Rachel sputtered, “You want Mr. Hamilton to…”
“Move into the mansion,” Lila confirmed, though she did have the good sense to cringe as she did so. “Now that Doug has thrown him out, he can’t go back home. And the Mayor’s residence is drowning in reporters, asking their stupid questions over and over.”
“It is their job,” Rachel bristled, no doubt thinking of Amanda, and her role in Lila’s latest crises.
“I realize that,” Lila rushed to wholeheartedly agree, making it clear she didn’t blame Amanda – completely. Especially since Lila also knew Amanda had been maneuvered into playing her role by both Chase and Grant. “But, it sure would be nice to have a place to get away from it for a while. Chase has no problem taking questions while he’s at the office. That’s why he called the press conference today. Man needs a break once in a while, though. Keep at least some part of his private life private.”
“Perhaps Mr. Hamilton should have given the difficulty of that some though prior to cheating on his partner?”
“I’m sorry,” Lila said, loading the word with more implication than Rachel could ever guess at. “I know I’ve disappointed you.”
Rachel sighed. “What were you thinking, Lila?”
“He’s a good man,” Lila told the truth. “This – this… situation, it’s not who he really is.”
“Sounds to me like that’s an issue Mr. Hamilton is having a bit of overall trouble with.”
“He’s not the only one,” Lila confessed.
“It’s just that I hate seeing you hurt,” Rachel softened her tone. “Honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this could possibly end well. For anyone.”
Lila nodded in agreement, leaving it to Rachel to interpret precisely what Lila was agreeing with.
Her former mother-in-law sighed for the second time, now less in exasperation and more in sympathy. “Then again,” she conceded. “I’m the last person who has any right to judge you and your situation. God knows, I’ve made my share of mistakes, listening to my heart over my head.”
“And you got your happy ending at long last,” Lila reminded, almost begging for some reassurance… some hope.
Rachel let Lila’s remark pass, the current state of Rachel’s marriage, not to mention her frayed relationship with all five of her children hanging, unspoken but palatable, in the air, like smoke.
“You may tell your Mr. Hamilton that he is welcome here anytime. I will alert security that they are to extend him every consideration – like a member of the family.”
“Thank you, Rachel,” Lila exhaled in gratitude – and relief. If Rachel had refused, it would have rendered everything Lila and Chase had worked so painstakingly – and so painfully – to set up, null and void.
“But, I meant what I said, if he hurts you, he’ll have me to answer to. And I can make a grilling from Bay City’s toughest reporters seem like a day at the spa, in comparison.”
“Thank you for coming,” Toni addressed Cass and Frankie slowly and carefully, as if each of her words might one day be parsed and picked over in a court of law. Which she always assumed to be the case. “While I realize that Ms. Winthrop is over the age of eighteen and fully capable of speaking for herself, I think everyone agrees this process will go a lot smoother if her parents, especially her dad, are here to insure no rights are inadvertently infringed on.”
“Thank you for calling us,” Cass said sincerely, shifting in his chair to tell Charlie, “Though I really wish you’d have done it yourself.”
“I’ve got this, Dad,” Charlie hissed.
“Ms. Winthrop, would you please repeat for your parents, as well as Kirkland and Dr. Frame,” Toni indicated father and son also sitting across from Toni’s desk, next to Cass and Frankie. “What you told me earlier?”
Charlie nodded, sneaking a quick peek at Kirkland, who squirmed in his seat, looking so nervous and tightly wrapped Toni feared one false word might cause him to spring apart like a badly made Jack-in-the-Box. He chewed on his lower lip, dug his fingers into the rests of his chair and appeared oblivious to the bead of sweat that escaped his hairline and slowly slithered down the length of Kirkland’s cheek, hovering at the edge of his jaw.
Charlie said, “New Year’s Eve, Kirk and I were coming back from a party. He was driving and we were talking and then I – we – we kind of started making out in the car.”
“Could you be more specific?” Despite Toni keeping her voice neutral, it was hard to tell who flushed harder, Charlie, Kirkland, or all three of their respective parents.
“Well, we kissed a couple of times.”
“While Mr. Frame was driving?”
“Yeah,” Charlie admitted sheepishly, hanging her head.
“I – I kind of put my hand in his lap.”
Now there was no mistaking it, everyone in the room was suffering from an equator-level hot flash. And no one was meeting anyone else’s eyes. It would almost be funny, if Toni didn’t feel so bad for all of them in turn. No one, kid or parent, wanted to be discussing their teen-agers’ burgeoning sexuality in public – much less as part of sworn testimony.
