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Conversations in the Dark

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      “Why are we even talking about this? You’re not …” Ella clenched her teeth hard. She was almost incoherent in a dizzying deluge of anger and frustration and embarrassment. “You’re not exactly in a position to talk!” She glared from Jamie to Claire, and despite the angry and disrespectful tone in Ella’s voice, Claire expelled her breath silently, relief flooding her entire body. 

      Beth closed her eyes in unspoken relief, and then quickly braced herself for what she knew would be a torrent of angry words from her sister.

      Ella fixed her fury on Claire. “Or did you forget that we walked in on you guys making out in the damn kitchen? And Jamie’s hands were all over your ass, and you were like …”

      “Ella!” Jamie said sharply, “please do not disrespect your Mam by saying whatever you were going to say.”

      “Well, she was all over you-”

      “Ella, that’s enough!” Jamie interjected. “I will not allow you to talk about yer Mam like that. I think you need to go to your room and take a breather until you’re ready to continue this discussion more calmly.”

      “Are you seriously giving me a time-out? What am I? Nine?”

      She looked at Claire for support, but Claire shook her head. “Jamie’s right. Go upstairs for a bit and decompress. We’ll continue when you’re ready to be more respectful to both me and Jamie.”

      Beth bit the inside of her cheek and plucked at the seat piping again. Ella’s face was hot and flushed, and she turned on her heel.

      “Give me your phone, please,” Claire held her hand out to Ella.

      Ella’s jaw dropped in disbelief, but she said nothing, glaring at Jamie and Claire and leaning over the table to toss her phone haphazardly onto their sofa. It bounced off the cushion and clattered loudly onto the slate tiled floor. She looked at them defiantly, well beyond caring about the condition of her phone.

      “Ella, please pick up yer phone and hand it to your Mam. Respectfully and gently.” Jamie’s face expressed his exasperation, but his voice was deliberately calm.

      Ella huffed irritably as she stepped around the table to pick up her phone. The thin glass screen protector was shattered, but she didn't look at it long enough to figure out whether the screen itself was broken too. She placed it firmly in Claire’s outstretched hand.

      “There. Happy?”

      “Thank you, Ella,” Jamie said. “I think you’re going to need a quiet evening at home tonight, to think about what just happened during this conversation. Beth will text Ty to let him know you won't be there.”

      Ella’s jaw dropped again as the realization sank in that Jamie was grounding her. She looked at Claire, her eyes pleading and questioning at the same time.

      Claire nodded, confirming that she supported Jamie’s decision. “Go on upstairs, Ella. I’ll come and chat with you in a little while. Once you've had a chance to compose yourself a little more.”

      Ella walked briskly towards the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.

      A heavy silence filled the air around them, and Beth stared across the coffee table at Jamie and Claire.

      “I’ll stay home too,” she offered quietly. “I’ll cancel with Hannah.”

      “No, sweetheart,” Claire replied. “I know you want to support Ella, but it’s your last weekend before Deacon leaves for the winery, and you should go and have a fun night. I think Ella needs some time to think about things without anyone else around. Jamie and I will wait until she calms down and then we’ll chat with her.”

      “Mom, please don’t be too mad at her,” she began, her chin wobbling slightly. “Jamie, you too. I know she said some awful things to you, but please don’t be too hard on her for that.”

      “We won’t be harsh on her, leannan. It’s clear that she’s very upset and we won’t do anything to make it worse. This was a conversation that needed to happen, and we will continue it with both of you at a more opportune time. We have some things to work on with Ella right now, though. Your Mam and I want you to go and have a good time. Will you text Ty, please?” His tone was gentle, but brooked no argument.

      Beth nodded quickly, large tears balancing precariously on her lower lashes, before finally rolling off and chasing each other down her cheeks. She dashed them away on the back of her hand, and tapped on her phone.

      “Maybe have Deacon pick you up earlier,” Claire suggested. “You can go for boba or something if it’s too early to go to Hannah’s house. That way, we can get Ella back down here as soon as possible and we can chat freely.”

      “Okay,” Beth sniffed, as she continued to tap on her phone.

      “Leannan, I’m sorry things went a bit sideways. Please don't let it spoil your night,” Jamie’s tone was more tender now. “We will make sure Ella feels supported and loved as soon as she’s ready to come down and talk.”

      “Okay,” she nodded. “Just don’t be angry with her. She gets really mad anytime someone calls her out, and that’s why she was being so sassy. She didn't mean to be disrespectful. She also didn’t mean to misbehave last night. In the media room. She’s probably just scared and doesn't know how to deal with it.”

      “Scared of what?” Claire asked, mildly alarmed.

      “I don’t know. Of losing Jamie’s love maybe, and of disappointing you, Mom. Maybe she’s scared of losing Ty - I don’t know. I need to talk to her and find out what snapped in her.”

      “That’s not going to happen,” Jamie said, a worried frown creasing his forehead. “Losing my love - it will never happen, leannan, and that goes for both of you. Things will come up in our family that we won't all agree with, but I’m not going to stop loving you because we have a big argument.”

      “And the same goes for disappointing me,” Claire added. “There’s nothing that you girls can say or do that can't be resolved by all of us talking through it. Not all our serious talks will end up like this.”

      Beth nodded silently through her tears.

      “What did you mean about Ella being scared of losing Ty? Are they going through a rough time already? Is he making demands on her that she’s scared to refuse in case he breaks up with her?”

      “No, Mom! No - he wouldn’t do that. I’ve seen how respectful he is, even when Ella…” she paused and expelled a sigh. “I think she’s scared of being rejected by him too if she doesn't do things that so many other kids our age are doing, so she makes dumb choices to keep him interested.” 

      Jamie and Claire fixated on Beth’s choice of phrase “scared of being rejected by him too”. Neither commented on it in front of her.

      Beth wiped her tears on a napkin and looked at Jamie and Claire with a slight frown. “You know we’ve been talking with Serena about stuff with Dad. I think that’s brought up a lot of feelings with Ella. With me too - but more so with Ella, because she feels everything so intensely and gets mad more easily than I do.”

