“Everything looks fantastic!” Frankie kissed Cass and Felicia’s cheeks in turn as they surveyed the Bay City Country Club, completely taken over from ballroom to adjoining open air pool and patio deck, all decked out on the occasion of Felicia Gallant’s e-book release gala and fundraiser.
“This is going to be the party of the year,” Cass predicted. “People will be talking about what happened here for years to come. ”
His words proved prophetic. But, not in the way any of them expected.
First, there were guests to greet, and hands to shake, and air kisses to be exchanged. The guest list deliberately included a Who’s Who of Bay City, including, among others, the Mayor of Bay City, the current woman in his life – and the man he’d left for her. Cass and Felicia had sent out the invitations before Chase and Doug’s astounding implosion, and they were stunned both had still agreed to come, albeit making a point of keeping their distance from each other.
The man Chase beat for Mayor, Grant, was there, too. Along with his wife – the woman who’d nearly killed Felicia’s daughter. That invitation had been issued earlier, as well.
One person conspicuously not there, was the daughter in question (which was probably a good thing, considering Marley and Morgan’s attendance). Though Lorna and Jamie had been invited, they’d sent their regrets. At least Jamie had, scribbling a note explaining that Kirkland would be representing the family, as Charlie’s date. Lorna was apparently assuming radio silence.
Which was just as well, with Carl and Rachel on the premises. Although they arrived separately, Carl escorted by Elizabeth, and Rachel with Cory, as soon as they were in the same room, the couple quite obviously couldn’t keep away from each other.
Despite Amanda glowering at them from across the room, and Kevin trying to convince her to let it go – if only temporarily.
“Quite the turn out,” Cass told Felicia, needing to raise his voice to be heard above the music and the clinking of sterling silver forks against china plates.
She smiled and nodded, the picture of agreement and contentment. While a part of her continued surreptitiously watching the door. Until Lucas, looking admittedly dapper in a tuxedo, stepped through it.
Only then did Felicia assume an air of complete indifference, diving into the gathering of guests, forcing her husband to seek Felicia out if he wanted to say hello.
“You look wonderful, Fanny,” he raised his arm as though meaning to reach out to her, only to be left there, standing with it awkwardly outstretched, when Felicia flitted away, calling, “Thank you, darling,” over her shoulder, before disappearing into the crowd.
“What… the… hell?” Matt had so many questions he needed to ask Dean. And yet they all boiled down to one thing. “What the hell, man?”
Dean stepped aside, letting his friend into his apartment, having been expecting him ever since Dean’s photos with Jeanne hit the web. Surprised it had taken Matt this long to make it over.
Matt was obviously expecting answers. Unfortunately, Dean had none to give him.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“What would you like me to say?”
“What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know,” Dean told him honestly.
“Jeanne…” Matt fumbled at making sense of the situation. “I thought you two didn’t even like each other. I mean, at my wedding, you were pushing me to call the whole thing off. Was that all part of – “
“No. I really thought you were making a mistake. ”
“Because you wanted Jeanne for yourself?”
“No. Because she’s… she’s really something else. ”
“Tell me about it!”
“Feels like I should,” Dean agreed. “Sounds to me like you don’t know a thing about your wife. ”
“And you do?”
“No. Well… maybe. ”
“Do you know that she blackmailed me into marrying her? Did you know that?”
“No. ” And yet Dean didn’t look a bit surprised. “All I know is that she loves you. ”
“Hell of a way of showing it. ”
“And I know that you screwed her over, by marrying Donna, first. ”
“So why didn’t you say anything to her about it, then?”
“Because it would have hurt her. And I didn’t want to see Jeanne hurt. ”
It was the last thing Matt expected to hear. And all he could counter with was, “Jeanne says that’s why you dropped your case against Donna. Because she was threatening to expose you and Jeanne. And you knew Jeanne wouldn’t want that. ”
“No,” Dean agreed. “She wouldn’t. ”
“But, then Donna went ahead and published the pictures anyway? Is that right? Jeanne said…”
“She told you the truth. ”
“Because Jeanne never lies. ”
“Not that. ” Matt figured a discussion regarding whether or not omission qualified as a lie could wait for another, less heated time. “Why did Donna…”
“To break up your marriage, once and for all. To get you back. ”
“But, she didn’t need to do that. Donna knows that I love her. She knows that my marriage to Jeanne is nothing but…. ”
“Not to Jeanne, it isn’t. I think Donna got scared you were starting to feel the same way. ”
“No… No, why would she…”
“Jeanne told me you two had been getting along lately. ”
“Well, yeah… She seemed… mellower somehow. I was happier, too,” Matt said, briefly realizing that the reason he and his wife had managed to find a cooperative groove was because they were both in better moods now – as a result of sleeping with other people. It wasn’t exactly a solution covered by Dear Abby.
