EPISODE #2010- 85 Part #2

"Merry Christmas, Mom!" Charlie, with a squealing Lori Ann perched on her hip, the baby dressed in a red and green plaid party dress with matching hair ribbon, greeted Frankie, still in her bathrobe and more than a little bit groggy, as she descended the stairs. "Surprise!"

Charlie stepped aside to reveal Felicia, Lucas, Morgan and Dean standing there, each bearing a festively-wrapped gift, each game to echo, "Surprise!"

"I — " Frankie looked from one to the other, unable to summon up a single, appropriate response beyond. "What?"

"Merry Christmas, darling," Felicia stepped forward to kiss Frankie on the cheek. And, while she was there, smooth down a bit of her wayward hair and brush a few stray threads from her robe. After all, there was never a reason not to look one's best.

"What are you doing here?" Frankie wondered if she were dreaming.

"It was Charlie's idea," Morgan said, precariously balancing a gift box with one arm against the cast on the other. "She arranged all this."

Her daughter shrugged. "I thought today would be hard for you. You know, because of Dad... and last year." (To relive Cass and Frankie's Christmas 2009 wedding, go to: http://www.anotherworldtoday.com/2009/2009_33p1.html and http://www.anotherworldtoday.com/2009/2009_33p2.html)

"Yes," Frankie admitted, spending her first new wedding anniversary with her husband in jail, had loomed as a most daunting task. To be honest, if it weren't for the girls, she would have likely stayed in bed all day, chanting incantations to keep the carols at bay. "Thank you, Charlie. You have no idea how much this means to me."

"It's no big deal." Now that all attention was squarely on her, Charlie seemed to already be regretting the whole thing. "It's just that, I know I don't act like it most of the time, but I really want our family to stay together. Even if it's in kind of a weird way. Anybody wants to mess with us, they'll need to go through me first."

"Come here. Both of you." Frankie managed to envelop both her squirming daughters in a suffocating hug. Once they'd wriggled out of the embrace and Frankie was left facing Felicia, Lucas and Morgan, she lauded, "And thank you for coming. My own Three Wise Men.... Well, Wise People. I can't believe you were able to get away. How's Lorna?"

They exchanged uncomfortable glances. Morgan relayed, "She finally stabilized last night. Her condition has been downgraded from critical to serious. She's been moved out of ICU and into a regular room."

"But, that's good, right? That's a very good sign."

"She's turned a bit of a corner, yes. Her life is no longer in immediate danger. She's not getting any worse."

"She's also not getting any better," Felicia added. "Things are very complicated right now. I promise to tell you all about it later. But, we were summoned here to celebrate. And celebrate is what we're going to do."

Dean indicated the box he was holding. "I got something for Lori Ann. Is it okay if I give it to her?"

Frankie nodded, then looked over to Charlie, mouthing, "Thank you," for a second time.

A self-conscious shrug was the extent of her daughter's acknowledgement.

Dean offered, "How about you help Lori Ann open her present, Charlie?"

Charlie plopped down on the floor next to the tree, Lori Ann on her lap, and held out her hands to receive the gift. Lori Ann bounced excitedly when she was allowed to tug on the ribbon and pouted with just as much passion when she was stopped from sucking on the pair of gold-plated bells that came with it.

Her mood changed again when Charlie helped her withdraw from the red and green tissue paper a toddler scale-size Grand Piano. Lori Ann promptly proceeded to bang her fists on the keyboard and chortle at the sounds it produced.

"She's a genius," Lucas pronounced.

"As if there was ever any doubt," Felicia confirmed.

Dean hesitantly approached both girls, gingerly picking out Jingle Bells on the tiny keys. Lori Ann watched him with fascination, then slowly reached out and imitated what he'd done, wiggling her own chubby fingers as if tickling the instrument, frowning when the sound she made somehow didn't resemble his.

Patiently, Dean performed the tune a second time. And then, taking Lori Ann's two middle fingers, guided them to play along.

