They sat at the old kitchen table. Cassie wondered how many generations of his family had eaten off its scuffed but obviously well-loved surface. The whole place was like stepping back in time to a different world, simpler.
Of course, there were modern conveniences like a washing machine. Even then, he had apologized. His grandmother had never seen the point in wasting good money on a device to dry the clothes when the good lord put a sun in the sky that did the job just fine.
The way he spoke of his grandmother, the woman reminded Cassie of Aunt Rose. She remembered holding Callie when she was just a baby and thinking how much she wished Aunt Rose had lived to see her.
She had to stop that. She could not keep thinking of her daughter as Callie. Otherwise, it might slip out and cause problems. No, she was Grace now.
It seemed some cosmic joke that the woman who had lived in this house and raised her grandson shared that name with her daughter. Her knees had almost buckled when she asked him his grandmother’s name.
But she would have long days and nights to ponder the vagarities of life later. Right now, she needed to focus on the present. She shook her head as she contemplated the list. Clothes, toiletries, an iPad, food. She had not bothered with cosmetics. She had never been especially fond of them, and it hardly seemed worth the bother in someplace like this.
Not that she minded. That was just it. Gerald was right. Under different circumstances, this place was just about everything she could hope for. Quiet. Surrounded by nature. A few animals. If she were not worried about someone showing up to kill her or her daughter, she could be happy here.
The question was, could Ca… Could Grace? After a lifetime in the bustle of Houston, could her daughter adjust to a different lifestyle? Thinking back over the past few months, her troubles at school and abandonment by supposed friends, maybe this what she needed as well?
She snuck a glance over at him as he made a pot of coffee. What about him? She believed him. This man was the type that would honestly want to take up the mantle of fatherhood. She did not even doubt that he meant it when he had said that he would die for them. Though, she hoped it never came to that.
That was the problem — Buford ‘Chad’ Wilson, funny that she had never known his full name until today. Chad was indeed her good ole’ boy fantasy made flesh. And oh, what nice flesh it was too. The man had to be in his early to mid-fifties now, but still, his ass filled out those dusty, old Wrangler jeans to perfection.
She knew that she needed to get her libido under control. She had not dared to add a Rabbit vibrator to the list. But she might wish she had. It had been too many years to count since she and Gerald had sex. She did not mind. The man had never done much for her. No, only one man had fueled her fantasies, and he was handing her a steaming cup of coffee at this very minute.
Perhaps he would even welcome a repeat performance? It was not like she had seen any sign of another woman, and he had not mentioned anyone. She passed him the list, “I think those are the basics.”
He looked it over, then frowned, “It doesn’t seem much. I mean, ya’ll are going to be here, at least for the foreseeable future. And I sure don’t want this place being a prison the way ya’ll said. You put down an iPad for Grace. But what about you? What you gonna do out here? I mean a couple more TVs, a new laptop, one of those Kindle things?”
Those green eyes held her gaze, “I mean, I know this ole place ain’t no fancy mansion, but I want ya’ll to be comfortable here. To have as much of the things ya’ll are used to as I can afford.”
She felt the tingles race up her spine as her hand covered his on the table. “You’ll be surprised at how much all that will cost. Replacing that tablet alone is going to be close to a grand. But that is the one thing not worth scrimping on.”
She toyed with the idea; she knew that he had his pride, but even at Walmax, the items on that list could quickly come to three-thousand dollars or more. She reached for the wad of bills in her pocket, “I know you told Gerald no, but please, take this.”
He shook his head firmly, “No, I meant it. I ain’t rich. But my grandparents left me this house and land. Free and clear. I have my retirement from the Marines. And I don’t do too badly on the horses I breed and sell.”
He turned her hand in his and squeezed, “If it takes ten grand to make this place feel like home for the two of you, I’ll do it. Just tell me what you need?”
Considering how her nipples chafed against the soft silk of her bra, she should definitely add a vibrator to the list. Though she was pretty sure, you couldn’t find those at Walmax. Her poor fingers were going to get a hell of a workout with this man around. Especially if he kept being everything she had ever dreamt a man should be.
But now was not the time to become involved with anyone. And after a lifetime of being under a man’s control, she was in no hurry to trade one master for another.
