"Not now, Lorna," Carl hissed upon spying her visage over the black and white security monitor.
On any other occasion, he'd be delighted to have his former protegee drop by for a visit to Carl Hutchins' secluded home away from home. It had been much too long. He believed it well past time they let bygones be bygones and settle whatever grudges she still appeared to be holding from her years spent under his tutelage.
Alas, now was not the time for mending fences. Carl was in the middle of some rather delicate negotiations. With associates someone as astute as Lorna was bound to remember. And draw conclusions about.
Oh, no. That wouldn't do. That wouldn't do at all.
Quickly glancing about the room to make sure no traces remained of his previous visitors, Carl's attention was drawn back to the monitor - What the bloody hell? - was that Jamie standing next to her, waiting for the security system to finish clicking through its paces and let them in?
"Did you kill Cecile de Poulignac and frame Donna Love to take the fall?" Lorna asked without preamble the moment all three of them stood face to face.
"Manners, Lorna," Carl chided. "Even when trespassing on private property and accusing a body of murder most foul, one should at least make an attempt to be civil, show some decorum. Hello, Jamie," Carl greeted his stepson. "I'm relieved to see you in one piece. Is your mother aware of this latest development?" He might have been speaking simply of Jamie's whereabouts. Or he might have been referring to the way Jamie refused to leave Lorna's side, hovering protectively, never taking his eyes off her. Carl, too, knew how to draw logical conclusions. "Perhaps you'd be so kind as to give Rachel a call. She's been frantic. There's a phone in the parlor across the hall."
"I think I'll stay here for now, thanks."
"I assure you, Jamie, our Lorna is quite safe in my company."
"I can't vouch for the same about you in hers. Especially if you keep stalling and refuse to answer her question."
Raising an eyebrow at Jamie's tone, Carl turned to Lorna, leaning in to look her dead in the eye, smiling a little as, despite the spectacle of bravado she put on, Lorna couldn't help taking a small step backwards. Good to know Carl still had a modicum of effect on her. Very, very good to know. Pretending not to notice the apprehension, Carl enunciated each word, "I did not kill Cecile de Poulignac."
"Oh, well, then, that settles it. As if you haven't looked me in the eye and lied before."
Carl shook his head in exasperation. "Honestly, Lorna. I could submit to a polygraph test, perform perfectly, and you would still fail to feel satisfied. If you won't take my word for it, frankly, I am at a loss over how else to convince you."
"Swear on the lives of your children."
"Never," Carl's entire countenance darkened. "I will do no such thing. The only person to whom I would ever make that vow is Rachel. Now, I've entertained your intrusion long enough. I've answered your question, irreverent, specious, and out of nowhere as it was. Time for you leave. Oh, and the merriest of wishes for your birthday, my dear."
Lorna declined to budge. "The Cecile crime scene set-up totally looks like something one of your guys would do, Carl."
"Perhaps an artist formerly in my service or a trusty trainee picked up some freelance work. The market is always on the look-out for new talent."
"And this former flunky just happened to take on a job connected to Donna?" Jamie clarified skeptically. "Someone you've recently sworn to annihilate?"
Carl shrugged. "It is a small world, after all. And I am not the only person in Bay City currently experiencing difficulty with Donna." He looked at Lorna keenly, issuing a warning. "While I suspect I gather your reasons for this particular line of questioning," he looked briefly to Jamie. "And the vehemence with which you've undertaken it, let me caution you, Lorna. You are tromping along the wrong path. Whatever it is that you think you know, you are wrong. The only person who can authentically answer your query is the artist you have so cleverly deduced as being connected to the crime. Unfortunately, I am familiar with these sorts of men. Upon the conclusion of their tasks, they tend to disappear into the ether. It will be rather hard for you to find him."
"Wouldn't be too hard for you, though," Lorna challenged, grabbing the phone from Carl's desk and handing him the receiver. "No one refuses a summons from the mighty Carl Hutchins. The world has been waiting breathlessly for you to drop the reformed act and return to your former glory days. Nobody will think it at all out of the ordinary. Call around, Carl. Come on," Lorna pressed when he hesitated. "What's stopping you? With you being an innocent choir boy in all of this, helping your beloved wife's son in his hour of need is the least you can do, isn't it?"
