“Perfect!” Rachel announced, having opened the Cory front door to Dean. She led him inside to where Matt and Jeanne, Clarice and Larry, Carl, Elizabeth and Cory, Jasmine and Lila, Steven, Bridget and Michele, and Amanda and Allie already stood waiting, all in various stages of confusion and shock.
Rachel explained to Matt, “A best man is tricky to find at the last minute. I called Jamie several times, but he isn’t answering his phone. Steven, do you have any idea where your father is?”
“He’s got… stuff going on,” Steven said, noncommittal, and something in her grandson’s tone convinced Rachel – and Carl – that it would be best not to press the issue. Cory and Elizabeth both noticed. No one else seemed to.
“So I asked Dean if he would mind standing in,” Rachel beamed at Matt’s friend.
“If that’s okay with you, man,” Dean offered.
“I… Yeah. Sure.”
“Wonderful,” Rachel said, stepping aside once again to answer the door for the final person they were expecting, the Justice of the Peace.
Her departure gave Dean the chance to sidle up to Matt and offer, sotto voice, while the rest of the guests milled around them, “Dude, you look like you’re on your way to a firing squad. Take it from me, marriage – it ain’t that bad.”
“I know… I know…” Matt said absently, looking around as if waiting for something… anything to happen. And it had better be soon, too.
“Your bride-to-be is certainly hot,” Dean offered, distinctively getting the sense that Matt wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind for the upcoming proceedings, and focusing on the one positive thing Dean felt he could say about Jeanne. “Your mom seems to like her. That’s a plus. Felicia and Lucas… I wasn’t exactly their favorite person, remember? Not like you, golden boy.”
“They came around. They realized you and Jenna belonged together till the end.”
“Aw, hell,” Matt snapped out of his own reverie to recall that there were other people in the world, ones who also had problems, and some a good bit worse than his, too. “I’m sorry, that was a – damn it, Dean, I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s alright. You didn’t do anything to us, to me. Your ex-wife, on the other hand…” Dean trailed off. “I think now’s a pretty good time for me to tell you how happy I am you got that poisonous bitch out of your life once and for all. Got to level with you, man, if you’d decided to stick by Donna after what she did to Jenna and Lori Ann, I don’t know if I’d have been able to handle it. No, scratch that, I know I wouldn’t have. There’s forgiveness, there’s walking a mile in someone else’s pointy pumps, there’s trying to see everyone's point of view, blah, blah, blah… and there’s letting your own kid, and almost your grandkid, too, die just to cover your ass.”
“Donna… she didn’t mean…”
“Doesn’t matter,” Dean shrugged. “She’s in your past. Your mom got me out here so we can all play witness to your future. Unless…” Dean stared at Matt quizzically, his sense of unease growing in proportion to Matt’s rather palatable hesitation. “Listen, seriously, if this is just typical cold feet then get a move on, it’s my job as best man to get you to the altar on-time and in one piece. But, if you’ve got serious doubts, then screw it. It’s not a done deal till the I do’s. You’ve still got time to call this whole thing off. Say the word, and I’ll help you do it, no sweat. What’s a best man for?”
Alice stood outside the door to her bedroom, looking from Grant to Jamie, none of them knowing exactly how to react or proceed from here.
Realizing as much, she took matters into her own hands, telling the two men who were both technically her stepsons, “We’ll need to call the Medical Examiner. All outside the hospital deaths requite an autopsy in any case, and once they take a look at him….” She turned to Jamie. “You should go. There are going to be all sorts of sticky ethical and legal questions, and you don’t need to get involved. No reason to believe there was any other doctor here with Spencer except for me.”
“Are you sure you’re up to facing this alone?” Jamie asked.
“She won’t be alone,” Grant stepped up. “I’ll be here.”
“Would you like me to call Kevin?” Jamie wondered.
“Kevin is on suspension from practicing law,” Grant reminded. “I’m not.”
