“Is something wrong with Matt?” was Rachel’s first thought and only concern when she found Donna on her doorstep.
“No. No, Matthew is fine,” Rachel’s newest daughter-in-law rushed to reassure. “I just left him at the hospital, and he was doing wonderfully. They’ve even said he should be able to go home in a day or two.”
“Home,” Rachel repeated, even as she turned away and walked towards the living room, Donna following.
“Home,” Donna made certain Rachel understood her implication.
Which she most certainly did. “I told Matt he was welcome here, anytime.”
“And he’s very grateful for that. So am I.”
Rachel declined to comment one way or another.
Donna gave her plenty of chances, though. When no response appeared forthcoming, she plunged ahead. “Matthew and I are married now.”
“If the past is any indication, it’s a temporary state, at best,” Rachel recalled.
“Not this time,” Donna swore. “This time we truly intend to remain committed to each other permanently.”
“Well, I suppose Michael being gone does increase the odds of that… slightly.”
“How many times,” Donna wondered. “Did you and Mac break up and reunite before finally getting it right?”
Another query Rachel chose to let pass unanswered. Instead, she ventured, “I presume this is your way of informing me that you’ll be joining Matt under my roof?”
“Wither he goes, I go,” she trilled in a most un-Biblical manner.
“I heard about you giving up all your worldly goods, lock, stock and mansion.”
“My granddaughter needs my money a great deal more than I do.”
“Carl’s granddaughter, too. Did you think he would ever let Lori Ann want for anything?”
“It’s what Dean desired,” Donna demurred.
“What Dean desired was to see you punished for killing his wife.”
“You know, Rachel, considering his recent humiliating betrayal of Matthew – “
“Save it. One thing has nothing to do with the other. Matt and Dean can work out their own relationship, that’s none of my business. I’m talking about you, and what you did to my husband, and the daughter he never even got the chance to know.”
“And here I felt certain Carl and Jenna had plenty of time to get acquainted when he kidnapped her years ago. During Dean’s concert, remember?”
“Ancient history. And irrelevant.”
“Is that a fact? You do realize, Rachel, that had the truth about Jenna’s parentage come out then, there wouldn’t have been a person in town who would have blamed me for doing anything I had to, to protect Jenna from having a monster like that for a father.”
This time, Rachel’s silence came from a different place.
And Donna leapt on it unhesitatingly. “I didn’t keep Jenna from the Carl Hutchins you married. I kept her from the man who tried to destroy Mac, the one who stalked Amanda and nearly killed Frankie. The one who blinded you!”
“Maybe forty years ago, I’ll grant you that. But, when you had Jenna, Dean, and Felicia kidnapped, you knew Carl had changed.”
“No. All I knew was that you believed that to be the case.”
“You weren’t protecting Jenna from Carl when you had her locked up in that convent. You were protecting yourself, your social standing, your reputation. And look what happened as a result. Not only did Jenna die, not only did Dean lose his wife, and Lori Ann her mother, and Felicia and Lucas their daughter, but, because of your actions, we all nearly lost Kirkland, as well.”
“I had nothing to do with Kirkland’s kidnapping. Carl was the one who set it up to look as if – “
“Carl wouldn’t have needed to do anything, if you hadn’t exposed the compound with your actions. If you hadn’t gone on television and threatened them with a dossier you didn’t even have.”
“But, Carl and Spencer certainly took care of that, didn’t they?”
“Carl, Spencer, and Lucas were reacting to a threat against their families. A threat you brought down upon us all in the first place.”
“I,” Donna stressed. “Put the compound into check. I was keeping them at bay. Carl and the rest decided to drive them out of hiding. They’re the ones who put our mutual grandson’s life in danger, Rachel, not I.”
“You, Donna, are responsible for Spencer’s death. And for Jenna’s. And for Kirkland’s kidnapping, and for destroying my family, my relationship with every single one of my children, with my husband – all in an ultimately futile attempt to cover your tracks and make your own life easier.”
For a moment, the two women did nothing more than glare at each other in stand-off.
