Summary: Alex tells Cassie about her past.
"I swear you're gonna wear that carpet out, Cass," Janet said to her eldest daughter. "She'll be here real soon, I'm sure. You don't have to get up every time a car goes past."
Cassie grinned sheepishly. "Sorry," she said. "And she's not due for...," she looked at her watch, "another six-and-a-half minutes anyway. I just don't want to keep her waiting."
Janet leaned over and touched her hand. "She won't change her mind, Cass," she said gently. "She's smitten, anyone can see that."
"You really think so?" Cassie was uncharacteristically nervous. "We did have a great day on Saturday. I really like her."
"I know, honey," Janet's tone was reassuring. "And it looks to me like she really likes you too, Cass. Luigi's isn't cheap. She clearly wants to impress you by taking you to the best Italian restaurant in the area. You'll have a great time, I'm sure."
At that moment, the doorbell rang. Cassie took a deep breath. "Do I look okay?" she asked her mother.
"You look beautiful, Cass," Janet said, and she really meant it. Cassie had made a great effort with her appearance, and looked glowing in a deep red dress. Cassie smiled.
= = =
"Is this okay for you?" Alex asked, as she stopped the car in the parking lot at the back of the Italian restaurant.
"Perfect," Cassie smiled. "I love Italian food." She was trying not to stare too obviously at Alex, who was wearing smart tailored pants and a slinky silk blouse that every now and then offered Cassie a tantalising glimpse of the top of her breasts. Cassie was spellbound, but didn't want to be caught out ogling her date.
As they finished their main course, though, Cassie became aware that Alex was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. She put a hand out and softly laid it on top of one of Alex's, which was unconsciously drumming on the table. "You don't have to you know," she said in a gentle voice.
"Huh?" Alex was startled, not realizing that she had withdrawn into her own thoughts.
"You don't have to tell me. About your family. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. Or do anything you don't want to," Cassie's tone was caring.
Alex's eyes filled with tears at Cassie's kind words. She blinked away the tears, and looked straight into Cassie's brown eyes, touched to see concern and, she thought, love in them. "I want to," she was embarrassed to find her voice cracking slightly. "I want you to know everything. I think you're wonderful, Cassandra," she said, her voice full of emotion. "And I'd really like to have a relationship with you. If you want to, that is," she became flustered.
"There's nothing I'd like more," Cassie said, and squeezed her fingers.
"Then I want you to know all about me. About who I am. About what I did. So's you can decide for yourself if this is what you really want," Alex said.
Cassie leaned forward, and very tenderly and softly brushed her lips against Alex's. "I already know it's what I want," she said. "But if you want to tell me, then I want to hear what you have to say." She smiled, reassuringly she hoped.
"It's kinda a long story," Alex said. "If you don't mind, I'll start right at the beginning."
Cassie nodded. "Go ahead," she said.
Alex swallowed. "We had great parents. Me and Chris. My brother, that is. The best. They were always fun, and loving, and I have some wonderful memories of our early childhood. But then Mom became clumsy, and was often frustrated, sometimes depressed. I know now that she was real scared much of the time too. Some days were better than others. I was 12 when she was diagnosed with motor neuron disease."
Cassie blanched. "Oh Alex," she took her hand again. "I'm so sorry."
Alex looked deep into her eyes. "It was awful," she said, in a quiet voice. "Dad just fell apart. But then," she tried to pull herself together. "Then it got better for a while. Mom's symptoms seemed to stabilize, and she got better at coping too I guess. Dad was better too, once he'd gotten over the shock. Some days were still pretty bad, and Chris was so young, he couldn't really understand what was going on. But Mom was still Mom, and most of the time she still joined in with everything, and was amazing really, now I think back to it. She wasn't exactly in remission, but the spread of the disease seemed to slow. So we had a few good years. I think Mom realized that it couldn't last for ever, so it was like she was trying to cram everything she could into what time she had left, you know?"
Cassie nodded. She had lost her own birth mother, but that at least had been fairly sudden. They hadn't had to sit and watch her going downhill. "What happened?" she asked in a whisper.
