DISCLAIMER: This is an Otalia-Uber fiction. The characters in this story portrays the physical and some personality attributes of the characters Olivia Spencer and Natalia Rivera from Guiding Light but they belong to me.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Blue for her great beta-ing skills!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By damnation



Kristen felt lighthearted as she rolled the final coat of paint onto the wall. In a few days, Taters would be up and running again. Ramsey was stocking up the cool room and dry store with the help of Liam and the new furniture was coming in the day after. Everything was looking good. And while the insurance company had to complete their investigations before approving the claim, Kristen could not foresee any problem cropping up there.

She peeked out of the kitchen when laughter sounded and caught sight of Frances and Missy dodging each other's paintbrushes. They were also on their final coat of paint. The crew had decided to give Taters a well deserved makeover. The kitchen walls remained white but the rest of Taters had now been painted ochre, making it look warmer and cozier. Tammy had been watching Frances and Missy good naturedly, then squealed when they turned on her. Kristen smiled to herself.

Images from the night before flashed across Kristen's mind and her eyes fluttered shut briefly at the sensation some of them caused in her. She cleared her throat and tried to concentrate on what she was doing but her mind kept wandering.

The cab ride back from Santorini's had been torturous. The atmosphere had been so sexually charged that Kristen was sure the cab driver had caught on to it. They had just barely made it into Kristen's flat before their seams of control unravelled.

The look on Frances' face when Kristen was stripped down to nothing but her heels.... Kristen shuddered at the memory. Frances made her feel weak, desired, frustrated and delirious. She could not seem to have enough of Frances; her craving grew instead of lessened each time it was sated. Kristen could not wrap her head around it.

Outside, things had gone quiet. Kristen exited the kitchen to investigate.

Her stomach lurched nastily when she caught sight of an unexpected face and was about to sneak back into the kitchen when Tammy saw and beckoned her over. Edwin Richardson followed Tammy's line of sight and his eyes rounded.

"Do my eyes deceive me? Kristen Canning?"

His voice made Kristen's skin crawl but it was what he said that made her heart freeze.

In what she hoped was a calm, imperious tone, she said, "Oh. You. What's your name again? I don't think I ever caught it." She felt a brief moment of triumph when she saw anger flicker across his face.

"It's Edwin Richardson. How quickly we forget! But it's been a while since you've jumped ship now, hasn't it? I guess you've got more important things to remember," he said.

Tammy, Frances and Missy watched the exchange, looking wary and extremely confused.

"Do Jack and Benjamin know that you're here? Oh, right, of course not."

Kristen's spine stiffened at the words and Frances caught the panicked look in her eyes. She hoped that Kristen did not mind her cutting in when she said, "Look, Mister, I don't care who you are and what you want, but the restaurant's not open and you're not welcome here."

Richardson turned his attention to her. "And who are you?"

"I own this place. Get out."

Richardson lifted a brow. "Last time I checked, Kevin Russell owns this place."

"I said, get out. Or I'll get Ramsey and Liam to escort you out," Frances said unflinchingly. She saw Ramsey and Liam approaching them, looking slightly confused but picking up on the animosity immediately and moving toward the stranger.

Richardson saw Ramsey and Liam in his peripheral vision and smiled. "No need for that. I'm leaving anyway. I just wanted to say, great job with the walls. Must have taken a while. You know, Jaycee's opening next week. You'll be in for some tough competition."

"Are you deaf or stupid?" Frances asked bitingly, shooting the man a look of disgust. She was trembling with the exertion of keeping hold of her annoyance. "You're trespassing. I don't give a shit about your stupid restaurant. If you're the person running it, well, I actually feel sorry for its staff."

Ramsey placed a hand on Richardson's shoulder and he shrugged it off. "Don't touch me," he hissed, and went to the door. He looked pointedly at Kristen. "Good to see you again, Ms Canning... or have you reverted to Cameron by now?" He threw her a smug look and left.

