“Matthew!” Rachel exclaimed in delighted surprise when she opened the front door Christmas morning to find her middle son standing there. “You came,” she said softly, as if afraid anything louder would break the spell.
“I came to get Jasmine,” Matt shifted uncomfortably in front of his mother.
“Oh. Lila didn’t mention…”
“Lila wasn’t answering my calls,” Matt said stiffly. “So I decided to just drop by.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Rachel caught sight of Jeanne sitting in the car, waiting, the engine apparently still running. “Wouldn’t she like to come in?”
“No. We aren’t staying.”
“Could you please just tell Jazz I’m here?”
“She’s… She’s still opening her presents. With Elizabeth and Cory. I don’t think she’s even dressed yet. Please, Matt, come inside. You’re letting the cold in.”
He did as she bid, unwilling to argue, dutifully following Rachel back into the parlor – as if he needed his mother to guide Matt through the house he’d been born in.
As advertised, Jasmine was sitting underneath the massive Christmas tree, digging into a stack of gaily wrapped packages alongside her peer aunt and uncle, Lila and Carl the only other adults in attendance.
“Daddy!” Jasmine squealed, leaping up to jump into his arms.
“Hey, Jazz Rack,” he hugged her back equally as enthusiastically, meeting Lila’s non-particularly friendly eyes over their daughter’s head.
“I knew you’d come. I told Mama you would.”
“Of course I came. I wouldn’t miss Christmas with you for the world,” Matt swore.
“Out in the car.”
“Why?” Jasmine wrinkled her nose.
“So we can drive back to our new place. You haven’t even seen it yet. I’ve got another pile of presents waiting there for you, too.”
“But… you’re already here. Why don’t we just do Christmas here? Like always.”
“I don’t live here anymore, Jazz,” Matt reminded gently. “I explained all that to you.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding, doing her best not to sneak a peek Carl’s way, even as that’s precisely what Elizabeth and Cory did at Matt’s words, while Carl stared back defiantly at them all.
“I’ll drive her over as soon as we’re done,” Lila told Matt coolly. “I’ll give you a call when she’s ready.”
“I can wait for Jazz to get changed,” Matt said.
“We’re in the middle of something,” Lila hissed. “Show a bit of respect, Matt. If not for your mother, at least for your daughter.”
“It’s okay, Mama,” Jasmine hurried to appease. “I can get dressed super-duper-fast. Don’t worry. Don’t fight.”
“Your daddy and Jeanne can wait. And we aren’t fighting. Are we, Matt?”
He hesitated, taking in the squirming Jasmine, the nervous Cory and Elizabeth, the torn Rachel and… Carl. Did Carl actually appear to be enjoying this? “No,” Matt conceded in spite of himself. “Your mom and I aren’t fighting. I’ll see you in a few hours, Jazz. Lila,” his eyes bore into his ex-wife’s. “Call me. We’ll talk.” He smiled at his siblings, “Merry Christmas, guys.”
“Merry Christmas, Matt.”
It wasn’t until Matt was back in the car with Jeanne that he let loose and indulged himself in the roar of frustration he’d managed to suppress all through the previous encounter, twisting the ignition key so fiercely Jeanne feared it might snap off, and peeling out of the Cory driveway in a puff of black exhaust.
Which was how Jeanne was able to slip in that she’d be working all through New Year’s Eve – Matt didn’t mind, did he? – and receive nothing beyond a “sure, whatever” shrug of indifference in return.
“Are you sure there isn’t anywhere else you need to be today?” Grant asked Sarah as she curled up against him in his bed, her fingers playfully tangling in Grant’s chest hair as he stroked her back – and attempted to catch his breath.
“Alice is having some family thing – weren’t you invited, too?”
“I respectfully sent my regrets upon perusing the rest of the guest list.”
“Maybe Kirkland will be there again.”
“No. I asked. He’s spending the holidays with his father. You go and let me know if I miss anything of value, alright?”
Sarah shrugged. “That’s not until later, anyway. Right now, I’m all yours.”
Grant smiling wistfully at her words, wondering if Sarah understood just how on target her account was. Could anyone her age ever fully grasp precisely how brief ‘right now’ always turned out to be?
“I wish you’d let me buy you something,” Grant resolved not to dwell on the inevitable and just revel in the bliss of the moment. “A token of what you mean to me, of how happy you’ve made these past few months.” He reached for his phone and began scrolling through previously bookmarked items. “Earrings? A bracelet? A necklace?”
