I walked to the front door and checked the porch. I brought the paper to my sister, who immediately switched off the TV to turn her attention to this new entertainment.
“So are you feeling any better today?” I asked her as she pored over the Life section.
“Hm? Oh,” Cassie picked her head up and felt her forehead. “Well, no fever... the nausea is gone too. I guess I just feel still weak from what I have been battling.”
“Good, I’m glad it wasn’t anything serious,” I said.
Just then, Cassie picked the paper off the counter with a cry, “Meredith! Good Lord, it’s true!” She showed me the article in her hand.
It was just a small blurb in the gossip section, but there, printed in the Austin Reporter, was the mention that the Elliots of Beaumont--Texas’ most famous family besides the ones whose ancestors fought in the Alamo--were moving indefinitely to California, essentially “trading states” with the software mogul, Adoniram Croft, CEO and creator of the MyCroft computer operating system.
“Yep,” I confirmed, “It’s true; we have to be out by Monday, regardless of who’s renting.”
“And it is confirmed that our house will be occupied by computer people?”
I shrugged, “I suppose it is; Dad met with Mr. Croft yesterday, and I guess they reached an agreement.”
“Oh dear!” Cassie began tugging on her collar and fanning her face. “I feel dizzy! I need to sit down.” She sat back on the sofa, wide-eyed and gasping.
“I know,” I expressed sympathetically, “it’s a lot of change to get used to. It will be very different not living in Texas.”
“Oh Meredith,” Cassandra burst out, “that’s easy for you to say! You’re just thinking of yourself! What about me? My only comfort in life has been knowing that my family is just hours away in Beaumont! My tether to sanity has been knowing that my dear sister needs only a phone call, and she will be here in an instant! What am I gonna do if I fall sick, and Charlie’s gone again? You’ll be far away, strolling on a beach in Malibu, without a care for your poor sister back in sweltering Texas! What will happen to me?”
Shakily, Cassandra dropped into an armchair with her hand on her forehead.
“Cass,” I tried to reason with her, “we didn’t have a choice. Tell you what, though, if you ever need me I promise to hop on the next flight from LA to Austin--”
“Oh, go away!” Cass snapped, striking toward me with her hand. “You don’t really care; nobody cares about me but Daddy!” She began sobbing loudly.
Just then, the phone rang. Cass didn't lift a finger, so I answered it.
"Hi, Charlie; no, this is Meredith."
"Meredith!" Charlie laughed, "I'll be hog-tied! Sandie's bridled you into keeping her entertained, has she?"
I laughed, "She'd kill you if she knew you still call her that."
"That's the funny thing about your sister, Mer," Charlie responded, "she doesn't have to know about the 'Sandie' thing to find enough reason to kill me, or at least wear me down gradually!"
I shook my head and moved the conversation along. "You coming home now, Charlie?"
"Yep," He chirped happily, "Just about to get into the taxi now. Will you still be there when I arrive?"
"Sure; it's Sunday, remember?"
"Oh yeah, family dinner; no offense, but like as not I'd forget about that most weeks if it wasn't so important to Cassandra."
"Well, Charlie, this might be your last one," I told him in a low voice.
I heard him chuckle; maybe he didn't know that we were moving, "Why's that? Is Cass planning to divorce me or something?"
"Nothing like that," I reassured him.
"Dad will explain everything at dinner. You just scoot on home, okay?"
"I'll be there within the hour."
"See you then, Charlie!"
"Bye for now!"
I hung up the phone and returned to Cassandra.
"Who was that?" she murmured, picking at the grapefruit she had for breakfast.
"Charlie just called to say he was on his way home."
Cass glared at no one in particular, "He talked to you and didn't ask for me?" she demanded.
I shrugged, keeping it light, "It was just a quick call; he'll be home soon."
"Soon?" Cass shrieked, and suddenly my little sister was up and running about the house. "Oh my goodness, this house is not fit to be seen I must get it ready for him. Darla! Where is that woman? Darla!"
Darla, my sister's housekeeper, emerged from the laundry room. "Yes ma'am?"
"Clean the house! Master Charles is on his way home! He'll be here any minute and it must look presentable!" she clutched at her wild, unkempt hair, "Oh dear, I need to freshen up!" She looked at me. "You too, Meredith," she sniffed and wrinkled her nose, "you smell like the barn." Mrs. Cassandra Musgrove swept up the stairs with an air of extreme importance.
Darla shook her head as she watched her mistress go. "That woman is so convinced that the world revolves around her, she has no idea how the world goes around at all!"
I shook my head in disbelief. "Let me get dressed and I'll help you clean up our mess."
Darla frowned, "Begging your pardon, Miss Meredith, but it's not so much your mess as hers."
I shrugged, "Either way, I'll be down in a jiffy to help."
The offer put a smile on Darla's face, as I hoped it would, "Thank you, ma'am, I appreciate your offer."
I left Darla to get started with her tasks and went to my room. I quickly showered and put on a fresh outfit, and Darla and I worked together to get the house relatively in order.