      “Stuff like …?” Claire prompted.

      “Some anger and a lot of hurt that we like to think we’ve dealt with, but talking to Serena reminded us of a lot of things Dad has said and done that makes us feel … pretty shitty, I guess. We shared little incidents and conversations with her, and we’ll probably continue to share things in therapy as we remember them.”

      “Recent things, or from when you were little?”

      “Both.”

 

      Claire bit her lower lip. When they were much younger, Beth and Ella had grabbed and relished any attention Frank had given them. They were too young to understand the disengagement that got progressively worse as they grew. As pre-teens, the girls had Henry as a stable father figure, who loved their Mom and showed them great affection too. He took a genuine interest in them, and even though he wasn’t overly effusive and demonstrative, their world felt secure and safe with him in it, and Frank's disinterest didn't seem quite as jarring. 

      The weekly chats and summer vacations with Frank and Kelly, and eventually their half siblings, was something they looked forward to, and Claire held onto the hope that Frank would eventually realize what a gift he had in his daughters. She pushed her own feelings about Frank aside, and forced herself to regard the girls' annual vacation as essential to maintaining a relationship with their father and his family. 

      With the crushing loss of Henry as a loving husband and steady father figure, Claire focused on working through her grief and supporting the girls through theirs, and they all felt somewhat rudderless for a while.

      As they crept towards their mid-teens, Claire had become increasingly disturbed and disappointed by Frank’s lack of involvement and interest - never asking about anything other than their grades and school work. Claire encouraged them to send him pictures and videos in the hope that it would spark something fatherly within him, and maybe he would start to ask about their friends, or their volleyball, or cheer, or horse-riding. But he never did. He asked the same perfunctory questions time after time - ‘You girls doing okay? How was school this week? Did you finish your history project? What grade did you get? What could you have done better to go from 97% to 100%?’

      The first time she and the girls had discussed Frank’s parenting approach was when the girls were about to start freshman year at school. After cheer tryouts during the summer, they had both been selected for All-State, a huge accomplishment at the age of 14. Frank had sat through their FaceTime call somewhat impatiently as they excitedly described the tryouts and the exhilarating process they had gone through during selection - the hours of rehearsals, the thumping music, the makeup and hair, the warm-ups and the sheer sweat-inducing nervousness and stress in those final few seconds before they ran onto the mat.

      Frank had listened with cynicism all over his face, and when they stopped gushing with excitement, there was a long pause. 

      “Still determined to carry on with cheer in high school, hmmm? Isn’t there something more serious and respectable that you could do? Lacrosse? Track? Yearbook? Robotics Club, even? Waving pom-poms and prancing around in short skirts isn’t going to get you any scholarships to a good college, you know.”

      Claire had been quietly preparing dinner in the background, and she had spun around to look at the girls when she heard Frank’s comment. She vividly remembered Beth’s crestfallen face and Ella’s open-mouthed shock. It was the only time she had confronted Frank in front of the girls. Marching over to the iPad on the counter, she inserted herself between the girls, taking in Frank’s eye-roll and irritated expression. 

      “Ah, the virago herself! I suppose you are in full support of our daughters parading their scantily clad bodies in front of horny athletes and crowds of supporters? Hardly surprising, considering the genetics. Do they know you used to get paid for displaying your arse all over town in hooker underwear and bikinis?”

      “This call is about to end, Frank, but before it does, I urge you to take the time to watch some of the videos the girls send you. You have no idea of the amount of dedication and determination it takes to make it to All-State. You are also clueless about the level of stamina, conditioning and physical exertion it takes for them to complete a flawless 3 minute routine. Educate yourself before crushing your daughters’ spirit and enthusiasm.”

      She had tapped out of the call, abandoning dinner preparation to pull up a stool and begin a long discussion with the girls. They knew about Claire’s modeling career, and they knew she had done it to earn money to support them and to put herself through college. It was hard for them to hide their horror and disgust at Frank's denigrating comments about Claire. It was clear to them that she was disturbed and upset by what he had said, but she stoically continued her conversation with the girls; encouraging them, expressing her pride in their achievements, and reminding them that their father might have had a rough day and didn't necessarily mean what he had said. 

      The girls’ questions and responses had revealed that they weren’t buying her attempts at explaining their father’s inappropriate behavior, and also underscored that they had slowly started to notice their father’s lack of genuine interest in their lives. 

      “It’s okay, Mom. He’s got two little kids that take up a lot of his time and attention. You support us in everything we do, and that's awesome. Maybe when Frankie and Lily are older, he’ll have more time to take an interest in what we're doing.”

      Claire’s heart had hurt at that hopeful comment, because she knew there was no chance of that happening. In fact, she had a hollow feeling that he would disengage even more as they progressed through their teens. 

      She'd apologized for hijacking their call with their father and for being so confrontational, and had made a concerted effort over the next few years to avoid disparaging Frank in front of the girls. But they read her body language and expressions, and knew that there was no love lost on him. They started to skirt the subject of Frank, and discussed their feelings with each other, rather than Claire, but neither of them was equipped to handle the depth of emotion and rejection that their father's attitude ingrained in them. 

 

 

      Now, three years into their teens, therapy sessions had just started scratching at the scabs, revealing some of the raw, painful damage below.

      Ella’s earlier explosion, coupled with Beth’s partial revelations, brought on a wave of concern for her daughters and Jamie recognized Claire’s stress signals immediately. The slight frown, the biting on her lower lip, followed by the pursing of her lips, all betrayed her attempts to conceal her inner turmoil.

      Her thumb unconsciously played with her ring. He took her hand in his and gently stroked her palm with his thumb.

      “Beth, did the recent stuff you shared about your father during therapy have something to do with you and boys? About relationships? Has your father ever spoken to you about his expectations about boyfriends and dating?”

      Beth hesitated. “Not really. Not in a lot of detail.” She looked anxious and troubled.

      “Beth, ‘not really’ isn't going to work for me. If Dad said things to you that were upsetting, you need to tell me. I’m not going to start a big fight with him over it, but maybe I can help you work through it. Or is it stuff you're already talking about with Serena?”