"It was slow, really," Alex said. "She was lucky. We were lucky. All of us. We had some great times. But then, one morning," she took a deep breath, "she and Dad went out in the car. That was unusual, they didn't like to leave us alone. But it was fine, I was 17, Chris was 11. I could look after him. I think that's what Dad was relying on," she looked anguished.
"You don't have to do this," Cassie said again, seeing how distraught Alex was.
"I want to," Alex said quietly. "They went off. They seemed happy. Mom hugged me tight as she left, told me she loved me. Same with Chris. And that was the last time I saw them," her voice was small and tight.
"Oh God," Cassie said. "Both of them?"
Alex nodded. "Chris still thinks it was a car wreck. I don't want him to know any different," she said, almost fiercely. "He lost enough of his childhood."
"But it wasn't?" Cassie asked.
Alex shook her head. "They had it all planned. Well, Mom had it planned, she didn't expect Dad to kill himself too. Mom was a chemist, you see. Before she got sick. So she had prepared a drink that she kept hidden, locked away from us kids. But she knew that the time had come. She wrote me a wonderful letter, explaining it all. How she wanted me and Chris to remember her as a real person, not a cripple, unable to do anything, finally drowning in her own saliva. So Dad took her to a place in the forest, well away from anybody likely to pass by. They made love, one final time. Then Dad held her as she drank, cradled her, stayed with her until she had gone. Then he lay her down, crossed her hands over, as if in prayer, and put a photo of the family under them. Then he lay down next her, and shot himself in the head."
Cassie gasped in horror. "Oh Alex," she said. "I'm so sorry."
"He wrote me a letter," Alex continued. "Told me everything. It was in his back pocket. Mom's letter was in the car. He told me he couldn't live without her. He said he knew he was being unfair to me, that I would have to look after Chris. But he said he just couldn't do it. I hated him for that at first."
"At first?" Cassie's words were soft.
"I've forgiven him now," Alex said. "Both of them. But Chris will never know, I hope."
"What about the newspapers?" Cassie asked.
"Dad's brother got it hushed up," Alex explained. "He was a big shot journalist at one stage, and he knew the people to talk to. Explained that it was to protect an orphaned 11-year-old. He never found out about it. I have to hope he doesn't look too closely now or in the future."
"How old is he now?" Cassie asked.
"He's nearly 21," Alex told her. "Lives in New York. Started as an intern with a big advertising agency, apparently."
"Apparently?" Cassie asked.
"We don't talk," Alex said. "He won't have anything to do with me."
"How come?" Cassie asked.
"I fell in love with his best friend's mom," Alex said in a quiet voice. "He couldn't forgive me. He hated me for it. As soon as he hit 18, he was out of the house. I haven't seen him since." Her hands unconsciously twisted the linen tablecloth as she struggled not to cry.
"So what happened?" Cassie wanted to know.
Alex looked up at her. "It was awful," she said. "Terrible. Chris was 15, I was 22. I didn't mean to do it, Cass, truly I didn't. I didn't even know Jess was gay. All I knew is that she was the mom of David, Chris's best friend, that she was a widow, and that she was 13 years older than me. We'd talked, a few times, outside the school, whenever I took Chris over to their house. That sort of thing. She'd mentioned a 'Carl', I just assumed he had been her husband."
"Go on," Cassie said gently.
"It was the fifth anniversary of our parents' death. Chris never came to the cemetery, he wouldn't even talk about Mom and Dad. He was at school anyway. I went to the cemetery alone. I wasn't paying attention. I was too wrapped up in myself I guess. But as I got back to my bike... I used to ride a motorbike then... I heard a voice calling me. I looked up, and it was Jess. She'd come to visit Carl's grave, she told me. And then I just lost it. I couldn't cope with all the grief, the misery, that seemed to surround everybody. I just broke down. I hadn't really cried, not much, not since they died. I had to be strong for Chris, you see?" she looked up at Cassie through her tears.
"I understand," Cassie said softly.
"She was so kind," Alex continued. "She just held me. And then she took me back to her house. Said we'd come back for the bike later. Sat me on her couch, wrapped me in a blanket, gave me hot tea. Just listened. I hadn't had anybody to talk to. It was such a relief. I told her everything. She was so sweet."
