"I can't believe our luck," Grant told Spencer over breakfast at the Harbor Club. "Jamie's ex-wife getting murdered right before the judge is set to make her decision about Kirkland. If that doesn't say "
"The only thing it says is that, what, twenty-five years ago? Jamie Frame had unfortunate taste is spouses. Who among us can't say the same?"
"It proves the guy has rotten judgment, is emotionally unstable, fraternizes with the wrong sort of people; he obviously can't provide a wholesome environment for a teen-age boy."
"You're crowing as if Jamie had been arrested for the crime, not Donna. Frankly, the only tactical advantage I see here is in going after Marley. She's Kirkland's legal guardian, her mother has just been revealed as not merely an indicted killer, but a kidnapper, as well. There's your unwholesome environment. Marley warrants being your target, not Jamie."
Grant hesitated. And then he said, "Marley's been through enough. This thing with Donna has got to be... I don't want to go after Marley."
Spencer studied his son for a moment. Musing out loud, he noted, "She still looks like her sister. The plastic surgery, it changed some of the contours, but fundamentally, she still looks like Vicky. The eyes, the jaw-line, the entire shape of her face, really. And her voice. That's still the same."
"I suppose," Grant shrugged, then deliberately changed the subject. "Jamie is who I'm fighting. He's the one Kirkland calls Dad. He's the one that's keeping me from being a real father to my son."
"You're grasping at straws," Spencer reiterated. "Strategically, nothing has changed as far as Jamie is concerned."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Grant snapped. "He's obviously lured you over to his side."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"You're right. Jamie had nothing to do with it. That honor, I presume, goes to Alice Frame."
"Leave her out of this," Spencer warned. "Have I ever given you bad advice, son? No, I haven't," he preempted whatever it was Grant might have been meaning to say. "The fact is, you're weeks, maybe days away from winning our Kirkland back, fair and square, in an incontestable court of law. Jamie won't be able to do anything about it. Just like he couldn't do anything about it when your Mr. Fowler obtained you visitation rights over Jamie and Cass' feeble objections. Fowler is doing an exemplary job. Don't get in his way. Stay far, far away from this entire Cecile business. It's for your own good."
"Now you're Kevin's biggest fan, too?" Grant exploded. "And you still want me to believe that Alice has nothing to do with this? Listen, Dad, no one is happier than I am that you're finally getting laid again after what I can only presume has been an interminably long time "
"Who the hell do you think you are, talking to me like that?" Spencer turned crimson.
"But I fail to see why this should have any bearing on me or my son."
"You're lucky we're in a public place," Spencer seethed. "I ought to bash your teeth in for that kind of disrespect."
"You're the one who's disrespecting me. Whatever happened to family above all else? You're selling Kirkland and I down the river for some woman you've just met. Did it ever cross your mind that maybe she's playing you? That maybe she and her precious Jamie planned this adolescent infatuation of yours from the beginning?"
"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," Spencer struggled to regain self-control. "And I am definitely going to pretend that you didn't just call Alice "
"I called a spade a spade, Dad. No more, no less."
"You think I've lost perspective," Spencer challenged. "Take a look at yourself, son. You want to see a man being played by a woman with an agenda? You are jumping through hoops and contorting mental gyrations to somehow connect Jamie with Cecile's bitter end instead of going for the jugular of the most commonsense person. You say you don't want to beleaguer Marley because... what was that rationalization again?" When Grant didn't respond, Spencer tossed his napkin down on the table and rose. His last words to his son were, "And I'm the one with the adolescent infatuation?"
GQ asked Steven, "Allie and Gregory Hudson, how serious is that, really?"
Steven looked up from his console in surprise, as did Sarah, who was sitting to the side of both of them, working on her own assignments. "I told you, man, she's pregnant. That says pretty serious in my book."
GQ tried to think of a tactful way to broach the subject, already cringing inwardly at the can of worms he was about to open, but convinced it was necessary, if only for his future peace of mind. "Allie and I... a couple of months ago... We kind of... hooked up."
"You and Allie?" Steven's brain hit a cognitive 404 Error message. "What the hell?"