Taters was silent. "Cameron? Canning? What the hell is he saying? What's going on, Kristen?" Ramsey asked, turning to Kristen, who looked pale.

Kristen did an about turn and went back into the kitchen. Everyone else looked at each other uncomfortably, not sure what had just taken place. Frances wasn't sure if Kristen wanted to be alone.

"Thanks guys," she said haltingly. "Um. I guess... You know what? How about we just call it a day?" she looked at Tammy, not sure if it was her call to make. "And the whole owning the place thing I said earlier..." she trailed off uncomfortably.

"Oh, honey, that was brilliant what you said," Tammy said reassuringly. "And you do own this place."

"Yeah. And did you see that man's face?" Ramsey said lightly. "Maybe you should go check on Kristen."

"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" Liam asked, frowning slightly. "That man might come back."

"Good thing we've got that new security system then, huh?" Frances said with a small smile. "I don't think he'll some back. I think he already did what he came here to accomplish."

Liam studied Frances for a long moment, processing what she had just said. Then he nodded in agreement. "I think he did, too."

As the crew packed up to leave, Frances lingered in the restaurant, wondering if she should go out into the yard. Finally, she went in search of Kristen, hoping that she wouldn't be sent away.

"Hey," she said softly. Kristen was sitting on a milk crate, staring into space. Frances felt like she was intruding but she could not leave not knowing if Kristen needed her to stick around. "Do you mind if I join you or would you rather I not? I've sent everyone home," Frances said tentatively.

Kristen shrugged and Frances took that as a positive sign and sat down across from her on the grass. "So... what are you up to tonight?" Frances asked.

Kristen looked at her in surprise. She had expected hard grilling for what had transpired not so long ago. "Uh... nothing. What about you?"

Frances shrugged. "Nothing. Wanna hang for a bit? Drink, movie, dinner, maybe?"

Kristen finally smiled. Frances was not going to demand she answer to anything, or say anything that she didn't want to. "Yeah. Sounds good."

"Cool. It's cheap Tuesday. Do you have a Blockbuster card?"

Kristen looked amused. "No."

"Dammit! Let's go home and get a bill of yours to sign up. Oh, and what do you think about pizza? It's like, one for one night as well. What's so special about Tuesdays anyway?" Frances asked, frowning.

Kristen couldn't help but chuckle.

They ended up staying in when they got back to Russell's. Frances brought a few DVDs down from her room to choose from before insisting on making them dinner.

Her favourite stew would have taken too long, so she was making meatballs and yellow rice pilaf, another dish her Mum used to make frequently. Kristen smiled from her perch on the kitchen bench beside the stove as she watched Frances move around the kitchen, enjoying being cooked for. Frances had forbidden her to lift a finger, so she was sipping her glass of wine.

"You know, I'm having to lift my hand repeatedly in order to drink this glass of wine anyway, so I don't see your point," Kristen said in a mock serious voice.

Frances looked up at Kristen with narrowed eyes. "Are you getting lippy with someone who's making your food? Really? Do you really think that's the smart thing to do?"

Kristen rounded her eyes and smirked but did not comment. She absolutely loved this side of Frances. When Frances held out the wooden spoon for her to taste the sauce, Kristen leaned forward and took the tip of the spoon into her mouth. "Mm. Spicy." She caught the look of desire flash briefly across Frances face and smirked. "How did that simple act of tasting turn you on?" she asked in a low voice which she knew would turn Frances on.

Frances rolled her eyes as she returned her attention to her task on hand. "It's not what the act is. It's who's doing the act. And don't use that tone of voice with me, young lady. You know what happens when you do."

Kristen lifted a brow, feeling incredibly amused. She felt as though that few minutes spent with Edwin Richardson at Taters was a figment of her imagination. The feeling of distaste was a distant memory. "What happens exactly, Frances?" she pressed, in the same tone of voice.

