“Jamie?” Marley repeated Olivia’s claim, her tone stuck between incredulous and… something else. “You’re pregnant with Jamie’s baby?”
Olivia nodded, ostensibly at Marley, but with the corner of her eye focused squarely on Dennis in an attempt to gauge his reaction.
“Does Jamie know?” Marley wondered.
Olivia nodded again.
“Does Lorna know?”
“Why the hell are you telling us?” Dennis interrupted, his anger disproportionate to the situation. Luckily, Marley was too distracted to notice.
“Because.” This question, Olivia had prepared herself for. “I was hoping you could help me break the news to Sarah. I can only imagine how mortified she’s going to feel, having a little brother younger than her own daughter.”
“Of all the things Sarah has to feel mortified about,” Marley reassured. “Your late-in-life accident is the least of it.”
“I’m younger than you,” Olivia reminded pointedly.
“Though hardly smarter.”
“Oh, please. The only reason you never found yourself in my shoes is because you couldn’t if you wanted to.”
“Olivia!” Dennis fought the impulse to throw her against a wall. Or maybe through it.
“A woman who keeps you on the side while married to her sister’s ex-husband – and not for the first, or second time! – doesn’t get to lecture me about mortality.”
“How about appropriate use of birth control?” Marley snapped, not needing Dennis to fight her battles. “That never was your – or your daughter’s – strong-point.”
“Your baby has nothing to do with us,” Dennis seethed at Olivia. “So why don’t you go and tell someone who cares?”
“Marley cares,” Olivia wasn’t sure whom she was taunting more, Dennis or Marley, all she knew was that she intended to ride this unexpected side-benefit for all it was worth. “Should I be extra careful on the roads these days? We all know what happened the last time another woman was pregnant with your Jamie’s baby.”
“Jamie isn’t her anything!” Dennis warned menacingly.
“Then why is she so interested?”
“Because she’s a good person. And she realizes what kind of hell you’re about to rain down on him and Lorna and their kids. I know it, too.”
“He won’t leave her, you know,” Marley said, almost sounding sympathetic to Olivia’s plight. “Lorna. He won’t leave her. Not for you, not for anyone.”
“I don’t expect him to,” Olivia told her honestly. “I mean, look what happened when Dennis did. Left you for me and Sarah, I mean. That didn’t work out for anyone.”
Olivia’s sincere response momentarily took the wind out of both Dennis and Marley’s sails.
“So what are you going to do?” he asked cautiously.
“Raise the baby myself. What choice do I have?”
“Jamie wouldn’t walk out on his own kid,” Dennis said slowly. “He’s not that kind of guy.”
“You never really know what kind of a guy someone is until you put them to the test,” Olivia looked at Dennis. “And then all you can do is hope they come through… while preparing for them to disappoint you. Again.”
“Is it okay? For me to be here? Is it too… early?” Cory finished lamely, unable to ask Lorna what he really wanted to, wondering how she would feel about him dropping by her and Jamie’s home… so early in the morning.
Her smile made him think it would be okay. But, the remnants of caution in her eyes did make him wonder. “I’m by myself,” he reassured. “Father… Father isn’t with me.”
“That’s alright,” Lorna told him brightly, beckoning Cory inside the house. “I’m always happy to see any member of the Hutchins family, you know that.”
“Right,” Cory bobbed his head more emphatically than the situation warranted. He still, even after two years, had a hard time believing that, but… “How are you?” he followed up awkwardly. “You know, with all… this?”
“It’s… different,” she told him honestly. “When I was your age, I certainly didn’t expect my life to turn out the way that it has.”
“Me neither,” Cory said, then clarified. “I mean, my life, not yours.”
“What are you talking about? You’re home. Finally.”
“I never thought that would happen,” he admitted. “I didn’t think we’d ever end up back in Bay City. That’s why I bolted as soon as I turned eighteen. Father didn’t have the power to control me anymore. Well, he didn’t have the legal power, anyway.”
