Fran drove Charlie’s truck home with him riding shotgun, still in shock as her husband sat beside her. The silence was awkward, and though she was grateful he was home, Fran had another problem named Jason. Charlie reached for her hand and stroked her fingers while she kept her left hand on the wheel of his pickup.
She parked the truck, and they sat together in uncomfortable silence before she turned the engine off. Fran searched for words, but none came. The situation overwhelmed Charlie—doubt invaded his thoughts, and he couldn’t speak.
He took a deep breath and opened the door. “I’m going to shave my head and beard before I come inside,” he finally said. “I shouldn’t be long.”
“Do you need some help?” she asked.
“I’d love it, thank you.”
Together, they walked from the truck to the garage. Fran reached for the clipper above the washer while Charlie held his head over a trash can. She was meticulous, taking care to avoid nicking him while she trimmed the matted hair away from his head. Section by section, she worked until Charlie’s hair was down to the scalp. When she finished, he smiled in appreciation.
“I’ll get the beard, darling. Thank you for the haircut.”
“You’re welcome, Charlie. Destiny will be home from school soon. Seeing you will confuse her. I don’t know how to approach her with this.” She fiddled with her hair, a nervous tic that Charlie recognized. You’re not worried about Destiny, he thought. You aren’t sure about yourself! The doubt within him continued to fester.
“I’ll clean up, and I’ll be ready before she’s home.” He took her hand and squeezed it.
She only nodded her head.
Charlie hadn’t taken a warm shower in at least a month, and as the water poured over his worn, achy body, he sighed relief. He scrubbed off the filth and stench of neglect, and washed every inch of his body at least twice. When he finished, he stepped from the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. He opened the bathroom cabinet to retrieve his old straight razor, but it wasn’t there. Instead, he found blades and razors that did not belong to him. Left with no alternative, he used one he found and completed the shave he began downstairs. When he finished, he stepped back to look. The reflection in the mirror better resembled him, but older and more cynical.
He walked from the bathroom to the bedroom, and when he sat on the bed, he noticed a photo of Fran and Jason together, with Destiny on his shoulders. My family looks so happy without me. I should have stayed gone, he thought to himself. Charlie heard Fran’s soft footsteps padding up the stairs, and she tapped on the door before she entered.
“Are you decent?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’m just cooling off.” When she opened the door, he patted the spot on the bed next to him. “Come here and sit, darling.”
She sat, but kept some distance between them. “We have little time before Destiny comes home, Charlie. I still don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”
“What we will tell her,” Charlie corrected her. “Please don’t treat me as though I’m still not here.”
She nodded. “Of course. You’re right.” This will take some getting used to. I thought you were dead! What do I do now? Seeing him alive, in their home, unsettled her. “The clothes I kept are upstairs in the cedar chest. I’m sorry.”
Charlie shrugged. “It’s not your fault. I was dead.” One more gaping blister of doubt burst open. He stood to hang his towel in the bathroom, wearing only a pair of boxers he found in the dresser drawer. They didn’t quite fit him, and he was certain they belonged to the new guy. “So, what’s his name?”
Fran stared at him. “I can’t believe you’re asking me this.”
“I have a right to know who my competition is. How long have you two been together?”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now.” She stood and crossed her arms in annoyance.
“It’s important, Fran. I need to know.”
She sighed. “His name is Jason. We’ve been together just over a year.”
“So, how long did you wait after I ‘died’ to date him? I hope you at least waited a month out of respect—”
A sharp pain hit him square in the face, courtesy of Fran’s right hand. It was a knee-jerk reaction, one she never meant to take that far. “Oh, Charlie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”
He rubbed his cheek and shook his head in stunned disbelief. “I guess I deserved it.” Charlie’s heart ached at the memory of the young man at the diner. “Were you intimate with him?”
Fran’s ire reignited fast and hot. “That is NONE of your business!”
“Actually, it is. You’re my legal wife—”
“What about that hooker you kissed in the strip club? You don’t get to play an innocent, jilted lover in this!”
“That was NOT my fault! Jim paid her to do that!”
“Don’t blame your mistakes on someone else. It didn’t look like you were fighting to get away from her, Charles! I’m not the only one who screwed up in this marriage!” She walked to the door. “I have to wait for Destiny’s bus. This conversation is over!” Her angry footsteps stomped down the stairs.
No, it isn’t. “Whatever you say, Fran,” he muttered under his breath.
He walked up the stairs to the attic. The chill of the air made him shiver. His soft footsteps made their way to the chest, and he kneeled down in front of it. The chest lid creaked when he opened it—the sharp, pungent odor of cedarwood assaulted his nose.
On top of his clothing were Destiny’s toy kangaroo—why is Angaloo in here?—and the photograph Fran had damaged with the heel of her boot. He picked up the photo and gazed upon it—he remembered the day Caleb took it like yesterday. What he didn’t expect was the scar from broken glass. The blemish on the photo took his breath from him. Was she that angry that she destroyed my pictures? His fingers traced the defect as a tear fell onto the photograph. Charlie put the frame back face down into the chest, kept Angaloo to bring downstairs, and retrieved the items he needed before he closed the lid.
His shirt felt good when he pulled it over his head; the fit was almost perfect. The jeans, however, were too big for him, so he cinched his belt around his waist to keep them up. His boots slid onto his feet and he grinned. Oh, how I’ve missed these old boots. The mirror that once stood in their bedroom was nearby. He strode over to it and admired the reflection. “Welcome home, Charlie,” he said in a sarcastic tone. Step by step, he descended the stairs to the living room, where Fran waited for him.
“Have you decided what we should tell her?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, but I think I should meet her bus, and you stay inside. It will be difficult enough for her—”
“Without me messing things up?”
“I didn’t say that, Charlie.” Her answer was abrupt—her tone, bitter.
“I’m sorry. That wasn’t necessary.” He reached for her hand to hold, but she snubbed him and walked toward the door.
“The bus is coming any minute. I need to be outside.”
Even more doubt. “Okay, sweetheart.”
The school bus arrived a few minutes early. Fran waited with her arms crossed until she saw Destiny’s red ponytail in the door. The girl smiled at her mother and ran toward her. Fran greeted her with a bear hug. “How was school today, sweet pea?”
“It was fun! I’m learning to play a new instrument in music class!” Destiny giggled and covered her mother’s face in kisses. Fran hated to ruin her good mood, and she still wasn’t sure how to break the news.
Fran kneeled in front of her and stopped her. “Destiny, I need to talk to you.” She looked into the child’s violet eyes and held her hands.
“What, Mama? Is Jason here?” Destiny peered around her mother and struggled to get away. Her energy was exhausting, and sometimes Fran had a hard time keeping up. Jason did the running and roughhousing when she couldn’t.
