Chad had forgotten just how many bags were crammed into the cab of his truck. It took the three of them two trips, each fully loaded down, to bring all the stuff into the house. They dropped it all in the living room. It was as good a staging area as any.
“Ya’ll get settled? Find what you needed?” He looked around. The black SUV was gone, so he assumed that man was as well.
“Yes, thanks. I made us all a bit of lunch. I can fix you a sandwich or something, too, if you’re hungry.” Cassie seemed nervous, but he supposed that was only natural given their situation.
“I’m fine for now. And I brought back a couple of their pizzas. We can pop them into the oven later. And Blue Bell,” he motioned towards a couple of the thick, padded cold bags. “I suppose we should put that stuff away first.”
Instead, he picked up a smaller bag and passed it to his daughter, “I hope this is the right thing. The young man behind the counter assured me that I had all the stuff you’ll need. But as you’ve already discovered the internet around here ain’t the best. I’ll see about upgrading it first thing tomorrow. But the boy there said we might want to go with satellite instead.”
He looked her directly in the eye, “Since you’re the one that will be using it most, I thought that should be your decision. There’s a brochure in there comparing the options. Look it over and let me know which you think is best.”
The look of shock on her face confirmed his suspicions. The man had sheltered her as he had her mother. But it did not take long for a smile to spread across her face, “No problem.”
He motioned towards his study where his computer and the wi-fi were set up. “If you take it in there, you should be able to get enough of a signal to get it set up for now.”
She pulled the box from the bag, “Wow, the Pro? You bought me the iPad Pro? I’ve been asking for this for months.”
He shrugged his shoulders, trying not to make too big a deal of it. “The guy said it was the best option that it would not need upgrading anytime soon. It even has a terabit of memory, whatever that is.”
He watched her step forward, then reluctantly drop back. She looked down at the ugly brown carpet that had not been changed since he was young. “Thanks,” she mumbled as she shifted from foot to foot.
Cassie looked at him, then their daughter. “I suppose you can go ahead and set it up in the study like Chad suggested. We can finish unpacking the rest of this stuff.” She paused and sighed, “But you have to create new accounts. Do you understand me? We can’t take the risk that someone could trace us through them.”
“Oh, Mom, you don’t buy Da…” Anger and hurt showed in his daughter’s face as she paused, “You don’t really believe what Gerald said about people being out to get us, do you? He’s just paranoid.”
Cassie stepped forward, placing her hands on Grace’s shoulders. “I don’t know what I truly believe, Grace. But they hurt a lot of people. Gerald and Stephen didn’t just make illegal business decisions. They lost money, lots of it. Other people’s money, sweetie.”
“Some of those people think that Gerald is lying, that he has money hidden away somewhere. Is it possible that they might hurt us to make him tell them where it is? Yes, knowing people, it is.”
She brushed the hair out of their daughter’s face, “It just isn’t worth the risk. I’m sorry. I know that you are on the leader board of a couple games. But if you did it once, I’m sure you can get right back up there.”
“But, Mom, you don’t understand. It took me months to get there,” his daughter pouted.
Cassie shook her head, “I’m sorry, but no.” She squared her shoulders, and he could tell the next words took all her strength. “If I can’t trust you on this one, then I’m afraid you can’t have the iPad.”
He read the shock in the girl’s face, and the anger.
“No, but Momming me, Grace. This is not negotiable. New iPad, new login, new account, starting those games fresh, or not at all. The choice is yours.”
He looked back and forth between the women in his life. This silence was tense. Perhaps it was the first time that Cassie had said no to their daughter? Obviously, it was more important an issue that he realized.
“There’s some card in there, too. The guy said that you’d need it to buy the games.” He hoped to defuse the situation.
Grace shook her head and looked at him, “I had hundreds of games on the old one. Worth hundreds of dollars.”
“Yeah, he said some of them were free, but some could be expensive. Five hundred should be enough to get you started, though. When that is gone, he said I could load more money on the card or buy a new one?”
“Five hundred? Five hundred dollars? Man, how well did you know Mama?”
“Cal…” Cassie’s eyes danced with fire. She stiffened, her hands on her hips. “Grace, apologize to Chad. That was rude.”
