Amanda hesitated for only a moment. And then she informed Mr. Kevin Fowler, Esquire, that James Frame wasn't currently available. But, she added, Mr. Fowler could expect a visit from Mr. Frame's attorney, one Ms. Mandy Ashton, shortly.
Amanda was less than two steps away from being out the front door when she heard her mother's voice directly behind her. "Forgive me for interrupting you, Ms. Ashton, but I simply had to hear about this overnight law school you've apparently completed."
"Darn," Amanda let the knob in her hand click back to the locked position. "Almost got away with it, too."
Rachel crossed her arms and managed to sound simultaneously intrigued, exasperated, and grudgingly impressed when she asked, "What precisely do you think you're doing, young lady?"
"Shh, Mom." Amanda patted the air with both hands as if attempting to shrink a pair of fourth-graders into toddlers by tapping on their heads. "Keep your voice down."
"Why? I'm not the one doing anything wrong."
"I'm not doing anything wrong, either."
"I'm pretty sure that impersonating an attorney is a crime. Especially when your alleged client knows nothing about it."
"Jamie doesn't need to be dealing with Grant's lawyer right now."
"You've made the decision for him? How helpful."
"Come on, Mom. You know how Jamie gets. Grant will provoke him, he'll go off half-cocked, do something stupid, and next thing you know, Grant's got evidence making Jamie look like a bad father."
"Jamie can act impulsively," Rachel agreed, somewhat convinced, but not enough to let Amanda escape out the door.
That's when her daughter knew she had to pull out the big guns if she harbored any hope of getting her way.
Amanda said, "All my life, I've heard the story of how when I was a little girl and that woman, Evan's mom, Janice Frame, was slowly killing Daddy, poisoning him, and nobody believed it, especially not Daddy, you took matters into your own hands and flew down to St. Croix, and stopped her just in time. You killed her, Mom, and all to protect Daddy. Can't you see that I'm trying to do the same thing here? Protect my family? Only I'm trying to do it before things get any further out of hand."
Rachel took a long, long moment to look at her daughter. And then she said, "My darling, are you honestly trying to manipulate me? Because, if that's the case, I'm afraid you haven't the slightest idea of whom you're dealing with."
Well, Amanda decided, if shameless emotional exploitation wasn't going to work, she might as well take a stab at guilt. What did she have to lose?
Amanda said, "I know I'm dealing with a woman who tried to break up her son's marriage by hiring his wife's ex to seduce her away!"
Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Blaine Ewing? You're playing the Blaine Ewing card? You were still in diapers when all of that unfortunate business took place."
"Jamie's mentioned it once or twice."
"Usually when he's angry with me. For butting into his life," Rachel added pointedly.
Amanda sighed. "Are you going to let me do this or not, Mom?"
"Let you? This isn't a matter of me letting you do anything. You're a grown woman; you're not a child. You can make your own decisions."
"Thank you, at least, for that small vote of confidence."
"This is a matter of my strongly, strongly advising you not to do this."
"Are you going to tell Jamie?"
"I haven't decided yet," Rachel admitted.
"Well, at least wait until I come back from meeting with Grant's lawyer. We can all talk about it then."
When Rachel didn't immediately reply, Amanda took it as the closest she'd be getting to consent. Once again, she was almost out the door when Rachel announced, "Please don't go thinking you've pulled the wool over my eyes. I know this isn't all about Jamie. This is about Grant, and the score you still intend to settle with him."
Now it was Amanda's turn not to reply immediately.
Or at all.
Because of the early start they'd gotten, Cass and Lila were able to turn right around, hop on the next plane back to Bay City and arrive at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where Jenna had boarded from the ages to ten to seventeen, by noon.
It was Cass' idea to hit up the nuns who'd educated Jenna for any relevant information about her true parentage. He knew that Jenna herself had gone before, looking for clues about her biological father, and gotten nothing.
Cass and Lila were hoping for better luck when it came to the issue of Jenna's alleged biological mother.
Both Winthrops had previously experienced brushes with the Catholic Church. In Lila's case, it was a brief stint at St. Stephen's Home for Girls after her mother was killed back when people still believed Lila's soul to be salvageable. In Cass', it was him, Felicia, and the late Wallingford dressing up as nuns for reasons which he did not care to go into at the present time. But the fact remained, Cass and Lila each felt well versed in the attire they believed appropriate for those taking the veil.
And a hot, pink, evening gown somehow seemed wrong to both of them.
