"Frankie?" Cass still clutched
Lila's wrist. Charlie was standing just a few feet away, wiping
the tears off her face with both hands. But Cass only had eyes
for a single person. "Frankie?" He repeated the name
over and over, like a desperate mantra. "Frankie?" As
if by saying it, he could either banish the malevolent spell that had
so callously dangled this illusion in front of him, or confirm that
the apparition was, indeed, miraculously, improbably but undeniably,
She nodded ever so slightly.
But that wasn't enough.
"Frankie?" Cass demanded, his voice rising until he was practically
screaming at the top of his lungs. "Are you or are you not my
"Yes," Frankie whispered.
"Yes, Cass. I am."
"Mom," Charlie hissed under
her breath. "What are you doing?"
"You knew?" Cass
whipped around to face his daughter. "You knew that your mother
was alive? You knew and you didn't tell me? How long have
"It's not her fault, Cass,"
"Of course, it isn't!"
Lila interrupted, yanking her arm out of Cass' grip. She strode
up to Frankie, newly empowered. A ghost or worse, a memory, Lila
knew she had no chance against. A flesh and blood woman?
Lila could take on one of those every day of the week. "Charlie
is a child. If she was told to lie to her father, to make him
sick with worry, to make him think that he was losing his cotton-picking
mind, that's certainly not her fault. It's the fault of the
adult who put her up to it!"
"It wasn't like that,"
"No," Frankie shook her
head. "Lila is right. It was exactly like that."
"What's going on here, Mary Frances," Cass tried to sound firm, but his words came out more like a plea. "Would somebody please tell me what the hell is going on here?"
This time, there wasn't even any perfunctory talk of Kevin and Amanda taking the bus from the park back to his hotel room.
They hailed a cab on the first street-corner they encountered. Kevin gave his address to the driver and, for the duration of the ride, somehow managed to keep up a comfortably chatty dialogue with the gregarious and highly opinionated fellow at their service, agreeing that why, yes, that man in the White House was destroying the country; no, the Senate wasn't any better, rushing to vote on 700 page legislation they couldn't have possibly had time to read; and true, true, Shakespeare did have a point, the first thing they really should do is kill all the lawyers, most definitely. What most impressed Amanda was that while Kevin was good-naturedly agreeing to the wholesale annihilation of his profession, he had also managed to run his hand up her skirt, and proceed to caress her inner thigh to the point where both the man in the White House and his 700 pages of legislation were the last issues on Amanda's mind.
Her memories of how exactly they managed to make it out of the cab, through the hotel lobby, up the elevator and into Kevin's room, were equally fuzzy. All she knew was, after an interminably long waiting period, they were on the bed, Kevin's hands now completely inside of her clothes, Amanda's own fingers stumbling over the buttons of his shirt with corresponding enthusiasm, if not actual skill.
Realizing that she was mere minutes away from losing her mind completely, Amanda employed the last vestiges of cognitive reason available to her to briefly pull back and, channeling the lectures she'd given Allie on the subject of safe sex over the years, ask Kevin, "Do you have... do you have a... condom... or... something?"
Kevin smiled and, for a moment, Amanda thought he might laugh at her choice of words. He didn't need to. She knew how foolish they sounded. A condom or... something? Like what? A throw pillow? A butter churn?
Amanda didn't even quite understand why she'd phrased it like that. Except for the niggling sense that to just come out and brazenly ask for a condom, without any kind of softening qualification, seemed... well... unladylike. It didn't matter how often Amanda had instructed Allie that better to be thought square, or overly cautious, or even a prude than to end up pregnant -- or worse, when it came to taking her own precautions Amanda was apparently still an awkward eighteen year old. Or not even that. If she'd taken her own advice back when she was eighteen, Amanda's whole life would have unfolded very differently.
As to why Amanda hadn't thought ahead to bring her own condom or... something, well, that would have just been presumptuous. And horribly embarrassing if it turned out there had never been any intention of her needing one.
As the self-flagellating thoughts rolled through Amanda's mind, she expected Kevin to somehow become privy to them, in which case he definitely deserved a good laugh at her expense. But, in spite of everything, there was no derision in his smile. Kevin simply nodded, rolled off of her, and rose to his feet. "I'll be right back."
Shirt unbuttoned, he stepped into the next room. Before he did though, Kevin poked his head around the corner and addressed Amanda, still lying on the bed. He told her, "My computer is over there, but it's password protected, so you'd probably have better luck with the paper files in the cabinet. The lock isn't very impressive, a hairpin should snap it right open." In response to Amanda's utterly befuddled expression, Kevin asked innocently, "What? Isn't that why you really came up here?"
"I can explain," Frankie began.
"I don't think so," Lila challenged. "What you've done, there is no explaining."
"Shut up, Lila," Cass said evenly, though it appeared that his rancor was evenly split between his daughter and his two God help him, it was happening again -- wives. "I'm willing to listen. Aren't you interested in what Frankie has to say?"
"No," Lila said curtly. "I don't care what she has to say. I only care about what she's done. And what she's done is hurt you and Charlie beyond any reason or excuse."
"You don't know what you're talking about," Charlie screamed. "You don't know what they did to her!"
"Who?" Cass demanded. "Who did what to you?"
"I don't know," Frankie admitted. "I mean, I don't know who. I, unfortunately, know what, way too well."
"What happened," Cass voice softened. He moved so that Frankie could come in out of the doorway and take a seat on a chair facing Cass, Lila and Charlie. "What happened to you? Where have you been?"
