G1 – Chapter Seventeen, Part Two – The Farmers Reunite

The Next Morning

Fran paced the floor in the waiting room. She had kissed Charlie and left his room three hours before. Should the surgery be taking this long? She wondered. Certainly the doctor should have been out with a report sooner than this. The clock on the wall seemed to run at half its normal pace—each minute passed with an excruciating laziness. She flopped into a leather chair and sank into it. She was exhausted.

Another forty-five minutes passed, and Fran was on the edge of sleep when she heard her name. “Mrs. Farmer?” The doctor stood before her, his surgical mask down under his chin. 

“Yes! Dr. Owens, how is Charlie?” 

“Charlie did well during surgery, and he’s resting. The surgery was about eighty-five percent successful. I didn’t expect the amount of scar tissue surrounding the initial injury, so moving the bone into place was more of a challenge. He has some permanent hardware to stabilize the bone—a few plates and screws to hold everything together.” The doctor stared at his hands and shrugged. “I’m not sure I’ve resolved all of his pain, but it should be nothing like what he had. With a rigorous therapy regimen, he will have a decent recovery, and he’ll be on the farm in about three months.” 

Fran breathed a sigh of relief. “When can I see him?” 

“He’s in recovery for about an hour, then we’ll get him into a room. Maybe ninety minutes?” 

“Thank you, Dr. Owens. I can’t wait.” 

“An orderly will come get you when it’s time. In the meantime, you can grab some breakfast or lunch. You look tired, Fran.” 

She yawned. “Neither of us slept well last night. I think I’ll grab some coffee. Thank you again.” She gathered her purse and walked to the elevator.

Fran knew she had one phone call to make, so she retrieved her cell from her purse and dialed a very familiar number. 

“Hi, Frannie! How’s Charlie doing?” 

“Hi Sunny. I just spoke with the doctor, and he came through the surgery fine. I can see him in about an hour, maybe closer to two.” Fran tried to stifle a yawn, an effort that proved pointless. 

“Destiny wants to see him when she gets home from school, so I’ll bring her to the hospital if that’s okay with you?” 

Fran smiled. “Of course! Bring her over when you can. Charlie was looking forward to seeing her after his surgery. He wants her to sing to him.” 

“Oh, isn’t that sweet?” Sunny said, a bright smile in her voice. “Whatever you’re doing with her, Frannie, it’s the exact right thing.” 

“Thanks, Sunny.” Fran smiled. “I’ll see you later, then?” 

“You bet! See you in a little while.” 

“Sounds good.” Fran pressed End on her cell. On a whim, she searched for a phone number she hadn’t dialed in a long time. 

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered on the other end. 

“Jenny, it’s Fran. Charlie’s wife.” 

“Frannie! My goodness, how long has it been? How’s my favorite sister-in-law?” Jenny Farmer Stearns was Charlie’s youngest sister, the baby of the family. 

“I’m good. Listen, Jenny, I wanted to tell you that Charlie is out of surgery and he’s doing well.” 

“Surgery? What happened? Is he okay?” The panicked tone of Jen’s voice startled Fran.

“Yes, he’s fine. They had to fix his leg from the plane crash. He didn’t call you?” 

“Plane crash?! What in the world is going on back home?” Now Jenny was frantic.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize he hadn’t been in touch with you since he came home!” Fran sat down in the closest chair, sorry she’d opened a can of worms with his sister.

“Came home? Where was he?” 

“It’s a long story. Are you planning a trip to the Plains soon?” Fran laughed, but felt guilty. It was no laughing matter.

She shook her head, as though Fran could see her. “No, we weren’t. But I’m guessing that Paul and I could come see you guys. He took an early retirement from his company. They were downsizing, so they offered him a nice benefit package.” 

“Oh! Well, that’s a blessing! How are the boys?” 

“They’re both at university. Jonah is on a scholarship for soccer, and Joshua is studying computers.” Jenny chuckled at Fran’s attempt to shift the conversation away from Charlie. “So, tell me what’s going on with my big brother!” 

Fran rubbed her temples. “Where do I start? Remember the birthday party we planned for him and canceled at the last minute?” 

“Yes, I do. You never told me why, but I remember it. What happened?” 

“Charlie deployed to the war zone overseas the day before the party. His rank made him important to the Allied Forces, and he had to go.” 

“Okay, I remember reading about that when it happened. He was there during that fiasco?” 

“Oh, Jenny, he was the fiasco. The deadly, failed mission was all Charlie’s mess.” Fran couldn’t believe Jenny didn’t realize the chaos involved her brother. “There’s much more than what the news reported, but Charlie should have led that mission. If it had gone as planned, he wouldn’t have gone through his ordeal.” 

Jenny paused again. “What ordeal, Frannie?” 

Fran sighed. The memory of her own nightmare grieved her. “His plane went down behind enemy lines after a mid-air collision with a suicide runner. He survived the crash, but his leg broke. That’s what this surgery fixed. But he didn’t stay with his aircraft after the crash, so the recon mission didn’t find him. The Army declared him killed in action, Jen. I believed he was dead for eighteen months. Then he showed up back in town and surprised me. Well, I’d already moved on. We had a tough time of it for a while back then.” 

“Where on earth was I that I didn’t know this was happening? I’m sure it had to be on the news…” Jenny’s astonished voice faded. “You know, I need to see my brother. Can I call you back?” 

“Of course, Jenny. You and the family are always welcome to visit any time you’d like.” 

“Thanks. I’ll be in touch.” Jenny ended the phone call. The abrupt way in which she ended it shocked Fran a bit, and she wondered what she’d done.

*****

Charlie groaned and opened his eyes. “Fran…” was the first intelligible thing he had uttered since he woke from surgery. The nurse overseeing his recovery stood over him, taking vital signs when he awakened. 

“How are you feeling, Charlie?” she asked him. 

“Do you want the truth, or a fabrication of how I feel?” Charlie’s leg throbbed with every beat of his heart. The pain was excruciating.

The nurse brushed off the comment and laughed. “How about the truth, Charlie, so I can treat your pain?” 

“Well,” he said with a crooked smile, “how about giving me the good stuff? Because to tell the truth, I’m miserable.” 

“I have a bag to hook up to your IV. I just need to finish what I’m doing. Relief is on the way.” 

“Then how about a flask while I wait?” he tried to joke. The humor went right over her head. 

“Oh, no liquor here in recovery, I’m afraid. Morphine is all I can offer you.” 

“That’ll do.” He laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes. “Please don’t tell my wife I asked you for a flask, okay?” 

The nurse laughed. “Okay, Charlie. We’ll keep that our little secret.” 

She finished her checklist and placed the bag of pain medication on the IV pole. “I’m hooking you up to the morphine now. You’ll feel better soon.” The tubing ran through a machine that metered the dosage, and she set the timer. “All set, Charlie. If you need anything, press your call button, and I’ll be here in a jiffy.” 

“Thank you…” he didn’t get the complete thought out before a wave of relief washed over him. A deep sigh hissed from his mouth. “Ohh, yes…” He closed his eyes and relished the lack of pain in his leg. It was a feeling he hadn’t experienced since before it broke years ago.

“I’ll be in to check on you. You have your button if you need me otherwise.” The nurse gathered her notes and left the room, with Charlie resting in comfort and peace.

An hour later, two orderlies arrived to move him to a room in the surgical ward. With all of his monitors and tubes disconnected, they wheeled him from recovery to a semi-private room that awaited him upstairs. Charlie was feeling great, laughing and joking with the orderlies in charge of his transport. The nurse got him settled in, about to leave the room, when he remembered.

“Frannie…” he muttered. “My wife. Where is she?” 

“I’m sure she’ll be along soon, Charlie. You just got here.” He nodded in acknowledgement, closed his eyes, and dozed off.

Ten minutes later, one orderly escorted Fran to Charlie’s room. She found him sleeping, so she sat down near his bedside, took his hand, and rubbed his fingers between hers. The sensation awakened him, and when he saw her, he grinned. 

“There’s my darling,” he said. “I was asking about you.” 

She looked him over and smiled at him. “How are you feeling? You look good.” 

“I’m okay for now. But see that bag up there? That’s got some good stuff in it.” He pointed to the almost-empty bag of morphine. “When that wears off, it’s going to get real. I was miserable without it.” 

“Have you seen Dr. Owens yet, love?” 

Charlie shook his head. “No. What did he say?” 

She twirled a length of red, curly hair around her finger. “Well, he said everything went well, but the surgery was only eighty-five percent successful. I guess you had scar tissue in there he wasn’t counting on.” 

“Well, that’s disappointing.” He took a deep breath and exhaled. “The pain meds are wearing off already.”

“When can you have more?” 

“I’m sure not for a while. That bag is only an hour old.” He shifted in the bed, trying to make himself more comfortable. It was a vain effort. 

“Rest, sweetheart,” Fran said, and stroked his cheek. “If you’re asleep, it won’t hurt.” She sensed he was fighting it—his eyes were half open, and he was groggy from the anesthesia.

“What about you?”

“I’ll be here when you wake up, Charlie. Sunny will bring Destiny after school. I know you can’t wait to see her.” 

Charlie smiled, looking as though he were drunk. “My baby girl…” 

Fran smiled back. “Be ready. I’m sure she has a vast selection of songs for you.” 

“Good…” he slurred as he drifted to sleep.

Fran settled down into the chair next to his bed, his hand in hers, and laid her head on the bed to rest. 

A few hours later, the sound of Fran’s phone ringing woke her. Jenny’s number was on the display. Charlie was sound asleep, so she left the room to take the phone call. 

“Hi, Jenny,” Fran said. “I was expecting you to call back at some point.” 

“Well, Paul and I will be there tomorrow. I have to see my brother.” 

Jenny’s announcement took Fran by surprise. “Wow, you didn’t waste any time. I need to find some room for you to stay—”

“Oh, Frannie, there’s no need to accommodate us. We’re already booked for the week at the inn by the river. We’ll help you any way we can while Charlie is off his feet.” 

“He’ll be down for a few months. I appreciate the offer, though.” 

“We’ll do what we can while we’re there. We have two weeks before we need to return home. Our house is on the market. But, having Charlie almost taken from us? It’s made me realize how much I miss him. I lost track of Gracie years ago after she and Ed divorced. She and Cheyanne have all but disappeared. I know where you and Charlie are. I don’t want to go without seeing you guys.” 

Jenny’s news rendered Fran speechless. It was something that didn’t happen often. “I-I don’t know what to say, Jen. Charlie will be ecstatic!”

“Then it’s official. I can’t wait to see you again.” 

“It will be wonderful to see you guys again! We’ll see you tomorrow!” She couldn’t wait to tell Charlie the news. 

She returned to his room with a spring in her step. Charlie was awake, and smiled when he heard her approach. “Hi, love,” he said. “Who was on the phone?” 

“I have some news for you. I hope you’ll be happy.” 

“What is it, and I’ll tell you?” 

“Your sister Jenny and Paul will be here tomorrow.” Fran gave him a half-smile and hoped what she told him was welcomed. 

“That’s curious.” Charlie cocked his head. “I never even told Jen about my last deployment. I haven’t talked to her in years.” 

“If only I had known that earlier. I thought she should know your surgery went well, so I called her. You can’t imagine the can of worms I opened. I never once considered you hadn’t talked to her.” 

He observed her troubled expression and chuckled. “This isn’t bad, you know. I’m glad someone thinks to keep her in the loop, because I sure don’t. She deserves better than the brother I’ve been over the years.” 

“I just thought she should know you were okay. Are you happy, Charlie?” 

“Naturally, I’m happy! Frannie, she’s my kid sister. We haven’t seen her and Paul since his job took them away from the Plains. Destiny will have an aunt and uncle to meet. My sister Grace? Her status is unknown. I’m not even sure she’s alive.” 

“Jenny said something about Grace and Cheyanne being gone. I guess no one knows where they are anymore.” Fran wrung her hands. “I’m glad you’re happy about this.” 

“I’d feel better if I wasn’t in so much pain.”

Fran stood. “Let me find the nurse. You shouldn’t have to suffer, babe.” 

“I’ll let you.” Charlie grimaced. The throbbing in his leg made him feel queasy. “Calling has done no good.”

While Fran was searching for the nurse, Sunny and Destiny slipped into Charlie’s room. When she saw him, Destiny ran to hug him and squealed. “Daddy!”

“Hi Charlie,” Sunny said. “How are you feeling?” Destiny climbed up onto Charlie’s bed and laid down with him, snuggled up to his side. Sunny laughed. “It looks like your little nurse is already on the job!” 

Charlie’s laughter filled the room. “Hi, Sunny. It’s so good to see this little sweet pea.” He kissed the top of her head and snuggled her closer. “Watch Daddy’s arm, honey. Don’t pull on that tube, okay?” 

Destiny smiled and nodded her head. Fran walked back into the room to find her best friend and daughter. “Hi, Sunny! We’ve been waiting for you two.” 

Nestled into Charlie’s arms, Destiny didn’t look up from him. “Hi, Mama,” she said, and kissed Charlie’s cheek. She was a ‘Daddy’s Girl’.

“You’re looking good, Charlie. I bet having Desi here is helping, too.” Sunny admired Charlie with his baby girl. She missed her children being as little. 

The look on Charlie’s face, the serene expression he wore, told the story of his love for his daughter, and hers for him in return. “This little angel and her mama are my world.” 

The nurse was a minute behind Fran, and she smiled to see Destiny cuddled up to her father. “I’m guessing this is your little girl. She is beautiful, and she’s your spitting image, Charlie.” She hung a bag of morphine on his IV pole, scanned his armband, and hooked it to the tube connected to his hand. “You let me know when you need medication. This is your last bag, but you can have pain pills every four hours.” 

Charlie nodded and sighed in relief. “Thank you, and yes, this is Destiny. She’s a singer, and her mama and I are so proud of her.” Destiny giggled in his ear; Charlie smiled and hugged her closer. 

“Yes, I’d imagine you are. Rest well, Charlie. Call me if you need me.” The nurse turned and left the room. 

When visiting hours ended, Fran kissed Charlie goodnight, took Destiny’s hand, and together, they left the hospital. They were both sleepy and hungry. Fran drove back home to the farmhouse, where she warmed leftovers from the previous night’s supper. After Destiny’s bath, Fran prepared to read her favorite book. But first, she had a favor to ask her seven-year-old daughter.

“Destiny, I need to talk to you before we read together tonight, okay?”

The girl sat cross-legged on her bed, Angaloo clutched in her fingers. “Okay.” 

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“You know your daddy isn’t feeling well, and he won’t be able to help me at the market this year.” Fran twirled her hair around her fingers. “I need to ask a big favor. It’s a lot to ask of you, Destiny. But I need you to help me in the garden and at the fair during the market season.” 

At first, the child grinned. She’d begged for the past two summers to help in the garden. “Really, Mama? This is awesome!” 

“You don’t realize, Desi, how much work this will involve for you. And I’ll need you by my side every morning to help me pick vegetables and fruit before we go to the market.” 

“But,” Destiny’s smile faded, “what about school?” 

“That’s the big favor I need from you, sweet pea. I will need to keep you home from school for the first part of the year so you can help me. Now, I know you’ll miss your friends—”

“What about music class, Mama? I don’t want to miss Miss Thompson’s class!”

“Well, you’ll see her on Thursday nights for choir practice, except during the market. We’ll have to be in bed very early.” 

Tears filled Destiny’s eyes. “I don’t want to miss school, Mama.”

Fran hugged her daughter and peered into her violet eyes. “Baby girl, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t need you. But it will be a tough winter for us if I can’t bring our harvest to market. Can I count on you, Destiny? Please?” 

“I don’t understand why, Mama. Please don’t make me miss school!” 

The child’s tears broke Fran’s heart. “I wish I had another way, sweetheart, but I don’t. We had to pay for Daddy’s surgery ourselves. I need you, Desi. It will only be until Snowflake Day, and you can go back to school in the new year. I promise.”

Destiny hugged her toy to her chest and turned away from Fran. “I don’t want a story tonight, Mama.”

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Fran stood, wiped tears from her eyes, and took the book she’d brought with her to place back into the bookshelf. “I’m sorry, Destiny. I love you. Sweet dreams.”


The next morning, Fran sat at Charlie’s bedside, agonizing over the conversation she had with Destiny the evening before. In moments, a nurse would retrieve Charlie for his first physical therapy session. She wore her emotions on her sleeve for him to see, and he noticed her pensive stare out of the window of his third-floor room.

“What’s wrong, Frannie?”

She inhaled, held it for a moment, and then exhaled, contemplating her next words. “It can wait until you’ve finished your therapy. I don’t want to distract you.” 

“I’ll be more distracted wondering what’s bothering you, love. Why don’t you tell me?”

Fran shook her head. “It’s Destiny. We talked about her helping with the farm.” She dabbed tears from her eyes. “She was okay with it until she realized it meant missing school. Desi was so mad at me, she wouldn’t let me read her favorite story.”

“Are you certain there’s no other way, Frannie? Couldn’t we hire some help? What about Maya?”

“Maya’s in veterinary school. Sunny’s busy preparing for Lisa and Cale’s baby, and she has her own market stand to worry about, too. Destiny is my only option until you’re on your feet.”

“What if she only helped in the garden before school, and I helped you run the stand? I could do that much—”

“Charlie, you know how much walking I do. I can’t ask you to put in ten-hour days on a bad leg. It’s not too early to teach Desi the value of hard work. She’ll learn a lot more with me than she would in school.” 

Though he couldn’t deny what she said was true, he still hated the idea of making their seven-year-old daughter a farm employee. He didn’t work on his parents’ farm until he was a teenager. “We risk making her despise farm life, Frannie, if we take her from what she loves to do. Don’t you want her to take over for you someday?”

Fran exhaled a deep sigh. “Charlie, you’ve heard our little girl sing, and you know she’s dreaming big. This town could never contain talent like hers. She will leave us to pursue her dreams at her first opportunity. I won’t be the one who holds her back, and neither will you.”

Charlie looked into her eyes. “I don’t know, darling. I still don’t like the idea of hard labor. She’s so young.” He reached for her hand to hold it. “We need to let her stay a child, Frannie. She’ll be an adult before we know it.” 

“I still have time to consider it. I suppose I can try to do it alone, but I’ll be harvesting the garden in the middle of the night.” Fran looked at her feet. “Who needs sleep anyway?”

“I will help you—” Charlie started, but the nurse arrived with a wheelchair to bring him to therapy. 

“They’re waiting for you downstairs, Charlie. Time for therapy.” She helped him maneuver his crutches and hobble to the chair from his bed. “He’ll be about an hour, Miss Fran.” 

“Thank you,” she said. 

She sat by the elevator reading a book when the door next to her opened. Two familiar faces exited the structure, and Jenny squealed when she saw Fran. “There you are!” 

“Jenny! Paul!” Fran stood to hug them both. Jenny had changed little since Fran saw her last. Her hair was still the same honey brown, in the same messy updo. Her blue eyes sparkled as she hugged Fran and planted a kiss on her cheek. 

“You are a sight for sore eyes!” Jenny said. “I’m surprised you’re out here, instead of with Charlie. Isn’t he in his room?” 

Fran found herself in Paul’s firm embrace, and she laughed. “Charlie’s in therapy, but he shouldn’t be much longer.” Paul’s well-groomed beard tickled her cheek. “I’ve missed you both so much!”

“It feels weird being back home without Ma and Pa here. But you and Charlie are, and we can’t wait to meet Destiny! How old is she now?” 

“She’s seven, going on twenty!” Fran belly laughed. “She has my red hair, but she’s Charlie’s daughter. You’ll notice the resemblance when you see her.” 

An hour passed before they knew it; Charlie was already back in his room. The three of them walked, talking and laughing like they’d never been apart. But poor Charlie was in agony, laying in bed, groaning. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his skin was pale and clammy. It got Fran’s immediate attention. 

“Help me, darling. I need some relief, or I’m going to hurt someone.” He had a handful of sheets; his face was pallid. 

“I’ll be right back,” she said and hurried to the nurse’s station, hoping to find someone who could help him. 

“Charlie, my goodness,” Jenny whispered. “You poor man.” She sat in the chair next to him and held his hand. “Squeeze my fingers if you need to.” She’d never seen him in this much pain, and it frightened her.

“Hi, Jen-Jen. I wish I felt better right now. I’d be a lot happier to see you.” 

Fran ran back to the room, breathless. “The nurse will be right in. She had to get orders from the surgeon for stronger medication.” 

“Oh, thank you, sweetheart.” 

Fran walked to his bedside and kissed his forehead—his skin was sweaty and cool. “What did they do to you downstairs?” 

His hand grabbed for hers, and he held tight to her. “I guess it wasn’t more than usual for the day after surgery, but I’m not thirty anymore, either. I’m too old for this mess.” 

The nurse entered the room, a bag of morphine in her hand. “I needed special orders for this. The surgeon is aware of the issues you had downstairs.”

“Issues? What issues?” Fran panicked. “What happened down there?!”

“The therapist pushed a little too hard, a bit too soon. They’ll take him for an x-ray to assess the repair.” The nurse, named Leah, scanned Charlie’s arm band and typed information into her computer. She connected the tubing to Charlie’s IV and set the machine to deliver the drip for over an hour. “You should feel better soon, Charlie.” 

“Oh, thank you,” he sighed with relief. It was almost immediate, and he loosened his grip on Fran’s fingers. When the nurse left, Charlie lowered his voice. “They’re talking about opening it back up and repairing the damage. Frannie, honey, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Tears formed in his eyes. “The pain is too much to bear.” 

“I’m so sorry, Charlie.” She reached into her bag and retrieved her handkerchief. Fran took great care to dab the beads of perspiration from his face. “How are you feeling now, babe? Your color is getting better.” 

He reached to hold her hand as she cared for him. “I’m feeling better now, thanks to you.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “So much better.” 

“Maybe we should go register at the inn, and we’ll come back later?” Jenny said. “We don’t want to interfere here.” 

“That might not be a bad idea. Give us an hour?” She kissed Charlie’s forehead again. “Destiny will be here after school with Sunny Bradford. You remember the Bradfords, don’t you, Jen?”

Jenny smiled. “Definitely! They’re a fixture here in this town.” She and Paul stood to leave. “We’ll see you in an hour. Does that sound good?” 

“I think so,” Fran said, nodding. “Once the pain is under control, he’ll feel better. And that will give them time to do the x-ray the nurse mentioned.” 

“It sounds like a plan! We’ll see you soon.” Jenny hugged Fran before they left the room. 

Once they were out of earshot, Charlie broke down in tears. “Darling, I can’t do another surgery. Please don’t let them. I can’t take it.” 

“What happened downstairs to cause this much pain? I hate to see you suffering like this.” 

Charlie shook his head. “I’m not sure, but I felt something slip. Then the pain came quick. It was worse than the original break.” 

They heard a knock at the door. Dr. Owens stepped into the room. “How are you feeling, Charlie?”

“Better now, thanks to you.” Charlie squeezed Fran’s hand. 

“You said you felt something slip during therapy?”

“Yes. It was excruciating. Please, don’t open this leg back up, doc. I can’t handle any more pain.” 

“I’m shooting for that goal. But the x-ray will reveal what happened. I’m going to be honest, folks. If the hardware slipped, I’m not sure how much I can repair it. The bone is already compromised; to have more hardware screwed into it might further weaken it.” He took a chair, spun it around and sat backward on it, his chin resting on the back. “But, I will not speculate. We’ll see the x-ray and work around it. They should do that soon. You won’t have to move.”

“That’s a relief,” Charlie said. “I don’t want to move.”

Dr. Owens reached for Charlie’s arm and patted it. “I don’t blame you a bit. I’ll be back after I read the x-ray and develop a treatment plan if we need to go that route. Sounds good?” 

Fran nodded and squeezed Charlie’s hand. “Sounds good. Thank you, Dr. Owens.”

Sunny arrived with Destiny twenty minutes later. She squealed and ran to her father; he opened his arms for her to snuggle with him. 

“How are you feeling, Charlie?” Sunny asked, laughing at Destiny. “Boy, she loves you.” 

Charlie nodded. Destiny’s presence made him feel better, and her soft giggles helped him to forget the pain, if only for a moment. “I love her more than she can imagine.” He felt her snuggle nearer, and he closed his eyes, relishing the closeness with her. No, he thought, she will not miss a half school year because of me.

“Jenny and Paul are here. In fact, they should be back soon. You remember Jenny Farmer, right Sun?” Fran watched Destiny snuggle with Charlie, more than a little hurt that she got no acknowledgement from their daughter.

“I do! I remember the whole Farmer family, though I can’t remember the older girl’s name.” 

“Gracie,” Charlie said. “Grace married young and moved away with her husband. They had a daughter, and then she left Ed. No one’s heard from Grace or Cheyanne since. It’s been years since I’ve talked to Ed, too.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” Sunny said. “I hate to hear when families don’t get along, or lose track of one another. I pray our children always keep in touch. It’s my worst fear.” 

Fran nodded in agreement. “I understand.” But, in reality, she didn’t. Fran had no siblings. It was the sole reason she and Charlie wanted a large family. She was an only child; now, her daughter was one, too. 

A knock sounded at the door. Jenny’s bright smile lit up the room the second she entered it. “Is everyone decent?” she joked. “Oh! It’s Sunny!” Jen wrapped her arms around Sunny and hugged her. “It’s so good to see you! Do you remember my Paul?” 

Sunny’s laugh was contagious. “Indeed, I do! Hi Paul. It’s good to see you guys back in the Plains! How long are you staying?” 

“We have two weeks before we need to go home,” Paul answered. “We’re going to enjoy being here.” 

Charlie was paying so much attention to the family that he didn’t notice Destiny’s gentle tapping on his shoulder. Finally, she cleared her throat and kissed his cheek. That got his attention. “Daddy? I’ve been trying to ask you something for an hour!” 

He laughed at her exaggeration. “Sweet pea, don’t be rude. What did you want to ask me?” 

Destiny pointed at Jenny and Paul. “Who are they?” 

“That’s your Aunt Jenny and Uncle Paul. Jenny is my baby sister.”  

Destiny cocked her head. “Oh.” 

Jenny heard Charlie say her name, so she turned her attention to Destiny. “You must be the little princess! I’m Aunt Jenny. And you’re Destiny, right?” 

Destiny nodded her head. “Hi Aunt Jenny.” She snuggled closer to Charlie. 

Jen looked at Fran and laughed. “You’re right, Fran. She is Charlie’s little clone.” 

“What does that mean, Daddy?” she whispered into Charlie’s ear. 

“It means you look like me, sweetheart.” Charlie kissed her cheek. 

“But I have her hair,” Destiny said, and pointed at her mother. She never said Fran’s name or acknowledged her. 

“Yes, you do. Flaming red, just like your mama.” He moved to tickle her, and she giggled and squealed. Her sweet laughter was just the medicine Charlie needed. How he loved to hear both Destiny and Fran’s happy giggling.

Charlie and Destiny continued to whisper back and forth while everyone else talked. She sang in soft tones, not audible to anyone but Charlie, when Dr. Owens reappeared in the room. “Hi folks,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I need to speak with Charlie and Fran.” 

Paul looked at his watch. “It’s about time we settled in for the night, don’t you think?” He took Jenny’s hand. “We can come back tomorrow, if that’s okay with you?” 

Charlie nodded. “By all means! Sorry guys, but this is important. I’ll fill you in later.” Sunny, Jenny, and Paul left together, leaving Destiny with her parents. When the room was clear, Dr. Owens pulled up a chair, turned it, and sat down. 

“Well, Charlie, I have good news, and I have some bad news.” He tapped on the chair’s back. “The bad news is, one screw has dislodged, and I need to fix it. I’ve looked at it from every angle. I need to secure it, Charlie, or it will get worse. However, I don’t need to reopen the entire wound. The spot where the drain sits now is sufficient.” 

Charlie’s head fell backward, and he let out a loud groan. He didn’t want to hear this news. “Are you sure, doc?” 

“I’m sure, Charlie. The fix will involve a bone graft and a new screw. I don’t see the whole procedure taking more than an hour. I’ll use a donor for the graft rather than taking yours from a different site, so there won’t be more pain than necessary. We’ll get it done first thing in the morning, so you can heal.”

Fran looked at Dr. Owens with an unhappy scowl. “We’re not paying for this. It’s not Charlie’s fault.” 

“No, you’re right, Fran. The hospital is liable for this. But he needs to stay a day or two longer than expected. I want to ensure this repair holds.” 

“Nothing ever goes as planned, so I should be used to setbacks,” Charlie grumbled. “Please keep me comfortable, doc. I can’t handle therapy otherwise.” 

Dr. Owens shook his head. “You won’t be doing strengthening therapy until your leg heals. I don’t want to put you at risk again.” He looked at Fran. “It will mean missing the entire summer and fall on the farm for him.”

“I’m working on a solution for that.” She took a deep breath and released it, groaning on the exhale. “But, I won’t ask Destiny to miss school.” Destiny heard her name and looked at Fran.

“Really, Mama? I won’t miss school?” 

“Really, sweet pea. I’ll manage the market by myself.” 

Charlie shook his head. “No, darling. I’ll help you—”

“No, Charlie.” Fran shrugged her shoulders. “You’ll stay at home and recover like Dr. Owens tells you to. We’re not doing this again.”

“Listen to your wife, Charlie. Don’t cause yourself unnecessary pain and suffering because you’re stubborn.” Dr. Owens stood. “I’ll be back to check on you in the morning before your surgery.” He waved as he walked from the room. Charlie hugged Destiny a little tighter.

*****

On their drive home from the hospital that night, Destiny sang along to songs on the radio. Fran was deep in thought, wondering how she would manage the harvest and market season alone. They’d planted triple the seedlings in the greenhouse that winter. It would be their busiest season yet, and she committed herself to do it alone. I must be out of my mind, she thought as she pulled into the farmhouse’s driveway. 

She warmed up a quick supper for her and Destiny. The next day was Wednesday. Destiny was out of school for a local holiday. They needed to be up and at the hospital early the next morning. They climbed the stairs, Fran on Destiny’s heels as she walked to her bedroom. 

“Do you want to shower tonight or in the morning, sweet pea?” Fran walked to her dresser to pick out pajamas for her and lay out an outfit for the hospital the next morning. 

“Tonight,” she said, still humming a tune she heard on the radio. “Can I ask you something, Mama?” 

Fran walked to her bed and placed a clean pair of pajamas on it. “Sure, honey. You can always ask me anything.” 

Destiny sat on her bed, Angaloo by her side. She seldom went anywhere without the stuffed toy. “Am I going to miss school next year?” 

Fran sat cross-legged on the floor by Destiny and looked up at her. “No, you’re not, Desi. Daddy and I talked about it, and he wants you to stay in school.” 

“Oh, good,” she said. 

“Was that all you wanted to know?” 

“Mmhmm.” Destiny picked up Angaloo and snuggled it into her chest. “I can’t wait to see Daddy tomorrow.” 

Fran smiled. “Me too, sweetheart.”


A few days later, Charlie was feeling better. The doctor fixed his leg and ordered him not to bear weight on it. Jenny and Paul arrived on Saturday with a meal for everyone to share, so they sat down with paper plates and thankful hearts. 

“So, Fran. Charlie says you’re on the hook for this surgery. How can we help?” Jenny said.

Fran huffed a lock of hair from her eyes, then looked away. She shifted in her seat—it felt as though she sat on a bed of nails. “We’re okay.” 

Jenny cocked her head and looked at Fran—what she said was at odds with her body language. “Are you sure?” 

“Yeah, we’ll make it. Things will be a little rough, but it’s nothing I haven’t done before, you know?” Fran set her plate down on her lap. “I did everything myself for a whole growing season while Charlie was deployed, and I did fine.” 

Jenny looked at her sister-in-law, trying to read between the lines. She knew Fran was a capable woman. But she also recognized the worry on her face that revealed a different story. Paul watched his wife—he knew she was waiting for the exact right moment to reveal their secret. He looked at Jen and smiled. “Go ahead,” he whispered to her and nudged her arm. “Tell them.”

Charlie noticed their exchange and chuckled. “Hey! No secrets here! We’re all family.” 

Jenny’s contagious laugh echoed in the room. “Okay, okay! Here’s the deal, you guys.” Jenny set her plate down on the table next to her and folded her hands in her lap. “You know Paul and I have our house for sale back home. We were going to move somewhere warm without snow. But,” she paused for dramatic effect, “we’ve decided we’re coming back home to the Plains.”

Fran looked at her in disbelief. “Wait, are you serious? You’re really coming back home?” 

“We are! We’ve been looking at houses here, and we found a nice ranch close to downtown. In fact, we’re making an offer on the house tomorrow. We wanted to move closer to you guys, but there are no houses available nearby.”

A grin pulled Charlie’s face. “I’m so happy to hear this, Jen! What about the boys, though?” 

“They’ll be home for summer recess, so they’ll help us pack up and move. They can’t wait to come home, too. Jonah is hoping to get on the Mustangs team when they graduate.” 

Paul nudged Jenny’s arm again. “Tell her the best news, Jen.” 

Fran smiled and looked at Paul and then Jenny. “What could be better than you guys moving back home?” 

Jenny beamed with excitement. “I’m going to help you at the market this year, Frannie. Charlie told me you’re planning on doing all that work by yourself. That’s not acceptable, especially after he told me how much you have planted this season. Let me take that burden from you while Charlie is off his feet. Please?” 

Fran’s eyes welled with tears. “Are you certain? It’s so much work. I could never ask you to—”

“You’re not asking, Frannie. I’m offering, and I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, either!” Jen looked at Charlie and winked. “Let me help you guys.” 

Charlie, who’d been sitting up with Destiny in his lap, shook his head in amazement. “Jen, thank you.”

Jenny smiled at her brother. “This is what families are for, Charlie. We help one another. You know, your predicament with the farm cemented our decision with the move.”

“This… It’s too much. You should be enjoying your retirement, not working your fingers to the bone on a farm you don’t own.” Fran wrung her hands. “Though I appreciate the offer, I can’t let you do this—” 

“Not going to happen, Frannie. I’m helping you, end of story.” Jenny reached for Fran’s hand and squeezed it. “We’re going to be a great team, aren’t we, Charlie?” 

Charlie nodded his approval. Fran had, with her innocent call to Jenny, unwittingly resolved the dilemma with the farm. Destiny could stay in school. Fran would have much-needed help with the farm. We were saved again, he thought. Charlie closed his eyes, and with a humble heart, whispered a prayer of thanks.


Five Months Later

Fran and Jenny loaded up Charlie’s truck with boxes and crates of fruits and vegetables for the last time. The last day of the farmer’s market loomed ahead of them. Fran closed up the tailgate and shook the dirt from her hands. A puff of steam appeared from her mouth. The morning was chilly, but just a few degrees warmer than freezing. I’ll take it, Fran thought. It was better than having baskets and bushels of ruined produce.

Fran hugged her sister-in-law and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Before we get started today, Jen, I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done this season. I couldn’t have made it without your help. We’ll all go somewhere tonight to celebrate. Our treat!”

Jenny smiled. “I forgot how much fun it is to run a farm and a market stand. Thank you for letting me get back into the Plains like this. Anytime you need help with the farm, Frannie, just ask me. You know I’ll be happy to help.” 

“I appreciate that, Jen. Let’s grab our coffee and head for the market. Sunny should be there already, setting up her bakery stand for the last time. She’s retiring after today…” Fran needed to stop talking before the tears came. Her eyes peered at the morning sky—she swallowed back a growing lump in her throat. When she collected herself, she continued. “The town will lose one of its greatest bakers.” She wasn’t looking forward to the next season, with Sunny’s stall empty. One day at a time, Fran, she thought to herself. “She’ll be a grandma soon, and she’s so happy about it.”

Jenny nodded in acknowledgment. “Coffee and a couple of fresh-baked muffins sounds like a perfect breakfast. I’m ready when you are.” 

“I’ll be right down.” Fran padded up the stairs to their bedroom where Charlie still slept. She kissed his forehead and woke him. “Jen and I are almost ready to leave, babe. Do you have therapy today?” 

He nodded and rubbed his eyes, having a hard time focusing on her face. “Yeah, at one. I’m sorry I won’t be there on your last day, but I know Jen has you covered.” She sat on an open spot next to him—Charlie wrapped himself around her waist and hugged her close. “How much will we offer her and Paul for all her help this year?” 

“At least a quarter of our net profit. We couldn’t have had this exceptional of a year without her help. But I told her we’re treating them to supper out tonight somewhere. I owe her and Paul that much.” 

“Do you think she’ll take the money, Frannie?” 

Fran shook her head. “No, I don’t, but I’m still going to offer it.” 

“Well, if we can’t make her accept it, we’ll make it up to her in ways that are more subtle.” Charlie winked at her. 

“You’re sneaky!” she said, and giggled. “I like it.” 

“We grew up together. I know her better than she knows herself.” He kissed her and hugged her closer. “I know you need to get going. Enjoy your last day at the market, darling.” 

“Thank you, babe. Take it easy at therapy. Pick somewhere to go for supper tonight and reserve a table for five, please? It can be fancy.” 

“Consider it done.” He kissed her one last time before she left the bedroom. 

Jenny was waiting downstairs, two cups of coffee in her hands. “Are you ready, Frannie? It’s time to go.” 

“Yep!” came her enthusiastic reply.

Together, they walked to Charlie’s pickup. Fran climbed into the driver’s seat; Jenny rode shotgun. The drive to the market was short—minutes later, Fran backed the truck into her spot to unload her bounty. Sunny, as predicted, was already at her market stand, setting up her last array of baked goods. Fran loaded up the wheelbarrow with her boxes of fruits and veggies to bring to her stand. Sunny’s presence at her bakery stall was bittersweet. 

“Good morning, Frannie and Jen!” Sunny greeted them with a cheerful smile. “Are you ready for today?” 

Fran shook her head. “Yes, and no. I can’t believe you won’t be here next season. It’s inconceivable.” 

Sunny embraced Fran and stepped back. “I can’t believe it either, and I’ll miss it. It’s all I’ve ever done, but Caleb will retire on his next birthday. Cale and Lisa’s little one is due after the holidays. I’m looking forward to that baby, Frannie. I know you realize that.”

“Of course, and no one blames you for retiring, Sun. But I’m going to miss you next season.” Fran eyed two huge blueberry muffins. “I’ll relieve you of these two beauties; one for me, and one for Jenny.” Fran handed a couple of dollars to Sunny, but she refused the attempted payment. 

“You never need to buy anything you want from my stand, Frannie. We’re family.” Sunny handed the two muffins to Fran, along with her trademark smile. “We still have fifteen peaceful minutes before this opens to the public.”

Fran swallowed a lump that took up residence in her throat. It was the last time Sunny would give her such a gift. “Your generosity amazes me, Sunny. Thank you.” 

“Psh, it’s only two muffins,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Enjoy them!”

“Thanks! We will!” Jenny unloaded the rest of the boxes from the back of Charlie’s pickup. She had just finished arranging the display when Fran returned with the muffins in her hands. “This looks great, Jen,” she said. “Everything’s all set?” 

Jenny nodded. “Yep! I just need to move the truck, but everything is finished.” She eyed the goodies Fran held. “You got the muffins, I see. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing. Sunny gave them to me. To us.” Fran sniffled as she handed one to Jen. “Her last act of generosity. Jen, she’s given me a muffin almost every morning since we’ve worked here together. To her, it’s just a pastry. To me, it represents every good thing she’s done for Charlie and me. She and Caleb have saved me more times than I can count.” Fran couldn’t stifle the tears anymore. “I’m going to miss her.” 

Jenny embraced her sister-in-law. “I know. It’s an enormous loss. But she’ll be in town, in the same farmhouse they’ve lived in since we were all kids.” 

“I know. It doesn’t make her retirement any less significant.” Fran wiped her tears away and unwrapped her breakfast. The aroma of blueberries and vanilla wafted into the surrounding air, and her mouth watered. “I’m going to savor every bite of this.” 

Jenny pulled a small piece from the muffin and smelled it. “Me too!” When she took the first bite, the morsel melted in her mouth. “This is the best muffin I’ve ever had!” They laughed together, enjoying breakfast and the stillness of the early morning. 

At the close of business, Fran had three full boxes of produce left, a wad of cash in her register and a grateful heart. Jenny walked to her and gave her a high five. “We did it, Frannie!” 

Fran hugged her with all the strength she could muster. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you…” Her gaze shifted to Sunny’s bakery stand, and Fran saw something she’d never seen before: Sunny wept as she wiped down the counters Caleb constructed for her years ago. Fran noticed her shoulders heave in sorrow, so she walked to her best friend.

“Sunny? Are you okay?”

Sunny sniffled, but kept her head bowed. “I’m sorry, Frannie. I guess reality is catching up with me. It’s official. I am retired…” a stifled sob choked her words. Fran embraced her best friend the way Sunny had done with her dozens of times, in moments of sadness and grief. 

“Just think of that baby, Sun. Soon, you’ll be a grandma. I know it’s what you’ve always wanted.” Fran squeezed her one last time before she released her hug. “That’s gotta make you smile.” 

“Oh,” Sunny said, “it does, believe me. I can’t wait for our grandbaby.” She paused for a moment, a twinkle in her eye. “What are you and Charlie doing tonight?” 

“We’re taking Jenny and Paul to supper at a fancy place to thank them for their help. Would you and Caleb care to join us? It’s no problem for Charlie to expand the reservation by two.”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t intrude on your family time, Frannie. Caleb and I will catch you some other time.” 

Fran wrinkled her nose. “Oh, come on, I insist! Besides, you said it yourself. We’re family.”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” Sunny said with a laugh. “Well, since you insist, we’ll be there.” 

“I’ll call you when we get home. Charlie was in charge of the reservations. I don’t even know where we’re going!” Jenny approached them with a smile on her face. “Are we ready, Jen?”

“Yep! I need to shower before supper, so we need to get moving if we’re going someplace fancy tonight. I need time to primp!”

Sunny giggled. Jenny was among the most beautiful women she’d ever met. “You don’t need much fixing up, you know. You’re gorgeous just the way you are.” 

Jenny blushed a deep, fiery red. “Thank you.” She turned to Fran. “Are we ready? Just drop me at the house, and let me know where to meet you.” 

Fran nodded. “I’ll call you soon, Sunny.” She and Jenny walked to the truck and drove away.

*****

Hours later, the three couples and one little girl met at a restaurant on the outskirts of Appaloosa Plains. It wasn’t a fancy, inner city restaurant with valet parking and a dress code, but it was nicer than the bistro Charlie and Fran frequented for special occasions. They gathered outside and walked in together.

Charlie approached the hostess stand, a cane in his left hand. “Farmer, seven o’clock reservation.” 

The hostess gave Charlie a warm smile. “Yes, Mr. Farmer. Your table is ready for six adults and a child. This way, please.”

The group walked together to the back of the restaurant. Their table looked out over the river that ran through Appaloosa Plains. A small white waterfall babbled nearby. It was a scenic spot for photos during the daytime. The dining room was rustic and welcoming, decorated with plants, dark mahogany furniture, and white linens on the tables. Charlie sat at the head of the table, Destiny and Fran beside him. The other couples sat together.

The waiter introduced himself—Charlie ordered a bottle of sparkling wine for the table and a soda pop for Destiny. “You may order whatever you’d like tonight. Don’t be hesitant,” he said. “It’s our honor to treat you all tonight.”

Sunny was going to protest, but Caleb stopped her and spoke. “Thank you, Charlie. I know how much this means to you tonight.” 

Charlie smiled. This night was long overdue. He was grateful for the opportunity and the ability to repay the smallest fraction of what they’d been given. “Thank you, Caleb and Sunny, for everything you’ve done for Frannie, Destiny, and me over the years. We could never repay your kindness and good deeds. Consider this a token of our appreciation.”

They talked together until the waiter returned with the bottle of wine and six chilled glasses. He poured a bit of the blush liquid into each glass—Destiny peered into Charlie’s glass to smell it, and the bubbles tickled her nose. Her giggles put smiles on everyone’s faces. The waiter placed a small, fancy glass of pop in front of Destiny. When he left, Charlie stood to speak.

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“Thank you all so much for joining Frannie and me for supper tonight. Though we can never repay your kindness through the months and years, this is our way to say thank you.” Charlie lifted his glass and proposed a toast. “To all of you. Because we love you. Thank you for all your support, your love, your generosity. Frannie and I appreciate all of you.”

In unison, the group responded, “Cheers!”

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Up Next: Chapter Eighteen, Generation One


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G5 Chapter Thirty Five, Part Two – The Worst Day, Part Two

Two Hours Before

“To your room, young lady, and please don’t wake your sister,” Darcey said, pointing to the girls’ bedroom door. “I’ll deal with you in a moment.” Darcey collapsed onto the sofa and huffed a sigh of relief. Rae Kemp sat at the counter reading the paper when the front door opened. She set the paper down and stood, watching down the hall as Elyse slinked off to her bedroom.

“Rough night, Darcey?” Rae asked her. 

“Oh, Rae, you can’t imagine. That kid is in some serious trouble. I’d hate to be her.” 

“How about some tea?”

“You know, tea sounds good. If you don’t mind, I’ll join you when I’m done dealing with Lysie.” 

“I wouldn’t have offered it if I minded. Just care for Elyse, and I’ll care for you.” Rae walked to the kitchen to put the teakettle on the stove, humming a cheerful tune.