Nevertheless, a hot, pink evening gown was exactly what the Sacred Heart Mother Superior who greeted them was wearing. She tried to explain it away by claiming, "The girls are putting on an end of the year fashion show fund-raiser this evening. They thought it would be funny to see us all dressed up for the occasion. We do believe in supporting our pupils' outside-the-box thinking skills, so here I am, straight from rehearsal! What may I do for you, Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop?"
Vaguely disoriented by the get-up, Cass did his best to focus on the matter at hand. He explained the situation as quickly as possible, all the while unobtrusively diverting his gaze in the sincere belief that eyeing a nun's cleavage, even if it was so inescapably presented, was a surer ticket to Hell than even stealing authors from Cory Publishing, listening to a word Cecile de Poulignac ever said, and the aforementioned sacrilegious dressing up with Felicia and Wallingford.
"I don't know what to tell you," the Mother Superior lamented. "As far as I knew, for all the years Jenna lived with us, Gloria Norris was her mother. She never divulged who Jenna's father was, but it is our policy at Sacred Heart not to blame the child for their parent's mistakes, so we didn't press the issue."
"Do you still have Jenna's old records on file?" Cass asked. "Maybe if I was able to take a look them, I'd see something that could give us a clue "
"Absolutely not. Those records are confidential, between the school and the student. In any case, I hardly see how knowing what marks Jenna Norris received for 10th grade Composition could be helpful to you in finding either her, or Ms. Gallant."
Cass asked, "Have you heard from Jenna lately? Or from Felicia?"
"I can't say that I have," the Mother Superior thought back. "They're both very good about sending Christmas cards, but that was almost six months ago. I do enjoy reading Ms. Gallant's holiday letters on all she's been up to. I must admit I am a devoted fan of her books, as well."
"Nuns read romance novels?" Lila interrupted. "Isn't that, like, one of those little, weasel sins they're always talking about?"
"We are allowed our hobbies, Mrs. Winthrop. I assure you, enjoying the literary output of Felicia Gallant is neither a mortal nor a venial sin."
"Venial," Lila agreed. "That's the one I meant."
Cass said, "The thing is, sometimes a clue isn't an obvious thing. If I could just look through Jenna's records, there may be something there that seems perfectly innocuous to you, but to me "
"I said, no, Mr. Winthrop. I'm sorry, but it is out of the question. Jenna is an adult now, and she is the only one who has the right to look at those records. Or to authorize who else may look at them."
"Jenna is missing!" Cass exploded. "She is no position to authorize anything. Her life may be in danger!"
"Do you have any evidence of this? From everything you've told me, it sounds like she could just as easily be taking a vacation with her husband and mother. Are they obligated to report their every move to you?"
Cass did his best to calm down while still conveying the urgency of the situation. "Felicia called. She left a voice-mail. She said she needed to speak to me, and then she disappeared."
"Perhaps she changed her mind," Mother Superior suggested reasonably.
"God damn it," Cass snapped.
"And that, Mr. Winthrop, is not only as your wife would put it, a 'weasel' sin, but the end of our interview. I wish you luck in your search for Ms. Gallant and her family. I am certain everything will turn out well. When it does, please give her, Jenna and Dean my best. I need to get back to our rehearsal."
As she said the words, the Mother Superior made no attempt to leave her office, clearly indicating that it were Cass and Lila who should be doing so, instead.
"I'm sorry," Cass began. "It's just that I'm so worried "
"Have a nice day, Mr. Winthrop." Mother Superior crossed the room to hold the door open for them. "Mrs. Winthrop."
They had no option but to pass through it.
Back in their car, Lila reached over to readjust the rearview mirror in her direction after 10 years, Cass had given up ever being able to see the traffic behind him and, as she reapplied the coral lipstick she'd wiped off prior to their entering the convent out of respect... and a fear of smiting she casually asked her husband, "Now, I always get this mixed up. Lying, is that a venial sin, or one of the major, mortal ones?"
Cass had been about to start the engine. But his hand halted on the way to sliding his key into the ignition. He looked at his wife for a long moment. Then, completely lost, he asked, "What?"
"Is lying a mortal sin, or a venial one? Because, the way I figure it, maybe nuns get a couple of free passes for the little ones. On account of their being so holy the rest of the time?"
There was really nothing Cass could say to that beyond repeating, "What?"
"That nun lied to us. She's seen Felicia, or at least heard from her, in just the past couple of weeks."
"How in the world would you know that?"
"Because, while you were busy checking out her ample bosoms "
"Lila! She's a nun!"
"Doesn't mean God forgot to give her a handful! A man would have to be blind to miss that pair of knockers."
