“To Steven,” Iris crowed under the pretense of toasting her granddaughter, the granddaughter’s unborn child… and its heretofore secret father.
For a moment, nobody moved as the news sunk in around the Thanksgiving table, taking a longer time with some, shorter with others.
Sarah froze in her seat and focused on only one thing – not looking at Grant. Grant, for his part, didn’t know how to react. The panic of only a second earlier was replaced by relief. Which was followed by confusion. Which was followed by guilt. Which was followed by… was that a twinge of disappointment? Had he actually been hoping that…
Unaware of her husband’s bewildering ambivalence, Marley paid no mind to Grant as her head swiveled towards her nephew, meeting Jamie’s eyes in the process and realizing this was as much of a shock to him as it was to her.
Allie, meanwhile, slunk down, mortified, in her chair, understanding instantly where the misinformation had come from, not sure whom she should be apologizing to first – Sarah or Steven?
Donna gasped in shock, ready to blast Iris for her utter insensitivity, when Matt grabbed his wife’s hand, encouraging her to keep quiet. Did she not remember what Sarah had said regarding the truth about her baby’s father ever coming out? That was her primary condition for the adoption. Did Donna want to make matters worse?
“Sit down, Iris,” Rachel hissed, already kicking herself for allowing this farce of a family celebration to take place. She’d known from the start, of course, that Iris was up to something. That much was a given. Unfortunately, Rachel had naively assumed it would be directed against her. At worse at Amanda, for something having to do with Cory Publishing. But, to go after Rachel’s grandson….
Except that Rachel’s grandson was the only one who had yet to react in any way. Like with everything that caught him unaware, Steven mechanically shut down, opting to calmly and rationally evaluate the situation before offering a response of any kind. There was nothing on his face that either confirmed or denied the charge. And he intended to keep it that way.
As a result, Rachel plunged ahead on her own, snapping at Iris, “How in the world would you even be privy to that sort of information?”
“Donna told me,” Iris leaned back smugly in her chair, confident there was nothing Rachel could do to her – except ultimately, after she’d gotten over the shock, back Iris’ objection to Sarah giving the child away. Now that she’d been made aware, there was no possible chance of Rachel standing for… “That’s why Donna was so keen to adopt it. It’s her great-grandchild, after all,” Iris enjoyed taunting her rival with the words that drove home how ancient she was. Despite them applying equally well to herself.
“And how would Donna know?” Rachel launched the question more at Matt than at his wife.
“Allie told me,” Donna blurted out, looking to shift the blame to yet another member of Rachel’s family. The last thing she wanted was to implicate Marley and admit Steven’s aunt had known the truth all along. Unlike the Cory clan obviously, Donna Love knew how to protect her own.
“That doesn’t matter,” Jamie, his face crimson – which, in a way, was better than the ashen it had been these past few months; at least he seemed finally back in the land of the living – dismissed Rachel, Iris, and Donna’s petty squabbling as unimportant. “The only thing that matters is,” he turned to Steven, “Is this true, son?”
The direct question jolted Steven out of the self-induced coma he’d withdrawn into immediately post-accusation. He almost appeared to be visibly resurfacing, as if from a particularly laborious underwater dive. He blinked and all but shook his head at the end to get rid of the water.
Steven looked at Sarah. She looked back at him, her lower lip nearly chewed to shreds from anxiety. Steven looked at Marley and Grant and Kirkland and Rachel and Iris and back to Jamie. The only person Steven never looked at, at any point, was Jen. Steven said, “Yes.”
The last bottle of water drunk, Cass and Frankie had little left to do but lie in each other’s arms, watch the sun slowly roll over the desert horizon through the front windshield, and wait. They were no longer sure of for what.
Frankie said, “Lori Ann will barely remember us. She’s still so young. First Jenna, now us. The poor kid.”
“She’s got Dean. And Felicia. She’ll be well taken care of.”
