It took a moment before those assembled at Rachel’s house for Christmas Day could collect themselves enough to react to Frankie and Cass’ unexpected arrival.
It was Lori Ann who registered the significance of the event first, shrieking, “Mama! Dada!” and dropping the tiny make-up kit she was holding to dash across the room and throw herself into their arms. “Home!” she yelled. “Home!”
Everyone else burst into laughter at that. Except for Dean, who winced. And Jeanne, who took his hand in support.
“Welcome home,” Rachel was the next to find her voice. “And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” they repeated, looking a little tanner, a little thinner, and only a tiny bit worse for wear. They most certainly looked exhilarated.
While everyone else echoed the salutations, Jamie, Felicia and Lucas exchanged looks. Sure, it was nice to have Frankie and Cass home and all, but there was really only one question the three of them wanted answered.
Fortunately, the Winthrops realized as much and, after accepting the greetings with some small talk of their own, made their way over to where Lorna’s family stood, huddled in a semi-circle, both anxious and desperate. And hopeful.
“Carl is alive,” Frankie told them. “We don’t know about Lorna – “
“And we’re not even sure about Carl, one hundred percent,” Cass struggled to temper expectations with what they knew for a fact. “But, we do have his former body-guard’s testimony that Carl was planning to kidnap Elizabeth and Cory. It stands to reason Lorna might also have been on his list.”
“And the plane crash?” Lucas asked, barely daring to breathe.
“No debris has washed up along the flight plan he filed, we’ve been keeping an eye on that.”
“You said Carl was alive,” Jamie pressed.
Cass and Frankie filled them in regarding Peter Love, the expensive wine, and its mysterious buyer.
“That’s all you have?” Felicia burst out. “If I wrote that in a book, the editor would cancel my contract!”
“It’s a clue,” Cass insisted. “I figure, we find out where the wine is being shipped to, we find Carl. Or, at the very least, someone closely associated with him enough to take over his order when no one else seemed capable.”
“So all we’ve got to go on is Peter Love’s word,” Jamie groaned. “How reliable is that?”
“We investigated the vintner. Peter’s story checks out. Carl was a customer, and his order is still active.”
“So the son of a bitch is out there somewhere right now. Drinking it up while Mom and I lose our minds. And Lorna… oh, hell, who knows what he’s done to Lorna.”
“We will. Soon. We promise you, Jamie.”
“So where to next?” Lucas wondered.
While Felicia interrupted, “Wait a minute. You just got back. Your children haven’t seen you since the summer. You’re not just going to turn around and head right back out again, are you?”
“Yeah, listen,” Jamie rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I didn’t mean to – I want Lorna back more than anything. But, don’t let me take you away from your kids. Lori Ann has obviously really missed you. And Charlie, too. Teen-agers are just not usually as expressive about it.”
“Well,” Frankie began. “I suppose we could stay for a couple of days. Through the holidays. If it’s okay with you, Jamie. And Felicia, too.”
“Sure,” Jamie said, Felicia and Lucas echoing the sentiment. “I want my family back together. But, I’m not going to do it at the expense of yours.”
“Sorry for interrupting your holiday,” Steven shifted his weight in the doorway to Alice’s living room. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she stood up. “Come in, please. Is something wrong, darling?”
“Uh, no. I – “ Steven’s eyes guiltily drifted over to Kevin, skimming right over Jen and GQ before settling on Sarah. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Yeah. You know, in private?”
“I guess. Sure.” She stood up awkwardly, which, at seven months pregnant, was pretty much how she did everything these days.
Sarah followed Steven into another room, closing the door behind them. “If you’re here to yell at me about going on TV, it was only after Marley already knew.”
“It was still a pretty lousy thing to do.”
“I thought you’d be happy about it. It got you off the hook.”
“I put myself on that hook in the first place, remember? And I did it for Marley and your kid’s sake.”
“Turns out you didn’t need to. Grant told Marley himself.”
“He did? Why?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah admitted.