Fran blinked back tears. “No, he isn’t. Destiny, do you remember your daddy? Remember how he had died? We had the service for him. Remember the big wooden box?”
The young girl nodded her head. “Yes, Mama. I asked if he was in it.”
She nodded. “That’s right. The reason your daddy wasn’t in the box was because he… I mean, he didn’t…” Fran became flustered. How do I make this plain for you, baby girl? “Destiny, your daddy isn’t dead.” Yeah, that’ll clear things right up for her, Fran. Way to go.
“I don’t understand.”
Fran wrung her hands. I don’t either, sweet pea. “What I’m saying is that Daddy’s home and inside the house. Do you want to see him?”
“I don’t understand, Mama.”
“I know, sweetheart. Your daddy loves you and missed you so much. You remember him, don’t you?” Destiny shook her head, much to Fran’s chagrin. She grew desperate to hear affirmation from their daughter. “You remember the picture on the mantle, right? Remember how we used to sit and listen to his voice? Please, Desi, tell me you remember him!” Fran’s heart ached. She promised Charlie their daughter wouldn’t forget him. It was a huge promise, and she broke it. When Jason entered their lives, he took over every role for both of them. It would be difficult for them to stop loving him, to forget him.
Destiny’s bottom lip quivered, and she cried. She remembered Charlie only in photos, and she couldn’t recall his voice. It had been over three years since she’d seen him. “I don’t remember Daddy.”
“Oh Desi, of course you do. He gave you Angaloo, sweetheart! You’ll remember him when you see him, baby girl.”
“Mama, where’s Jason?”
One problem at a time, Destiny. “Jason isn’t here. Your daddy is waiting to see you inside the house. Aren’t you happy he’s home?”
She shook her head as tears ran down her cheeks. “When is Jason coming back home?”
Fran attempted to suppress her tears by clenching her teeth so hard, she gave herself a headache. “Destiny, you can’t talk about Jason around Daddy, okay? Please, honey… for Mama. Okay?” Fran wiped tears from Destiny’s face and kissed her forehead. She stood and took their little girl’s hand, and together, they walked into the house.
Charlie expected little from his reunion with their daughter. He’d been absent more than half of her life. She was five years old, but it surprised him how much she’d grown. He wouldn’t have recognized his own daughter if Fran hadn’t been with her. Tears filled his eyes when he saw her—a smile on his face, and her favorite stuffed toy in his hand.
Destiny saw him and recognized him as the man in the photographs her mother had shown her. “Daddy?” She approached him with apprehension, hanging onto Fran’s hand as though her life depended on it.
“Hi Destiny,” Charlie said. “Do you remember me?” He held her toy kangaroo to her, but she only looked at it.
Destiny backed away, stood behind Fran, and looked at him. She knew his voice, his face, but it made no sense to her. The girl shook her head, tears in her eyes. “Nuh uh.”
Charlie’s heart broke in two. First, the chilly reception and fight with Fran, and now his daughter didn’t recognize him. The joyful reunion he envisioned was instead a dismal failure, so he decided to stay at the mission, at least until he could get on his feet. Maybe Fran would call Jason back home for one last fling before she had to settle. Maybe he would give his family the choice—him or Jason. He feared their decision.
“That’s okay, sweet pea. I know it will take time. But, maybe someday, you’ll love me like you love Jason.” He sat back on his heels and wept.
Fran stood with Destiny wrapped around her, tears in her eyes. “Oh, Charlie, I’m so sorry I broke my promise to you.”
“I need to go, Frannie. I shouldn’t have come back—”
“No, Charlie, please stay? I haven’t handled this well. But you have to understand how difficult it is to—”
“Love two of us? No… no, I get it. I should go. You have a choice to make, Frannie. My being here will only cloud your judgment. You need clarity, and I don’t want to confuse the two of you.” He got up from his knees. “I’ll stay at the mission until I get my own place.”
“Please don’t go…” she whispered. “I love you.”
“I’m happy to hear that, honey. Do you love him more? Can he provide a better life for you and our daughter? That’s your decision.” He looked around the living room at the brand new furniture, decorations and wallpaper. Jason and Fran had redecorated each room in the house. It was obvious he had money, because he sunk a small fortune into the farmhouse. It was also clear Jason was living here part time already, or was planning on it soon. “I think Jason can provide you everything you want and need. I’m just holding you back, Frannie.” He turned to leave, but she grabbed at him, desperate for him to stay.
“Charlie, wait!” she cried out. “It devastated me when I thought you had died. I couldn’t stand to lose you again.” She pried herself away from Destiny’s grip and walked toward him. “Please, don’t go. I need you so much I can’t think straight.” She wrapped herself around him and wept. “Please, don’t leave me again.”
He pulled away from her and took his keys from the bowl. “I have to go, Fran. I’m sorry.” He took the coat that hung on the newel post. “Just so you know, I love you. I hope we can work through this, but I’m prepared to start over without you if we can’t.” He patted Destiny on the head and opened the front door. It broke his heart to see Fran cry—he needed to go. “You know where I’ll be.”
“No, Charlie… please…” Fran collapsed on the floor in tears as she watched him walk down the front sidewalk and away from the house.
Charlie’s quick strides carried him away from the house at a good clip. At this pace, he’d be at the mission before they served the evening meal. So, this is what it feels like to be homeless in your own hometown. The day’s events played in his head on a constant loop. He had so many questions, ones he wasn’t sure he wanted her to answer.
A cold, thirty-minute walk later found him in the downtown area of Appaloosa Plains, on the same corner where, just twenty-four hours earlier, he lay splayed out on the ground. Now that he knew the full story, the young man’s attempt to shoo him out of town made perfect sense. He wondered if Fran would call this Jason guy back home, or if she was as distraught as she appeared when he left.
The same young girl greeted him when he opened the door to the mission, but he looked and smelled much different from how he did just 24 hours prior. Charlie waved when he approached and asked about accommodation for the evening. She looked at him with a confused expression on her face.
“You seem like you know me, sir. I am sure I’ve not seen you here.” The tag on her blouse read ‘Jessica.’
“I was here last night. You were very polite. The only difference is that I’ve gotten rid of the long hair and beard, and I’ve cleaned up a bit.” He smiled and removed his hat. “This is how I wear it.”
“I didn’t recognize you! Welcome back! I’m guessing you didn’t find your wife?”
Charlie sighed and swallowed the lump in his throat. “No, I found her. It just wasn’t what I’d hoped for. It’s okay. She believed I was dead for over a year and a half. I don’t blame her for moving on.” That doesn’t make it easier.