Their daughter looked from one of them to the other as if sizing them up, looking for some weakness, trying to figure out her next plan of attack. It reminded him of himself when he was younger. He saw her shoulders slump a bit, then she shrugged.
“Whatever. Thanks for the iPad and the iTunes card. I do appreciate it,” she smiled at him apologetically.
“And you’ll create new accounts?” Cassie pressed.
Grace looked back at her mother, paused for a moment, then nodded. “I don’t see what the big deal is, but yeah, I’ll do it your way.”
“We’ll need new emails to get things started, and Chad will have to put it on the wi-fi too. So, how about we all unpack a bit more then we will help you set it up?”
“Whatever,” seemed to be their daughter’s favorite word.
But the crisis was averted for now. He and Cassie had won this first battle, but he knew there would be more to come. This was just the opening skirmish in what might be a long and bloody war between the generations.
Considering that he had begun the day lamenting the fact that he had no family, no child, it was a small enough price to pay. They would get through it all, at least if he had any say in the matter.
Cassie stood on the front porch leaning against the old wooden railing almost precisely as he had been when they drove up this morning.
This morning? How was it possible that her whole life could shift and change in little more than twelve hours?
She closed her eyes to fight back the tears that had been threatening to fall all day. Hell, for months. Sometimes it seemed she had a lifetime of them bottled up inside. But she did not have the time for tears, or the luxury of weakness.
After their little confrontation with her daughter, things had gone surprisingly smoothly. They had worked together to put away all the stuff in the bags. She had allowed Grace to pick which room she wanted.
She did not mind the smaller bedroom. Its big paned window looked out over the field. Chad had apologized for the sewing machine and table by the window. It took up half the room. He had offered to move it all to the attic, but she had insisted he leave it. Learning to sew had always been on her bucket list. With better internet and the Kindle that he had bought for her, now seemed a good time to start.
He really had bought too much stuff. In addition to the iPad and Kindle, there was a decent-sized television for Grace’s room and a laptop that they could share. Chad had promised that he would have cable installed in her room, but Grace explained how that was no longer necessary with casting.
There were clothes and food, too. He had gone overboard there, as well. Grace was delighted to discover pink, blue, and purple hair dye among the dozen or more options. She had wanted to dye her hair for over a year. But her former school had a firm dress-code policy against such things.
When she began homeschooling, she had begged to be allowed to do so, but Gerald had refused, calling it ridiculous. Cassie was not sure that she approved of something that might damage her daughter’s hair in the long term, but hair grew back. And they did need to disguise themselves. Grace had gotten into the whole idea of reinventing herself then.
But it had been getting late by then. They had, though, managed to set up her new iPad or at least the basics. So, her daughter had taken the tablet up to the bedroom she chose, where Chad had set up some box to boast the internet signal until they could make other arrangements. Grace was going to research hairstyles, preferably rainbow ones, she said.
The whole evening had been surprisingly comfortable, almost mundane. She had cooked the pizza and made a salad while Chad and Grace brought the horses into the barn for the night and fed them. He had insisted that they do the dishes since she had done the cooking. Grace would have argued, but he said it was only fair.
She lost the battle as a couple of tears spilled from the corner of her eyes. Had it been just twenty-four hours since she went to bed alone in the Houston mansion that she had shared with her husband of almost twenty years? It seemed like a lifetime ago. So much had changed.
Of course, it did not help to realize that everything she had known had been built upon a lie. She was still trying to unpack it all. To figure out how she felt about this day’s revelations. She fully accepted her part in it all. She had cheated on her husband. She had lied to him. And there was no excuse for that. As Aunt Rose said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Except thinking about her beautiful daughter asleep safely upstairs, or more likely watching some YouTube video on how to dye your hair, it seemed that it had. That her ‘sin’ had made something that was perfectly right.
She was shocked at the relief she felt knowing that Grace did not share her husband’s DNA. She had tried to convince herself that nurture was more important than nature. That if she raised her daughter with the right morals, the ones that Aunt Rose had instilled in her at the kitchen table, then Callie would turn out alright.
But she had never wholly succeeded. Stephen had been very much his father’s son. And Gerald had virtually nothing to do with raising him. It was not just the fact that, at least, according to Gerald, it was his son that had instigated their dealings with ‘those’ people. She could never forget or forgive Stephen for the other. She shuddered to think what might have happened.