“He’s also Alice’s grandson. She could use the family support.”
“We’re in enough trouble as it is, let’s not get another person involved. I’ll be here for Alice, both in the legal and the – the support sense.”
“That’s very kind of you, Grant,” she said softly.
Unsure of how to respond to her gratitude, Grant settled for a gruff cough, before getting down to further business. “I may not have a lot of strings left to pull in Bay City, but I do have one. Let’s see if it’s strong enough to make this entire problem go away.”
“Grant,” Alice rested her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Would you like to go in and say good-bye to your father?”
He shook his head. “I did that already. I’d rather look out for his wife by putting into practice what he taught me.”
Jamie didn’t look thrilled by the possibility. “How legal is what you’re planning to…”
“In Bay City?” Grant smirked. “It’s practically a misdemeanor.”
“Feel better?” John asked politely, having come into Marley’s room just in time to catch the tail end of her mother’s threats, and promptly steering Donna out of there, out of the hospital altogether, and into his car, where he now sat waiting for an explanation.
“Not by a long-shot,” Donna assured him, still fuming.
“What was that? Your version of shock therapy?”
“Yours obviously wasn’t getting the job done.”
“Marley is getting better. I promise you. I’ve been in touch with her doctors and she really is getting stronger, more confident – “
“Not quickly enough,” Donna decreed. “While Marley hides in here, her life outside is falling apart. Steven has decided that neither Marley nor I are fit guardians for Victoria’s girls.”
“I know. He contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to testify in court, if matters came to that.”
“He what? That arrogant, little… Just because his IQ is in the astrosphere, he thinks he’s got the life experience to match. Jamie was always too easy on that boy. Much too indulgent. This is what letting your children run wild leads to. They think they know better than adults. No, they don’t think it, they know it.”
“Revisionist history isn’t going to help anyone right now, Donna.”
“Don’t you dare disagree with me. Not about this. Steven did the exact same thing to you a year ago. When he and Allie took it upon themselves to decide what was best for Gregory, to presume that they knew better than you did – “
“No,” John barked at Donna, causing her to jump in her seat and shirk back, realizing she’d gone too far even before John, his voice steely warned, “Do not go there. Do not, for a minute, think that you can manipulate me about anything by using my son.”
“I’m sorry,” she told him sincerely. “You’re right, of course. But, I was merely trying to draw a parallel between – “
“No,” he thundered again.
And Donna finally got the message. “The only one with the right to fight Steven on this is Marley. Only she’s chosen to disregard her responsibilities in order to – “
“According to Marley, there was nothing to get well from. She went into the hospital swearing she never tried to commit suicide, that it were the people after Carl and I who tried to kill her and make it look like an accident. I didn’t believe her then. I do now. Which means that there was nothing wrong with Marley to begin with.”
“She covered up a hit and run which almost killed a woman and her baby.”
“Yes. She did. But, it was an accident. Marley was always willing to come forward. Grant is the one who manipulated her into keeping silent, who bullied her into telling lie after lie; he put an inordinate amount of pressure on her, any sane person would have cracked. If anyone should be here, under lock and key, it’s Grant, not Marley.”
“Marley is finding her time here very beneficial. I wouldn’t rush her if I were you.”
“Well, you’re not me, are you, John?”
“No,” he agreed. “And neither is Marley. Even though turning into her mother is your daughter’s greatest fear.”
“She could do worse,” Donna snapped, not even taking a moment to ponder the implications of his revelation.
John smiled wistfully. “You are one of a kind, I will certainly give you that.”
“About time someone noticed,” Donna huffed, pulling her coat protectively about her shoulders.
“So that’s it,” John said.
“That’s what this is all about. You’re feeling a dearth of attention, and you need to reconfirm that Donna Love still is, and always will be, the center of the universe.”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“I am,” he agreed.
“Well,” she conceded. “You’re allowed.”