The young girl frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that, mister. Perhaps, you can work through everything together?”
It would take a miracle. “I hope so, Jessica. Do you have a bunk for me tonight?”
She nodded. “It’s a semi-private room—check out time is the same as usual. Seven in the morning. Is that okay?”
“Perfect. Thank you.” He let her lead him to the sleeping area, where he slipped out of his coat and placed it on the bed.
“You’re welcome. Supper is in thirty minutes. You may join us if you’d like.”
He thought for a moment. He hadn’t eaten since the diner that morning, and it wasn’t much at that. “I think I will. I’m pretty hungry.”
After supper, Charlie returned to his room, laid down and closed his eyes. His mind raced, wondering what he could have done to avoid this outcome. But every scenario that involved Jason and Fran ended with him at the mission. Maybe it’s for the best. She was happy until I showed my face. So that’s my plan, he thought. He drifted to sleep with Fran on his mind, tears in his eyes, and a broken heart that beat in the hollow of his chest.
With shaky hands, Fran dialed Jason’s cell number. Voice mail. Instead of leaving a message, she hung up. The pain of losing Charlie again was worse than she could have imagined. But she had no way to contact him, no phone number to call. She knew she had messed things up, that she was responsible for the current dilemma, and she felt terrible about it.
Her fingers dialed the phone again, but this time, her best friend answered it. Her shaky voice cracked when she heard Sunny’s voice.
“Fran? Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I’m having a terrible day. Would you mind taking Destiny for a few days? I need to screw my head on straight. I need time to think.”
“Are you and Jason having problems?” Sunny hated to think they might be. She hadn’t seen Fran as happy in a long time.
“You could say that. I have a lot to consider.”
“You take care of yourself, Frannie. I’ll walk down and get her.”
“Thank you, Sunny. I appreciate it.”
Ten minutes later, Sunny and Destiny walked out of the front door together, skipping and laughing as they walked toward the Bradford home. What Fran desired, she knew she shouldn’t do. All she wanted was to numb the intense pain. She walked to the kitchen and opened the wine Jason bought for them to share, uncorked it, and took a swig right from the bottle. The red liquid was semi-sweet—the first mouthful burned all the way down, but it radiated a warmth inside her she found to be pleasant. Another sip, and more warmth. She carried the bottle into the sitting room, plopped herself on the sofa and turned the television on, taking larger and larger mouthfuls of the wine until she was numb.
Hours later, a key turned in the front door of the house, her name on Jason’s lips. He’d seen her missed call on his cell, and his attempts to return it went unanswered. Worried, he drove to the farmhouse to check on her. He found her passed out in the sitting room, an empty bottle of wine on the coffee table. He’d never seen her drunk before. “Fran? Baby?” He walked to touch her and tried to wake her. “Fran?”
Her eyes opened, and at first she had problems focusing on his face. “Chason? Jarlie?” She cocked her head to one side and made herself nauseated. “Oh, I’m gonna barf—”
She didn’t have the words out of her mouth before she threw up on the wooden floor. Jason picked her up and carried her to the upstairs bathroom, ran a warm bath, undressed her and set her into the water. “Baby, what happened?”
“Charlie…” she spoke with slurred speech. “He went downtown to the mission… he left me.”
He sat on the edge of the tub with her, helping her to clean up. Vomit had splashed all over her hair and body. “You don’t need a man who won’t stick with you, baby. Stay with me. I will never leave you.”
“I might not have a choice, Jason. Charlie’s gone for good this time.” The numb had subsided, and the pain returned with an abundance of tears. “I screwed up.”
Jason ignored the first comment. He hated to think of himself as a choice instead of the only one. “Don’t worry about him, baby. I’m here, and I’ll take care of you.” He helped her up and hung onto her while she got out of the tub and walked to the bed. Once she was sitting down, he retrieved her nightgown from the dresser and pulled it over her head.
“Thank you,” she slurred and fell back onto the bed. “Please don’t leave me tonight, Jason? I need you.”
“I wasn’t planning on leaving you, my sweet baby.” He kissed her forehead. “I need to clean the mess downstairs, and I’m going to go lock the doors and I’ll be right back.” She nodded, her eyes heavy with sleep. He hurried down the steps, checked and locked all the doors, then back upstairs to Fran. Staying wasn’t what he intended, though he kept clothes in the dresser for such an occasion. He slipped into a pair of pajama pants, curled around her body, and kissed her cheek. “Sweet dreams, Fran.”
The next morning, Jason awakened first. Fran slept next to him, her familiar, light snores comforted him. I’ll surprise her with a cup of coffee, he decided. So he slipped into Charlie’s old robe and padded down the steps. Jason never heard the key open the front door, or the footsteps enter the living room. Charlie heard noise in the kitchen and assumed it was Fran getting Destiny ready for school.
“What are YOU doing here?” Charlie snarled.
“You must be the dead man who broke Fran’s heart last night. At least you don’t reek anymore.”
“You can leave now, boy. I’m here to care for her, now.”
Jason laughed. “How cute. You think you can just waltz back into her life and pick up right where you left off? Do you know the hell you put her through with your little stunt? I found her passed out on the couch, drunk. It’s a damned good thing I was here to pick up the pieces after you broke her heart!”
Jason’s words hit Charlie like a ton of bricks. “She got drunk? Frannie never used to drink. You’ve been a terrible influence on her! Get out of my house!”
“Make me!” Jason taunted him.
Charlie looked at Jason. He knew Jason outweighed and overpowered him, and it was a fight he knew he couldn’t win. But he would fight Jason to the death for her if he needed to, and though he was not prepared to fight him, he was ready.
Charlie drew his arm back to throw a punch and start the fight that could end his life. A scream broke his concentration and took his attention off Jason. Charlie turned to look behind him just as a powerful hit caught his left jaw and flattened him. Jason knocked him out cold.
“Jason! What are you doing?!” Fran ran to Charlie’s side, fell to her knees and cradled his head, a trickle of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth.
“I’m protecting you—”
“I don’t need you to protect me from my husband! Get out of my house!” She growled through her teeth.
“Baby, don’t be hasty—”
“OUT, Jason! I’m dead serious.” She wiped the blood from Charlie’s face. “Get out of my sight!”
“This is how you thank me for saving you last night? You’re throwing ME out?”
“NO!” She screamed. “You attacked my husband! I don’t care what he did, you don’t touch him!” She wept while she tended to Charlie. “Please, Jason. Don’t make me call the police.”
Fran heard Jason’s heavy steps on the staircase, muttered curses and banging doors, and moments later the same footsteps trudged down the stairs and through the front door.
