“And what might this be?” Carl looked up from where he’d been sitting in his chair as Rachel handed him a flat rectangular box about the size of an envelope, complete with a festive ribbon on top. “It is much too early for a Christmas gift. Despite what the money-hungry retailers with their gauche bits of greenery scattered about might think.”
“Actually,” Rachel perched on the arm of the chair arm next to him. “It’s more of a New Year’s present.”
“That’s even further in the future.”
“Just open it,” Rachel suggested, her eyes dancing.
Pleased to see his wife so happy for a change, Carl dutifully did as she bade, smiling in curious anticipation. Upon seeing what was in the box, however, his expression changed to one of genuine befuddlement, followed by astonished disbelief.
“It cannot be…” he began, pulling out the sheet of paper enclosed and reading it over for the second, then third time, unwilling to accept that this wasn’t some sort of cruel joke.
“It is,” Rachel confirmed. “It’s true. I made damn sure of it.”
“The Justice Department is dropping all charges against me?”
Rachel nodded, triumphant.
Still smiling, Rachel quickly filled Carl in on the evidence incriminating Iris that Matt and Donna had unearthed in Switzerland. “Combine that with Eduardo Rivera admitting he’d been targeting you for purely personal reasons, and the Justice Department felt their case was too tainted to proceed. They have dropped all charges. With their sincere apologies for any inconvenience they may have caused.”
“Rachel!” Carl could only gasp in marvel. “You are a wonder.”
“When I need to be, yes.”
“However did you get them to listen to reason?”
“Between the NSA spying revelations and the health-care debacle, the last thing the government needs is the bad press that would come from their ruthlessly prosecuting a helpless senior citizen over a decades-old crimes with evidence compiled by one of their own agents with an axe to grind – and the woman who went to jail for shooting him. I made a few phone calls to point all that out and, what do you know? Charges dropped!”
“God Bless America!”
“It isn’t every day that you get to use the government’s own corruption against them,” she agreed, infinitely pleased with herself.
“So that’s it? I am a free man?”
“Well, there are still a few details to take care of,” Rachel hedged. “Those companies that you promised to divest yourself of years ago but didn’t… you’ll still have to get rid of them.”
“Oh. But… Well, the thing is, now is hardly the optimal time. The economy remains in shambles. I shall be lucky to get seventy-five cents on the dollar for any of them.”
“This isn’t about money, Carl,” Rachel’s eyes narrowed.
“But, it is, my darling,” he stressed, wondering how Rachel failed to see the obvious. “Now that her one bit of leverage over me has been disarmed, Iris will have no other tactic at her disposal but to come at both of us via Cory Publishing. If I am prematurely deprived of my financial resources, how will I possibly be able to help you fight her off? You might lose everything to that woman yet. Surely, under these circumstances, you understand why I cannot permit that to happen? What sort of man would I be then?”
“This is a catastrophe!” Iris exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air.
“Not necessarily,” Russ attempted to appease his wife – in vain, he suspected. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“No! It’s worse! What can we do?”
“Nothing, as far as I can see.”
“Perhaps we can leave the city, the state, maybe even the country.”
“That still won’t cancel Thanksgiving,” Russ pointed out.
“No. But, it will save us the disaster of hosting a dinner where Sarah, Grant, Marley and Dennis are forced to occupy the same room for at least several hours.”
“I can’t very well ask Sarah not to bring Grant,” Russ noted. “They’re married now.”
“And I can’t ask Dennis not to bring Marley. Though God only knows what state they currently find themselves in.”
“And then there’s Olivia…”
“Of all the things nay-sayers insisted we didn’t think through prior to our marriage, I don’t believe this particular conundrum even made the list.”
“Your son, my daughter, our mutual granddaughter and all their… assorted hangers-on do make for an unusual family gathering.”
“How can it fail to be anything short of a fiasco?”
“Well, we could rope off corners of the dining room, set up a bell and periodically send the fighters to their respective corners.”
Iris cocked her head. “Am I wrong in suspecting you of having a bit of fun at my expense?”
