“Thank you for taking the time to meet with us,” Cass gushed effusively to Le Rosey’s rather intimidating headmaster, noting the resemblance the current office occupant bore to the portraits of predecessors lining the wall directly behind him. Cass wondered if this was a job that required submitting a headshot prior to interview.
“We are always interested in meeting families from America,” the man bobbed his head courteously. “However, I must tell you upfront, admitting qualified candidates from your country capable of rising to the rigors of our curriculum is a frequent struggle.”
“You mean you think American students are less intelligent?” Frankie bristled.
The headmaster, obviously used to the question, declined to take offense. He merely explained calmly, “Raw intelligence at this level is less important than the previously laid educational foundation. Despite our eagerness to embrace students from all over the globe, we have found that those from America are rarely on par academically, primarily due to the curriculum they’ve been exposed to previously. We expect our Upper School youth to speak at least one other language fluently, to have progressed beyond basic algebraic calculations, and to be aware of how many continents there are – not to mention that the one they’re most familiar with houses more than a single nation.”
Okay, with that last one, he was definitely being sarcastic. And insulting.
“And you don’t think American schools are getting the job done?” Despite Cass’ frantic signals with his eyebrows that Frankie really shouldn’t be aggravating the man, she couldn’t help herself. Smug superiority rarely went down well with her.
“As a general rule – no. There are periodic exceptions, of course. Just as there are students capable of catching up on the lost years with intensive tutoring and much hard work. I hate, however, to make a generalization before meeting the child in question. Is your daughter with you in Switzerland?”
“No,” Cass said quickly, before Frankie had a chance to jump in. “We were in the country on business, and having been recommended the school so highly, we thought we’d stop by and take a look. See for ourselves before possibly applying our daughter.”
“Very wise. Well, I am happy to answer any questions you might have.”
“Your facilities look incredible,” Cass said. “And I assume you offer a curriculum to match.”
“Without a doubt.”
“Our remaining concern then, is with security.”
Again, nothing seemed to phase this professional. He nodded thoughtfully. “I can assure you, we employ the best talent the world has to offer. Our safekeeping team includes former members of Interpol, Mossad,” he cleared his throat. “The KGB. Amongst our student body you will find royalty from across the globe, not to mention immense family fortunes. Naturally, those who find our efforts lacking are welcome to engage their own private detail. We are quite open to collaboration. We want all our enrolled families to feel comfortable.”
Cass beamed. “That’s just what Carl said!”
“Carl?” The headmaster raised an eyebrow.
“Carl Hutchins,” Frankie explained sweetly. “He’s the one who recommended Le Rosey to us. He said his own children are having a wonderful experience here.”
A pause, during which both Cass and Frankie did their best not to lean forward in eager anticipation and tip their hands. They remained sitting as they were, looking polite, curious, and rich enough to afford enrollment. Perhaps even a private security detail.
“I’m afraid there’s been some misunderstanding,” the headmaster said. “Mr. Hutchins’ children are not enrolled at Le Rosey.”
“It’s okay,” Frankie reassured. “He told us you wouldn’t be able to confirm their being here. Which is exactly what we’re looking for – like we said, security is key.”
“Confidentiality forbids me from revealing the names of those students in attendance. However, I am under no such compulsion when it comes to students Le Rosey declined to admit. I remember the Hutchins’ boy and girl applying, but the school didn’t feel they’d be an apt fit.”
“Because of their inferior American education?” Frankie couldn’t seem to let that one go.
“Because the Hutchinses,” he attempted to be politic. “Are not the sort of family we are keen to see matriculate here.”
“I realize those residing in the States may not be equally as familiar with Mr. Hutchins’… exploits. Alas, he cut a rather broad and criminal swath through Europe. I daresay, there isn’t a veteran member of our security staff who hasn’t tangled with him in one form or another. He is not the sort of element we prefer to cultivate here. This isn’t,” the headmaster chuckled at his own idea of a droll joke. “Dubai, after all.”
“Dubai?” That was the last thing Frankie expected to hear.
“Indeed,” he nodded sadly. “All that gauche display of new money. Most vulgar, if you ask me. Their idea of developing a top drawer academic institution is to erect a series of structures, each more tasteless than the next, hire away experienced yet mercenary teachers with promises of grotesque salaries the rest of us can never match, and then accepting any pupil or family who can pay! I ask you, is that any way to educate the next generation?”
“In Dubai?” Cass exchanged glances with Frankie, who nodded subtly to indicate she absolutely was thinking what he was thinking.