“And if you really wanted to end your marriage – your other marriage – you could have walked out on Jeanne at any time. That’s what Donna expected. Except, I guess you were taking too long. ”
“I told Donna to be patient. That I could make Jeanne see reason, end things without any kind of scandal or hurt feelings. That was the whole point of our getting along better. ”
“I don’t think that’s precisely what your first wife was going for. ”
“What about you, Dean? What were you going for? We’re supposed to be friends. Where the hell do you get off, putting moves on my wife?”
“Why does it matter to you? If you didn’t care about her – “
“It’s not that I didn’t care. Jeanne…. Jeanne’s okay. Once you get used to her. It’s just that I loved Donna. But, that didn’t mean…”
“You wanted anyone else to have Jeanne, either?”
“Not you! Not again!”
“So that’s what this is about. Jenna. ”
“No! It’s about you… you’re my friend. I trusted you. And you stuck a knife in my back. Again. You didn’t know what was really going on with me and Jeanne, did you? About the blackmail, I mean?”
“No. I didn’t. ”
“So how could you justify…”
“I couldn’t. ”
“But, you still slept with her. ”
“Yes. ” That was the extent of Dean’s reply.
“Damn it, now you sound like Jeanne!”
“I’m sorry,” Dean said. “I’m sorry about what happened, and I am damn, damn sorry about how you found out. You deserve better. ”
“Gee, thanks. ”
“But, one thing to keep in mind, Matt: Yeah, Jeanne and I went behind your back, and we betrayed your trust and we made you feel and look like a fool. But, I was willing to keep things quiet. I gave up on justice for Jenna so this could stay on the down-low. The one who made sure the whole world knew your private business – that was all Donna. ”
“You know, there’s plenty of time,” Jamie informed Lorna as she was finishing getting dressed, looking for something in her wardrobe that was both attractive and appropriate for seven months pregnant. Maybe she could dig out the maternity cat-suit Amanda had gifted her with on the last go-around. “We could still swing by your mom’s party…”
Jamie shrugged. “Okay. You’re the birthday girl. ”
“Nice that you, at least, remember. ”
“Hey, Steven and Kirkland got you a card – they even signed Devon’s name to it. ”
“That was sweet of them,” Lorna conceded.
“And your dad called. And Dean sent a text, and you know he’s got his hands full at the moment. Alice offered to baby-sit so we could go out and celebrate…”
“I know, I know…”
“But none of them was what you were looking for, was it?”
Lorna gave up her pretense of being fine – or finding an outfit she was happy with – to turn away from the closet. “She’s my mother. And she planned this thing of hers…”
“Lucas says she claims it was the only night the entire club was available for rental. ”
“It’s because it’s not my real birthday. Remember two years ago, when I…”
“Was helping me evade the law? Yeah, Lorna, I remember pretty much everything about that day. And that night,” Jamie said softly.
“Well, she went ballistic then, too. It’s been, what, almost twenty years, Jamie? Shouldn’t she be over it, by now?”
“If Devon was stolen from you, how long would it take you to get over it?”
She hated it when he used logic against her. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“Yours. ” Jamie took both of Lorna’s hands in his, kissing first the back of one, then the other. “Always. Forever. Which, by the way, includes tonight. ”
Lorna said, “The same way you were when I was sick, and Felicia and Morgan were ganging up on you. ”
“All I’m saying is, I bet she would be really happy to see you. And maybe this could open the door just a crack to the two of – “
“How was your visit with Rachel?” Lorna changed the subject, her don’t throw stones at glass mothers while your own kettle is still pretty black, implied.
