By the time Russ and Iris yanked their robes on, both avoiding the other’s eye as if they had something to feel guilty about – which they most certainly did not – and hurried down the stairs, Dennis’ knocking had managed to wake up the entire household. Olivia was standing in the living room, Sarah right behind her. However, neither was making any move to open the door.
“Tell him to go away,” Olivia ordered Iris.
Who, in turn, huffed, “I will do no such thing.”
“Fine.” Olivia shrugged. “You got him here, you deal with him. I’m going back to bed.”
“I most certainly did not invite Dennis here!” Iris took offense.
“You didn’t?” Russ asked in surprise. “You mean you haven’t told Dennis about…” His voice trailed off as he indicated Sarah.
“No,” Iris admitted somewhat sheepishly, then instantly defended with, “I wanted to take care of the matter myself.”
“You mean you wanted to keep my daughter’s baby for yourself,” Olivia countered.
“I called him,” Sarah said, moving to the door and letting her father in when it appeared no one else was going to.
“Whatever for?” Iris demanded.
“To give you two something else to fight about other than me.” Sarah turned to face Dennis. “Hi, Dad.”
“Sarah!” Dennis grinned and stepped in to hug his daughter, noticing midway the bulge of her stomach that made it tricky. He paused, looking down, murmuring, “Wow.”
“Did you think I was kidding over the phone?” she wondered.
“No… I – I guess hearing about it and actually seeing… Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“We’ve got your mother to thank for that,” Olivia piped up.
“Mom?” Dennis turned to Iris, entering the rest of the way and closing the door behind him. “Hello, Russ,” he dropped off-handedly, as if the three of them weren’t all taking advantage of the man’s hospitality, not to mention ruining his sleep.
“Dennis,” Russ nodded his head.
“What are you doing here, darling?” Iris rushed up to embrace her boy. “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
“I got Sarah’s message and I hopped on the next available flight. Wow… Sarah…” He still seemed unable to believe his eyes.
“I only found out a few days ago myself,” Olivia enlightened. “Iris, on the other hand…”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me, Mom?”
“It wasn’t my place,” Iris demurred.
“Give me a break,” Dennis and Olivia said in unison. Only instead of the synchronicity uniting them, it merely prompted the pair to glare at each other.
“Sarah was going to give the baby up for adoption,” Olivia filled Dennis in.
“Thank goodness I put a stop to that,” Iris interjected, hoping to score some last-minute points. “What a disaster that would have been.”
“But, now,” Olivia said. “She’s decided to keep it. Raise it on her own, since the father doesn’t give a damn.”
“The father…” Dennis repeated dully, then, as if he couldn’t possibly have heard right the first time, double-checked. “Grant Harrison? Grant Harrison? How the hell did this happen?”
“Your daughter is in love with a man old enough to be her father. And then some.”
“Wait a minute, hold on. The last I heard… Isn’t Grant married to Marley?”
Olivia checked her watch. “Very good. It took you almost ten minutes to bring her up. A new personal record, congratulations.”
“Shut up, Olivia.”
“Hey, hey,” Russ warned, only willing to put up with so much when it came to his daughter.
“Sorry,” Dennis tossed over his shoulder while remaining focused on his own child. “Forget Grant. How the hell did Marley allow this to happen?”
“Happy New Year,” Zeno offered Charlie, trying to act as casual as possible under the circumstances.
“What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to stop by. Say Happy New Year.”
“Well, you’ve said it.”
“Got any big plans for tonight?”
She shrugged. “Kirk and I are going out. Kind of stupid, since we can’t drink. And I don’t know why people make such a big deal out of New Year’s Eve, anyway. Like changing a number on a calendar actually changes anything for real.”
“I think it’s more in people’s minds. The idea of a fresh start.” Not getting much of an enthusiastic reaction from Charlie, Zeno noted instead, “I heard from Frankie. Bet you’re glad to have your mom and dad back in town.”
“It’s only for a little while. They’re taking off again right after the holidays.”
“To look for Ms. Gallant’s daughter?”
“That’s the official explanation, yeah.”
“What do you mean, official explanation?”
“If it wasn’t Lorna and Carl, it’d be somebody else. Any excuse to get away will do.”
