“Is the coast clear?” Marley made a big show of checking behind drapes and under the rug for a potentially lurking Iris in an attempt to make Sarah laugh.
“She’s gone,” Sarah reassured, though a weak smile was the most she appeared willing to muster in response.
“Are you alright?” Marley perched on the edge of Sarah’s bed.
“Want to try that again?” Marley offered teasingly. “And see if you can really convince me, this time?”
“Iris wanted me to come home with her.”
“I’m not surprised. I’m sure Iris is very worried about you.”
“She claims you’re manipulating me. That this is you and my mom 2.0.”
Marley swallowed hard, nodding her head. “I can see why Iris would think that.”
“I told her she was totally off the mark. You’ve been nicer to me than anybody since I set foot in Bay City.”
“Thank you…” Marley began, then trailed off, as if confirming the fact were something to be ashamed of.
“I’m sorry about Iris,” Sarah pleaded. “Next time she comes by, feel free not to let her in. Tell her I told you to do it. Make me the bad guy. I don’t want her messing with your head.”
Marley continued her earlier thought, “Grant thinks I’m being too nice to you.”
“Grant thinks I’m making things too easy for you now. And that my coddling will only make matters worse for you in the long run. He’s worried that if I keep taking care of you like this, you won’t get a true picture of just how difficult raising a baby on your own will be. He’s afraid you’ll be in for a huge fall, not to mention shock, once the baby is born and you’re responsible for it. He wonders if maybe you’ll start resenting the baby for ruining your life. All because of me.”
“Grant is wrong,” Sarah hissed. “I know what it means to take care of a baby. And I know what it’s like to grow up with a mom who blames you for… everything. Trust me, I am so not charging into this blind. Or stupid. And you are most certainly not the one encouraging me or leading me on or whatever Grant thinks.”
“You’re going to need help,” Marley said reasonably. “And I am happy to help you. But only if that’s what you really want.”
“I don’t want to impose,” Sarah said.
Marley burst out laughing. “Listen to us! Both being so polite and gracious! I don’t want to impose on you and you don’t want to impose on me and…”
“I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me. And, I promise, I am taking this seriously, I really am. I know having a baby alone isn’t easy. I know my whole life is going to change. I know I’ll probably miss a lot of regular, normal things. I also know that, if I wanted to, I could make this all go away. But, I don’t. I want to have this baby. And, if you’re cool with it, I want you around when I do. Forget Iris, okay? Tell her to butt out. Or I will, next time I see her. This isn’t any of her business.”
“What about the father?” Marley prodded gently. “I know you said he isn’t in the picture, but, does he know…”
“He knows.” Sarah crossed her arms and looked away. “He doesn’t care.”
“Maybe it was just a shock to him. Maybe if you gave him some time to – “
“He’s had plenty of time.”
“After the baby is born, then. You never know, he could still change his mind.”
“It’ll be too late, then,” Sarah said. “Too late for him. Too late for the baby. Too late for me.”
Marley nodded in understanding even as she asked, “Did you love him, Sarah?”
The younger woman hesitated. Then, very, very slowly bobbed her chin, just once.
“Do you love him still?”
This, she had a very concrete answer to. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“You wanted to know how much my daughter’s life was worth?” Kevin turned his briefcase upside down, raining a million dollars of large bills over Horace’s apartment floor. “Is it worth this much to you?”
To his credit, Horace’s expression suggested things like this happened to him every day. He barely glanced down at the piles gathering around his feet, keeping his eyes coolly on Kevin and Steven. “Big fan of the dramatic gestures, aren’t you, Counselor?”
“Is it enough?” Kevin demanded through clenched teeth.
“Looks to be,” Horace smiled pleasantly.
“Make the call,” Steven indicated Horace’s phone. “Call my dad. Schedule that bone marrow extraction. Now.”
“And you’d better be there,” Kevin added. “Ready, willing, and able.”
Horace smirked, but did as they commanded, dialing Jamie’s number and setting up a time for the next day, assuring Dr. Frame that he was feeling fine.
“You had this planned all along, didn’t you?” Kevin accused. “Taking it down to the wire, driving us all nearly out of our minds.”
“Life’s never easy. Some of us are born knowing that. Some of us need a little schooling on the matter.”
“You listen to me, you son of a bitch. You whisper a word of this to Jenny – “
“Now, see here, I kind of figured you’d be taking care of all that.”
“I’m not going to tell her,” Kevin said. “There is no reason for Jenny to know exactly what kind of lowlife scum you really are.”
