Robbie walked forward, feeling the weight of his pack move with him. He could hardly believe it—he was finally home. Though he hadn’t reached the ranch yet and was still a good mile out, he knew this stretch of land better than the back of his hand. He’d spent years of his childhood wandering it, letting his imagination run wild. Sometimes, he was the cop. Other times, the outlaw Indian that hid between rolling waves of grass taller than he was. His grandma had stayed terrified that he would get bitten by a snake one day and that no one would hear him scream for help. His grandfather, ever a sturdy, practical man, always waved away her protests and sent him scampering out of the house with a heart as light as his feet. Sometimes, there was even a kid from one of the neighboring houses to play with. He’d relished the freedom of the outdoors as he’d traveled wherever his imagination would take him.
His childhood has passed in a long stream of hazy, fond memories, the way it should for any child. And as he’d grown and matured he’d realized his chance to live out his boyhood dreams and really travel, trading imaginary flights for real ones, which was why he’d signed up with the Marines. He’d wanted to prove that he was just as tough and fearsome as he’d always thought he was.
He’d been proved wrong, but fortunately, the military had turned him into just the type of soldier they needed him to be. He could run a mile in just under five minutes (the first one, anyway) and take a gun apart so quickly it would make a civilian’s head spin. They’d taught him many, many things, not the least of which was self-control, discipline, and a cool head under fire. These were things he’d carry with him his entire life and he was proud—so proud—to be a part of the United States Marine Corps.
But he was also more relieved than he could say to be home. It had been a long ten years, and he felt like he’d earned some rest.
When he saw the white beams of the ranch house getting closer, he broke into a run. He could almost smell the delicious home cooking that he knew would fill the house. Though his grandfather had passed and his grandmother now stayed in a home, his mother lived close enough so that the two women were there to greet him whenever he returned from a deployment. He always urged them not to make a big deal of things, and they always cheerfully ignored him. To tell the truth, he was secretly glad they did.
He saw his mother watching from the porch steps, her eyes searching for him. She seemed shorter, somehow, than he’d remembered. And the natural blond of her hair held a bit more gray. But when she caught sight of him, her face creased with a smile, transforming her so that she looked just like he’d left her—young and radiant. Proud. It hadn’t been an easy feat for her to be a single mom and raise him on her own, but she’d done it. True, she’d had her parents to help, but still, he knew that it couldn’t have been easy. Robbie had been a handful, and well he knew it. He commented on it often with a rueful smile and a shake of his head. But she’d taken it all in stride and done her best. They both had reason to be proud.
“Robbie!” she called out, her reedy voice full of laughter.
He dropped his pack from his shoulders so that he could pick up speed and his legs propelled him the rest of the way until he was scooping her up into a giant bear hug. He held on tight, as though he’d never let her go. She’d gotten thinner—he could tell. Thinner and older, and yet, she was still his same good-natured, laughing Mama.
“Let me go, now, you’ve about squeezed the breath out of me!” she scolded, swatting him lightly.
“Yes, ma’am.” He dutifully obeyed, grinning down at her unrepentantly.
“Now, let me have a look at you… my, Robbie, the desert certainly agrees with you.”
“I don’t know about that,” he countered with a grin.
“No, it has. It certainly has. Now, while you were away Betty was telling me about this article she’d read. She forwarded it to me, and it was about all these soldiers who go overseas and then shock their mamas half to death by bringing home a bride.” She put her hands on her hips and drew herself up to her full 5′4 height—gestures he was well familiar with. The only difference was that her brown eyes were laughing at him. “So I thought before we even crossed that threshold that if you have something to tell me you best do it and get it over with.”
He chuckled quietly to himself and when he could answer without laughing he said, “No, ma’am. Just me, I’m afraid.” And darn it all if she didn’t look disappointed! He couldn’t help himself this time and ended up throwing his head back and roaring with laughter.
“Well, that’s good then,” she sniffed. “That’s just fine. I mean, I said to Betty, I said, there’s plenty of time for a wife and all of that… let the boy get home and settled in first.”
