“Merry Christmas! Oh, it’s so good to see you both!” Standing in her foyer, Rachel bent from the waist so she could be at Devon and Mackenzie’s eye-level. She yearned to pull both little girls into her arms but, mindful of Jamie standing right behind them, looking less than thrilled to be in attendance, Rachel held back, not wanting to do anything to risk upsetting the delicate balance of the day.
It was Jamie, though, who gave Devon a gentle nudge, urging the eighteen month old, “Go give your Grandma a hug.”
Devon hesitated, peering nervously over her shoulder at Jamie. Rachel realized the toddler barely knew who Rachel was. That’s how little they’d seen each other since even before the summer.
“It’s okay,” Jamie reassured. “Go on.” And then he handed Mackenzie over to Rachel. “You, too, Zee. Say hi to Grandma.”
“Hello, darling,” Rachel gratefully accepted the baby, pretending not to notice that Devon was still hanging back, clinging to Jamie’s leg instead of doing as she’d been instructed. Instead, Rachel offered, “Would you like to come in and see my tree? I think there might be some packages underneath it with your names on them?”
That offer, Devon Ada Frame was willing to get behind. She let go of Jamie, and tore off into the living room, Jamie calling, “Wait for your sister,” before smiling apologetically at Rachel and chasing after his daughter.
Both children settled next to Jasmine and Charlie, who were already helping Lori Ann open her gifts. Jamie straightened up and stepped over to Rachel, kissing his mother on the cheek and telling her, “Thank you. This is very nice. I didn’t get a chance to put up much of a tree over at our place. I’m glad they’ll have all the trimmings here.”
“And I’m so glad you agreed to come. Thank you, Jamie. It means a lot to me.”
“Thank Felicia,” Jamie indicated his mother-in-law, sitting next to Lucas, both of them beaming over the sight of their three equally gorgeous, raven-haired granddaughters. “She convinced me it would be good for the girls.”
“And for me,” Rachel said. “With Amanda joining Kevin at Alice’s, I don’t know if I could have gotten through the day without at least some of my children around me.”
“Matt and I are here,” Jamie reassured, giving his mother a quick, side hug. “Plus you’ve got Allie and Steven, Kirk and Jasmine…”
“It isn’t fair,” Rachel had to turn away before the other guests saw the tears in her eyes.
“No,” Jamie agreed. “It isn’t.”
“They should be here, Jamie. They should all be here.”
“Yes.” This time, he strained to keep his voice neutral. “They should be. All of them.”
“You and Felicia… I know what you and Felicia think.”
“Not today, Mom. Not now.”
“I miss them so much. Some mornings I wake up, and the pain… it’s like I can’t even breathe.”
“I know,” he told her sincerely, this time wrapping Rachel in his arms without hesitation. “I love you, Mom. Today, let’s just leave it at that, okay?”
“Okay,” she murmured into his chest, holding onto her son as if for dear life.
“Merry Christmas,” Alice greeted Russ as he entered the Harrison house. Followed by Sarah. And Olivia. And Iris.
“Merry Christmas, Aunt Alice.”
“Hello, Olivia. I heard you were in town.”
“It was kind of a spur of the moment trip.” The smile plastered across her niece’s face suggested Olivia was less than thrilled to be making it. She indicated the gaily wrapped packages in her hands. “Where should I put these?”
“Under the tree in the living room. Sarah can show you.”
The two Matthews women took off, leaving only Iris, her expression of seasonal merriment even less sincere than Olivia’s, if such a thing were possible.
“So kind of you to have me for the holidays,” Rachel’s stepdaughter worked her best noblesse oblige.
“It’s absolutely no trouble, Iris. Unless, of course, you feel moved to make another toast.”
Sarah’s grandmother smiled feebly at the reprimand. And moved along.
“What are you thinking?” Alice seized Russ by the arm as he attempted to follow the women, and pulled him into the hallway. “Letting Iris stay with you?”
“Funny enough, Rachel asked me that same thing. And that was before Sarah and Olivia also moved in.”
“Did you call Olivia and ask her to come?”
Russ shook his head and mouthed the word, “Donna.”
“Donna called her?”
A confirming nod. “Now that the news is public about Grant being the real father, Donna wants Olivia to get Sarah and, obviously, the baby, the hell out of town.”
“And what does Sarah think about that?”
“She’s not budging, as far as I can tell.”
Alice said, “In case you’re wondering, when they heard the rest of the guest list, Grant, Marley and the twins declined my invitation for Christmas dinner.”
“Sarah will be sorry to hear that.”
