The First Daughter
When Kerry First ditched her high school prom date she never expected him to come back into her life and offer tough love against demons they have in common. The challenges they face, however, may be her last chance to redeem herself from the demons of the past. Kerry First must stand and fight, as she’s never fought before, not only to maintain her sobriety, but to save the lives of the people who have never stopped loving her.
“Casper explores tough issues in this emotionally charged tale featuring a flawed but wonderfully written heroine, a sensitive hero and powerful scenes.” Romantic Times, 4 1/2 Stars
“THE FIRST DAUGHTER is a powerful insightful tale remindful of stories like Days of Wine and Roses.” Harriet Klausner, Painted Rock Reviews, Five Stars
“Some of the most painful of life’s challenges are presented in THE FIRST DAUGHTER, yet it’s also a fun, exciting read. With its rich characterization and multi-layered plot, THE FIRST DAUGHTER comes very highly recommended.” Cindy Penn, WordWeaving
This edition published by
© K. Casper, 2001
First Published by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd, Toronto, Canada
“FIVE, FOUR, THREE, two . . .” The director pointed to the regal woman sitting in the high-backed gilded chair in the middle of the brilliantly lit stage.
“This is Leslie Fischer coming to you live from Big D, Dallas, Texas. Welcome to the ‘Tell Leslie Show’.”
Canned orchestral music swelled at the same time the audience cheered and clapped wildly in response to the neon signs that were flashing Applause.
“Did you know that one of the two most dangerous situations for the police to respond to is a domestic disturbance? Sometimes the violence and emotion escalate so much that both sides of the dispute turn on the peace officers who are trying to stop it. In a few moments, we’ll talk with two women who can give us further insight into this tragic world and fill us in on what we can do about it. So don’t go away.”
Kerry sat on the couch at an angle to the show’s sparkling host. She wanted to fidget—actually, she’d like to get up and run— but this public announcement that she was establishing a foundation for battered women and children was too important. Not for her. She’d been through therapy, come to face her demons and develop coping mechanisms. Now it was time to help someone else.
The cameras glided soundlessly around her. She’d never been on TV before. The experience was fascinating and exciting. Scary, too. Her hands were sweating, and she was making a conscious effort not to look down to see if stains showed on her teal dress.
“Relax,” Leslie said with an endearing smile that in no way matched the commanding tone of her voice. The mike was off, but the camera was watching, and the veteran of stage, screen and now talk TV was clearly in her element.
Kerry wanted desperately to smile back, but her eye caught the last of the show’s introductory credits rolling on one of the monitors, and panic was setting in. I can do this. I can do this. Her favorite mantra had gotten her through alcohol rehabilitation— twice.
The director held up five fingers and slowly folded each in a silent countdown. Three, two . . . The finger pointed at Leslie.
“Today we’re privileged to have as our special guest Kerry First. I know you all recognize the name. If you’ve ever dined on prime steak or a simple hamburger, there’s a good chance the beef came from the Number One Ranch in West Texas. The famous First Family spread is one of the biggest cattle producers in the Lone Star State and in the country.” A camera followed the wave of her bejeweled hand toward her guest. “Welcome, Kerry.”
This time the cameras didn’t move, but Kerry knew one of them was focused on her. At least it couldn’t see the beads of sweat breaking out between her breasts.
“Thank you, Leslie—” her smile felt completely unnatural “— it’s a pleasure to be here with you.”
Leslie looked past her, no doubt into another camera. “Kerry First is maintaining an honored family tradition of supporting worthy causes. In a few minutes, she’ll tell us all about hers. But before that, let’s meet my other guest, Charlene Higgins. Family abuse takes many forms, ranging from shouting and verbal intim- idation to physical torture. Charlene knows all about it. She’s experienced it firsthand. Welcome to the show, Charlene.”
“Thank you.” She was dressed less stylishly than Leslie and Kerry, more befitting the stereotypical image of a victim. “It’s good to be here.”
“Tell us your story, Charlene. How did the abuse start and how did it end?”