"She sounds lovely," Cassie said.
"She was. She is. An amazing woman. She's happy now, thank God. After the way I treated her, I'm just so pleased she's found someone. She's in Canada. Moved there two years ago. Got married last year. Her wife's expecting a baby real soon."
"You're still in contact?" Cassie felt an irrational pang of jealousy, which she tamped down immediately.
"Yeah," Alex said. "She's been a wonderful friend to me, even after I cut her out of my life. But I'm jumping ahead. She was so kind to me that day. She just held me, made me feel safe for the first time since Mom and Dad died. And later, we went back to get the bike. She hugged me, and told me she'd be there for me. The next day, I went to her house, took her some flowers, wanted to thank her for what she'd done for me. We sat in the kitchen while she made coffee. I noticed a photo of a beautiful red-headed woman on the wall, and she saw me looking at it. She told me that the photo was of Carl. Carla. She called her Carl. She told me she fell in love with her when she was just 17, and they had been together since then. Until she died two years before. Carl was David's natural mother."
"Oh that's so sad," Cassie said.
"Yeah," Alex agreed. "But Jess wasn't bitter, not like I was about Mom and Dad. She was just so full of love. We started seeing each other every day; after taking Chris to school, I would go to her house and we would just talk. And then one morning, about two weeks after that day at the cemetery, I suddenly realized I had fallen in love with her. She seemed to realize it at just the same moment. So," she blushed recounting the story, "we went upstairs. It was just so amazing Cassie. She was so beautiful. And she made me feel beautiful. I truly don't believe that I understood what happiness could be, until that moment."
Alex took another deep breath, and tried to steady herself.
"Alex?" Cassie said gently. "The meal was great. I don't need dessert, or coffee. Why don't we get the check, and take a walk in the park? You can finish telling the story there if you want to. You look like you need some air."
Alex just looked at her for a few, long seconds. "You're incredible, Cassandra," she said finally. "That'd be good."
= = =
"I hope they're having a good time," Janet turned to Sam, in whose arms she was lying on the couch.
Sam smiled. "Yeah," she said. "I hope so. Alex seemed real nervous at work this morning. I think she has some stuff to share with Cass."
Janet looked at her quizzically. "Spill," she demanded drily.
Sam cupped her cheek and kissed her softly. "Just a few things in Alex's file, family stuff," she said. "I shouldn't say too much. Just she's had a hard time. I think she's gonna tell Cass all about it tonight, she said something about wanting Cassie to know all about her history. Told me she wanted Cass to know what she'd be taking on."
"Bad?" Janet asked.
"Nothing for us to be concerned about," Sam reassured her. "I swear. Just some stuff she's had to cope with."
Janet nodded. "I understand," she said. "You don't want to betray any confidence."
Sam kissed her again. "She'll likely tell you soon anyway," she said. "It's just not my place, honey. D'you mind?"
Janet nodded, and snuggled into Sam's side. "As long as it won't hurt Cassie," she said.
"It won't," Sam said. "She's a good person, Jan, a real good person. She's just had to cope with more than she should have."
"So's Cassie," Janet said sadly. "Maybe they'll be able to help each other?"
Sam nodded. "I think they will," she said softly.
= = =
Cassie took Alex's hand, and led her to a seat in the secluded area at the back of the park. "Are you okay?" she asked her.
"Yeah," Alex said. "I am. I swear. The story's nearly over. I just need you to hear it all."
"I'm listening," Cassie's voice was tender.
"Jess and I were together for nearly a year," Alex told her. "We saw each other almost every day. I tried to tell Chris about us, but he shut me down, as soon as I said I was in a relationship. Said he didn't want to hear about it. And he was so angry, Cass. Ever since Mom and Dad died, he seemed so angry all the time. Some of his opinions were so right wing, so intolerant. So I took the coward's way out, I didn't push it. I didn't even tell him I was gay. But then," she inhaled sharply at the memory, "there was that terrible day. When everything went to hell."
"What happened?" Cassie asked.