Frankie hesitated. “Felicia… Dean… They love her, but… I don’t think either one of them has fully accepted her limitations. They talk about her future like… like it’s going to be normal. It’s not. She’s probably going to need some level of care for the rest of her life. I don’t know if Felicia and Dean are up for that. Emotionally, I mean.”
“Charlie then,” Cass said confidently. “Charlie adores her. Charlie will make sure Lori Ann gets everything she needs.”
“That’s a hell of a burden to put on an eighteen year old girl.”
Cass shrugged. “I’ve done worse to her.”
Frankie shifted, the better to look him in the eye. “What are you talking about?”
“While you were gone, I put a hell of a burden on Charlie, making her feel like she had to live up to your legacy. I can see she still resents me for it.”
“What legacy?” Frankie laughed. “What legacy of mine could Charlie possibly have to live up to?”
“You don’t realize how amazing you are,” Cass kissed his wife on the forehead. “Because you don’t get to see you from the outside, compared to the rest of us mortals. If Charlie grows up to be half the woman you are – “
“Charlie should grow up to be the full woman she is. Nobody else.”
“I know,” Cass conceded. “Except I don’t think I ever made that clear to her. I worry,” he admitted. “Charlie seems so… lost sometimes.”
“That’s just adolescence.”
“Is it? I don’t know.”
“Well, I do. Charlie is fine, trust me. She’s more than fine. And she’s going to be extraordinary. I just wish I could be there to see it. I already missed so much…”
“This is it, isn’t it?” Cass looked around. “Game over?”
“Looks that way,” she exhaled slowly, noting how warm her breath already felt. Understanding they wouldn’t last long against the elements with no supplies.
“I feel like I owe Felicia an apology. She sent us out to track down her daughter, and all we did was add to her burden. We didn’t find a single shred of evidence, except what Owen Lax said about Carl wanting him to help kidnap the kids. And who knows if he was even telling the truth?”
“We tried our best,” Frankie began. Only to sit up with a start at the sight of a human-shaped shadow just outside the jeep’s window. And full out gasping when she realized who it was.
At Steven’s confession, everyone began speaking at once, and not even necessarily to him. Iris was smugly reminding Rachel of her newfound family responsibility towards Sarah’s child even as Russ attempted to mediate between the women, while Marley was demanding to know why Donna hadn’t told her as soon as she found out, leaving Donna stunned and protesting that she assumed Marley had already been filled in – why else would she be offering that vile girl shelter in her own home all this time except because she felt the Loves owed her?
“It’s called common decency, Donna. Obviously, you’ve never heard of it.”
Alice, for her part, merely stood up to discreetly leave, gesturing for Kevin, Amanda, Allie, Zeno, Jen and GQ to join her. Jeanne followed Dean in the wake of Felicia doing the same and heading to fetch Lori Ann, though Jeanne seemed most reluctant to go. Finally, the excruciating evening was getting somewhat interesting. Lucas hesitated for a moment, his gaze first following Felicia, then Alice, unsure of which way to turn. Jamie gave his father-in-law an easy out, asking Lucas, “Would you check in on the girls for me? I want to make sure we didn’t miss hearing one of them cry in all this noise.”
Happy to be of service, Lucas promptly left.
Sarah, however, had yet to move from where she’d been sitting. Grant was only one chair over from her, with Marley in between, still heatedly going back and forth with Donna. Both acting utterly oblivious to the other. Under different circumstances, it might have seemed odd. Everyone in the room was talking over everyone else, even the kids like Kirkland and Charlie, and Michele, Bridget and Jasmine. But, in this melee, it was fortunately a case of anything goes and, unless you had a particular reason to connect them, there was nothing odd about Sarah and Grant’s behavior.
Jamie attempted to cross-examine Steven, getting monosyllabic dismissals in return. But, Steven could hold off his dad forever, Sarah realized as much.
Which was what finally spurred her into action. She arose from the table – a touch awkwardly, the baby bump in front of her suddenly the most visible thing in the room, almost as if a spotlight had been trained on it.
