“How’s Allie feeling?” Though still badly shaken up by the sight of Charlie in her bed, utterly unresponsive, Frankie instinctively reached out to Amanda when the two mothers ran into each other in the hospital waiting area.
“She’s going to be fine,” Amanda smiled wanly.
“That’s great news,” Cass said, something in his tone twigging Frankie as being not quite right. He sounded grateful and disproportionately… relieved.
“And Charlie? How is she?” Amanda asked, her voice equally, inexplicably tight.
“The doctors say she’s physically fine,” Frankie blurted, her anger spilling out on the first available person. “But, she’s just lying there, not moving, not reacting, not doing anything. How in the world can that be considered fine?”
“I’m not surprised,” Amanda sniffed. “Charlie probably figures it’s her best shot at not being blamed for what she’s done.”
“What she’s done?” Frankie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“Allie told me everything,” Amanda’s anger was equally misdirected, and equally fierce. “How Charlie forced her car off the road. How she threatened her, assaulted her with a tree branch, then chased Allie into the woods and through the ice. Your daughter abandoned mine to freeze to death without so much as a look back!”
“Charlie went to get Allie help! She almost died herself, as a result!”
Amanda smirked. “Of course, that’s what she’d tell you. What do you expect her to say?”
“Charlie didn’t tell us anything,” Cass informed. “She isn’t speaking. She’s catatonic.”
“Like I said, nice act.”
“Are you accusing my daughter of…” Frankie couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. “On whose word? On Allie’s? Allie who lied about her own baby’s paternity? Allie who put Sharlene through hell over what she did to Gregory?”
“I believe my daughter,” Amanda said, hoping the sentiment would somehow reach back to Allie and convince her, too.
“Why would Charlie do such a thing?” Frankie demanded. “Did Allie mention anything trivial like a motive? Forget actual proof, for the time being.”
“Allie said Charlie wasn’t making any sense. That she seemed out of her mind. She accused Allie of all sorts of things, she brought up Zeno – “
“Zeno?” Frankie leapt on a detail she felt she might be able to comprehend.
“Allie and Zeno are dating,” Amanda explained, figuring Cass and Frankie had been out of the loop for quite a while.
“Oh. I didn’t know that.”
“I guess Charlie didn’t approve.”
“Of Allie and Zeno?”
“Seems that way.”
“This is ridiculous,” Frankie said. “Allie must have misunderstood. I’m going to find out what really happened. This is clearly a case of miscommunication. You’ll see.”
“A wine order?” Chase leaned back in his office chair and contemplated the ceiling. “That’s our big clue? A wine order? Six months on the trail and that’s the best Cass and Frankie were able to come up with?”
“An exclusive wine order,” Iris specified. “One that should have stopped with Carl’s death, but didn’t.”
“Maybe he bequeathed it to his favorite charity: The League of Extraordinarily Evil Gentlemen.”
“It is, nevertheless, worth following up on.”
“I cannot spend government money on a sight-seeing tour of French wine country. They’d take away my Fiscal Conservative card.”
“I could go,” Iris offered. “It wouldn’t cost you a cent.”
“How civic-minded of you, Mrs. Wheeler.”
“Quid pro quo, Your Honor. I presume you haven’t forgotten the details of our bargain?”
“You help me take down Carl Hutchins once and for all and, after the dust has cleared, if his wife’s assets should end up impounded, I will see to it that the deed to your father’s home is turned over to you.”
Iris smiled, “Rachel is ever so fond of reminding how Daddy bought the mansion for her, and her only. That it would never be mine, no matter what.”
“You do realize I couldn’t care less about your domestic squabbles, right?”
“You were happy enough to take advantage of them when it came to soliciting intelligence for hoisting Carl up by his own petard.”
“You’ve been a great help to me in the past, no one is disputing that. However, my objective is, and always has been, justice.”
“Mine, as well.”
Chase smiled. “Somehow I suspect the two of us hold differing definitions of the word.”
“We both want to see Carl punished for his crimes.”
“Except my list doesn’t include his replacing Mackenzie Cory in Rachel’s heart.”
“And I, frankly, don’t care how many years it’s been since Carl paid his taxes. But, what difference does it make in the end, as long as there actually is an end – to Carl?”
“If you go to France, understand that it wouldn’t be in any official capacity. Your sole objective would be to ferret out where that prized wine was shipped. I’ll take care of the rest – through authorized channels. Understood?”
“Understood,” she assured him.
“I’m not kidding around, Mrs. Wheeler. Don’t you dare do anything to jeopardize my case against Hutchins. I hope you’ve recognized by now that I can be a formidable opponent. Double-cross me at your own risk.”
“Morning, Mama,” Jasmine said somewhat awkwardly after walking into the Cory dining room and finding Lila merely sitting there, staring silently at her daughter.
