“No plans for New Year’s Eve, my dear?” Carl asked Lila after Jasmine, Elizabeth and Cory had cleared the dinner table, and only the adults were left.
Carl’s tone, and the look he exchanged with Rachel, clued Lila in. “You told him,” she charged her mother-in-law, not so much accusatory as worn-out.
“I don’t keep secrets from my husband,” Rachel reminded gently.
“I do hope you appreciate what a dangerous path you are treading,” Carl clucked, positively brimming with avuncular concern.
“Yes,” was all Lila had to say to that.
“Is Mr. Hamilton truly worth it?”
Before Lila could answer, Rachel thankfully interjected, “I must admit, I don’t understand any of this. Chase Hamilton has always been completely open about himself and about Douglas… It makes no sense.”
“It barely does to me, either,” Lila told the truth.
“Yet you’re going to continue… seeing him?”
“Yes.” More truth, even if, at the moment, Lila truly wished she could just disappear.
“Please be careful,” Rachel begged. “Honestly, I don’t see any way in which you could come out of this situation unscathed. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“I’ll be careful,” Lila promised, fully intending to keep it.
“Could he be using you for some heretofore undisclosed vile purpose?” Carl proposed. “A politician is untrustworthy under any circumstances. One who is so willing to indiscriminately cross boundaries, as it were; stands to reason can be taken at face value even less.”
“Chase is a good man,” Lila said. “He really is devoted to being the best Mayor he can be for Bay City. And he has a good heart. I… I trust him.”
“I don’t,” Carl pronounced after Lila had left the room, unaware that she’d backtracked quietly in order to hover at the door and eavesdrop on his and Rachel’s conversation. “I trust neither Hamilton, nor that ridiculous cover story he concocted for your benefit.”
“A story to cover what, precisely?”
“That remains indistinct. Our dear Mayor is indubitably up to no good, and he is, I fear, preying upon Lila’s good nature to pull his ill will over.”
“What could Lila possibly have that Hamilton wants? Beyond the obvious, of course. Which, in this case, is hardly obvious,” Rachel sighed in frustration, confident that, despite her years of life experience, she had never before encountered a situation quite like this, and thus felt truly at a loss for both words and theories.
“I do not know,” Carl admitted. “But, considering Lila resides under our roof, and is truly like a daughter to you – “
“My most loyal one, these days,” Rachel said sadly.
“I feel obliged to find out. Don’t fret, my dear, we shall get to the bottom of this prior Lila – or anyone – coming to harm. Consider it my New Year’s resolution.”
“Another text from Lorna?” Steven couldn’t help laughing when he caught Sarah once again on her phone.
“Uh-ha,” she nodded. “This time she wanted to make sure I knew to give Devon rice cereal for breakfast only, and do the oatmeal for dinner.”
“The whole point of this vacation was for her and Dad to relax.”
“I think this is her version of relaxing. She’s only texting me every hour now, instead of every twenty minutes, like she did their first day away.”
“Hope they at least managed to get some sun in between all that. I read there’s a major tropical storm coming.”
“It’s already hit. Lorna says the hotel’s power grid has been knocked out, so she’s using the last of her phone’s battery and isn’t sure when they’ll get a chance to recharge next. She wanted me to have all her instructions for today and tomorrow – just in case.”
“You know,” Steven told her. “You don’t have to stick by the phone all night. I’ll handle Lorna. You can go out if you want. It’s New Year’s Eve, after all. You and Mystery Guy – “
“What Mystery Guy?” Sarah challenged.
“You know, Mr. Grass Stains?” Steven smirked, reminding her of the night she came home covered in them. “Unless that’s all over with…”
“It’s still on,” she snapped defensively. Just because Steven hadn’t wanted her, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t.
“So why aren’t you with him tonight?”
“Because I promised Michele and Bridget we could have our own New Year’s Eve party here. They’re upstairs getting ready for it, making noisemakers, hats, the whole deal.”
“He married?” Steven asked.
“No! Why would you think that?“
“Gives him a good reason to dump you over the holidays.”
