Bay City, Illinois, Easter 2009
The man in the doorway had been presumed dead for exactly a decade.
He didn't say hello. He didn't offer the best wishes of the season, a chocolate bunny, or an explanation for why a fellow believed smothered to death in March of 1999 was apparently still living and breathing -- albeit somewhat raspily due to the Spring’s still-chilly evening air.
All he said as he tightened the top button of his camel hair coat just below his neck was, "I've come for my son."
Every major holiday, Rachel Davis Matthews Frame Cory Hutchins could only shake her head with wonder at the immediate and extended family she and her husband, Carl, had managed to accumulate over the years.
Her guest list this Easter included:
Rachel and Carl's eleven-year-old twins, Cory and Elizabeth;
Rachel's oldest son, Jamie Frame, Jamie's son, Steven, not yet twenty years old but already doing graduate work in computer engineering at Bay City University, and fifteen year old Kirkland, Steven's half-brother, whom Jamie had committed to raising after Steven and Kirkland's mother, Vicky, died when Kirkland was barely in kindergarten;
Rachel's daughter, Amanda Cory, and Amanda's only child, Alexandra "Allie" Fowler, who never let a single family occasion pass without noting that Steven might be years ahead of her at the college they both attended – Allie was still only a sophomore, having taken a year off from school to travel the world -- but he was still her little cousin and always would be;
Rachel's son, Matthew Cory, Matthew's ten year old daughter, Jasmine, and, so that Jasmine could be with both of her parents at Easter, her mother, Lila, Lila's husband, Cass, and Cass' teen daughter, Charlotte "Charlie" Winthrop.
While the adults talked and the youngest children taunted each other over who’d be collecting the most Easter eggs once their hunt officially began (Carl was famous for being able to hide their loot in the least likely places, while Jasmine took particular pride in nevertheless being able to find it), Charlie and Kirkland, as they had the year before and the one before that too, took turns rolling their eyes in adolescent disgust at the little kids who didn’t know anything about anything, then at the horribly old people who never would know anything about anything, then back again.
All was, as far as Rachel was concerned, exactly as it should be. All was, as her husband Carl liked to say "well."
Until the doorbell rang just as Cory and Elizabeth were insisting to Jasmine that she was wrong, this was their year, Carl was their father, wasn’t he? They should be better at figuring out how his mind worked than Jasmine could ever be...
And Rachel, shivering in a forest green silk blouse and equally lightweight linen slacks, found a dead man at her door.
Rachel wished she could say she hadn't given the scoundrel a moment's thought in over ten years.
But that was impossible.
Not only was Grant one of her daughter Amanda's ex-husbands, he was also Kirkland's biological father. So, from time to time, Rachel had felt compelled to remember Grant Harrison. Primarily as part of a fervent hope that nurture would overrule nature and that Kirkland - please God, after everything this family had been through, didn’t He owe them one? - would take after Jamie instead of after Grant.
Of course, Rachel had foolishly presumed that Grant's negative influence over Kirkland would be limited to errant DNA. Primarily because she had foolishly presumed Grant to be dead.
One tended to think that following a funeral and an investigation that concluded with a local youth being arrested for Grant's murder.
But, then again, Rachel lived in Bay City. And had personally experienced four different husbands on four different occasions returning from their own presumed deaths.
So Rachel skipped what, for anyone else on the planet would have been a natural and expected preliminary of how, when, and why, and pierced straight through to, "What do you want, Grant?"
"My son," he repeated. "Would you please tell Kirkland I'm here?"
"Go to hell." Rachel attempted to slam the door in his face.
"Been there." Grant hissed. He caught the door with one hand and instead of letting it slam, gently pulled it shut. His last words to Rachel were, "Back now."
"Jamie!" Rachel struggled to make her voice come out neutral even as she was forced to raise it over the raucous clamoring of the children to start the Easter egg hunt, now, now, please, Daddy, now! The last thing Rachel wanted was to trigger any suspicions as she casually asked her oldest son, "Could you come to the kitchen with me for a moment? I need a hand bringing out the dessert."
"I'll help you, Mom." Matthew stood up from his chair. "Jamie has his hands full."
He indicated Cory, who was reaching over Elizabeth's shoulder, attempting to snatch the one egg she’d apparently already managed to locate atop the bookshelf, right next to a copy of her name-sake’s most popular work, ‘Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,’ by whacking it with the navy tie he'd yanked off his neck and invoking the primeval "What's yours is mine - it's a twin rule, everybody knows that!" precedent.
Elizabeth, despite wearing a vintage dress hand-woven out of antique lace, had climbed up on a chair and raised her arm as far as she could over her head to keep the coveted item out of Cory's grasp. Jamie had one arm around Cory's waist, struggling to keep the boy from scrambling up the same bookshelf she had earlier, in order to thwart his sister.
