“Did you have a good time, Midget?” Sarah asked Michele and Bridget as she stopped by Grant’s house to pick them up from their visit with Marley.
“Pretty good,” Michele said.
“Kirkland’s room has a lot of video games,” Bridget chimed in.
“And since he’s not here, we got to play them all.”
Sarah laughed. “Okay, well, I’m glad it was fun. Now go put on your coats. I’ve got to get you home in time for dinner, or Steven will blow a gasket. You two are hanging with him and Kirkland tonight. I promised we wouldn’t be late.”
“Thanks so much, Sarah,” Marley beamed over her shoulder as she dug in the closet for the twins’ jackets. “I really appreciate you helping us make this happen.”
“The girls need you, Marley. We all tried to step up while you were gone and fill the gap. We couldn’t do it. You think everyone’s replaceable, but it’s not true. You can’t just substitute one person for another like it doesn’t matter.”
Grant heard Sarah’s words, and picked up the veiled implication underneath. But, fact was, he couldn’t particularly focus on what she was saying when, truth of the matter, he also couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
Sarah was dressed in a turtleneck orange sweater, and a pair of skinny jeans the hems of which were tucked into her high-heeled boots. It was, quite frankly, the most clothed Grant had ever seen her. However, thanks to how skintight the entire ensemble was, it also gave Grant a better view of every curve and contour than if she’d come in wearing nothing at all.
Which would have been a tad less subtle.
And probably less effective.
Truthfully, Sarah hadn’t so much as glanced Grant’s way from the moment she’d arrived. Instead, she blithely carried on her amiable chat with Marley, eventually hustling the girls out the door without indicating she even recognized that Grant was in the room.
He had to assume she was doing it on purpose.
He had to admit it was working.
Marley waved good-bye to them from the window, only turning back once Sarah’s car had pulled out of the driveway and turned a corner. Once she did, though, she found Grant looming over her, looking down at Marley with an expression that could only be described as ravenous.
Without a word or preamble of any kind, he kissed her so deeply then that Marley barely had the chance to recover from the unexpected force of it or attempt to reciprocate before Grant’s hands were underneath Marley’s blouse, yanking it bruskly over her head without bothering to undo any of the buttons.
His lips on her neck, teeth nicking the flesh, he growled, “I need to be inside you. Right now.”
“What a coincidence,” Marley murmured, moving, intertwined with Grant, until they were next to the living room couch, realizing that making it all the way upstairs to the bedroom was an impossibility by this point. “I need you inside of me. Right now.”
“Now,” he reiterated, all but shoving her down on the couch, peeling off his own clothes as if attempting to set a land speed record.
“Now,” Marley agreed, happy to match his hurry, slipping out of her skirt, moving over awkwardly to make room for him beside her.
Grant’s tongue ravaged Marley’s mouth, his hand between her legs, opening her with his fingers and plunging inside, making Marley gasp as her arms tightened around his shoulders and she vainly tried to equal Grant’s rhythm, feeling, somehow, a beat behind.
“I missed you so much,” she purred, unable to admit even to herself that what she was really doing was trying to pull Grant back from… wherever he’d escaped to. Unable to admit that she even noticed.
He nodded, but whether to indicate that he heard, approved, agreed… or was thinking of something else entirely proved impossible to discern.
Realizing this might be her last chance to get his attention, Marley grabbed Grant’s face with both hands, all but jerking him to a sudden, unwelcome, rocking halt, forcing him to look at her, to acknowledge her.
He opened his eyes in a combination of surprise and frustration.
She waited for Grant to catch his breath, to return to his senses, to do whatever he needed to in order to remember where he was and what he was doing. And with whom. She told him, “I love you. You know that, right? You know how much I love you?”
Grant’s nod this time around seemed a touch more focused, though equally silent. And brief.
“Good,” Marley said, smiling, relaxing, moving her hips beneath him in a way that made it clear Grant could get back to what he’d been doing. Noting with satisfaction that he didn’t need to be told twice.
