“Morning,” Marley greeted Grant as he entered the kitchen. She was sitting at the table, Bridget on one side, Michele on the other. Everything looked perfectly normal. Except for the fact that Sarah was there, too.
She wore a pink belly shirt that rode up just above her ribs, and a pair of unbearably brief, white shorts, her hair up in a ponytail. She was standing in Grant’s kitchen, leaning against the counter, eating a pear she’d plucked from the fruit bowl, licking the dripping juice off her hand, looking right at him, smiling.
And Grant couldn’t look away.
He tried. God knew, he tried.
He tried ignoring her completely. He tried making conversation with Marley and the girls.
He succeeded, too. He knew that he was succeeding, because he could hear his voice – dry and hoarse to him, but apparently perfectly normal to everyone else; based on their lack of reaction – asking Michele about archery and Bridget about camp, and agreeing with Marley that maybe it would be nice to get away for the long, 4th of July weekend, but would it be better to do it in the first half of the week, or the second? And, the entire time, even while looking somewhere else entirely, all Grant could see, was Sarah.
In his peripheral vision – which today was operating 360 degrees, it seemed; a case for the medical journals! – Grant watched the way her hair swished from side to side as she moved her head, reminding him of the way it felt against his face or in his hands or trailing down his chest.
He watched her tongue catch the drops of pear juice, ducking into the folds between her fingers, sucking the last of the flesh off the fruit.
He watched her newly tanned legs, darker on the outsides of her thighs than on the insides, walking towards him. And he watched her lean over the table to take Michele’s plate, Sarah bracing herself with one arm, brushing briefly against him, her breasts directly in Grant’s line of vision now, her bare leg pressing along his.
“Oops, sorry,” Sarah said, smiling innocently, making it seem as if she were apologizing for bumping into him. Quite obviously not sorry at all.
Grant wanted to kill her.
“Thanks for making the house-call, bro,” Matt buttoned his pajama top as Jamie packed up the stethoscope he’d been using to check his brother’s heartbeat.
“When your wife is on the hospital board, you get personalized service.” Jamie added, “Plus, you’ve got some serious connections, too.”
“Well, thanks, again. And I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to Lorna’s Welcome Home party earlier.” Matt grinned. “Mackenzie. It’s a hell of a name.”
“He was a hell of a man.”
“Makes walking in his footsteps pretty damn intimidating.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You did it, though.”
Jamie snapped shut his doctor’s bag. “Come again?”
“You and Lorna,” Matt prompted. “It’s Mac and Mom all over again.”
“Maybe with Lorna in the Mac role!” Jamie laughed.
“Are you kidding me? I think you’re forgetting that I knew Lorna first. I know exactly what she was like then, and what she’s like now. That’s all on you!”
“Not even close. Lorna saved my life, Matt.”
“You mean when you were arrested and – “
“More than that. Before Lorna came along, I wasn’t living, I was existing. I had my job and I had my kids… and I was a miserable, lonely son-of-a-bitch. Lorna didn’t just fall in love with me – although I’m still a little uncertain about how that happened. And she didn’t just allow me to fall in love with her. Lorna made me believe I was worth being loved. That I deserved to be happy, that I deserved to be alive. Lorna did all that, and a lot more that I could never explain to anybody.”
“Wow,” Matt said slowly.
“Sorry,” Jamie blushed. “That was….”
“Pretty much,” he conceded. “Feel free now to mock me relentlessly for being a sap, I deserve it.”
“No, man. All that stuff. All that stuff you said, that’s exactly… That’s exactly what I want to be for Donna. What Lorna was to you. What Mac was to Mom. Donna just needs someone to believe in her, you know? She could be a good person, then, I know it.”
“Good luck,” Jamie told his brother sincerely. “I honestly wish you guys the best.”
“You don’t hold it against her?” Matt couldn’t help thinking of the question Donna asked him earlier. “You don’t blame her for Kirk’s kidnapping, the way you blame Carl?”
“What are you doing on campus?” GQ asked Allie, surprised to find her there now that Summer session had officially begun.
“I’ve got classes to make up if I still want to graduate in four years. I missed a lot of school… you know, because of… stuff.”
GQ said, “Rick and Mindy sent me pictures from Hudson’s birthday party. They did a Spiderman theme. He had the whole outfit. Want to see?”
“No,” Allie told him in a voice no longer angry, just resigned to the fact that he’d never understand her decision, or her feelings about it.
“Okay,” GQ’s tone was the same, only in reverse.
“How’s Jen doing?” Allie changed the subject.