“When Jamie and I stopped by the house the other day, Carl and Rachel said they were leaving again. Possibly for good.”
“That’s what they told Elizabeth and me.”
“Are you and your sister going with them?”
“We don’t want to. Neither of us. But, you know Father. He’s… hard to say no to.”
“So what are you going to do?” Lorna asked sympathetically, knowing exactly the position Cory was in; knowing that his was even worse than hers had been. Because no matter how much Carl may have felt he owned her, she wasn’t his flesh and blood.
“I’m going to stand on my own two feet,” Cory said in a tone that suggested more than a little bit of whistling past a graveyard. “Become my own man.”
“I’m sure you’ll be an amazing one,” Lorna told him.
“I’m afraid of turning into him,” Cory confessed. “Father. Mom says that I’m the best of him. That I’m the best of them both. But, Father must have been like me once, too. He had a choice about what kind of man to become. And he chose to become… Carl Hutchins.”
“And then he chose to turn his back on that man, and to become a better one.” Lorna voiced words she didn’t believe in the slightest. But, in spite of that, she wanted Cory to believe them.
“I thought you didn’t remember,” Cory accused. “I thought you didn’t remember anything about Father’s redemption. You only remember the old Carl.”
“That’s not true,” Lorna lied smoothly, thankful that, no matter how bright and observant he was, Cory was still a child. And that she had adequate, if appalling, experience working him. “I remember the Carl I got to know these past two years since my accident. Remember I told you that I never dreamed my life would turn out like this? Married, with kids, all… domesticated, for lack of a better term. Well, I never dreamed it about your father, either. The Carl I knew twenty years ago was incapable of loving any woman as much as he obviously loves your mother. And I certainly never saw him as the doting father type. His son – your brother, Perry – Carl didn’t give a damn about him when I first knew him. He figured writing checks took care of any parental obligations. So, you see, he has changed. And your mother is right. You are all those good parts of him. The ones that it took her to bring out.”
Cory smiled. “You sure you’re not just saying that to cheer me up?”
“Did it work?”
He told her wistfully, “You always cheer me up, Lorna.”
“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” Charlie blurted out to Cass, barging in on him in the study without so much as a preamble. “Mom told me. She says you’re disappointed in me. About the Elizabeth thing.”
Cass nodded slowly, clarifying, “Did your mother tell you why I was disappointed?”
“Yeah. She said it’s not the girl on girl action. It’s that I… you know.”
“No. Tell me. I want to hear it from you.”
Charlie growled in frustration, rolling her eyes at the ceiling before dutifully reciting, “Because I slept with her without being in love.”
“That’s not exactly right. I’m not saying you have to be in love with everyone you sleep with. But, it would be nice if you at least cared about them. And it wasn’t just part of a plot to steal their phone.”
“I did it for you and Mom!” Charlie insisted. “I heard her talking to Steven about finding out if he’s the one who doctored Rachel’s message from Cory. And that’s not the only thing I found out, either. I got Elizabeth to tell me where they’d been hiding out, too. Steven told Mom that would make it even easier.”
“We appreciate the help. Just not the way you went about it.”
“Like you never romanced intel out of a source?”
“Not my proudest moments. And I was a lot older than you. I had some life experience behind me.”
“How old were you when you slept with your mom’s friend and got kicked out of the house?”
“I didn’t sleep with her,” Cass kept his tone level, realizing that Charlie was trying to provoke him in order to distract from her own actions. “She lied to my mother about that.”
“But you guys did have a… what do you want to call it? Relationship?”
“We did. I was young, and a great deal less sophisticated than I fancied myself at the time.” Cass gave Charlie a pointed look.
She shrugged, shooting for indifference.
“You think you know what you’re doing, Charlotte. But, you don’t. And the same goes for Elizabeth. Getting hurt is an unavoidable part of life. But that doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to look for it. Or deliberately inflict it on others.”
“I’m not deliberately…”
“How do you think Elizabeth will feel when she finds out you’ve just been using her?”
