“Welcome home,” Frankie threw herself into Cass’ arms the minute he walked through the door, kissing him as she professed, “I was starting to get worried. You weren’t answering your phone, and Felicia wasn’t answering her phone. I got jealous, thinking you two went off on a wacky caper without me. A few more minutes and I’d have pulled out one of my trusty disguises and gone out after you.”
Cass smiled weakly. “You know I’ll always come back to you.”
“I know,” she grinned in the face of his mysterious hesitation. “But, who says I’m on-board for missing all the fun.”
“I wasn’t… We weren’t… Not exactly fun.”
“Okay. I’m listening.” She matched his expression to her own. “You know the drill: Whither thou goest, I goest with you, buster. Where have you been? What did you find?”
“I’ve been,” Cass began. “I’ve been to Oakdale.”
“It’s a hell of a town.”
“And what I found was… your son.”
Alice sat down on the bed next to Spencer, curling up against him, drawing no relief from the fact that he no longer even flinched or responded when touched. It simply meant he was that far gone.
He’d been asleep for so long now that Alice wondered whether he’d ever open his eyes again, when he did precisely that, smiling feebly when he saw her.
Not wanting him to feel compelled to speak, Alice did it for him, reassuring Spencer, “Jamie and I both think it did Kirkland a world of good to see you. He definitely looked relieved when he left here. Jamie wanted me to thank you for what you said to him.”
“Meant it,” Spencer croaked out.
“And Grant… He – “
“Look after him. For me. Please.” Spencer realized Alice wished he would stay quiet, conserve his strength. But, that would only be prolonging the inevitable at this point, and there were things he wanted to say. Before it was too late. “He needs someone to set him straight once in a while.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Alice promised.
“I didn’t prepare him… thought I was raising him to take over the world. But everything I taught him… useless in the end. The important things… Don’t want Grant wasting his life, same way I wasted mine.”
Alice kissed Spencer as gently as she could. “You brought up two sons all on your own. You built an empire from nothing. I wouldn’t call that a wasted life.”
“Wasted,” Spencer insisted. “Chasing… wanting… the wrong things. Until you.”
She rested her face along his. “The life you led made you the man I fell in love with. How could that have been a waste?”
“Wish I’d met you before… everything. Would have been so different.”
“You wouldn’t have Grant then. Or Kirkland.”
“Wanted to give you the world.”
“You did,” Alice reassured him. “I don’t regret one minute with you.”
“Even now?” he looked at her with disbelief.
“Even now,” she repeated firmly.
“Doug said I’m hardly your first,” Lila informed Chase upon barging into his office.
“What? Who?” He stared up at her from behind his desk, utterly lost. “You talked to Doug?”
“Because…” Well, truth be told, Lila didn’t really have a good answer to that. Was it Grant preaching the value of having your eyes forced opened to possibilities you never previously considered? Or some such twaddle? Since when had Lila started listening to Grant? The truth was, Lila talked to Doug because Lila, well, Lila really wanted to hear what he had to say. About Chase, about her, about what Chase and her…. She attempted now to put her jumbled thoughts into words. She failed miserably. So Lila stuck to her original point. “Doug said I’m not the first woman you’ve gone sniffing around.”
Chase gasped as though he’d been sucked-punched in the chest. He stood up slowly, walking around his desk even as he nearly doubled-over. He covered his face with his hands and shook his head from side to side. “I didn’t think he knew…”
“So it’s true?” Lila demanded, figuring Chase and Doug could handle their personal domestic affairs on their own. For the first time in a long time this was about Lila, damn it, and she was going to make sure as shootin’ it stayed that way until she was satisfied. “You’ve cheated on Doug before?”
“No!” Chase’s head bobbed and he looked Lila dead in the eye, one finger upraised to drive home his point. “I have never, ever, ever in my life cheated on Doug.”
“Funny now, he said…”
“What did he say?” Chase grabbed Lila’s wrist. “Tell me what he said, exactly.”
Lila yanked her arm away, refusing to be cowed. “He said you make a habit of it. Every few years or so, hiring some young, pretty chippie to work for you… I gather I’m a bit long in the tooth for your usual conquest, but I guess you’re getting up there in years yourself. So at least you’re no pedophile, I’ll give you that.”
“Doug thinks I cheated on him with those women?” Chase refused to let up.
“Well,” Lila conceded. “No. He didn’t exactly say that. I – I just assumed…. I mean, why else…”
“I really do admire your work, Lila. I’d never waste government funds on someone I didn’t think would give the taxpayers their money’s worth.”
“Wow,” Lila said. “Am I supposed to be honored?”
“Doug is right. I do – you’re not the first. But, in my defense, Lila, did I ever claim that you were?”
She thought about it. “No… I guess you didn’t. But, you implied – “
“You’re right. Sorry. Guess I just figured with you being gay and all, coming on to women wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Go figure.”