"It wasn't my fault. They were right there. "
"In any case, while you were doing your Holy Seeing, I looked around her office. And wouldn't you know it, right there on her desk, under a bunch of papers, what did I see but the galleys to Felicia's latest book!"
"Are you sure?" Cass asked.
"Hello, Hollywood Hills by Felicia Gallant. Isn't that her latest? That book's not supposed to be in stores till Christmas. Galleys just came out a few weeks ago. I remember, because when we last saw her, Felicia was talking about making changes right up till the last minute. Now how do you suppose Felicia's most saintly supporter got a copy of her latest book months before anyone else?"
"I suppose Felicia could have had Cory Publishing automatically send the Mother Superior a copy."
"True. But then why lie and say the last thing she heard from her was Felicia's Christmas letter?"
"Maybe it just slipped her mind."
"The woman's got Felicia Gallant number two on her personal favorites list, right after Jesus and probably before any of his apostles. You really think she'd just up and forget getting a sneak preview of her latest book?"
"So Felicia sent her a copy. So what? It still doesn't tell us anything."
"It tells us the good Mother is lying. It tells us that, for all we know, Felicia and Jenna came to the convent with the exact same death certificate and the exact same questions that we've got, dropping off the galleys in person to maybe soften her up and get her talking. And it tells us that, for some reason, the Mother Superior doesn't want us to know it."
"Okay," Cass agreed. "Let's say you're right. How, short of another bribe, do we soften her up and get her talking?"
"Aw, that's a lost cause," Lila finished reapplying her lipstick and generously swiveled the mirror back in Cass' direction. "She's never going to talk to us."
"So what do you suggest?"
"I suggest you and I find out what time that fashion show is this evening. And then I suggest we use it as a distraction to break into the convent and take a look at Jenna's records for ourselves."
Like Cass Winthrop, Amanda Cory didn't know how she, or anyone else, survived the pre-Internet days. In the three hours before she arrived at the Lakeside Hotel, where Kevin Fowler had set up a temporary Bay City office, Amanda had sat at the Lucky Lady Coffee House and, fueled by a bottomless stream of caffeine, used her laptop to find out as much as she could about the man she was about to drop in on. Only then did she feel prepared to enter the field of battle, i.e. his suite.
The WorldWideWeb had dug up only a few distant and blurry photographs of the notorious legal representative in question, so when they were finally face to face, Amanda felt thrown off balance to realize that Kevin Fowler was younger than she'd expected. His list of achievements, not to mention the gravelly voice she'd heard over the phone, had suggested a somewhat older man.
Kevin Fowler, in fact, was probably a few years short of forty, with jet-black hair that contrasted, not unfavorably, against his nearly translucent blue eyes. They were so lightly colored, they were almost like mirrors, giving no tip-off as to what might be going on behind them, and offering any trespasser a futile reflection of their own inquiry.
"Ms. Ashton," Kevin said. "Thank you for coming."
He'd turned the front area of his hotel suite into a fully functioning office, complete with phone, fax, desk, computer, and even a portable filing cabinet. Kevin gestured for Amanda to take a seat across from him while he wandered over to the cabinet, opened a drawer, and pulled out two copies of a document, one of which he handed to Amanda to look over.
"As you can see, it's very straightforward. My client, Grant Harrison, is suing Mr. James Frame, along with the other legal guardian, Ms. Marley Hudson, for custody of the minor child, Kirkland Grant Harrison."
"It's Ryan," Amanda interrupted. "His full name is Kirkland Ryan Harrison. Vicky changed it in 1997."
"Is that a fact?" Kevin took out a pen and made a note. "I'll mention it to Mr. Harrison."
"Also mention that Kirk's been using the name Frame ever since he came to live with Jamie. He's Kirkland Frame at school, with his friends, on all of his sports teams."
"He is legally Kirkland Harrison. I suggest you and I concern ourselves with the points of law, and let someone else worry about what it says on the back of his jersey." Kevin sat down, unbuttoned his suit-jacket so that it wouldn't run up, and went on. "Now, the grounds for this suit should be self-evident. But, if you'd like to go through the petition point by point, I'd be happy to "
"This doesn't make any sense," Amanda blurted out.
"I beg your pardon?" He looked more amused than insulted. "I pride myself on writing briefs that do, at least a majority of the time, make a great deal of sense. They were very strict about that at Stanford Law."
"I know your record, Mr. Fowler, this isn't your kind of case."
"I'm not sure where you got your information, Ms. Ashton. Custody disputes make up almost eighty percent of my practice. Did Wikipedia indicate otherwise?"