“In Dubai,” the headmaster confirmed while making a face of grave displeasure.
“Thanks for watching the girls this afternoon,” Jamie told Alice. “I finally got Johnson to come in for Jen’s extraction; the OR is reserved. I want to make certain I’m there and everything gets done. One more delay and I’m afraid I’ll be treating Kevin for a stroke.”
“I checked her chart this morning. This is…”
“Too damn close for comfort, I know. Not the way I like to do things, that’s for sure. I’m hoping to harvest today and begin the transplant tomorrow.”
“Take all the time you need, Jamie,” Alice said. And then she added, “Don’t hurry home, either. The girls and I have plenty to keep ourselves occupied, and you could use a break.”
“I’m fine,” he corrected tersely. “I don’t like being away any more than I absolutely need to.”
“Duly noted. But, if all you do is just work, then rush home to take care of Devon and Mackenzie, you’ll wear yourself ragged. And then what good will you be to them? Take a few hours to yourself after the procedure. Get a drink, go to dinner, see a movie.”
“I can’t,” Jamie told her honestly. “If I don’t have something to focus on every minute of the day, I start… thinking. Mostly about Lorna. But, not just about Lorna. About Mom. Carl. And I start getting scared, Alice. I can feel it sneaking up on me again. The anger, the frustration, the hopelessness….”
“Jamie,” Alice’s voice lost its cajoling tone of a moment earlier. “Are you – “
“No,” he swore. “I promised the boys, and I promise you. No matter what, I will never, ever attempt suicide again. No matter how I feel.”
“So you are feeling it again, then? The depression? It’s back?”
“Some,” he admitted. “But, truth is, the anger is worse. There are moments – moments when I don’t have something to distract myself with – when it comes on so strongly I don’t know how much longer… What if I lose control again? What if some guy cuts me off in traffic, or a lab tech is late with a test result? What if Kirkland talks back at the wrong moment, or one of the girls cries just a little longer than… what if I snap? What if I hurt someone again? What if it’s the kids or…”
“Do you feel close to that?” Alice didn’t judge, slipping into clinical mode, lest she scare him away.
“No. I’m okay. For now. But, even if I do manage to hold it together, the effort that takes…. I’m becoming that guy again. Not the one who lost it completely, but the one who was so scared of risking it ever happening again that he stuffed himself into a straightjacket. Steven and Kirk said something about Devon and Zee deserving a better dad than that. Lorna’s girls deserve a father who’s happy. Not one who’s always uptight and worried, and who makes them feel like they have to take care of him, instead of the other way around.”
“You did a wonderful job with Steven and Kirkland. Devon and Mackenzie are lucky to have you for a father.”
“This isn’t what I wanted for them. This isn’t what Lorna wanted. We were so smug, so confident that we’d given our girls something neither one of us had. A mother, a father, a normal family… I let them down. I let them all down. Especially Lorna.”
“I’ll be right there,” Steven called over his shoulder to Bridget and Michele as he stepped into Grant and Marley’s guestroom, where Sarah was currently residing. “Get your shoes and your coats, and we’ll leave in a minute. I’ve got a couple of hours free, decide what you want to do, and we’ll do it.”
Steven closed the door behind him, crossed his arms, and merely stared at Sarah.
“What?” She fought the urge to shrivel up in bed, instead meeting his gaze head on.
“Are you out of your mind?” he demanded. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“You don’t think it’s any of my business that you’ve planted yourself in my aunt’s house while you’re pregnant with her husband’s baby?”
“I – How – Why would you – “
“I was there for the show you put on after Kirkland’s accident. You literally threw yourself at Grant’s feet. You went with him when he gave blood, and then you took him home afterwards.”
“That was months ago,” Sarah reminded. “It was before Grant married Marley.”
“So are you telling me you and Grant are over?” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“Yes. Absolutely. Grant and I are absolutely over.”
“Was that before or after you got pregnant?” Steven wasn’t about to let Sarah wriggle her way out via semantics.
She hesitated long enough for Steven to guess the answer for himself.
“You bitch,” he turned away in disgust, barely able to look at her.
“It’s not what you think,” Sarah insisted.
“You mean you aren’t playing Marley for a fool?”
“No! I – Marley has been so nice to me. I don’t want to see her hurt.”
“You think finding out her husband cheated on her will make Marley happy?”
“She won’t find out. I swear.”
“Oh, yeah, right. Because if there is one thing we know about Grant, it’s that he’s not really into the whole claiming my kid bit.”