Frankie chuckled mirthlessly. "You know how people say, I haven't been myself? Well, I don't think anyone should be allowed to say it anymore, unless they've spent five years in a mental institution with a whole host of psychiatric professionals working their hardest to convince them that they're not who they think they are."
Cass said, "We thought you were dead. We thought Fax Newman "
"He did," Frankie shuddered at the memory. "He did try to strangle me, I remember. I remember begging him for mercy, I told him I had a child... " Frankie looked over her shoulder at Charlie, who moved to stand behind her mother and take her hand, staring defiantly at both Cass and Lila. "I remember those gloved fingers on my neck. I remember blacking out. And the next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital, strapped down, IVs pumping God knows what into each arm, and a doctor calling me Ms. Ordway."
"Ordway?" Lila asked. "That's your mama's name, isn't it?"
"It used to be my name, too. Mary Frances Ordway, that's what it says on my birth certificate. I made up Frankie Frame myself when I got older. Except that the fine medical personnel at this hospital, they kept telling me there was no Frankie Frame. That I'd made her up completely, some kind of psychotic delusion following a nervous breakdown. They told me I'd never come to Bay City, I'd never worked as a private investigator, I did not have a daughter named Charlotte, and that I'd never met, fallen in love with, or married a man by the name of Cass Winthrop."
"And you believed them?" Cass asked, incredulous.
If there had been any doubt that the woman in front of them was, indeed, Frankie Frame, it was wiped away by the combination of sass and sarcasm with which she snapped back, "I'm sorry, Cass, if memories of your roguish charms weren't enough to counter the effects of enough thorazine to make an elephant forget his fear of mice."
"Point taken," Cass conceded.
"They kept me drugged and they kept working on me, telling me that Frankie was an alternate personality I'd created, that none of it was real, that I was sick, but that they would help me get better. They showed me legal documents for Mary Ordway. They showed me high-school yearbooks and photos. Five years, Cass. I was in that place for five years."
"You've been gone for thirteen," Lila reminded.
"You think they would have let Frankie Frame out? Get real. The only reason they finally set me free was because I'd convinced them that they'd convinced me I was Mary Ordway. And by that point, it was the truth. I did believe that everything that happened to me in Bay City was a fantasy I'd created, another world. I did believe that I'd been sick, and that Frankie Frame was just a symptom of that sickness."
"This doesn't make any sense," Lila said. "If you really believed you were Mary Ordway, why didn't you go home, back to that farm you grew up on, the one Cass drags us to every summer so we can spend a few weeks up to our necks in Frame hospitality. If you'd gone home, surely your mama and your family would have told you that Frankie Frame is real."
Cass gazed upon his wife, well, upon one of his wives, with newfound respect. The notion had never occurred to him.
Frankie nodded. "They thought of that. They told me that my family was dead. That they'd all died in a fire that I caused. That's what they claimed prompted my breakdown. They did an excellent job of making sure that I would never, ever even consider returning to the farm. The mere idea of it used to make me violently ill."
"So where did you go after they let you out?"
"Oakdale," Frankie said. "I got a job there, as a paralegal."
"Oakdale!" Cass shouted, "I've been to Oakdale. I go back and forth all the time, I have clients there."
"I know. That's what finally... " She sighed, "About three years ago, you were in Oakdale, a high-profile case."
"Emily Stewart," Cass recalled. "A competency hearing. Kidnapping, attempted murder, she's a real piece of work, that one."
"I saw you on TV," Frankie said. "And you just looked... I knew you. The drugs, the brainwashing... I knew you."
Cass covered his mouth with one hand, tears coming to his eyes.
Frankie said, "I did a little digging. Apparently, I'm quite good at it."
"Very good," Cass agreed.
"I found out that my hallucinations weren't really hallucinations after all. And then everything just came flooding back."
"So why didn't you come back then?" Cass demanded.
"I did," Frankie said. "I came back to Bay City on October 22, 2006. That date mean anything to you?"
Lila cocked her head to one side, "That's Jasmine's eighth birthday. What does Jasmine have to do with any of this?"
"Do you remember what you did for Jasmine's birthday?"
"Sure," Lila said. "We had a party out back. It was a real warm Fall that year. Big bash, circus tent, pony rides, half the town was here."
"I was here, too," Frankie said.
"You were here?" Even as Cass said the words, he still couldn't believe them.
"I watched you all. From a distance. You and Charlie and Jasmine and Lila." Frankie asked Lila, "Do you remember the announcement you made on Jasmine's eighth birthday?"
It took Lila a moment, but when she understood what Frankie was getting at, her face darkened. "The baby..."
"The baby," Frankie agreed. "You and Cass and Charlie and Jasmine, you stood up there, in front of that huge cake with your family picture drawn in sugar, and you announced that you were having a baby. A little boy." Frankie looked at Cass, "Now what do you think that could possibly have reminded me of?"
Cass shook his head. "You should have.... "
"What? I should have what? Put you through the same thing Kathleen put you through when she came back from the dead? Put Lila through what I went through when you went back to Kathleen and I was left alone, pregnant with your child? No. Not me. Not again. You had a happy family. You were happy, Charlie was happy, I could see that. I decided I was not going to be the one to ruin it."
"You decided," Cass repeated. Then, with special emphasis on the first word, "You decided? You decided what was best for me and for Charlie and for Lila?"
"Yes," Frankie said firmly.
"Damn it, Mary Frances," Cass exploded. "Damn you, you did it again!"
"You lied to me about Grant blackmailing you?" Matt clarified. "What for?"
Donna shook her head. "It's not important."
"Oh, I think it is. What's going on here, Donna? Am I really so repulsive that you have to resort to making up lies to get rid of me?"
