“Well?” Marley smiled encouragingly at Sarah. “Tell me. What have you been up to since I’ve been gone? You look wonderful!”
Sarah glanced past Marley’s cheerful countenance, over her shoulder and at Bridget and Michele, sitting there politely, their heads probably still spinning from having their aunt reappear so suddenly into their lives, and announce she’d not only left the sanitarium – but gotten married, as well!
Sarah saw Donna hovering on the periphery of their group, wearing her usual mask of outward neutrality while, underneath, who knew what was going through her mind?
And Sarah saw Grant, perched on the edge of the couch, every muscle tense, looking poised to spring forward at the first sound from Sarah, looking her in the eye, looking trapped and terrified and… betrayed.
It was the betrayal on Grant’s face that stopped Sarah in her tracks more than anything else. She’d seen that look before. At Clareview. After Marley had refused to let him visit her. And then again, when Kirkland had disowned him. And when Spencer died.
The thought that, this time, she might be the one responsible for hurting Grant so deeply was what finally prompted Sarah to break their gaze, force a smile, lower her voice and, with a subtle nod in Bridget and Michele’s direction, whisper to Marley, “Another time…”
“Ah,” Marley nodded sagely. “Got it.” She turned to face the girls, telling them, “I hope you both appreciated having Sarah take such good care of you while I was gone.”
“Is Sarah leaving now?” Michele wondered.
While Bridget approached the same question from a different angle. “Are you home for good, Aunt Marley?”
“Is Grant going to stay here, too?”
At that, Donna barked, “Absolutely not!” Then, regaining a semblance of control, added blithely, “Mr. Harrison has his own home, don’t you, Grant?”
“I do,” he smiled at Donna as if she’d offered him the greatest gift in the world. Which, in a way, she had. Donna smiled back, equally as insincerely. Grant enlightened, “Your Aunt Marley will be living with me. And so will you girls.”
Bridget and Michele exchanged wary looks, while Donna politely inquired, “How lovely. I assume you’ve cleared it all with Steven, then?”
“Steven?” Grant asked, confused, the image rising in his head not of the man his former stepson had become, but of Vicky’s little boy playing in the sandbox, while Grant tried to charm him as a way of entering his mother’s good graces.
“Steven,” Donna informed him regally. “Had papers filed making himself Bridget and Michele’s legal guardian. You and Marley have no right taking them anywhere, without Steven’s permission.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Marley said quickly, determinedly chipper. “I haven’t had a chance yet since I’ve gotten back. I’m sure we’ll have no problem straightening everything out.”
“Does that mean you have to go?” Bridget, who earlier hadn’t been sure how she felt about Marley’s return, now clung to her aunt, fed up with the uncertainty and needing something to stay steady for a change. “Without us?”
“Just to talk to Steven,” Marley reassured. “I’ll try to do it as soon as I can. But, you know what? Even if you and Michele can’t come and live with Grant and I right away, you can still visit us. As much as you want, for as long as you want.”
“Absolutely,” Grant agreed. “Come over anytime. You’re always welcome.”
Marley looked over her shoulder to ask, “Sarah wouldn’t mind bringing you over and picking you up, would you, Sarah?”
The younger woman may have been answering Marley, but her eyes never left Grant as she reassured, “Of course not. I’d be happy to.”
“Eating alone, Fanny?” Carl inquired as he towered over Felicia at Tops.
“Beats drinking alone,” she toasted him with a crystal chalice of seltzer. “Bottom’s up!”
“I must confess, I have always enjoyed the solitude of my own company.”
“Nice to chat with an equal once in a while?” Felicia guessed.
“Something like that,” he smiled wryly.
“Is that what you’re doing tonight?” She looked around him for signs of Rachel or the twins. “Taking a cerebral sabbatical from the wife and kids?”
“Not exactly,” he cleared his throat. And didn’t say anything else.
It was the fact of Carl Hutchins managing to stop at a two word phrase – with nary a quote or allusion in sight, that drew Felicia’s attention to the incongruity. She set down her glass and studied him with renewed curiosity. “What’s going on?”
