Chapter One: Blood Money

Dorothy Wrexler died two days ago. Now I know you're probably wondering who the hell she was, and why I even care. The truth is that I read about her in the obituaries while I was eating my cereal, and somehow I can't seem to get her out of my mind. Dorothy had eleven children and forty-five grandchildren. She died of an illness, but all I could say was: "Jesus, that's a lady who didn't practice birth control."

That makes me sound cold, I admit, but that's because the blood money came in the mail today. I swear it's like clockwork. A check for ten thousand dollars on the first of every month. My father's lawyer's doing.

I still have the check on the kitchen table. It's a nice sky blue color, and it has my father's scrawling signature at the bottom. There's just a hint of impatience I can pick up in the handwriting: the way it speeds up at the end, the letters all rough. He's got five companies to buy before mid-morning, I know.

When you're Kenneth Albert Davidson, a prominent CEO of a Fortune-500 family-inherited company, you have a certain image to live up to. And no matter how many times you've married (five) and how many times you've divorced (four), the family business is and will always be your mistress.

The doorbell rings, and I almost spill my milk. My heart is pounding all of a sudden, and I have to take a few deep breaths before I undo the heavy bolts. I use the peephole, even though I know it's Charles on the other side, but it never hurts to be sure. I'm not that tall, so I rise up on my toes to peer at him.

Charles is standing outside in the hallway. He's holding a white bag, and I wonder what it is this time. He always brings me something, even if it's a cartoon he cut out from the newspapers. He straightens and turns to the door, smiling.

"It's just me, Cass," he calls.

His voice is kind and reassuring, among other adjectives I can think of. When I was little, I used to creep into his bed and ask him to tell me a bed-time story. And that's when he would tell me that we were travelers journeying to a lost continent searching for the famed Tiger's Eye Pearls. Later, when I found out the Pearls weren't real, it hurt. But that's Charles, my Charles, who can always make me believe in him.

I open the door and let him in. He catches my face with his hands and presses a kiss on my lips until I lean into him. There's a warm glow of approval in his eyes when he breaks away and studies me. "You look wonderful," Charles says, lying through his teeth as usual.

I'm tempted to argue because God knows, I haven't changed out of my T-shirt and polka-dotted pajama bottoms, but I suppose as long as I'm not vacant-eyed and drooling, Charles will say I look wonderful.

"What did you bring?" I ask instead. But even as I ask, Charles is handing me the little bag he has in his hand and I take it from him. I peek inside the bag and laugh. It's chocolate-covered raisins this time. "I haven't had them for a while."

He smiles at me. "Good, I thought you'd like them." After hanging up his coat in the closet, he fills a small pitcher and goes around the apartment, watering my plants. I didn't want the plants when I got the place, but Charles insisted that they would help. And of course, he's always right. They do look very green.

I say it aloud, and Charles cocks an eyebrow. "Green is the best color ever," I say with a nod, crossing my legs Indian-style, tugging at the carpet. Once a fresh-as-snow white, it has now become a tolerable gray. "Yellow and pink aren't too bad, though."

Charles tosses me a teasing grin. "Now you've done it. You've hurt Blue and Orange and Purple's feelings." That makes me laugh because I know he's far from an imaginative person. "What's wrong with orange?"

We talk about colors and I eat my raisins. Charles drops the pitcher off in the kitchen, and then his voice stops. It's as if someone used a hook on him and yanked him off the stage. Concerned, I half-push myself off the floor.

He returns to the living room with the check in his hand. A frown has set between his brows, and I can see that it's just better to shut up, so I watch him. It's not like he doesn't know what the check is. He gets a similar one every month, but not for the same amount. His other hand is clenched, the knuckles white.

"I forgot it was coming today," Charles says, gazing at the slip of paper. He's almost whispering, a sibilant hiss, and now I can't breathe anymore. A stranger is wearing Charles's face. "Well, Cassie, we know what it takes to assuage our father's conscience, don't we? Ten thousand, that's what it takes." He laughs then.

My chest compresses until I'm a ball of pain. It's this bundle of throbbing nerves in the middle of my body, one that hammers at me, and I have my hands pressed to it. I'm trying to push the pain back inside, but it's searing my palms. My heart beats a tattoo against the flesh of my palms, and I know I'm burning.

A litany of broken prayers and curses follows me into the darkness. "Cassie, Cassie, Cassie!" And it's the same one I grab onto when I surface again. When I open my eyes, I'm staring up at Charles. "Cass," he says softly. "Don't go away."

I discover that I am still in my living room. I'm on the carpet, but now in his arms, as he supports my head on his lap. I'm not in the hospital, like I thought, and that relieves me. I don't think I can stand to go back there.

"Where is it?" I say.