Kerry was only half listening to her best friend. She’d heard Charlene’s story before—her marriage to a great guy whose strength and protectiveness soon turned into demands and brutality. Kerry had had her own term in hell with a man, in addition to the years of alcoholism.
“The first act of violence was a slap,” Charlene said, “followed instantly by a fawning apology and a promise that it would never happen again.”
Mine wasn’t a slap. And there was no apology, Kerry thought. However, this wasn’t the time to be thinking about herself. She’d been too selfish for too long.
“I was sure,” Charlene was saying, “that he loved me in his own way. We’d just gotten off track.”
Isn’t it strange, Kerry mentally commented, how we confuse pride with love? Or let it get in the way of love.
“He had me convinced it was my fault he got so upset,” Charlene explained. “If I’d learn to do better, things would be all right.”
“What usually set him off?” Leslie wanted to know.
Charlene huffed. “Everything. Anything. Later, I came to realize none of it was about me or what I did. It was about him—his inadequacies, his need to be in control.” Her voice was steady, but she was gripping her hands so tightly in her lap that her knuckles were white.
“Was the abuse always physical?”
“A lot of it was, but the mental torture was worse.”
Without thinking, Kerry reached forward and snagged a tissue from the dispenser on the coffee table in front of her and crumpled it in her lap.
“What kind of torture? Can you give us an example?” Leslie asked, eyeing Kerry suspiciously.
Charlene nodded. “Brad demanded absolute order. Everything had to be in precisely the right place. If it wasn’t—or if he said it wasn’t—he would tear the entire house apart, rip up clothes and bed linens, shatter pictures, pour all the flour and sugar on the kitchen floor, along with the spices. It would take me days to clean up and reestablish order. Then he’d do it all over again a day or a week or a month later.” She spoke with a kind of fatalism that was frightening—as if she were someone else.
Kerry wiped the palms of her hands with the tissue.
“Then there were the Hummels I’d inherited from my grandmother. It had taken her years to collect all the pieces. Some of them were quite valuable. Brad knew how much they meant to me. Piece by piece he destroyed every one of them, along with the bone china my parents had given us as a wedding present.”
“I know everyone in the audience, here and at home, is asking the same question,” Leslie observed quietly. “Why did you put up with this, Charlene? Why did you stay with him?”
Hands folded neatly in her lap, Charlene lowered her head for several seconds, then faced her inquisitor. “Because I felt trapped and totally alone. Because I had a mental image of how things should be and tried to make life fit that picture. Because it’s easier to do nothing, to put off action. Because I wanted to believe he really loved me.”
She paused to take a deep breath. “I also had no idea where to turn. I had no family close by, and we had three small children only one year apart in age. Two boys and the little girl I’d been praying for.”
“Did he ever abuse them?”
Charlene glanced down and bit her lower lip, her eyes growing tearful. “Yes, but I didn’t recognize it. Brad insisted that all kids need discipline. And of course that’s true. But I refused to see when he crossed the line. I’d become so inured to physical violence, so convinced I was worthless and incompetent to do anything on my own, that I couldn’t see I was endangering my children’s lives.”
“How bad was it?”
“Black and blue marks. Occasionally open cuts. Once, my six-year-old son broke his arm. We told the people at the hospital that he fell, which was true, but only because Brad shoved him so hard, he tumbled down the stairs.”
The audience was deathly silent.
“So nothing was done?”
“The hospital made the required call to social services, and
they investigated but they had no proof. Brad was a charmer with a glib tongue, and like true victims, we closed ranks behind him. Isn’t it amazing that even abused children will protect their abusers? Brad was always contrite and, like after that first time, always promised never to do it again. He could be very affectionate when he wasn’t beating one of us, and he constantly told us what he was doing was for our own good.”
As she again wiped her hands with the tissue that was now in tatters, Kerry was sure she heard a sniffle in the audience. How many women out there were in situations similar to Charlene’s? They were the ones she had to reach.
Leslie spoke very softly, very dramatically. “How did you finally manage to break this cycle, Charlene?”
“Seven years ago I saw a program about family violence on TV. In fact, it was a show very much like this one. As I sat there listening to these women talk about what they’d gone through, something finally clicked, and for the first time, I recognized myself.”