Was that Carl looking ill at ease? Carl never looked ill at ease. He knew that as well as anyone. Which was probably why Carl attempted to play his answer off as being of no consequence whatsoever when he admitted, “Rachel requested that I take a… leave of absence from our place of residence, so she might endeavor to – “
“Rachel threw you out?”
“I left of my own accord. Temporarily.” Carl elaborated, “It seems that, near twenty years after the fact, Rachel’s children have decreed me an unacceptable companion, and have set about banging their fists against the floor and holding their collective breath until they turn blue in an attempt to banish me into exile.”
“Seems to be working,” Felicia indicated his current, solitary status.
“Au contraire. The stratagem is to lull them into a false sense of security, whereupon Rachel can make it clear to one and all how immensely out of line they are acting.”
Felicia leaned back in her chair. “Glad to see I’m not the only parent in the dog-house these days.”
“Considering Jamie and Lorna’s, not to mention Amanda and Matthew’s, own litany of past sins, I find their present, latent onset of self-righteousness particularly maddening.”
“What’ve they got you in for?” Felicia signaled for Carl to pull up a chair and tell her all about it.
He did so with visible gratitude. “It appears that, as a result of Spencer’s ignoble demise, Rachel’s brood has judged me guilty of being a danger to them and their off-spring.”
“You did have a hand in it,” Felicia noted.
Carl shrugged. “My role remained limited to keeping the death toll at a minimum. A nuance not a single one of those imbeciles seems capable of comprehending.”
Felicia said, “Lorna blames me for trying to save her life.”
“Precisely! Yes!” Carl swept up an empty glass and clinked it against Felicia own. “The level of ignorance is truly staggering in this generation, I genuinely cannot get over it.”
“Where do they get off,” Felicia wondered. “Judging us?”
“We’ve spoiled them. Coddled them. Allowed them to believe we’d been placed on this Earth to serve them.”
“It’s the guilt,” Felicia guessed. “With Lorna and I, there’s all this guilt for the time we missed, and the way I treated her at first…”
“In my instance, it is due to my pussy-footing about, believing I might best keep the family peace by not aggravating the precious dauphins and upsetting their ridiculous sense of entitlement. I allowed Jamie, Amanda and Matthew to ride roughshod over me for Rachel’s sake, and Rachel’s sake only. And look what it has brought us both!”
“I’ve been having this fantasy,” Felicia fiddled with the stem of her glass, twirling it between her fingers self-consciously. “Something horrible – though not too aesthetically displeasing – happens to me. Like, say, I’m fading away from consumption, ala Camille, or I’ve been kidnapped by dashing South American revolutionaries – who allow me to keep my wardrobe. The point is, my life is in danger. Won’t Lorna be sorry then?”
Carl cocked his head thoughtfully, musing, “They do say you cannot truly miss something until after it is gone…”
Startled, Felicia raised her eyes to meet his. “A pretty juvenile reflection on my part, I agree. I sound like a little kid, threatening: Wait till I’m hurt, then they’ll be sorry!”
But, Carl did not appear to be judging her nearly as harshly. “My dear Fanny,” he tapped a single finger against his cheek. “You might well be onto something…”
“Happy Birthday!” Frankie and Cass each beamed at Charlie from across the table as she blew out the candles on her cake – with Lori Ann’s help.
“Thanks,” Charlie squirmed from the attention, looking pleased, nonetheless.
“It’s impossible,” Cass addressed the air. “I am way, way too young to have an eighteen year old daughter.
“Maybe you miscounted,” Charlie suggested.
“Maybe she’s really thirty,” Frankie teased.
“Easy for you to mock,” Cass chastised his wife. “You could pass for Charlie’s twin sister!”
“Who has obviously lived a very stressful eighteen years.”
“Cake!” Lori Ann pronounced, having grown weary of all the talking without cutting.
“Cake!” Cass, Frankie, and Charlie echoed, laughing, with Cass reaching for a knife and plate, making sure his youngest daughter got the slice with the flower on it.
“So what are your plans for the rest of the night?” Cass asked. “I know we’re only the warm-up act.”
“I’m hanging out with some people. From school. You said no curfew, right? Just for tonight?”
