The last time Gregory managed to open his eyes, he smiled when he saw that Allie was still there, as promised, lying next to him on the bed, stroking his arm so that he could feel her even while barely conscious.
He looked at her silently for a long moment, and then he told her, "Today..."
She nodded, steeling her voice to keep it from cracking as she soothingly agreed, "Okay."
"Oh, good, you brought breakfast," Lorna wound her way through the maze of halfway packed boxes to greet Jamie when he kicked the door of the guesthouse shut behind him, juggling a culinary spread pilfered from the main house in both hands.
She kissed him as he attempted to gingerly set eggs, sausage, toast, danish and fruit slices upon the least-cluttered table within reach, her own free hand simultaneously sneaking around his back to snatch a jam-filled pastry.
"Was that for me or the food?" Jamie laughed in response to her passionate welcome.
"Why not both?" Lorna asked innocently, kissing him again, promising, "This one is just for you," before pulling away and noting, "What's wrong? You are not wearing your happy face."
"I missed you last night," he shrugged. "It's amazing how quickly a man gets out of the habit of sleeping alone."
"The sooner you're packed, the sooner we can move out, and in, and you'll never have to sleep alone again. But, uh-uh, that's not it. What happened up at the house?"
Jamie crunched down on a strip of bacon, trying to sound nonchalant as he revealed, "Matt decided that my basketball game with Kirkland and Cory was the ideal venue in which to berate me about the Lori Ann situation. Which wasn't exactly news to Kirk I guess Charlie had filled him in but it was still upsetting. We talked. Turns out, he's feeling somewhat... overwhelmed."
"I don't blame him."
"Me neither. That's why, rather than dragging him along during the move, I suggested he stay a few days with Grant, just until things settle down. Marley was on her way over to pick him up as I was leaving."
"Oh, Jamie, no.... If Grant is the better alternative to us, then we've got a problem."
"Us being together is not a problem," Jamie reassured. "It is, however, apparently such a cataclysmic shift in Bay City status quo that the masses are having a hard time adjusting. Which, with the exception of Kirkland and Steven, I could care less about. They'll either get over it or they won't. As for Kirk spending time with Grant, that was going to happen in any case. He promised to keep away from the cigars, so I'm dealing."
"You shouldn't have to be dealing. Your life should not become suddenly harder due to me or my wanting to adopt Lori Ann.
"Grant has legal visitation rights now...." Jamie trailed off, taking in the culpable look on Lorna's face. "This isn't about Grant, is it?
Lorna shook her head, the ensuing pregnant silence saying more to him than any words.
"What's happened?" he prodded gently.
She looked to the side, addressing the food rather than Jamie. "Frankie came by yesterday. To talk about Lori Ann."
"Can I guess that peace talks broke down?"
"Into about a million, fiery, little pieces. She brought up.... Cecile. And what happened when the two of you were married..."
The bacon stuck in Jamie's throat. He had to cough violently to dislodge it, spitting the remnants out into a napkin, crumpling it so tightly in one hand that his knuckles turned first crimson, then deathly white.
Lorna rushed to get Jamie a glass of water and watched him drink it without saying a word.
"I thought," he finally admitted. "I thought Frankie and I were past that."
"I'm sure you were. Until I came along." Lorna caressed his arm, then moved her hand up to Jamie's face, feeling how taut every muscle beneath his skin had gotten, realizing that he was shaking, agonizing over the knowledge that it was all her fault. "You told Steven and Kirkland. But there are still so many others; Rachel, Grant, people at the hospital. If this gets out.... I can drop it, Jamie," she decided on the spot, picking up conviction with every word. "You know how much I want to raise Lori Ann. But if my trying to make that happen ends up hurting you or your family... I'll drop it. I swear, I'll let it go, if that's what you want me to do."
Rather than answer her question, Jamie pointed out, "And what about the next time? As long as we keep this a secret, it can always be used against us."
"But Frankie wouldn't... She only did it now because of Lori Ann. What other "
"Who knows?" Jamie shrugged. "But I have no intention of living the rest of my life under an open threat. And I certainly have no intention of asking you to do it with me. I'll talk to Frankie. Face to face. Find out how serious she really is. Hopefully end this once and for all."
"Marley, what a delightful surprise running into you again so soon," Carl purred upon spying her waiting patiently in the foyer.