“And you don’t think that’s weird? First, he does everything he can to keep the two of you a secret, then he just flat comes out and tells Marley of his own free will? Doesn’t that sound like he’s up to something?”
“I don’t know. But, if it ends up hurting Marley or Midget or Kirk…”
“Is that what you wanted to talk to me about? Because, I swear, Steven, I have no idea what Grant is up to, or even if he is. He – He doesn’t exactly talk to me anymore.”
“I heard he’s staying with Marley.”
“Yeah. That’s what I heard, too.”
“And that she’s letting him.”
“She loves him,” Sarah said. “And he loves her. So, you know, that’s that.”
“What are you going to do about the kid?”
“I’m keeping it. I told Grant. He said, do what you want, as long as I keep it away from him.”
“Well, listen, if you want, my offer still stands. I’ll sign the birth certificate, or whatever. Just so there isn’t a blank space, you know? No kid deserves that.”
“That’s… that’s nice of you, Steven. But, I don’t think it’s legal. I mean, Allie tried something like that with Hudson and – “
“I’ll check with Kevin,” Steven offered.
“Mama! Look!” Jasmine ran over to Lila, her face flushed with joy. “Look what Daddy and Donna got me!”
She held up her hands to her ears and turned her head this way and that so that her mother could absorb the full effect.
“Diamond earrings?” Lila double-checked, looking at Matt and Donna as if they’d lost their minds. “You got a fourteen year old girl diamond earrings the size of hubcaps?”
“Don’t be silly,” Donna beamed down at an equally ecstatic Jasmine. “They are perfectly proportional.”
“What they are is perfectly inappropriate.”
“You don’t like them, Mama?” Jasmine visibly deflated.
“You are much too young for that kind of jewelry, sugarplum. It makes you look cheap.”
“I assure you,” Donna’s eyes narrowed. “Those earrings most certainly did not come cheap.”
“Say thank you to your Daddy and his wife,” Lila directed. “But, you can’t accept.”
“Matthew!” Donna turned to her husband. “Are you going to let her decide what you can and cannot give your own daughter for Christmas? Especially since Jasmine, obviously, loves her gift.”
“They are inappropriate,” Lila repeated, this time pointedly Matt’s way.
Stuck between the three women in his life – maybe Matt should invite Rachel over to really make himself feel insignificant – he tried to make everyone happy by suggesting, “Why don’t we hold onto them, then maybe revisit the issue… in a few years.”
That clearly pleased no one.
“Say thank you, Jasmine,” Lila reiterated her earlier instructions while taking the earrings from her daughter’s hands and returning them to her stepmother. “It was very thoughtful of you to think of her.”
“Which is a great deal more than you’re currently doing,” Donna sniffed.
The pair of them retreated to their separate corners, leaving Matt in search of a drink. In the interest of keeping his blood pressure low, of course.
Which was also why neither he nor Lila saw Donna sidling up to Jasmine a few minutes later and slipping the earrings into her pocket, whispering, “Don’t tell your parents. This will be our little secret.”
“You’re looking so grown up since the last time we saw you, Charlie,” Cass and Frankie finally managed to corner their older daughter for a long overdue reunion.
“Well, you know, it’s been six months.”
“How are your classes a BCU?” Frankie wondered.
“Have you made any new friends?” Cass wanted to know.
“How’s Kirkland?” Frankie figured that was one topic of conversation her daughter shouldn’t be blasé about.
“You two… spending a lot of time together?”
“Sure. When we can. We’ve both been real busy. He’s taking classes, too, and then he helps his dad out with the kids, you know.”
“Well, at least we have some good news on that front.” Cass said. “Looks like your mom and I found a great lead on Lorna and the rest. If it pans out, Lorna might soon be on her way home to Jamie, and Devon and Mackenzie.”
“A new lead? You mean you’re taking off again?”
They exchanged looks. “Just for a little while.”
“And after the holidays, of course. We wouldn’t miss the holidays with you and your sister.”
“You missed Thanksgiving.”
