“You’re awake!” Steven cheered, even as Jen sighed.
“Yeah. That’s my big achievement for the day.”
“Beats the alternative,” Steven pointed out, pulling up a chair to sit by her hospital bed, uninvited.
Jen pushed herself up to a sitting position. “How did you know I was here?”
“My dad told me. He said he thought you might welcome a friendly face.”
“No offense, Steven, but the only person I want to see right now is my dad, so he can tell me those stupid charges against him have been dropped.”
“He was here earlier,” Steven filled her in. “While you were asleep. But he had to go. Mike called. Some deposition he needs to give…”
“I can’t stand this,” Jen looked around the room as if her being in it were the cause of all the trouble. “I can’t. It’s so unfair. I want to help him. I tried to help him. But, there’s nothing I can do, is there?”
“Bet he feels the same way about you,” Steven pointed out.
“No. This – me being sick, I’ve got no control over it. It just happened, nobody even knows why. I know who’s responsible for the mess my dad is in. And I know how to fix it, too. We just have to prove that Elizabeth is lying and – “
“You think that’s something you have control over?” Steven couldn’t help teasing.
“More over that than over my white-cell count or what my bone marrow does or doesn’t feel like producing on a given day. My dad’s problem is manageable.”
“So is yours,” Steven stressed.
“Doesn’t feel like it,” Jen snapped.
“You can help your dad by taking care of yourself, so he doesn’t have to worry. And that’s something you do have control over. So use it, for Pete’s sake.”
She frowned at him. Hating the fact that he was right. Hating the fact that he was usually right. That was supposed to be her job. “Stop showing off, Frame.”
“That wasn’t showing off, trust me. When I show off, you’ll know it.”
“How about me?” The voice from the doorway made them both swivel their heads. GQ stood there, wondering, “Will I perennially be the last to know that my girlfriend is in the hospital?”
For a moment after Rachel relayed Lorna and Jamie’s accusation about Elizabeth to Carl, she feared her husband was having a stroke.
He turned first red, then deathly pale. His body went rigid, nearly quivering from the building tension, his pupils dilating until the iris gleamed black. The vein at the base of his forehead, as well as the jugular at his neck, pulsated madly. His teeth scraped one against the other from the convulsive tightening of his jaw.
Rachel waited for Carl to say something.
Carl said nothing.
Unable to stand the silence for a minute longer, Rachel rushed to reassure, “I told them both to go to Hell, and to take their horrible insinuations with them.”
“Your son… honestly believes… that I… I would befoul…” For the first time in a very, very long while, Carl appeared genuinely strapped for words.
“I told him it was ridiculous. I told him it wasn’t worth dignifying with an answer.”
“And Jamie alleged the initial supposition came from Lorna?” Carl clarified, seeming to regain a modicum of control by parsing the minutia of his charges.
“Yes. Which makes it even more laughable. Lorna has made it clear she would do or say anything to cast you in the worst possible light…”
“You,” Carl reminded, forcing them both to recall. “You, Rachel, once asked of me if my conduct towards Lorna had been honorable. Or, at the very least, lawful.”
“So you must have, however briefly, entertained the inkling of a possibility.”
“You were a different man then. And Lorna… Well, no matter how much she’d like us to believe she’s a different person now, too, her actions certainly indicate otherwise.”
“I would never, ever, ever take carnal advantage of a child.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t.”
“And my own…”
“Stop,” Rachel insisted. “I don’t want to hear another word about it. I only told you because – because you had to know what sort of lies Lorna was spreading about you.”
“Has she taken this libel of hers to the authorities?” Carl stammered in disbelief.
“I don’t think so. Jamie did say he was going to bring it up with Matt – “
“Jasmine,” Rachel said, apologetically.
“Oh, Good Heavens! Will this poison ever cease?”
“Matt won’t believe it. No one will believe it. Even Lorna doesn’t. She can’t. She’s just doing it to – “
“Destroy me,” Carl said levelly. “To destroy us.”
“I wouldn’t quite go that far…” The expression in her husband’s eyes prompted Rachel to instinctively backpedal.