"You are not repulsive, Matthew."
"Gee, thanks." Matt waved away the waiter attempting to approach their table.
"But, yes, I did resort to lying. I wanted to spare your feelings."
"Why?" The question obviously wasn't what Donna had expected. "Well, because, I care about you, and I see no reason to purposely hurt "
"I mean, why are you so eager to break up with me all of a sudden? Especially if you claim you still care about me?"
"I will always care about you, Matthew. You will always be very, very special to me."
"Then why the brush-off?"
"Because." Donna smacked down her napkin, exasperated. "I am tired of this."
"Tired of us?"
"No. Tired of," she waved her hand about, indicating the surrounding area. "This."
"You're tired of eating at the Harbor Club, so you're dumping me?"
"Oh, stop being so deliberately obtuse."
"I was going for funny."
"And I was going for an inkling of reality." Cards on the table, Donna raised one finger at a time to punctuate her points, "I am old enough to be your mother, Matthew. In fact, my daughter is older than you. My ex-husband is married to your mother. My grandchildren are the same age as your daughter."
"So what?" Matt asked.
"So, I am tired of the looks we get. I am tired of the whispers, and the caustic barbs. Grant's Junior crack and the comment about my trolling kindergartens was just the tip of the iceberg. I am tired of the titters that start up when I enter a room. I am tired of being the comic relief of Bay City society. People look at me when I'm with you, and they think I'm some desperate, aging crone, paying a gigolo to shower me with compliments and affection."
"Like you could afford my rates."
"Stop it, Matthew! Don't you see? Even you treat us as a joke."
"Hey! No fair. I treat your periodic panic attacks about us as a joke. I take us damn seriously."
"Then take it seriously. And just for once once! try to look at the situation from my point of view. What happens when you get tired of me? What happens when you wake up one morning and decide you'd like to have children? Or that you'd like to be with a person who, well, for instance, understands the music you listen to?"
"I have Jasmine. Actually, I have Jasmine for both those things."
"Then think about Jasmine. Do you want her to be a joke, too? Do you want her made fun of because her father can't do any better than an old hag?"
"I really think that my daughter's friends have more important things on their minds than my love life." Matt told Donna, "I don't care what other people think about us."
"Well, I do. I'm sorry. I know it's shallow and superficial and narcissistic and self-important. But you know what, Matthew? I am those things. I have always been those things."
"Not to me."
"Then you just haven't been paying attention. You're young. You say you don't care what other people think. Maybe you even find the attention flattering, exciting. At my age, I shy away from excitement. I want predictability, and I want stability. I don't want to spend all my time wondering if today's the day you decide to trade me in for a younger model. No, don't interrupt. What was Lila, after all, but a youthful version of me? Don't tell me you didn't see the resemblance."
"I have a thing for drop-dead gorgeous brunettes. So sue me."
"I don't want to. I don't want the drama. I need calm now. I need peace, Matthew. And I'll never have that with you."
"You did it again," Cass raged at Frankie. "You took stock of the situation, and you made up my mind as to what should be done about it."
"You're damn right, I did," Frankie said. "I made the sacrifices so no one else would have to."
"You mean so that no one would disagree with you! It always astounded me how, for a self-proclaimed free-thinking, independent female who refuses to let any man tell her what to do, you're always so comfortable telling everybody else men and women what they should be doing."
"I was trying to spare you. You weren't even sick yet the first time, when you had to choose between me and Kathleen. Now with your manic depression, who knows what might have happened? You might have gone completely over the edge."
"Like I almost did last night, when you kidnapped my daughter?"
"Our daughter," Frankie reminded. "And she wasn't kidnapped. She told you she was fine, if only you'd left well enough alone."
"Same way you did? So tell me something, if you were so determined to keep away from me and from Lila, why did you approach Charlie? How did you, the all-knowing, all-seeing, decision-making Frankie Frame, come to the conclusion that it would be in my daughter's best interests to lie to her father repeatedly over, it sounds like, a period of several years?"
"Stop yelling at her!" Charlie shouted. "I'm fine. I'm great. She didn't do anything wrong."
"No," Frankie conceded. "Your father is right. I knew, deep down, logically, reasonably, that I shouldn't approach you. That I should just let you go on leading a normal life. I understood what a burden I was placing on you. Asking you to lie and to sneak, cryptic phone-calls, secret meetings. It's too much to ask of someone your age."
"I'm fine," Charlie repeated.
"I'm glad," Frankie said. "And I know that's mostly due to the great job your dad and Lila did bringing you up."
"It was mostly dad," Charlie said. "Lila's just there to add regional color."
Frankie tried her best to suppress a smile. She told her daughter, "The right thing to do would have been for me to stay away from all of you. But I couldn't do it. I didn't have the fortitude. You were my baby girl. I remembered this carrot-haired toddler that used to squirm so much when I tried to pull your hair into ponytails. Do you remember that?
"No," Charlie admitted.
"I do. That was all I had, until I saw you again. So grown up. I'd missed so much. I couldn't bear the idea of missing any more. I know it was selfish of me. But I couldn't resist."
"So why now?" Lila queried. "You resisted contacting Cass for three years. What brought you out of the woodwork now?"
"I was scared," Frankie confessed. "After I dropped Charlie off, I stuck around, I do that sometimes. Just to see her with Cass. He loves her so much. And she loves him. It's exactly what I hoped for them. Today, when Cass was out of control like that with her and with you... I was scared for him. I thought he might do something he'd regret for the rest of his life. I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't be responsible for that."
"Ah," Lila said. "So it was all about you. Again."
