not changed in his lifetime, at least. Except, of course, now you could order online.

For them, though, he stood staring at racks and racks of a seemingly endless variety of jeans, t-shirts, and unmentionables. Cassies had written down sizes but not style choices. Although he was confident that Walmax was not their style, to begin with. But that, too, was part of their transformation. No one would expect someone like them to be wearing Walmax jeans and a t-shirt.

He must have stood there looking lost for so long that one of the workers in that department had finally approached him. He was unsure what to say when she asked if she could help him, so he had gone with a half-truth. An old friend and her teen daughter were staying with him for a while. It was a bit of a surprise trip, and he needed to buy them some things.

The woman’s eyes seemed to mist over as she nodded, “That sort of thing still happens too often.” She looked at the piece of paper in his hand and asked, “Is that a list? Did she give you sizes?” He had nodded as he handed it to her. “How long do you think they’ll be with you?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say, ‘forever, I hope,’ but he held it back. Instead, he shrugged and replied, “For the foreseeable future, at least.”

The woman had asked if he had a budget. She smiled when he said whatever it took. Since he knew Walmax did not pay its people commission, he had to assume that it was the correct answer in some other way.

Even with the woman’s help, it had taken over an hour to select a wardrobe that could ‘keep them for a while,’ as the woman said. He had even bought a pretty red wrap-around dress for Cassie.

When they had finished, the woman had squeezed his arm. Her smile was weak, and there were more tears in her eyes. He had to lean in just a bit to hear her, “Thanks for being one of the good guys. Someone that a friend can turn to when she needs help. I know how scared and frightened they are right now. That was my boys and me a couple years ago. I don’t know what would have happened to us if…”

She brushed those tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, “Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t be here right now. I hope it all works out for them too.” Then she turned and slipped away. Chad would guess the woman headed to the bathroom and a good cry.

After raiding the grocery section for enough food to last them a couple of weeks, including pizza, soda, chips, and Blue Bell ice cream, he had checked out. The bill did not come to quite ten grand, but he was confident it was the most significant purchase the store had seen that day, maybe that week. Heck, possibly in a long time. He shuddered to think what these items would have cost at one of the stores the McBride’s used to shop.

But it was not downsizing their lifestyles that had consumed his thoughts as he drove east across the almost flat piney woods of East Texas. That woman’s words had gotten to him. He would not have necessarily considered himself a ‘feminist,’ whatever that was. But he had served with some damned fine Marines – who happened to be women.

Of course, his respect for strong women went back before that. His cousins had always referred to their grandmother as ‘the tough old bird.’ The woman had known just as much about the cattle, horses, and livestock markets as he and his grandfather. Their decisions were always joint ones. He supposed when you both worked the land, when the very survival of your family depended upon you both, then things just had to be more egalitarian.

He knew that it did not always work that way. More than one of his female Marines had shared with him stories of sexism, discrimination, and, worse, rape. There were always a couple of men in town who would beat their wives or kids if they had too much to drink. Not to mention the disgusting things that he had seen in some of those places where he had been stationed. But those things had been distant, somehow. Not part of his world. As if he did not see them directly, then they weren’t real.

The pain he heard in Cassie’s voice today was real. Hell, he remembered feeling pity and some undefined need to protect that young woman who poured out her life’s story over a beer. He had felt then the unfairness of having your life decided for you, controlled by men. But there had been nothing he could do about it. Or at least, he had justified it all that way. What did he have to offer a ‘lady’ like her?

As much as he wanted to step forward, take charge, as his Marine training taught, he did not want to be like her father or husband. He did not want to take her right to choose away from her. He knew that was important to her now, especially considering trusting those men had gotten her and her daughter into such a mess. Her daughter? Their daughter. He had a daughter. He had a DAUGHTER! And one thing he knew for damn sure, he did not want any man making decisions for her. He wanted Grace to have the same strength, wisdom, and compassion as the grandmother, who shared that name.

It had been just as hard for him as it was for Cassie to leave that room. To allow the man whose bad choices had put them in danger to make even more decisions for the girl he had admitted was ‘not my child.’It had angered him to listen to Gerald McBride talk with such pride, regret, and pain about ‘his’ son. Yet repeatedly call her ‘the girl.’ Did that go deeper than the fact she was not his biological child? Did it have as much to do with her being female? Would the man have felt differently about her if she had been a boy? Perhaps he would have resented her more, seen her as a threat to ‘his son?’

But none of that mattered now. The man might even be gone by the time he got back to the ranch. If not, he would definitely be gone from their lives soon. But the legacy of shame, pain, and that domineering attitude would not be. It would be up to him to foster strength, confidence, and independence, not only in HIS daughter but the woman he loved.

Yeah, no matter what happened from here, Chad was finally willing to admit the truth. From the moment that he had seen her in line at the club in New Orleans, he might have been attracted to Cassie. But as he spent time with her, learned her story, and held her in his arms, it was more than that. And in fifteen years since then, no other woman had measured up. It had taken him less than two hours in her presence to remember why.

Oh, yes, Cassie McBride might not realize it, but she was a strong, independent woman, too. She just needed a man strong enough to step back and allow her to make her own decisions, to fail, and to succeed. A man to foster her self-confidence. He wanted to be that man. For his daughter and the woman he loved.

As he turned off to the dirt road leading to the old house, he saw that the black SUV was gone. Good riddance to the man as far as he was concerned. Now he could get down to the business of doing whatever it took, whatever his girls needed him to do or be, to build them up – and in the process, he hoped to build a solid foundation for the future with both of them.

