Chad was not sure what game the woman was playing. He was not certain 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, 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 wanted 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, he did not want that little girl overhearing this conversation even more. “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 on to 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?” he repeated his earlier question.
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 are getting what they want.”
“And what do they want?”
“Money. The money, I don’t have. But they don’t believe that,” he shifted in the chair. He turned and met 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 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 huge 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,” he 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 not sure 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, if what you say is true, what does it matter to you what happens to them? 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 certainly 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,” the man’s voice grated on his nerves as it intruded.
“Witness protection? I thought you had negotiated with 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 grey 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 gun 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 that 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.
He 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,” the man 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, that 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.