“Right there… Ahhh…. Perfect….” Cass purred in a combination of agony and ecstasy as Frankie applied aloe vera lotion to the sunburned patches on the back of his neck, acquired during their ill-fated attempt to escape their gilded cage with a quick dash to the American embassy. Earlier, he’d done the same for Frankie, resulting in his wife sitting in front of him completely nude, with splotches of greenish-white goo dotting her nose, cheeks, ears, collar-bones, forearms and feet.
Frankie perched back on both heels to study her handiwork and observed, “Crimson is definitely not your color.”
“Why I never went for that whole red power tie look during the 80s.”
“I don’t think red power noses were ever in fashion.”
“I could have made it work,” Cass assured. “I just chose not to.”
She smiled in spite of the crinkling sensation that produced in her skin, then sighed. Aware that they were most likely still being eavesdropped on, she said, “Didn’t find exactly what we were looking for in the marketplace today, did we?”
Cass followed her lead, reminding, “Don’t worry. The perfect souvenir is out there. If it fell out of our reach today, we’ll look again tomorrow and the next day and the next. We can’t give up now. Felicia and the girls are counting on us to bring them back something really special from our travels.”
“We won’t let them down,” Frankie agreed.
Cass said, “One thing I think we did learn today is that crowds are definitely not our thing.”
“No. This city is packed, especially in the middle of the day. If we wanted that, we could have gone to New York or Hong Kong or Calcutta.”
“Right. Vacation means getting away from it all. What’s the point of doing the exact same thing on vacation as you would have back home? You know what we can’t do at home?” Cass spoke up as if the idea had suddenly come to him.
“Go sand boarding.”
“Sand boarding?” Frankie’s surprise this time around was genuine. She wasn’t playing along anymore, she really had no idea what he was talking about.
“Sand boarding,” Cass repeated. “It’s Dubai’s most popular outdoor sport.”
“Uhm…” Again, her hesitation was real. Frankie indicated their currently char-broiled states and said, “I don’t know if outdoor…”
“It’s done in the evenings,” Cass reassured. “There was a brochure about it downstairs. You take a jeep out to the dessert in the afternoon, enjoy some sand boarding, followed by a moonlight supper out on the dunes, some belly-dancing for our entertainment, and then a night in a private tent underneath the stars. How does that sound?”
“Anything at night sounds good,” Frankie confirmed truthfully, while chewing over the rest. She said, “It will be wonderful to get out of the heat….”
“And away from the crowds,” he prompted.
“Just the two of us?” She double-checked. “At night?”
“Well, we won’t be all alone,” he reassured, as if that were the gist of Frankie’s concern. “Don’t worry. There’s a guide along for the ride. He’ll have a jeep standing by so that in case anything happens, we’re just a quick ride from civilization.”
“Oh,” Frankie said, understanding dawning. “So it’s not like we’ll be stranded out there all by ourselves.”
“No. We’ll have everything we need,” he told her meaningfully.
“I love you,” Frankie told her husband, leaning in to kiss him.
Cass’ last words, as he gingerly rolled over onto his back were, “Gently….”
“Out of the question,” Iris informed Sarah calmly, declining to raise her voice one iota. Also declining to offer her granddaughter any further say in the matter. “Under no circumstances are you to so much as consider, much less go through with, handing over my flesh-and-blood to that viper of a woman and her dim-witted child groom. I simply will not stand for it.”
“You were adopted,” Sarah reminded. “And having Mac Cory for a father was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“First of all, Mackenzie Cory turned out to be my biological father, as well.”
“But, he didn’t know that. And he loved you just the same.”
“And second of all, are you genuinely comparing Donna Love to my Daddy?”
“I’m just pointing out that your birth mother did what she thought was best for you. I’m trying to do the same for my baby.”
“By giving it to Donna?”
“She wants a baby so much,” Sarah tried to make her grandmother understand.
Iris easily read the subtext of Sarah’s words. “Your mother and father wanted you.”
“No, they didn’t,” Sarah said, long past bitterness these days, well into acceptance. “My mom didn’t want a baby. She wanted Sam’s baby, so she could keep him from going back to Amanda. When she got pregnant by my dad she figured, oh, well, good enough. Then, when it wasn’t enough to keep Sam, she decided to give me away. Dennis guilted her into keeping me.”
“Because he wanted you!”
“Because he didn’t want me growing up like he did, not knowing who his real father was. He didn’t want a baby either. He wanted to make a point. To you. That he wasn’t going to follow in your footsteps.”
