“Happy Valentine’s Day!” Lorna greeted Jamie as he walked through the door after work, stopping him in his tracks with the instantly provocative question, “Notice anything different?”
He tread carefully, looking around, ruminating, weighing, listening, finally offering, “It’s so… quiet.”
“Give the gentleman a cigar!” she praised, meeting Jamie halfway to offer him a kiss.
“Where is everybody?”
“Steven came and got Kirkland. They’re taking Bridget and Michele to a dance at their school, then hitting a basketball game after.”
“And has Devon found a job and moved out?”
Lorna smiled. “She’s spending time with her godmother, who assures me Devon can stay until we come get her.”
“So we’re alone?” Jamie had a hard time conceiving, much less believing, the windfall.
“Just the two of us?”
“For at least the next few hours?”
“You’re not very swift, are you, Frame?”
Jamie laughed, falling backwards onto the couch, grabbing Lorna by the arm and pulling her down with him. “Did you make all this happen?”
“I may have planted some suggestions in certain people’s minds that made them think it was their idea in the first place. It’s kind of what I do for a living.” She turned around to face him, running her index finger from Jamie’s forehead, down his nose and pausing at his lips, playfully asking, “Any thoughts on what you’d like to do with our unexpected furlough?”
He kissed the tip of her manicured nail and confessed, “I’d like to look at you.”
Lorna blinked in surprise. “Seriously? I offer you a couple hours of wanton debauchery, and all you want to do is…”
“Look at you,” Jamie repeated, moving his arm to stroke the side of Lorna’s face with his palm. “We’re always so busy, running around with work, or our parents, or the kids, or the latest crises. When do I ever get a moment to simply take a breath, make everything around me disappear, and just look at you? And remember how beautiful you are. And how damn lucky I am?”
“Stop it,” Lorna shook her head. “Come on, you know I hate being put on the spot like…”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie said. “I can’t help it. You take my breath away. You have from the start. And if you don’t like it, you can…”
“What?” she challenged.
“Uhm… learn to?”
Lorna chortled, burying her face in his chest, the better to hide her embarrassment. “You’ve spoiled me, you know that? You have absolutely ruined me for anybody else. For the rest of my life, whenever someone fails to adore me the way you do, I’m going to assume the problem is with them.”
“You know,” she peered up. “If you were anyone else, I’d feel sure you were making fun of me. Setting me up for a fall.”
“I’m sorry,” Jamie repeated.
Lorna prompted, “Keep up, Frame. I said anyone but you…”
“I’m sorry anyone ever made you feel that way.”
“Yeah, well, I let them, didn’t I? Got to take some responsibility for my own stupidity.”
For a moment, Jamie looked like he felt tempted to contradict her. But, in the end, all he said was, “I love you. You can take full responsibility for that.”
Lorna opened her mouth, to argue or at least deny, but Jamie deftly cut her off, ducking his head, catching her lips between his even as he whispered, “Now, what about that wanton debauchery I was offered earlier…”
“Almost…” Donna ground against Matt, the heels of her palms pressing into his chest as she rode him. “Almost… almost… “ before gasping and shuddering, prompting him to do the same, Donna’s nails digging into Matt’s skin, leaving crimson crescent marks.
Donna slowly lowered her head, elbows buckling as she went blissfully limp and slid downward, first on top of Matt, kissing his chin, his neck, his shoulder, then rolling off completely, stretching out languidly next to him, stroking Matt’s arm with her fingers as she purred, “The things you do to me, darling…”
He smiled faintly at the ceiling, catching his own breath as he rolled over onto his side to gaze down at Donna, kissing her briefly, then confessing, “I wish I could do everything for you.”
Her eyes narrowed, Donna’s heavenly mood of a moment before slipping away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” he sighed. “I wish I could make you happy. Really and truly happy.”
“Darling, I can assure you, your performance right now lacked absolutely nothing in – “
“More than that, Donna,” he whispered softly, unoffended. Unpacified.
“More than what?”
“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been missing something. Searching for something. Aching for it, honestly. I used to wish you’d tell me, so I could get it for you. I had this fantasy of being your hero, you know? Pretty damn juvenile.”
“Pretty damn lovely,” Donna corrected, still confused, nevertheless moved.
“It took me a long time to realize that whatever you’re looking for – you’re as baffled as the rest of us. Which is kind of reassuring. And pretty frustrating.”
“That’s because you’re wrong, Matthew. I have everything I want.”
“How about everything you need?”
“I need you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s the problem,” he agreed.