Fran sat cross-legged on the dining room floor, cradling Charlie’s head in her lap. She stroked his cheek and cried, praying that he would wake up on his own, that the damage wasn’t severe or permanent. Ten minutes later, his eyes opened. He tried to focus, and for a moment he forgot where he was.
“Ugh…” A flash of bright red hair in his blurry vision brought him back to reality.
“I’m here, Charlie. I’m so sorry.” Tears flooded her eyes—a warm, salty drop splattered on his forehead. “Are you okay?”
“Jason sucker-punched you. I’m so sorry! Babe, I never meant to chase you away yesterday. I was just so overwhelmed…”
The feel of wet tears on his forehead woke him a little more. “That boyfriend of yours packs a hell of a punch, darling. I wasn’t expecting that.” He reached to rub the soreness out of his jaw. A quick check revealed that his teeth were in place, and none were loose. Finally, something is right for a change.
“It’s my fault he hit you, Charlie. My fault you walked in on him in our kitchen, that you spent the night downtown.” She buried her face in her hands and cried. “This is all on me, and I’m sorry.”
He sat up and put his arm around her shoulder. “No, Frannie. I think we both share some responsibility in this. But let’s not keep score anymore.” He kissed her forehead. “I missed you so much, and it shocked me to see you so happy with him. Destiny loves him, it’s obvious. My coming home felt like a mistake. And then when we fought…”
“Shh.” She kissed his cheek and wiped the tear from his forehead. “I thought I had everything figured out until you left last night. You turned my world upside down, and I knew I couldn’t lose you again. I could never survive it, Charlie. I did it once, and it nearly killed me.”
He held her close to him. “If you’re sure you want me, sweetheart, I will never leave you again.”
“I am positive. You are the answer to my most fervent prayers. In the days that followed the mission, Charlie, I never stopped praying for you to come home to me. I believed that if you were alive, you would find your way home.”
“Many times you encouraged me to keep going, whether or not you knew it. You never left me, you never left my thoughts. I had to believe we had something to salvage. Do you think we do, Frannie? Because I do.”
Fran nodded her head. “I know we do, Charlie.” She held his face between her hands, and though she saw him wince in pain, she kissed him. “I need you. Take me to bed?”
“You don’t need to ask me twice, sweetheart.” Fran stood and helped Charlie to his feet, took his hand and together, they walked up the stairs to their bedroom.
The Next Morning
Charlie knew he needed to face the consequences that loomed over him. Before he returned to base, he needed to come clean with Fran.
They sat at the dining room table, enjoying their coffee. He didn’t know how much she knew about the court-martial.
“Frannie, I need to talk to you before I head to the base. It’s important, and I’m not sure I’ll be coming back home.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Before the mission, Lorne and I got into it over the plan of attack. We exchanged some punches—he told me I would be court-martialed. The second he sees me, honey, those charges will still stand…”
Fran realized Charlie didn’t know about Lorne. She took his hand into hers. “Charlie, Lorne isn’t in charge there anymore. He was court-martialed after the mission. There was a tremendous scandal.”
The irony, Charlie thought. “Well, they could still hold me accountable for disobeying a direct order, honey. I just want you to prepare yourself.” Don’t let Jason go, he thought. “It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. The court-martial recommendation will still be on my military record.” They embraced before he took the keys for his truck and kissed one last time before he left.
The drive to the base was surreal, and when he parked his truck in guest parking, it was odd for him. The first person he bumped into was Lorne, who acted as though he’d seen a ghost.
“Charlie? How in the hell—”
“Yep, it’s me, Lorne,” Charlie said. “It’s good to see you, old friend.”
“I don’t understand. How? Where?”
“Let’s catch up later. I have some business here, I reckon.”
They chatted as they walked inside the main corridor that led to the offices. The secretary outside the CO’s office, his former one, went sheet white when she saw him.
“Colonel Farmer!” she said. “You… you’re alive!”
Well, that answers one question I have, he thought. “Maddy! Wow, this is quite the promotion for you, isn’t it?” Madelyn, which was her proper name, bounded from her desk to hug him, but his spindly body shocked her.
“Charlie, you’re so thin! What happened?”
“It’s a good thing I didn’t join the Navy. Open sea sailing does not agree with me.” They both laughed. “Is the CO in?”
“Yeah, let me ring him. He won’t believe this, either.” Maddy sat back at her desk and announced a visitor. She didn’t tell him who.
Brigadier General Dan Rhoades stepped from his office moments later, looked at Charlie and held his breath. “Colonel Farmer.” I’ve been expecting you. “Colonel Charles Farmer.”
Charlie stood and snapped his posture to attention. “Yes sir, General Rhoades, sir.”
“We have much to discuss, Colonel. Please step into my office.” Charlie swallowed hard, but nodded in acknowledgment. General Rhoades was not unknown to him. A leader for the Allied Forces stationed out of Midnight Hollow, Dan Rhoades was as hard-nosed as they came. He did everything by the book, and many men under his charge feared him. Charlie’s confidence slithered away as a snake in the grass. I’m glad I got one last kiss with Frannie before we begin proceedings on my court-martial, he thought.
The two men entered the office, and Dan ordered Charlie at ease. They sat and stared at each other—Dan looked at Charlie in disbelief. “Well, Charlie, I need to bring you up to speed on what has transpired during your absence. Let’s start with the last mission. Why didn’t you return to base or wait for recon to find you?”
Charlie’s hands turned clammy. “When my fighter went down, my first instinct was to find safety, as I crashed behind enemy lines. But the impact broke my leg, sir. I couldn’t have made it back to base. They told me I shouldn’t have lived. I had burns on my hands, chest, and legs from the sand and jet fuel, and though I can walk on it, my leg is pretty messed up. The crash damaged it far beyond what their infirmary could handle.”
“Who told you, Charlie? Who took care of you?”
“The village the Allied Forces bombed in error, full of peaceful civilians. The medic there healed my leg, nursed me back to health. What happened to that village was criminal, sir.” He bowed his head, Nahla on his mind.
Dan looked at Charlie. “Well, I can understand your hesitancy to return to base. You had some pretty substantial charges against you. Let me tell you what happened after the mission. Can I get you some water? Coffee? Are you comfortable? This is quite a story, Charlie.”
Charlie cleared his throat. “Maybe coffee? I don’t know when I’ll have another…”
“Don’t be so certain.” Dan requested coffee for both of them from Maddy, and he turned his attention back to Charlie. “Lorne turned himself in following the mission, and he confessed everything. He told the court that you pointed out the flaws in Gentry’s plan, that it would fail, and that he stayed with the plan as written to avoid consequences for himself.”
“What? Why? I thought our spat was between the two of us?”