“Dennis was right. I did a terrible thing to him and Alex.”
“Okay. But, why did I have to be the one to suffer for it?”
“The circumstances of your childhood may have been less than ideal, my darling, I freely admit as much. And I am ever so sorry that I was unable to play a larger role in it. Oh, I so would have adored watching you grow up, spoiling you the way only a grandmother can. I wanted to, I would have. If only…”
“You hadn’t gone to prison. I know.”
“I am attempting to make up for my mistakes now. I swear, I will help you with this child. Anything you need, as much as you need. I won’t let you down again. And, if you genuinely believe that Dennis’ failure as a parent stemmed from my personal errors in judgment that took place during his childhood – “
“You dumped him on a guy you lied about being his dad and ran off to Europe.”
“Then, please, allow me to make up for that, as well.”
“Elliot Carrington was the only real parent my dad ever had. His adoptive dad.”
“Again, comparing Elliot to Donna is obscene. The man went justifiably mad after being tortured in a Cambodian prisoner-of-war camp and still, on his worst days, Elliot’s mind was sounder than Donna Love on her best.”
“It’s Donna Cory now,” Sarah noted. “I thought you’d like that. My baby will be a Cory.”
“Matthew is no true child of my father’s,” Iris scoffed.
“Mac treated him like he was. Everybody says so. It makes a nice symmetry, don’t you think? Mac adopted Matt, and now Matt…”
“This isn’t about Matthew! Please, Sarah, refrain from treating me like a complete fool, and I will do the same with you.”
“Too late,” Sarah snapped. “You’re acting like you think I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t think it, my darling. I know it. Your actions leave no room for doubt.”
“Donna really wants this baby,” Sarah repeated slowly, pointedly. “She and Matt will take good care of it. Anyway, if she doesn’t get it – “
“What? What?” Iris leapt on the opening Sarah gave her. “What will she do? What has she threatened you with? She has threatened you, hasn’t she? I should have known. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.”
“Having Donna adopt my baby is the best thing for everyone,” Sarah said firmly, refusing to elaborate further, realizing a beat too late that she’d slipped and said too much.
“Whatever she’s holding over your head,” Iris pleaded. And Iris never pleaded. Except as a last resort. And when it really mattered. “I can help you. That’s what I’m here for. I realize I’ve failed you in the past. But, that pattern need not continue. I am fully able to protect you from any threat Donna Cory might believe herself capable of carrying out. She is nothing. Nothing, do you understand me? She is a wretched joke. You needn’t fear her silly, impotent wrath. Not with me in your corner.”
“No,” Sarah shook her head. “I’ve made up my mind. There’s nothing you can say or do…”
Sarah’s voice trailed off. Because the look that Iris was giving her now was no longer one of anger or resolve or even cajoling. It was a look of… pity?
Yes. Iris was looking at Sarah with genuine sympathy in her eyes.
“Oh, my darling.” Her grandmother appeared to be feeling legitimate compassion for the younger woman’s naiveté. “How very wrong you are about that.”
“You went to Alice Harrison with my suspicions about Rachel and Carl and Lorna?” Felicia asked Lucas, doing her best to keep the most blatant accusation out of her voice.
He nodded, spreading his arms and confessing, “I – I felt… I didn’t know where to turn.”
“You could have turned to me,” she reminded softly.
“No. I… couldn’t. I’m sorry, Fanny. I needed time to step back and think matters through, I needed someone who wasn’t as intimately involved, I needed…”
“Her,” Felicia guessed.
“Yes,” he exhaled, realizing there was nothing more to add.
“Only to talk?” Again, Felicia struggled to remain calm. “Is that all you needed from Alice? Or is there more, Luke?”
“I don’t know.” He offered the last answer Felicia wanted to hear or that he wanted to say. And yet it was the only honest one.
“How did this happen?” Her voice cracked. “How did we grow so far apart? We should be facing this together. Lorna is our daughter. Ours. Not….”
“I look at you, and I see her,” Lucas said. “I always have. Even before I knew who she really was. Sometimes I wonder if the reason for my extreme reaction to her from the beginning was because she somehow reminded me of the girl I’d lost. That memory made me so angry. I took that anger out on her.”
“But, you got past all that. We got past all that.”
“Yes. And then the exact same thing happened all over again. You and I, Fanny, we’ve known each other for close to forty-five years now.”
