Rose brought the old wooden spoon towards her lips. The homemade spaghetti sauce was steaming hot, so she took a moment to blow on it. The garlic bread was ready to go into the oven, and she had made the salad earlier. She smiled, pleased that this, their first day here, had gone better than she expected.
Not only had Grace done most of her studies without complaint, a miracle in itself, but over a couple of sandwiches for lunch, the three of them had negotiated what all considered reasonable chores.
She, of course, would take over most of the housework. Even if that did seem sexist, the truth was that she had always found peace and solace in such things. Of course, Gerald had always dismissed it, “Let the maids get that. That’s what we pay them for.”
Maybe it was being raised by her parents’ housekeeper? Perhaps she felt connected to her childhood and Aunt Rose in those simple tasks like folding the laundry, mopping the floor, or especially cooking dinner?
She had to admit that she was a bit shocked at how readily Cal… Grace had acceded to the whole chore thing. Perhaps it was the novelty of it all? Her daughter would help Chad out with the horses. Rose was not surprised at that per se. The girl loved horses. But loved had amounted to riding them. Perhaps brushing and feeding them afterward, but cleaning up horse shit was another thing that McBride women were not expected to do. Rose’s mouth had dropped at how quickly her daughter had consented to muck out the stables.
But what had almost floored her was the fact that her recently petulant teen had agreed to ‘getting up with chickens’ as Chad called it. If Grace had been shocked that anyone actually got up at five a.m., she had not said it. Not a single smart-mouthed remark had marred their simple lunch.
It was after lunch that brought a smile to Rose’s lips. He had kept his word. Chad had fulfilled his promise. As soon as he had dried the last plate and put it away, the man had suggested that they practice a bit of self-defense.
Grace still believed that it was all just Gerald’s melodrama and said as much. Even, Rose could not convince her daughter of the dangers, not without revealing far more of the truth than she was ready to – just yet anyway. Chad had intervened, asking what it would hurt to know a bit about defending yourself. Grace had shaken her head, shrugged her shoulders, and replied, “Whatever.”
Her daughter might have been reluctant at first, but she had rapidly gotten into it all. Within half an hour, Chad had taught them both three different ways to disarm someone with a knife. Guns were a bit more of a challenge. For a native Texan, her baby girl was a pacificist. They had not been victorious on that one. But Grace had stuck around to watch Chad instruct Rose in the use of a handgun.
It had been over two decades since she had held a gun, and then it was rifles and shotguns, not revolvers. But even she was surprised at how quickly it had come back. She might not be able to hit the bullseye, but she had only missed the target once. Which meant she could at least slow them down, even if she could not kill someone. She hoped it would be enough. Hell, she hoped it never came to that.
Afterward, they had done the afternoon chores together. Then come back to the house. Chad had disappeared into his study, said he needed to check emails and order stocks. Grace had gone into her room to game or watch YouTube. And she had begun dinner with a smile. She should call them both soon, so they had time to wash up first.
Rose was lost in her thoughts, the pan of garlic bread in one hand and the other on the oven door.
“Did you know?”
She turned with the pan still in her hand. Grace stood just inside the kitchen doorway. Her iPad was clasped tightly to her chest. Her beatific face marred with purple and blue streaks where freshly dyed hair had fallen into her face as she cried. Rose had heard the term ‘dear in the headlights’ many times, but this did not even come close.
She took a step away from the stove towards her daughter, but Grace held up her hand and shook her head as hair flew about her face, more catching in the wet tears that fell like a Galveston thunderstorm on a hot August day.
“Did you know, Mama?”
There was anger, desperation, and something else intangible in her daughter’s words. Whatever it was, Cassie wanted to make it right. Something told her that this was not a boo-boo she could kiss all better.
Rose fought back the need to rush to her child, scoop her into her arms, and never let go. Grace was in no mood for that right now. So, she did the only thing she could. She responded to her daughter’s question – as best she could. “Know what, Callie?”