But it was too late. “What is it, then? Tell me. Tell me! What has any of this been over the past few months save a systematic, deliberate, and malevolent attempt by your elder children to drive a permanent wedge between us?”
“May I say that, for a gent who’s got two ladies fighting over him, you don’t look too perky,” Lila advised Grant, having come in response to his urgent phone call.
She found him at Tops, at the bar, nursing what she suspected was not his first Scotch of the day. Or the hour. “Popularity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Lila signaled the bartender to hit her with whatever he was having.
“How are things with Mayor Hamilton?” Grant inquired politely.
“Don’t change the subject. What’s got you drowning your sorrows?”
Grant sighed. “Michele and Bridget tag-teamed Marley with questions about Jake. And his raping her years ago.”
“Damn,” Lila reached for the drink she’d been handed, taking a sip before observing. “That couldn’t have been pretty.”
“To be honest, I don’t know how Marley got through it. She was amazing. Strong and honest and brave. She’s kicking herself now, second-guessing what she said, asking whether she made it sound like it was okay to sweep a sexual assault under the rug? At the same time she’s wondering if she’s ruined Jake in the girls’ eyes forever.”
“I don’t envy her. Or you, having to be a part of it.”
“I tried to help the best I could. I did my best to support her.”
“That was mighty sporting of you. Especially considering your feelings about Jake.”
“Yeah… I – Marley needs me. She’s always needed me. When she hit Lorna and Morgan, when she tried to run away with the girls. I stepped up, I was there for her. Marley gave me a chance when no one else would. I owed her. I was grateful to have her. And she was grateful to have me. I used to think that was the best I could hope for. I thought I could settle for being useful, being worthwhile, being needed.”
Lila guessed, “I take it that ain’t all it’s cracked up to be either?”
Grant sighed. “Marley needs me.”
“But, Sarah loves me.”
“That’s… something else.”
“Problem is,” he downed the remainder of his drink. “I need Sarah.”
Frankie was halfway through her lament about the problems Zeno was facing with his farm when Cass held up a hand to hold her off and inquired, “Have you taken a look at our finances lately, Mary Frances?”
“Well, no,” she had to admit. “I’ve been so busy with – “
“We don’t have any money,” Cass informed her.
“What are you talking about? How can we – “
“Easy. We’re spending it without making it.”
“But, your job with Felicia…”
“We’re a long way from being in the black. Felicia needs to sell a few thousand copies of each of her new, electronic titles just to pay off the launch party. We donated all the proceeds, remember? At your urging?”
“I – I didn’t realize things were that bad.”
“Charlie’s college acceptances came today,” Cass said.
“And?” Frankie asked hopefully, all the while telling herself it didn’t matter, her love for her daughter was unconditional, college wasn’t the where-all end all and it certainly didn’t serve to judge whether someone was smart or worthwhile or –
“Sarah Lawrence,” Cass handed Frankie the first envelope, followed by the rest in quick succession. “Swarthmore, Middlebury, Oberlin, Williams. All yeses.”
“Yes!” Frankie couldn’t resist the urge to fist-pump, despite everything she’d thought before about how it didn’t matter, yadda, yadda, yadda. Her baby had made the cut!
“We can’t afford them,” Cass brought her down to earth in a hurry. “None of them.”
“Well, I – there’s financial aid, isn’t there?”
“Not enough. Not for people like us. Charlie isn’t a minority, she’s not an athlete, and her grades are good, not great. She’s perfectly above average. Good enough to accept, not good enough to compete over.”
“Loans, then. There are all sorts of student loans.”
“So she can start off her adult life a quarter of a million dollars in the hole?”
“It’s that much?” Frankie checked the price tags.
“Conservatively, yeah.” Cass shook his head. “Damn it, Frankie. From the day she was born all I’ve wanted to do was give Charlie the world. And look at me now.”
Frankie did as he ordered. She looked at him. And then she said softly, “You have given her the world, Cass. You gave her the best father a little girl could want. You made her strong and smart and confident. You made her feel loved and secure. In the end, that’s a whole lot more important than some degree for a job that, at the rate progress is going, probably won’t even exist by the time she graduates. College might make Charlie a scholar. But, you made her a person.”