“Do those people include… Kirkland?” Frankie ventured.
“Yeah. He’s all better. Though don’t worry, he obviously won’t be driving.”
“Have you talked to Kirkland since he’s gotten home from the hospital?”
“Not much. We just texted. Going to catch up tonight.”
“So Kirkland didn’t say anything about…” Frankie looked to Cass for help.
He took the bull by the horns and told Charlie, “Your mother and I have filed suit against Kirkland, charging him with reckless endangerment in causing your accident. It’s the only way we can get his insurance to pay your hospital bills.”
“You want to send Kirk to jail?”
“Not if he didn’t do anything wrong, which it sounds like he didn’t.”
“But, you’re suing him anyway?”
“It’s a legal formality. I explained it to Jamie.”
“And he’s cool with it?”
“Not exactly,” Cass conceded.
“You’re suing one of my friends!”
“Your friend nearly got you killed.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Charlie insisted.
“Then who’s fault was it?”
“I heard you were back,” Steven informed Marley upon looking up from his computer in the BCU lab. “Kirk told me.”
“Did he also tell you about – “
“You and Grant? Yeah.”
“Well…” Marley prompted her nephew, when he seemed all talked out on the subject.
“What do you want me to say, Aunt Marley? I wasn’t the only one who had a front-row seat to the Hell he made my mom’s life. You were there, too.”
“It’s not the same. Grant’s… not the same.”
“How did this even happen? I thought you guys had broken up.”
“I made a mistake. I told Grant I’d made a mistake. I begged him to forgive me.”
“And that’s it? He just took you back?”
“Don’t you think that’s a little weird? I mean, you were gone for over six months. Did you ever think about what Grant had been up to? Didn’t you ever wonder if he’d hooked up with someone else in the meantime?”
“Six months is actually not that long…”
“Hell, weren’t you and my Dad married for less time than that?”
“That was – that was completely different.”
“Did you at least ask Grant if there’d been anybody else?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Marley insisted, hearing her voice become shrill, deliberately calming herself down in order to continue calmly. “Even if there had been, it doesn’t matter. Six months… it’s nothing. A fling. So what if Grant had a fling? Or two, or eight, or a hundred. He was entitled. And if any other woman mattered to him, don’t you think he would have said something? Why would Grant have married me if – “
“I’m just trying to look out for you,” Steven mumbled.
“I know you are, honey.” Marley knelt so that they could be on eye-level. “I know you are, and I love you for it. It’s exactly what your mother would have done.”
Steven laughed. “If my mother heard you’d married Grant, she’d have done a lot more than this!”
“She loved him, too, once. I like to think Vicky would have understood.”
“Am I supposed to? Understand, that is?”
“I really hope so.”
Steven shrugged Marley’s hand off his shoulder. “Do whatever you want. It’s no skin from my nose either way.”
“What I want, Steven,” Marley’s voice hardened, figuring he was an adult now, she had every right to speak to him like one. “Is to put my life back together. My life with my husband. And my girls.”
Steven snorted. “I figured that’s why you were really here.”
“Donna tells me you managed to get full custody.”
“When your aunt is in the loony bin, and your grandmother is a felon, it’s not particularly hard to get a judge to see what’s in Bridget and Michele’s best interests.”
“So you have custody. Well, great. Do you even spend any time with them? From what I’ve seen, Sarah is the one who – “
“Don’t,” Steven warned. “Don’t start on Sarah.”
And something in his voice made it very clear that Marley did not want to go there.
So she dropped that particular train of attack, and pulled back just enough to reasonably offer, “Give me a chance to prove to you that I can be what’s best for the girls again.”
“You mean, you and Grant?”
“He cares about them. If only because they’re your mother’s daughters.”
“Kirkland is my mother’s son. And his. Look where that’s gotten him.”
“Grant just saved your brother’s life. Or is that of no importance to you, anymore?”
“You can visit Michele and Bridget,” Steven changed the subject abruptly. “You and Grant both. Take them out, show them a good time. They deserve it. But, I’m not signing anything. Not yet. If I get any hint that Grant is up to his old crap, or that you’re starting to unspool again…”
“That won’t happen,” Marley swore fervently.
