ACT 1

Olivia Spencer awoke with a weight on her chest, as though she’d been fighting the urge to wake. The darkness of the room only enhanced the feeling that she was being slowly suffocated. On more than one occasion in the past she’d woken from a nightmare like this, unable to breathe from either fear or recollection. She forced herself through the sense of isolation with a few deep gulps of air and the discomfort faded. Automatically, she stretched an arm across the bed, just to touch Natalia and reassure herself, but the space beside her was empty. More than that, it was cold. On the frequent occasions Natalia slipped out in the middle of the night to check on the girls, she was always back under the covers within a few minutes, unless Francesca was awake and Olivia couldn’t hear anything to suggest that.

Checking the digital clock display, she discovered it was nearing three thirty a.m. How long had Natalia been gone?

The darkness in the room was itself odd. Most nights Natalia left the door ajar, despite the baby monitor, using the excuse that they could listen for Emma too. On the rare occasions Olivia did wake in darkness, Natalia was always there – or her voice was filtering through the monitor as she quieted Francesca. It was soothing. But right now the only sound was her own uneven breathing. 

Retrieving her dressing gown from the back of the door she fumbled for the knob. The glare of the landing light half-blinded her. She paused for a moment until she adjusted well enough to go downstairs. All the remnants of Christmas, the decorations and the lights, seemed muted in the silent room. Even though the television screen was flickering, the sound was turned down to an illegible murmur. Natalia sat rigidly on the sofa, staring with unblinking eyes at the set.

Padding across the room – being careful not to knock a dozen baubles off the Christmas tree as she passed it – Olivia gently sat down beside her. “Hey,” she said softly.

It took a few moments for Natalia to recognize she was no longer alone. When she finally did, concern flitted over her face. “Did I wake you? Or Emma?”

Olivia shook her head. “You’re quiet as a mouse down here. Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

“Thought I heard Francesca, but she was sound asleep,” Natalia explained. “I came down for a bottle just in case but...” A tired smile settled on her lips. “I sat down and forgot all about it.”

Holding a hand against her forehead, Olivia asked, “Are you sick?”

As her partner began to protest, Olivia’s eyes strayed to the coffee table. There, delicately placed on top of its envelope, was the last letter received from Rafe. It was full of Christmas greetings and painful apologies. Her insides released the knot of anxiety that had been forming as she drew her hand down to cup Natalia’s cheek.

“How about we go back to that cold bed? Try and get some sleep before every girl and her dog – and, yes, I mean that literally – try and wake us up?”

The coaxing tone worked. Natalia went through the routine of shutting off the television and lamp for the second time that night then followed her upstairs obediently. As she wrapped her arms around her a few minutes later, Olivia tried to blot out the vacant expression she’d caught in Natalia’s eyes downstairs. After all, it was natural she’d want her son at the ceremony. The fact that couldn’t happen – at least not in the human sense of being able to walk her down the aisle – was bound to hurt. They all just had to do their damnedest to lessen the pain. He was there in spirit and thanks to the wonder of the Internet he wouldn’t be completely away from it all.

***

 

“Aspirin’s on the top shelf,” Jonathan said helpfully.

Anna Li shot him a look – placed somewhere between gratitude and annoyance – then searched out the relevant packet. Even the weight of the drugs in her hand felt like a relief. There was something about the kind of headache you woke up with that made it ten times worse than your standard work-induced stinker. Maybe it was the realization that the day under direction of Chief Cooper had yet to start and things were most likely getting worse before they got better – if they got better. She wasn’t convinced Springfield possessed that ability.

Realizing Jonathan hadn’t just made his remark and moved on she made the effort to focus on him. He was holding a basket crammed full of sweets and snacks, mainly of the child variety. “I thought you were a conscientious dad,” she said, turning towards the checkout.

“Everyone deserves some treats now and then.” He flashed her a boyish grin. “Anyway, who says they’re all for Sarah?”

Resting her hip against the nearest shelf, Anna examined Jonathan’s haul and smirked. “You like chips with rhinos on the packet now?”

“Who wouldn’t? Except maybe Frank.” Jonathan fell into step beside her. “So I er... I asked Leyla on a date. We went out.”