“Did you say this to Betty?” he asked, still chuckling, “or did Betty say it to you?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, you know that aunt of yours is always meddling. And anyway… there is still time.”
“I’m only thirty-six, Mama. Don’t give up on me yet,” he said, doing his best to keep further laughter at bay.
“Well, that’s what I just said,” she exclaimed. “Now, come on and see your grandma, she’s been waiting. And we don’t want the food to get cold.”
“No, ma’am. We wouldn’t want that.”
“Grab your bag now, and remember to take off those shoes—” She cast an eye at his boots, caked with dirt, “before you get in the house.”
Yes, it was good to be home.
“Well, Robbie, tell us all about the war!” his mother demanded excitedly when he’d pushed back his plate after his second helping of apple pie.
“Mom.” He furrowed his brow at her. “Grandma doesn’t want to hear about that.”
“Oh, sure I do!” she piped up in a strangely girlish voice for a woman of her eighty-seven years. “Was it awful? Was there blood everywhere, all the time? Did people shoot each other just from boredom, waiting on the enemy to show?”
He looked, aghast, at the pair of them.
“We’ve been watching all the war movies while you’ve been gone,” his mother explained. “You know, Saving Private Ryan, Hurt Locker, things like that.”
Ah, well, that explained it. “It wasn’t like that.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, not all the time, anyway. Let’s just say that I’m glad to be home and leave it at that.”
“Oh, come on,” his grandmother cajoled. “Can’t you tell us anything?”
“The food was horrible and my feet stank a lot,” he told her, deadpan.
“Well, I already knew that, you mentioned it in every letter you sent home,” she grumbled.
“You know the highlights then.”
“Well, Robbie, now that you’re home, what do you think you’ll do with the place?” His mother deftly changed the subject. “It’s all yours now. You could make it into a bachelor pad, I suppose. Or…”
He cut her off before she finished that sentence with “fill it with children,” which was what he suspected was coming. “Actually, I’m glad you asked, because as it happens, I’ve been thinking about that.”
Five months later
“Is that you, Cassie? Come in here, please.”
Nineteen-year-old Cassandra Ellis winced when she heard the deep, gravelly voice call her name. She knew him well enough to know by the somber tone that she was in trouble. She was in trouble a lot these days, but if this was about the Big Bad Terrible Thing that she’d done… well… she’d hoped against hope that he would never find out, but the way her stomach was sinking she had a feeling that hope might not have been enough. Maybe she should have prayed, too, just to be safe. Heck, after what she’d done she probably should have gone to confession and said a few hundred Hail Marys! Normally the apple of her father’s eye, she just knew she’d done it this time. She’d be grounded until her twenty-first birthday. Well, actually, considering what she’d done he’d probably make it her twenty-second, just to prove a point.
“Now, if you please, Cassie.”
Oops. She’d left him waiting too long and she could hear a hint of impatience creep into his voice. Cassie shuffled into the kitchen—where, inevitably, all lectures were given—trying to look as repentant as possible. It wasn’t hard—she did feel bad. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that Judge Perkins wasn’t actually her father. Well, not her biological one, anyway. The truth was, since he and his wife had raised her from the time that she was four years old, they were the only parents she’d truly known. She was their only child and perhaps a bit spoiled as a result. All right—maybe more than a bit. She was, after all, still living under their roof at nineteen and neither of them had pressured her to either get a job or go back to college.
She did her best not to visibly wince when faced with her father’s stony glare. His normally light gray eyes literally seemed like pieces of concrete when he was angry or disappointed. She didn’t know exactly which he was now, though she’d guess a bit of both.
“Have a seat, Cassie.”
She ducked her head as if to hide from his stern expression and scurried to obey, taking a seat at the kitchen table. As soon as she’d complied, he was looming over her, his impressive six-foot stature made even more so by the fact that she was sitting down. His curly steel-colored hair matched his eyes. Normally a very jovial man, he was frowning down at her now with his large arms crossed over his thick chest.