***6 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Ryan Ranger sat behind the wheel of the rental SUV. Less than eight hours ago, he had been comfortably ensconced in a safe house, deep in the woods of Vermont. Waiting there for Gerald McBride and the rest of his cronies to go to trial was no hardship.

What he was going to do with the rest of his life was another matter altogether. He had been in hiding for two months as the agency built its case against the men. He had nothing to do but fish and ponder his future. He had not had much luck at either.

In all those weeks, he still had not managed to get her out of his mind. In one brief night, Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds had gotten under his skin in a way that no woman ever had. She was in his blood, and as scary as it was to admit, his head and heart too.

So, when his handler from the agency began to ask questions about just how much the woman might know about the money trail they had been unable to trace fully, Ryan had been more than happy to volunteer to find out those answers.

Now, that seemed like a bad idea. Their parting had been anything but ideal. What made him think that the woman would share anything she knew with him? If she knew anything at all. A one-night stand, followed by being the hatchman who destroyed her dream career, hardly engendered him as someone she would trust.

But Ryan would take any opportunity he could to see her just one more time. He had been seeking a way to renew their acquaintance for weeks. His every dream filled with memories of that night, fantasies of the things they had not done but would.

Though, he had been careful to avoid too close an examination of the other – whatever that other sense had been. Ryan dealt with facts, theories, and practicalities. Not in some sixth sense, other-worldly shit. He left that stuff for Grandfather and his cousin Rex. Their natural, or more accurately super-natural side, gave them a much better perspective on such things.

But warm, fuzzies aside, that night had been unforgettable. And he had tried. Every single day – and night – for the past nine months. He still could not get her out of his mind or heart. It was as if in the short space of a few hours, the woman had stolen some part of him. Of his soul – if such a thing existed.

That morning had been the hardest thing he had ever fucking done – and considering some of his missions, that was saying something. He had lain awake, holding her, even as she drifted off to sleep. He had looked for any way out. Hell, he had even toyed with the idea of waking her up, coming clean about the whole damned thing, begging her to forgive him, and to wait for him. But he knew that was not an option. Too much rode on this assignment. Besides, blowing his cover would have only put her life at risk — something he could not do.

Still, his words haunted him. ‘It’s only a job,’ had taken on new meaning these past months as he pondered the whole thing. She deserved so much more than those lame words. What did they mean? Even he was not sure. And he had had months to ponder that.

He knew he was stalling, avoiding the confrontation that was to come. He might justify it as meticulous planning, but it was procrastination. Some strategy for gaining the woman’s trust was not going to magically appear, any more than it had on the three-hour flight to Houston or the almost two-hour drive to this hellhole of her hometown.

Sebida, Texas, was the last place that Ryan would imagine her coming after losing her job. But he supposed it made sense. Her mother and two sisters still lived here, though no longer in the dilapidated old rental trailer.

One of the first bonus checks that Laura had earned went towards buying her family a new trailer home. Though in the decade since then, she had not visited them here even once. Instead, she had them come to Houston or took them on family holidays, something that her mother had never been able to give her daughters.

Ryan could undoubtedly understand the need to reconnect with your roots. He had been feeling the same restlessness calling him back to Grandfather’s ranch for weeks. It was only a couple hours west in the Hill Country. Maybe when he finished here, he would pop in for a brief visit.

Then, perhaps he would even check in with his mother in Fredricksburg. Though, he doubted that Ingrid would be any more forthcoming with the answers that he sought than she had been for the past thirty-five years.

No, he supposed it made sense that Laura would come back to her roots. What did not make sense was why she had stayed. Nine months, three-quarters of a year. Sebida did not seem like the place a woman like that would want to settle down.

He would not get those answers or the more important ones that the agency sent him to find, sitting in the car. He steeled his resolve for whatever was to come. He would not be surprised if she slapped him or slammed the door in his face. Nonetheless, he had a job to do, just as he had all those months ago.

And time was running out. The attorneys would be announcing the plea bargain with McBride tomorrow. When they did, all those close to the man would be in grave danger. Whether or not Laura Reynolds had information that could help them make this case did not matter as much as whether they believed she did. And ‘they’ were a lot less scrupulous than the agency. His job was simple: make a deal with the woman and keep her safe.

Ryan stepped from the car, his eyes automatically scanning the area for anything out of the ordinary. He knew that the small house across the road was a rental — a month-to-month arrangement with a former teacher, who was traveling at the moment.

He crossed the road as quickly as he could. If this place were like the small town where Grandfather lived, then news of the ‘strange’ man visiting her would be circulating before dinner was over. He knocked on the door and waited. It took much longer than he had anticipated. He double-checked that her used car was in the driveway. She indeed was being frugal for a woman with well over half a million dollars in savings.

That was his most powerful bargaining chip. Seizing all her assets, right down to her mother’s trailer if necessary. The government had the right to do so with all proceeds of illegal activities. Forfeiture was undoubtedly one of the consequences that the others had faced. The only thing that had kept her assets safe, so far, was her presumed innocence. And the fact that he had fired her before the shit hit the fan. But all that could change now if she did not cooperate. It was not a tactic he wanted to utilize, but he would if necessary.

He was just about to head back to his car when the door opened. He grabbed the door frame to keep from fall to his knees. He thought he had prepared himself for whatever he encountered when he saw her again after all these months.

But the heavily pregnant belly that she clutched as her face scrunched in pain was not one of the options he had considered. Especially not considering this was the same woman he had unprotected sex with…nine months ago. Nine months. Something inside of him did not even need to ask. “My baby?”

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