"It's not like it was some one-night-stand," GQ rushed to reassure. "I mean, it turned out that way, but... See, Allie and me, we'd had this... thing... Over a year ago. When we were both in Italy. I didn't think I'd ever see her again, and then all of a sudden, there she was. Your cousin, no less!"
"You and Allie," Steven repeated, gradually processing the information. "Last year." Okay. Processed now. "Then why the hell were you guys acting like you'd just met?"
"It's a long story." GQ indicated Sarah. "She knew about it. Allie told you, right?"
"And you didn't tell me?" Steven demanded of his girlfriend.
"Allie wanted me to keep it quiet." Sarah shrugged, determined to play the entire thing off as no big deal.
"It doesn't matter," GQ glossed over. "What matters is, her baby... it... could be mine."
"No way," Steven said.
"She told me it was Gregory's."
"That's what she told me too," GQ admitted.
"So why are we even having this conversation?"
"I just... I can't let it go. If it's my kid... I have a right to know if its my kid, don't I?"
Sarah closed her textbook and said, "Look, I hate to be all non-PC about this, but, GQ, if the baby is actually yours, it's not like Allie's going to be able to keep it a secret for long, you know what I mean?"
"Yeah," he told her dryly. "I know what you mean."
"So why worry about it now? Question's going to answer itself one way or another; no matter what you do. Just sit tight and in a couple of months, you'll know. We'll all know."
"There are things I can do," GQ pointed out. "I have rights."
"You go to court, and it'll take you longer to get a hearing date than for Allie to pop that kid out. Why cause everyone a lot of headaches in the meantime; not to mention probably blow your life-savings, all for the same result?"
"So you're saying I should just ignore the situation?"
"I'm saying you should just ignore the situation for now. Your stressing over it isn't going to change anything."
"I don't know if I can simply put something like this out of my mind and go about my merry way."
"You've got stuff to work on to distract you. You've got your thesis project with Steven. And don't tell me Jennifer Fowler isn't on your radar."
"Fowler? As in Allie Fowler?"
"No relation," Sarah assured.
"Who's Jennifer Fowler?" GQ asked, confused.
Sarah turned to Steven, "Are you telling me you haven't introduced GQ to Jen Fowler?"
"What?" He was lost again. If his PC flashed as many error-messages in one session as Steven's brain seemed to be doing today, he'd have junked the whole thing by now. "Why should I "
"Some friend, you are!" Sarah chastised playfully. She jumped up and headed for the door, indicating for both boys to follow her. "Come one," she told GQ. "You have got to see this...."
"Well, look what the cat dragged in," Lila clipped as Jamie entered the kitchen.
"Good Morning, Lila," he acknowledged warily, reaching for the coffee pot.
"More like afternoon. But, then I guess one does lose track of time when they're out alley-cattin' around."
Jamie turned to Lila with a tired, humorless smile. "Even if I was, what business is it of yours? Why the sudden interest in what I do or whom I do it with? Oh, right, you and Grant are the best of pals these days. Has he recruited you to spy on me in my own home, or are you just doing it because, like the song says, that's what friends are for?"
Lila's green eyes flashed a smoldering emerald. "If I'd told Grant what I've seen around here, this custody case would've been over a long time ago. But I happen to respect you as Kirkland's daddy, and unlike some people, I don't just go around bustin' up families and breaking innocent little kids' hearts, telling myself that they'll get over it; because I know better. You'd think other people would know better, too."
Jamie opened his mouth for a retort, but realized that Lila, under no circumstances, would be this angry with him, personally. He guessed, "You found out about Cass and Frankie adopting Lori Ann."
"Jasmine did," Lila seethed. "She heard from Kirkland that Charlie has a new little sister."
"Damn," Jamie grimaced. "Sorry."
"Me too. I'd give anything for my daughter to never know what it feels like to be replaced like I was. The look on her face; I swear to Heaven, it just about killed me. If I'd been smarter about... everything... in the first place and not gotten involved with Cass, I could have avoided all this. For both of us."
"There's no way you could have known that this would happen. That Frankie would come back "
"I knew that even when she was dead, Frankie had a hold on Cass and Charlie that Jasmine and I could never match. I knew it, and I still got involved with him; set us both up for a fall." Lila glared at Jamie. "Which is how I know that if you keep doing what you're doing, you're setting yourself and your kids up for a fall, too."
