Karen placed the baking tray on the tabletop. She added mint leaves to the delicate brown pieces of chicken still shimmering from the heat of the oven.
"Mm... mom. Smells nice..." Jessie murmured as she crept up beside her mother to sniff at the food.
Karen smiled and patted her daughter's hands. Jessie had lost a tremendous amount of weight on that island and Karen was determined to restore some flesh back into her body.
Jessie tossed a gum in her mouth and chewed it. Karen moved swiftly from one corner of the kitchen to the other and Jessie could not help but marvel at her mother's fitness. Even at that age, Karen looked the epitome of elegance in her simple khakis and cotton tee. As for herself, Jessie was wearing an oversized shirt over Donald Duck flannels.
"So... Eli and Raina are coming over tonight?" Jessie asked.
Karen nodded, skilfully stirring the thick broth of carrot soup she was making.
"Mom... are you still mad at Raina?" Jessie asked.
Karen sighed. "Jessie... let's not talk about that, ok? We are on talking terms and frankly that's all that counts."
"But this tension between you and Raina kills Eli." Jessie pointed.
"I know honey. But frankly, that's the best we can do. After I came to know what Raina did, I don't think I can ever forgive her. And she will forever hate me for wanting her out of my son's life."
Jessie moved forward and placed a hand on her mother's shoulders.
"Why is it so hard for you to like her, mom?"
Karen shook her head. "I am not saying she is a bad girl. But I had dreams for Eli. Dreams of him marrying a girl he loves and someone who loves him back. I had a perfect image of his wife. I am afraid, Raina does not suit that image."
"No one is perfect, mom. Not even your own children."
"Sweetheart... I don't think that I have in my heart the strength to ever forgive people who hurt my children. Eli may think he is happy with Raina, but I know that deep down he regrets marrying her at some level."
Jessie looked into her mother's eyes. Karen Sammler was capable of a tremendous amount of strength and ruthlessness when it came to her children.
"It also means that I am not too happy that you did not tell me about Katie." Karen mentioned.
Jessie kept her gaze fixed on the digital clock display on the stove, away from her mother's pointed glare.
"I am sorry, mom. At first there was nothing to say."
"And now?" Karen folded her hands across her chest.
"And now..." Jessie shrugged, "There is no point in saying it."
Karen let her breath out slowly.
"Did she hurt you again, Jessie?"
Jessie shook her head. "I hurt myself, mom. Sometimes it is the past that is hard to accept. Sometime it is the present."
Trey offered Karen his arm as she slipped out of the limo backseat. Karen smiled. She then looked above his shoulder at Jessie who was already sandwiched between Eli and Jared.
Trey led Karen up the red carpet towards the gleaming glass doors of the Hilton's banquet hall.
A blonde-haired woman reached out for their passes and smiled broadly as she welcome them in.
Jessie was immediately enclaved by several distinguished looking gentlemen.
"Mrs. Sammler?" Dr. Paul Forrest beamed. Karen smiled up at the huge African-American doctor with a crop of salt-and-pepper hair. The tuxedo he was wearing did nothing to hide the powerful build he had maintained due to years of regular workouts.
"Dr. Forrest!" Karen offered her cheeks as he bent forward to kiss them lightly. She then proceeded to introduce him to Trey.
"I am the lady's chaperone for the night." Trey grinned.
"Aah! I hoped that I would have the honour to do that. But it seems I have serious competition." Paul faked a sigh.
Karen leant forward conspiratorially, "We could always give him the slip."
"Yes, honey, we could." Paul boomed with laughter. He was joined by Karen and Trey.
"You've met Jessie yet?" Karen asked.
Paul nodded, "Yes, briefly. She needs to get her speech ready for tonight. It's her big day."
Karen smiled, "Yes, it is."
Trey excused himself as he spotted an old friend.
"Nice boy, isn't he?" Karen commented.
"Yes, nice enough. Polished, polite..." Paul shrugged. "He and Jessie..."
"No, they are not dating." Karen sighed. "I wish they were. I like the guy but do not want to interfere."
"Yes... yes... ofcourse." Paul nodded. "Jessie is quite independent. She would find the right one in time."
