“Mom?” Amanda’s voice barely rose above a whisper as she stood at the entrance to the library, no idea how to reach out to her mother, or even whether Rachel might welcome it.
“Amanda,” Rachel turned around, melting at the sight of her daughter, uncertain if she might be imagining it.
“I’m so sorry, Mom.” Amanda crossed the room in a series of quick strides, falling into Rachel’s arms as much as Rachel fell into hers. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Thank you, darling,” Rachel stroked Amanda’s hair, relishing having at least one of her children here in the flesh.
“I don’t know what to say,” Amanda admitted.
“Nothing anyone can say.”
“I can’t stop thinking about Cory and Elizabeth.”
“Neither can I.”
“Even after what happened with Kevin. Elizabeth… she was just confused. She was just a confused kid. I hate what she did. But, I couldn’t hate her. She was my little sister. You know how badly I wanted a little sister, Mom.”
Rachel smiled through her tears. “I certainly took my time fulfilling your request, didn’t I?”
“I know,” Amanda did the same. “All those years I had to make do with Matt…”
Rachel assured Amanda, “Elizabeth loved you, too. She looked up to you. Even if she had an odd way of showing it.”
“We should have seen it coming. We should have done something while we still had the chance. Gotten her, and Cory, too, gotten them both away from Carl…”
At that, Rachel stiffened, pulling away. “Carl isn’t to blame for this. It was an accident. A tragic accident.”
“Carl is responsible for Elizabeth and Cory being on that plane,” Amanda didn’t feel she should have to point out the obvious. “They’d still be alive if he hadn’t – “
“Been driven out of town by an underhanded Mayor with a self-serving agenda.”
“Hamilton really did a number on us all,” Amanda conceded. “Did you see his press conference earlier? He admitted the whole thing with Lila, the affair and the break-up with Doug, that was all a set-up to get under your roof. He made me look like a fool for breaking the story.”
Rachel shrugged, her daughter’s journalistic integrity the least of her current concerns. “I’m the one who let him into the house.”
“You did it for Lila,” Amanda insisted. More than a little bit smugly.
“Steven warned me. When he hacked into the system to get access to Elizabeth’s computer, he told me it had been illegally accessed once before. I failed to put two and two together.”
“There was nothing you could have done, Mom. I mean, short of coming to your senses earlier.”
“Coming to my what?” Rachel’s chin jerked up.
“About Carl. And how dangerous he was to all of us. I’m sorry it took Elizabeth and Cory’s deaths for you to realize – “
“The only thing I’ve realized,” Rachel stressed the last word most intensely. “Was that my husband was right. He really did have enemies.”
“But, that’s exactly what Jamie, Matt, and I were trying to tell you! For all we know, the reason Carl’s plane went down was due to the compound getting their revenge, like they did with Spencer. Or maybe it was some other enemy of his. In any case, that was our point, that anyone in Carl’s orbit was perpetually in danger. That none of us would ever know when his past might rear its head again, or whom it would take down with him.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Amanda,” Rachel’s nerves snapped. “At least make an effort to get your stories straight. Whatever happened to your united front? You can’t have it both ways. Either Carl’s enemies sabotaged his plane and killed him along with Elizabeth and Cory, or the whole thing is a set-up, and Carl, your brother and sister, as well as Lorna, are living it up on a tropical island somewhere with Elvis Presley and Amelia Earhart. Perhaps they got a good deal on Grant’s old cabana, we should ask him.”
“What are you talking about, Mom? Who said anything about Carl being… and what does Lorna have to do with him?”
“Your brother is convinced that my husband kidnapped his wife. For reasons that appear to make sense only to Jamie.”
“You mean they haven’t found Lorna yet? I knew she was… When I didn’t hear anything else, I was sure it had been some misunderstanding.”
“Lorna is missing,” Rachel allowed. “Jamie thinks Carl made off with her.”
“But… If Lorna was with Carl… doesn’t that mean…”
“Not to Jamie. He’s certain Carl faked his death, along with Elizabeth’s, Cory’s, and Lorna’s.”
“And you don’t believe him?”
“But, Mom, if Jamie is right, Elizabeth and Cory are still alive. That’s good news!”
“They’re not, Amanda. Don’t you think I’d give anything to think they were?”
“No,” her daughter told Rachel calmly. “I don’t.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I think that you’d rather mourn your husband and children, than consider the possibility of Carl doing this to you deliberately.”
Rachel blanched. “No matter what you and your brothers may insist upon, Carl is not a monster. He would never hurt me this way.”
