As expected, the promise of a Thanksgiving feast co-hosted by Rachel Hutchins and Iris Wheeler prompted nearly everyone on the guest list to accept their invitation to the Cory home. Only Pat Matthews sent her regrets, opting to spend the holiday with her children, Marianne and Michael, out of town.
Alice and Russ came, representing the Matthews family. So did Kevin and Amanda, along with Allie, who brought Zeno, and a still somewhat shaky Jen, who was escorted by GQ. Rachel wondered what it would be like for her granddaughter to spend the evening in such close proximity to her ex-boyfriend – and his current girlfriend. But, the arrangement seemed to bother Allie a lot less than it did Rachel. Then again, she – or was that Iris? – had invited her own ex-husband, and Russ’ presence was one of the few things Rachel was actually looking forward to tonight.
In theory, Rachel should have been feeling thrilled about having her three oldest children under her roof again for the first time since Carl, Elizabeth and Cory’s memorial service. And she was. But, these days, wherever Matt went, Donna was sure to follow. And her sharing space with Marley and Grant, not to mention Felicia and Lucas and, as always, Iris, didn’t bode well for a peaceful holiday. Amanda seemed alright, but Morgan, who’d tagged along with Felicia, was looking at Rachel’s daughter in a rapacious manner bound to attract Kevin’s attention sooner or later.
And then there was Jamie. He’d shown up at Rachel’s urging, Devon and Mackenzie looking dutifully adorable in crushed velvet dresses Rachel suspected Felicia had picked out. The outfits seemed neither Jamie nor Lorna’s style. But, he looked dead on his feet, making conversation perfunctorily, without any joy in the interaction, seeming as though he just wanted to get the required social obligation over with and flee as soon as possible.
Iris, for her part, was hovering around Sarah who, Rachel noted, was quite visibly pregnant by now. The last update Rachel got from Russ was that the girl was planning to give her child up for adoption. A development Rachel couldn’t imagine Iris embracing.
As for the youngest generation, which also included Steven, Kirkland, Charlie, Jasmine, Michele and Bridget, Rachel couldn’t look at any of them without feeling a stab in her heart so deep, it made her breath catch every time. Cory and Elizabeth should have been among them. Every year since these children were infants, Cory and Elizabeth had sat with them at holiday time. It didn’t matter whether they were all getting along at the moment or not. God knew, there’d been years when entire fist-fights had broken out. In the end, though, they knew they were stuck together. And always would be. Until…
And speaking of fist-fights, Rachel observed Felicia’s eyes darting nervously from Donna, who was eyeing Lori Ann with predatory interest, to Alice, who stood about as far across the room from Lucas as possible, yet, even at that distance, their connection was visible, and then to Jeanne, who’d come as Dean’s guest, and was now crouched awkwardly on the floor, being introduced to Lori Ann. Rachel wondered if she might set Felicia’s mind at ease by telling her Jeanne looked even unhappier to be there than Jamie did.
And she wasn’t the only one. If Charlie rolled her eyes one more time, Rachel worried they truly might go ahead and obey urban legend, getting stuck that way. Obviously, Felicia was afraid of the same thing, as she sidled over to her charge and ventured, “You know, darling, there’s still hours left. I’m sure your mother and father will call. It’s just that with the time difference…”
Charlie shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I know you’re upset they’ve been out of touch for so long.”
Another shrug. Another eye-roll.
“Your mother and father love you and Lori Ann very much.”
“Sure,” Charlie said. “I get it.”
“I’m afraid I don’t. What’s there to get?”
“I get that the whole time Mom was gone, all I ever heard about was the great Cass and Frankie love story. How awesome they were together.”
“You’re very lucky in getting to see it for yourself now. Most children don’t have such excellent role models when it comes to relationships.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Theirs is the greatest romance ever written, the greatest mystery, the greatest adventure. They traveled all around the world, bringing bad guys to justice while playing dress up and getting it on in foreign lands. They only part that got left out of the story is that Mom and Dad, they only need each other to be happy, no one else.”