      Beth shook her head. “No, we haven't talked about this stuff yet. But I‘m totally bringing it up with Serena next week. I think Ella needs help working through it. I do too.”

      “Can you share specifically what he said that you both need help with?”

      Beth hesitated again and glanced at Jamie.

      “Leannan, if you prefer that I give you and your Mam room to talk more privately, I’ll go inside.”

      “No. No, it’s not because you’re here, Jamie. Mom, I feel like we need help working through a lot of general stuff about our father. So we need time to work on that with Serena, but I think Ella’s kind of stuck on some of the things he said when we were there this past summer. I just don’t feel that it's my place to share. If Ella wants to share with you, then it has to come from her.”

      Claire nodded, “Okay sweetheart. I understand. I want you to know that Jamie and I will be gentle on her when it comes to whatever difficulties she’s going through, but firm on her disrespectfulness. We would do the same with you. She’s still grounded, and that's not changing tonight. She will need to apologize to me and Jamie. We get that she’s clearly going through something that’s too big for her to handle, and we’ll help her through it. You too. Okay?” She looked at Beth earnestly, and she nodded in response. “Your phone just buzzed.”

      Beth looked down at her phone. “Deacon will be here in thirty minutes. He’s taking me to PinkaBella Cupcakes and we’ll buy some to take to Hannah’s too.”

      “Okay, sweetheart. Go get ready and come say goodbye before you go. It’s probably best that you don't go in to see Ella. We want you to go and have a good time, and if you go into Ella’s room now, it’ll upset you.”

      “Okay, Mom.”

      She disappeared into the kitchen, and Jamie turned to Claire.

      “Jamie, I’m so sorry-”

      “No, mo ghràidh, you’ve nothing to be sorry for. The whole situation ran away from us. We shouldn’t be overly harsh on Ella. She’s been through a lot over the last few weeks. First there was the Anja situation, then the Haas/Fulton dilemma. It goes without saying that the accident was enormously traumatic, and she’s still working through the fallout from that. Now she's in her first ever relationship, and she’s navigating all the emotions and temptations that come with that.”

      Claire nodded, her eyes pained and her heart heavy. “That’s a lot for a 16 year old to deal with.”

      “And it’s not even half of it. Add the fact that I’ve moved in, and even though I’m doing my best to be a decent dad, and I share a special bond with both of them, it’s still an intrusion in their lives. Not to mention the issues we weren't even aware of. We’re just finding out that Frank said some things that must have affected them both pretty deeply for Beth to be so guarded about it.”

      “Jamie, you realize you’re the only positive in all of that, right?” She paused and let her words percolate through his anguish. She didn't want Jamie to take on guilt or self blame for the showdown that had just occurred on the patio.

      He nodded distractedly, twirling one of her curls around his forefinger. Her heart hurt at the concern and self doubt in his eyes. 

      “Don’t doubt yourself and your importance in their lives, my love. You’re an amazing dad to the girls - they would be the first to say that. You’ve embraced your role unquestioningly and wholeheartedly. We’re all still navigating our way through our new family dynamic and figuring things out together. The girls know that too.”

      “I don't feel like a very successful dad right now. Was I too harsh, babe? I’ve never grounded anyone in my life.” He winced and she felt his pain.

      “No, you weren’t, Jamie,” she cupped his face gently and pressed a gentle kiss on his lips, before dropping her hands to hold both of his. “Over the years, the occasional outburst has taught me not to second guess myself. We’re parenting. That’s our job, it’s our responsibility and we owe it to them to do the best we can. That includes talking to them about difficult things like making good behavioral choices with boyfriends. We can’t predict their reactions, and we can’t back off because they don’t like what they’re hearing. We did exactly what we should have done. I know it’s hard, my love. Neither of us wants to see them hurting.”

      She smiled softly before continuing, “It’s not just the girls who love having you as their dad. Do you have any idea how much I appreciate having you with me to help me through these moments? Ella needed to hear you stand up for me and she needed to see me supporting your decisions. She needed to see one parent do that for the other, as we did for each other tonight. And most importantly, she needs to expect that from the person she ends up sharing her life with, and she needs to do the same. That goes for Beth too. They’re learning valuable life lessons from us right now, as painful as they are. It’s new territory for all of us, but we can’t let one heated moment derail us, Jamie.”

      “You’re right, but my heart hurts so much for her right now. Will ye go up and see if she’s okay when Beth leaves?”

      “I will.” She gnawed painfully at her lip. “The Frank thing is throwing me for a loop, Jamie. What the hell did he say to our girls? I'm going to call Serena on Monday morning to ensure that she raises it at therapy.”

      Before he could respond, Beth emerged from the kitchen, freshly showered and dressed in black jeans, a fitted sweater and her Nike Air Force 1 sneakers.

      “You look lovely, sweetheart.” 

      Claire and Jamie rose to their feet and Beth hugged Claire tightly.

      “I didn’t go into Ella's room. Please go to her now, Mom.”

      “I’ll go as soon as you leave.”

      “I love you mom. See you later.”

      “Love you too, honey. Try to push this messy discussion aside for tonight and focus on having a good time.”

      Beth nodded somberly.

      She stepped towards Jamie and he extended his arms to take her in a hug. She hugged him back firmly.

      “What time should we be back?” she asked, her cheek squished against his shirt.

      Jamie swallowed hard, relieved that Beth had settled right back into the comfortable parameters of her relationship with him. “Anytime between 11:30 and midnight,” he raised an eyebrow at Claire, and she nodded.

      “Okay, see you then. Love you, Jamie.”

      “I love you too, leannan.” He dropped a kiss on her curls. “Have the best time. We’ll take good care of Ella, I promise.”

      She nodded quickly and hurried across the patio to meet Deacon on the driveway.

      Jamie looked at Claire pleadingly, and she squeezed his hand.