"How are you turning this back on me?" Jamie asked, baffled. "Lorna and I aren't doing anything "
"Whatever it is you are or are not doing with Lorna," Lila warned, "Ask yourself: Is it worth hurting your boys? Or their sisters? Grant finding out about it aside you have to know that nothing good can come from seeing another woman while married to Marley. Even if the marriage is just for show and nothing else. Which, going by the way Marley was talking about you this morning," Lila continued, causing Jamie to look up. "I seriously doubt. At least on her part, anyway."
Carl sat at his desk, utilizing the extra-encrypted e-mail server he'd had Steven build and install onto his computer.
Excellent work with Cecile and Donna, Carl typed.
On the other end, Lucas read the message.
And hit the Delete key.
"Are we stalking Jen Fowler?" Steven asked Sarah politely as the three of them stood at the window of the Bay City University Faculty/Student Gym, peering inside.
"It's not stalking. I just happen to know that she works out here every morning. See," Sarah directed GQ's attention. "That's her right there, on the treadmill."
"Wow," GQ said.
"Told you," Sarah grinned. "She's hot and she's smart. Yale. MIT." Sarah said, "I was sure Steven would have you told you about her by now."
"How was I supposed to know you'd be interested?" Steven defended.
"Beautiful, brainy and Black," GQ thought about it. "Yeah, you're right, not my type at all."
"I don't know how brainy she is," Steven offered. "She doesn't believe in Bayes' Theorem."
"Oh, well, then, yeah, that's a deal-breaker," GQ said. He asked Steven, "How do you manage to be so brilliant and so God-awful stupid at the same time?"
"It's a challenge," Steven admitted.
"Go on," Sarah urged. "Ask her out."
"Now? Here? With the two of you as an audience?"
"We'll leave," Sarah said, grabbing Steven by the hand. "Good luck," she called. "Let us know how it goes!"
"I'll put it on a graph, so Steven can follow along," GQ called after them.
He waited to make sure that Sarah and Steven were indeed out of sight, and not just doubling-back around so they could continue to spy on him. While GQ was pretty sure that Steven couldn't care less, something about Sarah's enthusiasm for hooking him up with Jen Fowler was... unsettling. GQ's first instinct assumed it was connected to Allie, but that didn't make any sense. Steven said the girls had had some kind of falling out. So if Sarah was trying to distract him from thinking about Allie's baby, her motivation for doing so wasn't clear.
In any case, Jennifer Fowler was, as promised, hot and allegedly intelligent (though everyone knew that MIT for graduate school wasn't nearly as challenging as their undergraduate program). There certainly could be no harm in saying hello. GQ had long ago worked out a dating algorithm wherein he always asked out any woman who interested him, even if it appeared she was completely out of his league. If she was a nice person, she would at least turn him down nicely. And if she was a bitch, well, then, who wanted to date a bitch?
God, GQ thought. And I was making fun of Steven for applying Bayes' Theorem to relationships. Who's the bigger geek: The geek, or the guy who makes fun of the geek? (Which, in and of itself, was yet another geek reference.) This was getting way too meta for GQ's taste. He better hurry up and ask the girl out already.
"Hi," he offered as an opening gambit, making up for his lack of originality with the least opportunity for offense.
"Hi," she responded back, somewhat out of breath, having just finished the treadmill, but still undecided about which piece of equipment to tackle next.
"I'm GQ Todd."
"I'm Jennifer Fowler."
"I'm a PhD candidate in the Computer Department."
"I'm a lecturer in Cognitive Science."
"I'm also a nice guy," GQ offered.
Jen smiled, "Is that so?"
"Want a chance to find out for yourself?"
She burst out laughing. It wasn't a dismissive laugh; just very, very GQ would say overly amused. "You know," she informed him. "We're not pandas in a zoo."
Jennifer indicated their surroundings, lowered her voice and told GQ. "We're the only Black people in the room. Don't tell me you didn't notice that."
"I'm kind of used to it," he shrugged.
"But still, out of all the hot women in here, you made a beeline straight for me. I wonder why that was?"
"You sound like you might already have an inkling."
"And you sound like you're trying to pretend you don't. You asked me out, even though you don't know a single thing about me, beyond the color of my skin."