Finally, Donna, smiled pleasantly and said, “I came here to give you the good news that Matthew should be released from the hospital shortly. Thank you for your hospitality, Rachel. We both so look forward to getting him home, settling in, and beginning our new life as a married couple. Till death do us part.”
“Don’t tempt me,” Rachel thought.
“We’re… rich?” was the gist of what Charlie gleamed from her parents filling her in regarding Lori Ann’s windfall – and their role in it from now on.
“Well, technically,” Cass said. “Your sister is rich. We’re only taking care of the money for her.”
“And getting paid for it!”
“Just a percentage of the estate,” Frankie clarified. “Your father is being paid a salary. It’s all completely legitimate.”
“We’re rich,” Charlie repeated. “Wow!”
“What this means,” Frankie tried to keep her daughter focused. “Is that we shouldn’t have any trouble paying for your college next year. So, all you have to do is decide where – “
“But,” Charlie sobered up. “Mom… It’s too late. The deadline’s passed. For next Fall semester, anyway.”
“Yeah. I already turned them all down. Thanks, but no thanks, you know? So, I guess that’s that.”
“Hold on a sec,” Cass said. “Don’t be so hasty. Of all your acceptances, which one was your first choice?”
“What does it matt – “
“Just tell me, Charlotte, if you had your pick, where would you want to go most?”
“Well… Sarah Lawrence, I guess.”
“Good, okay. So, first thing tomorrow, I’ll give the Sarah Lawrence admissions office a call. What can it hurt, right?”
“What are you going to tell them, Cass?”
“The truth. That the financial situation which would have made it prohibitive for Charlie to accept their offer has been rectified. We now have the means by which to fully fund her education at their wonderful institution… and any other odds and ends they might need, as well.”
“You’re going to bribe them?” Frankie translated her husband’s long-winded ramble.
“I am going to offer them an incentive to bend their rules the slightest bit, in the interest our mutual benefit.”
“I think that’s the definition of a bribe.”
“Let’s be realistic, Mary Frances. Do you think Mac Cory’s name adorns half the buildings in this town without the understanding that he, or someone in his family, may someday chose to profit from the association?”
“And this is exactly what I was talking about. Money changes things.”
“For the better,” Cass insisted. Then asked, “So, have you talked to Zeno yet? Told him his troubles were over?”
One of Carl’s primary renovations upon taking up residence in the Cory house had been the addition of a state-of-the-art fencing salon, with competition grade strips on the floor, a handsome oak case to hold the assortment of foil, saber, and epee swords; metal hooks for the gleaming white mesh jackets and helmets in a variety of sizes, and an entire room at the far end, filled with vaguely Inquisition-looking tools, wrenches, and vises used for keeping the equipment in top shape.
Cory was in there now, attempting to change the handle of his sword to a larger size, when Elizabeth walked in.
She did nothing for a long moment save just watch him work. Then, when she saw him struggling to keep the sword lying flat as he grimaced and wrestled with screwing on the new handle tightly enough, she stepped forward and reached out to hold it still.
Cory nodded his head in thanks, but, the split second distraction was enough to make him lose focus, prompting the sword to fumble out of his hands and narrowly miss nicking Elizabeth’s bare forearm.
“I’m sorry,” Cory snatched the weapon back before it could cause any real harm.
“It’s okay,” Elizabeth told her brother sincerely. “Really. It’s okay.”
The clatter of Kevin slamming his phone down, followed by a curse, was almost enough to keep Amanda from entering his office.
She did so gingerly, already guessing the nature of his news. “The agency…”
“They’re very sorry,” Kevin imitated a bored, impersonal, bureaucratic voice. “Yes, they realize that all the charges against me have been dropped, and that there was never any merit to them, to begin with. But, all the same, in the interest of not drawing negative attention – unwarranted though it may be – to the organization, they are turning down our petition to adopt Ike. Permanently.”
Amanda nodded sympathetically, certain that anything she might say at this time would not be at all welcome.
“I could challenge it,” Kevin began pacing up and down. “I have the grounds, I have the means.”