“I’m not really a big jewelry girl.”
“Every woman is a jewelry girl. The only ones who think they’re not merely haven’t been tapped by the right piece yet.”
In response to the wicked look on Sarah’s face at Grant’s inadvertently – really! He wasn’t that clever! – suggestive choice of words, he merely shook his head, rubbed his nose playfully against hers, and chastised, “You have a dirty mind.”
“You inspire me.”
Something about contributing to the delinquency of a minor sprung automatically to Grant’s psyche, but he decided to keep that particular ill-advised quip to himself.
“You really want to buy me something?” Sarah snatched the phone out of his hand.
“Desperately,” Grant swore.
“Okay,” Sarah tapped a button and, grinning, pivoted the screen to face Grant. “Get me one of these.”
He frowned. And not merely because the tiny script made it difficult to immediately make out what she was talking about. Grant was required to take the phone and hold it at arm’s length before he could process… “Are you serious?”
“You want me to buy you a Treasury Bond?”
“Not just any Treasure Bond.” She poked at the screen with one finger. “That one.”
“You want me to buy you a thirty year Treasury Bond?”
“Okay, I’ll bite. Why, Sarah?”
“Well, it’s a vote of confidence in America, isn’t it? You’re a politician. You love America.”
“I do, and I was. Though the two rarely go together as often as you’d hope.”
“I want the bond because I want to see the look on your face when we go to cash it in.”
“When we go to cash it in?”
“In thirty years?”
“Yes.” Sarah told him confidently.
“Merry Christmas, Dad. Lorna.” Steven handed them both a flat white box after he and Kirkland, and a visiting Bridget and Michele, finished opening up their own presents – Devon having slept through pretty much the majority of her first Christmas, her pile of gifts set aside for a later, more alert time.
Jamie shook the box playfully. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: World’s Greatest Dad tie?”
“Just open it,” Steven mumbled, beginning to regret the whole thing. The last thing he wanted was for Jamie to make a big deal out of…
“Wow,” Lorna exclaimed, opening the present. “Tickets to the Caribbean? A hotel? For New Year’s? Steven,” she gaped at him. “This is… This is incredibly generous.”
“It’s only money.” He shrugged. “I’ve got plenty of money, you know that. It’s no big deal. I just figured, with all the crap Kirk and I put you through over the past year… well, years. You guys could really use a long weekend away. You know, someplace warm, that isn’t Illinois in December.”
“It’s very thoughtful of you, Steven,” Jamie fought the urge to reach over and ruffle his son’s hair, knowing the boy would hate it. “But, I’m not sure if Lorna can fly… “
“I checked with the airline. She’s fine until the third trimester, and you’re barely in your second, right?”
“And the hotel I booked, they do this Babymoon thing, that’s specifically for pregnant, you know, people, so they’re all set up with doctors and whatever. It’s supposed to be like your final hurrah before the kid pops out.”
“We’ve already got a baby,” Jamie noted.
“Well, I’m not going to blow your cover!” Steven snorted.
“It sounds wonderful,” Lorna said. “But, Devon is so young… We’ve never left her alone before.”
“I’ll be here. And Kirk. And don’t look so terrified, I talked to Sarah, she’s willing to back us up for all three days. Plus, Midget and Jasmine… Devon will never know you’re gone. No offense.”
“I don’t know…” Lorna looked to Jamie, who was doing his best to appear indifferent. “You really want to do this, don’t you?”
“I really, really do,” he admitted sheepishly. “Steven is right. A long weekend tropical break after… everything, sounds amazing right about now.”
“You never got a honeymoon,” Steven reminded, pointedly avoiding mentioning why, though there was no one in the room who wasn’t aware of it. “This could be your last chance. Before you have another kid to take care of for the next twenty years.”
“Devon will be in good hands,” Jamie prompted.
“We’ll even wash them,” Kirkland promised.
“We’ll make sure he does,” Bridget chimed in.
Lorna looked about the room stacked against her. “I’m outnumbered, aren’t I?”
“Nope,” Michele stated the obvious. “Since yours is the only vote that matters.”
“Say yes, Lorna,” Kirkland urged.
“Say yes, Lorna.”
“Say yes, Lorna.”
“Yes!” she laughed, throwing her hands up in surrender and sticking her tongue out at the triumphantly cheering horde over her shoulder as Lorna rose and went to answer the front door in response to an unexpected knock.