"Is that a problem?" GQ inquired.
"Probably. In the great global scheme of things. But you're cute," she noted. "See? I can be shallow, too."
"Excellent," GQ said. "Now that's two things I know about you."
"I thought we were going to the movies," Allie said.
"We are." Gregory confirmed.
"The theater looks closed." She indicated the empty lobby of the 1940s-era fifty-seater currently advertising a revival of Casablanca on its marquee.
"It's open. I bought up all the tickets for tonight."
"You did what?" Allie turned to stare at him, open-mouthed. "Why?"
"Because you like to talk during old movies. This way we won't bother anyone."
"We?" She pointed out, "Gregory, you don't like to talk even when you're not watching a movie."
"I came prepared." He reached into his backpack and pulled out a wire-bound notebook, leafing through several pages until he found the one he was looking for. "I'm not as good as you at coming up with things to say on the fly. So I downloaded the movie, and I watched it a couple of times through. I took notes, with time-code, so I'd have something to contribute."
Allie stared at him with a combination of shock, awe and speechlessness. Finally, she managed to croak out, "You are the sweetest guy I think I've ever met in my life."
He shrugged, blushing but visibly pleased. "Happy Valentine's Day."
Frankie slept through most of Valentine's Day.
It was the most amazing gift she'd ever gotten.
Because when she'd left the hospital with Lori Ann, Frankie hadn't merely gained a daughter. She's also become the proud recipient of a three-page, single-spaced list of instructions on how to care for the still medically fragile little girl.
Though she was almost six months old, Lori Ann was so small she still required feeding no less than every four hours, lest she get dehydrated. Due to the weather and her being extra-vulnerable to respiratory infections after having spent so much time on a respirator, Frankie had been advised not to take Lori Ann out unless it was absolutely necessary. Which meant they were stuck at home for most of the day. Finally, because there was still a risk of her forgetting to breathe on her own, anytime Frankie left Lori Ann alone she had to attach tiny electrodes to her chest and hook the wires up to an apnea monitor programmed to sound an alarm if her condition changed. Or, more likely, if the baby was perfectly fine, but just felt like doing something wacky... say, stretching her arms.
As a result of all the above, Frankie hadn't slept more than twenty minutes at a stretch since becoming a second-time Mom. Cass did his best to help, and even Charlie enthusiastically pitched in. But Charlie had school and friends, and Cass had work, not to mention the crisis with Felicia. Which meant that the bulk of their new baby's care fell on Frankie.
Until the late afternoon when she woke with a start, realized that it had been more than four hours since Lori Ann's last feeding, and that Frankie hadn't heard the monitor go off since she'd closed her eyes for just a few minutes (really!) back when the sun had still been out.
She leapt out of bed and went tearing into the nursery, only to find Lori Ann gone. Reasoning that a premature infant hadn't suddenly developed the power of locomotion, Frankie ran downstairs, stumbling upon Cass, Charlie and Lori Ann having a grand old time playing with a whole tangle of shiny red cardboard hearts, silver garlands, and pink tissue-paper roses.
"Did you have a nice nap?" Cass asked Frankie, while Charlie tossed another heap of streamers up in the air to make Lori Ann giggle.
"I have never loved you more than I do this very minute," Frankie swore to her husband.
"So who shall we place in our Love Lottery this year?" Carl asked Rachel playfully as they lay in bed aboard a moored private yacht he'd chartered explicitly for the holiday. Between the people who usually lived there, and the ones who were just staying there temporarily at last count: Lila, Jasmine, Marley, Bridget, Michele, and Lorna in the guest-house the Cory mansion, big as it seemed, was much too crowded these days for any kind of intimate celebration.
The Love Lottery was a tradition Mr. and Mrs. Hutchins had started over a decade earlier in honor of the original Valentine's Day: Lupercalia, a Roman fertility festival wherein young, single women would put their names into an urn for the young, single men to draw out. The fated new couple was then obligated to remain together for a period of one year, at which time they could decide whether to marry or try their lottery luck again.
Rachel and Carl's version of the four hundred year old pre-Christianity practice didn't include an actual lottery. It was more a game they played between themselves, fancifully matching up the single people in their lives and making a Valentine's Day wish that they might find each other in the coming year.