“But, that might take months,” Amanda prompted. “Maybe even years. You don’t want Ike stuck in no-man’s land all that time. He deserves a family now.”
“Adoptive parents aren’t exactly lining up to take on special needs kids, Amanda,” Kevin reminded.
“Ike’s not just any kid.”
“You’re right,” Kevin sighed. “I wanted him to be our kid.”
He wondered, “How would you feel about taking this case to the press? Whip up public support via Brava, other Cory publications?”
Amanda hesitated. “I don’t – I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Well, for one thing, the public isn’t usually a big fan of publishers using their magazines and papers to push through personal agendas.”
“Did anyone tell William Randolph Hearst that? Or Rupert Murdoch? Or Al Gore?”
“Shouldn’t the fact that you know they did it prove the futility of trying it yourself? That kind of blatant manipulation can backfire without warning.”
“Leaving us no worse off than we are now. I can’t give up before I’ve tried everything.”
“But, is now really the best time? What about Jen?”
“What about her?”
“She needs you. Whether her father – her biological father, I mean – turns out to be a match or not, she’s got a long recovery ahead of her. Do you really want to be distracted at a time like this?”
Kevin paused, studying his wife with a fresh eye. “You – you don’t really want to do this, do you, Amanda? You don’t want to adopt Ike.”
She considered lying, she considered hedging. But, in the end, Amanda told Kevin, “No. I don’t.”
He threw his arms up in the air. “Then why did you say you did?”
“Because – because it meant so much to you. And because you were so heart-broken about Jen’s diagnosis. You needed this to happen with Ike.”
He looked at her queerly. “One child doesn’t replace another.”
“I know that,” she insisted. “But, I thought…”
“So what would you have done if the adoption had gone through? You’d have been Ike’s mother. How long do you think you could have kept not wanting him a secret?”
“It’s not that I didn’t want him. But, Kevin, come on, be fair, I told you from the start I wasn’t interested in having more children. It’s nothing personal against Ike.”
“It sure would have felt personal to him. No one is that good of an actress. What would you have done, Amanda? How would you have handled it if Elizabeth hadn’t…” His voice trailed off. Kevin actually looked physically pained to be asking, “Did you put her up to this?”
“What?” As quiet as Kevin had gotten, that’s how loud Amanda grew in return.
“Did you put your sister up to accusing me – “
“No!” She shook her head madly. “No! How could you even ask – “
“It’s just it was all so convenient. Elizabeth makes the accusation, our chances of adopting Ike are squashed for good, and then suddenly Cory and Steven just happen to find proof to vindicate me. No harm, no foul, right? Only no Ike, either.”
“I would never, ever – “
“You and Elizabeth are close, aren’t you?”
“We were. Until Carl decided to start making human sacrifices of people I care about.” Amanda couldn’t believe they were even talking about this. “Whatever happened to trusting me, no matter what, Kevin? I guess it’s one thing for me to kiss Morgan – “
“I thought Morgan was the one who kissed you?”
“ – I guess you really don’t give a damn about that. But, take away your opportunity to be a parent – “
“You knew how much I wanted that.”
“And you knew how much I didn’t!”
“You’re right,” Kevin said.
“About what?” she demanded.
“Everything,” Kevin sighed. “You’re right about everything, Amanda.”
“It’s a girl!” Dr. Raya Ng pronounced triumphantly, holding up the newborn infant for Lorna and Jamie’s inspection.
At which point the pair of them burst out laughing in a combination of relief, exhaustion, and joy.
“I told you so,” Lorna teased Jamie, raising her hand to slap him playfully on the shoulder.
Unable to tear his eyes from his newest daughter, all Jamie managed to defend was, “Well, you had the inside track, didn’t you? I wasn’t there for every sonogram appointment.”
“I didn’t look,” Lorna swore.
“And I didn’t blab,” Raya confirmed. “Lorna told me you two wanted to be surprised. And that she was sure it was another girl.”
“And I was right,” Lorna proclaimed smugly, holding out her hands for the baby.
Raya offered the scalpel used to cut the cord to Jamie. “Care to do the honors, Dr. Frame?”
