***Chad’s ranch in East Texas – several weeks later***
Cassie stared out the kitchen window. Chad and Grace were putting Inferno through his paces. Almost five weeks. Over a month. Her life had never been this good. Then again, she was no longer Cassie. She had embraced Rose with an enthusiasm that shocked even her. She had always loved cooking, but Gerald had insisted that was the chef’s job. Such things were beneath McBrides.
But she was shocked to discover how much she enjoyed other traditional tasks such as cleaning. Of course, once he was indicted, they had to let their maid go. But cleaning a twenty-five-room, modern monstrosity had been challenging, to say the least. In the end, she had closed off most of the rooms. It was not like they had friends to entertain.
Instead, she had put her effort into the half dozen or so rooms that they used regularly. That had worked, but it had not brought the same sense of accomplishment and serenity that maintaining the old farmhouse that had seen generations of Wilsons through good times and bad.
Even cooking, cleaning, and doing a bit of gardening with Chad’s help, still left plenty of time in this more spartan existence. So she had carried through with her plans to learn sewing. During her explorations, she had been delighted to discover that she had everything she needed: cloth, thread, patterns, and a couple dozen various devices that were still a mystery to her. And there were thousands of videos on YouTube to teach her everything she could want or need to know. More than she could ever imagine undertaking in a lifetime.
Heck, even ole Maude was less of a problem these days. While the old hen did not follow her around the pen each morning, begging and pleading with loud squawks like the other chickens, Maude had come to tolerate her presence with a genteel dignity. That was a blessing not to collect new scratches on her hands and arms with every egg. She was slowly warming up to the idea of milking the cows. There were only three, and an old bull lived in the far pasture that even Chad showed grudging respect.
Happy. That was the only word to describe her life here. Well, mostly. Callie, no, Grace was still a petulant teen. And Gerald’s death had only made that worse. Morose. In death, the man had become everything that he never was in life. A loving father, a devoted husband, a business genius that was unfairly vilified.
Rose knew that at the heart of her daughter’s rose-colored views of the man was guilt. The child’s final words to the man ate at her. But after that first night, she could not get Grace to talk about it. No, in the girl’s mind, Gerald had become some persecuted superhero, and nothing could change that.
She and Chad had discussed and debated telling Grace the truth. Perhaps then she could once again see Gerald for the deeply flawed man that he was. But time and again, they decided not to. It was just too risky.
Grace’s relationship with her father, her real father, was still too tenuous. They shared what Chad called the Wilson way with horses. Grace even grudgingly respected him, especially in light of their philosophical discussions over breakfast. And while she still refused to touch a gun, their daughter had excelled at both hand-to-hand combat and even knives.
But if Grace’s relationship with Chad was dubious, hers was anything but. Since Gerald’s death, she had taken to sneaking into his room every night. Sometimes they simply fell asleep in one another’s arms. But those times were rare. Whoever said that libido declined with age had not met the man. Not that she was complaining. In some ways, it was as if they both felt this illogical drive to make up for fifteen years of lost loving. Or perhaps to prove to themselves and one another that this was not merely some dream. Either way, she had never felt more loved or respected.
It was even beginning to rub off on her opinion of herself. After a lifetime of being a second-class citizen whose thoughts and feelings counted for nothing, it was refreshing to actually make decisions, especially those that affected her or Grace.
Of course, she still was not entirely comfortable in her skin. Those insecurities about her body continued to torment her. No matter how supportive, reassuring, and almost adoring Chad was. Living in a society where young, thin, and plastic was considered the epitome of womanhood was not easy when you were practically forty with stretch marks, cellulite, and sagging bits. She doubted those voices in her head could ever be overcome. But she was not going to let that mar her otherwise perfect world. She was determined about that.
“Something smells good.”
Her nipples hardened within the soft satin of her bra, and she felt the dampness seeping into the matching panties. At just his voice?
“Nothing special, just fried chicken, rice, and gravy with the last of the green beans.” She leaned back into the warm embrace. She was still awed by how incredibly right it felt just to be in this man’s arms.
His rough cheek nuzzled the side of her neck. “Don’t you know? Everything is special about you, woman.”
