Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
“Well, that’s pretty much it for the nickel tour. Any questions?”
They were standing at the now-open ornate wrought-iron gate that normally blocked access to the long gravel drive to Three Corners Farm. Stationed at the gate was a young Latino holding a clipboard who checked every vehicle, mostly trucks, that entered, and there was lots of traffic on this sunny but brisk day before Thanksgiving.
Alexandra, ‘Alex’ Skarlatos shook her head, “No questions Matt. I think it’s pretty straightforward.” She liked the handsome fair-haired former SEAL. He looked great in a black T, well-worn jeans, a denim jacket and battered desert combat boots. Over the months she had known him Alex had learned he was a tough man as opposed to a tough guy.
“Okay, Alex let’s go meet the boss.” As they retraced their steps down the drive she watched a group of men, mostly Latino haul on ropes and a large white canvas tent began its slow but steady assent. From what she’d seen and what Matt had told her ‘the boss, ‘ Jessica Brant was hosting one heck of a Thanksgiving celebration tomorrow.
She and Matt had met last July in a mixed martial arts class at the Dojo shortly after she arrived in Lodi. As the newest instructor she had kicked a lot of ass in the class, some of it due to her mostly male opponents wanting to go light on her because of her sex, others wanting to prove that martial arts was strictly the purview of the male of the species. She was an equal opportunity ass-kicker with years of training starting even before she arrived at the Military Academy at West Point ten years ago.
Now she was just another Afghan vet who had no particular place to go and no current plans. Why Lodi? In no hurry on her drive to get to her parent’s place in northern California – they weren’t there anyway - she’d stopped and had late dinner in Lodi. Then, after having a couple of drinks she decided it would be prudent to get a hotel room and start fresh the next morning even though Fairfield was only about fifty additional miles to the west toward San Francisco. The next morning she had gone to the Dojo in search of a workout. She finished her workout and the Sensei was impressed enough to offer her a job on the spot.
Former Captain Skarlatos had been discharged from the Army out of Naval Base San Diego. The naval base was closest to her home of record in Fairfield and it had a medical center which could perform her mustering out physical. She’d arrived from Afghanistan on the fifteenth of June, been assigned to the holding company and to the Army liaison and then been shuttled around the huge base and hospital – located off the base, until the Navy docs had pronounced her physically fit for discharge. Two weeks later she was a civilian, six years and eight days after she was commissioned.
To the Navy physicians she was a healthy and fit twenty-eight year old female. They duly noted her numerous scars from her over four years’ service in Afghanistan and Iraq, never questioning why a female Army officer with a Military Police, military occupational specialty would have been wounded in combat operations five separate times. The bored Army sergeant who prepared her discharge papers informed her that Army liaison didn’t keep actual medals on hand, especially the Silver Star, but assured her that once she had a permanent address she should send a copy (certified) of her Department of Defense 214 to the Department of the Army and they would send the medals. He put copies of her documents and citations in a brown envelope, handed it to her and reached for his ringing telephone.
So that’s it she had thought. Not even a ‘good luck’ or ‘f•©k you.’ Just out the door with a whimper not a bang after six years of service. The medals? Who cares? Those and five bucks, or was it six these days, would get you a latté at Starbucks.
What the physicians, including a very young psychiatrist at her psych evaluation, had seen was a slim, seemingly well-adjusted attractive young woman, five ten, with dark eyes, and dark hair so short it didn’t cover her ears – hair kept short out of necessity. In Afghanistan security patrols and providing security for truck convoys often meant personal hygiene took a back seat to operational requirements, meaning keeping yourself and your soldiers alive.
What the physicians didn’t see, and Alex kept carefully masked was the seething rage that lurked just under the surface. She was a lost soul who had been ripped from the only job she ever knew – a job leading troops, keeping them and convoys safe, and best of all killing enemies of her country.