“I apologized for that. The mixed signals I sent you.”
“Yeah. You did. Apologize, that is. All tearful and confused. I bought it, too. Congratulations, you really know a chump when you see one.”
“I told you the truth, Lila. I was attracted to you. But, I’m in love with Doug. Always have been, always will be.”
“Except for the long line of bimbos that preceded me.”
“It wasn’t a long line,” Chase said. “Three other women. Three. Over a period of twenty years. I’m hardly running a brothel here.”
“Too bad. Bet that would really give the tax-payers some bang for their buck. Pun most certainly intended.”
“When you were married to Cass,” Chase challenged. “Were you never attracted to another man? Not once?”
“Well, if you ask Cass, that would be impossible. Him being Cass and all.”
“I’m asking you.”
He certainly was. Lila hedged, “Well, of course. Yeah. Sure. Being married isn’t the same as being blind. You see someone and you think: Howdy, that’s real pretty. But it doesn’t mean anything!”
“Exactly! Feeling a momentary, physical attraction for another person doesn’t mean you need to immediately reject the partner you vowed to spend the rest of your life with. It just means you’re still alive.”
“Except in your case, we’re back to that whole gay thing. You asked me if I was ever attracted to another man. How about you?”
Chase hesitated. And then he added, “No. Doug is it.”
“Everyone else has been…”
“Women,” he confirmed.
“And you don’t think that’s a tiny bit odd?”
“I’m odd,” he reminded. “Or haven’t you noticed?”
“So you don’t see anything wrong with this picture? For real?”
“I can see why you might.”
“Gee, thanks. Tell me something, you well-adjusted specimen of humanity, if what you say is true and you never intend to do anything about your outside interests, why’d you hire me? Me and all the others? What’s the point of having us hanging around? Some kind of cheap thrill? Your own personal peep show?”
Chase took a moment to collect his thoughts. He spoke slowly and deliberately. He told Lila, “My mother never met a drug she didn’t like. A lot. You’d think pills would displace liquor, and crack would have them all beat but no, she just added poisons to her repertoire, she never completely gave anything up. My dad, he could actually stay sober for months if he felt like it. What he couldn’t do was keep his temper under wraps. High or clean, it didn’t matter, you pissed him off, you were going to pay for it. His rap sheet was mostly assault. Way I figure, main thing those two had in common was no self-control. None. It’s what did them both in at the end. I swore I would never be like them. I know what I want and I know what I need to do to get it. I want Doug. Past, present, and future. Nothing will make me jeopardize that. You want to know why I hired you and the other women to be around me? It was a test. For myself. If I could see you every day and still resist temptation, well then, I win. I’m not like them. And you know me, Lila, I always win.”
She wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered or insulted. To admire Chase or pity him.
He went on. “I never ever intended to hurt anybody. Certainly not you. Certainly not… I was sure I was being so discreet. I was sure Doug didn’t know. He knows. What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“Don’t mind me,” Lorna waved an apologetic hand at Steven when he shot up from his slouched repose on the couch. “These sofa cushions have developed a real taste for pacifiers lately, and I’m trying to wean them off.”
“No, it’s okay,” he stretched his arms, stifled a yawn and handed Lorna the pacifier Steven had inadvertently fallen asleep on. “I should get going anyway to pick Michele and Bridget up from…” he blinked, then frowned. “Whatever it is they’re doing after school today.”
“Karate,” Lorna advised. “And the class ended an hour ago.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Steven leapt up, racing for the door.
“You were obviously exhausted. Kirkland called Donna’s driver and took care of it. The girls are upstairs now. Relax. Everything is under control.”
Steven ground to a halt, seizing on a new concern. “You let Michele and Bridget see Kirkland…”
“He told them he was in an accident and left it at that. They’re currently too busy trading off the role of Florence Nightingale to ask any follow-up questions.”
“I guess that’s a better way to spend the evening than seething over their other brother forgetting to pick them up. Though playing patient must be driving Kirk up a wall.”
“The distraction is doing him good. Kirkland went with Jamie to see Spencer earlier.”
“Spencer’s back? He… they let him go?”
“Not exactly in one piece,” Lorna hedged, Steven gleaning what she was leaving out. “Jamie brought Kirk home then went back to stay with Alice.”
Steven let out a long slow breath. “Just another bad memory Kirk can thank Donna for.”
“Look, I’m the last person to defend Donna, I think you know that, but there are a ton of people that share the blame for what’s happened here – Spencer included. The best thing you can do now is not get caught up in who’s at fault and just focus on what can be done to make things better. And, yes, I realize that such advice coming for me deserves exactly the look you’re giving. But do bear in mind I have years of experience holding grudges. And it got me precisely nowhere except left angry and alone for an unpleasantly long time.”
“So I’m just supposed to forget what Donna’s done to my brother?”