Warmth enveloped her. It was not merely the denim jacket that wrapped about her shoulders. She could almost feel the heat of his body radiating out to cocoon her in its warmth and comfort.
It might be wrong. Aunt Rose might think it some unpardonable sin, but she was glad that this man was the father of her child. It seemed more a miracle than an unpardonable sin.
She wanted nothing more than to lean back into the warm welcome of those strong arms, to turn all of it over to him. To let him deal with the mess that was her life, her daughter’s. But that was not fair. This was not his problem. They were not.
But he had taken them on nonetheless. When Gerald just showed up here, announced that her child was Chad’s, and dropped them off on the man, he had taken up the burden. Not only that, but he had done all he could to make things as easy as possible on them. And while she could live without a whole new wardrobe, a Kindle, and all the rest, she knew that those things made a massive difference to Grace.
“Thank you,” she whispered, though whether it was for the thoughtfulness of the jacket or all those things she was not sure. Hell, maybe it was for the most memorable night of her life. A night that her body was all too eager to remember…and to repeat.
“It’s the least I can do.”
She brushed the tears away with the back of her hand before she turned to face him. “No, you don’t owe us anything.” She sighed; the truth was that she needed this man’s help to keep her child safe, she knew that. But she did not like the fact that he was doing all this out of some mistaken sense of obligation and guilt.
She sought the right word to communicate that. “I know that right now, I, we, really need your help. Not for me, but Grace. I need to keep my daughter safe. And this may be the only one of Gerald’s decisions that I do trust. I believe you are my best chance of doing that.”
“But I want you to know you don’t have to do this out of some warped sense of guilt. Because you think you owe it to me, or even her.”
“That night,” she paused as she battled to get her emotions under control. “That night, as special as it was, and is, to me. I never meant for this to happen. I never planned to trap you like this. I’m sorry.”
Chad heard the fear, the guilt, and the pain of this day and more years than he wanted to think about in her voice. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and make it all better. To set the whole world right for them both. But then he would be no better than her father, or that man.
No, if he wanted to do the right thing by his girls, he needed to empower them, show them both that they had the strength within themselves to face whatever came. And the only way to do that was with honesty. Complete and total honesty. Even if it laid his soul bare, placed his battered old heart in this woman’s hand, and gave her the power to crush it.
“I’m glad to know that night was special to you, too.” He battled the desire to take her in his arms, but if he did, he was not sure he could let her go.
“That night was everything to me.” He chuckled, trying to lighten the impact of the words he said next, “You ruined me for all other women.”
She looked up at him, her mouth opened, and she took a step closer. He reached out, his fingers covering the lips he longed to taste again. “I know that you weren’t trying to trap me. Heck, we were both damned careful that night.”
“But I am more glad than you will ever know that Fate had other plans. Our daughter is beautiful, smart, compassionate. Everything that her Mama is. Everything that captured my heart in a single night. And this old Marine thinks she is a miracle, the best thing he ever did or probably ever will.”
He let the truth roll out of his soul and mouth. “I’m sorry I didn’t know. Sorry, I was not there for you before now. I might not have been able to give you all the things that man did. But I believe I could have offered you something better.”
He knew this was perhaps the hardest thing he would ever say or do. More risky than marching into an enemy ambush. “Love.”
He saw her eyes widen at his words, but he did not allow either of them to dwell too deeply on his admission. “I hate to admit it, but I owe that old bastard a huge debt of gratitude. He could have taken the easy route, placed ya’ll in witness protection. Hell, he could have just abandoned you both to whatever or whoever is out there.”
“But he didn’t. He brought you here to me. He allowed me to step up. To be a man. To take care of you both when he couldn’t. And that took courage and compassion on his part. I ain’t denying he’s a bastard. But when the chips were down, he did the right thing by us all. And I, for one, am grateful he did.”
“I ain’t gonna lie. I’m gonna put my cards on the table here. I want this to be permanent. I want you and my daughter in my life forever. I might have missed mid-night feedings and dirty diapers — her first words and steps. I might have missed a million other moments that most fathers take for granted. But we can’t change that.”