She had been forced out of the Army at the end of her obligated service because she fallen afoul of a Harvard-trained vindictive woman Judge Advocate named Acton-Smith who was convinced Captain Xena Alexandra Skarlatos (Affectionately known as ‘The Warrior Princess’ to her troops) was a war criminal. Major Acton-Smith wanted to know why Captain Skarlatos’ MP Company despite numerous ‘contacts’ with the enemy never returned with prisoners. The simple truth was because they didn’t take any. Captain Skarlatos had learned in Iraq that captured insurgents somehow always managed to ‘escape’ once turned over to the Iraqis. The same held true for Afghanistan. She vowed no insurgent would get a second shot her troops.
Major Acton-Smith had never been able to prove a thing but her daddy was some big shot at the State Department who put pressure on the Army. It should not have been a surprise to Captain Skarlatos in this day of political generals that the Army caved. She was told that her services to the Country would no longer be necessary once her six-year obligation was complete.
So on that sunny end of June day, former Captain Skarlatos pointed her newly purchased, three year old off-lease Brandywine mica Land Cruiser toward the freeway and her parent’s home in northern California. As she drove she wore feral smile thinking about the car dealer who thought he’d take advantage of the young woman interested in the used but pristine Toyota. He didn’t know what hit him and she paid considerably less than what the salesman was asking. In her years in the military Alex and become an expert at reading people and that made her a formidable poker player as well as a tough negotiator.
Bypassing the chaos that filled the driveway and the large parking area where the tent was now standing, Alex followed Matt into the garage under the apartment.
“Sorry Alex, slight detour first.”
La Banda Sage was rehearsing in the warmth of the garage as opposed to the wood platform outside in the November chill, which served as a make-shift stage for tomorrow’s festivities. As they walked the group was rockin the garage to Eric Church’s Guys like me, except they had changed the lyrics to Girls Like me.
Alex recognized Sofía Torres and Janine ‘JJ’ Jordan fronting the group holding cordless microphones. They were dressed alike in jeans and sweaters and boots and vamping shamelessly as they sang,
I wear a greasy ball cap
I like my shirt untucked
I spend my Saturdays working on my track
I don’t like to fight
But I ain’t scared to bleed
Most don’t mess with a girl like me
Cause girls like me drink too many beers on Friday after work
Our best blue jeans have Skoal rings
We wear our boots to church
So rough around the edges
It’s hard to believe
That guys like you
Love girls like me!
Sofía and Janine extended their arms and pointed at Matt as they sang, guys like you love girls like me, and then blew him a kiss as they finished the chorus. Alex laughed, and a smiling Matt just shook his head.
It was obvious that Matt was well liked since he was acknowledged with smiles and nods from the other band members and several others who were in the garage helping to set up or attached to the girls in some way including a number of children.
She watched dark-haired Sofía and flame-haired Janine strut in front of the band as they sang and then when they got to the last lines they grabbed Matt and pulled his arms around their waists and pressed against him looking up at him as they sang,
Now there’s a lot of girls like us out there
In a lot of little towns
And tellin’ all our girlfriends, we won’t ever settle down
We say that’s just the way we are and the way we’ll always be
So God sends guys like you for girls like me
Thank God there’s guys like you for girls like me.
Everyone laughed as they finished. Matt continued to shake his head but he was laughing too. Janine gave him a quick hug and stepped away and then Sofía gave him a full body hug with a kiss on the lips. Alex noticed Matt didn’t resist but at the same time it was obvious that Sofía was putting more into the embrace than Matt.
She knew that Matt had an on-going relationship with Cindy McCabe who she had first met at the Dojo because Jenny was one of her students. She wondered how Cindy felt about this attractive young woman who had trouble letting go of Matt’s arm after the kiss. It was obvious to all that Sofía had the serious hots for him. Alex had to admit he was quite the catch and were it not for Cindy she might make a run for him herself.
Might have to fight Sofía though!
In the months she had been in Lodi, especially the concert-jammed summer months Alex had attended a number of Sage’s performances and through her budding friendship with Matt and her student Jenny, she had been introduced to all of them.