“Yes, well, that couldn’t be helped. I’ll tell you all about it when – “
“This should be our last trip,” Cass reassured. “And it’s a short one.”
Looking to change the subject, Frankie inquired, “Have you seen Zeno, lately? I’ve been wondering how the farm is – “
“It’s great. The farm is great, Zeno is great, he and Allie are great. Everything is going just perfect for him. Like always.”
“You wanted to talk to me about Sarah and her baby?” Kevin asked in confusion when Steven requested a private meeting with him, as well.
“No. I wanted to talk to you about Horace Johnson. But, it would look kind of weird if I just barged in, wouldn’t it? So I had to come up with a cover.”
“Smart,” Kevin nodded his head in approval.
“Yeah, I’m in the 99.9th percentile, lucky me.”
“But, why did it have to be today?”
“I was afraid you might get it into your head to confess before I talked to you. Couldn’t risk waiting. Listen, Kevin, I’ve been thinking; I can’t let you take the blame for what I did. It’s not my style.”
“I don’t give a damn about your style.” Kevin’s avuncular attitude was gone, replaced by a hard-core courtroom lawyer who may not have tested in the 99.9th percentile in IQ, but who’d been around the block enough times to acquit himself adequately in an argument. “The only thing I give a damn about is my daughter. She needs you, Steven.”
“She’s got GQ.”
“That won’t last.”
“So what? Even if it doesn’t, she still won’t want me. She’s made that perfectly clear.”
“Is that why I saw the two of you kissing over Thanksgiving? Because Jenny doesn’t want you?”
“People slip up.”
“Which is when they usually do what they really want, rather than what they say they want.”
“You think Jen’s going to want me after she finds out I got her dad killed?”
“Another reason for me to take the blame.”
“Don’t do me any favors, man!”
“I’m not. I am asking you to do me one. You think I don’t understand the position I’m putting you in? You think I don’t know how hard it’s going to be for you to look Jenny in the eye and lie to her day after day? I know exactly what I am asking you to do. And who I am asking you to do it for. I’m asking for Jenny. My daughter has been through more crap in her life than most people three times her age. You saw the scars. You saw what Johnson did to her. You are also, by the way, the only person who’s ever figured it out. Jenny isn’t exactly open about her past. You can make her happy. Happier than anybody else on earth, I have no doubts about that. Do you want that, Steven? Because if you don’t…”
“I want it,” Steven blurted out, almost in spite of himself.
“I thought so.” Kevin put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been watching the pair of you tap-dance around each other ever since she came to Bay City. You two will get it right eventually. And when Jen finally admits whom she really belongs with, you need to be there. Not in a jail cell. Listen, I told Amanda what happened. Well, the version we’d worked out, anyway. She convinced me to keep my mouth shut until after the holidays. Maybe it will all still come to nothing, who knows? I promised her I would. So how about you do the same? Sit tight, go on with your life, and we’ll play it by year, alright? Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe neither of us will need to go down for this, after all.”
“Hey, it’s good to see you.” Zeno kissed Allie on the front porch of his farmhouse and led her inside. “Perfect timing. Everybody’s gone home or to bed for the night.”
“How’d your party go?” Allie looked around, stalling the inevitable.
“Good. I’m sorry I couldn’t come with you to your grandmother’s but, this – this always reminds me of my mom, you know? Makes me feel like a part of her is still here. So many of the people who come, they all loved her. Same as I did.”
“It’s okay. I’m glad. I told you, I didn’t mind your not coming.”
“Then how come you look so upset?”
Allie said, “Charlie was at my grandma’s house.”
“Yeah.” Zeno hesitated, nervous. “So?”
“She… She made this joke. It was stupid. But, she mentioned linseed oil.”
“Okay. Yeah, well, Frankie was really into it for health reasons. Remember how I told you we used to grow and process it here? That was actually Frankie’s idea.”
“Why would Charlie bring up linseed oil, of all things? The same thing you said was in my gas tank?”
“Was she talking about it being in your gas tank? Maybe Sharlene told her.”