Darcey slipped her shoes from her feet and rubbed the soreness out of them. After traipsing around the islands for the equivalent of two ER shifts, they hurt. “I’ll be right out,” she said and limped toward the girls’ bedroom. When she opened the door, Elyse was on her bed, weeping. 

“I’m in big trouble, aren’t I, Aunt Darcey?” she whispered, tears in her eyes. 

Darcey nodded her head. “You should have known better, Lysie. I know you’ve been through more than most kids your age. Being from a famous family takes a toll. I know all about that, sweetheart. But you can’t do as you please and think you’ll get away with it because you lost your brother. Your mama and dad lost a child, and their suffering was on display for the entire country to see. You won’t understand it until you have a child of your own. It’s a terrible pain to endure, and they didn’t deserve it any more than Emmitt deserved to drown.” She sat on the bed next to Elyse and put her arm around her. “If you need someone to talk to, I’m always here for you. And if I can’t help you, I will find someone who can.” 

Elyse wiped tears from her eyes. “You’d do that for me?”

Darcey’s expression softened, and she embraced Elyse in a hug. “Oh sweetheart, of course I will. I love you, you know.” 

“Thank you, Aunt Darcey. I love you, too. And I’m sorry I said I hated you—I don’t. I was just angry.” She looked down at her folded hands and sighed. 

“You’re forgiven, sweet pea.” Darcey kissed Elyse’s forehead. “Why don’t you get ready for bed? If I hear anything about your dad, I’ll come tell you. Deal?” 

She sniffled and wiped her tears. “Thanks, Aunt Darcey.”

“You’re a good girl, Elyse. Please, don’t make trouble for your mama and dad, okay? They do so much for you and your brothers and sister, and your misbehaving? Well, it hurts them. It’s like a slap in the face when you act up.” Darcey noticed Elyse wince and touch her face. “You’re so much better than that.” 

“Okay,” she said, and nodded. “I won’t.” 

“Get some sleep, Lysie. Morning will be here soon. Goodnight.” 

“Goodnight, Aunt Darcey.” Elyse changed into her pajamas and snuggled down into bed, and drifted off to sleep.

Darcey walked back to the living room, where a fresh cup of chamomile waited for her. “I don’t know what you like in your tea, Darcey, so I just brought some honey and lemon for you to choose.” 

Darcey picked up the teacup and breathed in the minty vapor. It was the first time since Danae’s frantic phone call she had allowed herself to relax—her body melted into the sofa cushions with the first sip of tea. 

“Thank you so much, Rae, for coming and watching the kids and Danae. It’s been a tough day for this family. Andy needs to consider how his decisions affect those who love him.” 

Rae took a sip of her tea. “Don’t be too harsh on him, Darcey. Andy is more sensitive than any of us realize. He and Kirby are so much alike, sometimes it’s a little creepy. Kirby would have done the same thing.” 

“Run away from his problems? Kirby doesn’t seem the type.” 

“Not running from his problems, Darcey. Allowing me to be free. Of course, I would never want that. But it’s that mindset—the fear of failing his family. That’s what drove Andy away.” She took a sip of tea and sat forward in her seat. “I have every confidence that Kirby will find him and bring him home. It’s because they’re so alike that I know my Kirby will find him. He has to, for everyone’s sake.”   

Darcey sipped her tea. “Mmhmm. Andy knows how much Nae loves him, and I know he adores her. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him to walk away from her.” A smile of sudden understanding pulled across her face. “Now that I think about it, it shows his love for her, doesn’t it?” 

Rae nodded and smiled. “You’re catching on. Andy is a good man. Honest, hardworking, decent, loyal. His work ethic is impeccable. Kirby saw all those qualities in him when they met. It’s why he’s working so hard to take care of Andy. He needs his manager to run the team.”

“Just like Danae needs him here.” Darcey set her teacup on the coffee table and tucked her leg under her. “He’s a very important guy. He’s the reason we’re here. Clint is so thankful for that, too. He loves life on the island, and so do I.” 

“I’m happy I included you in the deal Kirby made with Andy. Danae needs you, especially with all that’s going on with your brother. Was he always this wretched?” 

“No,” Darcey said. “We were all very close when we were young. Devin was closer to me than Danae, though. He doesn’t keep in touch, not that I would talk to him anymore. He’s caused too much pain.” 

Rae set her teacup down. “I understand. Would you like another cup, Darcey? The water is still piping hot.” 

She glanced at her watch and pondered the offer. “Oh sure. One more cup might help me mellow out a little more. I’m staying tonight to watch over Nae, just in case she needs me. You’re welcome to go home if you’d like?” 

“I promised Kirby I’d stay and help in any way I can. He should call when he arrives in Dragon Valley. I hope his search is quick and fruitful.” 

Darcey nodded. “Me too. I’ll get the tea, Rae. You sit.” She stood and walked to the kitchen, brought the teakettle in, and filled both cups with hot water. She found two more bags of chamomile and opened them, plopped them into the water, and sat back. “You know, Rae, the suite upstairs is open if you’d like to rest up there.” 

“Oh, I’m okay, Darcey, but thank you. I don’t sleep well when Kirby is away. He is my life, you know.”

Darcey nodded. “I understand. Clint doesn’t travel for business, and I’m thankful. I don’t know how Nae does it with Andy gone so often. They’re inseparable.” 

“Danae is an extraordinary woman. I’ve never met anyone quite like her.” 

“Mmhmm, that she is.” Darcey stirred some honey and squeezed a lemon wedge into her tea. “So, Rae. How did you meet Kirby?” 

Rae blushed. “I was working at a different resort as a housekeeper. I didn’t have education past high school, so cleaning was all I could do. And Kirby saw me one morning while he was walking to the front desk.” She smiled, lost in the memory. “He was on a business trip from Riverview. He told me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. If you asked him, he’d say it was love at first sight. I took a little more convincing.” 

Darcey smiled. “That’s so sweet, Rae. How long did you date?” 

She sipped her tea and shook her head. “We never dated, per se. He got my phone number. He left the island, and I didn’t think of him again. But he never forgot about me. Riverview is far from here. Kirby never would have asked me to leave my family. So he moved everything, gave up his successful restaurant and sold his investment company. He brought it all here to be with me. When he came back, we saw each other twice before he proposed. We eloped three weeks later.”

“Wow!” Darcey set her teacup down and smiled. “I thought Clint and I had a whirlwind romance!”

“We had Corrie and Cody after our fifth anniversary. He wanted some time to establish his business here first. It astonished me when he told me he was an entrepreneur back in Riverview.”

“You didn’t know?”

Rae cocked her head and looked into Darcey’s eyes. “He never mentioned it, and I never thought to ask. He’s so charming that it didn’t matter. I would have followed him anywhere. I went back to school and completed my degree in education. When he bought the stadium and the team, he gave the academy to me to manage. The Accolades Academy has been my benevolence project since my graduation from college. Each year, we give a four-year scholarship for the academy to two needy families on the island. I used to act as principal, but I’ve stepped into an administrator role instead. Now, I oversee the school’s operations, a superintendent of sorts.” 

“Wow, Rae. That’s an incredible story. You’ve had a beautiful life here.” 

“Oh, it hasn’t always been perfect. When the twins were younger, Kirby had problems with alcohol. I spent too many nights at home caring for our family while he was out drinking with the team. Then one night, he nearly killed himself while driving drunk, and I gave him an ultimatum: me or the liquor. He chose me, sobered up, and he hasn’t had more than a beer with Andy and Aaron on a rare occasion.” 

Darcey sat and looked at Rae, in awe of the strength and poise she displayed. “I admire you, Rae.”

Rae blushed again. “I’m just a wife and mother. Kirby is my hero.” 

“Well, you’re both awesome in my book,” Darcey said, and yawned. “As much as I’d love to sit and chat, I’m fighting to stay awake. I’m so sorry.” 

“Don’t be, Darcey. I’ll let you rest, and I’ll sit by the pool. It’s a lovely evening to watch the stars.” Rae picked up both teacups to place into the dishwasher. “Sweet dreams. You deserve it.” 

Darcey settled on the sofa, a pillow under her head. “Thank you, Rae. Let me know if you hear anything.” 

“I will.” Rae walked outside to sit under the stars, praying that Kirby would find Andy.

*****

Kirby retrieved his cell phone before they accessed the airport terminal. Even though it was early in the morning, he promised Rae an update, and this one would please her. 

“Hi doll,” he greeted her. “I have some fantastic news!”

“Did you find Andy, mi amor?” 

“Yes, I did, Rae. We’ll be on our way home soon.” 

Rae’s face beamed with excitement. “Shall I tell Danae for you? I’m here at the house with her and Darcey.” 

“I think she’ll welcome the news, so the sooner, the better.” Victor stood in the jet’s doorway, awaiting their arrival. “Rae, I need to go. Please tell Danae I accomplished my mission, and we’re both coming home.” 

“I will. Be safe, Kirby. I love you more.” 

He chuckled. “Yes, you probably do. I love you, too.” 

Andy and Kirby settled into seats across from one another. They both knew they wouldn’t sleep on this flight back home. It would be an evening to plot and strategize the biggest, most important game either of them had ever played. Victor stood at the table and acknowledged both of them. “What may I get for you, gentlemen?” 

Kirby thought for a moment. “How about my special reserve champagne? This is a glorious occasion.”

“Very well.” Victor turned on his heel and walked away. 

Andy yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Kirby, you are an incredible sleuth. How did you find me so fast?” 

“Not that difficult, to be honest. I don’t recall you saying anything about having friends up here, so I figured that was a dead end. You weren’t sleeping at the airport. So, I figured I’d find you at the only inn.” Kirby snickered. “You used your real name, so you weren’t trying that hard to hide.” 

Andy laughed. “I didn’t figure anyone would come looking for me. I thought I’d stay under the radar until I could get on my feet.”

“You knew I wouldn’t let you slip away without a fight. I can’t run all the intricacies of that team without you.”

“Yeah, it’s all fine and good until we have an away game, Kirby. I can’t go with you. I can’t be in the stadium with the team.”

“Just leave all that up to Tony. Which reminds me, what kind of evidence do you have against Devin Jones? I know you have a bunch of doctored photos attached to his email address. What else do you have?” 

Andy took his laptop from his briefcase, booted it up, and retrieved his email archives. “This one here, Kirby.” He pointed to the email Devin had sent him after Andy fired him. “This one told both Danae and me to watch our backs. That email scared Danae half to death. Lysie and Eamon were little then.”

Kirby wore a horrified expression. “Now that… That takes some guts. He must have known that would bite him in the rear end someday.”

Andy grinned. “It looks like that someday is soon, thanks to you and Tony. I’m sure he didn’t figure I would hang onto stuff like this. I can’t believe my chance to bury him is here.”

“I told you I had your back, Andy. Never doubt me. I’m only nice to people I love. Everyone else is fair game for my wily ways.” He tried to pull off an evil laugh, but the funny face he made had Andy in stitches. When they both stopped laughing, Kirby patted his hand. “It’s good to see you smiling, son. We’re going to beat this. You have my word, because I’m not stopping until we do.”

Victor returned with two chilled flutes filled with sparkling champagne. “Gentlemen.” 

Kirby lifted his glass for a toast. “To you, Andy. Because you’re a champion.” 

“Cheers!” Andy toasted in return. The men clinked the glasses together and sipped. Andy sat back in his seat and smiled.

*****

In the wee hours of the morning, Rae clicked the “End” button on her cell phone. She was the only one awake in the Murphy home. Darcey slept on the sofa. The kids were asleep in their bedrooms, and Danae still rested in the master bedroom. Kirby’s phone call brought the news for which she’d hoped—he’d found Andy and was bringing him home to his family. 

Rae tiptoed into the house to where Darcey rested and tapped her shoulder. “Darcey?” 

She stirred and opened one eye. She didn’t recognize Rae’s voice under the veil of sleep. “Oh, hi Rae.” 

“I’m sorry,” Rae chuckled. “Did I disappoint you?” 

Darcey eked out a sleepy grin. “No, I forgot I stayed here. How’s Nae? Have you heard from Kirby?”

“I just hung up the phone. Kirby found Andy, and they’re both on their way home.” 

“This is awesome news!” 

Rae nodded. “Perhaps you’d like to tell Danae? I think the news would be best coming from you.”

“Thank you. I’d love to give her some good news for a change. Maybe it will soften the bad news about Elyse.” 

Darcey opened the door to the master suite and tiptoed inside. Danae was restless, but sleeping. Darcey sat on the bed with her and touched her shoulder. “Nae? Sweetie, wake up.” 

Danae saw Darcey’s face and her eyes filled with tears. “Hi sissy. I feel like hell.” 

“You won’t when I tell you my news. Kirby found Andy, Nae. They’re both coming home.” 

Danae sat straight up in bed. “Are you serious?!” 

“Yep. They’ll be home in about eight hours, if they make decent time.” 

“I could kiss you!” Danae hugged her sister, weeping happy tears. “My sweetheart is coming home! I thought I’d never see him again. What changed?”

“Kirby had some good news. I’m not sure what.” Darcey was going to tell her about Elyse, but decided against it. “I’m thrilled for you, Nae.” 

“Have you been here since I called you, Darce?” Darcey nodded and yawned. Danae felt guilty. “Go home and get some rest. Aren’t you working in the morning?”

“I’ve already called in sick for the day. I didn’t know if you’d need me.”

“It’s okay, now that I know Andy is coming home. Go home to Clint and the boys. Get some sleep. I’m going to wait in the living room until the kids wake up.” 

“I promised I’d tell Lysie when I knew something about her dad. But, I need to break some bad news.” Darcey sighed. “You won’t like it.” 

“Uh oh… what happened now?”   

“How much do you remember after I got here yesterday afternoon, Nae?”

Danae shook her head. “Not much. All I could feel was pain.”

“Understandable. Well, you were arguing with Elyse when I walked in. Things got ugly, and she left.”

“That doesn’t surprise me in the least. Where did she go?” 

“Eamon thought she might have gone to Howie’s house, so I went looking for her.” Darcey swallowed hard. “Danae, Chris Collins caught them in bed together, half naked. She claims they fell asleep, but she was only wearing a pair of panties when I got to her.” 

Danae inhaled a slow breath and held it for a moment. “Did I just hear you right? My twelve-year-old daughter was in bed with that Collins kid? Half naked?” 

Darcey shook her head, still in her own disbelief. “It didn’t look good, Nae. Chris was furious. I wasn’t much better.” 

“I was hoping to wait a little longer for her purity pledge, but I see it can’t wait. Andy and I need to discuss this soon.” 

“Clint and I have discussed it—we’re still undecided. I don’t envy you, Nae, with two little girls.” 

“I might appreciate how Mama felt with me asking questions all the time,” Danae snickered. “But Elyse doesn’t ask me anything. We need to approach this with her. I don’t need grandbabies with toddlers in the house.” 

Darcey laughed at the irony. “The generational curse works. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Mama mutter under her breath, ‘I hope Danae has a daughter just like her’.” 

“Are you serious? She said that?” 

“Mmhmm,” Darcey said with a grin. “I see it worked.” She looked at her watch and yawned. “I think I’m going to head out, since you’re okay.” The sisters hugged one last time. “If you need me again, never hesitate.” 

“Of course not. I love you, Darce.” 

“I love you, too, Nae. Enjoy Andy when he comes home, because I know you will.” 

“Bet your butt I will.” They laughed and Darcey waved as she left the bedroom. 

Now Danae had another, bigger problem. But for tonight, the good news about Andy would suffice. The rest could wait until after school. She tiptoed into the girls’ room and tapped Elyse’s shoulder. 

“Mama?” She tried to focus through bleary, tired eyes. “Is that you?” 

“Yes, Lysie. I wanted to let you know Daddy is on his way home.”

With a sigh of relief, Elyse whispered, “Good.” 

Danae planted a kiss on her oldest child’s forehead. “Get some more sleep. It’s still early.” 

“Mmhmm,” she said, before the quiet tug of sleep reclaimed her.

*****

Danae was wide awake when Elyse’s alarm sounded a few hours later. The coffee pot was fresh, and breakfast was on the griddle when Eamon dragged himself from his bedroom. 

“Good morning, Eam,” she said with a smile.

“Good morning,” he said, wearing a sleepy grin. “I’m sorry about yesterday, Mama. I didn’t mean to cause trouble for you.” 

She held her arms open for her oldest son. “You’re forgiven, sweetheart. How about a big bear hug?” He wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her as tight as he could—she planted a kiss on his cheek. “I love you, Eam. Daddy’s on his way home. I thought you’d like to know.”

“I’m glad Daddy’s coming home, more for you than for me.” 

Danae’s eyes welled with happy tears. “Me too, sweetheart. And it means so much to me to hear you say that.”

Elyse’s bedroom door opened, and she trudged into the living room. Morning came way too soon, and she was still tired. “Good morning, Mama,” she said with a yawn.

“Good morning, sweet pea. Come get some breakfast. Cakes are fresh.” She and Eamon sat at the island counter, and Danae served them both a stack of banana pancakes. She couldn’t believe her two oldest were almost teenagers, one of them in desperate need of a purity pledge. 

The house that morning was the polar opposite of the previous morning. The children were in a decent mood. Teddy and Tessa still slept, and Danae sang cheerful love songs while she puttered. Andy was on a private jet bound for the island, and she couldn’t wait to see him. Yes, she thought. I’ll take today over yesterday any time.

The school bus arrived at its usual time. As she did each morning, Danae walked them both to the door. Before she could leave, Danae took Elyse’s arm and looked into her eyes. “Come straight home from school today. No ballet. Do you understand me?” 

Elyse swallowed hard. “Yes, Mama.” 

“I don’t think I need to tell you why. I’m going to speak with your father about what you did, and we will decide how to handle it. Until then, consider yourself grounded from all after-school activities, especially ballet.” 

“Yes, Mama.” 

Danae kissed her forehead. “Have a good day, sweet pea. I love you.” 

“I love you, too.” She said nothing more before she left. 

Two hours later, Darcey knocked on the front door. Danae cocked her head at her sister standing there. “Darce?” 

“I’m getting the twins for a playdate, since I have the day to myself. I need some baby time.” 

Danae knew the real reason her sister was there. She hugged Darcey and whispered in her ear. “Thank you!”

Darcey gave her a knowing look. “Have all the fun, Nae. You deserve it.” 

Twenty minutes later, Darcey’s SUV pulled away from the house, her three-year-old biological children in their car seats. She hadn’t thought of them that way since they were born. To her, Tessa and Teddy were her niece and nephew, but she sure loved to spoil them. 

Danae hopped into the shower, dressed in the skimpiest negligee she owned, and waited on the sofa for Andy’s return home.

*****

Hours later, Andy’s key turned in the front door of the house. Complete silence welcomed him home—no children giggling, no television, no bustle of a busy wife. He set his bag in his office and took off his sport coat. He tiptoed into the living room and found Danae, sound asleep on the sofa, dressed in a sexy outfit, looking like she was expecting him. Andy smiled, but felt the pangs of guilt biting at him. He couldn’t imagine what he’d put her through. 

He sat on the floor by her face and laid his head next to hers. His breath slowed to match hers; the scent of apples perfumed her hair, and he breathed it in. It was something he believed he’d never do again just twenty-four hours ago. The soft sensation of his fingers on her skin awakened her, and when she saw his face, she smiled. Without saying a word, she nuzzled her face into his. 

“Hi sweetheart,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry, Nae. I’m sorry I left, that I put you through hell. All of it was so unnecessary. I feel terrible.” A single tear formed in the corner of his eye and rolled down his cheek. He hated to cause her pain, and he’d done so much more than his share over their fourteen year marriage.

“None of that matters anymore. You’re home.”

“You’re way too forgiving, baby.” He shook his head. No, he wouldn’t let her forgive him this easily. Not this time. He’d hurt her too much, too deep. He was about to speak when he felt her mouth on his in a passionate kiss.

Danae’s hungry kisses consumed him. She savored the taste of him, the sweetness of his kiss. When she pulled away, she looked into his caramel brown eyes, and her heart melted. How she loved that man. 

“You’re all I want, Andy. For the rest of my life. No one else. Do you understand that?” Another soft kiss, then she bit her lip. “I don’t care what the circumstances are, babe. You’re the only one I want.”

Andy looked away from her, ashamed of himself. “I don’t deserve you, Danae. I will never deserve you.” 

“Shh,” she whispered, and kissed him again. “Are you gonna keep talking, or are you gonna take me to bed?” 

Without saying another word, Andy stood, lifted her off the sofa, and carried her into their bedroom.

*****

Elyse carried her backpack to her locker and grabbed a smaller bag with clothes in it. Howie was right behind her.

“Hi beautiful,” was his standard greeting.

Elyse sighed and closed her locker. “Hi, Howie.”

“What? No kiss?” 

“I’m in so much trouble. I’m not in the mood.” 

“Well, I am, too. But that doesn’t stop me from loving you, Lysie.” 

She shook her head. “You don’t get it, do you? I’m grounded from ballet! I have to go right home today after school.” 

He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. “I’m sure you don’t. Everything will be normal soon.” 

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She pushed away from him. “You really don’t get it. I have to go home with Eam on that bus. If I don’t show up, I’m making it worse for myself. I want to dance again someday, Howie. It’s all I want.” 

“Psh,” Howie said, and rolled his eyes. “Your dad will let you dance. Aren’t you his favorite? Besides, what happened last night was no big deal. We’re best friends first, and boyfriend-girlfriend second. Everyone knows that.” 

“My aunt didn’t see it that way. I got ‘the talk’ last night. My mom told me to come right home after school. My dad will be home later today, and I don’t want to face him. Howie, I’m legit afraid of my dad. I’m even more afraid of disappointing him, and I know I did.” 

Howie rolled his eyes again. “Psh. He’s not gonna hurt you! Sometimes, I wish I had your folks. My dad isn’t the kindest man to live with, you know.”

“I know.” Elyse had witnessed Chris Collins’ brand of discipline firsthand twice, and it frightened her. She was grateful that Andy never made a move to strike her, not one time.

“What will you do without ballet?” 

“I haven’t thought about it yet. I’m still going to practice. There’s a barre in the garage my dad set up for me.”

“Well,” he said, “we have gym class right now. Why don’t we take advantage of it?” 

“Ballet?”

He gave her a sly smile. “What do you think?” 

Elyse nodded and took his hand as they walked to their spot under the bleachers.

*****

In the afterglow of a beautiful afternoon together, Andy laid with Danae wrapped around him. Her head on his chest, her body rose and fell with his breathing. His fingers touched her shoulders—her soft giggles broke the silence. 

“That tickles,” she whispered. 

“I know it does. Why else would I do it?” 

“I’d expect nothing less.” 

He felt her snuggle closer, her leg wrapped around his. “I know I wasn’t away long, but I missed you so much.” 

“I missed you too. Things were rough yesterday after you left. Darcey ran everything here.” Danae clenched her jaw. She dreaded her next words. “Which reminds me, Andy, I have something to discuss with you. I don’t think it can wait much longer.” He felt her draw a breath and hold it. 

“What is it, honey?” He kissed her forehead and brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. 

“Elyse and I had a rough day yesterday. It started before she and Eamon left for school, and I guess after she got home, Darcey tried to set her straight, but she ran off.” 

Andy growled, and his body tensed up. He didn’t like getting negative reports about his kids. “Where’d she run off to, Nae?” 

“Howie’s house on the north isle. Darcey went looking for her after Eamon tipped her off.” She looked into his eyes and caressed his cheek, hoping to soften the blow of her next words. “Chris Collins found them in his bedroom, Andy. They were in bed together, half naked.”

Andy clenched his jaw and spoke through his teeth. “How did Collins allow this?! It’s up to him to make sure nothing happens under his roof!”

“Lysie claims they fell asleep together, but Darcey said she was only wearing her underwear when she found her.”

“What should we do, Nae? She is too young for this.”

“Her birthday is coming up in a month. At first, I wasn’t sure about the purity pledge. But I am now. What do you think?” 

Andy nodded in agreement. “Would you come with me? I don’t know how to approach it.”

Danae smiled at him. “You know I will, babe. Expect her to be embarrassed, especially discussing sex in a public setting. I know Darcey and I were when Daddy took us for our date.” 

“What do I tell her? I mean, how do I say this to her?”

She kissed his chest and ran her fingers through the curly hair. “Just present the ring, and tell her you’d like her to promise to wait. That she’ll wear the ring on her left hand until it’s replaced by her wedding ring.” She nuzzled into his side, his hand reaching down to stroke her messy hair. “It’s really that simple.” 

“You know what else is really simple, Nae?” Andy squirmed under her soft touch. 

“Mmm,” she sighed. “What’s really simple?” 

“How much I love you.”

“And how much is that, babe?” She winked at him with expectation.

“Here,” he said with a sexy growl. “Let me show you.”

*****

After school, Elyse opened the front door of the house, Eamon right behind her. “Mama said he’d be home today, Eam. I hope she wasn’t lying.” 

“Mom isn’t a liar, Lysie. If she said it, he’s home.”

“His car isn’t in the garage. How can I be sure?” 

Eamon rolled his eyes. “Don’t believe her, I guess? When has she ever lied to you?” 

Elyse huffed. “She hasn’t. But still…” 

The door to the master suite opened, and Andy stood in it, waiting for the joyful sounds of his children. And as he expected, Eamon and Elyse squealed. “Daddy!”

He opened his arms for them and squeezed them both in a bear hug. “I’m sorry about yesterday, kids. My rough day shouldn’t have affected you like it did. The good news is, I’m home and I’m not leaving again. Ever.” 

Both kids cried happy tears, but Elyse wouldn’t let him go. “I missed you, Daddy,” she cried over and over. 

Eamon pulled away from the hug and stepped back, letting Elyse have Andy all to herself. She wept on his shoulder, and Eamon was sure it was because she knew how much trouble she’d created for herself. “I’m glad you’re home, Dad,” he said. “But I need to start my homework. I have more than usual.”

“Thanks son,” Andy said. “Lysie, I want to talk to you.” He kissed her forehead. “This is not open for debate. Your mama and I have things to discuss with you about yesterday.” 

Elyse cried harder. “No, Daddy. Please?” 

“I’m sorry. Non-negotiable.” He took her by the wrist and hung onto her. “Eam, if you need us, we’re in the bedroom with your sister.” Elyse tried to pull against him, but he tugged her. “Come, Elyse.”

“I don’t want to!” 

“I’m sorry about your luck, young lady. But you can’t pull stuff like you did yesterday with no consequences.” Andy picked her up over his shoulder and held her. Elyse screamed and fought him, slamming her fists into Andy’s back. He carried her into the bedroom and locked the door behind him. “You will not run from me if you know what’s good for you, Elyse.” Danae waited on the bench for them. Andy plopped her down next to her mother and then sat beside her, making a pre-teen sandwich with parental bread. 

“Daddy—” she started, but Andy’s scowl stopped her. 

“Who do you think you are? You will never hit me like that again!” Andy was irate. 

“I’m sorry,” she cried. 

“You’re making things harder for yourself, Elyse,” Danae said. 

“I’m scared!”

“You don’t have to be frightened, but you’re not getting away without punishment, either!” Andy stood and paced the floor. “Don’t even try to get past me. You’re just going to extend your penalty if you do.” 

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” Elyse sobbed. “It wasn’t what it looked like!” 

“Then why don’t you tell me what it was? From what Aunt Darcey said, you were almost naked with Howie Collins in his bed. Is this not true?” 

Elyse huffed a lock of hair from her face. “Well, when you say it like that—”

Andy made a move to strike her, but restrained himself when he saw her flinch. “Now’s not the time to get smart with me, Elyse. Now is your chance to make a case for leniency. So, I’m going to ask you again. Were you half naked in Howie’s bed with him? Yes, or no?”

“Well, yes, but we were only sleeping!” 

“What’s your definition of ‘only sleeping,’ Elyse? Were you touching each other? Kissing?”

Elyse rolled her eyes. “We had our eyes closed, he cuddled up behind me. I was wearing his shirt and my panties, and he had on boxer shorts and a muscle shirt. We. Were. ASLEEP!” she yelled. 

Andy closed his eyes and counted to ten. “You will not take that tone with me, Elyse. You just keep making things harder for yourself.”

“Why doesn’t anyone believe me? We were sleeping!” Danae heard frustration in her daughter’s voice. 

“Lysie, you don’t understand the situation you put yourself in with Howie. You are too young to have this type of relationship with him!” Danae tried to reason with her. She felt more like she was talking to a brick wall instead of a thinking twelve-year-old girl.

“Howie and I are just friends! Why can’t you get that through your thick skulls?” Elyse bit her tongue the second she said it. Andy had heard enough. He reached for her, picked her up to meet his eyes, and looked straight into hers. 

“You’re grounded for a month. No ballet, no Howie. No after-school activities until further notice. You will NOT disrespect me or your mother like this, Elyse! Go to your room. NOW!” The veins in his neck bulged as he spoke to her. He couldn’t recall ever being this angry. He hoped he’d never get there again. 

“I HATE YOU!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, and ran from the bedroom. Andy heard the front door open and close, and he raced after her. Danae wept, still seated on the bench. 

The locked gate stopped Elyse after Danae jammed the code from her cell phone. It gave Andy the chance he needed to catch her. He picked her up and carried her back into the house and to her bedroom, plopped her on the bed, and paced the floor. 

“Elyse, what has gotten into you? Why are you like this?” Andy bent over, trying to catch his breath. He hadn’t needed to run like that in years, and he got winded.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I dunno.” 

“I’m losing my patience with you, little girl. You need to learn who’s in charge. You are much too young to be with a boy Howie’s age. Fifteen-year-old boys only want one thing, Elyse. I’ll be damned if he’s going to get that from MY daughter!”

“That’s not your decision, Daddy—”

“As long as you live under MY roof, and I buy your clothing, food, and everything else you want and need, it’s ALL my decision. Are we clear on this? You will go to school every day. You will come home right after school. Your teachers and the principal will be my eyes and ears at the Academy. Don’t think school is your safe zone. Howie is not to come within five feet of you. Do you understand me, Elyse?” 

Elyse was sobbing, positive her father was bent on ruining her life. “Yes,” she huffed, and cried harder. 

Andy sat down on her bed and patted the spot next to him. Though she didn’t want to, she sat beside him. “Lysie, I don’t enjoy punishing you like this. I’d much rather do pleasant things for you. And sweetheart, I don’t want to see you ruin the rest of your life before you hit thirteen. You’re getting into territory where only grown-ups should go.”

“I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal, Daddy. We were only sleeping.” 

“Well, that’s part of a talk best saved for your first date with me.” He took her hands and rubbed her fingers between his. “I want to teach you things that only I can, sweet pea. From a man’s perspective. Remember, I was a fifteen-year-old boy at one time. I know how they think. Howie has little to lose, but you, sweetheart? You could ruin your future in one careless night. You’re smarter than this, Elyse. Please act like it.” 

“I want to be alone,” she whispered. “Please leave my room?” 

Andy nodded. “Just so you know, your windows don’t open, so don’t attempt an escape. It won’t work.” He chuckled when she growled in frustration. “If you have homework, Lysie, get on it.” 

She didn’t say another word.


Two Weeks Later

With Andy on administrative leave from the team, he had time to find and organize his abundant evidence against Devin Jones. At two in the morning, the light still burned in his office. Danae walked from the bedroom into the living room and discovered Andy at his desk, his nose buried in his laptop. She tapped on the door, and when he saw her, he waved her in. 

“Hi sweetheart,” he said. “What are you doing up so late?” 

“I could ask you the same question.” She sat down in the chair opposite him and yawned. “What are you working on?” 

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He tapped a few keys and turned the screen. “Remember this email?” 

The header still made her skin crawl. “That email gave me nightmares for months.” 

He opened up the email to print. “This is one of many things I have that I’ll use as evidence of your brother’s vendetta against me.” He cringed and opened the email from Wyatt, one that he’d forwarded ten years prior. “And there’s this one, with all those pictures attached to it. I’d be willing to bet your brother doesn’t know I have them, either. If he wasn’t a dead ringer for your dad, I’d wonder if Devin was part of the family.” 

Danae snorted. “Darce and I have said the same thing often.”

The printer behind him on the credenza fired up, printing page after page of emails, photos, and other evidence that Devin had been trying to ruin Andy’s life. Documentation from his knee injury and subsequent surgery. Sworn statements he’d collected from Aaron and Wyatt prior to their transfer to the island. He even found an old email from Smitty, with evidence he had collected. 

“Well, this should be everything that’s easy to collect. The photos, well, I’d rather not share those unless it’s mandatory. Kirby filed his appeal last week, and my hearing with a new mediation team will be soon.” Andy took the stack of over twenty pages of additional evidence from the printer and stuck them inside his briefcase. 

“What’s Tony’s role in all of this, babe?” 

“Kirby says he has originals of the rules and regulations from the league from the past thirty years. He’s an avid fan, and he collects things like that, I guess. His law firm is the oldest on the island, and they’ve been representing the Sharks for decades, even before Kirby owned them.”

“I think I understand,” she said, and nodded. “With his original copies of the older rules, you intend to prove your clause was valid when you wrote it.” 

“That’s right. There were no rules ten years ago that stated my clause was illegal. The personal grudge is a bonus. Maybe this will stop your brother, maybe it won’t. But if I get my job back and I’m reinstated, that’s all I care about. Although it would be nice to get him out of a position of power. Fiona, too. She wields too much power and holds too many personal grievances to be an effective commissioner.” 

“That’s an understatement.” Danae recalled Aaron’s year-long battle with Fiona over ten years of plays. “Kirby does what he promises, though. He stood behind Aaron and fought like a cornered animal for him. I know he won’t quit until you’re restored as manager.”

Andy took a sip of water from a glass on his desk. “Kirby has been a formidable ally through this entire process. I hope, though, this is the end of the investigations. There’s no one left to scrutinize but Kirby himself, and he’s pretty untouchable. I mean, he owns the franchise. He does everything by the book.” 

“He has the best manager in the country by his side, babe. That has to help.” She took his hands and kissed his fingers. 

Andy gave her a sly smile. “Flattery will get you everywhere, you little vixen.” 

“Oh, that wasn’t flattery, babe. I meant every word.” She sucked on the tip of his index finger. She drove him wild when she did that, every time.

“Want to come to bed with me?”

Danae nodded her head. “What do you think, sexy man?”

Andy stood and scooped her out of the chair where she sat—Danae giggled and squealed as he carried her away to their bedroom.


Two Weeks Later

Kirby walked into the courtroom in downtown Isla Paradiso, loaded for bear and ready to defeat Fiona Jones and her insufferable husband. Tony, who was just behind him, met Kirby in front, then set down his briefcase and a box of files. They shook hands before they sat.

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“Are you prepared, Tony? We have to win this appeal.” Kirby was cautious, but optimistic. “You know I have every confidence in you.” 

Tony flashed his winning smile. “Of course we’re ready! I have the books and the files I need to show that Fiona has altered the rules to suit her purpose, and all of Andy’s evidence. And, you have me on your team. Not to be full of myself, but I’m a rather excellent attorney.”

Kirby smiled. “It’s good you insisted on holding the hearing here instead of in a mediation room. This should keep the chicanery to a minimum.”

“Well, be aware she and Jones will try, but I have every contingency planned.” Tony glanced at his watch and then back to Kirby. “Is Andy running late?” 

“He should be here any moment. He’s nervous, so there’s a good chance he won’t feel like his normal, witty self.”

Tony chuckled. “He has nothing to worry about. My defense is so watertight, it squeaks.”

Kirby laughed out loud. “That’s pretty watertight!” They settled down at the table and waited for Andy to arrive, which he did three minutes later.

“Gentlemen,” he greeted them with handshakes and a smile. Andy knew the stakes were higher than they’d ever been, but he also felt confident. Tony had coached him, and together, they spent hours pouring over the evidence he had collected against Devin for the past twelve years. It was time for Jones to burn like the dumpster fire he had become. Andy couldn’t wait.

“How are you feeling, Andy?” Tony asked him. 

“I feel like a winner.” He said it more to convince himself than anything else.

“Good! That’s how you should feel, because you’re leaving here reinstated and employed. You have my word.” Tony gave him a quick hug, and both men sat. 

Fiona and Devin Jones entered the courtroom next, with her team of pre-chosen mediators. Tony was on his feet in an instant, waving his finger at Fiona. 

“Oh no! You’re not pulling your tricks today, Commissioner! We are not using your mediators.” 

“You have zero influence here, sir. This is League business—” Fiona said, but Tony interrupted her.

“I represent Anduin Murphy. An impartial judge will hear this case and decide, not your hand-picked, sympathetic mediation team.”

“That was not the condition set forth by the appeal—”

“On the contrary, Commissioner. The appeal stated where the hearing would take place, which you read. It stated that I would represent the defendant, and that a neutral third party would preside. Did you not read your copy in its entirety?” 

Fiona huffed. “Appeals are standard, so no. But since we’re on your turf, have it your way, Mr…?” 

“Cardona. Antonio Cardona, Esquire.” He offered his hand for Fiona to shake, but she snubbed him.

“Should I be impressed?” she snipped.

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“You can let me know later, Madam Commissioner.” Tony smirked and walked back to the defense table. 

Kirby saw the smile on Tony’s face. “What was that all about?”

“Kirbs, this will be a cakewalk! She never read the details of the appeal. She expects Andy to roll over and accept his fate. Fiona Jones will get the shock of her life here today.” Tony sat down and patted Andy on the back. “Don’t worry, Andy. You’re walking out of here victorious.”

Before the proceedings began, Danae and Rae walked through the door together. From the spectator area, Danae rubbed Andy’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head. 

“Hi, baby,” he said, and swiveled his chair to see her. “I didn’t expect you here. Who has the twins?” 

“Trix is taking care of them, so I could come to support you. Stephanie and Tessa love to play together.” She gave his shoulder a quick but gentle squeeze. “You’re going to win this, you know. Knock ‘em dead, babe.” 

He stood and took her hand to kiss. “It means everything to me you’re here. Thank you.” 

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“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss this!” One last quick kiss, and she took her seat next to Rae. 

With the league mediators seated in the jury section, Fiona and Devin took their places. The judge appeared from his chambers moments later and began the hearing that would decide Andy’s fate. The judge swore everyone in and banged his gavel to start the proceedings.

Fiona stood to present her case. “In the matter of the Professional Soccer League versus Anduin Murphy—”

“That’s ‘Football,’ Madam Commissioner,” Tony corrected. “It’s called ‘football’ here on the island.” 

Fiona scowled at him. “The appeal of decision number two-four-nine-three-four, the Professional Football League versus Anduin Murphy.” She glanced at Tony and frowned. “Is that better, Esquire?” she asked in a biting tone.

Tony grinned ear to ear. 

She continued. “In reviewing Mr. Murphy’s past contracts, the League directors and I have discovered multiple additions to documents that are not valid according to league standards. These addenda render void all contracts containing the clause; thus, all players with such contracts are free agents, and violate Section Four, Part Twelve of the league rules. Mr. Murphy is the guarantor of all said contracts and is therefore subject to penalty as set forth by the Commissioner—permanent expulsion from the League without pay or benefits.” Fiona took her chair when she finished. 

Tony stood, a stack of books containing the rules and bylaws of the League, on the table in front of him. “Your Honor,” he began, “I intend to show today that, not only did Mr. Anduin Murphy do nothing wrong with the specified contracts, but that there is a personal animus against Mr. Murphy by the Commissioner and her husband, Devin Jones. I maintain he was within League rules when he signed the original contracts. I intend to prove such.” He walked to where the mediators sat and turned his attention to them. “Mr. Murphy is not guilty of the violations of which the League has accused him, and I will seek reinstatement to his previous position of Team Manager.” He bowed his head and looked at the judge. “Your Honor.” 

Fiona stood again, the copies of Andy’s contracts in her hand. “Your Honor, I wish to submit these as evidence, along with a hard copy of the Rules and Regulations. You will see the obvious violation of standards by Mr. Murphy, highlighted in yellow.” 

The judge took the paperwork from Fiona and perused the contents. “Mr. Cardona? Do you have a rebuttal to this?” 

Tony stood, confident. He held the original copy of the Rules and Regulations book from the stated time period. “Your Honor, I wish to submit this book as evidence. This is the original book of Rules and Regulations from ten years ago. In it, you will find no clause that prohibits a team manager, or anyone else, from paying out benefits to a contract beneficiary. In fact, Your Honor, on the Commissioner’s copy, you will find a revision date. What is that date?” 

The judge compared the two sets of rules. “One was revised six months ago; the other, not since the original vote. The latter is the one you submitted, Mr. Cardona.” 

“When was the original infraction discovered in the contract, Madam Commissioner?” 

Fiona felt the blood drain from her face. To stall him, she shuffled papers around, searching for the answer she already knew. 

“Madam Commissioner? We’re waiting for an answer,” said the judge. 

She stood, her head lowered. “Five months ago, Your Honor.” 

“Isn’t it true, Madam Commissioner, that you revised the rules yourself in order to trap Mr. Murphy in a contract violation? Isn’t it true, Mr. Jones, that YOU’VE had enmity toward Mr. Murphy for the past twelve years? Isn’t it also true that this personal animosity played a large role in the decision to revise said rules and regulations?” 

The accusations, while true, had Fiona flustered. Devin looked at her and motioned her to him. They whispered among themselves for a moment, and Fiona looked at the judge. 

“This is a total fabrication! Outright lies!” Fiona blurted out. 

“Be careful, Madam Commissioner. I don’t tolerate lies in this courtroom,” the judge spoke. “May I remind you, you are under oath.”  

She knew Tony outsmarted her on the rules, but she was positive he could never prove that her husband held a grudge against Andy Murphy. The evidence didn’t exist. Devin had assured her. 

Tony stood, his posture displayed confidence. “I would like to call Anduin Murphy to the witness stand, Your Honor.” 

The judge nodded. “Mr. Murphy, I’d like to remind you that you’re under oath.” Andy returned his nod and sat on the judge’s left side. 

Tony approached the witness stand. “Sir, please state your name for the court?” 

“Anduin Rowan Murphy.”

“And, Mr. Murphy, are you related to the plaintiff?” 

Andy nodded. “Yes. Mr. Jones is my wife’s brother.”

“What is the nature of your relationship with Mr. Jones?” 

Andy clenched his teeth and wished Danae weren’t there. “Tense. Hostile. My wife is afraid of him. I have permanent scarring and injury in my knee from an unprovoked attack during a game in Starlight Shores.” 

The judge looked at Devin. “You attacked him? You are fortunate he didn’t press charges, Mr. Jones.” 

Devin only shrugged. 

Tony paced the floor in front of the witness stand. “So, Mr. Murphy, would you say that Mr. Jones is a danger to you and your family?” 

Andy paused, took a deep breath, and exhaled. “If Danae fears him, then I will do everything in my power to keep him away from her and my children. I won’t take any chances with my family.” He clasped his hands together. “He is brazen enough to attack me in the open. I don’t know what he would do when he thinks no one is watching him.”

The judge nodded in agreement. “I can’t say whereas I blame you, Mr. Murphy. Any further questions, Mr. Cardona?” 

“Just one more, Your Honor. Mr. Murphy, how long has Mr. Jones held this grudge against you?” 

Andy held his breath for a moment to think, sat up in his seat, and shook his head. “When I worked for Mrs. Jones at the Starlight Shores Llamas, Mr. Jones had several conduct violations against him, and I terminated his position on the team. That is when all of this began.” 

“No more questions,” Tony announced. The judge motioned to Andy, and he took his seat next to Kirby.

Fiona stood. “This is ridiculous! You can’t prove any of your allegations, Mr. Cardona!”

Tony spoke once again. A wry smile pulled his face. “Your Honor, I would like to submit these emails sent by Mr. Devin Jones to Sharks’ Center Midfielder Wyatt Searcy. You will find these documents applicable to this case.”

Devin’s jaw dropped open. Fiona glared at him, sat beside him, and yanked on his arm. “What does he have, Devin?! You swore to me there was no evidence!” 

Devin shrugged and lied to her. “I don’t know what he’s talking about, Fi!” 

She grumbled under her breath, stewing over the blatant lies Devin piled on top of her. “Do NOT talk to me!” she growled. 

The judge looked through the papers that Tony had submitted. “There are photos with this email?” he asked, and Tony nodded. “I’d like to see them.” 

Andy’s body stiffened as he gripped the arms of his chair. But Kirby reached and squeezed his arm. “It’s okay,” Kirby whispered. “Tony has the intimate parts censored. The judge only needs to see intent, not the actual photo.” 

“I was hoping we’d be able to save Danae from that humiliation, Kirby. She’s had more than enough.” Andy rubbed his temples with his thumbs, turned around, and saw Danae wipe tears from her eyes. He mouthed the words, “I’m sorry,” to her. All he wanted was to hold and comfort her. 

Tony presented the photos to the judge, and said, “I’d like to call Wyatt Searcy to the witness stand, Your Honor.” 

Tony’s announcement shocked Andy, who spun around to see his best friend smiling at him. Wyatt, who slipped into the courtroom undetected, was a surprise witness for Andy. Fiona’s angry gaze met Tony, and she objected.

“What is HE doing here?” Fiona growled.

Tony walked to the plaintiff’s table. “Mr. Searcy has some pertinent information about this case, and that email in particular. His testimony will apply to the topic at hand.” 

The judge swore Wyatt in, and he took his seat on the judge’s left side. Tony approached him. 

“Sir, please state your name for the court?” 

“Wyatt Eugene Searcy.” 

