“You going to beat me up with oranges?” Elizabeth asked Lorna after the latter led her into Lorna’s study for a private conversation. “So the bruises don’t show?”
“You’ve been watching too many movies.” Lorna closed the door behind them. “And why wouldn’t I want the bruises to show?”
“Right. Make an example of me. That makes sense.”
“I loved your father, Elizabeth,” Lorna said without further preamble, the words and the sentiment so shocking that any smart remark Elizabeth may have been planning to make died on her lips, and she stared at Lorna with unadulterated astonishment. It was her first sincere expression of emotion since Elizabeth had come in. “No, I take that back. I didn’t love Carl. I adored him. I worshiped him. Every utterance out of his mouth was wisdom from a god. I did what he said, I thought what he thought, and I hated whom he hated.”
“Father didn’t put me up to anything,” Elizabeth defended as soon as she realized what Lorna was getting at. She should have known it was all just a sneak attack to throw her off-guard.
“I’m sure you don’t think he did.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“No. But, you are a child. And he’s an adult. A charming, charismatic, persuasive adult. Who doesn’t need to flat out tell you what he wants, for you to know it intuitively. And for you to do anything you had to, to get him what he wants.”
“You don’t have to be a psychic to intuit what Father wants. He wants Jamie, Amanda, Matt and you to leave him and Mom alone, so everything can go back to the way it was before.”
“I don’t doubt that. But, that’s for your parents to work out. It isn’t your job to do Carl’s dirty work for him.” Lorna sounded like she was lecturing. But, she was also pleading.
“If not me, then who? Who else is going to take his side? Even Cory and Mom – “
“Your father can look out for himself. He’s proven that over and over. Don’t allow your life to become all about Carl Hutchins. You deserve better.”
“You don’t give a damn about me or my life,” Elizabeth scoffed.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t. But, I still know what it’s like. Winning Carl’s approval can feel like winning the lottery. And it sneaks up on you without warning. It takes over everything, it becomes the only thing that matters. Other people – they’re just obstacles to be mowed down on the way to your objective. And if you turn out to be one of those obstacles, well, then that’s obviously your fault. You did something wrong. You let Carl down.”
“You did,” Elizabeth reminded. “You did let him down. You did betray him. I never will.”
“The minute you entertain a thought or an agenda that doesn’t mesh with Carl’s master plan of the hour, you will have let him down, Elizabeth. Don’t let it come to that. Don’t let him hurt you in that way.”
“It won’t happen.” Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m not you. I’m his daughter.”
“I know. Which is exactly what will make it a million times worse. In the end, I could still walk away from Carl. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. I was like an addict. Or somebody in a cult. He still will sometimes say something in a particular tone or choice of words, and it’s all I can do not to jump to attention. But, I could walk away. Because Carl was ultimately just another guy I was stupid enough to fall for. But, he’s your father.”
“You’re just messing with my head.” Elizabeth, who’d been listening a lot more closely than she knew she should have, took a step back, as if physically severing whatever connection Lorna had been trying to establish. “You’re trying to turn me against him, same way Jamie, Amanda, and Matt did with Mom.”
“I am,” Lorna agreed.
“Damn, you’re bad at this manipulation thing. No wonder Father was so disappointed.”
“I’m telling you the truth. Because I see the path you’re headed down. And, if you’re even a little bit Jenna’s sister, like you were so quick to claim back there, you are not going to be happy, Elizabeth. I’m only telling you exactly what she would have, if our sister had had the chance.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Grant asked Sarah as he lay on his side, running his fingers up and down the length of her bare, impossibly white back, watching Sarah, half her face buried in the pillow, smile sleepily in response. “Us staying in all the time? Don’t you ever get bored, want to go someplace else for a change?”
“You’re here,” Sarah murmured. “Why would I want to go anyplace else?” She opened her eyes, still smiling, and rolled over on her back, looking up at Grant, who affably switched to caressing Sarah’s equally irresistible neck and shoulder.
“I just can’t imagine you being happy like this, with us only being able to meet here.”
“If it makes you feel any better, that’s all going to change soon.”
Grant’s hand froze mid-stroke. “How do you mean?”
She laughed, kissing the back of his palm, then rotating it to do the same to the front, her lips scorching against his suddenly icy flesh. “Relax. I haven’t lost my mind. I know we have to keep this a secret, and I’m cool with that, I’ve told you a million times.”
“Marley offered me a job for the summer, baby-sitting the twins. I’ll be over at your house all the time. At her invitation. I’ll even be getting paid for it!”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Personally, Grant had a definite opinion on the subject.
