“I’m so glad you were able to find the time to see me,” Rachel thanked Jeanne, having shown up at Matt’s fiancée’s office without warning.
“Well, I…” her You Didn’t Really Give Me a Choice hung in the air, unsaid.
“I thought maybe you’d like to step out and do some shopping with me. It might help with the wedding planning if I got some idea of the sorts of things you like.”
“I’m really busy here,” Jeanne said, indicating her computer, her desk, anything that might help demonstrate her point. “And besides, I don’t want to impose…”
“Jeanne,” Rachel sighed, pulling over a chair so that the younger woman wouldn’t be forced to continue looking up at her. “I want you to understand something: Anyone that my children choose to care for, those people instantly become my priority. Now, I’m not saying it’s love at first sight, or that everything is smooth sailing from Day One. You strike me as the type of young woman who does her research. I’m sure you understand why I might not have been thrilled with Lorna or with Kevin when Jamie and Amanda first brought them home to me.”
Jeanne nodded. “You have a lot of complicated history. With a lot of people.”
“Which I am willing to set aside for the sake of my children’s happiness. I’m working on getting along with Lorna, and I’m working on getting along with Kevin, and I’d like to get to know you, as well. I know what a wonderful man your grandfather was, and I know what a terrific couple your parents are, so I feel like we’re ahead of the game here.”
“I’m… I’m pretty different from my parents, I’m afraid.”
“Good. Then we can start with no preconceived notions.” Rachel hesitated. “Except for one.”
“I need to know that you truly love my son, and that you have his best interests at heart.” Rachel emphasized each word, lest Jeanne fail to comprehend the seriousness of her one stipulation.
“I’m good for Matt,” Jeanne said with utmost confidence. “And what’s good for Matt is good for me. Which ends up being best for both of us.”
It wasn’t exactly the answer Rachel had been hoping to hear. But she remembered what Matt told her about Jeanne, and tried a different tack. “Matt thinks you might be a little apprehensive about becoming a Cory.”
“I don’t want to disappoint or embarrass him. Or you.”
“Why do you think you might?”
“Because. I’m not really Cory material, I know that. But, I promise, Rachel, I’ll do my best to fit in. I’m not afraid of hard work. In fact, to be honest, I like it. I like having a goal and something to focus on. I’m no quitter, that’s for sure.”
Rachel couldn’t help smiling inwardly. Matt was right about one thing, the girl was certainly forthright, if a bit blunt and rough around the edges. But, that could be worked on. Rachel said, “I know how you feel. When I first married Mac, I was convinced I’d stand out like a sore thumb next to him. He was so sophisticated and cultured and… kind. I was none of those things, and I was afraid everyone could see it.”
“Matt is very kind, too. He must take after your late husband.”
“All of my older children do. Mac was a great influence on them. And on me. He taught me not only things I didn’t know, but also things I didn’t know I didn’t know. He made me a better person. After he died, I vowed to pay his gift forward.”
“Mr. Hutchins,” Jeanne guessed.
“I can’t take all the credit for Carl’s reformation. Just like Mac can’t take it all for mine. But, I like to believe I was a factor, the same way Mac was with me.”
“I want to be the best wife I can for Matt,” Jeanne told Rachel with what certainly sounded like genuine sincerity. “Will you help me?”
“It’s nice to see you looking so well, Marley,” John told his niece, stopping by her hospital room after trading in his sports jacket for a lab coat.
She looked up from where she’d been sitting on the bed, leafing through an art magazine without a great deal of interest, but, at least, calmly. Her hair had been combed and was now pulled back off her face, braided but not tied – any sort of string was still against the rules. No matter how much healthier she appeared, Marley was still a suicide risk.
“I’m sorry I worried people.” She put away the magazine. “Will you let Steven know I’m doing better now? Maybe he’ll let Michele and Bridget visit me again, if you’re the one who tells him.”
“I’ll notify Steven,” John promised. “I’ll fill your mother in, too.”
“Donna knows?” Marley asked.