Cindy did seem to be a nice person despite the fact she’d become quite the celebrity in this small town. Like most of the rest of the citizens of Lodi, Alex knew Cindy’s history, but they also knew that despite her celebrity, Cindy provided no new grist for the gossip mill. She appeared to be a dedicated mom and a hard worker who generously shared her talent with La Banda Sage and was exclusive with Matt.
For a time Cindy’s recording and video of Won’t You Love Me Again topped the country charts and then had become a crossover hit. Alex had heard from her friend Krista Torres that Cindy had refused guest appearances on a number of television shows, especially on the east coast because the travel would take her away from Jenny and her home. Krista had also said Cindy had refused the Grand Ole Opry because they only wanted her and not La Banda Sage. She had refused to perform without her band. The band loved her for that and the fact she kept them grounded and mostly off the road.
Cindy had even encouraged her supposed rival Sofía to record Won’t You Love Me Again in Spanish. It had topped the Latin charts and had become a hit in Mexico and much of South and Central America.
Alex smiled thinking about the contrast in the videos. For Cindy it was a live performance – she was dressed casually in jeans and T and a cropped jacket with her hair in a ponytail and on stage backed up by La Banda Sage. Sofía’s video was the opposite. She was made up with her black hair ‘blown out’ and she was wearing a curve-hugging red dress that showed a lot of leg on top of very high heels. La Banda Sage played the music for Sofía and Cindy and Janine sang backup but they were not in the video. Fortunately Sofía was a smart girl who listened to Cindy and their manager Felicity, and so far seemed unaffected by her own brief celebrity. Alex had watched Sofía one time after a performance at the Modesto county fair as she was surrounded by fans. Sofía had seemed almost embarrassed and had giggled as she signed autographs and posed for photographs. Alex also noticed she made time for everyone, especially the young women with stars in their eyes.
Alex caught Krista’s eye and was acknowledged with a smile. Krista was behind her keyboard, a headphone pressed to one ear as she looked on. She was dressed in tight jeans and white cable-knit sweater with a shawl collar that looked stunning on her. Alex was dressed similarly and grateful they had shared with her the secret of dressing well on a budget, thanks to a few well-chosen consignment shops.
Jenny Willets ran up to Matt, and as he picked her up he said, ‘hi beautiful, have you heard from your mother?”
Arms around his neck, she nodded, “she said she had some meeting with an insurance lady and she might be a little late.”
“Okay, just checking. I’ll be next door meeting with Jessica so I’ll see her later.” Matt put her down.
Jenny’s eyes got big when she spotted Alex. She stood erect, arms at her sides, and bowed deeply, “Sensei.”
Trying very hard not to smile at her student who was today dressed in jeans and sweater with a pink quilted vest, instead of a gi she wore at the Dojo, Alex acknowledged her, bowing in return.
Rashmi smiled as she greeted Matt and Alex at the door to the brick rambler – it would have been too noisy to meet in the apartment over the garage. Alex had seen many attractive women in her life, but they paled in comparison to this young woman. She was simply stunning and even though dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, she carried herself with the self-assurance of a model.
She ushered them in and as she hugged Matt she said teasingly, “Hi Matt, expanding your circle of admirers I see.” As she let him go she winked at Alex who she knew. Matt smiled and shook his head. She then handed Matt a tissue, “I see you ran into Sofía...”
Rashmi turned to Alex, “Hi Alex. How are you? They had met at the Dojo one day when Rashmi had come with Matt to watch Jenny train and had seen each other around the small town. Alex remembered the first time she had seen Rashmi who was downtown driving a silver BMW with the top down. She had asked her lunch companion who she was, and was told she was one of Jessica Brandt’s assistants. Alex smiled at the memory thinking then, as she did now, that this exotic south-Asian beauty looked slightly out of place in Lodi.
At that point a gorgeous short-haired blonde stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Jessica Brandt.” Like Rashmi she was dressed in expensive jeans and a sweater, but it was clear from the first that Jessica Brandt was in charge. Alex had seen Jessica before – Lodi was too small a town for but interestingly they had never actually met. She was a little surprised that up close she seemed very young.
