“Kevin did what?” Rachel, Carl, and Amanda descended on Elizabeth en masse in light of her water-logged accusation, ignoring the suddenly hushed crowd of Felicia’s guests gathered around them.
“He attacked me,” Elizabeth insisted, hysterical, lips chattering and turning blue from the cold of having been ducked in a pool on a chilly April evening.
“Somebody get her a towel, a blanket,” Rachel called over her shoulder, sending an anonymous staff member scurrying, while she pulled her daughter closer, attempting to warm Elizabeth up using her own cashmere wrap.
Amanda, on the other hand, grabbed her sister’s shoulder, forcing Elizabeth to look Amanda in the eye. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Leaving Rachel to tend to Elizabeth, Carl stepped up to the pool’s edge, where Kevin was now climbing out himself, shaking the ends of his tuxedo jacket in a futile attempt to wring it dry, wiping chlorine out of his eyes with an equally damp sleeve even as water continued to drip from his hair.
“What have you done?” Carl seethed, every ounce of his terrifying fury directed wholly at Amanda’s husband.
“Nothing!” Kevin fired back, seemingly regaining his bearings enough to understand what he was being accused of. “Your daughter came up to me, made a snide remark about Amanda, then suddenly screamed and shoved me into the pool – “
“That’s not true! You pushed me! You pushed me because I was running to get away from you!”
“Why?” Rachel turned Elizabeth back to face her. “Why were you running away from Kevin?”
Elizabeth attempted to calm down, taking a long, deep, gasping breath that managed to sound even more like a sob.
“Oh, good God,” Amanda couldn’t help groaning in disgust. Carl looked like he wanted to chop her head off on the spot.
“He’s the one who came up to me,” Elizabeth insisted, sniffling. “He started telling me how pretty I was, and how sorry he was that he hadn’t gotten a chance to know me better, us being related now and everything. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say. He kept looking at me like… like… Like he wanted something from me. And then he said he wanted to show me something, and he took me into another room. It was dark, and I was scared, and I told him I wanted to leave, but he wouldn’t let me. He grabbed me, and he started trying to take off my dress, and then he was rubbing against me and – “
“You are a lying, little – “ Kevin advanced on Elizabeth, only to be stopped by Carl who, in turn, was grabbed from behind by Cass, to keep Carl from ripping Kevin to pieces.
“He said nobody would believe me if I told!” Elizabeth flipped back into hysteria mode. “He said it would be his word against mine, and nobody ever believes a kid over an adult.”
“I didn’t do a thing to her!” Kevin quit attempting to confront Elizabeth or argue with Carl, and addressed Rachel and Amanda instead.
“I know you didn’t,” Amanda swore.
“Then why would Elizabeth make such an accusation?” Of them all, Rachel remained the calmest. Her question was posed, not shouted or flung. It was practically polite. And utterly petrified.
“I don’t know,” Kevin appeared honestly stymied.
“I do,” Amanda glared at her sister. “She warned me that Jamie, Matt, and I would pay for driving her precious daddy out of my father’s house.”
“He tried to rape me,” Elizabeth’s use, finally, of the much harsher, no longer vaguely euphemistic word startled everyone into a brief moment of silence. And it seemed to embolden Elizabeth into going further with her description, telling everyone congregated poolside. “He unzipped his pants and – “
“Son of a bloody bitch,” Carl wrenched out of a distracted Cass’ grasp and lunged for Kevin, fist upraised. Even Rachel’s crying out his name coming too late to interfere.
Carl threw the punch, but Kevin blocked him, shoving Carl back, making him lose his balance. He’d have hit the ground if it weren’t for Cass.
Carl rose awkwardly to his feet, pushing Cass away, but raising his arms to indicate he wouldn’t be making another attempt. Instead, he merely straightened up, tugging on his jacket to neaten it, and opened his arms to Elizabeth, who wriggled out of Rachel’s hold and ran straight to him, burying her face in Carl’s shoulder, sobbing.