“How do you do it?” Cass wanted to know. “How do you manage to see the best in everything, no matter what?”
“That’s easy,” Frankie said. “Because I have the best of everything. I have you.”
“I’m sorry,” Jen began.
Steven cut her off, telling GQ. “She was only brought in a couple hours ago. She’s been either unconscious or getting stuck with needles ever since. When did you expect her to break away to give you an update?”
“Are you okay?” GQ moved to Jen’s bedside, brushing past Steven as if he weren’t there.
“I’d be better if I knew what was going on with my dad.”
“Forget about him,” GQ said bruskly. “He can take care of himself. You’re the one who needs to be taken care of now. And I’m the one who’s going to do it.”
“There’s not really anything for you to do,” Jen hedged, adding, with a side-glance to Steven. “It’s not like we have any control over what’s happening with me.”
“You need to be focusing on yourself, not on your dad. You’ve got think positively. Negative emotions only make things worse.”
“I wish there was something I could do for him,” Jen repeated, she and GQ seemingly taking part in two different conversations.
While Steven silently left the room, resolved to stop talking, and actually start doing.
“Nice digs,” Allie judged Sarah’s new apartment after having been given the grand tour of living-room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and balcony. “Plenty of space. Especially for just one person.” The last two words were anything but subtle.
Sarah shrugged innocently and plopped down on the couch, grinning.
“Grant’s married,” Allie felt silly needing to remind.
“He is,” Sarah agreed.
“That’s usually a sign a guy’s just not that into you.”
“He came back, didn’t he? He couldn’t stay away. Not in the end.”
“You kept throwing yourself at him. What male of the species could resist that?”
“You’re not making any sense. You really think he’ll leave Marley for you?”
“Then how come he hasn’t done it so far? Sure sounds like he actually can resist.”
“I haven’t given him enough time yet.”
“To do what?”
“Realize he can’t live without me.”
“Why would he need to, if you’re cool with letting him have you and Marley both for the foreseeable future? He must be eating this up. Why would he ever want to change it? Admit it, Sarah, you’ve miscalculated this time.”
“What do you think I should have done?”
“For real? Dump him. Find someone better. At the very least, let him miss you a little.”
“That’s stupid. How is Grant supposed to know what he’s missing, if I’m not with him?”
“Huh?” Allie thought she might be getting whiplash.
“Obviously Marley isn’t enough for him, or else why would he have come back to me?”
“Because he’s a guy. And if a guy can get away with juggling two girls, he will.”
“He wants me. He just doesn’t appreciate how much yet. I am going to show him how happy I can make him. I’m going to be everything he wants in a woman.”
“Oh. So we’re back to the Sarah Matthews-Wheeler Plan – TM. Because that worked out so well last time.”
“It was different with Steven. Steven was a boy. Grant’s a man.”
“A very, very old man.” Which still kind of squicked Allie out, truth be told. Dude used to be married to her mom.
“A man is mature enough to know a good thing when he finds it. Not like a dumb kid who thinks he’ll have plenty more chances down the road. A real man will do anything to keep from losing it again.”
“So your plan,” Allie put it in terms closer to her generation. “Is to get Grant hooked on you, like crack, and then to cut off his supply and see what he’ll do?”
“Whatever it takes,” Sarah shrugged.
“Our daughter was assaulted,” Rachel felt compelled to remind and steer the conversation back on track. “Are you saying Elizabeth’s ordeal was all part of some plan…”
Carl’s expression suggested he wasn’t prepared to discount the prospect outright.
“We must consider the possibility, Rachel. Perhaps Jamie, Amanda, and Matthew sensed you were wavering in your determination to keep me away from our household. Their previous threat was losing its power. Why not up the ante? Accuse me of the most insidious crime possible, make certain you might never look favorably upon me again.”
“That makes no sense,” Rachel snapped. “Why would Kevin go along with it? If he’s innocent, this will ruin his career, his life!”
“Not if, in the end, he were heralded as part of a plot to unmask a villain such as myself, saving the entire community from my unspeakable perversity. Why, he’d be a hero. It would turn into a career coup!”
