“Yes?” Alice asked politely, having come down the stairs to find – as notified; except that she felt sure she must have heard wrong – Carl Hutchins standing in her foyer.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Harrison,” Carl responded, equally politely. Alice noted the poetic touch of him literally holding his hat in his hand.
“Good afternoon.” If he was waiting for her to initiate any further conversation, Rachel’s husband was in for a lengthy linger.
“Would you be so kind as to grant me a few moments of your time?”
Alice considered the request, then turned to silently walk into the parlor, consenting Carl to follow if he wished.
They took seats across from each other, Alice in an armchair, Carl on the couch. As a result, his head ended up lower than hers. Alice couldn’t, in all honestly, say that it displeased her to see him in the subservient position, even if it was only ceremonial.
“To start, I should like to offer you my condolences on – “
Alice raised her hand abruptly, palm up. “No,” she corrected Carl firmly.
At least he had the grace not to push any further. Carl tried another tack. “In that case, I wish to apologize most profusely for the indiscretion and impudence of my visit. Please believe me when I say it is not my intention to upset you.”
“Please believe me when I say,” Alice countered. “That I currently have a pretty good grasp of your overall intentions. And their consequences.”
“I simply had no other place to turn. I’m afraid I am in rather desperate need of your input. Mrs. Harrison, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Rachel’s children – namely Jamie and Amanda, though I believe attempts have been made to enlist Matthew’s involvement, as well – Rachel’s children have leveled her an ultimatum. In light of the recent situation with Kirkland and the danger they believe my former actions pose them and their respective families, Jamie and Amanda have commanded Rachel to choose: Them or…”
“I regret to say, yes.”
At this, Alice didn’t precisely smile, but her expression did assume a look of bemused disbelief. “Are you asking me to help Rachel – “
“No,” Carl cut her off, not nearly as tersely as Alice had him, earlier. He rushed to correct her misunderstanding. “I am asking you to step in and help Jamie and Amanda. Surely, someone in your position appreciates how devastating a potential break with their mother – in both cases, their only living parent – would be to them?”
“Because, naturally, Rachel will always choose a man over her children,” Alice said with a combination of resignation and disgust.
“They are being, in this instance, most unreasonable. I am no threat to either them or their loved ones.”
“How do you think Ryan would have felt,” Alice asked abruptly, though the connection between his assertion and her question was obvious to anyone paying attention. “About what you did to Spencer?”
Carl startled, fighting a simultaneous instinct to defend himself versus rearing up and stomping off in a huff. He settled for a variation on the former, telling Alice, “Ryan would have, first and foremost, wanted Kirkland out of danger. He adored that boy. As much as if the lad were his own flesh-and-blood. Ryan’s untimely death, in point of fact, came about primarily due to his concern for Kirkland – and Grant’s utter lack of it.”
“Ryan’s death was an accident,” Alice said. “Spencer’s wasn’t.”
“I am sorry, I didn’t come here to – “
“You came here in an attempt to recruit my help for getting Jamie and Amanda to change their minds about wanting you out of Rachel’s life.”
“I came here because I know you are deeply fond of Rachel’s children, and – I presumed – have no interest in seeing them suffer needlessly. I thought you might wish to offer them your own perspective on the folly of drawing impenetrable lines in the sand and setting up familial civil wars. The end results of such tussles are never satisfactory for anyone.”
“Does Rachel know you’re here?”
“I saw no need to upset her prior to ascertaining your feelings on the matter.”
“I don’t think she’ll appreciate the interference.”
“Losing her children could well shatter Rachel’s heart irrevocably. And seeing as the blame for her current crises – “
“Lies with you?”
“Is multi-faceted,” Carl stuck to his own words. “I feel an obligation to do everything in my power to help mend the rift I – may have – had a hand in creating. No matter what personal sacrifices that may entail.”
“Coming to me is a personal sacrifice?” Alice double-checked.
“No. However, mutely enduring your obvious condemnation is.”
“What sort of reaction did you except me to have under the circumstances?” Alice was genuinely curious now.
“Understanding,” Carl said simply. “A woman capable of seeing the good, nay, the noble, in Spencer Harrison, is surely equally as adept at comprehending a multitude of perspectives around any given situation.”