"That's enough, Lila," Cass barked. He rubbed his face with both hands, as if trying to wake up from his fondest dream that somehow managed to simultaneously turn into a nightmare. "What's done is done. We can't change the past. We can't unmake any decisions that were made. Unilaterally or not," he told Frankie pointedly. She accepted his accusation by remaining silent. "The question is, what do we do now?"
Charlie said, "I want to go with Mom."
"What?" Cass asked. "Who said anything about going anywhere?"
"I don't mean for good. I mean, just for now. From the first day, it's like she said, we had to sneak around, make sure nobody saw us. We've never been able to just hang out. You know, like normal mothers and daughters? Now that everything is out in the open and we don't have to hide anymore, can't we do that? Please, Mom, can we go out for a little bit? I don't care what we do. I just want to feel normal for a change."
Frankie looked at Cass. She asked, "What do you think? I'm sure you and Lila need some time to digest all this. Maybe it would be good if Charlie and I stepped out for a couple of hours."
"Absolutely not," Lila said. "We have no idea what you might be planning. For all we know you've got two one-way tickets to Peru or something."
"If I wanted to kidnap Charlie, I could have done it a dozen times by now. I would never do that to her. Or to Cass."
"Please, Dad." Charlie wheedled, "It'd give you and Lila a chance to talk. I'll be back before my curfew tonight. I promise."
"I'll take good care of her, Cass."
"Will you bring her back?" he demanded desperately. "Promise me you'll bring her back."
"What about you? Will you come back? Or are you just going to disappear again?"
"I won't disappear."
For a moment they did nothing but gaze at each other across the room, both knowing that their exchange was woefully inadequate, neither knowing how to repair the seemingly irreparable damage.
Finally, Cass turned away, too overwhelmed to continue, unable to process another potential revelation or resurgent emotion.
"Go," he said. "Both of you, just... go. I don't... I can't.... Not now."
Frankie nodded and put her arm around Charlie's shoulder. As they were heading out, she called, "Cass?"
"Okay," he nodded, more for his benefit than hers. "Yeah. Sure. That fixes everything."
So much for a boys' night out.
Jamie looked from Steven to Kirkland, both of his sons with their heads down, their fingers flying over the tiny keys of their Sidekicks. They paused only to rehydrate, emptying bottles of root beer and Mountain Dew with alarming speed, and to make short non-committal grunts to anything Jamie said in their direction including Jamie's request that they quit with the texting already.
Finally, he'd had enough. He leaned over to pluck the offending instruments out of each son's hand. Both so preoccupied with their keypads that they didn't see it coming.
"I was using that!"
"I'm trying to spend some quality time with my boys," Jamie looked at each pointedly. "And until I get some, these are off limits."
Steven narrowed his eyes at him as Kirkland glanced to his big brother.
"We can take him," Kirkland muttered to Steven, who was eyeing his Sidekick like it was the last one on earth.
"Maybe," Steven nodded, wheels turning as he planned his attack.
"Seriously, guys?" Jamie laughed, amused that his sons were not only contemplating double-teaming their father right there in the Bowlarama, but that they actually thought they could win. Kirkland might have the reach and Steven might be faster, but Jamie was willing to play dirty.
He waved to their server, Rain Wolfe, an always smiling, bouncy college student who whenever she approached their table, managed to make Kirkland and Steven blush.
"Hey, guys," Rain cooed as she skipped up to Jamie. "More root beer and Mountain Dew?"
"Actually, I need you to do me a favor," Jamie smiled at her, dropping the two Sidekicks on her tray. "Hold these for me for half an hour "
"Half an hour?!" When he yelped, Kirkland's voice lost its habitual teen sullenness and regressed to whiny fourth-grader. Jamie hated to admit it, but sometimes he missed that fourth-grader. His problems had been much easier to solve.
"Make it an even hour," Jamie continued. "I'm trying to have a nice evening out with my sons, but they're making it rather difficult."
"I see," Rain smirked, glancing over at Kirkland and Steven whose faces were now a deep shade of red.
"Please ignore any attempts on their part to sweet talk, flirt "
"Dad!" Kirkland gritted, his face crimson.
" Or cajole those away from you before the hour is up. As a matter of fact, if you see either of my sons leave this table before the hour is up, I want you to drop their Sidekicks into the nearest pitcher of water, beer, or cola."
At this, both boys were speechless, looking only to Rain with pleading eyes.
"I'll give you fifty bucks to ignore everything he said," Kirkland finally breathed, fumbling for his wallet.
"Sorry, Kirk," Rain laughed, giving Jamie a wink before pocketing the sidekicks and bouncing away. He turned back to Steven and Kirkland who glared at him with the glare children only reserved for their parents. The glare of knowing that no matter how obnoxious you got, the person you were glaring at was still legally obliged to keep putting up with you.
"That was so not cool," Kirkland growled, sulking in his seat.
"Says a boy who was going to 'take on' his father."
"And gross," Steven grumbled.
"Gross?" Jamie frowned. "How was what I did gross?"
"Because you were playing the DILF card," Steven scowled.
"Which means?" Jamie asked innocently, knowing full well what it meant, but unable to resist needling his sons.
"You know what it means," Steven huffed, folding his arms across his chest in a pout.
"Spell it out for your old man." When no one obliged his request, Jamie mused, "Well, I know 'D' stands for Dad. And 'I' stands for 'I'd' "
"Can we not have this discussion," Kirkland hissed.
" 'L' stands for like," Jamie continued, scratching his head. "But 'F'? What does that stand for again? Fight? Fetch? Flatten?"