That was hardly a surprise. Anyone with half a brain would’ve noticed the attraction between them that had been brewing for a while now.

“That’s good,” she said finally, having searched for something insignificant to say that wouldn’t offend.

The headache had obviously taken its toll on her tone. His smile flickered. “You don’t think so?”

“I’m not the one dating her, am I?” she retorted, reaching around into her bag for her purse. It came out all right, scattering coins everywhere. Jonathan dropped his basket and kneeled beside her to collect them.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Work,” she said with a shake of the head. “Don’t ask.” Anna dropped her shoulders, frustrated with both herself and the cases she’d been working on nonstop recently. Finally, she realized it couldn’t hurt to elaborate. He was mixed up in this like everyone else, wasn’t he? “Since Edmund pulled his disappearing act everyone’s been tense, and the ongoing corruption investigation isn’t helping any.”

“Has there been anything from him, any clues, hints?”

“You’re supposed to be focusing on your life,” she reminded him. “And your date,” she added deliberately. “Are you seeing her again?”

“Sure,” he replied, picking up his basket. “You could try being happy yourself, now you’ve got a pretty teacher hanging off your arm.”

“I’m happy, thanks,” she said as she tightened her grip on the aspirin. “And after I’ve had a few of these I’ll be ecstatic.”

***

 

“Dad, I just told you we’re busy,” Marina complained as Frank led her out onto the street. “Grandpa needs me in there.”

He looked up and down before he spoke. Aside from Doris Wolfe pacing the pavement across the road, they were pretty much alone. Turning back to his daughter, he said, “I’m going to ask you something, and I want an honest answer.”

Marina’s brow creased. “What’s this about?”’

“Yes or no,” he persisted. “Will you be honest with me?”

He watched her carefully as she considered his words. He knew that he could be jumping the gun with this, that maybe someone else should be having this conversation. Perhaps he was too close but didn’t he owe it to himself as a father to give her the opportunity to explain herself? You didn’t convict someone behind closed doors, at least it wasn’t the way he liked to do it. Besides, he forced himself to remember, this was only one aspect of many, the evidence mounting as it was looked particularly damning. He’d lost count of the number of conversations between him and Eleni when they’d tried to look at it all subjectively, completely in Marina’s favor. It was almost impossible. But, out of all of it, this was the part giving him sleepless nights.

Finally, Marina touched his arm. “Of course I will, Dad. What do you want to know?”

“Did you help Edmund escape from the hospital?” he asked bluntly.

She stared back at him. “Excuse me?”

Frank forced himself to remain strong. He didn’t want to believe this, he didn’t want to ask the question but he had to. “Come on, it’s simple enough.”

His daughter turned away from him, shivering in the cool December air. “I can’t believe you’re asking me this. It’s her, isn’t it?” She glanced back accusingly. “Why do you believe her?”

“I believe in facts, that’s all,” he answered. “And, I have to tell you, some things are adding up badly. This isn’t down to your mother.”

“Sure it is,” Marina snapped. “She put the idea into your head because of the way I’ve treated her since she turned up here like unwanted garbage.”

“Marina!” he said sharply. “You won’t talk about her like that in front of me, okay?”

Tears formed in her eyes. “I want things to be how they were before. She’s screwing everything up. I hate her.”

Frank glanced away momentarily and forced himself to come back to the main point. “You haven’t answered the question,” he reminded her.

Her eyes darted from side to side. Briefly, he wondered if he’d believe her if she denied it. She was his child; he at least had to trust her, didn’t he?

“He was blackmailing me,” she said finally, looking away. “I didn’t have a choice, I’m sorry.”

There was a lengthy silence. Frank looked at her, wondering how and why and when, but not caring enough to ask right now. The important thing was that his suspicions had been correct and he didn’t know what the hell happened next. He couldn’t stand there any longer. Turning, he began to walk away.

“Dad?” Marina’s cracking voice halted him. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”

“I am,” he said faintly. “Always. But parents can’t constantly protect their kids, Marina. However much they want to.”

He left her standing there and only glanced back when he was across the street. Her head was turned from him but he could still see the tears cascading down her face. Didn’t she realize that it hurt him as much as it hurt her?