Rose felt tears collecting in her eyes as she watched their daughter walk the horse to the barn. That was it. Whether it was freshly laundered shirts, vacuuming his study, meals, or the new dress that she had finally managed to sew for herself, this man noticed it all. And his words of praise and gratitude touched her deeply.
No one had ever praised her. Her father had lamented the fact that she was not a son. Her mother had virtually ignored her once she realized that Cassandra would never be a raging beauty. And Gerald? From the beginning, she had been nothing more than a begrudged obligation. Over the years, his resentment seemed to ferment into an overpowering cocktail of demeaning comments and innuendos.
Of course, now she partially understood that resentment. She grudgingly admitted that raising another man’s child could not have been easy on his pride and ego. But that had been his choice. Oh, how different things might have been for all of them if he had revealed the truth and simply divorced her.
But would she have had the courage to seek out this man? It was the question that she pondered in her quiet times. Not that it mattered. They were together now. Well, sort of.
Rose whimpered as he released her from the cuddle. When she looked up, she understood why. Grace was walking across the field from the barn. She scoffed at the dirt with the toe of her boot. Her head was down, as it was all too often these days. But from what Rose could see, that all too frequent scowl marred her otherwise pretty face. What were they going to do?
Chad withdrew from the woman he loved reluctantly. But one glance out that window had been enough to tell him that their precious moment alone was up. His resentment of that was growing exponentially every day. Why should they have to hide how they felt about one another? Especially from the daughter that their love had created.
“We have to do something, sweetheart. She can’t keep wallowing in this guilt. I know that we owe the old bastard a debt of gratitude for doing the right thing in the end, but damn it, that doesn’t make him some saint. That girl needs to remember that.”
Rose started to shake her head, and he noticed the tears that glistened in her eyes. It tore him in two. On the one hand, he wanted more time to build a solid foundation with the child he had just discovered. Grace was such a delightful miracle in what he had felt was a meaningless life. But he was tired of hiding how he felt about his own damned child.
And her? Rose. The scars that his woman bore created a rage inside of him that yearned to break free. Sure, he had come to understand that not all of that could be laid at Gerald McBride’s door. How could two people treat their child that way? Casting her aside because she was not a boy or beautiful. It was inexcusable. Even her beloved Rose seemed riddled with flaws, the chief among them the conditionality of her affections. Only ‘good girls’ were worthy. He had practically bitten a hole clear through his tongue when Cassie had shared the woman’s advice about ‘making the best of her marriage.’
Some days, it all seemed futile, an impossible dream to heal the years, a lifetime of damage, not only from McBride but from a world that devalued women. This past month with his girls had awoken some deep-seated feminist rage inside of him at the world’s injustices. But how could one man make any difference? Hell, sometimes, like now, he did not feel he was up to the job. But it was his responsibility now. And he had to find a way. Somehow.
“I’m going up to my room till dinner.”
Those Wilson green eyes that mirrored his own stared at the old linoleum. Grace did not even look him in the eyes. It was not a question; she was not asking permission. Not that he minded her making decisions, that was what he wanted. It was the querulous tone that bothered him. His daughter wanted respect, but she seemed determined not to give it. To either of them.
“It is almost ready. By the time you both wash up, I should have it on the table.” Rose smiled as she turned with his grandmother’s old wooden spoon in hand.
“Whatever.” Grace was gone up the stairs before either could say anything more.
And he was left standing there, feeling like a failure. Unable to bridge those gaps. To connect to either Rose or Grace. With no idea where to even begin. Or how?
They thought she was stupid. That she could not see what was going on. That she was too young for the truth.
Calypso Grace McBride turned off the water and looked up into the mirror over the sink. What she saw there was the problem. The truth that they wanted to hide.
When given more autonomy over her education, one of the first science lessons she immersed herself in was genetics. Her connection with the animals that she kept hidden, even from herself, fostered that curiosity. For as long as she could remember, she had been able to ‘speak’ with animals. From the birds outside her window to the fish in the fashionable koi pond in their garden, especially horses. There was some deep and instinctual connection with them that had inspired her dream of becoming a veterinarian. And understanding genetics was a considerable part of that work.
Before, it had been easy not to see. She was her mother’s daughter. That was clear. So many of the woman’s traits were dominant in her. So, it had been easy to dismiss the apparent lack of Gerald McBride in her.