      “I'm going, I’m going,” she smiled. “I know you're anxious for me to go to her - just know that I might be up there for a half hour, maybe an hour. Her reaction here was a cry for help, and I’m going to need some time to try and get a sense of what’s going on. You’re going to torment yourself down here on your own during that time, so I'm sending you on an errand to pick up some groceries and things I need for Nonna’s guestroom.”

      “Great idea. Where’s the list?”

      “I’ll text it to you.”

      He nodded and picked up Ella’s phone to examine it. The corner of the protective cover was cracked, and he picked gently at the corner of the broken screen protector. It peeled away easily, revealing a shattered screen. He tapped the screen gingerly and it appeared to be in working order, displaying the time and her lock screen picture through the zig-zagged mess of broken glass. It was a picture of the girls with Jamie and Claire at the breakfast cruise after the proposal the previous weekend. There were several texts and Snapchat notifications from Ty.

      “Let her know it still works but the screen will need to be replaced,” he said, handing Claire the phone.

 

      Claire tapped gently on Ella’s door. “Ella, I’m coming in to chat, okay?”

      She slowly pushed the door open and peered around it. Ella was lying curled up on the bed, almost in a fetal position, under the chunky-stitch blanket Nonna had made for her. She had pulled on a light, long-sleeved sweater and was gripping the blanket tightly. Claire padded across to her bed, her heart heavy at the emotional pain that had manifested on her daughters’ face - and in her room. While Ella had been upstairs, she had cried so much that her eyes were red and swollen half shut. A mass of crumpled tissues lay on the floor.

      Claire sat on the available sliver of mattress and said nothing for a few moments, allowing Ella to get used to her calm, reassuring presence. 

      Ella eyed Claire with trepidation. After a few moments, she realized that her mom didn't appear fired up and angry, so she scooted back a little, allowing Claire room to shuffle into a more comfortable position on the bed. It was a clear indication that Ella was ready to talk.

      “I threw up, Mom. I vommed up my whole panini, I think. I’m sorry, Mom. I was totally not expecting that, but I made it to the bathroom in time, and I cleaned up, so there’s no mess.”

      “It’s okay, sweetheart. No need to apologize. I do that too when something happens that is severely emotionally shocking or painful to me.” It struck her again how Ella shared some very marked traits from both Frank and herself. 

      “Can I hold your hand, Ella? Jamie always does that with me when we have something difficult to talk about. He got that from his dad. When they were having tough conversations, it was a reassurance that his dad still loved him.”

      Ella slowly released her grip on the blanket and placed her hand on the mattress next to Claire’s leg. Claire clasped her hand gently in hers.

      “Jamie pretty much holds your hand all the time - whether you’re talking about difficult stuff or not,” she remarked in a small voice, attempting a wobbly smile.

      “He does, doesn’t he?” Claire smiled back.

      “Is he mad at me, Mom? Are you mad at me?”

      “We’re concerned, not mad,” Claire replied. “We didn’t enjoy the yelling and the disrespectful things you said, but we’re worried about what's going on in your heart and your head right now. You’ve always been my feisty one, Ella, and you know I’ve always called you that. I’ve laughed about your sassiness as you’ve grown up. But today was different. It was hard to watch. There were so many emotions wrapped up in your reactions and responses, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on, and where it’s all coming from.”

      Ella nodded and bit her lip. A tear slid out of the corner of her eye and rolled across the bridge of her nose before plopping on the pillow. Claire’s heart contracted painfully and she squeezed Ella’s hand gently.

      “I didn’t mean to disrespect you and Jamie. I’m sorry, Mom. He’s mad at me, right? I know he is. I feel like I messed things up with him. I heard the garage door open and I heard him drive away in his truck. I screwed up badly, right?”

      Her body shook with a fresh bout of loud sobs, and Claire rubbed her back gently until the sobs subsided and she was sure Ella could hear her properly.

      “You didn’t mess up with Jamie, sweetheart. Why would you think that? He literally begged me to come and see you because he’s so worried about you. And the reason you heard his truck is because I sent him to Met Market to get some things for tomorrow’s dinner with Nonna. Otherwise he’d be sitting downstairs frantic with worry about you.”

      “Even after I said such ugly things?”

      “Yes. He loves you and Beth so much. I know it sounds cheesy, but a mom and dad’s love is unconditional. It’s not like we only love you when you’re doing all the right things, or when you’re being happy and pleasant. We love you through the tough times too.”

      “You guys all looked so mad at me. Even Beth.”

      “I think we all had a moment of panic when we thought you were going to say ‘You’re not my father’.”

      “What?” Ella rolled over and stared at Claire in disbelief. She scooted up into a sitting position, propped up against the headboard, and looked at Claire in horror. “I never said that Mom! I would never say that to Jamie.”

      “I know, I know. We thought you were going to say that in anger, and everyone just held their breath.”

      “Even Jamie?” she whispered, her face tormented and fraught.

      “I .. I think so sweetheart.” She answered hesitantly, mindful of Ella’s fragile state. “But it turned out okay, because you didn’t say that,” she added quickly and reassuringly.

       Ella sobbed loudly again, “But he thought I was going to Mom. He thought I was going to say the most hurtful thing that any step kid can say to a step parent. Why would he ever even think I’d consider saying that when I wish-.” She cut herself short and reached for a tissue and began sobbing again, more distraught than ever. 

      Claire shuffled closer to Ella and held her in her arms as she sobbed on her shoulder, sniffling and blubbering as she tried to speak.

       “Mom, please tell Jamie …” she stopped speaking momentarily as sobs wracked her body. “Please tell him I would never say that to him. Beth and I … “ She paused and took a deep, ragged breath.

      “You and Beth what, sweetheart?”

      “We always say that it would have been so awesome if Jamie had been our real dad - our biological father - because he is more of a real dad to us than Dad has been. And now he thinks I hate him. Or he just hates me, I don’t know, Mooooom,” she wailed.

      Claire held her and rubbed her back soothingly.

      “He doesn’t hate you, Ella. He loves you and Beth so much and he shows you in so many ways.”

      Ella nodded glumly and tugged her sleeves down a little more.