***

 

Doris Wolfe inhaled deeply as she stood outside Company with her cell phone pressed to her ear. Her arm was beginning to ache from holding it up for so long, and she’d done two circuits of the block while listening to the ramblings in a conversation she positively felt no part of. For the sake of politeness and company solidarity, she allowed Beth and Mel to duke it out, knowing they sat right next to each other at the office. They were purposefully including her in this; she supposed they didn’t have to.

“Alright, ladies,” she cut in eventually, “we need to talk about this in person obviously.”

There was a surprised silence on the line, as though they’d forgotten she was even there. Then Mel asked hesitantly, “Weren’t you going out of town for a few days?”

Inwardly sighing, she kept her voice level. “It was only one night and it can be rearranged. We need to win this case; we’re going to win it.”

When she walked into Company a few moments later she was still debating how to broach the subject. Blake was pouring coffee for a customer but noted her presence immediately. The smile that slid onto her face flickered and died within the space of five seconds. Wincing, Doris stepped forward to meet her at the end of the counter. The fact she looked absolutely stunning in a simple brown shirt and pants combo wouldn’t make this any easier.

Clearing her throat, she managed a throaty.  “Hi.”

They stared at each other for ten seconds then Blake reached for a fresh mug. “Coffee?”

“Please.” As her girlfriend poured, she tried to go on, “About tonight – “

“Doris,” Blake interrupted swiftly, “it’s fine. I know what the look on your face means.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm – she knew the implications of that statement as well as Blake did and being compared to Frank Cooper was not her favorite way to spend lunchtime. Her first impulse was to retort but she reined that in and instead watched the liquid level in her cup steadily rise. By the time Blake pushed the drink an inch towards her, she was calmer and raised her eyes reluctantly.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

A smile drifted across Blake’s face. “That was really difficult for you, wasn’t it?”

She shrugged, feeling the mood lighten a little. Her history with relationships, or lack thereof, hadn’t prepared her for the etiquette in these situations. With Anna, the cop was as likely to be canceling on her as the other way round. Blake was a much more reliable person. Well, these days anyway. Now she knew how crappy Olivia felt when she had to cancel on Natalia, and also why she didn’t do it all that often.

“Keep looking guilty,” Blake observed. “It’s good for my morale.”

Doris smiled ruefully. “It’s work. I am sorry, you know?”

Blake met her eye. “Oh, believe me, I know. Guess that gorgeous restaurant you were talking about will still be there in a few weeks, right?”

“If you still want to go, we’ll reschedule. I promise.”

“Don’t promise,” warned Blake, surreptitiously stroking the back of her hand. “Could we have dinner tonight? Would you have time for dinner with me tonight?” Suggestively, she smiled up at Doris. “It would be a shame to waste the overnight sitter.”

Finally, Doris relaxed. “Sure. What time should I order the takeout for?”

A playful expression slipped over her girlfriend’s face. “I was thinking a little more adventurous than that.”

***

 

Ava Peralta let the door swing shut behind her and squinted around the sparsely-populated crowd. Her mother had the habit of standing out wherever she was so a cursory glance around the room settled that she wasn’t there. She knew Doris often dragged Olivia to Ladies Night and when she hadn’t found her at either the farmhouse or the Beacon she’d just thought...

Well, it didn’t matter. Knowing how loved-up Olivia Spencer was these days she was probably out doing something romantic for Natalia. Despite Ava’s ongoing irritation at her soon-to-be stepmother, she had a grudging respect for Natalia. After all, she made her mother happy. God, she’d remembered seeing her unhappy when Natalia was gone and this was infinitely better than that, even if conversation did dry up at times.

Just as she was thinking she’d go back to the hotel and grab some dinner before maybe bedding down with a movie and a glass of wine, she spotted a familiar figure by the window chatting to a leggy blonde. At first she was convinced she was seeing things but, no, a second look confirmed that it was the younger, more irritating version of Natalia that she was watching. Half of her brain told her to back-off and leave it but she couldn’t. She was still her mother’s daughter.

Striding over, she forgot the pleasantries and immediately questioned, “What are you doing here?”

Leyla turned, annoyed at the interruption and – it seemed – especially because of who had made it. “I’m having a drink, what does it look like?”