“And Mr. Searcy, what is your relationship to the defendant?” Tony asked him.

Wyatt smiled and leaned forward to speak into the microphone. “Andy and I go back to Starlight Shores. He was the first real friend I had in the Shores after my transfer from Appaloosa Plains. He recruited me to the Sharks team after he moved here. Andy’s my best friend in the entire world.”

Tony smiled. “Please tell me about the email in question, Mr. Searcy. When did you receive it from the plaintiff, and under what circumstances?”

Wyatt cleared his throat. “When Lionel O’Reilly owned the Llamas and still lived, his locker room policy was simple: No talkin’ garbage about anyone’s family. Period. If they weren’t there to defend themselves, they were off-limits. But Devin, uhm, I mean Mr. Jones, loved to talk about his sisters, both Danae and Darcey, like they were women of ill-repute.” Wyatt blushed. “Well, those were my cousins he’s talkin’ about, and I don’t take too kindly to people pickin’ on innocent womenfolk, either.”

“Anyway, a rumor started around the locker room about the time Andy and Danae moved from the city, that Devin had some naked pictures of Danae cheatin’ on Andy.” Wyatt hung his head, breaking eye contact with Devin Jones. “Well, at first I didn’t believe him, because I know Miss Danae loves her husband. We went back and forth over whether them pictures were real, and I told him I doubted him. So I asked him for the proof.” He paused for a moment. “His email arrived that night. I only ever saw one picture. But it was enough.”

Tony paced the floor in front of the witness stand. “So, you approached Mr. Murphy with the email and photos, Mr. Searcy?” 

Wyatt shook his head. “No, sir. At first, I confronted Danae, because the photo I saw was pretty convincing. I wanted to know if they were real. That was the weekend we were here for negotiations, Aaron and me. Andy was so angry I had ‘em, but when I explained why, he forwarded the mail to his own address to keep.”

“And why did Mr. Murphy want to keep these photos of his wife, Mr. Searcy?”

Wyatt grinned. “Andy knew Devin was spreadin’ lies about his wife, but he could do nothin’ about it. He wanted proof that everything Devin was doin’ was false, made up. Not true. He had a bunch of us watching Devin, collecting evidence for him. The pictures, I reckon, were the most helpful of everything we gathered.”

Tony winked at Wyatt. “Thank you, Mr. Searcy. I have no further questions.” 

The judge dismissed Wyatt from the witness stand and then stood. “I’m taking time to review the emails and photos. The court will take a ten minute recess,” he announced. With the bang of a gavel, he retired to his chambers, Andy’s evidence in his hands. 

Ten minutes later, the judge returned from his chambers, still holding the paperwork both parties had submitted. He sat down, cleared his throat, and spoke. 

“With the evidence I’ve received from both parties, and considering Mr. Searcy’s and Mr. Murphy’s testimonies, I believe it’s obvious there was personal animosity toward the defendant. I believe it’s fair to conclude this conflict was the sole reason the contract violations occurred. On the same note, it’s also fair to conclude the Commissioner revised the rules to trap the defendant in said violations. Do you have any other evidence against Mr. Murphy, Madam Commissioner?” 

Fiona shook her head in utter defeat. “No, Your Honor.” 

“Mr. Cardona, I rule in favor of your client, Mr. Anduin Murphy. I recommend his immediate reinstatement in his former position with the Isla Paradiso Sharks, with full reimbursement of lost wages, paid by the League Commissioner.”

The judge turned to Fiona. “Madam Commissioner, you have committed grievous offenses against the Professional Football League with your biased judgments. I will recommend to the Board of Directors they scrutinize and punish your actions since assuming your role as Commissioner, according to your misconduct, up to and including removal from your position—”

“With all due respect, Your Honor, you have no jurisdiction over League business—” Fiona said, but the judge interrupted her with the bang of his gavel. 

“Madam Commissioner, I am surprised you don’t yet recognize me. I sit on the League’s Board of Directors, and to be frank, I outrank you. I have every right to suggest your reprimand to the Board.” 

Fiona stood and pointed her finger at the judge. “Yours must have been the missing vote! Your Honor, this was no impartial judgment, and I demand a—” 

“Madam Commissioner, you will not disrespect me in my courtroom, or I will hold you in contempt. You’re treading on thin ice.” Fiona sat back in her seat, her arms folded and an angry scowl on her face.

The judge turned his attention to Devin. “Mr. Jones, effective today, you will not come within ten feet of Anduin Murphy. You will not contact Mrs. Murphy or any of her children. Those photos of your sister are shameful, and it’s clear you have psychological issues. Get some professional help. Are we clear on this, Mr. Jones?” 

Devin took a deep breath, glared at Fiona, then at Andy—his gaze shifted back to the judge. “Yes, Your Honor.” 

“If there are no further objections, I adjourn this hearing,” the judge announced.

Andy stood, feeling an enormous weight lifted from his shoulders. Kirby embraced him in a tight hug. “Congratulations, though I never doubted the outcome. Your car is in the parking lot. I drove it here to give it back.” Kirby dangled on his finger the key to the car Andy had returned four weeks earlier—his brand new Bugatti Chiron. “Welcome back home, son.”

“Kirby, thank you for never giving up. The nightmare is over.” Danae stood, waiting to congratulate him. When he saw her, he kissed and hugged her to him and whispered into her ear, “Baby, I’m so sorry about those pictures—”

“Shh, it’s okay,” she whispered back. “They helped you win this case today. Besides, it looks like we’re finished with Devin.”

He brushed a stray lock of hair from her face and kissed her again. “You’re still way too forgiving.” 

She smiled. “Only you, babe. I’ll never forgive my brother. He is a sick man.”

“He is, but it’s over. All of it. Tony has the restraining papers issued by the court for us to sign, and it’s done. No more Devin, baby.” 

Andy felt a strong tap on his shoulder, and when he looked up, Tony stood, waiting for a handshake. “You did it, Andy. Good job.” 

“Thank YOU, Tony. I couldn’t have done any of this without your guidance and coaching. I owe you my life.” 

“It’s my job. Congratulations!” Tony took Andy’s hand and shook it with a firm grip. “Kirby knew something was shady when he called me. I’m glad he brought you home so we could make this right.” 

“Thanks, Tony. Me too.” Danae sidled up to Andy and took his arm. “Are you ready to go, my sweet?” 

Danae smiled and nodded. “Let’s go home and celebrate.” 

In the excitement and commotion, Fiona and Devin slipped from the courtroom unnoticed.

*****

Devin Jones stormed out of the courthouse door, livid that his last chance to give Anduin Murphy a final, metaphorical “bird” had slipped through his fingers. His wife, Fiona, was on his heels, just as angry. 

“What the hell was THAT back there?” Devin screamed at her. “You should have made this foolproof!”

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“YOU ruined everything with those emails, you idiot! What were you thinking?” Fiona growled back.

“Murphy shouldn’t have had that email and the pictures, Fi!” He slammed his fist into his open hand. “I sent those to Searcy in strict confidence!”

“You’re not very sharp, are you?! Searcy and Murphy are best friends! What made you think Wyatt would keep them to himself? And what kind of freak takes naked pictures of his sister, anyway? You’re a sick man, Devin.”

“Hey, I didn’t take those pictures! I just edited them. It was part of a bigger plan.” 

“Yeah? How’d that work out for you? You don’t think past the end of the week! I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to fail.”

“Well, you’ve failed me in every way, you useless bitch.” Devin spat on the ground near her feet.

“What did you just call me?” she snarled at him. 

“You heard me, woman.” His hateful gaze met hers. “You’re a complete waste of my time.” 

“I wasn’t expecting Kemp’s lawyer to be that on top of things. How was I supposed to know he had the originals of those books?!” Fiona paced outside the courthouse in the parking lot. It didn’t matter that the press were everywhere, catching the biggest story in the country. 

“You ask questions, genius!” Devin paced the ground in front of her. “You had one job, Fi, and that was Murphy’s demise! Why do you think I helped you become commissioner?”

Fiona looked at him in shock. “Oh, my goodness! You were just… using me?” The awful realization hung over her head.

“Well, look who figured out the obvious. Congratulations, stupid.”

“You contemptible son-of-a—” She planted her knee into his groin and put him on the ground. “I gave up a happy marriage for you!” 

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Devin fell to his knees, retching from pain. “Yeah, about that. You shouldn’t have left Cael.” 

“How could you, Devin?! I fell in love with you!” 

“There’s no such thing as love, Fi. You used me as much as I used you. We were together for one reason, and love wasn’t it.” Devin struggled to his feet. “You’ll hear from my lawyer. It’s a good thing my pre-nup is solid.” 

“Devin, please…” Fiona fell to her knees. “Please don’t leave me here like this!” 

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“Yeah, don’t call me. Goodbye, Fiona.” Devin straightened up his suit, dug the keys from his pocket, and walked to the car. He backed out from the lot and spun his tires before he drove away, leaving Fiona in a crumpled, sobbing heap in front of the courthouse.

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G1 Chapter Seventeen, Part One – Destiny’s Surprise

Two Weeks Later

Charlie tiptoed into the room as he heard Fran talking on the phone, her tone and demeanor telegraphing both irritation and frustration.

“I don’t care if you don’t have a moving van, Jason! You need to come get your stuff!” Fran had grown tired of arguing with Jason ten minutes earlier and now wondered if she were getting through to him at all. “You don’t live here anymore! I NEED you to MOVE OUT!”

“I’m still hoping you’ll change your mind, Fran. When can I see you? C’mon, when is your next shift?” Jason implored as he paced the floor of his empty apartment, his cell phone digging into his hand from the grip he had on it. He’d already given the landlord his notice, with his plans to move into the farmhouse with Fran. Then dead Charlie had to show up and spoil everything.

“I quit the diner yesterday, Jason. I won’t be working there anymore.” Charlie moved towards Fran, poised to speak, but she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and waved with her free hand, gesturing Charlie to stay back and silent. “Please, Jason, I’m DONE asking and I will not beg. Either come get your stuff or it goes out to the curb as trash. You choose!”

“But, Fran—” Jason tried to interject.

“No… no buts. This is it, Jason. I mean it! You have until Sunday night!” She slammed the phone down and plopped, exhausted, on their bed. Fran buried her face into her hands and sighed. “WHAT on Earth did I see in him?”

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Charlie walked up to Fran, placed his gentle hands on her shoulders, and began to massage them. “Hmm. Let’s see. He’s young. He’s handsome. And I… was dead. I can see what attracted you to him, darling, but he’s harder to get rid of than a stray cat!” 

She took his hand and nuzzled her face into it. “You’ve been so understanding and patient. It couldn’t have been easy to deal with.” He walked to where she sat, took her hand, and pulled her up. He sat, then she settled into his lap, wrapped around him. She loved being this close to him.

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“It doesn’t matter now, honey. We’re a family again. You’ll have help with the farm this year. We can make it bigger than it’s ever been.” 

Fran groaned with displeasure. More seedlings meant more work. “Don’t forget, we’re older than we’ve ever been, too. How did Mama do it, Charlie?”

“She had to, Frannie. You were her responsibility.”

“That’s true, and our situation isn’t much different. We still need to feed our family. Are you sure we’ll be able to make ends meet without the diner job? It isn’t a problem to work a few days a week.”

“My retirement from the military won’t be as much as my salary, but they owe me some retroactive pay. If we save it, we’ll be just fine.” He brushed a lock of hair away from her face. 

“Is that a sure thing? Can Dan mess it up? I know you’re retiring against his wishes.”

“Remember the village I told you about? The one where I lived right after the mission, Frannie?”

She nodded her head. “Yes.”

“I have some information about that village that Dan would rather I didn’t.”

“So, you have some leverage over him.”

“If he tries anything, he knows I could testify against him and end his career. I don’t think he’ll be that stupid, sweetie.”

Fran opened her mouth to speak, but a sudden wave of nausea swept over her. “I’m gonna be sick,” she said before she darted to the bathroom. Charlie followed her in.

“That was sudden. Are you okay?”

She knelt on the floor and held the toilet with a death grip. “I don’t think so—” she squeaked out before dropping her head into the toilet bowl and vomiting. When she finished, she flushed and rested her elbows on the seat. “I haven’t felt this sick since I was… pregnant—” She stopped short and bit her tongue, but the word still slipped out. Oh no… 

Charlie felt the blood drain from his face. He hadn’t considered it could be a possibility. “Could you be, Frannie? Pregnant, that is?”

She shook her head. “No. I couldn’t be. No…”

“You don’t sound so certain.”

Fran was forty-five years old, forty-six on her next birthday. Pregnancy should have been impossible. But as she sat on the floor in their bathroom, she had a sinking feeling in her gut, a feeling which prompted another round of vomiting. Now she needed to confess to Charlie the depth of her relationship with Jason, a topic she’d hoped to avoid. What she had done would hurt him. Tears welled in her eyes. “I’m not.”

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He stepped back from her and fell back against the wall. Shocked was an understatement, but he wondered why he was. “I see…” were the two words he eked out.

“I’m so sorry, Charlie…” Fran looked up at her husband, tears rolling down her cheeks. 

“There’s no need to apologize, Frannie. You believed I was dead, and I know you loved him. It was a natural progression for a serious relationship like yours. You both had needs and desires…”

“But—” She blinked back tears between the waves of nausea. Ugh! I don’t feel well, and this isn’t helping.

He knelt down beside her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “No ‘buts’. I’m not going anywhere. If you’re carrying his child, Frannie, we’ll handle it. I love you. I want you to know that.”

She shook her head. “I’m not worthy of you, Charlie. This is just one more heartache you don’t deserve—”

“That’s where you’re wrong, my darling. I know I’ve put you through hell more times than I can count, but we’ve agreed to not keep score.” Charlie replied, one of his wry smiles pulling his face. It gave Fran a spark of hope that everything would be okay. Eventually.

Fran nodded her head. “I need to call Jason and tell him what’s going on. He should go with me when I see Starla.”

“I agree. IF you’re pregnant with his child, then it’s his right to know. But I’ll be here waiting for you at home when you need me.” He held his hand for her. “Do you need some help up, love?”

“Thank you.” With her hands in his, he stood up and he pulled her to her feet. “I’ll make an appointment with the doctor right now, then I’ll call him.”

“While you’re doing that, I’ll go feed the horses and check on Marne. She was stumbling a bit when I saw her last night. I’ll give Sweetie a carrot or two, as well.”

“Yes, I noticed that, too. Thank you for taking such good care of them. Sweetie missed you, you know.”

He smiled. “I missed her, too. Maybe I’ll take her for a ride to the equestrian center while you’re with Jason.”

Charlie headed to the barn while Fran dialed her doctor’s number and made the appointment. Her next phone call would be difficult, considering how she ended the previous call. She dialed Jason’s cell number. He answered before it rang one time.

“I knew it! You changed your mind, didn’t you, baby?” was his hopeful greeting.

“I need to talk to you, Jason. It’s important, but I don’t want you to read anything into it. Pick me up in an hour. I have a doctor’s appointment and I need you there with me.”

“What’s wrong? Are you okay? Did Charlie hurt you? I’ll kill him if he hurts you—”

“It’s nothing like that. I’m late. And I’ve been throwing up.”

“Late…?” Jason responded, the question clear in his voice.

“Yes, Jason, late. Like the kind of late that starts with a capital L and ends with a baby.”

“You mean—you’re pregnant?!” Jason paused for a moment. A really pregnant pause if ever there was one, Fran thought. “Oh Fran, you can’t just dump me if we’re pregnant. I want you to involve me in everything, baby.”

“Slow down a bit,” she laughed despite herself. “That’s why I have the appointment. IF I’m pregnant, you’re in my life forever, whether or not I want you there. But it changes nothing between us. I’m still married, Jason. Charlie is my soulmate and the father of my daughter.”

“But I’ll be the father of our baby.”

“Let’s not put the cart before the horse. That’s what we’ll find out from the doctor. Please don’t get so excited that you’ll be devastated if I’m not, okay?”

“When can I pick you up?” Jason ignored the last comment she made. He knew in his heart she was pregnant. She had to be. A baby with her was his heart’s desire, his last chance to hold on to her.

“In an hour. When I’m ready, I’ll meet you by the mailbox.”

“I can’t wait, Fran. I’ll be there!” As she hung up, she couldn’t fault the man for being excited. Somewhere in her soul, the thought of another baby excited her. It also terrified her.

A few minutes later, Charlie walked back into the house and shivered. “I’m not taking Sweetie anywhere. It’s already drizzling, and she gets squirrelly in the rain. Tomorrow’s another day.” He slipped his riding boots from his feet and set them by the fireplace to dry. “Is he taking you to the doctor?” he asked as he sat down in his chair.

She nodded. “He’ll be here in an hour to get me.” She walked to where he sat in his recliner. “I’m so sorry I even have to do this, Charlie. I didn’t want to hurt you.”

He held his arms open for her and she resumed her place in his lap. “Honey, we’re going to be okay, no matter what happens. I promise.” He peered out the window at the building clouds and the rain pattering against the glass. “Please be careful out there, sweetheart. It’s supposed to change to freezing rain.”

“Jason’s a skillful driver, Charlie. He’s used to snow and ice and he knows how to drive in it.” She snuggled into his arms. “Destiny had a field trip today, so she might be a little late.”

He kissed her cheek and held her close. “I’ll wait in the rain, snow or hail for that little girl, honey. It doesn’t bother me.”

“How’s Marne?”

“She’s okay today, but I don’t know if she’ll survive another harsh winter. She’s not a young mare anymore. I’ll make sure I put some extra hay and another blanket in her stall.”

“I hate that she’s failing. It isn’t fair…”

Charlie hugged her. “She’ll tell us when it’s time, love. Until then, we just love her and take care of her. The rest is in God’s hands.” Fran only nodded, her words choked with grief.

*****

The rain had transitioned to sleet as Charlie watched Fran from the house. Jason pulled up to the mailbox and put the truck in park. He got out and swaggered to greet Fran, a bouquet of red roses in his hand. An ember of anger swelled deep within Charlie’s chest.

“Hello, Jason,” Fran said in a cool tone. “The flowers weren’t necessary, you know.”

“Nonsense! Of course they were! They’re not as beautiful as you, but they’re as close as I could get to perfect.” Jason took her hand and kissed it.

Fran blushed, her cheeks hot with emotion. Despite his stubbornness and Charlie’s return, she still felt twinges of love for this desperate man. “Please don’t, Jason. I’m begging you.”

“I’m just pampering the mother of my child, Fran.” He opened the truck door and helped her into the cab. “Are you comfortable, baby?”

She nodded, but huffed under her breath. “Yes.”

He closed the door and ran to his side, slipping on the accumulating ice. When he got to his feet, he opened the door and grinned. “Oops!”

Fran wanted to laugh, but she stifled the giggles by biting her tongue. “Nice move, Scott Hamilton.”

Jason smiled. “Just like old times, baby. You still love me. I can see it in your eyes.”

She couldn’t deny his words, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She shook her head. “I’m married. It can’t go further than this, Jason. You know that.”

Ten minutes later, they arrived at the doctor’s office. Jason opened the door and took her hand as they walked together. After she checked in, they sat together quietly in the waiting room. Or so Fran had hoped.

“I’m thinking of names,” Jason said. “I’m thinking Natalie for a girl or Thomas for a boy? What if it’s twins? Twins run in my family, you know. We could have a boy and a girl, or twin boys or twin girls…”

Fran closed her eyes and shook her head. “You’re getting way ahead of yourself, Jason. We don’t even know if I’m pregnant yet.”

He grinned at her. “Of course we do! You said you were late, and you spent the morning throwing up. What other evidence do you need, baby?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, a pregnancy test would be nice so we know either way.”

Jason started to speak when the nurse called them back, an action Fran was thankful for. She took Fran’s vital signs and jotted them into her chart. “The doctor will be in soon, Mrs. Farmer.”

Jason took her hand and squeezed it. “I know you say you love Charlie, Fran, but you can’t deny you love me, too. I see it in your eyes, on your face. Baby, please think about being with me if we’re expecting my child?”

“Jason, you’re being impossible. I can’t! How many more ways can I say it—” Jason opened his mouth to speak—a soft knock sounded on the exam room door. 

“Hello, Fran, long time no see.” Dr. Starla Engle said as she entered the room, a smile crossing her face. “And who is this young man?” Jason stood to shake the doctor’s hand, wearing a huge grin.

“Jason Matthews, ma’am!” he said with great enthusiasm, clasping her free hand in his. Dr. Engle shot a look over at Frannie and read desperation in her eyes.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Matthews. And your relationship to Mrs. Farmer…?”

“Boyfriend. Father of her—”

“Ex-boyfriend…” Frannie muttered, cutting Jason off. “And, the father of the baby if I’m pregnant.”

“Ah, well. Mr. Matthews, I’m going to ask you to step outside for a few moments while I do the initial exam.”

“But I—”

“Out, Mr. Matthews. Per HIPAA guidelines.” Dr. Engle said, her hand gesturing toward the door.

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Jason knew he was fighting a losing battle, so he stepped out of the exam room door. “I’ll be right outside when you need me, Fran—”

“OUT!!” Dr. Engle emphasized again, pushing the door shut behind him.

“Thank you, Doctor Engle,” Fran sighed with relief. 

“You looked like you needed a break,” the doctor smiled. “And since when are we so formal, Fran? You and I’ve known each other too long for you to call me ‘Doctor Engle,’” she chuckled. 

“I know, Starla, I know. I’m just so confused and conflicted right now, I can’t seem to think straight.”

“Well, why don’t we start with you telling me what is going on! Fran, I thought Charlie was back home?”

“He is, Starla, and I’m so beyond happy to have him home. But when I thought he had died, I met Jason down at the diner and we started dating and then…”

“You did what any sane, red-blooded woman would do. You got yourself a boyfriend. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that, Fran. You’re only human.”

“I feel terrible, and not just for me. This affects Charlie and Jason, too.” 

“You know, Fran, you can call me anytime if you just need to talk.” She patted her friend on the shoulder. “Are you ready for Hurricane Jason?” Fran nodded her head and laughed. Starla peeked her head outside the door. “We’re ready for you, Mr. Matthews.” 

“Jason,” he corrected her. “Please, call me Jason.” He walked to the exam table, sat, and took Fran’s hand into his, a huge grin on his face.  

“Well, let’s see if Destiny will have a brother or sister, shall we?”

Please let there be nothing, Fran prayed. Jason took her hand while Dr. Engle performed the exam. 

Two sets of prayers went up; one prayed in desperation for a baby, the other prayed just the opposite with matching fervor. No one spoke a word while the three of them sat, holding their breath, staring at the ultrasound machine. “How late are you, Fran?” Starla asked.

She thought for a moment. They’d been together once, about a month before Charlie reappeared. “About three weeks? It was only one time, and it shouldn’t have happened, but—” Fran stopped and blushed. She didn’t enjoy discussing her love life with anyone, doctors included.

“That was no accident, Fran,” Jason said. “It was natural and normal for two people in love—”

“Alright, please stop, Jason.” Fran glared at him. “Is there a problem?”

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“Only that I can’t find evidence of a pregnancy. Stop at the lab, and we’ll do the blood test. You can never be too cautious.” Starla scribbled a prescription on her notepad. “Start these anyway, just in case.”

Jason reached for the prescription. “When do we know the results of the blood test?”

Starla looked at the eager young man. She knew what Jason saw in Fran. She wondered how Fran could fall for someone so much younger. “A couple of days, tops. I will expedite it, how’s that?”

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“Sounds good.” He reached to shake her hand while Fran relaxed on the table. Then Jason heard the sudden sound of Fran retching and rushed to her aid with a trash bin in his hand. “Are you okay, baby?”

She shook her head and retched again. A chill ran over her skin, and she groaned in discomfort. “I think I might have my answer on being sick. I feel terrible. Destiny was sick a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it’s still going around.”

Starla measured her temperature with a forehead scanner. “Your temperature has gone up two degrees since you’ve been here. Stop by the lab, anyway.” She looked at Fran’s death grip on the trash can and chuckled. “Take that with you.”


Three Days Later

Fran was resting on the sofa when the phone rang. Charlie was taking care of the horses, mucking the stalls and grooming Sweetie, and Destiny was in her room, playing with Angaloo. She reached for the handset, and the ringing ceased when she answered the call.

“Hello?”

“Hi Fran, this is Starla. I know you already counted on this, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, but your pregnancy test was negative. Your… um…” She wasn’t sure what to say. “I know this will disappoint Jason, and maybe you.”

Relief washed over Fran, and she let out an audible sigh. “Charlie has been understanding, but I think a baby would push the boundaries of his tolerance. I’m happy, even if Jason won’t be.” 

“How are you feeling?” 

“I’m better, but still weak as a newborn kitten. Charlie and Destiny are taking good care of me, though.”

Starla smiled. Never had she met a couple cuter than Charlie and Fran Farmer. “I’m glad to hear it. I guess I’ll see you around, then.” 

“Mmhmm,” Fran said. “Thank you, Starla.” She let her head fall backward as she hung up. She knew she needed to tell Jason, but she dreaded the phone call. He was so excited about the baby. She didn’t want to be the one to break his heart. At every turn, Jason had gotten the short stick. But this one would hurt the most. Her fingers pressed his too-familiar phone number into the keypad, but his voice mail answered. Rather than hang up, she left a message:

Jason, this is Fran. Call me when you can. I have the test results, but I’d rather tell you in person. We’ll talk soon.

Satisfied, Fran rested her head back on the sofa, covered up with an afghan, and closed her eyes to rest. 

About an hour later, Charlie noticed Jason’s pickup when he parked it in the driveway. What are you doing here? He thought to himself, and hurried inside. If he was here to cause fireworks with Fran, Charlie would extinguish the punk before Jason lit them.

A heavy knock sounded at the front door. Charlie was already in the kitchen before Fran got up. “I’ll get it, love,” he yelled to her, walking faster than he was able. When she opened the front door, Charlie stood beside her. Jason was not pleased to see him with her.

“Hi Jason,” she greeted him and invited him inside. 

“Hello little mama,” Jason said and stepped into the living room. He looked at Fran with love in his eyes and hope in his heart. He wanted this baby more than he realized, and he hoped she did, too. “What’s the good word?”

Fran noticed his cheerful expression and felt guilty. This will hurt you, and I don’t want to say it. “Well, I have some good news, and some bad news.” 

“What’s the good news?” Charlie asked. 

She turned to Charlie, his hands in hers. “I’m not pregnant.” Charlie’s smile was unmistakable, but from the corner of her eye, she saw Jason’s countenance fall.

“It’s not true,” Jason cried. Oh, please no… “It can’t be true. Fran… please…” A single tear formed in the corner of his golden brown eyes. His lip quivered. His shoulders heaved with sorrow. No…

She buried her face in her hands. The tears in his eyes tore her heart to shreds. “I’m sorry, Jason. The results are back. It was negative.” 

“I see. I guess I’ll move out by Sunday.” He couldn’t have gotten worse news, and with it came the death knell of his relationship with Fran. Jason’s heart ached with unimaginable loss. “No, you know what? Keep it, all of it. This is all junk to me now.” He turned to leave, but Fran caught his arm.

“Jason, wait—”

“No, Fran. You’ve made your choice. You’re not carrying my baby, and it’s obvious you don’t love me. What’s the point of all this stuff,” he waved his hands for effect, “if you’re not with me to enjoy it?”

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He wiped tears from his eyes. “Goodbye, Fran.”

Though this was the result she desired, she underestimated how much it would hurt to hear those words. You’re wrong, she thought. I do still love you, but I can’t have you. She took from her ears the diamond earrings he had given her, attached them to one another, and tried to hand them to Jason. “You should have these back.”

Jason pushed her hands away from him as a tear dropped onto his shirt. “You know how to wound me, woman. I bought those for you, and I’d like you to keep them.” His breath hitched as he tried to swallow his emotion. “Please, Fran. They’re no good to me.” She shook her head, but he closed her fingers around the studs and held her hands in his. “If you don’t want them, give them to Destiny when she gets older. Tell her they’re from me. But I don’t want them back.”

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“I’m so sorry, Jason. I-I never meant to hurt you.” Fran wept bitter tears. Her hands trembled with emotion. She set the earrings on the end table before she dropped them. 

Jason looked at Charlie with disgust. How he despised the man who stood with her, the one she chose over him. “Yeah, well, that’s a moot point now.” Jason kicked the floor with his boot and rubbed his neck. This sucks, he thought. “I’m leaving town by next week. I have no reason to stay. Not anymore.” 

“What should I tell Destiny?” 

“Tell her whatever you want. I’ll miss you, and I will love you forever, sweetheart, but I can’t stay in the Plains and live in his shadow.” Jason scowled at Charlie and clenched his fist, but then relaxed it. Though he wanted to, decking him would make things worse. He sniffled and reached for the door. “Goodbye, baby. And congratulations, dead man. You win.” Jason said nothing more as he left the farmhouse.

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Charlie closed the door with a gentle push. He understood the gravity of the situation. “Oh my darling, I’m so sorry,” he whispered, and kissed her forehead. He noticed as her lip quivered. Charlie held his arms open to her, and she went to him—her body trembled with emotional suffering, and he held her close to him while she sobbed.

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Two Years Later

The front door of the farmhouse opened, and Charlie hobbled inside. The last steps to his chair were the longest. He clenched his teeth together—the throbbing in his leg was excruciating. The mail he gathered fell from his hand as he flopped into his recliner, his muttered curses barely audible when he bent to pick it up. “I’m getting too old for this crap.”

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Fran walked from the kitchen. “What’s wrong, babe?”

A painful hiss escaped his mouth. “Oh, this stupid leg. It’s getting harder and harder to put my weight on it. I know it didn’t heal well, but I hoped to get more miles on this model before I trade it in.” He tried to chuckle, but the pain prevented his attempt at jocularity. 

“What did your doctor say when you saw him?”

“It surprised him I’m still walking on it.” He grimaced in pain. “I think it’s time to talk about surgery. Or just cut the damned thing off.” 

She frowned at him. “You’re not in the Army anymore, Colonel. Please don’t cuss, and especially not around Desi.”

He gave her a sheepish grin. “I’m sorry, love.” 

“Will the military cover the surgery, since the injury happened in the line of duty?” 

“I’m not sure, darling. I’d have to check, but I’m sure I’m the last person Dan wants to see again.”

“I don’t give a flying fig about Dan, Charlie. We need to consider what’s best for our family!” 

He laughed. “You have a spunk and fire you didn’t have years ago, Frannie. It looks good on you. Dare I say it’s a little sexy?” 

Fran blushed, but winked at him. “I’m a mother. When it was just me and Destiny, I learned to be assertive.”  

“But I bet you still don’t know how to shoot my pistol, do you?” 

She snickered. “No comment.” 

He shook his head and laughed. 

*****

Days later, Charlie and Fran sat in the waiting room, scheduled for his consultation with an orthopedic surgeon. Their hands clasped together, Charlie played with the wedding ring on her finger. He wouldn’t admit he was nervous about this appointment, but he didn’t need to. The perspiration on his palms gave him away. 

“Are you doing okay, babe?” Fran asked. 

“No. I’m not looking forward to recovery, or the pain from it. The last time it broke, I was miserable for months.” 

Her charming smile soothed his anxious heart. “But this is different. You won’t be recovering in a makeshift infirmary this time. This hospital has the equipment they need to fix it.” She laid her head on his shoulder. “And, you’ll have me to dote on you. You didn’t have that last time.” 

Charlie couldn’t deny the last part was a definite perk. “I won’t be able to baby it. The therapy will be intensive so I don’t lose strength. Around the farm, I can’t afford to be off my feet forever.” 

“No comment on me doting on you?” 

“Well, that’ll be my favorite part.” He gave her an impish grin that made her giggle. There it is, he thought. That’s what I love to hear.

“Charles… Framer?” A nurse called out the name, a chart in her hands.

“It’s Farmer, but I’m here.” Charlie laughed. That’s a new one, he thought. 

“This way, please.” 

Charlie settled on an exam table and a tech set him up for an x-ray of his bad leg. When she finished, he sat up on the table and huffed the air from his lungs. He didn’t want to see the damage for himself. “The doctor will be here shortly.” 

“Thank you,” he said. “Darling, I have to admit I enjoy being in a doctor’s office much better when you’re the patient.” He knew a swat was coming his way, but he also knew he deserved it. What he got instead was Fran’s contagious, trademark laughter. 

“You’re still a brat.”

“Thank you. I try.” His sly smile made her laugh harder, which was for his own benefit. Her giggles made him happy, and he could never hear them enough.

It wasn’t long before the doctor entered the room and introduced himself. “I’m Dr. Owens. I’ve looked at your x-ray.” The doctor gazed at Charlie’s chart and set it down on the desk. “You stated this is a military injury. How did you break it?” 

“My plane went down during a mission. Somehow, I survived the crash, but my leg didn’t fare so well.”

“You survived a plane crash, and the only injury you had was a broken leg?” 

Charlie nodded. “Yes. I mean, I had some burns from jet fuel, but that was nothing compared to the leg.” 

“Well, to be honest, Charlie, I don’t know how you are walking on this.” He stuck the x-ray image on the backlit screen and pointed to the bone. The bones didn’t contact, save for a centimeter or two. “You shouldn’t bear weight on this until we can schedule you for surgery. If you can’t manage crutches, we can arrange for a wheelchair.”

This wasn’t good news for Charlie or Fran. With him off his feet, her workload around the farm doubled. “I’ll see if I can manage crutches. Our home can’t accommodate a wheelchair.” 

“Let’s try to get this scheduled for early next month. The nurse will get you set up for testing and preparation.”

“We own and operate a small farm. How long is the recovery time?” Charlie asked. He felt awful to stick a full summer of gardening and market on her shoulders while he recovered.

“You can expect to be on crutches for at least three months. Your physical therapy will coincide with that, though you might end it sooner if you’re regimented and faithful with it.”

Charlie gazed at Fran. “Can we afford for me to be out of commission that long?” 

Dr. Owens looked at both Charlie and Fran. “Let me put it this way, Charlie. Adding strain on an already-compromised bone puts you at risk for greater injury and more needless pain, not to mention more time away from your work on the farm.”

“Then, let’s do this.” Fran said. She reached for Charlie’s hand and squeezed it. “What do you think, Charlie?” 

He shrugged. “I guess I have no choice. We’ll schedule everything on our way out.” 

“You’ve made a wise decision, folks. I know it’s not ideal, but I will fix that leg. It’s a guarantee.” Dr. Owens shook Charlie’s hand with a firm, almost painful grip. 

“Thank you, doc,” Fran said.  

“Check with the nurse before you leave. She’ll get the process underway. And I’ll make sure you have a pair of crutches before you leave this office. You are not to bear any weight on that leg.”

“Sounds good.” Charlie grimaced at the thought. He would need to visit the base to consult with Dan about coverage. That was one chore he dreaded.


A couple of days later, Charlie parked his pickup in the “Visitor” area of the military base. He tucked all his paperwork from the hospital into a folder, which he carried inside a satchel. Still awkward on his crutches, he fumbled with the bag that crossed his body and sat on his left hip. “Oh, these freaking sticks!” he muttered under his breath. “I’m too old for this.” When he coordinated his crutches with the satchel, he made his way from the parking lot to the administration offices.

Maddy squealed when Charlie approached her desk. “Hiya Colonel!” she said, and hugged him. “What happened to your leg?” 

Charlie smiled at the warm welcome, but grimaced in pain. “This is the injury from the crash. The x-ray looks bad, which is why I needed to see Dan. I have some questions about coverage.”

“Oh!” Maddy exclaimed. “You poor man. Haven’t you been through enough?” 

Charlie laughed. “You know, Maddy, I ask myself that question every day!” 

“I’ll let General Rhoades know you’re here, Colonel.” 

“Thank you.”

Moments later, Dan emerged from his office. Farmer was the last person on Earth he wished to see. “Colonel Farmer. Good to see you.” Dan gritted his teeth and hoped his greeting at least sounded sincere.

“General,” he nodded. “Likewise.” Charlie’s answer was curt, but cordial. Being sullen wouldn’t help his cause, and he needed Dan’s advice and help.

“Step into my office.” Dan allowed Charlie to enter first and followed him inside. When the men sat at the desk, Dan folded his hands on his desk and swallowed hard. “What can I do for you, Farmer?” 

Charlie wiped the perspiration from his palms. “I have a question, perhaps a request regarding medical coverage for an upcoming surgery. The injury occurred in the line of duty.”

Dan tapped a few buttons on his computer and pulled up Charlie’s personnel file. “Is it your shoulder, Charlie?” 

He shook his head, looked at the crutches, and wondered if Dan was serious. “Um, no. I can’t walk on my right leg anymore. It broke when the plane crashed. I’m sure you recall—”

“Oh yes, your leg.” Dan paged through more of Charlie’s records and scratched his chin. “It seems the Army doesn’t recognize your leg injury as being service-connected. Since you did not wait for the recon mission to rescue you, the Army considered you detached.” 

Charlie was furious. “Detached? Let me see that!” He reached for the computer monitor to spin the display, but Dan blocked his action.

“I’m not joking, Colonel. It’s right here.” He turned the monitor around and pointed to the entry. “This comes from the top brass. See the signature? Not mine. I can’t overrule this decision. I’m sorry.” 

Charlie studied the screen and slumped in his chair. “I’m stuck footing the bill for this? Dan, you know this isn’t right! I’ve given the Army thirty years of my life, and this is my thanks?!”

“I’m sorry, Colonel. My hands are tied. You may appeal, but you know that will take years. It doesn’t look like you have that kind of time, my friend.” 

Charlie clenched his teeth together. He knew Dan was no friend, so his intimation of friendship was an insult. “How am I going to afford this?” 

“Well, the hospital works with impoverished folks—” 

“We are NOT impoverished! And it’s shameful how the Army is treating me after all my years of dedication and service!” Charlie shook his head and rubbed his temples. Fran wouldn’t like what he had to tell her. 

“I wish I could do something—”

“No, you don’t, Dan. I know you’re loving this, so don’t patronize me, and let’s not pretend that we’re buddies.”

“I never did like you, Farmer. Too bad you didn’t stay in. You could have been out of my hair, and I, from yours.” 

Charlie’s blood boiled. He knew the reason Dan wanted him out of Appaloosa Plains. “Well, I didn’t. Just remember, Dan. You have reason to be cordial to me. I never had an interest in pursuing your ‘mistake,’ but I can change my mind.” 

“Is that a threat, Farmer?” Dan tensed his muscles, his fists clenched and ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

“Let’s just say I’m reminding you. Remember, Dan. I’m a civilian. Or to use your term, ‘detached.’” Charlie maneuvered his crutches and stood. “You don’t have to show me out. I know my way.” 

Dan said nothing more, but watched as Charlie hobbled from his office.

*****

Destiny watched out of the front door, her little face pressed to the glass. “Where’s Daddy?” 

“He’ll be home soon, Sweet Pea. He had something to do at work.” Fran dusted the end tables in the sitting room. 

“Work?” She cocked her head. “Daddy doesn’t work anymore, Mama.” 

“Well,” Fran nodded. “The base, Desi. He had some business there.” Destiny was fidgety and excited. She knew their daughter had something on her mind. “What’s wrong, honey?” 

“I have a surprise!” she sang. “But I wanna wait for Daddy.” 

“What kind of surprise?” Fran asked, but Destiny shook her head and giggled. 

“Mama! I’m not telling!” She stood with her hands on her hips and huffed with exasperation. She looked so grown up that Fran laughed out loud. “What’s so funny?” 

“You are, you silly girl.” Fran walked to Destiny and booped her on the nose. “I can’t wait to hear your surprise.” 

“Me too!” She turned her attention back to the front door. “When’s Daddy coming home?” 

Fran rolled her eyes. That child has a one-track mind. “He’ll be home soon. Do you have homework?” 

“Nope.” 

“Then why don’t you go play upstairs?” 

“Do I have to, Mama?” 

Fran stood with her hands on her hips and the dust cloth in her hand. “Yes, you do. You don’t want me to tickle you, do you?” A wry smile pulled her face, and Destiny’s squeals and giggles filled the bottom floor of the house. 

“No!!” Her little feet couldn’t carry her up the stairs fast enough, with Fran on her heels to the bottom step. She collapsed into Charlie’s recliner and smiled. 

An hour later, Charlie’s slow ascent into the house ended with a huff and a dropped crutch. “Damn!” he cursed, propped up against the house to retrieve it from the porch. Fran stood at the door, about to help him, when he finally grasped it. 

“I heard that, Colonel,” she smiled. “It’s okay. She’s upstairs.” 

“I’m sorry, love. We need to talk. I didn’t get good news from Dan.”

She studied his face. His expression concerned her. “What’s wrong?” 

He hobbled to his chair and sat down harder than he intended. “We’re on the hook for this surgery, Frannie. The Army doesn’t consider the leg injury to be service-connected.” 

Her smile faded. “What? That’s ridiculous!”

“I know. I can appeal it, but we don’t have time to wait, especially since the doctor said it’s urgent.” He held his arms open for her, and she snuggled into his lap. “We have some in our savings we meant for a rainy day. I don’t suppose it gets rainier than this.” 

She rested her head on his good shoulder. “Are we ever going to catch a break, Charlie? I mean, really. I’m tired of struggling.” 

“We should have a good season if we can bring it all to market. But that’s a lot of strain on you, darling.” He buried his face in her hair and took a deep breath. Her fiery red mane smelled of strawberries, and he loved it.

“Well, we have an option, but I’m not sure how viable it is.” Her gaze shifted to the stairwell. “I can keep Destiny out of school next year and homeschool her so she can help me at the market and in the garden. She isn’t too young to learn hard work.” 

Charlie pulled back from her. “She’s only seven, Fran.” 

“I know. I hate to do it. She will miss her friends…” 

“Oh, sweetheart. There has to be another way.” 

“I can’t see how, Charlie. This is worse than getting the news about the surgery.” 

“Mama?” a faded voice from upstairs called. “Is Daddy—?” She stopped at the top of the steps and saw Charlie’s head in her view. “Daddy!” Her little feet ran down the steps as quickly as she could go, and she jumped into his lap with Fran. 

Fran caught her mid-jump, though the impact still made Charlie wince with pain. “Sweet Pea, you need to be careful with Daddy, okay?” 

Destiny stopped her giggles for a moment, looked into Charlie’s eyes, and smiled. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” 

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Charlie said. His lap, and his heart, were full. 

“So, Destiny, what is it you wanted to tell me and Daddy?” Fran kissed her cheek and the giggles resumed. 

“I was in music class today, and Miss Thompson from chapel is my teacher. She wants me to sing a solo at the chapel, Mama!”

“Really?” Fran had heard Destiny sing along to her favorite songs on the radio, but she never paid much attention. It was something Fran did when she was Destiny’s age, but she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. “This Sunday?” 

“Nuh uh, but soon! I’m so excited!” 

“I’ll have to call Miss Thompson and find out details, then.” 

“She said something about seeing you soon.” And then Fran remembered—parent-teacher meetings!

“Oh, drat! Charlie, we have to go to the school tonight to meet her teachers. Will you be okay to walk?”

“I should be. Who’s going to watch the half-pint?” Destiny giggled harder. She loved that nickname. 

“I can’t wait to be a full pint!” 

“It’s coming, Destiny,” Charlie laughed. Sooner than I want it to.

*****

Sunny and Caleb took Destiny while Fran and Charlie attended parent-teacher meetings. Fran looked forward to meeting with Sara Thompson, the school music teacher, and children’s choir director at the small chapel where they attended services. They sat outside the music room while the teacher finished with another couple. Fran fiddled with her hair. 

“Why are you nervous, Fran? This should be fun, not a chore. She’s brilliant, and she is never a problem.” 

“Something about this solo at the chapel has me uneasy. Charlie, have you heard her sing? I mean, really sing? She sings in the car to songs on the radio. But Charlie, that’s not a solo at the chapel!” 

“I’m sure Sara wouldn’t want her to sing if she wasn’t good, Frannie.”

“I can’t carry a tune.” 

“Well, it’s a good thing Sara didn’t ask you, then!” He prepared himself for a much-deserved swat, but she only laughed. 

A few minutes later, Sara Thompson called Fran and Charlie into the music room. Though she didn’t know the Farmers that well, Destiny was one of her favorite students. 

“Hi Mister an—”

“Please, call us Fran and Charlie,” Fran interrupted her. “It’s nice to meet you. Destiny talks about you and your music class all the time.” 

Sara nodded her head. “Destiny is my star student. She has such a beautiful voice, and she is learning three different instruments. She’s doing well at all three of them, too.” 

Charlie sat back in his chair. “Three?” This is news, he thought.

“Yes,” Sara said. “Guitar, piano, and drums. She wants to learn bass, but it’s a bit too big for her to handle. She’s quite talented, you know.” 

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“I didn’t know.” Fran tried to wrap her head around the new revelation. “She doesn’t talk about that stuff at home, only how much she loves your class.” 

“I’d love to feature her in a solo at the chapel, but only if it’s okay with you. I’d never place her into the choir without your permission, since she’s not already in the children’s choir. She should be, though. We could use a little girl with her talent.” Sara fiddled with a ring she wore on her left hand. “Would this be okay with you?” 

Fran caught Charlie’s incredulous gaze. They sat together, speechless, until Fran nodded. “I don’t see why not?” 

“By your reaction to all of this, I take it you haven’t heard your daughter sing. Miss Fran, she has the voice of an angel,” Sara said. “It’s a privilege to have such a talented student. She has a bright future ahead of her, if that’s what she wants.” 