“I know it was the wrong thing to do,” Charlie swore, focusing her attention exclusively on Toni now. “I know I was acting stupid and dangerous – “
“You think?” Cass interrupted, frustrated. “Damn it, Charlie, I thought we talked about this? Boundaries?”
“It’s okay,” Kirkland spoke up abruptly. “I mean, it wasn’t like – I – I wanted her to – It was my fault, too. We were both being stupid.”
Jamie looked at his son in surprise, unsure whether or not Kirkland was telling the truth, knowing that, even if he was, that still didn’t comprise the entire story.
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Frankie addressed them both. “You two could have been killed!”
“I’m sorry,” Kirkland stammered. “We should have been more careful.”
“You do realize, don’t you,” Cass snapped. “That safe sex also applies to not having sex in a moving vehicle!”
Now, Toni did allow herself a small smile. And considered getting posters made up to that effect.
“The point is,” Charlie attempted to steer the conversation away from her father talking about sex, and back towards the true purpose of her testimony. “The accident, it was both of our faults. Kirk shouldn’t be held responsible for the whole thing.”
Toni looked at Cass and Frankie. “Would you agree with your daughter’s assessment?”
The Winthrops exchanged hesitant glances, both seemingly urging the other to speak up first.
“It wasn’t all Kirk’s fault,” Charlie repeated pointedly, then half-teased, half-threatened, “You want me to go into more detail about what – ”
“God, no,” Cass, Frankie, and Jamie responded in near unison.
“In that case,” Toni figured they were all ready for this to be brought to an end. “Can we confirm, based on the previously collected physical evidence, along with Ms. Winthrop’s testimony of today, that Mr. Frame should not be held solely responsible for the January 1, 2012 vehicular accident?”
Another pair of fraught glances between Cass and Frankie. Cass merely shook his head and looked away with a sigh, leaving Frankie to officially corroborate, “That – we accept that decision.”
Jamie exhaled, leaning back in his chair, wallowing in guilt-tinged relief, while Kirkland continued sitting as he was, eyes darting anxiously from Frankie to Toni to Charlie to Jamie, his voice shaking as he double-checked, “Is that… it? Is it over?”
“It’s over,” Toni reassured, offering him an encouraging smile, stifling the urge to follow that up with a hug for the still visibly terrified boy. “I’ll fill out the paperwork, send it to the appropriate insurance companies…”
Jamie turned to Cass and Frankie, hesitantly venturing, “My offer still stands. If you need any help with the medical bills…”
“It’s okay,” Cass told him sincerely. “We’ve fulfilled our obligation. Insurance company wanted us to sue Kirkland, we sued Kirkland. Since the police deemed the accident not his fault, our insurance is obliged to pay up. We did what we were supposed to. Although,” Cass turned to his daughter. “I really wish you’d been upfront with us earlier, Charlotte. Could have saved us all a hell of a lot of worry.”
“That goes for you, too, Kirkland,” Jamie said, meeting his son’s eyes and holding the gaze unflinchingly, making it clear that he knew Charlie had only told a part of the story, that Kirkland had gotten off easy, and that Jamie still wasn’t certain how he felt about it. Kirkland may not have exactly lied to the police, but he hadn’t told them the entire truth, either. And that wasn’t a lesson Jamie particularly wanted his son absorbing. Even if, when it came to real life, it was a damn useful one.
Kirkland received Jamie’s unspoken message loud and clear, swearing, “I’m sorry, too, Dad. We – Charlie and me – we both should have just been totally honest from the start.”
“Yes,” Jamie agreed, then forfeited, “And I could have been more attentive. Figured out something was wrong before the police needed to get involved.”
“That goes double for me,” Cass said. He rubbed one hand over his face. “I realize I’m the last person on Earth who should be saying this; I can only guess what it was like for you, Charlie, growing up as my daughter, what you must have heard about the man I used to be, the kinds of mixed messages you’ve gotten, but, guys, maybe because of all that, maybe I’m exactly who you should be hearing this from… Sex isn’t a recreational sport. It’s not something to play around with. You need to take it seriously, you need to be mature enough to deal with consequences. It’s not just about hormones, it’s about feelings. It… it’s supposed to mean something. It’s supposed to be the most amazing thing that ever happened, it’s supposed to change your life, it’s supposed to change you. It’s not to be taken lightly. Do you two understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” Kirkland replied without a moment’s hesitation.
While Charlie merely nodded. Once.
“How are you feeling?” Alice asked, sitting on the edge of Jen’s bed in her apartment, having driven her great-granddaughter home following Jen’s first chemotherapy session.