Ava bristled. “At Ladies Night?”

“Oh, is that what it is?” asked the day care manager sarcastically. “The sign on the door didn’t tip me off at all.”

“Well, being able to read and generally be anything apart from a pain in the ass is obviously hard for you,” Ava shot back then winced at herself. So much for their truce, huh?

The blonde Leyla had been chatting with cleared her throat. “Is this going to take long?”

“No,” Leyla said instantly.

Ava glanced between them, her eyes settling on the leggy bimbo. “Depends how much of an experiment you wanna be. I could disappear right now, and you could have the most unmemorable night of your life. Or you could leave.”

The look of outrage on Leyla’s face was payment enough. She grabbed Ava’s arm, possibly with the intention of leading her away, but the blonde had already made a swift exit after a moment of consideration. Ava shook off her captor.

“So I don’t think she’s a keeper,” she said with a smirk.

Leyla glared at her. “Why did you do that?”

“This is where women come to meet other women,” Ava replied. “I didn’t think you were into that. Besides, aren’t you dating Jonathan?”

“He told you that?”

“Of course he did. Or were you trying to keep it a secret? So it didn’t interfere with your secret life over here maybe?”

“Ava, just butt out, okay?  I don’t understand why you’re making this into something. I’m just having a drink. Or I was. I’m entitled to drink with who I want when I want.”

“I wonder what everyone would think of you messing Jonathan around,” said Ava. “He’s my cousin, I’m entitled to be worried when he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”

“Everyone being your mother, I suppose?” Leyla retorted, a triumphant smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “After all, you always go running back there when something happens that you don’t like, don’t you?”

Biting down on her tongue, Ava forcibly stopped her response. It wasn’t worth it. Besides, she’d already had all the conversations with Olivia after the Cyrus debacle. She didn’t particularly want another lecture, especially knowing that Leyla would probably spin this out of all recognition. The woman just really got to her; she couldn’t hold it in sometimes. And, she reluctantly admitted, maybe she was doubly irritated at Leyla right now because she was Natalia’s sister. But that didn’t excuse her coming in here and messing with people, did it?

Knowing she had to have the last word, she pasted on the biggest smile she could muster and stared squarely at the woman in front of her. “Since you’ve scared off your date, I think I’ll leave you to wallow in a drink. Don’t drown.”

She heard Leyla mumbling something as she walked away but she didn’t turn around. She didn’t know that she’d won this one, but she certainly wanted to believe she had for as long as possible.

***

 

“It’s pretty full,” Blake said unnecessarily.

They’d been hit with the stench of bodies the moment they walked into the foyer. Every table seemed full; Doris could honestly say she’d never seen the restaurant this full. Was it that everyone in Springfield had suddenly decided to take a holiday from cooking for themselves during the boredom between Christmas and New Years or had the psychic word gone out that she’d be here tonight on a date? She felt a little apprehensive as she surveyed the mass of people. Part of her wanted to turn and suggest they get that takeout she’d suggested earlier to have at home but... no, she was past that. The reason she was getting out of politics was so she didn’t have to turn and hide who she was. She was here with Blake, and she wasn’t about to mess that up.

Clearing her throat, she stepped forward and alerted the harassed waitress to their presence. “Excuse me, I’ve got a reservation for eight. Doris Wolfe.”

“Hmm?” The act of balancing words in her brain long enough to absorb them was apparently beyond the abilities of this particular brunette at the moment. She stood, mouthing silently to herself, then began to walk off. Doris was about to call her back when she returned of her own accord. “Sorry, I just have to take a soda to table five,” she said as a confused frown crossed her face. “Or was it a coffee? Was it table six?”  

“Go,” Blake put in quickly, “we’ll get a drink at the bar.”

The young woman flashed a weak smile then wandered off, still muttering to herself about soda and table numbers. Doris glanced to Blake as they strolled to the bar. “You really think she’ll remember us?”

“Who could forget that murderous look you just threw her?” Blake retorted.

Doris shrugged. “It’s a gift.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Blake said, stiffening as she caught sight of something over her shoulder. “Oh, this should be interesting.”