"Jess was over at our apartment. Chris and David were supposed to be at the mall, meeting their friends. But Chris came back unexpectedly, he'd left his wallet behind. And he walked in on us. In the bedroom. He was so angry, Cassie. I'll never forget the things he said to me."
Cassie wrapped her arms round Alex, and held her tight. "It's okay," she said gently. "It's okay."
Alex shook her head. "It got worse," she said. "I didn't think it could, but it did. Chris stormed out, and Jess and I were just staring at each other. And then I heard the motorbike start up. I flung some clothes on and ran downstairs, just in time to see Chris heading off on the bike. He had no idea how to ride it Cassie. He didn't even have a helmet on. And that's when he hit the fire hydrant. I thought he was dead, Cassie, I've never been so scared." Alex started to cry in earnest.
Cassie was aghast, and could do nothing but hold her friend, trying to soothe her.
"He shattered his ankle. Had to have it pinned. He never forgave me. He came back home after six weeks, and he barely spoke to me. I split up with Jess immediately, I thought it was all my fault he got hurt. She tried to get me to accept that his accident wasn't my doing, but I just couldn't. I hated myself. Chris hated me. He stayed until he was 18, then demanded the college money that Mom and Dad had put aside for him, and left. I didn't hear anything from him for over a year. But then he got in contact with David, Jess's son. So I finally had an address, and a telephone number. I keep trying, but he still doesn't want to know me."
"Yet you still got him a theater ticket for that night?" Cassie was surprised.
"I thought that maybe, after all this time, he might come round. But the message he left me was... vitriolic. So I have to accept that he's no longer a part of my life. I have accepted that now, I think. I can't forgive myself for the way that I treated Jess though, I just cut her off. She was heartbroken."
"You were trying to do the right thing," Cassie said. "You were trying to help your brother. Alex, I'm so sorry. How awful for you."
"I'm not gonna try any more," Alex said. "I can't keep apologizing to him. Or put my life on hold any more. I treated Jess appallingly because I was trying to do the right thing for Chris. No more. I want my life back. I want a relationship. I want you Cassandra Fraiser, more than I have ever wanted anybody, not even Jess. And I refuse to feel bad about it. You make me feel so good, I won't let Chris ruin that."
"You shouldn't feel bad, Lex," Cassie said. "You didn't do anything wrong. You fell in love, with a wonderful woman. That's all. If Chris couldn't accept that, that's not your fault."
"Cutting Jess off like that was my fault though," Alex said miserably. "And she was so sweet, so kind about it all. The hospital was so expensive, the bill from Chris's accident. I thought I was going to have to use my college fund, get a job, give up my education, my dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. But when I went to pay the bill, it had already been paid."
"Jess?" Cassie whispered.
"Jess," Alex agreed. "She absolutely insisted. Carl had made a lot of money, got in on the dotcom bubble, and got out in time before it all went wrong. So she had left Jess a lot of money. And she wouldn't take no for an answer. Even after I told her I could never see her again. I've been paying it back since I started working. It's nearly all paid now. Jess didn't want to take the repayments, but she finally agreed. I swear, she is the sweetest person. But it's not all bad," she smiled, looking up into Cassie's face. "Jess fell in love a couple of years ago with a wonderful woman, and moved to Canada to be with her. They got married last year, even invited me to the ceremony."
"Did you go?" Cassie asked.
Alex shook her head. "I couldn't face it," she admitted. "I sent a gift. We send cards, Christmas, birthdays, all that. The occasional email. I emailed her last week in fact, told her all about you."
"Oh yeah?" Cassie smiled. "And what did she say?"
"Just one line," Alex said, with a smile.
"What did it say?" Cassie was curious.
"It just said 'trust yourself, and be happy'," Alex replied. "So that's what I plan to do."
"I hope I can make you happy," Cassie's voice cracked as she spoke. "I truly want to."
"Do you still want to be with me, after hearing all that?" Alex asked.
"More than anything," Cassie told her, with feeling.
"Then you've made me happy, happier than I can ever deserve," Alex replied, cupping the back of Cassie's head and leaning forward to kiss her gently.
Next: Part Of The Family