“It ain’t guilt that makes me want to help out now. But there ain’t a damned thing wrong with a man, or a woman, feeling responsibility. And, hell, yeah, I feel responsible for that girl. And you. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”
He hoped the silence and pause would tell her as much as his words, how he truly felt. “But I don’t intend that responsibility to strangle you either. Real relationships, real families, aren’t about one person controlling or dictating to another. It’s about working together, making hard decisions together, laughing, and crying together.”
“That’s what I want. What I want with you both. I want to be there for you both. But I want ya’ll to be there for me, too. I’m tired of being alone.” He stared up into the vast darkness, watched the stars twinkle, bringing light and warmth to his heart and soul, as she had.
“I want to watch my daughter grow up. I want to see her walk across the stage at her graduations. I want to cheer her on when she runs the barrels. And if I’m damned lucky one day, I’ll get to walk her down the aisle and place her hands in those of a man I know and trust will see her inner beauty and strength, and value it as much as I do. Maybe one day, I’ll even get the chance to do those feedings and dirty diapers with a grandbaby.”
He stepped forward, his fingers brushed her lower lips, watched as it trembled. And he thought perhaps he saw the beginnings of the passion they had shared that one night in her eyes. “I want to hold you in my arms and never again have to walk away. It killed me to leave you sleeping that morning. But I knew if I stayed, if I made love to you one more time, I’d never find the strength to walk away.”
She stepped forward, pressed her body to his, and looked up into his eyes. “Maybe you shouldn’t have?”
He leaned his forehead against hers, “Maybe I shouldn’t have. But we can’t change that, Cassie. But I want you to know, going in, what my intentions are.”
“I’m going to marry you one day. I’m going to spend the rest of my life making up for those lost years. I’m gonna fall asleep next to you every night, and wake up next to you every morning. We’re gonna laugh, and cry, and love for as long as Fate gives us.”
He stepped back and sighed heavily, “But that will be your choice. Your decision. All I can do is my best to convince you that this is where you belong. That I’m the man for you. You choose me once. And I’m gonna do all I can to be worthy of you choosing me again. This time, not for a single night. But for the rest of our lives. As partners. Full partners in life, for life.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it, turning it, he repeated the action to her palm. “But not until you’re ready. So, good night, sweetheart. The day starts damned early around here. And in addition to all my regular chores, I have to work with a teenager to get ‘decent’ internet out here in the boonies, as Grace said.”
He wanted to lean in and kiss her, but he knew that if he did, he would not find the strength to walk away, to spend another night alone in his bed with only dreams of her to keep him company. But this night, unlike all the others for the past almost fifteen years, for his whole damned adult life, he had something precious, something else to keep him warm…hope. Hope, that one day, one day soon, he would not be sleeping alone in that bed.
“Good night, Cassie.” It was like a prayer on his lips.
“Rose. Good night, Rose. I figure that Callie ain’t the only one that needs a new name,” she whispered as she squeezed his hand.
“I like it. Rose. It suits you. You are certainly my rose. Sweet and I’m sure with a few thorns to keep things interesting,” he teased. “Good night, Rose.”
Cassie stood on that front porch, staring up at those stars, and thinking about all Chad had said until her fingers and toes went numb with the cold. She wanted to open that front door, race up those stairs, and barge into his bedroom. She wanted to seduce him.
But she knew he was right about this too. She needed time. They needed time. She had spent her whole life under the thumb of one man or another. While this could hardly be considered standing on her own, it was the closest she had come. She needed to learn to make decisions on her own.
Maybe she did know how. It certainly seemed that the one time she had made a decision on her own had turned out pretty damned well. Her choices when it came to men seemed pretty damned remarkable.
It was more than just that, though. She, they, needed to think ahead to the day that Grace found out the truth. No matter what her daughter said about her having the right to a bit of happiness or the number of women that Gerald slept with, Grace had still considered the man her father for her whole life. It would hardly seem right for her mother to hop into bed with another man immediately.
No, they needed to take things slowly. Get to know one another properly this time. Learn to work, as Chad said, as full partners. And prepare their daughter for the truth one day.
She turned towards the house with new confidence and determination. Last night she had gone to bed frightened, insecure, and alone. Tonight she might be in a strange house, but she felt anything but afraid, abandoned, or weak. She might have only been in this place for hours. But it felt like coming home already. Yeah, she could most definitely sign on to that dream Chad presented of the happy family.