Now he actually laughed out loud. “And to what do I owe the honor?”
“You, at least, remember I’m still alive. Everyone else has seemingly deemed me utterly and completely irrelevant.”
“Everyone?” John burrowed. “Or just Matt Cory?”
Donna startled at the name. “Matt…”
“You’re still not ready to let go of him, are you?”
“That may prove to be unnecessary,” Donna demurred cryptically, looking out the window and suddenly developing a deep and abiding interest in the hospital parking lot, hoping John would miss the devilish smile tugging at her features.
John missed very little. “You’re up to something,” he didn’t even need to ask to know it was true.
“I’m not Marley,” she evaded his question. “I don’t let the people I love slip through my fingers. When I want something, there isn’t a force in this world strong enough to stop me.”
“Zeno Tantalus is… my son?” Cass looked into Frankie’s eyes. She seemed so desperate to make him see, to make him understand… something. “That’s impossible.”
“I knew it. I felt it. The first time I saw him. Only I couldn’t put it into words then. I met Zeno before I even met Orly. I was at the Farmer’s Market in Oakdale a few weeks after I first got to town, and this little boy comes running my way, bumping into me, nearly knocking me over… it was him, Cass. Our son. The baby we lost. The one before Charlie. When you were with Kathleen and I…”
“You didn’t tell me that you were pregnant.”
“That baby died, Frankie. He never existed. When you… went to Heaven, you saw him there, you told me you did. You held him.”
“Yes,” she nodded fervently. “Yes, Cass…”
“Souls are eternal. You know I believe that.”
“Oh, Frankie, no…”
“Zeno was conceived the day our baby died. That very day. He was born nine months later. That’s how we were able to have such an instant connection. He was a part of me and he knew it, too. My relationship with Orly, that came later. First, I just couldn’t stay away from Zeno.”
“You were sick, Frankie. You’d just gotten out of the hospital, you didn’t remember anything about your past. You didn’t remember me or Charlie, of course you’d feel a connection with a child. You were always so good with kids.”
“This was more than that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Souls travel in groups, in packs. They travel through lifetimes. The exterior circumstances might change, but a universal connection cannot be broken. Everyone talks about love at first sight or meeting a stranger and feeling like you’ve known them forever. What could that possibly be but familiar souls reconnecting for the umpteenth time?”
“Congratulations, Daddy!” Jasmine smiled, her enthusiasm belied by a slight furrow of confusion upon her brow, and the wet noodle armed hug she bestowed upon her newly wed father.
“Thanks, Jazz,” Matt hugged his little girl back with all the enthusiasm he could muster. It certainly beat the lukewarm kiss he’d planted on Jeanne a few moments earlier. “I’m sorry about springing all this on you like this. But Grandma thought it would be fun and romantic – “
“I know,” Jasmine sighed. “She told me.”
“Well, Rachel was right about one thing,” Lila murmured, glancing from her daughter, obviously struggling to play the dutiful child, to Matt who looked liked he was bracing himself for an explosion of atomic proportions – as he damned well knew he should be. “It certainly was… something.”
“Mama, be nice,” Jasmine warned. “It’s Daddy’s special day.”
“It sure is, Sugarplum. Why, lookee there, Grandma seems to be having the food brought out. Why don’t you skedaddle on over and see if she needs any help.”
Jasmine gave her mother a knowing look. “You just want me to leave so you can yell at Daddy.”
“Who’s yelling? I’m not yelling.”
“I can feel the vibrations. It’s building.”
“Skat,” Lila jutted a thumb Rachel’s way for emphasis.
Jasmine did as she was told, and the minute their daughter was out of hearing range, Matt held up a hand to ward Lila off. “Look, I know what you’re going to say – “
“Do you now?”
“I’m a horrible father and a selfish jerk for dropping this on Jasmine – and you – without warning.”