Karen bit her lip, as she was transported back fifteen years when she saw her daughter with Katie- smiling, happy, content.
Amidst a roar of applause, cheers and even some deviant hoots, Jessie made her way up the stairs to the dais.
She accepted the glistening award from her recipient and moved towards the mike. She had prepared herself for the moment. She had rehearsed her speech several times and even practised her gait for the occasion when she will walk up to receive her award. She had read self-help books and got valuable tips from almost everyone.
Yet nothing could prepare her for the exhilaration and the sudden clammy nervousness that caught her when she looked out at the sea of people staring at her. She swallowed hard and clutched her award tightly until the cold metal dug into her palms.
"Hi!" She managed out breathlessly and smiled sheepishly.
The audience gave a brief smile. She looked around wildly, hoping to catch a familiar eye that would give her some courage. But she could not spot her family or friends. All she could see were rows and columns of strangers. Suddenly her eyes caught a pair of emerald-coloured orbs. The eyes were radiating with pride, happiness and support. Jessie closed her eyes briefly and then breathing hard, found a surge of bravery.
"Love is the only stable thing in this world. It is universal, it is complete. Love is what made me into what I am today. The love of my mom, the love of my dad. I got love from my brother, my sisters, love from Lily, love from my friends, love from my colleagues, love from all my patients, love from..." She looked back into those green eyes, "Love from love. I have spent my time in third world countries, I have witnessed extreme poverty and hunger, and yet I have seen something beautiful. I have seen the bonds of love that those people had for each other. I saw the power that love brought which made them fight any adversity. It moved me. Being a doctor is just not about healing or curing patients. Being a doctor is a privilege, a special blessing, and not a right. Being a doctor is a duty to fix those severed bonds of love between man and life. It is a granted power to bring back the person for the ones who loves him. I do not believe in detachment with your patient. I believe in attachment with the pain and suffering of your patient because then you can truly feel what he does and truly help him the way you would help yourself. The relationship between a doctor and a patient is another pure act of unconditional love based on trust and service. I am very honoured to receive this award that dignify this special relationship. Thank you."
A series of claps thundered the hall as everyone respectfully admired the speech.
Jessie pushed herself past people crowding around her to congratulate her and praise her. She briefly acknowledged them with a smile or a nod, but her attention was fixed on searching for a tall brunette.
As her brain scanned the room for any signs of Katie, she caught sight of Grace with Jared. Jessie raced towards them. Grace turned and started to smile but stopped at the look on Jessie's face.
"What happened Jess?" Grace asked.
"Have you seen Katie?" Jessie breathed out.
"Katie?" Grace blinked. "What? No! I didn't even know she was here..."
Jessie was already walking away in her search for Katie. She was so focused in front that she did not notice someone coming from beside her and she moved sharply and collided with the person.
"Oh gosh! I'm so sorry... I didn't..." Jessie's voice trailed off as she saw who it was.
Katie groaned as she regained her balance. "Jessie... you just broke my ribs." Katie complained mockingly.
Katie was knocked back again as Jessie threw her weight on her.
"Whoa!" Katie could only exclaim as she was enveloped in a huge bear hug from Jessie. Slowly Katie placed her arms around Jessie and pulled her closer to her.
God! It felt so good to hold her like that again. Jessie thought as she buried her face in Katie's shoulders.
"How did you know?" Jessie whispered when she could finally tear herself away from Katie's arms.
Katie brushed wisps of hair away from her face nonchalantly. "I made some calls."
Jessie looked into her face and smiled.
"That was an amazing speech, Jess." Katie stated, "Congratulations, you deserve it!"
Jessie blushed. Hearing it from hundreds of people the whole evening was one thing. Hearing it from Katie was another.
"It was nothing, really. I am just very thrilled to be awarded in this way."
"I am so sorry, Jessie." Katie bit her lip. "I wanted to come and see you earlier but..."
"It's alright, Katie." Jessie patted Katie's wrists. Katie placed her palms on the Jessie's fingers and squeezed them lightly.
"Kathryn Singer." Jessie froze when she heard the firm, feminine voice. She slowly turned to face the grim face of Karen Sammler.
"Mrs. Sammler! How..." Katie's voice trailed off when her eyes locked with Karen's that were like pieces of chipped ice.