He was right, though, if only for Grace’s sake. “A television. Do you have cable out here?”
“Satellite. It’s just as good, most of the time. I’ll need to do something about the internet, though. What I have now was good enough for me to do email and manage the breeding, but I’m sure it can’t handle three people or her gaming.”
She nodded, how mundane it all seemed, talking about the practicalities with this man. But it wasn’t. These were the very types of everyday decisions that Gerald and her father had simply made for her.
She realized then that she had no idea how something as simple as getting internet service worked. But it was getting late; he needed to head off into whatever passed for a town around here. Hell, she had not even followed closely where Gerald had taken them. All she knew was that she was deep in East Texas, somewhere.
There were dozens or hundreds of questions she needed to ask the man, but now was not the time. “Well, if you’re sure about the money, I suppose a TV in her bedroom, and a laptop might make this place less isolated for a teen.”
“But one thing that you do have, and I know it would make a lot of difference, is a horse. Cal… Grace is quite a horsewoman. She’s placed third a couple of times in barrel racing at the Livestock Show and Rodeo.”
She looked down at their hands, interlocked on the table. Her voice dropped a bit, “Gerald had invested in a pony for her. But the government seized Romeo along with all his other assets. She misses that horse.”
His smile broadened, “Must be in the DNA. Horses and Wilsons. She seemed pretty good with Inferno, and he’s one difficult piece of horseflesh.”
“I want you to know she’s a good kid. An exceptional one, actually. Smart, kind, and happy. Or she was until all this.”
Cassie stammered, trying to figure out how to say it and finally deciding that the truth was her best option. “I just want you to know that the girl you saw today, pouting and screaming, that’s not who she really is.”
He squeezed her hand and brought it to his lips. Her stomach dropped to her knees at the tender kiss he brushed across the back of her hand. “How could she be anything else with you as a mother.”
“And I’m sure that given time, stability, and more patience than Jesus Christ himself had, she’ll come out this thing a stronger human being than before. It’s just up to us to see she gets those things as well as iPads, televisions, and laptops.”
He released her hand and stood up, “I better head out. I’m afraid I’ll need to go to the store in Nacogdoches for some of this stuff, and that’s over an hour away. Make yourself at home until I get back.”
That was the problem for Cassie. It would be far too easy to make herself at home here – with this man who truly was her fantasy in the flesh.
The sun was setting over his shoulders by the time that Chad was back on the road home. It had taken him far longer to shop for them than it did himself. He found himself second-guessing every decision from the type of iPad that she had listed right down to what nightgown to buy her.
The young man behind the counter in electronics had talked him into the top-line model of the tablet, but what the hell, he had thirteen or fourteen Christmases and birthdays to make up for.
A nightgown for Cassie had been a bit more challenging to manage. He saw plenty of sexy lacey things that he would love to see her in, but he did not want to give her the idea that his assistance came with strings. On the other hand, fuzzy pajamas and oversized nightshirts didn’t seem like her style, either. In the end, he had found a black satin nightgown with thin straps that would come to at least her mid-thighs.
The hair dye was another difficult choice. He loved the blond that they both had, with rich darker undertones as well as the lighter shades. But dying their hair would be the quickest and easiest camouflage. Still, making that decision for them was too personal. He finally decided to buy a couple of boxes of several different shades from black to red to brown, even pink, blue, and purple. What teen wouldn’t love parents who willingly approved such things?
Even the clothes had been incredibly hard to choose. When he finally broke down and bought clothes for himself, it was always the same. Same jeans, same shirts, even the same socks, and underwear. Even his boots, though he could repair them for a decade or more, when he did replace them, it was from a farm catalog that had not changed in his lifetime, at least. Except, of course, now you could order online.
For them, though, he stood staring at racks and racks of a seemingly endless variety of jeans, t-shirts, and unmentionables. Cassies had written down sizes, but not style choices. Although he was confident that Walmax was not their style, to begin with. But that too was part of their transformation. No one would expect someone like them to be wearing Walmax jeans and a t-shirt.
He must have stood there looking lost for so long that one of the workers in that department had finally approached him. He was not sure what to say when she asked if she could help him, so he had gone with a half-truth. An old friend and her teen daughter were staying with him for a while. It was a bit of a surprise trip, and he needed to buy them some things.