Assuring herself that just finally having him back in her arms was enough. For now.
“Am I late?” Kirkland wondered as he stepped into the Love dining room, finding only Steven there, waiting.
“Girls are on their way,” Steven reassured. “Sarah called from the car.”
“You cool?” Kirkland wondered. “Letting Midget hang with Marley again? With Marley and Grant?”
“No,” his brother didn’t bother hiding his frustration. “I keep seeing Mom and Jake flipping over in their graves.”
“So why’d you give the okay?”
“Let’s just say I’m a dumb sap, and leave it at that.”
“For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing. For Midget.”
“Yeah? How’d hanging with Grant work out for you?”
Kirkland shrugged. “Work in progress.”
Steven changed the subject, too worn out from the past few days to continue sparring. “You feeling okay?”
“Me? Yeah, sure, why?”
“I don’t know. You look… weird.”
“I do not!” Kirkland protested, even as his blush indicated the contrary.
“Yeah, yeah, you do. Something’s different, you’re acting kind of…” a huge grin spread over Steven’s face as he realized he didn’t even need confirmation, he knew he was right. “Hell, what do you know? You finally got laid!”
“How did you…”
“I’m a genius, remember?”
“And I’m your brother. I’ve known you your whole life. You’ve spent the last year, hell, probably more, years, moping around like the weight of the world’s digging a sharp point right into your shoulders, and now suddenly… yeah, I only know of one thing that makes a guy so happy so quickly.”
“You’re scary, man. Seriously, remind me to have you pick some lottery numbers next.”
“So…” Steven prompted. “How was it?”
Kirkland hesitated, trying to play it cool, trying to seem mature and worldly and… “It was awesome,” he blurted out, even as he turned yet another shade of crimson.
“Well, alright, good for you!”
“What? Oh, crap, tell me you didn’t…” Steven thought he might throw up. “Tell me you used protection. I mean, we’re talking about Charlie here, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it was Charlie.”
“Tell me you two were careful.”
“Totally,” Kirkland swore. “I – I used a condom and… yeah. Totally.”
“Well, okay then. So what’s the problem?”
“The problem… I’m not sure it’s really a problem. It’s just that, see…. I – I – I’ve been thinking about, you know, doing it, having sex, I’ve been thinking about it for a really, really long time now.”
“Aaaand we’re back to you’re a guy so, yeah.”
“But, I was also really nervous.”
“That’s okay. That’s normal.”
“I mean, Charlie and I, we came close a couple of times before, but, then, I didn’t – I wasn’t ready to go through with it. And I was afraid that would happen again this time.”
“No!” Kirkland couldn’t help puffing his chest out just a little. “This time, when it came down to it, I – I wanted to. I mean, I really, really, really wanted to.”
Steven frowned. “Wait a minute. You didn’t force her to – “
“No, no,” Kirkland rushed to reassure. “No, of course not. Come on. I mean, after everything Dad lectured us about our whole lives, and finding out what happened to him with… No. Charlie was just as into it as me, I swear.”
“Then we’re good.”
“What, Kirk? Spill it, obviously you’ve got something you want to say.”
“I… I – All that stuff you told me, you know…”
“You know, about… nectarines and – and how to…”
Kirkland squirmed. “When we got right down to it, and I got, you know, excited and all that… I – I kind of forgot to do all that stuff you told me to. The stuff for… her. I just, you know, I jumped right into it.”
“And now you’re afraid you sucked?”
“Yeah,” Kirkland exhaled in a combination of horror and relief.
“You probably did,” Steven admitted. “Everybody does at the start. It takes practice. That’s kind of why you do it more than once.”
“Oh, that’s why,” Kirkland smirked.
“It’s one of the reasons,” Steven laughed. “You said Charlie was into it, right? You said you guys used protection? Then, you did all the right things. And, I promise you, you’ll get better. Next time you’ll remember and you’ll take your time, and you won’t have anything to worry about. Everything’s cool, Kirk. Just relax, man.”