“Think about what you’re saying. Even if you were right about Kevin being part of some plot to discredit you, Elizabeth would need to be in on it, too, then. She’d have to retract her statement about Kevin, and incriminate you!”
“Not necessarily. You know how law enforcement works. By the time they got through with her, the helpless child wouldn’t know what was truth and what was a lie. And if she didn’t produce precisely what they were looking for, why, they’d simply twist the words she did utter. Remember Josef Stalin, all those misguided children he got to turn against their parents by convincing them they were actually helping the poor, foolish adults.”
“So Toni Burrell is Josef Stalin now?”
“I am merely weighing all the facts. Fact: Your children yearn to see me wrenched from not only your life, but Elizabeth and Cory’s lives, as well. Fact: An accusation such as this may never be fully eradicated, even if it is ultimately proven to be a fiction. Fact: Lorna is still seething from her perceived mistreatment at my hands, and looking for any opportunity to seek vengeance. Fact: None of us could fathom the alleged attraction between her and Jamie from the start. Perhaps we’ve received our first clue regarding her true agenda.”
Rachel couldn’t help it. She laughed. “You think Lorna and Jamie’s relationship has been a set up from the beginning? That she was actually gunning for you and using my son to do it? Everything has been part of a grand, master plan? Jamie’s arrest? Lorna’s coma? Devon?”
“When you recall that Lorna was, in fact, married to Morgan at the time of – “
“This second child, too?” Rachel willed Carl to hear how ludicrous he sounded. “Lorna must be quite the method actress.”
Carl coolly continued with his accounting. “Your son, his siblings, their well-known antipathy towards me… It all fits. We wracked our collective brains as to why, after all these years, your children should suddenly rise up against me in such a manner. Surely, they would have made their peace with our relationship by now? But, if we add Lorna to the equation…”
“No,” Rachel dismissed. “No. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’d describe it as Machiavellian,” Carl corrected. “And precisely what I taught her.”
“You think Lorna is…”
“Doing what Lorna does best in convincing Jamie to perform her bidding. Was it not his alleged concern for Kirkland that initiated this ridiculous stand-off? Who can we assume planted the idea in your son’s mind that his children – their children – were in mortal danger from me? Getting Amanda and Matthew on board would have been trivial. Those two were simply awaiting an opportunistic match to re-ignite their smoldering hostility. Unfortunately,” Carl did look almost sorry to be delivering this last bit of information. “Lorna made a crucial mistake in her planning.”
“And what was that?” Rachel figured going along until he finished was easier than continuing to protest. Or to consider the possibility that Carl just might be right.
“She forgot that while I taught her everything she knows, I did not teach her everything I know. And that, shall ultimately prove to be Lorna’s downfall.”
“You’re… home,” Jeanne couldn’t hide her surprise at seeing Matt walk through the door of their apartment.
“I wanted to see you.”
“Oh?” Her question was utterly devoid of emotion.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
“Ask,” she shrugged, sweeping her arms to the side to indicate she had no secrets from him.
“Donna said you lied and perjured yourself to the judge in order to try and get Dean’s case reinstated.”
“I did.” If Jeanne felt bad about the law breaking, she certainly didn’t show it.
“She also said you’ve basically torpedoed your professional career, that no news outlet will trust you once word gets out you helped Donna suppress evidence.”
“That’s what Donna says, yes. She’s probably right,” Jeanne conceded.
“Why did you do it? I thought your career meant everything to you?”
“It’s my fault Dean had to drop the suit. It’s my fault he wasn’t able to get justice for Jenna.”
“Why does that matter to you so much?”
“It’s not important.”
“Did you really love me, Jeanne?” Matt asked.
She took the abrupt change of subject in stride. “I did. But, that’s not important, either. The important part was when you said you loved me.”
“Yeah…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I – I apologized for that. I could have – I should have handled it better.”
“Donna is lucky,” Jeanne said. “To have someone like you loving her, standing by her, no matter what.”
“I gave her my word I would. It’s what my dad – Mac – would have done.”
“Then you should keep it,” Jeanne said.
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