Jamie shook his head, holding out his still-trembling palms. “I think you need someone with slightly steadier hands than me at the moment.”
“Suit yourself,” Raya shrugged, taking care of the final detail and handing the infant off to be cleaned, weighed, and assessed before returning her to her mother.
“You were right,” Lorna murmured to Jamie.
“Finally,” he had to joke to keep the lump in his throat from turning into a sob Lorna would never let Jamie live down. “Do I get to hear about what?”
“When you said she was our gift. Our chance to do this right, to actually enjoy having a baby without going out of our minds with worry like we did over Devon.”
“I love you,” Jamie dipped his face to kiss first Lorna on the lips, then their daughter on the top of her still-damp head. “And you, too.”
“What time is it?” Lorna asked suddenly.
“What?” he frowned at her in surprise, checking first his wrist, realizing he’d taken his watch off before entering the delivery room, then craning his neck, looking for a clock, locating one on the far wall and squinting to read. “A little after five, why?”
“A little after five,” Lorna repeated, beaming up at him. “Happy anniversary, Jamie.”
“Mr. Johnson?” After several hours of loitering in the uncomfortably sweltering hallway outside the Harlem apartment he’d been told housed Jen’s father, Steven finally saw the object of his pursuit, approaching the man just as he went to insert his key in the front door lock.
Horace Johnson paused, turning to look Steven up and down in a suspicious, though not necessarily hostile manner. “Do I know you?”
“No, sir, you don’t. I – My name is Steven Frame.” He stretched his arm forward.
Horace shook it gingerly, withdrawing the palm before inquiring, “And what can I do for you, Mr. Steven Frame?”
“I – I’m a friend of your daughter’s.”
Horace shook his head. “Afraid you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t have a daughter.”
“Your daughter, Jennifer,” Steven persisted. “I – she’s Jennifer Fowler now.”
“Jenny?” At least he’d stopped denying it. Though Steven wondered if Horace ever really could. The resemblance was striking, especially around the wide-set eyes and the slope of his forehead. Steven could only hope the similarity extended to DNA, as well.
“Right. Yes. Though she goes by Jen, mostly.”
“Her grandmother called her Jennifer. Never anything shorter. Miss Camille thought Jenny sounded common.”
“I need to talk to you about her. Do you think we could,” Steven indicated the apartment. “Go inside?”
Horace gave the matter some thought. Then, shrugging, he opened the door and waved Steven in.
“So what’s Jenny up to these days?” Horace wondered, crossing the open living room into the kitchen area, a Formica counter delineating the two, and reached into the fridge, withdrawing two beers, offering one to Steven.
Steven raised an arm to indicate no, thank you, and Horace amiably put away both.
“She’s a lecturer at Bay City University,” Steven said. “In cognitive science.” Managing to deliver the subject without making the pejorative face he usually made.
“A lecturer?” Horace scratched the top of his neatly shaved head, puzzled. “That’s like a professor, right?”
“More or less.”
“How could she – Jenny’s too young to…”
“She skipped a couple of grades, sir.”
“Ah. Well, that explains it. She always was a smart one. Like her mother. She ever tell you how smart her mother was supposed to be? Genius, way Miss Camille told it. Jenny the same way?”
“She’s very, very smart,” Steven confirmed.
“So what does a girl that smart need with me all of a sudden? Jenny in trouble?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Trouble that slippery attorney – sorry, father – of hers can’t fix? I find that a little hard to believe. Unless she walked out on him same way she did me.”
“Jen is sick.”
“What kind of sick?”
“She has a leukemia.”
“Ah-ha.” Horace plopped down on the couch. “Now I get it. Leukemia, that’s one of those cancers where you need a relative, a close one, to cut out some part of their organs or something to get better. Am I on the right track now, boy?”
“You are.” Steven saw no point in lying.
“That’s what you’re here for?”
“I’m here to ask if you’d be willing to take a genetic test to see if you’re a match.”
“And if I am?”
“If you’d be willing to donate bone marrow to Jen.”
Horace Johnson didn’t say anything to that.
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