A stray lock of his hair has fallen into his eyes, and I want to reach up to brush it away, but my arm is weak. "What?" he says.

"The check." Now I giggle, high-pitched enough that he winces. "It's red, Charles. Blood money. Crimson. Scarlet. Ruby. Do you think I can buy some rubies if I want? The Bible says that a good woman is worth her price in rubies."

Charles closes his eyes. "Stop it, Cass. You're scaring me." He strokes my hair from my forehead, like I want to do to him. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have even brought it up." A thought seems to strike him. "I'll ask Berland to deposit the money directly into your account, so you'll never have to see a check ever again. How does that sound?"

"Okay." Berland is our father's lawyer, and although he's not an accountant, he's the one who keeps an eye on the various monies. "I didn't mean to scare you."

He nods slightly and helps me to rise from the floor. I am numb all over, but when my body gets moving, I feel sore. I grimace and arch my back, and Charles notices. He rubs it for me, and I melt under his familiar touch. His hands are so strong that I think he could rip me apart and then mend me so carefully so that no broken bone would ever show.

His thumbs don't stop moving over my vertebral column. He's tapping out a melody, and my bones recognize it. I even hum under my breath, and maybe even purr like a cat. God, poor old Tick. That little cat who used to roam the grounds until - (no, Cassie, don't think about it) - he went to heaven.

"Why don't you move in with me?" Charles says. His fingers have stilled, so there is no more music. The whorls of his fingertips imprint my spine with everlasting spirals, and I twist my head, so I can look over my shoulder at him. "You can decorate my place all you want."

My hair fringes my vision like a wedding veil. I wore one of those, myself, when I married Mr. Wyman. (Three years, seven months, six days ago, as I can practically hear Charles attesting. He's so wonderful at remembering things.) I push that veil out of my face, and climb onto Charles's lap.

"But you have a job," I say, resting my head against his shoulder. This is not the first time we've talked about this. "I can't even cook or clean."

A butterfly-sigh flutters my hair, its wings beating. "So we'll order take-out instead. We'll get a maid." There is that laugh in Charles's voice that I don't like. "Might as well as put Kenneth's blood money to good use." His muscles shift under me, and I almost scramble. I don't want to see that stranger in his eyes.

"No, no," he soothes me. "I'll be good now, Cassie." He smiles then, and even I can see how bright it is in the dimly lit room. "We may have another Barbie soon. Kenneth is having problems with his last one."

See, Barbie is what we call Kenneth's wives. Our mother was the Country Club Barbie, then Kenneth discarded her for the Vegas Showgirl Barbie. You know, Ken and Barbie? Get it? Although our current Barbie is so young that I think she's more like a Skipper.

"Oh. New secretary-girlfriend?" I say.

Charles flicks my nose with a finger. "No. Surprising, isn't it? Barbie wants the lion's share of the family business for her children."

Ah, that. Every Barbie has tried to get Kenneth to promise that he'll appoint her son - why not a daughter? - as his successor when he retires. There's a board of directors, of course, and there's an army of presidents and assistants, but everyone knows Kenneth's the boss. He's in his mid fifties, and if his check-ups are anything to go by, he'll survive for another forty years, but it doesn't stop the vultures from circling. When your company clears millions every year in profits, people see opportunities.

I don't want Charles brooding about this latest disaster. Kenneth has jerked him around, insisting that Charles work for the company, promising and teasing him with dreams of ownership, and threatening to disinherit him. It's more than likely that Kenneth will listen to our Barbie, and if that happens, I don't know what Charles will do.

"I'll move in with you," I say.

The gambit works, and Charles smiles at me. "Really?" he says, turning my face upwards. "That's the best thing I've heard all day."

He sounds so happy that I'm sure I made the right decision. Suddenly excited, I jump off his lap and pull him upright. "Let's go now," I say, flinging my arms wide. The apartment isn't that big, so it shouldn't take us too long to take all of my things. Most of my things are over at Charles's place anyway. And even if they aren't, I can just buy more.

Charles is laughing. "Don't you want anything?" he says, pointing at the TV. "Your clothes? We can't just leave them-"

"We'll donate them to the Salvation Army. And your TV's bigger than mine." It's true, and we both know it. Men do love their toys, and Charles is no exception. "We'll go shopping. It'll be fun, and we can buy things I need."

"All right, Cassie, we'll do that."

So that's how we abandon the apartment. I take only my patchwork coat and high-heel sandals (the ones with the rhinestones on them). That too, and I take the plants Charles bought for me. I don't want to hurt his feelings by dumping the plants, and besides, they are so very green. I think they'll look appealing in my new bedroom.

AUTHOR NOTE: I'm back with a new story :) For this story, however, I'm trying something new, so no more 10-page chapters or YA romance. Just as an experiment, if you will. Here's hoping that this story goes well :)