Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Type of Short Story: Novella
Summary: Ashley Steele is coming home. Casie Steele knows because her lawyer told her so.
It has been seven years since he was recruited to work in a post-9/11 Middle East, six years since the letters quit coming. But the man who walks into their house is not Ashley Steele.
They were newlyweds when Ashley chose duty over love, but Casie knows the difference between her husband and a stranger. It's his face, his body, but not his soul. She's on her own--to everyone else he's same old Ashley.
Casie’s sanity, safety, and Ashley’s inheritance is at risk… everything changes when a stranger is in the house.
Casie's hand trembled so much she couldn't hold the tea cup. It slipped out of her hand, like so many things had slipped lately. The tea cup bounced once off the floor before it shattered on the solid oak floor. The few drops of tea that had been in the cup would be easy for her maid Maria to clean up. She looked around with panic to see if any had gotten on the photo album. Rarely today did families have a big old coffee table photo album--the type of an album that held the black and white pictures and professional pictures to store family memories. Casie only had a few of Ashley when he was a child. Some families take pictures to store the memories, some didn't; Ashley's family was the latter.
The few pictures she had of Ashley as a young boy seemed ancient, not having seen his face in so many years. There were the few she had of their marriage and then no more. It seemed it was all she had left of Ashley. She stared at the wedding portrait of him and her. It seemed to be all that was left of him.
Six years was a long time to look at the same pictures. She rearranged the photos and the furniture to give the house a different look. They didn't share many nights together in the house and then he was gone. Casie kept the yellow bow on the porch pillar in new condition, and made public how she had planned his welcome home party for the day he walked through the door. She checked the mail every day looking for a letter or official notification. She checked several times a day. The pressure had started to show in her actions, and face.
She looked down at the broken cup, and joined her hands together to stop them from shaking.
"Mrs. The phone is for you. It's Richard." Maria handed Casie the phone.
"Hello Richard." Richard, a friend of Ashley, and their family attorney, called often to check on Casie.
"Casie, how are you? You didn't look good last night."
"I'm all right. Just nerves."
"Seven years is a long time to wait."
"I know. If they'd just tell me something... Couldn't they just let me know if he's alive or dead? If's he is dead, I'll take it hard, but at least I'll know."
"Casie, there are lots of families like you now. War is hell, especially for the families at home. I want to make sure. I care for you, Casie, and you need to take better care of yourself. You need to make some decisions, and Casie, it's time to consider moving on." His voice was soft.
"Richard, I'll make the decisions I need to, when I have to."
"It's almost seven years now, Casie. Your must moment is almost here."
"Richard please! This is hard for me." Her voice sounded frustrated. Richard had constantly prodded her lately to make decisions and move on with life.
"I'm sorry. I care for you and don't want to see you hurt. Six long years, and the seventh anniversary is almost here." Richard was the family lawyer and understood the legal hurdles that would come in the next few months.
Richard spoke softer to her, "Casie, you can't move on with life until Ashely had been declared dead. I know it's hard but not only am I a friend, I want to be more. But I'm your lawyer, and business comes first for me. It's been almost seven years, and there are some things that have to be talked about, and soon."
"All right, Richard, what?"
"Like I've been reminding you, it's been almost seven years now. In a couple of months it will be seven years, and Ashley will be declared legally dead. There is the family inheritance, the home, etc. When he is declared legally dead, according to the will, you being his wife, the estate and inheritance go to you."
"Why do you have to keep reminding me of the will? The estate. Money! Money! Money! That's all you ever bring up."
"Because it has to be dealt with, and an estate and inheritance worth 170 million dollars has to be handled correctly to take care of you in the future. Those things must be addressed. There are things that haven't been dealt with since he is not here, and the authority isn't given to you, or me, or anyone to execute those particulars, until he returns or is declared legally dead."
"All I care about is getting him home alive and well. Every time we talk lately you bring this up." Her hand held the phone, and it shook. Like a feeble old woman, she grabbed the phone with both hands. "Richard, I'm done with this now. It's not a good time for me."
"Can I come over later to check on you?"
"That will be fine. Let me go."
"Until then, Casie."
She hung the phone up and called out to Maria. "Maria, please come clean this broken cup, and bring me another cup of tea."
Maria had anticipated her wanting more tea, and was already preparing a fresh cup.
"Mrs. Casie, do you want just tea?" This routine had been repeated many times over the years, and more so in the last few months.
"No, Casie, you know how I want it. It's early but I need it. I need something to calm my nerves."
Six years was a long time not to know whether your husband was coming home. Every day had become a day to wonder if she'd find out he was alive or dead. Patriotism was good trait in Ashley, but he'd volunteered so quickly it had cost her a husband, as well as a family--a whirlwind romance of several months, followed by less than a year of marriage before he had left. At least they had enjoyed a great honeymoon, and some good months where they travelled abroad through Europe and the Middle East. Casie held those memories tight, but memories didn't keep her warm at night, or fill her house with a future or children.
Right after 9-11, calls had come in for Ashley. He was recruited due to his family connections in the Middle East. He knew people, and the language, and he knew people who knew people. Those connections were a family life line of resources for his father's business. He knew it would be a perfect cover and offered his services. He had traveled overseas with his parents most of his life, and when the State Department agreed, Ashley was on his way.
Ashley knew the landscape and the people of the Middle East like he had grown up there. He'd been taught the customs and protocols of the culture and, better still, his family had known the people who made things happen.
Their honeymoon had been a magic carpet ride of romance and excitement for them. In late June of that year they had married. July was spent in Europe, followed by August in Jordan. The world made sense then, but all the world made sense in August of 2011 until terror and confusion became the norm.
Who'd have expected Ashley Steele had been anything important? Someone must have. Radical groups? Islamist fundamentalists? They may have discovered who he was, and why he was there. Maybe his disappearance had nothing to do with his work for the Agency, but more than likely it had.
Casie had gone to sleep at night wondering if she'd hear news that he had died a violent death at the hands of a thief or been tortured in the desert. Torments like those had been in her mind every night for years.
The State Department had never given her hope that he was alive. Then again, the State Department never would confirm his death, or the fact he was working for them. Ashley had reminded her before he left that nothing was on the record and nothing would be spoken off the record. Complete silence had been the only sound of Ashley she had grown used to. Silence growled a cruel torment for those who waited at home for the knowledge of what had happened.
Casie had finished her tea, and her hand was shaking again. She used both hands to place the cup back on the saucer on the coffee table.
"Maria, I'm going for a walk. I've got to clear my head, and steady my nerves."
"That would be good for you, Mrs. Casie. You should sit in the garden? Don't give up hope, Mrs. Casie. Every day brings something new."
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