“I wouldn’t say – “
“Yes, you would. You’re just not going to. But, I can see what’s going on. Lori Ann and me, we’re runners up in the Cass and Frankie sweepstakes. We don’t fit in with this lifestyle that they really want. We were just the consolation prize. When things weren’t going the way they preferred. And now that they are, we’re just in the way.”
“Thanks,” Jamie told Lila after she’d returned from changing Devon in the remnants of what had once been the Cory nursery. Though his ex-sister-in-law appeared perfectly content to keep holding the toddler, Jamie reached out for her.
“It’s okay,” she waved him back. “You deserve a break.”
“This is my break.” He pointed to Mackenzie, currently ensconced in Alice’s arms as they perused the photos above the fireplace mantle. “I’ve only got one to take care of at the moment.”
“Well, make it none. At least for a few minutes,” she laughed. “Goodness, Jamie, the poor child is never going to learn to walk if you keep carrying her around everywhere like this.”
“The poor child,” Jamie corrected. “Skipped walking and proceeded straight to running. If you set her down, the poor child will be halfway to the Harrison house before you realize what’s happened.”
“I remember when Jazz was this age,” Lila reminisced with a sigh.
“You miss it?” Jamie leaned his hand against the doorframe, genuinely engaged in a conversation for the first time that evening.
“I don’t miss the waking up five times a night, no. But, the dragging yourself in there, looking like hell warmed over, only to have this little toothless grin drooling up, looking happier to see you than anyone ever has before in your whole life… That? That I miss.”
“I don’t know what I would have done without them right now,” Jamie admitted. “Well, that’s not true. I know what I would have done. I would have gone looking for Lorna, myself. But, I can’t. I promised her. I wouldn’t do anything to risk the girls ending up alone. Lorna would have wanted me here, taking care of them, while Cass and Frankie go gallivanting around the world, playing the heroes.”
“Any luck?” she asked sympathetically.
Jamie shook his head. “Felicia says they haven’t even checked in since last month. We’re both hoping they’re really onto something, and don’t want to tip their hands.”
“When Lorna was in the hospital,” Lila jostled Devon, who’d gotten her fingers tangled in Lila’s necklace. “With this one. When things didn’t look… good. You never stopped believing in her. Even when all common sense…”
“If I listened to common sense, I never would have believed a woman like Lorna could be interested in a man like me. I mean, that never made any sense. Except that it did.”
The train of thought was definitely not doing much to cheer Jamie up, so Lila changed the subject, observing, “It was nice of you to come tonight. I can see how much your Mama appreciates it.”
“I have no interest in making my mother’s life any harder right now.”
“She misses them. I hear her at night. She can’t sleep. Just walking the floors. I asked her one time why she didn’t go down to the studio, get some work done. But, Rachel says she can’t concentrate. Any project she starts, it ends up turning out like Carl or the little ones. And she’s not up for that yet, either.”
“That son of a bitch,” Jamie said, keeping his voice down so Rachel didn’t overhear. “He did this to her. He did this to all of us. Which makes sense, I suppose. Once a sociopath, always a sociopath. Except Mom… Mom was supposed to be the only person Carl really did love. And look how that turned out.”
“You alright?” Steven asked, having followed Jen out of the living room, where everyone else was gathered, and into an upstairs bedroom.
“What?” She spun around, surprised that anyone had noticed. She thought she’d been so discreet, slipping away. “Oh. Yes. I’m fine. It’s just… After a month of isolation, it’s all a little too much, you know? I needed a break.”
“You want me to leave?” Steven half turned towards the door, to indicate he was willing.
“No. It’s okay. Just shut it, would you? The noise…”
“Got it.” Steven did as she asked, while keeping his distance. “You need to lay down or something?”
“No.” She shook her head, then reconsidered. “But, sitting might not be a bad idea.” She perched on the edge of the bed, taking a deep breath. She looked up at Steven. “You knew my dad was dead, right? When you came to see me the other day? Bringing the books? You knew he was dead.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“Kevin asked us not to. Figured you didn’t need the shock while you were recovering.”