“Steve Frame did,” Amanda pointed out. “He did it to you, to Jamie, to Alice. Didn’t he stay Down Under for years, playing dead? Even picked up another family along the way. I remember when he came back. You and Daddy were divorced. You were on your way to marry Steve when he was killed – for good, this time. I didn’t hear you calling Steve a monster for it then.”
“Steve Frame never loved me.” Once upon a time, Rachel might have thought saying those words out loud would kill her. But, that was before she’d learned what true pain was. “And even if there were intermittent moments when I fooled myself into thinking that he did, it was nothing compared to Carl. Or even your father, Amanda, who did love me. Whom I loved desperately. Even with Mac, he and I were two separate people who were better together than we were apart. We were still individuals. Carl and I, we’re the same person. If your father and I were soul-mates, Carl and I are the same soul. I couldn’t hurt him without hurting myself, and vice-versa. I don’t expect you to understand. I just expect you to accept it. My husband is dead. I won’t pretend otherwise. Not for Jamie, and not for you.”
“I don’t want to fight,” Marley insisted after Kirkland had left.
“Neither do I,” Grant agreed.
“I just didn’t think the day your son lost a good chunk of his family, on top of being obviously worried sick about his father, is the optimal time for you to start bribing him to move back in.”
“And I don’t think the day your nephew lost Cory, Elizabeth and Lorna all in one swoop, your first reaction should be to fret about Jamie. As always, it’s Jamie first, to hell with everyone else.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. Yes, I’m concerned about Jamie. He was a very big part of my life for a great many years. No matter what has happened since then, I can’t just turn off caring about him. Anymore than you can turn off caring about Lorna.”
“Lorna and I are long over.”
“So are me and Jamie. But, I saw your face when Kirkland delivered the news about her. You felt something.”
“I didn’t want the woman to die!”
“And I don’t want Jamie to suffer. I’ve been the cause of enough of that for him.”
“Make that both of us,” Grant sighed ruefully.
“Do you think Jamie is right? Do you think Lorna could still be alive?”
Grant shrugged. “It is Carl.”
“There’s also the possibility he had nothing to do with it. That Lorna just left on her own.”
“Without her kids? Unlikely. Not after everything she went through just to have them. Lorna’s wanted to be a mother forever.”
Curious, Marley asked, “Why didn’t you ever marry her? You seemed a perfect match. Both of you smart and ambitious and just a touch morally gray. She would have even given you that big family you always wanted. Infertility,” Marley couldn’t help noting. “Is clearly not an issue with her.”
“You mean, besides the fact that I was married to Amanda at the time?”
“There are ways to remedy the situation. As you and Vicky made clear.”
“I don’t know,” Grant thought about it. “I guess… I guess I just didn’t love her enough.”
“You loved Amanda more?”
“Not exactly. Amanda was better for my career. She certainly didn’t challenge me as much as Lorna did. Though she’s more than making up for it now. Life with Amanda, it was… simpler. It was what I expected. It felt proper and right, the way things should be. With Lorna, I never knew what to expect from day to day. I had Kirkland to think about. I wanted a stable environment for him.”
“So, in a perfect world, what? You’d have strung them both along indefinitely? Amanda for the political career and the domesticity, and Lorna for the excitement?”
“You’re not making me sound like a very nice person,” Grant observed.
“Was I supposed to?” Marley asked with a wry smile.
Grant shook his head slowly. “No. No, if there is one thing no one has ever accused me of, it’s being a nice person.”
“Am I disturbing you?” Lucas wavered awkwardly on Alice’s doorstep, looking as eager to turn around and flee as to enter.
For a moment, she actually wondered which response he’d prefer, before deciding to tell him the truth. “No. You’re not. Come in. Please. I could use the company.”
Lucas uneasily accepted her invitation, checking as he did so, “You know…”
“I think so. I was at Jamie’s earlier, helping out with the girls…”
“Then you do know. At least, Jamie’s version.”
“Is there an alternative one?” Alice sat down on the couch, gesturing for Lucas to take the arm-chair across from her.
He looked her dead in the eye. “Do you think he’s on the right track?”
Alice spread her arms helplessly. “I don’t know. I wish I did. But, I don’t.”
“Jamie… He… He has a history of mental problems, am I right about that?”
Alice hesitated, then admitted, “Yes.”
“So, it’s a possibility that this could all be a delusion on his part? A psychotic break?”
“You almost sound like you wish that were the case,” she observed.
“I told Fanny as much. The idea of Lorna being held prisoner against her will, away from her family, suffering… A quick death sounds like a blessing in comparison.”
