As Reese passed by the office break room, she noticed a small group chatting excitedly by the coffee maker. Dustin, one of her co-workers, had his arm around a nicely dressed woman she hadn’t seen before.
“Reese, come congratulate us," Dustin called out when he spotted her in the doorway. "I just asked Deborah to marry me and she said ‘yes.’”
Reese stepped forward with a polite smile and offered her congratulations.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Deborah gushed as she reached out her hand to show off her ring. “I can’t stop looking at it.”
“When is the big day?” Damion, another lawyer from the firm, asked.
Dustin deferred to his fiancée. “We haven’t had a chance to discuss that yet.”
“I would love a summer wedding if the estate isn’t already booked," Deborah said happily as she caressed her fiance's arm. "Then afterward we can take off for a month-long tour of the islands. Do you think your work can spare you for that long?”
"As long as no one else is planning to be away at the same time, I think that could be arranged."
Deborah followed Dustin's gaze to look at Reese again. For the first time she noticed the engagement ring on Reese’s finger. “Oh, are you planning a wedding this summer too?”
Reese self-consciously fiddled with her much more modest engagement ring. “We haven’t set a date yet.”
“Long engagements can be nice.” Deborah turned to smile at her fiancé. “But I would rather not wait any longer than necessary.”
“Whatever you want, darling,” Dustin replied, giving her a quick peck on the lips.
Reese looked away, embarrassed. She wondered if she should be more anxious to set a date and make preparations to marry Simon. He hadn’t pressured her into doing either of those things, but she couldn’t help wondering if maybe he was wishing they would move forward.
Before Reese could get too lost in her own thoughts, Damion spoke up. “Sounds like your lady has expensive tastes. Good thing you have a rich uncle to help you out.”
Dustin laughed at the ribbing, but when he spoke his tone was more sober. “I’m not counting on any help from my uncle except for perhaps a little bit of inheritance from him someday and maybe taking over as a partner when he retires. Until then, I can make my own way." He turned to Deborah. "Speaking of my uncle, let’s see if he’s free so we can tell him the good news.”
As the group split up, Reese started back to her own office. On the way, she ran into Blaine.
“Hi, you’re here earlier than usual,” she remarked.
“Oh, yeah,” Blaine replied awkwardly. “Brooke’s birthday party is tonight, so I wanted to be home early.”
“Happy birthday to her,” Reese said as she walked into her office.
Blaine followed. “She and Cassie wanted to keep the party small, just a few close friends. I wanted to include you and Natalie, Natalie especially, but…” he trailed off, not knowing how to finish that thought. “I hope she doesn’t feel left out.”
“It’s fine. Natalie won’t mind, I promise,” Reese insisted.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s really okay. No one expects us all to be one big, happy family.” When Blaine look crushed, she quickly added, “At least not right away… maybe with time. No matter what I may think of Cassie, I promise I won’t stand in the way of that.”
"About that. I was hoping I'd run into you today." He paused to clear his throat. “I’m sorry about the last time we spoke. I was out of line,” Blaine apologized.
“No, you weren’t. I've made some regrettable decisions and you had every right to say what you did. I deserved it,” Reese said with a shake of her head as she averted her eyes to the floor.
Blaine started to protest, but she cut him off. "Maybe we just needed to clear the air.”
“Right,” Blaine agreed with a smile. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Let’s forget it. Let’s just put the past behind us, forget everything that was said, and start over again as friends.”
“Friends would be good,” Reese said with a nod. When they fell into an awkward silence, Reese changed the subject. “How is your work going? Any leads?”
“Actually, yes. I feel like I’m getting close to something. I think whoever is behind this breach must be very close to Mr. Lind. It looks like they were able to correctly answer his security questions to access the system and there’s something really interesting in the data I’ve been looking at. All of the questionable log-ins seem to be coming from either Mr. Lind’s office computer or his personal computer at home.”
“Really?” Reese asked, interested.
“I still have to find out if that information is accurate or if it’s been manipulated to look that way, but if it is what it seems to be, finding out who would have had access to those computers at those times should go a long way to finding out who’s been behind these missing funds. How many people would have had access to both locations besides Mr. Lind himself?”
Reese didn’t say anything in response, but Blaine could tell by her expression that she was thinking something.
“What is it?” he asked.
Her voice was hesitant when she replied. "One of the lawyers here, Dustin, is also Mr. Lind’s nephew.”
Blaine’s eyes opened wide with excitement, but before he could get carried away, Reese backtracked.
“I don’t see why he would steal from the company though. He seems like he’s already well off and he's looking forward to becoming a partner in the company and probably inheriting money from Mr. Lind someday.”
“That wouldn't necessarily rule him out. There could always be more going on than there seems.”
Reese was doubtful. She couldn't deny that it was possible, but she just couldn't picture Dustin scamming the company that way. It didn't seem to fit what she knew of him. “We can check the times and dates, see if his whereabouts match up," she suggested with a shrug. "Maybe Mr. Lind will remember when Dustin might have been at his house or could have had access to his home computer.”