“Did you leave Brad immediately?”
Charlene shook her head. “No. It took me another three months.”
“Why did you wait so long? If he was hurting you and your children—”
“I was afraid, Leslie. Afraid to make a decision. Afraid of the unknown. And I was ashamed to admit how bad everything had gotten. Most of all, I was terrified of the prospect of being alone. You see, Brad swore if I ever left him, he’d take the kids away from me, and I believed him. He was a respected businessman. I was nothing.”
A feeling of restlessness emanated from the audience, like breaths being held.
“What finally gave you the courage to leave him?”
“The next beating.” On a shuddering breath, Charlene added, “The one in which my daughter ended up in the hospital, almost dead.”
The audience gasped.
“What happened when you did leave?” Leslie asked sympathetically, and Kerry suspected this time the show’s host wasn’t acting.
“I went to a shelter. They fed and clothed me and my children and helped me with legal advice. I swore out charges against Brad. Eventually he was arrested and served jail time.”
Leslie leaned back in her chair, relieved. “So the story has a happy ending.”
“There are no happy endings in domestic abuse situations,” Kerry said on the cue she and Leslie had worked out beforehand. “Most of the external wounds heal, but the internal scars don’t go away. Touching them is always painful. Charlene was fortunate be- cause she was able to find a shelter that had room for her. Unfortunately, the one she went to had to close its doors soon afterward because of lack of funds. Which is why I’m establishing the First Family Foundation.”
“There are so many worthy causes, Kerry,” Leslie commented earnestly. “Yet you’ve chosen this one to support and give your name to.” In a calculated glance, she stared for a moment at the two shredded tissues on the coffee table. The camera moved closer. “Have you experienced this type of tragedy in your own life? Is that what motivates you to establish this foundation?”
The observation caught Kerry completely by surprise. They hadn’t discussed this earlier, and for an anxious moment, she wondered how much of her background the show host knew. She should have been prepared for this. Shock questions were what had produced some of Leslie Fischer’s most electrifying and memorable shows.
Kerry kept her chin up and shook her head in denial. “This isn’t about me, Leslie,” she said pointedly, “but about the plight of women and families like Charlene’s. Her story is only one of thousands. We can’t stand by and let violence and substance abuse continue to destroy lives without holding out hope to the victims. So many people could get out of the hellish situations they’re in, the way Charlene did, if they knew there was someplace to go, someone to help them—if they knew they weren’t alone. That’s what the First Family Foundation is all about.”
The camera moved in. Kerry struggled to focus on her message and not be distracted.
“I want to provide a haven for battered women, to help them discover the joys of life. But it’s the children who are the most tragic victims of abuse, Leslie, because they’re the most vulnerable and defenseless. Only cowards beat up women and children.” She looked directly into the camera. “How much more cowardly are we if we stand by and fail to do everything in our power to defend and protect them?”
“So you’re providing a refuge,” Leslie prompted, “not just for women but for whole families.”
“Exactly. A sanctuary where people who are the victims of domestic violence—regardless of age or gender—can begin the long and sometimes painful road to reclaiming their lives and their dignity.”
The show’s host remained silent for several seconds to let the words sink in. “Kerry, how can people help in this noble effort?”
“In so many ways, Leslie. First of all, by understanding that the victims of abuse need help and compassion. Especially the children, who are truly innocent. People can also help by contributing clothing and toys. But the most precious gift anyone can give is time, something no one seems to have enough of these days. Nothing mends a broken body or a broken heart better than a gentle touch. A soothing hand. A warm embrace. A patient ear—to listen and console, not to condemn or judge.”
“We all need love, don’t we?” Leslie asked rhetorically. “How about financial contributions?”
“Yes, those, too. Even with generous contributions of clothing, toys and time, it takes money to feed people, build facilities, to furnish and maintain them, to pay for utilities and other essential services. And in many cases, to provide health care for broken bodies.”
Someone sniffled loudly enough for it to be picked up by a mike. The camera panned the audience, revealing set jaws, glistening eyes and hankies held to runny noses.