When Kristen saw Frances' dimples showing, her own smile widened. Frances was refusing to look at her so she slid off the kitchen bench and placed her wine glass on the space that she had just occupied. "Frances... you do know that it's impolite to ignore someone, right?"

Frances held the wooden spoon in front of her, as though she was trying to ward Kristen off. "I'm trying to finish cooking our dinner, thank you very much!" But she let Kristen wrap her arms around her waist and pull their bodies close together. She rested her forearms on Kristen's shoulders, careful not to touch the spoon to Kristen's shirt. "Now you're trying to distract me and when dinner tastes bad, you're gonna blame me for not allowing you to help because you wouldn't have burnt the meatballs!"

Kristen sighed when their lips touched. She reached out a hand to turn the flame on the stove down. "They won't get burnt," she said softly before kissing Frances again, loving the playful smile on Frances lips. "I won't let that happen."

Frances rolled her eyes skyward. "Oh yeah, how can I forget? God is gracing my Dad's kitchen with her presence." She got another kiss for her comment.

"Gimme that spoon. I'll mind the meatballs, just in case," Kristen murmured, reaching for the wooden spoon.

Frances nuzzled Kristen's neck as she relinquished the utensil. "You're a kitchen nazi, you know that?"

"Me? No.... I'm just doing this for the greater good. This way, we can make out while dinner's cooking and dinner won't get burnt while we're making out," she said sensibly. Frances did not comment. She stroked Kristen's cheeks with her hands, loving the way Kristen had to tilt her head down ever so slightly to look at her. "When you look at me like that, though, I'm not sure I can keep this 'not let dinner get burnt' thing going for too long," Kristen murmured.

Frances smirked and brought their lips together once, twice, smiling, then a third time. She turned to the stove and rested her head against Kristen's chest, eyeing the meatballs in bubbling liquid. "Can we eat now, Chef?" She felt Kristen's chuckle vibrate through her frame.

"Why are you asking me? It's your creation."

"Yeah, but you're holding the fort now with the spoon and all, so it's your call. Taste?" Kristen dipped the spoon into the sauce and brought it to Frances' lips. "The meatball, Chef," Frances said, throwing a long suffering look at Kristen.

"Oh. I knew that," Kristen mumbled, splitting a meatball in half to see if it was cooked. "Looks good." Kristen brought the spoon back to Frances' lips with a portion of meatball balanced on it.

"Mm. Let's eat, I'm starving."

Kristen turned the stove off and placed the wooden spoon on the pan gently. "I think we should let it sit for a minute so the sauce can thicken slightly," she informed Frances with a nod and a sage look.

Frances smirked. "Oh, you do, do you?"

Kristen chuckled as she gazed at Frances. "Uh huh. I do cook for a living, you know."

Frances slid her arms around Kristen's neck and brought her face close for a kiss. "I like spending time with you." She thought she sounded a little breathless.

"Me too," Kristen murmured, sliding her hands into the back pockets of Frances' jeans. "I... think I need to tell you something about what happened this arvo at Taters," she continued, sounding a tad uncomfortable.

"Um." Frances' eyes flickered away from Kristen's face, then back. "Okay," she said slowly, pulling away from Kristen to lean back against the kitchen table. She had expected a talk of some sort but she didn't think that it would be this soon.

Kristen swallowed hard. "I own a small part of Canning & Cameron... and I was married to one of the other two people who own it."

Frances' eyes widened. "Married?" She hadn't meant to sound so incredulous but she was truly taken aback, more because it had never crossed her mind that anyone she was seeing might have been married before.

"Was," Kristen stressed hurriedly. "We're separated. I can only file for a divorce after a year of separation, so...." Kristen shrugged. At Frances' nod, Kristen continued. "And the other guy who owns the company... is my brother, Benjy. We kinda had a falling out. Jack... that's um, my ex, he and Benjy are best mates." It was the first time Kristen had spoken about Jack in such a manner and had felt nothing more than an oddness at hearing herself say his name.