“Why not? Marley told me Midget have been having a tough time lately, with everything they’ve found out about their parents, and her, too.”
“Yes. They have.”
“Well, I want to help. I think I can. The girls can talk to me in a way they can’t with Marley or Donna or their brothers. I could actually be useful.”
“I’m not disputing that.”
“Then what are you disputing?”
“The wisdom of having you in my home on a daily basis.”
“Don’t you want to see me every day?”
“Sarah… I told you…”
“That you’re committed to Marley. That you have no intention of leaving her, ever, and that I should take what I can get with you, or settle for nothing at all.”
The irony of Sarah using the exact words about him that he’d expressed to Lila about her – taking what he could get, for as long as he could get it, until Sarah wised up and left him on her own – struck like a karate chop to Grant’s throat. He had to cough vigorously to get his next words out. “Marley isn’t stupid.”
“Neither am I.”
“Agreed. Which is why I’m surprised you’re willing to risk Marley regularly seeing us together.”
“I can be discrete.”
“What about me?”
Sarah teased, “You’re the one who’s done this before.”
No, Grant wanted desperately to tell her. Not like this… But, that was the last thing he needed her to know. Instead, settling for, “Ergo, I know how difficult it can be. I do not want to be found out, Sarah. And I most especially don’t want to see Marley hurt.”
“Neither do I,” she told him honestly. “Marley has been nothing but nice to me since Day One. I’ve got nothing against her.” Sarah sat up, while Grant remained as he was. She was the one looking down on him now, her hair falling on either side of her face, limiting Grant’s scope of vision to nothing but her. “I don’t want to hurt Marley. All I want to do is love you. Will you let me do that? Will you just trust me to take care of everything?”
“What do you think Lorna wants to talk to Elizabeth about?” Rachel paced outside the door of the study like an expectant father, while Jamie sat off to the side, a newly awake and cooing Devon on this lap.
Rachel turned, pausing to smile with pleasure at the sight of her son and granddaughter, before asking, “Do you know what this all reminds me of?”
“Iris and Mac?” Jamie guessed, startling his mother with the accuracy of his deduction.
“How did you know?”
“It’s kind of obvious. You’ve been down this road before.”
Rachel said, “Do you know what Mac couldn’t stop asking after he found out that Iris was the one responsible for the hostile takeover of Cory, not to mention his being sent to jail? He asked me, “What kind of monster have I raised?” Can you imagine? I would have done anything to spare him that kind of pain. I even considered keeping what I knew about Iris to myself. For Mac’s sake. For the rest of my life, I’m going to wonder if learning the truth was one of the factors that hastened his death.”
“No, Mom,” Jamie said firmly. “Mac died of a heart-attack. That’s a medical fact.”
“As opposed to heartbreak?”
Rachel shrugged, indicating the details weren’t important. Not those details, anyway. “At least Iris was operating from love. Her twisted and warped version of it, but, love, just the same. She wanted to prove to Mac how much he needed her in his life. What Elizabeth did… What kind of monster have I raised, Jamie?”
“Elizabeth did what she did out of love for Carl. And you. She wanted her parents back together. That’s actually pretty normal.”
“I noticed you haven’t said I Told You So yet.”
“About Carl being a negative influence on his children.”
Jamie shifted Devon to rest against his shoulder and stood up, approaching Rachel. “I have never been interested in picking a fight with you, Mom. Or in just bashing Carl for no reason. Elizabeth was right before. Carl and I had made our peace. Or at least called a truce; agreed to co-exist. Because we both loved you so much. I know you think Matt, Amanda and I have been acting unreasonably. But, tell me something, what, in your mind, would have been a reasonable reaction on my part to Carl setting in motion a chain of events that culminated with my son being kidnapped?”
“You could have tried to understand. To see matters from Carl’s point of view. He did the very best he could to protect as many people as possible.”
“By sacrificing Spencer.”
“Spencer was as much involved as Carl. And Lucas, too. I don’t see you and Lorna banishing Lucas from the family.”
“I told Lorna she was free to deal with Lucas as she saw fit. He’s her father, not mine. But, for what it’s worth, Lucas was a tool of Carl’s. Same as always. He didn’t initiate this war. And when push came to shove, he didn’t send another man to die in his place.”
“That was Spencer’s choice. And Spencer was the reason Kirkland was taken in the first place.”
“Spencer paid his debt to the compound. Same as Lucas, years ago. And they know Donna didn’t send that incriminating file. The only person left on their hit-list now, is Carl. And I’m sorry, Mom, there is nothing you can say that would convince me with 100 percent accuracy that Carl won’t be targeted again. Or that he won’t feel compelled to defend himself in the usual way. Again. And that my family won’t end up caught in the cross-fire. Or as collateral damage.”