“Before all this happened,” she confessed. “I hadn’t thought about Horace in years. Literally years. I just put him out of my mind. My mom and my grandmother, I still miss them. But, him… Not even an issue.”
Steven said, “Except now, you’re stuck thinking about him all the time.”
Steven sat down next to her. “Your dad being a bastard doesn’t change who you are.”
“Who said it did?” she snapped, pulling back from him.
“No one. That’s why you’re scared all the time, waiting for somebody to finally say it.”
“A couple of years ago,” Steven stumbled over his words. “I found out that my dad did something pretty awful. I mean, unspeakably awful. It wasn’t completely his fault, and there were mitigating circumstances but, in the end, he did it. Which means the potential to do it was always in him. Which means that same potential might be in me.”
“I would never treat any kid of mine the way Horace did me,” Jen swore.
“No. You wouldn’t. And you wouldn’t get a high-school kid hooked on drugs, then dump her. You wouldn’t commit armed robbery. And you wouldn’t run when someone only you could help really needed you.”
“That last one,” Jen sniffled. “Are you so sure about that last one?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“And you’re brilliant, so…”
“I must be right. That goes without saying.”
She smiled weakly. “The only thing your future kids have to fear is inheriting your crippling modesty.”
“And yours should be checked at birth for dents in their shoulders from carrying the weight of the world around, whether anyone asked them to or not.”
“Look who’s talking!”
“How dare you?” He took great mock offense. “I happen to be exceptionally egotistical and self-involved. Ask anyone.”
“And I’m fearless and well-adjusted.”
“I’ll buy that if you will.”
“It’s a deal,” Jen said, laughing, thrusting out her hand for him to shake.
Steven accepted the challenge, clasping her palm fraternally in his, and pumping it up and down vigorously. Until the smile on his own face wavered and faded away, followed by Jen’s expression mirroring his.
He looked at the inside of her arm, where the burn scars Horace once left in a neat line along her skin had been nearly obscured by bruises and needle marks.
Jen saw his horrified expression and rushed to reassure. “It’s okay. Really. They don’t even hurt that much anymore. They look much worse than they feel. I’m okay…”
Steven didn’t say anything. Instead, he turned her hand over in his, palm up, and, with the fingers of his free hand, traced a line from the crook of Jen’s elbow, where the worst of the black and blue marks began, down past the flickering pulse at the base of her wrist, and over her palm. He ran the tip of his finger over each of hers, starting with the thumb and working his way across, drawing a soft, feathery pattern that made her shiver and her breath catch.
Steven’s eyes met Jen’s and, without acknowledging what he was doing, Steven brought her hand up to his mouth, repeating the earlier pattern with his lips, his tongue flicking against her palm, then moving back up past the inside of her wrist, kissing every single one of the bruises and burns until he’d gotten to her elbow.
And kept going.
He kissed Jen’s shoulder and her collarbone. The base of her neck and the hollow at her throat and her chin until she purred, opening her mouth, allowing his tongue to dart inside, catching first her lower lip between both of his, then the upper.
He kept expecting her to tell him to stop. But she didn’t tell him to stop. Instead, Jen’s hands landed on Steven’s shoulders, pulling him closer, cupping his cheeks, running her fingers over his ears and the back of his neck and never, ever telling him to stop.
Both were so involved in what they were doing – not to mention equally shocked that they were, in fact, doing it – that neither heard the door opening, or the shadow figure who’d caught them in the act. Then discreetly moved on.
“That’s the last of it, isn’t it?” Frankie looked at the sole bottle of water still left in their jeep’s on-board refrigerator. The cooling system may have kept them from dying of heat-stroke over the past few days exposed to the elements. But, it would be of limited use to them now that Frankie and Cass were almost out of water.
He nodded somberly.
They’d made the decision previously not to run down the battery by driving, opting to stay in a temperature controlled, albeit stationary, environment, in the belief that they didn’t know where to go to escape the desert anyway, and at least like this, someone might come along to find them.