“Tired,” Jen allowed herself to admit. “Weak. A little light-headed.”
“Not too badly. Not yet.”
“Well, I’ll stick around for a bit, make sure there aren’t any complications. I’ll call your dad, let him know you were a trooper – though I’m sure he’s already well aware of it. I’ll call GQ, too.” Alice hesitated. “Anyone else you’d like me to contact?”
“What do you mean?”
“Steven,” Alice prompted gently. “You sent Kevin and GQ away, but you didn’t seem to mind having Steven there.”
“Steven doesn’t hover. He wasn’t stressed out like Daddy and GQ, so he didn’t stress me out. We’re just friends. Casual friends. Actually, considering how much we argue, I’m not even sure we’re that. It’s like – like when you’re sitting with a total stranger on an airplane. You sometimes end up telling them things you’d never tell anyone you were close to. That’s me and Steven.”
Alice sincerely doubted it. But, she tactfully kept the opinion to herself. “If he helped make today easier for you, I am sincerely grateful.” Alice smiled. “Then again, I always did have a soft spot for men named Steven Frame.”
“What was he like?” Jen leaped on an opportunity to change the subject. “Your Steven Frame. What was he like?”
Alice considered the question, knowing there were a multitude of ways she could answer – all of which would be true. Wondering which aspect of the complicated man who’d once consumed her life Alice wanted to spotlight under the circumstances. “He was very self-confident,” Alice finally said. “It could come off as arrogant. To those who didn’t realize how hard-earned that pride had been. He could be charming – when he wanted to be. And brutal when he didn’t. He was smart. Not so much educated as intuitive. He had a temper. Get him passionate enough about something, intelligence and intuition and plain old sense flew out the window. He made some phenomenally bad decisions, even when it seemed he should have known better. And he could be almost unbearably generous. When he really should have known better.”
“And he was hot?” Jen prompted with a sly grin.
“Quite hot,” Alice smiled back. “Steven actually looks a great deal like him. The first time I saw him… I called him Steven before I’d even registered who he was.”
“Is it hard for you? The reminder, I mean?”
“No. It makes me happy, a part of Steve living on. In his son. In his grandson.”
“It doesn’t make you angry? Jamie and Steven exist only because your husband cheated on you.”
“He was technically merely my fiancé then.”
“Honestly, I don’t know how you forgave him.”
Alice sighed, “We don’t get to choose who we fall in love with. That’s one of those cosmic jokes humanity is forced to contend itself with. I was furious at Steve, at Rachel, at myself. But, I still loved him. One thing didn’t negate the other.”
“But, if you had a choice,” Jen pressed. “If you could stop loving him and make your life easier, would you have?”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Kevin told me a little bit about your biological parents. Do you think your mother chose to fall in love with a man who was obviously bad for her? Who mistreated her? I suspect she couldn’t help it.”
“Fine,” Jen dismissed. “Maybe she couldn’t help loving him. But, she absolutely could have helped staying away from him.”
“That’s true, I suppose.”
“Maybe we can’t control our feelings, but we can control our actions. Having leukemia,” Jen said. “That’s something I can’t control. But, I can control how I react and what I do about it. Why shouldn’t love be the same thing? We are talking about a physiological state, aren’t we? Love? It’s only a chemical reaction, after all.”
“I don’t know,” Alice told her honestly. And very, very sympathetically.
Jen asked her great-grandmother, “Could you hand me my phone, please? I think I’d like to call GQ myself.”
The media alert popped up on Jeanne’s screen as she sat in front of her computer at work. She’d set it to update her whenever news appeared on-line involving Jeanne or Matt. Or Donna.
The latest had apparently been triggered by the keywords “Donna Love.”
Jeanne closed the window she’d been working in, and flipped over to KBAY’s main news page. Where she read, to her horror, the information that Dean Frame had officially withdrawn his lawsuit, charging Donna Love with contributing to the death of Jenna Norris Frame.
“What the hell do you want?” Elizabeth demanded as her and Cory’s visit with Rachel was interrupted by Amanda appearing in the doorway of the library.
“I’m here to see Mom,” Amanda informed her little sister.
“I thought you threatened never to darken our doorstep again. Or are you just here to gloat about driving Father from his own home?”
“This is actually my father’s home,” Amanda corrected through clenched teeth, a fact they were all perfectly well aware of.
“And I am both of yours mother,” Rachel added in a tone that strongly suggested they’d best drop the sniping and behave, ASAP.
“Do you have a minute?” Amanda asked Rachel.
