“I’m Matthew’s wife,” Donna coolly informed Rachel, attempting to turn her back on Matt’s mother and make the call that would free him from this veterinary hospital (her former position on the board be damned) and enlist a trained cardiologist to take over.
“Give it a rest, Donna.” Rachel reminded, “You’ve tried this bluff once before.”
“It wasn’t a bluff then, it isn’t a bluff now.” Donna held up a single finger, bidding Rachel to keep quiet while Donna left her message for the Chief of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. Hanging up, she turned back to the older woman, reaching for her purse, fishing about inside, and withdrawing a sheet of paper folded into thirds and embossed with the Bay City official seal. “The only difference is, this time, I thought ahead to bring a visual aid for my presentation.”
Rachel opened it gingerly, afraid of what she would find, yet already half-resolved to its veracity. “You and Matt… got married?”
“Re-married,” Donna qualified. “This summer. See the date, there?”
“This was… this happened months before he married Jeanne.”
“Correct. Rendering that marriage invalid, and ours the only legitimate union.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s none of your business, frankly.”
“My son is none of my business?” Rachel demanded.
“He’s a big boy, Rachel. You might consider loosening the apron strings just a bit. I realize the notion of severing them completely is probably anathema to you.”
“Why would Matt do something like this?”
“He loves me,” Donna said simply, seemingly still moved and more than a little surprised by the truth of her own statement.
“Well, you’ve seen for yourself recently how committed she is to him. I’m sure it won’t come as much of a disclosure to learn that Matthew is even less interested in her.”
“So what was the point of their getting married then?”
“In Jeanne’s defense – though I’ll deny it, if pressed – wasn’t their impromptu ceremony, in fact, your doing?”
“Well, yes… But, Jeanne and Matt had led me to believe….”
“Your precious Jeanne blackmailed Matthew into marriage.”
“Blackmailed him? Over what?”
“You remember that document released on Jamie and Lorna’s wedding day? The one wherein your son’s wife-to-be accused your other son of sexual harassment?”
“Y-yes,” Rachel stammered, also remembering Elizabeth’s alleged involvement in that incident. But, then again, they only had Lorna’s word for that, too.
“Well, Jeanne threatened to level the identical charges against Matthew unless he married her. And after the incident with Lorna had been all over the press, you can imagine how that would make Matthew look.”
“For goodness’ sake,” Rachel blurted out, exasperated. “Is there any element of my life Lorna hasn’t wormed her way into?”
No fan of the woman who’d tried to set her on fire, Donna nevertheless needed to focus Rachel’s anger on the true villain in this particular piece. She said, “Matt married me this summer specifically to defuse Jeanne’s threat. He’s been dying to rid himself of her ever since. We never dreamed, of course, that Jeanne would do us a favor and implode all on her own. Now that the world knows just what kind of slut she is, Jeanne has nothing to hold over Matthew’s head any longer.”
“Jeanne told me you had those pictures of her taken and published.”
Donna shrugged. “I did it for Matthew. To help speed matters along.”
“You made my son look like a fool in front of the entire town, family, friends, business associates, for his sake?”
“A small price to pay for getting rid of a scheming blackmailer, wouldn’t you say?”
“Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” Rachel mused.
Donna smiled sweetly and pretended not to understand the reference.
“What is it?” Lila had to take a moment to make sure she had it right. “Michele?”
The little girl nodded, “Yeah, I’m Michele.”
“I’m sorry, honey, it’s just you and your sister look so much alike…”
“I know. It’s okay. The only one who can really tell us apart is Aunt Marley. Even Grandmother and Steven and Kirk sometimes get it wrong.”
“Are you searching for Bridget and Jasmine?” Lila wondered why the child would be in the vicinity of Lila’s room when it was such a beautiful day outside and, as far as Lila knew, the girls had planned to play tennis.
“No. I wanted to talk to you.”
Michele hesitated. “My mom and dad.”
“Ah. I see….”
Michele sighed. “Aunt Marley told you, didn’t she? What happened? That’s why you invited us over and told Jasmine to be extra nice to us.”
“My Jasmine is always nice,” Lila reminded.
“I said extra-nice,” Michele quibbled.
Lila was willing to accept that. “Your Aunt Marley didn’t tell me anything. However, your – Grant did.”
“Oh. Well, it doesn’t matter. You know. Did you know about it before?”
Lila nodded hesitantly, seeing no point in lying.
“Does everyone know?”
“Well, not everyone. But, if you’ve lived in Bay City for a long enough spell… It’s a very small town. And the Love family, they’re what you call prominent.”
“Great,” Michele made a face, prior to changing the subject. “You knew my mom and dad. You even sued my dad – “
“That was business stuff, nothing more. Same thing with your mother. Had nothing to do with who they were as people.”
“Who were they as people, Lila? All I ever heard was how great Jake and Vicky were, how much they loved each other, how hard they fought to be together.”
“All true, every word.”
“Bunch of parts got left out, though.”
“It’s not important that my dad raped my Aunt Marley? It’s not important that my mom married him anyway?”
