“Sorry we’re late,” Kirkland, arms loaded down with brightly-wrapped holiday packages, shook his head to dislodge the snow from his hair as he, Sarah and Daisy made their way from the car into Lorna and Jamie’s house. “Grant stopped by to open presents first thing this morning.”
“More presents!” Daisy shrieked, rushing toward the tree where Lorna, Devon and Mackenzie sat next to Cass, Frankie, Lori Ann, Felicia and Lucas. On a laptop set up adjacent to the festivities were a sleepy Steven and Jen on Skype, reminding that it was two hours earlier in California, and sipping mugs of coffee.
Kirkland handed their gifts off to Sarah, who shrugged apologetically and followed her overly excited daughter to where the action was, while Kirkland and Jamie hung back, standing close enough to see everything, but far enough to keep from being overheard.
“So,” Jamie ventured. “Everything is… okay, between you and Grant?”
“As okay as anything with Grant ever can be. He claims he won’t stand in the way of Sarah and I.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, you know the drill.”
“You think you’re up for it?”
“Dealing with Grant?”
“All of it. Dealing with Grant, taking on a ready-made family….”
“Which also happens to include Grant’s kid?”
Jamie winced in sympathy with his son. “I do have a passing familiarity with the subject.”
Kirkland said, “If I can do half the awesome job that you did… Wait, sorry, that sounds like I think I’m awesome. What I meant was – “
“I know what you meant. And, for the record, you are awesome.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to you,” Jamie emphasized the last word. “I just held down the fort, and made sure you ate a vegetable once in a while.”
“You also bailed me out every time I screwed up, without making me feel like a loser – or like I was free to do it again.”
“That’s what dads are for.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think Grant got the memo.”
“Whatever he might have up his sleeve, I’m sure you’re more than up to the challenge.”
“It just hasn’t sunk in yet, you know? I’ve had feelings for Sarah for so long, and I just kept them to myself because I never thought she could… But, she does, Dad. She loves me.”
“Can’t blame the girl. You’re pretty damn loveable.”
“And I want to do right by Daisy, too. I want her to know that Grant is her real dad, but that if he ever, like, decides to play dead or something for another decade, she can count on me. The way that I could always count on you.”
“Daddy!” Devon shrieked from underneath the tree, holding up a plastic, mock doctor’s kit, complete with pint-sized stethoscope and oversized thermometer. “Look! Look! Look!”
“No, look at me!” Zee thrust both arms up in the air, each adorned with an animal puppet from her brand new theater.
“I got spectacular jewelry,” Daisy announced, slipping beaded necklace after beaded necklace over her head, while Lori Ann swung a stuffed pony back and forth by one leg, barely missing the ornaments with each sweep.
“We’re outnumbered here,” Cass called to Jamie and Kirkland, beckoning them forward. “Reinforcements, please.”
“Can you believe it?” Lucas ducked the flying pony and leaned over to whisper in Felicia’s ear. “Our granddaughters.”
“Spirited bunch, aren’t they?” Felicia observed. “They’ve even managed to put Iris’ great-granddaughter to shame. I didn’t think that was possible.”
“Just like their grandmother.”
“You’ve never exactly been a nervous Nellie yourself, Grandpa.” Felicia playfully elbowed Lucas in the ribs.
“I am about some things.”
“Like what?” she challenged.
“Like asking you if you’d consider giving the two of us another chance?”
Felicia cocked her head to the side, eyes narrowed. “What’s this, a set up?”
“Set ups are kind of my stock-in-trade,” he reminded.
“You didn’t think I’d be able to say no, did you? With all the children around?”
“I at least hoped you wouldn’t be able to swear.”
“Don’t count on it. I’ll swear if I want to.”
“I’d never dream of standing in your way. About anything.”
“I swear,” Felicia began. “That you are the most stubborn, exasperating, frustrating man I have even known.”
“Sworn and duly noted.”
“And that I have never, in my life, loved anyone more.”
“Kiss her!” Lori Ann, the only one who’d been watching them closely, commanded, prompting everyone else in the room to turn Lucas and Felicia’s way.
Felicia considered the order, then graciously conceded, “I could never deprive my loyal fans of a happy ending.”
“Is my mom here?” Allie wondered, standing outside Morgan’s apartment door.
He nodded and let Amanda’s daughter in, discreetly fading out of the room so that the two of them could speak in private.
“Merry Christmas,” Amanda offered, as always with Allie, not sure what she was in for.
“Are you going to Grandma’s later?” Allie wanted to know.
“Maybe. I heard Charlie is living there now. I guess little things like her trying to kill me don’t matter now that she’s pregnant with a Hutchins heir.”
“Carl tried to kidnap me, destroy my father, and kill my aunt Nancy. But, you know, bygones. Join the club,” Amanda smiled ruefully and gestured for her daughter to take a seat. “It’s good to see you.”
“You seem happy,” Allie observed. “With Morgan.”
“I am. He… gets me. He isn’t trying to turn me into someone else or haranguing me into changing my behavior to meet his very specific standards. He accepts me for who I am. I didn’t even realize how badly I needed it, until Morgan just laid it all out.”
