“She is absolutely beautiful,” Marley gushed to Lorna and Jamie, having stunned them both with her out of the blue arrival, but covering up the awkwardness by focusing on the little girl sitting perched atop Lorna’s hip, gnawing on a giraffe teether.
“Thank you,” Jamie cleared his throat, even as he instinctively stepped between Marley, Lorna and Devon, feeling the irrational need to protect them still, even as he knew they were not, at the moment, in any kind of danger.
Marley recognized the gesture and accepted it as her due, deciding to bite the proverbial bullet and launch directly into what she’d come to say – well, the first part of it, anyway.
She told Jamie and Lorna, “I came to apologize to you both. Again. I was genuinely sorry for what I did before. But, at the hospital, I finally realized sorry wasn’t enough. I need to take responsibility for my actions, and make amends in any way I can. Hitting you and Morgan was an accident, Lorna. I swear. But, it doesn’t negate what I did, or what I put you through.”
“What you put Jamie through,” Lorna stressed.
“There’s no excuse for what I did,” Marley reiterated. “Running away was beyond cowardly. You could have died if help hadn’t come in time.”
“I…” Jamie began. “What happened with Kirkland last month. It put – it gave me a new perspective on some things. Accidents do happen. You’re right, that’s no excuse for the damage done, but it is something to take under consideration. There are honest mistakes, and there are deliberately destructive acts. It’s vitally important to be able to differentiate between the two. Good people make bad choices. They do things they regret for the rest of their lives. I should know that better than anyone. Thank you for your apology, Marley. It does mean a lot to me.”
She nodded. “I never intended any harm.”
“I believe you,” Jamie said.
Marley smiled, relieved at the small give in his attitude. Her smile faded when she remembered the remainder of her errand, and how Jamie might react to it. Odds are, his goodwill wasn’t destined to last for long.
She attempted to steer the conversation her way via a neutral bridge, asking, “When is Kirkland coming home from the hospital?”
“Tomorrow, assuming everything checks out.”
“When did you get out, Marley?” Lorna wondered.
She hesitated. “Yesterday.”
“Thank you. I – I feel stronger than I have in years, ready to face anything, honestly. The two of you did me a favor, insisting I get treatment.”
“We both wanted you to get better,” Jamie stressed. “For the kids’ sake. The girls need you. Steven and Kirkland need you, too.”
“I’m afraid it’s going to be an uphill battle, me trying to get back into their good graces.”
“I’m sure you’re up to it,” Jamie voiced, desperately wanting to believe his own words.
“I’m going to do my best. And I won’t be alone. I’ll have help. I…” Marley swallowed hard, then plunged ahead. “I – Grant and I – We – Grant and I got married.”
It took Jamie and Lorna a moment to untangle Marley’s words from the jumbled rush. Then another moment to absorb them, process them, accept them. The pair exchanged silent looks, neither sure how to respond.
“I told you,” Marley rambled on. “Being at the hospital did wonders for me. It really crystallized what I wanted out of my life, who I wanted in it.”
“And that would be… Grant?” Lorna ventured cautiously.
“Yes. I know you both have your history with him, but he’s been nothing short of amazing with me. What he did, first trying to help me stay out of trouble and keep the girls, then offering to let Jamie adopt Kirkland in order to protect me… No one has ever done anything like that for me before.”
Jamie’s mind flashed back to Marley’s arrest for Jake’s shooting, and his willingness to go on the run with her – even if it meant abandoning Steven. But, he kept the memory to himself.
“And then,” Marley went on. “The way I treated him afterwards… I refused to see him for months; no visits, no calls, no messages. He thought I didn’t care about him, he thought I’d rejected him, that I blamed him for what’d happened. But still, he didn’t give up his faith in me. That’s extraordinary, I think. What’s even more extraordinary is that he accepted my apology. He understood why I’d done what I did. He told me it didn’t matter, and then he asked me to marry him. Right then and there. As proof of how much he still loved me and wanted to be with me, no matter what.”
“The shotgun marriage was Grant’s idea?” Lorna clarified.
“Well, there was no shotgun involved. We simply didn’t see any reason to wait.”
“Hm,” Lorna replied, noncommittal, gears turning, dots being connected.
Jamie said, “If this is honestly what you want, then I’m happy for you, Marley. You’ve spent your whole life looking for… something. Maybe Grant really is it.”
