The message to Rachel Hutchins from Chase Hamilton consisted of a single word: Ditto.
It was in direct reply to the email she’d sent him weeks earlier, encouraging Chase to turn on KBAY-TV and watch Grant’s live press conference announcing his bid for Mayor and playing the recording of Chase and Lila.
Rachel knew she’d inevitably regret it. But, best get whatever it was Chase thought he had on her over with. She trudged over to the TV and turned it on with a preemptive, mournful sigh. Just in time to be greeted with Mayor Hamilton's smug, preening visage.
Chase talked a little bit about his distinguished opponent, Mr. Harrison. And then he introduced his guest for the afternoon… Sarah Matthews-Wheeler.
“So, like, what do you want to do?” Kirkland lay on his stomach across Charlie’s bed, Charlie parallel to him. Both of them had their chins propped up on their hands and were taking turns flipping through the television channels in a distinctively lackluster manner. Both of them were fully clothed. “Want to watch a movie?”
Charlie shrugged. “Nothing good on.”
“We could try Netflix or Roku.”
“They just have boring old stuff.”
“Want to listen to music?”
“Everything out now sucks.”
“Wanna…” Kirkland tried not to sound too eager. “You know, mess around?” He gingerly slipped his arm across the curve of Charlie’s back.
She didn’t exactly flinch away. But, she didn’t look particularly enthusiastic either. Instead, Charlie sighed. Not unlike the way Rachel just had, over at her house.
“We don’t have to,” Kirkland guiltily withdrew his hand, in any case.
“No.” She rolled over on her side. “It’s okay.”
“It’s okay?” Kirkland clarified in disbelief.
“Yeah. You know how No Means No? Well, Okay Means Okay.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“You’d tell me if I did something wrong, right?”
“Then how come I feel like you want to, but you just… can’t?”
“Why are you acting so weird?”
“Why are you?” Kirkland pushed himself to a sitting position, legs crossed. “Come on, Charlie, tell me what’s going on. Why are you freezing me out? I get you’re mad about your Mom and Dad being gone so long…”
“Really? Are they gone? I hadn’t noticed.”
“But, that’s not my fault.”
“I’m not mad at them. Being gone is what they do. It’s their thing.”
“So it’s me you’re mad at then.”
“Would you get over yourself?”
“Tell me what I can do to cheer you up, Charlie. Please.” Kirkland leaned over, his lips brushing hers. “Please.” He kissed her again, a little more deeply. “Please.” He put his hand on her leg.
Only for Charlie to actually pull away this time. “Would you stop that?”
“What?” Kirkland blinked in surprise.
“Stop being so nice to me.”
“I love you,” he reminded.
“And stop saying that.”
“Oh,” Kirkland said, visibly deflating. “So that’s what’s making you so angry.”
“No! You don’t understand. You don’t understand anything. I wish – “
“That you loved me, too?”
“No!” She wanted to hit him. At least give him a good shove, knock some sense into him. But, the last time she’d felt that way… “It’s just that I wish you were…”
“What?” He really seemed desperate to hear the answer, he was practically pleading with her.
“I wish you were… better.”
“At…” She waved her hand impotently in the air. “Everything. You. Me.” The hand shifted to the space between them. “This. Us.”
“I’m… not?” If Charlie thought Kirkland appeared crushed before, it was nothing compared to the look he gave her now. If he were a horse they’d shoot and put him out of his misery.
“I don’t know,” Charlie mumbled.
“Well, if you don’t, who would? What am I doing wrong?”
“I don’t know,” she repeated truthfully.
“What do you want me to do… different?”
“Well…” Charlie felt herself blushing scarlet. Great. Now she and Kirkland could be color-coordinated. “Maybe you could… not go so fast. And maybe you could not do everything exactly the same way every time. Like you’re going through a checklist in your head, you know? Like, here’s the stuff you need to get done before you can get to the stuff you really want to do.”
“Oh…” Kirkland said. He might have continued but, in that moment, he was distracted by an image of Grant’s picture flashing across the television screen. Kirkland didn’t ask Charlie to turn up the volume. But, she knew he wanted her to. She reached for the remote and clicked a button, grateful for the distraction.