“You’re speaking from experience.”
“I wish I weren’t.” Lucas sighed. “And there’s another thing, too. Fanny… You saw how she reacted to Jenna’s death. And that was unquestionable. I’m afraid of what becoming obsessed with the idea of Lorna still being alive might do to her. What lengths it might drive her to. Especially if it all ends up coming to nothing in the end.”
“You don’t want Felicia getting her hopes up, only to have them dashed.”
“What about your hopes, Lucas?”
He shook his head, chuckling bitterly, “You’re tough.”
“I’ve learned to be.”
“Yes. Of course. I’m protecting my feelings as much as anyone else’s. I want Jamie’s theory to be true. But, if it’s not….”
“I don’t think Jamie is having a breakdown,” Alice said. “On the other hand, I wonder how much of what he’s saying is purely wishful thinking. Desperation masquerading as logic. He needs to believe Lorna is still alive, so he makes up an entire plot for Carl…”
“I wouldn’t put it past him. If it was just Lorna, I’d even bet on it. But, Elizabeth and Cory. Letting your children’s mother believe them dead, that’s beyond the pale.”
“Even for Carl?”
Lucas shrugged. “Now I’m the one who doesn’t know.”
Alice said, “Remember when Lorna was in the hospital? Jamie had every tangible reason to give up on her. But, he never did.”
“No. He never did.”
“And he was proven right in the end. His faith was justified.”
“Yes,” Lucas agreed.
Alice smiled sadly. And Lucas could do no more than mimic the expression.
“What do you want now, Charlie?” Zeno ignored her, going on about his business throughout the farmhouse, even as she doggedly followed behind.
“Why do you hate me so much?”
“Because you’re a pain in the ass.”
“I don’t mean to be,” Charlie insisted.
“Do you mean to be a spoiled brat who only cares about herself?”
“No. That part comes naturally.”
Zeno had to smile at that, turning around to face her for the first time. “What’s the matter this time, Charlie?”
She plopped down on a chair, burying her face in her hands and mumbling, “My mom and dad think I should go see Kirkland, offer him support,” she raised her fingers in air-quotes. “Or whatever, about Cory and Elizabeth and Lorna being dead.”
“So?” Zeno towered above her.
“So. I don’t want to.”
“Got something better to do?”
“I – I wouldn’t know what to say to him. It would feel too weird. I never know the right thing to say. Especially to Kirkland lately. I’d just mess everything up and probably make him feel even worse. Mom and Dad just don’t get that.”
“I don’t think Kirk is expecting a soliloquy.”
“But, he’s expecting something, right?”
“I thought you would,” Charlie challenged.
“Why?” He looked at her, dumbstruck.
“Because. You don’t give a damn what anybody thinks. You do whatever you want. I thought you’d understand how I felt.”
“You think I do whatever I want?” Zeno couldn’t disguise his laughter.
“With me, you sure do.”
“You think I want to be standing here, listening to your latest bout of self-pity? You think I wanted to cut my date short – “
“No fun being dumped, is it?”
“I wasn’t dumped!”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“Go home, Charlie, okay? Leave me alone.”
“I – I don’t want to go home. I… can’t. Mom and Dad will just get on my case again. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take any of it anymore.”
And then, Charlie did the last thing Zeno expected. She burst into tears.
“Aw, hell,” Zeno dropped to his knees in front of her, looking equal parts disgusted and sympathetic. “Don’t, Charlie. Come on… cut it out.”
“I can’t,” she sniffled, rubbing both eyes with the back of her hand.
“Try,” he advised. “Try hard.”
“I just can’t do anything right. I want to, but whenever I try, I only make things worse. I screw up everything. No wonder nobody wants anything to do with me.”
“I thought I told you to drop the self-pitying crap,” Zeno reiterated, but even he didn’t sound like he meant it anymore. Instead, Zeno dipped his head, trying to catch Charlie’s eye. When she refused to look at him, he ducked even lower, grabbing her chin with one hand, forcing her to face him.
For a long, long moment, the two did nothing but stare at each other, each one daring the other to make the first move.
Charlie took the lead, kissing Zeno harder than she ever had before, not giving him the chance to pull away this time.
And so he didn’t.
Amanda waited until the next morning before gathering up her courage to go see Morgan. She had no idea what kind of state she’d find him in when she dropped by his apartment unannounced.
What Amanda hadn’t counted on was finding Morgan groggy and barely-awake, having worked a thirty-six hour shift over the 4th of July, and been catching up on sleep ever since.