“No. Because none of that changes anything. Your mama and daddy did fight long and hard to be together. They did love each other. And they loved you and your sister. Even before you were born, they loved you. They’d have done anything for you. Gracious, the way I hear it, your mama came down from Heaven for a spell to make sure you ended up where you belonged, with your daddy.”
“And what about Aunt Marley?”
“Your Aunt Marley loved your mama. Same way you love Bridget. Maybe not every minute of every day…. Same way you love Bridget?” Lila prompted with a smile.
But, Michele wasn’t having it. “And my daddy. Did she love him, too?”
“I understand she did. She married him. Things didn’t work out. It happens.”
“That was before. What about after?”
“I can’t speak for your Aunt Marley, sugar.”
“If somebody did that to me, I’d hate him forever.”
“Nobody’s asking you to.”
“But, I want to understand,” Michele pleaded.
“What happened between your mama, your daddy, and your Aunt Marley was between the three of them, nobody else. Rest of us will never really know or understand. And I don’t think we’re meant to, neither.”
“Allie? Uh, hi,” the voice on the phone sounded a great deal more tentative than she remembered. “This is Zeno Tantalus. From the other night? Ms. Gallant’s party?”
“I remember you, Zeno,” Allie said. To be honest, she’d been waiting for him to call. He’d certainly seemed interested during Felicia’s fund-raiser.
“Oh. Good. Listen, I was wondering, would you like to go out sometime? With me?”
Allie smiled at that clarification. He was definitely a lot more tentative than he’d been at the party, where his self-confidence was the dominant trait Allie recalled – and recalled liking. Strange. Maybe Zeno just wasn’t a phone person.
“That sounds great.”
“Yeah?” Now he merely seemed surprised. “How about Saturday? This Saturday, I mean.”
“I’d love to.”
“Okay. I’ll – I’ll get back to you with when and where, that cool?”
“Okay,” Zeno said.
“Okay,” Allie agreed.
“Cory?” Steven said.
“There’s nothing wrong with your machine, man.”
“I didn’t say there was anything wrong.” Cory loitered behind his nephew as Steven sat hunched over Cory’s computer, clicking random keys and frowning every time each did exactly what he expected. “I just wanted to know if it was possible to track the browsing history after it had been erased and trashed and wiped again.”
“And I told you yeah, it was. Want me to restore it for you?”
“Okay,” Steven shrugged, doing exactly that.
“That looked pretty easy.”
“It is easy. If you know what you’re doing.”
“I just want to make sure you got it all.”
“You questioning my skills, dude?”
“I like being thorough.”
“It doesn’t get more thorough than this.”
“Just in case, though, shouldn’t we check against the browsing history on someone else’s machine?”
Steven cocked his head. “Got someone specific in mind?”
Cory shrugged. “I dunno. How about… Elizabeth.”
“Elizabeth,” Steven repeated slowly.
“Yeah,” Cory’s voice was more of a squeak.
“You want me to hack into your sister’s computer remotely and check her browsing history – especially the one that’s been erased and trashed and wiped again.”
Cory nodded, this time without saying a word.
“Are you sure, pal?” Steven prodded gently.
Another nod, and a gulp. “Is that hard?”
“Not for me.”
“Well, then, you probably should go ahead and do it. Just in case.”
“Just in case,” Steven sighed and squeezed his younger uncle’s shoulder. “You’re a good kid, Cor.”
“Just do it, okay?” He all but winced, as if warding off a blow.
Steven punched a few more keys. He sat back. He waited. And then there it was. All of it. They didn’t even need to check the links. The titles were enough. But, they did it anyway. Just in case. To be thorough.
“Wow,” Steven said.
Cory blinked silently.
“What do you – What do you want to do about this?”
Cory swallowed hard. “Mom. We should show it to Mom.”
“Okay. It’s your call. I think Grandma is still at the hospital with Matt, but, soon as she comes home…”
“Yeah,” Cory braced himself. “Soon as she comes home.”
“Got a minute, Dad?” Kirkland poked his head around Jamie’s office door.
His father looked up, intrigued. “Sure. For you, always, come in.”
“How’s Uncle Matt?”
“Better,” Jamie said, indicating for his son to take a seat. “Much, much better.”
“Lorna said it was a heart attack.”
“It was. But, he’s going to be fine. Maybe watch his diet a little more, put some extra effort into keeping his temper in check… But, that’s a family problem, I’m not really one to talk. We’re all kind of big on either stomping and fuming, or bottling up and shutting down.”
“You’ve gotten a lot better lately,” Kirkland pointed out.
“Well, my whole life’s gotten a lot better lately. Matt hasn’t been as fortunate. Anyway,” Jamie pushed aside the file he’d been reading to indicate Kirkland had his complete attention. “What can I do for you?”
“I wanted to talk to you. About some… stuff.”
“Listen,” Jamie said. “I’ve been trying to play the cool dad and not hound you about it, but… Hear from any colleges yet?”
Kirkland nodded. “Yeah. I have.”