Even if it did come down to the Mayor of Bay City accusing Kirkland’s dad of getting Kirkland’s brother’s ex-girlfriend pregnant.
“It’ll be fine,” Frankie reassured Faye as well as the other women workers from the hotel. “You have every right to do this. You were hired to clean, not provide sexual services. You have every right to go on strike until your management takes appropriate action.”
Faye didn’t look convinced. “We will be fired.”
“No. Not when the world learns about what’s going on. Believe me, Dubai is going out of its way to present themselves as modern and Western. They will not want to be associated with this kind of behavior. They won’t risk alienating their foreign clientele. You will get your rights and you’ll be able to hold your heads up high.”
“I am not embarrassed,” Faye stressed, as if, in fact, the notion to be so had never occurred to her prior to Frankie bringing it up. “I do what I need to do to support my daughter.”
“So think of your daughter,” Cass chimed. “Do you want her ending up like you?” Only after he said it did he realize perhaps his choice of words may have been a bit… harsh.
“My daughter will go to school. She will not be like me.”
“Then this is your chance to teach her the most valuable lesson. That women aren’t chattel men can use and throw away. That you have dignity and worth and pride.”
“Here come the cameras!” Frankie reported, all but shoving Faye and her cohorts forward, promptly leading them in a chant she’d surreptitiously taught her disciples over the past few days.
The results were not impressive. The bulk of the women mumbled when they should have yelled, shuffled when they should have marched. Not the kind of thing to keep the media’s attention for long. Frankie realized she had a great deal of work still left to do.
She leapt into the fray, pulling Cass with her, all but whipping out a baton and conducting her rag-tag band of future Norma Raes. With Frankie in the lead and Cass bringing up the rear, they marched, they chanted, they offered sound-bite friendly quotes to the cameras while managing to look both downtrodden and noble.
And then they all got arrested for their trouble.
“It’s been years since I’ve attended a meeting.” Jamie looked down at the floor, fiddling with his wedding band, spinning it round and round on his finger, refusing to make eye contact with any of the dozen or so people leaning back on their plastic chairs on either side of him, patiently listening to everything Jamie had to say. “And my problem was never alcohol, anyway. It was drugs. Prescription drugs. But, that was a long time ago. I’ve felt like I’ve had it under control for a while. It hadn’t been an issue. Except that, lately… This past July – the 4th of July, as a matter of fact – my wife, she… she went missing. I’ve had people looking for her. And I know she’s out there. I know she wants to come home. To me. To our kids. Something has got to be stopping her. Someone. Actually, I have a pretty good suspicion of who that someone is… But, it doesn’t matter. What matters is I need to keep it together until she comes back. And I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do that. I try. I go through the motions. I go to work and I come home and I cook for my kids and I feed them and I read them stories and I put them to bed. And then I get up the next morning and I do it all over again. But, the other day, someone – this idiot at work – said something that set me off and I – I didn’t lose it completely. But, I came a hell of a lot closer than I’m comfortable with. I can’t risk that happening around my kids. I can’t break in front of them. I’m all they have left. And I know I’m already making a mess of everything. I’m a pain to be around. I’m in a bad mood all the time. I snap at people. I want them all to just go away and leave me the hell alone. Even the kids. But, I can’t. This isn’t what Lorna would have wanted. Not for them, not for me. I want to pull out of this nosedive I’m in. Except I can’t. And it makes me so furious with myself. I keep thinking, there has to be a way out of feeling like this. And there is. I’ve even tried it before. Not the pills. When even the pills weren’t getting the job done. I tried to kill myself. Years ago. I failed. Thank God. But, I’m starting to feel that way again. I promised my oldest son that I would never, ever abandon him and his brother and sisters. So I know that’s not an option. No matter how tempting it feels. And I promised myself I would never go back to the pills. No matter how well I know it would work. So, lately, I’ve found myself drinking. Not too much. I never do it and drive. I never do it before I go to work. I never do it until after my kids are asleep. But, I think about it. I think about it more and more and more every day. So I thought… I thought I’d better come here. Talk it out before matters got… away from me. Again. I need help, and this was the only place I could think of to turn.”
His piece finished, Jamie finally summoned up the nerve to raise his head. Only to see, from the other end of the room, Felicia standing there, looking at him in horror.