The woman’s eyes seemed to mist over as she nodded, “That sort of thing still happens too often.” She looked at the piece of paper in his hand and asked, “Is that a list? Did she give you sizes?” He had nodded as he handed it to her. “How long do you think they’ll be with you?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, ‘forever, I hope,’ but he held it back. Instead, he shrugged and replied, “For the foreseeable future, at least.”
The woman had asked if he had a budget. She smiled when he said whatever it took. Since he knew Walmax did not pay its people commission, he had to assume that it was the right answer in some other way.
Even with the woman’s help, it had taken over an hour to select a wardrobe that could ‘keep them for a while,’ as the woman said. He had even bought a pretty red wrap-around dress for Cassie.
When they had finished, the woman had squeezed his arm. Her smile was weak, and there were more tears in her eyes. He had to lean in just a bit to hear her, “Thanks for being one of the good guys. Someone that a friend can turn to when she needs help. I know how scared and frightened they are right now. That was my boys and me a couple years ago. I don’t know what would have happened to us if…”
She brushed those tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, “Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t be here right now. I hope it all works out for them too.” Then she turned and slipped away. Chad would guess the woman headed to the bathroom and a good cry.
After raiding the grocery section for enough food to last them a couple of weeks, including pizza, soda, chips, and Blue Bell ice cream, he had checked out. The bill did not come to quite ten grand, but he was confident it was the most significant purchase the store had seen that day, maybe that week. Heck, possibly in a long time. He shuddered to think what these items would have cost at one of the stores the McBride’s used to shop.
But it was not downsizing their lifestyles that had consumed his thoughts as he drove east across the almost flat piney woods of East Texas. That woman’s words had gotten to him. He would not have necessarily considered himself a ‘feminist,’ whatever that was. But he had served with some damned fine Marines – who happened to be women.
Of course, his respect for strong women went back before that. His cousins had always referred to their grandmother as ‘the tough old bird.’ The woman had known just as much about the cattle, horses, and livestock markets as he and his grandfather. Their decisions were always joint ones. He supposed when you both worked the land, when the very survival of your family depended upon you both, then things just had to be more egalitarian.
He knew that it did not always work that way. More than one of his female Marines had shared with him stories of sexism, discrimination, and, worse, rape. There were always a couple of men in town, who would beat their wives or kids if they had too much to drink. Not to mention, the disgusting things that he had seen in some of those places where he had been stationed. But those things had been distant, somehow. Not part of his world. As if he did not see them directly, then they weren’t real.
The pain he heard in Cassie’s voice today, that was real. Hell, he remembered feeling pity, and some undefined need to protect that young woman who poured out her life’s story over a beer. He had felt then the unfairness of having your life decided for you, controlled by men. But there had been nothing he could do about it. Or at least, he had justified it all that way. What did he have to offer a ‘lady’ like her?
As much as he wanted to step forward, take charge, as his Marine training taught, he did not want to be like her father or husband. He did not want to take her right to choose away from her. He knew that was important to her now, especially considering how trusting those men had gotten her and her daughter into such a mess.
Her daughter? Their daughter. He had a daughter. He had a DAUGHTER! And one thing he knew for damn sure, he did not want any man making decisions for her. He wanted Grace to have the same strength, wisdom, and compassion of the grandmother, who shared that name.
It had been just as hard for him as it was for Cassie to leave that room. To allow the man whose bad choices had put them in danger to make even more decisions for the girl that he had admitted was ‘not my child.’
It had angered him to listen to Gerald McBride talk with such pride, regret, and pain about ‘his’ son. Yet repeatedly call her ‘the girl.’ Did that go deeper than the fact she was not his biological child? Did it have as much to do with her being female? Would the man have felt differently about her if she had been a boy? Perhaps he would have resented her more, seen her as a threat to ‘his son?’
But none of that mattered now. The man might even be gone by the time he got back to the ranch. If not, he would definitely be gone from their lives soon. But the legacy of shame, pain, and that domineering attitude would not be. It would be up to him to foster strength, confidence, and independence, not only in HIS daughter but the woman he loved.