“She’s hanging in there. She thought she’d be starting the chemotherapy in preparation for her transplant by now, but there was a problem with her dad – “
“I know. Steven told me.”
“Steven,” GQ repeated, a combination of realizing that he should be grateful for the guy’s help, yet, nonetheless at the same time, uneasy. All of a sudden, Steven just seemed to be everywhere. Especially where he didn’t belong.
“Is she in pain?”
“Some. But, you know Jen, she plays it cool, no matter what. Thing I’m noticing the most is how tired she is. Weak. She’s barely eating.”
“That happens,” Allie agreed.
“Yeah, I guess you’d know.”
“Are you okay?” Allie asked GQ out of the blue.
“Sure. I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? Jen’s the one who’s sick.”
“And she’s the one who’s got everybody fussing around her. Not that she doesn’t deserve it, she does. But, taking care of somebody who’s sick, being strong for them, it can get tough, too. Except nobody really cares.”
“I’m not actually taking care of her. Not the way you… with Gregory.”
“You’re putting on a happy face for her, aren’t you?”
“I’m trying my best.”
“It’s not easy, is it?”
“No. Gotta admit, it’s a lot tougher than I expected. I feel so helpless, too. I want to do something for her. But, there’s nothing for me to do. Except maybe make the waiting a little easier, distract her for a bit or something. It’s not like Steven. He got to go and… It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is Jen getting better.”
“You matter, too,” Allie insisted. “She’s got you. Who have you got?”
“You?” GQ asked, trying to play it off as a joke, surprised by how much he meant it.
“If you need me,” Allie said. “Then, yeah. You’ve got me.”
“I hope you’re happy,” Charlie snapped to Zeno, having driven all the way to Oakdale to deliver her message personally.
She found him in the storehouse, taking inventory the old fashioned way – by counting the supplies and writing down the results… on his iPad.
“I usually am,” he agreed, though he didn’t exactly look it at the moment. The crushing heat had left Zeno’s T-shirt soaked through with sweat, humidity tightening up his ebony curls, but not enough to keep Zeno’s hair from falling into his eyes. He kept swiping at them, irritated, then wiping his hand on his pants before returning to the iPad.
“I talked with Kirkland like you told me to.”
“I didn’t tell you to do anything, Charlie,” Zeno’s eyes remained pasted on his work. Which somehow made him easier to talk to. But, also more irritating. It was very confusing, actually. “I merely made a suggestion. Primarily to shut you up.”
“Well, I took your stupid suggestion.”
“Guess I don’t have to ask how it went then.”
“Kirk said he was nervous whenever we were, you know, doing it at my house. Because he was afraid my parents might come in at any minute, or they could, like, hear us through the walls or something.”
“Yeah, so we were at Donna’s place today and…”
“And what?” Again, Zeno didn’t deem his question important enough to require looking up.
“And nothing. I mean, it was exactly the same. Kirkland seemed real happy, like usual, and me…. You were just wrong, that’s all. Talking doesn’t help anything.”
Zeno shrugged. “Beats whining.”
“I am not whining!”
“You are. Incessantly. And about the wrong thing, too! I don’t know why you’re so hung up on blaming yourself instead of Kirkland.”
“I told you. Because he’s – “
“Happy with how things are going. You’re not. How do you expect anything to change unless you actually take action and do something about it?”
“You didn’t. You’re too scared to really tell Kirkland what’s going on; who knows why, though.”
“I am not!”
“My money is on you don’t want to hear the answer.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Okay.” Unlike most people, Zeno didn’t seem adverse to being called an idiot. “Then maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe you already know what the problem is; you’re just too scared to admit it. Even to yourself.”
“I told you what the problem is. It’s me. Telling Kirkland will just make things worse.”
“Damn it, Charlie!” Zeno flung down his iPad and strode over, suddenly towering over her, looking down at Charlie so intensely, it certainly made up for all his indifference of only minutes before.
“W-What?” she swallowed hard, wondering why it seemed to have gotten about a hundred degrees hotter?
He rested his hand on her waist. She glanced down, staring like it was an utterly foreign object, yet making no move to stop him. Not even when Zeno slid it over Charlie’s hip and down her leg, then up and under her skirt.
Zeno’s hand cupped her, his fingers moving slowly, but with a definite purpose, expertly stroking and searching.
“Did you lose something in there?” Charlie, too stunned to do anything else, struggled to keep her voice flip.
“Shut up,” he advised. Almost helpfully. Certainly not unpleasantly.