Jessica had them sit at a large wood dining table while Rashmi got them warm drinks, her homemade chai for Alex, Jessica and herself, and black coffee for Matt.
As she passed the ceramic mugs around she said with an affectionate smile, “I’ll convert you yet Matt.”
He grinned, “In your dreams Rashmi.”
She turned and smiled at Alex, “Maybe I’ll have Captain Skarlatos order you to drink chai, because last time I checked a captain outranked a chief petty officer.”
“Maybe a Navy captain! He laughed.
Alex watched Jessica as she observed her two employees in their sparing. It was obvious that she had great affection for both.
“I’m sorry Alex, that you have to see this family squabble, but Rashmi takes pride in her chai and despite, pleading, threats and using her feminine wiles she’s been unsuccessful.”
Matt laughed. “Feminine wiles? I have to resist since her Marine boyfriend would beat me up!”
Rashmi gave a mock pout.
Alex decided these people were fun to be around and hoped they would consider hiring her for a more permanent security position than for just the couple of days while they were entertaining over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Jessica turned to Alex and still smiling said, “Alex, I’ve never been in the military so I rely on Matt and my fiancé Harrison to advise me. They tell me that from your records you’ve had an amazing career...”
“Records?” Did Jessica mean her military records? How would they get access to those?
“Matt knows a lot of people.” She left it at that.
Alex looked at Matt. He didn’t look contrite but just nodded.
Jessica went on, “Just curious, but why don’t you go by Xena?”
A little surprised, Alex took a moment to respond, “Oh, other than no one can spell it and that whole warrior princess thing?”
“I was Xena until that show came out when I was about eight. Thankfully, my dad who was in the Air Force got a transfer to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and I when I started school I told everyone my name was Alexandra, which is my middle name. My parents still call me Xena but no one else does. She made a point to look at each of them and said, “I’m a black belt after all,” but it was impossible for her to keep a straight face and she smiled.
Jessica smiled and continued, looking at her tablet, “Your dad just retired from the Air Force after thirty years. His last assignment was Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.”
“And your mom taught math and science at the high school level?”
“Yes.” She wondered where Jessica got her information.
“What are they doing now?”
“They bought a motor home and took off traveling about six months ago. As of yesterday they were parked somewhere along the Gulf Coast near Corpus Christie. Alex couldn’t help herself when she said, “You probably know they still own their home in Fairfield.
I go there a couple times a month to check on the place.”
Jessica nodded again. Alex thought she had a great poker face.
After consulting her tablet again she said, “You were born in Fairfield and lived with your parents in Alaska, Georgia, Germany and Washington State, then back to Fairfield to finish high school before you went to the Military Academy at West Point.”
Alex didn’t even bother to nod.
“You graduated with distinction from West Point and were commissioned as an MP Officer, and then like our friend Matt here you appeared to become an adrenaline junkie, serving a tour in Iraq and three in Afghanistan, and despite being wounded several times you kept going back.”
Alex looked at Matt. Another good poker face.
Feeling a bit defensive, she challenged, “It was just my job and I did it.”
Jessica read from her tablet,
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Captain Xena Alexandra Skarlatos, United States Army for extraordinary heroism while serving as commander of a large supply convoy moving to Jani Khel Afghanistan on twelve December 2014...
She looked at Alex and then back to her tablet, Despite painful wounds Captain Skarlatos continued to engage the enemy and direct counter fire and on numerous occasions exposed herself to enemy fire while helping to drag wounded members of her company to safety.
Jessica skimmed to the bottom of the citation, Captain Skarlatos actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service, reflecting great credit upon herself and the United States Army.
The room was very quiet and finally Jessica said, “Sounds like you were pretty good at your job.”
Alex shook her head the pain very clear, “Eight of my soldiers died that day.”
Matt simply stared out the front window and in the silence after her comment Rashmi refilled their mugs.
