“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Jen protested as Steven all but marched her through the doors of Bay City University Hospital, and into the elevator.
“I know I come off as an arrogant prick.” He pushed the button. “But, when a woman swoons at my feet – literally – even I notice something is off.”
“I did not swoon at your feet. More like in the vicinity of your elbows.”
“Even worse. My elbows are so not my best feature.”
“It was hot in there. I’d just come in from the cold and the temperature differential…” When Steven didn’t appear to be buying it, she switched tactics, remembering, “I hadn’t eaten much today. A bottle of beer on an empty stomach… I’m fine. Really.”
“Weren’t you the one just now lamenting your lack of life experience when it came to broken bones and cavities and whatever? Think of this as instant karma. You get to have all the fun of the patient experience, without there actually being anything wrong with you. A win-win. How’s that?”
Steven ushered Jen through the doors of Jamie’s office.
His father looked up, more than a little surprised. “Hey, guys. What’s up?”
“Jen fainted,” Steven announced. “I was wondering if you could give her a quick once-over, make sure everything’s okay.”
“Everything is okay,” Jen refuted. “And I didn’t actually faint. I just got a little dizzy.”
“And fell down. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, Dad, is the clinical definition of fainting.”
“Not exactly,” Jamie hedged. “But, I’m happy to help. Did you experience any other symptoms, Jen? Vertigo, nausea, a tingling in the extremities?”
“No? Or you don’t remember?”
She hesitated, then admitted, “I don’t remember.”
“That,” Jamie said. “Actually is one of the clinical definitions of fainting.”
“Ha,” Steven smiled.
“Behave,” Jamie warned his son with a stern wag of a finger, then turned back to Jen. “Any history of heart problems?”
“Blood pressure issues? Anemia? Dehydration?”
“No. I was just telling Steven how healthy I’ve been all my life. No problems at all.”
“Jen,” Jamie paused delicately, sneaking a sideways peek at Steven. “Could you be pregnant?”
“No!” This time the answer came much quicker and much less matter-of-fact. “No. I – I’m on the pill. So… no.”
“Birth control pills aren’t one hundred percent effective. Especially if you don’t follow the instructions to the letter, keep a regular routine, take it at the same time every day…”
“Jen has a Master’s Degree from MIT, Dad. I think she can figure out how to swallow a pill on a schedule.”
“How about we let Jen answer,” Jamie interrupted softly.
“I’m not pregnant,” she reiterated firmly. “I’m pretty sure about that.”
“Okay,” Jamie said. “Then why don’t you let me run some tests, and we’ll go from there.”
“There’s really no need for you to go to all this trouble. I’m fine.”
“For a friend of my son’s? It’s no trouble.”
“Go on,” Steven urged. “You’re a scientist, right? Don’t you want to prove me wrong using the scientific method?”
“It’s the only one he’ll accept,” Jamie acknowledged from experience. And, also from experience… “Trust me, it’s a lot of fun to prove Steven wrong.”
“You haven’t said much,” Kevin observed as he climbed into bed next to Amanda.
She shrugged, pretending to be riveted by the magazine lying across her lap. “Didn’t have much to say.”
Kevin sighed, running a hand through his hair and resting it at the back of his head. “Look, I realize I blind-sided you when I said I wanted to adopt Ike…”
“You think?” She turned the page so aggressively, it tore at the binding.
“But, it couldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. You know I want more kids.”
“And you know that I don’t.” She, at last, looked him in the eye.
“I know that you thought you didn’t. I know how hard raising Allie on your own was…”
“And it’s not like I’m done yet, am I?”
“But, you wouldn’t be on your own this time. You’d have me.”
“Yeah, that’s what Sam said, too, when he convinced me to marry him and keep Allie.”
“I’m not Sam.”
“And I’m not the naïve teen-ager I was back then, either. I know how much work a kid is now. I know that it changes your life completely.”
“I know it, too. I was barely out of college when I adopted Jen. Also on my own. It was damn hard. But, it was also the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to do it again. And I want to do it with somebody else this time around. I want the whole package. The family I never had… I want to give that to a child who desperately needs it.”
Out of the blue, Amanda said, “You may not be Sam, but I’m not my father, either.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My father could love and raise Jamie and Matt as if they were his own. He put up with Iris and her crap for a hell of a lot more years than could have been reasonably expected. He accepted Sandy as soon as he found out they were father and son, and I’m sure it would have been the same with Paulina. Me? I gave birth to Allie, and I raised her from infancy… and we both barely made it out alive. Now you’re asking me to take in someone else’s kid, who’s already four years old, and with issues, to boot!”