Curiosity got the better of her and Doris turned around just in time to find herself face-to-face with Frank and Eleni, both dressed in clothes that suggested they were on a date. Trying to suppress the smirk she inevitably found wanting to stretch her lips, she began to fail miserably – until Blake elbowed her in the side.

“Frank, hi,” her girlfriend said smoothly. “And Eleni, it’s good to see you.”

To his credit, Frank caught on pretty quickly. He looked between them, grasped the notion of a date, and promptly swallowed. Then he was all charm, presumably for Eleni’s sake. Though, Doris thought to herself, the woman knew him. Which begged the question of why she was on a date with him in the first place. A disturbing image crossed her mind: had they perhaps...

“Ew,” she murmured aloud without thinking. Three pairs of eyes abruptly focused on her. Far from being embarrassed, she swiftly went on, “Who told Springfield to eat out tonight?”

Frank immediately grabbed onto the lifejacket. “It is pretty busy. You guys have a table booked?”

Blake nodded. “Don’t know about getting to it though. Everyone’s rushed off their feet.”

Thankfully, before anymore pointless small talk about the number of diners was required, the bartender scurried up. It took them a good five minutes to sort out their respective drinks and by then the haggard waitress was rushing towards them.

“Mr. Cooper? I’ve got your table.”

Doris cleared her throat pointedly. “What about ours?”

The brunette visibly recoiled a few inches. “Um... we... actually...”

“What?” she pressed.

“Your reservation slipped through a glitch in the computer system, we haven’t got you a table,” was the concise and quick reply.

Wisely, depending on your viewpoint, the woman had put Frank between them. Her opportunity of snarling at the waitress having been extinguished, Doris took a steadying breath and glanced apologetically to Blake. “Sorry.”

Blake shook her head. “These things happen.” To Eleni, she said, “Enjoy your meal.”

Doris felt his mouth opening before she saw it. Silently, she prayed for him to not make the suggestion but –

“Don’t suppose,” he said, halting the waitress in his tracks, “you have a couple of extra chairs do you? We could all squeeze in.”

And there it was. Doris closed her eyes and tried not to think of the kick Olivia Spencer would get out of this story when she heard it.

***

 

After fifteen minutes of waiting for Natalia to return from the bathroom, Olivia accepted something had waylaid her and reluctantly climbed the stairs, cursing every step she took away from the romantic little supper she’d set-up in the kitchen. It was only reheated soup and some of Natalia’s delicious homemade bread but the candles really brightened up the kitchen.

Sure enough, she found Natalia in the dimly-lit nursery cradling a whimpering Francesca. The sound of their daughter in pain banished the selfish urges prodding at the surface and she immediately kneeled in front of them.

“More teeth?”

Natalia nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to leave her. And I couldn’t call you without waking Emma.”

“Hey, that’s fine,” Olivia admonished. “I’ll grab the medicine from the bathroom, might take the edge off.”

Just as she reached the bathroom, however, Francesca let out a wail worthy of an opera singer. Olivia froze with one hand on the medicine cabinet but it was no good. There was the familiar thump of Emma jumping out of bed and in a few moments her bleary-eyed daughter appeared in the doorway.

“Is Francesca okay?”

Olivia tried to smile. Though, truth be told, fatigue and impatience were taking its toll on her ability to do so. “She’s fine, Jellybean. Why don’t you go back to bed and we’ll take care of it?”

Emma had the beginnings of an argument on her face. If Natalia hadn’t suddenly appeared in the doorway with Francesca clamped to her shoulder then a battle of wills would’ve most certainly been on the cards. As it was, Emma’s head whipped straight around.

“You should be in bed,” Natalia said softly, bouncing Francesca slightly in her arms. The little girl grumbled and wrapped a fist around several strands of silky hair. Wincing, Natalia disentangled herself then returned her attentions to their other daughter. “I’m sorry we woke you up, sweetie, but you really need to sleep.”

“I’m awake now though,” Emma complained.

“Well, you need to not be,” Natalia said decisively. “One of us will read you a story,” she added in a coaxing tone. “Who do you want?”

Before Emma had even spoken, Olivia had stepped forward to receive Francesca into her arms. “We know when we’re not wanted don’t we, Sweet Pea? C’mon, let’s get some medicine into that little mouth of yours.”