Yeah, no matter what happened from here, Chad was finally willing to admit the truth. He might have been attracted to Cassie, from the moment that he had seen her in line at the club in New Orleans. But as he spent time with her, learned her story, and held her in his arms, it was more than that. And in fifteen years since then, no other woman had measured up. It had taken him less than two hours in her presence to remember why.
Oh, yes, Cassie McBride might not realize it, but she was a strong, independent woman, too. She just needed a man strong enough to step back and allow her to make her own decisions, to fail, and to succeed. A man to foster her self-confidence. He wanted to be that man. For his daughter and the woman he loved.
As he turned off to the dirt road leading to the old house, he saw that the black SUV was gone. Good riddance to the man as far as he was concerned. Now he could get down to the business of doing whatever it took, whatever his girls needed him to do or be, to build them up – and in the process, he hoped to build a solid foundation for the future with both of them.
Cassie watched as the SUV kicked up a cloud of red East Texas dust. She was not sure what she felt as she watched her husband of almost two decades drive off to face whatever his future held. Anger? Certainly. Betrayal? Assuredly. But above even those, she felt confusion and numbness.
Almost all of the past fifteen years had been a lie. Oh, she supposed, her life and their marriage had been a lie, even before that fateful night in New Orleans. And she certainly had her part in crafting that lie. She had known even before she went to that club, what she planned was immoral. She could hear Aunt Rose’s voice in her head, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” especially as she had opened that hotel door to Chad Wilson.
How had Gerald found out? She thought she had been so careful. She chuckled, it seemed that no matter how hard she had tried to be careful, she was caught in her sin. That was just it; no matter what had happened, she could not bring herself to think of that night in his arms as ‘sin.’ Living out her fantasy. An escape. One moment that was truly her own. But not a sin.
Oh, she knew that Gerald saw it differently. After dozens of his affairs, her one indiscretion was somehow worse. Yes, she had gotten pregnant by another man. But she had not known that. Obviously, Gerald had. But why had he never told her the truth before today? Why had he allowed her and the whole world to think that Callie was his?
So many unanswered questions. She supposed that she should have talked with her husband. Demanded answers to those and other matters. But she was just too tired. Tired and stressed, not only from the months of the investigation but from a lifetime lived by someone else’s rules.
What did it matter really? What did it matter if she had not played by their rulebook? It was not like she had any voice in setting the rules of the society, or the circle of it in which she had been born, raised, and lived. But fuck that shit. No more. She was tired of living by other people’s rules. It had gotten her nowhere.
She saw her daughter, hanging onto the rails of the rough-hewn wooden fence, leaning over with something in her hand, trying to coax the stallion to her. That was not right. She had gotten something from life. Her daughter. And that was all that mattered now. Keeping her child safe and protected from the lies, deception, and bullshit of the world that the adults had fucked up.
She stepped off the front porch and walked across the open field towards her child. Time to start picking up the pieces of their lives that Gerald had shattered. Time they started making decisions for themselves.
“Hey, Grace,” she would have usually used some endearment like sweetie or suga, but they both needed to become accustomed to new names. A new life.
Her daughter turned and forced a smile, “Is he gone?”
“Yeah, he just left.”
“I hate him.”
She felt like a complete failure as a mother as she watched the huge tears coast down her daughter’s smooth cheeks. She could not find it inside herself to defend the man or herself. So, she only nodded and admitted as much of the truth as she dared. “He ain’t my favorite person, either, right now.”
Grace chuckled, sniffed, and wiped her face with the back of her hand, leaving red mud streaks across much of her face. Cassie resisted the temptation to wipe them away. This was not a skinned knee. She could not kiss this boo-boo and make it all better. This went much more in-depth.
“Who is he?”
Cassie was confused at first. Who was whom? Then she realized her daughter was asking about Chad. But the girl had had enough shocks lately, she was hardly ready for the truth, your real father. So, she kept the story as close to that as she could. “An old friend that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
“Do you trust him?”
She did not hesitate to nod her head, “Yeah, yeah, I trust him.”
Silence hung like the sinking sun in the sky. She wished she knew what her daughter was thinking. That she had some magic words to make everything all better this time, but she was as lost as her child.