"Okay, before you go on, I have to tell you... I'm not very good at D&M's," Frances said slowly. She saw Kristen peer fearfully into her eyes and cocked her head. "What?"

Kristen looked at Frances incredulously. "That's it? You're not angry? Not asking me why I changed my last name and lied to you guys?"

Frances was stumped. "Well, not really, no. Why should I be angry? I'd like to think that maybe you don't see the need to lie anymore about who you are to the rest of the crew, but that's your choice." She held Kristen's face in her hands. "You did what you felt you had to do. Why should anyone be angry at you? You didn't hurt anyone."

Kristen let out a breath of relief. "And I didn't want to be in that cooking competition because I didn't want all this to happen," she said quickly, thinking she might as well get it all out in one go.

"Oh. Okay. You didn't vandalise Taters to avoid the competition, did you?" Frances teased.

"What? Of course not!" Kristen exclaimed before realising that it was Frances' attempt at humour. It reminded her of the random thought she had the day they went in to Taters to take stock of the damages. "I was thinking, the time between the security alarm going off and the arrival of the police was too short for all that damage to have been done to the place. Someone who knows the security code might be behind it or helped in some way."

Frances looked skeptical and reached for her glass of wine. "That would be you, Ramsey, Tammy and Dad." She shook her head at Kristen. "It can't be any of you."

"Yeah, but someone close enough to any of us could get that code. I would have told you." Kristen's mind was racing with the possibilities.

Frances frowned. "Only because I'm my Dad's daughter."

Kristen paused, shrugged, and scratched her temple. "Okay... maybe you have a point there." She gazed at Frances with a small smile then. "Well, Russell's daughter, thank you for what you did today. I don't think I've had anyone stand up for me like that before. And that bit where you asked if he was deaf or stupid? That was gold," Kristen said, shaking her head.

Frances ducked her head, feeling embarrassed. "So, can we eat now?" she asked, flicking her eyes to the stove. She was hungry and eager to change the topic.

Kristen sighed loudly. "Fine, let's feed the monster."

"Oh good!" Frances said. "I get fed too since I'm dining with her!"

It never ceased to amaze Kristen just how quickly Frances delivered her smart ass comebacks. It was as though Frances had read a script prior to their interactions. Frances sat her down so that she could serve their dinner.

Kristen recalled the first time Frances had invited her over for supper. It felt like ages ago but in reality, only a few weeks had passed since then. She loved that Frances cooked to comfort--be it herself or the people she cared about. She felt fortunate to be included in that circle.

Frances looked at Kristen, waiting for her to start eating. Kristen tried a meatball first. "Mm. This is great. Was it just garlic, onion and tomato in this sauce?"

Frances smiled. "And chili."

Kristen rolled her eyes at herself. "Of course. I really like it. It's got a smokey flavour to it. How... oh, that's why you roasted the tomato and chili before hollowing them out."

"Eat, Chef," Frances said in an aggrieved tone. Then, smiling, she said, "I'm glad you like it."



Kristen was scribbling in her drawing pad with her stereo on. She had called up the image of Frances' tattoo and was trying to put it down on paper. Her mind wandered as she drew, flitting from the image of Frances to that of Jack. Not that long ago, she could not even call up his face without flinching, but now she felt... indifferent.

Indifference was a good feeling. It meant he could not hurt her anymore. Indifference was the absence of love.

A knock on her door shook her out of her reverie. Kristen put down her pencil and glanced at the clock. Frances and she hadn't made plans to meet that day but she supposed she wasn't opposed to surprise visits. She flung the door open with a smile on her face; it froze when she registered who the visitor was.

"Hey, Sis."

"Benjamin," Kristen said, surprised.

Benjamin Cameron looked uncomfortable. "You... haven't called."

Kristen bit back a bark of laughter at his inane comment. "No," she said in an even tone, "I haven't."