“I thought it was the same with Zeno and me. He didn’t judge me or push me or tell me what to do or how to feel.”
“You thought?” Amanda noticed the past tense.
“Zeno doesn’t think I love him. He says he thinks I want to love him, but I don’t, not really.”
Amanda hesitated, admitting, “I – I got that sense from you, too.”
“Jesus, Mom! What do I have to do to convince everyone?”
“If you really loved Zeno, you wouldn’t care what the rest of us thought.”
“He’s a great guy. He treats me better than anyone ever has. Well, except for Gregory.”
“Did you love Gregory?” Amanda asked gently. “Or were you grateful for everything he did for you? And, afterwards, were you grateful for the chance to get lost in his problems, rather than facing your own?”
“I loved him,” Allie insisted stubbornly. “And I love Zeno. Maybe not the way they want me to, but – “
“Who gives a damn about what they want?” Amanda interrupted, flush with her own epiphany. “What do you want, Allie?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I used to think I knew. I thought I wanted GQ. I wanted him
more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. But then it was all such a disaster. I don’t ever want to go through something like that again.”
“Do you still love him?”
“No,” she said firmly. “That’s why I slept with him a couple of months back. I know how dumb that sounds, but that really was one of the reasons. I wanted to see if there was anything still there. There wasn’t. I wasn’t even angry anymore. I was just… tired.”
“You’ve been through so much over the past few years. GQ and Hudson and Gregory and Zeno. Maybe what you need more than anything is to take a break, a step back, and think about what really makes you happy, instead of what you think should be making you happy.”
“Is that what you did?” Allie wanted to know. “When you married Dad and had me? Were you doing what you thought should be making you happy, instead of what you wanted?”
“I was pregnant. I was in love. Marriage and family should have been the logical, next step.”
“But it wasn’t.”
“Sam and I were both too young. We didn’t know who we really were yet, so how could we possibly know whom we wanted to be with? Maybe if everything had happened ten years later, we might have made it. And we might have given you a better home. Better parents.”
“It’s why I gave Hudson away.”
“You did the right thing. The brave thing.”
“I was brave for him. I was brave for Gregory. I wish I could be brave for me, now.”
“I’ll help you,” Amanda spontaneously reached her arm forward, grabbing Allie’s hand and squeezing tightly. “I’ll help you, and you’ll help me.”
“Help each other do what?”
Amanda sighed and tried her best to sound hopeful. “Grow up.”
“Thank you for inviting me to share the holiday with your family,” Alice told Doug, Milagros and Ike as Eduardo walked her to the door following their Christmas lunch.
“You’re welcome here anytime,” Doug told her graciously, even as he was forced to turn away
abruptly and deal with Ike’s attempt to ride his new scooter down the stairs.
“He’s got his hands full,” Alice struggled to suppress her smile, so as not to encourage the boy. Not that Doug was doing too good of a job with that, either.
“He did not expect to be doing it alone.”
“I know exactly how he feels, unfortunately. My husband Steve and I planned to adopt our daughter, Sally, together. But he was injured in a helicopter crash and was missing for years. I had to do it all on my own.”
“I shall advise Douglas to turn to you for guidance.”
“I’m not certain I’d be of any use but, yes, of course, whatever he needs.”
Eduardo awkwardly changed the subject, making it clear he’d meant to do it all along, but hadn’t found the perfect time yet. “Cass Winthrop informed me that he advised you regarding the situation with Zeno Tantalus.”
“And did he also inform you that I told him it was none of my business?”
“He did. He said you defended me.”
“I merely said I was sure you had your reasons for keeping your relationship to Zeno a secret, and that I certainly took no offense to being kept in the dark..”
“You’ve placed a great deal of faith in me. It is my intention to never let you down.”
“Never is a very long time,” Alice mused.
“A long time,” Eduardo confessed. “Is precisely what I am hoping for, with you.”
“Amanda! Allie!” Rachel looked from one to the other as both seemingly appeared out of nowhere on the other side of her tree. “You came. I – I wasn’t expecting….”
“Merry Christmas, Mom.”
“Merry Christmas, Grandma.”
“I – Thank you,” Rachel stammered, rising to her feet to kiss each of her girls in turn.
Amanda moved to hug Jasmine, making sure her arms were busy and thus under no obligation when she bobbed her head, “Merry Christmas, Lila.”
Amanda then went on to hug Elizabeth and Cory, leaving Allie to greet Jasmine and give Charlie the cold shoulder in much the same way her mother had dismissed Lila.
The phone rang. Rachel moved to pick it up, wondering who it could be as Matt had already called earlier to offer his and Donna’s season’s greetings.
“I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas.” Rachel was startled by Jamie’s voice on the other end, sounding as smug and patronizing as always. Rachel only wondered why it had taken her so long to recognize what a prig her oldest son was.
“I don’t need your condescension, Jamie,” Rachel told him stiffly. “Or your pity.”
“I wasn’t…” he began, then gave up mid-sentence. “Never mind.”