She took another step away from the stove, approaching her child like you would a wounded animal. “What are you talking about, Grace?” She had to be more careful. They were home this time, but what if they had not been? She could not afford to slip up. Even as new as this all was.
“He’s dead.” Her daughter’s words were barely a whisper. The pan in her hand clattered to the floor. The buttered garlic bread slices stuck to that old yellow and green linoleum. Rose was not even sure that she had heard Grace.
She did not need to ask who. “Are you sure? Where did you hear that? Maybe he just ran away?” It was something Gerald would do. Drop her and her daughter here and then run off without facing justice. Hell, he had probably been lying all along. He must have millions stashed away on some tropical island.
Her daughter shook her head and turned the iPad to face her. Rose recognized the woman immediately. Most Americans would. After all, Kelly Marsh had spent most of her life in the spotlight. First, as the daughter of the first female Vice President, a woman who herself had been forced to resign due to corruption.
But that had not stopped the woman, who must be about her own age now, maybe a bit older, from building a life of her own as a reporter and now the nightly news anchor at one of the top-rated cable stations.
“Good evening, America. This is Kelly Marsh.”
“And I’m Connor Ryan,” the middle-aged man next to her beamed.
“Tonight’s top story is the death of billionaire businessman Gerald McBride. McBride and his son Stephen were indicted on federal RICO charges three months ago. We go live now to our reporter in Houston. Megan, what’s the latest?”
Whether it was genuine or not, the woman’s face showed a gravitas lacking in most of the media these days. For some reason, Cassie had always liked her. Heck, she had even spoken to the woman once or twice at various charity events.
“Yes, Kelly, I am outside of the federal courthouse in Houston now. Prosecutors had called for a noon press conference. But that was delayed until just half an hour ago.”
The younger woman seemed to look down at her notes before lifting her flawless face back to the camera. “The rumor, of course, was that they would be announcing that they had reached a plea agreement with McBride on over fifty charges of money laundering, embezzlement, bribery, and extortion under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.”
The screen switched to a podium outside the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse. Rose recognized the aging limestone façade immediately. She had spent enough time there these past few months.
She also recognized the man at the podium and many of the federal agents and local police standing behind the man. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas was a man even younger than she was. But that baby face masked a keen intelligence, a fierce ambition, and, surprisingly in this day and age, a deep passion for justice.
He deep East Texas drawl cut straight to the chase, “At twelve-fifty-four p.m. this afternoon, a black rental SUV with the body of Gerald McBride was discovered by local authorities on Route Fifty-Nine just outside of Sebida, Texas. The badly damaged vehicle was located in a ditch. It appears that McBride, the sole passenger in the car, died upon impact.”
“An APB for McBride’s wife and daughter as material witnesses has been issued by Federal Judge Martin Halloway. An internal review and full investigation into how McBride’s circumvented house arrest is underway at this time. Cassandra McBride is not wanted for a crime, and it is feared that she and their daughter may be in danger. Anyone with information on their whereabouts is asked to call 9-1-1. Thank you, that’s all we have at this time.”
The man had read the whole statement with a blank face, barely taking a breath, and avoiding contact with the camera as much as possible. But Cassie had come to know enough about the man to see the tick in his cheek, which betrayed his anger and frustration.
“Thank you for that, Megan. Are authorities there saying if they suspect foul play?” The camera panned to the cultured and articulate façade of the KNN anchor.
“There has been no word on whether McBride’s death is being treated as accidental or murder. Of course, his son, Stephen, committed suicide just a couple of months ago while in federal custody. McBride’s attorneys used that as grounds for a compassionate release for their client pending trial. They said that the sixty-four-year-old father and businessman was suffering from depression and grief over the death of his only son,” responded the younger reporter.
“Do investigators believe McBride’s death might be suicide?” interjected the middle-aged male anchor.
The reporter shook her head, “As U. S. Attorney for the Southern District James Travis Tyler said McBride’s wife and their fourteen-year-old daughter are also missing from their Piney Point mansion. Their disappearance would complicate that issue.”