“Am I allowed to ask?”
“I got into Duke.”
“That’s fantastic, Kirk! That was your first choice, right?”
“I thought it was. But, I’m also thinking, maybe… Notre Dame?” In response to the puzzled look on Jamie’s face, Kirkland explained, “For Spencer.”
“Ah. I see. The Fighting Irish. That makes sense. Well, you’re lucky you’ll have your pick.”
“Dad,” Kirkland interrupted. “This isn’t – It’s not what I came to talk to you about.”
“Sorry,” Jamie said. “I got distracted. This is very exciting news.”
“It’s not like I’m your first kid to ever get into college.”
“No. But, in Steven’s case, I was too worried about sending a fifteen year old boy to live on his own to really enjoy the moment. With you, I think getting out of Bay City, away from all the drama and… everything, will be for the best. You’ll love it.”
“The drama,” Kirkland repeated. “There’s always drama, isn’t there? Just when you think you’ve got a grip on everything… on everyone….”
“What’s wrong, son?”
“Michele. At my party last night, she – she told me… She told me something about…”
“Jake,” Jamie guessed, wincing.
Kirkland’s head bobbed up. “How did you know?”
“Marley filled me in about the twins’ discovery.”
“It’s true, isn’t it? Jake really…”
“It’s true,” Jamie wished there was some way to soften the blow.
“And this wasn’t like you, was it? Jake wasn’t drugged or sick or – “
“I can’t really speak to that, Kirk. I wasn’t there, I don’t know what was going through his head.”
“Why, Dad?” Kirkland’s face crumpled as the million possible continuations of that sentence flew out of his head and all he could plaintively ask was, “Why?”
“And where does Marley think you’ve been these past few hours,” Lila smoothed down the back of Grant’s still-damp hair. “That it requires a shower?”
He ducked his head from beneath Lila’s hand and coolly appraised, “I dropped the girls off here, went to the gym, then came back to pick them up.”
Grant looked around. “Are Bridget and Michele ready to go?”
“In a few minutes; they’re putting away their tennis things.”
“Thank you for having them. It wasn’t so much the twins needing a breather, as Marley. She’s still pretty shook up over this whole thing.”
“So is Michele. She got me aside, wanted to know what I thought about Jake, and what he’d done.”
“What did you say?”
“Told her the truth: It’s none of my business. And that none of us can ever really know why another person did what they did, no matter how far we try walking in their shoes. That goes for Jake, and Marley and Vicky, too. Speaking of which,” Lila smiled pleasantly. “What do you think you’re doing, Senator?”
“Getting by,” was all Grant would commit to.
“Whatever happened to keeping your distance from Ms. Lolita Matthews-Wheeler for her own good?”
“Don’t call her that,” Grant snapped.
“Fine. As long as you answer my question, in any case.”
“I tried, okay, Lila? I really tried. I did everything I could to drive her away. It nearly killed me, but I did it. The look on Sarah’s face when I claimed I didn’t want her anymore, that I’d never wanted her, that she was only a stand-in for Marley… She was heartbroken.”
“I’m gathering she wasn’t the only one.”
She was right, but Grant was damned if he’d concede Lila’s point. “I had to hurt her. And I don’t want to hurt her. Besides, I – I missed her. I didn’t fully realize how accustomed I’d gotten to her – “
Lila raised an eyebrow.
“It wasn’t only that, alright? If it was just that…. No. I missed everything about her. I missed the way she’d listen to me, the way she understood me, the way she… accepted me.”
“So, that it, then? The Grand Harrison Experiment in Self-Sacrifice is over?”
“No,” Grant said. “No, not at all.”
“Sure could have fooled me.”
“You don’t understand, this way… this way it all works out for the best. Sarah – Sarah is infatuated with me. She thinks it’s love, but I know better.” Grant attempted to sound dismissive. Except to Lila, it was also the saddest she’d ever heard him. “So, instead of driving her away, I’ll let her play this scenario through to the end. Sooner or later – more likely sooner – she’ll get bored. She’ll take off those rose-colored glasses of hers and accept the reality of what it means to be with a married man who is never, ever leaving his wife. I’ve made that perfectly clear; I haven’t offered any promises, I’m not stringing her along, I swear. Sarah will get fed up, and she will dump me. I don’t have to hurt her this way. She’ll move on to the brilliant future she’s destined to have; a career, a husband, children, all age-appropriate. I wouldn’t have kept her from all that. I wouldn’t have ruined her life.”
“And in the meantime?”
“In the meantime, I’ll – I’ll enjoy every moment I can steal with her. For as long as it lasts. I won’t allow her to throw away her prospects, I’ll make sure she recognizes the mistake she’s made, latching on to me. Come on, Lila, it’s me. Every woman hits that point eventually; I don’t even have to do anything special to make it happen. But, this way, I get to have Sarah for just a little while longer.”
“Then everybody lives happily ever after?”
“Except,” Lila observed. “For you.”
Grant shrugged, telling Lila the God’s truth. “I never expected to.”
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