“There is no problem,” she insisted. “Not with us. Yes, my life right now, my life is a dark, bottomless vortex. Everywhere I look… my last living daughter has banished me, my eldest grandson has decided to keep me from his sisters, my younger grandson nearly died – twice – and no one saw fit to so much as fill me in, my other granddaughter is completely off-limits to me, utter strangers think they know why I did what I did and consider Carl – Carl! – the injured party in our dealings, and now Grant Harrison is my son-in-law again! Because that went ever so well the first time. By all right, I should be drowning in my misery. But, I’m not. And that’s all due to you. You are my touchstone and my reason and my light at the end of that vortex. You want to know what I need? I need Jeanne gone. So that we can be husband and wife in every sense of the word. And then everything will be perfect. And you will be my hero, now and forevermore. I swear it.”
“Look who’s here!” Kevin beamed, stepping through the door of the Harrison mansion following his Valentine’s Day dinner out with Amanda, and making a beeline for Devon, sitting on Alice’s lap, carefully watching her godmother crank the handle of a jack-in-the-box, laughing and clapping every time the clown popped up unexpectedly.
“May I?” he asked Alice, holding out his arms. Alice handed him the baby – and the jack-in-the-box. “She’s getting so big!” Kevin bounced the little girl against his shoulder. He turned to Amanda. “Isn’t she getting big?”
“Jamie and Lorna are both tall,” Amanda slowly followed him into the living room, sticking to the facts of his question. “Devon probably will be, too.”
“Kind of makes all the suffering Jamie and Lorna went through worth it, doesn’t it?” Kevin mused. “If this is the result.”
Amanda told Alice, “It was nice of you to baby-sit. I can’t imagine this is an easy night for you.”
“I was happy to do it. Keeps me busy.” Alice confessed, “Last year, I went ahead and signed up to work, out of habit. Spencer was understanding, but he made me promise I’d take the day off this year. I put it on the schedule months ago…”
“Are you okay, Grandma?” Kevin reached out to put a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m fine,” she swore. “I’m glad I stayed home today. I honored my commitment.” She smiled to drive home the point that they needn’t worry, and changed the subject. “Did you two have a nice time?”
“We did,” Amanda said. “Didn’t we, Kevin?”
“What? Oh, yes.” His attention had shifted back to Devon, and her attempt to pull Kevin’s tie off over his head. Without loosening it.
“Where did you go?” Alice sensed Amanda’s discomfort and attempted to help her regain Kevin’s attention. She took the music box from his hands, gambling that Devon would forget about the tie, and follow it. Pretending that keeping the baby from strangling him had been her sole intention.
Kevin reluctantly handed Devon back to Alice, straightened his tie, and answered, “Dinner at Tops. It was very… nice.”
“Well, you know your evening doesn’t need to end. I’ll take Devon to play upstairs, give you two some privacy.”
“Thank you,” Amanda said gratefully, making clear she understood precisely what Alice was doing.
“My pleasure,” Alice discreetly winked at Rachel’s daughter.
“Thanks, Grandma,” Kevin echoed. Without quite the same amount of enthusiasm.
“Listen,” Dean began, awkwardly disentangling himself from Jeanne’s embrace as they both tried to fit on the twin-sized sofa-bed in his apartment, Dean reaching for a robe to pull on, wishing he had one to offer Jeanne, as well. “I was thinking… the first time, and, uh, this time, we didn’t… we didn’t use any kind of…”
“It’s okay,” she told him. “We’re good. I had an IUD put in years ago.”
“Oh. So… you and Matt, you guys don’t want to have kids?” Dean invoked his friend’s name masochistically, needing to remind them both that there was a third party involved.
“I’m never having kids,” Jeanne answered half of his question. “Wouldn’t risk it. Too much bad blood in my family. Too much I don’t know. Can’t predict what might come popping out.”
Dean nodded. “Jenna felt the same way. That’s why she was so determined to find her real father. And then, after we learned Gloria wasn’t her biological mother… She was really scared, too. But, she decided to take the risk anyway. She decided having a baby was worth any risk.”
“What about you? Did you agree with her?”
He shrugged. “I pretty much agreed with Jenna on anything, you know? Especially when it came to babies and family stuff. So now I’ve got a kid who’s part Donna Love and part Carl Hutchins. We certainly never expected that…” Dean trailed off, then wondered, “Do you mind this?”
“Me talking about Jenna?”
“No. She’s your wife. You love her. You’ll always love her.”
“It just seems kind of… out of place.”
Jeanne sat up in bed, hugging her knees with both arms and asked, “If I tell you something kind of pathetic, do you promise not to laugh?”
“Look around you,” Dean indicated the disheveled bachelor pad studio apartment. “I’m the poster child for kind of pathetic.”