“Are the women believed to be in danger?” asked the other woman.
The reporter nodded her head, “That is what they are saying at this time. Socialite and charity benefactress Cassandra McBride has remained above suspicion throughout this investigation. There has been no evidence that Mrs. McBride was involved in any of her husband’s business dealings or even aware of them.”
The screen filled with pictures of them coming out of that same federal courthouse months before when Gerald had been first indicted. But what sent her heart to racing was the picture that filled the other half of the screen.
“Viewers are asked to contact their local authorities if they see either of the women,” added the reporter.
She had worked so damned hard to keep photographs of Callie out of all the papers, even to the point of pleading with Tyler for an injunction against paparazzi. But damn it, the photo on the screen was her daughter’s school I.D. She had no doubt provided by the elite academy they had once trusted with their child. “Damn it.”
“Yes, but to reiterate what the U.S. Attorney said, this is a material witness warrant. McBride’s wife, and surely a fourteen-year-old child are not considered dangerous, or even under suspicion of wrongdoing at this time.” Rose wanted to cheer for the anchor’s calm voice of reason.
But the next moment she was filled with rage at the smug face of the young reporter, “Yes, Kelly, I am sure that you of all people would understand what Calypso McBride is going through at this time.”
“Damn it, dammit, double dammit,” Rose stomped her foot as she looked at her only child. She had until that moment been able to keep her daughter’s name out of things.
She was trembling as the male voice droned, “Keep us updated with the latest, Megan.”
“What’s going on in here?” The deep male voice seemed to break through that moment as mother and daughter stood frozen in time uncertain what to even say to one another.
Her daughter, their daughter, turned to flee, but Chad moved quickly to block the stairway. Grace tried to push him aside, but he calmly gripped her shoulders and looked down into her face. “What is it, Grace? What’s wrong? I thought things were going pretty well.”
Her child’s face was a mask of pure rage, anger, and now Rose recognized that other emotion – fear. Her small fists pounded her father’s chest. “Let me go! We have to get the fuck out of here, old man. He’s dead. My daddy’s dead. Someone killed him.”
Rose was not sure which of the people she loved that she wanted to run to first. Both of their faces were filled with a pain that ripped her heart in two. She wanted to take them in her arms and tell them it would all be okay. She wanted to scream that ‘No, your daddy is not dead. He’s right here.’ But she knew now was not the time for those words. With this latest development, it might never be.
Instead of any of that, all she could do was go to them, dinner forgotten, that pan of garlic bread sticking to the kitchen floor. Rose wrapped her arms around her daughter and drew her into her embrace as Calypso Grace McBride burst into soul-wrenching sobs for the man who, for whatever reason, had claimed her as his daughter. Cassie was not certain what or how she felt, but she would do whatever it took for her child. That had not changed. It never would.
Chad stood on the front porch staring at the stars. Whether he’d been there moments or hours, he was not sure. It seemed like an eternity. Yesterday. Just yesterday. Less than forty hours ago. His whole fucking world had been turned upside down.
Should he go back inside? Check up on them again? Cassie, no – Rose had been with their daughter since… Since they had learned about Gerald McBride’s death. It had taken them close to an hour to get Grace calmed down enough to realize that running was not their best option. Even now, he was not sure that his daughter believed that. He, they, would need to watch her for a bit, make sure she did not do anything stupid.
Rose had stayed with her, gotten her washed, changed, and into bed. He had finished up the dinner that she had cooked, cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, and taken plates to both of them. He knew they did not feel like eating, but as his grandmother always said, ‘you have to keep your energy up.’ He had checked to see if they needed anything else.
Then he had come out here to contemplate things. He knew it was late. Well past his bedtime. But getting any sleep this night was going to be difficult, if not impossible. A million questions danced through his mind.
Had the man erased and disabled the GPS as he promised? Or were federal investigators or worse closing in on them even now? How was he going to protect his family?