“Where can people send their contributions?” Leslie inquired.
“To the First Family Foundation at the address on the screen. No contribution is too small. And of course,” Kerry added with an ironic smile, “no contribution is too big. Whatever you can give helps victims become victors.” The camera returned to her, and she spoke directly to it. “I hope we can count on your support.”
“Cut!” shouted the director as the audience clapped and the theme music took over. The hot overhead lights dimmed, and Kerry wilted in her seat.
“Good show,” Leslie said as she rose from her chair. “Too bad you didn’t have a personal experience to relate. It would have been the perfect touch. But don’t worry. Contributions will be rolling in in no time.”
“I’ll have you to thank for that,” Kerry replied, grateful the session was over. “It was very generous of you to have us on.” Even if you did try to ambush me.
“Tearjerkers always raise ratings,” the former movie star turned talk-show host said flippantly, though Kerry suspected the great Leslie Fischer’s motives might go beyond ratings. There had been rumors years ago of violence in her third marriage, to screen idol Nestor Pride. Never confirmed, of course. What leading woman would want to brag about being a victim?
“By the way,” Leslie continued, as she removed a pearl choker from her neck and handed it to her wardrobe lady, “I ran into an old friend of yours who said he’d stop by and observe the broadcast.” A stagehand gave her a bottle of French mineral water.
“An old friend?” Kerry accepted a chilled bottle, as well.
Without elaborating, Leslie led Kerry and Charlene to a small break room. The single occupant was a man facing the coffee machine.
Kerry was puzzled. Leslie had said old friend. Considering the man’s size and build—he had immense shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist and hips—she felt she should recognize him, even with his back to her. Yet there was something uncomfortably famil- iar about him.
He turned around, took in the three women with a sweeping glance and locked on Kerry.
Oh, my God. Kerry froze. Her past had come to haunt her.
“I understand the two of you went to high school together,” Leslie said, obviously pleased by her little surprise.
Icy panic rippled through Kerry as he moved toward her.
He stopped a few feet in front of her. “Hello, Kerry.”
His quiet, almost shy smile was both appealing and unnerving. He extended a hand palm up, to hold hers rather than shake it.
In The Wizard of Oz a bucket of water had undone the Wicked Witch of the West—which was who Kerry felt like at this moment. Maybe, she decided, if she poured her water over her head she could melt into the soiled carpet. A lifetime had passed since she’d last seen him . . . since she’d humiliated him—and herself.
In an automatic gesture, she brought her hand up and placed it on his. Did he notice that it was clammy? Blame it on the water bottle. Could he feel her trembling? How could she explain that?
She lifted her gaze and studied the man whose warm fingers continued to hold hers. He was every bit as tall as she remembered him. Maybe taller. More mature in build, too, but then, he was nearly two decades older than the last time they’d met. The teenage pimples were gone without a trace. The boyish angles of his even- featured face had morphed into striking handsomeness.
“Hello, Craig.” Kerry managed to squeak the words out. “How are you?”
Leslie glanced from one to the other, twisted her mouth in a semblance of a smile and quietly wandered over to the coffee machine. Charlene, looking both awestruck and bewildered, followed her.
Craig gave Kerry a lazy grin that brought out the dimples in the hollows of his cheeks. “Very well, thanks.” Those dimples had been cute in the high school boy. They were killers in the man. “It’s been a long time.”
His voice had deepened, and like his eyes had acquired a self-assurance that was pure male. Dear God, Kerry thought, if I had known you’d turn out like this, I would never have . . . She refused to finish the thought.
“A very long time,” she agreed and, like Craig, lapsed into silence.
Good grief. Were they going to stand around staring at each other, saying nothing? There must be a more intelligent way to pass the time, polite questions they could ask. But for the life of her, she couldn’t think of a single one.
He released her hand but continued to hold her gaze. The air of quiet confidence in his hazel green eyes stirred a distracting flutter in the pit of her stomach. She was thirsty. That was the problem. She lifted her small water bottle to her lips to take a sip and caught herself upending it.
“Can I get you something else?” His glance flicked between her mouth and eyes. Without waiting for a response, he relieved her of the empty bottle. “Coffee, okay?”