She said, “Steven, can… Can I talk to you?”
She turned and beckoned for him to follow her, leaving everyone else silently frozen in place. Only when Sarah passed Donna on her way out of the dining room, did she add, “By the way, deal’s off.”
Donna whimpered, nearly collapsing into Matt’s arms.
Sarah didn’t give a damn. Sarah didn’t give a damn about anything except… Once she and Steven were safely and privately behind closed doors, with no one who could possibly overhear them, did she ask, “Why did you lie?”
Russ was equally as determined to get some answers out of Iris, dragging her into yet another private room at the Cory Mansion to demand, “What the hell was the meaning of that?”
“Someone had to do something!” Iris insisted. “As per usual, that responsibility ultimately fell to me.”
“I don’t remember asking you to – “
“Of course, you didn’t. None of you did. Sarah was proclaiming her intention to give away our flesh and blood; yours, mine, Rachel’s, my father’s – and to not just anyone, but to Donna, a woman who posseses less sense than the Lord granted marble – with even less human decency; and none of you were taking any measures beyond encouraging the befuddled child’s ridiculous whim!”
“We were all trying to be supportive.”
“Well, you nearly supported her into making the biggest mistake of her life.”
“We were also trying to stay out of her business.”
“Sarah doesn’t know her business! How can she possibly know how she will feel about this child until after its born and she’s had time to thoroughly consider the matter?”
“She would have had that time. She could have taken all the time she wanted. It’s the law. Nobody was preparing to rip that baby out of her arms until she was ready.”
“Speak for yourself. Donna was practically salivating to melon-ball that child from Sarah’s womb, didn’t you see her? At least that’s all over with. Now I only have to make certain that Marley doesn’t play the obligation card.“
“Marley hasn’t been pressuring Sarah. Sarah told me so.”
“In the end, Marley Hudson is exactly like her mother. The only difference is Donna doesn’t know how to do anything with a light touch and a sense of subtlety, which is the primary cause of her customary downfall, while Marley is perennially hiding behind her sweet and irreproachable persona. For goodness’ sake, Russ, she ran down Lorna with her car, she attempted to kidnap those two poor, defenseless children – “
“You don’t even know their names, do you?” Russ crossed his arms, indicating Iris wouldn’t be pulling one over on him in the near future.
“What do their names matter? The point is, Marley committed a multitude of crimes, and still everyone treats her like an innocent. Whereas I – I! – merely attempted to protect my family by exposing the lies we’ve all been fed for months – “
“You humiliated Sarah. And Steven. You invaded their privacy. You put Rachel on the spot. You dumped even more on Jamie’s plate when that’s the last thing he needs, and you destroyed Donna and Matt’s hopes for a child together.”
“What else was I supposed to do?” Iris pleaded.
“How about keep your mouth shut? When in doubt, that’s always a super option.”
“I can’t,” Iris admitted weakly.
“No kidding,” Russ said.
“This infant of Sarah’s is all I have left.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not.” Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “My father is gone. My son won’t have anything to do with me. Alex… The only man who could put up with me for an extended period of time – and that was probably because we never got a chance to really test the theory…. I don’t have anything left.”
“You have sisters,” Russ reminded. “And a brother. You have a granddaughter.”
“Sandy and Paulina might as well be complete strangers to me. And it’s too late for Amanda and Sarah. Their minds have been poisoned against me. This baby’s hasn’t.”
He couldn’t help noting, “You brought this on yourself.”
“You don’t think I know that?” Iris exploded. “You don’t think that isn’t the worst part? I brought every bit of it upon myself. And now it’s up to me to fix it.”
“By embarrassing a couple of kids in front of their families?”
“By stopping them from ending up like me! Alone. Unloved. Desperate.”
“Now, see, in this instance, I would have gone with melodramatic. And manipulative.” The smile playing around Russ’ lips suggested he was merely teasing her. But, that he wasn’t about to let her off the hook that easily, either.
