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, he 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 grey. 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 him 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, he 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 mostly grey 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 that 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 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 the vehicle was moving, there was no time. He was feeling anything but neighborly this morning as the vehicle 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 that 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 full 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 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 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, something that 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 full 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,” she 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 grey, 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?” she demanded.