She began to salivate, but she was sure it had nothing to do with the prospect of coffee. “Thanks.”
He smiled again, damn him. “Be right back.”
He’d been a basketball player in his junior year, tall and gangly, quick on his feet and uncommonly accurate with his shots. But he’d quit the team in his senior year. Apparently, he needed to work to help support the family. There’d been a shyness about him, too, that had been not sexy exactly, but definitely appealing.
Kerry’s attention was riveted on him as he made his way to the stand in the corner of the room. His masculine movements screamed a self-assurance that had been missing in the shy teenager.
He returned and held out a moderately full cup of black coffee. “I should have asked if you put anything in it.”
For a second, their fingers touched and Kerry felt suddenly tongue-tied. “This . . . is fine.” Using both hands, she took a shallow sip. Despite its color, the brew tasted unnaturally bland. It needed a good shot of Irish whiskey to give it an edge.
“I saw your picture in the Dallas Morning News last weekend,” Craig commented. “It didn’t do you justice, Kerry. You’re more beautiful now than you were in high school.”
She’d received compliments before and knew how to accept them graciously, but something about this one disconcerted her. Other people’s flattery was genuine enough, but the sincerity in his struck a deep chord.
“That’s very kind of you, Craig. Thank you.”
He made a gesture with his hand—a big, square, powerful hand—toward a cluster of chairs at the other end of the room, where Leslie and Charlene were already seated. It must be the caffeine, she decided, that had perspiration breaking out on the back of her neck.
“Thanks for letting me stop by, Leslie,” he said after they were seated. “Your show has really taken off. When you started three years ago—”
“Nobody thought I had a chance,” Leslie scoffed proudly. “Not against Oprah.”
“They underestimated you.” He grinned triumphantly at her and raised his cup in a salute. “Interesting program today.” He turned to Kerry. “So you really are into good works.”
Was he mocking her? Considering how she’d treated him the last time they’d met, perhaps he had a right to. “We all have to do our part,” she said, trying to match his breezy tone.
“With Leslie’s endorsement, I’m sure you’ll accomplish miracles.”
For a fleeting moment, anger flared like dry grass touched by a glowing poker. Was he suggesting she couldn’t do anything on her own?
“And you?” Leslie asked him. “Will you contribute to the cause?”
“I’ll give it consideration.” He addressed Charlene. “Your story was very touching, Ms. Higgins. What became of your ex- husband?”
“He owns a major car dealership now, makes a ton of money and is remarried with two kids.”
“And your children?”
Charlene glanced at Kerry. No one else had even asked. “My oldest is starting high school next fall. He’s a bit rebellious, but basically a good kid. The middle boy is doing fine.” “And your little girl?”
“This year, she’s determined to be a ballet dancer.” She smiled proudly. “Thank you for asking, Mr. Robeson.”
He shifted his attention to Kerry. “Do you mind if I pose a few questions about your foundation?”
She tried to relax, but the intensity of his gaze was disconcerting. “Fire away.”
“Have you had much experience running shelters?”
“I’ve been associated with several in the past year.” She smiled, fully aware she was dodging his question—and that he knew it. “But you’re correct. I haven’t actually run one. That’s why I plan to surround myself with experienced people—like Charlene.”
He grinned back. “Smart move under any circumstances. Are you personally contributing capital to this venture?”
She drew back and arched her brows. “I wouldn’t put my name on it if I wasn’t.”
“Then why do you need contributions?”
She took a deep breath. “Because I want this endeavor to go beyond me. I’m endowing a perpetual trust fund, but I don’t want it to stop there. Inflation can take a terrible toll on fixed resources. If we have a constant influx of new money, we can grow and expand. Getting people to contribute also means getting them involved. That’s vitally important. We can’t cure domestic violence, Craig. Our mission is to offer a refuge for its victims.”
“Noble sentiments,” he said without a trace of sarcasm. “You might want to reconsider the title of the foundation, though. The First family name is so well-known and its wealth so legendary that the public’s immediate reaction is likely to be that you don’t need their support.”