“Comprehension doesn’t guarantee acceptance.”
“It is an excellent start.”
“I agree. So did Spencer. The last thing my husband did in this life, was accept personal responsibility for the mistakes he’d made and their inevitable cost. He paid his penance without reservation. I wonder, Mr. Hutchins, do you ever intend to do the same?”
“I owe you an apology, darling,” Donna warbled, despite her daughter apparent utter lack of interest.
“What epiphany have you dragged in here this time?” Marley drawled.
“I am so sorry I didn’t believe you when you said you hadn’t tried to commit suicide. It were those men, the ones in cahoots with Carl, they really were trying to kill you. Well, not kill you, but make it look as if – “
At least she had Marley’s attention finally. “Why now, Donna? What made you all of a sudden willing to take my word for anything?“
“Felicia. She told me everything. How Carl and Lucas conspired to turn you against me – “
“I’m sorry, when did this become all about you, again?”
“They were using you to get to me. To frame me. To make it seem like I – “
“Aaaaand we’re back to the Chronicles of Donna. You know, for a second there, I almost believed you’d realized there were other people in the world aside from you. I guess I really am crazy.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that, darling. None of this,” Donna indicated the sterile institutional walls. “Is your fault.”
“No!” Marley seethed. “No. You are not doing this to me again.”
“Doing what?” Donna asked, flustered.
“Sucking me in, making me see things your way.”
“How is my assuring you that you are not to blame for what – “
“Because I am to blame. I ran down Lorna. I tried to kidnap Michele and Bridget. I betrayed Steven and Kirkland’s trust, and I, every step of the way, let down the people who were counting on me. People that I claimed to love. I will not let you whitewash what I did. I will not let you sweep my crimes under the rug.”
“The only crimes in this scenario, Marley, are the one committed against you. Carl and Lucas and Felicia and Grant and Jamie and Lorna and Morgan, all of them, they drove you into this place. They are the reason you are beating yourself up like this now.”
“I’m beating myself up, Donna, because despite my best efforts, I have followed – or fallen – down your exact path. And it all started with allowing myself to believe that I didn’t do anything wrong, no matter what other people said. Now where in the world do you think I might have picked up such a habit?”
“We need to get you out of this hospital,” Donna reached for her phone, already thinking of whom she might call to get it accomplished. “What are they doing to you? They are supposed to make you better. How is wracking you with guilt – “
“Don’t you dare,” Marley slapped the phone out of Donna’s hand. “Just this once – Just this one time, you are going to let me stand on my own two feet and take responsibility for my actions. Nor matter how distasteful that might be for you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Donna soothed.
“Of course, you’d think so.”
“But, don’t worry, darling,” she reassured. “I’ll take care of this. I’ll make sure that everyone who did this to you, who put you into such a state, I’ll make sure they all pay. You can count on it.”
Any vindication Rachel may have felt in issuing her own ultimatum to the children faded as she took in each of their faces. Matt visibly flinched as if slapped. Amanda smiled and shook her head in disbelief, realizing she alone was in on the joke. And lastly, Jamie… Rachel’s oldest son continued sitting quietly on the sofa, unmoving, absorbing her words and weighing them carefully.
Matt opened his mouth, then visibly changed his mind and simply shot off the couch, heading for the door like sheer speed could erase what he’d just heard… and thought.
“Matthew, do not take another step!” Rachel called after him.
Years of obedient heed to that particular tone of voice compelled him to dutifully skid to a stop, but it couldn’t keep Matt from spinning around and seething, “I was on your side, Mom. Or at least I wasn’t against it. I was never going to make you choose. I talked to Amanda, to Jamie, I tried to convince them both not to completely write you off because, despite the dark crap Carl did – not just this time around, his entire life; and despite you knowing he did it, I believed that you understood it was wrong. I was able to stomach Carl up to this point because I believed you would keep him from crossing that line again. But now it sounds like you don’t even know where that line is anymore. Or maybe you do and you just don’t care. Which is why this is where I get off the crazy train. You want Carl? Jasmine, Lila, and I will happily leave you to him.”
“This isn’t even your fight,” Rachel said softly. “You don’t know what happened – “
“What happened is you’ve just told me the mother I’ve known and loved all my life is gone.”