Matt blinked. “You’re wondering if, with Jeanne and I getting married, I’ll be asking you to leave the mansion? Because I won’t. I love having you and Jazz here.”
“Okay…uh…” Matt eyed her curiously. “You want to wish me and Jeanne a very happy life together?”
“And a third strike means you’re out.”
“Lila, I don’t have time for this.”
“Well, you’d best make the time. Because you are just about the saddest looking groom I’ve seen in a long, long time – and that includes our wedding, when you weren’t exactly a happy – or right in the head – camper. You’d think someone ran over your puppy dog and was holding it for ransom. Now, what in the world is really going on with you and this Jeanne woman?”
“I love her.”
“Got her in a family way? Don’t worry, Matt, I won’t be shocked, I’m a big girl. Not to mention that’s precisely how we got our own big girl, right over there.”
“What? No! Jeanne... she and I… no, that’s not what’s going on here.”
“Then what is it? Don’t you go trying to put me off, because whatever it is, you are involving our daughter, and I’ll be damned if I stand by and let her get hurt by whatever scheming and shenanigans you two have going.”
“I would never hurt Jazz!”
“Did you miss how confused and hurt she was finding out she’d be getting a new stepmama with only a few minutes notice?”
“I know it’s a shock, but it’s not like Jasmine hasn’t met Jeanne before. They liked each other well enough.”
“They need to more than like each other, Matthew, if you’re fixing this woman to be a permanent fixture in Jasmine’s life.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Jeanne is a good person.”
“Man says like he’s reading off a script. I’ve seen you smitten before, Romeo. And this ain’t it.”
“I’m a little old for smitten.”
“Are you too old to marry someone you care about? Someone you, oh, I don’t know, love? When you talk about Jeanne, it’s like you’ve dosed yourself with Ipecac.”
“I’m fine, Lila. I’m good. Now, could you go check on Jasmine? Please? I’ve got things to do.”
“Hope it’s taking your happy pill…” Lila muttered as she watched her ex-husband stalk away, all the while pointedly keeping his distance from the blushing bride.
“Remember when they were babies,” Clarice prompted Rachel as they stood on the edge of Matt and Jeanne’s impromptu wedding reception, watching their children separately walking around, talking to the assembled guests while Larry attempted to document every moment with his handy-dandy camera. “We joked about Matt and Jeanne being a couple someday.”
“You didn’t make it easy, moving away like you did. I still haven’t forgiven you for it. I missed you, Clarice. You’re irreplaceable, I hope you know that.”
Jeanne’s mother grinned. “Right back atcha,” and gave Rachel a quick, spontaneous hug. “It was the right thing to do for the kids, though, us settling in Wyoming. Fresh air, lots of land, the chance to really get yourself in touch with nature and the like, breathe easy. Bay City is a great place, but it’s a little… closed off, don’t you think? I mean, it’s like the same folks spinning in the same circles over and over. I don’t think I’ve ever been in another town where it’s just not considered unusual to marry more than one member of the same family!”
“We do have our own way of doing things,” Rachel conceded.
“And when it came to my kids, I wanted to get them away from…”
Clarice nodded. “Cory didn’t need to been anywhere near Iris. Not after…”
“Nobody,” Rachel observed. “Needs to be around Iris, child or adult.”
“And then Jeanne… I really hoped she’d never have to hear the name Jerry Grove.”
“I tried that with Matt and Mitch,” Rachel said. “It rarely works.”
“I wish I’d know about it sooner. She never said a word. Well, that’s Jeanne for you. So secretive, even as a little girl. You know how, with some kids, you take one look at their face you know exactly what they’re thinking? I don’t believe I ever once had an inkling what was going through that child’s mind. Larry wanted to teach her to love the land as much as him. So what’s the first thing Jeanne does when she gets the chance? High-tails it right back to the big city. And last I heard, you’re just a stopover. She’s got her heart set on New York or Los Angeles or anyplace she can make a success of herself. Well, what Jeanne thinks of as a success, anyway.”