"No!" Rachel now felt certain that her voice no longer sounded neutral or even normal, but it couldn't be helped. "Jamie. Please. The kitchen."
"Rachel? What is it? What in the world is wrong?" Carl raised his arm and with one finger indicated for Cory to descend. Elizabeth silently followed suit without needing to be asked. The twins' father may have been gray-haired and admittedly older than the dad of almost everyone else they knew, but he made up for that defecit with a voice and demeanor part Shakespeare's Richard the Third, part Hannibal Lecter. His children weren't the only ones who knew not to mess with Carl. At his gesture, everyone quieted down and looked at Rachel curiously.
"Nothing is wrong," Rachel smiled brightly as she told her most unconvincing lie ever. And that was saying something. Because, in her younger days, Rachel lied. A lot. She'd kind of been known for it. Clearly, unlike riding a bicycle, lying well was one of those skills that atrophied with age. Because even Rachel barely believed it when she insisted, "I just need to speak with my son in private. You all carry on with what you were doing. We'll be right back. Don't worry." When no one looked convinced, she felt compelled to repeat, "Nothing is wrong."
But when no one continued to look convinced, Rachel decided to cut her losses and just gestured impatiently for Jamie to come along. He did as she asked and came along, shooting a befuddled look over his shoulder at Amanda, Matthew and Carl while dutifully following his mother out of the living room.
For a moment, nobody spoke. Then Lila, her Southern accent particularly thick - it always got that way when she was being insincere; and like Rachel lying, Lila had been insincere a lot - tossed both her hands up in the air as if accepting a magnolia crown or twirling a pepperoni pizza and chirped, "Alright, then, we heard what Rachel said. Carry on with what we all were doing. Nothing is wrong. Jasmine, honey, have you seen where Cass went off to?"
Along with insincerity, Lila was also quite good at 180-degree changes of subject.
"Dad's on the veranda," Charlie said, accustomed to her stepmother's non-sequiturs and no longer the least thrown by them like some of the other people in the room. Charlie pointed past the festive table with its remnants of glazed lamb shoulder with orange mint sauce (Rachel still used her mother, Ada’s, recipe), garlic mashed potatoes (it was the first side-dish Amanda ever learned to cook and she was sticking with it), hot cross buns (an English tradition Carl insisted on) and the mayonnaise-spackled seven layer salad (Lila’s contribution by way of the old South).
Charlie indicated the pair of glass doors leading to the mist-covered veranda through which Cass's back, his unbuttoned black coat merely thrown over his shoulders, could still be seen in the quickly fading twilight. "He said he had a business call to make."
"Business? On a holiday? That's not right," Lila said. "I reckon I'd best find out what's going on here."
As Lila disappeared through the patio doors, Charlie noted, "She tells us all to carry on with what we're doing and then she leaves." Another exchange of rolled eyes with Kirkland. "Typical."
Lila hadn't thought to bring her coat, and as soon as she stepped outside, the unseasonable chill proved more than she'd bargained for. She shivered and instinctively folded her arms across the front of her crimson cashmere sweater, rubbing her shoulders with both hands and bobbing up and down for warmth.
Cass caught sight of his wife and her chattering teeth and, with a distracted smile, stretched out one arm, opening the coat so that Lila might snuggle up to him. She tucked her head gratefully beneath Cass' shoulder and he wrapped her up snugly even as he snapped shut the cell phone and angrily stuffed it into his pocket.
"What's wrong?" Lila asked. "Don't tell me you have to go into the office? Can't the good people of Bay City survive without your legal expertise for just one night? It's Easter, for Pete's sake!"
"This isn't business," Cass said. "It's Felicia."
"Felicia? I thought she went to New York to visit with Jenna and Dean?"
Cass' oldest friend (and one-time lover, but that was so long ago he felt certain the statute of limitations had run out) traditionally spent her holiday season with the Cory/Hutchins/Frame/Winthrop clan. But this year, her adopted daughter and son-in-law, who usually traveled ten months out of the year on tour with Dean's rock and roll band, had called out of the blue at the beginning of the week, cryptically insisting that Felicia come see them right away, promising to explain everything once she got there.
"I haven't heard from her since Monday."
"Now, that's not so strange, is it? She hasn't seen her little girl in a long time. Bet they have a lot to catch up on."
"She left me a voice mail Monday night. Said she thought Jenna and Dean might need some legal help, could I call her right back? I did but no one picked up. First her phone just kept ringing, then it was busy, then it was out of range. Now the stupid recording is telling me her number is no longer in service."
"Maybe she lost it and had the service turned off?"
"They've still got landlines in New York City. She could have called me from there. Something's wrong, Lila. Felicia could be in big trouble."
"We could be in big trouble," Rachel told Jamie as she filled him on Grant's not so triumphant return.