“Alex, is that why you left the Army?”
Alex felt her temper flare. I don’t need this job. It’s none of their damn business!
Then she took a couple of calming breaths and sipped her chai. It did taste like the fresh made chai she had enjoyed in Afghanistan, a blend of cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, sugar, milk and Assam.
No one said anything, like her, taking time to sip their drinks and waiting for her reaction.
Alex realized background was important if they were going to hire someone who was required to carry a gun and be willing to stop a bullet for one of the family, especially Jenny. She didn’t know how real the threat was but they wouldn’t hire armed security just for the fun of it – or to impress their neighbors. This wasn’t Hollywood.
Alex took a breath and let it out and then another and then she started, “Matt you remember Decembers in Afghanistan?”
“Vividly.” He didn’t smile. She wanted to ask him what he meant by that. Whatever it was, from her expression, Rashmi knew.
“As you heard in the citation last December, my MP company was assigned to provide security for a truck convoy going out to resupply a number of our outposts. That wasn’t an unusual assignment we did it all the time. The weather was too extreme for aircraft delivery and sometimes that could be hit and miss.” She noticed Matt nod. Of course that also meant we wouldn’t get air support either.” This time he looked grim and shook his head.
“Anyway, the hope was that the snow and cold would keep the insurgents away too.” Matt gave a slight shake of his head.
“So we went. We had six gun trucks for security - they were all carrying Ma Duce’s, sorry, that’s fifty-caliber machine guns and we had armored HUMV’s with smaller M-60 machine guns.”
Just as we were departing Major Acton-Smith, our brigade Judge Advocate shows up. I said no way and called the brigade commander and I was told in no uncertain terms to find a seat on the convoy, so I did - in one of the armored HUMV’s.”
Matt broke in, “so what was the problem with this guy other than he’s a lawyer?”
“She’s a lawyer.”
Half under his breath she heard Matt say, “Shit.”
“Yeah, shit. She was going to show everyone how tough she was and on top of that she and I had words in the past over prisoners, or lack thereof.”
Matt looked at her sharply. “You didn’t take any right?”
He went on, “Somehow they always managed to escape from the Afghans as soon as they were turned over...”
“I figured you’d know about that.”
Jessica and Rashmi simply watched the two of them as Alex went on, “So she decided me and mine were war criminals and she was going along to either catch us executing prisoners or make sure we brought some back.”
The other three watched Alex as she stared into space suddenly back in Afghanistan, “When the shit hit the fan we were on a long stretch of mountain road and it was snowing hard, but we had a bit of luck, they set off the mine in the road too soon. It was meant to take out the lead gun truck. Later one of the EOD guys said it looked like they had salvaged one of our five-hundred pound bombs. It left quite a crater. The leading truck was still damaged and the top turret gunner ... Corporal Dillingham...” Alex swallowed. “That was her name ... was killed, but the truck wasn’t out of commission. The other bit of luck was that we were early getting to the ambush site – that is we still had some hours of daylight.
“Best estimate they hit us with about five-hundred men, plus mortars and heavy machine guns. The battle lasted until dark when they finally disappeared.
Alex took a drink of her tea. “Acton-Smith’s vehicle was hit and set afire and I found her taking cover in a ditch off the road. She was crying and waving her .45 around like some crazy woman. She carried a custom made .45 – made by a gunsmith in Colorado in a combat rig on her leg and she must have thought she was John Wayne because she also carried a Kimber .45 Ultra – that’s the one with three-inch barrel, in a shoulder holster. Anyway, I slapped her and took both her pistols away. She was a disgrace. I know she never got out of that ditch until after things settled down.”
Alex sipped her tea. “I was being treated by one of our medics inside one of the HUMMV’s by flashlight when Acton-Smith showed up. I asked her where her helmet was and she just went off on me saying she was going to have me court martialed for striking a superior officer. She got even madder when I ignored her. Then she demanded one of my other medics stop what she was doing and treat her for a wound to her ear.” Alex stared out the front window. I guess I should have shot her right then – nobody would have said anything and it would have been good for the world for her not to be in it.” She shook her head.
