Chelsea Ray turned off the main path down one that twisted and curled around the PCU campus, leading towards her dorm. She’d only just moved into Lewis Hall the week before, and was still negotiating with her new roommate what went where, and what, if any, shared space they’d enjoy. Georgie Jones seemed pretty nice, so maybe it would be great freshman year after all.
Chelsea heard a branch break behind her, so she stopped to look. Maybe someone had left the party and was on their way back. Maybe it was Gavin, the dreamy sophomore she’d met when they’d moved in. She was almost sure he’d sent the small bouquet of lilies and daisies she’d found outside her dorm—
But there was no one behind her, so she shrugged and turned back towards the dorm. She was only ten feet away from the door when a hand wrapped around her upper arm and yanked her off the path.
She never even had the chance to scream.
The house on Lexington Street was practically overflowing with boxes. Emily Bowen-Quartermaine could scarcely find the newspaper between stacks on the porch, and then almost tripped over another one in the landing when she came in.
“Sorry—” Elizabeth Spencer lifted her four-month-old son into her arms and navigated around another stack. “I meant to grab that one—”
“That’s okay,” Emily said with a shrug. “You nearly died tripping over mine upstairs last night.” She glanced around the room with a sigh. “Where did we get so much stuff?”
“I’m not sure,” Elizabeth admitted. She swayed a bit, lulling the dozing infant into deeper sleep. “I think, between cleaning out my grandmother’s house, your parents deciding you couldn’t move out without taking everything you everything owned, and the boys—”
“We’re going to unpacking when our bones are dust in the ground.” Emily shoved another stack aside and unfolded the paper. “Well, the trial is finally off the front pages,” she said, holding it up so Elizabeth could see.
Elizabeth squinted, then her eyes widened. “Oh my God—”
“Yeah, I think I should have been more specific when I asked the universe to give you and my brother a break—” Emily scanned the headline again. MURDER SHOCKS PCU CAMPUS; NO LEADS. “The poor girl, and her family—can you imagine? She manages to survive her entire life in New York City, comes to PCU—”
Elizabeth clutched her son more tightly against her, pressing her cheek to his soft blond hair, and Emily wanted to kick herself. Only a few terrible months ago, baby Jake had been kidnapped, and Elizabeth had been devastated. “Sorry—”
“It’s okay.” Elizabeth exhaled slowly, then went to set Jake into the bassinet in the corner. She went to answer the ringing phone and Emily tossed aside the paper and picked up the box she’d tripped on. Best to start with the boxes that might end up killing them. As she unwrapped some knick knacks Elizabeth had inherited from her grandmother when Audrey Hardy had passed away that summer, she half listened to Elizabeth on the phone.
“Yeah, I mean, I expected it, Diane. No—” Elizabeth sighed. “No, I don’t want to go that route yet. I’m hoping when things settle—okay. Okay. Yeah, I’ll find out and let you know. Thanks.” She set the cordless back in the base and joined Emily at the table.
“Everything okay?” Emily asked.
“Yeah. I guess.” Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “We have a mediation meeting at the end of the week—to figure out where we are on the divorce and custody. I filed after he told me about Sam—” She looked at Emily. “I mean, I was going to after the trial anyway, but—”
“I hope Ric Lansing gets stabbed by a rusty nail,” Emily muttered. “He had no right to ask those questions—”
“Bias,” Elizabeth reminded her with a half shrug. “He needed to impeach my testimony and make it look like I’d lie for Jason. Diane warned me.”
“It really is fine. It’s better this way,” Elizabeth added. “Lucky and I were just hurting each other. We never should have remarried—this entire last year—ever since I found him with Maxie—” She removed a photo frame of her grandparents from its packing paper, then traced her fingers over her beloved grandmother. “It’s like I’ve been drifting in a fog, not thinking about the big picture. I should have told the truth from the start.”
“You had your reasons.”
“That doesn’t make them right. Or even good ones.” Elizabeth walked the photo over to the mantel to set Steve and Audrey Hardy next to a photo of the boys, Cameron’s beaming face as he held his little brother. “He’s asking for joint custody.”