"You are not funny," Steven grimaced even as Kirkland snorted.
"Flush?" Jamie continued. "Fudge?"
"Fudge?" Steven guffawed. "No, dad, it's not fudge. Although flushing your head in the toilet does sound like fun."
"I got it!" Jamie slapped the table. "It means 'Dad I'd like to "
"Don't say it!" Kirkland and Steven cut him off in unison, causing a number of heads to swivel in their direction. Both boys looked around self-consciously while Jamie exploded in laughter,
"Enjoying yourself?" Steven wondered through gritted teeth.
"Immensely," Jamie chuckled, wiping a stray tear from his eye. "Man, you two are so uptight."
"Well, you'd be too if your dad was your competition."
"Steven," Jamie laughed. "As flattering as it is to know that I am in some way still attractive to the opposite sex "
Kirkland rolled his eyes. "Stop saying that word. Please."
" I'm not too keen on becoming known as Bay City's resident dirty old man, nor do I wish to possibly spend a good portion of my twilight years in prison. I'll stick to dating women my own age, thank you very much."
"But that's just it, Dad, you don't date women your own age," Steven leaned over the table. "You don't date anybody."
"That's because "
"Don't use me and Kirkland as an excuse."
"Or work," Kirkland piped in.
"Those aren't excuses," Jamie began carefully. "They're reality. Raising kids is a full-time job for two competent parents, let alone one guy fumbling around trying to do his best. Add in a paying the bills, full-time job like being a doctor with unpredictable hours, and there's very little time to read the mail much less go out on a date."
"If you wanted to get your groove on, you'd make the time," Kirkland shrugged.
"My 'groove' on?" Jamie laughed. "That's back, huh? Everything old is new again?"
"I think you're afraid," Steven mused with a cocked head. "You've flamed out so many times, you're gun-shy about getting back on the horse. So to speak."
"And suddenly my son has a psychology degree."
"I've taken a course or two," Steven shrugged. "You know, to fill out that stupid well-rounded humanities requirement they're always blathering on about. And what you're doing right now is called deflecting. You're trying to knock the conversation off you because you don't want to talk about your many, many, many intimacy issues."
"Nailed," Kirkland agreed, before draining the contents of his cup through a straw with a loud slurp.
"I don't have intimacy issues, Steven. I am fully aware of what I do and what I do not want regarding a personal life."
"Personal. Unless you'd like to discuss why it is that you never seem to date the same girl for more than a week. Commitment issues?"
"Well, if I have them, I must've learned them from someone," Steven teased.
"Your grandmother, Donna."
"You blame her for everything," Kirkland snorted.
"Look," Steven pressed. "All I'm saying is that maybe it'd do you some good to get out there again. You haven't dated anyone since Kirk and I came to live with you full-time. That's ten years! At the very least you've got to be "
"Horny," Kirkland supplied. "Really, really, horny."
"Exactly," Steven nodded. "And lonely. I mean besides us and work, you don't have anything else."
"That's because I don't want anything else," Jamie said. "I'm happy with my life the way it is. It's full and fun and everything a man could hope to have at this point in his life."
"Yeah, if you're a eunuch," Kirkland muttered.
"Is this really about Marley?" Steven asked. "Like, you still have feelings for her or something?"
Jamie looked from Steven to Kirkland, noticing the latter boy's face darken at the mention of Marley.
"My past relationship with your aunt Marley is just that the past. We've both moved on."
"Um, you're still single. And so is she. You're raising us all together. You guys are pretty much an old married couple. You just don't have sex."
"Move," Kirkland shoved Steven. "I gotta go use the bathroom." He turned to Jamie. "I can get up to use the bathroom, can't I? Or is Rain supposed to dunk my phone if do that, too?"
Jamie nodded, and Kirkland was climbing over Steven, not bothering to wait for him to move.
"Watch the fingers!" Steven warned.
"Whatever. You can write world-changing code with your toes," Kirkland snarled over his shoulder, any remnant of a good mood gone. Jamie looked after him, wondering what brought this latest tantrum on, and nursing the sinking feeling that, sooner or later, he would have to find out.
"So as I was saying," Steven continued.
Jamie laughed in exasperation. "Just let it go, son."
"Why can't you and Marley give it another shot? It'd be like the perfect fairy tale ending for you two. Michelle and Bridget would eat it up. You know how girls are about stuff like that."
"Girls. Right." Jamie chuckled. Looking at Steven, Jamie got the feeling that his son would possibly, just maybe, sort of like it, too. "But, the thing is, there were very real problems between us, even when things were at their best."
"But you're older and wiser now," Steven finished. "I see the way she looks at you, Dad. I think if you gave yourselves another chance, the two of you could be happy."
"And if things don't work out, you, Kirkland, Bridget, and Michelle would be caught in the middle of the equivalent of a messy divorce. I don't want to put you guys through that. Things are great as they are, Steven. I'm happy, Marley is happy, you kids are happy. I'm not willing to risk all that for 'what if', okay?"
The look on Steven's face told him it wasn't, but Jamie didn't give him the chance to mount a new attack. "I'm going to go see if an alley is free. Wait here for Kirkland."
"Hey, guys," Rain bounced up to Jamie. "Can I freshen up your drinks?"
"I'm good," Jamie smiled politely, noticing Rain's smile widening as Steven's eyes narrowed. "But you should check with Steven on what he wants. Oh," Jamie turned back to her, his hands out. "I'll take their phones back now. Thanks for your help."
"No problem, Mr. Frame," Rain sparkled, causing Steven to groan and Jamie to laugh as he left them at the table.