"Son of a bitch!" Like Rachel, Jamie was not unfamiliar with the concept of people returning from the presumed dead. His own father did it. Several stepfathers, too. Which was why Jamie also skipped the preliminaries and went straight to swearing.
"Having met his mother, I agree with you."
Grant's mother, Justine, was a dead ringer for Rachel. Thirteen years earlier, Justine had tried to kill Rachel. When that didn't work, Justine drugged Rachel, locked her up in an insane asylum and took over Rachel's life, including bedding Justine's long-lost love, Rachel's husband, Carl. Rachel hadn't taken the abduction well then, and she still wasn't in the mood to forgive and forget.
"He is not taking Kirkland away from me," Jamie swore. "I have been that boy's father since Vicky died. I am not giving my son up to be raised by a murdering, lying sociopath."
"We'll help you," Rachel promised. "I'll round up every lawyer at the family's disposal. Right this minute if you want. Money is no object. We'll fight this."
"Thanks, Mom," Jamie nodded perfunctorily, but Rachel could see his mind was already several steps ahead of her.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
Jamie was halfway to the hall closet, reaching in to grab his suede jacket and pulling it on before the words were even out of his mouth. "I'm going to go see the only person who can make this a fair fight."
Standing on the porch leading up to the Love house, in the instant that it took him to press the doorbell and listen to its ominous chime rumble through the massive entryway and down the hallways that connected all 300 or however many it really was rooms the mansion possessed, Jamie couldn't help reliving, in the blink of an eye, his tumultuous history with the women who, at one point or another, both resided there.
There was Vicky, Steven's late mother. And there was Marley, Vicky's identical twin sister, and, Jamie sometimes thought, the love of his life.....
Despite the vows, despite the plans, despite the promises, they hadn't gotten married after all. Marley was never able to deal with the knowledge that she couldn't give Jamie a child - and that her sister already had. They drifted apart and fell in love with other people. But none of those consequent relationships managed to stick for very long. Now, nearly eighteen years after their aborted wedding, they liked to say that they were friends.
Well, they were friendly, anyway. Too much had happened between them, Jamie thought, for him and Marley to ever truly be friends. There was too much history. Too much tension. Too much wondering what might have been if only they'd.... what? That was the question: If only they'd what? Tried harder? Taken it easier? Cared more? Sweated the small stuff less?
Jamie didn't know. And he suspected that he would never know. All he did understand for sure was that he and Marley had to be friendly now. For the children's sake.
Vicky had died leaving behind two sons and two daughters. Jamie kept Kirkland with him so that the boy could grow up with his older brother. Vicky's widower, Jake, raised their twin daughters, Bridget and Michelle. But after Jake died too, Marley had taken custody of the girls. She and her mother, Donna, had been looking after them since 2002.
Marley and Jamie made a point of getting the kids together as often as possible, trying to keep Vicky's memory alive for all four. Jamie would have had Bridget and Michelle over to the house for Easter, but on that score, Donna put her foot down. She insisted that the blonde, blue-eyed identical twins were central members of the Love family; they would not, under any circumstances, become adjuncts of the combined Cory/Hutchins/Frame clan. Bridget and Michelle would celebrate Easter at the Love estate with their aunt and their grandmother. It was not a topic up for debate.
Personally, Jamie believed that Donna's reluctance to be a guest in his mother's home had just as much to do with the fact that Donna had once been married to Carl - and the union, by all accounts, had not been a cheerful one -- as it did with her wanting to make the girls feel central to the celebration. Oh, and Donna had also briefly been married to Jamie's brother, Matthew. She had very eclectic taste in men.
It was Donna who opened the door, much to Jamie's dismay. He'd been hoping for Marley.
So that they could talk about Kirkland, of course. No other reason at all.
"What in the world are you doing here, Jamie?" Donna had the door opened just a crack. Presumably to keep the cold air out.
No other reason at all.
"I need to see Marley."
"We're in the middle of dinner."
"I'm sure it can wait."
"It can't." Jamie pushed the door open and stepped inside. He closed the door quickly behind him. To keep the cold air out.
"Jamie? Are you honestly trying to bully me?" Donna did not sound the least bit cowed. Merely amused. Even her ebony mane of shoulder-length hair seemed to quiver with repressed mirth.
"I'm not trying to bully you, I’m trying to make you understand - I need to speak to Marley."
"Marley," Donna dramatically reopened the door, indicating that Jamie should do as she initially demanded and leave. "Has no desire to speak to you. Honestly, Jamie, isn't this getting more than a tad ridiculous? You constantly using the boys as an excuse to continue coming around here? Even after all these years? What will it take to make you understand, my daughter is not interested in...." Her voice trailed off.
She was no longer looking at Jamie.
Instead, Donna's gaze was locked over Jamie's shoulder, past and into the dimly lit street outside.
She gasped in surprise at the figure she spied standing there.
Jamie followed where she was looking. When he realized who it was, he smiled.
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