“Surely, she doesn’t want a scene!”
“No. But, she wants Grant, that part is obvious.”
“After the way he treated her? Did you read the statement he put out when he pulled out of the mayoral race? He wasn’t exactly gentle. Or kind. Or subtle. He more or less made Sarah out to be – ”
“Maybe she doesn’t want him,” Russ amended his own statement. “But, she certainly still loves him.”
“Oh,” Alice sighed sadly, knowing exactly what that felt like. In that case… “The poor girl.”
“You don’t like your presents?” Marley took in Michele and Bridget’s glum faces, marveling at how they managed to look so much like both Jake and Vicky at the same time, though neither seemed to have inherited either parent’s facility with a poker face.
“They’re very nice, thank you, Aunt Marley,” Bridget parroted dutifully.
While Michele clearly wasn’t in the mood for politeness. She shoved the wrapping paper aside and accused, “We’re not having Christmas with the rest of our family, not Kirk, not Steven, not Grandmother, because of him.” She glared at Grant. “Him and Sarah.”
Grant had been waiting for the accusation for days now. He hadn’t expected it to come at this particular point, though. Frankly, he’d assumed this would be the one time he could feel safe. Well, chalk it up to another bad call on his part. Why break a lifelong streak?
“Yes,” he told Michele evenly. “It is my fault.”
“You cheated on Aunt Marley. How could you do that?”
“That’s adult business, Michele,” Marley interjected. “Not yours.”
“Sarah was our friend,” Bridget said quietly. “I mean, I thought she was our friend. I thought she was your friend, too, Aunt Marley.”
“So did I,” Marley confessed.
“And you were supposed to love Aunt Marley. You said you loved her,” Michele reminded. “You said you loved all of us.”
“I do,” Grant stuck to the facts.
“We’re not little kids, you know,” Michele said. “Just because you treat us that way, doesn’t mean we don’t understand stuff. We’re almost thirteen. We know where babies come from.”
“How could you do that with Sarah?” Bridget demanded.
“I never meant to hurt anyone.” Again, the god’s truth. “I made an error in judgment that, more than anything, I wish I could take back and undo. I’ve explained as much to your Aunt Marley, and she, in her infinite generosity, has agreed to try and forgive me.”
“Well, sure, yeah, that’s what she does, isn’t it?” Michele snapped. “Forgive people who hurt her? Like our dad?”
“Michele!” Marley gasped, having begun to hope that the issue of her and Jake’s past was dead and buried, something to never be mentioned again. “You can’t compare – “
“You always forgive everybody.”
“Because your Aunt Marley is a good person.”
“Is that why she gets screwed over all the time?”
“Watch your language, young lady!” Grant warned.
“First my dad, then Uncle Jamie, then you. I told you, we’re not stupid. At least, I’m not. We can see what’s going on.”
“You want to know what’s going on?” Grant raised a hand to keep Marley from responding, making it clear he’d handle this. “I’ll tell you what’s going on. What’s going on is that you two have no earthly idea how lucky you are to so much as know, much less be raised by a person like Marley. Most people, they get smacked down by life, and they spend the rest of their days on their hands and knees, too scared to get back up and try again. Your Aunt Marley gets up and tries again. And again and again and again. Do you know what kind of bravery that requires? No, you don’t. Because you’ve never had to. You’re right, Michele. Your father did hurt her. Some people might never move on from a crime like that. I know I’ve held bigger grudges for a hell of a lot less. But, Marley didn’t. Not only did she move on but, when Jake died, she brought you two to live with her. Jake’s children. And she has loved you enough for a hundred mothers. Because that’s who she is. When I came back to Bay City, nobody would have anything to do with me. My own father pretty much wrote me off. My son, too. But, Marley was able to see that maybe I wasn’t as bad as everyone said. She accepted me when nobody else would. Do you know how grateful I will always be for that?”
“So grateful you knocked up Sarah?” For a moment during Grant’s declaration, Michele had looked like she might cry. This was the only way to prevent that.
“I may be Sarah’s baby’s father,” Grant conceded.
“She says you are.” Bridget noted. “For sure.”
“But, my home is here with you and with Marley. I begged her – that’s right, I begged her to let me stay. And your Aunt Marley, out of the goodness of her heart, agreed to give me another chance. You think that’s a weakness, girls? You have no clue. That kind of generosity of spirit is a strength beyond the capabilities of most people.”
Michele listened to every word Grant said. And then she turned to her aunt and, with what appeared to be genuine pity, mixed with even more genuine anger, said, “You’re so stupid.”