“Both of the MPs outside of Lorne’s tent that day overheard your fight and testified on your behalf. He couldn’t deny the allegations because we had depositions that backed your claims. He confessed he demoted you without good cause and promoted Gentry in your place as a favor. Lorne made poor choices, Charlie. He paid an enormous price for his lack of judgment, his failure to lead, and for putting his own interest ahead of the welfare of the men under his command.”
Charlie sat back in his chair, dumbfounded. Lorne betrayed him and then blamed him for everything. Son of a…
“The military wouldn’t pay out on your life insurance policy because of the disciplinary actions on your record. Mr. Turek requested the court absolve you of all wrongdoing and restore your rank to Colonel, in exchange for his testimony. He told the court during his trial that with every decision you made that day, you were selfless and courageous, the mark of a genuine leader. The court had no issue with dropping the charges and expunging your record. Your wife was the primary beneficiary, but they cleared you, Charlie. You’re a free man with an exemplary military record.”
“How long ago was this? Frannie still hasn’t seen a dime.”
“Lorne’s court case settled only weeks ago. Your reappearance will halt the process on her claim.”
Charlie never expected exoneration with the charges against him, but he heaved a sigh of relief. “So, what happens now?”
Dan continued. “I can offer you two choices, Colonel. Riverview’s base of operation needs a leader, Charlie. You are the perfect man for that job—a position commensurate with your superior leadership skills. Of course, you realize that would be a sizable promotion and raise for you.”
Dan leaned back in his chair. “The second is what you were eligible for during your last deployment—retirement with full benefits at your current rank. It’s your decision, and I don’t need one today. Remember, however, you would be so valuable that when the next conflict arises, you will deploy. The next war is yours to win, Charlie.”
“I’ll talk to Frannie, but I already know her answer. I promised her I wouldn’t leave her again—I mean to keep it.” He knew they intended to coax him to stay in with the promotion, and he had to admit, it was an enormous temptation. He had sacrificed an increase in rank and raise in pay once before. The army higher-ups didn’t believe Charlie would give up a second opportunity.
“Fair enough, Colonel. There is no hurry—the sooner we confirm the transfer, the better.”
“Wait, I didn’t say that the transfer was a done deal, General. I said I would discuss it with my wife.”
“We know you’ll treat this opportunity with the seriousness it deserves, Colonel. The army will make it well worth your while to stay in. Don’t make a hasty decision, Farmer. The Allied Forces are counting on you.” Dan stood to shake Charlie’s hand.
Charlie stood, but declined a handshake, fearing Dan would misinterpret it. “I’ll be in touch, General. Thank you.”
Dan measured him up. “You’ll need some muscle back on that body, Farmer, if you’re going to lead your own squadron. Work on it.”
Charlie shook his head and huffed. “Yes, sir!” A final salute and Dan dismissed him.
Charlie left Dan’s office and saw Lorne sitting, waiting for him. Armed with the truth, he was not happy to see his old friend. “I’ll be in touch, Maddy,” Charlie said. He walked past Lorne and scowled.
Lorne pursued him and caught him ten paces from the door that led to the parking lot. “Charlie, wait—”
“There’s NO reason we should speak, Turek.”
“Let me explain?”
“Why should I? You damn near got me killed, and we lost how many others in that bone-headed mission?”
Lorne lowered his voice. “Four others. McCoy, Johnson, Byers, and Hound Dawg…”
“Was it worth it, jackass?”
Lorne shook his head. “No.”
“What happened to Gentry? Moore?”
Lorne couldn’t look Charlie in the eye. “Jim’s plane went down after yours, and though he ejected, he landed hard and broke his back. He’s in a wheelchair. Moore broke his hip and had severe nerve damage from the injury. I ruined their lives, Charlie.”
“Yeah, well, I fared no better.” Charlie exposed his arms and stomach to show burn scars on his forearms and torso. “I broke my leg, Lorne. I suffered burns, but I didn’t have the best hospitals to heal my injuries. Instead, your recklessness destroyed the village I called home for five months!”
“My recklessness? I was in the stocks long before they planned that mission. That was Rhoades’s idea, not mine!”
No wonder Rhoades wants me out of here. He knows I know about the error. “Sorry, Lorne. When I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. But don’t mistake my humility for weakness. I know you back-stabbed me, and with zero remorse. How could you? I thought we were friends!”
“I know sorry won’t cut it—”
“Damn straight, it won’t! Get out of my face, Turek. If you see me coming your way, you’d be wise to walk away. Once I’m retired, once I’m a civilian, if I see you on the street, I will pound you into the pavement. Do I make myself clear?”
Lorne sighed. “I understand.” Charlie turned to walk away, but Lorne couldn’t help himself. “Watch Jason Matthews around Fran, Charlie. He’s ex-military, and he’s very savvy. You might have a fight on your hands if he comes back.”
Charlie spat on the ground. “Tell Jason Matthews to bring it. He will take Fran from me over my dead body.”
Three days later
Fran was making supper when they heard a knock. She expected Sunny with Destiny in tow, so Charlie volunteered to answer the door. The man at the front door, however, shocked him.
“Hello, dead man. Where’s Fran?”
“You have some nerve to show up here and say that to my face!” Charlie stood his ground in full defense, his voice raised in anger.
“Save me the sanctimony, ‘friend’. Where is Fran?” Jason’s tone was sarcastic and impatient. He knew what was at stake.
Fran heard shouting and walked from the kitchen. “Jason! What are you doing here?”
He advanced toward her and grabbed her wrists. “Come with me. We’re leaving now!”
“Ouch, Jason! No!” Fran cried out as she tried to escape his grasp.
Charlie broke Jason’s grip on his wife, gave her a quick once over, and scowled at him. “You touch her again, boy, and I will hurt you.”
“Funny old man, I said similar when you came sniffing around. If you think I will give her up without a fight, you’re mistaken.” Jason rolled up his sleeves and displayed his rippling muscles.
“I have the law on my side, too bad for you,” Charlie growled. “She’s still MY wife!” Jason made another move for Fran, but she dodged him. “Get upstairs and call Caleb, Frannie!” She nodded and ran toward the staircase, but Jason pushed Charlie to the floor and stopped her.
“Please, Fran, I need to talk to you.” He held her hands in his. Charlie was back on his feet, bent over and panting. She rushed to Charlie and glared at Jason.
“Are you okay, Charlie?” When he nodded and squeezed her hand, she turned her ire toward her ex-boyfriend. “Jason, you can’t be here!” Fran said, her voice raised in indignation.
Tears filled Jason’s eyes. “Please, baby. I just need a few minutes. Please?”
