And I know that I deserve your love
There’s nothing I’m not worthy of
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
This is brave, this is bruised
This is who I’m meant to be, this is me
– This is Me (Reimagined), Keala Settle, Missy Elliot and Kesha
Friday. August 13, 2004
Isola dei Cappuccini near Sardinia, Italy
The sun glinted off the Tyrrhenian Sea, making it shine like diamonds. Isola dei Cappuccini was little more than a hunk of rock five miles off the northern coast of Sardinia. It had once been home to a monastery that had been abandoned centuries earlier. Now, it belonged to a wealthy member of the Sicilian mafia, Dominic Caruso and rumored to be a cemetery for any man, woman, or even child who crossed the lethal man.
At the moment, it served as a hiding place for Dominic’s goddaughter who had sought refuge in the small bungalow on the coast, the one proper beach front area on the entire island.
Claudia Zacchara had always prided herself on her pragmatism. She’d waited all her adult life to maneuver herself into her father’s organization, to eliminate the lunatic, and take over. To take the power for herself.
The alliance with Ric Lansing had wasted the most time, but it hadn’t been her first failure, and it might not be the last.
Claudia sighed and leaned back against the lounge chair, sliding one arm above her head, trying to remember how long she’d been out here. The sun felt glorious against her skin, as it had for all the weeks she’d been in hiding.
Johnny had been a disappointment. Claudia hadn’t counted on him risking the silly blonde — she’d make him pay for that, eventually. She’d never hurt her baby brother — it was hardly his fault he was weak. No, she’d make the blonde nurse pay for his crimes and he’d learn a valuable lesson about crossing her.
A few more months to lay low, let the trail grow even colder, and she’d reach out to others in the syndicate. Claudia had heard rumors that Philly was unhappy with the new status quo, and there was always the fun of unleashing her old friend, Javi, and his little brother.
Her lips curved into a wicked smirk at the thought of Javier and Manny Ruiz running wild on the streets of Port Charles. She’d saved them, only dipping in here and there. When you had a weapon like them in your back pocket, you didn’t pull them out for just anyone.
Towards the end, Claudia had realized that Ric’s obsession with making that stupid little waif pay for her imagined crimes would end in disaster. Pity. He’d been decent in bed, and that was always hard to find. It certainly was a shame that Jason Morgan was a married man and actually believed in loyalty and fidelity. An absolute waste of a beautiful, well-built man.
No, the Ruiz brothers would be perfect for her next grab for power, and this time, when the dust settled, Claudia would reign above them all—
She was dead before she finished the thought, a small circle appearing in her forehead, a slight trickle of blood sliding down the bridge of her nose, disappearing beneath the sunglasses.
She hadn’t heard the quiet footprints in the sand and luckily for him, she’d been too arrogant to hire security to patrol the island or the house where the only visitor was a housekeeper who took the boat from Sardinia weekly. The woman, Marina, had visited the day before. No one would find the body for another week.
He’d been very careful and had planned this moment down to the smallest detail. He’d searched for this final loose end since the day she’d kidnapped his wife and his best friend, delivering them to the man who had haunted their nightmares for nearly a year.
And still did, even months after that terrible day. Some problems couldn’t be fixed with a bullet in the brain.
Jason Morgan waited until Claudia Zacchara’s chest stopped rising, then felt for a pulse. Finally, he shot her one more time in the head. After Ric Lansing had returned from the dead, it was better to be safe than sorry. He left the way he’d arrived, traipsing back up the beach to the quiet house, down to the dock and the boat he’d left tied up. He started the engine.
He had an appointment to keep.
Villa Stella Marina: Private Beach
Fifty miles away from Isola del Cappuccini, Elizabeth cuddled her infant son closer to her chest. They were tucked safely under the shade of the cabana that opened to the wide, beautiful ocean. Cameron was five months old as of the week before, though his adjusted age was only three months. She looked forward to the day when she didn’t have to do that math—to subtract time from her little boy’s life because he’d spent all those weeks in the NICU.
But that was still months away, and she was going to enjoy the precious time she had with him. He could be out in the sun for maybe an hour a day, less if they were in direct sunlight, and she wanted to enjoy every minute.
“Daddy had to take care of a little business,” she said, stroking his back as the infant dozed in the sun. “But he’ll be back soon. Maybe tomorrow, we can convince him to take us out on the boat. Just for a little while.”
And even if they couldn’t this trip, Jason promised they’d be back. Maybe not to Sardinia, but Italy was going to be their place. Their escape.
“There you are.”
Elizabeth turned at the sound of his voice and beamed. “You’re back early. I thought you said it might take the rest of the day.”
“Got lucky.” Jason perched on the end of the lounge chair, smiling at Cameron who slept on. “He’s not even awake to enjoy the sun.”
“No, but I am, and that’s enough.” She sighed happily, then took a deep breath. She’d never take that simple motion for granted again — since her surgery in June, her health had bounced back, and she felt better today than she had in more than a year.
“There’s room,” Elizabeth said, wiggling to the side, then sitting up and scooting forward. “You wanna sit with us?” Jason climbed behind her, then tucked them both against his chest. “I could sit like this forever,” she said, laying her head back.