Frankie sat down next to her cousin, watching him with his daughter, smiling wistfully. She took Charlie's hand, squeezing it tightly, knowing that even this burst of goodwill was only temporary, but wanting to hold on to it as long as possible, nonetheless.

"What are you doing here?" Jamie rose from his uncomfortable chair by the side Lorna's bed at the sight of Steven entering the hospital room. "I thought I made it clear to you boys. I've already ruined your Thanksgiving, under no circumstances were you to give up Christmas for me."

"Chill, Dad. Kirkland is at Grant's right now. They're going over to Alice and Spencer's later with Marley and the girls."

"Good," Jamie said. "Good. Now, how about you? Why aren't you at Mom's? Or at least with Sarah and your friends?"

"Because I wanted to stop by and give you some good news for a change. Sharlene got Hamilton to drop the charges. It's over. The whole thing with Gregory's death and us... It's over."

"Steven," Jamie exhaled, throwing his arms around his son and hugging him tightly. "Oh, thank God, thank God. That is such great news. I'm so happy for you. And Allie and Alice and Sarah and the rest. That's terrific. Terrific! Thank you for coming to tell me. It's the best Christmas present I could have asked for."

Steven indicated Lorna's inert figure. "Figured there was something even higher on your list..."

Jamie sighed. "Remember when you were ten years old and Kirkland came to live with us, and we had that talk about no matter how many people I added to my life, you were always going to be the most important thing in the world to me? Do we need to have that chat again, son?"

"Lorna's just in a lot more trouble than me, that's all. If holiday miracles were being handed out, that's where I'd have directed them."

"She's actually doing a lot better today than she was yesterday. No one can explain why. But, I honestly believe she's on her way back. And besides, day's not over yet, right? I've just got to make sure that when she does wake up...." Jamie tried to smile, or at least fake it, both to no avail. To change the subject, he observed, "You don't look nearly as happy as I might've expected."

"I guess it just hasn't hit me yet, or something."

Jamie cocked his head. "Something's hit you, though. Something is wrong, I can tell."

"I'm cool. Just, you know, finals and... you. I'm worried about you."

"I believe that. And I appreciate it. I just don't think you're telling me the whole story."

"There's no story. I... I...." He looked away, blinking fiercely, then, realizing it wasn't going to get the job done, abruptly turned and attempted to leave the room before matters got even more humiliating. Unfortunately for Steven, Jamie was able to catch him by the shoulder and try to stop his son from leaving. Steven wrestled his arm away, "Let me go, Dad, come on, please, this is..." but it was too late. He hit the wall with his forehead, back starting to tremble, the tears unstoppable now and, instead of struggling further, simply slid down, until he was crouching in a corner, sobbing wordlessly.

Jamie knelt next to him, hand still on Steven's shoulder, gripping him tightly. He didn't say anything for the longest time, letting Steven get himself under control, unwilling to embarrass him further, but equally unwilling to just walk away, no matter how much he understood Steven thought he wanted that.

Finally, once the boy had calmed down somewhat, no tears anymore, just a periodic gasp for air, Jamie ventured to ask, "What happened, son?"

Steven shook his head but, even as he did so, the words tripped over themselves, telling Jamie about Sarah, about Allie, about their damned, stupid bet and about how she'd never loved him at all, how he'd been played; like an idiot, like a chump, like a...

"Normal person?" Jamie hazarded a guess.

"What's the point of being smart?" Steven demanded. "If you still end up acting stupid?"

"Smart is in your head," Jamie gingerly turned the boy around to face him. "Stupid is in your heart. One doesn't protect you from the other."

"Seriously? That's the best you can do?"

"Okay," Jamie sat down cross-legged on the floor beside Steven. "In your case, it's in your DNA. You know what happened with me and Dennis and Marley and Jake."

"They bet that they could break you and Marley up. Sarah bet that she could make me fall for her."

