“Do you remember me?” Iris stretched her hand forward coyly. “You were still such a little boy when I left Bay City years ago.”
“I remember you,” Steven said, somewhat startled to see the woman he’d mostly heard about through family legend and innuendo, standing in the middle of BCU’s computer lab. “A little. You’re Sarah’s grandmother. You’re Mac’s daughter.”
“Yes,” Iris nodded, looking around. “My Daddy’s generosity practically constructed this university. He was an advocate of putting in computers long before technology became de rigueur. He believed in preparing young people for the future.”
“My Dad and Grandma and Amanda, they’ve told me a lot about him.”
“You were only a few months old when he died. It’s a shame you never got to know him. Oh, but how he doted on you when you were first born. Almost as if you truly were his grandson.”
Steven suspected he was being insulted. But, Steven was pretty hard to insult. Being literal minded helped a lot.
When Iris’ provocation failed to elicit a response, she altered tactics, telling Steven, “So open-minded of your father to appropriate Daddy’s name for his own use with your newest sister. I felt sure he would have opted to honor someone from his actual family in such a manner.”
“It made Grandma very happy,” Steven said neutrally.
“Indeed. Clearly, Rachel enjoyed conferring my father’s hard-won good name on Carl Hutchins’ infant so much, that made it fair game for all. Oh, well,” Iris sighed, resigned. “I suppose Daddy would have supported the decision. He did put family above all else.”
“So I heard.”
“What about you, Steven?” Iris asked, as if the notion had just come to her. “Are you a Cory in that regard?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I hear you’re a brilliant boy. Absolutely brilliant. You could have had your choice of any university in the country. Stanford. Cal Tech. MIT. What in the world prompted you to remain in this backwoods burg?”
“Well, to start with, I was only fourteen at the time.”
“That was undergraduate work. Surely, since then….”
“I like it here. My brother and sisters are here.”
“Ah, as I suspected. Tell me, Steven, do you visualize yourself spending the remainder of your life in Bay City? Settling down, getting married, raising a family….”
Steven’s eyes narrowed and he attempted to deflect by claiming, “I’ve never really given it that much thought. I still have my doctorate to finish.”
“With Mr. Todd? Another honorary member of the Cory family. He’s the father of Allie’s son, is he not?”
“Yeah.” Steven’s answers grew shorter and shorter as Iris’ line of questioning grew vaguer and vaguer.
“It would have been so difficult for him, I venture, attempting to complete his education while raising a child.”
“GQ figures he could have done it. Allie was the one who took the decision out of his hands.”
“Do you think it’s possible, though? Mixing parenthood with the level of work you’re attempting here?”
“Who cares what I think? Not my degree, not my kid.”
“But, you’re partners. A decrease in his active participation would have affected your progress, as well.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sometimes a little dense about things that aren’t spelled out in zeros and ones. Why do you suddenly care about me, or GQ, or Allie’s kid?”
“Family,” Iris reminded. “You are all my family.”
“Bull,” Steven countered, crossing his arms. “A couple minutes ago, you were making it clear Zee and Dad were no relatives of yours.”
“Alright,” Iris smiled in what she hoped was a disarming manner. “You’ve caught me.”
“What are you fishing for?” Steven demanded.
“And you’ve caught me again. Truth is, I have been looking recently for a promising investment opportunity, preferably in the high-tech sector. I’ve done some research into your work here – “
“You wouldn’t understand it,” he dismissed, instantly bored.
“You’re right,” she confessed. “But, I showed some of your early results to people who do, and they assure me you’re headed for a brilliant future. I’d like to be a part of it.”
“This isn’t an IPO.”
“Everybody needs an angel, Steven.”
“And you want to be mine?” he couldn’t help laughing.
“Think about it,” she prompted. “I can be a very good friend during difficult times. If you find yourself needing an ally in the near future, think of me first. I know how to make problems go away. All you need do is ask.”
“I don’t need to be coddled,” Jen informed first Kevin, then GQ, as both her father and her boyfriend hovered around the outskirts of Jen’s bed. Inaugural day home from the hospital, ensconced in a guest room in Alice’s house after Kevin absolutely put his foot down regarding Jen staying back at her apartment alone – and GQ backed him up, both seemed determined to spend the remainder of the afternoon just staring at her, looking for any nebulous sign of trouble.