“Yes…. Oh, God, yes.”
“Yet, how many of those years have we spent together, and how many apart?”
“Timing has never been this family’s strong point, I agree,” Felicia added wryly, her indefatigable spirit making an appearance even amidst the pain.
Lucas smiled in response. “You want so badly for Lorna to still be alive.”
“Don’t you want that, too? Don’t you want Devon and Mackenzie to have their mother back? For Jamie to get his wife back? For our daughter to come home where she belongs?”
“Of course. But…”
“But, what? What, Luke? What? Tell me what’s holding you back from at least considering the possibility that…”
“I start to think about Lorna being held somewhere against her will, of her suffering, of her being tortured with the knowledge that her husband and children think she’s dead, of their moving on with their lives without her. You know how Lorna is. Can you imagine her doing anything but obsessing over the details of what she’s missing? What new word is Devon saying? Is Mackenzie rolling over? Is she smiling? What’s Devon’s favorite food? Her favorite toy? And Jamie… How can Lorna not be thinking about the hurt he’s going through? About how much he misses her. And about what he’s going to do next. The girls need a mother. Jamie knows that. Lorna knows that he knows that. Do you have any idea what it might be like for her, visualizing another woman eventually taking her place with Lorna’s own family? The family that she so desperately wanted her entire life? Don’t you see, Fanny, if someone who knew her well – someone like Carl – wanted to devastate Lorna, this is the absolutely worst thing they could do. Killing her – killing her would be nothing compared to this.”
“And you think that’s what I’m wishing on my own child?” The tears Felicia had managed to hold back throughout his desperate plea now flowed freely.
“No! No, of course not. No. But, that is what I think of every time you start to… It kills me, Fanny. It decimates me. It takes everything in me just to keep standing and moving and not to collapse into a heap from the sheer weight of….”
“Alice doesn’t make you feel this way?”
“No one does,” Lucas tried to make her understand. “I love you more than anyone in this world. So, of course it stands to reason that no one can hurt me as deeply.”
“I see.” Felicia squared her shoulders. “So what you are saying is, unless I let go of my faith in our daughter still being alive, you and I, we’re… through?”
“I never said any such thing!” Lucas raised his voice menacingly.
“What else was I supposed to infer from your words? You said that it hurt you, it pained you, it decimated you to be around me, to so much as look at me.”
“I can’t help how I feel.”
“Neither can I.”
“I know,” he agreed, looking close to tears himself.
“What are you doing?” Jen struggled to raise her head and get a good look at the figure standing in front of her.
Finally out of the isolation unit, she’d been moved to a regular room, which meant visitors were allowed. So far, GQ had filled the place with flowers, and her dad had tried to tempt Jen into eating by having her favorite foods delivered. Alice stopped by Jen’s apartment and brought her own clothes so Jen could feel more at home and Amanda had styled Jen’s hair and painted her fingernails to cheer her up.
Steven, however, was the only one who stopped by – after Visiting Hours were over, no less – carrying an actual duffle bag full of books.
“I thought you’d be itching to get back to work.” He proceeded to lift each tome out one by one and stacked them on her bedside table, shoving aside both the food tray and the vase of flowers, making it clear where they ranked in importance.
“I… I’m on leave.”
“From teaching classes,” he noted. “I figured you could at least knock out a paper or two while you’ve got all this free time. Show that you haven’t been slacking off or anything.”
“Slacking off,” Jen repeated.
“You know how those tenure committees are. Publish or perish.”
“I just came pretty close to doing the latter,” Jen reminded. “I think they’ll understand.”
“Yeah, well, why take the risk, right?” Steven handed her a stack of bound sheets. “Here you go. Hot off the press. This isn’t even due to be published till next year. I got you a preview galley. Didn’t want you to fall behind.”
“It’s okay,” Jen put the papers away without so much as looking at the cover. “Really, Steven, I – This was nice of you, but…”
“What are you afraid of?” he challenged.
“What? I’m not – “
“You are,” he said with such confidence, no one would dare question his conclusion.
Except well, maybe, Jen. “You have no idea what I’m feeling!”
“Yes, I do.” Same confidence. Despite having already been proven wrong. “Before you went into the hospital, you were terrified of getting chemo brain, losing your edge, not being able to keep up with your work. Anybody else in your position, they’d have spent the last few weeks staring at the walls, wondering if they were going to die. You… I bet you spent the whole time running equations in your head.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” Jen told him primly. “I was reconstructing sub-symbolic models from memory.”