“I swear if you touch my husband again, I’ll deck you myself!” She looked at Charlie. “I just need a minute or two. Do you mind?” Charlie, who struggled to catch his breath, only shook his head.
Jason and Fran went outside on the front porch together. He embraced her as tears rolled down his cheeks. “Fran, I have something I want to ask you. It might change things for us.”
She broke away from him and paced the floor. “Jason, there can’t be an ‘us’ anymore. I’m married to Charlie, and I love him.”
Jason fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her waist. “Tell me you’re not serious, Fran. What about me? Don’t you love me? Baby, I’ve devoted everything to you. I adore your little girl. I am in love with you. Fran, you belong to me, now.”
You aren’t making this easy. “Yes, Jason, of course I love you, but I made my choice. Charlie is my hus—”
“Marry me.” Jason blurted it out. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the ring he had bought. It was his ‘Hail Mary’ pass—his last chance to keep the woman he loved more than his own life. “Please say yes, baby. I’m begging you.” He slipped the ring onto her finger and closed her hand around his own. “Please?”
“Jason!” Destiny squealed, squirmed out of Sunny’s arms, and ran toward him. Dang it! Sunny couldn’t have had worse timing, and Fran’s mouth dropped open when she saw Jason pick Destiny up and cuddle her in his arms.
“Hey munchkin!” Jason said as he scooped her up. “I missed you!”
“Oh, Fran, I’m sorry. Is this a bad time?” Sunny asked.
“I just asked her to marry me, Sunny,” Jason said with a bright smile. “Your timing was fantastic!” He covered a giggly little girl in kisses as Charlie watched from the living room window. “She hasn’t said she will yet. Maybe she could use some persuasion.”
The front door opened, and Charlie stood in it. Sunny’s jaw dropped agape. “Charlie?!”
Charlie grinned. “In the flesh, Sunny. Thank you for watching our daughter while Frannie and I got reacquainted.”
Sunny squeezed him and kissed his cheek. “When? How? I don’t believe this!”
“A few days ago.” He noticed Fran stood there trembling, looking as though she’d pass out. “Darling, we should take our daughter and go inside.” He took her hand, slipped the ring from her finger and handed it back to Jason. “She won’t be needing this, boy.” He turned to Destiny. “Come on, sweet pea.”
Destiny cried. “No! I want Jason!” The girl clung to his neck.
Sunny reached for Destiny. “Come, Desi. Your mama missed you.”
Jason kissed Destiny’s cheek and made her giggle. “She wants to be with me, don’t you, Desi?” Destiny nodded her head and giggled harder. The braggadocio irked Charlie, and it wore on Sunny, too.
“Jason, you are not her father. Don’t make me call Cale.” The oldest Bradford child, Caleb Jr, was strong and agile and could trounce Jason in a fight. “You know he’d have no issue coming here and defending this little girl and her family.”
He huffed and handed Destiny to Sunny. “I thought you were on my side.”
“You see this man standing here, Jason? He’s been Fran’s foundation for twenty-five years. You need to leave. Now.” Sunny stood and pointed toward the street.
Jason turned to go. “Call me, Fran. Please?” She nodded but moved toward the door, Charlie at her side.
The unexpected visit shook Fran to her core, and she sobbed in Charlie’s arms. Her emotions overwhelmed her. Jason was the last person she expected at her door. She also needed closure, the end of a relationship she once wanted. Despite her powerful love and attachment to her husband, she realized she still loved Jason, too.
Charlie led her to the brand new sofa in the sitting room, and they sat together. When Fran looked around, the entire house smacked of Jason. How would she ever forget him if the house reminded her of him? Sunny followed them inside, Destiny still in her arms.
“Do you still need some time alone?” Sunny asked. “It’s no problem for me to bring her back home with me.”
Charlie shook his head. “No, Sun, we’ll be fine. Besides, I need to build my relationship with my baby girl. It’s clear I have a long way to go.”
Fran’s sobs subsided. “I’m sorry, Charlie. I didn’t expect Jason here.”
He held her close and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay, Frannie. We’ll deal with him together. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”
Sunny smiled as she let Destiny onto her feet. “Go play, sweet pea. Let Aunt Sunny talk to your mama and daddy, okay?” The girl nodded and ran up the steps to her bedroom. “I can’t believe you’re sitting here, Charlie. Caleb will be so excited to hear this news!”
“I owe your family a debt I can never repay. Thank you so much for taking care of my girls while I was away.” Charlie stood to hug Sunny.
“It was our pleasure. Now Fran needs to concentrate on getting some meat back on those bones. You’re so skinny!”
Charlie nodded. “Yeah, the trip home wasn’t first class, that’s for sure! I walked a lot of miles and spent a lot of time hungry. But all that was worth this homecoming. I feel like I belong here again.”
Fran stood beside him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “You were always welcome here, Charlie. You’re the head of this family. This is your home.”
“My first day back, darling, sure didn’t feel like it. We’re better now. I’m committed to making sure you are happy with me, so Jason becomes nothing more than a memory in this house.”
She held him tighter and nuzzled her face into his chest. “I want that, too.”
“Well,” Sunny said, “I suppose I should get home.” She hugged Charlie again and patted Fran’s shoulder. “Everything will work out for you two. I believe it. Welcome home, Charlie.”
“Thanks, Sunny. Please tell Caleb I said hello, and we’ll all get together soon for supper. My treat.”
Sunny smiled. “I’ll do that, Charlie.”
After Sunny left, Charlie took Angaloo from his recliner, where the toy sat since his first day home. “I’m going to go talk to Destiny. I know I have a tough road to travel. It’s time I started building my relationship with her.”
Fran nodded. “I’ll finish supper. It’s almost done, but I’ll call you when it’s ready, babe.”
Charlie walked up the steps with Destiny’s toy in his hand. The door was ajar, and she was playing with the doll Sunny gave her when he knocked. “Destiny? May I come in?”
She didn’t answer, but only gave a grunt. Destiny didn’t look up from her play, and she didn’t acknowledge Charlie stood there. He sat down on her bed and set the toy on it.
She didn’t look up at him.
“What are you doing, sweet pea?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Nothin’.”
“I don’t recognize that doll. Where did you get her?”
“Aunt Sunny gave her to me on my last birthday.”
“She’s a very nice doll.” He leaned forward and planted his elbows on his knees. “How’s school?”
She shrugged again. “It’s okay.”
Charlie fumbled for words. “I brought Angaloo upstairs for you—”
“Why isn’t Jason coming back?” Her eyes met his—she wore an angry scowl on her face.
Charlie wasn’t sure how to answer her. “I-I…”
She stood and looked straight into his eyes. “I HATE YOU!” she screamed at him, and she burst into tears. “I want Mama!” Destiny grabbed Angaloo and threw it across the room.