Until they came here. She focused on her own eyes in that reflection. She had stared into them hundreds or even thousands of times in the past month. In the mirror and his face. They were identical.
Once she began to accept that, she had started to notice other little traits. Her smile. Their smile was perhaps more accurate. And her ears. Her hand touched the distinct lobes. Her mother always bemoaned the fact that her ears were attached directly to the side of her ear. But Grace had lobes. Gerald’s were also connected. And if she remembered correctly, so were Stephen’s.
Though honestly, she had had as little to do with her ‘brother’ as possible. Something about the way he looked at her always made her uncomfortable. Had he realized the truth? Resented her? Perhaps their father… Maybe Gerald had even shared what he knew with his real son?
And there was no doubt in her mind that he had known the truth. Why else would they be here? But there was so much that she did not understand. Why had her mother lived a lie for so long? Had she been so attached to their lifestyle of wealth and privilege? She had never thought of her mother like that before. But what other explanation was there for the woman’s keeping it hidden for so long?
Besides, her actions now spoke another truth. She had been quick to abandon Gerald once his money was gone. And she had taken back up with that man even faster. They thought she did not know. But she had seen the little touches that spoke of something far more profound than ‘friendship.’
At first, it had not even bothered her. After all, she knew that Gerald was no saint. She shivered and pushed down those memories. But the other part of that truth was…if the man was to be believed, then he had saved their lives by bringing them here. It could not have been easy for such a proud man. To face his wife’s betrayal. Was that how he had seen her? Was that why…
Still, he had brought them here. To this place. To a man that he must have known would have every reason to keep them safe. He had practically admitted as much that day. When he had begged her forgiveness.
But she had denied him that. That, too, was a truth that she had to live with. An uncomfortable one.
The question was… What was she going to do about it? Did she just keep ignoring the truth that was staring her in the mirror every time she looked? They certainly were. Sneaking around in their sin. And while she had not seen them, she was pretty sure that there was more going on than furtive looks and stolen touches.
Did she want to know the rest, though? Would it heal old hurts? Explain things that had never made any sense to her. Indeed, now she understood that name which she had hated so much. Hidden. She who hides. Made perfect sense now why Gerald always called her that, as if it were some accusation.
But would it make any difference? You could not change the past. Did it matter why her mother had lived a life of lies for almost fifteen years?
She was reasonably sure that Chad had not known the truth. Something about the way he looked at her when he thought she was not looking. Some sense of wonder, as if she were a miracle or he was seeing life in a new light for the first time.
It only deepened her resentment towards the woman. She had cheated. She had lived a life of lies. Passed her off as another man’s child. Forced Gerald to play ‘daddy.’ Her mother did not realize it, but she had heard more than one of their arguments. Those times when the woman had bullied and guilted the man into coming to her school plays, recitals, and horse shows. The man had his revenge, though. He always made sure of that.
The sad thing was that her mother’s lies had kept her from a man who seemed to genuinely want to be there for her. The problem was it was too little too late. She was not sure that she could ever trust men. Not after…
She brushed tears from those eyes that told the truth. That was the worst of all. The price that she had paid for the woman’s deception. The anger and rage that burned inside of her grew every day. With every moment that she was around the woman that she had once loved and looked up to.
She was tired of living their lies. Of pretending. But she was not confident she was ready to face the truth either. More than anything, she wanted to make her own way. But how? Sure, in a few years, she could leave this place or wherever they ended up. She could go off on her own, make a new life for herself, and never fucking look back.
But how did she get through all those days and moments until then? Without exploding.
“Hey, have you gone down the drain in there?” The woman’s question from the other side of that bathroom door seemed almost prophetic.
Dinner was tense. Grace hardly said a word to either of them. Rose was beginning to worry. Ever since Gerald’s death, the irritability that had taken over her daughter when these troubles began only worsened. What’s more, she could not get her to talk about it. They had always been so close. This new rift bothered her.
Rose supposed most mothers and daughters went through their trials during the difficult teen years. A couple of parenting books that she had read suggested that anger and rebellion were necessary for children to begin the process of breaking free of parental oversight and establish their autonomy.