“I told her.”
“Because she’s your mother. And because she loves you and is worried about you. She’ll be very happy to hear you’re on the mend.”
“Are you and she…”
“No. Donna and I are just friends. It’s all we ever were, really.”
“You’d like it to be more, though.” It wasn’t a question.
John shrugged. “Donna doesn’t. So that’s that.”
“Can I ask you something, John? Something personal?”
“Ask. I can’t guarantee I’ll answer.”
“What was Donna like? When you first knew her? My dad, he’d talk about this sweet, demure, open, tender girl that he fell in love with. I can’t even imagine Donna like that.”
“Michael loved her. Totally, completely, desperately, irrationally. That’s the Donna he saw.”
“You mean, the one he wanted to see.”
“I don’t think so. I think, for him, that’s who Donna really was.”
“But, not for you.”
“We all show different sides of ourselves to different people, Donna’s no different.”
“What do you think happened? What do you think changed the Donna my father loved into…”
“The one you currently can’t stand?”
“Was it losing him that did it? Was it Reginald? Was it Carl?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. And no.”
“Now how am I supposed to get better on muddled answers like that?” Marley pouted, smiling even as she said it.
“Why the newfound interest in your mother?”
“It’s who all women eventually turn into, isn’t it?”
“So they say.”
“Do you think Donna is happy with who she is?”
“Is anyone ever?”
She laughed. “You really aren’t going to cut me any slack, are you? I’m a sick woman!”
“I’m sorry, Marley, but none of your questions have easy answers. Maybe if I had a better grasp of what you were getting at, I might be able to give you what you need.”
“I need to know what made Donna, Donna. I need to know how the girl who was so afraid of her father that she let him drive away the boy she loved and appropriate her babies turned into a woman capable of kidnapping and killing her own child just to protect her social standing.”
“You’re oversimplifying,” John’s face darkened. “And convicting your mother of far greater crimes than she’s actually committed.”
“I know she didn’t mean to kill Jenna. I know she didn’t even want to hurt her or Dean or Felicia. But, she did. And then she continued to lie and deny and flit about town as if everything were perfectly normal, like she didn’t have a care in the world.”
“She tried to commit suicide,” John reminded grimly.
Marley shrugged, as if that particular family trait were barely worth commenting on.
“I see the parallels, Marley. Of course, I do, who wouldn’t? I’d think you’d be pleased.”
“Pleased? To follow in Donna’s footsteps?”
“Your mother was able to recover, to leave the hospital, to go on with her life. If she could do it, you can do it.”
“But, at what price?” Marley demanded. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out, John. How much like Donna do I need to become before I can get my life back? And will it even still be my life by then?”
“Happy Birthday to you!” Lori Ann’s guests sang enthusiastically after Morgan, always one to play hero and make a dramatic entrance, swept in at the last minute with the cake Frankie had asked him to pick up an hour earlier and a story about lost paperwork and a sullen clerk.
“Make a wish,” Frankie encouraged her daughter, pointing at the pink number 2 candle.
“Wait!” Felicia stopped Lori Ann mid-puff and moved into position with her camera, determined to fit everyone assembled into frame. “Okay, now.”
“On three,” Frankie prompted. “One…two…three!”
Lori Ann blew with all her might, the candle winking out and earning the guest of honor a round of applause.
“Awesome work!” Dean hugged his daughter from one side, while Cass did the same on the other. “Happy Birthday, Princess!”
“Would you like to say a few words to your devoted subjects before we cut the cake?” Frankie teased Lori Ann, more for the amusement of the adults, since Lori Ann not only didn’t understand the question, but was much too focused on the pink frosting rose she’d already kind of stuck her finger in.
“Actually,” Dean gulped. “I’d like to say something. If that’s okay.”
“Of course it is,” Felicia answered for all of them as she settled back with Lucas.
“Yeah?” he double-checked with Frankie for confirmation.
She put down the cake knife and smiled warmly. “You heard Felicia.”