“Now why would I ever do that?” He asked innocently, rising to kiss her.
“Because you believe I am blowing matters out of proportion.”
“It’s just one day. Besides, they won’t be the only ones there. Alice is coming, and so are Kevin and Amanda…”
“Oh, wonderful. Another of Grant’s exes. The seating chart will just be a joy to do.”
“Let them sit where they want. Let them do what they want. Who cares? They’re our family, for better or for worse.”
“Does Olivia want us to invite Jamie?” Iris figured she’d let Russ know what it felt like to have his child be the cause of their trouble.
“She probably does.”
“And another ex for Marley!”
“Don’t worry about it. He won’t come. Jamie has made it clear he wants nothing to do with Olivia or her child.”
“That hardly sounds like Rachel’s son, the perennial Boy Scout. Goodness, it used to be that no one in this town could so much as think an offensive thought without inciting the wrath of Jamie’s self-righteousness. What a hypocrite he’s turned out to be!”
“Yes,” Russ said sadly. “It does look that way.”
“At least when it was my Dennis in such a predicament, he didn’t hesitate to do the right thing. No matter what Sarah believes in retrospect, he did try to do his very best by her. And by Olivia, as well.”
“It’s a different time,” Russ shrugged.
“I should say so. A time when one is expected, nay, compelled, to break bread with the person who broke your heart. And to act as if you’re perfectly fine with it, too.”
“In that case, maybe we should invite Rachel,” Russ offered brightly.
“Perish the thought! You may be able to forgive her for breaking your heart. But, I never will. Rachel has not suffered nearly enough for what she did to you. Or to me. Mark my words, Russ. I am far from done with that woman.”
“So that’s it?” Cass couldn’t believe what Matt and Donna were telling him. “Carl is completely in the clear?”
“It looks that way.” Frankie read over their copy of the documents Rachel had proudly shown Donna and Matt. “All charges have been dropped.”
“But what about Lorna’s kidnapping? What about the twins? They were still minors when Carl took off with them.”
“Mom says she gave Carl his permission.”
“For Elizabeth and Cory, maybe,” Cass parsed from a legal perspective. “But, she hardly had the legal right to throw Lorna into the bargain.”
“Carl insists that Lorna went willingly.” Donna’s tone made it clear what she thought of that defense. “And until she says otherwise…”
“Lorna would have to press charges,” Cass agreed.
“Lucas swears he wasn’t in on Lorna’s kidnapping, which means Carl’s story of the two of them convincing Lorna to go with him for her own protection is a crock.”
“Except it’s Carl’s word against Lucas’.”
“Have you found any evidence to the contrary?” Once again, Donna’s tone made clear what she felt about Cass and Frankie’s detective skills, too.
“Not exactly,” Cass began.
While Frankie felt free to reveal, “Steven has proof that the phone-call Rachel claims Hamilton faked was in itself a fake. She really did get a phone call from Cory about Lorna on the day she first claimed she did. And it was genuine.”
“Why would Cory…”
“I don’t know. I tried talking to him a while back, but your brother is an expert at stone-walling.”
“He comes by it honestly,” Matt said.
“So it seems like Cory is the key,” Donna guessed.
Matt snorted. “Good luck with that.”
“What about Elizabeth?” Frankie asked abruptly, prompting Cass to look at her in surprise.
“What about her?”
“She and Cory are close, aren’t they? Odds are, she knows what he knows, right?”
“Not exactly,” Matt said. “Elizabeth and Cory kind of split up along party lines. Cory leaned more towards Mom, and Elizabeth was all about Carl. We all kind of new she’d go running to him with, well, everything. If Cory wanted to keep a secret from his father, Elizabeth would not be the person he’d turn to.”
“But, it’s worth a try, isn’t it? Trying to find out what Elizabeth knows.”
“Sure. I guess. But, how are you going to do that?”
Cass and Frankie exchanged guilty looks.
“I don’t believe it,” Chase sputtered, reading every word of the letter that decreed Carl Hutchins a free man. “How can they do this? After all the work we’ve put in!”
Eduardo sighed. “Men like Carl Hutchins can always evade the law. Justice is always for sale.”