“Do not speak to her like that!” Grant roared.
Prompting Bridget, who’d barely said anything at all up to this point, to burst into tears. “Stop it, please,” she whimpered.
Marley moved to comfort one of her nieces, while swiveling her head from Michele to Grant and back again. “You heard Bridget. Stop it. Both of you.”
“I was only trying – “ Michele began.
“I know what you were trying to do.” Marley addressed Grant, as well. “I know what you were both trying to do.”
“How come your mom isn’t here?” Charlie asked Allie after they were forced to sit side by side while the little kids finished unwrapping their gifts.
“She’s at Kevin and Alice’s.”
“So why aren’t you there?”
“They invited me,” Allie admitted. “But, this is home, you know?”
“Not really.” Charlie shrugged. “It’s not my house. And that mausoleum my parents moved us into, that doesn’t really feel like home, either. Of course, it doesn’t matter to them. We only ended up here ‘cause Felicia wanted Lori Ann to hang out with Lorna’s kids. Then Dean had to show up. Hey, where’s Zeno?” Charlie asked, as if she’d just noticed he was missing, as opposed to being painfully aware of the fact from the moment she’d walked in. The one thing she’d thought might make this gathering tolerable, and even that wasn’t happening.”
“He’s out at the farm, they’re all celebrating together.”
“Zeno celebrates Christmas? I thought he was like Mom, all Goddess and Heaven and Mystic Spirits and magical linseed oil.”
“Linseed oil?” Allie wrinkled her nose just as Charlie realized she’d made a goof. “What about linseed oil?”
“Oh, you know,” Charlie did her best to bluff. “It’s this stuff, supposed to cure cancer or something. My mom wanted Gregory to try it.” She hoped mentioning Gregory might be enough to spook Allie off topic. “That’s the kind of magical mumbo-jumbo my mom and Zeno’s mom believed in. So I figured he would, too.”
“Zeno is actually pretty down to earth,” Allie said slowly, still processing.
“Yeah, whatever,” Charlie said, and got the hell out of there.
“Tell him to stop giving me the silent treatment,” Steven dragged Jamie over to where Kirkland was standing, deliberately avoiding his older brother.
“Tell him to shut up and mind his own business,” Kirkland advised.
“I could tell you both to can it, it’s Christmas, but since when does either of you listen to me?” was Jamie’s contribution.
“I don’t get you,” Steven accused. “All my life, it’s been: Steven is self-centered, Steven doesn’t care about other people, Steven is a robot. I try to do a nice thing for a chick who, let’s be honest, treated me like crap, and instead of a pat on the back, I get grief for it! There’s just no pleasing you, is there?”
“You knew Grant was screwing around on Marley, and you kept it to yourself!”
“It wasn’t anybody’s business but theirs!”
“You didn’t think it was Marley’s business? You could have given her a head’s up!”
“And break her heart? No, thanks.”
“All you did was make things worse. Maybe, if you’d told her as soon as you found out, Sarah wouldn’t be pregnant now. You think that isn’t breaking Aunt Marley’s heart? You know how she is, especially about babies and stuff.”
“Actually, Kirk,” Jamie interrupted. “Before you put all the blame on your brother, you should know… I was aware of Grant and Sarah, too. And I didn’t tell Marley, either.”
The boy looked from Steven to Jamie in shock. “What? Were Marley and I the only ones out of the loop?”
“No,” Jamie assured. “It’s just that, when you were hurt over New Year’s and Grant gave blood to save you, Sarah came to the hospital and, the way she was acting around Grant, it was kind of obvious they were involved. I saw her, Steven saw her, Lorna saw her. No one else, though.”
“So you all lied to Aunt Marley.”
“We all tried to protect her. Lorna even confronted Grant. He promised he would end the affair. And then, Marley was released from Clareview, she and Grant got married, and we all assumed he’d done as he’d promised.”
“Which was pretty stupid of us, you gotta admit,” Steven mumbled.
“You were so mad at Allie,” Kirkland pointed out. “When she lied about Hudson. You said it was just like the crap Mom pulled over you with Dad and Jake. And here you went and did the exact same thing.”
“So I owe Allie an apology.” Steven shrugged.
“Make a list,” Kirkland spat.
“He did it because of you, Kirk,” Jamie said gently. “Steven didn’t want Sarah’s baby caught in a tug of war with Grant, the way that you were for most of your life.”
“Well, then, you did it for nothing. Grant told me he doesn’t want the kid.”
“Yes,” Jamie confirmed. “Marley told me the same thing. I find it hard to believe, frankly.”