“Son.” The one word from Carl carried so many different implications within it that Cory wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react.
And so, when his father greeted him at breakfast, all Cory said in response was, “Good-morning,” and took a seat across the dining room table, reaching for the plate of pancakes already set out there.
“I trust you’re well.”
“I’m fine,” Cory swallowed before answering.
Carl lay down the knife and fork he’d been using, and took a sip of tea, wiping his lips with a cloth napkin. He said, “Your brother, Ryan, was a very fine man.”
Cory nodded, again unsure of what response was expected from him.
“He had a strong moral code, an exemplary sense of right and wrong. I suppose it’s what drove him to become a policeman.” Carl hesitated. “But, even Ryan possessed an ability to realize that the people you are bound to in life deserve a different sort of consideration. I daresay, it’s what permitted him to continue to love Victoria, in spite of her incalculable misdeeds. It’s what allowed him forgive Grant and Spencer their criminal transgressions. It’s what moved him to ultimately accept me.”
Not nearly as willing to talk in circles – he had to be in school within the hour, Cory told his father, “Elizabeth was wrong to do what she did.”
“No question, no question.”
“And you knew she was lying from the start.”
“I did no such thing! My daughter made an accusation. It was my obligation to take it seriously and offer her my complete and utter support.”
“If you really believed Kevin had attacked her, he wouldn’t have survived his first night in a holding cell.”
Carl inhaled sharply, but controlled himself enough to correct, “I’m afraid you offer me far too much credit.”
“Okay, then. If you really believed Kevin was guilty, you’d have been at the Harrisons the first day, ripping his head off and mounting it on a stake in the front yard.”
“Again, most poetic, but, alas, overestimating my talents.”
“You were content to let the police do their job, Father. That isn’t like you.”
“At most, I was willing to let them take the lead on the investigation.”
“You knew Elizabeth was lying, and you didn’t do anything to stop her.”
“Elizabeth is my daughter. My flesh and blood. My loyalty to her surpasses any sort of pedestrian – “
“Kindly refrain from employing words whose meaning you don’t fully understand. It speaks to immaturity, at best, imbecility, at worst.”
“You’d have let Elizabeth put Kevin in jail.”
“If evidence warranted.”
“That’s what I thought.” Cory finished his milk and rose from the table.
“Are you…” Now it was Carl’s turn to struggle for an appropriate reaction. “Are you sitting in judgment of me?”
Cory merely stared back, defiant.
Which Carl took to mean the affirmative. “And I gather you find me lacking in choosing to prioritize the interest of my own child over those of a man whose wife has aggressively campaigned to separate me from my family?”
“I’m going to school now, Father.”
“Sit down,” Carl hissed. “And listen to me, boy.”
Cory wavered briefly. But, ultimately took a seat.
“Life is not a ledger, wherein your actions are neatly tallied, and a checkmark placed in either the right or wrong column, as if by a school-master. If anything, it is the register of an accountant, where only gains and losses matter in the end. Ultimately, however, it is neither. Because no deed, no denouement is either right or wrong, bad or good, save the circumstances that make it so. Survival of the fittest, Cory. We’re all slaves to it, in the end. No organism, be it a microbe in a petrie dish or the greatest mind of its time has, at its core, any greater ambition than to survive, to live on throughout eternity. That genetic competition to rise above is what keeps our species ever advancing. It is why we humans have, by necessity and design, evolved into creatures who must put ourselves and those who share our bloodline first. To choose any differently would be to contradict nature itself, and lead to ultimate annihilation.”
“Mom isn’t your bloodline,” Cory noted reasonably. “Does that mean that, in a pinch, you’ll turn against her, too?”
“Well, that wasn’t any fun,” Lorna summarized for Jamie once Rachel and Elizabeth had finally left their home.
“What did you tell Elizabeth?” Jamie wondered.
“To watch out for Carl. What did you tell your mother?”
“More or less the same thing.”
Devon reached out both arms to Lorna, and Jamie moved to hand the little girl over.
Much to his surprise, Lorna shook her head and instead, asked, “Did Alice work the night-shift with you?”
“Alice? No, she wasn’t in the emergency room with me.”
“Good. Then do you think you could give her a call and ask her to come over and watch Devon for a little bit?”
“Because. You’re going to take me to the hospital.” Lorna smiled brightly. “So we can have a baby.”
“Was Jeanne just here?” Donna wanted to know the minute she stepped into Matt’s hospital room.
“Did you see her on the way out?”