Jeanne said, “I lied to you. Back at Rachel’s 4th of July party. When I said I wasn’t a fan of your music. I was a huge fan back in the early 90s. I had your poster up in my room. I videotaped the Ladykiller video off MTV and I watched it all the time. Like, all the time. I loved your music. But, what I really loved was you and Jenna. I used to scour the fan magazines, looking for stories about you two. And I used to fantasize that, one day, I’d find a guy who’d look at me the way you looked at Jenna. Who’d love me the way you did her. You guys were my ideal. You were perfection. When I found out that Donna was the one who killed Jenna… I swear, I felt like she’d done it to me. I wanted her punished. I tried to see justice done, in my own way. But, it didn’t exactly work out.”
“It doesn’t matter. But that’s why I pushed you to go after her in civil court. Donna needs to be held accountable.” Unable to gauge Dean’s response from the expression on his face, Jeanne winced. “I told you it was kind of pathetic.”
Dean clarified, “You went after Donna in order to… avenge Jenna’s and my honor?”
“I know. It sounds silly when you say it out loud. But, you guys meant so much to me growing up. They didn’t have the word “shippers,” then. I guess that’s something new, post-Internet. And I think it only applies to imaginary couples. And you guys were real. If they’d had the word when I was in high-school, though, that’s what I’d have been. A Dean and Jenna shipper. Almost twenty years later, I don’t like anybody messing with my favorite couple.”
“I’m sorry,” Grant lay facing Marley, not sure whether to blush or blanch, as he clumsily speculated, “I guess I’m just tired, or…”
“It’s okay,” she reassured him, moving her hand up to stroke Grant’s chest. “I’m sure you’re simply not back to one hundred percent yet. The amount of blood you donated to Kirkland… You still need time to recover. You’re not Superman, are you, Grant?”
He let that one go as he repeated, “I’m sorry. I wanted to…”
“I know.” Marley pressed herself against him. “I missed you so much when I was in the hospital. I’d dream about you. About us.” She smiled confidently. “But, I’ve waited this long. I can wait a few more days for you to get your strength back.”
“I can still… I can take care of you. Maybe it will even help me…”
“No.” She kissed him. “It’s very sweet of you to offer, and very, very tempting after all these months, trust me. But, our first time as husband and wife, it should be for both of us.”
“I do love you,” Grant swore. “We’ll make this work. We have to make this work.”
“Of course, we will,” Marley insisted on playing their setback off as if it were no big deal. Which, in fact, it wasn’t. “Neither of us is a kid anymore, are we? We have to expect… bumps in the road. One thing I learned in the hospital was that it’s pointless to expect or even hope for perfection. That’s a sure-fire path to disappointment. Look at all the years I wasted pining over Jamie because I couldn’t face reality. Look at all the trouble I ended up causing – for him and for me – because of it. That’s not going to happen with us. I promised myself that much. No ideals, no fantasy… just real life. And real life isn’t perfect. But, at least I know I’m strong enough to deal with it now.”
“I probably just need a little more rest,” Grant struggled to come up with an explanation.
“It’s no rush. I’m not going anywhere. We have the rest of our lives, Grant. We have the rest of our lives together.”
“Do you know why we give roses to those we love?” Frankie mused dreamily as Cass showered her body and the surrounding sheets with crimson petals.
“Because there are shifty looking guys selling bouquets on every corner, thus making it a weapon of convenience?” Cass kept his eyes on the prize, starting at Frankie’s bare feet and slowly moving upwards.
“It’s all thanks to Cleopatra,” Frankie gasped as a well-placed blossom hit a particularly sensitive spot. “She worshipped the Goddess Isis, who was associated with roses.”
“In the desert?” the lawyer in Cass temporarily superseded the lover and he actually stopped what he was doing to cock his head at Frankie.
“Just go with it,” she urged.
“Your wish is my command.”
As Cass trickled the last of the flowers over Frankie’s breasts and neck, she continued, “Cleopatra believed roses were a love potion no man could resist. Her royal fountains spouted rose water, and she even had the sails of her royal barge doused in them.”
“Doesn’t sound particularly sea-worthy,” Cass murmured in between kisses.
“Cleopatra proclaimed herself the living vessel of Isis on earth,” Frankie followed suit. “She had one hundred thousand roses picked and tended by one hundred thousand slaves sailed down the Nile to the temple she’d built to Isis and herself.”
“One slave per rose?” Cass wondered. “Very inefficient business practice. I’m stunned the tax payers stood for it.”
“You want to file an injunction?” Frankie’s arms slid around Cass’ chest.