“Listen, Charlie, I don’t want to keep you and Kirk from your plans. I just – I needed to tell you something. Well, ask you something.”
“What?” she looked up at him, hope momentarily flickering in her eyes, filling Zeno with even more dread. “Ask me what?”
“Allie…” Zeno began.
Leading Charlie to visibly deflate. “Oh.”
“Allie told me you said something… over Christmas… That you made a joke mentioning linseed oil.”
“Yeah…." Charlie struggled to keep her expression neutral. “So?”
“Did you know that, Thanksgiving night, somebody poured linseed oil into Allie’s gas tank? That’s a pretty dangerous trick. In the best-case scenario, Allie could have lost control of her car. In the worst, it might have exploded.”
“But, she’s fine, right? Nothing happened? I mean, obviously, I saw her afterwards and she was fine.”
“I smelled something suspicious and checked under the hood before she started her engine.”
“Lucky Allie, she’s got you.”
“Allie thought it was a strange coincidence, you bringing up linseed oil…”
“It was a joke. I only knew about it because Mom kept pushing it on Aunt Sharlene when Gregory was sick. She thought it might save him.”
“Are you sure?” Zeno looked her in the eye.
She glared back defiantly. “Positive.”
“You know, Charlie, I understand why you might be mad at Allie.”
“I’m not mad at Allie. I barely know her.”
“Okay, then,” he concurred agreeably. “I understand why you might be mad at me.”
“Get over yourself!” Charlie had to turn her back. She hoped Zeno would think it was because she couldn’t stand the sight of him. And not because she didn’t dare let him see her expression. “One time! We had sex one, stupid time. Well, two if you count… Kirk and I have done it, like, a million times since then. And you think I’m still hung up on you? What an ego!”
“I’m glad you and Kirkland are happy,” Zeno said softly. “I remember you were worried at first….”
Charlie could only hope that the back of her neck wasn’t as crimson as the rest of her face felt. “I love Kirk. And he loves me. You think I give a damn about you and Allie?”
“Okay,” Zeno sounded determined not to upset her further. “I just… I wanted to make sure, that’s all. Happy New Year, Charlie.”
“You look lovely,” Russ told Iris absently while they circled the dance floor at Tops as part of the official New Year’s Eve festivities.
“Thank you,” she cleared her throat, seeming anything but flattered by the compliment.
“What?” Russ took a step back, raising his voice to be heard above the band. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” she admitted. “Though, just a spot of advice, the flattery does lose its charm when it’s the third time you’ve said so. And it’s the only thing you’ve said all evening.”
“Really?” he winced. “I’m sorry, Iris. I – I guess my mind must be someplace else.”
“We are all worried about Sarah,” she consoled.
“And having Dennis and Olivia in the house hardly makes matters easier,” Russ sighed.
“You’re so kind, offering us all shelter like this.”
“It’s what my mother would have done. She did love to see the old house filled up with people. Especially around the holidays.”
“It will be good for Sarah. Having all of us to support her in her time of need.”
“Is that what we’re doing?” Russ raised an eyebrow.
“To the best of our ability,” Iris hedged with a beguiling smile.
Which went unappreciated by her date.
Iris sighed, frustrated, and informed Russ, “I’m going to pop by the powder room for a few moments. When I return, do try to be in a better mood. This is a festive occasion, darling, not a wake, after all.”
“I’m sorry,” he told her, noting that the second apology in as many minutes did little to improve Iris’ humor.
She tottered off, still in somewhat of a snit, leaving Russ to tiredly push his way through the other couples on the dance floor and continue past their table, into a quiet corner, away from the band, wherein he pulled out his cell-phone and dialed.
“I just wanted to wish you a Happy New Year.”
“Thank you,” Rachel replied, sounding as downhearted as he felt. “I keep telling myself, whatever the future brings, it can’t possibly be worse than what I went through this year.”
“I hate to think of you spending the evening alone.”
“I’m not,” Rachel told him, trying to sound cheerful. “Jasmine has invited some friends over. I am chaperoning an eighth grade New Year’s Eve party as we speak. You cannot imagine how festive that is.”
“Oh, I can. I had an eighth grade daughter once myself.”