“When the medic handed her a small band aid to put on her ear she then demanded that the medic write her up for a purple heart. The medic laughed and then Acton-Smith ordered her to do the write-up. At that point I’d had enough and told her to get the hell out of the HUMMV and then my mouth ran away when I told her that if she wanted a purple heart for some scratch she should join the Navy and command a swift boat.”
She noticed Jessica and Rashmi looked puzzled and before she could explain Matt said, “Just Google, Swift Boat Veterans.”
“From that point on Acton-Smith did everything to get me. Of course there were no court martial charges ever brought, but unfortunately her daddy was some high flyer in the State Department. I guess she complained I had insulted Secretary Kerry, her dad’s boss with my Swift Boat comments, so before I knew it I was told I was no longer needed and would be discharged at the end of my obligation.”
Everyone was quiet for a minute or so. Finally Rashmi spoke up. “I’m sorry Alex. That’s terrible. What happened to Major Smith?”
“Last I heard she’d been selected for promotion and was working in the Pentagon.” Alex smiled a tight smile. “But I made sure she never got her purple heart and from then on she never rode with another convoy.”
“Thanks to cell phone cameras one of my people filmed Acton-Smith cowering and crying in that ditch half covered with snow. It was obvious she had not moved during the action. I gave that video to the Brigade commander.” She paused. “I kept a copy for myself too – just for insurance purposes. I’m glad I did.”
Matt smiled and said, “You’ve let me fire your sweet .45’s at the range and I couldn’t help notice one of them is a Volkmann Precision and the other is a short-barreled Kimber. I’d guess Smith never got her guns back.”
She replied with a straight-face, “Sorry to say you’re mistaken.” I had to return her .45’s. She’d for sure have had me charged with theft had I not, but interestingly a couple of days after I left Afghanistan someone broke into her locker and stole those guns.” She went on, “The fact I have two identical .45’s is merely coincidence.”
Matt stifled a laugh.
Alex noticed Jessica had listened closely and was obviously taking her measure. Finally she said with a smile, “Xena, in the last six months I don’t believe Matt has ever taken a day of vacation, would you consider joining us as a full time employee?”
As they walked out of the meeting with Jessica and Rashmi, Alex turned to Matt, “Only the boss gets to call me Xena. Got it?”
He laughed. “Okay, got it.”
Smiling she said, “Don’t make me hurt you.”
As they walked past the open garage they heard Sofía and Janine singing, Terri Clark’s Girls lie too. They looked in and saw the two of them having a hard time keeping from laughing as they sang,
Now you didn’t hear any of this from me
But things aren’t always what they seem
Brace yourself this may come as a shock to you
Girls lie too...
We don’t care how much money you make
What you drive or what you weigh
Size don’t matter anyway
Girls lie too...
Don’t think you’re the only ones
Who bend it, break it, stretch it some
We learn from you
Girls lie too...
They walked toward the big tent where the crew was setting up rows of tables. “I understand those Volkmann Precision .45’s are rare and pretty expensive...”
“You’re probably right, but I wouldn’t know. Mine was a gift.”
“The Kimber too?”
“Must be nice to have rich friends.”
“Nice to have friends.”
“Yes it is.”
Matt let it drop. He really liked Xena Alexandra Skarlatos.
Alex looked toward the gate. “Looks like Cindy’s arrived.”
Matt watched the Dodge pickup coming down the drive. Alex noticed he wore a neutral expression and wondered what was wrong. None of my business though.
“Matt I’m going over to the CP and check the camera feeds, especially from across the highway from the gate, then I’ll go over there and do a quick perimeter walk and adjust any cameras if needed. Okay?”
“Sure. “I’m a lot happier since Jessica bought that property.”
She nodded and set off for the modular home where Matt had converted one of the bedrooms to a security center where they could monitor the cameras.