No one had come along.
They’d rationed their food and their water. But, by even the most conservative estimates, today could signify the end of their supplies. How long they might be able to last afterward, was anyone’s guess.
“Four minutes without air, four days without water, four weeks without food. Is that right?” Frankie rattled off the accepted axiom.
“Give or take,” Cass confirmed. “If the battery for the cooling system runs dry…”
“It’ll be a lot less than four days,” Frankie finished for him.
“Well,” Cass sighed. “This is another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
Frankie wondered, “Should we leave a note or… anything? You know, for Charlie and Lori Ann and…”
“What would we say? Girls, don’t try this at home.”
“For a start.”
“Except it isn’t true,” Cass reminded, the twinkle not utterly gone from his eyes. “You and I would never encourage our girls to shy away from adventure, or to be afraid of life. We want them to leap in whole hog – sorry, Allah,” he addressed the air, just in case the local deity were listening in and might feel moved to alleviate their predicament.
“Look where leaping into adventure got us.”
“Is there any place else you would rather be right now?”
“Yes,” Frankie said. Then leaned in to give Cass a kiss, adding, “But, no one else that I would rather be with.”
“Famous last words.”
“Let’s hope not.” Just because the situation was dire was no reason to lose one’s sense of humor.
He looked at his watch. “It’s Thanksgiving back in the States.”
“Then I say we start counting our blessings,” Frankie advised.
Taking advantage of a lull in her hosting duties – Iris appeared to have the situation well in hand, and it did seem to make her exorbitantly happy to pretend she was the mistress of this particular soiree – Rachel crossed the room to join Alice, who was still holding Mackenzie, Lila apparently having succeeded in convincing Jamie to stroll around the premises without a child in his arms for just a few minutes and enjoy his freedom.
Alice smiled and turned the six month old around, one hand below her stomach, so that Rachel might get a better look. She drew her finger along Mackenzie’s widow’s peak hairline, and observed. “That’s just like Steve’s. Remember? Can you see it?”
Rachel nodded. “From the first time I laid eyes on her.”
“Of course, this,” Alice continued, indicating Mackenzie’s cheekbones and the contour of her jaw. “That’s all you.”
“She looks like Jamie,” Rachel agreed.
“And Jamie always looked like the perfect blend of you and Steve.”
“I can see a little bit of everyone in her. Lorna, definitely. Felicia. Lucas….” Rachel let the latter name hang in the air, waiting for a reaction.
Which she got. Alice startled, then hurried to quickly cover. But, she couldn’t prevent her eyes from drifting to the corner of the room where Mackenzie’s sole surviving grandfather stood, making small talk with Marley.
And Rachel saw her opening.
She cocked her head, making sure Alice understood exactly whom she was referring to before observing, “Well, that’s odd.”
“Lucas,” Rachel repeated the moniker again for emphasis. “Speaking with Marley. After what happened with her and Lorna two years ago…”
“It’s a party,” Alice dismissed. “He’s merely being polite.”
“I suppose,” Rachel nodded thoughtfully. “Though there’s also the bad blood between him and Donna…”
“Marley isn’t to blame for what her mother did to Jenna.”
“No. No, she’s not. That didn’t stop Lucas, however, from using her in his plot to frame Donna.”
“I’m sorry… What?” Alice had lost Rachel’s train of thought.
“Lucas. Marley. Donna. When he, Carl and Spencer put their plan into motion to bring down the compound, a key element was getting Donna to think that Marley was being threatened, so that she’d release the file in retaliation. Marley’s alleged suicide attempt. She nearly died being locked in a garage with carbon monoxide. That was all Lucas’ doing. He set the whole thing up. I’m sorry, didn’t you know? I assumed Spencer would have filled you in.”
“No…” Alice shook her head slowly. “No…. He didn’t.”
“Oh. Well. Spencer was always very old-fashioned in that regard. Keeping women in the dark about the family business was considered good manners back then. He did it to spare you, I’m sure.”