Embarrassed that he'd managed to guess so quickly where the bulk of her hastily gathered knowledge had come from, Amanda covered her discomfiture by pressing on. "Custody cases, yes. But you're usually on the side of the adoptive parents. In fact, on all of your high-profile cases, you were defending the adoptive parents against the natural parents who showed up years later to stake a claim on their child."
"Score one for Wikipedia," Kevin said.
"This case is the exact opposite for you."
"Grant Harrison was very persuasive in convincing me that his rights had been violated. Unlike the natural parents in all of my previous cases, Mr. Harrison never formally relinquished his rights to his son."
"Being gone for ten years doesn't..." Amanda desperately searched for a legal or, if that failed, at least a Latin term she could use to make her point, "... Ipso-facto it?"
"I don't believe so, no," Kevin replied gently.
"I don't understand why you took his case."
"And I'm not obligated to explain it to you. They were pretty clear about that at Stanford Law, too." Kevin stood up. "Look, Ms. Ashton, why don't you take this petition to your client, you can both look it over and get back to me with any questions."
The way he was hovering over her gave Amanda no choice but to rise as well. When she did so, she found herself looking up at Kevin Fowler, the two of them suddenly much closer together standing than they'd been sitting down. With his jacket unbuttoned, he also proved to be much more powerfully built than Amanda would have previously guessed. She had the strangest, most unfathomable impulse to rest her palm on his chest and check if there was actually flesh and blood beyond the layer of obvious muscle.
She suppressed it.
But it took a minute.
Unfortunately, Kevin interrupted her reverie to wonder, "But first, may I ask you a question?"
"Uhm... sure," Amanda wondered if there would be legal and/or Latin terms involved. Considering how strange she felt at the moment, Amanda wasn't sure if even plain, old English was currently at her disposal.
Kevin asked, "Does Jamie Frame always send his little sister to fight his battles for him?"
That got Amanda's attention. She didn't know about his flesh and blood, but it certainly got hers both pumping and flushing simultaneously.
"How did you know?" she stammered.
"I used logic, Ms. Cory. Why would Jamie's attorney be answering the phone at his family home at eight in the morning? I recognized your voice when you came in. And I also did my research. Mandy Ashton. Wasn't that the fake name you used when you were working at your father's magazine, Brava, isn't it? Don't look so surprised. It's a matter of public record. They relayed the anecdote in your wedding announcement."
"It was the first name I thought of," Amanda admitted. And, since they were on the subject of monikers, she went ahead and asked the question that had been gnawing at her ever since he first called, though it wasn't something Mandy Ashton could have reasonably asked. "My first husband's name was Sam Fowler. Are you a relative by any chance?"
"Not that I know of," Kevin said.
"Sam's family was from Seattle. You said Stanford..."
"I was born in Chicago. No coast, just a river." Kevin leaned over to pick up the computer bag Amanda had left in her chair, and handed it to her. "Take the documents to your brother. Then have his real lawyer contact me." He smiled and, strangely, appeared sincere when he said, "It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Cory. Ipso facto."
Kevin ushered Amanda out the door before she had time to echo the sentiment, or decide if, in her case, it was even true.
Kevin waited until he'd heard the elevator doors down the hall close, insuring that Amanda was out of hearing range before he shut his own door, leaned against it and informed the air, as if making a closing argument in court, "The Frames destroyed my family. Now I'm going to destroy yours."
At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the Mother Superior also waited until she was certain that Cass and Lila Winthrop weren't merely out off her office, but off the property altogether. She watched from the window as Mrs. Winthrop used the rearview mirror to apply her make-up a dangerous habit, but what could you expect from a woman with her obvious lack of breeding? all the while visibly haranguing her husband, and the Mother Superior watched them drive away through the front gates.
Only then did she cross the office to her desk, pick up the phone, and dial a number from memory.
She informed the person on the other end, "Cass and Lila Winthrop were here. They're looking for Ms. Gallant."
Grant carefully made his way across the grounds of the Cory estate, using the lush trees and, in his opinion, unnecessarily ostentatious foliage as cover. Aesthetic questions aside, the proliferation of native Oak, Black Alder, Red Maple and Water Hickory made certain that anyone glancing idly out a window from the main house wouldn't notice his presence.
Which was preferable, as Grant wasn't here to draw attention to himself or to pick a fight. This wasn't like Easter Sunday. Then, he'd come to serve notice of his return. He'd welcomed Rachel's anger, and Jamie's and Donna's. Because it served to confirm that they viewed him as a threat, and rightly so. But now Grant was simply here to see his son.