She had never wanted to hold her daughter back. She personally knew the high price to be paid for failing to break free of parental expectations and establishing her own life. How different her life might be right now if she had just dared to tell her father she was not marrying Gerald.
She looked across the table to Chad as he brought a heaping fork full of chicken, rice, and gravy to his lips. Of course, if she had not gone through all of that, would they have met? Would she have Grace? Life was never that simple.
Robert Frost’s words flitted through her mind, ‘Yet knowing how way leads on to way.’ She never possessed the courage to take those less-traveled roads, but still, she loved that poem. Perhaps, she should encourage Grace to explore its depths in her studies? But right now, her child resented anything she suggested.
She pushed her beans around on the plate. Everything tasted the same. Though she knew her cooking was more than passable, she simply did not have much of an appetite. What to do about her daughter weighed too heavily on her mind, and this silence only made it worse.
The object of her thoughts pushed her chair back from the table. Grace had not eaten much more than she had. It seemed that Chad was the only one with much of an appetite tonight. Without a word, her daughter carried the plate to the counter, scrapped it into the container for recycling, and put the plate into the sink of sudsy water to soak. Then she turned and headed towards the stairs.
“Where are you going?”
Rose’s eyes sought his. She knew that their child’s sullen behavior was challenging, but perhaps confronting her now was not the best idea. She tried to communicate that in a glance, but whether he did not get the message or he simply did not care what she thought or felt, Chad was not deterred.
And neither was Grace. “Upstairs.”
“I can see that. But that does not answer my question.”
Rose tensed in her seat. She could almost see the supercell as it formed and blew across the flat prairie. This storm was going to be a bad one. And as always, she was powerless to do much to stop it.
“It answers your question perfectly. You asked where I was going. Not what I was doing.”
“I know what you are going to do. The same thing you always do. Bury your head in some blessed game or the other. That would not be so bad if you showed some common courtesy. Did you ask your mother if you could be excused?”
Rose almost withered under the stare that her daughter turned on her. Her hands shook as she clutched them over her heart. Because as the old saying goes, ‘if looks could kill.’ How had they gotten to this point? But she knew the answer to that question. Lies. A lifetime built on them. Some she had no control over. But others, especially this one, were entirely of her making.
“It’s fine. It doesn’t matter.” She stammered over each syllable. Her loyalties divided.
“No, it does matter, Rose. Grace, if you want us to respect you and your rights, then you need to show the same respect to….”
“Respect? If that woman fucking wants respect, then let her earn it.” The words were still echoing off the yellowed walls of the kitchen as that rainbow head disappeared up the steps. A moment later, the slamming of a door punctuated them.
She felt as if her heart had been torn from her chest and lay bleeding, pulsing, and beating upon her breast. The pain was more raw and intense than the day that Gerald had yanked the rug from under her world. The money never meant as much to her as all that. But her daughter’s love and respect were everything. She had poured her whole being into the child.
“There is no excuse for….”
She did not even let him finish. “You promised. You promised that I made the decisions when it came to my daughter. But you’re no different than the rest of them. My father. Gerald. The great man always knows what’s best. Well, look where we are now.”
Rose was not sure what shocked her most – that she had said anything or the way that she screamed it. For a moment, she felt a touch of guilt at the woebegone look on his face. But she was not giving in to that emotion this time. She was right about this one.
And if they had any future, then Chad had to learn to respect her opinion. If he could not, well, as much as it might hurt, that five grand was still hidden beneath her mattress. She would take her daughter and start over again. Just the two of them. Somewhere. Even if she had no idea where or how. Even if the very thought of it was almost as intense pain as that look had been.
When he stood and repeated their daughter’s actions silently without so much as meeting her gaze, that ache only intensified. He ignored his own words about respect as he walked out the backdoor without a single word. Its slamming brought her to her knees as she crumbled on the kitchen floor. Her whole body shook as a lifetime of tears flooded that faded and stained linoleum.
What would she have if she lost them both? But how did she choose? How could they build a new life built on lies? Did she even want to? That was the one question that she did have the answer to. Despite it all, she desperately wanted that new life. Here. With him. And their daughter. She just had no idea how to make that dream a reality.