Natalia smiled as she was pulled out of the bathroom by Emma. A couple of minutes later Olivia was settled in the nursery chair with her eyes closed, gently swaying back and forth with Francesca. The gentle movement was rocking them both to sleep.

“Hope you know what you’re interrupting, kiddo,” she murmured. “I had a nice bottle of wine, classy food as well. And afterwards I was going to dazzle her with car brochures. When you’re older you’ll understand. A lot older,” she said as an afterthought.

A voice from the doorway startled her with, “Oh, about forty?”

Opening her eyes, Olivia threw a mock-frown at her girlfriend. “It’s rude to eavesdrop on private conversations.”

“Has that ever stopped you from doing it?”

She shrugged, dislodging Francesca slightly. “Oops, sorry, Sweet Pea. You carry on.” She looked back to Natalia. “Emma asleep already?”

“Erm... not quite. She wants hot chocolate.”

Olivia groaned. “It’s gonna be a long night, isn’t it?”

A sultry smile crossed Natalia’s lips. “You bet.”

As she watched her partner vanish, Olivia pressed her lips briefly to Francesca’s head. “And that’s why we don’t mess with your Mami.”

***

 

Doris had been on her fair share of screwy dates: a few fellow politicians hoping for extra-curricular activities that never materialized. Or the women she’d gone out who’d misinterpreted something... or everything. There had been one particularly humiliating evening back in the old days where a straight-laced knitting-mad constituent had almost got the shock of her life. However, sitting opposite Frank Cooper while Blake nervously smoothed down her skirt and simultaneously fiddled with her hair was a new experience altogether.

She’d managed to have a hushed conversation with Blake as they were escorted to the table to ascertain she was alright with this. After all, she remembered the tangled history she already had with Eleni and throwing Frank into that mix could be a recipe for disaster. But Blake, eager to please, had just shaken her head and smiled tightly. No matter how excruciating this evening could prove to be, they were in it for the long haul. At first Doris had wanted to run in the opposite direction: surgery without anaesthesia would be preferable. But now, well, right now she was beginning to get into the spirit of the evening.

Leaning over, ostensibly to rearrange their cramped seating arrangements, Blake whispered, “Can you look a little less excited about this please?”

“Haven’t a clue what you’re talking about,” she retorted. Snapping her menu open, she bopped Frank on the nose. “Oh, sorry!”

“Not a problem,” he replied.

Eleni had buried her head into her own menu and hadn’t noticed a thing. “Really don’t know what I’m in the mood for.”

“Something soft and cool, a salad maybe?” Doris suggested. “Who wants steamy food in a place this crowded?”

Blake cleared her throat. “Not me.”

As Doris innocently raised her wine glass to her lips, she didn’t notice Frank was about to speak until it was too late.

“Oh, I think I can manage something hot,” he murmured with a grin on his face.

It was all she could do not to splutter all over the fine tablecloth. A faint tinge settled on Eleni’s cheeks and Blake looked petrified. Frank, however, seemed oblivious. He looked up from his menu with concern on his face.

“Doris, do you need a glass of water?”

Shaking her head, she patted her neck. “Drinking too fast, that’s all. Speaking of which, we should get a bottle or two. Make a night of it.”

Eleni nodded vigorously. “I’m with you on that. The wine, that is.”

Doris masked her smirk. “Of course.”

The four of them pondered the menu for several minutes. It was a good excuse not to talk, or so the other three seemed to think. For her part, Doris was considering how uncomfortable she could make Frank in the space of a short meal. Maybe they could even stretch it to dessert and beyond. It wasn’t that she deliberately enjoyed antagonizing the man, but anyone had to admit he had it coming... just a little. She wondered how much of her distaste had come second-hand through Olivia. Before her entanglement with the Spencer-Rivera family, she’d mostly found him to be an incompetent irritation who occasionally put her off her coffee at Company.

“I think we’ll split a large starter,” Frank said suddenly then glanced anxiously at his date. “If that’s okay?”

Eleni nodded. “Sounds good. Do you two know what you’re having?”

Before Blake opened her mouth, Doris jumped in, “I think sharing a starter’s a great idea. Don’t you?” she added, raising an eyebrow at her girlfriend.

