“Kevin,” Rachel offered a satisfied smile at the sight of her son-in-law’s return to the Cory mansion. “I trust you’ve come to your senses?”
“Actually,” he took a seat opposite her. “I was kind of hoping you’d come to yours.”
“You mean you were hoping I’d let the cold-blooded murder of my husband and children… slide?”
“You know, Rachel, I’d heard things about you. About how you used to be. But, according to popular mythos, your third marriage to Mr. Cory effectively nipped the more anti-social aspects of your character in the bud, as it were.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” Rachel assured him dryly.
Kevin looked her in the eye and informed, “The answer is still no. I will not disrupt Ike and Milagros’ adoptions so you can get your revenge on Chase Hamilton.”
“That’s a pity,” Rachel replied calmly, the low tenor of her voice both hiding and proving just how furious she was. Why was everyone making it so damn difficult? Didn’t any of them understand why she was doing this? Why she had to do this? “A pity… for you,” Rachel added.
“I respectfully disagree.”
“You think I’m bluffing.” Rachel didn’t blame him. Hearing about Rachel’s past and actually seeing her in her prime wasn’t nearly the same thing. Kevin clearly didn’t understand precisely whom he was dealing with. “About exposing your grandmother’s role in illegally covering up Spencer’s death. I assure you, I’m not.”
“I don’t think you’re bluffing,” Kevin agreed pleasantly. “I think you’re counting on my not knowing that Jamie was just as involved in my grandmother’s crime as she was.”
The only outward appearance of Rachel’s shock were her eyes growing a tad larger. Inside, however, her heart beat into overdrive as her brain struggled to readjust strategy while appearing thoroughly unaffected. “Who – who told you that?”
“You went to Alice?”
“Of course. Her head is the one on the chopping block, she deserves to know. Frankly, I’ve never understood this impulse to allegedly protect people without telling them what you’re doing. In my experience, that only causes more trouble down the line.” Even as Kevin spoke the words, he realized what a hypocrite he was being regarding his own situation with Horace, Steven, and Jenny. But, that was another issue for another time. The key thing to living in Bay City, he’d learned, was prioritizing your crises. He went on, “You insist on exposing my grandmother, she’ll turn right around and expose Jamie.”
Rachel cocked her head to one side, “You really think you’ve got me over a barrel now, don’t you?”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“Except, I’m afraid there’s something you’ve forgotten to factor into your equation.”
“And what’s that?”
“I know something about Alice that you don’t.”
“You make it clear to her,” Lila browbeat Matt. “And you make it clear to her today, Jazz is my daughter. Mine and yours. Not hers.”
“I’m sure Donna didn’t mean any harm. Cut her some slack. She didn’t get to raise Marley or Vicky – “
Matt ignored the last barb. “This is her one chance to mother a little girl.”
“Except she ain’t Jasmine’s mother. And I won’t have her acting like she is.”
“There’s no reason for you to feel threatened.”
“I am not threatened!” Lila defended. Perhaps a bit more shrilly than the topic warranted. “But, you should have seen her. Donna had Jasmine tarted up like a little whore.”
“They were just having some fun.”
“I will not have my daughter looking like a whore!” Again with the shrillness.
“Oh,” Matt said, understanding dawning as he realized what he initially thought this conversation was about was actually something completely different. “I’m sorry, Lila, I wasn’t thinking.”
“You and I agreed, Matt. Back when Jasmine was still a teeny, tiny little bit of a girl. We agreed we wouldn’t be the sort of parents who pushed their baby to grow up too fast. I don’t care if her friends are wearing make-up and going to nightclubs and texting and sexting and whatever else their Mamas let them get away with. That won’t be Jasmine. She’ll grow up in her own sweet time, not a second before.”
“You’ve done a great job with Jazz,” Matt attempted to calm a worked up Lila down.
“So far,” she qualified. “And I intend to keep doing a great job. That means protecting her from diving headfirst into matters she thinks she understands, but doesn’t really.”
“You mean, like you did?” he asked sympathetically.
“Hell, yes. I won’t have Jazz growing up like me, knowing things she has no business knowing, trying out things she’s got no business trying. There’s no coming back from it, Matt. I know. Once you’re done being a little girl, that’s it. It’s all over.”
“I’ll talk to Donna,” Matt promised.
“I know what they’re like,” Lila went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “Those rich ladies. The ones who’ve got nothing but time and money on their hands. They’re buying their teen-age daughters nose jobs and boob jobs and collagen injections and sending them on trips around the world, unsupervised. It’s Girls Gone Wild – only with unlimited credit cards. Not here. Not with my little girl. Am I making myself clear?”
“Donna wouldn’t…” Matt began, then changed his mind and merely reiterated. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Grant is hiding something,” Iris accused Marley without preamble as she barged into the art gallery, despite the sign outside clearly indicating their being closed.
“God,” Marley slammed down the inventory she’d been doing while also relishing the peace and quiet of being away from the house – and (guiltily) her husband and children. “I am getting so sick and tired of your family.”
“Dennis had every right to confront the heartless rogue who’d defiled his daughter,” Iris defended primly.