"Jessie, I would like to speak to Miss Singer in private." Karen's eyes did not leave Katie's. Jessie glanced helplessly at both when a reporter flanked her and drew her away for an interview.
Karen came forward. Her lips were thinned and her fists were clenched at her sides. Katie swallowed hard. She had never seen Karen so angry in her life and it scared her bad.
"Mrs. Sammler, let me explain." Katie said hoarsely.
"No, let me explain." Karen's voice was cold and unwavering.
"I don't know what you want, Katie. I just know that my daughter has lost fifteen years of happiness because of you. Do you want her to lose fifteen more years?"
Katie fought to keep the constriction off her throat.
"Jessie is the most precious thing in my life." Karen leant forward. "I have seen my daughter cry unshed tears alone. I have seen her wallow in self-pity and misery. I have seen her smile disappear amidst dark sorrow. I have lost my daughter in more ways than you can count. Do you know what it must have felt to a mother?"
Katie backed away at the unveiled hostility she saw in Karen's demeanour.
"I don't think I need to explain the cause to you, Katie Singer. Now, I have seen my daughter cry enough. I don't like you in her life. Your presence is neither wanted nor appreciated."
Katie tried to bring some words out, but could only find herself nod meekly.
Without a word, Karen turned and walked away.
Jessie sat opposite her mother in her living room. Her legs were curled under her and her fingers were clasped together. All of a sudden, she was feeling very cold. Karen was crouched unmoving against the settee.
"You are an independent girl now." Karen broke the silence. "You can do as you wish and you surely do not need a middle-aged woman telling you what to do."
"But you do not approve of my relationship with Katie?" Jessie choked.
Karen shook her head firmly.
Jessie stared down at her hands. She finally summoned up enough strength to speak.
"There is nothing I have done that went against your wish. I love you, mom. If you ask me not meet Katie again, I will not."
Karen turned to look at her daughter. Jessie was trying very hard to stay composed and not give into her tears.
"But mom, I want you to know something. Katie did not hurt me. She did not leave me. It was my fault all those years ago. I gave into a serious misunderstanding that cost us our relationship. She was faithful to me. She is still faithful to me."
"You believe that?" Karen asked quietly.
Jessie faced her mother, her eyes confident.
"Yes, mom I do."
Katie was sprawled on her balcony. The rising sun cast a delicate blush on the sky. Katie was looking at the horizon, where the sky met the earth, the seemingly impossible union.
Katie's thoughts were drowned by rivulets of Vodka. Her vision was blurred and her head throbbed due to the after effects of the alcohol. Yet, she did not go to sleep. She wanted her body exhausted, her mind exhausted. She wanted her whole being to be so consumed with physical fatigue that it would have no place left for the emotional trauma that she was undergoing.
The door opened and Trey entered. Katie did not look up. He glanced at her dishevelled hair, her carelessly buttoned shirt and her pasty face. He sat down beside her. Katie showed no reaction. Her eyes were still focused on the distance.
"Lorraine let me enter." Trey whispered.
Katie did not respond.
"How are you feeling?"
Katie still did not respond.
Trey breathed noisily. "That was a stupid question to ask, I suppose." He ran his hands through his hair.
"Can I tell you something, Kathryn?"
Katie merely shrugged.
"Losing someone you love is not as bad as knowing that you let yourself lose that person."
Katie slowly turned towards him. She narrowed her reddened eyes.
"There is nothing one can do when fate is against you." Katie spoke hoarsely.
Trey gave her a grim smile. "Kathryn Singer speaks of fate. She who has commanded her life into a venue that few would have thought possible. She who has refuted all laws of age and success. No... she is not the person to speak of fate."
Katie smirked humourlessly, "Yes, I have achieved a lot in my life. Yet... now I feel I am a loser because I lost the most important thing. Maybe, I was destined to be rich and miserable."
"Which era are you living in?" Trey shouted, "This is not the time when you are going to back off just because some parent opposes your relationship."
Katie sighed, "You do not understand, Trey. Jessie would not go against her mother and I would never ask her to. It is not about being traditional. It is about the connection that a mother has with her daughter. I respect Karen a lot. If she has asked me to stay away, I will stay away."