“He’s not married. And he didn’t dump me. I told you, I made plans with your sisters.”
“If he’s not married, why the cloak and dagger routine?”
“Because it’s none of your business. It’s none of anybody’s business, frankly.”
“You ashamed of him?”
“You wish. He’s awesome.”
“He ashamed of you?”
“Shut up, Steven.”
“Afraid if you introduce him to your friends, he’ll find out you’re faking it again. Same way you did with me?”
“I’m not. Not this time. Not with him. I can be myself with him.”
“How do you even know who that is, anymore?”
“You should talk,” Sarah changed the subject. “Like you’re up on the rooftops, shouting about your little unrequited crush on – “
“Time out!” Kirkland clomped down the stairs, stepping between the two of them, hands in a football T. “Everybody back to your corners. You promised Dad and Lorna, no fighting. And I promised to keep you to it.”
“We’re not fighting,” Steven and Sarah said in near unison.
“And where are you off to, anyway?” Steven asked his brother gruffly, the better to cover up just how rattled he’d been by Sarah’s teasing.
“Party. I cleared it with Dad before he left. He said it was fine. And also that, under the circumstances, my midnight curfew is null and void.”
“Alright, then. Have fun.”
“Play nice,” was all Kirkland had to say to the two of them in return.”
“Matthew!” Donna trilled at the sight of him on her doorstep. “What a lovely, lovely surprise! Come in, darling, please. Don’t worry, we’re alone. I gave the staff the night off, and the girls are with Steven and Sarah…”
“I know,” Matt said, slowly removing his scarf and beginning to unbutton his coat. “I – I wanted to talk to you. And since Jeanne is working tonight…”
Jeanne, Donna knew, was doing no such thing. The station was operating with a skeleton crew that evening, of which Jeanne was most certainly not a part – her overtime was simply too prohibitive. However, Donna decided to keep that information to herself for the time being. Just until she figured out what was really going on. And how she could best use it to her advantage.
“Of course, of course.” Donna helped Matt off with his coat, then led him into the living area, rubbing his cold hands between hers to warm them up.
They sat across from each, Donna telling Matt, “I’ve missed you.”
“I missed you, too.” The words sounded sincere, if wrenched, from his throat.
“I’m glad you came tonight.”
“I came… I came to say that… I love you, Donna.”
She melted, tears springing to her eyes unbidden. “Thank you, darling.”
“I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried not to love you, I’ve tried to live without you. I can’t.”
“Neither can I. Nor could I. Please believe me, Matthew, I want to be the wife you deserve, I want to be the wife you can be proud of.”
“Then why… Why do you keep doing these… things?” he was all but pleading with her to offer up an answer Matt could hold on to.
“Because I love you so much,” she swore. “And I’m so, so happy to be married to you again. I intend this time to last forever. But, I cannot focus as completely on you – on us, on building a home and a life together – as I would like, until I’ve arranged my own house in order.”
“And that involves crashing Devon’s christening?”
“I told the truth,” Donna squared her shoulders. “I didn’t lie about anything.”
“You hurt people.”
“People who’d hurt my daughter. Just think about it, Matthew, what if it were your precious Jasmine in the hospital this holiday season? And the people who’d put her there were walking about, free, unencumbered, celebrating their own families while yours lay in ruin and tatters?”
“You told the whole truth,” Matt repeated slowly.
“Yes. Yes. One thousand times, yes.”
“That means – that’s means there’s no more truth to tell. Am I right?”
“Well, I suppose. I hadn’t given it much thought…”
“You’re not holding anything back, plotting to drop another bombshell over Martin Luther King’s birthday or anything?”
“Okay, then,” Matt sighed. “Okay. Then… we can move on.”
“Absolutely. Yes, yes.” She flung her arms around him, kissing every exposed inch of Matt’s skin, ruddy cheeks and all. “That is exactly what we can and must do. Just as soon as we get your little problem with Jeanne settled, you and I can absolutely move on. Oh, Matthew, 2012 is going to be the most wonderful year yet!”