“Why does she have to find out?”
Cass sighed, bemused. “Have you ever known a secret to stay secret in Bay City for long?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, would I?” Charlie pointed out reasonably. “It would be a secret.”
Cass smiled dotingly. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“And I did my best; the best I could to raise you right.”
“I’m fine… Aren’t I?”
“I know it’s hard, being Cass Winthrop’s daughter. I know what you must have heard, what you must have read. But I tried to set a better example. Tried to make it so you’d learn from my mistakes instead of repeating them.”
“I’m not fooling around with one of your friends.”
“And if you were, I wouldn’t throw you out of the house,” Cass said. “There is nothing you could do that would ever make me turn my back on you.”
“So, we’re… good?”
“Just think about what you’re doing, Charlie. Please. Think about the consequences, for yourself and for Elizabeth. Ask yourself the kind of person that you want to be – “
“You mean, the kind of person that you and Mom want me to be.”
“No,” he restated emphatically. “The kind of person that you want to be. We’ll love you no matter what. But, it would be really nice if, in the end, you could like yourself, too.”
“Did you get it?” Jen leaned over Steven’s shoulder, studying the near-infinite lines of script on his computer screen.
He nodded, chewing his lower lip in concentration as he allowed himself to believe that, “Yeah… Yeah, I think I did. Finally.”
“And,” his shoulders slumped dejectedly. “It looks like Frankie was right. The first time I analyzed this recording for Grandma, I didn’t go deeply enough. I only confirmed that it had been tampered with, but I didn’t check to see if it was actually the original message that came in the day Grandma said it did. I was sloppy. I hate that. I wouldn’t have stood it from anyone else, and I can’t stand it from me, either. This recording, the one Grandma played on TV and said Hamilton faked, it was inserted a couple of days after she got the call.”
“Still could have been Hamilton, though,” Jen pointed out.
“Yeah. Except it begs the question about who made the original call Grandma got. And why this fake, as well as the command to overwrite the first one, arrived via one of Carl’s many, many IP addresses.”
Jen put two and two together and guessed, “Carl wanted to make it seem like the first call from Cory was fake.”
“That’s my guess.”
“So your dad is right. Carl is behind everything. And not for benevolent reasons, either.”
“I don’t know anything about his reasons. That’s one thing source code can’t do; explain anybody’s reasons. But, yeah, this digital fingerprint is about as close as you can get to a real one. It’s evidence you can take to court. I only wish I’d been smarter about it the first time.”
Jen hesitated, and then she ventured, “Steven?”
“A couple of days ago, when you suggested we leave the country…”
“Yeah?” His voice caught in his throat.
“I think I get it now.”
“What – what’s there to get?”
“You’re afraid Carl will come after us the way he came after your dad and Lorna.”
“Yes,” Steven leapt on the opening she’d given him, both relieved and grateful. “That’s – yeah, that’s exactly it.”
“You really think we’re in danger?”
“I don’t want to risk it,” Steven told her honestly. “I don’t want to risk anything that might mean my losing you. I would do anything to prevent that.”
“We’re going to have a little talk,” Lila advised Sarah, turning up unexpectedly at the house, ignoring the fact that Sarah was obviously in the middle of something.
“Okay.” At least Sarah possessed the good sense not to argue. That was one thing the child had going for her. “What about?”
“That man is head over heels in love with you.”
“I love him, too.”
“That’s not what I said. I said that the man is besotted, bewitched, bewildered and beside himself. Can you say the same?”
“Not if I have to alliterate like that.”
Lila fought to suppress her smile and stick to her point. “You’ve got his heart in the palm of your hand. Makes it awfully easy to squash.”
“I would never do that.”
“You’re a kid. What do you know about being in love?”
“Grant married Marley,” Sarah said. “And I still loved him. He dumped me when I was pregnant, and I still loved him. He didn’t show up when I was in labor with Daisy, and I still loved him. I’m going to marry him, and I’m going to make him happy.”