“I guess it ain’t too bad a place to hang out for a while. It’s not like I have any friends I’ll miss.” The big red stallion slowly approached the carrot that her daughter held in her hand.
Grace must have snuck a couple off the plate of sandwiches and raw vegetables that she had made them for lunch. She had known that it would take him some time to find everything on her list, and they had not eaten more than a doughnut at the gas station where Gerald stopped right outside of Houston.
She knew that Chad had said to make herself at home, but she had felt incredibly uncomfortable rummaging through cupboards and his refrigerator to find the things she needed. But the lunch that she, Gerald, and her daughter had shared in silence was even more uncomfortable. She did not know what her husband had said to Grace, but the anger resonated off them both.
The moment that she was finished eating, her daughter had made her excuses and fled the house. Gerald had called after her to put her plate in the sink. Cassie had stiffened as her child stopped with her hand on the back door from the utility room, which was obviously part of the same addition as the study they had been in earlier.
Grace turned, and her blood froze at the vitriol she saw in those green eyes. “You don’t tell me what to do no more, old man. You want to dump us here, fine. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re not my father anymore.” She had turned back, opened the door, and slammed it so hard that the window next to it rattled, and Cassie feared it would shatter.
“That should just about do it. It’s up to you and that man to pick up the pieces now. You can’t do any worse than I did with Stephen, that’s for sure.”
She had heard the pain in Gerald’s voice, but they had long since passed the rubicon, where she tried to offer the man any care, comfort, or solace. So, she had merely picked up all three plates from the table and taken them to the sink to wash. She had watched as her daughter lumbered across the field. Maybe Chad was right, maybe there was something in the girl’s blood when it came to horses.
“I should be going. The drive back is long. I could only bribe a couple of the FBI guys. So, I want to get back before the prosecutors find out. Don’t want half the state looking for me. Who knows what ‘accident’ might happen to me then.”
She had ignored his remark. Gerald and Stephen had made bad choices. Choices they needed to pay for. Did Stephen deserve to die for those choices? Did Gerald? She seriously doubted that she had enough information even to guess that answer. She could almost hear Aunt Rose, “They made their beds, now they gots to lie in them.”
She had walked him to the front door in silence. She stood on the top step as he walked alone to the rental car that had brought three people to this place. Words were lost to her, if there were even any for such moments as this.
But Gerald found ones, ones that she knew he meant to worm inside her head, leave her with another layer of guilt. Gaslighting was the new term for the mental abuse she had lived with for her whole life.
“I did care for you both, Cassie. In my own way. No matter what happens now, know that I did the best that I could by you both in the end.”
This time she had not risen to the bait. “Good luck, Gerald.”
He had stood there a moment more as if considering what else to say, perhaps to regain the upper hand, to get under her skin. But she was through letting this man or any other do that to her…or her child.
Finally, he had nodded and gotten into the car. Just driving away. Almost two decades of her life, just drove off down a dusty East Texas road, and she was left alone to pick up the pieces of her life and her child’s. Well, not exactly alone.
That was a couple of hours ago, as she looked up from watching Grace bond with her new friend, one truer than those they had left behind in Houston. There was another cloud of red dust rising. A moment later, a relatively new red truck came into view.
No, she was not alone. But neither would she allow a man, any man, to determine their futures again.
The horse yanked the carrot from her daughter’s fingers, barely missing them. Perhaps ‘new friend’ was a bit hopeful, but then again she could understand the need to be leary.
“Hey, looks like Chad’s back. Wanna go see what he bought?”
“There better be a new iPad,” Grace pouted.
“It was on the list. Maybe not as nice as the old one, but it should be fine for your YouTube and games. And don’t forget to say thanks.”
Her daughter shrugged, “Yeah, I suppose, the guy didn’t have to take us in like this.”
Grace looked up at her and smiled. “He must have been one heck of a friend. To take us both in after all these years.” She winked those Wilson green eyes, “Friend? Oh, really, Mom. That man had enough affairs. I think you deserve at least a little bit of happiness, don’t you?”
It was on her lips to deny everything. Then she realized that if, or maybe when, the truth came out, Grace might hold the lie against her. So, she ignored the innuendo, “Let’s go check it out. Christmas came a bit early this year?”