“I hate to break it to you and Dennis, but Grant was hardly the first man on the scene.”
Iris smirked. “I see you’ve inherited your mother’s sense of decorum.”
“And I see you’ve inherited nothing of your father’s.” Marley went for the jugular.
“Grant should be grateful his offspring will have Mackenzie Cory’s blood flowing through their veins. It might be the poor child’s only saving grace.”
“With you hovering about? In the DNA and out? I doubt it.” Marley turned her back, effectively dismissing Iris.
Who didn’t appear to be taking the hint. “What are the two of you plotting?”
“Excuse me?” Marley whipped around again.
“You and Grant. You’ve got something hidden up your sleeves where Sarah’s child is concerned, and I intend to discern what.”
“In case we haven’t made our position explicitly clear, the only thing Grant and I want for Sarah’s baby is for it to be gone – and to take its mother with it.”
“That’s what you say….”
“Seriously? Are you really that warped and twisted by now, Iris, that you can’t accept a simple pronouncement at face value? That you’re always looking for an ulterior motive, even when there isn’t one?”
“Grant is acting out of character,” Iris pointed out. “Even you can’t deny that.”
“He’s changed,” Marley defended tersely, realizing that Iris was absolutely right on that score. “He’s not the man he was when we all knew him, years ago. He’s acknowledged the mistakes he’s made and taken pains not to repeat them.”
“Or he’s merely refined his technique.”
“What – what do you mean?”
“Perhaps the only thing Grant has learned from his mistakes is that the bulldozer approach is rarely effective in delicate situations. Everything he did to your sister, having her kidnapped, framing her for murder, planting bombs… none of that garnered him what he wanted in the end. So he’s adopted a more subtle approach.”
“Grant doesn’t want Sarah. Or her child.”
“So he says. But, that could merely be a ploy to force her guard down. And yours.”
“My husband is not playing me,” Marley stressed.
“Then you are in this together,” Iris leapt in as if Marley had all but already confessed. “It makes perfect sense. We all know how long you’ve been craving a baby, Marley.”
“I have a family now,” she reminded through gritted teeth, feeling her whole body starting to shake. “I have Grant, and I have my girls….”
“Vicky’s girls. And you’re their aunt, not their mother. It’s not the same.”
“I wouldn’t be a mother to Sarah’s baby, either.”
“Not as long as Sarah is in the picture, no. But, if she were somehow convinced to part with her child….”
“Now you’re confusing me with my mother.”
“You didn’t do all that much to stop her, did you?”
“I told Sarah I thought giving up her baby to Donna and Matt was a bad idea.”
“True. But, you never said the notion of giving the child up in general was.”
“That’s Sarah’s decision.”
“I knew it! You and Grant are plotting to steal my great-grandchild.”
“Yes, Iris. Because this is all about you. How could anyone have ever thought otherwise?”
“You won’t get away with it. Either of you. I will protect Sarah, make sure she isn’t taken in. You aren’t dealing with a naïve young girl, anymore, Marley. You’ll be dealing with me from now on.”
“Hey, Frankie,” Kirkland answered his phone in a combination of surprise and nerves, wondering why Charlie’s mom would be calling him.
“Hello, Kirkland. Happy New Year!”
“Thanks. Same to you.”
“Listen, Kirk, is Charlie, by any chance, there with you? She isn’t answering her phone.”
“Uh – no. She’s not. I brought her home last night. By curfew, just like we promised.”
“Oh, I know, I know. I heard her leave this morning. I was just wondering…” Frankie sighed, gathering she’d have to level with him. “Kirkland?”
“I was just wondering if you’d noticed anything… off about Charlie lately?”
“Yes. Cass and I were gone for so long….”
“Yeah. She really missed you guys.”
“Did she?” Frankie asked hopefully.
“I mean, she didn’t say so. But, I could tell.”
“She doesn’t seem particularly pleased to have us back.”
“Well…. You know Charlie.”
“Actually, I’m starting to feel afraid that I really don’t. Know her, that is. We let her defer Sarah Lawrence for a year because we thought it would make her happy. Does she seem happy to you, Kirk?”
“Sometimes,” he hedged.
“But, not all of the time?”
“Well, I mean, nobody is happy all of the time.”
“You’re right. Sure, I get that. But, is she, at least, happier when she’s around you?”
Kirkland hesitated. “I want to make her happy. But, she… it’s…. hard.”
“I know what you mean,” Frankie exhaled in relief, even as she wondered about the propriety of having this conversation with her daughter’s boyfriend. “I feel the same way. I keep trying to please her, but it somehow just seems to make her more angry.”
“She’s mad about you being gone for so long. And about you taking off again.”
“But… I explained it to her. What Cass and I are doing is important. We’re saving lives. Lorna needs us. So do Felicia and your dad and your grandmother, too.”
“Yeah, I know. I understand.”
“Do you think you could help Charlie understand?”
“I can try,” Kirkland said, definitely not sounding encouraged.