“No.” Donna sniffed the air. “Cheap perfume. It… lingers.”
“She was here,” Matt confirmed.
“And… we’re… good.”
Donna didn’t appear appeased in the slightest. “What precisely might that mean?”
“It means we got everything out in the open. And we’re… done.”
“Thank goodness for small, albeit tardy, favors.”
“Except… I – There’s one thing…”
“She’s pregnant,” Donna said with such certainty that it took Matt a moment to register the meaning behind her tone.
“And predictably she’s claiming it’s yours, which is utter rubbish, considering the photographic evidence I have of her and Dean.”
“No!” Matt couldn’t believe they were even having this conversation. “Jeanne isn’t pregnant. Not by me, anyway. She doesn’t want to have kids. Ever.”
“It’s amazing how quickly an attitude like that can change when there are millions of dollars involved.”
“Jeanne isn’t pregnant,” Matt reiterated. “She couldn’t be. I told you, I haven’t slept with her since before we got married.”
“I know what you told me, Matthew.” Donna mumbled stiffly.
“But, you didn’t believe it?”
“I am familiar with how scenarios like this have a tendency to play out. Jeanne’s best weapon in this situation was always a child. Something she knows I can never give you.”
“She isn’t pregnant. And I didn’t sleep with her. And, Donna, for the record, I don’t care.” He hoped she understood exactly what he was getting at with the last comment.
“So that’s that?” Donna leaned over to kiss him, deliberately dismissing a conversation Donna most definitely did not wish to have at the moment.
“What was the one thing you wanted to tell me about Jeanne, then?”
“I… She… Dean signed the station over to Jeanne,” Matt blurted out.
“My station?” Donna raised a hand to her throat.
“Technically Lori Ann’s now. With Dean as trustee.”
“Dean gave away my station to… her?”
“That’s what Jeanne said.”
“The poor, misguided boy. How foolish to fall in love with such a viper.”
“Not exactly. According to Jeanne, it was his way of telling her to buzz off. When he gave Jeanne the papers, he told her she’d earned it.”
At that, much to Matt’s surprise, Donna began to laugh. And that was never a good sign. “Oh, dear,” she exclaimed, wiping away tears of mirth. “Oh, that’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“Dean is angry at Jeanne because he believes her lie about my hiring her to seduce him! She only said it in order to get me into hot water with the judge. The judge didn’t believe her – but Dean did! How exquisitely and poetically perfect!”
“You mean you didn’t do it?”
“Now who’s the one not paying attention? No, of course not. I merely took advantage of their liaison, I didn’t orchestrate it.”
“Sounds like a mess,” Matt said.
“That couldn’t have happened to a nicer pair.”
“Dean… Ever since he lost Jenna… He hasn’t been himself.”
“Is that so? And here I was under the impression that wooing women out from under your nose has been Dean Frame’s modus operandi for the past twenty years. He certainly didn’t give your feelings a moment’s thought when he and Jeanne – “
“Forget about it, okay?” Matt snapped. “We’ve got more important things to discuss.”
“Of course, darling. Of course. Tell me, any word yet on when you might be discharged from this horrible place?”
“Couple of days, assuming all my tests come out alright.”
“Not exactly. I told you before, I don’t have any place to go. You’re moving out of the Love mansion, right?”
“And I’m not about to kick Jeanne out of our apartment.”
“That hovel was never an appropriate home for you, in any case.”
“I suppose we could go to a hotel, but… That’s kind of a depressing place to recuperate.”
“I’ll get right on it, Matthew. I’ll check the real-estate listings. I’ll find us the perfect – “
“Using what, Donna? Unless I’m missing something, you don’t have a penny to your name anymore.”
“But, surely, you…”
“Everything I have is tied up in C-Squared. I’m not exactly liquid at the moment, or in any position to start wheeling and dealing to make myself that way.”
“Your health comes first, always.”
“That’s why… Donna, my mother suggested I move back home. Just until I’m back on my feet again. Jasmine is there. And I wouldn’t have to worry about anything…”
“What about your Three Musketeer stand against Carl?”
“Carl isn’t living at the house anymore. He moved out like we asked. I wouldn’t be letting Jamie and Amanda down.”
Donna caught the odd note in his voice and clarified, “Who would you be letting down, in that case?”
“Well… I… You.”
“You think I can’t manage a stint living in the Cory Mansion? Not even for your sake?”
“I – I wasn’t sure what to think.”
“Is your opinion of me really so low, Matthew?”
“No! I don’t know! Can you? Would you? Will you?” Matt shirked even as he asked, “Are you okay with moving into my mother’s house with me, Donna?”
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