Meaning he had no idea regarding everything that had gone on in the days since.
Leaving Amanda to fill him in.
Morgan listened impassively as she told him about Carl, Elizabeth, and Cory, only offering his sympathies, asking that Amanda pass them on to Rachel, as well.
And then Amanda told him about Lorna.
At that, Morgan froze, the bleariness of a moment earlier disappearing, his breathing speeding up, his fingers tightening into fists, his eyes widening, then narrowing in turn.
Amanda stammered, “I’m sorry. I was sure you knew.”
“Lorna is… Lorna… Carl killed her?” The words came out like a roar.
“We don’t know. It depends.”
“If she was on Carl’s plane…”
“Jamie thinks she’s still alive.”
“Mom doesn’t believe Lorna’s disappearance has anything to do with Carl, so…”
“So where is she then?”
“We don’t know,” Amanda repeated helplessly.
Morgan shook his head side to side, speaking to himself more than to Amanda, “She hated me. She told me she hated me. The last thing she said to me was that she’d never forgive me. I thought… I thought maybe with time…. I thought we had time….”
He collapsed backwards onto the couch, still shaking his head, still mumbling to himself, the words dissolving into whimpers. “Damn it,” Morgan swore. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.”
Stuck for what to do, Amanda sat down next to him, wanting to help, having no idea how to accomplish it.
“It’s okay,” she rubbed Morgan’s back ineffectually. “It’s okay, it’ll be okay.” She took his hand, squeezing it reassuringly, barely noticing when she brought it instinctively to her mouth, kissing the back of Morgan’s palm, moving on to his brow, his cheek, his chin and finally, naturally, unapologetically, his mouth.
“Rachel!” Donna blurted out her mother-in-law’s name. Ever since she and Matthew had moved into the mansion, both Donna and Rachel had been operating on a strict policy of trying to never occupy the same space at the same time. This was even more critical now, under the circumstances.
Except here they both were, face to face, outside of Rachel’s art studio, Rachel on her way in, Donna returning from the stables.
“Rachel, I…” Donna fumbled to perform the proper social convention. “I, of course, I wish to convey my – “
Donna gasped, bringing a hand to her throat.
“Save it, Donna. I need neither your condescension nor your crocodile tears.”
“I know what it’s like to lose a child.” Donna blocked Rachel’s path. It was one thing when she’d been deliberately avoiding her. But, Donna would not be dismissed like this. “I’ve lost all of mine, in one way or another.”
“And who’s fault was that?”
“Who’s fault is this?” Donna snapped back instinctively, regretting her words the moment she said them, but realizing it was too late to retract now.
“Do you really want to hear the answer to that?” Rachel challenged.
“Do you?” Donna refused to back down.
“It’s your fault, Donna. Yours and everyone else who refused to give Carl a chance, who refused to believe that a man could change for the better. Who taunted him and belittled him and condemned him until he had no choice but to live up to your very worst expectations. What alternative did any of you leave him? You hounded a good man, a noble man to his death. And two innocent children with him.”
“Your children were innocent,” Donna agreed. “But, Carl was not. And neither were you.”
“Go to hell.”
“I’m already there. I have been for years. And Carl was my escort for a good stretch of the journey. How blind do you have to be, Rachel, not to recognize that this is precisely what I was protecting Jenna from when I made the decision to keep her existence a secret? If Carl would do this to you, if he would make off with the children of a woman he loved, what chance did I have? And if Carl would put Elizabeth and Cory’s lives in danger, why do you think Jenna wouldn’t have suffered a similar fate?”
“Maybe if more people along the way had treated Carl with some semblance of decency, they would have stood better odds of receiving the same in return.”
“That well holds true for a great many of us,” Donna pointed out, then abruptly changed the subject. “As I was saying prior to being interrupted, I know very well what it’s like to embark on an act with the best of intentions, only to watch circumstances spiral out of control until the results are the exact opposite of your initial objective. I believe you married Carl in the faith that you could reform him, heal him, redeem him. I have no doubt you never expected him to present a threat to your children or your grandchildren or anyone that you love. I’ll even go so far as to assert that when you gave him permission to take on the compound, to sacrifice Spencer, to disregard Kirkland’s well-being, to deliberately toy with my daughter’s already fragile mental state, it was because he’d convinced you there was no other way. You thought you were making the best out of an impossibly bad situation. You didn’t intend for any of this to happen. Carl hurt us all in one way or another, but you most of all. Because you were the only one who honestly never expected it. And for that, Rachel, you have my sincerest sympathy. Whether you believe it or not.”
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