“Isn’t that what you spent close to fifteen years telling her already? You and Miss Camille? What kind of little girl gets it into her head to “sever her parent’s rights.” You think that’s common curriculum in your average second grade uptown? Or even downtown, for that matter? You and that high and mighty grandmother of hers messed with Jennifer's mind, convinced her this is what she wanted, then wrote her a little speech for the judge. You two may have fooled him. You never fooled me.”
“You think Jen required being manipulated into thinking you put your cigarettes out on her skin?” Steven exploded.
Leading to both Horace and Kevin to stare at him in shock.
“Jenny told you that?” Kevin asked, stunned. “Jenny never…”
“I’m not an idiot,” Steven said. “What else leaves perfect, round marks like that?”
“It was an accident,” Horace at least had the decency to mumble and look embarrassed.
“You accidentally burned a straight line down the inside of her wrist?”
“I was trying to teach her a lesson, alright?”
“Well, she learned it, believe me,” Kevin spat, looking ill.
“You’re damn right she did! I was talking about her mother and those damn needles she stuck up her arms until it killed her. I was trying to demonstrate for Jennifer how much it hurt, so she’d never be tempted to even try it or think about it. And look at her now. You think it was all your doing, her growing up way she did? Well, trust me, I had something to do with it, too. I scared her straight, don’t you have any doubts about that.”
“Look at her now?” Kevin roared. “I would love to look at my daughter now. Except I can’t. Because she’s in an isolation ward, waiting for you to stop your goddamn stalling and save her life. I’m not going to tell Jenny anything about this. I am going to let her think you finally came through. That you’re the hero she deserves to have for a father. But, you listen to me, Johnson. I’m warning you. You make this happen, or, so help me, you’re going to wish they’d left you in jail to rot.”
All it took was quick peek at Allie and Zeno sitting on the stairs that led up to the BCU Quad, her legs over his lap, her hand intertwined with his, Allie’s head resting on Zeno’s shoulder, and Charlie knew. It was obvious. They’d slept together. Damn recently.
“Hey, Charlie,” Allie raised her head to offer the greeting, keeping the sun out of her eyes with her palm as she glanced up and smiled. “What are you doing here? I thought Kirk said something about Sarah Lawrence for you.”
“I deferred. Kirk is staying in town. So I’m staying with him.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” Allie said in a tone that made Charlie want to reach over and strangle her. She made it sound like Charlie and Kirkland were little kids. While Allie and Zeno, obviously, were much more mature and sophisticated.
“So where’s Kirkland?” Zeno spoke up.
“I dunno,” Charlie shrugged. “I’m just here to sign up for some classes. Only way my Mom and Dad would let me take the year off.”
“Are they still… wherever?” Zeno wondered.
“Yeah. Switzerland, this week, I think.”
“You must be lonely,” Allie said. “Lucky Felicia was able to step in and keep an eye on you.”
“Felicia is babysitting Lori Ann,” Charlie stressed her baby sister’s name. “Not me. She can’t tell me what to do. I’m an adult. I’m even thinking of moving out.”
“Why?” Allie wondered. “Donna’s house is certainly plenty big enough. Why would you want to give up the maid service and the cooks and the pool and everything else…”
“Because some of us aren’t like you, Allie. Some of us prefer to be independent. And grown up.”
If Charlie had been hoping to level her newfound nemesis flat with the snide reference to Allie still living at Rachel’s house, it didn’t appear to have had much of an effect. Allie merely shrugged. “I found out couple of years ago that being a grown up is highly overrated.”
“Zeno doesn’t think so, do you, Zeno?” Charlie challenged. “You’ve been on your own how long?”
“Too long,” he said, looking at the other girl with a moony expression on his face that made Charlie want to barf. “Allie is right. Adulthood isn’t everything it's cracked up to be. If you have the option of putting it off for just a few more years, I say go ahead and take it. Plenty of time to be responsible and stressed and overworked down the line.”
“Well, then, I guess you got lucky when my mom swooped in and dropped a chunk of change on you to make things better, huh?”
If Charlie had been hoping to embarrass Zeno, that didn’t go too well, either.
“I got very lucky,” Zeno said. “And I’m real grateful to Frankie for making things a little easier for me. Everybody at the farm is.”
Damn. Was nothing going to spoil their cumulative, mellow moods this morning? Charlie wanted to stick out her tongue. She wanted to stomp her foot and march off in a huff. The only problem was, she suspected neither of them would know why. Or care.
Instead, all she said was, “I guess I’ll see you guys around campus, then.”