Kerry simmered. She’d reverted to her maiden name specifically because of its renown and because she wanted to finally do something to add to its prestige.
Seeing her scowl, Craig added. “No offense. Just a thought.”
She had an urge to ask him who the hell he thought he was, preaching to her. He might be tall and carry himself with the grace of an athlete, but he was no millionaire basketball star. She followed sports and had never seen his name—or face. The old Kerry would have gone for his jugular. Fortunately, the new, sober Kerry was less volatile.
When she gave no response, he asked, “How long will you allow people to stay in your shelter?”
As long as it was necessary. But that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. It wasn’t the right one, either. “We haven’t worked out all the details yet. Our primary concern, naturally, is for their immediate safety.”
“Speaking of which—” he plodded on “—shelters themselves can be extremely dangerous places—as you undoubtedly know— because they become targets for disgruntled abusers who feel they’ve been robbed of their property. What provisions will you make to protect your guests?”
“We’ll employ standard shelter security procedures. Initial contacts through third parties. Knowledge of the location of the house limited to police supervisors. And access strictly controlled.”
“What about on-site guards?”
He made it sound like a prison instead of a refuge. “We haven’t decided yet whether they’ll be armed.”
“When do you plan to open the first one?”
“I’d like to have it up and running within three months.” “Three months?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “As I understand it, you don’t even have a facility yet.”
His critical tone was increasingly irritating her. Most contributors sent in their twenty-five-dollar checks without asking all these questions. “We’re considering several potential locations.”
“But that’s only the beginning. Even after you find a suitable site, you still have to negotiate the deal. The building will undoubtedly have to be modified to meet your specifications. A zoning change may be required. Then there’s the paperwork that has to be filed for a tax-exempt enterprise. You’ll need to run background checks on your staff and train them.” He shook his head. “I think your schedule may be a bit ambitious, Kerry. I’ve had a little experience in property management,” he commented. “Perhaps I can help.”
Ah, real estate. So that was what he was after, a juicy commission on a commercial sale. “That’s very kind of you, Craig. I’ll keep it in mind.”
The note of dismissal brought raised eyebrows and dropped jaws from both Leslie and Charlene.
Craig’s mouth twitched in a burgeoning smile. “I wish you the best of luck.” He rose easily from his chair and extended his hand to Leslie. “Thank you for inviting me, Les. It’s always a pleasure to see you.” Charlene stood up. He offered her his hand. “Take good care of those kids, Ms. Higgins.”
“I will, and thank you for coming, Mr. Robeson,” she said sincerely. “I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”
He stepped over to Kerry and again took her hand the way a gentleman would if he was going to kiss it. “Nice seeing you again, Kerry. Please give my best to your dad.”
Leslie escorted him to the door, received a peck on the cheek and closed the door behind him.
“Well, Kerry, you certainly blew that.” She settled into one of the worn easy chairs, her elegant hands draped over the armrests. “He called me the other day, explained that he’d lost track of you since high school and asked if he could drop by to say hello. Said he might also be interested in contributing to your foundation. Talk about golden opportunities. I couldn’t have staged it better if I’d tried.” She threw up her hands and dropped them with a shake of her head. “Craig Robeson, for God’s sake. And you give him a brush-off.”
Kerry was genuinely taken aback by the woman’s rebuke.
“What’s so special about Craig Robeson?” Back in Coyote Springs he’d been as poor as a bronc rider on a losing streak.
After a moment of stunned silence, Charlene glanced at Leslie, and they both burst out laughing.
“Lordy, lordy.” Leslie peered at the ceiling and rocked her head from side to side. She broke into an amused grin. “You don’t know who he is, do you?” The knot in Kerry’s belly tightened. Leslie shook her head and asked slowly, “Have you ever heard of the Robe Corporation?”
Kerry’s breath caught in her throat. Her head pounded. “Robeco? Craig Robeson is Robeco?” It was one of the biggest land development companies in the world. She plopped down on the couch across from the movie star and came as close to tears as she had in a very long time.
“My dear,” Leslie said, “you just flubbed getting financial backing from one of the wealthiest men in the country.”