“Grant doesn’t want this baby,” Sarah told Steven honestly. “He told me to get rid of it. He dumped me when I told him I wouldn’t.”
“I’m telling the truth.” Her eyes filled with tears and she choked on the last word.
If this was an act, Steven thought, it was a hell of a good one. But, then again, acting was Sarah’s thing, wasn’t it?
“Grant loves Marley,” Sarah said. “He really, really does. He was only with me while he couldn’t have her. He told me that. Even a baby doesn’t make a difference.”
“Alright, then he’s the one who’s lying. No way would Grant – “
“He wants me to get an abortion,” Sarah insisted. “I overheard him telling Marley to talk me into it. I was a mistake. He called me stupid for ever believing we were more than a fling, an itch for him to scratch while he waited for the woman he really loved. He said it proved how young I was, that I fell in love with a married guy and actually thought….”
“That he could love me back,” Sarah said in a small voice.
“Then why are you here?” Steven thrust his finger angrily at the floor. “Why are you in Marley house? In Marley and Grant’s house?”
“Because I had no place else to go! Because Marley is the only friend I have left – except for Allie; and I wouldn’t dump this on Allie, not after what happened to her with GQ, it would be selfish of me to remind her. Marley offered to take care of me. And the baby. Anything we need for as long as we need it.”
“And you don’t feel any guilt about any of this? Not even a little?”
“I feel guilty. I feel really, really guilty. But, only where Marley is concerned. If Grant doesn’t want the baby, then it shouldn’t matter to him what I do. So I’m going to keep it, and I’m going to raise it by myself.”
“Under Grant’s roof? Under Grant’s nose?”
“It’s going to be okay,” Sarah promised. “I’ll make sure Marley never finds out.” She hesitated. “Unless… I mean… Are you going to tell her?”
“The nerve of that awful man,” Donna raged. “Where does Kevin Fowler get off, making sweeping decisions regarding who is and who isn’t fit to be a parent?”
“That’s not what he said,” Matt attempted to talk Donna down as she stomped about the Cory pond. Matt thought bringing her to the water might help infuse Donna with a sense of serenity. It clearly wasn’t working. “All Kevin said was that we were not attractive candidates for an adoption from the state.”
“What do they know? Are you telling me the state never makes a mistake? That they’ve never once placed a helpless child in a miserable home? That they’re infallible? The all-mighty state gave Mikey back to his biological parents! And look how that ended! He’s slinging coffee for minimum wage because it simply wasn’t worth their time to get him the correct education and treatment!”
“I don’t think Mikey said that, either. Not everyone thinks school is that important. His parents just had different values. And he’s happy where he is.”
“Michael and I could have done so much for him. We’d have seen to it that he received the very best resources. We would have raised him to set high expectations for himself. He could have been a man of distinction, instead of a – “
“Perfectly content human being?” Matt took Donna’s hand. “We’ll do better with our own child. The best schools, the best extracurriculars, the best of everything.”
“Not if Fowler has anything to say about it. If the state doesn’t want us then, fine, we’ll do a private adoption. You realize, of course, that’s simply a scam to extort more money from us. But, fine, we’ll go along, pretend we don’t understand the game he’s playing.”
“Donna,” Matt reminded gently. “Kevin tried to talk us out of a private adoption, as well. At least until you – “
“I am perfectly fine.”
“Kevin thinks you still have some issues to work out. Especially about Mikey.”
“Now I’m deemed insane because I won’t risk losing another child?”
“It’s going to be tough to complete a private adoption without the biological parents knowing who we are.”
“We have money, Matthew. Nothing is difficult for people with money.”
“This might be. Kevin said the birth mother will probably want to meet with us, make sure we’re the right parents for her baby.”
“Oh, wonderful. I so look forward to being judged by a slatternly teen who couldn’t keep her legs closed.”
“Donna…” Matt warned. “You and Michael were – “
“A completely different case,” Donna sniffed. “We were in love.”
Matt gave up and merely said, “I think this is what Kevin meant when he said you – and I – need to think a little more, maybe adjust our assumptions and attitudes, before we jump headfirst on the adoption bandwagon.”
“Why are you all making this so complicated? The world is full of unwanted babies. You and I are in prime position to take one in and give them a perfect life. What about our attitudes could possibly require adjustment?”
“Well? Where is he?” Kevin addressed his question to GQ, though of the group waiting, including Jamie and Steven, he had no way of knowing any more than the rest of them.
“I don’t know,” GQ admitted.
“He should have been here forty-five minutes ago.”
