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 trouble enough 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 them 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 look at him 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,” Chad agreed.
Her smile was tight, stressed. Those tiny lines around her mouth 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 said, looking 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. 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 bad 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 she 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 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 about 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 was not 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.”
“I think the best that 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 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. This woman, though, she lived in America during the twenty-first century, 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 a 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 him play bad cop for once. How about you show me around?”