"You're right," Carl conceded after a moment's hesitation, glancing to Jamie and accepting the phone she'd pressed forward. "It's only fitting that I should offer whatever assistance I can towards proving your innocence. Go on home, Jamie. Let Rachel see that you're well. I shall call you tomorrow with the desired information."
"Uh-uh." Lorna crossed her arms. "You're calling now. We'll wait."
"We are not accessing 1-800-CRIMINAL here, Lorna. The matter is delicate; it could well take some time. While I would gladly offer you and Jamie accommodation until "
"I am not spending the night here," Lorna gritted predictably, to Carl's relief. "Those days are over. Instead, you are going to make a couple of calls, flex your muscles atrophied though they may be, and find the guy who can help Jamie. Then he and I are getting the hell out of "
Lorna looked up as lightning flashed quietly beyond the study window, the following thunderclap so close and loud that it shook the walls. Somewhere beyond the safety of the house there was a crash. Carl grimly surveyed the damage through his window and sighed ruefully. "None of us will be leaving the grounds any time soon, I'm afraid...."
Allie lay curled on the bed, knees drawn up as far as her stomach would allow, and whimpered, "It really hurts now."
Gregory, sitting behind her, reached over and rested one hand just below her rib-cage, instructing, "Try this, the next time a contraction hits, I want you to take a deep breath and imagine using it to pull the heat from my hand down and around the pain. Do you think you can do that?"
"You called it a contraction," Allie noted.
"This isn't a drill, is it?"
"I don't think so."
"I can't," Allie said. "I can't do this. Not here. GQ is here. He'll..."
"Don't worry about him right now, okay? Worry about you. One thing at a time." He felt the building vibrations tightening her skin. "Try what I said."
Allie gasped, but Gregory reminded, "Deep breath, visualize it going in and pulling the pain down, then exhale as if you're pushing it right out of you."
She nodded and did as he instructed, breathing slowly, evenly, concentrating on feeling Gregory's hand rather than the spasm.
"Hey," Allie said. "That actually worked."
"Good. Now rest, and get ready to do it again."
She turned her head to tease, "When did you become an expert in unintended natural childbirth?"
He smiled and brushed the hair out of her face. "It's basic biofeedback. I get migraines sometimes. It helps."
"What are we going to do, Gregory?" she asked, voice trembling. "We can't drive to a hospital. Cell-phones don't work out here. Who knows when the rain will stop?"
"I'll take care of you," he promised.
Allie looked at him for a long time. Then, just as the next contraction geared up, she said, "I believe you."
"Where is Jamie?" Rachel wanted to know.
"I haven't the slightest idea," Alice fired back. "I'm as worried as you are."
But, this time, Rachel practically shoved Alice out of her way to inform, "I'm not asking you. I'm asking him."
Spencer, who'd been keeping his distance in the background out of respect for both women, and a fine amount of fear, looked up, curious. "How in the world would I know?"
"Because," Rachel said. "I got to thinking. Who has the most to gain from Jamie mysteriously jumping bail? Especially now that his sentence has been cut in half?"
"I presume you're implying that would be me?"
"You and Grant. Jamie in jail still gives him access to Kirkland. You know what kind of boy he is. He'd never abandon his father. But Jamie on the run, Jamie unable to return to Bay City or have any contact with his family again? That would play perfectly for you and Grant, wouldn't it? Whether it was true or not."
"Are you suggesting that I had him shanghaied and am keeping Jamie locked up somewhere so that he misses his sentencing?"
"That sort of thing would be right up your alley, wouldn't it? You've got the means, you've got the motive, and am I really supposed to believe in coincidence that it was Grant's faithful retainer who managed to get Jamie so drunk last night..."
"Enough," Alice ordered. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"And you don't know who you're defending."
"Spencer did not have anything to do with Jamie's disappearance. Especially since he was the one who got Hamilton to cut Jamie's sentence in half to begin with."
"What?" Rachel's head nearly whipped around.
"You were right about one thing. Spencer does have the means. And he did have the motive I asked him to. Only he used them to help your son, not harm him."
"I don't believe you."
"I don't care. But you're welcome to ask Mr. Hamilton. Or better yet, mayoral campaign donations are a matter of public record. Why don't you take a peek, see if any familiar names have shown up on his rolls since a few days ago."
Rachel stared at Alice, dumbfounded. "You let him do that?"
"For Jamie. Yes. I did."
"You? The purest of the pure? The vestal virgin of Bay City? This is what you've sunk to? Oh, my, Alice. What would Steve say?"