Charlie swallowed the lump of emotion in his throat. “I’ll send her up. I love you, Destiny. Someday, maybe you’ll love me, too.”
Fran was already on her way up when Charlie appeared in the stairwell. “She wants you, darling.”
“What happened? I heard her scream at you.”
Charlie shrugged. “I have a lot of ground to cover with her. Or I might never get there. I’m just not sure.” He grabbed his coat. “I’m going to go for a walk, sweetheart. I’ll be home soon.”
A Week Later
Fran woke to an empty spot beside her, a common occurrence before Charlie’s return home. She needed to wake Destiny for school, so she got up and walked to Desi’s room. She looked so peaceful sleeping in her bed, her red hair messy from sleep. Fran padded to her bedside and kissed her cheek.
“Rise and shine, little sweet pea.” She brushed hair away from Destiny’s face and kissed her forehead. “Daddy’s up. Why don’t you go say good morning to him? He’d love that, you know.”
“I don’t wanna,” came her simple answer. “I want Jason, Mama.”
Fran sat on the bed next to Destiny. “Baby girl, Jason isn’t coming around anymore. I know it’s hard to understand. I love your daddy, and he’s not going anywhere.”
The sad expression on her daughter’s face broke her heart. “But I love Jason.”
“Someday, you’ll love your daddy just as much. He loves you so much more than you know.” Fran hugged her. “Come on, Desi. Time to get up for school.”
Destiny got dressed and walked downstairs to find Charlie sitting at the dining room table. He held a mug between his hands, deep in thought, and her greeting startled him.
Charlie smiled. “There’s my princess.” She eked out a weak smile and sat at the table.
“What are you doing?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just sitting here, Destiny. I’m happy you said hi.”
Fran walked into the dining room with a plate of breakfast for Destiny. “You don’t have time to dilly-dally, sweetheart. The bus will be here soon.”
“Yes, Mama.” She picked at her food and held her stomach. “I don’t feel good.”
Fran walked to where she sat and felt her forehead. “Charlie, she’s burning up, and I need to be at work soon. Can you take care of her today?”
“Of course. I have nowhere to go.”
“I’m gonna—” Destiny didn’t finish the sentence before she threw up all over the dining room table.
“Can you take her upstairs and get her cleaned up?” Fran said. “I’ll call in sick and help you. This will take both of us.”
“Don’t be silly, Frannie, I can care for her. Leave the mess, and I’ll get it.” He scooped Destiny into his arms and started up the steps with her.
An hour later, Destiny was clean and tucked into bed, and Charlie had the downstairs mess cleaned up. He looked through the bookshelf and found the book he read to her countless times—her favorite one. She was curled up in bed, almost asleep.
“How are you feeling, sweet pea?”
“I don’t feel good, Daddy.”
He sat on a chair by her bed. “Would you like me to read a story?”
“Which one?” When he showed her the book, she shook her head. “That’s a baby book, Daddy.”
He smiled at her and brushed the hair from her face. “I used to read this one to you all the time. It was your favorite.”
She sighed and rolled over to face him. “Alright.”
Halfway through the book, Destiny began reciting the story with him, a smile on her face. Charlie looked at her, astonished. “Destiny, do you remember this story?”
She giggled and nodded her head. “I remember reading it with you, Daddy.”
A breakthrough! Charlie felt as though he could walk on a cloud. “Oh, sweet pea, you’ve made me so happy!” He kissed her forehead and looked into her amethyst-colored eyes. “I love you, Destiny.”
“I love you, Daddy.” She scooted closer to him and wrapped her arms around him. “I remember you now.”
Charlie waited so long to hear those words. Angaloo, her favorite toy, sat on the floor in the same spot it landed when she threw it the week before. Charlie stood to retrieve it and presented it to her. “Here, sweet pea. Keep Anga with you and never forget how much I love you. Promise?”
She nodded her head. “I promise, Daddy.” With the toy in her arms, she scooted back into bed. “Tuck me in?”
Charlie smiled. “Snug as a bug in a rug!” He kissed her forehead and turned out the light. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me, sweet pea. Get some rest.”
With a renewed spring in his step, Charlie descended the stairs and picked up the phone. The first call would be to Maddy. Tomorrow, he’d meet with Dan. Charlie couldn’t wait to tell Fran his good news. On his cell, he opened the messaging app and typed a quick message:
I have glorious news, but I’ll save it for later, because you always enjoyed surprises. I love you.
At the diner, Fran was having a terrible day. Nothing had gone right. She worried about Destiny, and she couldn’t wait for her shift to be over. When her phone chimed, she glanced at it, saw the message, and smiled. Finally! She thought. Something good.
A few hours later, Fran came home to find Charlie and Destiny in his recliner, cuddled up and asleep. She tiptoed into the kitchen and pulled out ingredients to make a chicken soup for supper, and when she did, the rustling sounds in the kitchen awakened Charlie. Somehow, he got up from his recliner without waking Destiny, and he tiptoed into the kitchen. He appeared in the doorway wearing a Cheshire cat grin.
“How was work, love?”
Fran smiled. “It was awful, but getting your text message made my day. So, what’s your news, though I think I can guess.”
“Destiny remembers me, honey. I read her that book she loved when she was a baby, and she remembered me reading it to her. Halfway through, she started reciting it from memory. She’s an amazing kid.”
Fran wiped her hands on a towel and walked to the refrigerator. “Desi remembered that story by heart? I haven’t read that to her in years, not since you left.”
Charlie beamed with pride. “She did. Every word.” He walked to the counter and helped her bring vegetables from the crisper. “Do you need some help to chop veggies, honey?”
She smiled. “I’ll never say no to help. I’ll get the second cutting board.”
They worked together as they had done for so many meals, when it was just them. It was then that Charlie noticed something odd.
“What about it, Charlie?”
“It looks the same as it used to. That same peeling paint over the stove. The chipped paneling by the sunroom door. The floor has worn and needs a refinish. But why? You’ve redecorated every other room in the house.”
Fran shrugged. “We always put it off. I couldn’t tell you why. I think…” She took a breath and looked around. “It wouldn’t feel like home if this room was different. The kitchen is the heartbeat of our home, Charlie. It’s where I cook our meals. Where I wash produce when I pick it. Where I’ve made pound after pound of cheese.” She stopped cutting vegetables and walked toward the sunroom door. “I was standing right here when you told me about your deployment to Dragon Valley. I still see the look on your face.” She walked back to the cabinet by the fridge. “I used to prepare Mama’s tray on this counter. See this cut? I made it when my knife slipped while cutting an orange to make juice.” Her fingers traced the gouge in the wood top. “I guess I couldn’t bear to redecorate it. It reminded me of you and Mama.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. “Do you know what makes this house a home, Frannie?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’m guessing it’s not the kitchen.”