“Who, I hear, is back in town? And staying at the house with you and Iris?” Rachel said the words even though she couldn’t quite believe them.
“Me, Iris, Sarah, Olivia… and now Dennis.”
“You can say that again.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Rachel told him wistfully. “A full house.”
“Oh, damn, Rachel, I’m sorry.” There he went with another apology. Heck of a way to kick off the new year. “That was horrifically insensitive of me. Complaining about having my daughter back home when you…”
“It’s alright. Truly, I told you. In addition to Jasmine’s friends, Matt and Donna are here, Jamie called to check up on me, Lila and I are doing tag-team chaperoning and Amanda and Kevin promised to stop by. I’m well taken care of.”
“You deserve it. And more.”
“Happy New Year to you, too, Russ,” Rachel said.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather go out tonight?” Jen checked with GQ as they sat at the table in her apartment, GQ having cooked and served.
“You need to rest. I saw what a toll Thanksgiving and Christmas took on you. You’re still recovering.”
“Thanksgiving, I was still recovering. Christmas, I think it was all the tension in the room that did me in. My God, Sarah and her mom, Sarah’s mom and her grandmother, Sarah’s mom and Amanda…”
“And then Steven barging in. That certainly didn’t help keep stress levels down.”
“Still beats Thanksgiving,” Jen observed.
“Yeah…” GQ sat down. “You know, I don’t get it. Steven saw what Allie put us all through, lying about Hudson’s paternity the way she did. Why the hell would he go and step up and take responsibility for Sarah’s baby when he knew he wasn’t the dad?”
“He did it because of his brother. And how Grant treated Kirkland’s mother. He wanted to spare Sarah and her baby that.”
GQ looked at Jen in surprise. “How would you know what Steven was thinking?”
“He – he told me.” Jen suddenly felt a burning urge to fiddle with her napkin.
“He told you?”
“I don’t remember exactly when,” she hedged. “And who knows why Steven does anything?”
“Apparently you do!”
“It just… it just came up. For the reason you said. Steven never forgave his own mom for marrying his dad even though she thought another guy was Steven’s biological father. So it did seem off for him to tell the same lie himself.”
“And how do you know that? About Steven’s mom?”
“I don’t know. We talk.”
“Steven Frame doesn’t talk. He codes.”
“Well, maybe I broke the code,” Jen snapped, flippant.
Only for GQ to nod thoughtfully and offer, “Yeah… Maybe you did.”
The fist that came flying as soon as he opened the door caught Grant on the chin, sending him reeling backwards. He stumbled on the two steps that led down to the sunken living room and ended up sprawled on the floor, head hitting parquet.
Marley, who’d heard the commotion, came running out, kneeling to help her husband up before she raised her eyes and registered the identity of his assailant.
But, despite Olivia’s earlier accusation, Dennis currently had no interest in his ex-girlfriend. He yanked Grant to a standing position, grabbing his lapels, pulling him forward, then shoving him back, all the while roaring, “You Goddamn, son of a bitch!”
Grant sprung back up, charging at Dennis, ready to give as good as he got, when Marley inserted herself between the two men, shouting, “No! Both of you! Stop it, right now!”
“You think you can seduce my daughter then toss her away like a piece of garbage?”
“Your daughter is no innocent,” Grant shot back. “Ask Iris about what happened over Thanksgiving. Why don’t you pop over to Steven’s dorm? Give him a punch in the nose, since you’re being so generous with your caveman machismo.”
“Sarah says it was you.”
“She brought this on herself.”
“She loves you,” Dennis seethed.
Grant forced his features into an expression of extreme indifference.
“And you,” Dennis turned to Marley. “How could you let this happen?”
“How could I let?” She emphasized the last word.
“I thought I could trust you to look after her.”
“Sarah is hardly a child, Dennis.”
“She is compared to your husband!”
“Yes,” Grant drawled. “As everyone keeps saying, I’m old enough to be Sarah’s father. I wonder who she possibly could have been looking to replace when she came on to me?”
“I did the best I could,” Dennis defended himself. “Even when Olivia went out of her way to make it as difficult as possible for me. You have no idea how often I used to wonder if maybe it wouldn’t have been better for Sarah to have ended up with Marley than with us.”