Carl scanned the crowd until he found Felicia and commanded, somehow managing to sound both wronged and regal at the same time, “You are our hostess. Kindly call the authorities. Tell them a pernicious crime has been committed, and we intend to see that justice is done. Immediately.”
Oblivious to the scandalous hubbub percolating outside, it took an anxious Grant a single tug of her zipper for Sarah’s ball-gown to hit the floor, her hands already busy tossing off his jacket, shirt, pants, anything she could reach and discard without breaking her lips away from his.
They sunk onto one of the massage tables, making love as quickly as if they expected to be discovered at any moment, and as slowly as if they had all the time in the world. To be honest, Grant had no idea how much time had actually passed. All he knew as he lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, trying to catch his breath, Sarah curled up against him, her fingers dancing aimlessly up and down his chest, her breath warm on his sweat-slicked skin, was that, no matter what might come later, for this one, eternal instant, he’d finally made a decision Grant couldn’t regret.
But, it was still one he could fix.
Shifting his weight so that they now lay side-by-side, face to face, Grant forced himself to look Sarah in the eye as he told her, “This… this doesn’t change anything. Do you understand? I made a commitment to Marley. I intend to honor it.”
Her voice was so placid, Grant felt certain that, “You can’t possibly.”
“I do. I understand that you have no intention of leaving Marley. Isn’t that what you just said?”
“Is it because you’re planning on running for Mayor again in two years?”
“How did you know that?” Grant allowed himself to be momentarily distracted.
“I know you,” Sarah reminded. “And Hamilton doesn’t stand a chance at reelection.”
Remembering the role he’d played in that particular political development didn’t exactly flood Grant with pride either. But, he figured one self-flagellation at a time.
“You really think Marley is the way to go, though?” Sarah asked so reasonably, she might well have been writing a theoretical Poli Sci paper. “Hamilton could use her past against you. The nervous breakdown, Lorna’s hit-and-run… And then there’s her being Vicky’s twin. The minute you attack his person life, Hamilton can come right back swinging against yours.”
“I don’t intend to attack his personal life. I – I wouldn’t do that to Lila.” Again, he thought silently. “Besides, there’s no reason why I can’t beat Hamilton on the issues. He’s babbling about personal freedom and responsibility when what people need is help and guidance to get back on their feet. They want assistance, and he’s preaching sermons on self-reliance. I offer a legitimate alternative to all his libertarian, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps pandering.”
Grant heard himself talking. He felt his mouth moving and his lips forming sentences, some of which even made perfect sense. But, it all felt like an act. One that he was watching and hearing from miles away, observing himself like he’d be observing a stranger, wondering what in the world that naked man, lying next to a gorgeous, willing young woman, was doing talking politics when he should have been losing himself in her indefinitely and pushing the rest of the world as far back as it would possibly go.
Especially considering how little time they had left together. Grant should have been savoring every moment, not wasting it on ruminating about potential campaign strategies.
“Well then,” Sarah said, seeing nothing wrong with his notion of pillow talk. “In that case, Marley and the girls do make a picture perfect political family.”
“Thank you for understanding,” Grant attempted to sound dignified while not wearing any clothes and balancing precariously on a narrow massage table.
“It’s okay. Stay with Marley. Because, when it comes to you, I’ll take what I can get. Even if it’s only this.” She indicated the two of them. “This is enough.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he protested, insulted on her behalf, even if Sarah refused to be, wondering what the Grant of fifteen years ago, the one who’d twisted and gyrated and spun as fast as he could to keep both Amanda and Lorna on a string, would think of his actions now. “You deserve much better than to – “
“Be your mistress?”
Somehow, the word in conjunction with Sarah sounded obscene. He’d never viewed it as an insult before. Honestly, Grant used to think it had a rather agreeable ring. The ring of everyone getting what they wanted, if not exactly how they wanted it.
“You can do so much better, Sarah.”
“Not better than you,” she stubbornly, yet pleasantly, refused to back down.