He had not been certain how much he had believed the man’s story. But he had wanted the chance to be there for them. Needed the opportunity to get to know his child. So he had taken it.
He had known that he could provide them with a more stable home than witness protection. That he had never doubted. Hell, if there was a leak, and this latest certainly made it seem that way, then he could probably even protect them better. But none of that was what weighed heavily on his mind and heart right now. He had a plan, and it was already set in motion.
No, what had bothered him the most was those words, “My daddy’s dead.” It had been on the tip of his tongue to tell her ‘no, your daddy is standing right here.’ As much as he knew that it was not the best time.
But what was really eating at his craw was jealousy. Pea-green envy. That man had no right to call himself her ‘daddy.’ Gerald McBride had certainly not called her his child. No, he had made it perfectly clear he had only one of those.
Standing in that doorway as he watched them pick at the food, waiting for them to finish so he could take the plates down and wash them up, he had listened to his daughter, his child, pour forth guilt, remorse, and self-loathing. Grace was torn up about her final words to the man. And while Rose had reassured her that she had every right to feel angry with the man, to say the things she had, it had not soothed their daughter.
Soft arms wrapped about his shoulders. Her warmth seeped into his back. Chad closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh air that now held a hint of citrus and woman to complement the pine and hay.
For a long moment, they just stayed that way, then he pulled Rose in front of him and wrapped her in his arms. “How is she?”
She leaned back into his embrace. Her trust at that moment sent his old heart soaring. “Hurt. Confused. Guilty one minute and angry the next,” she shook her head that was now a rich auburn.
He missed the honey blond, but the color was not bad on her. It matched her skin and eyes, looking almost natural. “And how are you doing?”
She snuggled even closer, burying her face into his old flannel shirt as she wrapped her arms about his waist. “About the same. But add in betrayal.”
She pulled back from the embrace and stared up at him, “Chad, I need you to believe me. I never once suspected that Grace was your child.”
He could hear the tightness in her voice and saw tears glistening in those blue eyes as she continued, “Now, I wonder why. Why I never saw it? Grace looked or acted nothing like Gerald. Or Stephen.”
She sighed heavily, “I almost told her tonight. When she came into the kitchen saying that her daddy was dead, I almost let it slip.”
“Now isn’t the right time,” Chad said as he tightened his embrace. The next words were ripped from his soul, “Now, we may never need to tell her the truth, sweetheart.”
She shook her head and looked up at him again, “What? What do you mean?”
“The man’s dead. The father that she thought she knew is gone. Maybe it is best if we don’t dredge up the past. Perhaps we just build a new future.” He kissed her forehead, “Over time, of course.”
Rose frowned as if pondering his words. She was stiff and silent for a long moment before she nodded her head once again. Yeah, if her hair could not remain that lovely honey blond, this was almost as good.
“I had not thought of that.” When she exhaled, it was if strong winds were stirring up the red dust clouds.
“Every time Callie – Grace brought up some memory tonight, talking about all the times that man had come to this recital or that livestock show. The Girl Scout campouts, the PTA meetings, and all the other things that fathers do, all I could remember were the pleas and arguments.”
“Gerald may have come to those things, but never without a fight. And honestly, he was never really there. He was always texting or on his phone the whole time.”
She chuckled, but he could hear the bitterness. “Of course, now I understand better. What I don’t get is why he pretended at all? If he knew all these years that Callie was not his child, why didn’t he divorce me? Hell, our prenup was never that generous. But there was a clause that if I cheated, I got nothing.”
She wiped tears away with the back of her hand. Her voice was full of pain and vitriol, “My daddy should have put one in there that said the same for Gerald. But then, they were men. And men have ‘needs.’”
Chad shook his head. He was not sure that he had the answers she needed, but he had sworn that there would be no secrets. That unlike that man or her father, he would tell her truth and allow her to make her own decisions.
“I don’t know; I don’t have all the answers to that one. But when I asked that question, he told me that his new business partners did not want the publicity of a divorce or lawyers looking through things.”
“That long? Gerald has been involved with these people that long?”