“But he can’t,” Elizabeth said with a sigh. “We’ve got maybe twenty minutes until he needs to go in.”
“We’ll put him down for another nap later,” Jason told her, looping his arms around her waist. “And come back out. We’ve got the monitor,” he added.
“Mmm, sounds like a plan.” She closed her eyes, resting her cheek against his heart, listening to it beat. He liked to watch her sleep, to check her breathing, even now, she knew that, but she liked to lay like this and feel his warmth, strength surrounding her, feeling the beating of his heart. “No trouble?” she asked softly.
“None. In and out.” He kissed the side of her head. “It’s over. That’s the last of it.”
“Good.” Elizabeth exhaled slowly. “Good.”
Monday, January 31, 2005
Port Charles Hotel: Lobby
“I feel like I’m running a thousand marathons today,” Elizabeth complained as she crossed the lobby to meet Carly at the desk. “I’m sorry I’m late. I had to pick something up from a professor, and then the support meeting ran late—” She made a face, looked at her watch. “I’ve still got to pick up dinner from Eli’s—”
“Only you,” Carly said with a roll of her eyes, “would eat Eli’s on your wedding anniversary. Thanks for meeting me here. I just wanted a second opinion on something before I sign the contract.” She folded her arms as they went down the hallway towards the conference rooms and event spaces. “It is absolutely insane that I’m opening a club in this hotel. I’m working with the Quartermaines.”
“Well, it seems like a good way to keep business from being siphoned off to 101 or the Cellar and keep diners from the restaurant in the building—” They stopped outside one of the ballrooms, and Elizabeth smiled wistfully at the space across the hall where they’d posed for their wedding photos. A year ago. It seemed like yesterday — and a million years all at the same time. “I don’t know what opinion you want from me, but—”
“Well, actually—” Carly tipped her head. “That was a lie.”
Elizabeth frowned. “What?”
“I lied to you. Felt good, actually. I haven’t done a lot of it in the last year,” Carly continued. “Haven’t need to, I guess. But it’s good to know I’ve still got it.” She smiled. “It’s January 31. Your anniversary.”
“Uh, yeah. I know. You’re baby-sitting for us tonight—” Elizabeth stopped, then looked at the room where they’d stopped. Then looked back at Carly. “What’s going on?”
Carly went across the hall, opened the door, and went inside. A moment later, she emerged with a garment bag. “It’s not the exact same one,” she continued, “because you know, you’re not pregnant anymore. But Emily and I found the designer who—”
“After the panic room, Jason made me a promise. That he would find a way for me to be okay again. He kept that promise. He kept it for the both of us, even when it was hard. Even when it cost him, and it would have been easier not to. I’m okay. It took me a long time to get here. I can’t get the life I had back. There’s so much Ric stole from both of us that’s just gone. But there’s one thing—” She paused. “There’s one thing he had a part in ruining that we get to fix today. If you’re up for it. And Jason said he made you a promise about today. He didn’t forget.”
Carly gestured towards the door where she’d hidden the dress. “So, if you want, we’ll get you changed, and you can go find out what else Jason has planned for you today.”
Elizabeth exhaled slowly, looked down at the garment bag. She’d asked Jason if they could dance on their anniversary to the song she’d picked for them. She’d planned it all for home — a light, easy night with a ride on the cliffs, ribs from Eli’s, and a dance in their living room.
She had a feeling that something else waited behind those doors. Something better.
Port Charles Hotel: Renaissance Room
Jason felt a little like an idiot as he waited in the middle of the ball room, not far from the table where dinner waited. He was dressed in the tuxedo he’d worn at the wedding, and the room looked exactly like it had a year earlier, thanks to Emily and the wedding planner who’d kept all their notes.
But last year it had been filled with people, and now Jason was just waiting in an empty room all by himself, having second thoughts. Maybe he should have asked for Bobbie to come. To walk her in or something. Or maybe Elizabeth didn’t feel like doing this. She’d been working so hard since the semester had started, and Cameron was getting bigger, and he was crawling now. He’d nearly caught up developmentally—only a month behind. She’d left the penthouse so early that morning—
The door to the hallway opened, and Jason’s thoughts skittered to a stop as Carly stepped in. “Hey. You look great.” She met him halfway, adjusted the tie on his tux. “We did this at a different wedding,” she murmured, smiling up at him. “Standing outside the church. I fixed your tie, straightened your jacket. And then you went inside.”
“And then I got your wedding canceled in a very dramatic fashion,” she continued. “I’m not saying I wanted to get kidnapped, but we do find our silver linings wherever we can.” Carly met his eyes. “I’m so glad that I get to help this time. That I get to make this happen for you. And I get to make it a little better.”
“Better?” Jason frowned.
“You didn’t think I’d let you do this all on your own, did you?” she smiled. She went back over to the door, opened it, and Elizabeth stepped into view—wearing the same dress as last year—Carly must have done something, because Jason knew the one hanging in their closet wouldn’t have fit Elizabeth.