“Are you honestly telling me you could be happy putting your life on hold for a man – “
“If that man is you? Yes.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Maybe I don’t,” Sarah conceded. “But, isn’t it worth finding out? I promise, I promise I won’t breathe a word of this to anyone. You can stay married to Marley. You can run for Mayor, Senator, Governor. No one will ever know. I can be discreet. I can be anything you need me to be. Just admit that you need me. Admit it. And you’ve got me. For as long as you want, in any way you want, I’m yours. I’m all yours, Grant.”
It didn’t matter that Lila knew full well Rachel and Carl were still at Felicia’s party. So were Cory and Elizabeth and Allie. Jasmine was sleeping over at a friend’s house, and the staff had been given the night off. Lila and Chase were all alone in the Cory mansion, in Carl’s study. Lila was nevertheless freaked out and praying for the whole thing to be over as soon as humanly possible.
“Would you hurry up,” she urged Chase for the fifth time that hour, as the Mayor of Bay City sat hunched over Carl’s computer, skimming through documents and files – and files within documents, a look of scowling concentration on his face.
“Carl Hutchins is damn handy with a password, I’ll give him that.”
“Does that mean you haven’t found anything?” Lila couldn’t keep the hope from her voice. He’d promised her, if they didn’t find anything incriminating on Carl tonight, Chase would drop the whole thing.
“It means I haven’t found anything… yet.”
“What are you looking for, anyway?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” Chase promised.
Which was the last thing Lila and her frayed nerves needed to hear. “Are you telling me,” she exploded. “That after everything you put me through, you don’t even know what it is Carl’s supposedly done to earn us spying on him like this?”
“I know what he’s done,” Chase responded without looking up. “What I don’t know for certain is what evidence I might turn up to prove it.”
“It ever cross your mind the man’s innocent? That you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“Leopards don’t change their spots, if you’ll excuse the cliché, I’m a bit too busy at the moment to summon up something more creative.”
“Is that a fact?”
“So folks can’t change?”
“Not into someone completely different, no.”
Lila said, “I used to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and then lie some more to get what I wanted. You saying I haven’t changed?”
Lila didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Damn, Your Excellency, you sure know how to sweet-talk a girl. Or have we given up on that part of the plan, now I’ve caught you and Douglas canoodeling?”
“I am sorry, Lila, that you had to see Doug and I… Canoodeling – really, is that even a word?”
“Now you’re making fun of the way I talk?”
“I have never made fun of you,” he reminded. “All I said was, you haven’t changed. Not completely. You still lie when you need to. Maybe it’s no longer to get Bobby Reno into bed or your hands on Matt Cory’s millions, but you still do it – this time to help me.”
“To protect Jasmine,” Lila stressed.
“Point is, you’re still the person you always were. Maybe your motives have changed, but not your methods. What makes you think Carl Hutchins is any different?”
“What makes you think…” Lila’s voice trailed off when the next click of a button lit up not only the computer screen, but Chase’s face, as well.
He read over what he’d found. Once, twice, then three times, to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. And then Chase broke into a sunnier smile than Lila had ever seen – quite frankly, she’d never imagined the man could ever find anything to make him this happy.
“We’ve got him, Lila,” Chase whispered. “We’ve got him.”
“I am so happy to see you, darling. Finally!” Donna all but threw herself at Matt once he showed up in her living room. “I’ve been waiting and waiting – “
He took a step back, ducking her embrace, voice cold as he confirmed, “Jeanne and Dean say you’re the one who put up those pictures of them on the web.”
“What are you even doing talking to them? After what they did to you…”
“How about what you did to me?”
“What? What did I do, Matthew? Save open your eyes to the depths of the betrayal your alleged friend and – “
“Dean is my friend. How do you think it felt, seeing him with my wife?”
“I’m your wife,” Donna reminded. “I am also the only one who has been consistently honest with you.”
“At whose expense?”
“At the expense of those who deserved it! Those who hurt you!”
“You’ve hurt me, Donna!”