“Do you have anything you want to tell us?”
“Um…” Cassie cast her eyes about, looking for a friend. She spied Lou Ann Perkins, her adoptive mother, at the counter, scrubbing vegetables. Double uh-oh. She only went after bell peppers like that when she was agitated. It looked like she wasn’t going to find sympathy anywhere in this house today. “I… don’t think so?”
“Is that a question?” he huffed at her. “Never mind, I don’t see any reason to beat around the bush about this. You should know that your mother and I are very disappointed.”
“Really, Cass,” her mother sighed. Lou Ann called her ‘Cass’ no matter if she was upset or not, but it was easy to tell by the weariness in her tone that she was far from pleased.
Cassie felt tears spring to her eyes. She really hated to disappoint them, and here lately it seemed to be all that she was capable of doing.
“I know that you’ve had a string of… regrettable incidents as of late, but this one really takes the cake, young lady!” Of course by ‘regrettable incidents’ he referred to her inability to behave and maintain the straight and narrow path expected of her as a judge’s daughter—adopted or no. First, there had been the stolen lipstick. She had felt such a rush, such a thrill as she’d walked out of the store with it that she’d failed to notice the security officer who had trailed right behind her. What rotten luck! She’d never stolen anything in her life before, not so much as a candy bar, but the minute her fingers got itching for something that, while she could afford it, wasn’t really something she needed, she’d gotten caught.
But that hadn’t stopped her from trying again. She’d picked up a cheap pair of earrings and a pair of knock-off sunglasses before she’d been caught again. Over a bottle of fingernail polish, for heaven’s sake! At least that time she’d had the sense to lie. She had claimed to have been mulling over the purchase and forgotten that it was in her cart. She’d even managed a few crocodile tears as she’d handed over the bottle. She’d thought she was scot-free, but one of the security guards had recognized her and though he’d let her go, he’d also called the judge and ratted her out.
Then there’d been the speeding. The judge constantly accused her of having a lead foot. That simply wasn’t the case, usually she was being passed by other drivers, but the minute she picked up speed to catch up with them, she seemed to get pulled over. After the second ticket in a month’s time, she’d been lectured and confined to her room for an entire month, without her cell phone or even television privileges. And after it was over, everyone had breathed a sigh of relief thinking that surely now her wayward ways had been corrected. But Cassie just couldn’t seem to help herself. She didn’t know what it was, couldn’t have explained it even if she’d been inclined to try, but for some reason, every now and again she just had to be a little bit bad. She hated getting caught and hated being punished even more, but afterward something seemed to settle in her soul. She could go on, life continued as normal… until the unexplainable urge struck again, often with little to no warning.
“Just tell me why,” the judge pleaded with her now. “Make me understand, Cassie. We’ve tried so very, very hard. We love you so much—don’t you know that?”
She swallowed over the rapidly growing lump in her throat. Of course she did. “Yes, Sir.”
“Then explain it to me. How can we help you? What more can we do? Are we too easy on you? Too hard? Does this have something to do with your parents? What?”
She could hear the growing frustration in her surrogate father’s voice and as much as she would have liked to reassure him—no one had ever had better, more perfect parents, surely—she just didn’t know what to say. So she sat there, staring at her toes and trying very, very hard not to cry.
But because he couldn’t see her remorse, the judge’s voice hardened again. “I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done and I can’t help you this time.”
Her head jerked up and her eyes flew to his face. What did he mean he couldn’t help her?
“I’ve gotten these… incidents of yours overlooked in the past. The speeding tickets, the stealing. But now…”
She heard her mother begin to cry in the corner and her heart dropped. Oh, no. What did that mean? “They’re not going to…”
“You got another ticket,” he stated flatly when she failed to complete the question. “Only this time, the officer said that you’d been drinking.”
“It was only one drink,” she said, a weak defense at best, and she knew it.
“Only one,” he echoed, his voice deepening in sternness. “You seem to be forgetting that at your age it’s illegal for you to drink at all!”