He could hear the shock in her voice. “Like I said, that’s what he told me.”
Her hands trembled as they came to his chest, resting over his heart. “The investigators don’t know that. They’re only looking for the past five years or so. Maybe that’s why they can’t find the evidence they need?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But Rose, we have no way to get that information to them. Not without endangering the two of you, and that is not worth it.”
“What about an anonymous email or letter? I know that Gerald and Stephen are dead now, but still, there must be others. Maybe even higher up. And if these people did kill Stephen and Gerald then…”
“Then, he was right. They will come for you and our daughter. They may assume you know where the money is or even have it with you. Or at the very least want to clean up those loose ends.”
He saw the shock of realization dawning in her blue eyes. He understood it was the same feeling he had been struggling with for hours — the recognition of the depths and breadths of their troubles.
“Maybe Callie is right. Perhaps we should run. I don’t want to bring our troubles to you. I don’t want anything happening to you,” she was trembling, and those tears were falling again.
“Maybe I am a horrible person, one of those disgusting cheating wives. My husband of almost twenty years is dead. And all I am worried about is the man I spent one night with. What’s wrong with me?”
He drew her back into the cocoon of his arms and pressed a tender kiss to the top of her head. “I don’t know, darlin.’ I’ve been struggling with these fucked up feelings of anger and jealousy all night. Like the man stole not just all that money, but all those years from us. Time we could have had as a family.”
“And I know that ain’t right. My grandparents drug me to their little Foursquare church often enough that I know adultery makes the same list as killing and stealing. So…”
“Why doesn’t it feel wrong?” They said practically in unison.
She shook her head as she stared up at the blanket of stars. “I have been asking myself that same question for fifteen years. When my parents cheated on one another, not even bothering to try and hide it, one trying to outdo the other, Aunt Rose always told me, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’”
“But every time I look at her, at our daughter, I think that this time it did. Lots of people, even people we loved and admired, might call that night a sin. Condemn us and look down their noses on us.”
“That night was the only thing that has gotten me through the last fifteen years. Even before yesterday, before I knew that she was your child, and not Geralds, I carried the memories of that night in my heart. As the one time that I tasted true happiness.”
“I know how you feel. All I can think is that if loving you was wrong, then I don’t want to be right, Rose. But that does not help us right now. It does not make our little girl feel less guilty for things that she rightly said to the bastard she believes is her father. It doesn’t erase the confusion and guilt that either of us is feeling. And it sure doesn’t keep you both safe,” he responded.
“Are we safe here, Chad? Is this the best plan, like Gerald said? Or should I just take the money and run? I know that I said I wanted to make my own choices about what was best for us from now on. But right now, I’m confused and tired and a million other things. I’m not asking you to tell me what to do. I am asking you for the truth.”
“I don’t have that to give you. I don’t know whether ya’ll are safe here or not. Because I don’t know how much we can trust that man. Yes, he seemed sincere. Like he truly did want to do what was right by us all.”
“But what if he had second thoughts after he left here? Or what if he did not have time to erase and dismantle the GPS in that rental before he died? What if he met with someone first? You know, some times a car accident can mask other injuries.”
“So, what do we do?”
“I’ve called in a favor. I called an old buddy of mine from the Marines. Reb’s some kind of security expert now. Runs his own company and all. Before you get worried, I didn’t tell Reb anything specific.”
“But he’s the best with security, all that technology stuff I never understood. He’s just started working at a casino a couple of hours from here. I called and asked him about installing a security system here. He said he couldn’t come himself, but he told me what to get and where. Even recommended someone to install it, if I run into any trouble myself.”
She shook her head, “I don’t want anyone seeing us. Especially not now. Hell, they even showed Callie’s school photo on cable news. Everyone in this country, hell, probably most of the world, is looking for us.”
He heard the panic building in her voice. “I order the stuff online already. It should be here tomorrow or the next day. I’ll do my best to set it up myself. Reb said to call him if I ran into trouble, and he’d try to talk me through it.”