“You and Matt,” Dean said to Jeanne, actually meeting her at his door with the intention to talk before… before anything else. “You guys happened kind of fast, didn’t you?”
A little surprised by the change in routine, Jeanne, nevertheless, got with the program and proceeded to defend, “When something’s right, what’s the point of waiting?”
“Didn’t you ever wonder though…”
“Well, to start, hadn’t Matt just broken up with Donna when you guys got together?”
“So, you never wondered if maybe he was still hung up on her? Or, you know, more…”
“After what Donna did? How could any sane man possibly have any feelings left for Donna after what she did?”
“Matt, Donna, and sanity were never exactly a jazz trio.”
“Jenna wasn’t just your wife, Dean. Matt cared about her, too. And Donna is the reason Jenna is dead. If Matt somehow managed to overlook that, he’d – “
“He wouldn’t be the man I fell in love with, that’s for sure.”
“The man you fell in love with,” Dean repeated dully, his eyes inadvertently sliding to the dresser drawer where he’d hidden the wedding license Frankie brought him.
“Remember that story I told you, about how you and Jenna were my idea of the perfect romantic couple?”
“Yeah. Remind me someday to fill you in on the stuff the fan magazines didn’t cover. We weren’t exactly picture perfect.”
“You were close enough. As close as any two people could get, anyway. And Matt, he and I could be like that, too. We just need a little more time.”
“Time for what?”
“For him to see things as clearly as I do.”
“If you really love him,” Dean repeated the question he’d never been able to understand her answer to, despite Jeanne’s numerous attempts to set him straight. “Then why are you… here?”
“Because I like being here. I like you. I like… this.”
“But, you love Matt?”
“Yes.” Against, Jeanne was making it sound like Dean was the dunce for not getting it.
“And you want to stay married to him?”
“More than anything,” Jeanne swore.
“How was your breakfast with Grant?” Chase cross-examined Lila.
“Grapefruit juice was a touch bitter.”
“And Senator Harrison?”
“He was a touch bitter, too.”
“Excellent. So my name did come up.”
“Nope,” Lila corrected. “Not even once.”
“He didn’t tell you about our little threat-exchange the other day?”
“Not in so many words…”
“How many then?”
“He didn’t mention you once. But, he did… he did do a whole song and dance for me about how really and truly he’s trying to do the right thing, for the first time in his life, and put other people first and, no matter what happens, I should remember it was never his intention to hurt anybody, especially not anybody who’s been good to him.”
“Ha!” Chase slapped one palm against the other. “I knew it. He’s on the hook!”
“He was talking about his marriage to Marley.”
“Pretty odd thing to say about a marriage, if you ask me.”
“I… I know things about that whole situation that, let’s just say, you’re not privy to.”
“Or interested in, for that matter. I hope he and the new Mrs. Harrison live happily ever after. The only thing I care about is: Do you or do you not think Grant was apologizing in advance for what he’s planning to do to you?”
“You’re so sure of it? Still?”
“Grant Harrison is a lot of things. But, creative, he is not. Man has one modus operandi and he rarely strays from it. Trust me, I gave him the ammunition, now all that’s left is for him to pull the trigger. Which,” Chase anticipated and shot down Lila’s objection. “He will. He thinks he has to now. His precious honor is at stake. Let’s be real, it’s all the fellow has left.”
“He has me,” Lila said softly.
“I’m sorry,” Chase softened. “I’m sorry to put you in the middle of this.”
“Again,” she stressed. “Put me in the middle of your mess again. So far, you’ve managed to convince me to lie to Rachel, to Carl, to Matt, to my own daughter, and now you’ve set it up so one of my best friends – at the very least the one who could use a friend the most – is about to stab me in the back.”
“Maybe he won’t. Maybe I’m completely wrong and, like he said, for the first time in his life, Grant will actually make the best choice and do the right thing.”
But, neither one was about to put any money on it.