"And is it your fault?" Trey asked quietly.
Katie opened her mouth and then closed it in a sad smile. "I am not sure it is anyone's fault. Just that everyone is right in their own way. The problem is, in the end, it depends on what Karen thinks is right."
"So make her think what you think is right." Trey coaxed calmly.
"What do you mean?"
Trey cocked his head, his eyes sparkling, "Tell Karen what you know is the truth. Tell her what is in your heart. Pour out your feelings in front of her. Ask her for her daughter, the conventional way."
"But..." Katie frowned.
"Karen asked you to stay away from Jessie, not herself." Trey winked.
Katie abruptly got up.
"Where are you going?" Trey scowled.
"To get a drink of water and then some sleep. If I am going to ask Karen for her daughter, I need to be as sober as possible."
Karen Sammler gently folded the book on her lap and perched her glasses on the bridge of her nose. She peered through them at the tiny letters on the yellowed pages. She needed to help her ex-student and now good friend, Ronald Fenton, on a case. She had been retired for quite some time but she loved to update herself with the latest legal issues. By virtue of people like Ronald Fenton and others, she kept herself tuned to the happenings in court.
The front door bell rang. Karen glanced at the old cuckoo clock she had bought from an auction sale and wondered who it could be.
She walked briskly to the door and opened it. Her eyes widened in surprise. At her doorstep was a gorgeous brunette, dressed in a beige wrap-around skirt and a white sweatshirt. Her lush hair was tied back but it did not stop gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. But most prominent was the huge smile on the girl's face. Her beautiful and more accurately, adorable smile was so infectious that Karen found herself widening her lips in response.
"Hello, Mrs. Sammler." Katie greeted. "I have brought you Chardonnay... and I hope you..." Katie brought out her other hand covered with an array of reds and pinks, "... like roses."
Karen stared speechless at the younger girl. She numbly accepted the gifts of flower and wine and stepped aside to let Katie in. Katie entered like a spring breeze and Karen wondered if she commanded the fresh air outside to accompany her.
"This is beautiful." Katie gushed, "I always knew you loved to sew and stitch." She looked admiringly at the displays of embroidered fabric covering much of the furniture.
"I have ample time, nowadays." Karen murmured. "So, would you like something to drink, Katie?"
Katie shook her head absently as she still inspected the various homemade decorations with awe.
Finally, Katie seemed to realize what she was doing and she blushed.
"I am sorry, Mrs. Sammler." She apologized. "I am so used to seeing everything made by machines that a work by human hands surprises me."
Karen smiled warmly, "Well... I could teach you... if you want."
Katie blinked, not sure she heard it right. She smiled and nodded. They stood in awkward silence for a moment.
Subsequently, Karen motioned her to sit down. They sat on the sofa, opposite each other.
"So... how's everything going with your work?" Karen asked.
"Good." Katie nodded slightly. She then swallowed hard and drew whatever streams of courage and strength she had from within.
"Mrs. Sammler..." Katie looked at Karen. "I have come here to ask you something, actually to request something."
"Oh?" Karen leant back. She wasn't ready to reveal her thoughts yet. She wanted to hear what Katie had to say first.
Katie then bent down and knelt before Karen. Karen's face remained expressionless.
"Mrs. Sammler, I know you love Jessie a lot. I know you would always want your daughter to be happy. Believe me; I would never come in between such a love. I have always kept you in utmost respect and would continue to do so regardless of your opinion about me. But I wish you to know that I love your daughter too. I always have. For me, my life began and ends with Jessie. Oh yes, I have survived without Jessie, I have apparently gone ahead in those fifteen years we have been apart. But my life was all about competition and money. I never looked sideways. I did not have anything to look forward to except one step after another. Did I have a purpose in my life? I don't think so. Did I plan my life? No. Success happened and I took it. It was breathing and surviving and not living. When Jessie came back into my life, it was like the spring after the summer. The warmth she filled my life with helped me realize what I have missed all these years. If she leaves my life, will I live? Yes, but once again in that cold winter from where I just had come out. I know you do not think highly of me. You think I have always hurt Jessie. In many ways, you are right. I have done some unpardonable mistakes, but we always hurt people we love, don't we? Does that mean we love them less? But infidelity is not one of my crimes. I have always loved Jessie and only Jessie. I shouldn't have left all those years ago, and if I had a second chance, I would choose to stay back and make Jessie understand the truth. But I cannot change the past. What I can only hope is to not make the same mistake again. To fill our lives with the same relationships that we had fifteen years ago."