"And you did."

"Thanks for rubbing it in."

"Falling in love with somebody is nothing to be ashamed of. If they turn out not to be worth it, or if they don't appreciate what they have, that's their problem, not yours. You put yourself out there. You opened your heart and you loved another person. That's a laudable thing. It doesn't come easy."

"You mean, to people like me?"

"To people like you, to people like me, to people like..." Jamie trailed off, the pep going out of his talk as his eyes drifted back to the hospital bed, and the painfully still figure in it. He shook his head. "Sorry... I'm sorry.... I didn't mean.... We were talking about you."

"You were alone for a good long while before Lorna came along," Steven observed.

"Yeah..." he admitted. "You know, I worried about that. The example I was setting for you and Kirkland. Between your mother and Grant, and me, you boys never really got a chance to see a functional relationship."

"There's Grandma and Carl," Steven smirked.

Jamie rolled his eyes, allowing Steven to rise and extend a hand to help his ancient father up off the floor. Pride might have prompted Jamie to refuse, while aching knees convinced him to accept. "It won't hurt forever," he promised Steven.

"I'd rather it never hurt at all."

"Yeah... Doesn't work that way."

Steven followed Jamie to the side of Lorna's bed, asking, "Is this where you tell me it's better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all?"

"Wouldn't know," Jamie told him firmly, once again taking Lorna's hand in his. "I don't intend to do either this time around."

"It was really nice of the Bauers to ask you to spend Christmas Day with Hudson," Jen offered tentatively in the car on their way to Springfield.

"They're trying to buy me off," GQ shrugged. "Figure if they keep inviting me over, showing off what a great life Hudson's got, I'll accept letting them keep him, with my just dropping by for visits like some friendly uncle."

"Would that really be so bad?" she ventured. "Sounds like an optimal solution to me."

"My lawyer told them about the charges being dropped. And that we've filed papers to have my paternal rights restored, and for custody, too."

Jen figured that answered her question. Rather than beating a horse so dead it could qualify for a US postage stamp, Jen decided to change the subject to one she'd been meaning to get around to one of these days. No time like the present, right? She told GQ, "You're an amazing guy."

He took his eyes off the road long enough to give her a combination amused and perplexed look. "Where'd that come from?"

"I just thought I should say it. That somebody should say it. Most guys, after the way Allie jerked you around, they'd have considered it their right to go absolutely postal."

"Still haven't discounted that as an option," he reassured.

"You've been so decent about this. Way more than Allie deserves."

"My behavior isn't about Allie. It's about me. That's one of the things I hope to teach Hudson someday."

"It feels like everything is about Allie. Hudson is about Allie, us being arrested is about Allie. I'm scared that... "

"What?" GQ turned his head, about to make a joke about there being something out there Jen was actually scared of, only to realize, from the look on her face, that she wasn't kidding. Or in the mood for humor. "What?" GQ asked again, more gently, this time.

"I'm scared that, with no Allie in the picture, there won't be any us soon, either."

GQ's head jerked a notch. He wanted to pivot and look at her, but was compelled to keep his eyes on the road. His fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Voice level, he pointed out, "You and me, Jen, we got together before any of this Allie mess started."

"Not really. You already thought her baby might be yours. You told me about it on our first date."

"Yeah. That's always been a great pick-up line for me."

Jen smiled, then grew serious again. "I have to wonder, though, how much of you throwing yourself into a relationship with me had to do with trying to get over Allie?"

"Please. Any guy who wouldn't want a relationship five minutes after meeting you would have to be eleven dimes short of a buck."

"See what I mean! You see what a terrific guy you are?"

"This conversation is going in some serious circles, Jen. I'm great, Allie sucks.... Come on, tell me what's on your mind. For real now."

"What's on my mind is I realized I've been taking you for granted. We've always had so much outside stuff going on that you've ended up coming in second or third or... We were together, but it's never been just the two of us, really. And, I'm embarrassed to say it wasn't until I started pondering the possibility of losing you, that I fully understood just how great you are."