“No. But, I can recommend a good civil rights attorney for the slaves.”
“Maybe later,” Frankie suggested, pulling him on top of her, fingers teasingly sliding down Cass’s spinal cord until he gasped.
“Maybe later,” he agreed.
“Thank Heavens for tradition,” Carl exalted as, despite everything else currently going on within their lives, he and Rachel had, nevertheless, conspired to meet up at the private yacht he always chartered to celebrate Valentine’s Day. “It’s placed you precisely where you belong.”
“I belong with you,” Rachel concurred, lying curled up in her husband’s arms, the rest of the world feeling, thankfully, very far away.
“As long as you understand as much, I believe I can contend with nearly anything – for a finite time, that is.”
“You’ve been wonderful, allowing me to – “
“Indulge your grown children’s whims?”
“I was going to say: Allowing me to try and put my family back together.”
“Tomato, to-mah-to,” Carl sniffed.
“As if you’d ever permit a word to be pronounced improperly!” Rachel laughed.
“First, you ignominiously chase me from my domicile, naturally next comes the scourge of improper grammar. Truly, Rachel, when will this hell end?” Carl attempted a jovial tone to match hers. Alas, the rancor underneath insisted on rearing its head regardless.
“Soon,” she promised. “This will all be over soon.”
“Did the Holy Trinity grant you any such indication when you informed them of my departure? Or did they merely continue lording it over you as per usual?”
“Jamie said, after the way you sacrificed Spencer for your own protection, he’s afraid of who might be next.”
“Jamie is a fool and a hypocrite.”
“Jamie is my son.”
“Your son doesn’t understand the meaning of protecting one’s own. Unless, of course, the person is question is Lucas, whom he will happily defend to the death at my expense in order to curry favor with Lorna, or Alice, primarily to get under your skin.”
“Isn’t that precisely what you did with Spencer?” Rachel refused to let Carl’s assertion go unchallenged.
“Completely different situations,” he sniffed, yet declined to elaborate.
“Can you promise me and my children that their lives, and the lives of their children, will never again be in danger due to my association with you?”
“Am I to assume the mantle of Nostradamus now, scribbling predictions of the future from within an isolated cave at the edge of the world? Not that your brood wouldn’t happily see me walled in there until the end of time.”
“Was that a no?” Rachel clarified.
“That is a no. On the other hand, if your children do not comprehend that I would always protect them as a courtesy to you – “
“The way you protected Kirkland?”
“The boy was snatched on Spencer’s watch, I played no part in that disaster.”
“Except for making Spencer a target in the first place.”
“The man merely reaped what he sowed. About time, too.”
“I agree,” Rachel said. “The question is, does the same fate await you?”
Carl turned his head slowly. “I beg your pardon?”
“Spencer’s past ultimately came gunning for him. Will yours?”
“Not now that I’ve neutralized the compound.”
“I know you, Carl. Those couldn’t possibly have been the only people you ever crossed.”
“And if others should arrive in due course, I fully intend to dispatch of them equally as promptly.”
“At whose expense?” Rachel wondered.
“Not yours. Nor any of the people that you love. You have my word on that, Rachel.”
She nodded. “I believe you. And I will do my best to make Jamie, Amanda and Matt believe it, too. In fact, I had a thought how you can prove your good intentions to them.”
“Have I not done enough already?” Carl indicated his banishment.
“This is something specific. Something that will show that you’re on the right side. And that you are willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace.”
“Ah, yes. Perhaps then I can be martyred in death ala Spencer Harrison, all my past, less than savory deeds swept under the rug.”
“I wouldn’t quite go that far,” Rachel said. “No sense throwing out the Bard with the bathwater.”
Carl nursed a small smile. “Touché, my dear.”
“A few months ago,” Rachel ventured. “Jeanne came to me. She said that Dean was suing Donna for Jenna’s wrongful death.”
“More power to the lad!”
“Yes, well, Jeanne also said that Dean’s biggest obstacle is that there is no untainted proof connecting Donna to the compound and Jenna’s kidnapping. The file found on Cecile’s body was never authenticated. Jeanne wanted me to testify that it was real, because I’m the one who got it from Spencer in the first place.”
“Another one of his crimes conveniently forgotten!”
“I told Jeanne I couldn’t. That I wouldn’t put you in that sort of danger. But, Carl, if the compound has truly been taken out of commission, couldn’t you testify about the file’s authenticity? Donna used your account to access their services. You can explain everything. You can prove that you have nothing to hide, that you’re willing to come forward, that none of us have anything to fear from you and, at the same time, you can make sure that Donna is finally punished for Jenna’s death.”
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