“And here you’d given me an entire impassioned speech about how taking advantage of vulnerable young women was a low you personally never, ever sink to,” Rachel drawled to Chase as she marched into his office. Even the secretary knew better by now than to try and stop her.
“I could say I was inspired by your example,” Chase smiled equally politely, pausing to correct, “At least in my case, the vulnerable young woman in question was a willing participant.”
Rachel smirked, “Sarah was merely a means to an end. This stunt has Iris’ fingerprints all over it.”
“You thought the same thing about your husband’s arrest.”
“I still do. I merely haven’t gotten around to proving it, yet.”
“Good luck with that.” Chase meant it as a dismissal.
But, Rachel wasn’t close to done yet. “You do realize that, over Thanksgiving, Iris turned my family gathering upside down by accusing my grandson, Steven, of being that same baby’s father.”
If she’d hoped to take the wind out of Chase’s sails with that, it only seemed to puff him up more. “Yes, both Mrs. Wheeler and her granddaughter explained the situation.”
“You could end up with a great deal of egg on your face over this.”
Chase shrugged. “As long as Sarah sticks to her story, the actual paternity is of very little interest to me.”
“Yes, you never have let facts get in the way of your career.”
“Or you, your personal life.”
Rachel ignored that particular barb completely. “Let’s see, there was prosecuting my son for murder, for instance. You commendably refused to let his innocence get in the way of trying to put Jamie in prison.”
“I seem to remember a little detail like a confession but, sure, whatever you say, Mrs. Hutchins.”
“Then there was your harassment of my husband.”
“Yes, it was merely my personal vendetta. Backed up by the U.S. Justice Department.”
“And now this cheap, crude, vulgar attack against Grant.”
“At least I didn’t have to blackmail my co-conspirator. Sarah came to me of her own free will.”
“Ha! No one who falls into Iris’ clutches ever acts of their own free will. No matter how many times she assures them they’re doing precisely that. You’re merely a pawn in yet another scheme that woman is plotting. And you’re too blind – and arrogant – to see it.”
Chase shrugged. “One hand washes the other. It’s how the game is played.”
“My family is a game to you?”
“I have no issue with your family. And, no matter what you may think, I haven’t got one with you, either. My only professional interest was Mr. Hutchins. And he’s a problem that’s been solved.”
“Along with my children,” Rachel hissed.
“I am very sorry about that,” Chase told her sincerely. “But, it didn’t have to happen. And it wouldn’t have, if your husband hadn’t chosen to run.”
“You think you’ve gotten the best of me? This little hiccough with Grant – “
“Wasn’t about you. Except you’ll soon need to find yourself a new candidate for Mayor, I’m afraid.”
“No,” Rachel said. “Going after you politically was a mistake, I realize that now. My objective was to make you feel the full consequences of what you’ve done to me. And the only way to do that, the only way to make you pay properly for murdering the most important people in my life, is to make it so you lose what’s most important in yours.”
“Is it true?” Donna sputtered to Marley, flying through her daughter’s front door as if being chased by a forest fire of cheap fabric. “Is what I heard true?”
“It was on KBAY-TV, Donna, so it must be true.”
“Well, ever since Jeanne took over…” Donna began, then realized that now wasn’t the time. “I thought it was bad enough over Thanksgiving when that little tramp tried to pin the blame for her condition on our Steven – “
“That was Iris, if I remember correctly. Sarah looked as shocked as anyone.”
“No wonder! She knew it was a lie!”
“What? What do you know?”
Marley sighed. On the one hand, confiding in Donna was never, ever a wise idea. On the other, what options did Marley have, really? Who was she supposed to talk to about this? Jamie had proven a bust. That left Grant. Or the twins. God, but Marley missed Vicky. Not that her sister would have been particularly sympathetic under the circumstances, but still….
“Grant… might be the baby’s father,” Marley confessed.
Donna couldn’t decide whether to act triumphant, indignant, or confused. “Then why did Steven…”
“Sarah said he stepped up because of what Grant put Vicky through over Kirkland. He didn’t want Sarah’s baby growing up the same way.”
“Is that why Grant was so adamant against her giving up the child to me and Matthew?”