“I’ll try and call him again,” Jamie said.
“How much longer will the operating room be available?”
“Don’t worry about it. Jen has friends in high places. Not to mention relatives. As soon as Mr. Johnson shows up… ”
“If he shows up.”
“Did he say anything to you?” Steven asked GQ.
“He swore he’d be here.”
“Well, he isn’t,” Kevin stated the obvious for what felt like the infinite time, his nervous energy, the way he was jiggling the change in his pocket, pacing in place, rubbing his hands through his hair, getting to all of them.
“No answer,” Jamie closed his phone.
“What a surprise,” Kevin snapped.
Steven, meanwhile, had stepped away to make a call of his own. He returned to explain, “I called the super from the building he’s been staying in – “ the other three looked at him, impressed. Steven didn’t notice. He naturally assumed anything he did would be impressive. “ – Asked him to check, see if Johnson’s home.”
“Guy says he isn’t there. And neither,” Steven’s cockiness dissipated as he related the information. “Is his stuff.”
“Jesus Christ,” Kevin’s choice echoed along the sterile hospital hallways, startling quite a few patients, not to mention staff. He turned on GQ, “Still think he’s a good guy, Todd? Still think we’re just jumping to conclusions, vilifying him without cause?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” GQ conceded stiffly.
“Son of a bitch rabbited. He conned us, and then he played us, and then he took off with my money.”
“Money?” Jamie asked. “What money?”
“I paid him off, okay?” Kevin spat. “Guy was stalling, first with the tattoo, then the fake fever – “
“He was sick!” GQ protested.
“He took something to raise his body temperature,” Steven corrected. “He admitted it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Jamie wanted to know.
“Because there was nothing you could do, Dad. There was nothing anybody could do until we figured out what he wanted. And what he wanted was money. So Kevin paid him off.”
“God, what an idiot I was,” Kevin covered his face with both hands. “What a total and complete idiot. I gave him the money. I gave him the means and the motive to split. And I signed my daughter’s death warrant in the process.”
“Lila!” The look of sincere delight on Chase’s face at the sight of her walking into his office almost prompted Lila to turn around and walk right back out again. Except that she’d started this mess. And now it was up to Lila to finish it. “It’s good to see you,” he told her softly. “I’m so happy you stopped by.”
“How are you?” Lila asked, noncommittal. She couldn’t seem too eager. That would ruin everything.
He shrugged. “I’ve been alright. Busy.”
“And the kids? What’s it like being a dad of two?”
“Busy,” he repeated. “And eye-opening. You know how we were all told, in college anyway, that gender differences are artificially imposed on children by society? That kids are born a blank slate and our prejudices are what makes them assume traditionally male or female roles?”
“I didn’t go to college,” Lila reminded him.
“You didn’t miss much,” he assured. “It’s all a bunch of bunk. My daughter has two fathers – one of whom, if you ask the other, is utterly lacking in any sense of taste or refinement; that would be me, in case I wasn’t clear – and all she wants to do all day is change her outfits from one shade of pink to another, and play tea party while braiding her doll’s hair. Doug and I would listen to other parents complain about how they were exhausted chasing after their toddlers all day and we’d exchange these bemused looks, complimenting our mutual, obviously superior parenting and discipline techniques. That was all before we acquired a four year old son. Ike, as far as I can observe, never stops moving. Not even when he’s asleep. Every morning, his blanket, his pillow, and even his sheet, are on the floor. He swears he has no idea how that might have happened. We gave him one of Milagros’ dolls – he turned it into a rocket launcher. He gave Milagros one of his trucks – she wrapped it in a diaper and rocked it to sleep.”
Lila laughed, “Sure does sound like you and Doug have your hands full.”
“And loving every minute of it. Only another month, and then Ike is ours free and clear.”
“Another month…” Lila repeated cautiously.
“So what brings you by?” Chase wondered.
It forced her to remember the true answer. Not that Lila had any intention of telling him. Instead, Lila said, “I’d like to come back to work.”
He blinked in surprise. “Are you serious?”
“Things at home are… tense. As I’m sure you can imagine. Not just with Rachel, but Jasmine, too. Oh, and Matt and Donna have moved in and are trying to have a baby. That’s… disturbing, to say the least. As a result, I’m trying to spend as little time there as possible. And, besides, I missed it here. City Hall is a pretty exciting place to work.”
“I’d love it if you came back,” Chase told her sincerely. “I’ve missed you. When would you want to get started?”
“How about now?” Lila asked.
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