Matt walked around to the back of Jessica’s apartment where Cindy had parked. He wondered who he would find. Over the past week Cindy hadn’t been her usual cheerful self. Something was on her mind and he figured she’d tell him when she was ready.
As he approached the truck Cindy jumped out, clearly agitated about something. She was dressed casually as usual, jeans, sweater, fleece vest and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He noticed she had a piece of white paper in her hand. It looked like a letter.
Instead of greeting him with a kiss or even a hug she launched right in, “I can’t believe it!” Cindy waved the paper around. “Jayson and Adele’s final screw you to Cindy!”
Matt didn’t have a clue so he just let her rant.
Cindy held the letter out and thrust it into his hands. He saw the letterhead which said, New York Life Insurance. The first paragraph read,
Dear Ms. McCabe,
Attached is a check for one million dollars as sole payment for the life insurance carried by Jayson Adkins, deceased. We apologize for the delay, since we were not informed of Mr. Adkins demise until notified by the executors for the estate of Adele Adkins, attorneys, Tipton, Marks, Journey and Call of Phoenix, Arizona.
The final paragraph was standard boilerplate listing a point of contact for questions and offering to put Cindy in touch with their investment arm for her financial needs. There was a check for one million dollars attached to the bottom of the letter.
Matt didn’t know what to say. He was puzzled. Why wouldn’t getting a million dollars from Jayson be a good thing? For some reason he had taken out a life insurance policy and made Cindy the beneficiary. He thought it prudent to say nothing as he handed the letter back.
She read his puzzled expression, “Don’t you see that SOB and his mother are screwing with me from the grave?” She went on before he could reply. “A young woman from New York Life called me about Jayson’s life insurance and set up an appointment for this morning. I couldn’t believe it ... still can’t believe it! I don’t want ... don’t need, their filthy money!” Cindy was so angry she had tears in her eyes.
Matt felt like he was wading into a mine field. “How about for Jenny’s education?”
“Already done. I got a settlement when I signed the divorce.” She almost spat the words.
He tried to smile when he asked, “How about if you have more children?” The one thing Matt really wanted was to be a father. He was certainly acting like a father with Jenny but Jenny was everyone’s child, and Cindy hadn’t shown any interest in accepting his proposal, so perhaps she didn’t see him as the one.
Cindy got a strange look when he asked that, but it was quickly replaced with a look of annoyance.
“Not wanted or needed!”
He wanted to joke with her asking if she meant more children or the money for education but considering her emotions he thought it wise to restrain himself. Finally getting a little tired of this game he said, “So just do something frivolous with the money – buy a couple of Ferraris or an airplane.”
She shook her head and her facial expression told him that comment had been a mistake.
He quickly jumped in again trying to recover. “You could give it to Father Xavier, or how about that fund Jessica is setting up – the one to help young women in small towns get an education?”
“Jesus H. Christ, why does it always have to be about the sainted Jessica Brandt? She’s got this whole damn town wrapped around her finger ... everywhere I go its Jessica this or Jessica that, always helping out, but oh isn’t it a shame she’s an orphan - the poor little orphan rich girl! I want to gag every time someone starts in about Jessica. She has a boatload of money and she has Harrison, and Jenny calls her ‘mommy.’ She can fund her own friggen charity!”
Where is all this coming from? Matt had never seen her so out of control and her anger about Jessica was astonishing. Jessica had never done anything to Cindy other than try to help her fit in with the blended Brandt family.
Then it hit him like a body blow. Cindy is still in love with Harrison. No wonder she rejected his proposal. Matt went rigid as the realization sank in to his psyche.
If Cindy hadn’t been so angry she might have noticed the changes in Matt – he was unconscious of them but someone observing would have seen how upset he was from his change in posture. He suddenly radiated the warning signs that were perhaps akin to a rattler about to strike.