Iris had no choice but to smile ruefully back. “It would have worked on a lesser man.”
“Shall we add calculating to the list?”
“My goodness, try to pay one’s ex-fiancé a compliment….”
“The ex is in there for a reason.”
“Oh, I suppose. Though, for the life of me, I can’t seem to recall why that was.”
“Iris,” Russ warned with a sigh. “I’m not a thesaurus. I’m running out of synonyms for manipulative and calculating.”
“Scheming,” Iris suggested, drawing him closer.
“That’s a good one,” he agreed, allowing her.
“Underhanded…” Her own fingers stroked his chest and then trailed lazily downward, as if to illustrate the point.
“Hmmm…” Was the best Russ could come up with in response.
“Just shut up and kiss me already, would you?” Iris proposed, doing exactly that herself before Russ had the chance to comment further.
“How mad do you think Sarah is at me?” Allie asked Zeno as, after saying good-bye to Alice, Kevin, Amanda, Jen and GQ, they headed towards her car.
“I think Sarah has bigger problems than you at the moment.”
“But, if I hadn’t told Donna about Steven being the baby’s father…”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Zeno agreed. “Then again, I guess you know better than anybody the kind of trouble you can get into, trying to give a baby up for adoption while lying about the real father.”
Allie gulped, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she crossed to open the driver’s side door, when Zeno suddenly held up a hand, halting her mid-action.
“What’s wrong?” she wrinkled her nose, wondering if Zeno was about to call her on…
“Not sure.” He cocked his head and contemplated the hood of Allie’s car. He took a step forward, bent at the waist, and sniffed it.
“What’s going on?” Allie checked again.
“I – It smells like… linseed oil.”
“Just this stuff… You get it from a flax plant and you can turn it into an oil. It’s pretty versatile. Some people eat it – it’s got a lot of Omega 3s in it. Some people use it to varnish wood or thicken paint. We used to grow it on the farm for a while, the health nuts love it, they think it’ll help them live forever. But, we stopped couple of years ago.”
“Well, mostly because, if you don’t store it right, like mixed up with a bunch of oily rags, it can spontaneously combust.”
“Yeah,” Zeno said, even as he popped Allie’s hood and took another sniff. “Also, if you pour it into a gas tank, it’ll freeze up the pistons in your engine.”
“Did it…” Allie was afraid to finish her thought. Not that she needed to.
“Yeah,” Zeno sighed, running his fingers along the inside, and holding up the dripping evidence.
“Why did you say you were my baby’s father?” Sarah asked Steven.
“You mean I’m not?” With Steven, it was sometimes impossible to tell whether he was joking, sarcastic, or serious. “Because if Iris said it…”
“You didn’t have to agree.”
“But, she heard it from Grandmother. Who heard it from Allie. More unimpeachable sources.”
“I’ll handle Allie,” Sarah promised. “Now you tell me what’s really going on.”
“I did it because of Kirkland,” Steven said finally.
“That baby is Kirkland’s brother or sister, isn’t it? Biologically speaking?”
“I saw what it was like for Kirk, growing up as Grant’s son. And I saw what it was like for my mom. All those years of her and Grant fighting. Her stealing Kirk, Grant stealing him back. Him trying to kill her, her trying to destroy him… And poor Kirk, there in the middle of everything.”
“It wouldn’t be like that,” Sarah sighed with obvious regret, clearly not getting the point of Steven’s message. “Grant doesn’t want my baby. Not the way he wanted Kirkland.”
“Dude’s been known to change his mind. Like, you know, about dying and stuff.”
“You still didn’t have to step up the way you did. Especially after everything I – “
“This wasn’t for you. It was for the kid. Whoever it ends up with, it’ll be better off not having Grant for a dad. So, whatever, I’ll take the heat.”
“Your dad and your grandmother are going to be furious.“
“Wasn’t about them either.”
“What about your Aunt Marley? Tell me what you did wasn’t a little bit for her?”