“Yes,” Kevin said simply.
“You’re not being fair.”
He considered her words, then conceded, “You’re right.”
“Wh-what?” she honestly hadn’t been expecting that.
“You’re right. I’m not. Not only did I spring this all on you without warning, but, I’ve also just been telling you about Ike. I should have given you a chance to get to know him, first.”
“No,” Amanda stammered. “That’s not – I didn’t mean…”
“Would you? Please? Just meet him. Spend some time with him. For me….”
Carl, Cory and Elizabeth moved out the next morning. Rachel helped her children with their packing, going through the motions, acting as if this were no different than getting them ready for camp or a ski trip with their friends.
Carl gathered his own things. Rachel left their bedroom while he did it. She couldn’t bear the sight of his closet, dresser and night table being progressively emptied of personal items.
The four of them met downstairs, by the front door. Carl holding a garment bag over one shoulder while the staff loaded his suitcases into the Bentley. Cory and Elizabeth holding overstuffed backpacks that strapped across their chests.
“You can always come back to get anything you’ve forgotten,” Rachel reminded. “You’re not going to the moon, just across town. And it won’t be for long.”
“Don’t fret, Rachel,” Carl soothed. “I assure you, the children will be well looked after.”
“I know that,” she shot back defensively. “Of course, I know that.”
“And you shouldn’t worry, either, Mom,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll look after Father and Cory.”
“Are you going to be okay?” Cory asked his mother. “Being here by yourself?”
“Oh, I won’t be by myself. Lila and Jasmine are still here. And Allie. I’ll be fine, sweetheart.”
“Sure, she will be,” Elizabeth prompted. “This was all her idea in the first place.”
“Elizabeth…” Rachel began, then realized she didn’t have the strength to go through this again. Not today of all days. Not when she still had so much turmoil ahead of her.
“Elizabeth,” Carl gallantly picked up. “I believed it was made clear to you that none of this is your mother’s fault. She is merely trying to do the best she can in the face of your siblings’ selfish, childish, unconscionable behavior. Naturally, it goes without saying that I shall be expecting a much higher code of conduct from you and your brother, now and in perpetuity.”
“We don’t have to give in to them,” Elizabeth pleaded with Rachel in response to Carl’s reminder. “We can stand strong and united. Show Jamie, Amanda and Matt what it means to go up against the Hutchins family.”
“They’re my family, too,” Rachel said softly. “Mine. And yours.”
“No. Insulting Father is insulting all of us. I won’t stand for it. And neither should you.”
“You don’t mean that, Elizabeth. I know you love them, too. You and Amanda are particularly close.”
“We were. Before. Cory can keep playing both sides of the net if he feels like it. Sell his own father out for some stupid basketball games. I know where my loyalty lies.”
If Elizabeth had been hoping to provoke her brother, she failed miserably, as Cory merely rolled his eyes and calmly advised, “Give it a rest, Eliza. Come on, let’s take our stuff to the car. Give Mom and Father a minute by themselves.”
Touched as always by her youngest son’s thoughtfulness, Rachel had to fight back tears as she hugged first him, then his sister good-bye.
“Come and visit,” she urged. “And I’ll come see you and…”
“It’s just for a little while,” Cory reminded her with a smile.
“It better be,” Elizabeth huffed.
Only after both had shuffled outside did Rachel turn to Carl, knowing that there had to be something she could say or do to make the situation better, or at least bearable. Alas failing to come up with anything.
“You are my heart,” Carl told Rachel, instead. “Being asked to walk away is akin to being asked to leave it behind.”
“No.” Rachel shook her head. “It’s a fair trade. Because you’re leaving with mine.”
He asked, “Do you believe that which your children accuse me of? Do you believe that I am a danger to them and to their loved ones?”
Rachel hesitated. A beat too long for Carl’s taste. “I believe that you have the potential. I believe that if the motivation were strong enough, you are still, as before, capable of just about anything.”
Carl inhaled sharply. The unvarnished truth when you’d been expecting a familiar platitude was a bit of a shock to the system. “Are you saying that…”
“Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence, Carl,” Rachel’s voice was neither acrimonious nor accusing, merely realistic. “You helped Lucas frame Donna for Cecile’s murder, which almost landed Jamie in jail for thirty years. You deliberately toyed with Marley’s sanity, knowing she was unstable, which led to Lorna’s accident and who knows what down the line for Devon. You started a mob war in order to cover your tracks. Kirkland was kidnapped and Spencer killed as a result. You are a very dangerous man, and I would be foolish to pretend otherwise.”
“It needed to be done,” Carl affirmed staunchly. “All of it. For you and I both know that the alternative would have turned out far, far worse.”