Charlie shook his head. “No. She sings along with songs on the radio, but she doesn’t sing otherwise.”

“You have a tiny star, Mister Charlie. She’s going to be a big deal someday.” 

Fran smiled. “She’s already a big deal. We waited twenty years for her. She’s our biggest blessing.” 

Sara folded her hands and grinned. “Well, prepare yourself. Everyone will want to hear her.” 

“When are you planning her solo? Charlie has surgery coming up soon, and we don’t want to miss it.”

“I haven’t scheduled her solo because I was waiting for your permission. Rehearsals are every Thursday night. I’d love for her to attend the next one, if that’s okay?” 

“That’s fine with me,” Fran said. “I’ll make sure she’s there.” She took Charlie’s hand and squeezed it. “Destiny will be a very excited little girl tonight.” 

“She sure will. I look forward to Thursday’s rehearsal with her.” Sara stood. “I hate to cut this short, but I have another family right after this. I love meeting with families. There’s just not enough time with each one. I love my job.” 

“It shows,” Fran said. “It’s clear you love your students. I look forward to seeing you on Thursday evening.” 

“Likewise, Miss Fran,” Sara said, standing at the door to her classroom. “Tell Destiny I said hello!”

“I’ll do that.” Fran placed her hand on Charlie’s back to steady him, and together they walked from the school.


Two Weeks Later

“Come on, Destiny! We can’t be late, sweetheart,” Charlie called from the bottom of the steps. He heard commotion coming from her bedroom, and Fran’s laughter from the same place. 

“We’ll be down in a few minutes, babe. Desi’s hair won’t behave!” She could imagine his face—the rolling eyes, the irritated sigh, and it made her chuckle. Charlie detested being late for anything. 

He decided not to yell anymore, since his pleas and bargains were doing no good to hurry his two favorite ladies along. Instead, he stood at the door, his crutches under his arms, and waited. 

Five minutes later, Destiny’s pitter-patter descended the steps, her mother behind her. Both of them were recovering from a giggle fit, and Fran wiped tears from her eyes as she tried to catch her breath. 

“What was going on up there, ladies?” Charlie asked. 

Fran pointed to Destiny’s ponytail. “You try tucking those tendrils from her mop into that band! Oh my gosh, Charlie. I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.”

He looked at his watch, and then at his wife. “We have to be at the chapel in thirty minutes. Doesn’t Destiny have a rehearsal before her performance?” 

“No, love. All we have to do is sit. She’s as ready as she’s going to be, aren’t you, sweet pea?” 

Destiny erupted into more giggles and nodded her head. “I’m so excited!” 

Fran helped Charlie down the front steps with his crutches. His surgery was the following day, so he was thankful for the distraction Destiny’s singing debut would offer him. Destiny climbed into the back of Fran’s little car, Charlie rode shotgun, and Fran settled into the driver’s seat. A station that played worship music was on the radio, and Destiny sang along. It amazed Fran that she knew the words to every song she heard. 

At the chapel, Fran and Charlie walked together while Destiny ran ahead. She helped him into the sanctuary, and they sat in the front row by the choir. Once they sat, Charlie breathed a sigh of relief. His bad leg, though he bore no weight on it, still throbbed. If I could have a flask in church, I would, he thought. He dreaded the upcoming surgery, but the pain relief would be well worth it. He took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed beads of perspiration from his forehead. Fran squeezed his hand.

“Are you doing okay, love?” 

Charlie nodded. “This surgery can’t happen soon enough. I’m in so much pain, it’s unbelievable.” 

“I’m sorry. There’s one more day to wait, love, and you’ll be on the mend.” She squeezed his hand harder and moved closer to him. 

Sunny and Caleb walked into the chapel afterward and sat behind Charlie and Fran. Caleb rested his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “How are you feeling, old buddy?” 

Charlie snickered. “I’m feeling old, buddy.” He turned around and shook Caleb’s hand. “Here for Destiny’s big solo?” 

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Sunny said. “If you guys haven’t really heard her sing before, you’re going to be surprised.” 

Fran was annoyed, but she forced a smile. Has everyone in town heard our daughter sing but us? She wondered. “We’ve only heard her sing songs on the radio.”

“Oh, Frannie! She is amazing!” Sunny patted Fran’s hand. “Though I can understand why she is shy around you and Charlie. She doesn’t think you’ll approve of her dreams and aspirations.” 

Fran knew she meant nothing by it, but hearing Sunny’s confession stung. Their daughter was afraid they wouldn’t support her? The thought bothered her as they waited, and she blinked back tears. Charlie reached for her hand and held it. The revelation hit him in the heart, too.

Thirty minutes into services, the pastor introduced Sara Thompson and the children’s choir. Sara had marked Destiny’s spot on the floor, right in front of Charlie and Fran. Destiny whispered something to her, and Sara nodded, gave her a ‘thumbs up’, and seated herself at the organ. The other children filed onto the risers and stood spaced apart. Seven children were in the choir; three boys and four girls, Destiny included. 

Sara played the song the children would sing. It was one of Fran’s favorites. All the kids, except Destiny, sang the first verse of the song:

“This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, this little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine.”

Fran saw Destiny smiling as she closed her eyes and sang the second verse by herself:

“All around the neighborhood
I’m going to let it shine
All around the neighborhood,
I’m going to let it shine
All around the neighborhood,
I’m going to let it shine.
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine.”

Time stood still as the words left Destiny’s mouth. The sound of her voice filled the small chapel—Fran and Charlie were flabbergasted. Sara was right. Destiny’s voice sounded angelic! They both beamed with pride at their daughter. Destiny opened her eyes and saw her parents smiling at her. She stood a little taller, raised one hand into the air in worship, and sang her best. 

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When service was over, Destiny ran to Fran and Charlie in the sanctuary. Her smile made them happy, and Fran kneeled to hug her.

“Desi, you were amazing today. I didn’t know what a pretty voice you have.” She hugged her daughter close to her. “I’m so proud of you, sweet pea.” 

“I didn’t tell you because I thought you wouldn’t let me sing. Mama, I want to be a singer when I grow up.” Her face was serious. Destiny gave it every consideration, and she made up her mind. She wanted to be a star.

Fran sat back on her heels on the marble floor in the little chapel, her seven-year-old daughter wrapped up in her arms. “Destiny, aim for the stars,” Fran whispered into her ear. “Your daddy and I will be here, supporting and loving you all the way.” 

Charlie still sat in the pew, watching his wife and daughter in a tender moment. He closed his eyes and concentrated. He wished to remember the moment for the rest of his life. Charlie knew from this point forward their lives would be different. 

Destiny observed Charlie’s face, his eyes closed and in deep thought. So she walked to him and touched his cheek the way she’d seen Fran do. “Daddy?” 

Her soft voice and gentle touch brought Charlie back to the present. “Yes, Desi?” 

“Did you like my singing?” 

His eyes popped open to see her. She wore a concerned look on her face. He held his arms open and embraced his only daughter. “I loved it, sweet pea.”

She noticed the anguish on his face and climbed up to sit on his good leg. “Do you hurt?” 

Charlie nodded. “Yes, sweetheart. I hurt a lot today. Do you know what would make me feel better?” 

“No, Daddy.” Destiny shook her head, her violet eyes staring into his. 

“I want you to come sing songs to me while I’m in the hospital. Would you do that for me?” 

A huge grin appeared on Destiny’s face, and she kissed his cheek. “Of course, Daddy. I love you!”

He hugged her close and kissed her forehead. “I love you too, Destiny.” 

She slid off his knee onto her feet, and Charlie stood. Fran steadied him and called to Destiny. “Let’s go home, kiddo,” she said, took her hand, and the three of them left the chapel, their lives forever changed.

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Up Next: Chapter Seventeen, Part Two, Generation One



Pose Credits:

Mod The Sims

Poses By Bee

The Sims 3 By Severinka

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xxBlueHazardxx


Custom Content:

Around The Sims

ButterflySims (Site Defunct, no link)

  • Hair #60 (Destiny’s Hair) 

Jamee’s Sims

Mod The Sims

NewSea Sims

Skeletal Screams Blog Site

The Sims Resource

Carlin, Daniel Allan Jr. “This Little Light Of Mine,” Public Domain


A special shout out and “Thank You” to Bee at Poses By Bee for creating the Child Worship pose pack especially for this chapter. You have my utmost gratitude!

As always, a heartfelt “Thank You” to my partner in greatness, Chris, for “polishing my diamonds.” Without your edits, these chapters would not be as wonderful. 

Custom content and poses are not my property and are used in compliance with the TOUs.

G5 Chapter Thirty Five – The Worst Day, Part One

Three Years Later

Tessa and Teddy played together before Elyse and Eamon needed to be ready for the school bus. Danae was at her wits’ end with her oldest. 

“Lysie, do you have what you need for ballet after school? I can’t keep running your pointe shoes to the Academy every day!”

Elyse rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yes, Mama. Besides, Howie can come get them for me after school if I forget them—”

“That’s NOT the point, young lady!” Danae crossed her arms and stood behind the island while a fresh batch of pancakes cooked on the griddle. “You are almost thirteen years old! It’s time you started being more responsible!”

Her back turned to Danae, Elyse made a talking motion with her hand and muttered under her breath. “Blah, blah, blah…” She hated nothing more than being treated like a child, something her mother excelled at doing on the regular. “Eamon! Let’s go.” She grabbed her backpack, the ribbons of her pointe shoes dangling at the zipper. “We’re gonna be late!”

“Quit bossing me around, Elyse! You’re not my mother.” 

“Yeah, whatever! Come, don’t come. I don’t care!” She stomped toward the front door, but Danae ran and caught her arm.

“I don’t know what your problem is, but it’s stopping now!” 

“Oh yeah? Make me!”

Danae counted to ten before she laid a hand on her daughter. She loved that girl, but she wanted to beat the snot out of her. “Your father will hear about this, Elyse. You don’t want to be on his bad side today. Trust me.” 

Elyse huffed and jerked her arm away from Danae. “I’m gonna be late.” 

“Then go!” Danae screamed at the slammed front door. Tessa toddled to Danae, who flopped on the sofa in front of the large screen television. 

“Mama?” She held her arms up to Danae to be lifted.

The girl’s soft, curly black hair shined in the early morning sunlight. Danae picked her up and snuggled her close. “It’s okay, Tessy.” She kissed the girl’s sticky cheek about the same time she smelled something burning. “The pancakes!” She placed Tessa back onto the floor and dashed into the kitchen, where smoke was already billowing. A cup full of water went onto the griddle—a puff of steam swelled from the hot pan, along with the sizzle of flash-boiled water. “Aw, crap!”

“Aw, crap!” Teddy’s 3-year-old voice parroted. 

Danae laughed out loud. The little ones always reminded her of better times with Elyse and Eamon, times when they acted like they still loved her. “I guess you didn’t want pancakes for breakfast after all, did you, Teddy Bear?” He shook his head and giggled. 

Ah yes, the giggles of three-year-old twins were always the salve she needed for her aching heart. Her argument with Elyse almost forgotten, she finished preparing breakfast for the twins so she could get them bathed and ready for a nap. 

*****

Andy grumbled as he opened his office door. Commissioner Jones would be at the stadium with her miserable husband in an hour. It was a meeting he dreaded, and it was becoming more and more commonplace as her ridiculous investigation of the Sharks franchise continued. This time, Andy’s managing tactics were under scrutiny after Fiona failed to ban Aaron from the league. She intended to present evidence of unethical recruiting practices. Kirby had gone over every fine detail—he was confident the panel would exonerate Andy as well.

Andy wore a business suit, dressed to impress, for he would sit in front of a committee of league mediators. Every player they acquired since Kirby hired him, including Aaron Hall and Wyatt Searcy, was in question. Kirby knew the charges she would present were bogus. Now, he and Andy stood in solidarity against the shrew married to Andy’s estranged brother-in-law. 

“Are you ready, Kirby? I mean, do we have our defense solidified? I can’t afford to lose my shirt in a legal battle.”

“Relax, son.” Kirby rested his hand on Andy’s shoulder. “You and I both know the charges they’ve fabricated won’t stick to you. They have no case, and they know it.” Andy slouched in his seat, unsure of himself. “This smacks of desperation. We’ve got this.” 

“How are you so certain of everything? Ten years of contracts for them to dissect. Fiona will find just one thing wrong she can exploit. Danae and the kids? They’ll be fine, Kirby. Every action I’ve taken, every part of me, is on the line. Devin will try to destroy me. He’s made it clear I’m on his hit list.” His mind raced back to over ten years of threats and attacks from his estranged brother-in-law.

Kirby sat down across from Andy. “I have your back, no matter what happens. I won’t allow the league to penalize you and your family, especially when you have young children at home. Any monetary damages they levy, I’ll take care of it. Just another cost of doing business.” 

Andy wrung his hands. “You know, at some point, Kirby, I won’t be worth the money you’ve paid me over the years.”

“Nonsense.” Kirby smiled at his manager. “You’re still the best business decision I’ve ever made for this team, bar none.” 

At 10:00 AM on the nose, the two men entered mediation. Fiona and Devin Jones sat at the head of the table—a panel of four mediators hand-picked by the commissioner attended the meeting. 

“You’re late, Kemp,” Fiona snarled. 

Kirby ignored her. “Gentlemen, my team manager of ten years, Anduin Murphy. He has followed league rules and regulations to the letter. I have years’ worth of contracts that he has signed in my stead, everything in complete compliance.” He opened his briefcase and retrieved his laptop, and opened the folder that contained digital copies of every contract Andy had ever signed for every acquisition. “I can provide hard copies of these documents when necessary.” 

“You have no other evidence than this?” An older gentleman on the panel, one who looked to be about Kirby’s age, spoke. “We have already seen the contracts, Mr. Kemp, and the league has reviewed them. This is the reason we’re here today. Commissioner Jones maintains that your acquisition of Avery Tillman violated league protocol. And from what we have seen of his contract, we agree.”

“With all due respect, sir, Mr. Tillman’s contract is flawless,” Kirby countered.

The mediator handed Kirby the copy of Avery’s initial contract. “This clause, Mr. Kemp, is not valid.” He referenced a highlighted area, one which Andy had added to the contract himself with Kirby’s approval. It was the hook that landed Avery for the Sharks—the security system that Andy paid for himself. “Mr. Kemp, you are aware, are you not, that the league permits only franchise owners to pay out benefits to contract beneficiaries? This clause states that Mr. Anduin Murphy tendered payment on the item in question. It nullifies Mr. Tillman’s contract. He’s been playing for your franchise for years without a valid contract, which is an egregious violation of league standards.”

“This is ridiculous! There is no problem with that contract! I approved it myself.” 

“But your name does not appear on it, Mr. Kemp. Anduin Murphy is the guarantor of this contract, not you. He alone is subject to penalty as determined by the Commissioner.”

Andy massaged his temples with his fingers. They expected a different outcome than this. Everything he had worked for was on the line. It didn’t look good. 

Fiona spoke. “We knew there was something fishy about Mr. Murphy’s practices as manager. From Mr. Tillman’s contract forward, we have scrutinized every one written since, and they all contain the same illegal clause. It’s well within my authority to ban you from the league, Mr. Murphy.” Andy noticed Devin’s arrogant smirk and anger swelled within him. “You could appeal the decision, but the final determination is mine. I would start cleaning up my resume if I were you, Mr. Murphy.” 

“I will fight you until the day I die, Jones!” Kirby shouted across the room. “Come on, this isn’t right, gentlemen.” He appealed to the four men who sat in judgment of his team manager, the one he couldn’t do without. 

“Is this your final decision, Commissioner?” a younger man asked Fiona. 

With a tone of finality, she uttered one word. “Yes.” She turned to Kirby. “Mr. Kemp, I am expelling your team manager, Anduin Murphy, from the league effective today, without pay or benefits. You have the right to appeal, and I will hear additional evidence. You have thirty days from today to submit your appeal in writing. You have the right to obtain legal counsel. Questions, gentlemen?”

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Andy, who Kirby had advised to not speak, felt ill. His career, his entire life, would change forever if he lost this appeal, and it seemed likely that he would. Kirby huffed his displeasure and shook his head. “No questions.”

The four men on the mediation team ended the discussions and adjourned the meeting. Andy was quiet on the way back to his office. Kirby was on his heels. 

“Andy, you don’t have to clean out your office. As far as I’m concerned, you’re not going anywhere.” 

“Didn’t you hear her, Kirby? She’s banished me from the league! What am I going to do now? I know nothing else.” Andy folded his arms and buried his face. He didn’t want to cry in front of his boss, though Kirby wouldn’t have blamed him. 

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“This won’t stick, Andy. She has no authority to do this—”

“Come on, Kirby. Stop kidding yourself. You need to face it. I’m finished. I’ll be gone in an hour.” 

“Andy, you don’t need to leave. I’m not firing you.” 

“You don’t have to. The Shrew already has.” He reached for the paper box that sat by his desk, flipped the lid from it, and started packing his desk into it—photos of Danae and the kids, one of him and Danae from their vacation to Sunlit Tides. A plaque that belonged to his father. Kirby stood and watched in disbelief as his star employee took the key to a brand new Bugatti Chiron off his keyring and handed it to him. “I’ll call a cab. The car is in the parking lot.” 

“Andy, wait—” Kirby called to him, but Andy walked out of his office and toward the parking lot, the box of his personal effects in his hands.

*****

“Elyse, why are you being so awful to Mom?” Eamon sat with his older sister at lunch. “You know she doesn’t need your tude. So why do it?” 

She shook her head. “She treats me like I’m Tessa’s age, Eam. Why did we have to have a younger sister and brother, anyway? I miss Emmitt.” 

Eamon patted his sister’s back and rubbed her shoulder. “That’s no reason to give her a hard time, Lysie. She misses him, too.” 

She peeled her orange and tossed the skin toward the garbage can. “Could have fooled me. It’s like Emmitt never even existed. Like they don’t miss him anymore.” 

“You don’t mean that—”

“Don’t I?” She peeled an orange segment off the fruit and handed one to Eamon. “What if Emmitt had never died? Would Tess and Teddy still be here?”

He shook his head. “I dunno.” 

“Hey gorgeous,” Elyse’s boyfriend and ballet partner, Howie, approached them. He grabbed a chair, turned it around, and sat, his elbows resting on the chair’s back. He held a can of cola, which he sat on the table. “How’s my best girl today?” 

She puffed a lock of hair from her eyes. “I’ve been better, Howie.”

“All ready for ballet after school? I have some new dance moves I want to teach you. They’ll be great for the end-of-the-year recital.”

“What kind of moves?” She handed him an orange segment, and he kissed her hand before he ate it right from her fingers.

“You’ll have to wait. I can’t describe them.” 

“They aren’t naughty, are they Howie?”

He frowned at her. “Give me some credit, Elyse. I’m not a typical fifteen-year-old boy, you know.” 

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” She sipped from the can Howie set down next to her. 

“That was mine, you know.”

“Yeah? So what?” 

“It has my cooties on it.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Cooties? How old are you again?” She took another sip. “We make out under the bleachers during gym class. I’m used to your ‘cooties.’”

“Do you have your pointe shoes?” 

Elyse nodded her head and noticed her brother looking at her with an odd expression. “What?”

“Does Dad know you two are dating? You know you can’t date until—”

“I swear, Eamon, if you say anything to Daddy, I’ll beat you myself!”

“What is it worth to you?” 

Anger flared her nostrils. “Don’t. You. Freaking. Dare!”

Howie stepped in between them. “Eamon, just chill, okay? It’s nothing.” 

“It doesn’t look like nothing.” Eamon knew he had valuable information, and he planned to take full advantage of the situation. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Give me your dessert tonight, and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” 

“You little weasel—” Elyse clenched her fist and started toward him, but Howie held her back. 

“Lysie, it’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He kissed her forehead. 

“You don’t understand, Howie. If my Dad even suspects we’re dating, that’s the end of ballet!” 

“I’ve got this, pussycat. Don’t worry.” 

Eamon cracked up, laughing. “Pussycat? Oh, this is too good!” Elyse glared at Howie.

“See what you did?” She stomped her foot in frustration.

Howie leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “It’s part of my plan. I don’t even call you that, so it’s not believable.” She smiled and nodded. 

The bell rang to signal the end of the period, and Eamon stood. “I’ll meet you at the bus after school, ‘Pussycat.’”

Elyse glared at him, but Howie winked at her. “I have ballet, so no, you won’t. But nice try, weasel.” Howie picked up their trays and cleaned up, took Elyse’s hand, and walked her to her next class. 

*****

Danae had just gotten the twins to sleep when Andy walked through the front door five hours early from work. She got a sinking feeling in the pit of her gut as he walked into his office and shut the door. She tiptoed toward Andy’s office and listened just outside for a clue. 

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Was he angry? Upset? Sad? She couldn’t discern it, so she knocked on the door.

Danae expected to hear a greeting, but none came. She peeked in to find Andy behind his desk, a blank stare on his face and a glass of straight whiskey in his hand. It was only 11:30 AM. 

“Babe?” 

Minutes passed before he even acknowledged she was there. He swirled the liquor in his glass, lifted it to his nose, and inhaled the fumes before he drank the contents in one gulp. He set the glass back down on his desk. The day’s events replayed in his head. He wanted to throw up.

“How did your meeting go?” she asked him. 

Screenshot-218

His gaze shifted to her, and when he saw her, his eyes welled with tears. “Not good.” 

She sat in the chair in front of his desk and took his hand. “What do you mean, not good? What happened?”

Andy poured another shot of whiskey and downed it. He took a deep breath and held it in. Maybe if I pass out, I won’t have to tell her, he reasoned with himself. But he released the air in his lungs in a slow, steady stream. “Remember how we talked about worst-case scenarios, Nae?”

She nodded and swallowed hard. “Yes, babe.” 

“Welcome to my nightmare. Fiona banned me from the league. I can appeal, but the final decision is hers. I’m unemployable in my chosen field of work.” A huge teardrop fell from his eyes and splattered onto his desk. “I can’t support you or the kids anymore, and I can’t seek work from another team.” He reached for the whiskey again, poured another shot, and drank it. Danae grabbed the bottle from him and set it down out of his reach. “Kirby is beside himself,” he muttered. 

“Banned? Are you serious?!” 

He nodded. “I’m dead serious. Danae, what am I going to do? I’ve lost everything I’ve worked for all these years. I’m useless to you and the kids…” His hands trembled—the emotion, the awful reality of the day, sank in. Heavy sobs reverberated through his office. “I have failed you in every way. I don’t know what to do…”

Danae had never seen him so distraught, and it frightened her. The confident, unflappable, poised man she loved was in anguish over something out of his control. Her instinct was to comfort him, but she wasn’t sure how or what he needed. It was uncharted territory for her. Nothing ever rattled him. 

“Andy, you’re not useless—”

“Aren’t I? You don’t understand, Danae!” He stood and raised his voice. The alcohol made him feel lightheaded, so he flopped down in his chair. “I can’t work for the football league anymore. Period! Not for Kirby, not for anyone! Devin finally ruined my life, that bastard…” He let his head fall to his desk with a loud ‘thunk.’ 

“I-I don’t know what to say…”

Screenshot-219

“I’m leaving soon.” It took all of his strength to lift his head to look at his beloved wife. “If I can’t support you, then I don’t need to tie you down. You need a real man—”

Danae stood up, angry but terrified. “Don’t you dare leave me!” she growled. “I still need you! We have four kids to raise, and I can’t do it alone…” Her anger turned to grief, and then frustration. “You’re better than this, Andy. The man I married would face this—”

“The man you married is dead, Danae. I’m just an empty shell, a shade of my former self.”

“No! I refuse to believe that. Andy please, don’t do anything hasty, not while your emotions are this raw.”

“I’ve already decided, Danae. I’m going back to Dragon Valley tonight.”

Her fury returned with a vengeance. “So, that’s it? You’re not giving me a say in the outcome of OUR marriage?”

“What marriage, Danae? I’m doing you a favor!”

“This? This is no favor! Andy, I love you! Does that mean nothing to you?”

He shook his head and walked toward his office door. “I’m sorry, Danae. You deserve better than a failure.” He walked toward their bedroom while Danae fell to the floor, sobbing.

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*****

Back at his office, Kirby was muddled. He never expected the morning’s outcome, and it shook him to his core. He picked up his phone and dialed the first number that came to mind. Rae’s brother, Tony, was a prominent attorney in town. If anyone could give him much-needed advice, it was Tony.

“Antonio Cardona, attorney at law.”

“Tony, it’s Kirby. I sure could use your advice, brother.”

“Hey Kirbs!” Tony greeted him. “How can I help you out?” 

“How much do you know about laws pertaining to the football league?” 

“A bit, actually. Why? What’s going on?” 

Kirby sighed. “Commissioner Jones just banned Andy from the league without pay or benefits. I want to know what recourse I have.” 

“On what grounds? That sounds fishy, Kirby.” 

“Oh, something about it being illegal for anyone but the franchise owner to pay out contract benefits. Andy, as a hook to catch Tillman years ago, paid for the security upgrade on their home. Fiona claims it’s illegal, and the clause in the contract rendered it null. So he’s been playing without a valid contract since we signed him.”

Kirby heard papers being shuffled, and then Tony’s reassuring voice. “I have original copies of football regulations dating back thirty years. If it was legal when you signed Tillman ten years ago, she has no case.”

Kirby laughed. “You’re such a nerd, Tony. But I’m so thankful that you’re a nerd.”

Tony, who had been called everything but a nerd, chuckled. “Don’t worry. I have your back. Let Andy know I’m taking his case, and I’ll work pro bono. If there’s anything we can present as additional evidence, now’s the time. Any grievance he has with the commish or her husband, anything we can use to show a personal vendetta, I’ll take it. I know Andy has bad blood with that Jones punk. Now’s the time to nail him.”

“I’ll let Andy know right away. Thank you, brother. You don’t have to work pro bono. Send me the bill. If we win this, I’ll owe you more than just money.”

Tony laughed. “Yes, yes, you will. I’ll get back to you, Kirby. Get me everything you can on Jones. That will be a brilliant start.”

“Will do. Thanks again, brother.” 

“That’s what family is for. We’ve got this.” When he ended the call, Kirby felt better. His next call would be to his manager. But Andy’s phone went right to voicemail, so Kirby left a message:

Andy, it’s Kirby. Rae’s brother is an attorney, and he’s taking your case. We’re going to fight that bitch until we win. I’m not giving up. Don’t you give up, either. I’ll be in touch.

For the first time since the whole sham investigation began, Kirby felt good.

*****

Andy’s only bag sat next to him as he rode in the taxi that would take him to the airport. Despite her pleas, he decided on his own that his family was better off without him. With just casual clothing in a suitcase, he left his devastated wife crying on the front porch, bound for his hometown. He hated to leave her, and watching her weep tore him to shreds, but he knew in his heart that giving her freedom to move on with her life was the right play to make. For her sake. Because he loved her that much.

At the house, Andy’s phone chimed with a voice message. Danae still sat in a heap on the front porch of their home, clutching his smartphone in her hand when she felt it vibrate. His last words still echoed in her head. “Don’t look for me. I’ll call you. This is for your own good, Danae. I’m sorry.” She glanced at the message and couldn’t make out the sender. 

She couldn’t unlock his phone without his fingerprint, so she set it on the hallway table when she walked back inside. This isn’t happening! She cried. It was only 1:15 PM—Eamon would be home soon, and Elyse after ballet. Danae hoped Lysie’s attitude had improved, because it was the very last thing she needed. 

Danae woke the twins before Eamon arrived home on the bus and settled them down to watch television with a snack. She tried to hold it together, but telling Eamon that his father left would open a can of worms she’d rather keep shut. 

Ten minutes later, the house phone rang. Kirby’s name came up on the Caller ID. Danae answered it, trying to hide her obvious upset. 

“Hi Kirby.” 

“Danae? Where’s Andy? I need to talk to him.” 

Danae broke down crying, despite her best efforts not to. “He’s… gone.” 

“What do you mean, ‘gone’, Danae? Where is he?” 

“He’s on his way back to Dragon Valley. He said not to look for him…” 

Kirby almost dropped his phone. “Oh my goodness. I guess that leaves me with no alternative. I have to find him. Dragon Valley can’t be so big that he would be hard to find.” 

“If you’re serious about going to find him, Kirby, please bring him home to me? I can’t survive without him…” 

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. He’ll be coming home with me. Trust me.” 

Danae was still sobbing when Eamon walked through the front door. Teddy and Tessa were playing together. “Mom? What’s going on? Why are you crying so hard?” 

She sniffled and tried to gather her thoughts. She didn’t want to sound over-dramatic. “Daddy went on a trip.” 

Eamon looked at her and tried to understand. “Then why cry? He’s coming home, right?” 

Danae cried harder, almost not able to breathe. “I don’t know about that, Eamon. He sounded like he’d left for good.” 

“What did you do?!” Eamon yelled. “Why did Dad leave?”

“Please, son. Don’t…” 

Both Eamon and Elyse preferred their dad, and Eamon assumed she was the reason he’d left. “I hate you!” he screamed at Danae and slammed his bedroom door. 

Danae couldn’t stand any more heartache. On her hands and knees, she crawled to the house phone, picked up the receiver, and dialed it. Her sister answered the phone. 

“Nae?” 

“Darce,” Danae squeaked out. “I need you…” 

“I’m on my way, sweetie.”

*****

Kirby arrived at the airport at 3:00 PM, an overnight case in his hands, and Rae at his side. She kissed him before he boarded their private jet.

“When will you be home, Kirby?” she asked. She sensed his desperation to find Andy—she knew the stakes were high.

“When I find Andy, however long that takes.” He handed his case to Victor, who took it to place on board. “I’m sorry I have to leave you, but it’s of utmost importance that I find him. Danae is counting on me. The team is counting on me, too. Rae, I can’t manage the team without him.”

“I know, mi amor. Find him. Bring him home to his family. Kirby, I have a bad feeling about this. Find him alive.” 

Kirby nodded. “I wish this plane flew a little faster. I need to get there yesterday.” He kissed Rae one last time. “When I have updates, I’ll call you. I love you.” 

“I love you more,” she said. “Hurry. The pilot waits for you.” 

Kirby waved one last time as he walked up the steps into the airplane. Rae watched as the jet taxied to the runway and took off, headed north.

*****

Darcey pulled up and parked outside the Murphy home. Her code opened the gate, and she ran toward the house, her key at the ready. She walked into utter chaos—Teddy and Tessa were screaming, Eamon locked himself in his bedroom, and Elyse was fighting with her mother over their father’s sudden disappearance. “Nae!” Darcey shouted into the pandemonium and then whistled to catch everyone’s attention. The silence that followed was stark, however short.

“Aunt Darcey!” Elyse exclaimed. “What’s going on?” Seconds later, Eamon peeked out from his bedroom with a smile on his face. 

“I don’t know, Lysie. Give me a minute to figure this out.” She sat on the floor with her sister, who laid in a fetal position, sobbing. She brushed a wet lock of hair from Danae’s eyes. “What happened, Nae?” 

“Andy…” was all she could say between sobs. 

“What did he do this time?” 

Danae shook her head. “Devin’s wife banned him from the league, Darce…” She took a labored breath and exhaled. “He left all of us…”

“Oh no,” Darcey said. “What?! Why?” 

“I’m not sure. He didn’t go into details. He went home to Dragon Valley. Kirby is on his way there to bring him back.” 

Eamon charged out of his room. “It’s her fault, Lysie. She chased Dad away!” He pointed at Danae, pure anger in his eyes. 

Darcey stood. Without warning, she grabbed both Eamon and Elyse by the shoulders and pulled them outside. “Eamon, I don’t know where you got your ideas from, but it is nowhere near the truth! Your father is a child sometimes, and he runs away from trouble rather than face it. I don’t want to hear either of you talk to your mother like this again. Do you understand me?” She had his face between her very strong fingers, and she put Eamon on his knees in one swift motion. 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Aunt Darcey—” Elyse said, but a slap across the face interrupted her. 

“Don’t you make me do that again, young lady. I know you’ve developed an attitude, but your crap doesn’t fly with me. Are we clear?” Elyse and Eamon both nodded. “You both get back into the house and apologize to your mother!” 

Elyse bit her tongue. She didn’t want worse than what Darcey had already doled out, but she was angry. Instead, she walked into the house, grabbed her backpack and cell phone, and walked out of the front door. “I hate you, and I hate her,” she growled to Darcey on the way out, and pointed at her mother. “I’m outta here.” Darcey tried to run after her, but Elyse, being younger and faster, slipped away from her. 

“What about you, wise guy?” Darcey spat at Eamon. She was out of breath from chasing Elyse, and not in a good mood. “Are you leaving too?” Eamon didn’t know what to say, so he shrugged his shoulders. “If you’re staying, then get some water for the twins. Make yourself useful!” She sat cross-legged on the floor with her sister and rubbed her shoulders while she cried. Eamon, wishing for no more of Darcey’s wrath, did as she asked. 

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Danae cried in Darcey’s arms until she fell asleep on the floor. She covered her sister with a blanket and left her while she bathed the twins, fed and read to them, and put them to bed. She had just finished tucking Teddy into bed when Eamon crept into the bedroom. “Is your homework done?” she asked him, and he nodded. “Can I talk to you? Heart to heart.” 

“Yes,” he whispered. They both left the bedroom and walked onto the patio.

She sat on a lounge chair and patted the spot next to her. “Come sit. I won’t bite you, I promise.” When he settled down next to her, she turned to him and put her arm around his shoulder. “Eam, your dad… Well, I don’t know if he’s coming back. If he doesn’t, that makes you the man of the house. Your mama will need you and Lysie to help her out.”

“Why did he leave? I don’t understand, Aunt Darcey.” 

“Well, I don’t know the complete story, but you know of your uncle Devin, right?” Eamon nodded his head and Darcey continued. “His wife is the football commissioner, and I know you don’t remember living in Starlight Shores, but your dad used to manage the Llamas before we all moved here. Your aunt, Fiona, owns the Llamas, and by extension, so does your uncle Devin. They both have it out for your dad. Uncle Devin has been trying to ruin him for years. It looks like he accomplished that today, Eam. Your dad left, I’m guessing, because he feels worthless. He could have handled everything better, but it is what it is.”

“That’s why Mama is so sad?” 

Darcey nodded. “That’s a big part of the reason, yes. She loves your dad so much, Eamon. Without him, it will be difficult for her to maintain the house and care for Tess and Ted. That’s why she’s going to need your help. Would you do that for her? Do you still love her, Eamon?” 

He wiped tears of regret from his eyes and nodded. “Yes, I love her. I need to tell her I’m sorry.” 

“Good boy,” she said in praise, and patted her nephew on the back. “I need to deal with Elyse and figure out where she’s gone. Are you okay to watch the twins until I come back?” 

“Mmhmm,” he said. “I’ll just read until you come home.” He leaned closer to whisper. “By the way, the first place I’d check is her boyfriend’s house. Howie Collins. They live on the northern island in that brick house on the cul-de-sac.” 

Darcey hugged him to her. “You’re a good kid. Thank you. You’ve saved me hours of hunting for her.” She stood up and stretched. “Don’t let anyone into the gate unless it’s Rae, Aaron, Trix or Wyatt. Kirby went to find your dad. You have my cell number, or if you can’t reach me, call Uncle Clint, okay?” 

Eamon nodded and stood. Together, they walked back into the house.

*****

Elyse called Howie’s cell phone as soon as she cleared the property line. He answered it in two rings. “Hey gorgeous!”

“Not now, Howie. I need a place to crash tonight. My dad left, my mom is a quivering mess, and my aunt is the tyrant of the isle. I need something normal.” She sniffled. “Come get me?” 

“Where are you?” 

“I’m walking down the street toward the city center. I’m almost in front of Trixie’s house now.” 

“Stay on that street, and when it changes, stay there. I’ll get you.” Howie took the keys for his father’s Tesla and snuck out of the house. He was only fifteen years old and not legally allowed to drive. Christopher Collins parked in a lot on the main island, so he wouldn’t even notice Howie borrowed it. The water taxi shuttled him to the main island, a block away from the commuter lot where Chris parked. Howie climbed into the driver’s seat, started the car, and pulled out of the lot, headed toward the Murphy home. 

Howie found Elyse standing at the corner of the dead-end street and the one that led into town, waiting for him. It was obvious she’d been crying, and when he got out of his car, she ran to him.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” he said, rocking her in his arms.

“My life is so beyond screwed up, Howie. My dad left, my mom is a mess…” She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Aunt Darcey is a first-class bitch. She slapped me across the face, Howie. I did nothing wrong!”

“Yeah, what happened to your family? Wasn’t everything good this morning?” 

Elyse nodded. “Other than the fight I had with my mom, everything was normal. I knew my dad had a stressful day, but I don’t know why. They don’t tell me anything! My mom treats me like a child.”

“It’s okay now, Lysie. Come on, and I’ll take you to my house.” He kissed her and helped her into the car. 

When they got to Howie’s house, it was almost dark, and she left two hours prior. “Are you going to call your mom, Lysie? She must be worried sick.” 

She shook her head. “Nope. She’s a basket case, and she’s only worried about herself. My aunt is taking care of everything, but I doubt she’ll care enough to worry. I feel like an outcast in my family.” 

He took her hand and led her to his bedroom. “You can sleep in my bed tonight. I’ll take the sofa in the den.” 

“I can’t take your bed, Howie. You need to rest—”

“You do, too. Baby, you’ve had a tough day. Please? It would make me happy.” 

She felt emotions overwhelm her, and she sniffled. “Would you stay with me until I fall asleep?”

I thought you’d never ask, Howie thought to himself. “Of course I will.” He turned her face to him and kissed her. “I love you, Lysie. I hope you know that.” 

“I do. I love you, too.” She yawned and slid her backpack off her shoulder. “I don’t have any clothes with me.” 

Howie laughed. Oh, this is perfect, he thought. “I’ll just give you a shirt to sleep in. It smells like me, so I’ll be with you all night long.” He opened the door to his bedroom and let her in first. “Are you tired, Lysie?” 

“Mmhmm,” she answered. He handed her a shirt he knew would be snug on her, for his own benefit. “Thank you.” 

“You’re welcome, beautiful. Do you want me to hide my eyes while you change?” 

She giggled. “You’ve seen it all before, Howie. It doesn’t matter.” She slipped her shirt off, put Howie’s shirt on over her head, and slipped her blue jeans off. Dressed in only his shirt and her underwear, she climbed into his bed. “Come cuddle with me, Howie. I need you close.” 

“I won’t say no to that!” He changed into a muscle shirt, removed his pants, and climbed into his bed with her, wrapped around her. He kissed her shoulders and played with her hair, whispering words of love into her ears. They settled down together and dozed off.

*****

Darcey hailed a water taxi that would bring her to the northern island. The trip itself was only ten minutes, but finding a ride to the cul-de-sac would prove trickier. Few cars were on the smaller islands, and taxis were non-existent. So she navigated on foot to the street where Eamon had told her, in search of the white home where Howie Collins lived. 

An hour later, she found the white house, right where Eamon had said. Before the showdown with Elyse, she called Clint. The phone only rang once before he answered it. 

“Kitten, where are you? The boys have been asking for you,” Clint asked. 

“Oh, Clint, what a mess. Devin’s wife banned Andy from the league today, and he left Danae and the kids. Right now, I’m tracking down Elyse after she ran out on me. Eamon is home monitoring the twins and Danae. You can’t believe what’s been going on.”

“Shoot, sweetheart, it sounds like you have your hands full. The boys will understand. Everything is calm here. I thought you should know that.” 

“Thanks, Boo. It helps to know something is normal. I will be home tonight, I just don’t know when.” 

“I’ll miss you, Darce. But your sister needs you more right now. I love you. Call me if you need help, okay?” 

“I will, but we should be fine. Elyse is going to wish she’d never left home today when I’m finished with her. Danae might be loosey-goosey with her, but I won’t be.” 

Clint chuckled. “She won’t know what hit her.” 

“Damn straight! I love you, Boo. Thanks for holding down the fort.” 

“Any time, my sweet love.” 

One more call, Darcey thought. She dialed her sister’s phone. Eamon answered the call. “Hello?”

“Hey kiddo, it’s Aunt Darce. How’s your mama?” 

“She’s still asleep right on the floor where you left her. The twins are asleep, and Rae called once to see how she’s doing. I think she’s coming over.” 

“That’s good. I just got to Howie’s house, and I wanted to check in before I start World War Three with your sister. Remember, just Rae, Aaron, Trix or Wyatt can come in, okay?” 

“Mmhmm, I got it, Aunt Darcey. Good luck!”

Darcey laughed out loud. “Thanks. I’m going to need a miracle.”

She slipped her phone into her back pocket, wiped her sweaty forehead with her hoodie sleeve, and walked up the sidewalk to the Collins home. The coffee shop must be doing well, she figured. The house was in an upscale neighborhood, landscaped with native flowers and plants, with fancy lighting on the outside. A security badge sat on the front lawn as a crime deterrent. She stepped onto the stoop and rang the doorbell.

A moment later, Christopher Collins stood before her at the door. He was a man Darcey had only seen at the coffee shop when she’d gone with Danae. She didn’t know him, and he didn’t know her. But he wore an odd expression when he saw her at the door. 

“Danae?” he asked.

Darcey chuckled. “No, I’m her twin sister, Darcey. But I’ve seen you at the coffee shop.”

“Ah, okay. Danae never mentioned she had a twin, but that’s okay. What can I do for you tonight?” 

Darcey fiddled with the car keys in her pocket. “I am looking for Elyse. Eamon thought she might be here. Have you seen her?” 

Chris shook his head. “Howie’s been home all night, but come inside. I’ll ask him if he has any idea where she could be.” He opened the door and let Darcey inside. “Please, make yourself comfortable. I’ll get Howie.” 

“Thank you,” Darcey said. With wide eyes, she gawked at the interior of their home. Expensive furniture, luxury linens, and lavish throw rugs decorated the house. Either Chris’ wife was a designer, or a professional did the decor. It was exquisite. 

A few minutes later, Darcey heard a commotion coming from a hallway, a shriek that sounded like Elyse, and Chris’ angry footsteps pounding toward where Darcey sat. “Well, I found your niece, but she needs to get decent before I send her home with you.” Howie appeared right behind his father, his pleas falling on deaf ears. 

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“But Dad, we weren’t doing anything but sleeping!”

“Howard, she is twelve! You don’t sleep with a girl in your bed at your age, and especially NOT when she’s only wearing a shirt and her panties!” 

Darcey stood and clenched her fists. “She is WHAT?” 

Chris was livid. “These two knuckleheads decided it would be a good idea to sleep together in the same bed, wearing next to nothing!” He paced around the formal living room, infuriated. “What were you THINKING, son?!”

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“Where is she?” Darcey demanded. Chris pointed the way toward the bedroom, and she stomped in to find Elyse with her shirt off, sobbing and trying to fasten her bra. Her hands were shaking, and it was obvious she was upset. “ELYSE CHARLOTTE!” Darcey screamed at her. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

“I’m sorry, Aunt Darcey. We just fell asleep—”

“What will I tell your mother? Get dressed. I’m taking you home, right now!” 

Elyse never stopped to ponder what they had done might be wrong. She never considered anyone would catch them sleeping half naked together in Howie’s bed. It seemed so innocent to her, but seeing their reaction, she realized she was in deep trouble. 

“I’m trying. I can’t fix this stupid bra!” Her hands quaked in fear; Darcey scared her, and she was even more afraid of her father. She didn’t want to see her ballet career end before it even started. 

Darcey helped her to get dressed, and then took her wrist with an iron grip, dragged her to the foyer of the fancy house, and thanked Chris for his help. She didn’t speak to Elyse the whole way to the water taxi, not until they waited for the next shuttle to the mainland. Elyse wept the entire walk, ashamed of herself. 

“Elyse, what were you thinking? I’m so disappointed in you.” 

“I’m sorry, Aunt Darcey. We didn’t think it was bad. Howie and I are best friends.” 

“You’re not even thirteen yet, Lysie. You’re in way over your head with that boy. What if he took advantage of you?” 

Elyse blushed a deep red. “He isn’t that kind of boy—”

Darcey stopped walking and looked into her niece’s eyes. “Honey, every boy is that kind of boy at that age. Especially the ones who say they aren’t.” 

“What about Shan and Noel? Are they that kind of boy, too?” 

Darcey got flustered. “This isn’t about them, Elyse. This is about you and Howie.” The taxi arrived, and they climbed aboard. “I need to tell your mother about this, but she’ll decide if she tells your dad. Be ready to make amends if you want to dance with Howie again, Lysie. Think about that.” 

They didn’t speak another word until they docked on the main island. The only noise heard was Elyse’s quiet weeping, and the wake of the waves lapping upon the shoreline. Darcey paid the fare for both of them and they walked in silence to her car. 

“Please don’t tell Mama,” Elyse begged. “With Daddy gone, she doesn’t need the extra stress.” 

Darcey chuckled. “Oh, you’re not getting out of this. Maybe not tonight, Elyse, but I need to tell her.” 

She crossed her arms and pouted. “Thanks.” 

“You did this to yourself, young lady. Remember that.” 

*****

Andy’s plane touched down in the small municipal airport on the east side of the river in Dragon Valley. He rented a car and drove to the only inn in the village—the one where they stayed when Danae brought him to the Valley. It was no longer a bed-and-breakfast, but an inn with detached buildings. Andy gave his name and checked in, exhausted from the day’s events. 