"I came to pick up Kirkland," she explained. "He's going to spend a couple of days with Grant while Jamie and Lorna get settled at their new place."
"I see. And will you be in residence, as well, my dear?"
"If you're asking whether Grant and I are living together, no, we're not. I have the girls to think about."
"Quite right, quite right. I'm sure you'll forgive me if I remain a bit anxious at the idea of our Kirkland squirreled away within Grant's domicile, unsupervised, for days on end."
"Our Kirkland," Marley double-checked, amused and intrigued. "Since when are you so interested in Kirkland?"
"From the beginning," Carl insisted. "You know how fond Ryan was of the lad. He couldn't have loved him more if Kirkland were Ryan's own child."
"Kirkland's a lucky boy. A lot of people love him. Including his biological father."
"The ultimate upshot of which remains yet to be seen now, doesn't it?"
"Look, Carl, if you have a problem with this though, for the life of me, I can't really see how it's any of your business take it up with Jamie. He's the one who approved this visit. He's Kirkland legal guardian now, not me."
"How did that happen?"
"It was my idea," Marley said with a lot more confidence than she actually, honestly felt regarding the subject.
"Oh, I have a hard time believing that. Victoria made it patently clear in her will "
"Ten years ago, Vicky had no idea what the situation would morph into. Me raising all of her kids made sense at the time. It doesn't anymore. Not with Grant back."
"I always believed that Victoria's choosing you to watch over not just her daughters, but her sons, as well, was her sly, furtive way of manipulating you back into Jamie's arms. And, vice versa."
Marley laughed. "I think, when she was making her will, Vicky had more important things to worry about than my love life. Especially since she had no intention of dying young. And she certainly didn't expect Jake to follow so soon afterwards."
"I wouldn't be so certain. Victoria felt a great deal of guilt where you were concerned. There had just been the unpleasantness with your breakdown "
"I was the one who should have felt guilty about that. I snapped and kidnapped her, not the other way around."
"But she knew that it were your feelings for Jake..."
"Jake and I are ancient history. Besides, Vicky got there first. Vicky always got everywhere first."
"Indeed," Carl chuckled, as if realizing it for the first time. "Jake, Jamie, now Grant..."
"Yes," Marley matched him chuckle for chuckle. "I'm a big loser, thank you for the reminder." She glanced up the stairs and called, "Kirkland, I'm waiting!"
"I'm afraid you've misunderstood me." Carl corrected smoothly, despite Marley's projecting every indication that she was dying for this awkward conversation to come to a merciful end. "It's quite the opposite. All of the previously mentioned suitors moved on from Vicky, each for their own reasons, only to end up with you. Shouldn't that tell you something?"
"That they liked the packaging but not the gooey center?"
"It should tell you that you are many times the woman your sister ever was. And that you deserve every happiness that life has to offer."
"Your newfound concern for me is touching, Carl. And seriously unsettling. Come on, 'fess up. What's really going on here?"
He didn't have the strength to speak again, or even to open his eyes. Still, after hours of hearing him breathe, Allie had learned to tell the difference between Gregory asleep and Gregory awake.
She sensed the subtle shift that indicated he'd briefly regained consciousness, and raised her arm to stroke his face, all the while reassuring, "I'm here, it's okay, I'm here, I'm not going anywhere, I'm here."
She patted his hair, his ear, his cheek, his chin and, much to her surprise, in the split second when her hand softly brushed his lips, Gregory managed to tighten his neck just long enough to kiss her palm, before exhaling and letting his head droop back down.
"I'm here," Allie kept repeating, inching as close as she could, pressing against him, putting her arms around him, feeling the effort it took now for Gregory to just take a single breath, listening as the time between each attempt stretched out longer and longer, growing fainter and shallower until finally it he simply... stopped.
"Hey," Jamie called out to Frankie, coming up behind her at the playground where she was pushing on the baby swings a squealing, clapping Lori Ann, her nascent ebony curls swept up in the merest suggestion of two pig-tails. "Thanks for agreeing to meet me."
Frankie confessed, "I wanted to talk to you, too, Jamie. I was just trying to get up the nerve to pick up a phone."
He leaned against the swing-set's metal frame, one arm resting on each parallel bar and observed, "I've always liked this park. Used to bring Steven here when he was little. Sometimes Amanda would come with Allie. And we'd see John and...." He trailed off. "Any news on that front?"