Jamie accepted the 180 degree turn without comment. “Fine. Until I told her about Elizabeth being the one to send in your sexual harassment document to BCZ last May. ”
“Did she insist that her precious little darling could never have done such a thing?”
“No… She – she took it under consideration. Though I could see it upset her a lot more than she let on. ”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Carl put Elizabeth up to it. If not directly, then, at least, in spirit. Apples don’t fall far from rotten trees. She wanted to hurt me, and she didn’t give a damn that you and Matt got caught in the crossfire. That prepubescent brat is a budding sociopath. And I have a feeling she’s just getting started. ”
“It’s good to see you, son. ” Grant tugged uneasily on the knot of his bow-tie, just below the collar, uncertain whether it would be alright to hug Kirkland, shake his hand, or just offer him a manly pat on the shoulder. He settled for an uncomfortable combination of all three. “You’re looking… healthy. ”
“I am,” Kirkland said, exchanging a quick look with Charlie, who politely stood by his side. “Had my last check-up yesterday. Everything’s okay. The accident, it… it didn’t do any long-term harm. ” Another peek at Charlie, followed by a smile.
“You’re still short a spleen,” Grant reminded. “Jamie said it would make you more prone to infection. You’ll have to be careful…”
“I know. I am. ”
A moment of silence then, as neither could think of what to say next. Well, Grant could. Grant could stand and talk to Kirkland indefinitely. But, he assumed his son wouldn’t want to hear it, especially with his girlfriend standing right there. “It was nice to see you,” Grant finally forced himself to detach. “You too, Charlie. Say hello to your mother for me. She – she once gave me some very good advice. When I really needed it. And, well, have fun tonight, kids. ”
“Thanks,” they echoed as Grant, resigned, took his cue to leave.
“Hey,” Zeno stepped up to occupy the space Grant had just vacated.
“Hey,” Charlie said weakly, suddenly recalling every word of their last encounter. “What are you – what are you doing here?”
“Frankie insisted. I’m her poster child for helping the independent family farmer. ”
“Oh. Yeah. Right. I guess I just didn’t think of this as your scene. ”
“What? I’m occasionally capable of making conversation with two-legged mammals. ”
“I didn’t mean – “
“And I can even eat with a variety of utensils, no feed-bag required. ”
“I said I was sorry! Jeez, you don’t need to rub it in!”
“I was kidding,” Zeno employed the same voice she suspected he whipped out for jittery horses. “Lighten up, Charlie. ” He indicated Kirkland. “And introduce me. ”
“Oh…” Charlie said. While making no move to actually do so.
Confused, Kirkland did the honors himself, sticking out his hand. “I’m Kirk Frame. ”
“Zeno Tantalus. ” The pair of them shook.
“I figured. I heard all about you from Charlie. You’re Frankie’s…”
“Yeah. It’s complicated. ”
“You should take a look at my family tree sometime. We’re pretty chill about stuff like that in Bay City. ”
“So you’re from around here?”
“Born and raised. ”
“Any idea then who that hot blonde over there might be?” Zeno pivoted to discreetly point to the far side of the room.
Kirkland laughed when he saw the pair of girls Zeno was indicating. “Which one?”
“The one on the left, in the white dress, not the blue one. ”
“The blonde in the white dress is my cousin, Allie. My half-cousin, actually. And the one in the blue who she’s talking to is my – wait, let me see if I can get this right – my adopted dad’s stepsister’s granddaughter. See what I mean about Bay City family trees?”
“You really think Allie is hot?” Charlie interrupted, taking a second look, just in case she’d missed something earlier.
“Hell, yeah. ”
“She had a baby a couple years back,” Charlie blurted out, unsure what prompted her to. “An illegitimate baby. ”
Zeno didn’t appear shocked. “So, I guess I’m not the first guy to think she’s hot, then. ” To Charlie, he added, “And the whole illegitimate thing? Not really a deal-breaker for me. ” Realizing he was talking about himself, Charlie blushed. Zeno ignored her, instead asking Kirkland, “Allie here with anybody?”
“Not that I know of. ”
“Think you can introduce me?”
“Sure. No problem. ” Kirkland told Charlie, “I’ll be right back. ”
She only grunted in reply.