      “When you’re ready to go back downstairs, we’ll go down together and you can talk to Jamie. He’s going to want to hug you and reassure you too. Okay?”

      She nodded, her expression bleak.

      “In the meanwhile, is there anything that you want to talk about? It doesn’t have to be what we were chatting about on the patio. I'm concerned about things that are upsetting or worrying you. I want to try and help you process some of the emotions you’re feeling, but I’m not sure where to start.”

      “I don’t know Mom. I guess I just want to make sure you know that nothing is happening between me and Ty … like sexual stuff,” she blurted out clumsily. “I mean, we were kissing, Mom, but everyone does that. And maybe we would have done a little more than that if you and Jamie hadn’t walked in, but not sex, you know.”

      “Okay. Again, Ella, we’re going to get into awkward territory here, but we need to talk about some of this. Are you sure it’s okay to talk now, or do you want to do it later in the week?”

      “No Mom, let’s do it now. Nonna will be here tomorrow, and I don’t want to do this talk while she's here. I want to get it over with.” Her eyes were swollen and sad, and Claire nodded sympathetically, running a gentle hand over Ella’s curls.

      “Okay. First, I know that some of your friends are sexually active, and when that happens, it multiplies the temptation for you tenfold. At your age, friends are such a major influence in your life. I remember my teen friends in Scotland very well. Still keep in touch with some of them on Facebook, in fact. When we were together, we felt invincible, and if one friend got away with doing something she shouldn’t be doing, it affected the rest of us too.”

      “Mom, I’m a good kid, overall. I am! I work hard to maintain my 4.0, I’m respectful to my teachers, I’m not mean to classmates.”

      “You are a great kid, Ella. I’m so blessed with you and Beth-”

      “I don’t let what my friends do influence me a whole lot. I mean, yeah, I buy the clothes and shoes that everyone’s wearing, mostly. But I don’t just follow along with the friends who make dumb choices. I promise! If I did, I’d be vaping and sending nudes and doing … oral sex. And I’m not doing any of that.” Her words tumbled out of her, reflecting the chaotic explosion of thoughts and feelings running through her. 

      “That may be the case now, sweetheart, but as you and Ty get closer emotionally, the temptation to get more physical will be more difficult to resist. Your outburst today tells me you’re not emotionally ready for that yet.” She let her words sink in, watching Ella’s face carefully.

      Ella bit her lower lip and nodded slowly. “Mom … I kinda freaked out when Jamie talked about me initiating stuff with Ty, but the truth is … and I know you’re going to be mad … the truth is I have encouraged him a little bit. But again, not sex. Just little things, Mom. And he’s so scared of Jamie, and I kind of tease him about that a bit.”

      “I’m not mad, Ella. I understand that you and Ty are exploring parts of yourselves that feel new and exciting now that you’re in a relationship. But when you encourage certain things, you need to remember that he has feelings and urges too. If you’re letting him believe you’re consenting to that level of intimacy, then things could very quickly get out of control and become bigger than you originally intended.”

      “Mom, he’s never done anything without asking me if it’s okay. And we haven't done anything extreme. Like … he asked if …” she paused awkwardly and closed her eyes. “Oh, God, this is so embarrassing.”

      “It’s okay, sweetheart.”

      “He asked if it was okay to touch my waist and tummy area, and I said yes.” Her eyes met Claire’s fleetingly, before looking down at her hands as she waited nervously for her response.

      “I’m glad to hear that he asked and waited for you to respond. But touching like that is quickly going to lead to other things, Ella. Jamie and I want you to just slow down. There's no need for you to rush into things.”

      Ella nodded, looking earnestly at Claire.

      “I’m not ready to have sex with Ty. I know that, and he does too.” She paused to blow her nose. “But I’m so scared he’ll drop me if I don’t at least show him I’m interested in having sex eventually. Like maybe when we’re 17. I don’t know.”

      “You’re scared he’ll lose interest in you?”

      “Yeah. He has a lot of girls crushing on him, and I’m scared that he’ll reject me for one of them who’s more willing to … put out. Sorry about the terminology,” she grimaced. “I just can’t deal with more …” She stopped and bit her lower lip.

      “Rejection?” Claire prompted, and Ella nodded sadly.

      Claire expelled a soft sigh as she contemplated her daughter’s words. 

      “Ella, I find that so upsetting.”

      “What, Mom?”

      “The fact that you feel the need to compete with these ‘crushing’ girls for Ty’s attention and affection.” Her heart contracted hard at the thought of Ella’s fragile sense of self-worth driving her to do things with Ty that she wasn’t ready for, in an attempt to hold onto him.

      “Ella, it seems to me that Ty really wants to be with you. He appears attentive and considerate and respectful. I've seen him cut up your food without anyone asking him to. He brings you Starbucks when he picks you up to take you to practice. He knows your favorite pizza toppings. Jamie said Ty was so excited when he raised the idea of surprising you girls at the winery last weekend. He really seems committed to the idea of being in a relationship with you. Right now, he respects you and your values, but if you keep opening doors for him and encouraging him to do things that he’s not ready for, or things he feels uncomfortable with, he will lose respect for you. You will lose your self-respect … and it’s a slippery slope from there.”

      She paused and studied Ella’s face, trying to determine the impact of her words on her troubled teen. Ella’s deeply furrowed brow and the way she gnawed on her lip were a giveaway, and entirely reminiscent of the way Claire herself analyzed problematic thoughts and situations. 

      “Ella, sweetheart, if he was interested in any of those girls, he would have picked one of them. But he picked you. Why do you feel unworthy of his affection?”

      Ella was quiet for a while, deep in thought. Finally she looked up at Claire, her expression somber. “Mom, I don’t really know how to talk about what I feel. I don’t want to talk about it with you. Not because I think you won’t understand, but because I don’t feel okay talking to you about …”

      “Your father?”

      Ella nodded, her eyes sad and tormented.

      “Ella, I feel like you might be just scratching the surface of deep-rooted feelings here, and it’s important to work through them in a safe and comfortable setting with someone who has the skills and experience to help you. How would you feel about me sharing what happened today with Serena, and having her work with you on this during therapy? If she feels you need more time during your sessions, or more frequent sessions, we can make some adjustments to our schedule.”