“Hell of a way to spend New Year’s Eve,” John observed as he slipped on his plastic gloves and reached for a curved blade.
“Hey, I’m finally getting my stitches out, that’s a reason to celebrate! Are you stuck here all night?” GQ asked, wincing a little while John went to work on the back of his head.
“I volunteered,” John said as he snipped, the tone of his voice suggesting that he’d made it a point of volunteering over the holidays for quite a while now. GQ figured he could guess why. “Done,” John said.
“Thanks,” GQ hoped the one word was sufficient – knowing it never could be, as he rose from the examining table.
“You’re welcome.” John discarded his gloves in the appropriate receptacle. “Everything looks good. The wound appears to have healed perfectly, no signs of infection. You’ll have a bit of a scar, but your hair should cover it. And you can always get it fixed later, if you like. I can recommend a plastic surgeon who specializes in these sorts of things.”
“I appreciate it, Dr. Hudson.”
“No problem.” He turned his back, setting up for the next patient. “You have a nice evening now.”
“Yes?” John pivoted halfway.
“I – I just wanted to say…. Gregory… I’m sorry.”
John hesitated for a moment, seemingly debating with himself whether or not to continue this particular train of thought. Then, deciding he might never get a better opportunity, John said, “Actually, I’m the one who should be apologizing to you.”
“What?” GQ startled.
“My son… I don’t need to tell you what losing my son did to me.”
“Yes, sir. I am sorry – “
“Please. Hear me out to the end. Gregory was a remarkable individual. The way he handled not just death, but life itself, it made him a hero in my eyes. Now, I know I’m his father, and I can’t be expected to see him objectively, but…. I’ve done my best. And doing my best has forced me to understand that, for all of his heroics, helping Allie to keep you from your child, most certainly doesn’t fall into that category.”
“I – I don’t understand.”
“I do. I understand why Gregory did what he did. He was in love with Allie. Hudson men have a tendency to go overboard when it comes to the women they love, the women they want to protect. I’m sure Gregory thought he was doing the right thing for Allie and her baby. But, he did wrong by you. He broke the law, and he lied and, while I believe the majority of his intentions were good, I also have to suspect that a part of his actions stemmed from Gregory’s knowledge that he, most likely, would not live long enough to suffer the consequences. Knowing you’re mortal can either make your fearful, or brave. Gregory chose brave. He was immensely brave. But, what he did to you was neither brave, nor heroic. It was wrong. Gregory may have never gotten the chance to apologize to you. But,” John stretched forward his hand. “I hope you will accept mine.”
GQ reacted on instinct, reaching out to shake John’s hand before he’d fully absorbed the older man’s message, much less come up with a way to respond. “I – You… This is very, very gracious of you, Dr. Hudson.”
“Loving your children means being able to see their faults. And continuing to love them anyway. You remember that. When things get tough with you and your son. And they will, there’s no avoiding that. You remember what I said. Promise?”
“I had the strangest dream,” Marley told Alice. “I’ve been going over and over it, trying to figure out what everything means.”
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Alice responded lightly, nevertheless willing to listen.
“I’ve been blaming myself,” Marley admitted.
“That’s not always necessarily a bad thing. Taking responsibility for our actions is very often the first step to making sure you don’t make the same mistakes again.”
“I know. I realize that. It’s also my way of making sure I keep from turning into Donna. Donna never takes responsibility for her actions. Everything is always someone else’s fault. Everything she does, she was driven to do, like she has no say in the matter.”
“It’s entirely possible that your mother honestly feels that way.”
“Does that make it alright?”
“It makes it a little more understandable, perhaps. I don’t claim to know Donna well, but, from what I hear, a very large part of her early life was, in fact, out of her hands, and at the mercy of others.”
“My grandfather kidnapped her children. He gave Vicky away, and he forced Donna to pretend to be my sister.”
“Precisely. An upbringing like that, you can begin to see why Donna might feel like she’s always reacting to circumstances, rather than creating them.”
“A family tradition I’m trying to break.”
“Good for you, Marley.”
“But, the problem is, sometimes… sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far in the other direction.”