"I expect he'd thank me. For trying to help his son. Steve was no angel, Rachel. We both know that. And he would thank Spencer, too."
"He's a criminal. A racketeer and a blackmailer and worse, I'm sure. How in the world could you have allowed him to drag you down to his level?"
"I was willing to let Spencer use his illicit connections to help someone I care about. That gives me no right to judge him. Rest assured, I'll deal with my own actions in my own way. My self-respect is none of your business. I think the better question here is, why didn't your equally as felonious, equally as well connected, equally as devoted husband lift a finger to help out your son? And why didn't you think to ask him?"
"Carl's stalling," Lorna announced, walking, without so much as a forewarning knock on the door, into the room Carl had delegated to Jamie. As she'd expected, he was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully clothed, shoes on, ready to make a break for it should the need arise.
Jamie conceded her point with a shrug, but observed, "Not even Carl can will storms into creation and trees to fall at his whim. I think. I hope."
Lorna waved him off. "He was stalling before the tree fell. He's hiding something. He knows something." She stopped mid-pace and turned to Jamie with a winning smile. "Wanna come snooping with me? I know all the dark corners we can poke around in."
"Are you kidding? It's bad enough you insisted on invading Castle Greyskull. Now, you want to go inspecting the dungeons?" Jamie gently but firmly pulled her to perch on the bed next to him. "Sit, Lorna. Stay. Carl will give us answers in the morning."
"He won't. He'll give us a story about how, despite his best efforts, he was unable to locate the artist that we're looking for. Only it will take him about twenty times more words than it just did me to say the same thing. Then he'll offer his regrets and have us escorted from the house. At least, if we go snooping now, we might find something."
"Or fall into a bottomless pit never to be found again."
"The bottomless pit is at the chateau in France. Here, he has the chamber of horrors."
"All the more reason for us to just sit tight and not poke the bear. Perhaps even get some sleep."
"I can't sleep here, Jamie," Lorna said quietly. "Not in this house, especially not it that room. He put me in my old room."
"Okay, then stay with me. We'll just hang tight here until morning."
Despite the scowl she threw him, Lorna seemed to accept his suggestion as better than the alternative. She scooted herself in the bed, so that her back was to the headboard, eyes on the door. "Get up here," she ordered, leaning down to pull Jamie to rest beside her. "You're making me nervous."
"I'm making you nervous? How am I..." He stiffened as Lorna lifted his arm and slid under it, letting it fall over her, molding her body to his side. "What are you doing?"
"Getting my freak on. Oh, for God's sake, Jamie, it's not like I'm asking you to do me on the spot. I just need a friend right now. It's the least you can offer, when it's obvious I'm not exactly at my most comfortable here. In Carl's house. On my birthday. Again."
"You're pulling the 'It's my birthday' card on me even though none of this was my idea and I repeatedly asked you to stop the car, turn around and leave Carl alone?"
"Yup." When he didn't relax, she craned her head up to look at him. "What's wrong? You're acting like I have cooties again."
"I just... I can't believe that you're... after everything I've told you, that you're okay with me... holding you."
"If I didn't trust you, Jamie, I wouldn't be here." She poked him in the chest with one finger. "But riddle me this..."
"You know, it doesn't all have to be comic-book references. I am capable of having a normal conversation with regular people on occasion."
"Back when we broke the kitchen table "
"Thank you for bringing that up."
"You didn't seem to have any problem touching me or holding me or kissing me then."
"That was different."
"It just was."
"You're going to need to give me a little more than that."
Jamie sighed. "Okay. You want to hear the truth? Here's the truth: I was very, very tired."
"That I already knew."
"And I was more attracted to you in that moment than I have ever been to any woman in my entire life, including the first girl I slept with, whom I ended up marrying. So you see I don't kid around."
"That," Lorna said a bit more slowly, not sure how to react. "I didn't know."
"I've told you how long it's been since I was with... anybody. I wanted you so damned much right then, I thought... I thought I could... "
"Get over the hump, so to speak?"
His smile matched hers. "So to speak. I thought that you and I could be together, and it would be "
"Mind-blowing," she informed him.
"Mind-blowing," he agreed. "And then I could just walk away, without any complications or entanglements or... confessions."
"So basically, you were okay as long as you thought we were a one-time deal with no strings attached?"