They both nodded absentmindedly. So that when Charlie did stomp off in a toned down version of a huff, the entire effort was wasted on them.
“It’s good to see you,” Rachel told Felicia hesitantly, both of them anxious around the other, well aware that any wrong move or word could well prove an insurmountable obstacle to their thirty years of friendship.
“How are you holding up?” Felicia asked.
“I’m not,” Rachel confessed. “I feel like I’ve been crushed into little pieces, and all of them are out there, just floating around, bearing no resemblance to me or the person I used to think I was. There’s nothing solid left, I’m afraid. Except for the pain.”
“I’ve been there,” Felicia said. “When I thought I’d lost Luke. I’ve been exactly there. And the only solid thing I could think of to hold onto, was the bottle.”
“Do you remember talking me down from there? Do you remember trying to get through to me, trying to make me see what I was throwing away? Whom I was throwing away?”
Rachel turned her back. “Don’t do this, Felicia. If that’s all you came here to say, then, please, just turn around and walk back out the door. It’s best for both of us. Trust me.”
“Frankie and Cass called me from St. Petersburg,” Felicia refused to back down. The same way Rachel had refused to back down almost twenty years ago, when Felicia had been the one uninterested in hearing what she had to say. “They’ve located the body-guard who supposedly went down with Carl and the children’s plane.”
Rachel’s back shook, as if she’d been struck from behind. “A-alive?”
“Very much alive.”
Rachel spun around, unable to take it. “Were Carl and – “
“No,” Felicia shook her head. “They weren’t there with him. At least, not that Frankie and Cass were able to find.”
Rachel’s sigh of relief seemed the exact opposite of what a woman who’d just been told her husband and children were still presumed dead might express. And yet, that was quite obviously what she felt.
“You’re happy that they weren’t there?” Felicia clarified. “You’d rather your family be dead than – “
Rachel refused to let Felicia finish her thought, because that truly would be too horrible to hear spoken out loud. Instead, she cut her off with, “I’m happy my husband remains a man of honor. Despite what the rest of you might think.”
“Your husband,” Felicia stressed. “Began planning the abduction of your children days – perhaps, weeks – before he actually did it. How honorable is that?”
“How would you know?”
“The bodyguard. He told Cass and Frankie that Carl wanted him to help with kidnapping Elizabeth and Cory. The guard refused, which is when Carl dismissed him and had him shipped off to Europe for good measure, to make sure he kept his mouth shut.”
“And you accept his word at face value?”
“What reason would he have to lie?”
“What reason would he have to tell the truth? For all you know, Carl had him transferred to Europe and forged his name on the flight manifest as a favor, because this guard was attempting to cover up crimes committed in the US. He could just as easily have been deliberately feeding Cass and Frankie false information for his own reasons.”
“Okay,” Felicia nodded. “I don’t want to fight with you, Rachel, honestly I do not. I just felt you deserved to be kept up to date. I wanted you to know everything that Frankie and Cass were doing, and what they’d unearthed. That way, nothing will come as too large of a shock down the line when – ”
“Felicia,” Rachel pleaded. “Don’t you think I wish I could be like you? That I could believe my children were still alive, and all it required were Cass and Frankie putting on a pair of moth-worn costumes, and maybe some accents, and this great mystery would be solved and Cory and Elizabeth would be back home, no worse for wear?”
“You certainly didn’t seem that way earlier,” Felicia accused.
“Do you think I don’t understand how much you miss Lorna? How much her babies miss her? How much Jamie misses her? Do you think I’m so wrapped up in my own grief that I’ve gone blind to others’ suffering?”
“No,” Felicia said. “But, I do think that you’ve decided Jamie and Lorna’s children and I deserve it – because Lorna is the one to blame for all your troubles in the first place.”
“I never said that!”
“Carl did. To Lorna. He warned her she’d be sorry she ever got between him and you.”
“Lorna heard a threat every time Carl opened his mouth. I wouldn’t put much stock in her portents of doom. Unless it was a guilty conscience talking. The fact is, everything was fine between Carl and my children. Until Lorna got back to town. And filled Jamie with the same paranoia she’s been stewing in since – “
“She was thirteen years old!”
“Go, Felicia.” Rachel reverted to her initial plea. “Please, just go. We’re both too raw yet. Neither one of us needs this right now. Please. Leave.”
“This is a school? For kids? School kids?” Frankie couldn’t help gaping in equal parts shock and awe as she and Cass, in their chauffeured limousine – one had to know how to make an appropriate entrance under the circumstances – drove over the landscaped twenty-eight hectares that lead to Switzerland’s famed Le Rosey boarding school.