“Sounds good,” Blake echoed hollowly.

Frank was looking around like a schoolboy. “Well, we’ll need a waiter from somewhere. Wait, if I can just –”

“Watch the –” Eleni and Blake said simultaneously but it was too late.

“Wine,” Doris concluded as the Merlot began to seep through the tablecloth, steamrolling towards Eleni. In his customary manner, Frank instantly tried to atone for his error, standing to perhaps block the flow of the tide. Either way, he didn’t get a chance. Eleni backed out of his reach and he fumbled for a grip before his hands slid into the spillage. The tablecloth ended up lopsidedly hanging from the edge of the table while Blake sat poised ready to put her glass down.

Frank had reddened down to his collar. Suddenly the choice of a salmon shirt seemed a disastrous decision. Doris’s lips twitched as the thought crossed her mind but she was swiftly admonished by an elbow in the side from Blake.

Standing, she muttered, “I’ll get a cloth from the bar.”

The air thinned as she battled over to the bar. Glancing over at the tableau after she reached the edge of the scrum, she saw Frank grinning like a child as Eleni and a waiter fixed the damage on the table. Blake sat still clutching her wine glass looking about as comfortable as if she’d spiked her drink with sulphuric acid.

Finally coaxing a cloth out of the ragged bartender, Doris weaved her way back to the table and touched her girlfriend’s shoulder lightly before leaning down to whisper, “Did I tell you that you look gorgeous tonight?”

By degrees, she noticed Blake’s muscles relax. Running her fingers briefly along the exposed flesh below her ear, Doris then dragged herself away long enough to toss the cloth at Frank.

“Here you go, slugger.”

The goofy smile on his face was growing. “Thanks.”

Thankfully, they got through the starters without any more disasters. Well, unless you counted Frank feeding Eleni a mushroom which was about as nauseating an experience as you could get outside a delivery room. Blake’s eyes were frequently fixed on something in the distance; Doris, unfortunately, couldn’t tear hers away. It was like watching the mating ritual of an ostrich.

After the waiter had cleared the plates, Frank managed to draw his gaze away from his date.

“How’s work, Doris?” He threw the question out casually but his eyes were as sharp as they ever got.

A sudden mistrust overtook her as she blinked at his audacity. If he was fishing for information her office held regarding the corruption investigation he needed a better reel. She’d assumed when they sat down that their jobs would be the unspoken black cloud hanging over the evening. If they discussed her work they’d discuss his, and that would never end well. The things she’d been calling Chief Cooper in private would pale in comparison to what she’d say to his face given half the chance.

Blake was shrewd enough to realize that. She cut in with, “Have you seen the beautiful little dress Natalia bought for Francesca for the ceremony?”

“Why, yes, I have,” he replied. “It’s adorable, isn’t it? She’s adorable.”

“You’re a very lucky man, Frank,” Doris said in what she hoped was a conciliatory tone. Judging from the merest quirk of Blake’s eyebrow, it didn’t work. Hurrying on, she added, “And any girl would be fortunate to have you as a father.”

Leaning closer under the pretext of getting her drink, Blake queried, “What are you doing?”

“Hell if I know,” she whispered. “Frank, are you okay?”

Something that she couldn’t decipher had settled over his face. Eleni touched his shoulder. “Frank, you’ve drifted off a little.”

He glanced to her and she shot him an unfathomable look. Doris turned her head to Blake and shrugged.

“Sorry,” Frank said finally, “I just let my mind go back to work, that’s all. So much to do, you know how it is. Or maybe you don’t anymore, huh, Doris?” he added with a derisive chuckle.

“I’ve hardly given up work,” she said testily.

“I wasn’t suggesting – ” he began in a semi-conciliatory manner.

“Good,” she interrupted. “Anyone for more wine?”

“Yes,” Blake said instantly.