“Tell me,” Alice urged, her voice neutral, though encouraging.
“When I say it out loud, it sounds kind of arrogant.”
“Nothing wrong with a little self-confidence.”
“No, this is actual arrogance. You see, I – I thought I was responsible for everything.”
“As in: And God said, Let there be light?” Alice asked with a playful smile.
Marley laughed. “Not exactly. I’m not that far gone, don’t worry.”
“Then I think we’re alright. What, exactly, do you believe yourself responsible for?”
“Well, to start with, Donna’s attack on Felicia at Devon’s christening.”
“How did you hear about that?”
“Small town. People talk. Even in here. Especially in here.”
“Donna’s actions had nothing to do with you.”
“She claims she did it because of me.”
“Just because she believes it, doesn’t mean you’re required to.”
“It’s hard not to.”
Alice hesitated. “I know.”
“Do you? Really?”
“Yes. Because for a great many years, I also believed myself responsible for the actions of others. I’m afraid you’re not the only arrogant one in this room, Marley.”
“What did you…”
“Rachel,” Alice said. “Even as I hated what she was doing. To me, to Steve, to Jamie, I couldn’t help thinking that, if it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t be driven to these lengths. So, I must be to blame, as well.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Marley scoffed.
“Likewise,” Alice noted softly.
“You really do understand then.”
Marley paused for a long beat. And then she said, “Grant.”
“What about him?”
“He lost Kirkland because of me. If Grant hadn’t been trying to help me, he never would have been placed in the position of being forced to trade away Kirkland.”
“No one forced Grant to do anything. He made his own decision.”
“A decision I drove him to.”
“A decision he made of his own free will. Granted, because of his feelings for you.”
“I couldn’t even look him in the eye afterwards. I can’t imagine how he must feel, how much he must hate me.”
“Is that why you banned him from visiting you here?”
“I couldn’t bear facing his disappointment, his contempt.”
“If he truly felt that way, would he have tried as hard as he has been doing to see you? Your rejection broke his heart, you may take my word on that.”
“I broke Grant’s heart by betraying him. By costing him the one thing he wanted most in the world – his son.”
“Grant gave up his claim on Kirkland. For your sake. Surely, that must tell you something.”
“It tells me that I deeply and possibly irrevocably hurt the only person willing to stand by me, even at great personal cost. What kind of woman does that make me?”
“I daresay, it makes you someone worth standing by – no matter what.”
“I’ll never be able to make this up to Grant.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Does he get a vote in the matter?” Alice wondered.
“You were fantastic!” Jeanne still had to shout over the din – and the ringing in her ears – as she and Dean withdrew into the tiny, cluttered closet the club owner had designated as his dressing room. “It was fun hearing the old stuff, but your new material really rocks!”
He shrugged, unsure and looking much more serious than the occasion called for.
“Come on! You should be on top of the world! That went great!”
“It felt great,” he admitted. “Being on stage again. It’s like, I didn’t know how much I missed it, until…”
“Jenna would be so proud of you,” Jeanne told him, addressing the issue Dean had only been willing to dance around.
“She loved you. That means she wanted you to be happy. And being happy means doing what you were born for.”
“What is this?” Dean demanded, dumbfounded. “How did you go from hating my guts to becoming my biggest fan?”
“I never hated your guts,” Jeanne corrected. “I hated you throwing your talent away, hiding, being a coward. I knew you could do this. I knew you had to do this eventually. And sooner is always better than later.”
“You were right,” Dean admitted.
“No.” Dean looked down at Jeanne, suddenly even more serious, if such a thing were possible. “Thank you. Thank you for giving me the kick in the butt I needed.”
“It’s what I do,” she tried to smile, wondering why her expression should suddenly falter the moment Jeanne looked into Dean’s eyes. Wondering why she couldn’t look away, wondering why it seemed he couldn’t either. “It’s what I…”
He kissed her. Dean cupped Jeanne’s face in his hands, he ducked his head, and he kissed her. Her arms slipped around his shoulders, her lips parted, and she kissed him back. Just like they’d both known it would happen all along….
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