We were still hard at it with no sign of Cass when Charlie stumped through the front door.
"I'm home!" he cried with a grin, dropping his suitcase and spreading his arms wide.
I smiled and waved the dust rag in my hand at him, "Welcome, stranger!"
"Oh, I think it's been long enough since you last visited us that you have no room to talk, Missy!" My brother-in-law retorted.
We hugged, and just then, Cassandra's voice cut in.
"So you don't care about seeing me first, Charles? Meredith! Why didn't you send him up to me?" She was hurt and offended.
Charlie went up the stairs as I apologized, "Sorry, sis, I had no idea you were ready."
She had her arms around him. "I am always ready for my own Charlie." Her tone was more amorous than I'd heard all weekend. She kissed him, and straightaway was businesslike again.
"Now, family dinner is at four, and you know how Daddy hates it when we're late. You have am hour to freshen up from your travels, and when you're done with that I want to hear all about your trip, Charlie dear. Go, go, go! Hurry, darling!" She moved behind him and pushed his back gently.
Charlie left to the room, and as soon as he closed the door behind him, Cassie returned to her nervous, weak, bossy self.
"Oh, Meredith, help me, I'm going to faint!" She put her hand to her forehead and stretched the other toward me.
As feeble as she was, she made it to the bottom of the stairs and to an easy chair. She flopped down, fanning her face.
"Oh, golly!" she moaned. "The stress of this day is wearing me out. I need to rest. Meredith, darling, could you help Darla? You know I would if I could, but I really don't think I can manage it."
I glanced at Darla; she shrugged. The capable housekeeper had the remainder of the house well in hand. I turned back to Cassie, but she obviously wasn't looking for an answer from me.
I went back to my room and packed up the few things I had unpacked. I double-checked myself to make sure I was still presentable for family dinner, and returned to the front room.
Charlie was just reaching Cassie's side.
"Oh, Charlie," she gushed, "I missed you so much! Come into the kitchen, and Meredith can get us lunch while you tell me all about it."
She led Charlie to the kitchen table while telling me, "Just get us both Cokes and those potpies from the fridge, will ya, honey?"
Charlie looked at me apologetically, but sat at the table with my sister.
"So, Charles," Cassie began immediately, "How was the convention?"
Charlie shrugged and leaned back, "Cassandra," he said, "The rest of the nation is under moderate pressure with the economy, but Mangrove Row is among the top ten ranches in the country. They had a livestock auction, but those cattle couldn't hold a candle to ours. I'm having a load of a new type of enriched feed shipped here, and everything is as it has always been. Life as usual on the old family farm." He smiled and grasped Cassie's hand as I finally got to the table with the potpies and Cokes.
He looked up, "Thank you, Mer." Charlie dug into the flaky, golden crust to the creamy, warm insides. "You know," he turned back to Cass, "one of the lecturers had a very interesting viewpoint on environmental consciousness in stockyard husbandry—"
"Oh, Charlie!" Cassie suddenly burst out, "How can you talk so about being a husband to your dumb animals when you seemed so reluctant to be a husband to me before? Don't you know what I've been through while you were gone? No, of course not; you never even took any of my calls while you were gone. Honestly, Charles, I have been laid out, flat on my back, ill with one disease after another for the whole week!" Then Cassandra launched into a list of what sicknesses she succumbed to all week. I took a private amusement in noticing that several of the maladies were a good deal more exaggerated and serious than what she had told me only the night before last.
This, dear reader, is my sister Cassandra. She has all the skills to render her moderately accomplished, but her single greatest skill was the ability to manipulate the people around her. She had an innate knowledge of exactly what the people closest to her needed to hear to do what she wanted. And she wanted a considerable lot. The only ones nearly impervious to her wiles were Dad and Ellie, but she found a way around that by making them feel benevolent for giving her what she wanted. She hinted, wheedled, and whined, she simpered, wept, and caressed; all of it worked.
To her credit, she managed to find a genuinely good man when she set her sights on the amiable Charlie Musgrove. Though he had never attended Upton, his family was well-enough off to revolve in much the same circles as we did. Still, he would have never warranted a second glance from Dad if it weren't for the way Dad saw him treat the "baby sugar-darlin'" of the Elliot family. Never mind that half of these instances were staged for my father's especial benefit by Cassandra herself as a way of both "courting" Charlie and proving to Dad that he was worthy of her; Dad never suspected a thing. All he saw was this noble, good-looking son of the wealthiest rancher in Texas, paying conspicuous attentions to his daughter. So began the relationship of Cassie's dreams: here was a man who did not need her to prove herself, to whom she owed no explanation, and who took delight (albeit sometimes sacrificial) in doing what she liked best. Cassie complained of him merely because she was a complainer; in reality, I knew she had nothing to complain about in Charlie.
At last, Cassie finished her recital, received the desired sympathy and comforting from her husband, and the three of us departed for Beaumont.
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