"Yes... no... I... I don't know, Lorna. You were so breathtakingly beautiful, and you were into it, into... me. For the first time in a long time, I didn't... I wasn't thinking about Cecile or what happened with her. I wasn't scared. I was... actually enjoying it. Enjoying you." He allowed himself a small smile. "Also, I didn't really believe you'd go all the way with me, in any case."
"Jamie, I had your pants off. How much further was there left to go?"
"I don't know, but I was ready to find out." He studied her for a beat, his eyes turning serious. "Why are we here, Lorna? Why are you doing this, putting yourself through this, for me?"
"Because you don't deserve to go to prison for a crime you didn't commit. And you don't deserve to be punished for being Cecile's victim, either."
"Cecile drugged you, Jamie. She took away your control. She took away your ability to make a rational choice. If you had gotten behind the wheel of a car in that state and run somebody over, it wouldn't have been your fault. Legally or morally. Same way as what happened that night was not your fault. She violated you."
"Don't say that," Jamie insisted. "Don't say it like that. Please. What I did to Cecile, it wouldn't, it couldn't have happened if there weren't some part of me capable of "
"But it didn't. It never, ever did. Not when you were in your right mind. And even then... Last night, when I drove you home, you were about as drunk as a man could get. You thought you were going to jail in the morning. If your subconscious were looking for an excuse to let loose, you'd never find a better one. You and I were alone, Jamie. You could have done anything you wanted to me..."
"No," he choked. "No. Never. No."
"Of course not," she cupped his face in both hands, relieved when Jamie didn't recoil at her touch. "I wasn't scared of you then. I'm not scared of you now. You've been letting one moment in time ruin everything else you have in you life. And that's not fair to you or to the people who love you. You're a good man, Jamie. A good father, a good doctor, a good friend. You've made some poor choices in women, I'll grant you..."
"Then what the hell do I do now, Lorna? Help me out here. I seem to have misplaced my bracelet. Tell me: What Would Lorna do?"
"You mean in the short term, or the long?"
"Well, in the short term, presuming that Carl keeps stonewalling us like I'm expecting, I say we go back to Bay City so you can tell Mr. Chase Hamilton to take his deal and shove it, because you did not kill Cecile. And you're going to trial to prove it."
As Jamie digested her advice, Lorna resumed her original position. Only now, instead of his lying rigidly next to her, Jamie's body relaxed into Lorna's, his arms tightening around her, finally allowing hers to do the same.
"I'm scared," he owned up at last.
"I know. But you trust me, right?"
"I've trusted you with everything there is to me, Lorna. So, yeah, I trust you."
"Then believe me when I say that, even if you have to tell them everything, the people who love you, they'll understand. Steven, Kirkland, Rachel, Matt, Amanda... you won't lose them."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because. I'm still here."
"Thank you," Jamie exhaled.
The last thing Lorna reminded before drifting off to sleep curled up against his chest was, "But you still owe me a date."
"How is she?" Steven asked, when Gregory momentarily stepped out of the bedroom.
"The contractions are five minutes apart now," he told Steven, Sarah, GQ and Jen. "I don't think it's a false alarm."
"Is she in a lot of pain?" Sarah wanted to know.
"It's getting worse," he admitted. "She's feeling it mostly in her back."
"Can I try something?" Jen wondered. She crossed the room to the kitchen-area, opened the freezer, and proceeded to fill a plastic bag with chunks of crushed ice. "If you time it right, you can trick the brain into feeling the cold instead of the pain."
Gregory stepped aside. "Be my guest. It's your area of expertise."
Jen snorted derisively. "Theoretically. It's not like I actually know how to do anything real-world useful." She stepped into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
GQ asked, "What can we do?"
Gregory shrugged. "Keep trying your cell-phones. Maybe somebody will get lucky and manage a connection. Call an ambulance. Though I'm not sure how even they would get up here. The last half-mile of road looks completely washed out."
"I have an idea," Steven offered. "I can hike my way down."
"Are you nuts?" Sarah demanded. "In the dark? In the pouring rain?"
"I know this area really well. My stepfather, Jake, used to take me dirt-biking all the time."
"Oh, well, that makes it okay then. Good thing there hasn't been a single change to the terrain, not a rock out of place, in over a decade. You'll get lost!"
"I'll stick close to the main road. Maybe I can even flag down a car. As soon as I get to the bottom, I'll either use my cell or find a pay-phone."