He’d never felt so empty inside, so defeated. He’d planned to settle in town, to start anew, away from the memories. For a moment, he considered calling Danae, but decided against it. If she is starting over, she’ll be better off, he thought. 

He slid the key card into the door’s lock and he swung it open. The room was basic; there was a queen sized bed and a dresser, a small fireplace with a single prefab log, an attached bathroom with a tub/shower combination, and a tiny dining table with one chair. He walked to the window and pulled the drapes closed. Andy yawned and tugged the blankets back on the bed, stripped naked, climbed between the sheets, and cried until he fell asleep. 

Four hours later, a loud rap at the door awakened him. He rolled over and peeked at the time on his phone. 2:41 AM. What the hell? he thought, grabbed the slacks he’d traveled in, and walked toward the door. The person outside the door rapped on it again, and Andy grumbled as he opened it. 

“Kirby? What the hell are you doing here?” It stunned Andy to see his former boss standing there. Kirby didn’t give him time to close it. Instead, he pushed his way in, past Andy, and sat in the chair by the table. 

“Andy, you need to come back home with me, where you belong.” Kirby looked around for a light. Andy flipped the light switch at the door before he closed and locked it. 

“I told that woman not to contact me, but she sent you on a fool’s errand, I’m afraid. Kirby, I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing, but I’m not—”

“Oh, yes you are, son.” Kirby stood and placed his hands on Andy’s shoulders. “I have something big to tell you. Believe me, you’ll want to come back with me.” 

“Fiona’s word is final, Kirby. You heard her with your own two ears.” 

“Andy, I’ve hired an attorney to fight this. Rae’s brother, Tony, is a prominent lawyer back on the Isle. He’s taking your case because he thinks you have a shot to get this ruling overturned.” 

Andy sighed. “What can he do? I mean, we’re fighting against someone who changes the rules as she goes.” 

Kirby’s face lit up. “That’s how we’re going to nail her! He owns originals of the rules and regulations from the football league for the past thirty years. If that clause was legal when you wrote it, Andy, she has no case. I know for a fact you did nothing illegal.” 

“See, that’s what I thought. But their case today seemed so rock solid, I figured it was over.”

“That isn’t quite all, Andy.” A huge grin pulled Kirby’s face. “This is your chance to stop Devin Jones in his tracks. Tony asked me for evidence against him, and buddy, I know you have a ton. All we have to do is show the personal vendetta against you from Devin alone and demand an impartial mediation team. We’re golden!” 

For the first time since he kissed Danae before work that morning, Andy smiled. “We’re going to beat this, aren’t we?” 

“You bet your sweet bippy we will!” Kirby clapped him on the shoulder. “My private jet is waiting to take us back to the isle. What do you say, champ?” 

Andy nodded. “Let’s do this.”

To be continued…

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Up Next: Chapter Thirty Five, Part Two, Generation Five. 


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G1 Chapter Sixteen – Reconciliation

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?” 

“What happened?” 

“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, Jason.” 

“Hello, dead man. Where’s Fran?” 

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“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.” 

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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—”

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“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!” 

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“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. 

“Hi Destiny.” 

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. 

“Hi, Daddy.” 

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.” 

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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. 

“The kitchen.” 

“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.”

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Up Next: Chapter Seventeen, Part One, Generation One


Pose Credits:

Echo-Sims
Standing Poses

ModTheSims
Reading Pose Pack by Kurineko
Daddy’s Babysitting by Spladoum

Poses By Bee
Child Sleep Poses
Couples Poses 1
Emotions
Engagement Poses
That’s My Girl!

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Couple Pose Pack 1 (Remade) by Fyachii (Cover Photo)

********

Custom Content:

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Book by Kurineko

SimCredible Designs
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The Sims Resource
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Sweet Pea Wall Decor by Lulu265

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Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.

See Dedication & Acknowledgments for my special, ongoing “thank you.”

G1 Chapter Fifteen, Part Five – Charlie Tells His Story

Author’s Preface:

This chapter is told from Charlie’s point of view except where noted. This is the first chapter I have ever written in the first person, making it a Farmer Legacy first! It’s a long one, so grab a cup of coffee or tea, sit back, and get ready to experience Charlie’s incredible journey—from the phone call before his fateful mission to his emotional reunion with Fran at the diner. Enjoy!

This chapter contains adult language and situations. Reader discretion is advised.


i.

— Charlie: Pre-Mission — 

“Frannie?” I say into the phone. “Frannie? Are you there…?” All I hear is grave silence—you’ve hung up on me. Not that I blame you, darling. You deserve better than what you’ve gotten from me over the past year. I shut my phone down, unplug it, and place it back into my footlocker for safekeeping, just in case I survive this mission. But without you waiting for me back at home… I just can’t let myself consider it. I check my watch—the pre-mission briefing begins in ten minutes. I swap out my standard uniform for my flight suit and prepare to meet with the squadron, hopeful that the conversation I had earlier with Lorne sank in.

When I arrive at the meeting tent, Jim’s standing at the front chatting with some other pilots. He sees me as I walk in and nods at me. He walks over and we make small talk until everyone else arrives, but he divulges nothing regarding the upcoming briefing. Once we settle and Jim announces the mission details just as they were earlier, my blood boils! It isn’t Jim’s fault, though. I recognize this decision comes from someone higher up—a man I thought of as a friend, but that friendship ends today. 

I duck out of the briefing a little early and gather my intel, then make a beeline for Lorne’s tent. He’s going to answer to me for making this decision, for allowing this suicide mission to proceed. I push past the two MPs standing outside of Lorne’s tent. I don’t even bother to wait for a formal announcement.

“Lorne! Why are you doing this?” I walk to his desk and bang my fist on it. “You get that you’re sending good men to their graves, right?!”

“Back off, Farmer,” he says. “Your opinions, your paranoia—they have no place here.”

“You just had to save face though, didn’t you? Your rank, your reputation—are they SO much more important than people’s lives?! You’re a selfish, lying, hypocritical bastard, Lorne, and we may as well add coward to that list, as well!”

“I did what I had to do, Farmer! You screwed this up. You and your little stunt at the strip club!! That affected more than just you, you know—it affected this entire unit! Before you call me selfish, look in the mirror. This mission SHOULD have been under your command, but your actions tied my hands!” He stood, planted both arms on his desktop, and leaned in close to me. “If anyone dies during this mission, Farmer, their blood is on YOUR hands!”

Angered by the accusation and the truth within it—the strip club incident is a sore topic with me, and he knows just how to make it hurt—I grab Lorne by his collar, draw my arm back, and land a solid blow to his jaw. Not one to back down from a fight since I’ve known him, Lorne wastes no time returning the punch. I try to dodge him, but he expects my move and lands it, anyway.

“Call it off, Lorne! These men don’t have to die!” I yell, tensing my arm to throw another punch.

“Like hell, I will, Farmer!” Lorne snarls back. “You’ve got no right—no authority—to come in here and demand ANYTHING!” He lunges at me, but I sidestep him and he falls to the floor.

“Are you kidding me? It’s MY ass on the line out there in that airplane, Lorne, not yours! You’ve got no stake in this!” When he gets to his feet, I attack him again. “No family waits for you at home! What about Frannie?” I catch him with an uppercut, knocking him off balance. “And what about my baby girl?” I strike again, adrenaline courses through my body. This blow lands on his cheek—the impact splits open the skin over his cheekbone. That one’s going to leave a mark, I think to myself, almost proud of it. I bend over to catch my breath. Lorne is reeling from the last hit.

“Punch me all you want, Charlie, this is still all on you. You botched this up—”

“I’m not the one who promoted Gentry, you damned moron! You know Jim doesn’t have the experience or qualifications to lead this kind of assault. YOU put him in command of the most crucial mission of this whole conflict to screw up! I’m not General here, Lorne, and if this blows up in your face as I expect it to, YOU won’t be, either!” 

Lorne stares at me, fury filling his eyes. On his feet, he strikes hard, landing a punch straight on my jawbone and I fall backward. I scramble to my feet so I take no more damage—I still need to fly this mission. I pull my arm back and throw another punch, putting every bit of strength I have into it. When my fist meets his face, my wedding ring connects with the bridge of his nose, carving a ridge into it, and I feel cartilage break. A rivulet of blood oozes from the top edge of the mark, but begins free-flowing from his nostrils. His hand wipes blood from his face—his fist clenches one last time. I brace myself for what I am certain will be a tough blow, but he stops, then spits a glob of blood on the floor.

“Court-martial, Farmer.” He points a long, slender finger in my face. “I’m revoking your flight credentials, effective immediately. You’re done here!” He barks, “Guards!” and the two MPs step into the tent, each one grabs an arm. “Escort Major Farmer to his quarters and confine him there.” He turns his attention back to me. “When this is over, Charlie,” he growls through his teeth, “we’ll take you into official custody, and you’re going to rot in the stockades until your trial.” He plops into his chair and exhales—I’ve worn him out. “Make your last phone calls home. You may never see your family again.”

I spit at Lorne, a scowl on my face. “This isn’t over, Turek!” I try to fight as the guards drag me from his tent.

A few minutes later, my cot squeaks in protest as I sit hard on it. It’s not my fault! I think to myself. I stop and hold my breath for a moment. Outside, I notice the roar of jets taking off on a mission doomed for failure. I hear Lorne’s words echoing in my head—it is my fault. My mistake caused ALL of this. I haven’t hurt just you, my darling. My mistake will cost my brothers their lives. There’s no decency, no honor, in that anywhere.

I need to fix this. If I don’t fly, I’m putting my brothers at even greater risk. Just one man missing in this battle will spell certain disaster for the entire mission. I figure I’m already in deep, so what’s one more charge on my record? 

Lorne’s got the two MPs outside my tent keeping watch over me to make sure I don’t rabbit. I tear the name patch off my flight suit and place it on my cot. Then I scribble a quick note to Lorne and leave it beside my name patch. A stray breeze blows into the tent and when I look up, I smack myself on the forehead. Without even realizing it, Lorne has presented me with a way to slip past the guards outside. This is my chance to make amends with my brothers for all my mistakes. I might never get the chance to redeem myself with you, but someday, when I’m gone, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

*****

All suited up and buckled into the seat of my jet, I’m ready to go. I take your photo from my pocket and place it on the plane’s console, held by a clip intended for last-minute notes. Though your picture is lovely, I wish you were here so I could kiss you in person, maybe for the last time before I go. Even if I survive this, I’ll still face an abundance of fallout. I might never get home to you.

I taxi out onto the tarmac and see Lorne staring at me. He likely can’t see it, but I flash him a “V” for victory, then open the throttle on the plane’s afterburners. I can just distinguish the tailfins of the squadron ahead of me as I go airborne. I’ll be late to the party, but I will be there. 

A few moments later, I can see the squadron already flying in battle formation just off my two o’clock. And just behind them, I see thirteen enemy aircraft in kill formation closing fast. Damn it! I hate being right. I fire up my radio, trying to get a hold of Jim. His experience hasn’t given him the instinct to assign someone to guard their six. He’s only seeing the decoy birds ahead of them and the ground targets, unaware of the firepower coming up on their tail. 

“Jim, this is Charlie. Do you read?” I radio him. Static. Still too far away. I bump the afterburners again, speeding my approach. I get in radio range just in time to hear Jim give the go-ahead to engage, and they cross into enemy airspace. “Jim, this is Charlie. Do you read?!” I shout into my headset. 

“Charlie? Walker?! General Turek said you weren’t flying this mission, something about being sick…” he radios back.

“Let’s just say I made a fast recovery, Jim. Listen, pull the squadron back, buddy. There’s a baker’s dozen enemy birds coming up fast on your backside. The planes in front of you are only a decoy! Hell, maybe they leaked the intel we gathered about this fight to draw us into a trap!” 

“No can do, Charlie. This mission will end the war, and we’re not backing down now. We’d all like to go home—”

“Gentry, you idiot, you’re outnumbered two to one! You’re going to go home, but it’s going to be in a damn body bag!” I watch as the enemy Warhawks close on our fighters. I’m too far away to help. I watch as one of the enemy birds vectors off and heads towards me. 

“FU—” I don’t get it out before I’m being fired upon. Somehow, I’m able to dodge the incoming gunfire, but my antagonist is persistent. He’s closing on me fast, and we’re right on each other’s twelve. It’s a suicide runner—I’ve heard of them. He’ll find out I’m not going down without a fight.

I glance at my radar; the Warhawks are on top of Jim and his men. I’ve gotta shake this guy and help them out. 

“Damn, Charlie, what the hell do we do, man? They’re all over us!” I hear Jim’s panicked voice over the radio. “McCoy, McCoy, rotate right, you’ve got a bogey on your…” BWHOOM!! I hear an explosion and see a fireball where Jesse McCoy’s jet was.

“Dammit!! Jim, break formation! Break it or they’ll pick you off. You’re sitting ducks right now. I’ll be there to help you as soon as I can…”

The suicide runner fires another salvo at me. I bank left, rolling to avoid his fire, opening up with my anti-aircraft cannons. “C’mon, just a little closer, you sunnuvabitch…” I say to no one and everyone. I pulse my afterburners twice, heading towards him fast. He follows my lead and increases his speed, hoping to score an Allied hit even at the cost of his own life. 4,000 feet. 3,000 feet. 2,500. My collision alert light blinks on, screaming at me. 

“Johnson, pull up, man, pull up!” Jim’s on the radio again, his voice grows more panicked. 

“Cuh-Can’t, coming too fast, too fas—” radio silence, this time from Kyle Johnson’s plane.

I’m out here and my brothers are still dying. I have to get past this idiot. My meter reads 800 feet. I look out my cockpit and I can see the front of his Warhawk looming like the Grim Reaper in front of me. Frannie… 

In an instant, I’m out of my body, telling myself what to do. I reach up and kill the power to my engines. My nose dips and heads downward. The runner shoots past me, the bottom of his fighter clips my vertical stabilizers. My fighter goes into a flat spin and I smell jet fuel—I see it crawl down my cockpit windows. The impact must’ve pierced the runner’s fuel tank. His plane ignites into a fireball about 1,000 feet past me. I’m trying the stick to gain control of my plane. Just about there. WHAM!!! I’m hit by a piece of flaming debris, my jet lights up like a bonfire, and I’m still spinning.

“Jim, Jim—I gotta eject!” I hear Moore on the radio, seeing yet another squadron plane explode, but its pilot ejecting to safety.

“Gentry, damn it man, I can’t shake this bast—” Silence. That was Hound-Dawg, one of our best.

I kick my engines back on, but feel only one fire up. Now I’m spinning off-axis at a crazy-quilt angle; my stick may as well be dead. My finger moves towards the “EJECT” button.

“Charlie! Charlie, man, I can’t die like this, brother, what do I do?” I hear Gentry on the comms, almost crying. “I never should’ve…”

The spin is hard to overcome, and as my altitude drops, it gets more and more difficult. Use it… I say to myself.

“Get it together, Gentry! Take whoever’s left and clear outta here as best you can. I’m going for a Hail Mary pass” I radio back. I pull back hard on the stick. My plane’s nose comes up just enough that I’m not pointing at the ground.

“Charlie!! I’m hit, brother, I gotta ditch!” Byers on the comms. That only left Jim. 

“Are you clear, Jim? Do you copy?? Are you clear??”

“I’m—-bzzztt—cle—-bbbztt…” my radio dies as the burning jet fuel takes out my antenna.

Let it all go, Charlie… I hear myself say. I hit the “ARM ALL” button on my console and squeeze the trigger on my stick. My plane becomes a spinning, twisting fireball of death, bullets and missiles flying in all directions. The canopy on my plane disappears—the intense heat of the fire destroys its integrity. I feel burning jet fuel on my flight suit and scream. 

“Frannie, I’ll always lov…”


— Lorne: Twenty Minutes Ago — 

I’m watching the last fighters take off at the end of the runway. I see one last jet taxiing towards the long stretch of asphalt. Farmer. He makes a gesture at me from the cockpit, but the glare of the sun obscures it. Most likely giving me the bird. It fills me with both rage and sadness as I see Charlie’s fighter tear down the runway, go airborne, and disappear into the shimmering heat. I’m helpless to stop it, as helpless as I was to prevent him from screwing up at that club. My gut tightens into a knot when I think about our long friendship and the sad, but necessary, actions I must undertake when he returns. If he returns, that is.

A few minutes pass before I make my way to Charlie’s tent; the MPs still guard the front door. I need to know how he got past the men outside his quarters. When I step inside, I see it. Oh damn, I think to myself, that gaping hole Farmer’s been after me to fix. On his cot, I notice the name patch from his flight suit beside a note with my name on it. I reach out, hesitate, then pick both of them up. As I unfold the note, Second Lieutenant Canson pushes past the MPs and into the tent.

“General Turek, sir,” he begins, saluting. “You need to come back to the main tent, sir. We’re getting radio reports in from the squadron, and, sir, most of them don’t sound good.” 

I shove the patch and the note into my pocket and exit the tent, the Lieutenant behind me. 

“Have we heard anything from Farmer’s plane, Lieutenant?” I ask.

“Farmer’s, sir? I thought you revoked his credentials, and he wasn’t flying this—”

“I did, but he decided to anyway.” 

“In that case, sir, no. Farmer’s comms are silent.” 

We make it back to the Ops Tent, the air heavy with anticipation and a lot of fear. All the radios are chattering at once—voices and reports overlapping. “Can you clear any of that chatter, Lieutenant,” I ask the radio operator.

“I’ll try, sir, but we’re getting a lot of radio interference.”

Just like Charlie predicted. 

“I’ve got some comms, sir…”

“Well, let’s hear it, son.” I move in closer to the radio.

Ccsschhhttcch—Jim, th—s Char—zzz—e. Do you—ead?!”

“Ch—bzzzrrr—? Walker?! General Ture—ccschhttcch—k said you weren’t flyi—bbzzzzt—his mission, something—bzzzrrrzz—about be—g sick…”

“Can you clean that up more? All I’m hearing is static and pieces!!” I shout.

Though he’s intimidated, the radio operator fiddles with more of his knobs and buttons. “This is as clear as I can get it, sir—”

“Alright, move out of there, son, I need to hear this up close…” I place my hand on his shoulder as he vacates the space in front of the console. I turn the volume knob up as loud as it will go.

“Jim—bbzzzzrtt—sten, pull the squadron back, buddy. There’re—zrrrt—’s dozen enemy birds coming up fast on your backside. The planes in front of you are—bzzz—decoy! Hell, maybe they leaked the intel we gathered about this fig—zztzzt—ht to draw us into a trap!”

I grab the microphone in front of me. “This is Papa Bird calling the nestlings. Please respond…”

“—bbbzzzrrrccchhh—arlie. This—zztz—sion will end the war, we’re not back—zzrrt—down now. We’d all like—zzt—go home…”

“Attention nestlings, this is Papa Bird. Please respond!!” I shout into the mic. 

“—bbbrrzz—ntry, you idiot, you’re outnumb—zzt—ed two to one. You’re going to go home, but it’s go—bzzzrrrt—-be in a damn body bag!”

“FU—”

“Walker?! Walker? Dammit, Charlie, this is Turek!! Do you copy?? Do any of you copy??” I shout louder. “Why the hell aren’t they answering me, Lieutenant?”

“I—I—I don’t know, sir. They could be out of range. Antenna damage. Enemy interference…”

“DAMN!” I say through my teeth. I’m blind AND dumb. All I can do is listen. Charlie was right about everything.

“—bbbrrrrzzzt—ey’re all over us!” I hear Jim’s panicked voice over the radio. “McCoy, —-brrzzt—Coy, rotate right, you’ve got a bogey—zzzrrt—on your… BWHOOM!!” I hear an explosion. Jesse’s is the first blood on my hands. I fear it won’t be the last.

“—zzzztt—reak formation! Break it or they’ll pick you off. You’re sitting du—zzt—ght now. I’ll be there to help you as soon as I can…”

I reach into my pocket and feel the note folded there. Should I read the words there? Do I have the right?

“C’mon, jus—brrzz—ttle closer, you sunnuvabitch…”

“Johnson, pull up, man, pull up!!!” Gentry again, even more panicked. 

“Cuh-Can’t, comi—-bbbrrrzt—o fast, too fas—” radio silence.

I’m secured here on base, sitting on my ass, and these men are dying because of me. Because of my pride. My cowardice.

“Ji—brrzzt—Jim—brrrzt—gotta eject!”

“Gentry, damn I—bzzt—an, I can’t shake this bast—”

“Charlie. Ch—zzrrt—an, I can’t die like this, brot—zzzz—at do I do…? I never should’ve…”

“Get it together, Gentry—zzzrrtt—ake whoever’s left an—bzzzzt—ear out of here as best you can. I’m going—zzzzt—or a Hail Mary pass!”

“Charlie!! I’m hit, br—zzzrrrtt—otta ditch!” 

“Are you clea—zzrrt—im? Do you copy?? Are you clear??”

“I’m—bzzztt—cle—bbbztt…”

“Frannie, I’ll always lov…”

“Oh—no, no—bbbbzzr—lie, not you…”

Silence.

I push myself away from the radio set—my hands, my body quake in sheer terror. All eyes are on me, waiting on my next move.

I look up at Lieutenant Canson. He salutes, I salute back. “I’ll be in my quarters, Lieutenant. Get on the horn. See if there are available recon units for search and rescue.”

“Sir, yes sir!” Canson salutes again.

Once I’m at my desk, I take Charlie’s note from my pocket and unfold it:

Lorne,

Even though I know it’ll make things worse for me, I’m disobeying your direct order and flying this mission. You’ve read the intel. You know if we’re even one man short, this operation WILL fail and I can’t live with that. I can’t sit back and watch my brothers die, my hands covered in their blood. I know I’ll suffer severe repercussions, but I’ll do so with a clear conscience. In my heart, I know I’m making the right—the only—choice. I’m sorry we fought, old friend. All I ask now is one last favor: if I don’t survive this mission, please find my Frannie. Give my name patch to her for me. Hold her hand how I wish I could and tell her I’m so sorry I let her down. Tell her I will always love her.

Charlie

I was wrong, so wrong on this whole thing, I think to myself. And Charlie, you were right. I should have listened to him. I should have fixed this combat mission. But my ego was too important. My superiors couldn’t know that a subordinate outsmarted me. In my foolish pride, the one man I could always count on to have my back… is dead. His blood is on my hands. The other guys went into this blind. They didn’t know the risks. But Farmer… he chose to fly the mission, knowing full well it was suicide. Charlie was right; I am a coward, but he… he was the bravest SOB I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.  

I sit in my chair, his letter in my hand. All I can think of is Fran. She didn’t deserve this. Thanks to me, she’s a young widow. How do I face her? How do I tell her he’s dead because of me? I look at the heavens, my voice warped with regret. “Godspeed, Charlie Farmer.” I speak to him as though he can hear me. “Godspeed.” 

Overcome with guilt and shame, I unpin my rank insignia from my uniform—I no longer deserve to wear the stars—and place them on my desk, along with Charlie’s name patch and the note. It’s as though I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut ten-times harder than Charlie ever thought of decking me, and I can’t breathe. I know what I must do. 

“Guards!” I call the MPs outside my tent. When they respond, they find me sitting in my chair, my arms on the rests, my eyes stare forward into nothing. “Take me into custody. I surrender.” 

“With all due respect, General Turek, we can’t do that—”

I gasp for breath. Who sucked all the damned air from this tent? “Do it, officers.” 

“But General Turek, sir—”

“I said do it, officers! That’s a direct order.” 

They are reluctant, but as I stand, they each clasp an arm and escort me from my quarters to the stockade on base, right where I would have sent Charlie. Oh, the cruel irony.


ii.

— Charlie —

“Ugh….” I awaken to a mouthful of sand as a long, painful groan hisses from my lips. The wreckage of my fighter jet lies behind me in a smoldering heap. All I can smell is burning jet fuel and acrid smoke. How I survived that is anyone’s guess, but I don’t have time to sit and ponder it at the moment, to gather my thoughts. I need to move from the wreckage and the smoke plume, both dead giveaways for my position.

I try to crawl from the crash site and feel a searing pain in my right leg. A scream of agony leaves my mouth, and I try to stifle it, but I don’t succeed. I flip onto my backside the best I can. The bottom of my right leg makes a slight jog to the left. It, and the associated pain, let me know that it’s broken. I check the trousers of my flight suit for any blood and am relieved to see none. A break out here is bad enough; a compound break would be a death sentence.

I scan my surroundings, shielding my eyes from the bright sunlight. Between the shimmering of the horizon line in the desert heat and the miasma of pain coming from my leg, trying to guess my position is sketchy. I figure I’m about a mile from behind enemy lines. If memory serves, there’s a small village about five klicks to my west. Odds are, I’ll crawl there; that will take precious time. First thing I need to do is try to stabilize my leg.

I crawl back to my plane’s wreckage to see if there’s anything I can use as a makeshift splint. I push myself up on my arms and my good leg, trying to avoid moving the broken one. There’s a piece of straight debris sticking up from the wreckage, flames licking all around it. I take my flight jacket off and put it over my hands, then reach into the fire and grab the piece of hot steel. Must be my lucky day. It’s a strut from the nose cone assembly—aircraft aluminum, so not too heavy, but hot enough to be bent into a primitive “U” shape. I use my good leg to make the bend and, as it cools off, I slide my busted leg into the temporary brace. I need to secure it. Think, Farmer, think. 

My First-Aid kit burned in the crash, so that’s not an option. That’s when it hits me; my flight suit. It’s tan and blends in well, but it’s also the only fabric light and strong enough to do the job. I feel around in my pockets; another lucky break. The pocketknife you gave me is in my pocket. I unzip the suit and peel it off the top half of my body. I open the knife, cut both sleeves off, and tie them around the strut. I’m trying to keep my leg as still as I can. I grimace in pain as I tighten them down, wishing I had a flask with some bourbon in it; anything to ease the throbbing.

With my leg taken care of, I need to head out to the village. I would kill for crutches right now, or just a walking staff, but I’m it. I check the sun’s position in the sky; it looks to be about four in the afternoon. That gives me four hours before nightfall and four hours of being a sitting goose in the middle of the desert. 

Before I leave the crash site, I know I have to destroy everything that could identify me. My flight jacket would help camouflage me, but I can’t justify keeping it; it’s a dead giveaway that I’m a soldier for the Allied Forces, and that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. The wreckage still aflame, I toss the jacket, my dog tags, and any other items that would identify me into the fire. All I have left is my white undershirt, my suit, and boots. I’m turning to limp away, then I remember the one thing I cannot leave here. I crawl to the smouldering cockpit and see your picture, scorched but not incinerated, still hanging on the console. With considerable effort, I heave myself into the opening and grab the photo, cradling it in my hands. Just seeing your smiling, beautiful face makes me smile as I crawl from the wreckage towards the village. 

I can’t help the tracks I leave in the sand behind me—I’ve got no way of erasing them. I try weaving as I crawl, letting the splint drag through the sand, hoping it will cover my trail at least a little. Between the searing sun pounding down from overhead and the blistering sand, I have doubts whether I’ll even make it a couple of miles before my body surrenders to heatstroke. I’d kill for a good pair of gloves right now; the sand’s relentless heat is blistering and burning the skin on my hands, making it difficult to even want to continue. I collapse into tears and prayers a few times, wishing for the sweet release of death, but it falls on deaf ears. The lack of water is affecting my body’s functioning—each step, each drag, each inch I crawl feeling like I’m wading through molten lava. When I want to lie down and die, I see your face, sweet Frannie, smiling at me, your voice urging me on. “Come on, Charlie, just a little further…”

When the sun sets on the western horizon, I’ve crawled as far as I know my body will go. The sand blistered my hands and they’re useless—my broken leg screams at me with rage. I look back over my shoulder, the plume of smoke from my crash site an almost indiscernible mirage in the distance. I turn my head to look forward—I feel a sharp pain on my left temple, and then I feel woozy. “They’ve found me. I’m sorry, Frannie…” your name the last thought to pass through my mind before the void of unconsciousness swallows me…


— Lorne: Six Hours Post-Mission —

I haven’t been able to think since the end of the mission. Only two men, Moore and Gentry, survived the operation; we lost the other five, Charlie included. Good men, all of them. All dead because of my ego. I’m such an ass. 

The next-in-command sent a recon mission to recover the men we lost. My holding cell is only about ten feet from the radio that keeps him up to date on progress. Two fighters went down behind enemy lines; their bodies and belongings required time to recover, as we needed to wait for the cover of darkness. 

Two hours later, I’m lying on the cot inside my cell when I hear one soldier from the recovery mission speaking with General Dan Rhoades, the new commanding officer. Their words are indistinguishable, but I make out one word followed by more gibberish. My hair stands up on end. 

“What about Farmer?” I ask. I don’t expect an answer. 

“We searched the area twice, General Turek. We could not find Major Farmer’s body, sir. Our recon team found the charred aircraft wreckage, but we couldn’t tell if Farmer had ejected. We found these, however, in the debris.” He tosses me Charlie’s dog tags, scorched and black. “I’m still determining whether to declare him MIA or KIA.”

“I see. Thank you for the update, General.” I turn over in my cot and close my eyes. Charlie’s dog tags are in my fist, and I clench them so hard I feel them bite into my skin. In every sense, I have Charlie’s blood on my hands. I think about the hell that his beloved Fran will endure. I pray for her. And I pray for Charlie. If he didn’t die in the crash and is a prisoner of war, he will wish he had died. I take a deep breath in, hoping that sleep will claim me, but I know I will not sleep tonight.


— Charlie: Four Days Post Mission —

When I awaken, I’m lying on a primitive cot, bandages on my hands and across my midsection—my leg is in a splint and I can’t move. The bright sunshine pouring in through the window, combined with the bleariness of my vision, keeps me from seeing very well. Must be in an enemy prison infirmary; that would explain the medical treatment. My first instinct is to get up and try to escape, but when I try, pain wracks my body. Yeah, Farmer, I think to myself, you’re not going anywhere. I pat the pockets of my flight suit and feel your picture still there. It gives me a little hope before I dissolve back into darkness.


— Ten Days Post Mission —

The next time I awaken, I see our bedroom ceiling—ceiling fans spinning clockwise, the shadows they cast creating a sort of kaleidoscope on the ceiling and walls. I hear you and Destiny in the kitchen making breakfast: your famous, homemade pancakes with eggs and bacon. My mouth waters and it smells so good! And coffee! That I haven’t smelled since I deployed! But how can I be here?

I remember crawling through the sand, and then my memory goes catawampus. I have a vague recollection, random images really, of a makeshift hospital and bandages, but it ends there. Allies must’ve found the enemy camp and liberated everyone. I can only conclude I’ve been comatose since the desert. 

I try to sit up, but I still feel pain and lie back down. “Frannie…?” I call out weakly, my voice hoarse and timid. A moment later, you and Destiny enter the room—you’re wearing the dress I love so much, and Destiny’s in her coveralls and carrying Angaloo, the stuffed animal I gave her for her last birthday. I beam at both of you.

“Daddy!!” Destiny exclaims, then runs over to the bed to give me a hug. Her impact, while so loved and welcome, wracks my body with pain. I wince and say, “Good morning, my sweet baby girl!” You must see me grimace as you call Destiny back to your side.

“Come on over here, sweetie. Daddy needs his rest,” you say to Destiny and walk towards me with a full tray of food. The pancakes I heard you mixing up, bacon, eggs and even hash browns! A small glass of orange juice is also on the tray along with my favorite coffee mug, filled to the brim with fresh coffee. “It’s good to see you awake, my love,” you say as you set the tray down on my nightstand. “I was thinking you’d sleep the entire day away.”

“Fr-Fra-Frannie?” I croak out, “How did I get here…?”

“Shhh,” you say, reaching down to touch my face. “You just rest, my darling…”

Your hand brushes my hair—wait, I have hair…?—to one side, and I feel something cool on my skin. That’s when everything around me fades and I find myself on the cot I almost don’t remember. A woman with exotic eyes—a headdress and veil covering her hair and the rest of her face—is wiping a cool cloth over my forehead. Whatever’s on the cloth is potent and it stings. It’s enough to bring the woman’s face into focus as she smiles at me.

“Noman, you awake,” she says. I can tell from her broken English that she is not from the mainland, but her accent doesn’t match up to the enemy’s, either. 

Am I alone here? I wonder to myself. When I open my mouth to speak, I don’t recognize the voice that croaks out. “Where am I? How long have I been asleep?”

“You sleep for ten mornings. We not sure you were to live. You in bad shape when brother find you on desert edge, Noman.”

“Please tell your brother thank you for saving me,” I reply, “but who is Noman?”

Her face is an enigma, but her golden eyes are the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen. “When brother find you, he bring you here. We not know what to call you, so we call you Noman, means ‘blessed’ in our language. You should not be alive.” She walks to an adjacent room, and I hear water filling a glass, which she leaves by my bedside. “It good you awake. You rest now, Noman. I check on you later.”

“What do I call you?”

“I Nahla. You rest.” She bows before she leaves.

I look around and try to take stock of my surroundings. I’m certain it isn’t a hospital room. It looks more like a makeshift infirmary—a detached cupboard has jars with cotton fluff, gauze, wooden sticks, and bandages. I sit up in the cot to check out my leg; there is no way their equipment could handle a fracture like mine. My makeshift splint is lying on the floor, so I’m guessing they set my leg and splinted it the best they could. I’m sure I was fortunate to be unconscious during that ordeal. Feels pretty good unless I try to move it, so I won’t complain, though. Looks like I’ll be sticking around a while. 

In my head, I try to figure my next move. When I am able, I know I need to travel west, and then south. I don’t dare show my face back at the base, and I doubt Lorne even cares whether they find me dead or alive. The position I’ve put him in is unenviable. No, it’s better if they believe I’m dead.

I can feel my eyes growing heavy; I’m having a tough time staying awake, and it seems I’m protected here. Nahla’s brother could’ve killed me long ago. I think I’ll just rest my eyes and hope they’re not healing me just to torture me later.


iii.

Six Months Later

L’lan-Ero, Kawakea’shan Province

“How are you today, Noman?” Nahla’s blazing eyes greet me from under her niqab, as brilliant as any sunrise. She wants to check how my leg is healing. Six months have passed, from what I can determine, since the crash, and my leg is on the mend. It’s not perfect, but at least I’m able to walk on it.

“It’s the best I’ve been in a long while, thanks to you, sweetie,” taking her hand to kiss it. Nahla blushes. I realize I shouldn’t feel like this about her, but this woman saved my life. And how our last conversation ended, Frannie, it’s not clear if we have a relationship, much less a marriage, left to salvage. 

With the help of other villagers, I built a fire hot enough to allow me to unbend the aircraft strut, split it in two, and create a pretty snazzy walking stick. Mekhi and Rasmus, two of the craftier kids in the village, carved a beautiful wooden handle for the walking stick and love to take turns smoothing the aluminum down with rocks, sand and plant oils as I tell them stories about flying. The village Elder, Sariyeh Farouqi, offered to carve a permanent cane for me. He hasn’t finished it, but I’ve seen other elders with walking sticks he’s carved. They’re impressive, and I can’t wait until he completes mine.

While we had such a solid blaze burning, I taught the village the beauty of an old-fashioned pig roast—in this case, it was a goat. The animal roasted for hours over those coals, rubbed with dry spices and herbs that grow native in the area, ones the villagers use in their everyday cooking. Even I had to admit, goat meat cooked like that was pretty tasty. The entire village feasted that day, with some extra for Elder Farouqi and his wife.

“I am happy you well, Noman swee-tee.” I laugh hearing her mix her broken English with some of what I’ve tried to teach her to speak. Proves to me, that’s why I’m a pilot instead of a teacher. She pulls her hand, warm, soft, and perfumed with myrrh and juniper, back inside her abaya as she walks beside me. 

While their customs and ways of life here are more relaxed than typical Middle Eastern countries, the unmarried women still shroud themselves from head to toe in public. They only expose as much of their body as necessary, even in private. As a result, I’ve seen very little of the woman who’s stealing my heart. But her eyes are mesmerizing. If that is all I see until I make it official, it’s enough. I reach for her hand and squeeze it, give her my winning smile, and blow a kiss before we part ways. She needs to be at the infirmary. Laleh, the Elder’s young wife, is expecting to deliver a baby soon.

After my visit to the infirmary, I wander back to the house where I stay—well, it’s more of a hut compared to the farmhouse I shared with you, but it’s still home. I make my way to my room and sit on the bed. Your photo still sits on the side table, but you seem more of a distant memory these days. I trace your image on the paper and lay the photo on its face. No, I think to myself, this is my home now. Nahla loves me, and I, her. 

The house is small and set apart from the village, near the edge of the desert, close to where Nahla’s brother found me. It belongs to a friend of their family—he was gracious enough to let me stay with him. For now, it’s just us two bachelors, though Mahak is marrying soon. I’m sure the newlyweds won’t want a third wheel in their home, so I’ll make other arrangements within the month. 

Though I’ve been here a few months, I have nothing to my name. I sometimes barter labor for necessities at the market a few miles to the west. I am headed there this morning. Someone’s always looking for help, and minor projects are perfect to earn fast money. 

My boots are in good shape, so I slip them onto my feet and lace them. I need new pants—blue jeans if I can find them—ones that don’t reveal that I was once an allied soldier. It doesn’t mean I’ll find a warm welcome elsewhere just because they are friendly here. My cane in my hand, I begin the three-mile walk to the market. Nahla is busy at the infirmary, so I won’t bother her for a kiss before I leave.

I’m only half a mile away from the village when I notice the roar of jets overhead. I recognize their markings—I used to fly one when I fought for the Allied Forces. But what are they doing out here… in battle formation?! These settlements are peaceful! I watch in horror as the squadron rains down hell upon the village I’ve called home for the past five and a half months. My mouth opens to shout a warning, but I am too far away for them to hear me. Fearing the worst, I run back to the village, and I don’t care if it isn’t safe. Nahla is working at the infirmary, a target if they have orders to fire on us.

When I reach the village, nothing but devastation surrounds me. Huts and homes burn—their thatched roofs are like tinder. The villagers have no chance against firepower of that magnitude. I run to the infirmary, or what’s left of it. My darling, sweet Nahla lies on the floor—blood trickles from her mouth, nose, and right ear. “NO!” I run to her side and pick her up to hold in my arms, her body limp and warm. “No…” I cry as I hold her, but I hear something ominous outside.

With Nahla in my arms, I hear the planes coming around for another pass. I have to run like my life depends on it, because it does. On my feet, I bolt for the door, running as fast as my injured leg can carry me to the house I call home. Your picture! I need to grab it, so I snatch it from the side table and duck under the bed. If they hit the house, the blast would kill me, bed or no bed. Concussive explosions rock the village—the makeshift windows in the house shatter in what seems a never-ending barrage of fire. I wonder if any villagers have survived. Every person I have met in this settlement may be dead, and I’m powerless to stop it. 

The sounds of aircraft fade, and I pull myself out from under the bed. Somehow, this room in the house still stands, and I can’t believe I’m still alive. This had to be Jim’s harebrained idea, too. No one else I served with would dare hit a soft target like this. I stand to shake off the dust and remove the few things I’ve accumulated from a drawer in the dresser—a pocket watch given to me by Elder Farouqi, and my watch, which I strap around my wrist. I need to find my way outside through a pile of rubble, bricks, and broken glass. Once I’m outside, I notice the birds have retreated, no doubt pleased with themselves for taking out villagers in a peaceful settlement. 

I walk back to the infirmary to be with Nahla, though I know she’s dead. I’m careful when I kneel beside her body and pick her back up into my arms. “Damn you, Jim! And damn you, Lorne! They weren’t hurting you!” My tears cover her face while I rock her in my arms—my body shakes with rage and sorrow. Her face, her eyes still show fear, and it infuriates me more. How dare they hit a civilian village?! 

Hours pass, and I brush a strand of hair from Nahla’s face. “My darling, I’m so sorry,” I say to her. “I failed you. I failed everyone here.” This seems to be a pattern with you, Farmer, I think to myself. I press my lips to her cheek one last time and set her body on the floor. “I love you.” A sob chokes my voice as I leave the infirmary.

I need to inspect the village and search for survivors. Off the beaten path is the home of the village elder, and I hope the allies missed his home. I peek my head into the door and call his name, but there’s no answer. It’s obvious the attack damaged the house—the kitchen lies in ruins. Dread washes over me. I creep inside the door and peer into the large sitting room off the kitchen, and I find him weeping, holding the bloody, battered remains of his very pregnant wife. 

“Sir?” My mouth hangs agape, my head bows in sorrow. “Oh, my—”

“You!” Anger drips from his words. “Your kind did this! You are no longer welcome here, Noman!” He stands and places his wife’s body on the floor by his feet. “Get out, or I will kill you myself!”

My blood runs cold hearing his words—I know he’s not joking. But as a gesture of kindness and peace, I leave my aluminum walking stick by the bookcase, then take the pocket watch he gave to me and lay it on the table close to where I’m standing. 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” My breath hitches, looking at the surrounding destruction. It’s too horrible to comprehend. If I turn my back to him, he could kill me with the scimitar that hangs over the hearth. I’m ready to take that risk, and I suppose I’d deserve it. Instead, he walks to the table where I’ve laid the watch. He wipes tears from his eyes and hangs his head. 

“I no wish to kill you, Noman.” Elder Farouqi takes the watch and slips it into his pocket. “Thank you. You have honor, but your kind has none. Go in peace, but do not return.” 

Without saying another word, I walk from his house and away from the smoldering village, and off toward the sunset.

*****

I thought the Allied Forces finished their deployment, but I guess I’m wrong. Now that I realize the fighters are still active, I need to be careful. Any place nearby is a potential target. If they would destroy a peaceful village, I can’t imagine what’s next on their strike list. I don’t need the Allied Forces to discover me. If Lorne knows I live, I face a never-ending, expensive legal battle, and I can’t put Frannie and Destiny through that shame and humiliation. 

The sky is growing dark, and without the moon in the sky, I will lose my direction. I make it about five miles from the village before I need to stop. My leg’s throbbing tonight after running on it. Without pain medication, I won’t be able to travel well. My thoughts wander to my exchange with Nahla just before I left for the market. I should have stopped for one more kiss. Had I known what was coming, I wouldn’t have left her side. 

Despite the heat, the desert gets frigid at night, and tonight’s no exception. It’s brisk out here. I need to either keep moving—not an option—or build a fire for warmth. I limp around, looking for dead branches that will act as kindling. When I have enough wood, I arrange the sticks with some dried grass and brush for a starter. I find a piece of rock, one that looks as though it will throw a spark, and start the tedious process of building my fire. About thirty minutes later, I catch a break when the dry grass ignites. 

As the fire grows, I notice my stomach growling. I haven’t been hungry in a while, but my leg’s in no shape to hunt, either. I’m in pain, and I’m tired, so I settle down beside the fire for the night. As I fall asleep, I think of Nahla—if I ever run into Jim or Lorne again, they will answer for what they’ve done today. When I close my eyes, I see the fear on her face. I can’t imagine what she went through in her last moments. The image haunts me—I won’t sleep much tonight. When I open my eyes, the tears that pool in them trickle down my face. I notice a shooting star in the sky. Maybe it’s a sign from Nahla that she’s home with her people, and I take comfort in it. 

“Rest in sweet peace, my darling Nahla,” I weep. “Until I see you again.”


— Fran: A Month Later —

I wake covered in sweat from a dream I had of you. The dreams are vivid, almost realistic. Are you trying to tell me something? I can’t tell if you are. My bladder is letting me know, now that I’m awake, that it needs attention, so I walk to the bathroom and check on Destiny on my way. Her bedroom is still off the master. I enjoy having her close. We need each other.

Your funeral was yesterday, but we buried an empty casket. The ceremony was beautiful—the Army spared no expense. Without your body, there was no sense of closure. Destiny didn’t understand any of it, only that you weren’t there. She’s intelligent, but some things are too terrible for a child to grasp. 

Lorne showed his face at the funeral, but he didn’t dare come near me. I can’t even look at him. Jim Gentry and Trent Moore came, too, sporting the Purple Heart awards they earned in the mission. The Army granted both Jim and Trent a medical discharge. Jim will never be the same. He broke his back when he landed wrong after ejecting from his fighter, and now he’s in a wheelchair. Trent fared better, but they won’t clear him to stay in, either. At least they lived. 

After I’m done in the bathroom, I stop to check Destiny once more, tuck her in and kiss her cheek. She stirs—she doesn’t wake up, but I wish she had. I wouldn’t mind her little body curled up next to mine tonight. I’m lonelier than usual and I miss you more every day. 

Since Lorne brought me your duffel, I haven’t had the heart to open it up, but something calls me to it. I take my robe from the chair that sits next to my side of the bed and wrap it around me. I need to be close to you—to be with the items you loved—the items in your bag Lorne packed up for me. I tiptoe up the stairs to the attic where Caleb carried your bag when he brought it home. 

The first thing I see is the civilian clothing you brought with you; the ones you wore to the strip club, the ones I saw in the photo. It was bittersweet seeing them. I know they were your favorite clothes. The last time I saw you alive, you were wearing them, kissing another woman. I bury my face into the shirt and inhale, your fading scent still on the fabric. Hot tears drop from my eyes and soak into it, and I sob, hungry for every trace of you. All of your things—the entire bag still smells of you, and it’s overwhelming. A few moments later, when I’ve collected myself, I fold them and lay them on the floor next to where I’m sitting. 