Benjamin cleared his throat. "Can I come in?"

Kristen stepped out of her flat and closed the door behind her softly. "I don't think that's a good idea." At the disappointed look on his face, her heart softened. "We can talk out here if you want. There's a hammock and some chairs over there," she said pointedly.

"All right. Sure thing." Benjamin scratched the back of his neck awkwardly as he trailed after his sister.

Kristen glanced at Russell's house, wondering if Frances was in. She took a seat in one of the chairs and Benjamin followed suit. Kristen eyed his starched black shirt, checkered shorts and leather loafers. Benjamin had always looked dapper. His styled hair was a shade lighter than hers; she briefly wondered if he had gone to the hair salon before looking her up.

"You look good," Benjamin said when he finally sat down in the chair facing hers. "You look a lot calmer."

Kristen snorted. "Calmer is right. I was off the rails when we saw each other last and even that wasn't good enough for you to take my side," she said bitterly.

Benjamin grimaced. "I'm sorry. I was a jerk. I didn't... I wasn't thinking. I didn't think you'd just leave without a trace. I tried looking for you."

"What for?" she asked guardedly.

"At first, to talk sense into you," Benjamin admitted haltingly. "And later... much later... to apologise." Kristen's felt a stab in her chest at his words. "You're right. I should have been on your side, no questions asked."

"What changed?" she asked, trying to keep her tone nonchalant.

Benjamin sighed. "He turned on me. Jack is trying to buy me out."

Kristen clenched her jaw. "Is that what made you change your mind?" She could not believe her ears. Her very own flesh and blood.... His betrayal should hurt more than Jack's infidelity did but for some reason, Kristen merely felt the dull sting of disappointment. She shot him a look of disdain. "You're unbelievable, Benjy. What do you want from me? My share of the company?"

"I know I have no right to ask anything of you..." Benjamin started saying.

"Save it," Kristen cut him off. "Get the required documents written up if you haven't already and I'll sign at the dotted lines. You can mail it to me, save yourself another trip down," Kristen said, getting up. Then she paused and shot him a frosty stare. "Or do you have them with you right now?"

Benjamin frowned. "It's not like that, Sis."

"Whatever. I have things to do. You can see yourself out, I'm sure." Kristen effectively blocked out anything that her brother said behind her and went back into her flat.

She shut her eyes briefly and took a deep breath. Then she exhaled and looked around. Everything in her flat was intact. Nothing had changed. Benjamin did not have a place in her new life and therefore nothing in it was affected by his appearance. It was slowly becoming clear that her past could not touch her now.

Frances heard the doorbell chime. Her heart leaped and she scrambled down the stairs.

"Dad!" she exclaimed in surprise when she opened the door. "What are you doing... why didn't you tell me... I could have gone and got you from the hospital!"

Russell grunted. "Forgot I don't have my keys on me," he grumbled.

Frances backed up to let her father enter the house. She felt like giving him a hug but he seemed rather unreceptive and it wasn't their normal behaviour anyway so she let the moment pass. "How are you?" she asked, trailing behind him. He didn't even let her help him with his bag.


"Do you want some tea?" Frances asked. She watched as he deposited his bag in the lounge room. Her mind was racing. He looked good physically. "Or a bath? I could run you a bath if you want. You should have told me that you were coming home today so I could tidy up your room -"

"Stop fussing, lass," Russell rumbled. Then he breathed out heavily. "I'm sorry, lass. My head's hurting and I don't mean to snap. It's good to be home," he said finally.

Frances smiled. "It's good to have you back, Dad."

"All right, go make us some tea. Maybe I'll feel better after I have some tea."

Frances was glad to occupy herself with the task of tea-making. She had so many questions to ask her father but she knew that it was probably the last thing he needed at the moment. Then she thought about Taters and the vandalism and wondered if she should tell him about that.

"How are you?"