      “I’d like that,” she responded. “I need that. Beth and I both do.” 

      The muted sounds of the garage door rumbling open filtered through to Ella’s room, and she looked at Claire fearfully. “Jamie’s back. I’m kinda scared to see him. He was so mad at me for disrespecting you.”

      “Sweetheart, when you were little, what did we always do when we upset others?”

      “You taught us to start by apologizing.”

      Claire nodded. "Start there with Jamie."

      “I feel like an apology will sound so hollow after the things I said. Honestly, I’m sincerely sorry for everything I said, Mom. I should never have brought that up … you and Jamie in the kitchen. That was unacceptable. It was awkward at the time, but we dealt with it there and then, and I shouldn't have said those things. Jamie was right to call me on it. I mean it Mom, I’m not just trying to buy my way out of being grounded.”

      Claire leaned forward and kissed Ella on the forehead. “Apology accepted, Ella. I appreciate that you’ve thought about your words and how inappropriate they were.”

      Ella nodded.

      “We’re not going to ‘unground’ you, though. We still have to work through some stuff.”

      “I know, Mom. There’s no way I could go to Hannah’s now anyway. Can I text Beth to tell her I’m okay? She’s going to be worried, and I want her to enjoy the hangout tonight.”

      Ella’s eyes filled again, and she bit her lip as she thought of the consequences of her outburst. She would have loved to be there for Beth, whose last weekend with Deacon in Snoqualmie was probably tinged with sadness. 

      “Let’s go downstairs. You can start by apologizing to Jamie, and he’ll take it from there.”

      “Okay,” she agreed. “I want to wash my face first.”

      “Go ahead, I’ll wait for you.” Claire leaned against the door frame of Ella’s bathroom as she splashed cool water on her face and wiped away the smudged mascara from under her eyes.

      “Your phone still works, by the way. Jamie wanted me to tell you that. The glass screen is shattered and needs replacing, but it works."

      Ella winced at Claire's words. Not only was her shattered phone a harsh and humiliating reminder of her earlier behavior, it also meant that she would have to fork out a good amount of her allowance to repair it.

       "We’ll give it to you downstairs so you can text Beth and Ty. It looks like he sent you some messages.”

      “He’s so sweet, Mom. I hope he went to Hannah’s. It’s Deacon’s last weekend, and they’ve become pretty tight.”

      By the time Claire and Ella reached the kitchen, Jamie had put away the groceries, and was back outside on the patio. He was engrossed in his phone, and had texted back and forth with Tara for a few minutes. As happy as his manager was about Jamie’s engagement news, she had some concerns about the upcoming Paris trip and wanted to share her thoughts. 

      He was just wrapping up a text exchange with Anton Lukic when Ella spotted him through the window and froze momentarily.

      “Mom …” she bit her lip nervously.

      “He’s not mad at you, Ella. He’s not going to reject you or your apology. I promise.”

      She took Ella’s hand gently in hers, and led her through the door to the patio.

      Jamie looked up from his phone and smiled, rising to his feet and slipping his phone back in his pocket. He would talk to Anton during the week. For now, family matters were far more pressing.

      “I’m glad you came downstairs, leannan,” he said gently. “I was starting to worry.” He took in her very swollen eyes and his heart felt heavier in his chest, his empathy and concern evident as he slid a quick look at Claire. She gave him a small encouraging nod, and he took a few steps towards Ella. She closed the gap and flung her arms around his waist, burying her face in his shirt as deep sobs wracked her body anew. 

      Jamie stood strong and steadfast, his arms wrapped around her as he let her cry, occasionally patting her back comfortingly, and murmuring soothing Gaelic words.

      “Ella,” Claire said gently, “go ahead and sit with Jamie and chat for a little. I’ll make us some chamomile tea.” 

      Jamie settled comfortably into the sofa, and Ella perched on the edge, angled towards Jamie so she could look directly at him. He reached for a napkin from the table and handed it to her so she could wipe her tears and blow her nose. The large damp, snotty patch on the front of his shirt told its own story and Jamie gamely ignored it as he waited for Ella to compose herself. 

      She swallowed and cleared her throat.

      “Jamie,” she began, and then faltered.

      “It’s okay, leannan. Take yer time.”

      “Will you … will you …?” she hesitantly extended the hand closest to him - her injured hand, encased in its confining brace.

      “Of course,” he took her braced hand in his large one and held it awkwardly.

      “Wait," she said, and carefully pulled open the velcro straps, allowing him to hold her fingers gently in his. 

      The sight of her exposed and deeply scarred fingers took him right back to the excruciating day of the accident, and he swallowed hard.

      “Does that feel comfortable, leannan?” he asked. 

      “Yes,” she replied, with a shaky smile. “Thank you. Jamie, I want to start by apologizing. I’m sorry I yelled at you. That was not okay, and I've never done anything like that before. I also said things that were unacceptable and wrong and disrespectful. I apologized to Mom too.”

      She looked up at him through tear-reddened eyes, and he nodded gently, knowing she had more to say.

      “I didn’t mean to lose it so completely. I didn't mean to yell, and to disrespect you and my mom. That’s the last thing I would ever want to do - hurt your feelings or Mom’s.”

      He pressed her fingers ever so gently and nodded again.

      “You were right to time-out me and ground me - but I'll never admit that in front of anyone else.” She smiled weakly and he chuckled at her attempts to lighten the mood.

      “Mom and I spoke upstairs about my behavior earlier today … and also my behavior yesterday. In the media room. I know I haven't been my best self. I’m super embarrassed about it, Jamie. It’s not how Mom raised us.”

      “I know, Ella. And I’ve already forgiven you. I forgave you right away, because that’s what parents do. We don’t hold grudges, we don’t judge. We love unconditionally. I appreciate the apology and the thought you put into it. You’ve been going through a lot over the past few weeks, and your Mam and I know that. We know you didn't mean most of what you said. You’ve had a lot of stressful things to deal with, leannan, and the whole structure of your family has changed … with me coming into it. You’ve had to make accommodations and compromises, and I understand that.”