“Good morning,” Lila said evenly. The plate in front of her was empty, the cup of coffee drained. Clearly, Lila had been sitting in wait, biding her time until Jasmine finally made an appearance.
Jasmine waited for her mother to say more. When she didn’t, Jasmine felt her appetite draining away, and she reached for her book-bag, slinging it over her shoulder as she slowly backed out of the room, stammering, “I – I guess I’d better get to school.”
“Sit down,” Lila said. It was an order, not an invitation.
Jasmine did as she was bade, gulping.
“I saw you,” Lila informed.
“You… saw me?”
“Last night. Through the window. I saw you getting out of Kirkland’s car, wearing… what the hell were you wearing, young lady?”
“I – “
“And why was Kirkland dropping you off? Weren’t you supposed to be out with some friends?”
“So where were they? More importantly, where were their mothers?”
“I – I ran into Kirkland and he gave me a lift. It was on his way, he said.”
“Ran into him where?”
“At the restaurant where we were having dinner.”
“What kind of restaurant has a My First Hooker Outfit dress code?”
“Stop it, Mama! I just wanted to look nice!”
“What was the name of this restaurant?”
“I don’t remember. I didn’t pick it. I just went where everybody else did. And then Kirkland was there and he offered to drive me home. What’s the big deal?”
Lila sighed. “You are a rotten liar, Jasmine Rachel Cassandra Cory. Wanna attempt that story again, and this time try making eye-contact?”
Jasmine visibly deflated, figuring the jig was up and mumbling, “Okay. Fine. I just went to a club with some friends. That’s where I ran into Kirkland. It’s no big deal. My friends and me weren’t drinking or anything.”
“A club?” Lila half-rose out of her chair. “You went to an adult club that serves drinks?”
“It was an 18+ club,” Jasmine pleaded. “Right on the BCU campus, so everybody there was pretty much a kid.”
“Wrong,” Lila slashed her finger through the air. “You are a kid. They are grown men and women – at least in the eyes of the law. Tell me something, Jasmine, if you didn’t give any thought to your own safety, how about theirs, huh?”
“What do you mean?” Jasmine wrinkled her nose.
“A boy who goes into an 18 and over club, would you say he has good reason to believe that everyone in the club is also 18 and over?”
“I… guess so.”
“And would you also guess that a girl under 18 who goes into such a club is basically setting that boy up for a heap of trouble, maybe jail, maybe a record that’s going to follow him around for the rest of his life by tricking him into thinking she’s old enough for whatever he might suggest?”
“I didn’t, Mama! I mean, I didn’t do anything that would – “
“What were you doing when Kirkland found you?” Lila demanded.
“So why’d he feel the need to bring you home?”
“Kirk just overreacted, that’s all. You know how he is.”
“Overreacted about what?”
“This guy… He bought me a beer. I wasn’t going to drink it, but Kirk just stomped over and dragged me out and – “
“I didn’t need his help.”
“And that,” Lila said decisively. “Simply proves just how young you truly are.”
“I’m not a baby, Mama!” Jasmine leapt up. “You can keep dressing me like I’m still in Kindergarten, and stop me from having fun forever, but I’m going to grow up anyway, whether you like it or not.”
“Cheap clothes don’t make you a grown up, Jazz,” Lila said tiredly.
“They were not cheap! Donna bought them for me, and Donna knows a lot more about being classy than you do.” As soon as the words were out of Jasmine’s mouth, she realized she’d made a mistake.
She was right, too.
But, not for the reasons Jasmine thought.
“You allowed to have visitors?” GQ stood at the door of Allie’s hospital room, shifting his weight from one foot to the next, chewing his lip.
“Yeah,” Allie said. Though she didn’t exactly invite him in.
He entered anyway, pulling up a chair. “Hi.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m glad. I was worried.”
“You and Kirkland saved my life. I owe you guys one.”
“We… I – I just did what anyone would have under the circumstances.”
“You scared me, Allie,” he admitted. “First time I saw you, I wasn’t sure if you were still alive or not. And then, in the car on the way to the hospital, you were so quiet.”
“What did you want me to say?”
“Anything! I just wanted to know you were alright.”
“You said that already.”
GQ smiled. “You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“Make what easy for you? I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Hell, I don’t understand why you’re here. I’m sorry I dragged you into this, but you don’t have to pretend you care anymore.”
“I do care, Allie. I care… I care more than you know.”
She snorted and looked away.
GQ said, “When I thought I might lose you, I – I was terrified. It took me seeing you in the water like that to realize… I realized that I still love you, Allie.”
She didn’t react. For a long, long beat, Allie didn’t react to what GQ had said. She seemed to be thinking it over. Or maybe she didn’t hear him. He was almost about to repeat himself when Allie slowly turned her head and looked in GQ’s direction.