“Hell, no,” Lorna reflexively answered before pulling back into a more reasonable, more stepmother-appropriate posture. “But, you have more important things to worry about.”
“Like finding a place that’s bullet-proof, bomb-proof, and thug-proof to hide Bridget and Michele in until the old people get it together?”
“Sorry, but no such place exists. If it did, Devon and I would be right there with you.”
“I’m trying to chill out,” he pleaded. “Donna and Marley have taken care of Bridget and Michele since Jake died and I know they’d never do anything deliberately to hurt them. But, Marley was ready to steal them away from us forever. And Grandmother… it doesn’t matter that she didn’t mean for Kirkland to be kidnapped, he still was. Because of her and what she did to Jenna and Carl… Who knows when all of that will really be over for good? I can’t risk my sisters getting caught in the middle. The problem is, I don’t know where to go. Obviously not the Cory mansion – “
“That’d be like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire,” Lorna finished.
“The only other option is to get a place of my own. Money’s not a problem, but who’d watch the girls when I’m not around? At least over at Grandmother’s there’s the staff and Sarah. But it’s not like I can take them with us. And hiring someone new, someone I could trust, that’ll take a while.”
“You and the girls could move in here.”
Steven closed his mouth and stared at her. “Here?”
“It’s your home, too, Steven; Jamie and I made that clear from the start – I hope. We’ve got the room, if you don’t mind a pull-out couch in Jamie’s office. And a baby in the room next door waking up every few hours.
“That’s no problem, as you may have noticed, I can sleep anywhere and through anything. But, seriously, Lorna, you and Dad have enough on your plate.”
“Just think about it,” she suggested. “And know that we’re here when you need us. No matter what.”
For a moment, Frankie didn’t say anything, and then she covered her mouth with her hands, gasping and whispering, “So you saw it too? Oh, I knew it. I knew you would.”
“What?” Cass had been expecting a great many responses. He wasn’t expecting this one.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Who he is? I knew it from the first moment, too, even if I couldn’t explain it at the time.”
“Frankie, I – What are you talking about? I – I went to Oakdale to… I met him. I met Zeno Tantalus.”
Frankie nodded fervently. “What’s he like now? Tell me? He must be an amazing young man. Just looking on the website, what he’s done since Orly’s death…”
“Orly?” Cass double-checked, head spinning. “That’s his mother?”
“That’s the woman with whom you…”
“Yes,” Frankie repeated, looking for all the world as if she couldn’t imagine any possible follow up questions on his part.
“I didn’t know. Not until I went online recently to look. It wasn’t a complete surprise. She was sick the entire time we were together. Good days and bad days, but we knew it was ultimately fatal. Thalassemia. It’s relatively common among people of Mediterranean descent. She had Zeno tested. He’s just a carrier. No symptoms. We got lucky.”
“You loved her,” Cass said. It wasn’t a question.
“Very much.” She gave him one, anyway.
“How long were you two together?”
“About seven years, closer to eight. Right after I got out of the hospital and up until I got my memory back.”
“Yeah. Zeno told me. He – he isn’t happy about you leaving him.”
“It killed me to do it. I wanted to keep in some kind of touch, but Orly was against it. She was angry at me. I don’t blame her. She had enough problems in her life without a partner who was pining away for her other family. We decided a clean break would be best in the end. I hoped Zeno would understand.”
“Why did you go looking for him?”
“I had to know, Frankie.” He turned the question on her. “Why did you?”
“I had to know,” she echoed his words. “It actually started with us investigating Chase. Talking to Kevin about how a stepparent doesn’t have any rights… You remember, back when we thought Chase was just with Doug because he was afraid of losing Milagros?”
“That was me and Orly and Zeno exactly. I had to know how he was. I couldn’t pretend any longer.”
“How he was?” Cass asked pointedly. “Or how they were?”
“They,” Frankie said without hesitation. “They were my family once, Cass. They were my life when I didn’t have anything else. Losing them was one the hardest things I ever had to endure. Other than losing you.”
“He’s fine,” Cass said, unable to continue with that particular train of thought. “Zeno. He seems fine. I mean, there are some problems with the farm…”
“Right. I read that on his website. You know, I’m thinking, Cass, now that everything is out in the open, maybe there’s some legal advice you could help him with.”
“Whoa, Frankie, hold on. Let’s get a grip here, take it easy, give me a second to catch my breath. I just found out that you have this kid you think of as your son…”
“But, Cass… I – He’s your son, too.”
When Jamie went in to check on them, he found Alice still lying in Spencer’s arms. But from the way her head rested on his chest, Jamie realized… if Spencer had still been alive he’d never have been able to bear the weight.
He met Alice’s eyes silently. She offered him the slightest of nods.
Jamie said, “I’ll go tell Grant.”
“What are you doing here?” Jeanne looked in confusion from Clarice to Larry.