Frances turned to Russell in surprise. "Good. I'm thinking of moving to Nell's soon. Her housemate's moving out and... I was thinking, if I'm gonna be living in Sydney, I should find a place of my own."

Russell grunted. "You can stay here for as long as you want."

"I know, Dad. And you know I'll come around heaps." What about Kristen--should she mention that she was seeing Kristen to her father? This was all too confusing. "I want to be around for you, Dad."

Russell remained silent. Frances pushed him his cup of tea and sat herself down at the table across from him. "I'll need help," he said finally, much to Frances' surprise. She had never heard her father speak this way before. "I'm sorry for not being a good father."

Frances felt tears welling up in her eyes at his words. "What? That's not true, Dad."

"Your mother left us and I didn't want to feel anything anymore. So I drank all the time."

Frances wiped at her eyes, aghast that she was actually crying. "And I went away. I'm sorry too, Dad. If I had stuck around...."

"If you had stuck around, I still would have drunk," Russell said ruefully. This was one of his steps to recovery: seeking amends from people whom he had hurt because of his habit. He didn't have a long list; his world consisted of only Frances, Taters, fishing and drinking.

Frances saw that he needed to make his peace and nodded.

"It's going to be a long, hard road for me," he said, drinking his tea. "But I'm going to try and make things right."

Frances gave him a watery smile and drank her own tea. They sat in companionable silence after that. Frances decided that she could wait until the next day to fill Russell in about everything that had happened. The doorbell chimed again and Frances jumped up nervously to get the door.

Once again, the person standing on the other side of the door was not Kristen.

The man standing on her doorstep looked to be in his early forties. He wore a white starched shirt under his grey blazer and pants. "Hello. You must be Miss Russell."

Frances lifted a brow. "Who's asking?"

The man stretched out a hand and flashed her an apologetic smile. "Forgive my rudeness. I'm Jack. Jack Canning."



Kristen was banging around the kitchen at Taters, trying to get back into the groove of working. Ramsey and she were at Taters prepping for their opening. At least it was taking her mind off other things, like Benjamin's unexpected visit.

"You know, Jaycee's holding the first of their cook offs tonight," Ramsey said conversationally.


"Kristen... I don't want to pry. I just want you to know that if you wanted to talk about that visit we had the other day, I'm here." Kristen bit her lower lip but did not stop cutting the cucumber. "Tammy and I, we're on your side. Don't ever forget that, all right?"

Kristen finally turned around. "That means a lot to me. Thank you."

Ramsey nodded. "And we reckon 'Black' is a much better last name than 'Canning' or 'Cameron'. Or 'Canning-Cameron'," he said lightly, eliciting a smile from Kristen. "Hey, maybe one day you'll think about changing it to 'Russell-Black'. Man, that actually sounds pretty cool."

Kristen rolled her eyes and chuckled. "Shut up."

"Well, you have good taste in women, that's all I can say."

Kristen returned to her prep, smiling. "I'm glad I've got your stamp of approval," she said wryly. Her mobile buzzed then and her smile widened when she saw who the caller was. She went out into the yard to take the call.

"Russell's back," Kristen informed Ramsey when she returned to the kitchen.

Ramsey looked up in surprise. "Was that him?"

Kristen shook her head. "Frances. He showed up at home. Just like him to not tell anyone anything," she commented, shaking her head. "She was wondering if we could drop by with Tammy tomorrow. She hasn't told him about what happened to Taters yet."

Ramsey frowned. "Yeah, sure. I'll call Tammy. Russell's not going to like it."

Kristen shrugged. "Wait till we tell him that his knives are gone too."

Ramsey groaned loudly. "Shit! It's not gonna be pretty. Maybe we should bring raincoats."

Kristen snorted. "More like bulletproof vests."

The small Taters crew huddled in Russell's kitchen, watching Russell fearfully as he processed what he had just been told in silence. Kristen's eyes landed on Frances, who was looking a little frazzled and distracted. She wondered what was up.