Cass sat in a chair by the window. The same window from which he'd watched Charlie and Frankie Frankie! Frankie, damn it! walk away. The same window through which he'd watched afternoon turn to dusk, dusk to evening, evening to night. The same neatly manicured lawns, the familiar doors and neighbors and pets, but all Cass saw when he gazed out now was Frankie. Frankie as she'd looked the initial time they'd met. Frankie at their first attempted wedding, Frankie from the wedding that actually came off, with West Side Story wafting in the background. Frankie at their second wedding in Venice. Frankie with Charlie as a newborn. Frankie trying to fasten those darn ponytails on either side of their squirmy daughter's head. Frankie dead.
And now Frankie alive.
Just like Kathleen, once upon a time.
Despite Cass' fury with Frankie at making all of the decision for them on this go-around, she did have a point. The three of them went through hell back then.
And back then, there hadn't been a child involved.
Well, not one that he knew about. Until it was too late.
So like Frankie.
The good, the bad, the... Frankie.
For hours, Lila had let Cass be. She allowed him to withdraw into his memories the same way that she withdrew upstairs. Cass had no idea what she was up to this was as huge of a shock for her as it had been for him until Lila finally came back into their living room. She was dressed to go out, and carrying a valise that Cass recognized from their last family vacation.
Lila entered quietly, doing her best not to disturb him. She waited until Cass had turned, taken in her outfit, and asked, "What's going on, here? Are you going somewhere? Where are you going?"
Lila looked Cass straight in the eye, and cleared her throat. Willing her voice not to crack from the strain, she told Cass, "I'm leaving you."
Rachel and Carl took the same plane home from Chicago to Bay City. They sat side by side in adjoining seats. They shared a cab to the house.
And the entire way there, neither one uttered a single word.
They were at the foot of their drive, preparing to walk the dimly lit, gravel road up to their front door, when Carl, out of the blue, said, "Would you care to make a guess as to what my singular modus operandi has been from the time I was a wee lad?"
"I don't know," Rachel offered, "Leave no witnesses?"
Carl allowed himself a wry smile. "That one makes the top ten, but, no, it does not hold the crowning spot."
"Take no prisoners? Show no mercy? Look both ways before you cross the street? Help me out, here, Carl, I'm in no mood for guessing games."
"My one, singular, overriding aphorism going through life has been: Never give a damn what anyone else thinks."
"Good for you." Rachel had no idea where this was leading, and even less interest in finding out. Her trips to Canada and Chicago had wiped Rachel out, both physically and emotionally. She needed time to process everything she had learned. And she needed a long, hot, cleansing shower. Though, after learning that your husband had kept a dear friend's soulmate locked up for close to two decades, Rachel suspected there wasn't enough soap in the world to wash that knowledge away.
"Rachel, please," Carl stopped her from stepping towards the house. He turned Rachel around, compelling her to look at him. "I am trying to tell you something."
"The truth?" she wondered. "That would make a nice change after all this time."
"I am trying to tell you that everything I have done through the years, the good, the bad, the unforgivable, none of it would have been possible if I'd taken a moment to consider how others judged my actions. It wasn't that I merely didn't pay it any mind, it was that I put the option out of my mind entirely. It became utterly reflexive."
"I suppose it would have to be."
"You've changed that. I realized, during the plane ride home, it wasn't merely that I wished to clear my name in this Felicia and Lucas and Jenna business because I needed to prove myself right and all others wrong. It was because I needed you only you, the rest of them can rot in Hell, for all I care to believe that I did not commit the crimes of which I am accused. I did not sequester Lucas from his family, I did not kidnap Felicia over Easter, and I most certainly did not father Jenna Norris and then go to extreme lengths to conceal that fact."
Rachel looked at her husband. Really looked at him for the first time in what felt like forever. He seemed so desperate to have her believe him. Carl was never desperate. Forceful, yes. Cajoling, yes. Manipulative, certainly. Threatening, on occasion. But desperate? Rachel didn't understand it. And thus she didn't know how to respond to it.
"Why is this so important to you? After a lifetime of not caring "
"Because you are my wife, Goddamit!" Carl corrected himself, "No. Not merely because of that. After all, I have been married before, and those unions hardly managed to affect me in such a manner. It is because you are my soul, Rachel. In Wuthering Heights when Catherine proclaims herself to be Heathcliff, I must confess, I never quite understood her needlessly melodramatic point."
"And if it was too melodramatic for you..." Rachel observed.
"Precisely," he agreed with an ironic smile. "Because you see, I could never presume to be you, my dear. But you you, Rachel Hutchins, you are me."
"I'm not sure whether to take that as a compliment."
"You are all the good that ever was in me, all the good that has surfaced since we met, and all the good that deigns to remain still. To invoke another female giant of literature: If you don't believe in her, Tinkerbell will die."
Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Does that make you Tinkerbell in this example? Funny, I always saw you more as the Captain Hook type."
"If you don't believe that there is good in me, then I can already feel that aspect of my soul shriveling up and dying as surely as if you'd torn it out my chest with your bare hands."
"And now we've moved on to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
"Beg pardon? I'm not familiar with that one."
Rachel summarized. "So you're blackmailing me, is that it?"
"I am doing nothing of the sort!"
"Believe in me, love me, or I'll revert to being the scourge of Bay City? Sure sounds like blackmail to me!"
"That is not what I said." The amusement that Carl was willing to entertain while they discussed Wuthering Heights and Peter Pan characters drained from his face the moment Rachel made an accusation too vile for him to bear. "I am simply explaining to you that, for the first time in my life, I care about what another person, namely you, believes about me. If I lose you, then I lose me. It's that bloody simple."