And next to her, Bobbie stood, her arm looped through Elizabeth’s side. “You didn’t think I’d miss this part of the tradition, did you?” Bobbie asked. She handed Elizabeth the bouquet in her arms. “You didn’t get to do this last year. Carly and I nearly threw an entire party to make up for it—” Jason winced, and Bobbie laughed. “But maybe we’ll save that. So, go ahead and toss it.”
Elizabeth grinned, closed her eyes, and then heaved the bouquet over her head—where it smacked Bobbie in the chest. Carly had ducked out of the way. “I guess you’re next,” she teased the redhead who had been more of a mother to her than her own.
“Better warn Scott,” Carly quipped. Bobbie scowled at them both, then gave the bouquet to her daughter. She took Elizabeth’s hand and walked her across the ballroom to Jason.
“It’s been a wonderful year watching the two of you start your family,” Bobbie told them. “Thank you for letting me be a part of it. Have a wonderful night. You know that Cameron is safe with me.”
“Always.” Elizabeth hugged her, and Jason kissed her cheek. Carly and Bobbie left, closing the door behind them. She grinned at him, then turned in her dress, the soft, floaty fabric of her skirt lifting in the air. “I can’t believe you thought of this—”
“I didn’t,” Jason admitted, taking her by the hand and drawing her in for a kiss. “Carly must have. I asked her to buy you something nice.”
“Oh.” Her eyes filled. “I mean she said she and Emily—I just—” She looked around the room. “But you did this part. It looks like it did that day. And there’s no one else here. Just the way you like it.”
“You know me so well,” he murmured, kissing her again. “I owe you a dance.” He went over to the table and pressed a button. Somewhere, music started to float out of the speakers, and her tears spilled over. “Emily told me the song you wanted.”
For all those times you stood by me
For all the truth that you made me see
Jason held out his hand. She took it, then he drew her against him, holding their joined hands against his chest. “I hope you didn’t have any other plans for tonight,” he said. “I’m not messing anything up, am I?”
You were my strength when I was weak
“Absolutely not.” They gently swayed as the music swelled around them. “We can do my plans any time. This is much better.”
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak
He raised his brows. “Really? I don’t believe that.”
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see
You saw the best there was in me
“Just a ride, some ribs at Eli’s, and this song sitting in our CD player at home.” Elizabeth smiled up at him. “This is perfect. Even better than it would have been last year.”
I lost my faith, you gave it back to me
You said no star was out of reach
“Well, yeah, no one else is here.”
You stood by me and I stood tall
I had your love, I had it all
She laughed, long and deep, her eyes sparkling. “No, because I’m not tired and pregnant. My feet aren’t swollen, and I can take deep breaths.” Elizabeth leaned up, brushed her mouth against his. “We didn’t get our wedding night, but I think we can have our anniversary night.”
Through the lies you were the truth
My world is a better place because of you
She’d left her hair down, loose around her shoulders, exactly the way he liked it. He slid his fingers through the soft curls, then cupped her face, sweeping his thumbs across her cheeks. A year ago, he’d been too scared to think about what would happen next—that the promise he’d made her couldn’t be kept.
And now she stood before him, in his arms, more beautiful than any day before. “How did I get so lucky?” he murmured, more to himself than to her, and Elizabeth smiled.
I’m everything I am
“You picked the right night to go to Jake’s. I didn’t even know what I was looking for until I found you. And now neither of us ever have to remember what nothing feels like. I have everything I want.”
“We both do.”
Because you loved me
THE END FOR REAL AND FOREVER
(UNLESS I HAVE A REALLY GOOD IDEA FOR A BOOK 5)
A long time ago, practically in another life, Ric married Alexis. I sat at home wondering what would happen if Elizabeth had walked in on him marrying another woman with their divorce barely finalized. That was November 2004, and I was still a pantser. I wrote that scene and then continued writing about other characters, and without really thinking about it, I added a scene between Brooke Lynn and Diego. Brooke’s sexual assault is the only real thread that ties the original Mad World from the Fiction Graveyard to this series, but without that scene added randomly when I was 20, I wouldn’t have written these books.
Mad World was only ever supposed to be one book — a story about a serial rapist set in the aftermath of the panic room. It continued to grow until it was four books, more than a hundred chapters, and over half a million words in length. These were the first books I wrote where I completed the entire story before posting, something I’ve always wanted to do because it allowed me to really edit, add, or cut scenes.
In Book 2, at the end, Dante visits Vinnie in jail — that scene wasn’t in the original draft (I wrote the entire book completely forgetting Vinnie and Dante were cousins because I only used it as a story excuse for Dante being in Port Charles!). But without that scene, Dante’s story in the next two books doesn’t exist. The majority of Book 3 wasn’t planned — but now I can’t imagine the series without those chapters, without really exploring the aftermath of the serial rapist.
I’m incredibly proud of this insane series, and I want to thank you guys for going on the journey with me and for falling in love with characters who weren’t Jason and Elizabeth. It meant a lot to me. If you get to the end of the book, I hope you’ll give me a quick reply. I’d love to hear what your favorite part was.
It’s time to close the book on this mad, mad, mad world.