      “Wait, Jamie, Mom told me you all thought I was going to say that you’re …” she paused and took a deep breath, a frown furrowing her brow. “That you’re not my dad.”

      Jamie looked at her steadily and waited for her to complete her thoughts. Instead, her eyes filled with tears again and she scooted in closer to him on the sofa. He held his arm out to her and draped it gently over her shoulder, allowing her time to cry it out and settle her emotions again.

      After a few minutes, he heard her draw a shaky breath.

      “Jamie, you’ll never hear those words from me … or Beth. No matter how irritated I get with you and Mom being schmoopy, or how many damn English books you make us read during the summer, or how many times you ground me. I’ll never, ever say those words, because ...” she sniffed and ran a hand over face to wipe away the dampness from her tears. “We’ll never say those words, because we basically haven't had a real dad. We loved Henry. We loved him so much, and he was so good to me, and Beth, and Mom. He was awesome, actually, but very involved in his work. Beth and I knew that we shouldn't add any stress or drama to the home environment, so we did our best to behave well - especially when he hosted business friends for meetings or dinners. He was always super careful about the fact that we had a father. He even reminded us sometimes to do our weekly call to him in Boston. I think he was always wary of … I don’t know what the expression is …”

      “Stepping on your father’s toes?” Jamie supplied.

      “Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. So, while he was an awesome stepdad in so many ways, we always knew that our father was the father figure we should turn to for most things. It's kinda hard to explain, and I don’t want to sound like I’m dissing Henry. We really did love him and it was hard on all of us when we lost him.”

      Jamie nodded in understanding.

      “You’ve been more of a dad to us than our father. We’ve told you that before, Jamie.”

      Claire emerged with a tray of tea, and Ella sat up straight to drink from the steaming mug.

      “Thanks, Mom.”

      Claire handed one to Jamie and sat on the other side of Ella. 

      “Mom, I was just saying that Jamie has been more of a dad to us than our father and I would never say those words that you all thought I was going to say. Right from when Beth and I first met him, he was loving us and protecting us.” She chuckled and looked up at Jamie, her eyes still puffy. “Remember when we were at Pike Market and those college boys were bugging me and Beth, and you came up and gave them the death stare and asked what they wanted? It’s like when a cobra is all puffed up and ready to strike and all the little animals for yards around disappear at top speed. You were taller than all of them and they looked at you like they were shit-scared, and they walked away from us faster than I’ve seen any boy walk.”

      “Aye,” Jamie chuckled with her. “I remember that well.”

      Ella lowered her mug to the cushion, and something slid out of her sleeve and tapped the mug with a gentle ping. Claire’s eyes were drawn to the sound, and Ella hastily reached across with her other hand to tuck it back under the sleeve. 

      Claire shot Jamie a quick look, and took Ella’s mug from her. “I’ll hold it for you sweetheart.”

      Ella flushed hotly and Jamie watched as she fumbled to tuck the platinum bangle he had given her back under her sleeve.

      He and Claire looked at each other over Ella’s head, uncertain of whether to say anything. Ella was clearly embarrassed, and they intuitively and silently opted to say nothing.

      Ella broke the silence herself. “Well, that was awkward. I … uhhh … I had lots of time to think upstairs after calming down a bit. And after the anger kind of dissolved there was a lot of sadness and then fear that you guys would hate me for saying such mean things. So I pulled the bangle out of my hiding place and put it on. Because you told us when you gave it to us that our bangles should always remind us of how much you guys love us. I just … I just needed it at that moment. I'm sorry.”

      “Don’t be sorry. It’s your bangle and you can wear it whenever you want to - or need to. And I hope it did a good job of reminding you of how much I love you, leannan. Regardless of what went on here tonight.”

      “I love you too, Jamie.”

      He pressed a kiss on her curls, and Claire smiled at him over her head. 

      “Me too, sweetheart,” she added, “I love you so much, Ella.” She kissed her gently on the other side of her head.  

      “I love you, Mom, and I’m seriously so sorry about earlier. I totally get that you and Jamie are adults and there are parts of your relationship that are private, and I really don't need to think about them, or comment on them.”

      “I appreciate that, Ella. This is our home, and it needs to be a comfortable place for our family. Jamie and I know that we should show affection and love for each other in a way that’s respectful and considerate to all of us. Now … let's go inside and eat. I saw some vegetable tempura on the counter and sushi in the fridge. Thanks, Jamie. Great choice for tonight's dinner.”

      Jamie winked at her as all three rose from the sofa, bringing their mugs with them. He had so many questions about what had transpired during Claire’s earlier conversation with Ella, but he knew he’d have to raise them privately with Claire later. For now, they would try to keep things light and help Ella move past the residual and inevitable shame of her highly fraught meltdown.

 

      Claire set three places at the island, and they shared a relaxed meal together. They kept the conversation light, and Ella asked Jamie if he was almost done with press for UC. 

      “I have three or four more this coming week. I’ll do them all from my trailer, and then I’ll be done with pre-premiere publicity. After the premiere, your Mam and I are going on Ellen and Trevor Noah again. In person.”

      “Are you nervous about that, Mom?”

      “A little. It’s hard to put yourself out there when you’re not used to doing it. But most of it will be for Msimu and to get some attention on Majira too, so it’ll be worth it.”

      “Have you guys watched the Trevor Noah segment yet?”

      “No. Haven’t had a chance.”

      “Can I get the iPad, so we can watch it here?”



      Ella set up the iPad, logged into Xfinity, and pulled up Thursday night’s show. They watched for a few seconds, and Claire shook her head. 

      “Yikes, I hate seeing myself on TV!” she declared. 

      “You get used to it after a while, mo chridhe. Don’t be embarrassed - you look fantastic and you sound so confident and polished.”

      “You look awesome, Mom. And you both look so good together in those blue shirts,” Ella remarked.