“No. She’s still here, standing right in front of you.”
Matt shook his head, the only sound he still appeared capable of making the slam of the door behind him.
“Nice job, Mom,” Amanda observed dryly. “He was your biggest ally coming into this.”
“Oh, do grow up, would you, Amanda?” Rachel was no longer angry, merely fed up. She didn’t even turn to face her daughter as she spoke. Rachel’s eyes were, instead, fastened to the still vibrating door. “Grow up and learn to show some respect.”
“Likewise,” Amanda smirked, tears of anger, frustration, and sadness belying her cocky demeanor. “You know for a supposedly savvy woman, you really missed the obvious today: This isn't about any issue we have with you as a mother. It's about you throwing away everything good about yourself for that man. Everything that you always claimed each of us gave you. Everything that my father gave you.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. Look around you, Mom. Matt’s gone. And I’m right behind him.”
“I suppose you’re next?” Rachel turned to Jamie, still sitting, watching, thinking. “Has nothing I said just now resonated with you?”
“It has. I know you’ve tried to do your best by all of us. And I also know that, in this family, we all have the unpleasant habit of digging in our heels for the right and wrong reasons.”
“My choosing Carl is not wrong.”
“Neither is my wanting to protect my family the only way I know how. You’ve made your choice, Mom. I respect it, even if I don’t like it. Please respect mine.”
“So this is it, then? This is good-bye?” Rachel’s voice shook. “Anytime we happen to see each other from now on, you and Lorna will act as if you don’t know me and I’m supposed to do the same?”
The rest of Rachel’s words were cut off as Jamie unexpectedly pulled her into a fierce hug, Rachel’s arms instinctively wrapping around him just as tightly.
“I love you, Mom,” Jamie pulled away to look her in the eye. “I’ll always love you. No matter what.”
Jamie stepped aside, Rachel’s heart skipping a beat when he hesitated at the door and turned back to her.
“There’s something I want you to hear from me, nobody else,” Jamie began. “I know it seems cruel to do it now, like this, after… But, I can’t… Mom, Lorna’s pregnant.”
“Pregnant?” Rachel repeated as her heart soared and then sank at the word. “But… I… Devon’s not even six months old yet.”
“Actually, she’s not even five months old yet. I won’t pretend that this was planned, but, Lorna and I have chosen to be happy about it, no matter what.”
“Happy. Of course. Yes, absolutely. You should be. What wonderful news.” Rachel wanted to laugh. Her instinct was to go to her son, to reach out and pull him into her arms a second time. She was about to do precisely that, only for Jamie to gently grab her hands and give them a regretful squeeze.
“I just wanted you to know,” he bobbed his head at her regretfully before letting Rachel go. For good.
“So what do you think?” Frankie asked Cass as they stood off to one side, watching Zeno, Lori Ann on his shoulders, helping to feed a carrot to a horse while a surprisingly game Charlie urged her little sister on.
“Ma and Pa Winthrop?” Cass made a face. “Not exactly our style.”
“Green Acres, then. Park Avenue meets Oliver Wendell Holmes.”
“With me as Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert both?”
“Your part will be mostly paperwork,” she reassured. “I’ll handle everything else.”
“What about the PI business?”
“It hasn’t exactly been booming lately,” Frankie reminded.
“True. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to keep Marley from leaving town. We killed our own golden goose. Got to make a note to milk every billable hour from now on.”
“We did the right thing,” was all Frankie would say to that.
“Strange how rarely that turns out to be profitable,” Cass sighed. “Reminds me of why I went into law, and not Good Samaritanship.”
“Helping out Zeno would give you the chance to do both,” she pointed out.
“And it would make you happy,” Cass noted the only part of this entire arrangement that actually mattered to him.
“You know that I would do anything to make you happy.”
“So, this was sort of a done deal from the start.”
“Yes,” Frankie admitted.
He laughed. “It was adorable how you went through the motions of pretending to ask my opinion.”
“I do want your opinion. I want you on-board. We’ve had such a tough time these past two years, you and Cecile, Charlie and Kirkland, Lori Ann and Dean, me and Zeno… It’s like we’ve all been running in separate directions, leading parallel lives. I can’t help feeling that having a common project could really bring us all together again.”
“Are you sure you’ll be able to do this?”