“Well, alright. Okay, then. I… uh… First off, I’d like to thank everybody for coming. Awesome turnout.”
“You must have a great press agent,” Lorna suggested.
Dean grinned and went on, “It’s cool, you know, for me, to look around and see how many people really love my kid.”
“And you,” Felicia emphasized.
“And me,” Dean acknowledged. “Difference is, I don’t necessarily deserve it. I made a hell of a lot of mistakes last two years. I can’t thank everybody enough for not holding them against me.”
“We’re family,” Frankie reminded with a meaningful look at Lorna. Followed by an equally stern one towards Cass and Morgan.
“You guys really came through for me. All of you. Even Lorna.”
“Could you not insult me in front of my own daughter?” Lorna groused.
“She’s just getting a taste of her Uncle Dean’s humor,” Jamie smoothed over.
“Play nice,” Lucas chided. “We don’t want the children to get the wrong impression.”
“But that’s just it,” Dean stressed. “That’s what family is. Snapping at each other, telling each other hard truths but still having each others’ backs. Pulling together instead of letting stupid things and not so stupid things pull us apart.”
“When did you become deep?” Morgan hooted into his plastic cup, earning a punch in the leg from Cass.
“Around the same time you decided the Wolverine hairstyle was in,” Dean fired back.
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Morgan asked the crowd.
“What isn’t?” Charlie snickered.
“Chicks dig the hair.”
“You go on believing that,” Cass sighed with a roll of his eyes, pretending not to notice that his brother had automatically looked to Lorna for confirmation. Or that she’d deliberately looked away.
“Jenna would’ve loved this,” Dean said softly, the crowd quieting. “She would’ve loved seeing all of us here together for Lori Ann. And I may have made a mess of the last two years, but you guys more than made up for it. I mean, Lorna with a kid and married…”
“Do you have to sound so shocked?” she wondered.
“Lucas alive and back with Felicia… “
Jenna’s parents smiled at each other.
Dean repeated, “Jenna would’ve loved this.”
“To Jenna,” Felicia raised her cup.
“And Lori Ann,” Lorna raised hers.
“And Dean,” Frankie spoke up.
“To family,” Dean closed, clinking his cup against Lori Ann’s with a smile.
“I have good news,” Donna looked down at Matt as she straddled him atop her bed, keeping her voice down just in case Bridget and Michele returned early from camp for some reason.
“Hm,” his response may have been enthusiastic approval, polite interest or a request to tell him more. Hard to tell under the circumstances.
“Cass and Frankie have agreed to investigate Jeanne for us.”
That certainly got Matt’s attention. His chin jerked up and he put both his hands over Donna’s wrists, directing her to look at him. “We’re having Jeanne investigated?”
“How else are you and I supposed to get rid of that loathsome girl?”
“I…” Matt began, realizing he didn’t have an answer. Or an alternative. “What do you expect Cass and Frankie to find out about her that we can use?”
“Please, Matthew, a young woman with so revolting a personality is bound to leave a trail of victims in her wake. You hardly think you’re the first, do you?”
“Well…” Again, he had no answer. All Matt had was the observation, “Jeanne is pretty open about things. Even when she does something rotten, she admits it as she’s doing it. I really don’t think she’s got secrets to be uncovered.”
“Everyone has secrets,” Donna contradicted. “Especially those who like to boast how they’re an open book.”
“But, just in case, what are we going to do if Frankie and Cass come up empty?”
“You mean, in case you have to marry Jeanne anyway?”
Matt nodded. Which was kind of hard to do when you were lying down.
“If it comes to that, I did happen to think of an alternative.“
“What is it?”
“What did Rachel say when you announced your wedding plans?” Donna changed the subject on a dime, leaving Matt’s head spinning.
“She… had her concerns.”
“Is that a fact? I assumed she’d be thrilled, Jeanne practically being a member of the family, and all.”
“She’s my stepbrother’s wife’s niece. We’re not blood related at all,” Matt wanted to make that point perfectly clear.