Frankie shook her head. "No. Nothing. Sharlene is... I've never seen her like this."
"Give her my best, would you? Next time you speak?"
"I'm sure she'd love to hear from you directly. We are family, after all." The dubious look on Jamie's face in response prompted Frankie to ask, "What? You don't agree?"
He shrugged and looked away, "I agree that, technically, we are all Frames, sure. But, I was never really part of the hayloft and wholesomeness in-group, you know?"
"Don't blame the Frames for that. Your father was the one who ran away from home and wanted nothing to do with us for years."
"I don't blame anybody for anything," Jamie told her honestly. "But I do find it a bit disingenuous of you to wave the Frame family flag whenever it suits your purposes, and then conveniently misplace it on other occasions."
"I shouldn't have said what I said to Lorna," she admitted.
"But you did. And it wasn't the first time, was it, Frankie? Last year, you tried to blackmail me into helping you neutralize Cecile."
"She was a problem for both of us. If you'd only come through for me then, none of this none of this would have happened."
"I don't respond well to threats. That's another Frame family trait, I believe."
"Your girlfriend is aiming to take away my child. What was I supposed to do?"
"Talk to her. Try to reach a compromise."
"Please, Jamie. You and Lorna are in love. That makes you completely blind to how "
"Irrational she can be? How obstinate, how unforgiving? I love Lorna. But I also see her for precisely who she is. And in this case, yes, she's angry, yes, she'd like a pound of Cass' flesh if she could get it; sure, why not? More than anything, though, she loves this little girl, and she wants Lori Ann to have the very best life possible."
"Cass and I want the exact same thing. We've been her parents for almost a year. You can't just yank a child out "
"I agree with you."
"You do?" Frankie looked at him suspiciously.
"I do. And I've told Lorna as much. On several occasions."
"Then how can you be "
"Because all I can do is offer my opinion. I have no intention of telling Lorna what she should or should not do."
"And she still intends to go full speed ahead with this? In spite of "
"In spite of what it could do to a lot of people she supposedly cares about. Felicia is not pleased about this, either. She agrees that Lori Ann belongs with us."
"That's between Lorna and Felicia."
He was being so reasonable, it was all Frankie could do not to smack him in frustration. "Why did you call me, Jamie? What were you hoping to accomplish here today?"
"I guess I wanted to see for myself just how serious you were. People say a lot of things they don't mean when they're upset."
"Are you asking if I really meant it?"
"I was going to, yes." He leaned forward, peering into Frankie's eyes and refusing to let go despite her obvious discomfort. "But it sounds to me like you've already been asking yourself the exact same question."
"I knew there was something I'd forgotten to do," Marley sighed crossly upon coming home from dropping off Kirkland at Grant's and discovering Donna in the Love living room, leafing through a hardback book as if she'd never been banned from the premises. "Now where did I put that locksmith's number?"
Figuring that Marley's lack of salutation permitted her to do the same, Donna skipped the inevitably unwelcome pleasantries and instead held up the tome, asking, "Since when are you interested in politics, darling?"
"Since Grant decided to run for Mayor again."
"I hardly see how that concerns you. Kirkland, maybe, but certainly not "
"Grant and I," Marley still couldn't get over how much she enjoyed watching people's heads blow off in response to her revelation. Honestly, it had become the best part of her day. "Have graduated from illicit sex romps to an official, full-fledged relationship. Which means that "
"You have officially lost your mind," Donna pronounced, rising. "First an affair while you're still married to somebody else, then an ill-advised political campaign, throw in Kirkland and Grant is trying to relive his past with Vicky through you!"
Marley looked out the window and, ignoring Donna's assertion wholesale, observed, "The sun is about to go down. Shouldn't you be scurrying off back to John's, using the shadows for cover?"
Mustering up as much dignity as possible, Donna corrected, "That won't be necessary any longer. I've spoken to Felicia and Carl. They've both had their say where I'm concerned."
"And you think that's it?" Marley asked incredulously. "They're done with you?"
"What's left for them to do? If Felicia had any sort of legal recourse, she would have certainly employed it by now. I know she tried for months."
"And Carl?" Marley crossed her arms. "We all know what stock he puts in the rule of law."
"Carl has Rachel to keep him in check."