“He loves me,” she said simply. “He knows all my weaknesses and my flaws and my secrets, and he loves me anyway.”
Jamie snuck a sideways peek at Lorna, a halfway smile curling his lips. “Yeah,” he agreed. “That can be pretty amazing.”
She smiled back, the moment excluding Marley completely, who felt forced to drag it back in order to hit her third and final point. “Would you do me a favor?” she asked timidly. “Do you think you could not tell Kirkland about this? Grant and I would like to break the news to him ourselves. And don’t mention it to Bridget or Michele if you see them either. They’re next on our list.”
Jamie considered her request. “Sure. Don’t see why not. Did Grant fill you in on how he saved Kirk’s life?”
Marley nodded. “I’m telling you, Jamie, he’s a changed man. Soon I won’t be the only one to see that.”
“Amanda!” Frankie could honestly think of no reason why Rachel’s daughter should be dropping by her house in the middle of the day. Nevertheless, Frankie let her in, offering herbal tea, freshly squeezed fruit juice… Now that Frankie was working with Orly’s farm, they had plenty of wonderful…
“I’m fine,” Amanda insisted. “I just – I was wondering if I could ask you some questions.”
“About adopting Lori Ann, and how you dealt with all her health issues and everything.”
“Is Brava doing a story?”
“No. Well, actually, that’s not a bad idea. But, no. This is personal.”
“Okay. I’m happy to help.” Frankie led Amanda into the living room, where Lori Ann – speak of the toddler – was sitting on a blanket on the floor, attempting to build a block tower that insisted on toppling whenever she got past four cubes. Undaunted, the little girl continued trying, her entire being seemingly focused on the task, tongue pursed between her teeth, eyebrows narrowed.
“She looks…” Amanda began. “She looks… normal. Is that – is that okay to say?”
“Typically developing is the current popular term,” Frankie corrected gently. “And yes, she is doing very, very well. We are very happy, and extremely lucky.”
“So… no complications from having been born so prematurely and Jenna being sick?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Lori Ann is hitting her milestones, but definitely on the far side of typical, with some of the checkmarks falling into the developmentally delayed column. Her eyesight is weak, her small motor is behind others her age. She seems to understand what we say to her, but she doesn’t use too many words yet. She prefers to point at what she wants. Which is communicating, but it can get frustrating for everyone involved.”
“Did you know that all of this was a possibility when you adopted her?”
“Frankly, it could have been a lot worse. For all we knew, she might need monitoring while she slept for the rest of her life, like she did in the beginning. We didn’t know if she’d walk or talk or even roll over. The doctors were very honest with us. They painted the whole worst-case scenario of how much care she might need.”
“But, you still took her anyway,” Amanda repeated, her plaintive why implied.
“No child comes with a guarantee,” Frankie shrugged.
“Well, no, but, if you know there might be problems in advance, there are… options.”
“Yes. And everyone is free to exercise their options. Ours came down to: Did we want to be Lori Ann’s parents or not? Cass and I did. Everything else was just circumstances that could be adjusted to.”
Amanda said, “There’s this little boy Kevin wants us to adopt.”
“He has Down’s Syndrome. Some not too bad kind, I guess? Like it’s not one hundred percent Down’s Syndrome? But, he’s still got problems. A hole in his heart that Morgan is supposed to fix. And after that, who knows…”
Frankie nodded thoughtfully. “Taking on any child is a major undertaking.”
“I know! Allie is almost ready to graduate from college, and I still feel like I didn’t do enough with her. For her. Except every time I attempt to fix a past screw up, I mess up again.”
“Join the club,” Frankie commiserated. “Charlie and I are exactly in the same space.”
“At least you’ve got Cass to share the blame with,” Amanda snorted.
“Afraid not. Seems Charlie’s picked her sides, and Dad can do no wrong, while Mom…”
“Maybe that’s why I was so eager to adopt Lori Ann. A do over, as it were. Cass and I were cheated of the chance to raise Charlie together. At least we have Lori Ann.”
“So… no regrets?”
“None,” Frankie confirmed confidently. “She’s been a blessing, nothing but.”
“I don’t know if I can do it.” Amanda shook her head. “Raise someone else’s kid. Someone else’s sick kid. I don’t know if I have it in me.”