Trying to keep the conversation light, Doug reminded, “He’s wriggled off the hook before. And you’ve always found some way to get him back on. It’s only a matter of time before Hutchins pulls another unlawful stunt, and you’ll get him then. He’s hardly about to start walking the straight and narrow so late in the game. Leopards not changing spots and all that. Come on, you know this isn’t the end of the road.”
“I’m sorry,” Chase ignored Doug’s attempt to make him feel better and looked straight at Eduardo as he pled, “I am so sorry. The only thing you ever, ever asked of me, and I let you down.”
“You did no such thing,” Eduardo insisted. “Read what it says. I am the one at fault. I allowed my arrogance to tip our hand. Once Hutchins knew why we were after him, he had the ammunition to declare our entire operation illegitimate.
Chase glanced from Eduardo to Doug and back again. “I wouldn’t have anything without you. You funded my campaigns for District Attorney and for Mayor. I wouldn’t have my career without you.” His eyes settled on a framed photo of Milagros and Ike behind their heads. “I wouldn’t have my family without you. You gave me my entire life. And I promised to do this for you. I promised.”
“You did everything you could,” Eduardo reassured. “I am to blame.”
“No. I don’t buy that crap about doing your best. Doing your best means getting results. Otherwise it’s just lip service. I should have anticipated this. I should have anticipated it and I should have thought of some way to cut him off at the pass.”
“This isn’t your fault,” Doug stressed.
Chase, once again, ignored him to swear. “I’ll fix this. You have my word – I’ll fix this. I won’t let Hutchins get away with what he did to your family.”
Eduardo nodded slowly. “Neither will I.”
“Isn’t this wonderful news?” Rachel, somewhat desperately, forced even more cheer into her voice after neither her son nor her daughter managed to express what she considered should be the appropriate amount of enthusiasm over hearing that their father had been cleared of all criminal charges.
“So Father isn’t in trouble anymore?” Elizabeth double-checked. The concept seemed highly unlikely.
“That’s right. He’s innocent.”
“Actually,” Cory clarified. “All this says is that the evidence against him is inadmissible, not that it’s untrue.”
“What it means,” Rachel said. “Is that we can finally stop worrying about his being hounded into prison. He’s free.”
“Does that mean we don’t have to leave Bay City now?” Elizabeth posed the only question that currently really mattered to her.
“I’m not sure,” Rachel admitted. “Your father and I are still discussing it.”
“But, if Mr. Hamilton isn’t after him anymore – “
“There are other people. Dangerous ones.”
“More dangerous than the Justice Department?”
“Much, much more dangerous. At least here, we had the law to protect us. These other people…”
“The compound,” Cory guessed. “It always comes back to them, doesn’t it?”
“Your father did an incredibly brave thing, standing against them and helping to arrest the people responsible. It was inevitable that there’d be repercussions.”
“So why did you do it, then? Why didn’t you just leave well enough alone?” Elizabeth asked.
“Because it was the right thing to do. Because your father is a very brave, very honorable man, and he felt obligated to bring down these terrible people. No matter what the risk.”
“Father didn’t face any risk,” Cory said. “Mr. Harrison did. Father got away scot-free.”
“Because your father isn’t a fool. Because he took precautions to make sure that his family was protected, the way he always does.”
“What about Kirkland? How come he didn’t make sure Kirkland was protected?”
“That was Mr. Harrison’s job, not Carl’s!” Rachel snapped, before realizing they had gone completely off-tangent. She collected herself enough to assure, “And your father will continue seeing to your safety, no matter what. That’s why we’re still deciding whether or not to stay in Bay City. We have to examine what the consequences will be following the latest development.”
“Well, I vote to stay,” Elizabeth said.
“I don’t think Mom was looking for consensus,” Cory offered.
“I know you want to stay, darling,” Rachel focused on her daughter, since her son seemed determined to be contrary, no matter. “And I understand why, too.”
“In fact, I’ve been thinking. To celebrate our family’s good fortune, how would you feel about inviting Charlie and her parents to Thanksgiving dinner?”