“And, God help me, you two try anything like what you did at Dad’s wedding – “
“That was – I wasn’t thinking – “
“And there won’t be a strike three.”
“Thank you for bringing Elizabeth and Cory to see me,” Rachel told Carl, glancing out the window at the grounds. “Though I suspect it’s actually the horses they missed, more than their mother.”
“They miss you,” Carl said tersely. “We all miss you.”
“Have you given any thought to what I proposed – “
“I’ll do it,” Carl, who usually had a gift for turning single syllable words into epics, now managed to compress three into a single bark.
“You’ll testify for Dean against Donna?”
Rachel exhaled. “Thank you, darling.”
“I hope you realize what you are asking me to do.”
“I am giving you the chance to finally make Donna pay for Jenna’s death.”
“On your terms,” Carl noted.
He continued, “You are asking me to go on the record and voluntarily incriminate myself in business which, up to this point, has been wholly hearsay. You are asking me to invite condemnation and scorn and condescension from corners that had long remained silent. You are asking me to stir up rumors and innuendo that I believed was finally behind me. You are asking me – no more, no less – to publicly confess to being the man others have always suspected me of being.”
“No. I am asking you to confess to having been that man.”
“The masses will make no distinction. Your own children certainly lack the capability.”
“They will once you’ve done this. Jamie, Amanda and Matt’s biggest sticking point has been their contention that you will do anything, use anyone, to protect your own neck. Your testifying against Donna will prove how wrong they are. You said it yourself, you are stripping yourself bare, stepping up no matter what the consequences, not for your own sake, but to help Dean.”
“There will be consequences,” Carl predicted. “Let’s just hope we shall all be up to the challenge of dealing with them.”
“It was nice of you to come with me,” Kevin told Amanda as they sat in the waiting area while Morgan operated on Ike’s heart. “But, I know you have a lot of things to do. You don’t have to stay.”
“I want to,” she insisted. “This is important to you.”
“As if there were anything I could do from out here, in any case… This is Morgan’s show now.”
“Ike’s in good hands.”
Kevin reached over to squeeze Amanda’s palm between both of his. “So am I.”
She smiled, melting, telling him, “I have been giving it a lot of thought, your idea about us adopting Ike.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“You’re a good dad to Jen,” Amanda said.
While Kevin heard what she wasn’t saying, as well. “And you were a better mother to Allie than you think. The way Sam treated you both… flitting in and out of your lives… No one could blame you for feeling unsettled. And Grant wasn’t much better. Factor in being so young when you had her, then being paralyzed for a chunk of time. You did the best you could.”
“Right. That’s why she turned out so great.”
“She did turn out great, Amanda. Trust me, you have no idea of the kind of cases I see cross my desk. When your daughter got pregnant, she did what was best for her baby, she placed him in a good home. That speaks to extraordinary generosity. And what she did for Gregory… your daughter knows how to love and how to be a friend. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Amanda smiled wanly. “Guess you’re a heck of a lawyer, in addition to being a good dad.”
“You think I didn’t make mistakes with Jenny? I only found out a few months ago that my daughter grew up thinking she had to be perfect at all times, never make any trouble, or I’d send her back into foster care. Want to guess how that made me feel?”
“And you still think the two of us could do better with Ike?”
“We could certainly try.”
“And make a whole bunch of new mistakes?”
“At least it wouldn’t be boring.”
“Oh, no,” Amanda laughed. “You’re certainly right about that. With Ike around, I can’t imagine anything ever being boring.”
“He’s an awesome kid, isn’t he? So much energy, so much life. No matter how many bad breaks he’s gotten, he just keeps plugging on. He’s an inspiration.”
“I don’t know how we’d keep up with him,” Amanda confessed. “I remember when Jamie had Steven and Kirkland growing up alongside Allie. I learned pretty early on that little boys are nothing like little girls. We’d have to nail down the furniture!”
“It’d be worth it,” Kevin promised.
“And what about… what about all of his… issues?”
“With us for parents, Ike could have the best doctors, the best schools, anything he needs. We leave him with the state and… Honestly, I don’t know what will happen to him.”
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