“But if we do need someone to come out and install the damned thing, it is worth the risk. Ya’ll will stay out of sight. I told Reb that I have some fancy stud coming to breed the mares. But that his owner won’t let me until I tighten the security around here. That should make sense.”
“Yes, but what if they come in the house? What if someone sees us?”
“We’ll need to set things up in the house, too, darlin.’ But I have a place that the two of you can hide for a few hours. A place that no one even knows about.”
“But isn’t moving us dangerous too?”
“Don’t worry. You won’t be going far. You won’t even be leaving the ranch. My grandfather fought in World War II. He was in the Marines, the Pacific theatre mostly. Iwo Jima, the Philippines, I don’t even know where all. He never talked about it much. But I know that one of the places he served was Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever he saw, it affected him for the rest of his life.”
“When he came back here after the war, one of the things he did was build a bunker. Me and my cousins used to play there as kids when we visited. But Grandpa Jake never told anyone except family about the thing.”
He pointed to the tree line just a couple of hundred yards from the house, “It’s hidden over there. The steel door is always covered in leaves and limbs and shit. I’ll show ya’ll tomorrow. If anything ever happens, I want ya’ll to go there. Stay inside and don’t come out. Short of bringing in backhoes and digging up something the size of a small trailer, that door is the only way in and it locks from the inside.”
She stepped into his embrace, “But that is tomorrow. I want to talk about tonight.”
In the bit of his stomach, Chad knew what her next words would be. But he had no fucking idea what his answer should be. He knew that she was vulnerable right now. And he never had taken advantage of any woman. He sure as hell did not want to begin now – with her of all people.
But the tightness in his jeans and the tingling at the base of his spine, hell his whole body screamed for him to take what was his. To stake his claim on her body, and this time, her heart.
He started to shake his head. He opened his mouth to respond. But those soft fingers covered his lips, and he found himself drawing them into his mouth, sucking them sweetly.
“Last night, you told me that it would be my choice, Chad. I won’t deny that I am confused about a lot of things right now. But one thing I do know, maybe the only thing I know besides that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Grace safe, is that I want you. I have needed you for fifteen years. You are the only fantasy I ever…”
The night was incredibly dark, the light from the house did not reach this far, but he knew she was blushing. And he knew exactly what she was admitting. His heart soared at her words, and the ones that she left hanging.
“Chad, answer me this. If you do the ‘right’ thing, if you push me away tonight, out of some misplaced sense of honor, aren’t you just as bad as Daddy or Gerald? Isn’t what you’re really telling me is that I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions?”
Her words floored him. Because of the truth they held. That was precisely what he would be doing. The one thing he had sworn he would not do. Was he using that as an excuse to justify what he had wanted to do since the moment she stepped out of the SUV? Maybe. But did it matter? Tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, or a year from now, they were meant to be together. And he would be a damned fool to look this gift horse in the mouth.
He took her hand, leading her inside, up the stairs, past his grandmother’s old sewing room, to the door at the end of the hallway. That room had been his grandparents. Maybe his grandmother would, as she said, condemn what was about to happen there as a sin.
But twenty years spent in places that his grandmother had never heard of, seeing things that perhaps even his grandfather could never understand, had taught Chad that this world was not that simple. There were no heroes and villains. No black and white. This whole world, all the countries, and people in it were both good and evil. A bit of both inside us all.
And at that moment he found his answer. He understood what the man had meant when he said, “I cared, as much as I could.” It might not make everything the man had done to them right, but holding onto that anger and bitterness for all the years Gerald McBride had stolen from them would only taint the future.
Their future that began on the other side of that door. And McBride, his grandparents, Aunt Rose, or anyone fucking else had no place in their bedroom. Just the two of them. Perfectly imperfect human beings loving one another through the good and the bad. That was the only truth to be found in this fucked up world, and Buford ‘Chad’ Wilson was not about to let anything stop him from grabbing onto it. And this time, he was fucking holding on tight. No matter what happened.