She swallowed hard. That was hard to argue with, and would have been even if her father wasn’t a judge.
“Well?” he demanded, his voice booming. “Don’t you have anything to say for yourself, young lady?”
She jumped at the stern demand. He rarely raised his voice—with his imposing stature and take-charge demeanor, he rarely had to. “I’m sorry?”
“Is that a question?”
“No. I mean, I am sorry, but… I’m just not sure what else you want me to say, exactly.”
“This is not about what I want you to say, Cassie.” He ran a frustrated hand through his curly mop. “This is about you and what changes I can expect from you in the future. Because these run-ins you keep having… it’s just too much. Your mother and I can’t take much more of this.”
She glanced once more at Lou Ann, who was scrubbing the squash so fiercely she might peel it with her bare hands. Her eyes filled with tears. She hated that she kept doing this to them. She didn’t mean to. She always had the best intentions, she kept promising herself that she’d grow up and stop misbehaving, but then before she knew it her fingers were itching again, or her inner devil was encouraging her to rebel. “I… I really am sorry, Dad.” She sniffled. She wished she had something more she could offer, but she couldn’t promise she would never let him down again, as much as she wanted to be able to.
“You’re sorry, are you? Well, I am, too, because the fact is, we plain can’t make it go away this time.”
“What does that mean?”
“In case you’ve forgotten, young lady, you’re still on probation from the last stolen ring, or what have you…”
“Lipstick,” she muttered, only slightly rebelliously.
The judge pretended not to hear her. “I’m afraid that, combined with the speeding tickets, you’re looking at a suspended license.”
“What! They can’t take my license!” she exclaimed.
“Seems to me you ought not to be driving anyway, if you can’t be responsible.” Lou Ann spoke up for the first time.
“My thoughts exactly, dear.”
“But… but… how will I get around?”
“You don’t really have anywhere to ‘get around’ to.” the judge sighed, clearly exasperated with her. “You’re not in college, you won’t get a job. I think the prime reason for all this misbehavior of yours is just plain boredom.”
Cassie pursed her lips and didn’t reply. She’d heard this line of reasoning before, and while she disagreed, she didn’t feel she could very well tell him that it wasn’t boredom when she honestly had no idea why she did the things she did.
“It might do you some good to stay inside the house for a while,” he added. She got the feeling that this was not a suggestion. “But if the social worker and the judge assigned to your case decide to suspend your license, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Dad…” She gave him her best pleading look. She tried to be a good girl, she really did, and she tried not to use the fact that since the Perkinses had never had children of their own she was their only beloved child, and Daddy’s Little Girl at that. But on certain occasions she could see no way around it, and this was one such time.
But much to her surprise, his expression didn’t soften. In fact, his resolve seemed to deepen, almost as though he’d prepared himself for just this situation. “I’m sorry, Cassie. I really am. But you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Now your mom is about to start dinner. This conversation is over, for the time being, so I suggest you see yourself to your room and do some thinking.”
Hanging her head, Cassie muttered “Yes, Sir” and did just that. She trudged to her bedroom feeling sorrier for herself with each and every step. It was ridiculous that they were treating her like a child! She might not be old enough to drink, but she was a legal adult, darn it!
Of course, if she brought up that argument again, the judge would probably tell her that if she was so adult, she could go out, get a job, and pay rent. And even she would reluctantly admit that he was right. Until she had somewhere else to go, she’d have to obey their rules, humiliating though they might be.
Still, she got a small measure of satisfaction when she slammed the door shut, knowing that they would hear it all the way downstairs.
Dinner that evening was a tense affair. Cassie was used to animated conversation bouncing back and forth between the threesome, but that night no one seemed to have anything more to say than “Pass the peas, please.” She wanted to say something to make it better, to have everyone lighten up again, but she couldn’t think of what that would be. So she kept to herself and pushed her food morosely around on her plate.