She was right. Every single word that Rose said was true. That was why Chad had to leave. Not because he was angry with her, but with himself. That combined with a fair dose of guilt and shame too. As much as he had wanted to be different from those other men, Gerald, her father, he was not when it came right down to it.
And why? What had gotten him so riled up? Because Grace seemed to have turned McBride into some sort of misunderstood hero. Because he had spent weeks trying to connect with his child, HIS daughter. Because of all those damned years that McBride’s lies had stolen from him. From them.
But that wasn’t right either. He had handed those years over. On the proverbial silver, well, golden platter. He had walked out on the woman that he knew he loved even then. No, he had snuck out of that hotel room without telling her how he felt or even goodbye. Because he has been a coward. Because he had believed all the lies that the world spoke. That he had nothing to offer a woman like her.
But he had. He had the one thing that she needed most. The one thing that Gerald McBride had never given her. Love. Love and respect. Yet tonight, once again, he betrayed those values, broken his promises to her and himself.
And over what? Some dumb and probably outdated belief in the ideal family. What did it matter if Grace asked permission to leave the fucking table when she finished eating? What did that really matter in the grand scheme of things? Wasn’t that more about control and command more than good manners?
Damn, that girl was a good kid. Smart. Caring, too. Wasn’t that the problem? She felt guilty for rejecting the man that had raised her. The man that she believed was her father. And her final words to him in this life had been said in anger. The fact that she was struggling to come to terms with that proved what a wonderful human being she was.
And over the weeks, he had seen something else in her as well. His daughter had a connection to this land that left him in awe. The way she could almost feel the pain of the animals, especially the horses. She just seemed to sense somehow precisely what they needed. He remembered that first day watching her lift that handful of rusty red East Texas dirt. The way that she had looked at it, held it, the way it sifted through her fingers. There was something sacred about it. Something that he did not understand.
So, why the fuck had he made such a fuss over an inconsequential thing?
The answer to that one was even harder to accept. The truth was… he had been trained to believe that control and command were the best way, maybe the only way. Even before basic training, hadn’t he always felt that his grandparents’ love was conditional? That he had to act a certain way to get their approval. Oh, the same was true for his parents and school, but that had never bothered him because he did not give a damn what they thought of him. But Grandfather Jake and Grandma Grace? Them, he always wanted to please. Of course, Rose had it even worse.
And the whole point of basic training was to break you. Because only then could the Marines rebuild you the way they wanted. As much as he loved and still believed in the men and women he had served with, hadn’t that façade begun to break long ago? When he was not sure. Perhaps the first time, he had killed another man. Maybe when he saw the first comrade killed. He had never even learned the man’s name. But the way his friend had cradled him in his arms as the dude struggled to breathe and blood ran from the corner of his mouth and nose had stuck with Chad.
Certainly, with the screams of that poor kid, listening as Reb told the half-truths about his nightmares. He had known it was not the whole story, but he still had enough of that conditioning to let it go, not to press the man for the whole story.
Maybe it was not one moment, one single thing. Perhaps like sculptors, it was chiseling away at the rock bit by bit, piece by piece. With each good Marine, man or woman, that he had watched die or come home broken, physically or mentally. With each man, he had killed. With every unjust order, he had followed. And especially when that ridiculous command cost lives.
Only in her arms had he ever found the redemption and solace he sought. That one night, he had known he would never find anything like it in this life. That was why, despite his grandmother’s nagging, he had never really dated. And these past weeks were a miracle of biblical proportion.
So, how did he make it right? Because there was no way in hell that he was giving up his miracles. That meant his only choice was to learn to be the man that they needed him to be. To forget everything that he thought he knew about relationships and families and learn what worked with them.
He turned and stared back at the house. Rose usually came out to the porch to look up at the stars after cleaning up dinner. But she was not there tonight. The light glowed in her room. Another shone in Grace’s. He considered beginning there first, but he and his daughter always did best around the horses. It was some connection they had. He would wait until tomorrow to speak to her.
But he did not relish even a single night alone in that big old bed. He had not slept alone since that first night she came to him. And while Rose always snuck out before Grace woke up, the thought of that cold bed without her tore a hole in his soul. So, Chad headed back to the house. He wasn’t sure what he would say, beyond sorry, but whatever it took, he had to make things right with her.