Steven would only allow, “My Aunt Marley’s had it rough. She’s… fragile, okay? I can’t have her losing it again. As long as she’s happy, Bridget and Michele are happy. They need her. They need her… all there.”
“I love Bridget and Michele, too. And Marley.”
“Not enough to stay away from her husband.”
“I’m staying away from him now.”
“Only because Grant doesn’t want you anymore. I’m not an idiot, Sarah. You think I don’t know that if Grant were to change his mind about you and the baby, you wouldn’t give a damn about what that did to Marley? Or my sisters? This way, maybe I can keep it from happening. I couldn’t save my mom so she could raise Michele and Bridget. I couldn’t save Jake. This is the only thing I can do for them.”
While Matt attempted to calm Donna down from the hysterics she launched into upon Sarah’s pronouncement, and Marley continued to harangue her mother about the role Donna had played in Iris’ humiliation of Sarah and Steven, Jamie took advantage of the general hubbub to grab Grant by the arm and pull him aside, telling Kirkland’s biological father, “If you think I’m about to let my son take the fall for what you’ve done, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Grant’s head jerked up, eyes darting nervously towards Marley, in case she’d overheard Jamie’s threat.
Kirkland’s adoptive father noted the gesture and kept his voice low, if equally intense, as he informed Grant, “I know about you and Sarah. We all saw how she acted after you gave blood to Kirkland. And here I’d presumed that seducing teenage girls was below even you.”
“Sarah isn’t – “
“I know how old Sarah is. I was almost her father once upon a time, remember? Let’s just say that right now, you’re very lucky I’m not. I am, however, still Steven’s father. And I will not, under any circumstances, let you suck my son into the kind of hell you put Vicky through over Kirkland.”
“It – It’s not like that. I never asked Steven to – “
“I know. But my son, unfortunately, has a hero complex a mile wide and a cavern deep.”
“I can’t imagine where that came from,” Grant couldn’t stop himself from mumbling, even as he fully realized it probably wasn’t too wise under the circumstances. He really needed to get his self-destructive streak under control.
“For a minute there, I almost thought you might have developed one, too. Or at least a conscience. I can’t say I’m thrilled about you using Marley to push Sarah away, but at least you listened to Lorna about how having a perverted old man taking advantage of a vulnerable young woman can really screw up her life. You did the right thing. For a red hot minute. How long before you fell off the wagon, Grant? Did you at least wait for the honeymoon with Marley to be over?”
“I…” Grant started to defend himself. Then realized there was absolutely nothing he could say in that regard.
“Lucky for you, I don’t give a damn about the ménage a trios you’ve got going on over at your house. I don’t even particularly care about what the truth coming out will do to Marley. I’d like to, but I can’t. Not when the alternative is my son getting hurt.”
“Then tell Steven to deny it.”
“No,” Jamie said coolly. “I’m not going to tell Steven to do anything. What I am going to do is tell you to come clean. Now. Today, preferably.”
Grant stared at Jamie, dumbfounded. “You cannot be serious!”
“I’ll give you a grace period until Bridget and Michele go to bed. Then the floor is all yours.”
“Or you’ll what?” Grant couldn’t help scoffing. The mere idea of Jamie attempting to flex his nonexistent muscle was ridiculous! “Tell Marley yourself? Go ahead! Do your worst! She won’t believe you.”
“I’ll tell Chase Hamilton.” Jamie waited for the implication to sink in. “He’ll believe me. And he’ll handle telling the voters. You can take your chances from there.”
“Come on, Jamie. You can’t… You can’t be this indifferent to Marley’s feelings.”
“I can, and I am. Don’t try to play me, Grant. I am not the man you dealt with when you first came back to Bay City. You put me through hell, and almost sent me to jail in order to reclaim Kirkland. I will not put my other son in your cross-hairs for anything. He will not accept responsibility for this, no matter what he thinks or why. Tell Marley you’re the father of Sarah’s baby. Or let our good Mayor break the news to her himself.”
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