“Look who came to visit me!” Zeno grinned when he walked into his stable to find Lori Ann balancing precariously on one of the gates, giggling and trying to feed a carrot to his oldest, tamest mare. Charlie stood behind her sister, supporting the little girl with both arms and a propped up knee, helping her stay balanced. Zeno ruffled Lori Ann’s hair, clicked his tongue to make the horse come closer and actually accept the offering, then reached for a pitchfork to start cleaning out the stalls. He asked Charlie, “Frankie and Cass here, too?”
“And everywhere Mary Frances went, the lamb was sure to follow. Right, Lori Ann?” Zeno winked.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlie demanded, as if the nursery rhyme allusion had been meant for her.
Zeno didn’t appear at all perturbed by her lack of amusement. “Just that, a couple months ago, your dad needed a dose of antihistamine to watch Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and now…”
“It’s only because of my mom.”
“Right,” Zeno said slowly. “That’s what I said. In rhyme.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Charlie scoffed. “The two of them are seriously joined at the hip. It’s disgusting. They act like they can’t wait for the rest of the world to buzz off so they can jump each other as soon as nobody’s looking.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” Zeno advised.
“Shut up,” Charlie advised back.
“Fair enough.” He shrugged, going back to his chores. Then, suddenly remembering, added, “Happy birthday, by the way.” When Charlie declined to respond, Zeno observed, “Pleading the Fifth? Staying silent on the grounds it may incriminate you?”
“That’s next week,” Charlie mumbled.
“Huh?” Zeno stopped, leaning on his pitchfork.
Charlie let out a long breath and told him, “I have to go to court and give a deposition about the accident Kirk and I were in. My mom and dad… My mom and dad made a mess out of everything.”
“What’s the big deal? You go in, you tell the truth… Or is that the problem?”
“It wasn’t Kirkland’s fault,” Charlie said.
“So tell them that.”
“And the truth will set me free?”
“I think I read that somewhere.”
“Did the truth set you free, when my mom remembered who she was and dumped you and your mom?”
“The promise was it would set us free,” Zeno clarified. “Not make us happy.”
“Truth is overrated.”
“I think I read that somewhere, too.”
“They always make it sound like telling the truth automatically fixes a problem. But, what if it doesn’t? What if it just makes everything worse?”
“Think of it as a numbers’ game,” Zeno suggested. “Telling the truth may make things worse. Lying will definitely make things worse. So, odds-wise…”
“A couple of weeks of college and suddenly you’re an expert?”
“Actually, I haven’t started yet. This is purely my homespun wisdom shining through.”
“You’re such a jerk,” Charlie said, even as she couldn’t help laughing.
“What does Kirkland think you should do?”
“Kirkland… He… I’m not really sure,” Charlie admitted.
“Ask him,” Zeno prompted.
“I – It’s a lot more… complicated. Now.”
“Now?” he double-checked.
“Things never work out the way you expect them to, do they?” Charlie inquired suddenly.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Sometimes they work out even better.”
“Ha!” she snorted.
“They do,” Zeno insisted, then reminded, “Remember that quote from Thanksgiving? The one about courage?”
“Courage isn’t the absence of fear,” Charlie recited in sing-song monotone. “But rather the judgment that something else is more important.”
“That’s the one,” Zeno said. And went back to what he’d been doing.
“To what do I owe… this,” Amanda felt strapped for a noun or an adjective at the sight of Grant entering her Brava office just as Amanda was packing up to head home.
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“A story I think you might be interested in.”
“With you as the primary source?” she scoffed. “I don’t think so.”
“Once I give you the general details, you should have no trouble confirming it independently.”
“Fine,” Amanda crossed her arms. “I’m listening.”
“It’s about Chase Hamilton.”
“Don’t you work for him?”
“Precisely what makes me an excellent source.”
“Or the perfect person to set me up.”
“Like I said, you’ll be able to confirm it independently. Possibly even with your own eyes.”
“Well, what is it?”
“He isn’t… Chase Hamilton isn’t exactly what he presents himself as being.”
“Name a politician who is?”
“This one… this one is… different. This isn’t just a local story. We’re talking national. International. You do a good job with this, we’re talking Pulitzer Prize.”
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