“What? Why?” Emily folded his arms. “He’s barely been in Cameron’s life since the first separation. And Jake isn’t his. He knows that.”
“Knowing and feeling are different things. Cameron—that’s on him,” Elizabeth added. “But Jake—he’s spent a year being his father, and now I’ve told him it’s not true. I can’t blame him for being angry—”
“I hurt Jason over all of this, too,” Elizabeth admitted. “And I don’t know how to stop hurting either of them. I just know Jason doesn’t deserve to be cut out of Jake’s life, and it was never my place to ask for it.”
“Then Lucky needs to back off. He’s the one that torpedoed everything. The drugs, the affairs, the abuse-”
“Don’t argue. He was emotionally abusive, and we both know he pushed you last year. He’s my friend, Elizabeth, but you’re my family.” Emily put her hand on Elizabeth’ shoulder. “And whatever happens next, I’m on your side.”
Elizabeth had finally made a serious dent in the boxes that had filled the living room, and was relieved at the knock on the front door giving her reason to stop unpacking. She tossed some of the empty boxes out of the way and peered out the window.
Then opened the door. “Jason.”
Jason Morgan, recently acquitted on all charges, offered a half-sheepish smile, the tips of his fingers tucked into the pockets of his jeans. “Hey. I hope it’s okay I just…”
Elizabeth tucked a piece of hair behind her ears and stepped back. “Yeah, yeah. Um, come in. Don’t mind the mess. Em and I are still unpacking.” She closed the door, took a deep breath, then turned to face him. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he repeated. They stood there for a long moment, just staring at one another. She couldn’t help but remember one of the last times they’d been alone together — when they’d stood in the park and he’d told her he was in love with her. That he should have said it a long time ago.
Instead of just telling him the same, she’d had to tell him about the men in the park, the ones that had threatened her and the boys with guns.
Why couldn’t they ever be on the same page at the same time?
Their timing, as he’d said a year ago, sucked.
“You’re finally off the front page,” Elizabeth said, gesturing at the paper Emily had left on the table. “You and Sonny must be relieved.”
“Yeah—” Jason scratched his temple. “I’m glad you’re not there either. That wasn’t—that was a long couple of weeks.”
“Yeah.” She folded her arms. “Um, Jake just went down for his afternoon nap if you wanted to go up and see him—”
“I do,” Jason said. “But we haven’t really—I mean, we haven’t talked about what’s going to happen. If anything is going to change.”
“I want them to,” Elizabeth said. “Jake—I mean, the world knows the truth. They should have a long time ago—”
“We don’t have to talk about any of that—”
“We do,” Elizabeth insisted. “Because you deserve an apology for what’s happened. And what’s going to keep happening. Diane just told me Lucky wants joint custody of both boys. He’s not backing down on Jake, even with the paternity results.”
Jason’s mouth twisted. “Can he do that?” Then he paused, closed his eyes. “Is that what you want? For him to—”
“No—” Elizabeth cut in sharply and he opened his eyes, looked at her again. “No. I just—I did this. To both of you. I don’t want to hurt him more than I have already—he had affairs, I know. And he was—it wasn’t good between us. Even last year. But I can solve that problem. I did—I left. But he honestly thought Jake was his son, and he’s lost that.”
“Yeah.” Jason exhaled slowly, looked away. “I know what it’s like. And I can tell you, even knowing the truth doesn’t help.”
“I told Diane that I’m not changing my mind. Lucky isn’t his father. You are. And you don’t deserve watching Jake grow up thinking differently. I never should have asked you.”
“I can’t fix this for both of you. It’s impossible. Either I hurt you or I hurt him. And I think it’s time I put you first.” She took a deep breath. “So that’s what’s going on. I just don’t think he’s going to back down. It’s going to be in court, and you might have to testify.”
“Okay.” Jason nodded. “Whatever you need from me. I just—I want—” He stopped, and their eyes met, held for a long moment. “I want us both to be okay. And the boys to be happy.”
“That’s what I want, too,” Elizabeth said. She tipped her head towards the stairs. “Let me show you were Jake is. You should spend some time with him.”