"So that explains the avalanche of compliments." He pulled into the driveway of Rick and Mindy Bauer's house, turned off the engine, but made no move to get out of the car. "It doesn't explain why you think you're suddenly going to lose me."

"Aside from the taking for granted thing? 'Cause, you know, that can grate after a while."

"Aside from that."

"It's like I said, what if we thought we were together, but in reality we were just fighting a common enemy. What if, with Allie gone, there isn't anything left?"

"Allie is gone?" GQ double-checked. "Because from where I'm sitting," he indicated the house his son currently lived in. "I'm still majorly feeling her."

"Okay," Jen was nothing if not agreeable. And good at thinking on her feet. "Let's look at it from that angle then. If Hudson's adoption is nullified, it won't be just you getting your paternal rights back. Allie will get her rights back, too. You'll be raising your son with his mother living across town."

"His mother who didn't want him. Who doesn't want him still."

"She could change her mind. What are you going to do then?"

"Well, there's always that going postal option you mentioned earlier."

"I'm serious. Is Allie pretty much in your life forever now?"

"Would that bother you?"

"Considering that, at the moment, the sight of her makes me want to get slap-happy, I'm going to say... yeah. It'd bother me."

"Is that why you're so against my getting custody of Hudson? Because it would mean being tethered to Allie?"

"I told you why I was against that. That part has nothing to do with Allie."

GQ took a deep breath, running the myriad of conversational threads they'd just managed to blow through in the space of an hour around his mind, before remarking, "You're right. We've had it easy, in a way. We always had something else to focus on, Allie or Gregory or a felony conviction... We've kind of been able to avoid it but... you and I, there's a lot of... stuff... that should probably be discussed."

"Or at least acknowledged."

"You know what you proclaimed before? About me being amazing?"

"You about to say something that'll make me reconsider the assessment?" she teased.

"I was going to say: Right back at you. We do have a lot of stuff to work on. And some of its going to be — "


"I was kind of planning to peak at — hard."

"I think we should prepare for painful."

"Okay," GQ said. "You're worth a sting or two. But, do you think that could wait until tomorrow. Right now, how about going in and wishing my son a Merry Christmas?"

Follow Jen and GQ's visit with Hudson and the Bauers at: http://www.soapopera451.com/msl/

"To Alice!" Spencer clicked his own glass of sparkling cider, same as Kirkland, Bridget and Michele's, against Alice, Grant, Marley, Kevin, Lila, Russ and Sarah's champagne flutes. "To her vindication!"

"Hear, hear!" came the concurring toasts.

"And to all of you. Thank you for coming to celebrate with us on such short notice."

"I'm sorry we can't stay longer," Lila demurred. "But, I promised Jasmine we'd be back at the Cory house in time for Carl's reading of the Christmas story. It's a real doozy."

Spencer's "I can only imagine," beat Grant's "God help you," by a fraction of a second.

It was Alice who took the high road, assuring Lila and Kevin, "No apologies necessary. We're happy you managed to stop by."

"Give Jazz my best," Grant called after Lila, his words utterly and frostily ignored.

Curious, Kevin looked questioningly at Marley, who responded with a noncommittal shrug. Seeing as how Grant was now sulking and self-medicating with a plate of Kirkland's homemade Christmas cookies — which, frankly, still beat the way he'd been staring at Marley ever since he woke up, like he was waiting for her to do something, but didn't know exactly what — Marley crossed the room to perch on the arm of Sarah's chair. Gently, she advised the younger woman, "Alice's exoneration is great news for you, too. You should be celebrating."

"Not really in the mood."

"I take it you and Steven haven't managed to work things out yet?"

"I think he's rigged some kind of satellite hook-up so he knows where I am on campus at any given moment and can avoid me completely. Why can't he just get over himself?"