I reach in without looking and I feel a book, one I recognize. It’s your prayer book, something you never left on deployment without. I set the book on the floor next to me when I notice something sticking out of the pages. It looks bigger than a bookmark, so I pick the book up again and see two notes handwritten in your chicken scratch writing. One is for Destiny, the other one for me. My hands tremble while I unfold the note and read it:

My darling Frannie,

If you are reading this, I didn’t come home with the unit. I’m sorry I broke my promise to come home to you. I am sorry, honey, that I didn’t retire when I had the chance years ago, before Destiny was born, or I’d be home with you now, asleep with you in my arms. I’m sorry you’ll raise Destiny without me at your side. I’m sorry for all I’ll miss with both of you, and my heart aches because of it. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life—marrying you was never one of them. It might have been the only thing I ever did right. 

Frannie, I don’t want you to stop living your life. Don’t waste it loving and missing me. You’re young, and you’ll need help to raise our little girl. If you have the opportunity for love, baby, I want you to take it…

I stop reading and wipe tears from my eyes. Never, I whisper to myself. Never…

… because all I want is your happiness. If I can’t do that for you, then someone else must. 

I’m sorry that I slipped up at the club. Our phone call today didn’t end on speaking terms, and I don’t blame you. I recognize that I have hurt you, and I didn’t deserve your forgiveness. But, Frannie, please know that I love you with everything I have, with everything that I am, and that will continue forever. I love you so much, honey, it hurts. 

I hear an audible gasp, and then I realize I am not breathing. Emotional agony chokes me. Did you really think our phone call ended that way? Didn’t you hear me say ‘I love you?’ The pain is increased tenfold—you died believing I don’t love you. The attic feels like a vacuum—like someone sucked the air out. I see my hands shake. The rattle of the paper echoes in the bare room. On my knees, I pray for the strength to inhale. And then it comes—a loud, forceful gulp of air. So much pain… I’m not sure my heart can handle the torment. With quaking hands, I continue to read:

Please, don’t let Destiny forget me. Tell her how much her Daddy loved her. Keep my photos nearby, and please, don’t let her forget me.

Destiny… My heart hurts so much, I feel like I will die. That bastard left my four-year-old daughter without her father. Damn you, Lorne Turek… “Damn you!” The sound of my voice startles me. “DAMN YOU!” I take another deep breath… I have to finish reading this:

Thank you, sweetheart, for a life well loved. I will never forget you, and I will never stop loving you. You are my heart and soul forever. I’ll see you on the other side, my Frannie.

“I love you, Charlie… forever.” 

*****

I don’t recall falling asleep, but I wake the next morning on the floor in the attic, shivering. Destiny is down in her bedroom yelling my name and crying. Before I descend the steps, I bring your prayer book with me, both letters tucked inside. Destiny won’t understand her letter just yet, but when she does, I will read it to her. “Your baby girl will remember you, I promise.” I look to the heavens, hoping you can hear me. She will remember you if it’s the last thing I do.


 — Charlie: Four Months Later —

Since I left the village, after the bombing that killed Nahla and dozens of other villagers, I’ve traveled almost five hundred miles on foot by my best guess, walking by night and resting during the heat of the day. For now, I’ve made a temporary home in a bustling town about three hundred miles from a port city. 

I am sleeping in a park the morning I arrive in town, when a man, dressed in a polo shirt and blue jeans, approaches me. I feel a hand on my shoulder. 

“Um, buddy, are you alive?”

When I open my eyes, a stranger hovers over me, his face stares into mine. He wears a cross like yours around his neck. “I’m alive. Quality of life is questionable.” Every muscle in my body aches, and I’m weary.

He chuckles. “You’re not from around here, are ya? You look like you could use a hot meal.” 

The first thing I notice about the stranger is his western accent—he’s from the mainland. “I can’t remember the last time I ate something good.” I let the question slide and hope he doesn’t press the issue. 

“Well, shoot, why don’t we get a cup of joe and some breakfast? My treat.”

I consider his generous offer and decide to take him up on it. “Sounds good, friend.” 

We walk together to the nearest diner, not speaking to one another. When we reach the door, he holds it open and ushers me inside first. We sit in a corner booth, and he hails the waitress to our table. “Coffee, please darlin?” 

The waitress, who seems like she knows him, waves and nods. “I’m on my way, Tex.” 

“So,” Tex said, “you know my name. What’s yours?” 

I try to think up a name. I don’t want to reveal my identity. This man carries himself like he’s military, and I don’t need to give myself away. “Rich,” I blurt out. 

He smiles. “Nice to meet you, Rich. I know you’re hungry, so order whatever you’d like. Don’t be bashful.” 

“Thank you, Tex.” The waitress walks to our table with a fresh carafe of coffee and two clean cups, sets them down and fills them to the brim. It’s the first time I’ve had coffee in months, since before the mission, and the aroma brings me home. I can almost see the dining room, almost smell your perfume I love. I can almost see your lovely face… Tex is calling my name, the one I told him, and I break from my daydream. “Sorry about that. I got lost in a memory of home.”

He laughed out loud. “Yeah, I get that a lot. No one enjoys sitting here with me.” I’ll admit, I’m not sure what to think of his lighthearted ribbing at first. “It’s okay, Rich. I’m kidding! So, where is home?” 

“I’m from the mainland, a little town near Bridgeport. Are you familiar?”

He nods his head. “Quite familiar. I’m from Hidden Springs myself.”

“Gotcha.” 

We continue our small talk through breakfast, sharing vague details of our lives, and saying nothing of substance. When it’s time to part ways, he asks me an unexpected question. 

“So, do you have somewhere to stay? That’s probably a no, since I found you sleeping on a park bench.” 

“I haven’t gotten that far yet, Tex. I have been walking for months and only got into town early this morning. I haven’t even slept that much.” 

“There’s an extra bedroom in my apartment. I don’t mind sharing with you. You don’t look like a serial killer.” His sense of humor is dry, and I’m catching on. “What do you say?” 

“Wow, that’s quite an offer. Thank you. I wouldn’t mind sleeping in an actual bed for a change.” We shake on it, and I follow him home. 

The apartment is in the center of town, a short walk to stores, places of employ and entertainment. His key turns in the door, and he swings it wide open. “It’s not much, but it’s home.” 

I wander inside and take in the surroundings: A small galley-type kitchen with a two-seat bar. The living room has a sofa and an ancient television, complete with rabbit ears and foil. There are two tiny bedrooms and one shared bathroom, but his second bedroom only has a bed and a dresser. It’s suitable for now, and I’m thankful to have met my new friend.

“Thanks, Tex. As soon as I find work, I’ll help with expenses.”

“The factory is looking for a janitor. It’s not the best paying job, but it’s something. I work there—I can get you in, no problem.”

I can’t believe my luck. “That would be great. Thank you.” I walk to the bedroom door and open it. “Do you mind if I nap? I’m tired and sore.”

Tex nods and smiles. “No problem, Rich. Rest well.”

I close the bedroom door behind me, peel back the sheets, strip down to my skivvies and climb into bed. I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow before I’m sound asleep.


— Two Months Later —

Tex works in a factory that produces circuit boards, and he works the graveyard shift from nine at night to six the next morning. My days are free while he sleeps and I spend my evenings alone. It’s the ideal situation for two ‘bachelors’ in the town. We seldom see each other, but sometimes we pass in the hallway when he’s getting home and I’m leaving. 

He helped me land the janitor position at the factory on the early morning shift. I’m too old to use the machines on the assembly line, so I sweep the floors, empty the waste bins in the offices and clean the break room. He wasn’t kidding when he said it wasn’t much money—most of what I make I give to Tex for rent and my part of the expenses. I save some money back each week for my ticket back to the mainland, back home to you and our daughter. 

I’m cooking in the kitchen when the door opens and heavy footsteps enter. “Tex?” 

“Yeah, Rich, it’s me,” he says. “What’re you cooking? It smells good.” 

I smile and think of you. “My favorite breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy. It’s only missing one thing.” 

He kicks off his shoes and walks back to the kitchen. “Yeah? What’s that?” 

“Grits. I guess they don’t import grits from the mainland.” 

Tex laughs. “Yeah, they never heard of half the good stuff we had at home.” He picks up a biscuit and tears a piece off. “Do you miss it, Rich?” 

“Yes, I do. Someday I want to go back. I just don’t have enough saved for my ticket home.” 

“Lucky duck. I wish I could go home.” He spoons a little gravy onto the biscuit and changes the subject. “Hey, this is pretty good slop. Where did you learn to cook?” 

“Someone special back home, Tex. That’s who I’m trying to get home to, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.” 

“You having breakfast with me?” 

“I would, but I’m dead tired, man. They worked me hard last night.” 

I finish cooking the eggs and scoop them onto the plate with everything else. “I’ll save you some biscuits.” 

“Appreciate that,” he says, then yawns. “Don’t forget, rent is due on payday. I hate to take your money, but I could use the help this month.”

I plop down at the bar with the plate in my hand. “It was the agreement we made when you let me stay here. No worries, man.” I say a quick prayer and pick up my fork. “Sleep well, Tex.” He says nothing more before he closes his bedroom door behind him. 

Today’s my day off, so I’m on my way to the town center. I need to replace things I wore out on my five-month trek from the village—my boots are first on the list. There’s a store that carries western imports, and I’m hoping they’ll have some cowboy boots today. It’s been too long since I’ve had a pair on my feet. The owner, Gio, is familiar with me, as I’ve traded there before. When I open the door, a bell rings and alerts him to my presence.

“Hey Rich!” he calls out. He wipes his hand on an apron he wears to protect his clothing. The store smells of paint thinner, and I hear the whir of a fan nearby. “What can I get for you?” 

“I’m hoping you have some boots today.” There’s a rack with tacky, western shirts, and I laugh until I realize they look like mine back home. 

“I have about five pairs I got in last week, and I saved a pair for you in size twelve. Is that right, Rich?” 

“Perfect.”

He brings the boots to me and sets them down next to a chair. “Try ‘em and see what you think, Rich. To be honest, I’d not spend that kind of money on those boots if I were you. The shop down the street sells knock-offs. You can’t tell the difference.”  

The boot slides on as though they are fit for my foot. “It isn’t the look I’m after, Gio. This boot fits like it’s custom made. Knock-offs look the same, but they’re not comfortable. I have a long journey ahead of me, and these are perfect.” The other has the same familiar feel when I slip my foot into it. “I’ll take them.” 

The shopkeeper smiles. “I appreciate a guy who knows what he likes. How does my cost sound to you?” I open my mouth to protest, but he shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it, Rich. This one’s on me.” 

My mouth drops open as I stand there. “Well, thank you, Gio. My wallet thanks you, too.” The boots, as ticketed, are almost a full week’s wages. With the savings, I can shop for food at the market. “Don’t worry about wrapping them. I’ll wear them out.” My military-issue boots, with the broken down leather, worn soles, and frayed laces, are going back home with me. They’ll be useful for work, and when I’m ready to travel again, I’ll dispose of them then.

My next stop is the food market, and it’s a short walk. I grab a cart and head for the produce section. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to purchase fresh fruit, so long since I’ve eaten an apple or an orange. I buy one of each for my lunch this week. 

By the time I reach the meat section, I notice someone following me. It isn’t anyone that I recognize, but I feel uneasy about it. Whenever I turn around, he ducks behind something or busies himself with an item. When I round the corner to the bakery section, he’s slow to respond, so I approach him. 

“Can I help you with something?” 

He looks past me and shifts on his feet. “No, why do you ask?” 

“Because you’ve been following me since I came in. Is there a problem?” 

He checks the area for some unseen threat and nods his head. “I can’t speak here. Meet me at the cafe across the street in five minutes, Mr. Farmer. I have information you will want to hear.” 

I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “Do I know you?” 

He looks past me again, his hand on his hip, and I recognize the stance. He’s packing heat! “Just be there.” He checks his personal perimeter again and in the same fashion as he appeared, he leaves. 

So many questions run through my mind, but the big one is how he knows my name. No one here knows anything about me. How did he find out? That’s what I want to know. I pay for my items at the bakery stand and take my parcel. I’ll admit I’m a little spooked, but I know I need to be across the street. Something deep inside me tells me to go.

*****

Five minutes later, I’m sitting at an outdoor table across the street from the market when the mystery man appears. “Come with me, Mr. Farmer.” We say nothing while we walk to a secluded park by the cafe. “I have information for you—”

I shake my head. “Oh, no. I’m not hearing anything until you answer MY question,” I say. “How do you know my name? No one here knows my true identity, but you do. How?”

“Mr. Farmer, your name and face were all over the news when the army changed your status to ‘killed in action.’ Your roommate, Tex, is not who you believe him to be, Charlie. He is ex-military, and when you strolled into town, he recognized you.” He looked around, searching bushes and unseen areas for spying eyes and ears. “The intel community has been watching for you after the village bombing. We have agents spread out everywhere, lying in wait.”

What?! How in the… “Wait a minute! What do you know about the bombing?”

“I know it was a grave mistake by the Allied Forces. I know you survived it, Mr. Farmer. Your unit is back home, and we will return you home, all expenses paid, in exchange for your silence on the village bombing. The army will restore your rank and drop all charges against you if you accept this deal.”  

I stare in disbelief at this man. “You say Tex is not who I think he is. Can I trust him? Is he hostile or friendly?” 

“Tex is ex-intelligence, Mr. Farmer. He is out for himself and no one else. Watch your back around him, or you may find a knife sticking out of it someday.” 

I have much to consider. This guy wants an answer, and I’m sure he wants it before we part ways. How many others know I’m alive? I am guessing very few. I suspect he is out for himself, and by bringing me in, perhaps he would benefit himself with the Army. Is there a price on my head? Will he be the one to collect it? My gut says to not trust a thing he says. 

“You know, I’m going to decline your offer, mister…” I wait for his name, but he doesn’t volunteer it. “I will get home to my family, on MY terms.” 

“You’ve made an unwise choice, Mr. Farmer. Watch your back.” He turns to leave. “I wouldn’t sleep around Tex, if I were you.” Without another word, the mystery man leaves. 

I feel queasy, but now I don’t feel safe here, so I plan to leave after Tex goes to work tonight. Lucky for me, he works tonight at the factory, so I’ll leave after he does. I walk back to the cafe, to the payphone out front, lift the receiver and dial the factory. I quit my job and tell them to give the money to Tex. It’s his, anyway. Whatever food I have now will go with me when I leave, and I ditch my military boots in a nearby dumpster. 

I try to act normal when I get back to the apartment. Tex is still asleep. I pack what little I have into the knapsack I bought and set it by the bedroom door. I make sure I tuck your photo into the bag. If what the mystery man says about Tex is true, he can’t know you’re my wife. I have to keep you safe at any cost.

I walk back into town, about a half mile or so. At the bank where I keep my meager savings, I withdraw everything and close the account. It isn’t much, but it will purchase things I need for my journey. I’m even rethinking my strategy on that, too. I might double back and head a little east before I turn south. 

My last stop is a pawnshop to purchase three specific items: a canteen, a compass, and a pistol with ammo. I know that I need to watch myself, so the firearm is not negotiable. This purchase takes all my cash on hand, and my wristwatch. At least I will feel safer with the gun at my side.  

I want one last good, hot meal before I leave, so I cook some of what I bought today for both of us. Things need to look normal, or Tex will become suspicious. 

“Hmm, that smells good, Rich. I need some of your recipes before you leave,” he says, and I freeze in my tracks. 

“Who said anything about leaving?” 

He laughs. “You did, doofus. Aren’t you heading back home when you’ve saved enough money?” 

Inside, I breathe a sigh of relief and snicker. “Of course. I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life with you.” I turn the heat off on the stove. “Are you hungry?” 

“Hell yes! You made enough for me too, right?” 

“Don’t I always?” 

“That you do.” 

After supper, I clean the dishes while Tex readies himself for work. The leftovers are in the refrigerator. I wrapped them for travel, and though it won’t last long, I can eat before I sleep for the day tomorrow morning. Though I promised the leftover biscuits to Tex, I need them on the trip. Food will be at a premium once I’m in the badlands. 

I sit on the sofa with the day’s newspaper and rest. Even though I’m tired, I know I have to leave tonight. I can’t risk the mystery man is right about Tex. Confronting him might make things worse for me, and I can’t risk not getting home to you, my darling. 

“I’m out to work,” Tex announces. “See you in the morning.” 

I nod my head. “See you then, friend.” It is odd lying to him. 

Dusk settles over the town, and the streets are quiet and empty when I leave the apartment. My knapsack is over my shoulder, every bit of food I bought packed into it, along with the canteen, filled with fresh water, and my compass. I set out toward the east, following the road out of town and into the wilderness.


iv.

— Two Months Later —

I’m about five miles past a settlement headed south on my journey. I passed it by earlier this evening on my walk, and I’m back into the wilderness again. Now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t stop and look for water in the village. My canteen is bone dry and I’m growing weak from sickness.

Noting the stars and the moon’s position, I determine it’s about two hours before sunrise, but I need to stop walking now. Though the temperature is mild and somewhat humid, my teeth chatter, and my body shakes with chills. The area is not arid, sandy desert like what I left months ago. Lush vegetation covers the area. Harmless prey animals populate the forest, but I am too sick and weak to hunt.

I walk to a clearing where the trees are less dense. I gather a few sticks, dry grass and moss to use as kindling for a campfire. Only a few lucky minutes later, the stone I’m using throws a spark, and the grass ignites. I can’t believe my good fortune—a brook babbles nearby, and I gather some water from it into my canteen. I should boil it, but it’s running water, not stagnant, so I should be okay for tonight. 

In the distance, I hear the rumble of thunder in the night sky. I don’t need rain right now. I’m already ill—I don’t need wet, cold clothing to sleep in while I rest. But the wind blows from the east and the air is icy. My small fire is in danger of being extinguished if I can’t protect it from the elements. 

I take a sip of water from the canteen and lay my head on a moss-covered rock. For now, the fire grows—a good, soaking shower will extinguish it. In the dark, I shiver and feel nauseated. I know I am feverish, but all I can do is pray I recover. 

The storm must have gone around me somehow, because I awaken some hours later in the daylight, my fire hanging on by an ember. I throw a little more grass into the fire to rekindle it and grab a small log that lays nearby. The chills have passed, and now I’m burning up, sweating and achy. I do not know where I am, only that I’m in the forest. There is no one here but me and the one I worship. He hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope he pulls me through now. I say a quick prayer, close my eyes and groan in pain. Please, if it is your will, end my suffering, I ask, but it isn’t what I want. I want to survive, to see my family one more time…

I fell asleep, I’m guessing, because when I open my eyes again, your face stares at me. Your red hair shines in the sunlight. Your emerald eyes gleam and your face is full of love—when I reach for you, your image fades. “Frannie, come back,” I whisper. “Don’t leave me here to die alone.” My mouth is dry and my voice is hoarse. My chest heaves with a cough—I have so much pain.

Your face appears to me again, and I can almost feel your touch. “Don’t give up, Charlie. I’m waiting for you…” I hear you as clear as when you’re lying next to me in bed, after we’ve made love together. “Come home to me…” Am I home? Wait, Frannie… Where the hell am I?

“Give me the strength to survive,” I pray. “Take this sickness from me and bring me home to my love. Please…” 

*****

When I awaken, it’s dark, and my fire has been long extinguished. Though I’m still achy, my chills and fever are over. From the moon’s position, I determine it’s not long after sunset. I’m not sure how long I slept, only that I feel better. My stomach rumbles, but when I try to stand, my legs wobble and I come close to falling. The canteen is empty. I don’t remember drinking the water I gathered the night I stopped walking. I must have been very sick. 

The brook isn’t far away, so I make myself walk to it. As I dip my canteen into the running water, I notice the moon’s phase has changed. How long was I out of it? On my way to my campsite, I pick up more sticks, grass and some brush to start a fire. I know I need to eat something, so I stalk a jackrabbit I spot about twenty yards from me. A lucky head-shot kills it nice and clean, so I prepare and cook it for supper. I can’t guess how long it’s been since I’ve eaten.

I know I need to keep moving, but I decide to rest tonight and the following day. Being sick has sapped my strength and energy—I’m on the mend, and I don’t want a relapse, so I’ll stay put one more night. I have a full belly and clean, boiled water, so I sit by the campfire and watch the flames—thinking of you, thanking our maker he spared my life… again.


— Three Months Later — 

As the sun rises, I see a large body of water in the distance—I assume I’m close to my ultimate destination. It was about three hundred miles total as the crow flies, but the trek on foot was slow and grueling. I spent a good portion of my time sick, and who knows how straight my path was. When I left Tex, I knew I was ill-prepared for this trip, but I had no alternative. Now, it looks like I’m on the outskirts of town, but I have to admit I’m not doing well. 

Food has been scarce on this trek. I only ran across one town, which leads me to believe I meandered off my desired path by a factor of at least a hundred miles. I’m glad I had the pistol for protection, though I used it for hunting when I couldn’t gather anything in the more deserted areas. I’ve had to rely on my survival skills—many nights I found nothing to hunt, and no edible plants. My clothes hang off of me, as I’ve lost a bunch of weight. 

It’s daybreak when I’m a few hundred feet from the town proper. The town’s residents are waking up. I’m ready to collapse under the first tree I find and rest. In the town center, a large fountain trickles water, and though I know I shouldn’t, I fill my hands and drink from it. Though the cool water doesn’t taste terrible, I know it has the potential to make me sick. However, I’ve been sicker on this trip than I could get from a sip of fountain water. 

The weather is cool, almost cold, and I don’t realize it until I stop to rest. I can’t light a fire in the square, so I walk to a wooded area outside the settlement. Using some sticks and a lucky find of flint rock, I start a small fire. I can’t sleep all day—I need to find food and shelter. If I don’t, I’m stuck out here in the woods tonight.

A few hours later when I awaken, I pick up my sack and sling it over my shoulder. The fire must have burned itself out hours ago, because the area surrounding it is cold. I will need warmer clothing if I’m to survive outdoors for any length of time. Just inside the town near the docks, I spot what looks like a pawnshop. That is my first stop. 

A bell rings on the door when I open it, and I catch everyone’s attention. I tiptoe inside, a meek smile on my face. 

“What can I do for you, um, sir?” a young man, who stands behind the counter, asks me. 

“I have something I need to sell. Can you help me?” 

He wipes his hands on his pants. “Yeah. What do you have?” 

I don’t want to startle him, so I tell him up front. “I have a pistol I don’t need anymore. Do you buy things like that?” 

He nods his head. “Yeah, let me see it.” 

I approach the counter and set my sack on the floor. At the bottom sits the sidearm that helped me for the last five months. I grab it by the barrel and remove it, then place it on the counter. I know it’s seen better days, and if I had the tools, I could clean it and make it look nicer. “I don’t have more ammo for it. That ran out a while ago.” 

The young man picks the pistol up and surveys it. The clip is empty, but he checks it anyway. “What are you looking for on it?” 

I stop to consider the young man’s words. I hadn’t thought about an offer, so I tell him half of what I paid for it. 

The clerk smiles and holds his hand to shake. He knows I’m cutting myself short, and so do I. “Deal?” 

There’s a coat displayed on a hanger that looks to be my size. “Throw in this coat, and we have a deal.” 

He looks at the coat, at the gun, and at me. “Yeah, you look like you could use a warm coat. Deal, mister.” He paid what we had agreed upon and I took the coat from the display. 

“Thank you,” I say just before I leave. 

My next stop is the dock. I limp to the ticket booth just outside the docks. A woman chewing and snapping her gum greets me, but she looks as though she’d rather be anywhere else but in that booth.

“What can I do for ye?” she says in a distinct, non-local accent. 

“I’m looking for passage back to the mainland, leaving soon. What’s the rate?” 

She gives me the once-over and scowls at me. “More than you can well afford.” I see her eyeing my wedding ring, and her face lights up. “But if yer wantin’ a comfortable room on the next ship outta ‘ere, I’ll take that there ring as payment in full.”

I fiddle with the ring I’ve never taken off my finger in the years since we got married. I need to believe we have a chance. I need to believe there’s a reason for me to come home. If I trade my ring, I feel as though I’m admitting our relationship is as dead as you believe me to be. If I don’t, I might be here until summer. I’m not sure I can deal with being away much longer. 

“I’ll pass on that, but thank you anyway,” I say. “Could you answer my question, please?” 

She snaps her gum and chews it much the way Missy and Moo used to chew their cud. “Fifteen hundred, and that’s first class. I’d recommend third for you, though. About one-third of that.” 

Five hundred bucks. Well, this might take a while. “Are there ever any discounts?” 

She looks at her fingernails, still chewing her gum. “Sometimes ye can catch a deal, but ye have to work on the crew. It’s hard, backbreaking work. Too much work for you, old chap.”

I sigh in disgust. “Thanks.” 

I don’t have enough for the boarding house down the road. I use the money for fruit, a loaf of bread and a small hunk of meat to cook. I have my coat to help keep me warm, a little food to eat, and a place to hunker down. I am tired, so I head into the woods to camp.


— Six Weeks Later — 

The alarm on my nightstand sounds early, and I turn it off. It’s another day of work at a local construction company doing hard labor. It isn’t my area of expertise, but I only tote things they need hauled around. The pay is decent. I can afford a rent with a guy that works for the construction company. Because of the problems I had with Tex, I tell them my name is Brad. No one here needs to know who I am, either.

Though I have little to my name, I bought another pair of jeans and a shirt, so my old, ratty clothes I’ve traveled in, I wear to work. Today is payday, and after I pay the rent, I have the final bit to purchase my ticket back home. Depending on when the ship departs, I’ll give my notice today or on Monday. My breakfast this morning is a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, and I’m out the door twenty minutes after I awaken. 

The work is hard, and the boss is a jerk, but I keep my nose clean and do my job. My roommate, Giacomo, works with me—we’re the pack mules of the operation, carrying materials and finished products where they need to go on the job site. We’re together when the boss pays us, and we all break for lunch. 

I grab my knapsack, which, on a normal day, has food stowed in it for lunch. Today, it has the money I’ve saved for my ticket home. “I’m heading to the docks for lunch, Jack. If I’m not back, please cover for me?” I walk to where he stands and peel off the balance of my rent owed, and I hand it to him. 

“Sure.” He nods his head and puts the cash in his pocket. “What are you doing at the docks?”

“Checking fares to the mainland. I’m hoping to catch a ship back home soon.” I hold my fingers to my lips and shake my head. “Please, don’t tell the boss? He’ll fire me if he knows I’m buying a ticket, and I’d rather leave on my terms.”

“Yeah, I get it.” He opens his lunchbox and takes a bite of the meal he packed as I walk away from the job site.

Ten minutes later, I’m at the ticket booth where the same unpleasant woman still sits. She still looks miserable. “How can I help ye?” she asks in the same non-local accent.

“I’m looking for passage back to the mainland, leaving soon. What’s available?” 

She looks on a schedule attached to a clipboard and looks over her glasses at me. “Which class are ye looking fer?” She gives me the once-over and shakes her head. “Second class is sold-out, first class has a few cabins left.”

“How about third?” 

She cocks her head and gives me a crooked smile. “Ye don’t want third class, lad. Only the bums buy third class.” 

My temper flares a bit, but I bite my tongue. “Third class, please. What’s the fare?” 

“Four-fifty one way, seven hundred round trip.” 

I smile. “One way, third class, please.” I count out four large bills and a fifty. “When does it leave?” 

She looks at the wall, I guess at a calendar, and back to me. “Four days.” She hands me the ticket and a pamphlet. “Be here two hours before departure. Will ye have a case or trunk to stow?”

I almost laugh at her. “No, just me and a knapsack, I’m afraid. I’m a modest traveler.”

She nods her head and snaps her gum. “See you then, toots.” 

I leave the docks with a renewed spring in my step. I’m almost ready to tell my miserable boss that I’m resigning. Jack will have a few days’ notice before I leave, and now I’m excited. He notices a difference in my expression when I return to work.

“Did you have time to eat, Brad?” 

“No, I didn’t. I have something better.” I take the ticket from my pocket and show him. “The ship leaves in four days. I’m sorry about the short notice, but I need to get home.” 

He extends his hand to shake, a gesture normally done only by mainlanders. “Congratulations, Brad. I know how homesick you’ve been.” 

“Thanks, Jack. I’ll leave some money for you to cover my expenses. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.” 

“This is good for you, no?” 

I nod and take a drink from a water bottle before lunch is over. I’m not even hungry. 

*****

My boss was not pleased when I quit on Friday. I’m fortunate to have the weekend to rest and prepare for my trip. There is much I need to finish before I leave. 

I’m wearing my work clothes when I walk with a small bag of dirty clothes to the nearest laundromat. What I’m washing, I’ll wear on the ship. Though the jeans aren’t brand new, they’re in decent shape, and the shirt was clean and showed little wear. It’s comfortable for a long trip, and that was my only consideration when I bought it. 

The laundromat isn’t in the best part of town, close to the docks and the pawnshop. A lot of riff-raff hangs around the docks; the homeless population in the port town is considerable, and I pass someone begging for money or food on my way to work in the morning. 

When I enter the laundromat, there’s no one here. It seems odd for a Saturday. I dump the bag of clothes into the same washer, and I almost hear your voice telling me to separate everything. I’m sorry, sweetie, I think. Money is tight, and so is my available time. This will have to do for now. A few coins to start the machine, a scoop of soap powder from a bin, and the washer starts its cycle. 

A half-hour later, everything is clean, so I switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer and start it. I’m getting restless hanging around inside the laundromat, so I go for a stroll to the docks. The ship that departs for the mainland sits in the port. The crew is working like mad to prepare for departure in a couple of days, and I enjoy watching them work.

I’m so caught up in daydreams about the trip and getting home that I forget my clothes at the laundromat, so I run back. When I enter, the dryer where my clothes were is empty. Somewhere around the docks, a homeless man is enjoying my nice, clean, warm clothes. My fault, but I growl in anger and kick the trash can inside the laundry. “Nice going, Charlie,” I grumble under my breath. Now, I’m stuck with too-big pants and a ‘white’ shirt that has seen much better days. I’ve given Jack the rest of my paycheck to cover my expenses, so I have no other options. You’re an idiot! I think to myself. I walk home empty-handed, feeling sorry for myself.

Now that someone has stolen my clothes, my knapsack will be almost empty. Jack is a bigger guy than me, but I ask to borrow a pair of sweats and a shirt while I hand wash my work clothes in the washbasin. These aren’t leaving my sight, unless I want to board the ship on Tuesday in my birthday suit. I’m pretty sure that isn’t an option, even in third class. The thought makes me laugh while I wring out my shirt.

On Tuesday morning, I pack what little I own into my knapsack and thank Jack before he heads to work. Though my clothes are clean, they are stiff from drip-drying in the shower, and it’s uncomfortable. However, it’s not the worst I’ve been, so I don’t figure I should complain. I take the few apples I bought from the fridge and pack them into my sack, along with a bottle or two of water and a chocolate bar I bought a month ago. I meant it as a treat—something special for the day of my departure. The beginning of the end of my long nightmare. 

I leave my key on the table for Jack and lock the door behind me when I leave the house. I look around at the town where I’ve spent the last almost two months of my life, and I realize once I’m home, I won’t leave Appaloosa Plains again. After this ordeal, that’s fine by me. I’ve sated my lifelong wanderlust, and I’ll be content to live the rest of my days with you at my side, my darling.

Once I check in at the dock, they board first-class passengers first. I sit on a bench near the water, deep in thought, when a young lady approaches me. 

“Is this seat taken?” she asks. 

I shake my head. “No, in fact, you can have my seat if you need it.” 

“Oh, that’s okay. I just saw you here waiting and wondered if you’re heading to the mainland?” Her accent suggests that she’s a visitor, and she doesn’t have much. 

“I am trying to get home to my wife and daughter. I haven’t seen them in almost three years.” 

“Wow, you’ve been away too long. What brought you here?” 

I ponder her question. I still don’t trust anyone I don’t know. “We’ve been backpacking across the continent, but I’m tired and it’s time to go home.” 

She nods. “I’ve never been to the mainland. I’m hoping to stay. My fiance lives in Sunlit Tides. We’ve been writing for five years.” 

“How did you meet him?” 

“He’s a Marine, stationed here with the Allied Forces a few years ago. I met him at a bar; he was wearing his uniform. He was so handsome.” Her face flushed with the memory, but she smiled. “My little boy is with my mum.” She pointed toward an older woman, about Fran’s age, with a little boy a bit younger than Destiny would be. “He’s his son. Jeremy is his name. He’s coming with me, and he’s so excited about the trip. Joe… he doesn’t know about him, but there’s no mistake. Jeremy is his boy.” 

“Our daughter is a bit older than Jeremy. He’s what, four?” 

She nods. “He’ll be four in a few months.” A crew member calls out to board third-class passengers just then, and the young woman stands. “It was nice to meet you…” she holds her hand out and expects a formal introduction. 

“I’m Charlie,” I reply without thinking. “It was nice to meet you too, Miss…” 

“Delilah.” She blushes and gathers her purse. “I hope to see you onboard.” 

I nod my head and smile at her. “Enjoy your trip.”


v.

The ship sets off into the Mediterranean Sea, headed west toward the Atlantic. Within a day of departure, I’m sick as a dog in the bunk. My ticket price includes one meal a day, but I can’t keep anything down. I find I am not cut out for open sea travel, and I’m thankful I joined the Army instead of the Navy. 

Three days after we set sail, a soft knock sounds at the door, and I am laying down. “Come in?” 

Delilah peeks her head into the door, spots me on the bed, and covers her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Charlie. I didn’t mean to interrupt your nap.”

“No, it’s okay, Delilah. I’ve been seasick since we started out on Tuesday. I haven’t left the room much.” 

She enters the room and sits on the bunk opposite mine. “How can I help you?” 

I reach into my knapsack. “Take my meal ticket, Delilah, for Jeremy. Nothing stays down. Otherwise, I’ll lose it, and I don’t enjoy wasting money.” 

She shakes her head and pushes my hand away. “I can’t do that, Mr. Charlie. It’s yours.”

“Please, I can’t eat anything. It will just come right back up.” I hand her the ticket again. “I’m sure about this. He’s a growing boy, and he needs more than one meal a day. Please, Delilah, take it for him.” 

Her next words break my heart. “Oh, I’ve been giving him mine, Mr. Charlie. I need to lose a stone or two, anyway.” She blushes and looks away from me. Delilah is thinner than you. 

Even if I wasn’t sick, I’d say my next words. “I insist, Delilah. Please take it. I’m not accepting no as an answer.” 

I see she doesn’t want to, but she takes it from me, anyway. “If you need it back, just tell me, Mr. Charlie.” She dabs her eyes with a handkerchief she has in her hand.

A sudden wave of nausea sweeps over me, and I grip the side of the bed. “I will. Please excuse me. I’m going to be sick, and I’d rather you didn’t watch me vomit.” 

She backs out of the room. “Thank you, Mr. Charlie. Thank you so much.” 

*****

A week later, I’m feeling better as we travel closer to the mainland. The weather isn’t as turbulent, and the seas are calmer. For this, I am thankful. Delilah and Jeremy have been my travel companions, and I play and read books to him from the ship’s library. I will miss them when we dock and part ways in a few days. Being with them makes me ache to see you and Destiny all the more. 

The ship docks at the port on schedule. Families line the docks, waving to loved ones they wait for to arrive. But no one waits for me. Delilah finds me one last time before we go ashore and thanks me for everything. I hug her and pick Jeremy up.

“Be a good boy for your mum,” I tell him. He plants a sloppy, four-year-old kiss on my cheek and giggles. I turn to Delilah to hand him back. “Take care of yourself.” We hug once more. “I hope everything works out with you and Joe.”

“Oh, it will, Mr. Charlie. It has to. Jeremy needs a daddy.” She kisses my cheek. “Thank you again for your ticket. I’ll never forget your kindness.” 

Now I’m the one blushing. “It was nothing. Really.” We say our last goodbyes—when she and Jeremy walk away, I know I’ll never see them again, and I wipe a tear from my eyes.

After my arrival in the port, I walk to the pawnshop near the docks, my knapsack over my shoulder. When I open the door, a young girl behind the counter greets me. “What can I do for you, sir?” 

I take the knapsack from my shoulder. “I’m close to home, but not so close I couldn’t use a few bucks. Can you help an old traveler out?” 

She smiles. “Well, sure! Let’s see what you have.” 

Inside the knapsack, I have my old canteen and compass. It’s still winter in the northern part of the mainland, which means snow. Water shouldn’t be a problem. “I have the compass, and the knapsack. The canteen, well, it’s seen better days. I’ll just toss that.” 

She looks at the items—it’s obvious they aren’t worth much. But she smiles anyway. “The knapsack is good, nice and sturdy. But I’m afraid I can’t give you much for it.” 

I spot a pocket knife. This could be useful, I think. “How about we trade? The sack for the knife? It would come in handy on my trip.” 

She picks the knife up and inspects it. “Yeah, I can do that for you. Where are you headed, sir?” 

“Back home to Appaloosa Plains, to my wife and daughter. I haven’t seen either of them in three years.” 

“Wow, that’s a long trip. Is this all you have?” 

I nod. “Don’t worry. I’ve come further with nothing. I’ll walk it and be home in a week or two, quicker if I can hitch a ride.” 

The clerk looks me over and shakes her head. “I saw you limp when you came in. Are you sure you’ll be okay?” 

“Oh, that’s an injury I got in the army. It hurts once in a while, but I’m alright.” 

“Excuse me a moment?” she says, then disappears into a back room. A few minutes later, she is back at the counter where I’m standing. She takes the sack and hands me the knife, along with a twenty-dollar bill. “I wish I could do more. Good luck getting home to your family, sir. Thank you for your service.” 

I smile, touched by the generosity of a stranger. “Thank you. May blessings follow you, young lady.” We shake hands before I turn and leave the store. 

The extra money won’t buy much, but I stop at a diner for a burger. It’s the first thing I’ve eaten in three weeks, since before I got on the ship, and it tastes good. A warm cup of coffee to go with it, and I’m nourished for the first part of my walk. No hunting and cooking over a fire tonight.

*****

The next morning I awaken in the cold. The fire I built has long since burned out, and I am freezing. Though I’m a mile from the port city, I consider going back for a hot cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I can’t do this every morning, but since I’m close, I backtrack to the same diner. 

I sit at the counter and overhear a conversation between the server and a young man. He’s driving to Bridgeport, and it would get me close to Appaloosa Plains if I could hitch a ride with him. She walks to me and asks what I’d like.

“Coffee, please. Cream, no sugar.” She nods and grabs the carafe from the coffeemaker and pours a fresh cup. “Thank you,” I say, then fix it myself. I’ve always been outgoing—I look at the young man, still nursing his first cup of coffee. “I heard you say you’re on your way to Bridgeport?” 

He nods. “Yeah, that’s right. I have a delivery to bring there today. You going that way, mister?” 

I smile. “In fact, I’m on my way to Appaloosa Plains. A lift to Bridgeport would help, if you don’t mind the extra company.” 

The young man considers my words, then nods his head. “I wouldn’t mind an extra body. But why are you headed for Appaloosa Plains? What a Podunk little town that is.” 

I can’t help but chuckle. “My wife and daughter are there. I haven’t seen them in over three years. I agree, though, it is a Podunk little town. My wife owns her family farm, and I’d never ask her to give it up, not on my account. I don’t deserve it.” 

He gives me a sheepish smile. “I meant nothing by it—”

“You’re okay.” 

We share small talk through breakfast. I have a few dollars left. But after he’s decided I will not hurt him, my new friend, Sean, assures me he needs nothing for the ride. This three-hour truck ride saves me days on foot, and I am very thankful.

When we arrive in Bridgeport, Sean tells me there is a mission in the center of downtown. I thank him and shake his hand before I walk down the bustling streets toward the shelter. 

I open the door of the mission, and an icy gust follows me inside. The young man behind the desk smiles at me, but shivers. When I approach him, he stands.

“Hi fella,” he says. “We’re almost at capacity. All I can offer is a bed in the common area.”

Considering where I’ve been sleeping these nights, anything indoors sounds good. “It sounds wonderful.”

The mission’s common area looks like a gymnasium with room dividers separating each bunk. The accommodation is more than sufficient—semi-private, and it looks much more comfortable than having to camp outside tonight. Weather reports predict sub-zero temperatures and snow flurries.

Before I settle into my bunk for the night, I walk to a large bookcase and browse the shelves. On the bottom I spot a familiar book binding, and I pick it up: Destiny’s favorite book, the one I read to her every night before bedtime. Memories of home flood my eyes with tears—I can’t wait to get home. I haven’t been this close to you in years, and it feels good. The book goes back into the bookcase and I walk back to my bunk. I slip my boots from my feet, place them under my bed, and take my pants off, fold them and place them on my boots. The cot is lumpy, but it feels like a cloud compared to frozen ground and a campfire. I’m asleep before they turn the lights out.

The next morning I’m awake early, and I take a cup of coffee they offer me before I need to be out of my bunk. It’s not the best coffee I’ve ever had, but it’s hot. From inside, I can hear the wind howling between the buildings, and I’m not looking forward to my walk today. 

A ride-share bulletin board hangs by the front door. Bridgeport is the largest city in a two-hundred-mile radius. For many, the city serves as a hub for travelers. I stand with my coffee, and for laughs, I look at the board, seeking someone heading to Appaloosa Plains or a nearby vicinity. This must be my lucky day. An older gentleman posted his travel that way in the morning. I dig out a coin for the nearby payphone and call him.

“Hello?”

“Hi, my name is Charlie, and I’m calling about your advertisement on the ride-share board at the Mission.”

“Oh yes, my daughter lives just outside Appaloosa Plains, and I’m driving to see her tomorrow. You’re going that way, Charlie?”

I nod my head, as though he can see me. “Yes, sir. I’m traveling back home to see my family. Do you have room for me?”

“I do. Few folks travel that way. All the times I’ve posted for the ride-share, you’re the first one ever to answer it. I look forward to the company. My name’s Earl. I have an older, blue pickup, and I’m leaving at 10:00 AM. I’ll be there.”

“Thank you, Earl.” I hang up the phone and smile. Tomorrow, I’ll be home.

*****

The truck stops just on the peripheries of Appaloosa Plains. “What can I give you for the lift?” My hand is on the door, ready to open it.

Earl smiles at me. “I enjoyed hearing about your adventure. Just knowing that I helped you get back home is enough payment for me. Thank you for serving, and be well, sir.” 

I nod. “I appreciate it. Blessings to you.” I close the door and wave as he drives away. 

I’ve made it just on the edge of town. It’s still cold, and I shiver as my body adjusts to the wind biting at my exposed skin. It’s pitch dark, so I can walk into town unnoticed. I know a park is nearby, so that’s my plan for the night. The walk there is cold and lonely. It will only be two days before I’m in your arms. I hope you’re as happy to see me as I will be to see you. 

I don’t look like myself these days. My hair’s longer than shoulder length and I have to admit that it’s filthy. My beard, which I’ve never grown out before, is long, scraggly, and peppered with gray. It’s a long way from the close haircut I’ve worn for years. I haven’t washed my clothes since I left the port city three weeks ago, and my “new” boots, well, they’ve seen better days. I can’t imagine I’m very pleasant to be with, which makes me even more grateful for my ride to the town’s edge.  

I walk to the far end of the park, away from the dirt path that leads here. The lake is familiar, though the rope tire swing Rob and I hung up over twenty years ago is no longer attached to the old, dead tree. I break some low branches from the tree and gather them in my arms. I place the branches in a stack and take my flint rock from my pocket. The flint throws a spark on the second strike and starts the fire. In a bit, I’ll be warmer than I am now. 

Everything I own is in my pockets, and it’s not that much—my flint, the pocket knife I traded for my knapsack, a couple of dollars, and your well-worn photo. I’ve been hungry for so long that I don’t even feel the pangs anymore. I want to warm up and sleep. I look into the clear night sky—a million stars are out. I remember the night in Dragon Valley that you asked me to watch the stars with you, and I smile at the memory. The loneliness is almost over, darling.

The next morning, when I wake, I find I have slept longer than I wanted. The frozen lake is beautiful—it’s the tail end of winter, and it doesn’t look as though it’s still frozen through. A rime of frost on the grass sparkles in the early afternoon sun. The cold settled into my bum leg, and it pains me today. I have a long walk ahead of me.

What seems like the longest part of my walk is this last part between the park and downtown. A normal person could walk it in an hour, but I take all day. I arrive downtown as the sun sets in the western sky. I am limping, making my way to the mission—just as I round a corner, a young man runs smack into me, knocking me off my feet. Ouch, I think to myself. I’m splayed out on the sidewalk. He looks sheepish when I hold my hand out to him.

“Willing to lend a guy a hand?” I ask him. He grabs my hand, and with a gentle tug, I’m on unsteady feet. “Thanks friend.” 

“No problem,” he says. “Listen, be careful out here, buddy. They say there’s some heavy snow coming in tonight.” 

I nod my head. “Yeah, it’s typical for this time of year. I’m headed for the mission.” I think for a moment. I have nothing to lose, so I ask the young man a question. “Have you been in town long, friend?”

“Yeah, about a year, give or take.” 

“If I show you a photo of someone I’m looking for, do you think you could tell me if they’re still around?”