He felt certain that if he could just catch Kirkland alone, if he could only speak to him away from the cabal that he knew had been brainwashing him all these years, Grant could make Kirkland understand. He could make the boy see how much his father his real father had changed, how much he loved and needed him. Grant could make Kirkland see that they could be a family. Just the two of them. No Loves, and certainly no Corys or Frames.
To achieve his objective, Grant intended to do anything necessary. Even take on the Devil himself.
Which, Grant realized as a figure stepped from the shadows in front of him, he just might have to do sooner than he'd planned.
"Carl.... " Grant acknowledged.
It was just a name, but it carried the history of so, so much more.
"Well, well, well," the older man clucked. Rather than responding to Grant as he would to any random trespasser, Carl appeared utterly delighted, as if a long-held dream had finally materialized before him in the flesh. "Come over for a little chat, have we, Harrison?"
"Since when do you and I chat, Carl?" Grant spat, "I seem to recall our forte is tearing each other apart. Verbally and otherwise."
"With good reason, wouldn't you say?"
"Not now, Carl. Not again. We are not going to dissect my brother's corpse for your entertainment yet again."
"Your brother? My son!" Carl roared. "You killed my son!"
"It was an accident. Everyone knew it, even Ryan. You're the only one who has made a career out of punishing me for something I wish with all my heart I could take back."
"Your heart," Carl scoffed. "Can a man make wishes on something that was never there to being with?"
"Isn't that what they used to say about you? Carl Hutchins the embezzler. Carl Hutchins the kidnapper. Carl Hutchins the killer." Grant smirked. "Forgive me. That's all in the past now, isn't it? Or so the story goes. You're a changed man. A devoted husband. A doting father..."
"Yes," Carl replied slowly, with a hint of, in Grant's estimation, regret.
"That makes two of us. I finally know what's important."
"And what, pray tell," Carl stepped towards him, the shadows no longer obscuring his face. "Is finally important to Grant Harrison?"
Even in the twilight, Grant saw the taunt in Carl's eyes, the beast, barely restrained, waiting for the words that would allow him to be set free.
"Love," Grant blurted out, surprising even himself with his answer. Carl started, the beast checked from within at the unexpected parry.
"Love?" Carl blinked after a moment. "Love?" he repeated again with a laugh. "The good Senator speaks of love? How can that be, when you know nothing about it? Are incapable of it? Are in fact its very antithesis?"
"Love for your long-lost son allegedly changed you. What's good for the Hutchins should be good for the Harrison, or so the saying goes."
"Not for you. Not after everything you've done."
"Everything I've done? That's rich! You terrorized Rachel and her family for decades! "
"For which I have been forgiven. Tell me, do you think Kirkland would be so forgiving if he were to find out that you framed his mother for your attempted murder? Or that you tried to kill her on a number of occasions including blowing up her car?"
"Speaking of blow-ups, shall we call up Kathleen McKinnon or hold a seance for the late Frankie Frame and ask how forgiving they feel towards your own dabbling in the explosive arts?"
Anger flashed naked in Carl's eyes, incensed that he was unable to deny any of the hurled accusations.
And that's when Grant knew he had him. If Grant agreed to play along, they could keep at this all night. Flinging indictments back and forth, trading accusations of murder for murder, blackmail for blackmail, kidnapping for kidnapping.
Except that it wouldn't get them anywhere but back at each other's throats, their quarter of a century war restarted. And as much as Grant might momentarily enjoy the cut and thrust, it would only distract him from his ultimate objective. Which was arguably what Carl wanted. Which would be the same as letting Carl win.
So instead of picking up the gauntlet, Grant merely asserted, "Kirkland will decide for himself what kind of man I am now."
"Not even after a decade of living under your roof?"
" -- Who would kill his own brother!"
Despite Grant's earlier warning, the bastard was actually going there again.
Before he could finish the sentence, Grant found himself pinned against the tree, Carl's forearm at his throat, the older man surprisingly spry and agile for his age.
"Which may not be too much longer," Carl hissed into Grant's face.
"This is you reformed?" Grant managed to choke out. "This is the new and improved Carl? Pardon me for noting that this all seems just a bit too familiar."
Carl's arm pressed even harder against Grant's throat, causing his head to swim and blackness to creep around the edges of his vision. Just as his thoughts began to drift towards the absurdly humorous notion that he had triumphantly returned from the dead only to swiftly be dispatched back, Grant suddenly felt the oxygen return to his brain. His vision cleared as he sucked in huge gulps of air.
Grant looked warily at Carl, knowing that, reformed or not, he had probably just escaped with his life. He wondered what it was that had caused his attacker to so abruptly yield.
Grant followed Carl's gaze. And understood immediately.
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