Elizabeth’s skin flashed from red to white in the space of an instant. “W-What?”
“I thought it would be nice. A show of support for you girls – I’m sorry, young women. You’re both young women, old enough to know your own minds. I just wanted to prove to you how… on board… I am with… everything.”
“I thought you and Father were mad at Charlie’s parents because they were investigating him.”
“That was before. There is nothing left to investigate. It’s time to let bygones be bygones. And what better time to do that than at Thanksgiving? What do you say, Elizabeth? Should we invite your girlfriend’s family to dinner?”
“Livia!” Devon and Zee took turns shouting over each other as they barreled down the stairs, past Lorna and Jamie, and into Olivia’s arms. “You’re back! You’re back!”
“I’m back,” she agreed, hugging each girl with one arm, looking up only briefly to make sure Jamie and Lorna were registering just how happy their children were to see her. “And I missed you both so much.”
“Where you go?” Zee wanted to know. Which, by Lorna’s count, was more words than her daughter had yet to say in Lorna’s direction.
“I didn’t want to go,” Olivia reassured. Which, Lorna also noted, was not the question she’d been asked. Olivia took Devon by one hand and Zee by the other, walking further into the living room. “So tell me everything that’s happened since I’ve been gone.”
Devon looked over her shoulder, surveyed Lorna and announced flatly, “Mama.” The fact that, in that moment, she looked exactly like Lorna, attitude and all, only made the entire situation more surreal. And ironic.
“Yes,” Olivia said. “I heard that your mama was back. Isn’t that nice?”
Devon offered a noncommittal shrug in return.
Olivia smiled apologetically at Lorna. Lorna figured a glower was an equally adequate response.
She was in the process of making it really count, when Olivia unexpectedly wavered, then crumpled to the ground.
Only Jamie’s quick thinking, lurching forward across the room to catch her, kept Olivia from hitting her head on the ground.
He maneuvered his arms under Olivia’s shoulders and redirected her towards the couch, lowering her gently into a sitting position, raising her legs and propping them up on the coffee table directly across from it.
“Olivia?” Jamie placed two fingers at the base of her throat, checking for a pulse. Finding it normal, he tapped her shoulder gently. “Can you hear me, Olivia?”
When she didn’t respond, Jamie opened her mouth, making sure that Olivia’s airway was clear. He looked up at Lorna and asked, “Can you get her a glass of water?”
Lorna nodded and turned towards the kitchen.
Jamie tried tapping Olivia’s shoulder again. “Olivia?”
This time, she stirred, a small moan escaping her throat as she groggily opened her eyes and looked around. “Jamie?”
“Yes. I’m right here.”
“You falled down,” Devon offered helpfully, patting Olivia’s hand reassuringly.
“It’s happened before?”
“Constantly.” Olivia attempted to rouse herself, but Jamie gestured for her to keep sitting. “It’s getting so I’m afraid to drive. What if it happens while I’m behind the wheel?”
“Did you drive here?” Jamie asked.
She nodded guiltily. “I really wanted to see the girls. And what choice do I have? My apartment is way out in the middle of nowhere. Even getting to the store…”
“There’s public transportation,” Jamie reminded.
“The bus fumes makes me gag,” she winced apologetically.
“Call a car service.”
Jamie’s lips set into a straight line. “Send me the bill.”
“It’s just getting harder and harder,” she lamented, tucking a concerned Devon under one arm, holding her other one out to Mackenzie. “I’m so exhausted all of the time, I can barely keep my eyes open. I fell asleep last night while cooking dinner, it’s amazing I didn’t burn the whole building down.”
“Order in,” Jamie said.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep working,” she went on. “I’ve got to admit, this is nothing like last time. I guess twenty years really makes a difference.”
“Have you been taking your vitamins?”
“No,” she confessed. “They just make things worse. I can hardly get those horse-pills down, and all they do is make me even sicker. Even water is a struggle. Listen, Jamie,” Olivia began just as Lorna returned from the kitchen. “I hate to ask this of you, but do you think maybe I could move in here with you all for a while?”
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