Marley gasped at his confession.
But Dennis wasn’t done yet. “Though I guess that turned out to be a pipe dream, too. Your husband was forcing himself on a young girl right underneath your nose, and you didn’t do a damn thing to stop him!”
“I didn’t force anyone,“ Grant began. “Sarah – “
“I trusted you, Marley. I trusted you to look after my daughter. How could you let us all down like this?”
“That’s quite a party,” Amanda observed after sticking her head into the room filled with Jasmine’s friends. And popping right back out again due to the combination of loud music and high-pitched shrieking. “Are you sure you’re up to this, Mom?”
“Between Lila and I, we’ll manage. Somehow. But, I do wonder if you could do me a favor, Amanda? Would you run down to the kitchen and let Cook know that the young ladies are ready for their dinner? I was just on my way when you came in.”
“No problem,” Amanda nodded. “Be right back.”
“Thank you.” Rachel smiled, waiting for her daughter’s footsteps to completely fade before turning to Amanda’s husband, this time not smiling at all.
“Rachel?” Kevin asked, concerned. “Is something wrong?”
“Everything is wrong. My life is in shambles. But, the worst of it is, the man responsible for doing this, he’s managed to walk away scott-free.”
“Hamilton,” Kevin sighed.
“That stunt he pulled with Sarah forced Grant to withdraw from the Mayoral race.”
“Right. Yes. I read his statement on-line.”
“That’s fine,” Rachel said, more to herself than to Kevin. “Even if Hamilton had lost the Mayoral election, that setback wouldn’t have come close to hurting him as much as he’s hurt me. I was wrong to think it would. I need something more personal.”
“Wasn’t that what you tried to do by siccing Lila on him?” Kevin prompted evenly. “Don’t tell me breaking up Chase and Doug wasn’t a part of your plan.”
Rachel looked at her son-in-law with newfound respect.
“I’ve been in the family law business a very long time, Rachel. I’ve seen it all.”
“It would have been a nice bonus,” was as far as Rachel was willing to go. “But, it’s a lost cause. Those two apparently have a pact; they believe in the other unconditionally, all outsiders be damned.”
“Sounds kind of nice, if you ask me. Amanda and I are actually trying a variation of the same thing.”
“And how is that working?” Rachel was able to rise out of her own stupor long enough to ask with genuine curiosity.
“Work in progress.”
“In any case,” she returned to her original point, hurrying now, before Amanda came back. “Driving a wedge between Hamilton and Mr. Rivera is impossible. That leaves only their children.”
“You handled both adoptions, didn’t you?”
“And both went through without a hitch?”
“My briefs don’t have hitches.”
“What if I asked you to find some?”
He blinked, at first unsure of what Rachel was asking. Then, judging by the expression on her face, understanding precisely what she was asking. “No,” Kevin said calmly.
“What if I asked you to look closely, see if there was anything you might have overlooked that would invalidate those adoptions?”
“No,” Kevin repeated, louder this time.
“Think about it, Kevin.”
“There’s nothing to think about. I can’t help you, Rachel.”
“What about your grandmother?”
“You can help her,” Rachel said. And then she asked, “Did you know that not reporting a violent crime to the police is a jailable offense?”
“What violent – “
“Spencer,” Rachel said. “He didn’t die of natural causes. He was beaten to death. But, not quite. When the thugs who kidnapped Kirkland dumped Spencer on your grandmother’s doorstep, he was still alive. She took care of him for several days, without reporting what had happened.”
“So what?” His mouth was operating ahead of his brain, a state Kevin really hated being forced into. “You can’t prove that.”
“No. But an autopsy would. Alice covered up Spencer’s death. Arranged for him not to be autopsied before burial. Exhuming the body should make that crystal clear.”
“I don’t want to,” Rachel told him honestly. “But, I didn’t want my husband and children to die, either. Chase Hamilton didn’t let that stop his vendetta. I’m not going to let my feelings stop mine. Find a way to nullify those adoptions, Kevin, or I point the police in Alice’s direction.”
“Again?” Kevin seethed, recalling the role Rachel had played in having Alice arrested on her wedding day.
“Again,” she agreed, making it clear this was no empty bluff.
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