"It's got to be ten miles, at least."
"Closer to fifteen," GQ estimated.
"You'll fall and break your neck and end up drowning in some ravine."
"You got a better idea?" Steven demanded. "You want Allie to have a baby in the middle of nowhere with no pain medication, delivered by a nineteen year old kid whose only experience is farm animals? No offense, Gregory."
"None taken," he told Steven. "I think your idea is the best one. Thanks."
"She's my cousin, I'm not just going to sit around and do nothing."
"Hold on," GQ said, rummaging in the old writing desk, finally finding a single paperclip in the bottom of a drawer. He indicated Sarah's blouse. "Is that silk?"
"What?" she looked at him as if he were a lunatic.
"Is it silk?" he repeated sternly, making clear that she'd better answer and soon.
"Yes. Yeah, it's silk."
"One hundred percent?"
He straightened the paperclip, then rubbed it several times in one direction against her sleeve. Grasping what he was doing, Steven snatched a plastic cup, filled it halfway with water and floated a scrap of paper in it. GQ dropped the clip on top, where it spun aimlessly for a few moments before settling.
"It's a compass!" Gregory exclaimed in appreciative surprise.
Sarah looked from GQ to Steven. "You were both Boy Scouts, weren't you?"
GQ told her, "Take off your blouse."
"Steven might need to recharge the metal on the way, and it only works with pure silk. Take off your blouse, put it in a plastic bag." When she hesitated, he rolled his eyes, turned his back, whipped off his own shirt and tossed it over his shoulder at her. "Yes, Sarah, I set all this up just so I could get a peek of you topless."
"You wish," she huffed, nevertheless, doing as he commanded.
Steven yanked on his jacket, grabbed the makeshift compass, the shirt and his phone.
"Good luck," Gregory told him.
"You too, man."
"Does my mother know about your little secret bachelor pad, here?"
Carl considered Jamie over his snifter of port, taking a thoughtful sip before answering. "I sincerely doubt that real estate is the true reason you've come to see me at this hour."
Jamie smiled into his glass. "I'm going to take that as a no."
"Out with it, then. What is this all about? I warn you, though, I am a man who can hold his liquor and his tongue. The fact is, I do have information that might be of great use to you. But it would not, I'm sorry to say, be of use to Lorna. In fact, she would most likely find it rather upsetting."
"That's cute. You worrying about Lorna's emotional well-being."
"If I didn't care for Lorna, would I have taken her in, clothed her, fed her, financed her education, invested so much of myself "
"Convinced her to have pornographic pictures taken then blackmailed her with them, pimped her out to men of whom, I have to presume, my brother was the most benign and age appropriate, used her, exploited her, manipulated her, threatened her when she finally had enough of your crap and tried to leave..."
"She betrayed me. For which I have forgiven her. Accordingly, I must admit, I am utterly at a loss as to the reason why she can't do the same for any perceived slights I allegedly committed against her."
"Slights," Jamie repeated with a hard hiss. "What you did to her was a bit more severe than a few minor transgressions."
"I harbor a different perspective on the matter."
"Perhaps you need a new one," Jamie leaned towards Carl. "Elizabeth is what, twelve now? In June, she'll be thirteen. The same age Lorna was when you 'saved' her from a life on the streets. Think about that. Elizabeth at thirteen. Now think about a man, an older man, who takes an interest in Elizabeth the exact same way you did in Lorna. Let's call him, for the sake of argument... Grant."
"That's enough! Not another word."
"Why? I'm just trying to give you perspective."
Carl struggled to control his breathing. "Get out of my sight."
"Not until you tell me what you know."
"Are you a damned fool, boy? I ordered you to get out!"
"If you weren't your mother's son..."
"If you weren't my mother's husband..."
Jamie refused to back down. Carl may have been the master criminal and Jamie a rank amateur in the highly competitive field of threat-exchange, but he felt certain of two things: 1) Jamie was several decades younger than Carl and, in a pinch, likely stronger. And 2) He was a hell of a lot more desperate.
Carl watched his stepson assess the situation, and even privately agreed with both of Jamie's conclusions. Which meant Carl had only one more tool at his disposal to put this game into check. And he had no qualms about using it.
The words precisely measured for maximum effect, he finally doled out, "Lucas. The person of interest you and Lorna so desperately seek... is Lucas."
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