“Lucas almost killed Marley?”
“It was all part of the plan,” Rachel reiterated. “It’s what Lucas brought to the table. Staging a crime scene to look like something it wasn’t – that’s how he initially helped Cass with Cecile’s murder. You remember. It’s why Jamie almost went to prison instead of him. You did know that Lucas was just as much involved in what happened as Spencer and Carl? It’s just that, for some reason, he seemed to have walked away scot-free, while you and I ended up paying the ultimate price. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
“Excuse me,” Iris raised her voice as everyone else was still settling themselves around the festively decorated Thanksgiving table, sweeping their napkins into their laps and checking their place-cards – meticulously arranged to put people like Morgan and Jamie, Allie and GQ, Donna and Felicia, Donna and Marley, Donna and Jeanne, as far away from each other as humanly possible. “I do hope you’ll indulge me but, seeing as how this is my first holiday back in Bay City, I wonder if I might be permitted to offer the toast in my father’s stead?”
All eyes turned to Rachel. As mistress of the house, the honor should most definitely have been hers. But, said mistress merely smiled magnanimously and gestured for everyone to fill their glasses with the proffered wine or sparkling cider. “Be my guest, Iris.” The double-meaning wasn’t lost on anyone.
Especially Iris. For a split second, it appeared that she might counter with a retort of her own, but, Iris Cory Wheeler clearly had bigger turkeys to roast. She merely forcibly arranged her features into a semblance of goodwill towards all mankind, and proceeded.
“Thank you, Rachel. Thank you for this honor, and thank you for inviting us all into your home. Especially during this dark and difficult time for our family. Those of you who knew him, you remember how much my Daddy loved to make his Thanksgiving toasts. And how skilled he was at it. The rest of us can never hope to match his oratory gifts, or his overall benevolence. My father treated each and every guest around his table as a member of the family. Whether they genuinely belonged there or not. His heart was always open to give and to receive more love. He spoiled us.” For the first time, a note of genuineness crept into Iris’ voice. It wasn’t clear whether or not she’d intended it to be there, but it was heard and noted, with more than a touch of surprise, nonetheless. “After having been the recipient of Mackenzie Cory’s unconditional love, it was, I’m afraid, tragically impossible to find its equal again. No matter how much time and effort one put into trying. Well, for most of us,” that last barb seemed directed solely at Rachel. Who allowed it to pass uncontested. Iris went on, “I’ve never had my father’s talents for acceptance or understanding. I never used to think I wanted them. But, things change. People change. I very much want to change. Looking out at all of you tonight, I, more than anything, want to be like my father. I want to be thankful for the people who are in my life. And I strive to be forgiving of those who may not be living theirs in a manner I wholeheartedly approve of.”
At that, Sarah and Marley exchanged glances, with the older woman giving the younger a reassuring look, followed by a smile meant to buck her up despite the obvious slight on her grandmother’s part.
Iris said, “To that end, would you all please join me in raising your glasses and giving thanks for family. Those who are no longer with us, those who, by the grace of God, still are, and those yet to be.” She turned to Sarah, beaming, “To my beautiful granddaughter, who will soon be giving birth to Mackenzie Cory’s first great-great grandchild. And to Matthew and Donna, who will be giving this child a permanent home.”
A gasp went up around the room, as Donna looked helplessly at Sarah, remembering the very specific terms of their agreement, Felicia exchanged shocked glances with Rachel, Russ glared at Iris in fury for her grandstanding, and Sarah turned bright scarlet from the rest of the guests craning their necks her way.
But, Iris wasn’t done yet.
“And to the child’s father, who has generously agreed to step aside and let his own flesh-and-blood be raised by an intact, rather than fractured, family.”
Grant thought he might stop breathing. He wondered if now might be an apt time to finally succumb to that stroke he’d felt percolating for months.
But, he never got a chance to decide one way or the other.
Because the next words out of Iris’ mouth, along with a tip of her wine glass in his direction was, “To Steven.”
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