“Summer campus,” Cass clarified. “The Winter locale is at the Chalet Rex.”
Cast iron gates closed behind them and trees bloomed on either side of a stone path, only interrupted here and there for a bubbling spring, playing field or conservatory of flowers.
“That’s the girls’ campus,’ Cass indicated four maisons off to the side. “They join the boys in the main area for their studies, though.”
“And what’s that?” Frankie indicated what appeared to be a large, glowing dome made out of silver and looking distinctively out of place amongst the pastoral serenity.
“They’re building an 800 seat auditorium and symphony hall, along with a library. It’s going to be among the largest in the world once it’s finally completed.”
“School kids,” Frankie repeated. “Teenagers?”
“The best and the brightest. And the richest,” Cass clarified. “And before we get too comfortable sitting in judgment, we did send Charlie to private school, too.”
“You’re comparing Bay City Latin to this place? This place puts your average college to shame. Heck, it puts any college to shame!”
“Since when are you so easily impressed by some well-trimmed grounds and a world-class science center? Whatever happened to it’s what’s on the inside that counts?”
“When your outside looks like this, who’s going to bother checking out the inside? This isn’t fair, Cass. How are our kids supposed to compete with teen-agers who’ve spent their high-school years composing symphonies, reading The Odyssey in the original Greek, and splitting atoms as an elective while ours were playing the recorder, complaining that Shakespeare’s English is too hard, and cutting up frogs?”
“When Charlie listed herself as a conscientious objector to frog dissection, you agreed with her,” Cass reminded, deeply amused by his wife's uncharacteristic freak out. “You also,” he couldn’t help adding, “Told her she was free to defer college for a year.”
“Did you know places like this existed?” Frankie demanded.
“I did. I grew up around these kinds of people. I worked with them, too. You knew Amanda went to boarding school. So did Marley.”
“Yes, and so did Jenna. But, that was just a nice, modest convent. Not… not… Hogwarts!”
“Feeling bad the owl never dropped you off an invitation?” Cass sympathized.
“I had no idea I wanted one! I mean, I knew private schools were usually better equipped and better staffed and better maintained than public schools. That’s why I had no problem with Charlie going to Bay City Latin. But, I never imagined the difference was so huge on the other side, either. I thought we were giving our daughter the best. And then I saw this place.”
“Exactly,” Cass said, signaling for the driver to stop at the front doors to the main building. “Le Rosey is the undisputed best boarding school in all of Europe. Which means Carl Hutchins would have definitely started here when it came to getting his kids an education. Carl knows all about those cross-cultural gaps you mentioned. And I suspect he’ll be damned before he lets Cory and Elizabeth fall into one. Exile or not.”
“Hello, Steven,” Marley pecked her nephew on the cheek. “What brings you by?”
“I wanted to see Midget,” he explained. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been… busy. I’m sorry about that.”
“I’ll get them,” Grant offered, stepping to the bottom of the stairs and managing to call up without raising his voice, “Michele, Bridget! Come down, please, your brother is here to see you.”
“How have you been?” Marley wondered.
“Busy,” he repeated vaguely.
“And your dad?” Marley ventured. “How’s he?”
“If he needs any help, any help at all, with your sisters or anything, please let him know that I…”
“I think you’re currently doing enough, Marley,” Grant cut her off somewhat warningly. “Don’t you?”
“I was just saying – “
“Has Jamie had any luck convincing Kirkland not to defer Notre Dame for the fall?” Grant wondered.
“I don’t think so. Kirk’s a stubborn kid. And he’s got a big heart.”
“Just like Vicky,” Grant and Marley said in unison, prompting all three of them to smile wistfully.
“Yeah,” Steven conceded. “It’s a… tricky combination.”
“Steven!” His sisters descended upon him, nearly knocking their big, strong brother off his feet, each one attempting to be the first to hug him and receive a hug in return.
“Gently!” Suddenly trapped in a swarm of arms and legs and ponytails, Steven laughed and did his best Princess Bride imitation. “Two against one isn’t fair!”
“Where have you been?” Michele demanded.
“I’m here now. Appreciate it!”
“Did you come to see Sarah, too?” Bridget asked.
“Sarah?” Steven frowned, confused, setting both girls down. “Why would I come here to see Sarah?”
“Because she’s living with us now,” Bridget reported happily.
“She’s going to have a baby,” Michele added. “And we’re going to get to help take care of it!”
“Sarah is…” Steven’s voice trailed off. While his gaze settled squarely on Grant.
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