“You don’t have to be the father to be adamant against Sarah giving up her baby to you and Matt. We could have taken a Man on the Street poll and gotten pretty much the same results.”
“To think, I almost ended up raising Grant Harrison’s illegitimate child.”
“It might not be Grant’s,” Marley hedged. “He says we can’t be sure of anything Sarah claims these days.”
“I told you that from the beginning,” Donna couldn’t stop herself from reminding.
“Yes.” Marley sighed, exhausted. “You did.”
“I told you that conniving bitch was up to no good. But, don’t you worry about a thing,” Donna went on. “Not a single thing. All you need to focus on right now is getting the girls packed up and out of this den of inequity. I’ll have my lawyers initiate divorce proceedings immediately. A shame you didn’t sign a pre-nup, but, considering you and that… man… wed less than twenty-four hours after your release from Clareview, we should have no trouble proving that he took advantage of your weakened state to – “
“I’m not leaving Grant,” Marley blurted out all in one breath, knowing she didn’t posses the nerve for more.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I am not leaving my husband over a… mistake.”
“Mistake? An affair with a teen-ager – “
“Why does everyone keep saying that? Sarah is only a little younger than Allie and Steven. She’s in college.”
“Fine, darling. An affair with a coed – is that better? – an affair with a co-ed isn’t enough of a reason for you to kick that derelict you married to the curb?”
“Dad left you when he found out you’d had an affair with John. And another time, over you and Jake. Matt left you because he found out you’d slept with Dad right before your wedding. I don’t remember you judging either of their actions particularly reasonable.”
“That was an utterly different set of circumstances. I loved your father. I loved Matthew. Do not tell me you feel that way about Grant Harrison!”
“I…” Marley began.
“There! You see! I knew it!”
“I’m not leaving him,” Marley stuck to the facts. “Grant wants to make our marriage work. The least I can do is give him a chance.”
“Of course, he says that. Don’t you see what he’s doing, my darling? Grant needs a wife, and Victoria’s girls, as well, if he’s to present a judge with evidence that he’s a much better parent than Sarah on her own could ever hope to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already filed the necessary papers. Knowing Grant, he probably wishes to take custody of that fetus, in utero.”
“Grant doesn’t want Sarah’s baby,” Marley said.
“He says, whether it’s his or not, he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want anything to do with it. Or Sarah. He says it would be too disrespectful to me.”
“And impregnating a teen – sorry, sorry, young woman of college age – wasn’t disrespectful?”
“He made a mistake. He’s sorry.”
“He can’t be. Not adequately. He hasn’t had me to deal with yet. Or Iris, I presume.”
“Why would you presume that?”
“Because his beaten and battered body hasn’t been found washed up in the Bay, for starters.”
“Grant and I are going to work through this.”
“Why?” Donna felt reduced to monosyllabic queries of utter despair.
“Because… Don’t I deserve to be happy?”
“Of course, you do. Who says you don’t?”
“Life. God. Fate. Look around, Donna. You and Matt are back together. Frankie came back from the dead for Cass. Jamie and Lorna somehow found each other against all odds, and he’s convinced that’s going to happen again. Amanda has Kevin. Even Alice, no matter how it ended, had Spencer for a little while. They all got their shot at happiness. What do I have?”
“And you think Grant is… Oh, no, darling. No!”
“He loves me. He loves me enough to give up the thing we all know he wants more than anything – a second chance with his own child.”
“You told me doesn’t believe it’s his.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, now you suddenly start listening to me?”
“I always listen to you, Marley. I only wish you’d take a moment and attempt to do the same. You are not making any sense.”
“I don’t care.” Marley heard the petulance in her voice. And figured that’s what she deserved for trying to reason with Donna. Who better than your parent to turn you into a whining child again?
“I don’t believe that,” Donna said calmly. “But, we’ll talk later. I didn’t mean to upset you. I genuinely came here to be of help. I know you don’t believe me. But, it’s true, nonetheless.”
She kissed her daughter on the cheek, a bit encouraged by the fact that Marley allowed her to do so.
Donna stepped outside and slid into the front seat of her car, powering up her phone even as she promised, “You may not know how to fix this disaster, Marley, but, rest assured, your mother does.”
She dialed the number, already smiling.
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