"Let's not belittle what you did, Sarah," Marley's unexpectedly sharp tone caused the girl to freeze. "I didn't appreciate being the mark in a game your father and Jake played. I can understand how Steven feels. And so should you."

"But you didn't let what my dad did stop you from admitting you loved him anyway."

"No, but Dennis allowed me to come to that decision on my own. Once he apologized and admitted he'd made a mistake, he let me know how he felt, and then he let me figure out how I felt. You have to do the same with Steven."

"What happened to fighting for him? What happened to not taking no for an answer and making him see that we belonged together?"

"If he's too angry and hurt to hear you, pressing the issue will only make things worse. And when he's no longer as raw and has had time to process... you have to be prepared for the possibility that too much damage has been done and that he wants to move on."

"I don't understand. When I came to you the night of the election, you said — "

"I know what I said. I really do hope you and Steven work things out. But, I also want you to be realistic. Holding on to a dream, a fantasy that's never going to happen is only going to bring you pain in the end. Letting go and moving on allows you to find new love and happiness instead of being weighed down by the bitterness of what if."

"I don't want someone else. I want Steven."

"If he doesn't feel the same, fighting him will just destroy whatever positive feelings he still might have for you until there truly will be nothing left. I'm sorry if what I said to you the night of the election gave you false hope, Sarah. I'm trying to do for you what I wish someone had done for me a long time ago. I'm trying to help you. Even if it doesn't feel that way right now."

"Tis the season to be jolly," Rachel reminded her husband as he lurked in the corner, nursing a crystal tumbler of vintage brandy and warily observing the rest of their friends, employees, and family, including Cory and Elizabeth, Matt and Jasmine, Amanda and Allie, and Steven making merry at the Hutchins' annual Christmas soiree. "You aren't holding up your end of the social contract."

"By all means then, waste no time tossing that upon my eternal pyre of misdeeds," Carl pronounced darkly, downing the last of his drink.

"Or I could get a head start on my rendition of Should Auld Acquaintances Be Forgot?" she countered lightly, determined not to get dragged down into his murky vortex and hoping that a good-natured quip might be just the thing to pull Carl loose of emotional freefall before he hit the point of no return.

He attempted a half-hearted smile in acknowledgment, if not appreciation, of her efforts. "I do apologize, my dear. Alas, I fear my slumber of last night was a tad... disturbed. Blame my lack of holiday spirit upon that."

"Something on your mind?" she inquired.

"Apparently so," he conceded, visibly mystified as to what might have triggered the occurrence.

"What can I do?"

Carl turned to Rachel, his smile a great deal more genuine this time. "Just continue on as you are. I know of no better salve for deflecting the slings and arrows of life than the words of Horace: Domus et placens uxor."

"And now for those of us who didn't matriculate at Oxford?" Rachel tapped a finger to his lips.

"A home," Carl translated. "And a pleasing wife."

"Is there no language in which you fail to be charming?" she wondered, kissing Carl while, from the corner of her eye, Rachel watched Allie and Matt in parallel corner sulks along their gathering's outskirts. She sighed, arms still wrapped tightly around her husband's neck. "If I had one wish for the holidays, it would be that all of our family's current problems could be fixed with an apt Latin proverb or two. Allie... Jamie... And something is clearly going on with Matt, though Heaven knows, I'm the last person he'd ever confide in..."

"Would you like some more eggnog, Daddy?" Jasmine scurried up to her father, the punch cup already filled practically to the rim. She carefully handed it up to him.

"I'm cool, Jazz," Matt said. "You get that? Cool Jazz?"

"Funny," Jasmine intoned, looking anything but entertained.

"Hey, what's with the long face? Your mom just called, she and Kevin are on their way over, she'll be here any minute."

"I know. She texted me, too."

"Then how about breaking out some holiday spirit?" Matt crouched down until they were at eye-level. "You know, Jazz, when Lila and I took you to Chicago for your birthday, she told me a pretty silly thing. She told me she thinks that you think that it's your job to keep me happy. Isn't that the silliest thing you've ever heard?"