Doris signaled to the waiter who stumbled around three other tables before reaching them. After he’d rushed off again, she leaned back in her chair. The reference to work, and particularly the insinuation that she couldn’t handle public office anymore, had angered her. So Chief Cooper thought she was searching for an easier life? Well, in one sense that was true, but she knew if she truly wanted a simple life she wouldn’t be placing herself in direct competition with Alan Spaulding’s favorite lawyers on a regular basis. This wasn’t the easy option by any stretch of the imagination. She was giving up everything she’d work so hard to obtain. Or did Frank think she’d fallen into politics having taken a wrong turn? She sipped her drink and stewed for a minute or so.

“Any word on Edmund?” she asked innocently.

Blake exhaled. “Oh, boy.”

Frank exchanged another glance with Eleni and shook his head. “Not exactly.”

“Meaning no?” she clarified sardonically.

“Practicing for the courtroom, Doris?” Eleni interjected in an attempt to lighten the mood.

“Can’t hurt,” she responded before looking straight back to an uncomfortable-looking Frank. “Well?”

He was growing red in the face again. Finally, with extreme difficulty, he shook his head. “No.”

Doris let the word hover there for a minute. “Well done,” she said sardonically. Then, as Blake’s eyes bore a hole through her, she pushed her chair back. “If you”ll excuse me for a minute...”

What the hell was she doing? Doris wondered as she rounded the corner and tried to comprehend precisely why she was making this evening quite so difficult. Sure, it was always going to be a little Springfield slice of hell, but she was going out of her way to make it uncomfortable. If she didn’t know better she’d swear she was channelling Olivia. Leaning against the wall near the restroom, Doris chuckled to herself. Maybe that was it; maybe her problem was a diluted version of Olivia’s. Add that to the fact that Frank was the police equivalent of a marshmallow, and she had her reasons right there.

However, she quickly realized as she saw Blake stomping towards her, that those might not be legitimate enough reasons for public inquiry.

“What are you doing?” her girlfriend demanded.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It just needed saying.”

“Why, because this evening was going so well? I really think you should just...” Trailing off, Blake frowned at the slightly amused expression on her face. “What?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “perhaps I got a little jealous?”

After a moment Blake pursed her lips. “You know, that’s a really good try.”

“I thought so.” No need for Blake to realize quite how serious she was. Glancing around to check they were thoroughly alone, she leaned forward to kiss her lightly. She withdrew as she heard a masculine cough behind them.

Frank showed no embarrassment. “Doris, can I speak with you for a minute?”

She cleared her throat. “Sure. I’ll see you back at the table, okay, honey?”

Blake distinctly rolled her eyes as she walked away. Doris turned her attention back to Frank.

“I don’t care about you two,” he said bluntly, “if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“It crossed my mind,” she admitted, not believing his denial for a second.

“So that’s why you’re bringing up Edmund? Just trying to cause trouble as usual.”

“Hey,” she said, grabbing his arm as he made to turn around, “you brought up the issue of work, Chief Cooper. You insinuated earlier I’d given up doing my job. You can question my work ethic and I can’t do the same? I’m bringing up Edmund because somehow he managed to escape under armed guard on your watch. And now he’s roaming around the country, planning how to ruin our lives next?”

Frank snorted and crossed his arms. “Come on, Doris, how are you even involved in this? You don’t have to pretend you care anymore.”

“He shot at me,” she replied angrily, frustrated at the way her voice trembled at the words. She might be coping better these days but that didn’t mean she was any less haunted by the events at Rick and Mindy’s non-wedding. “You couldn’t even be bothered to turn up until it was over, so don’t even try saying I shouldn’t be a bit pissed off.”

“That isn’t fair. No one could’ve predicted – ”

“No, not when you falsely ID a body, huh, Frank? Oh, and as to why I care? I suppose that means I’m the only one who’s bothered about the little family up at the farmhouse, does it?”

His eyes narrowed. Shaking her off, he stepped back. “I’ve got as much interest in catching Edmund as the next man. That’s my daughter up there, in case you’ve forgotten. Not to mention Natalia and Emma.”

“And Olivia,” she reminded him testily.

His eyes flickered. “And Olivia. You can’t make me worry more than I do.”

At least in that she’d have to admit he was sincere. Doris inwardly growled at what she was about to say then squeezed her fingers into her palm as she did so.

“I guess that’s something we have in common,” she said grudgingly.

He managed a dry laugh. “Let’s not pretend that’s the only thing.”

 ***