“Maybe, but I gotta get going. I’ve got stuff to take—”

“Please, it will only take a moment.” I slide my hand into my coat and retrieve your photo, unfold it and hand it to the young man. “Have you seen her around town?”

He doesn’t think I notice his face go white, but he hands me the photo and shakes his head. “Ahh, no, no, sir. I can’t say I’ve seen her around here anywhere.” I suspect he’s not being honest with me.

“Well, damn,” I say. “Thanks for looking at it. You’re the first person I’ve run into since I got back into town, so I thought, perhaps, with the small population in the Plains, you might have run across her.” 

“Nope, no, sir. Sorry. Hey, you need some money for bus fare or something? Go somewhere warm instead of here in the cold and snow? I’d be happy to drive you to the bus station…” He shifts on his feet and acts suspicious. He has seen Frannie, and he knows where she is. What is he to her? “It’s the least I could do for, uh, you know, knocking you down.” 

I search his face for a clue, anything that would give him away. “I appreciate the offer, friend, but I’ve spent the better part of two years getting back here to Appaloosa Plains. It’s where I call home.” I place your photo back into my pocket and offer my hand for a shake. “Thanks again for the hand up. I hope to catch you around town someday.”

The young man returns the shake, but his eyes will not meet mine. “Yeah, anytime, buddy. Stay warm.”  

I tip my hat at him. I believe our paths will cross again. “Will do,” I say with a smile.


— Jason —

Since my wife left me years ago, I haven’t been this happy. Fran. My sweetheart. She is the most beautiful, kindest soul I’ve ever met. I can’t wait to bring her to dinner next week, where I will ask her to marry me. In my coat pocket is the ring I bought for her—the almost one-carat diamond will look so pretty sitting on her finger in place of that old, worn, beat up wedding ring she wears now. Her husband died more than a year ago, and she’s let him go and said goodbye, but she still wears his ring. That’s okay, though. After our big date, she’ll have a prettier one. 

It’s too early to go home, and I have too much energy, so I meet my buddies at the bar down the street from the jewelry store. As I round the corner, I plow into a homeless guy, and I flatten him on the sidewalk. I catch myself on the corner of the building. The poor guy is reaching a hand up to me, so I take it and help him to his feet. The stench of dirt and poor hygiene surrounds him—I almost gag, and I don’t want to touch him. 

“Thanks, friend,” he says. I try to back away from him. His breath is even more horrific than his body odor, and I can’t wait to be on my way.

“No problem.” I warn him about the incoming snowstorm. At least the mission provides shelter for the homeless on a night like tonight. He is on his way, he tells me. He can grab a warm shower there. At least I hope he does, because he reeks. 

“Have you been here in town for long, friend?” he asks.

“Yeah, about a year, give or take.”

“If I show you a picture of someone I’m looking for, do you think you could tell me if they’re still here?”!

Look, pal, I think to myself. I don’t know many people, so I doubt I know who you seek. “Maybe. But I gotta get going. I’ve got stuff to take—” 

“Please, it’ll only take a moment.” The bum retrieves a photo from his pocket, unfolds it and hands it to me. My heart skips a beat and I feel the blood drain from my face. Fran. “Have you seen her around town?”

Who are you? That is my first question. I thought the press and Paparazzi had long since died down after her husband’s death. Everything was so controversial, and the press put Fran through hell. I’ll be damned if they start this again! “Ahh, no, no, sir, I can’t say I’ve seen her around here anywhere.” I hand the photo back to him. 

“Well, damn,” he says. “Thanks for looking at it.” I hear nothing else while my head swims a bit. “…you might have run across her.” 

His last sentence brings me back to reality. “Nope, no, sir. Sorry.” If he’s military intelligence sniffing around her again, we’re going to have a problem, so I have a great idea. “Hey, you want some money for bus fare or something? Go someplace warm instead of here in the cold and snow. I’d be happy to drive you to the bus station…” Though the cost would hurt, it would be well worth it to get him out of town.

The old man doesn’t look like he’s buying my offer. What the hell does he want with my Fran, anyway? “It’s the least I could do for—uh, you know—knocking you down.” I can tell he is suspicious by how he looks at me. It’s clear we don’t trust each other, but if he makes a move to hurt her, I will hurt him back, twice as bad. I don’t care if he is an old geezer. 

“I appreciate the offer, friend, but I’ve spent the better part of two years getting back here to Appaloosa Plains. It’s where I call home.” He extends his hand for a shake. “Thanks again for the hand up. I hope to catch you around town someday.” 

I nod my head and shake his hand, but I’m leery of him. “Yeah, anytime, buddy.” If I catch you around my woman, you will regret it, I think to myself. “Stay warm.” 

He tips his hat, now full of snowflakes, and smiles. “Will do.”


— Charlie —

The next morning, I walk to the Koffi Cafe just near the mission. My last two dollars will buy a cup of coffee and a warm place to rest while I decide on my next move. I still need to find you, my darling. Now that I’m in town, I’m growing restless and I need to see you. Little do I know, you’re closer than I think. 

I open the door of the diner and walk to the corner table. The waitress looks familiar, but I don’t notice who she is until she approaches my table. Even without the name badge, I recognize you. You haven’t changed a bit—you’re just as beautiful as you were the morning I left you weeping on our front step. I notice the man that knocked me over last night sits at the counter, and he’s flirting with you. No wonder he wanted me out of town. 

“Good morning,” you greet me. “What can I get for you?” 

I can’t look at your face, not yet, so I stare straight ahead. “Coffee—cream, no sugar.” 

“I’ll be right back!” 

From the corner of my eye, I observe you and this young man together. You look happy—I almost consider leaving town to begin a new life without you. But I can’t bear the idea of missing one more day with you, missing any more of Destiny’s childhood, it’s too painful to bear. I have to let you know I am home. It’s a chance I’m willing to take to reunite our family. For us, my love. 

When you walk back, you have a cup of coffee. You place it in front of me and stand there, your pad in your hand, waiting in silent expectation. And I get this feeling of nostalgia. This is where we reunited twenty-five years ago, when you stood in that exact pose, awaiting our orders. This moment right here makes me realize I’ve come full circle, and as I was twenty-five years ago, I’m uncertain of your reaction. I keep myself unknown for just a little longer.

“What would you like this morning?” you ask. I sense your impatience, and it will only get worse when you realize I’m only here for the coffee. 

“Coffee is it for me, I’m afraid.” As those words leave my mouth, my stomach growls—the aroma of food and fresh coffee triggers the pangs of hunger, and I sigh in frustration. 

You look at me, and for a moment I think you’ve recognized me. “Are you sure? You look like you could use a hot meal.”

I’m starving, I think. Of course I could use a hot meal. But I know if I say yes, you’ll end up paying for it. I shrug. “Look, I’m not here seeking a handout, but if you insist, I won’t say no.” I look through the menu—to keep it cheap, I pick a bagel.

That’s when you smile at me. “I know exactly what you should have. How about some orange juice?” You jot something on your notepad. 

“Thank you,” I say and wave at you. 

I can’t hear the chatter between you and this young man, but it’s clear you have involvement with him. The banter is playful and flirty. I want to be with you, but perhaps you’re better off without me. Maybe you’ve moved on. Maybe, my darling, you don’t need me anymore. I struggle with what I want and what’s best for you and Destiny. Can he provide for you better than I can? While I agonize, you approach me with plates in one hand, and a pot of fresh coffee in the other. 

“I ordered this special for you.” You place breakfast down in front of me, and it looks like a feast. Then I recognize what you’ve done, and I choke up. “Eggs, bacon, gravy, fresh biscuits and grits. I used to make it all the time…” I see a glimpse of emotion. “Can I refresh your coffee?” 

I nod at you and look at the meal you brought for me—my favorite. I can’t wait another minute to reveal myself. How can I? Everything you’ve done—breakfast, the look of sadness and longing when you served it. Baby, it tells me you still miss me, that you still love me. And then I notice your wedding ring—the one I gave you—still sits on your left hand. I nod at you, choked with emotion. 

“Enjoy your breakfast,” you say, a gentle smile in your voice. “If you need anything, my name is—”

I can’t wait any longer. “Frannie,” I say. “Sweet Frannie.” 

You scream and drop the carafe, which shatters at your feet. Broken glass and hot coffee splash everywhere, and I hope you aren’t hurt. When he hears you, the young man runs to your defense. I see you tremble as you move closer to me, your eyes searching for that glimmer of recognition. 

“No…” you say. “It can’t be.” 

“What is it, Fran?” He looks at me and growls. I know he recognizes me, too. “Did this man hurt you?” 

You push him aside and approach me again, so I turn in my seat to face you. I take your hands, soft and warm, into mine and I finger the gold band that sits on your left hand. “It was my destiny to meet you,” I whisper and then stand. When I smile at you, I see it on your face. You know. 

Frannie, my sweetheart, how I have waited to see you, to hold you in my arms again. Every step, every mile I’ve walked, I did it for you, for this moment. To see your face, your smile. When the crash broke my leg—while I crawled through the burning desert sand, and I thought I would die, your photo reminded me of who waited for me here, and it gave me the strength to bear it. When I thought I couldn’t walk one more step, you spurred me on, whether or not you knew it. I loved you then, and through every step, every hardship, I love you still.  

With tears in your eyes, your face in your hands, you cry out, “Oh, my! It is you!” I catch you as you collapse into my arms, crying, “You’re alive! You’re alive…” I hold you close—nothing will ever separate us again, baby, I promise you. 

The young man shouts something, but all I can hear is your quiet weeping. You pull closer to me—your hands grasp the lapels of my coat, and with your face nuzzled into my neck, you whisper my name. “Oh, Charlie…” My heart melts on the spot. I’ve waited too long to hear you call my name. It’s the sweetest sound my ears have ever heard.

I hold you tighter, and when you look up into my eyes, I caress your cheek. “Honey, I’m home.” Though it takes all my energy, every ounce of strength, I pick you up in my arms and hold you. I’m home, my darling. I’m home.

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Up Next: Chapter Sixteen, Generation One


Pose Credit

Tumblr
Writer’s Pose Pack by Tylie

*****

Once again, a special thank you to my editor and dear friend, Chris W., for your tireless work in helping me write and edit this behemoth of a chapter. For hours of selfless advice, your unconditional support, the brainstorming, laughing, and that last sigh of relief, I owe you a debt of gratitude, and a few loads of laundry.

Happy New Year! The Farmer Family Legacy 2020 Year In Review

Happy New Year, everyone! Today brings to close a challenging year by most standards. The extra time at home (oh, who am I kidding? I’m always home anyway!) has allowed me to dedicate my time to writing the blog, and maybe a novel, full time. Since we’ve said ‘good riddance’ to one of the craziest years in the history books, I thought I’d bring you up to date on all the fun and happy things going on at the Farmer Legacy!

The Generation One rewrites are still in progress, and I’m getting closer to publishing a couple of chapters together. I’m not planning a break between the generations, so once the Farmer era has concluded, Destiny becomes the star of the show in every sense of the word. I am doing preliminary footwork on the Atwood era of the story, and I’m so excited to relive Destiny’s stellar music career. I’m currently writing a character profile for Arthur, which I’ve neglected to do for far too long. He’s definitely worth the introduction. 

On August 5, 2020, I launched the Blogger site for the Farmer Legacy as a ‘sister’ site, so to speak. For now, only Generation One occupies the space at Blogger, but that will change as I update more chapters from the later generations. The stats that follow do not include the activity from Blogger—since it’s a new launch, the performance so far is sub-par and doesn’t reflect the popularity of the overall story. That’s okay, though!  I’ll be actively promoting both sites through this coming year.

In September, I met the man who became my editor, and he has been an amazing addition to the Farmer Legacy. He is teaching me so much, and I have blossomed under his tutelage. He tells me he sees unlimited potential in me, and we look forward to many chapters written together. Chris has experience in the publishing business and a background in graphic design and commercial art. I am so blessed to have him on board!

So, now to the exciting part! Despite a months-long creativity block (from April to August), I wrote twenty-one chapters last year. I have not published all of them, but at least two are forthcoming in the next week or two. Compared to last year’s one-hundred-six chapters, it seems like a slow year. Broken down into geek, that’s 256 pages for Generation One, and 15 pages for Generation Five (Andy’s Surprise, Chapter 34), 114,028 words, 613,707 characters. I realize that is a fraction, almost one-fifth, of what I wrote during 2019. But here is where everything blows my mind. During the year 2020, The Farmer Legacy saw 751 page views by 374 visitors. Compare this to last year’s 411 page views by 194 visitors, and I think I can call this year a wild success! 

This coming year, I’m hoping to get past the Generation Two rewrites and clean up Three, Four and Five before I continue with Danae and Andy’s saga. I’m also seriously considering submitting some of my work to a publisher. I’ve been researching possibilities, and I’m hoping that I’ll find one that could be a good fit with the romance genre. Of course, should a book deal arise, it will cease to be a Sims Fanfiction novel—I will erase all traces of the iconic game from the story, and there may be extra content that was never available on the blog. This will be a test of will and confidence for me, a test to see if I’m becoming the author I want to become. 

Thank you all so much for the follows, the reads, your comments, emails, compliments, your abundant patience, and for telling your friends about this blog. I don’t take a single thing for granted—I’ve worked so hard to build all you see on this site. I appreciate everything—every bit of success is possible because of you. I look forward to this new year with my Farmer family and their descendants. As always, I’m available on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress Inbox and the Farmer Legacy Gmail.

From all my families to yours, wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2021!

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Pose Credit

Poses By Bee
Couples 2 Poses

Custom Content

Around The Sims 3
Riesling Glasses and Bottle

The Sims Resource
Christmas III by Severinka

Custom Content is not my property, and everything is used in compliance with TOUs.

G1 Chapter Fifteen, Part Four – The Photograph

Several weeks passed since Charlie and Fran spoke to one another. Since that night, Fran kept herself busy with the summer market and preparing her heart, and their home, for Charlie’s eventual return to Appaloosa Plains.

With Maya’s departure for school, Fran’s workload doubled at the market, and, on the last day, she walked toward her produce stand with Destiny on her hip. Sunny stood at her bakery display, her arms outstretched for the baby. “Good morning, Frannie,” Sunny greeted her.

“Thank you for taking her, Sun. Good morning!” Fran sighed. “I’m glad today is the last day. I am a tired Mama.” 

“Why don’t you let us take Desi for the weekend, Fran?” Sunny offered. “Take some time for yourself. You deserve it.” She kissed Destiny’s cheek, and the baby giggled. “Besides, Caleb and I miss our kids being this little. It would be a pleasure for us.”

Fran nodded. “Okay. Let’s plan for this coming weekend? I could use some time to get Mama’s bedroom set up…” She swallowed a sob and wiped a tear from her eyes. “This weekend is okay?” 

Sunny took Fran’s hand in hers and squeezed it. The two women said nothing more. “This weekend is perfect. Maya is home from school, and she’ll love it.” 

When the market closed for the season, Sunny followed Fran back to the farmhouse to retrieve everything Destiny would need for her weekend with the Bradfords. In Sunny’s arms, Destiny reached for her mother and gave her kisses.

“I will see you in three sleeps, sweet pea,” Fran told her. “Be good for Aunt Sunny and Uncle Cale.”

“Bye-bye!” Destiny chirped. “I wuv Mama!” Fran waved and thanked Sunny again. Instead of going inside the house, she took the truck keys from her pocket, resolved to celebrate her weekend of freedom. She seldom did anything for herself, and since Destiny was with her best friends, she climbed into the pickup and headed for downtown. 

*****

Fran’s first stop was the Koffi Cafe, where she had worked over twenty years earlier. Her old boss, Ken, had long since retired, and she didn’t know or recognize anyone anymore. She walked in and sat down at the counter, her purse tucked in between her feet. A man, who looked ten years her junior, walked over to her and smiled. 

“Hello beautiful,” he greeted her. “What on earth is a pretty young thing like you doing here alone?” 

Fran blushed—her eyes surveyed this young, would-be suitor. She lowered her voice and hesitated. “I had some free time to myself tonight, so I thought I’d treat myself to a meal I don’t have to cook and clean up afterward.” 

As they spoke, he checked her left hand. “I see you wear a wedding ring. Where is your lucky husband?” 

“He’s deployed overseas,” Fran huffed. “He left a while ago.” 

The man rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo. “Got this in the army. I served overseas just a few years ago. It is lonely for a man to be away from his family, his wife in particular.” He rolled the sleeve back down. “My wife left me when she grew tired of waiting for me to come home.”

Fran lowered her head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“So, is everything okay with you?”

She shook her head. “No… no it’s not.” 

“What’s your name? Mine’s Jason.” 

“Fran.” 

“So, what is wrong, beautiful Fran?” His smile soothed her. “What makes everything not okay?” 

She took a deep breath and exhaled. “My husband went to a strip club with his buddies, and he kissed another woman.” She swallowed back a lump of emotion. “It was a tremendous insult.” 

He nodded his head. “I can understand that, sweetheart,” he mumbled. “There’s temptation everywhere when a man is lonely. Even the most faithful man can fall. We’re only human after all,” he said, a sad tone in his voice.

She sighed. “We had just talked an hour before. We have a three-year-old daughter. She should have reminded him what he has waiting for him, even if I couldn’t!” 

“I’m sorry, Fran,” he said. He handed her a slip of paper. “If you ever get lonely, I’d love to take you out for coffee or dinner sometime.” He winked and turned. “Call me.” Her face flushed, but she took the slip of paper from him and looked at it, placed it into her pocket, and smiled. You still have it, Fran, she thought to herself. 

When she got home, Fran opened the front door, then closed it behind her—its latch sounded lonesome in the house’s silence. She realized she hadn’t been alone in the house for quite some time—no Penny, no Charlie, no Destiny.

“Hello?” she said out loud. She half expected to hear a voice reply, but knew she wouldn’t. It felt almost alien, but it gave her a sense of independence that she hadn’t ever experienced. Fran was on her own—no commitments, no responsibilities. She walked into the kitchen and sat her purse on the counter and took some deep breaths. She opened the refrigerator and saw a bottle of wine Sunny and Caleb had given her a few months earlier.

From a nearby cabinet, she took a wine glass. “No time like the present,” she said as she uncorked the wine bottle and poured it—the blush fluid pooled at the bottom of the glass. She picked up the glass, swirled the liquid around, and took a sip. It was just a little sweet and tingly on her tongue. Mmmmmm, she thought, this is tasty. She poured a bit more into the glass and walked up the stairs towards the bedroom, intent on relaxing before bed.

Frannie peered into the bathroom. She realized she had never used the tub for anything other than to shower or bathe Destiny. Hmmm. Maybe a bubble bath would help me relax a bit, she thought. She found her bath bubbles, turned on the hot water spigot, and placed the stopper in the tub. As it filled with steamy water, she added the soap and watched as a mountain of foam formed.

Fran went back into the bedroom, disrobed, grabbed a big, soft towel, and her bathrobe. She padded back into the bathroom, its air heavy with steam and scented with lavender from the bath bubbles. Once she turned the water off, she tested it with her hand, then hung up her robe, and placed the towel on the toilet next to the tub.

She placed one foot into the water. The warmth made her shiver. She placed her other foot in, then let herself descend into the foamy water. It felt inviting against her skin, and she could feel it flush the tension from her body. Basking in the feeling, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back. A million images flashed through her mind. The one unexpected image that shocked and excited her was Jason. She visualized him there in the tub with her and moved her hands over her body the way she imagined his hands would. Lost in the moment, she threw her head back, her eyes closed—she wished to see Jason’s face. But the mental image faded, and Charlie’s form took its place. At once, she felt guilt and shame, but excitement, too.

She rinsed off, drained the tub, and patted herself dry. She pulled her robe on and walked back into the bedroom. Refreshed, she finished drying off, then dusted some powder and dabbed on a little of Charlie’s favorite perfume before she dressed for bed and shimmied beneath the covers. As she settled her head onto her pillow and hugged his pillow close to her chest, she sniffled and sighed. “I miss you, Charlie,” she said aloud before she drifted to sleep.


She awakened with arms wrapped around her body, rolled over, and collected her morning kiss. “Good morning, love,” she greeted him. 

“Good morning, baby,” the familiar voice greeted her. She reached to caress his cheek, but a cloud obscured his face. “How did you sleep?”

“Okay,” Fran replied. 

She went downstairs and started breakfast. “Where is Destiny?” she asked him while she finished making a pan of sausage gravy. Charlie’s favorite breakfast was almost ready. 

“Don’t you remember, darling?” he replied. “She is with Sunny and Caleb this weekend.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck. Her soft giggles filled the kitchen. 

“Oh yes, silly me,” she said. 

After breakfast, while she was cleaning up the kitchen, he stood behind her at the sink. “Frannie, my darling,” he whispered into her ear. “Let’s go upstairs and make love.” He spun her around to face him, but she could not discern his features. 

“I’d love to, Charlie,” she said, a sexy growl in her voice. She took his hand and led him upstairs to the bedroom. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d been together. Fran shuffled around in her dresser drawer and removed an article of clothing. “I’ll be right out,” she whispered. He waited on the bed for her with great anticipation. 

When she emerged from the bathroom wearing a revealing negligee, his face lit up. “You look amazing, baby,” he said, his arms open. “Come here.” 

She walked to him and sat on the bed next to him. He pulled her close to kiss her, ran his hands over her body. Fran sighed with pleasure and moved closer still. Her hungry kisses consumed him. Before they became one, his face came into view—Jason’s face…

*****

Fran woke with a start, her heart pounding. The feelings of shame and guilt overwhelmed her, but she hated to wake from such a steamy dream. I have to get over this. As flattered as she was by Jason’s attention, she still belonged to Charlie. She didn’t have to return his mistake with one of her own. 

Before breakfast, she turned the horses out to graze. She rubbed Marne’s and Sweetie’s noses, gave them each a kiss and a pat on the shoulder. The morning temperature was crisp, but predicted to warm as the day progressed. Summer is fading, she thought. “Enjoy it, ladies,” she told them. Fran turned on her heel and went back inside.

The task at hand that morning was preparing her mother’s old bedroom, the one where Maya stayed during her time at the farm, for Charlie’s return home. Fran wasn’t ready to let him back into her bed—she was still resentful and hurt. As she pulled the linens from the bed, she knocked over a photo of her mother, Penny. She picked up the photo and sat on the bed, tears in her eyes.

“What do I do, Mama?” she cried, the portrait in her hands. “How do I make it through? How can I forgive him?” She had processed none of her feelings since Sunny had shown her the photograph, but now she unleashed a torrent of emotion. She grabbed a handful of the bedding and buried her face into the mattress, and she screamed. 

“I am so angry with you, Charlie! How could you do this to me?” Heartbroken sobs reverberated off every wall. “I have been faithful to you, and this is how you repay me?” An 8×10 portrait of them sat on the dresser, and she walked to it, picked it up, and stared at it. She traced his form on the photo, then hurled it onto the floor and stomped on it with the heel of her cowboy boot, shattering the glass and breaking the frame. Shards of glass flew everywhere and Fran huffed in frustration. “I can’t do this now!” she screamed. Fran stormed from the bedroom and slammed the door. 

She stomped out to the yard and grabbed Sweetie’s tack, saddled her, and climbed atop the agile young mare. A gentle prod urged Sweetie over the low fence, and Fran rode her toward downtown. Fifteen short minutes later, she was outside the diner again. She dismounted the horse and tied her at the post out front, spread some hay from a nearby stack, and patted her shoulder. “Good girl, Sweetie,” she praised the young horse, then opened and walked through the diner’s front door.

She sat at the counter and didn’t pay particular attention to her surroundings. “Coffee,” she asked the waitress behind the counter. A few minutes later, she felt a presence standing over her shoulder.

“I thought that was you,” Jason said and grinned. “Mind if I join you?” 


Charlie and his squadron prepared for the most important mission of their deployment. The outcome of this mission would either make or break the allied forces’ efforts for victory. Charlie, demoted because of the bar fight, sat on the sidelines and took notes from Colonel Jim Gentry.

Jim outlined his vision for the mission, the tactics, and execution. The plan appeared sufficient, but he lacked the experience and expertise to lead. Though Charlie disagreed with Gentry’s assessment, he could no longer speak. He sat and jotted down notes for his role, and he did so, praying that Jim’s inexperience didn’t get them captured or killed. 

When the briefing adjourned, Charlie walked to Lorne’s tent and announced himself. “Come in, Farmer,” Lorne called him. Charlie entered and snapped his posture to attention. “At ease.” The men sat as friends because, in reality, they were. “What can I do for you, Charlie?”

Charlie knew that attempting to override Jim’s direct orders could get him into hotter water with his CO. But he couldn’t let the tactical blunder stand, one with the potential for casualties. Charlie knew the risk, but he would take the chance. 

“Lorne, I just wanted to discuss Gentry’s plan of attack—” he began when Lorne stopped him. 

“Think long and hard about whether you want to march down this road, Charlie. You know I value your opinion, but you also know you aren’t high enough rank to offer your suggestions anymore. What you’re doing is insubordination.”

Charlie shook his head. “I know, Lorne, but I have to address this with you.” He pulled the maps from the briefing and laid them on the desk before his CO. “Lorne, you know if we approach from this direction, the enemy will detect us immediately. It may cut our engagement time by two-thirds, but we can’t all get to safety before they spot us, and they retaliate.” 

Lorne approved the eventual plan, but somehow he missed the detail Charlie pointed out to him. The additional information left Lorne in a tough position. Recognizing the error would undermine his authority, and damage Jim’s credibility. But Charlie’s assessment was correct. The strategy was flawed and could end up costing precious lives.

“I will review this with the others, and make the needed adjustments,” Lorne said. He motioned Charlie closer to him and lowered his voice. “Off the record, I don’t know how I missed it. Outstanding work.” He stood at attention and Charlie did as well. “Dismissed, Farmer.” He left Lorne’s tent, still feeling uneasy and unsure. 

 *****

That evening, Charlie dug his phone from the footlocker, plugged it in, and dialed Fran’s number. Just as he took a breath and prepared to leave a message on her voicemail, he heard her answer the call.

“Hello?”

Charlie choked back tears and collected himself. “Hi Frannie,” he greeted her. 

“Hello, Charlie,” she returned his greeting, a chilly tone in her voice. She heard him sniffle into the phone. “You know,” she mumbled, “I shouldn’t have answered this—”

“Wait, Frannie, please…” Charlie whispered. “I have something to tell you. It’s pretty important.”

She settled down into the chair and watched the horses play in the pasture. “What is it?”

“My squadron… a mission is coming up within the next eighteen to twenty-four hours.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The strategy is flawed, and I can’t fix it.” He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “If this mission goes south, I might not make it home, Fran.”

“Why are you whispering, Charlie? I can’t understand you!” Fran held the phone close to her head and plugged the other ear with her finger. 

“If anyone overhears me, I could get into deep, well deeper trouble, Frannie. I have to be quiet. Did you hear what I said about the mission?” 

She shook her head, as though he could see her. “No, Charlie, I didn’t.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled. “This mission’s tactics might fail. If it does, a bunch of us might not make it home, myself included.”

Her eyes welled with tears. “Why would you design a plan like that, Charlie? I don’t understand.”

“Baby, I’m not in charge of those things anymore. The incident at the bar earned me a two-rank demotion and a pay cut.” His mind raced—he needed to say so much, and he feared he couldn’t. 

“What? Why?” Her tears came fast and flowed from her green eyes. 

“That doesn’t matter right now. I need to tell you some things. I’m sorry about the bar. My stupid mistake has cost me almost everything I’ve worked for and love.” He swallowed a growing lump that formed in his throat. No, he thought to himself, you’re going to tell her! 

“I still don’t know why you embarrassed me like—”

“Please, let me finish. Please, Frannie?”

She sat in silence for a moment and wiped tears from her eyes.  “Okay. I’m ready.”

“We went to the club to celebrate our victory… at least that’s what I told myself. I miss you, and I thought a change of scenery would ease the ache of missing you.” Charlie took a deep breath. “But Frannie, it only made the pain so much worse. Jim paid the girl to dance with me, but I didn’t fight hard enough to stay off that stage. When everything counted, when I had to choose between right and wrong, I failed. I failed you—I failed us. And honey, I’m sorry. I know I’ll never deserve your forgiveness, and I won’t even ask you.”

Fran sniffled on the other end of the phone. She wanted so much to believe his words, to trust him. “We have much healing to do, Charlie, when you get home. How sincere you are, and what you do when you come home will help me decide how to move forward.”

Charlie swallowed a sob. He had to keep going—the call was too important. “Frannie, my life insurance policy is in the strongbox where you found the gun. Just in case you…” He took a deep breath. “In case you need it. It’s enough for you to live on, and for Destiny’s college.” He heard her sniffle and sigh, but he wondered if she heard him. “Frannie? Did you hear what I said? Honey, this is important.” 

She shook her head and wiped tears from her eyes. “Yes, Charlie. Something is in the strongbox—”

“It’s not just something!” He felt her slipping away, as though her attention was elsewhere. “This is important. My life insurance policy, Frannie. Didn’t you hear me say I might not make it home, darling?” He grew frustrated as they spoke.

“I heard you, Charlie,” Fran snapped, her tone of voice icy once again. “You don’t have to talk to me like I’m an idiot, or try to guilt me into forgiving you—”

“NO!” Charlie shouted and then cried. “Baby, you don’t have to forgive me. Please pay attention, so you know…” he took a breath and exhaled, “…where to find it. Frannie, tell me you understand what I’m saying.” 

She sighed and rubbed her neck. “I understand, Charlie,” she said, her voice cold and sharp. “I have heard everything you’ve said.” 

He sniffled and tried to collect himself. “Please do one more thing for me. Give our little girl a kiss and a hug, and tell her how much her daddy loves her. That I will watch over her, and you, too. I love you both beyond words. And Frannie, I am so sorry I betrayed your trust. I don’t want to go to my death without telling you how much I regret hurting you, and how much I love you and our daughter.”

Fran sat straight up in her chair. “Charlie? You sound like you’re saying goodbye!”

“Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve said, Frannie?” Charlie asked, his voice shaky with emotion. “I can’t say it again. Please don’t make me.” 

The reality of what Charlie was trying to say struck her, and Fran cried. “You can’t be serious about not coming home. Please, tell me you’re not serious! Destiny needs her daddy. You need to come home. I won’t accept this!” She trembled with emotion. “Charlie, I need you.”

He half-smiled at her confession. Maybe she still loves me, he thought. “Pray for us as if the world depends on it. Maybe, we will get lucky. Maybe, we will find favor from above. Either way, it’s our only chance to survive.” 

Her heart broke hearing his words. “I will pray, Charlie. We will all pray. I want you to know that I still love you.” She waited for a reply, but none came. “Charlie?” She disconnected the call and tried to redial, but the line was dead.


Eighteen hours had passed since Charlie’s call home. Sunny and Caleb took Destiny while Fran waited at home in silent agony. She could say nothing regarding Charlie’s mission, so she asked the Bradfords to pray. At the dining room table, Fran sat with a plate of leftovers and picked at it. It was her third attempt to eat something since the phone call ended, but she still had no appetite. She wrapped the plate and placed it back into the refrigerator. 

The temperatures were crisp that evening, so she wadded up some newspaper, placed it under a small stack of firewood, struck a match, and lit the paper. Within moments, the first flames ignited the dry wood, and the hearth radiated the heat she desired. 

Mesmerized by the fire, she stared into nothing, overwhelmed by fear. What if Charlie was right? She thought. What if he didn’t come home? How would she survive as a single mother? The questions haunted her in consciousness and tormented her in sleep.

A loud knock on the door awakened her a few hours later. She rubbed her eyes, walked to the door, and opened it—two men in uniform stood before her. “No…” she cried. “No…” 

“Miss, can you please state your full name?” the man asked, his hat in his hand. 

With a shaky voice, she whispered, “Frances Justine Farmer.” 

“I am Lieutenant Van Ross and this is Army Chaplain Joseph Brooks. Mrs. Farmer, we regret to inform you that your husband, Major Charles Farmer’s plane went down during a mission…” Fran heard no more words as she fell to the floor, though the young man continued to speak. Her head swam, and she felt dizzy. The chaplain extended his hand to her to help her up, but she shook her head and pushed it aside. 

“Is he…” she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. 

“He is missing in action, Mrs. Farmer.” 

“Is he alive?” she asked.

The chaplain made no sign, positive or negative. “Our report only says that he’s missing, Mrs. Farmer. We have no further information. Please accept our condolences. Our resources are in short supply, but know we will have a team searching for him when it becomes workable. We will provide further information as it becomes available.” He offered his hand to Fran once more, this time to pray with her. 

“Thank you,” she whispered and watched the men turn to leave. She locked the door behind them, then fell to her knees, sobs wracked her body. “Please, no…” she wailed. “NO!” She gasped and screamed again. “No no no! We prayed night after night for protection for him! You failed me! You failed him!” She looked toward the heavens and shook her fist. “You failed ALL of us!” Fran bawled, her breath came in ragged spurts—she collapsed to the floor, and drew her knees up to her chest.

When she calmed down a bit, she stood in front of the fireplace, picked up the photograph with the broken frame. She gazed at the image, traced Charlie’s form on the paper, and wept. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the photo. “I’m so sorry.” She collapsed back into Charlie’s easy chair, the frame still grasped in her hands, and cried herself to sleep.

The next morning, another knock came. When Fran didn’t answer it, Sunny used the key Charlie had given her to unlock the door and open it. She found her best friend curled up asleep in the recliner, her pretty face stained by a night’s worth of tears. She knelt by Fran’s side and tapped her. 

“Frannie?” 

She stirred and squinted to see, her eyes bleary, her face puffy. “Sunny?” When she recognized her friend, she broke down, weeping in Sunny’s arms.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. You two didn’t deserve this fate.”

“What do I do now? How do I raise Destiny by myself? How do I support her?”

“You lean on your friends, sweetie. We will all be here to help you when you need it.” Sunny rocked her and tried to comfort her. But comfort eluded Fran.

“I can’t keep asking for handouts, Sunny. I’ll wait tables in the off-season. It’s all I know.” Fran took a breath and sighed. “I don’t suppose Charlie’s life insurance policy will help if his status is unknown.”

“If you don’t have a death certificate, it’s not much use to you, no,” Sunny affirmed. But Fran sat up and pulled away, a flicker of hope in her eyes. 

“If there’s no death certificate, there’s a chance Charlie might be alive.” She smiled for the first time since the men brought her the news. “I refuse to accept that he died. He will come home to me. He promised he would.” 

Sunny pulled herself to her feet and stood. “Caleb and I will stand with you, Frannie, believing that Charlie is alive, and he will come home.”

The women hugged again. “Thank you, Sunny.” 

“You don’t have to worry about Destiny, Frannie. We will keep her with us as long as you need.”

Fran thought for a moment. “Maybe just a few more days? I need to find out details. I need to know what preparations to make if we lose Charlie’s pay while he is missing.”

“Whatever you need, Frannie, we will stand beside you and hold you up. You shouldn’t do this alone.” Sunny hugged her again. Fran thanked her and waved as Sunny left the house. She climbed the steps to the bedroom she shared with Charlie—it had been hours since she slept. Instead of climbing straight into bed, she knelt at the side, her hands folded, a prayer in her heart. 

Thank you for sparing Charlie’s life, for protecting him while he is away. Thank you for leading him back home. Today, I am standing in faith, believing that he will come back to the family that loves him. Amen.


Six months later

An airplane that carried the survivors from the ill-fated mission that cost five men their lives, with dozens more wounded, arrived home in Appaloosa Plains. Among the injured were Jim Gentry and Trent Moore, two of Charlie’s brothers deployed overseas with him and based in Appaloosa Plains. After the mission, the allied forces lacked the manpower and resources to search the area. Based upon witness accounts of Charlie’s plane crash, and considering the unforgiving heat of the arid desert, the army changed his status to ‘Killed In Action’—a hero who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Fran stood with the other military families as a matter of ceremony. In the middle of the throng of soldiers that left the aircraft, Lorne Turek appeared carrying Charlie’s duffel. As he approached Fran with it over his shoulder, she fell to her knees, crying. 

“Fran,” Lorne said. “I am so sorry about Charlie.” He was on the brink of losing his composure. Seeing her was more difficult than he had imagined. “I gathered his belongings…” a sob choked him. “This is my fault. I am responsible for his death, Fran. I should have listened to him.” He placed the bag next to Fran and knelt with her. He pulled a small, flat item from his pocket and placed it into her hand. “Charlie wanted me to give you this if he didn’t survive…” He took her into his firm embrace. “I am sorry.” 

Fran looked at the object Lorne gave her—a name patch embroidered with the word “Farmer.” She pushed him away and slapped him across the face. “You ruined my life, you bastard!” she screamed. “You killed my husband, the father of my baby girl…” A sob choked her words. “The love of my life.” She took a deep breath and exhaled in a vain attempt to regain her civility. “I will never forgive you for that, Lorne Turek. Never!” Cries of emotional suffering escaped her body—she buried her face in her hands. “Never…” she repeated until Lorne got to his feet. 

“I lost much in that mission, too—” Lorne tried to explain, but Fran stood on her feet, rage on her face.

“You will NEVER lose as much as I have!” she spat. “You live, and my Charlie is dead!” She picked up the duffel from the grass where Lorne placed it. “I never want to see you again.” She turned to walk away on wobbly legs. The crowd’s attention focused on them when Sunny ran toward her. 

“I’m here, Frannie,” she said, her arms enveloping her best friend. Sunny looked at Lorne. “It’s best that you leave her alone.” 

He nodded his head in agreement. “I will keep my distance. Again, I am sorry.” 

Sunny motioned to Caleb, so he broke into a jog to meet the two women. “How can I help, Sunny?” he asked. 

“Carry Fran back to our truck for me? I’ll grab the duffel. She can’t be alone tonight. We’ll set up Cale’s room for her.” Sunny gave her husband a peck on the cheek before he picked Fran up to carry her. “Thank you.” 

Caleb sighed. “I wish this wasn’t happening, Sun. It doesn’t feel right.”

“I’m afraid this is only the beginning,” Sunny replied. “She and Destiny have a long, hard road ahead of them.” 

“That they do,” was his terse reply.

***** 

Without his remains, Fran had nothing to bury, no sense of closure. She and Destiny stood at a graveside service. An empty casket sat before them as Charlie received the highest military honor at his funeral. 

“Mama?” Destiny pulled at Fran’s black dress. “Where’s Daddy?” 

She shook her head and reached for her daughter’s cheek to stroke it. “I don’t know, sweet pea.” 

“Why?” As four-year-olds are apt to do, she met every answered question with another question. She nudged Fran’s leg and pointed at the casket. “Is Daddy in dere?”

Fran swallowed back tears. “No, sweetheart, he isn’t.” Please, stop asking questions, Destiny, she thought.

“Where’s Daddy? I want to talk to Daddy,” Destiny mumbled. Fran picked her up and held her on her hip. 

“I know you don’t understand, baby girl, but someday you will. Someday, you’ll understand how much your daddy loved you.” Fran swallowed hard and blinked back tears.  

“Can I go play wiff Maya?” she asked Fran, who nodded her head. Sunny and Caleb approached Fran as Destiny ran toward their daughter. 

Caleb hugged her first, and then Sunny. “How are you holding up?” 

Fran wiped tears from her eyes. “We’re taking it one day at a time.” 

“It’s nice they’re going to restore his rank,” Caleb said. “That’ll make you eligible for his widow’s benefit.” Sunny jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. 

“Why don’t you get a glass of water for Fran, Cale?” Sunny suggested. He grumbled under his breath but walked away, anyway. “Frannie, what can we do for you?” 

She smiled for a moment. “Remind Destiny who Charlie is every time you talk to her. Sunny, she can’t forget him. I promised him she wouldn’t.” 

Sunny took her best friend’s hand and squeezed it. “Of course, Frannie.” 

After the funeral service concluded, Fran and Destiny returned home to an empty shell of a house. She turned the light switch on at the door and slipped from her sandals. Destiny ran up the stairs to her bedroom and squealed. Fran chuckled at her enthusiasm for bedtime. 

After a warm bath and warmer pajamas, Fran sat in the rocking chair with Destiny on her lap. The two of them snuggled together, Fran’s phone in her hand. It was a ritual they did every evening before she tucked Destiny into bed at night. As she dialed her voicemail, a robotic, female voice announced zero new phone calls, and the first saved message:

Hi Frannie, it’s Charlie. Baby, I know you’re angry with me, and you should be. But if you’ve believed nothing else I have ever told you, please believe what I’m telling you right now. Baby, I’m sorry for everything. I love you and I miss you and our daughter. All the regret I have is deep, and it’s undeniable. Honey, I wish I’d never gone to the bar that night. I wouldn’t be talking to this machine if I hadn’t. Pick up, sweetie. Please, pick up?—An uncomfortable silence, and then his voice continued—“Alright, honey, maybe next time? Please, never forget how much I love you… the both of you.” 

Destiny’s face lit up when she heard Charlie’s voice on the message, and Fran wiped tears from her eyes. “Daddy loved you, Destiny. Please don’t forget him.”

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Destiny said and hugged her close. 

“I won’t anymore, sweet pea.” She put Destiny on the floor, walked to her bed, and kneeled. She patted the spot next to her, and their daughter joined her on the floor while Fran prayed the prayer she never believed she would:

Thank you for watching over Daddy. Thank you for keeping him with you, and for taking him home to be with you. We will miss him until we see him again. Amen.


Twelve Months Later

“Mama? Can I put this in the chest with Daddy’s stuff?” Destiny asked, her favorite stuffed doll clutched in her fingers. 

“Why do you want to do that, sweet pea?” Fran asked her. “Don’t you love Angaloo anymore?”

Destiny hugged the toy kangaroo to her chest. “Yes, but Daddy gave him to me.” 

Fran nodded. “You can if you’d like to, Desi.” She knelt to her daughter’s height and hugged her. “I love you.” 

“I love you, too, Mama.” Destiny handed the doll to her mother, then turned and walked to her bedroom, which was still the sitting room next to the master bedroom. 

Fran folded the last of Charlie’s favorite clothing: his blue shirt, his favorite jeans, and the boots he wore in the barn. His old brown sweater, a pair of dress slacks, and his slippers. Inside the duffel that Lorne had given her was his prayer book, his journal, the wedding photo he carried with him to every deployment, and his phone. She placed all of his things into a cedar chest in the attic. Fran was ready to close it, save for one item that remained downstairs. 

She padded down the stairs and took the portrait from the mantle. On her way back to the attic, she looked at the photo, the frame still broken, the glass still missing, a huge mar on Charlie’s image where the heel of her boot had damaged it. When she got to the second floor, she heard Destiny playing with and talking to her dolls and smiled.

When she reached the top step in the attic, the cedar chest was open, waiting for her. She knelt in front of the trunk and clutched the photo to her chest. She sighed and looked at it, and traced his image with her fingers. Tears welled in her eyes. Then she kissed the photograph. 

“I love you, and I miss you, Charlie. But I need to let you go.” She looked at it one more time, placed it into the chest, then closed the top. The lid was heavy and closed with a hollow finality. Frannie’s shoulders heaved in sorrow as she leaned over the trunk and cried for Charlie for one of the last times.

*****

A Month Later

Since Charlie’s death, Jason was there for Fran as moral support and a comfort in the middle of the biggest tragedy she had ever encountered. He was there to help her pick up the pieces of her shattered life, and now, a year after she laid her husband to rest, she was ready to close that chapter. She thought of Jason that morning as she opened the diner, and a smile crossed her face.

Fran finished wiping the counter when Jason walked into the diner. Her face lit up when she saw him. “Hello beautiful!” was his standard greeting, and it was the same this day. 

“Hi honey,” she returned his greeting. “The usual?” 

“You know me too well,” he laughed. “Yes, baby. Coffee and a blueberry muffin.” He lowered his voice. “I’ll take a kiss if you can sneak it.” 

She laughed and swatted him with the cloth rag. “You know I can’t while I’m on duty,” she blushed. 

“Where is your name tag, Ms. No Name?” Jason teased.

She looked down at the empty spot on her dress and sighed. “I guess it’s on my other uniform.” 

“Nice going!” he continued to tease, and she stuck her tongue out at him, giggled, and put the rag away. 

The diner was empty, the early morning rush long since over. Fran and Jason flirted together when a ragged-looking man shuffled into the diner. Snowflakes covered his tattered, tan coat, and the man was dirty. Vagrancy wasn’t a problem in Appaloosa Plains, though it wasn’t unusual for an occasional passerby to seek a handout.  

Fran glanced at him, then looked for another server to save her. When she decided she was alone, she sighed, gave Jason a look, then walked over to the man sitting at the corner booth. “Good morning,” she greeted him. “What can I get for you?” 

The man didn’t look up. “Coffee,” he said. “Cream, no sugar.”

She nodded. “I’ll be right back!” she said with a forced smile on her face. Jason was still sitting at the counter, and he watched her every move—the sway of her hips, the way she carried herself. In a week, he’d take her to dinner and propose, and he hoped she would agree to become Mrs. Jason Matthews.

“How’s the straggler? Another out-of-towner?” Jason asked. 

Fran hesitated. She hated discussing other patrons with him. “He’s a customer, Jason. Same as you, but not as annoying,” she teased. She poured a cup of coffee and grabbed a handful of creamers. “Now, behave yourself!”

She walked to the corner table and placed his coffee on it, then she stood with her pad in her hand. “What would you like this morning?” she asked him. 