“Hello, sweetheart. Merry Christmas.” He poked his head inside with a tired smile. “Merry Christmas, Jamie. Kids…”
“Merry Christmas,” Jamie responded dutifully, half-rising to greet him. “Come in, Lucas. Please.”
“I – I won’t stay long. I just brought some gifts by for all of you. They’re in the car…”
“I’ll help you,” Lorna snatched her coat from the hook by the door and quickly slipped her feet into a pair of suede boots, sensing that her father needed to tell her something that either didn’t require an audience, or would only depress them.
Lucas nodded in relief, his “Thank you,” confirming she’d made the right call.
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Lorna asked as Lucas reached into the trunk, slowly pulling out one gaily-wrapped package after another. “Is this about Felicia?”
“I’m sorry. I know how much you love her, and I realize how upsetting this must be for you. But, I just couldn’t ignore what she tried to do.”
“Neither could I,” Lucas sighed.
“What?” That wasn’t at all what Lorna had been expecting. Honestly, she’d prepped herself for a lecture regarding how she should be kinder and more understanding towards her mother, especially over the holidays.
“I couldn’t ignore it anymore either.”
“I know you tried to stop her. I read the transcript. You testified for Jamie. You told the court how much I loved him, and that I’d want to protect the baby at all costs. I never got a chance to thank you for that.”
“I also admitted you knew I was alive for years without telling Felicia. Bet, you’re not too thrilled about that part.”
“It doesn’t matter. You did what you had to for me and for Devon. I’m sorry it caused a rift between you and Mom, but… “
“I was ready to walk out the door,” Lucas confessed. “When she sided with Morgan, I was ready to leave.”
“But… You didn’t. You two must have worked it out. You didn’t leave.”
“Because you woke up. And Fanny and I didn’t want to upset you while you were recovering. We were afraid that if we split up, you’d demand to know why – “
“Yeah, I can be a pain that way.”
“And then you’d find out everything that happened while you were in a coma.”
“Like now,” Lorna said dully.
“Like now,” Lucas confirmed.
“Now that I know everything, you and Felicia…”
“We need a break. We need to step back and look at what happened, and figure out where we go from here. I’ve known – and loved – your mother for close to forty-five years. But, each time we find each other again, we’ve become different people. And we’ve never yet completely acknowledged that fact. Or what it means.”
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Morgan attempted injecting some levity into the occasion, stepping away from Cass and Frankie’s combination Christmas/Wedding Anniversary/Get Out of Jail Free Commemoration to give Felicia a better view of the black and blue scrapes Lorna had left on his face.
Felicia smirked grimly. “I’m afraid my bruises are all on the inside. My daughter also knows how to hit so that it doesn’t leave a mark.”
“I’m sorry I dragged you into this, Felicia.”
“You didn’t drag me anyplace I wasn’t willing to go. You and I were fighting to save Lorna’s life. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Felicia took a sip of her – non-alcoholic; not that it was easy – egg-nog. “Remember what we both said at the beginning? That as long as Lorna pulled through, nothing else would matter?”
“I was lying,” Morgan said. “Weren’t you?”
“Through every incisor and molar.”
“She’s got to forgive us,” Morgan predicted. “Eventually. She needs us too much.”
“She’ll understand,” Felicia wasn’t willing to go quite as far as he had. “Once she’s a mother for a while longer, she’ll understand, at least. It’s easy to judge when you haven’t walked in the same pair of shoes. I think about two years ago, when Lori Ann was still so desperately sick… And look at her now.”
The toddler in question sat on Cass’ shoulders, laughing uproariously and tugging on his hair as Cass ducked his head under the mistletoe to catch and kiss Frankie as she passed by – for possibly the fifth time that hour.
“And then exactly a year ago,” Felicia went on. “It was Lorna who we were scared out of our minds about. Miracles do happen. I can’t give up hope. It’s all I have left….”
“Hey,” while her parents made out grossly in public, Morgan and Felicia lurked in one corner and Dean played Christmas music DJ with his laptop – the better to pretend not to notice that Lori Ann had barely acknowledged him all day – Charlie sidled over to Zeno, who’d blown in late, already explaining that he had to get going, and now appeared ready to make good on his promise. “Got a manger to get back to or something?”
”Kind of,” he grinned. “Chores don’t take the holidays off, no matter how many times I try to baptize the cows or read a Bible story to the chickens.”