Blaine nodded slowly as he ran the idea through his mind. “I’ll see if the data is what it seems to be and if it is I’ll talk to Mr. Lind.” He smiled at Reese.
"Nothing... just reminds me of old times, us working together to solve a mystery. I didn't realize I'd missed that."
“Um hmm,” Reese mumbled in passive agreement. By the way he was smiling at her, she wondered just how much of the old times he was missing.
* * * * *
“So, who else is coming to the party?” Joey asked Brooke as they sat together in the decorated dining room.
Brooke shrugged. “I think my mom invited some people from the neighborhood. I don’t know.”
Cassie looked up from where she was setting up the dining room table. “Aunt Vanessa and Uncle Logan are bringing their kids along with Lance and Lorna.”
“And that’s all you invited?” Brooke asked pointedly.
Cassie tried not to sigh. At this rate, she didn’t know how she was going to survive the teenage years. “They are the only ones I invited,” she assured her daughter. She couldn’t promise her that her father hadn’t invited anyone, but she hoped that he had gotten the message and respected their daughter’s wishes.
“Speaking of guests,” Cassie said as the doorbell rang. She motioned to Brooke who took the hint and went to answer the door.
Brooke had barely crossed the room before Cassandra was overcome by a sickly feeling. She gasped in panic, fearful that maybe Blaine did invite Reese and Natalie after all. She braced herself for the fall out, but what she heard at the front door was much worse that what she had been expecting.
Cassie turned quickly and hurried into the foyer.
Her mother stood in the doorway, a bag of gifts in hand as her two grandchildren clamored to greet her.
Cassie tried to swallow back her shock and put on a positive face. “Mother! What are you doing here?”
“I couldn’t miss my granddaughter’s birthday, especially this one. Twelve is a special age,” Serena responded cryptically.
Cassie opened her mouth as if to speak, but just as quickly thought better of it. Defeated, she merely said, “Come in. You’re just in time for the party.”
Cassie barely had a chance to recover from this unexpected arrival before the other guests appeared in the doorway.
“Hello! Happy birthday!” Vanessa called out as she walked up the steps followed by her crew. Her cheerful demeanor quickly vanished when she saw Serena standing in the foyer. A chill passed over the room as the two women glared at each other.
“Serena, hello,” Vanessa said coolly. Serena merely nodded in response.
Vanessa turned her attention to Cassandra. “Do you need any help getting anything ready for the party, hon?”
“Sure. You can help me with the rest of the food,” Cassie said, eager for a distraction to break the tension. “Make yourselves at home,” she said to the guests as she and her former stepmother retreated to the kitchen.
While Logan herded the children into the dining room, Serena held Brooke back for a moment.
“Darling, I don’t know if you realize, but you are reaching a very important age and as my only granddaughter, there’s something very special I want you to have,” she spoke in a quiet voice as she reached into her bag and pulled out a wrapped gift that she handed to Brooke.
As Brooke took the present, she could tell by its size, shape, and dimensions that it was a book, the thick, hardback type, which usually meant dull. She wasn’t thrilled, but tried not to show it. “Thank you, Gram.”
She started to unwrap it, but Serena put her hand over hers to stop her. “You can open it later after your friends have gone. Go enjoy your party.”
* * * * *
“So, Serena?” Vanessa remarked once she and Cassie were alone in the kitchen.
“I’m as surprised as you are,” Cassie said as she yanked the snacks she had prepared out of the refrigerator and shut the door with a little more force than necessary. “I knew I was nervous about something, but I thought… never mind,” she said with a shake of her head. She set the tray down and sighed. “I love my mother and I wish she could be a part of our lives, but we tried and she can’t. It’s just better if we keep our relationship distant.”
“And limit it to just the big events, like birthdays,” Vanessa suggested with a sly smile.
Cassie smiled back. Vanessa’s way of putting things into perspective helped put her more at ease.
“If it would help, I can try to entertain her, give you some space if you need it.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Cassie declined. It was an especially generous offer considering the awkward nature of Vanessa and Serena’s connection; they had both been married to Cassandra’s father, unknowingly, at the same time. While Vanessa might be past it and be able to see how neither of them were at fault, Serena was less generous and would likely not appreciate Vanessa’s attention. “I can manage.”
Vanessa gave her a supportive pat on the shoulder and picked up the tray to carry it out for her.
Cassie braced herself and followed after. She could manage her mother for a few hours but she knew Blaine wasn’t going to be happy about this surprise visitor.
* * * * *
In spite of the unexpected arrival of Serena, the party went well. The adults talked as the kids played in the dining room. Brooke and Joey mostly kept to themselves, while Doug was the one spending more time with their guests, but everyone seemed to be having a good time, so Cassie didn’t worry about it.
Blaine arrived home a while after the party had started. When he saw Serena, he looked startled. He gave Cassandra a questioning look, but she only shrugged in response.
She hoped he could see that she had no idea that her mother was going to be here. She was sure that was going to be a conversation for later. For now, the guests and Brooke were their main concern.
Brooke ran over to greet her father with a hug as he wished her a happy birthday.
“Can we have cake now?” Brooke asked eagerly.