“Shock,” she dismissed. “That’s all this is. Once you’ve calmed down a bit, gotten yourself under control, you’ll see how wonderful this development is for us both. Jeanne has no chance of suing you for divorce now. And any accusation she makes, sexual harassment or whatnot, will simply be perceived as an attempt to cover up her own foibles. We can finally be together, Matthew, just the way we planned.”
“You made a fool out of me in public.”
“A minor price to pay, I’m sure you’ll agree. And nothing compared to the sort of societal scrutiny I’ve been under the past few years. Goodness, Matthew, you are quite obviously the victim in this scenario. I daresay the only sentiment you’ve earned for yourself is sympathy.”
“Which is a nice way of saying pity.”
“It beats town pariah,” Donna reassured him dryly. “Trust me on that one.”
“Did you take even a minute to think about the effect this might have on my business?”
“Your business is more important than I am?”
He let that one pass. “Dean is your granddaughter’s father. Did you think about her?”
“Did Dean?” Donna flipped the question.
“He gave up providing for Lori Ann’s future, in order to stop you.”
“No. You are quite wrong. Dean didn’t do it because of me. He did it because of Jeanne. She is the root cause of this. All I did was make it so she could never, ever bother any of us again. And would you like to know why, Matthew? Would you like to know what I did think about prior to embarking on this course of action? Would you? The single, sole, solitary thing that I thought of, every minute of every hour of every day since putting this chain of events into motion? It was you. You. How much I loved you, how much I wanted you, how much I needed you. And how much I’d been led to believe you felt the same. Did I make a mistake? Did I tragically miscalculate? Was I wrong to put all my faith and hope and love into one person? Into you?”
At Felicia’s summons, the police did arrive. Despite his very vocal, juris-prudence-laced protests – and Amanda’s equally vocal, albeit less Latin remonstration – Kevin was taken in for questioning, while Elizabeth, with Rachel and Carl for support, was transported by squad car to the hospital for an examination.
Carl waited outside while his wife went in with their daughter, emerging a half-hour later, looking weary and worn… and something else Carl couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“How is she?” he queried.
“She’s fine.” Rachel put out a hand to steady herself against a chair, then decided she needed to sit, her legs suddenly incapable of keeping Rachel upright a moment longer. “She’s getting changed now.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The poor child is most obviously far from fine.”
Rachel sighed, conceding his point – though she suspected not quite in the way Carl had intended. “Physically, she’s fine. According to the doctor, there is no physical evidence that Elizabeth was harmed… or even molested in any way.”
“Of course, there isn’t,” Carl sniffed. “Firstly, because she had the presence of mind to escape Fowler’s nefarious intentions before true damage could be done, and secondly because he was clever enough to drench her in the swimming pool, making sure even the most infinitesimal evidence was washed away. If such behavior on Fowler’s part speaks to anything, it’s to his heady experience in such matters.”
“Kevin has been in Bay City for nearly three years. Why is this the first time that we’ve heard of anything like – “
“It is as Elizabeth reported. He threatens his victims, makes it clear they won’t be believed. We should thank heaven our daughter was raised with ample courage to expose a man like this before he wreaked further havoc.”
Rachel said, “Kevin claims it was Elizabeth who pushed him into the pool, not the other way around.”
“I am certain, once this comes to court, he’ll also claim that Elizabeth was the instigator all the way around. It’s how monsters like him operate. It’s how they get away.” Carl sat down next to Rachel. “Truly, in retrospect, Fowler does bear all the classic earmarks of a pedophile. Recall how deliberately secretive he acted when he first arrived as solicitor for Grant. His own grandmother had no idea of his whereabouts. He’d even changed his name – for personal reasons, he claimed. For criminal ones, most likely. And look at his field of employment. How many defenseless children pass through that deviant’s purview on a daily basis?”
“I – I never thought of it that way,” Rachel admitted.
“You mustn’t blame yourself,” Carl soothed. “We both failed to protect our Elizabeth. We’re both to blame for this calamity. Just like we shall both be the ones to set matters right again.
“Where’s Alice?” Lorna asked in surprise, having come home to find only Lucas. Which, in and of itself, was a surprise.