“You should try the part about Noah’s Ark, maybe they’d relate more.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. Listen, say good-bye to Frankie for me, would you? She seems… occupied.”
“Welcome to the Winthrops, where no PDA is N/A.”
“LOL,” Zeno deadpanned, before the two of them did precisely that.
“Wow,” Charlie nodded approvingly for the first time since they’d been thrust into each other’s orbits. “I’m impressed.”
“Because I can text with my mouth? I hear that’s how it was done in the olden days. They called it something else though? Talking?”
“That you even know what texting is.”
“I live on a farm,” Zeno reminded. “Not a desert island.”
“I figured you were too mature and serious for regular stuff. Or too busy. I mean, most important thing I’ve got going on is nailing down my New Year’s Eve plans. It doesn’t exactly rank up there with single-handedly driving back an angry mob.”
“You’re lucky,” Zeno said quietly.
“I don’t know how you did it,” Charlie confessed. “If it were me trying to face down all those angry, yelling, threatening guys, I’d have been scared as hell.”
“What makes you think I wasn’t?”
His looking away and tight-lipped lack of reply told Charlie everything she needed to know.
“Boy,” she praised. “You certainly couldn’t tell from where I was standing.”
“That was kind of the point.” Zeno tried to explain, “There’s this saying – no one’s sure where it came from; some claim Mark Twain, some claim it was this hippie poet; I’ve even heard it originated from The Princess Diaries, which is all kinds of stupid – but, it goes: Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”
“Definitely The Princess Diaries,” Charlie said with a smile to indicate she was kidding.
“What Twain actually said was: Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. That’s the one I try to follow. In fact, the more something scares me, the more I go out of my way to do it. How are you going to get over that thing you’re afraid of, otherwise? And if you never get over it, then are you living your life, or it is?”
“You don’t have to do that,” Jamie hurried to take the crumpled balls of wrapping paper, mashed ribbon and plastic casings out of Lorna’s hands as she moved about their living room, stuffing it all indiscriminately into a large garbage bag. “I’ll clean up. You must be exhausted. Go upstairs, get some rest.”
“Can’t,” Lorna said. “If I stop doing, I’ll start thinking. And that’s not good for anybody right now, trust me.”
“We set a pretty crappy example for our kids this Christmas, didn’t we?” Jamie figured they might as well address the elephant in the room. Before Lorna attempted to fit it too into her already overflowing garbage bag. “Between your mother and mine…”
“I wanted to give Devon everything I never had. And right at the top of that list was family. And not just in name only. Kid’s barely six months old, and I’ve already got my first, probably biggest, screw-up well under way.”
“You didn’t do it alone,” Jamie reminded. “I actually beat you to the punch. I cut ties with my mother even before Thanksgiving.”
“So we both suck, happy now?”
“Yes,” Jamie said, gently guiding the bag out of Lorna’s hands and taking her in his arms instead. “I am happy. For a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that fact that in spite of our many, many, many mutual flaws – “
“I think you missed a few.”
“We still managed to give our kids a merry Christmas and set a good example. Think about it, Lorna, only a couple of days ago, all of Donna’s grandchildren watched as she did her best to ruin our lives. And now here they all were, Steven, Kirkland, Michele and Bridget, in our house, celebrating the holidays just like any normal family.”
“Was it normal that Steven had to practically smuggle his sisters out of their house or risk another patented Love psychotic episode?”
“Donna has no say on what Steven does with the girls, no matter how loudly she screeches. He’s their legal guardian now. And he chose to bring them here. I think that says something good about us.”
“He’s a college student. We offered free food. And presents.”
“Okay,” Jamie smiled tolerantly, kissing Lorna on the forehead. “You win. We do both suck. Just maybe… not as much as you thought?”
“I’ll accept that.” Lorna struggled not to smile in the face of his incessant good cheer, putting her lips to different use instead, kissing Jamie back. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Skipping your traditional Cory Christmas extravaganza?”
“Not at all,” he confessed. “I miss my mom. Amanda. Matt. Seeing our kids together, opening their presents under the tree. I miss a lot of things. But, I’d give all that up – and more – to keep you and Devon and Steven and Kirkland safe. And never regret a moment.”
“Merry Christmas, Jamie,” Lorna whispered, taking a moment – just a quick one – to let go of everything that they didn’t have in that instant, and appreciate the ones they did. Remembering how close they’d come to losing it all.
“Merry Christmas, Lorna.”
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