“You’d better,” Lila warned. “Because he deserves it.” She sighed, raising a hand in case Sarah wanted to put up an argument. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about what he did to St. Victoria and Amanda the Temporary Cripple and the rest. But they had a little something to do with turning him that way. There’s just so much a man can stand being treated like a buffoon or an afterthought or a second choice, before he starts dishing out a little of what’s been shoveled his way. Vicky passed off another baby as Kirkland, and she gets sympathy and half the men in town falling at her feet. Grant wants to be a father to his son, and he’s branded a monster.”
“Why are you defending Grant to me? I never – “
“You might,” Lila predicted darkly. “What happens the first time some pretty boy nearer your own age gives you a come-hither smile? What happens to Grant then?”
“Nothing,” Sarah said. “Nothing at all.”
“That’s easy to say, but…”
“Easy to do, too,” Sarah said. “Because I’ve done it, Lila.”
“Is that a fact?” She raised her eyebrow.
“Yeah. I had my chance to forget Grant and move on to someone more age-appropriate. I didn’t take it.”
“That’s my business.”
“That’s fine,” Lila said. “As long as you understand that anyone who hurts Grant, is mine.”
“Does he know you’re here?” Sarah wondered.
“Does Grant strike you as the kind of man who’d appreciate a random woman fighting his battles for him?”
“You’re no random woman,” Sarah corrected. “You’re his friend.”
“Trying to be. Man can’t see straight, you’ve got him so blinded by love. It’s nice to see him like that. Nice… and worrisome. He can’t take another soul-stomping, you follow me? Every last bit of faith that son-of-a-bitch has left in humanity and decency and love, that’s all wrapped up in you. He’s fragile, Sarah. More fragile than he’d ever let on. But this is it for him. You let him down, and he’s finished.”
“I have no intention of letting Grant down,” Sarah said stiffly.
Lila studied her for a long, measured, suspicious beat. And Sarah held her gaze the entire time, not backing down an iota.
“Alright then,” Lila nodded just once for emphasis, then pointed towards the door. “We’d best head on over to your wedding now.”
“You’re such a darling,” Donna continued to coo flirtatiously even after the lab tech at the coroner’s office acquiesced to getting them the autopsy file of the doctor who’d died while Donna and Matt sat just outside his office.
“A very wealthy darling,” Matt mumbled under his breath, still smarting from the amount of money Donna had casually laid in the man’s hand. Bribes in America seemed much more reasonable. Even with the current exchange rate.
The darling in question overheard and smirked. But that didn’t break his stride as he continued leading Matt and Donna into a subterranean office, past the drawers of what the Corys presumed to be bodies.
“There,” he shoved a file into Donna’s hands, addressing himself exclusively to her. She, after all, had been the one who did the talking… and the bribing. Matt wondered who the lab tech thought Matt was. And then he decided he really didn’t want to know.
“Thank you so much,” Donna half turned towards the door.
“No.” He grabbed her by the shoulder, leading Matt to feel like he should do something to protect his wife.
He’d forgotten, however, that his wife didn’t need protection. In lieu of a gun or even a knife, Donna came armed for battle with a killer smile and a lifetime of insincere charm.
“I’ll only be a moment,” she reassured their host. “Perhaps I can make a few copies…”
“No. You read it here.”
“Take photos with my phone?”
“Here,” he repeated. “In front of me. Read it here.”
“But, surely you understand that we’ll need corroborative evidence of what we’ve found if we are to – “
The lab tech snatched the file out of Donna’s hands.
Her smiled cranked up several kilowatts as she elegantly retrieved it from his grasp.
“We’ll read it here,” Donna agreed pleasantly.
She opened the autopsy report and quickly skimmed its contents, gasping and calling Matt over. With a perfectly manicured finger, Donna indicated one line in particular that she wanted Matt to read, to make sure she wasn’t misunderstanding the situation.
Matt swallowed hard. Because this changed everything.
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