Rachel couldn't play games anymore. She couldn't keep coming up with amusing, devil-may-care answers to keep from at long last confronting the elephant in the room that had been with them ever since Cass and Lila had come to tell the Hutchins about Felicia, Jenna and Dean's disappearance.
Rachel's husband was tired of her stalling. He was demanding to hear her answer the question: Did Rachel believe that he was a monster?
She couldn't put it off any longer. The moment of truth was here, and being clever or pithy wasn't going to get her out of it. Not this time.
Exhausted, Rachel could only ask Carl for the umpteenth time, "Jenna isn't your daughter?"
"No," Carl swore. "I had nothing to do with her mother. And I had nothing to do with her, Felicia and Dean going missing."
"What about Lucas?"
"I did not have him kidnapped. I did not keep him locked up for seventeen years."
"Then why does he say that you did?"
"I don't know," Carl appeared as baffled as she felt. "Perhaps he is honestly mistaken. Perhaps it is something he was simply told and, over the years, the isolation has driven him to believe that he actually saw and heard me confess to the crime in person. Or, perhaps a decade ago, Alexander Nikos was able to make a mask that was such an exact replica of my physiognomy that he succeeded in passing as me on several occasions. Perhaps this is a case of yet another imposter attempting to ruin me."
"Why would anyone do that to you?" It took Rachel a moment for the full, preposterous weight of her words to sink in. Shaking her head ruefully, she amended, "Obviously, there are plenty of reasons why someone would do that to you. The question is who? And why now?"
"I don't know," Carl repeated, clearly unused to so much as uttering the phrase, much less twice in succession. "But if all of this is connected somehow, Lucas' abduction with Felicia, Jenna and Dean's disappearance, then I can not help thinking that the key to unraveling the entire conundrum lies back the beginning."
"What do you mean? The beginning of what?"
"Jenna's beginning. The Convent of the Sacred Heart."
"Yes, yes, yes! The Love girls rule!"
Marley turned to Bridget and Michelle as the last of her pins fell over and her strike was recorded for the win. The three of them high-fived each other in celebration, having beaten the Frame boys for a third straight time that night.
Technically, it was the lone Frame boy, or rather, the Frame man, who'd tasted bitter defeat at their dainty hands. Jamie was the only Frame left after Steven took off to meet up with Allie, GQ, and some other friends, while Kirkland had snatched his Sidekick from Jamie and retreated to a seat as far away from their group as possible while still remaining technically in the reserved area.
"Now, if I'm not mistaken," Marley grinned at Jamie. "The loser, which would be you, owes the winners, which would be "
"Us!" Michelle beamed, Bridget giggling behind her.
"All we can grab from the snack bar," Marley finished.
"I want nachos!" Michelle held her hand out for cash.
"I want loaded potato skins," Bridget announced, hand out even further. "With bacon!"
Jamie shook his head. "There is no way the two of you can eat all that!"
"Uh-huh!" they replied in unison.
"Nachos and potato skins are not the dinners of champions. I'm a doctor, I know this for a fact."
Bridget silently wiggled her fingers, beckoning her share of the cash.
Jamie's eyes flickered up to Marley. "And what do you want?"
A sea of forbidden images flashed through Marley's mind, the combination of adrenaline, libido, and Jamie looking oh, so cute with tousled hair and a tight fitted t-shirt all working against her.
Nothing we can do in front of the kids.
She bit the inside of her cheek, stifling a laugh. "I'll get back to you."
Jamie shook his head. "This deal is good for tonight only, Marley. No saving it until later."
She embraced the courage her adrenaline gave her.
"Excuse me?" Marley laughed, placing a hand on her hip. "Losers don't get to make the rules. I'll take my prize when I want my prize. Got it?"
Her cheekiness surprised Jamie, his eyes widening and mouth falling open. Michelle and Bridget, however, giggled in delight at their Aunt Marley laying down the law with Uncle Jamie.
"I want my treat now!" Bridget pressed, Michelle nodding in agreement. Jamie relented, pulling out a few bills and handing them to the girls. "I still say you intentionally tripped me on my last turn," he sniffed at Michelle.
Her response was to stick her tongue out at Jamie before following her sister over to Kirk as he lay sprawled across several chairs and entered his third straight hour of texting. Apparently something very, very interesting was going on at Charlie Winthrop's house.
Michelle punched her brother in the leg. "Come with us and get treats!"
"We have mon-ey" Bridget sang, waving her prize earnings in Kirkland's face.
Kirkland rolled his eyes, continuing to text. "I'm not taking your money."
"Come with us anyway!" Michelle pleaded. "You're the best at explaining how I like my nachos."
"Please?" Bridget added for effect.
"Alright, alright," Kirkland relented. Each twin grabbed one of his hands and pulled him along as they headed for the snack bar.
"Sure you don't want anything, Marley?" Bridget called over her shoulder.
Marley shook her head. "I'm good. Just be sure you're ready to go in half an hour. Kirk, too."
She didn't know if it was the use of his nickname or her continued existence on planet Earth that caused Kirkland to throw Marley a glance of death.
Fortunately, neither of the girls saw it.
Jamie, however, caught every glared dagger, and turned to Marley, looking for an explanation.
At Carl's insistence, he and Rachel didn't even stop by the house to announce that they were back in town. They simply abandoned their bags in the first room off the garage, and climbed into the gray Aston Martin that Carl kept for everyday use, roaring off towards the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
On the way there, eyes on the road, Carl asked Rachel, "Does this mean you finally believe me when I avow that I am innocent of this entire palaver?"