“So what?” she asked him.
“I owe you a debt of gratitude,” Amanda spoke extra formally at the same time as she also kept an extra foot of distance between herself and Morgan. “Thank you for calling to tell me about Allie. If you hadn’t, I’m not sure I’d have ever known.”
“You’re welcome,” Morgan said. “I’m glad everything turned out okay.”
“She could have died, couldn’t she? My daughter could have died.”
“She didn’t,” Morgan reassured. “No need to torture yourself.”
“She’d have died hating me, you know. Allie hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you.”
“She dislikes me quite a bit.”
Morgan stayed silent for that one.
Prompting Amanda to shake her head. “Thanks a lot, pal.”
“Think of this as a second chance to get things right.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to start. In case you haven’t noticed, relationships aren’t exactly my area of expertise. Well, functional ones, anyway.”
“I am hurt and deeply offended.”
“That’s alright. I’m better now.”
Amanda tried desperately not to smile. She failed miserably. “You make it all so easy.”
“Everything,” Amanda admitted. “When we talk, you’re the only person who doesn’t make me feel like I’ve put my foot in my mouth… again.”
“There’s a joke in there somewhere,” Morgan observed. “About far more pleasant things to put in your mouth. But, I’m too much of a gentleman to go there.”
Again, Amanda lost her battle with a laugh.
“Just relax, Amanda,” he advised. “The whole world isn’t out to get you.”
“Facts not in evidence.”
“Okay, then,” he took a step closer, shortening the personal space she’d taken such great pains to establish earlier. “How about just this little corner of the world?”
“Oh,” Amanda assessed the situation. “I’d say this corner of the world was definitely out to get me.”
“And would that be so awful?” Morgan leaned in, practically whispering.
Amanda looked up into his eyes, ready to answer, willing to answer, eager to answer. Unfortunately, the only thing she lacked was an actual answer.
Thank goodness for the buzz of her cell-phone.
“It’s Kevin,” she managed to sound both relieved and apologetic, even as Morgan took the hint and instantly stepped back.
“Hello?” Amanda turned her back on Morgan in order to hear her husband more clearly.
And learn that he’d just confessed to the murder of Horace Johnson.
“You’re not going to do it, are you?” Olivia cautiously asked her daughter, having caught Sarah in a free moment. “You’re not actually going to let Iris ‘help’ you with this baby?”
“You were eavesdropping on us?” Sarah guessed.
“Beats being left out of the loop again.”
“You heard what she said then. About growing to resent your baby. Don’t tell me you disagree.”
Olivia hesitated. “Being a parent is hard. Being a single parent is harder. Everybody has a bad day once in a while.”
“How about a bad decade?”
“I did the best I could with you, Sarah. You didn’t make it easy.”
“Would you do it again?” Her daughter challenged. “If you had the choice, would you do the same thing again?”
“You mean with Dennis? I suppose, given the chance, I’d try to make our relationship go a bit more smoothly – for your sake.”
“I mean, with me. You wanted to give me away initially. You only changed your mind at the last minute. Are you sorry you did?”
“Sometimes,” Olivia told her honestly.
“Okay. Thanks for telling me the truth.”
“Are you… Are you thinking of maybe still giving your baby up?”
“I want what’s best for him or her.”
“Then that, most definitely, is not Iris. Whatever you decide to do, plan to keep Great-Grandmamma as far away from your child as possible. Trust me on this.”
“Why?” Olivia startled, to her the answer was obvious. “Because Iris doesn’t know how to play a supporting role in anything. She always has to be the center of attention, the star of the show, and everything has to be her way… or else. You give her an inch with your baby, she’ll make certain there’s miles between the two of you as soon as she can possibly manage it.”
“But, why would she want that? I mean, she didn’t even raise Dad. What would she want with my baby?”
“Iris needs to be loved unconditionally. Who else but a baby would ever give her that?”
“I don’t see why that’s so horrible,” Sarah defended. “The more people who love a kid the better.”
“Iris doesn’t grasp the difference between love and control. If you knew half the stunts she pulled trying to get your father to live the life she considered acceptable for him – “
“I do know,” Sarah reassured. “The Evil Queen Iris was Dad’s idea of a bedtime story for years. Where do you think I first heard the word gigolo? Dad told me about her hiring one to seduce some girl…”
“She’ll pull the same kind of crap with you. And your child. If you let her, she’ll take over your lives.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” Sarah changed the subject. “If you had it to do all over again, would you give me up?”
“Well, not to Marley, I wouldn’t.”
“To anyone, then?”
“Would you want me to?” Olivia challenged.
“Sometimes,” Sarah echoed her mother.
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