“You’re not being coddled,” Kevin took offense.
“Then I’m being watched,” Jen split hairs.
“That’s better,” Kevin affirmed.
“You can both go,” she reassured them. “I’m just going to do the same thing I’ve been doing every day for the past few months: Sleep. So I can get up the energy to go to sleep again.”
“Actually, we need to talk to you,” GQ blurted out.
“It’s about Johnson,” Kevin sighed, figuring they might as well get it over with. He and GQ and the rest had stalled long enough on the subject.
“He wants to see me?” Jen guessed. “That was his price for donating the marrow? That I have to be nice to him in perpetuity. I figured it’d be something like that. Don’t worry, Daddy, I can handle it. Bring him on, you don’t need to protect me.”
“That isn’t it.” Kevin shook his head slowly, sitting down on the edge of Jen’s bed, wishing she were still young enough to distract with a present or a fable or a flat out lie. But, they’d pretty much passed that stage when she was nine. “Your father’s price for donating the bone marrow was a million dollars.”
That caught her by surprise. “A million…”
“He asked for it, and I paid it,” Kevin said simply.
“You paid him a million dollars to save my life.”
“Oh,” Jen said slowly. And then again, “Oh….”
“It gets worse.”
“Goodie,” Jen braced herself.
“I gave Johnson the million dollars. In cash. Nobody knew about it. Not Jamie, not GQ. Your dad took the money. And then he… split.”
“But…” Jen instinctively looked down at her arms, the insides of both black and blue and scabbed from the dozens of IV’s she’d endured as part of her treatment. “So who…”
“Your dad,” GQ interjected. “It was still your dad who ended up donating. But, it… he…”
“He’s dead, Jenny,” Kevin said.
Jen gasped, “From the procedure?”
“No, no,” Kevin and GQ tripped over each other attempting to reassure her. “No. It isn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”
“So what happened?” she demanded, pushing herself to a sitting position.
“He was shot,” Kevin said. “In Springfield. The police have who did it in custody, it appears to be a drug deal gone bad. Your dad owed the guy some money – “
“So that’s why he came to Bay City. For the money,” Jen said dully.
“It looks that way,” Kevin thought softening his tone might soften the blow. It didn’t.
“At least now it finally makes sense. His newfound munificence.” She looked up at GQ, on the one hand challenging him, on the other, begging, “Aren’t you going to defend him? Explain how he was misunderstood and a victim of society and institutional racism and – “
“No,” was all GQ said in return.
“Wow,” Jen gulped. “Now I know he really must have been a complete bastard.”
“You’re alive,” Kevin stressed. “Bastard or no bastard, you are alive right now because of him. That’s all that matters.”
“That’s what he used to say.” Jen turned her head, avoiding both their eyes. “Remember? When I used to have to visit him in jail. Before his parental rights were terminated. He used to say: What are you acting so high and mighty for? Think you’re better than me? You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me. You think you’re so smart and so good. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t be anything.”
“Allie,” John startled and instinctively took a step back at the sight of her standing on his porch. With a boy he didn’t know… “Oh, wait. You’re Zeno. Frankie’s….”
“Yeah.” Zeno bobbed his head deferentially. “Can we come in, Dr. Hudson?”
“What’s going on?” John asked, even as he hesitantly opened his door the rest of the way.
“There’s this… situation. I’m wondering if you could help us with it.”
“What kind of situation?” John hadn’t seen Allie in close to a year. All he could do now was stare at her. And remember that this was the last face his son saw before he died.
“This,” Zeno held out the envelope Allie had received. “Somebody stuffed it under Allie’s windshield wiper a couple of days ago.”
John sifted through the contents. “All these clippings. They’re about…”
“Gregory’s death,” John’s head jerked up. “These clippings are about Gregory’s death. There was a hell of a lot more to my son than just the way he died.”
“You’re right,” Zeno said. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s this supposed to mean, Allie?” John shoved the stack back under her nose.
“Nothing,” Allie said. “I don’t think it means anything important.”
“This isn’t all,” Zeno cut her off, addressing John. “Allie’s car was vandalized. The word slut was written on the glass.”