“But, she’s so perfect for you on paper. Young, beautiful, diligent. You know, all those things I’m not.”
“You are extremely beautiful,” Matt reminded. “And you know it, too.”
“Well, one out of three…” Donna dismissed. “I am certain Jeanne is exactly the sort of girl Rachel had in mind for her little boy. Infinitely preferable to a Southern-fried gold-digger. Or a milkmaid ex-hooker. Or a woman old enough to be your – “
“Mom wasn’t too thrilled about Jeanne, either. She thought we were moving too fast. And she also – she wondered, well, at least she wanted to know if I – if I really loved Jeanne?”
“And what did you say to that?” Donna asked, her voice rising sharply.
“Well, I had to say yes, didn’t I? I had to play along. Jeanne made it very clear what would happen if I didn’t.”
“Yes,” Donna mused. “She’s got all of us dancing to her tune, doesn’t she?”
“For now, yeah,” Matt admitted, unable to, once again, offer an alternative.
“We’ll give Frankie and Cass a few weeks to dig around the old homestead in Montana.”
“Wyoming,” Matt corrected. “Jeanne grew up in Wyoming.”
“There’s a difference?” Donna asked innocently, before continuing. “We’ll give them a few weeks to see what they can come up with. And if, as you suspect, there isn’t much to work with, why then I guess we’ll have to move on to Plan B.”
“Which is what?” Matt asked again.
Donna leaned over to whisper in his ear, leaving Matt, for the moment, quite speechless.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah pleaded with Grant after he’d filled her in on the debacle with Kirkland. “I thought if I could get the two of you in the same place at the same time – without you having done anything to manipulate the situation – you and Kirk could talk, now that’s he’s cooled down a little…”
“You were willing to take the heat for me?” Grant asked, still somewhat incredulous that she’d not merely gone out on a limb like this, but that the thought had crossed Sarah’s mind in the first place.
“And screwed it up in a big way. I had no right sticking my nose in like that. Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking, except you’d been so down lately. I couldn’t fix things for you with Marley, but I thought maybe Kirkland…”
“My son told me the best thing I can do for him, if I really care about his happiness, is to stay away. For good. He said even when I sincerely try to make matters better, I manage to make them worse.”
“Join the club,” Sarah sighed.
“He’s right,” Grant nodded fervently, forcibly compelling his heart to accept what his head had known for weeks, months, years, maybe his entire life. “I destroy everything and everyone I touch. Look what being involved with me cost Paulina, Lorna, Amanda, Vicky…. My father almost went to prison because of me. And Ryan…” Grant sat down, burying his face in his hands. “Ryan…”
“People change,” Sarah said softly, perching across from him and gently peeling Grant’s fingers from his face, directing him to look at her. “Think of everything you’ve done to help Marley….”
“She’s in the hospital because of me. She wanted to turn herself in. I’m the one who talked her out of it. The one who bullied her out of it. Marley is a good, decent person. I’m the one who piled on the pressure, urging her to be… to be more like… like me, until she couldn’t take it anymore.”
“You were trying to protect her. Bridget and Michele, too.”
“It’s just like Kirkland said. Even when my intentions are good, in the end… No wonder Marley doesn’t want to see me. She knows who’s to blame.”
“She’ll come around.”
“No,” Grant said. “And even if she does… No. I need to let it go.”
“Let what go?”
“Her. Kirkland. Everything. It’s the best thing I can do for them. It’s the only thing I can still do for them.”
“You’re wrong,” Sarah said, with all the confidence of youth. Confidence Grant could not longer claim, and not merely due to age, either. “But, since I obviously can’t talk you out of it for now, the least I can do is temporarily distract you from your pity party.”
Grant raised his head, studying her quizzically. “I’m sorry, what?”
“School’s back in session,” Sarah said. “Regular classes begin after Labor Day, but people are already moving into the dorms, so they’re having a welcome dance on campus tonight. Come with me.”
He nearly choked on a laugh of pure disbelief. “Are you kidding me?”