      “Matchy-matchy, huh?” he teased Ella gently. “You girls used to mess with us relentlessly about that in our FaceTime calls. But, aye, we’re good together,” Jamie smiled, and leaned across to kiss Claire’s cheek. 

      She winked at Ella, who smiled back, for once holding back her comments about their PDAs, as they continued to watch the segment. 

      “I don't think they edited anything out at all. Those are our responses in full, right?” Claire asked.

      “Sounds like it. The slow-mo of you wiping the lipstick off my mouth is the only thing I wasn’t expecting. Cal said that Twitter users screen-shotted that and made gifs. It was retweeted a whole lot.” 

      Claire nodded. “I was not expecting that either, but their slow-mo made it look really sweet, and it fitted right in with an engagement announcement.”

      “That was pretty cute, not gonna lie,” Ella said grudgingly. She was slowly getting back to her true self, and Claire and Jamie were relieved to see it - despite the ribbing they would likely face for any more spontaneous affectionate moments. 

      “After dinner, can we all help prepare Nonna’s room and make the meatball mix for tomorrow?” Claire asked. “Jamie bought flowers and Nonna's favorite treats. All we have to do is a bit of cleaning and tidying up in the room before we work on the meatballs.”

 

      Jamie helped Claire change the sheets in the larger guest room. Liv had cleaned it thoroughly on Wednesday, so it needed minimal attention. While the Roomba did its work vacuuming the carpet, Ella sprayed down the bathtub and shower, and wiped them clean. Claire completed the bathroom clean-up while Ella set out a stack of fluffy towels on the counter, and pulled a fresh bottle of shower gel and a bar of the Caswell-Massey almond soap that Nonna loved.

      Ella emerged from the bathroom with a bottle in her hand. "Mel left this perfume behind. She's hardly used it."

      Claire took it from her, and read the label. Karma.

      "It's from Lush," Ella said. "Kelly gave us some bath products for our 16th. They smell so good, Mom."

      Claire uncapped the bottle and wafted the spray nozzle near her nose. "Ohhhhh," she groaned softly. "It smells just like Mel. She wears this fragrance often. I'll let her know she left it behind."

      "I'm almost done here, Mom. Will you help me with the robe, please?"

       Together, they set out a clean white terry bathrobe and slippers across the corner of the bed, and carefully arranged Nonna’s favorite chocolate and snack packs of cashew nuts on a small tray. Jamie ran downstairs to find a vase, and Claire filled it with the fragrant Stargazer lilies he had picked up on his grocery run. 

      They stood at the door and looked around the room, giving it the final once over to ensure that everything was in place. Jamie draped an arm around Claire’s waist and Ella’s shoulder. 

      “The room looks great. I’m so looking forward to meeting Nonna tomorrow.”

      Back in the kitchen, Ella made a ‘Welcome Nonna’ sign on a small slate board, using the calligraphy and hand lettering workbook President Hernandez had sent her, while Jamie and Claire prepared the meatball mix and refrigerated it. 

      By the time they were done, it was a little after 11:00 p.m., and Ella was tuckered out, yawning loudly every few minutes. 

      “I think I’m going to head to bed,” she said. “I can hardly keep my eyes open.”

      Jamie and Claire gave her a joint hug, holding her long and tight in unspoken affirmation of their forgiveness and love.

      “I love you, leannan,” he reassured her softly. “See you in the morning.”

      “Love you too, both of you,” Ella replied, her voice barely a whisper. 

      “I’ll come kiss you goodnight in a little bit,” Claire added.

 

      She and Jamie sat up watching My Octopus Teacher until Beth arrived a little before midnight. 

      “How was it at Hannah’s?” Claire asked, desperately hoping that she'd been able to push aside the early evening angst to enjoy a fun evening amongst friends. 

      “It was actually good. After Ella texted that she was doing okay, I felt a whole lot better. Everyone was so nice to Deacon, and we focused on having a great last night with him and the friend group. We played poker, and he and I won a few rounds. I’m getting good at it.” She grinned. 

      Jamie chuckled, “You might have to teach me some of your skills and tricks, leannan. Some of the red kilt guys keep inviting me to their poker nights, but our schedules haven’t aligned yet.”

      “The noisy red kilts from the Highland Games? I bet that would be a fun poker night, Jamie! I can’t imagine any of them having a decent poker face, though,” Beth giggled.

      “I can’t imagine that they would take it that seriously, but it would be a fun night for you, my love. Hopefully you can get to one soon.”  

      Beth’s face turned serious, and she looked at them for a moment, eyes clouded with concern.

      “Ummm … so how were things with Ella? When you guys finally talked it out?”

      Claire and Jamie responded to all her questions about Ella and her state of mind, and how they had navigated the post-meltdown discussions. They gave her as much detail as they could, reassuring her that the evening had ended on a positive note.

      Beth nodded, seemingly satisfied that her sister had ended her night in a much better place, emotionally.

      “I think I’ll climb into bed with Ella tonight,” she said standing up to hug Claire and Jamie goodnight.

      “I’ll stop in on my way to bed,” Claire said.

 

 

      Claire and Jamie lay in bed, talking late into the night as she filled him in on the long conversation she’d had earlier with Ella. They shared their concerns about the lingering effects of yet-unknown things that Frank had said, expressing the hope that the girls could work through it with Serena during therapy.

      “It might be worth asking if they’d be okay with Serena scheduling a session with you and them together. I have a strong feeling that some of what Frank said to them involves you, and that’s at the root of their reluctance to divulge it. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Trying to protect you, ye ken?”

      “I bet you’re right. And I think it’s a great idea to schedule a session with the three of us. You may be new at this dad thing, but your family instincts are so on point.” She kissed him softly.

       “Serena will help facilitate the discussion and smooth away some of the awkwardness. Hopefully it helps you get to the bottom of it.”

      “Mm-hmm, I’ll bounce it off Ella and Beth tomorrow and see how they feel.”

      Jamie wrapped his arms around Claire and they drifted off to sleep, as emotionally exhausted as the girls, and in dire need of a good night’s rest.

 

 



 

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