“Neutralizing the compound was a necessity,” Rachel agreed. “Trying to frame Donna, then scapegoating Spencer, was likely not.”
“They – “
“I know.” Rachel held up a hand to fend him off. “We don’t need to go over any of it again. I know. And I will defend the choices that you – that we – made to the end. But, I cannot and I will not minimize the amount of damage we did. Those days are over for me. My children have every right to be unhappy with you. With us.”
“What will you tell them then?” Carl wondered. “About my departure?”
“I don’t know yet,” Rachel admitted. “But, I guess I’d better figure it out pretty soon.” She checked her watch. “The three of them are due here in about half an hour.”
“Jen!” GQ knocked on his girlfriend’s door. When he received no answer, he did it again, louder this time, raising his voice to project, “I tried calling and texting like we agreed, but you weren’t picking up. I checked your office. I started to get worried. Jen, are you in there? Jen?”
Finally, GQ heard footsteps, and the lock being unbolted.
The door opened but, instead of Jen, GQ was confronted by a shirtless Steven, standing there, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and stifling a yawn.
Behind him, GQ could see Jen, wearing nothing but a robe.
He looked from one to the other. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Carl is moving out of the Cory house today,” Lila informed Chase following the Mayor’s daily status meeting. She figured this was one status report that could wait until they were alone.
“Really?” Chase leaned back in his chair, tapping a pencil against the opposite palm. “What brought that about?”
“Rachel’s kids told her it was him or them. She chose them.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Me neither. It’s not like Rachel or Carl to go down without a fight. Something more is going on.”
“Any idea what?”
“Rachel is playing her cards pretty close to the vest. She is genuinely broken up about all of it, though, I can tell. Cory and Elizabeth moved out with their Daddy. It’s almost like one set of her kids is being pitted against the other. Sad.”
“For them,” Chase said, the gears visibly turning in his mind. “Good for us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, I’m assuming Mr. Hutchins didn’t clean out all his flash drives and files when he packed his bags, did he?”
“I guess not….”
“Excellent. More opportunity for us to dig around undiscovered.”
Lila sighed, “We still doing that?”
“You’ve lost your nerve?”
“More like my enthusiasm.”
His jovial manner of a moment earlier swallowed by a grim sincerity, Chase noted, “We still have no conclusive evidence that the threat from the compound has been nullified.”
“It’s been pretty quiet these past few months…”
“The same way it was prior to Kirkland’s kidnapping.”
“That’s all over. Spencer is dead, and the debt’s been paid.”
“Spencer’s, maybe. What about Carl’s? Do you honestly think a rap sheet like his can ever, ever be wiped clean? You don’t believe there’s a single soul out there, laying in wait, scouting for the perfect opportunity to get their revenge? Utterly indifferent to the collateral damage? You came into this, Lila, wanting to protect Jasmine from suffering the way Kirkland has suffered. What’s changed?”
“I hate lying to Rachel. She’s my friend. And a good person.”
“Who allowed her husband to use her grandson as a pawn to settle his own debts.”
“Rachel didn’t know that Kirkland would be – “
“Maybe not. But, I can assure you, Carl understood it was at least a possibility. And he decided the benefits outweighed the risks.”
“What is all this to you, anyway?” Lila demanded, ignoring the truth of what he’d said by abruptly changing the subject. “Bay City is full of criminals who haven’t paid for their misdeeds. Why single out Carl? You’re not even the DA anymore. Why – “
“You really want to know?”
Lila nodded, even as a part of her kind of… didn’t.
Chase sighed. “Carl Hutchins was the first case I ever worked as ADA. The man had already poisoned Sandy Cory – another relative of yours, by the way; killed a woman named Daphne Grimaldi, and kidnapped both Marley Hudson and his current wife. You now how much total time he did for all that? Five months. Not even half a year. There are misdemeanors that carry stronger penalties. As soon as his case came up on my docket, I thought: Surely, with a record like his, we’ll have no problem putting Carl away for shooting Grant Harrison or terrorizing Kathleen McKinnon, or even setting the bomb that nearly killed Frankie Frame – well, I guess it technically did kill her, if you believe the Winthrop heavenly version of events. But, Carl got away. Time and time again, that son of a bitch got away. It’s not supposed to work like that,” Chase said. “That’s not what we were taught in school, and it’s not what’s written in the Constitution, and it isn’t right, damn it. Bad guys are supposed to pay for their crimes. Really pay. Feeling kind of lousy and promising never to do it again because you’ve found true love isn’t enough. It's just like the argument against prosecuting Nazi war criminals, decrepit Klan leaders, Communist dictators. They're feeble old men now. Their crimes are in the past. They're really sorry now. Sorry isn't enough. Especially when we all know, given the chance, they will do it again. They have.”