“Why? You do dance, don’t you? Something other than the fox trot, I mean?”
“How old do you think I am?” Grant straightened up, mock offended. “And what do you know about the fox trot, anyway?”
“You forget, my mom dumped me in the best dance classes money could buy. I can fox trot,” Sarah rose to demonstrate. “Waltz, cha-cha, jive, tango, rumba…”
Grant watched her gyrate and twirl for a moment, utterly captivated as she offered a few steps of each, before he made himself snap out of the reverie and challenge, “Somehow I doubt either the fox trot or waltz, or even the rumba, are on the agenda for tonight’s festivities.”
“You’re right. The theme is actually something much more your speed.”
“Wait, don’t tell me: The Lindy Hop.” Grant found the corners of his mouth twitching only a few minutes after he’d felt convinced there’d never again be another occasion for it.
“Close.” Sarah smiled back. “It’s a 1970s dance. Come on, Senator, don’t tell me you haven’t got a white leisure suit hanging in back of your closet? Something with bell-bottoms, maybe? Platform shoes? Lycra hot-pants?”
“Forgive her,” Grant beseeched of the air. “She knows not what she’s saying.”
“Tonight. Eight PM. Ground floor of Cory Hall at BCU,” Sarah instructed, gesturing that he should be writing this down. “I’ll see you there.”
“You must think me awfully stupid,” Chase observed, walking into Lila’s office at City Hall uninvited on the premise that he was the mayor, and thus it all belonged to him anyway.
“And what, pray tell, put that particular bee in your ill-mannered bonnet today?” she inquired without looking up, long used to Chase’s dramatic – and frequently misguided – pronouncements by now.
“Between Frankie Winthrop pumping Kevin Fowler for details about Doug’s and my relationship to Felicia Gallant baiting me regarding the very same subject, did you really think I wouldn’t be able to figure out that you were having me investigated?”
Lila slowly put down her pencil. She counted to ten as she exhaled and, even though her brain was frantically shrieking, “Deny! Deny! Deny!” managed to sound perfectly calm and collected as she looked up and asked, “What makes you think I have anything to do with either Frankie or Felicia?”
“Because – see above – I am not an idiot. Why should either Frankie or Felicia give a damn about Doug and I? Meanwhile, what’s the common denominator between the two of them? None other than Cass Winthrop. And who in my hand-picked administration is the third spoke on that Winthrop Wheel of Waylaid Women? – ”
“Seriously? How long did it take you to come up with that one? You’ve just been waiting to whip it out, haven’t you?”
“ – That’d be the lovely Lila Hart.”
“You’re reaching,” she advised.
“I’m right,” he corrected.
“You may be right about Frankie, Felicia and Cass snooping around, but – and you might have also noticed this, Your Excellency – you do have a tendency to piss people off. I can think of quite a few contenders for hiring private eyes to look into your past.”
“True. There’s always Harrison…”
“Would you leave the poor man alone, already? Trust me when I say Grant Harrison has a lot more on his mind these days than trying to steal your job.”
“It’s adorable how you defend him.”
“So now I’m adorable?” Lila couldn’t help asking.
“You’re always adorable,” Chase corrected. “I just pick and choose my moments when to comment on it.”
“Cut it out,” Lila strongly advised him.
“Why?” Chase challenged.
“You know why,” Lila’s voice was steely now, devoid of any playfulness.
“Enlighten me,” Chase suddenly seemed to be playing for keeps, too.
“Because,” she snapped. “It’s you talking like that and looking at me like that and the way you put your hand on my leg and stroked my cheek and… that’s the kind of thing that can’t help but make a woman wonder.”
“Wonder what?” It was a dare if Lila had ever heard one.
And one she decided, on the spot, to accept. If only so that they might get this whole thing out into the open once and for all.
“Wonder if – Are you…” Her courage faltered at the last moment, and Lila heard just how confused, exposed and frustrated she sounded as Lila asked, “Are you attracted to me, Chase?”
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