Cassie called everyone around and lit the candles on the cake as Brooke took her position at the head of the table.
As everyone sang “Happy Birthday,” Brooke stared into the flames of the candles and focused on her wish. She knew just what she wanted to wish for and she wanted to make sure her wish counted. As the song ended she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and blew out the candles while the others cheered.
* * * * *
Serena had barely spoken to anyone during the party and just quietly observed the events. Once all of the other guests had gone home, the children had gone off to their own rooms and Blaine went out to take out the trash, she finally found herself alone with her daughter.
“Thanks for coming, Mother,” Cassie said, hoping that her mother would take the hint that it was time for her to leave. “The kids enjoyed seeing you.”
“And I them, but that’s not the only reason for coming here tonight, Cassandra.”
Cassie looked up in alarm, bracing herself for whatever ulterior motives her mother might have.
“I wanted to see you. How are you doing, my dear, really?”
“Are you really?” Serena stared intently at her daughter. “Is everything well between you and your husband? I sensed some tension."
Cassie took a deep breath. She wanted to tell her mother that if there was any tension, her surprise arrival was probably the cause of it, but instead she held her tongue. “Blaine and I are fine.”
“I noticed his other child and her mother weren’t here tonight.”
“No,” Cassie replied coldly, hoping her mother would drop the subject, but she wasn’t surprised when Serena pressed on.
“But he knows?”
“Yes, he knows. He wanted to invite them…”
“Ah,” Serena said knowingly. “And that’s what’s causing the tension now. I knew they would be a problem once he discovered the child existed.”
“They’re not-“ Cassie started to object, but her mother wasn’t listening.
“It couldn’t be helped. He was going to find out at some point." She shook her head and tsked. "At least you had these last fifteen years with him to yourself. That isn’t meaningless.”
“Mother-“ Cassie exclaimed. She turned to give Serena a piece of her mind, but froze when she saw Blaine standing in the doorway. By the look of devastation and confusion on his face, she knew he had overheard too much.
Serena caught her daughter’s gaze and slowly turned to look at Blaine in the doorway. She was as cool and unmoved as ever. Her face was a mask and she remained silent.
Time seemed to stand still for Cassandra, she could feel the heavy thump of every beat of her heart as she watched the range of emotions cross her husband’s face and waited for him to speak.
Blaine’s eyes darted back and forth between Cassandra and Serena before he finally spoke. “You knew?” His voice was hoarse, uttered barely above a whisper. He asked it as a question, but it was clear that he had already determined the answer.
“I-“ Cassie started.
When Blaine saw his wife glance at her mother, he interrupted. “You need to go,” he announced as he walked past Serena and came face to face with his wife. He waited for Serena to slink out of the room before he spoke again. His tone was angry, but he deliberately kept his voice low. This wasn’t anyone else’s business.
“How long, Cassie? How long did you know I had another daughter before I did? Fifteen years? Before we were married? Before we started dating?”
“No, it isn't like that at all,” Cassie said firmly. “I had no idea back then. Maybe my mother-“
“I don’t want to hear about your mother. Just you. What did you know and when?”
Cassie had to make herself breathe. She knew this was really bad and she knew that she couldn’t lie, but the truth, the entire truth was hard to speak. “I didn’t know. I only suspected-“ When Blaine grimaced she knew that she had started wrong. Half-truths and careful phrasing weren’t going to do any good now. They were only going to enrage him further. So, she started again.
“When I first saw Natalie this fall,” she answered quickly. “When she and Simon had stopped by to see the house, she mentioned Reese was her mother and that's when I suspected- I knew,” she quickly corrected herself. “I knew she was your daughter too. I could see it in her face. I knew she was the right age. I knew you had to be her father. But I had no idea that she even existed before that. I never had any idea before that day that Reese had ever been pregnant, I swear to you.”
“But you didn’t say anything.”
“No, it wasn’t my place.”
Blaine huffed and shook his head in frustration. “But you’re my wife, my partner, and you kept it to yourself… How do I know that’s all, that there’s nothing else you’ve been keeping from me?”
“There’s not,” she insisted, then immediately realized that wasn’t the truth. She knew he could see it on her face as well. She had to come clean. “Reese left you a message before that, earlier this fall before they moved in. She wanted to speak with you, but I erased the message on purpose and I never told you about it.”
“So, you’ve lied. You lied about the message. You lied about Natalie when you met her.” As Blaine spoke his tone grew louder and more intense. He was losing any composure he had left. “But your mother clearly knew too and for longer than just these last few months. How many more lies are there? How am I supposed to believe that anything is the truth now? Our whole life together, our marriage, our children, are all based on lies. I just-“ He threw his hands up in the air helplessly and turned away in frustration. “I can’t do this right now.” He turned and walked out of the dining room towards the front door.
“Blaine!” she called after him, taking a few steps forward to follow after him.
He waved her away without looking back. When he paused at the door, she took a hesitant step forward.
“I need some space. I can’t talk to you right now,” he said.
“Then when? When will you be back?” she asked, her voice sounding very small. She was afraid of what his answer would be, but he didn’t give her one.
Wordlessly, he opened the door and left.