Glad not to have to look him in the eye, Rachel could only commit as far as, "I believe that much more is going on than what someone would like us to think. And I do believe that all the clues are pointing way too conveniently in your direction. I don't appreciate being conned. By anyone," she added pointedly.
"Good enough," Carl accepted. "For now."
They kept driving, taking the turn off the main road that would lead them towards the convent. In the near-darkness, Carl had to swerve at the last minute to keep from knocking down a shadowy figure that leapt out of the surrounding woods and practically planted itself on the windshield of their car.
Though Carl managed to avoid a collision, the figure appeared determined to make contact with them, running after their car and frantically waving his arms.
Carl hit the brakes and, in that same instant, the light from their rear high-beams struck the mysterious man in the face.
Looking back at them was the purportedly missing Dean Frame.
"What's going on with you and Kirk?" Jamie asked Marley as soon as the kids were out of earshot.
"Teenage boys. When aren't they mad at the world?"
Marley picked up a bowling ball and turned towards the lane, smoothly executing a release that resulted in a satisfying toppling of pins.
"Strike!" she yelled with gusto, enjoying another surge of adrenaline and turning to grin at Jamie.
"Did you and Kirk have an argument?" he pressed.
"God, Jamie, take the night off from worrying about everything. You're going to turn your hair grayer than it is. Not that you don't wear it well." She spun away from him, a half smile on her face.
Marley realized that she was
Damn it, she was flirting and they had agreed, or rather, they had negotiated an unspoken agreement that they wouldn't go down that road again for the children's sake.
And yet, Marley was finding herself tempted. Very tempted. Her brain wasn't in control tonight. Her need to feel Jamie out was.
Snagging another ball, Marley shot it down the lane and received another satisfying echo of falling pins for her trouble.
"Strike!" she fist pumped, then turned to Jamie proudly. "Want to go at it one on one?"
"Are you drunk?" he wondered, keeping his tone deliberately light and non-accusing.
"No," she laughed.
"High?" Jamie tried again, realizing that his second guess was even less likely than the first.
"Well, then I'm all out of reasons for you to be acting so "
"What?" she challenged, plopping down next to him. She grabbed the beer out of his hand and took a drink.
"Like this," he eyed her warily. "What exactly is going on with you tonight?"
"I don't know. Maybe winning makes me hot?"
Jamie leaned back in his chair and gazed at her in amusement. "Oh, it does, does it?"
"In the it excites me kind of way," she continued.
"What other way is there?" Jamie teased innocently.
"Can't a girl just have a good day and be in a good mood?"
"She could," Jamie nodded. "But you're extra... ebullient tonight. Which makes me think that something extra special happened today."
"Like what?" Marley scoffed.
"I don't know," Jamie mused. "You don't have a new hairstyle."
"New shoes? A new dress?"
"There's more to a woman's life than shopping, my dear Jamie."
"Ah," he said after a moment, a slow grin spreading across his face.
Marley rolled her eyes. "What?"
"It's a guy. Who is it? Someone at the art gallery? A teacher at the twins' school?"
"No," she laughed.
Jamie gasped. "Don't tell me its Foam Art Boy? Did he whip up something naughty for your latte today?"
"Yes, Jamie," Marley drawled. "And then he took me back to the stockroom and we did naughty things to each other."
"Great. Now, I'll have to find another coffee place."
"Jamie!" she punched his arm. "Give me a little credit, okay? I don't do coffee baristas in the stockroom!"
"Well, something's got you all bouncy and happy," he mused, leaning back in his seat.
"Have you ever thought that it's spending time with you and the kids that's got me in such a good mood? We haven't done a night like this in months."
Jamie snorted. "Steven bailed to go to dinner with his friends and Kirkland ignored us for the last how many hours in favor of cyberspace?"
"Okay, well then, it was spending time with you and the girls. It was nice. No drama, no teenaged angst, no sulking "
"Just you wait," Jamie shook his head. "In a year, those girls will be nothing but drama and teenaged angst. Dances. Dates. First kisses. And it'll only keep going from there."
"Way to bring down the room."
"Sorry," he laughed softly. "I just can't ever completely shut off my Dad mode."
"Or your doctor mode. Or your worry mode. Or "
"Yes, Marley, thank you. I get it. I'm a bore."
"You're not a bore. You just need to shift gears every now and then. Get out of your responsible Dad mode and into Jamie mode."
"Is that what this is? You in Marley mode?"
She cocked her head at him. "If you are referring to me letting loose my sassy competitive side so as to completely own you at bowling? Then, yes."
She scooped up another ball and sent it sailing down the lane, pins flying to complete another strike.
"I'm not sure I like this
"I think you do," she smirked confidently, following the assertion up by leaning over and kissing him, hard, full, completely and unmistakably on the lips.
And suddenly it was fifteen years ago, before things had gone to hell, when everything had been simpler, and all she knew was that she loved this man with all her heart and soul.
Smiling into Jamie's lips, Marley gently pulled away, a mixture of giddiness, relief, and hope surging through her.
It was still there, that something between them. She'd felt it. Which meant that he had to have felt it, too.
She looked into Jamie's eyes and saw a flurry of emotions running through them, no doubt the same ones that she was feeling.
"Marley," Jamie began, but she shook her head at him, backing away before he could say anything smart or responsible.
"Sleep on it, Frame," she called over her shoulder. "We'll talk later."
Marley kept walking, trying to keep her cool even as her heart pounded like a hummingbird on a caffeine high.
This was either the start of
something new and great. Or... she had impulsively and
stupidly opened herself and Jamie up to a world of pain.
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