Katie's voice broke off. Her head sank and she stared at the carpet.
Karen looked at Katie's bowed head.
"Jessie is not the only you hurt, Katie." Karen reprimanded softly. "You hurt a mother by taking her two daughters away from her."
Katie looked up. Karen's eyes were glinting with tears.
"When you left, a mother was left broken. Her one daughter was gone physically and her other daughter was withdrawn emotionally."
Karen gave a bleak smile. "You think you have any right to break my heart and then come her to ask for forgiveness. You think you need to ask for forgiveness? In one moment, you have turned me into a stranger. Do not think of apologizing. What you should have done is to come and tell me what happened fifteen years ago. I trusted and loved you, Katie and you could not share this much with me? You thought you will make a decision by going away and thus helping everyone? You devastated all of us with your decision."
"I am sorry, Karen... I am so sorry, Karen." Katie whimpered. She placed her head on Karen's lap, her tears flowing freely.
Karen tenderly stroked Katie's hair.
"I don't think I could tell myself that you were wrong. Even at the time when Jessie blamed you, I could not bring myself to believe that you would have betrayed her. I saw it in your eyes, Katie, the truth. I am a lawyer, remember? I can see lies in a person's eyes." Karen grinned.
Katie smiled through her tears. "But you shouted at me that day?"
Karen gave a short chuckle, "I can't explain but we parents are like that. Sometimes we vent our anger when we do not want to show the strong emotions we feel for our children. When you have kids of your own you will understand."
She lifted Katie's head and with her fingers wiped away the salty tears from the face.
"I am looking forward to being a grandmother again, Katie. You and Jessie will make good parents."
Katie blushed and hugged Karen.
Jessie was literally taken aback when she heard the CD player booming out Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock. The volume was unusually loud for Karen Sammler. Jessie wondered what was wrong with her mother.
"Mom?" She called out repeatedly. She then decided to give up. She could hardly her own voice in the vibrations of the music.
Jessie dragged the grocery bags into the kitchen. Her arms strained from the effort, she had planned on spending the weekend having a small barbecue with her mother. She had come up with amazing Mediterranean recipes and she wanted to try it out.
"Mom... I have..." The rest of the words stuck in Jessie's throat as her jaws dropped and her eyes bulged forward when she took in the scene in front of her.
Katie and Karen were dressed in identical pink aprons. Katie was beating eggs in a bowl while Karen sliced ham. They were engaged in an animated conversation. It appeared that Karen was instructing Katie on the various spices to put in the stew. Katie then shared a joke which had Karen giggle spontaneously.
Jessie literally rubbed her eyes and pinched herself to make sure that she wasn't dreaming.
They were unaware of her there. Karen did a small jiggle to the music and Katie laughed out loud.
Suddenly, Katie's eyes fell on a very dumbfounded Jessie.
"Uh... Hi Jessie!" Katie beamed waving her fork.
Karen turned and her smile matched Katie's.
"Hi, honey! You are here early. Katie and I were just getting done with lunch."
"Katie... and... and... you?" Jessie questioned disbelievingly.
"Oh yes!" Katie lent Karen a hand with the stirring as Karen went to check on her oven.
"It's great fun cooking. And your mom is like teaching me these super cool recipes."
Jessie walked slowly and then stood in between them. She stared at one from the other.
"What's going on?" She demanded.
"Oh... nothing." Karen shrugged. "Katie decided to join us for this weekend. Right, Katie dear?" Karen smiled mischievously.
Katie nodded like a small child with a secret to hide.
"Oh, yes... one more thing, honey." Karen grinned at Jessie. "Would you mind sharing your room with Katie? As you know, I haven't really furnished the guest room properly."
"Huh?" Jessie gaped at the silent agreement shared between her mother and Katie.
They turned back to look at Jessie, their eyes sparkling with love and humour. It seemed to say, "This is our family".