“Thank you for meeting me,” Grant pecked Lila on the cheek, despite the eyes of the entire restaurant turning in their direction as he did so. It hadn’t been so long since Sarah’s television appearance followed by Grant’s withdrawal of his mayoral candidacy that people had forgotten. Or gotten over their need to gawk. Grant ignored them, instead pulling out his own chair, laying a cloth napkin across his lap and telling Lila, “I desperately needed to break bread with someone not looking to smash it over my head.”
She reached across the table to gingerly touch the bruise at the base of Grant’s chin. “Nice shiner. What did the other guy look like?”
“Dennis Wheeler,” Grant spat the name, signaling the waiter to come over and take his drink order, pronto.
“Ah. Sarah’s daddy is in town, is he?”
“In my face, too.”
“Well, you can’t claim you don’t deserve it.”
“I deserve that and more,” Grant admitted, rubbing his chin. “Doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it.”
“If it were my daughter,” Lila told him honestly, especially in light of the conversation she’d had with Matt earlier. “A punch in the jaw would be just the tip of the iceberg. I’d be heading straight for the rusty pruning shears. And that’d only be the warm up act.”
“Your daughter would never be in this situation. You’re raising Jasmine right.”
“Trying it,” Lila sighed.
“With parents like that, I’m surprised Sarah isn’t a million times worse off. Dennis and Olivia make Lorna’s upbringing by Carl look preferable.”
“Interesting you should mention Lorna,” Lila noted, then guessed. “You starting to re-think what she told you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Lorna and her stories of being taken advantage of by an older man was what scared you off Sarah in the first place. Well, for a short spell, anyway. Now that she’s gone, I’m wondering if you figure that makes her advice null and void, too?”
“No,” Grant shook his head, clearly having given the issue a great deal of thought. “Lorna is still right. More than ever, actually. Look at all the harm I’ve done Sarah already. Her life is a shambles because of me.”
“Doesn’t she deserve any of the credit for that? Takes two to tango, after all. And getting pregnant was her idea, not yours.”
“I should have stopped her. I should have stopped… things, before they got this far.”
“Well, yes. But, what’s done is done. That child is miserable now, true. But, she’s miserable because she thinks you don’t give a damn about her, when nothing could be further from the truth. If you just toned it down a notch…”
“And give her the false hope that we might still have a future together?”
“Not really false, is it, Grant? What would you give for – “
“I wouldn’t give Sarah. I wouldn’t sacrifice her happiness for mine.”
“Way she sees it, being with you would make her happier than anything.”
“She sees it wrong. She doesn’t understand. Being with me would be the worst thing that could happen to her. I’m too old. She deserves better.”
“So you’re going to let her keep suffering, let her keep on thinking you don’t care – “
“Yes. That’s the reason I’m staying with Marley. Well, one of the reasons, anyway. As long as I’m married, Sarah can’t keep on reasonably entertaining her fantasies about the two of us.”
“That girl is so far past reasonable, Grant….”
“The more Sarah hates me, the sooner she’ll forget me, move on, find someone more appropriate for her, live a normal life.”
“With your baby?”
Grant swallowed hard. “If that’s what she decides.”
“You really think you’ll be able to walk away once that child is born?”
Lila shrugged, figuring the words didn’t need articulating.
“I will,” he insisted. “I have to. For Marley’s sake, for the baby’s sake, and, most importantly, for Sarah’s. If I do one good thing in my life, one selfless thing, it’s going to be this. I swear it.”
Allie ran blindly into the woods, not caring where she was going as much as where she was coming from. She’d left Charlie standing by the snow-bank that had trapped both their cars. She’d left her swinging a tree branch and screaming at Allie, looking like there was nothing Charlie wanted more than to bash the stick against Allie’s head.
Her shoulder throbbed from where Charlie had missed on her last attempt, and her toes were slowly going numb, even through boots that swore they were waterproof. The sun had finished setting in the time Allie had been running, and she could barely see where she was going now. Snow continued to fall, first soaking her face, then freezing on it. She was shaking and gasping for breath, but still she kept running.
Because, no matter how far she went, Allie still thought she could hear Charlie following her.
She hadn’t turned around to check. She was too scared. So she just kept running, not looking where she was going.
Until Allie felt her feet slip out from under her and she slid on what she realized too late was ice. Allie wasn’t on solid ground anymore. She’d stumbled onto a lake. But, she could still hear Charlie. So she kept going.
Allie heard the ice crack before she felt it. Her mind registered the noise, wondering what it could possibly be in the split second before her legs gave out beneath her and she plunged straight down into the freezing cold lake.
Allie’s head went under, filling her nose and her mouth with water. She beat her arms and pumped her legs frantically, managing to resurface and gasp for air, even as the weight of her sopping clothes pulled her down again and her entire body shuddered from the plunging temperatures.
“Help!” Allie screamed instinctively, no longer caring that it would lead Charlie straight to her. She grabbed the edge of the ice, holding on for dear life.
Charlie appeared on the bank. Allie was right, she had been following her all along. She still held the branch in her hands.
“Help me,” Allie didn’t so much plead, as order. Enough was enough already.
But, Charlie merely continued standing as she was.
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