"Well," Jasmine reasoned cautiously. "Maybe not the silliest thing ever."

"It is," Matt corrected sternly. "Because it's my job as your dad to make sure that you're happy. Not the other way around."

"But — "

"I'm the grown-up, you're the child."

"But — "

"You are my responsibility, I am not yours."

"But — "

"No buts. I'm sorry if I ever made you feel like my being unhappy was your fault. You make me happier than anything in the world. On some days, when everything is falling apart, being your dad is about the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning."

"So then it is my job to make you happy," Jasmine pointed out, barely able to suppress a triumphant giggle.

He kissed the tip of her nose. "Don't be a smart-ass."

"It's Ms. Love, isn't it? She's why you've been so — "

"Donna and I have been in and out of each other's lives for..." giving up on math, Matt just shrugged. "A very long time. It's been difficult to let go."

"Are you sure you have to? Let go, I mean?"

"That's what she told me. And I am doing my best to respect her wishes...."

"Allie." Amanda tapped her daughter on the shoulder, beseeching the girl to reluctantly turn around. "I haven't had a chance to say congratulations yet. Why didn't you tell me Hamilton dropped the charges? I had to hear about it from Kevin, he assumed I knew."

Allie shrugged. "It doesn't matter, does it? Gregory is still dead."

"I know," Amanda struggled to find the right words. "I'm sorry."

"Last Christmas, I already knew I was pregnant. I hadn't told anybody but Gregory. He was there for me when nobody else was."

"I wanted to be there for you," Amanda reminded. "I would have been there for you, if you'd let me."

"You wanted me to get an abortion," Allie's voice harbored no judgment, just fact.

"And then I wanted you to keep Hudson." Amanda treaded carefully. "Allie, you know, now that the charges have been dropped, GQ will probably win custody."

"He shouldn't. I don't want him to."

"I realize that. But, maybe this is your chance to make the best out of a bad situation. It could be your chance to become a part of your son's life. On your terms, no one else's. He is going to need a mother."

"He has a mother. Mrs. Bauer."

"Stop it, Allie. You're being childish. Repeating what you want to be true over and over won't make it so, no matter how many times you say it. Think about your son for a change, instead of yourself. Do you really want GQ to raise him alone?"

"There's Jen."

"Jen isn't his mother and, anyway, we have no idea what her and GQ's relationship is like day to day."

"She's everything he's ever wanted," Allie sighed....

"Alright now," Rachel clapped her hands together, indicating for the just arrived Lila and Kevin to drop off their coats and join the rest of the guests in the vicinity of the tree. She picked up a leather-bound family bible from its stand and announced, "Gather around, everyone. It's time to read the Christmas story."

Rachel handed the volume to Carl, same as she had every year since Elizabeth and Cory were small. Much to her surprise, he hesitated to take it, staring at the bound pages with an emotion Rachel might have identified as... trepidation.

Carl coughed into his fist, cleared his throat and took a sip of tea, smiling apologetically, "I'm afraid I am feeling in less than fine voice this evening. Might I suggest yielding my role to..." he looked around the room, assessing the possibilities. "... Mac's son?"

Carl stretched forward the bible, the Cory name embossed on the front in gold lettering never more luminous than it appeared, at least to him, in that moment. "Would you be so kind as to do the honors for us all, Matthew?"

"Uhm..." Matt seemed both stunned and humbled by the offer. "Sure. Yeah. I guess. Would it be okay with you, Mom?"

"I think it would be lovely," she encouraged while, at the same time, struggling to determine what was possibly going through Carl's mind.

As Matt hesitantly took his seat at the head of the gathering, Rachel realized, with a pang of regret, that he had never, ever been offered the opportunity before. Always there was Mac or Jamie or... Carl... to fill the spot. None of them even considered Matthew. Which couldn't possibly be a good thing.