"I should have been here," Russell said finally. "Thank you for sticking around," he said gruffly, not quite meeting anyone's eyes.

"Oh, Russell. Like we would have left," Tammy said gently. Then she took an uneasy breath. "The insurance company called me today. I think we have a little problem." All eyes fell on Tammy when she said that.

"They're beating around the bush but I get the feeling they think it was an inside job," Tammy said, her eyes darting around the room nervously.

"What!" Russell roared before Kristen and Ramsey could do the same.

"They knew about your accident and the fine that you incurred, Russell," Tammy said in a small voice.

"As if I'd tear up my restaurant to pay off that sum of money!" Russell needed a drink so much then that he shook. Frances swallowed hard from her spot by the kitchen sink. She was the only one who wasn't seated.

"Actually I was thinking the same thing," Kristen started. All eyes swung on her then. "Not that any one of us here did it," she said hurriedly. "But between the alarm going off and the cops arriving at the scene, there was too little time for all that damage to be done." Frances met her eyes then and Kristen frowned when Frances looked away quickly.

"How many of us know the security code to Taters?" Ramsey asked, looking around. "There's all of us...."

"Liam does," Tammy said suddenly. "I gave it to him to open up once."

"And there's Doug," Ramsey said, shrugging. "That chef you hired with me, Russell, remember? But that was so long ago." Ramsey scratched his chin. "I don't think any of us here would do anything of the sort."

"I don't think it was Liam," Tammy said hesitantly, feeling like she had to defend him somehow.

The silence that ensued was awkward. "Let's just focus on the problem at hand. Are we able to afford all the damages if the insurance company decides not to pay us out?"

Tammy handed a bunch of papers and receipts to Russell. "I've got all the expenses here," she said.

Russell sighed as he took the documents from Tammy. He pushed his chair back. "I'll have a look at them. Then we'll talk again." He lumbered out of the room abruptly, leaving everyone else to look at each other.

"It's getting late," Ramsey said. "And I need a drink," he continued, in a softer tone. "Want a ride home, Tammy?"

After they left, Kristen looked at Frances uncertainly. "Hey," she said softly.

Frances gave Kristen a half smile. "Hey."

"How're you doing?" Frances shrugged. Kristen could not help but suspect that there was something Frances wasn't saying but she didn't want to push. "How's your Dad?" she asked instead, attempting to tread on safe territory.

Another shrug. "You saw. He's back to his old self, sans the drink."

"He didn't even flinch when we told him about his knives," Kristen commented. "Ramsey and I were expecting an explosion of some sort."

"Maybe he's exploding in his room, who knows," Frances murmured distractedly, moving to pick up all everyone's used cups.

Kristen frowned. "You don't seem okay. Did something happen?"

"I'm sorry. I... need to think," Frances said vaguely. She went over to the sink and began filling it up with hot, soapy water.

"What about?" Kristen asked, confused.

"Stuff. Moving out. Dad. Taters. Us."

Kristen's frown deepened. "What about us?"

"Can I talk to you when I'm ready?" Frances felt caged. "I can't do this right now." Kristen felt a shiver of fear. She went to stand beside Frances, needing to know that everything was all right. She didn't speak. After a long while, Frances stopped washing up and gazed at Kristen. "I'm not good at this," she said finally.

"At what? Washing up? You're a dishpig," Kristen said weakly.

Frances looked down at her soapy hands. She didn't even crack a smile. "Your husband came here yesterday afternoon, shortly after Dad got home."

Kristen's eyes narrowed and her stomach lurched uneasily. "Jack? What did he want?"

"Can we do this another time? Please? I need to think," Frances said again.

Kristen sighed. "Okay," she said in defeat. Her mind was racing with all the possibilities and none of them was good. She leaned closer and pressed her lips to Frances' dark head, heartened that the woman did not pull away from her when she did so. Then she left Frances to her thoughts.

Part 36

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