“Absolutely. I know my way around a tractor. I learned to drive on one!”
“I mean being back here, even if it’s only part-time. You must have a lot of memories…”
“Good ones,” Frankie assured him. “And now I want you and Charlie and Lori Ann to be a part of making more of them.”
“How does Zeno feel about it? This is his mom’s place. We’re the ones who stole you away from her, and now we’re practically taking over.”
“But, that’s what this farm is all about. Orly ran it as a refuge for everyone, animals and people. It was a place to come and heal, to learn about yourself, to grow, to be a part of something. I honestly think she’d be happy to have us. Especially if it helps Zeno.”
Cass kissed his wife, then observed, “Again, adorable how you acted as if your plan wasn’t a forgone conclusion.”
“We’ve been so focused on ourselves ever since I came back to Bay City. Look at all the people we’ve hurt. First Orly and Zeno, Lila and Jasmine, then Cecile’s death, and Jamie and Lorna and Felicia as a result. No wonder Charlie was so confused with Kirkland earlier, about the right way to treat people. Look at the example we’ve set for her.”
“I’d rather not,” Cass winced.
“We can set a better one now. We can show both of our daughters what it means to reach out to someone else, to try to make another person’s life better, to think and act outside of yourself. We could use the good karma. By helping Zeno, maybe we’ll be able to repair some of the damage we’ve done in the past.”
“I have a proposition for you,” Chase said.
“Oh, no,” Lila laughed, not taking him seriously, but feeling a need to rib the man just a little. After all, flustering the Mayor of Bay City wasn’t exactly an everyday occurrence. “Not going there again, no, thank you.”
Chase smiled, a combination of guilt and relief as he shook his head. “Don’t worry.”
“How is everything at home?” she wondered.
“Good. Great. Because of you.”
“Then my work here is done.”
Lila frowned at him. “I didn’t mean that literally. This girl ain’t giving up a paycheck until you drag me out of kicking and screaming.”
“I wouldn’t dream of terminating your duties,” Chase assured. “In fact, I’m looking to add to them.”
“With commensurate benefits?”
“In a matter of speaking.”
“Money talks,” Lila reminded him.
“So does safety. And word on the street is you can’t put a price on that.”
Lila gave up. “What are we talking about here, Your Eminence?”
Chase said, “Remember how worried you were that the people after Donna, Spencer, and Carl might target Jasmine?”
Lila nodded, suddenly sober. “But, that’s over with. The compound’s been raided and the folks who ran it – “
“Recently kidnapped Kirkland Frame and killed Spencer Harrison.”
“Oh….” Lila said slowly, needing to sit down. “I didn’t…. Kirk…. The bruises on his face?”
Chase nodded grimly.
“Grant said it was a minor car accident.”
Hating every moment of it, Chase filled Lila in on the events of the past few weeks, right up until the part where he agreed not to publicize Spencer’s autopsy.
“I admit it,” Chase said. “I did that solely because I was afraid of having Grant and his father’s criminal activities connected in any way with my administration. But, it’s been tormenting me ever since. I can’t just leave things the way they are. An international cartel of thugs terrorized my city and got away with it scot-free.”
“What does this have to do with Jasmine?” Lila clung to his original opening. “Is Jazz in danger from the same people who snatched Kirkland?”
“Everyone is in danger,” Chase said. “I cannot believe that Spencer’s death means the threat is over. Not as long as Carl is still around. They’ll come for him eventually. It’s how these people operate. Carl knows it, which means he must be plotting a defense, if not an all-out offense. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let any of the players turn Bay City into their battleground.”
“What does this have to do with me, beyond a strong suggestion to duck and cover?”
“I want to bring Carl down before he launches another salvo. Then use him to get the rest of the bastards behind the compound. It’s the only way to ensure everyone’s safety in the long run.” Chase said, “You live in the same house with the man. You can help me.”
“You want me to spy on Carl?”
“He and Rachel, they’ve been beyond kind to me. Rachel’s taken me in like her own daughter, she’s Jasmine’s grandmother."
“Then she would want her granddaughter kept safe, no matter what.”
“You’re asking me to betray my family.”
“I am asking you to help protect them. You are the only one who can help me with this. Can I count on you, Lila?”
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