After they’d finished—she couldn’t help but notice that they had skipped dessert, even though she’d seen an angel food cake cooling on the rack earlier, which just went to show how eager everyone was to break up the tension around the dinner table and go their separate ways—Cassie went back to her room. Once inside, looking at her neutral beige walls edged tastefully with rose and cream borders, she began to pace, trying to think of what she could say to put her adoptive parents at ease. Surely there was something she could tell them that would help everyone feel better.
Deciding that she would simply apologize again—this time loudly and more heartfelt—and throw herself at their mercy, showing she was willing to accept whatever punishment they felt necessary, she opened her bedroom door. She could hear their quiet voices coming from the den. She crept toward the sound, wanting to give herself a few extra minutes to mentally rehearse what she would say before making her presence known. But as she drew closer, she heard her name and it stopped her in her tracks. Though she was much too old for the tricks of childhood, she couldn’t resist stopping and leaning slightly forward, straining to hear what they were saying.
“I just don’t know what to do, Lou,” she heard the judge say. “Have we been too easy on her? Is that the problem? She came to us so young, and we felt sorry for her, and we couldn’t have other children, so maybe we spoiled her.”
“Oh, hush, Vernon.”
Cassie did a double-take right where she was standing. She’d never heard Lou Ann tell him to hush before! She didn’t think anyone ever had!
“We didn’t do this. Maybe we were soft on her at times, but all parents are. We’ve been good to her, and not too good, or too easy, but just the right amount. The problem here is Cass. There’s just something inside her, Vernon… something that keeps making her act out for attention.”
“You don’t think we give her enough attention?”
“That’s not what I’m saying, dear. I don’t know exactly why Cass does the things she does—maybe she doesn’t, either. But for some reason or another, she just has to act out every other month or so. It’s like she doesn’t know she’s alive unless she’s been in trouble recently.”
Huh. She’d never thought of it like that, but listening to her mama, she realized that the woman knew her better than she’d ever thought. Perhaps even better than she knew herself. It was a shock and yet a delightful surprise, feeling like someone truly understood her. Maybe one day she’d work up the courage to actually talk to Lou Ann about it.
“Well, I just don’t know what to do anymore, sugar.”
She winced, hearing the defeat in the judge’s voice. It surely wasn’t a position that he found himself in often and those words couldn’t have been easy for him to say.
“I know, honey. I know.”
“If she keeps going down this path… she’s going to end up in jail one of these days, Lou.”
“That might be just what it takes, hon.”
“You can’t really mean you’d be okay with that!”
“I’m not saying I like the idea any more than you do, but Cass has had warning after warning and I just don’t know what it’s going to take to get through to the girl. I love her as much as you do, you know I do, but if what it takes is her spending a few nights in jail…”
“What if it’s more than a few nights, Lou? What then?”
Cassie’s stomach had sunk so low at all this sad, emotional talk that she thought it might slide right to the floor. She’d had no idea that they really thought she could go to jail! And hearing them so upset and knowing that she was the cause literally made her heart ache. She hadn’t been thinking of them at all when she got her itch to misbehave, and right in that moment she realized that she’d been more than a little bit naughty, she’d been selfish as well. She hadn’t meant to make them feel so… so responsible for her. But then, of course, they were her parents. What else would they feel? She’d always known that her behavior upset them but now she could see that she was plain breaking their hearts.
“I don’t know, Vernon. I just don’t know.”
“Heck, as it is, her probation officer thinks a few days in lockup would serve her well.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“I thought you were all for teaching her a lesson.” His voice lightened slightly as he teased his wife.
“I am, but… maybe this time Cass will learn.”
“I’ve about used up every favor I’ve ever gotten on that girl,” he sighed. “But I suppose I could try one more time. But whatever punishment we decide on, we’ve got to make it count this time, Lou. We might not get another chance.”
“I know, honey. I know.”
Her eyes filling with tears, Cassie did an about-face and retraced her steps back to the bedroom as quietly as she could. Only once she was inside did she fling herself on her bed, put her face in her pillow, and allow her sobs to break free.