To say that Lila felt uncomfortable to be attending a party that included both Chase and Doug would be to say that childbirth was uncomfortable – and Lila delivered Jasmine in an elevator with no epidural or narcotic in sight. Which, in retrospect, still somehow felt more pleasant than this.
From the moment she and Chase came in, they were stared at. And the moment they left a spot, the whispering would begin immediately behind them.
“It’s just because you’re so beautiful,” Chase patted her hand reassuringly.
“Even you can’t sell me that one, Your Eminence,” Lila patted his hand back just as reassuringly.
She thought maybe if they split up, that would somehow diffuse the gossip. Instead, it only appeared to have doubled it. The looks and frowns and prurient glances were coming from all sides now, there was no place safe to turn. And, worst of all, now Lila had no one to hide behind.
Figuring there was safety in numbers, Lila went looking for her presumptive date. He didn’t seem to be anywhere on the dance floor, or around the buffet area. He wasn’t even by the bar, which is precisely where, given the choice, Lila would have planted herself and refused to budge until the party was over, or she no longer noticed the censorious looks, whichever came first.
Confused, she left the main ballroom, wandering out into the hall, opening random doors almost on a whim. Lila hardly expected to find Chase in the janitor’s closet, or the steam room, or the manager’s office.
Especially not kissing Doug.
And yet she did.
“Fanny,” Lucas tried again, this time catching Felicia on the corner of the dance floor, grabbing her as she darted from partner to partner, always with a throaty laugh and a playful tickle of the boa, complete with an apologetic frown to convey how genuinely, truly sorry she was to be departing, but, what could a girl in demand do? Looking for all the world as if she were having the time of her life.
“Enjoying yourself?” Felicia beamed at Lucas.
“Not particularly. ”
“Oh, what a shame. Another drink, perhaps?”
“Did you call Lorna today?”
The genuine, apologetic frown turned into an equally sincere furrowed brow. “No… I don’t believe so. I’ve been so busy…”
“It’s her birthday. ”
“That,” Felicia said, suddenly having a spot of trouble keeping up the gaiety. “Is a matter of opinion. ”
For a moment, Lucas looked as if he really wanted to say something. And Felicia, for her part, looked as if she really wanted to hear it, too.
But, it passed in the transition of the band from foxtrot to rumba, and Cass sweeping in, grabbing Felicia by the elbow and reminding, “I know you can’t resist a rumba!” Sweeping her into his arms and back into the spotlight, much to the applause and general delight of everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
The rumba proved the last straw for Grant. He thought he’d been doing a yeoman’s job all evening in keeping his attention focused squarely on Marley.
Well, and Kirkland; looking so damned grown up in his tuxedo, fetching drinks and dancing with Charlie.
And poor Lila; forced to make a spectacle of herself because Chase Hamilton apparently couldn’t make up the remnants of his mind.
Sarah, who had been keeping pointedly out of his way the entire night.
Which was exactly the problem.
As long as Sarah was all but throwing herself in his path, Grant could diligently avoid her. It was easy, as long as he knew where she was. As long as she made sure that he knew where she was.
Unfortunately, when Sarah wasn’t making an effort to capture his attention, she could be anywhere. Grant didn’t have a safe spot to look, lest she pop up there without warning.
No matter how hard he tried to focus on Marley and what she was saying – about the food, about the décor, about people they knew and should walk over to say hello to; especially if Grant was serious about launching another campaign for Mayor; Chase had certainly laid that path wide open – there Sarah was, in his peripheral vision, laughing with Allie, or dancing with some random boy. Worse, flirting with some random boy. She was everywhere. And she didn’t seem to be paying Grant any mind at all.
Which was exactly how he wanted it to be.
Which was exactly why he was currently going slowly insane.
As soon as Grant heard the first few notes of the rumba, he could only imagine Sarah dancing to it. It was exactly her kind of music: Sensual, wanton, provocative, tempting…
He looked for Sarah on the dance floor, already imagining her movements in his mind. Already trying to think of something, anything to distract himself.
Except Sarah wasn’t there. She was, instead, on the edge of the crowd. Staring directly at Grant.
She smiled. And then she turned away, heading out of the ballroom.
Making it beyond obvious that Grant was welcome to follow…
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