It didn't often work, but the hopeless romantic in both of them kept hopefully plugging away.
"Lila and Kevin," Rachel said. "He may not be one of my favorite people, but she was so happy following their date earlier. Lila deserves to be happy, after everything she's been through."
"But where does that leave Amanda?" Carl wondered.
"Those two were never a good match to begin with. Kevin had an agenda, he admitted it. My daughter can do better than a man who was just using her to fulfill a thirty year old vendetta."
Carl thought it over, then offered, "I don't suppose proposing to match Grant Harrison with a sledge-hammer to the back of the skull is exactly in keeping with the spirit of our diversion?"
"Not really, no," Rachel concurred.
"Though speaking of Grant... Maybe this is the year Marley and Jamie can finally find their way back to each other."
"Being legally wed should surely help in that regard."
Rachel reminded, "A wedding doesn't always lead to Happily Ever After."
"It did for us."
"Eventually. After a few rough stops and starts."
"Perhaps it will be the same for Jamie and Marley." Carl observed, "Do you realize that in a scant few years we shall be obliged to add Cory and Elizabeth to our virtual matchmaking?"
"Between her love of Shakespearean tragedies and his fascination with Machiavelli, oh, yes, that's a pair of concurrent adolescences I'm really looking forward to."
"You survived Jamie, Amanda and Matthew. I suspect you'll survive our impeccably well-read duo, as well."
"Matthew..." Rachel sighed. "Would it be horrible of me to wish that he take up with someone anyone else in the coming year? And soon! I remember how disgruntled I felt when he was with Lorna..."
"Lorna," Rachel couldn't help laughing at her younger self. "Can you imagine? Even at her very, very worst, that girl was a saint compared to Donna..."
Felicia understood perfectly well that everyone she knew believed she'd gone off the deep end. They thought she was being needlessly hysterical, that six months after Jenna's death she should have gotten herself together by now, mourned her daughter tastefully, and moved on.
Well, too bad for them, but Felicia was damn tired of moving on.
She'd moved on after losing Luke and her baby.
She'd moved on after losing Zane and Wallingford. She'd even allowed all those concerned friends and self-proclaimed experts to convince her to move on after losing Lucas for the second time.
Enough was enough. Did God, the universe, Fate, whatever you chose to dub it, just expect Felicia to keep on accepting every blow dealt to her with grace, panache, and a wardrobe to die for? That wasn't called being brave and persevering. That was called being a sucker and taking it.
Frankly, Felicia didn't have it in her anymore to keep a stiff upper lip, to smile while her heart was breaking, to live out every positive cliche under the sun simply so that those who claimed to care about her could go to bed each night with a light heart and a rosy conscience, crossing poor, dear, valiant Felicia off their list of things to worry about.
Felicia didn't want to be worried about. Felicia wanted to be avenged. She wanted to stop reacting, and start acting, for a change.
It was that precise feeling which drove her to Donna Love's house several days after the court-hearing which had allowed the woman who'd killed Felicia's daughter to go free, to continue living her life surrounded by her family... and opportunity Donna herself had denied Jenna.
Felicia rang the Loves' front doorbell. No one answered. She tried again, more insistently. When that also failed to elicit any response, Felicia picked up a potted plant from the porch and flung it at the window nearest the door. Glass shattered. Felicia slipped her hand deeper into her coat sleeve, wriggled her arm through the newly gaping hole and turned the knob.
Inside, the house was dark. No servants, no Matthew, no Marley. No Donna, it seemed.
Felicia checked upstairs, just to be sure.
The waterlogged state of the house initially surprised her. The stale, charred smell emanating from Donna's bedroom at least explain that much.
It didn't, however, in any way explain the sight Felicia stumbled over inside the second floor bathroom.
Donna Love lying on the floor, face down, both wrists seemingly sliced by a nearby razor blade, blood pooling beneath her arms in a pair of matching Rorschachs.
She was still alive. Barely. Felicia could see the rise and fall at the base of her throat as Donna breathed in and out. Barely.
Felicia looked at her daughter's murderer for what might have been minutes. Or hours.
Then she turned right around, and walked back out the door.
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