“Sharlene wasn’t at my grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving. Charlie was. What if she’s the one who put it in there?”
“You mean, for Sharlene?”
“No. For herself. What if Charlie is the one stalking me?”
“I would apologize again,” Grant told Marley, sitting down gingerly on the edge of the bed where she also sat, her head down, the tears still obvious. “But, I’m afraid that word has lost all meaning coming from me.”
“I’m not,” Marley said, her voice muffled by the hair falling down either side of her face. “I’m not what you said I was to the girls. I’m not strong, I’m not brave. The only reason I keep going, no matter what, is because I can’t think of anything else to do. Because I’m too scared of the alternative.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.” Grant tentatively slid his hand along the bedspread until it was brushing Marley’s. “You never have.”
She cocked her head just a little to the side. “Do you know why I agreed to stay with you?”
“I believe I already made myself clear on the subject. And my gratitude regarding it.”
“It’s because I couldn’t see a preferable alternative. I don’t want to be alone again. I don’t want to fail again.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“I’m using you, Grant,” Marley figured they might as well put all their cards on the table. “You stood by and you took care of me when no one else would. You wanted me when no one else did.”
“That happens to be true in reverse, too.”
“I like feeling wanted. I like feeling taken care of. You are all I have, Grant.”
Still struggling to make sense of her near stream of consciousness, he said, “I like being wanted. And needed.”
“You’re my only option. But, I’m not yours.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sarah wants you. My God, does she want you. The way she was looking at you when she was here. That girl is madly, ridiculously, breathlessly in love with you.”
Grant shook his head dismissively, not wanting to so much as consider the implications. “She’s young. She doesn’t even know what the word means. Tomorrow, she’ll feel that way about someone else.”
“I don’t feel that way about you, Grant. I love you, I do. But, not like that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Grant said.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter? How could it not matter?”
“Marley, I married you knowing you weren’t in love with me. Not the way you were in love with Jake. Not the way you were in love with Jamie. I knew you needed me and wanted me, and that was enough. That was more than enough. It still is.”
“Especially now. When I thought I might lose you over Sarah, it reminded me of just how important you are to my future. Of exactly why I married you. That reason is still as true today as it was then. I came into our marriage with my eyes wide open, knowing who I was and what I wanted out of life. Believe it or not, I am exactly where I want to be, and with whom I want to be. You said you needed me? I need you just as much. I need you more than you will ever know. More than I could ever tell you.”
“You’re about twenty-four hours too late, Santa,” Russ whispered sleepily, eyes half-mast, at the sound of his bedroom door being painstakingly slid open, and footsteps creeping across the floor. He looked up from where he was lying in bed, noting the blanket being lifted and the figure crawling in beside him to observe dryly, “And that most definitely isn’t the chimney.”
“Shhh,” Iris’ finger brushed his lips. “Be nice…”
“You mean naughty isn’t an option?”
Her response was a soft laugh, the warmth of which nuzzled Russ’ ear.
“Mmmm?” She kissed Russ’ jaw, slowly inching downwards.
“The last time we….”
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot…” Her mouth was on his neck, zeroing in on the perfect, tender spot just below his chin that still seemed to remember her quite well. Too well, as a matter of fact.
Her tongue was at the hollow where his collar-bones met, licking soft, ever tightening circles, too busy to answer.
“Damn you, Iris,” was Russ’ last attempt at a full sentence before, with a groan that could be interpreted a variety of ways, he rolled over on his side, grabbing her chin with his hand and forcing her head upwards, looking her in the eye before yanking her closer, attempting to shut her up as much as to devour her.
It was at that moment when the doorbell rang. Followed, when it apparently wasn’t answered quickly enough, by a pounding and a male voice shouting in rhythm to the banging, “Olivia! Damn it, I know you’re there. Open up and tell me what the hell is going on! Olivia! Olivia!”
Iris sat up with a start, nervously covering herself with both hands as if their visitor could see through the door, up two flights of stairs and around a corner.
“Dennis,” she gasped.
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