To be honest, there wasn’t anything unpleasant about what he was currently doing.
Zeno zeroed in on a key spot, prompting Charlie to gasp and instinctively lean against him.
He moved his two middle fingers in lazy circles, starting broadly, then moving closer and tightening with every caress until Charlie’s gasp turned into a near-growl. Her arms went around Zeno’s shoulders and she clung to him, needing help remaining upright as her legs seemingly melted underneath her and she simmered from the inside outward.
Zeno used his free arm to grab Charlie by the elbow, steadying her as, with one final prompt from him, she trembled and whimpered, thighs contracting tightly around Zeno’s wrist, back arching, her fingers digging into his shirt, knees buckling completely.
Zeno continued standing patiently as he was, letting Charlie catch her breath. Only once he believed she’d regained adequate control of herself did Zeno smoothly release his grip.
He took a step back. He told Charlie, “It’s not you. It’s him.”
“What the hell is going on?” Steven demanded, having arrived in Jen’s room to see her surrounded by frantic doctors and nurses, and blaring equipment. And Jen lying still on the bed, seemingly unresponsive.
No one paid any attention to him, so Steven asked his question again. Louder this time. The only thing his act achieved was a nurse breaking away from the throng to escort him, politely but firmly, from the room.
Steven pushed her aside, in no mood to be polite. Which, in turn, prompted an orderly. Larger, firmer, definitely less gracious, to physically steer him into the hallway.
“Just tell me what’s happened,” Steven tried begging where demands had failed.
“Wait for the doctor,” was the only response he received.
He didn’t try entering the room again, but Steven still insisted on peering through the window. He dialed his dad, but Jamie let the call go to voice-mail.
He was about to try John or Russ, when the frenzied activity in Jen’s room seemed to slow down somewhat, and Alice broke away from the still urgent huddle to step outside and address Steven.
“Jen had another cardiac episode,” Alice explained. “Similar to what happened the first time in court. We’ve got her stabilized now.”
“So she’s going to be okay?”
Alice hesitated. “Her immune system is failing. That’s trigging all sorts of catastrophic responses among her other systems. She needs that transplant. Sooner rather than later.”
“How soon?” Steven swallowed hard.
“We may have to go ahead and start the chemotherapy even before Mr. Johnson is approved for donation.”
“But, if he’s not… Dad said…”
“And he was right. But, we can’t really let this drag on for much longer. Chemotherapy takes several weeks to destroy all of Jen’s own bone marrow. That should be enough time for Jamie to make his case in front of the Ethics Committee.”
“You think they might not allow Horace to be Jen’s donor? What’s the alternative?”
“Let’s just hope for the best, honey.”
“No.” Steven shook his head. “I’m sorry, no. That’s not how I operate.”
“There’s really nothing you can do about this,” Alice said gently. Her It’s also none of your business tactfully implied.
Jamie hesitated, debating the best way to answer Matt. “I do hold it against Donna.”
“But, not in the same way. Yes, Donna brought the compound to Bay City when she kidnapped Jenna and Dean and Felicia. But, Donna is… Donna doesn’t think through what she’s doing most of the time – no offense.”
“I honestly believe that Donna never imagined her actions might put Steven and Kirkland and the rest in danger. As soon as she did, she went on TV with that ultimately stupid threat about the file she didn’t even have. But, it got the job done. Until Carl decided he needed to see Donna punished, and put everything else into motion. And Carl always thinks his plans through. He wouldn’t be Carl if he didn’t.”
“You think Carl knew Kirkland was going to be kidnapped?” Matt gulped.
“The moment he decided to move the target from Donna’s back to Spencer’s, he had to assume it was at least a possibility. And there’s one more thing. The one thing that tells me Carl is more dangerous than Donna could ever be. It’s the reason I’m able to – if not exactly overlook, then, at least, discount – Spencer and Lucas’ roles in what happened. The three of them were in it together. Carl, Lucas, Spencer. I hate that they decided to launch this war, but, the key is, they were in it together. Until Carl changed the rules at the last minute. It was him selling out Spencer that led directly to Kirk’s kidnapping. And to Spencer’s death. That’s why, no matter how many times I’m told that Carl would never, ever turn on one of us that way, I can’t trust him. Which means I can’t trust Mom. She gave him the okay for all of it. She admits it. Carl convinced her his actions were necessary, that they were acceptable. My mother put my son’s life in danger on the word of her husband. I can’t get past that. I’ve tried. I can’t.”