“We came to see our little girl.” Larry promptly pulled said little girl into a bear hug despite the befuddled look on her face, then glanced over Jeanne’s shoulder at Matt, Larry’s own face slipping into protective father mode. “And her fiancé.”
Matt all but squirmed under the directness of his gaze.
“Why didn’t you tell us, honey?” Clarice was next to embrace Jeanne, then hold her at arm’s length. “When did all of this happen? You and Matt…”
“Suddenly,” Rachel interjected, beaming at the family reunion. “It all happened very suddenly, you can trust me on that.”
“I’m sorry,” Matt stammered. “Larry, I know I should have asked…”
“You’re right. You should have.” Jeanne’s daddy sized her intended up and down, as if taking stock of him on the spot. His stern demeanor melted into a grin as he clamped one hand on Matt’s shoulder while pulling Jeanne close to him with the other. “But, my Jeannie’s always been pretty good at knowing her own mind and making her own decisions. If she says you’re the one, then I’ve got to believe she’s right. Besides, having your mother here speak up for the two of you, well, that goes a long way with me and Clarice both.”
“Rachel told us how good you are to our daughter, Matt.” Clarice smiled at the man she’d known ever since he was born. “You have a child of your own. I’m sure you understand what it means when someone is kind and loves them as much as you do.”
“It’s all you can ask for, really,” Larry added.
“You told them?” Jeanne looked at Rachel, her bewilderment turning to horror. “You told them… everything?”
“Yes,” Rachel said unapologetically. “Because your parents needed to know how you felt.”
“No!” For the first time since he’d met her, Jeanne actually seemed on the verge of losing her temper. Matt hadn’t realized that was possible. “Damn it, Rachel, if I’d wanted them to know, I’d have told them.”
Matt’s mother took no offense. “I realize that. And I realize it may seem like none of my business. But you’re about to marry my son. You are going to be my daughter. And your happiness is my business now. I couldn’t allow you and Matt to start your lives together with something like this hanging over your head. Especially when it’s so unnecessary.”
“Your going to my parents was unnecessary,” Jeanne corrected. “You forcing them to relive everything that happened thirty years ago, that’s what’s unnecessary.”
“You’re wrong,” Clarice corrected gently, turning Jeanne to face her. “If what happened between me and Jerry thirty years ago is hurting you now, then it is very, very necessary for your father and I to go back over every moment of it.”
“It isn’t fair, Mom.” Jeanne was crying now. Matt hadn’t realized that was possible, either. “You’ve been through enough. I don’t want to add to it. I won’t.”
“Then don’t,” Larry advised gently. “Don’t do anything. You just let us do all the talking.”
“You are not Jerry Grove’s child,” Clarice said.
“How do you know?” Jeanne challenged. “Did you do tests? Blood tests? DNA?”
“Then how do you know?”
“I know,” Larry said. “Because all of that science stuff is unimportant. You’re my daughter. You’re named after my mama. You think something in a test tube could change that?”
“So you don’t know,” Jeanne sniffled.
“I know that if we put your brother’s blood under a microscope, we’d get a piece of paper back saying his Daddy is some fellow by the name of Robert Delaney. Can you look me in the eye and tell me I’m not Cory’s daddy?” Larry tapped his fingers under Jeanne’s chin and prompted her to face him.
“That’s different,” she insisted.
“You knew… With Cory, you knew up front. You got to make a choice. You and Mom didn’t have any choice with me.”
“I’d like you to show me any parent-to-be who gets their choices up front. It’s not like a Chinese food menu, a little bit from Column A, a little from B, and do make sure she can play the piano, too, would ya?”
“Stop trying to make me laugh.”
“What are Daddies for?” Larry kissed the tip of her nose.
“Jerry Grove,” Clarice said. “Was a very, very sick boy, who needed medical care. If we’d noticed it earlier, I like to think we would have helped him get it. As it is, it’s my fond hope that the hospital where he ended up did everything they could for him. Maybe even got him to a point where he could live a normal existence again. I don’t know. I never inquired. Because Jerry Grove is not a part of my life anymore. And he should have never, ever been a part of yours.”
“I’m grateful to you, Matt,” Larry said out of nowhere. “Damn grateful you forced this discussion out into the open. Clarice and me had no idea… We had no notion our Jeanne was suffering like this all these years. If it weren’t for you – and Rachel – we’d still be in the dark. We’re right grateful to you both.”
“I – I didn’t do anything,” Matt said, part modestly, part self-defense.
“You know,” Rachel spoke up. “I just had a thought. Jeanne’s made it very clear that she has no interest in a big wedding. Despite all my subtle prodding to the contrary. But, you’re here, we’re here, Jasmine, Matt, Jeanne… I can make a few phone calls, round up a justice of the peace, and what do you say we hold the wedding right here, right now?”
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