“She’s busy,” Elizabeth indicated the three of them, deliberately excluding Amanda.
“She said a minute,” Cory groaned at his twin. “I think we can spare Mom for a minute.”
“You know Amanda, Cory. Give her an inch, she takes a mile. And asks for an acre in a doggie bag.”
He grabbed his sister by the arm, pulling her towards the stairs. “We’ll give you guys your privacy.”
“Thank you, Cory,” Amanda and Rachel said in near-unison.
“It’s what I do,” he sighed, the exaggeration he put in for comic effect failing to wholly hide how truthfully he believed his own statement.
Rachel waited for both her younger children to leave the room before asking, “Is this about Lila?”
“Why would it be?” Amanda said. “I have no doubt you’re completely on her side.”
“I didn’t realize there were sides to be taken.”
“That was my excusive story. Breaking it would’ve given Brava international exposure. It would have been good for the whole family. Instead, Lila and Chase scoop me – “
“I’m sure they thought of it as their story, not so much yours.”
“They knew what I was planning. They deliberately sabotaged me.”
“Did you ever, even for an instant, consider not running it? Did you give a moment’s thought to what this would do to Lila? To Jasmine?”
The invocation of her niece’s name was more than Amanda could deal with, and she shook her head tersely. “This isn’t what I came here to talk to you about, Mom.”
“Alright, what is it then, Amanda?”
She hesitated, now that the opportunity was at hand, Amanda found herself fumbling for words. “I – We – Kevin and I… Kevin and I are adopting a little boy.”
It was clearly the last thing Rachel had expected to hear, and her expression indicated as much.
“Thanks for the support, Mom.”
“I – “ Rachel’s vocabulary appeared momentarily as stymied as Amanda’s. “I hadn’t realized you were considering having more children.”
“I wasn’t,” Amanda admitted. “But, Kevin – It’s really important to Kevin. He wants this. A lot. And this little boy, Ike – Ike is someone Kevin already knows. He arranged for Morgan to operate on his heart condition last month.”
“This child is sick?”
“Well, the problem with his heart is all fixed, according to Morgan and Kevin. But, he – he has Down’s Syndrome, too.”
“What?” she snapped sharply. “What, Mom?”
“That’s a massive responsibility, taking on any child, much less one with chronic health problems.”
“Frankie and Cass did it. I don’t remember you saying boo about that.”
“Frankie and Cass are none of my business. Besides, they’re – “
“Saints, I know.”
“I was going to say,” Rachel tread carefully. “That they were always open to having a larger family. You – I thought you were done?”
“Well, yeah. I thought I was done, too. But, I didn’t know I was going to meet Kevin. Or that he’d want more kids so badly. Jen is… it’s not public knowledge, but Jen is very sick. She has leukemia.”
“Yeah. Jamie is actually her doctor, and I guess her chances of recovery are good. But, it’s hit Kevin really hard.”
“I can imagine.”
“I want to do everything I can for him. And this is what he wants.”
“Still, have you thought the whole thing through? This boy may end up needing lifelong care.”
“Kevin says that’s why we’re the perfect parents for him. Because we can arrange for that. We have the money.”
“That’s very noble of you both. But, there’s a difference between financially supporting a child, and raising him. Kevin isn’t looking to be this Ike’s benefactor, he obviously wants to be his father.”
“And that’s exactly who he’ll be.”
“With you as Ike’s mother?”
“Yes,” Amanda said, trying to sound as firm as possible.
Again, Rachel’s doubt radiated loud and clear.
“Look, Mom, here’s the thing,” Amanda pressed on. “Before we can adopt Ike, Kevin and I have to jump through hoops with social workers and background checks and who knows what else. They’re not just going to interview us, either, they’re going to grill our families, too. I came to ask you to please, would you cooperate with them? Tell whoever asks what great parents Kevin and I will be to Ike. Can I count on you to do that for me?”
“Done eavesdropping on Amanda and Mom?” Cory wondered as Elizabeth passed by the open door to his room, on the way to her own.
“You’re the one who promised to give them privacy, not me.”
“I thought you were mad at Amanda. Why would you care about anything she had to say?”
“Forewarned is forearmed.”
“We’re arming ourselves now?”
“You know this is all her fault, forcing Father and us out of the house.”
“You and I left voluntarily. As did Father.”
“He was coerced, manipulated and downright bullied into it.”
“For a change,” Cory mumbled.
“But, not for long,” Elizabeth swore. “I’m going to make sure Amanda pays for what she did to our family.”
“Amanda is our family, too.”
“Not anymore. In a little while, she’s going to regret ever messing with me.”
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