“So this is personal with you?”
“Sure. If you want to call it personal, call it personal. Call it anything you want, I’m not a big fan of labels, you know that. The man got away on my watch once. Twice. More times than I like to remember. I’m not going to let it happen again. You’re right, I’m not the DA anymore. I’m the Mayor. That means I’m even more responsible for the welfare of Bay City and everyone in it now, not less. The way that you want to protect Jasmine – that’s pretty much the way I want to protect them all.”
Lila considered his words, and then, without preamble, said, “Carl’s already suspicious of us, though. He didn’t buy our adultery act. Neither did Rachel, I don’t think.”
“Don’t worry about it. I told you, I have a plan.”
“Involving… Grant?” Lila double-checked. That still didn’t sound right to her.
Chase nodded. “He’s been a little busy since New Year’s, the trouble with Kirkland and all. But, don’t worry, once things settle down, Grant Harrison is going to help us. Whether he knows it or not.”
“Grant!” Sarah couldn’t help grinning in delighted surprise to find him at the Love house. “What are you doing here?”
She moved in to kiss him, hands on Grant’s shoulders, standing on her tip-toes, lips pursed, but Grant pulled back, awkwardly indicating their hostile surroundings and mumbling, “Donna… the girls.”
“Bridget and Michele are at school, and I’m not sure where Donna is,” Sarah assured, but Grant looked so uncomfortable, she didn’t press.
“Is there someplace we could go to speak in private?” Grant wondered.
“Sure,” she nodded, confused. “There’s my room…”
“No!” He barked, then lowered his voice to explain. “No. It… wouldn’t look right.”
“Well, okay… there’s the library. Hardly anybody ever goes in there this time of the day. And we can lock the door if… What’s wrong, Grant?”
He shook his head and simply proceeded to head for the back of the house, Sarah needing to hustle double-time in order to catch up.
Grant did as Sarah suggested and turned the lock, taking his time, stalling, trying to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “The phlebotomist did say it might take you a couple of days to get your strength back. You still look so pale…”
“What?” she smiled, hoping her acceptance of whatever it was might jostle him out of this mysterious dark mood. “What? I’m right here. Tell me.”
“I… We… I’m sorry. I’m sorry, this is all my fault. I never should have… I never should have let things get as far as they have.”
“What – what do you mean? What things?”
Grant pressed on, steeling his nerves, forcing himself. “I realized, after you brought me home from the hospital and… everything – “
“After I told you I loved you?”
“I realized that you – you were taking things much more seriously than I ever intended.”
“Oh.” It was a tiny, lost, hurt sound. And Grant thought he might well keel over for the piercing pain of it.
“You and I, Sarah… You came into my life during a very difficult moment. Marley had just turned her back on me, and so had Kirkland. My father died… I was lost. I needed a lifeline. And you were there. I took advantage of you – “
“I did! It was flattering, a beautiful girl like you hanging onto my every word, boosting my ego, offering herself body and soul…. What man could resist?”
“You didn’t do anything I didn’t want you to,” Sarah insisted.
“I didn’t want it!” Grant exploded. “I wanted Marley. I used you for the flattery and the hero-worship and the sex. But, I didn’t want you, Sarah, can’t you understand that?”
She swallowed hard, but held her ground. “Maybe at the beginning… Maybe that’s all it really was, at the beginning. But, later…”
“There’s no later. Not between you and me. You were a pleasant distraction, nothing more. And, the fact is, I don’t need you anymore. I have what I wanted all along. Marley. She called me from the hospital. We talked. We worked everything out.”
“You… forgave her?”
“Just like that? You forgave her for the way she treated you? How she just dumped you? You forgave her for how bad she hurt you last year?”
“Because I love her,” Grant said.
“But, she doesn’t love you. Not the way I do. You’ve got to know that, Grant. You’ve got to know that.”
“You’re a kid,” Grant said dismissively. “This is all way beyond your understanding.”
“I understand that I would never do to you what she did.”
“It’s none of your business. I came here today because I wanted to let you know in person. I figured it was the least I owed you. But, if you insist on acting like a child – “
“Let me know what?”
“That Marley and I – that we’re back together.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Grant snorted. “That really isn’t my problem, is it?”
“I don’t believe you. You’re too smart. You have to know that this won’t last. That if she’s turned on you once, she’ll do it again.”
“She won’t,” Grant asserted.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because,” he told her, voice shaking. “Marley and I are married.”
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