“That’s something only you can answer. The sole piece of advice I can give you is that raising kids is excruciatingly hard even when you’re one hundred percent certain it’s exactly what you want. If there’s any doubt… Well, they deserve better, don’t you think?”
Carl’s first morning waking up without Rachel by his side was a disconcerting experience, to say the least. A different bed, a different room, alone… for a split second, he wondered where he was, and if everything that had happened over the past twenty years had been some sort of cruel dream.
When it came to moving out of the Cory home, Carl had retreated to his former domicile from the early 1990s. He’d kept it all this time as a corporate space, putting up partners from out of town and periodically using it for meetings that called for something smaller than a boardroom yet grander than his study.
He’d never brought the children there previously, and Elizabeth and Cory had been duly impressed by the Near Eastern décor, the carved jade, the ketana swords, the delicate, hand-stitched screens and tapestries; so different from that stifling Old World alleged charm of the Cory estate.
On the one hand, Carl felt infinitely more comfortable here than he ever had amongst Mac’s stodgy relics. On the other, it all stirred feelings a touch too familiar for comfort. Ones he honestly thought he’d left behind along with the change of address.
If Carl didn’t budge, if he only opened his eyes the faintest of cracks, he could easily believe that nothing had changed, that the civilized world was still his for the taking, and his actions accountable to no one. The rush of power that came with the thought was not unpleasant, and distinctively intoxicating.
And it all came crashing to a halt at the sound of a knock on the door, and his daughter’s voice reporting, “I’ve ordered breakfast to be brought up, Father. It’s waiting for you.”
Elizabeth. Cory. No dream at all. The Carl Hutchins of old had other, more important, more precious priorities now.
His children. Rachel…
Who currently slumbered on the other side of town. Alone. At her request.
“Coming, poppet!” Carl called, purposefully suppressing the inherent rancor in his voice.
He rose, grabbed a robe, and after completing his morning routine, exited into the open living area to find, as promised, Elizabeth and Cory sitting around a table set neatly with a traditional English breakfast, eggs, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, tea, fried bread, marmalade and… “You remembered the Black Pudding!” he praised Elizabeth.
“I know you like it.”
“Your mother can’t stomach it,” Carl admitted. “She insists that congealed blood products are never the ideal way to kick off one’s day. She doesn’t realize iron is precisely what a body needs to face life’s capricious slings and arrows.”
“Mom,” Elizabeth unrolled a crisp, white, linen napkin, sweeping it majestically across her lap as she reminded, “Isn’t here.”
While Cory could only sigh sadly.
“Welcome home!” Jamie, Lorna, Steven, Bridget, Michele, Jasmine and an overwhelmed but nonetheless cheery Devon were on hand to greet Kirkland, who took pride in walking through the Frame house doors on his own accord, if maybe a bit slower than usual.
“You guys didn’t have to make a fuss,” he insisted, simultaneously blushing and drinking in the attention in equal measure.
“Who’s making a fuss?” Steven shrugged, the picture of indifference. “We all just happened to drop by today, didn’t even know you were planning on showing up.”
“Good,” Kirkland said. “Takes the pressure off.”
“Do me a favor, son,” Jamie said. “There’s a cake in the kitchen, give me a hand bringing it out here, would you?” As they headed out, he explained. “The cake just happened to drop by, too.”
“You guys suck at this lying thing.” Kirkland observed.
“So do you, man,” Steven lifted a leg to offer his kid brother a kick in the pants.
“What did I do?” Kirkland wondered as soon as he and Jamie were behind closed doors. Why else would his dad have come up with such a transparent excuse for getting him out of the living room? “I mean, besides the crashed car and scare you to death part?”
“We won’t be getting a repeat performance of that, right?” Jamie double-checked. “Ever?”
Kirkland shook his head fervently, even as he guessed, “Is this your way of saying you’re taking my license and my driving privileges?”
“We can discuss that later. Right now, you don’t have a working car, so the question is moot.”
“What’s going on, then?”
“Kirk,” Jamie chose his words with care. “When you were first in the hospital, I asked you how the accident happened, do you remember that?”
“Yeah… I told you I didn’t know. I mean, I try to think back, but…”
“You’re going to have to,” Jamie said bluntly. “The police are going to question you about the accident.”
“Again? I thought we already took care of that.”
“That was for the initial report. They had to file it from the scene of the accident. This is… This is for something else. Kirk, Cass and Frankie are suing you.”