John jerked at the harshness of the word, but held his ground. “And you think the two incidents are connected?”
“No,” Allie said.
“Yes,” Zeno contradicted. “The harassment started last summer. Right after the custody case over Hudson was in the news.”
“How is he?” John asked Allie wistfully, a part of him still considering the little boy Allie gave birth to almost three years earlier a part of Gregory. Even though he knew better.
“He’s good. GQ gets updates and pictures. He tells me he’s good.”
“You don’t ever…”
“These flowers,” Zeno said, digging deeper into the envelope with a dry handful. “They’re Forget-Me-Nots.”
“Okay.” John shrugged.
“We think whoever sent this to Allie, they meant it as a warning. Not to forget Gregory.”
“I would never forget him,” Allie pleaded. “You know that, right? Never in a million years.”
John didn’t say anything to that. She thought so now. It wouldn’t last. Instead, he asked, “I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand why you’re here, telling me this?”
“Because,” Zeno swallowed hard. “We – I was wondering… Who, more than anyone, would hate the idea of Gregory being forgotten? Of Allie forgetting him?”
“Me?” John couldn’t believe what they were accusing him of.
“No,” Zeno approached cautiously. “I thought… What about your ex-wife?”
“I told Donna,” Sarah insisted after Matt had stopped by to see her, Marley departing discreetly to give them privacy. “The baby is yours. You don’t have to check up on me.”
“I wanted to check up on you,” Matt said, hoping his words didn’t sound like a threat. “I wanted to see for myself that this was really what you wanted.”
“Afraid your wife bullied me into getting her way?”
“Donna can be… persistent.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No, Sarah. I want you to tell me about it. If Donna did anything to make your feel obliged to her, or uncomfortable in any way, I want you to tell me.”
“And you’ll let me off the hook?”
“Because you’re so concerned about my well being?”
“No,” Matt told her honestly. “Because I’m concerned about Donna’s. If you’re not one hundred percent on board with this adoption, the person who’s going to suffer most in the end is my wife. And I’d like to save her from that.”
“You mean, you’d like to save her from herself.”
“Exactly. Donna has this tendency to leap blindly into something. She’s passionate and fierce – it’s one of the traits I love most about her. But, she also has a tendency not to think things through. To her own detriment, more often than not.”
“I won’t change my mind,” Sarah said. “You can have the baby. Soon as it’s born.”
“Why?” Matt asked a question no one else had thought to pose. They’d all been too busy trying to talk Sarah out of it.
“Because I’m not ready to be a parent,” Sarah gave him the answer she’d prepared.
“No one ever is, trust me.”
“My baby deserves better. A mom, a dad. Grown ups, you know? And I bet Jazz is going to make an awesome big sister.”
“I agree. But, won’t it be hard for you, being forced to watch your child grow up from a distance? Not being able to tell him or her – “
“Nobody is forcing me. I made the decision myself. Stop twisting my words.”
“I didn’t know who my biological father was until I was in Junior High School. It was a hell of a shock. Especially since it turned out to be a man I already knew.”
“Yeah, well, remember when we all played hockey together a couple of years back? I found out Marley and your brother were almost my parents. That was kind of a surprise, too.”
“Sorry about that,” Matt winced, remembering his own role in spilling the beans. “But, it does prove my point. Growing kids need stability. Especially when it comes to family. They need to know who they are, and that the ground isn’t suddenly going to shift beneath their feet.”
“Do you want my baby?” Sarah demanded, cutting to the chase.
“Me? I – Yes, sure.”
“Why?” Now it was her turn to flip the question back on him.
“Why? Donna told me why she wants to be its mom. Why do you want to be its dad?”
“I like being a dad,” Matt said. “Jazz turned fourteen in October. She’s almost ready to fly the coop. A baby would be a real trip.”
“That’s it?” Sarah didn’t look convinced.
And Matt realized that he was in danger of sabotaging the entire thing and ending up the one responsible for capsizing Donna’s happiness. “No. That’s not. I want the baby for me. I want it for Jasmine. But, more than anything, I want it for Donna. I know what people think about her. They look at the things she’s done, and they think they know her. They don’t know her. Donna is more than the sum of her mistakes. The person she is inside… she’s nothing like the public persona. I can see it. I can see what a good person she really is. Or what a good person she could be. If things were only a little different. I can see it. But, I’m scared that she can’t. I try to show her. But, she won’t believe me. Do you know what that’s like, Sarah?”