“You do. Everything you do makes this place our home. Without you, it’s just a house.”
She turned around in his arms and held him close to her. “I’ve missed you, and I’m so glad you’re back home. I am whole again. Thank you, Charlie, for never giving up.”
“You’re all I ever wanted, Frannie. I couldn’t love you more.”
The next morning Charlie drove to the base. He was excited about going to work, for today, he would announce his decision to retire and walk away from a thirty-year career.
He parked the pickup and walked toward the building. I need a new cane, he thought. The cold weather made his old injuries hurt like crazy—his shoulder, his leg pained him. He grabbed his paperwork and made his way toward the building when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Charlie, you will want to hear this before you decide.” He spun to see a familiar face.
“What the hell are YOU doing here?” Charlie stared at his former roommate, the man who helped when he needed it. The man he deserted. Tex.
“Let’s talk, but not here—it’s not safe. Too many ears, if you catch my drift.” Tex pulled him back to his van, but Charlie stopped just outside the door.
“How do I know you won’t kill me right here?”
Tex looked at him. “For one, there are too many witnesses.” Charlie returned a deadpan glare, and then Tex laughed. “Come on, Charlie,” he nudged his old friend. “We were buds once, remember? I won’t hurt you, even though you skipped out on me in the middle of the night. Guess I couldn’t blame you. I wouldn’t have stuck around, either, if I had military intel sniffing around me.”
“What’s your real name?”
“Vince Landis. I worked in intelligence for years, but I left. I knew who you were the second I found you in the park, Charlie. We’ve had our eye on you since the village attack. The profound difference is, I’m here to protect you, while Rhoades has more nefarious plans for you.”
Charlie scratched his chin. “What do you mean by ‘nefarious,’ Vince?”
“I don’t know your intentions, but if you plan to transfer, you will be in danger. Be aware, Rhoades knows your involvement with the village he bombed in error, and he has incentive to ensure you don’t survive another deployment.”
Charlie’s blood ran cold. “What was Rhoades’ target that day?”
“There was a weapons depot close to the village. They were off by two miles, but when they realized their mistake, Rhoades destroyed the documentation that would have implicated him. You, Charlie, are the only evidence of his mistake. You could end his long and distinguished career with what you know. This, my friend, makes you enemy number one if you stay.”
“Well, Vince, I’m planning to retire. I promised my wife I wouldn’t leave her again, and I’m keeping that promise. I’ve missed too much of my daughter’s childhood. I want to see her grow up and become successful. Frannie and I are going to grow old together. She won’t be my widow a second time.” Charlie grimaced—it was an odd thing to say.
Vince nodded. “Good… good, Charlie. My unit will continue to watch over your family, but your retirement should end this, unless you choose to pursue it.”
Charlie shook his head. “I don’t see a benefit to pursuing it. It changes nothing. My friends are still dead. I can’t believe Rhoades did this.”
Vince nodded and patted him on the shoulder. “Yeah, I know, buddy. The outcry was enormous, the demand for justice was very real. I don’t know how you survived it.”
“I wasn’t there during the first strike. It’s likely the only thing that saved my life.” Charlie swallowed back a lump. Over a year later, the pain was still real.
“I can’t stay here, or Rhoades will know I’ve warned you. I don’t need a price on my head.” Vince reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a business card. “If you need anything, call me. Don’t hesitate.”
Charlie didn’t look at the card before he slipped it into his own pocket. “Thanks Tex… I mean, Vince.” They shook hands and parted ways.
The building was empty when Charlie made his way to Dan’s office. Maddy sat at her desk out front and smiled when she saw him.
“I’ll call General Rhoades for you, Colonel.”
“Thank you, Maddy.”
Charlie waited almost ten minutes before Dan appeared. He stood and snapped to attention for one of the last times. “General.”
Dan nodded. “Colonel. I understand you’ve decided. Let’s step inside my office.” Charlie entered first, Rhoades on his heels.
Dan ordered Charlie at ease, and both men sat. Tex’s words repeated in his head. Rhoades has more nefarious plans for you. The whole thing made him ill.
“Well, Charlie, I have your new four-year contract ready. All it needs is your signature, and we can begin the transfer to—”
“With all due respect, General, I won’t be going to Riverview. I am opting for retirement. My wife and I considered everything, and we’ve decided that retirement is best for our family.”
Dan sat back in his chair with an odd look on his face. Charlie couldn’t tell if he was angry, upset, or fearful. “Well, this is a disappointment, Farmer. You have such great potential. Are you certain this is your final decision?”
Charlie nodded. “Non-negotiable, Dan. I’m sorry. My promise to that woman at home means more to me than winning the next war. I’m sure you can do it without me.”
“Charlie, you understand what a promotion like this means for your family, right? Financial security, a whole new adventure, getting away from this stale, old town—”
“You know, I won’t ask Frannie to sell her family farm. It’s out of the question. This is my final decision.”
“How can I make this more attractive?”
What Vince told me must be true, Charlie thought. “You can’t. In fact, I have the paperwork completed. Let’s call this my last day. Deal?”
Dan huffed under his breath. “If you say so, Farmer.” His tone changed from friendly and warm to cold. “I’ll have Maddy process you out of here and set up an appointment for your exit debriefing.”
“Thanks, Dan,” Charlie stood to shake his hand, but Dan did not offer it in return.
“I assume you know your way out.” Dan’s gaze did not meet Charlie’s.
“I do. I’ll see myself to Maddy’s desk.”
A few moments later, Charlie walked from the administration building a cheerful man. On his way home, he stopped at the grocery store for just two items. He whistled along with the music on the radio, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he drove. Charlie parked the truck in the garage, grabbed his parcel, and walked toward the house.
Fran was just finished with vacuuming when Charlie walked through the door, a bouquet of her favorite flowers in his hand and a bottle of her favorite wine tucked into his jacket. She smiled when she saw his joyful expression.
Her heart melted when he presented the flowers to her and dug the wine bottle from his coat. “I’m retired, darling. And tonight, we will celebrate!” She wrapped her arms around him as he sat the bottle on the end table next to his recliner, and he lifted her into the air. “Frannie, I will never leave you again. I promise.”
Destiny was already at school, so she laid the flowers down next to the wine. “I love you, Charlie. Let’s celebrate right now.”
Couple Pose Pack 1 (Remade) by Fyachii (Cover Photo)
Sugar Legacy Stables
Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.
See Dedication & Acknowledgments for my special, ongoing “thank you.”