“Wow. I didn’t realize things had gotten that bad.”
She smiled weakly, then swallowed hard and told him. “What if I can’t get it all back, Steven? I study the brain, for God’s sake, I know how things work. What if too much damage has been done?”
He pulled up a chair. He sat down next to her. He grabbed the galley, opened it to the first page and told her, “Read. One line at a time. One word at a time, if we have to. We can do this.”
“I – “
“We,” he stressed, and jabbed his finger at the first paragraph.
“I trust you’ve had ample time to consider my proposal?” Rachel was pleased that only Chase was home to greet her this time around. She was in no mood to climb back into the ring with Doug in his guard dog mode.
“No,” Chase said.
That threw her momentarily off-balance. “I – Are you still deciding – ”
“The answer to your proposal, Mrs. Hutchins, is no. And I barely needed any time to make my decision, either. I could have told you when you were last here, but that would have ruined your dramatic exit.”
Rachel cocked her head to one side and crossed her arms, studying him with fascination. “Are you seriously telling me that you are willing to sacrifice your previously very promising political career in the interest of protecting a woman who, I assure, wouldn’t hesitate to hang you out to dry should your positions ever become reversed?”
“Now, is that any way to speak about your stepdaughter?”
“That’s about the nicest thing I can say about Iris in public.”
“I am not sacrificing my career for Mrs. Wheeler. I am not accepting your offer because in order to give you what you want, I would have to lie. And that, believe it or not, is not the path to a thriving political career, either. I am no fool, Mrs. Hutchins. Why in the world would I ever give you that sort of leverage to hold over my head? I’ve seen the kinds of favors you ask of people in return.”
Rachel’s face colored as she realized he was referring to Lila. Unwilling to defend her actions there, she stuck to the topic at hand.
“All I am asking is for you to confirm that Iris knew you were going to withdraw Carl’s money from Cory Publishing before the rest of the world did. That isn’t a lie.”
“She didn’t know it from me,” Chase stressed. “Yes, she filled me in regarding Mr. Hutchins’ investment, and then she made the assumption of what I would do next and what effect that would have on Cory stock subsequently. But, I did not give her that information, which means there is nothing I can testify to for your purposes.”
“How very, very moral and upstanding of you,” Rachel taunted.
He smiled politely. “I realize you wouldn’t understand.”
“Is that supposed to be a braid?” Amanda asked her brother as Jamie, a restlessly wriggling Devon in his lap, fumbled uncomfortably with his daughter’s shoulder-length, ebony hair. “Or a pony-tail?”
Jamie pivoted the little girl so that his sister could take a better look at the back of her head. “You tell me.”
She held out her arms. “How about letting Aunt Amanda give it a try?”
“That would be greatly appreciated.” Jamie hoisted his daughter from between his own knees and plopped her to stand between Amanda’s. He watched Amanda endeavor to untangle his attempts before starting from scratch and, while she worked, asked, “Not that we’re not thrilled to see you, obviously, but I suspect there’s more to your visit than rescuing Devon from her useless Daddy’s hair-anoia.”
Amanda kept her voice neutral, so as not to twig Devon, as she caught up Jamie, “Horace Johnson is dead.”
“Yeah.” Jamie rubbed his chin. “I heard.”
“Kevin says that means the police are now looking to investigate a murder.”
Jamie nodded, this time not saying anything.
“Kevin also won’t tell me where he was the evening Johnson was shot.”
Jamie opened his mouth, closed it again, then asked, “You think he…”
“You saw how desperate he was. We literally thought Jen had no more than a few days left to live at that point.”
Jamie continued bobbing his head up and down in a rhythm out of synch with his words. And then, to prove just how well he understood, he said, “Steven won’t tell me where he was, either.”
Amanda inhaled sharply. “Steven? What does he….”
“He and Jen…”
“I thought she and GQ….”
“It’s kind of one-sided at this point. But, you know how my son gets. You know how loyal Steven is to people he cares about. There aren’t that many, so it all gets channeled, and not always in the most appropriate ways.”
“You’re afraid Steven…”
“You’re afraid Kevin…”
The bulk of their conversation took place between the words.
“What should we do?” Amanda asked.
“I don’t know,” Jamie confessed. Just when his phone vibrated. He saw who it was and answered before the ring-tone was even finished. Jamie listened to the entire message, ashen-faced. And then he told Amanda, “The Springfield PD have arrested a suspect.”
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