“Because Charlie got hurt?”
“Yes. They have to do it, in order to get our insurance to pay her medical bills. That means an investigation, and probably a deposition on your part.”
“Does Charlie know her parents are doing this?”
Jamie shrugged. “No idea.”
“Because, I don’t think she’d be okay with it.”
“Why?” Jamie wondered.
“Well, because we – we’re friends. Friends don’t go around suing each other.”
“You’d be surprised,” Jamie corrected gently, before returning to the point at hand. “In any case, it’s not really up to Charlie. And Cass and Frankie seem pretty determined.”
“But, I don’t know what they expect me to say. I don’t remember anything. And neither does Charlie. It all happened so fast.”
“You know, the accident.”
“If you don’t remember, then how do you know it happened quickly?”
“Because! Sheesh, Dad, I talked to Charlie. After you gave me the third degree – “
“Now hold on a second – “
“I asked her if she knew what happened, and she said she didn’t remember either. One minute I was driving, and the next the car just skid out of control. Maybe we hit an oil slick or a puddle – “
“Not according to the police report.”
“Then I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s up to the investigators to find out. Which means a lot questions for you.”
“And Charlie,” Jamie confirmed, much to Kirkland’s visible unease.
“You have no right to be stringing John along,” Sharlene calmly told Donna, without a trace of hysteria tainting her voice. “While you are secretly married to Matt.”
Donna blinked, frozen in place, frantically thinking of a way to deny it, when Sharlene showed Donna a copy of her own marriage license. Any thought of denial promptly went out the window.
Donna stared down at the document, then back up at Sharlene. “Where – “
“It doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t understand. If this were to come out, Matthew – “
“I’ve got no bone to pick with Matt. I don’t understand what he’s done or why, but he’s no concern of mine.”
“I take it I shouldn’t anticipate a similar exemption?”
“What kind of game are you playing here?”
“It’s not a game. I swear to you, Sharlene. This is all Jeanne Ewing’s fault. She blackmailed Matthew into marriage. The only way to protect him was to – “
“I don’t give a damn about Jeanne, either.”
“I’m just trying to explain,” Donna raised a hand to her throat, offended.
“Explain why you’re leading John on with the possibility of you two having a future together, when you’ve got no intention of any such thing happening. Now or ever.”
“I never suggested any such thing to John!”
“You sure haven’t denied it!”
“I – I care about John. I didn’t wish to hurt his feelings.”
“There’s a word for women like you where I come from, Donna. It’s not fit for polite company.”
Donna declined to ponder the possibilities. Instead, she reminded, “John has suffered so much these past few years.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I saw no point in adding to his burden. If it makes him happy to flirt with me a bit, what’s the harm in my flirting back?”
“The harm is he’s in love with you!”
“Don’t be silly, Sharlene. John and I have been doing this dance for… well, it would be crass to calculate precisely for how long. We both know better than to take it seriously.”
“You said it yourself; John has suffered so much. You think he knows if he’s coming or going most of the time, much less which of your tricks to take seriously and which to just dismiss as Donna being Donna?”
“I think you’re giving John far too little credit.”
“No. But, I did give you too much. I’ve been holding back all these months, watching John making a fool of himself over you. And I didn’t say anything. Because I thought, well, if you’re the one who can truly make him happy finally, then Godspeed – no one deserves that more than John.”
“I agree,” Donna said softly.
“But, you’re just jerking him around. Using a good man to fluff your ego on those long, cold nights when Matt returns home to his beautiful, young wife.”
“That farce is temporary, I assure you.”
“Then this one had better be, too.” Sharlene warned, “Cut John loose.”
“Or what?” While Donna agreed, in theory, with the bulk of what Sharlene was saying, her first instinct at a perceived ultimatum was always to test just how far her opponent was willing to go.
“Nothing,” Sharlene said, her voice cracking. “I’m not you, Donna. I don’t have the stomach for threats. Not anymore. Sure, I could take this marriage license to Matt, to Jeanne, to the press, heck, to the police, since it seems your husband is a bigamist now.”
“Well, technically not – “
“But, I will not be the one who deliberately brings pain into other people’s lives. If there is one thing I can do to honor my son, it’s that. I’m not here to inventory what I could do to you, Donna. I am here to beg you to stop doing what you are to John.”
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