"You're being hopelessly naive. Or possibly just deliberately whistling past a graveyard. Carl's plotting something, Rachel or no Rachel. Else why would he have developed such an interest in Kirkland recently? Not to mention me?"
"I'm sure that has more to do with you and Grant," Donna insisted. "Than you and me."
"Right. Carl does hate Grant so for killing Carl's child. The one he barely got a chance to know due to the mother's machinations."
Her point wasn't lost on Donna. But that didn't mean it required being addressed. "I will not live my life in fear of that man any longer. He's already cost me too much."
"He's cost you too much? Was sacrificing one daughter and almost one granddaughter to protect yourself from him not enough? Now you want to throw me and Bridget and Michele onto the ceremonial flame, as well? You think Carl will hesitate to come after you through us? You don't think you're endangering your grandchildren's lives just by trying to insinuate your way back into them?"
"My grandchildren and you are the only things I have left."
"And whose fault is that?"
"Mine. It's all my fault, I'm not denying it. But I would like you to remember something. All the times I've stood by you when, despite your best intentions, life and reason somehow got away from you for a bit. You've been where I am now, Marley. You've made horrible, tragic decisions that inadvertently hurt people you were supposed to care about. And you begged their forgiveness. And they gave it to you, didn't they?"
Marley didn't budge. But, for the first time, she didn't contradict, either.
"Victoria forgave you for kidnapping her. Jake forgave you for it, too. Because they understood that you were ill. And now, I hear, Jamie has "
"I get it," Marley snapped. "Stop. I get what you're trying to say."
"What do I have to do to get you to believe that I am truly sorry? That I am not a danger to you or the girls? That I love you? That I have always loved you? That you can trust me?"
"You can start by settling up your debts with all the people you've wronged. Own up to what you did and accept the consequences."
"I did! I have! Any question Felicia had, I answered with complete and total honestly. As for Carl, well, he didn't want... I don't know what Carl wanted."
"Exactly. And until you find out and, most importantly, give it to him, no way will I ever believe that any of us are safe associating with you."
"Allie," Sarah's hand was on her shoulder, shaking Allie awake the next morning. She'd opened the curtains to let the light in, and Allie's only response was to wince and blink painfully. Otherwise, she continued lying where she was, curled up against Gregory, both of them utterly serene for the first in a very long time.
It took Allie a few seconds to realize that Jen, GQ and Steven were there, too. All of them looking down at her with extreme concern.
"I'm okay," Allie insisted, not resisting, just a little stiff, when Sarah forcefully loosened her grip on Gregory's body and helped Allie to sit up shakily beside him. "And he's okay. He really is. It happened exactly the way he wanted. Just me and him."
"We have to call someone now," Steven, unable to process what he was feeling, hid behind procedure and expertise. "When a death happens outside a hospital, you have to call the coroner's office and "
"But we don't have to do it from here," GQ reminded. "I say we clean up the place, get rid of any incriminating evidence, and then make the call from far, far away."
"No!" Allie didn't realize she was shouting until her voice hurt her own ears. "No. I promised I wouldn't leave him alone. I promised."
"He's gone, Al," Sarah knelt down on the carpet in order to look up into Allie's face and reassure, "You kept your promise. You did exactly what Gregory wanted of you. But it doesn't matter anymore."
Taking GQ's advice to heart, Jen proceeded to go through the cabin, searching for anything that could be used against them. She found the pill bottle Alice had left behind and ripped off the label identifying her as the prescribing physician. She handed it to Steven and ordered, "Burn it."
Steven nodded, happy to have something concrete to occupy his mind and hands, and did exactly that in a nearby ashtray, opening the window wider, waving the smoke outside to keep it from triggering the detector. Once that was done, he crushed the pill bottle itself and set it afire, too, insuring that not a single fingerprint might prove salvageable.
"I am not leaving Gregory," Allie reiterated. "Call the coroner, tell them where he is. I'll wait."
"The Hudsons are threatening to have you arrested." GQ urged, "Why help them string the rope?"
"There's no point in hiding. They know I was with him."
"Knowing and proving in a court of law are two different things. Let the cops try to piece it together themselves. Buy yourself some time. At least get a lawyer before you talk to them."
"I promised Gregory I'd stay," Allie hissed. "The rest of you go. Please go. I won't tell anyone that you were here or that you helped me with anything."
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