Rachel promised herself that she would give the issue some serious thought. But, not now. Now she just wanted to enjoy watching most of her children and grandchildren — save Jamie and Kirkland; but at least she'd had a chance to briefly speak on the phone with them both earlier — together in one place. Even if Steven and Allie looked like they wished they could be elsewhere. Even if Jasmine was periodically sneaking disapproving frowns at Lila holding Kevin's hand. Even if Cory looked noticeably put out that Elizabeth had chosen to sit on the couch next to Amanda, the two whispering what could only be uncharitable thoughts behind cupped hands as if the multi-decade age difference between them had dissolved overnight. That was certainly a new development. And one Rachel wasn't sure she felt thrilled about, either.

But, in the end, what mattered most was that they were all here, all of them more or less healthy and in once piece — once again, Rachel's thoughts turned to Jamie and Lorna and their baby. Maybe next year, she thought to herself.

And then amended that to: Definitely next year....

Lori Ann's new piano stood in the corner. Dean left the Winthrop house with a promise to come back the next day and maybe take her to the public library, where they were doing a special program of holiday music for toddlers, complete with live band and the promise of Goldfish snacks. He saw a flyer at the supermarket and... would it be okay with Frankie if Dean did that?

She nodded, watching her cousin grow up right in front of her eyes. "That should be a lot of fun for her."

"I'm trying," he swore. "I'm really trying to get the hang of this parenting thing."

Frankie looked at Charlie, gleefully showing Lori Ann how to operate the touch-screen of her new iPad. "Me, too."

Felicia, Lucas and Morgan had already left. They could only bear to be away from the hospital for so long, especially in light of the... complications Felicia had finally filled Frankie in on.

Frankie stared at her brother-in-law, dumbfounded. "You've been married to Lorna for six years?"

He nodded sheepishly. "Keep meaning to send out those wedding announcements...."

"Which means I've been related to Lorna for six years?" Frankie busted his chops.

Felicia beamed. "We always knew we were all family."

"Leave it to Morgan to take it to the next level!"

They departed with promises to keep Frankie updated on Lorna's condition, while she ordered them to let her know if there was any way she and Cass could help. Especially now that the case seemed to be headed for court. If there was anything Cass....

"Stacey's on it," Morgan reassured. "She thinks the court will honor my rights as a husband."

"And," Frankie hesitated, not sure how her request would be received. "Would you... could you please give Jamie my best? No matter what happens, he's my family, too."

Lucas nodded, "I'll let him know you're thinking of him."

She passed the remainder of the evening with the girls, watching Lori Ann laughingly pull the new hat Felicia had given her down over her ears; helping Charlie to figure out the cell-phone Frankie got her — Cass had been excruciatingly specific about the model their daughter absolutely had to have or risk total and complete social shunning.

After Lori Ann had gone to bed, Charlie offered to stay and help Frankie clean. But, her mother told Charlie the truth when she insisted it had been a long day, Frankie could use some quiet time to herself.

"Night, Mom." If Charlie didn't exactly hug her, she did tap Frankie on the shoulder somewhat fraternally.

"Good-night, Charlie. Thank you for everything you did today."

"No big deal."

"May I ask what brought it on? Not that I'm complaining, I'd just like to know where to direct my gratitude."

"Actually, Mom, you really don't," Charlie told her cryptically before heading upstairs.

The Mystery of Teen-Agers, Frankie sighed, busying herself with picking up rumpled wrapping paper and squawking packing peanuts somehow appearing in greater numbers ground into her rug than they had originally inside their gift-boxes.

She was wondering whether she felt up to hauling out the vacuum cleaner to keep at least some of the inevitable entropy at bay, when Frankie heard the knock on the door.

A knock instead of a ring. That was odd to begin with. And it was late, too.

Curious, Frankie opened up.

To find Cass standing on her doorstep. "Merry Christmas, Mary Frances."

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