“Matt does have a fondness for strong-willed women. Lorna Devon, for instance…”
“There! What did I just say about dating your way through one entire family! That’s the girl who just married Jamie, isn’t it? You sent us an announcement?”
Rachel nodded politely and thanked her lucky stars Clarice apparently didn’t know about Lorna and Carl, as well. “And then, of course, there was Donna. Thankfully, that’s over now. I’ve made sure of that.”
“This doesn’t bode well,” Dean commented to Jeanne as she signaled for the bartender. “Married less than an hour and already you’re going for the booze.”
“It’s been a hell of a day.”
“How romantic.” Dean downed his own drink. “Thinking I should’ve gone with my gut and talked Matt out of this farce while I still had the chance.”
“I’d appreciate you not referring to my marriage as a farce.”
“You got another word for your getting drunk over here, talking to me while Matt stands clear across the room, looking like he wants to throw up?”
“He’s just nervous.”
“About what? Wedding’s over. Only thing left is the wedding night, and since you and he have already done a test run or two – I presume, Matt shouldn’t be having performance anxiety, and you should know what you’re getting.”
“Do you always have to be so uncouth?”
“I gotta be me, babe. Seriously, you and Matt couldn’t be a more unhappily newlywed couple. I thought he might’ve knocked you up, but with the way you’re pounding back those highballs – ”
“Matt and I didn’t get married for any reason other than we love each other.”
“Ha!” Dean shoved a crab cake from a passing tray into his mouth with a snort.
“I wasn’t making a joke.”
“You are the joke. Do you honestly think you’re fooling anybody?”
“Do you honestly think you’re fooling me? I know your type. You’re one of those guys who gets off on making others miserable just because we aren’t all as miserable as you.”
“I’m not – “
“Please. And then you wear your misery on your sleeve so that everyone pities you, to boot. Seriously, I don’t get it. You say you came back to Bay City for your daughter, to be a good father. Is a pathetic, self-pitying loser really what your kid deserves?”
“You leave my daughter out of this.”
“What’s the matter? Don’t like hearing the truth?”
“You don’t know me.”
“Oh, why don’t you go write an emo ballad about it? But, wait, no, you threw all that away in favor of… what exactly?”
“Staying in one place. Being a dad.”
“A dad too in love with his own pain to bother being a real parent. Hell, you can’t even say you provide for her monetarily, since you’re an unemployed bum now.”
“I earned plenty over the years and I didn’t blow it all on crap like some other losers. I can take care of anything Lori Ann needs.”
“Meeting the bare minimum. Wow, that’s really reaching for the stars. Not to mention setting a hell of an example for your kid.”
“What is your problem with me?”
“You can do better, Dean. You have done better. You were a star. Do you know how many people would give anything for what you’ve just thrown away without a second thought? Do you really want only the basics for your kid? Wouldn’t you prefer to give her the world?”
“Of course, I would. But how – “
“You can offer Lori Ann more. And get justice for yourself and Jenna.”
“I don’t believe this!” Dean all but physically pushed himself away from her. “You actually had me going there for a minute. If this is about your damned interview – “
“Forget the interview. I’m talking about sticking it to Donna where it really hurts.”
“And where would that be? She doesn’t have a heart to put a stake through. As for a soul, the Devil came and made his claim a long time ago."
“Take her to court,” Jeanne said with such confidence that Dean couldn’t help but pay attention. “Civil court. Sue her for psychological and emotional damages.”
“Donna already nut housed her way out of any charges – “
“For the criminal trial. The burden of proof is different at a civil trial.”
Dean stared at her. “I get why I want to bring the bitch down. But what’s your dog in this hunt? You’re set for life now that you’ve got Matt’s ring on your finger…”
“Take Donna for everything she’s got, Dean,” Jeanne offered. “And maybe then I’ll tell you…”
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