“Are you having a good time where you are?”
“Yes. The girls had a very nice Christmas, thank you.”
“With Cass and Frankie there?”
“We thought it would be fun for the cousins to celebrate the holiday together.”
Rachel all but rolled her eyes. “I can just imagine all the scheming going on. You and Lorna working tag-team to convince Cass and Frankie that they shouldn’t let Charlie’s baby anywhere near me. After all, I carry the taint of Carl!” Rachel looked over her shoulder to make sure Amanda couldn’t hear, then added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Amanda weren’t already working on Morgan to convince him of pushing the same agenda.”
“Actually, Mom,” Jamie almost sound sorry to be telling her this, “The subject never came up. We were too busy celebrating the day, and oh! there’s more good news – Felicia and Lucas
are back together.”
“Is that a fact? May I assume that you will now be forbidding Felicia from having any contact with your children, either? After all, Lucas and Carl were in cahoots once. Or does he qualify for the same dispensation of past sins as St. Spencer?”
Another pause. “I’m sorry I’ve upset you. I didn’t mean to.”
“You’ve upset me, Jamie, but it didn’t happen this morning. There is nothing more you could possibly do to upset me ever again.”
“I love you, Mom,” Jamie said. “Take care of yourself,” before gingerly hanging up the phone.
Elizabeth, who’d been trying to listen in without making it look like she was listening in, now moved hurriedly away from Rachel, settling on the couch next to Charlie, who had just unwrapped a tiny bib, decorated with a rather menacing looking crest.
“That’s the Hutchins family coat of arms,” Elizabeth explained.
“I know. Your mother told me.”
Unsure how to read Charlie’s mood, Elizabeth pressed, “So it’s all set, then? Mom is going to take the baby off your hands once it’s born?”
“She seems to be the only one who wants it, so far.”
“But that’s perfect! It’s just what we were hoping for! You’re not stuck with a whiny kid, Mom takes care of all your money problems from now till forever, and you and me are free to do whatever we want.”
“You and me?”
“Yes. It’s all worked out. I told you to leave it to me, I’d take care of everything.”
“So this was your plan all along?”
“Yeah. Isn’t it great?”
“Is this your way of making sure we never break up? Making me totally dependant on you and your mom’s money?” “Of all the… I was trying to help you! You didn’t want a kid, and you didn’t want to live with your parents anymore. I killed two birds with one stone here.”
“But you still didn’t answer my question.”
“I should think you’d be grateful to me for setting all this up.”
“So grateful that I do whatever you say?”
“Why are you getting angry? I’m the one who should be angry. You cheated on me! With my brother! I could have just dumped you on the spot, left you to figure all this out on your own. But I didn’t!”
“Why not?” Charlie repeated, more insistent this time.
Only for Cory to suddenly step up and ask, “Charlie? Can I talk to you for a minute?” He looked apologetically at Elizabeth and asked, “Alone?”
Christmas was over for Matt and Donna. With Europe’s earlier time-zone, they’d made their phone calls, Matt to Jasmine, Donna to Marley, Bridget and Michele, as well as to Kirkland and Steven. They hadn’t exchanged gifts beyond a kiss. It seemed too awkward under the circumstances. Even the kiss had felt a bit… off.
Neither Donna nor Matt acknowledged the fact that they hadn’t made love since coming to Romania. Though, to be fair, their accommodations left much to be desired in the romance department.
In any case, they had a big day planned, and both were eager to get going – and get it over-with.
A visit to a local police station, complete with a hefty bribe, had identified the exact address behind Michael in the photo.
Now Donna and Matt stood at the front door, staring in befuddlement at the list of names posted beside each buzzer.
If they’d been hoping for “Michael Hudson,” they were sorely disappointed.
And nothing else looked familiar. “We could just press them all,” Matt offered, game for anything by this point.
“And end up back at the police station for disturbing the peace or whatnot? No, thank you. If we’re staying in their version of a 5-star hotel, can you imagine what their jails must be like?”
“Can you recognize any of his aliases, then?”
“Well, he was Michael Garrison when we first met. But then the government botched up his name during the Vietnam war, and he was always resentful of his father, so he went by his middle….”
Matt read the listing again. “No Michael Garrison, either.”
“I should guess he had a whole slew of fake names whilst engaged in his cloak-and-dagger work, but I’m sure I don’t know – “
“Donna?” Matt interrupted.
“What does ‘amat’ mean in Latin?”
“He loves,” Donna answered instinctively, happy to hear that not all of her very expensive and useless education had been wasted.
“That’s just the infinite of the word love. Why are we suddenly – “
Mutely, Matt pointed at a name from the sixth floor: Amat Amare.
“He loves…” Matt translated.
“Love,” Donna finished for him. She shook her head. “A coincidence, I am sure.”
“There’s only way to find out,” Matt said and, before she could stop him, pressed the buzzer.
They waited for a voice over the intercom system.
They got nothing.
Matt and Donna were about to turn away, planning to come back another time.
When the door hissed that they’d been granted admittance.
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