The younger woman hesitated, and then she nodded slowly.
“When you love someone as much as I love Donna, you want them to see in themselves what you see in them. And that’s just so damn hard. I thought a baby, someone with no preconceived notions of who Donna is or how she comes off, I thought a baby might be just what she needs to see herself through a fresh pair of eyes. Your baby would be a gift I’d give her. A fresh start. It’s something that I want to do for her. Something that only I can do. Give her the thing that she wants so much, she’s even afraid to fully admit it. I know it sounds stupid, but – “
“No,” Sarah said. “It doesn’t. I-I know exactly what you mean.”
“You weren’t wrong,” Felicia conceded to Rachel when she dropped by her friend’s home. “Luke and Alice. There is definitely… something there.”
“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, genuinely sympathetic.
“You know, it’s funny. It’s no secret we’ve been having problems ever since…” Felicia hesitated to finish. Bringing up her daughter’s name now was just asking for the sort of trouble Felicia wanted to avoid. Instead, she sheepishly admitted, “But I never thought…. Iris. Isn’t that funny? The first thing I thought when I saw that she was back in town was that Iris could be a threat to Luke and I. She is exactly the kind of woman I can see digging her predatory claws into a man in Lucas’ state. But, Alice… I knew they’d become friends. I even… after Spencer died… I wasn’t thinking clearly then, I was still too angry. But, I never seriously considered a woman like Alice a threat.”
“A common rookie mistake,” Rachel said dryly. “Alice is exactly the sort of woman you always need to be on the lookout for. Because she never makes her intentions obvious.”
“Luke said he can’t stand to be around me. Can’t stand to look at me, even.”
“What?” Rachel’s heart broke for Felicia. “No! He couldn’t – he didn’t mean it.”
“He meant it. He said that looking at me reminds him of Lorna.”
“But, that’s good. Sure, it hurts now, but eventually – “
“Luke agrees with you. He thinks Lorna is dead. Because Luke says the alternative, her being held prisoner somewhere – the way he was, away from her family, her husband, her children – he says the alternative is unbearable to contemplate.”
“I can see that,” Rachel said softly, explaining, “Don’t you think I want to be like you? To believe that my husband and children are still alive, too? But, I can’t. I have to be realistic. I have to face facts and move on.”
“Why?” Felicia challenged. “What’s the advantage of that? Why not hold onto hope?”
“False hope. False hope, Felicia, it’s like you diving into the bottle after losing Lucas. It’s not a solution. It’s – it’s just a stopgap to keep the pain at bay. You’re going to need to feel it, sooner or later. How can you move on, otherwise?”
“Moving on is highly overrated,” Felicia snapped. “As is feeling. I’ve been feeling Jenna’s death for over three years now. I’ve been feeling Lorna’s disappearance for almost six months. Neither is a sensation I particularly recommend.”
“But, we can’t live in denial.”
“Why not?’ Felicia all but rattled the rafters with her plea. “Why the hell not?”
“Because. While we’re living in denial, the rest of our life passes by in a blur. We’re no good to our children, our grandchildren, the people who depend on us. Lori Ann needs you. Devon and Mackenzie are going to need you. And Lucas… he needs you, too.”
“He does.” Rachel grabbed both Felicia’s hands in hers, shaking them slightly to make her see the truth. “Why do you think Lucas has latched on to Alice like this? The man’s entire life is falling apart. What better way to hold on to something – anything, than helping a woman who needs him?”
“I need him,” Felicia stressed.
“Yes, you do,” Rachel agreed. “But, with you, Lucas believes there’s nothing he can do to fix your pain. It’s too big, it’s too wild, it’s too much like his. With Alice… Lucas feels in control. He needs to be a hero, and Alice is letting him be one. That’s always been her way. Women like us, we challenge men. And we confound them. Because they know, when push comes to shove, we can take care of ourselves just fine. Women like her, though, women like Alice, they make men feel invincible.”
“So what the hell am I supposed to do?” Felicia asked.
Rachel smiled. “Leave it to me.”
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