As Cindy failed to pick up on the obvious signs of Matt’s reaction to her she continued her rant, her voice filled with anger. “For eighteen years my father told me what to do, and then it was Harrison and then Jayson. I’m twenty-seven and I’m my own person. I can make my own decisions. I don’t need your advice or anyone else’s!” With that she turned and stomped off toward the garage the now crumpled letter clutched in her hand.
Matt was shocked. It was ironic that at the moment he could hear Sofía’s Spanish version of Won’t You Love Me Again coming from the garage. Matt stood rooted in place and stared at the door that Cindy stormed out of. How could he of misjudged her? For so many months everything seemed fine and now this – right out of left field.
In a daze, Matt walked to the bench overlooking the vineyard. The clouds had given way to sun but now the afternoon shadows were starting to lengthen. There was a breeze which made him glad for his jacket, but with a high that would reach 65 today he felt like a wimp considering how awful much of the rest of the country could be at the end of November. He also remembered a few miserable Thanksgivings in the Afghanistan Mountains.
His mind was in turmoil as he sat and watched a hungry hawk make circles over the leafless grape vines. This was the bench where he had his first conversation with Cindy. He recalled she had tried to discourage his interest but he had come back. Had she just broken up with him? It sure seemed like it. No, he thought, it was more like he was dismissed. His opinions were immediately rejected and it seemed clear that she didn’t need or want him around to bother her.
He didn’t know what to do – should he continue to give her space or face up to the fact that her need for independence was more important to her then their relationship. As he reflected on her behavior, he thought it was ironic that everyone except Cindy treated them like a couple. She treated him like an afterthought. With the turmoil in his mind, one funny thought jumped out - It was a good thing Cindy had never invited him to move in – that would have been a mess! Of course his job required him to be at Three Corners Farm most nights so that never really came up. Other than some clothing and toiletries there wasn’t much of him at Cindy’s house.
As Matt sat in the darkening afternoon, he kept thinking, what had happened? He looked back over the last few months and had to admit there was a cooling in their relationship. She had experienced nightmares a few times since the shooting at her home but nothing recent. These days she seemed to take him for granted. He was sure there was no other man in her life. God knew that in a small town like Lodi the news would have been around the town in no time, especially someone as well-known as Cindy. No, that wasn’t it. They were both busy people but of late she had less time for just him. Did she look on him as some kind of sociopath because he had gone to Scottsdale and murdered Adele? That’s what it was in the law, although Matt viewed it as a necessary elimination of an implacable enemy who had sworn revenge and set things in motion, which resulted in her own death. They had never discussed it. She just knew Adele was never going to threaten Jenny or anyone again. He much preferred it that way.
Her attitude towards him and perhaps life in general had taken a bad turn in the last week or so. Cindy was tense and irritable, trying to find conflict where there wasn’t any. Was it Sofía? Unlikely. Cindy knew Sofía wasn’t a threat to their relationship so it wasn’t worth raising with Cindy. And she had never mentioned it. Certainly if it was a problem, she wouldn’t have continued to help Sage.
He circled back to the idea that hit him as she walked away, that Cindy was still in love with Harrison. Cindy’s reaction to his suggestion about Jessica’s scholarship fund certainly evidenced some deep-seated resentment and the fact Cindy mentioned that Jessica had Harrison was significant.
Matt also replayed Cindy’s outburst about men in her life telling her what to do. Had he pushed her too far too fast? Was Cindy really saying she wanted to be on her own without a man in her life for some period of time? If her parting shot wasn’t a breakup then perhaps they should have a discussion and spend some time apart and give their relationship time to cool down.
Felicity had offered him a job as head of security for her growing stable of entertainers. Actually she had encouraged him to start his own security firm, specializing in the entertainment business and she would be his first client. In light of what had just happened he would have to consider her proposition. That was the only way he and Cindy wouldn’t be thrown together almost every day. With Alex Skarlatos on board perhaps that’s what he’d do.
He was jolted from his thoughts when his portable radio squawked at him. “Matt come in.”
“Go ahead Alex.”
“I’m at the gate and there’s a woman who says she’s your mother.”