“It’s because Grant says Steven could still turn out to be the father.”
“Uh-uh,” Steven shook his head. “No way. Impossible. Grant’s lying.”
“Grant’s always lying,” Kirkland didn’t even try to keep the bitterness from his voice. “The real question is, what about this time?”
“Take it easy, darling!” Iris trilled when it looked like Sarah might be straining herself, bending over to place a pile of gifts on the floor next to Alice’s tree. “Remember your delicate condition.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Iris,” Olivia snapped. “We aren’t living in a Victorian novel. She’s pregnant, she’s not an invalid. Go fetch your own smelling salts and leave her alone.”
“I refuse to apologize for being concerned about my granddaughter’s health. Perhaps if you’d taken a bit more of an interest – “
“A little tough to take an interest in my daughter’s health or anything else when nobody tells you anything. First, I find out from Donna that Sarah is even living in Bay City, and then this! Even Daddy didn’t see fit to fill me in. Why am I always the last to know?”
“Perhaps it’s because I was trying to avoid a reaction not unlike this one,” Sarah offered brightly, resolved not to get in the middle of the altercation, thoroughly aware that she was just an excuse for her mother and grandmother to go at it. Not a reason.
“Grant Harrison, Sarah? Honestly?” Olivia finally let loose with the question that had dominated her thoughts ever since first hearing the news. Even if the man’s stepmother was just a room away, and their hostess for the day. “What were you thinking? What on Earth could posses a beautiful, intelligent, young girl like you – “
“I love him, Mom,” Sarah said calmly. Then wondered, “Would you prefer it had been a one-night stand with a guy I just used for stud service?”
“That would be my son she’s referring to,” Iris translated dryly.
“I’d prefer, Sarah, that you never got in this mess in the first place.”
“Funny,” Amanda observed, entering the room having overheard the tail end of their conversation. “That’s just how I once felt about you. Hello, Olivia.”
“Hello, Amanda,” her one-time rival turned around, surprisingly happy to see Sam’s ex-wife. “Perhaps you and my daughter can compare notes. After all, you once fell under Grant Harrison’s spell yourself, didn’t you? Tell Sarah how that worked out.”
“It’s a matter of public record,” Amanda shrugged. “You know how in Star Wars they say there’s always a Master and an Apprentice? Well, with Grant, odds are there’s a wife and a mistress. To tell the truth, I’m not so sure which one deserves more pity.”
“Merry Christmas, Fanny.” Lucas wasn’t sure what would be more awkward, kissing his wife, hugging her, or merely doing nothing. He settled for a clumsy mélange of all three, pecking her on the cheek with one hand patting her shoulder. An empty and painful gesture after everything they’d been through together.
“Merry Christmas, Luke,” she responded in kind, equally pained.
“I hear you’re the one who convinced Jamie to bring the girls over.”
“For Rachel’s sake,” she said. “And Jamie’s. And mine. I can’t help it, I see our three granddaughters, and I melt.”
“You melt?” Lucas laughed. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve definitely figured out who the real soft touch is around here. They’ve got me waiting on them hand and foot!”
“I wondered how they reached high enough to get the candy canes down.”
“Guilty,” he admitted with a smile, tapping his chest.
“Do you ever look at them – Devon, especially – and wonder what it would have been like if we’d gotten the chance to raise Lorna ourselves?”
“There wouldn’t have been enough candy canes in the world, that’s for sure.”
“I used to think you could only miss what you’ve lost. Turns out it’s even worse to miss what you never had.”
“I’m glad you and Jamie seem to have called a truce,” he changed the subject, making up with speed what he lacked in subtlety.
“We all are.”
“Well, it’s been brought to my attention that perhaps I possess a slight tendency to get so wrapped up in my own pain, I fail to notice the suffering of others.”
“It is one of your few, tiny, minor flaws,” Lucas observed, eyes twinkling.
Prompting Felicia to laugh, “Damn it, I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Fanny. Both what we had, and what we didn’t.”
“We can’t give up hope, can we? I just gave Jamie a whole speech on faith and how that’s the only thing we’ve got left.”
“No,” Lucas insisted. “No, we have more than that.”
“Like what?” Felicia desperately needed him to give her something to hold on to.
“Like…” He looked around. “Like our grandchildren.”
“And? Is that it?”
“And…” He trailed off, seeming ready to say something.
But, just as that moment, the festivities were interrupted by the opening of a door and a joyful pair of figures appearing in the entryway.
“Merry Christmas!” Cass and Frankie shouted.
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