He hesitated. “She had a family emergency. Amanda called to say Kevin had been arrested – “
“For what?” Jamie interrupted.
An even longer pause this time, with Lucas finally revealing, “From what I understand… molesting Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth?” Jamie and Lorna repeated in unison, Jamie adding, hoping it wasn’t true even as he knew it had to be. “My sister, Elizabeth?”
Lucas nodded grimly.
Jamie reached for his phone, heading into his study for privacy. “I’ll call Amanda, see if I can figure out what’s going on. She and Alice must be going out of their minds. And Mom… Poor Mom. Damn it,” Jamie cursed, unclear on whom exactly the epithet was directed at.
“Let me pop in to check on Devon,” Lorna told Lucas. “And I’ll be right back.”
He waited for her to return, asking, “Everything alright?”
“With Devon, yeah…” She cast a look at Jamie’s closed door and sighed. “Looks like it’s going to be another long night.” Realizing there was little she could do about it now, Lorna instead asked her father, “What are you doing here? Alice call you to pinch-hit?”
“Actually, I was already here.”
“Mom’s party not everything it was cracked up to be?”
“I wanted to wish you a happy birthday.”
“You already did that,” she reminded, unable to suppress a grin of pleasure, nonetheless.
“In person.” He hugged Lorna tightly, kissing her forehead. “Happy birthday, baby.”
“Thank you.” She took a breath, then turned her back, attempting to look casual while she picked up Devon’s stuffed penguin off the couch and wondered almost rhetorically, “So, how was Mom’s blowout bash, anyway?”
“It was fine,” Lucas rushed his words, making it clear how of no consequence he found the entire display. “Listen, sweetheart, there was something I – something I thought I should tell you.”
“I… Earlier this evening… I didn’t plan it… I didn’t think… It just…”
“What, Dad?” Lorna didn’t know whether to be nervous or amused by his apprehension.
“I kissed Alice Harrison,” Lucas blurted out, peering quickly into Lorna’s face, searching for her reaction, then glancing away, frightened to process what might actually be there.
“What do you think of that?” Lucas winced at the gracelessness of his question.
“Well…” Lorna tread carefully. “Vaguely disturbing incestuous overtones aside…”
“Whoa, ho, wait a minute. What overtones? There are no – “
“Alice is Jamie’s stepmother. If you were to marry her, she’d be mine, as well.”
“Nobody is marrying anybody! Though…right, yes, I see your point.”
“Other than that, I think it’s terrific, Dad.”
“Yes. I know the traditional thing is to want to see my parents back together. But, truth is, you and Mom have obviously not been happy for a while now. If Alice can make… She’s a terrific person. And, after Spencer, she deserves a terrific guy. Like you.”
“You don’t think you’re a little biased?” Lucas blushed at the compliment.
“No. It’s a fact,” Lorna teased. “And you know what? What I think doesn’t really matter here. The question is: What did Alice think of you kissing her?”
“I don’t know,” Lucas confessed. “Less than a minute later, the phone rang, and it was Amanda about Kevin, and Alice flew out of here, asking me to stay with Devon till the two of you got back.”
“And what did you think?” Lorna asked gently. “About kissing Alice?”
“I didn’t think,” he confessed. “She was just there, and I – You’re absolutely right, she’s a terrific woman, and she’s been beyond generous with me, especially in light of my role in that fiasco of Carl’s.”
“So you’re grateful to her?”
“And…” Lorna prompted.
“And,” Lucas agreed. Leaving it at that, for now.
“Are you alright, Elizabeth?” Toni hunched over to address the girl, standing between Carl and Rachel.
“I understand the physical examination was… inconclusive,” Toni broached.
“My daughter’s word, however,” Carl stressed. “Is not.”
“I see. In that case, are you saying that you would still like to press charges against Kevin Fowler?”
Carl and Rachel exchanged glances. He looked down at Elizabeth and asked, “Are you certain of what you are doing, Poppet?”
Elizabeth held her father’s gaze for a good, long time, making certain they understood each other thoroughly.
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