The man ran his hand over his face in frustration. “Coffee is it for me, I’m afraid,” he murmured, but Fran heard the faint rumble of a hungry stomach. She got a better look at him when his gaze shifted to hers. His face was gaunt—a long, graying beard obscured most of his features. His salt and pepper hair reached his collar, and it looked unkempt and more than a little dirty. Fran felt a pang of sorrow for him. What had placed him into this dire condition?

Her expression and tone of voice softened. “Are you sure? You look like you could use a hot meal.” 

He shrugged his shoulders. “Look, I’m not here seeking a handout, but if you insist, I won’t say no.” He picked up the menu and searched for the cheapest item. He decided and pointed at a bagel. 

Fran smiled at him. “I know exactly what you should have!” She jotted something on her notepad. “How about some orange juice?” 

The man nodded and waved at her. “Thank you.” 

Jason recognized the look on her face as she walked toward him. “You’re going to buy his meal, aren’t you?” Fran grinned, winked, and walked back toward the kitchen to turn in the man’s order. 

She turned and looked at him. “You know, Jason, many times I wouldn’t have made it without someone’s help. It’s time I gave back.” 

Jason shook his head. He had seen Fran go without many times to ensure Destiny had necessities. This time, her sacrifice would benefit a worn, old man she’d only just met at the diner—to put warm, nourishing food into his stomach and maybe an encouraging word into his soul. Jason hated seeing Fran and Destiny struggle, so he dug a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. 

“That’s one thing I love about you, Fran—your generous heart. But let me take care of this one, baby.” Jason tucked the bill into her hand. “I don’t want to see you sacrifice anything for some homeless bum.”

Fran scowled. “That’s not nice, Jason!” she scolded him. “There are many times I would have been in his shoes. But the community rallied around me and saved my life.” She looked with sympathy at the worn old stranger. “Besides, I’d be willing to bet he has no family. Maybe he is lonely.” 

Jason, concerned that Fran was becoming too attentive toward the man, put his foot down. “Don’t even think about inviting him back to your home, sweetie. You don’t know him from anyone. He could be a drug addict, a criminal, or worse!” 

“Oh relax,” she said and rolled her eyes. Sometimes, she couldn’t fathom why she loved Jason so much, but despite herself, she did. “I’m not bringing a dirty old stranger into the house with my little girl. I just feel sorry for him.” 

When the order was ready, she took it and walked toward the stranger with a carafe of fresh coffee. She placed the carafe on the table and set the plates down in front of him. 

“I ordered this special for you,” Fran said with a smile. “Eggs, bacon, gravy, fresh biscuits, and grits. I used to make it all the time…” She stopped herself before she got emotional. “Can I refresh your coffee?” 

The man nodded while Fran filled his cup. She noticed how he looked at the spread—she figured it was the first thing he’d eaten in days, maybe weeks. She patted his shoulder. “Enjoy your breakfast. If you need anything, my name is—” 

“Frannie,” the man said and completed her sentence. “Sweet Frannie.”

Fran screamed and dropped the carafe, which shattered at her feet. Jason sprung into action and rushed to her aid, ready to defend the woman he loved. When he reached her, she stood trembling and staring at the haggard old traveler. 

“No…” she said in utter disbelief. “It can’t be.” She stooped lower to gaze into the stranger’s eyes, at his face, looking for a sign, anything that confirmed her suspicions. 

Jason’s heart raced a hundred miles an hour. “What is it, Fran? Did this man hurt you?” He blocked her with his body and took a protective stance. 

Fran nudged Jason and moved toward the old man. He turned as if to stand, but took Fran’s hands instead. “It was my destiny to meet you,” he whispered and played with the wedding ring she wore on her left hand. When he stood and smiled at her, she knew it.

“Oh… my… it is you! You’re alive! You’re alive…” Fran collapsed into his arms and he held her as she wept.

Jason stepped back, confused. “Would someone please tell me what the HELL just happened?!”

Fran buried her face into the man’s neck and cried. “Oh, Charlie…”

He wrapped her up in his arms and held her close to him, his hands caressing her cheek. “Honey, I’m home.”

Jason walked to the counter where he had been sitting and opened his wallet. From it, he pulled a twenty-dollar bill and left it on the counter before he walked toward the front door, never to return.

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Up Next: Chapter Fifteen, Part Five, Generation One


Pose Credits

Poses By Bee
Couple Set 2

Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.

**A special shout-out (and a HUGE thank you!) to my friend and editor, Chris W., whose ideas, guidance, and encouragement made this chapter possible. I couldn’t have done this without you!  And another special recognition to my brainstorming buddy (he knows who he is!) for the back and forth and inspiration. Thank you!**

G1 Chapter Fifteen, Part Three – Charlie’s Mistake

One year later

In a distant place, Charlie sat in a strategy session with other leaders from allied units. The upcoming mission required Charlie’s expertise, and as a trained pilot, he was qualified to offer advice on tactical maneuvers. They were in their tenth hour of the meeting, and everyone was weary. Tempers flared, and they reached an impasse.

“Look,” Charlie said and rubbed his temples with his thumbs. “Everyone is dog tired. Arguing and bickering back and forth—this is not how we win battles, gentlemen.”

Lorne looked at Charlie, the usual voice of reason. “You know, Farmer is right. Let’s get some sleep and hit the maps in the morning.” Upon Major General Turek’s order, the meeting adjourned. Charlie picked up his briefings and tucked them under his arm.

“Where you headed, Farmer?” Lt. Colonel Jim Gentry asked.

“I’m going to call my wife, and I’m going to sleep. I’d suggest you do the same.” Charlie’s pace quickened until he reached his tent.

“Damn, Farmer, you’re such a square. We’re all going to the bar down the street. You should join us.”

Charlie knew the bar Jim spoke about was a seedy establishment—a sleazy strip club. “You know what will happen if you get caught there, don’t you, brother?”

Jim waved his hand. “Psh. We aren’t doing anything but having a brewski.” He nudged Charlie’s arm. “Come on, man. Fran will never know.” 

“Frannie wouldn’t care if I had a beer with you guys. But that place? She’d be angry. Just be careful, Jim. You have much to lose.” Charlie clapped his friend on the shoulder. “See you at zero six hundred.”

Back in his tent, Charlie removed his cell phone from the footlocker where he kept his personal effects. He ached for Fran, and his eyes filled with tears when he heard her voice.

“Hi, love,” Fran answered the phone. “Oh, how I miss you.” Her sniffles and quiet weeping broke his heart.

“Oh, my sweet Frannie,” he wept. “How is my little family?” 

“We are okay. Destiny wanted to talk to Daddy. She still doesn’t understand where you are, no matter how I explain to her.” Fran sighed. “Let me wake her. I just got her to sleep about thirty minutes ago.” 

“Not this time, darling. I have little time, anyway. I just needed to hear your sweet voice before I went to sleep. What a day.” 

Fran knew she couldn’t ask him, so she blew a kiss over thousands of miles instead. “She will not be happy she missed you, you know,” Fran chuckled. “That’s okay, though. Maya will keep her occupied.”

“How is Maya? Is she still living at the house with you and Destiny?” 

“She will be until she goes to school next week. She can’t put her future off any longer,” Fran whispered. “I still have to learn to shoot your gun, Charlie.” 

“Frannie, you promised me. Please, have Caleb show you?” 

“I will, I promise you.” 

“Oh, honey, I need to go. I have to meet with the squadron early. I love you.” Charlie wiped tears from his eyes. 

“I love you, Charlie. Be safe and come home to me.” Fran hated to say goodbye.

“I will, sweetheart. I promise.” They blew kisses and wept together before they hung up.


“Well done!” Charlie exclaimed over the radio, as his air squadron hit, with pinpoint accuracy, the last target in the mission. “We keep it up, and we’ll be back home in no time, boys. Good job!” They left their ground target a smoking heap of rubble—a weapons depot the enemy had planned to use against the allied forces. “Let’s get back to base.” There was much cheering and hollering on the radio, and Charlie joined their celebration. A congratulatory ‘whoop’ left his lips. As a reward, General Turek granted the victors twelve hours of leave time. Hell, they earned it, and he was proud of them.

The sounds of triumph filled the night air on the base. The guys were celebrating, but Charlie just looked forward to a warm shower and a phone call home. This time, he hoped he’d get to hear the giggles and squeals of a little girl he hadn’t seen for half of her life. 

He dressed in his fatigues after his shower and walked back to his bunk—a private, semi-permanent structure separated from the other tents. The sounds of triumph were loud outside in the encampment, and Charlie smiled. He knew his friend, Jim, would attempt to coax him to the strip club the officers frequented for a beer and some self-indulgence. What Charlie needed was in Appaloosa Plains, and they both had flaming red, curly hair.

“Charlie!” Fran squealed on the other end of the line. “You made it!” In the background, he heard the cheerful chatter of his three-year-old daughter. The one word he understood loud and clear was “Daddy.” He wiped tears from his eyes and felt excitement grow inside him. His baby daughter was awake!

“Hi, darling,” he said. “Our mission was an immense success. We may have ensured an allied victory tonight.” 

“Does that mean you might be home soon?” she asked with a hopeful smile. 

“It’s hard to say baby, but you just never know. The more we cripple the enemy, the less likely they are to be victorious.” He wanted to say more, but what he already revealed pushed the limit. “Where is that sweet little girl?” More than anything, he wanted to hear his daughter say ‘Daddy.’ 

Fran smiled on the other end of the line. “She is right here, and she can’t wait to tell you hello!” She held the phone on her shoulder, and he could hear the love of his life speaking to their little girl. “Do you want to say hi to Daddy, Desi?” 

“Daddy! Daddy!” the baby babbled. She sat on the floor and reached to Fran for the cell. Once she had it in her hands, she unleashed a stream of unintelligible words—Charlie tried so hard to understand her. But then she grinned and giggled as she heard his voice. The four words he longed to hear came from her mouth in her sweet, three-year-old voice. His heart melted on the spot. “I wuv you, Daddy!” It was as clear a sentence as he’d heard her say, and he wept. 

“Oh, Destiny, Daddy loves you so much.” She chattered on for another minute or two before he heard his wife laughing. 

Fran had to wrestle the handset from Destiny’s sticky fingers and she snickered. “That little girl loves her daddy. I’m sorry I let her bend your ear for so long, baby. I thought I’d remind you we need you to come home.”

Charlie smiled a grin bigger than he had in a long time. “I already know what I have waiting for me at home. I love you both with all my heart and soul.” 

“Do you think you could come home sooner than four more months, Charlie?” She almost didn’t want to dream about it.

“I sure hope so, darling.” Charlie yawned, the adrenaline of the victory fading. “I should go, honey. I am quite tired. The missions sap my energy these days. I’m not a young man anymore.” 

“Do you need to go? I miss you so much.” Fran heard his affirmation and wiped tears from her eyes. “Sleep well, my love.” 

“You too, darling,” Charlie answered. They blew kisses across the miles as they hung up.

Ten minutes later, Charlie still sat on his bed, the last family photo they had taken together in his hands. Jim showed up at the door of Charlie’s tent. “Hey Farmer, the bunch of us are going for a drink. You coming or not?” 

Charlie had to decide. He wanted to celebrate with the guys; maybe drink a beer, see a pretty girl. It had been over a year since he’d been with Fran, and though he would never cheat on her, he grew tired of seeing boxers and undershirts. 

“Yeah, just let me change and I’ll be there.” It’s only a beer, Charlie thought. He put the photo away and nodded. He felt justified to have some fun because they earned it, but it disturbed him how he changed his mind from just a few minutes earlier. Charlie shook his head to remove Fran’s smiling face from his memory. It’s only a beer, he tried to convince himself. She wouldn’t mind a beer. 

Charlie changed into a comfortable pair of jeans, his button-down shirt, and his cowboy boots. It had been months since he’d been in civilian clothing, and it felt good. He tucked his dog tags inside his white undershirt and grabbed his wallet from the footlocker. The unit earned their victory, and he deserved to celebrate tonight with his brothers. 

He met the group, and they walked the short distance to the bar just outside of the base. The lounge bustled with activity—an extensive selection of women to dance for any man willing to stuff money and phone numbers into their g-strings. When they walked in, a cloud hit them in the face. Two dancers entertained men looking for a cheap drink and cheaper thrills.

Jim walked to the bar and bought a round of drinks for the guys and passed them around. Charlie took his and twisted the top and took a swig from the bottle. 

When spaces opened around the stage, Jim, Charlie, and a few others sat close and watched with great anticipation. Machines produced artificial fog in substantial quantities. The lights pointed to the dancers on the stage that danced to the music. 

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Jim stood and watched with a stupid grin on his face. “Farmer!” he nudged Charlie. “Get a load of this one.” He pointed toward a young girl dancing, wearing very little clothing. “She likes you!” Jim caught the girl’s attention and summoned her over. She bent down while he whispered to her, smiled at Charlie, and accepted payment from him. 

The girls danced, attempting to please their patrons. Jim nudged Charlie’s arm again, pointed toward the stage, and grinned. 

“What?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Jim said with a devious smile. “You’ll see.” 

The server brought another round of drinks, courtesy of Jim, and Charlie twisted the top off his second bottle of beer. A few minutes later, the pretty black-haired dancer approached Charlie and tried to take his hand to get him on stage. He shook his head, but Jim nudged him. 

The young girl came onto Charlie as though her livelihood depended on it. She danced around him with lewd gestures, rubbed against him, and touched him. Charlie wanted to return to his seat—with each attempt, she reached for him again. 

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The crowd loved the show with the awkward soldier and the pretty dancer. They stood and cheered for them as she delivered the show Jim had paid her to do. His buddies took their phones out and snapped photos of Charlie when the dancer kissed him. 

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It was no longer fun and games for Charlie. He broke away from her, stumbled from the stage, and ran toward the exit. 

Jim followed his friend from the bar, but the damage was done. Charlie bent over, trying to catch his breath. “Did you pay for that?!” he screamed. 

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Jim put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “That shouldn’t have happened, man. I only paid her to dance with you.” 

Charlie felt sick. The world spun around him at breakneck speed. “What were you THINKING, Jim? If Frannie sees those pictures, I am a dead, divorced man.” Charlie went after Jim and pinned him against the building, his arm drawn back and ready to hit him. “You’ve cost me everything!”

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“It’s not my fault!” Jim tried to defend himself against the genuine threat of physical harm. “I only paid her to dance with you, I swear it.” 

Charlie backed off without hitting him. “I don’t know if I believe you. You do what you want in your marriage, but you stay the hell out of mine!” 

“No one twisted your arm to go, you know,” Jim stated. The moment the words escaped his lips, he wished to take it back. Charlie shoved him backward and knocked him to the ground. 

“I should beat the crap out of you because you deserve it!” Jim got to his feet when they both heard footsteps running their direction. 

“Guys!” a fellow soldier named Trent shouted and put himself between the two men. “Break it up! Turek is on his way!”

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Seconds later, General Lorne Turek appeared, a scowl on his face, and looked at Charlie. “Farmer! Gentry! Get your butts back to base! NOW!” 

Charlie shook his head, angry with himself for allowing the evening’s events to happen. He had a reprimand coming his way from Lorne. And he knew if Fran saw any of the pictures, he might return home to divorce papers instead of a happy welcome.


Word travels in a small town, where families know each other and their business. Appaloosa Plains was such a place. And in the earliest hours of the morning, Fran’s phone buzzed with a text message from her best friend, Sunny.

She awakened with the sound of her alarm, another day of the farmer’s market ahead of her. She needed to harvest the garden. Fran would need to feed and dress Destiny. She would turn Marne and Sweetie loose in their pasture before she left for the day.

Maya was already awake and had the coffee pot started. Her cheery voice lifted Fran’s spirits. Having her in the house with Charlie gone was priceless, and Fran would miss her when she left to prepare for school in a few days.

“Good morning, Maya,” Fran greeted her. “Did you sleep well?”

“I did, Miss Fran!” Maya returned. “Don’t worry about Destiny. We’ll be ready after you harvest the garden this morning.”

“You are a lifesaver, Maya,” Fran replied. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” She pulled her boots onto her feet and headed out of the back door to the garden.

A few houses down, Sunny Bradford sat with her phone in her hand, staring in disbelief at the photo she received from a close friend. It arrived hours earlier with the header, “We should tell Frannie,” and a damning photo of Charlie Farmer in a solid kiss with another woman. Though she didn’t want to, Sunny knew she was the only person to deliver such devastating news to her best friend.

Sunny packed her goods into the boxes Caleb prepared for her. He recognized the worry she wore on her face, walked to her, and kissed her. “Is everything okay, baby?” he asked.

Sunny shook her head. “No, Cale, it’s not. Look.” She handed her phone to Caleb and his eyes widened.

“No. That’s not Charlie. Sunny, it can’t be Charlie.” But when he saw the evidence of his own eyes, he couldn’t deny it. Caleb handed the phone back to Sunny. “You know you have to be the one to tell her, baby. You can’t leave her to find out through town gossip. It will destroy her.”

Sunny wiped tears from her eyes. “I know, Cale. I don’t want to break that woman’s heart. She has already suffered so much pain…” Sunny broke down in tears. “I can’t believe he did this.”

“Well, let’s hope he has a good explanation. And we’ll love Frannie through it all.” He kicked his shoe on the kitchen floor. “She will need you, Sun.”

Sunny nodded in acknowledgment. “I know,” she whispered. “I have to go. Would you bring this last crate of bread to the truck, honey?”

His face softened. “Of course.”

*****

An hour later, Fran was ready to walk out of the door when she remembered Sunny’s text message. When she read it, a chill ran down her spine:

Frannie, we need to talk. I have something to show you, and you won’t like it.

She swallowed back a glob of bile that rose in her throat. I wish I had seen this earlier, she thought to herself. Fran typed a quick message back to Sunny and put her phone into her purse.

I’ll see you in a bit at the market.

Maya had Destiny, Fran loaded the truck with the morning’s harvest, and they were ready to head to the market. While she drove, Fran asked Maya if she’d heard from her mother.

“No, Miss Fran, I haven’t. Is there something wrong?”

“She sent me this message, but I didn’t see it until just before we left.” She slid her phone to Maya.

“Whatever it is, Miss Fran, we’ll hit it head-on,” Maya said with confidence. “It must be important, though, if she sent it that early. I’ll watch Destiny while you speak together.”

Fran smiled, though she felt no better about the text message. “Thank you, Maya.”

She pulled the truck into her parking spot at the market, and Fran grabbed Destiny from her car seat, kissed her cheek, and smiled as the toddler pulled her toward the stand. The baby loved Sunny, and when Destiny saw her, she giggled and ran to her. Fran grinned and walked toward her best friend. But when Sunny saw Fran, her expression changed.

“Good morning, Frannie,” Sunny hugged her best friend. In her ear, she whispered, “I need to talk to you right now before you speak to anyone else.”

Fran pulled back with fear on her face. “What is it, Sun? What made you so upset?”

Sunny gave Destiny to Maya, who took the child for a stroll while the women talked. Sunny sat down with her phone in her hand, and she patted the chair next to her. She wiped tears from her eyes, a nuclear heartbreak in her hand. She tapped on her phone and retrieved the text message.

Sunny held the phone close to her chest—a lone tear dripped from her eyes and landed on her capris. “I don’t want to do this, Frannie, but you need to hear it from me before you hear it from anyone else.” Sunny handed the phone to Fran and watched the total devastation wash over her.

Her shoulders heaved in sorrow, and she gasped for breath. “When was this taken, Sun?”

“After the mission, according to the message I got. Frannie, I’m so sorry.” Sunny sat and waited for Fran’s reaction, but she sat and stared at the photo. The pretty young stripper in a bar, thousands of miles from home, and the man she loved, locked in a kiss. Fran couldn’t believe her eyes.

Her hands shook with emotion, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry or kill him. “He did this after our phone call. After I reminded him I was waiting here for him.” She sniffled and handed the phone back to Sunny. “How could he do this? I don’t understand.”

Sunny hugged her as she cried. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

“This is such a slap in the face. I can’t deal with the stand today, Sunny. I need to go.” She broke the embrace and stood. “I’m glad I heard it from you.”

“If you need anything, Frannie, Caleb, Maya, and I are here for you. I will call you to check on you later.”

“Thank you,” Fran mumbled. “Would you mind bringing Maya back home if she wants to stay?”

“Of course not. Remember, sweetie, I’m a phone call away.” Fran nodded, wiped tears from her eyes, and waved as she walked from the stand.

*****

Destiny woke Fran some hours later from a deep but restless sleep. She pulled herself from the bed and walked to the nursery. “Mama!” Destiny cried, holding her arms up. Fran lifted her from the crib and kissed her cheek. The baby sniffled and settled into her mother’s arms.

“You’re okay, little love,” Fran whispered. She sat in her favorite rocking chair, the one she bought years ago for her mother, and rocked with her daughter. Destiny babbled in her arms, content, but when she said the word, ‘Daddy,’ Fran cried.

“Mama sad?” she asked in her three-year-old voice.

“Yes, Desi, Mama is sad.” She couldn’t explain it, Destiny would never understand. She just held her baby girl and rocked her.

An hour later, Maya returned home after watching the market stall all day. She knew the circumstances, and she couldn’t believe it herself. “Miss Fran?” she called up the stairwell. “I’m home!”

“I was just getting supper for Destiny,” she said. “It’s only leftovers.” Fran walked down the steps with the baby on her hip.

“What about you, Miss Fran?” Maya asked.

Fran shook her head. “I’m not hungry tonight, Maya.”

“Why don’t you let me take her? I’ll bathe her and put her to bed tonight. You just concentrate on you. Deal?” Maya squeezed her in a bear hug.

Fran trudged to her bedroom and closed the door behind her. She expected a call from Charlie that night, but she no longer looked forward to it. Instead, she considered not answering it until she knew what she would say to him. The clock read five-thirty in the afternoon.

*****

Charlie paced in his bunk. Since the incident the previous evening, he had kept himself isolated from the rest of his unit, secluded and ashamed. A text message from Sunny Bradford went unread, but the header said it all. 

She knows.

He didn’t look forward to the phone call that loomed ahead of him. Charlie didn’t want to hear the hurt in her voice, the tears, the rightful anger. He retrieved his phone from the footlocker at the end of his bed, dialed the phone number of the love of his life, and prayed that she would listen to everything he needed to say. 

Fran tossed and turned in the bed she shared with Charlie. When her cell phone rang, she considered not answering it, but she needed to know the answers to the questions in her mind. 

“Hello?” 

Charlie swallowed hard when he heard her voice. “Hi darling.” His words escaped him—the silence was deafening.

Fran sat for a moment to collect her thoughts. “Hello Charlie.”

“Honey, I realize you know I’ve made a terrible mistake. I never meant for it to happen.” 

“Why were you there? Why did you go out to a strip club after we spoke and I reminded you I was here, waiting for you? You’ve made me look like a fool. Don’t you realize how hurtful this is to me?” Her sad whimpers broke his heart in two. 

“The guys went to celebrate. Jim asked me to go. They go all the time, but I stay on base. Jim paid the girl to dance with me on stage, but she took it too far. I don’t want her, Frannie, please believe me. It’s not how it looked.” Charlie’s thoughts scattered—his mind raced, his words, desperate. 

“Why did you go to that bar? I’m not as worldly as you, Charlie, but I know attraction when I see it. She wanted you,” she sniffled. “Why should I believe that it wasn’t mutual? You didn’t push her away!” As hard as she fought to keep calm, Fran lost her cool and cried. “Is she the first one you’ve kissed? Have you been with anyone else while you’ve been away?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answers. 

So many questions, so much hurt, and Charlie was not prepared to handle it. “I wish I was there to explain it in person, darling,” he wept. “I’m so sorry I hurt you, Frannie. I’m so, so sorry.” Sobs stole his words away. Regret and fear swept over him, and he could no longer speak, but just cry.

“That’s not good enough, Charlie. I need explanations. I need to know why.” Fran stood her ground. “Why did you humiliate me like this?”

“Baby, I didn’t mean to,” he sobbed into the phone. “It was just a beer.” He took a deep breath. “It was just a beer…” His voice faded away to uncontrollable sobs. 

Fran sighed and disconnected the call. 

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Up Next: Chapter Fifteen, Part Four, Generation One


Pose Credits:

ModTheSims
Hospital Labor Poses by Jamee
Pole Position by Puss ‘N Heels
Bully by Spladoum

Poses By Bee
Meeting at the Bar by Bee
That’s My Girl by Bee

Sims 3 Modeli
Warm Hugs by Sea

Tumblr
Pole Dance by Fanaskher

You Name It, I’ll Pose It
Nikolas Part 5 Pose Pack by Blams

*****
Custom Content:

Anubis360 
Redheaded stripper – Peggy 524 Re-texture

ButterFlySims
Sunny’s Hairstyle – 060 (Donation)

ModTheSims
The Exotic Pole by Puss ‘N Heels

RoseSims
Black haired stripper – RoseSims Donation Set2 (Note: Link does not lead to download. RoseSims3 is defunct)

The Sims Resource
Non-default F1 ABC Skin (Sunny’s Skintone) by S-Club 

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Smoking Ashtray by The77Sim3

Vicarious Living Sims
Simlish Neon Signs

Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.

**Special thanks to my friend Ken D for the inspiration and creativity brainstorming sessions. Thank you for continuing to push me outside of my comfort zone and for challenging me.**

G1 Chapter Fifteen, Part Two – The Reunion

Three months later

Fran was awake before the sun rose over the eastern valley in Appaloosa Plains. She stopped in the nursery before she walked downstairs. Destiny was still sleeping.

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Fran blew her a kiss and crept down the steps. Maya was already up and had water on the stove.

“Good morning, Miss Fran!” Maya greeted her. “Are you ready for today?”

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Fran shook her head and snickered. “Where do you find all your energy, Maya? You’re so perky for five in the morning.”

“The bed upstairs is super comfy! The wheelbarrow and boxes are outside in the garden.”

Fran stood there, her mouth agape. “Well, I don’t know what to say except thank you, Maya.”

“You’re more than welcome, Miss Fran. I’ll keep an ear out for Destiny while you’re doing the harvest if it’s okay with you?”

“That would be great. We need to set up by seven. I need to pay rent before the market opens at eight.” Fran poured a cup of coffee and sat at the table in the dining room. “After I get the truck loaded, we need to go.”

“Don’t worry about the little one. I’ll have Destiny fed and dressed before it’s time to go.” Maya poured some boiling water over a rooibos tea bag and set it down to steep. “If you need any help with harvesting, let me know.”

“Thanks, Maya. I should be okay.”

The morning was crisp, but not cold, and the temperature was exhilarating. The day would warm soon, so Fran enjoyed the cool morning air. She didn’t rush with the harvest and filled thirty boxes of vine-ripened produce for the first day at the market.

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Fran packed and arranged the fruits and vegetables as she picked them, so all she needed was to display them. It was six-thirty when she finished, so she walked back into the house through the sunroom door.

Maya had just finished feeding Destiny when Fran came in. “Everything is ready! I packed our lunches on ice, and I have a thermos of coffee ready for you.”

For the second time that morning, Fran stood with her mouth hanging open. “You amaze me, Maya.” She tossed the keys to Maya and picked Destiny up from her high chair. “The playpen is in the truck already. She’ll be fine in the stroller until we get set up.”

Maya nodded in agreement. “Don’t worry, Miss Fran. We’ve got this!” She spun the truck keys on her finger, and the three of them left the house.

Sunny was already in her booth and had set up her bakery counter before Fran and Maya arrived. When she spotted her daughter with Destiny on her hip, she walked to greet them. “Hi sweetheart.” Sunny hugged Maya and gave the baby a peck on the cheek. “All ready for today?”

Maya gave a hearty laugh. “Yes, we are! Fran has a bountiful harvest of beautiful veggies and fruits this morning!” Fran pushed a cart with about one-third of her boxes on it, arranged and ready to display.

“Good morning, Sunny!” Fran greeted her best friend. She gave her a quick hug and started placing the boxes of produce onto her stand. “You’ve baked new treats this year, I see!”

“I made some cobblers last night. I think they will sell very well today. Caleb couldn’t keep his fingers out of the raspberry one, so I let him keep it for his lunch. That man is a sucker for raspberries.”

Fran smiled, but she missed Charlie. She hadn’t thought about him since their last call, and she wondered how he was. “Maya, would you help with the rest?”

“Sure thing, Miss Fran! Mama has Destiny looked after.” Fran nodded her head, and together they walked back to the truck.

The first day of the market was a raging success—of the thirty boxes she brought, twenty of them returned home empty. Destiny kept herself occupied most of the day. Fran and Maya took turns entertaining her when she got fussy. When they climbed back into the truck, they were all tired and hungry.

Maya pulled the truck into the driveway and parked it. Fran opened the car door and stood frozen in her tracks. The entryway of the house hung open on its hinges. She trembled while she dialed for the police to come. Fran prayed whoever broke the windows was not still in the house.

Eight minutes later, two police cars were at the house, and the officer approached Fran. “We came home from the market to this, officer,” Fran said, her voice shaky with fear. “I don’t know if they’re gone.”

The officer motioned for the women to stay near the garage while the police inspected the house. And then Fran realized that the gate was open, and the horses were missing. She panicked and ran toward the barn, their names on the wind as she called for them. But Marne and Sweetie were not there. Fran shrieked and fell to the ground. Her sobs echoed to the front of the lot. Maya ran to her, Destiny still in her car seat.

“Fran, what’s wrong?”

“The horses! Maya, they’re gone!”

Maya ran back toward the house. A police officer stood outside the front door to keep watch while the others secured the property. “Officer! The horses are missing!”

The officer spoke into his radio and turned his attention to Maya. “What did they look like, Miss?”

“Palomino, both of them. Purebred Arabians.” Maya tried to think. “Marne and Sweetie are their names. Please, try to find them. It will devastate Miss Fran if we don’t find Marne.”

Maya jogged back to where Fran sat, still in tears. “What did they say?”

“They took the information, and he radioed it to dispatch.” Maya took a deep breath. “They’re going to find your babies, Miss Fran.” She kneeled next to Fran and held her while she cried. “They have secured the house, and we can get Destiny inside to feed her.”

Fran shook her head. “We aren’t staying here tonight. It’s not safe.”

“I’m going to get Destiny. She needs to be with you.” Maya stood and jogged to the truck, picked Destiny up, and walked back to Fran. She set Destiny into her arms and sat back down next to them. “Everything will be okay, Miss Fran,” Maya tried to assure her. “I’m here. You’re not alone.”

*****

The phone rang at 3:12 that morning, and Fran’s sleepy eyes squinted at the display. The phone call she had waited for all day had arrived. She grabbed the phone and answered it.

“Charlie!”

“Hi love.” Charlie heard her weeping. “Frannie, what’s wrong, honey?”

She sat up in bed and tried to calm herself. “Thieves broke into the house yesterday while Maya and I were at the market—”

“My goodness! Frannie, are you alright?”

She nodded her head as though he could see her. “Yes, but they broke the front door.”

“I don’t care about the house, love. I want to make sure you’re okay. Frannie, go to our closet. There’s a strongbox tucked in behind my uniforms—”

“I’m not home, Charlie. I didn’t feel secure, so Maya, Destiny, and I are at the inn on the river.”

He nodded in acknowledgment. “Remember what I’m telling you, okay? Frannie, on the left side of our closet, behind my uniforms is a strongbox. The combination is our wedding day, minus one day. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Charlie, I understand. What is in the safe?”

“My pistol is in there. Pa gave it to me before he died, and I put it there for safekeeping. Frannie, I want you to keep it by the bed while I am gone.”

“Charlie, I’ve never handled a gun before, never mind shot one! I won’t keep that thing anywhere near me!”

“Honey, please. If you need some help with it, Caleb knows how to shoot it. Ask him. I don’t want you to be home with our baby girl without something to protect yourself.”

“But Charlie—”

“Frannie, please, baby. I can’t help you from here. You’re going to need to take care of yourself.” He worried about her and no longer felt like their home was secure.

“You know, this isn’t how I wanted our conversation to go.” She tried to change the subject. “How are you?

“I’m okay. I’m worried about you.” He paced in his tent. “Promise me, Frannie, that you’ll learn how to shoot it. Please.”

Fran sighed. “Okay, I’ll learn.” She sniffled and saw the light on in Maya’s adjoining room. A soft knock sounded at the door between them.

“Miss Fran? Is everything okay?”

Fran covered the mouthpiece of her cell. “Yes, it’s Charlie on the phone.”

Maya’s face lit up. “Please tell him we’re praying for them! I’ll check the baby while I’m up.”

“Maya says hi, and that we’re praying for you, love. Despite my best efforts, I woke her anyway.”

“Please tell Maya, and the Bradfords, thank you. Darling, I need to go. Remember your promise. I love you.”

“I’ll remember my promise, Charlie. I miss you and love you. Be safe. We’ll talk soon.”

“Yes, we will, honey. I miss you. Give our baby girl kisses for me. I love you, Frannie.”

Maya walked back from Destiny’s crib and sat on the chair next to Fran’s bed. “What did you promise Charlie, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“There’s a gun in the strongbox at home. He wants me to learn to shoot it.” Fran shook her head. “I’ve never handled a gun before.”

Maya grinned. “I can teach you! Daddy taught me to shoot when I was a little girl. I’m good at hitting what I aim for, too!”

Fran smiled. Maya’s help and companionship were so valuable she wasn’t sure how she would ever repay the Bradfords. “That would be fantastic.” 

*****

A few hours later, Fran’s cell phone rang. The caller ID displayed an unknown number, but she answered it anyway.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Farmer,” lead detective Benjamin Williams greeted her. “We have one of your horses, though we aren’t certain which one we have in our possession. I am assuming it is yours. They are palomino, correct?” 

Fran’s heart skipped a beat. “Is she okay? Is she safe?” 

“She doesn’t look injured at all. Would you be able to identify her this morning so we can release her to your custody?” 

Fran nodded. “Yes, I‘ll be there soon. I need to get the trailer hitched to the truck. Is that okay?” 

Detective Williams smiled. “That’s fine, Mrs. Farmer. We will see you.” 

Fran hung up the phone and squealed. “Maya!” she said, “They found one of my horses! I need to go to identify her. Would you mind watching Destiny while I run this errand?” 

Maya smiled. “This is wonderful news! I’ll watch this little sweet pea!” She tickled Destiny’s belly and got a giggle from her. “Be careful, Miss Fran. I’ll be here if you need me.” 

“Thank you, Maya.” Fran took her purse, kissed Destiny’s cheek, and waved as she left the inn. 

Minutes later, she had the trailer hitched to Charlie’s truck, and she pulled away from the house. Ten minutes later, she walked into the sheriff’s office, hopeful that they found Marne and that she was unharmed. 

No one was there when she arrived. She pressed the button on the bell that sat on the desk. A receptionist with a name tag that read “Jan” appeared, saw Fran, and smiled. 

“You must be Mrs. Farmer,” Jan said, and set a cup of coffee down on her desk. “Detective Williams is almost ready for you.” 

“Thank you,” Fran replied and sat in a chair in the waiting area. 

“You’re very welcome,” Jan said. “Your horse is beautiful. I’ve never seen a palomino in the county before.” 

Fran beamed with pride. “They are my babies, both Sweetie and Marne. It would devastate me if something happened to either of them.” 

“Well, our detectives are searching for the missing horse. When we find her, we’ll let you know, Mrs. Farmer.” 

A few minutes later, Detective Williams stepped out from an office whose door opened to the lobby where Fran waited. He approached her and shook her hand. “Mrs. Farmer, please come back to my office.” She followed him back and sat at his desk, and he walked to the other side to sit. “The horse is out in our yard under a veterinarian’s care. He’s just checking to make sure she hasn’t suffered an injury from yesterday’s burglary. These are the photos we took of her upon intake.” He took three photographs from a folder and laid them in front of Fran—she picked them up to look at them.

“This is my younger mare, Sweetie.” While it thrilled Fran to have her back, in her heart, she wished that it was Marne in the yard instead. “See? She has stockings on her front legs, but not the back. Marne has them on all four legs.” She laid the photos on the desk. The detective placed them back into the folder. “Where did you find Sweetie?”

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“We found her near the equestrian center which, if I remember, is near your home? She was grazing on some pasturelands nearby when a gentleman named Farnam called us.” 

Fran nodded her head. “Oliver owns the stud that sired Sweetie. He would have known she was mine.” 

“She should be ready to go soon. Have they fixed your fence, Mrs. Farmer?”

“No, but I will lock the barn when I stable her. My best friend’s husband will repair the lock on the front door and gate at some point today. Don’t worry. Sweetie will be safe,” Fran assured him. “I love these horses like they are my children.”

Detective Williams nodded his head. “We feel the same about our K9 units here, Mrs. Farmer. I understand.” He made a quick phone call to the yard, and when he hung up, a smile crossed his face. “Mrs. Farmer, your horse is ready to go home. He gave her a clean bill of health.” 

Fran stood and wiped a tear from her cheek. “Thank you so much, detective, for everything. Please call me if you get a word on Marne. She is a part of our family.”

“You bet,” the detective replied and handed her his business card. “If you need anything, please call.” They shook hands, and Fran walked from the office.

When she got to her truck, the stable hand had Sweetie ready. “This is a beautiful horse, Miss. You’re very fortunate to have her.” He handed the lead to Fran.

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She blushed. “Thank you.” In moments, she had Sweetie secured in the trailer and was ready to go. Back at the farm, she led the young mare to the barn. “You’ve had enough fun for one day, don’t you think, baby girl?” She ran her hands over Sweetie’s back and rubbed her neck. “Be good, and we’ll be home soon.” Fran left the barn and secured the lock behind her.


A week had passed since the burglary. Fran had still not heard anything about Marne’s whereabouts. She and Maya made fliers to place around town with her photo and a contact number. But every night, they came up empty. 

Destiny awakened at midnight, screaming. Fran ran to the nursery to hold her.

“Shh, baby girl, you’re okay. Mama’s got you,” she whispered into Destiny’s ear and paced the floor with her in the nursery. The screams woke Maya, and she appeared in the bathroom’s door, which connected both rooms. 

Screenshot-78

“Is she okay, Miss Fran?” Maya yawned.

“She’ll be okay. I’m just going to rock her to sleep. You can go back to bed.” Fran set her cell phone on the table by the rocking chair. Since the burglary, she never went two steps without it. 

“If you’re certain. Wake me if you need me, Miss Fran.” She nodded and waved to Maya before she closed the bathroom door.

Two hours later, after Fran had gotten the baby back to sleep, the phone rang with Charlie’s number on the display. She reached for the phone and answered it.

“Hi, Charlie.”

“Hi, darling. Is there any word on Marne yet?”

Fran blinked back tears and sighed into the phone. “Not a word. I’m losing hope.”

“Aww, sweetie, never lose hope. Someone will spot her and make sure she comes home to you.” How he wished he was there with her. He’d find the horse himself if it were his last act on this earth. “How is Destiny?”

“She’s good, she talks about Daddy all the time, and I show her your picture. She recognizes your face. I promised you she wouldn’t forget you.”

“That’s good, darling. Your voice is so sweet, I needed to hear it. We are meeting about a mission soon, so I will call you tonight.” He took a breath and sighed. “We can always use your prayers, honey.”

“And you will have them in abundance, my love,” she replied. “I will talk to you tonight. I love you, Charlie, and I miss you. Stay safe.”

“Oh honey, I miss you so much I ache. I love you. Tell Destiny I love her, too.”

“I will,” Fran said before they said goodbye. 

She wanted to go back to sleep, but the clock showed 5:00 AM. Fran sighed walked downstairs to harvest the garden. To her great surprise, Maya was not in the kitchen, so Fran started the coffeepot and pulled her boots onto her feet. She harvested another thirty boxes of produce, and when she finished loading it into the truck, she walked back to the house to shower. 

Maya was awake and feeding the baby when Fran walked back in, but she wasn’t as perky. “Good morning, Maya,” Fran greeted her. “Are you feeling okay this morning?” 

Maya groaned. “No. I couldn’t sleep even before Destiny’s screaming. If you can manage the market alone today, I’ll stay home with her.”

Fran nodded her head. “Please make sure you have the pistol at your side. Protect yourself and my baby.” 

Maya smiled. “Absolutely! Besides, they got whatever they wanted and moved on. I doubt they’ll be back.”

“You’re right,” Fran nodded. “If you need anything, please call me. I will come home right after the market closes.”

Fran got into the pickup and drove the short distance to the farmer’s market. She unloaded several boxes before her cellphone rang, an unfamiliar number on the Caller ID. 

“Hello?” she answered.

“Mrs. Farmer, this is Detective Williams from the sheriff’s department. We believe we have your Arabian mare in our custody. Can you come identify her?” 

Fran squealed with excitement. “Yes! Oh my goodness, I hope you do! I just arrived at the farmer’s market, but I will be there.”

“Take your time, Mrs. Farmer. She is in excellent hands here.” 

Fran jogged to her market stall and found Sunny there and ready to go. “Sunny!” she exclaimed. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Sunny looked beyond Fran, expecting to see her daughter. “Where is Maya this morning?” 

“She is home with Destiny. She didn’t feel well this morning. Would you watch my stall for about half an hour, Sunny? The sheriff’s department believes they have Marne, and I want to get her.”

“I will!” Sunny said. “Go! Get your baby, and I’ll watch your stand.” Sunny embraced Fran. “You must be so excited!”

Fran nodded. “Oh, I am! I’ve never lost her before, not for this long.” She pulled the shield down that closed her stall and turned back to Sunny. “Thanks again. I won’t be long!”

She jogged to the truck and hopped in—the key was in the ignition. She prayed the horse the detective found was Marne. Fran pulled away from the market with a hopeful smile.

Forty-five minutes later, Fran walked into the sheriff’s office. Jan welcomed her. “Hi, Mrs. Farmer. I will let Detective Williams know you’re here.” 

Screenshot-67

Fran nodded. “Thank you.” 

It wasn’t long before the detective appeared at the door of his office. “Mrs. Farmer,” he greeted her with a smile. “Please come in.”

She played with her keyring as she sat down. “Can I get you some water or coffee, Mrs. Farmer? You arrived faster than I expected, and I am waiting for the photos in my email. We have a palomino mare that matches the description you gave us. We are confident we have a match.” 

Fran nodded. “I wouldn’t mind some water if it’s no trouble.” 

“It’s no trouble at all.” 

Five minutes later, the email the detective was waiting for arrived, and he opened it, printed the photo attachments, and handed them to Fran. “Here they are, Mrs. Farmer.”

She looked at the photos, and her face lit up. “That’s my Marne!” she squealed, but her happiness was short-lived. “What injured her? There is a gash on her left shoulder…” Fran wiped tears away. “There is so much blood.” 

He tapped on the keyboard and opened the veterinary report. “It says they found the mare in a field just outside of the county, about ten miles away. She tangled herself in some barbed wire and brush, but once they cleaned her up, the injury was better than they thought.” He skimmed the rest of the report. “Most of her injury is surface scratches. She has two deeper wounds which they stitched, and the veterinarian gave her antibiotics. She is malnourished, so he recommends good quality feed while she recovers, and follow up with your vet when you can. He expects a full recovery.” 

Fran sighed with relief. “When can I bring her home?” 

“She is ready when you are, Mrs. Farmer. Take custody of her now.” The detective stood and shook her hand. “If there is anything else we can do, please call me.”

She returned his gesture and thanked him. Fran ran to the trailer where the stable hand waited for her. When she saw Marne, she cried, so relieved to see her. 

“She is a lucky girl,” the stable hand said. “Horses can get maimed in barbed wire, but she’s going to be just fine, aren’t you girl?” He patted Marne’s nose, and she nickered at him.

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“Thank you so much for taking care of her.” Fran hugged her neck. “You don’t understand what she means to me, how much I’ve missed her.” She shook the man’s hand, led Marne into the trailer, and secured her. “Thanks again.” 

“My pleasure, Mrs. Farmer,” he replied. “Take good care of her. She’s a treasure.” Fran nodded and wiped tears from her eyes as she drove away.

Ten minutes later, she backed the trailer into the yard and hopped out of the truck. Fran led her out and through the gate where she reunited Marne and Sweetie. The two horses nickered at one another and nuzzled together. Fran broke down as she inspected the scratches and stitches Marne had on her body. But the mare was home, and her horses were together once again. It relieved Fran that the ordeal was over.

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Up Next: Chapter Fifteen, Part Three, Generation One 


Pose Credits:

ModTheSims
Embrace, Little Man By Spladoum
Love and Horses Pose Pack By Kaleeko

MyPalSims
Sad Pose Pack

Poses By Bee
Pinup Poses #1
Conversation Poses
Adult Emotions

Sims 3 Modeli
Warm Hugs By Sea

*****

Custom Content:

Around The Sims 3
Water Collector and Wheelbarrow
Water Bottle, Full Cup of Coffee
Museum Display Desk Plate
Hotel Desk

NewSea Sims
Jan’s Hair – Cain #YU117

Nynaeve Designs
Rover Office

The Sims Resource
Biological Food By AnoeskaB
File Folder Holder By Little Dead Girl
Starry Night Nursery, Sweet Pea Wall Hanging By Lulu265
Mensure’s Nursery Items By Mensure
Apple Barrels By Rebecah
Diaper Clutter, Crib Blanket By Ung999

The Sims 3 Exchange
Country Flowers By Skyeseeker

Sugars Legacy Stables
Horse Trailer – Open Version

Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.