“So are you mad at me for moving back here? United front and all? We agreed to be in this together and I bailed. Weren’t you just bad-mouthing Carl for doing the exact same thing?”
“Don’t take offense, Matt, but your crimes aren’t exactly up to Carl’s level.”
“Again, none taken. What I meant was, you, me, and Amanda thought we could pressure Mom into cutting ties with Carl by working together. I’ve broken ranks.”
“You had a good reason. Besides, Mom being forced to put up with Donna is punishment enough, don’t you think?”
“I think her coping strategy is just being wherever Donna is not at any given time.”
“Mom’s not a dumb woman. Or a weak one. But, there is a limit to how much even she can take. I actually meant to check on her while I was here.”
“She’s out, I think. But, listen, Jamie, if you’ve got a minute….”
“My last conversation that started this way didn’t end well,” Jamie recalled the earlier pleasantries with Carl, that quickly escalated into threats.
“Never mind. Sure.” Jamie gave Matt his full attention. “What’s on your mind?”
“Not a surprise.”
“She won’t have sex with me,” Matt blurted out. Before he lost his courage.
“That… is.” Jamie instantly and instinctively went into professional, non-judgmental mode.
“Are you sure?” Jamie asked.
“Say what? You think I don’t know when – “
“What I meant was, are you sure it’s a case of her not wanting to, instead of just Donna being tired, or busy, or oblivious? You’d be surprised how often two people, especially couples, can see the same situation from completely different points of view.”
“Are you quoting Star Wars to me?”
“No, Matt, I am actually answering your question. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I know that Donna doesn’t want to have sex with me, because she told me so herself.”
“Okay. Well, that’s different, then. Did she tell you why?”
“Because. She’s afraid my heart will explode out of my chest.”
“Now who’s quoting science-fiction movies?”
“Like brother, like… Anyway, that’s pretty much what she said.”
Jamie confessed, “After Lorna’s head injury, I was kind of nervous myself in that regard.”
“Judging by the two babies in the space of a year, I’m going to guess you got over it.”
“I did. Would you like me to talk to Donna?”
“About our love life? God, no.”
“I’m a doctor. And I’ve been there.”
“Can’t I just tell her you said we were cool?”
“If you’d prefer.”
“Trust me, I’d prefer. And we are cool, right?”
“Pretty much. And, just in case Donna declines to take my word for it; I’m not one of her favorite people, after all – “
“Actually, that’s your wife. You, Donna doesn’t mind so much.”
“ – I’ll text you some links to a few medical journal studies for back up.”
“Good luck, Matt.”
His brother only grunted in return.
“You’re right,” Rachel swore to her husband, equal parts frustrated and furious. “Chase Hamilton is utterly intractable. He’s spiteful and malicious and – and pig-headed!”
“I am so very sorry you were forced to subject yourself to that ogre’s malevolence. If I could have done anything to spare – “
“There’s nothing you could have done! You were right from the start. Hamilton was gunning for you, and only you. He’s proclaimed himself not only your prosecutor, but judge, jury, and executioner! There’s no reasoning with him. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I should have believed you straight off the bat. Going on bended knee to that man was an exercise in futility. I should have never doubted you.”
“You have no idea how much it means to me to hear you say that, Rachel,” Carl exhaled in relief, taking his wife into his arms, feeling as if a humungous burden had been lifted off his shoulders.
“The only way to deal with someone like that is to fight him, fire with fire, I realize that now.”
“Thank you, my darling.” Carl dipped his head to kiss his wife.
She returned his affection, continuing to talk even as Carl moved from her lips to her neck, unbuttoning Rachel’s blouse, removing his own clothes, both falling onto their bed, finally together again, the way they should have been from the beginning.
“You have every right to do what you’re doing,” Rachel went on, unremitting. “You’ll never get a fair trial in Bay City, not with Hamilton pulling the strings, using his old connections in the DA’s office. Leaving his jurisdiction is the only sensible thing to do; somewhere where he has no influence, where you’ll have the chance to defend yourself without your past or other preconceived notions affecting the decision.”
“Thank you, darling, thank you,” Carl couldn’t stop repeating, couldn’t stop swearing, “I never doubted your love for me, your loyalty, your fidelity.”
He made love to Rachel that night ecstatic that his wife finally understood what he’d spent so long trying to explain to her, and that Rachel was now willing to stand by him, to abscond the country with Carl no matter what the consequences might turn out to be down the line.
At the same time, Rachel made love to her husband regretfully, mournfully, stressing how much she loved him, how much she supported and trusted him. While also saying good-by.
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