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Disclaimer: The Pretender and its characters don’t belong to me. But since those who do own them won’t use them I’ll just borrow them for a while. I refuse to let Jarod and those he loves stagnate, to wither and die.

The Door of Memory
Part 1 – By Phenyx


“Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory. “
Susan B. Anthony


Jarod folded his arms and leaned against the wooden post of the porch. He gazed out at the blackness around him. It was still too early to see the meadow that spread before the secluded farmhouse. With a patient sigh he listened to the night as it hovered on the edge of sunrise.

This was his favorite time of day, the darkness before the dawn. It was a poetic representation of what his life had once been. Growing up in the Centre, cut off from his family, Jarod had lived more than three decades in a darkness that had little to do with the actual absence of light. It had taken a lifetime of despair, pain and loneliness followed by years of fear, anger and stubborn determination before Jarod had found true illumination in his life.

But ultimately, he had found it.

The Island of Carthis had signaled the beginning of the end of Jarod’s flight from the Centre. In his mind’s eye, Jarod saw his frantic dash across the island, the anguished minutes he’d spent on the beach watching his mother disappear in the distance. His memories mercifully flashed over the remainder of his time spent on the isle. He had spent the last two years trying not to remember. Two years trying to forget the pain her rejection had caused.

Instead, Jarod thought of the weeks that followed his trip to Scotland. He had tracked his mother with the singled-minded ferocity of a predator chasing its prey. Pursuing her trail with a determined focus, it had never occurred to him that his intensity served as a defense mechanism. Jarod’s obsession with his mother’s whereabouts had effectively blocked out all other things, including the gut-wrenching final phone call he had shared with Miss Parker.

“I hope you find your mother,” she had told Jarod sincerely. Barely a month later, he had.

Reuniting with his mother had started a domino effect in Jarod’s life. It was as if overcoming that first, greatest obstacle had made those following it so much easier to tackle. Margaret Leaman possessed a great deal of incriminating evidence against the Centre, evidence that she had used to ensure her captive children’s safety. Though the information she held had been enough to protect Jarod from an assassin’s bullet, she had never figured out how to use it to actually free him.

Jarod’s final simulation had done that job for her. It had taken him nearly a week to work through all the details but in the end, Jarod and his family were released from the Centre’s clutches. Jarod had seen to it that the Centre was risking much more by pursuing him than it stood to lose by letting him go.

The victory had been bittersweet. Little by little, Jarod had managed to bring his family back together moving them all into this rambling house in a backwater town. But Jarod had not seen anyone from the Centre since making his final break. He kept in touch with Sydney of course. They spoke to each other in regular phone calls and emails were exchanged almost daily. But there had been no visits between them. Worse still, there had been no contact what so ever between Jarod and Miss Parker. The sad, weary conversation they had shared after Carthis had been the last time he had spoken to her.

Jarod still managed to keep well informed of Miss Parker’s activities despite the lack of direct communication. He plied Sydney for information as often as he deemed appropriate. Ethan’s addition to the equation some eighteen months ago had also served Jarod well in this area. It had gotten to the point where he didn’t even need to ask his little brother how Parker was doing. Ethan readily volunteered the information his inner sense provided.

Jarod sighed and shifted his feet. The sky was just beginning to brighten on the eastern horizon. Darkness eased into a swirling combination of purple hues just above the distant trees.

Part of Jarod’s mind registered the coolness of the air around him. It wasn’t cold, per se. There was a slight tinge of the coming winter floating in the air. Yet, the weather promised to hold steady for several days, long enough to take them through the weekend. The frost that had struck earlier in the month had caused Jarod some concern, for it had come sooner than he had anticipated. For a while, he had been afraid that the peak colors of autumn would come and go before they were ready.

But as dawn broke over the meadow, Jarod knew that they had not missed it. Golden yellow and bright red slashes of color beamed magically as the sunlight caressed his surroundings. Jarod smiled.

Heather had so desperately wanted an autumn wedding. Tomorrow was going to be perfect for her. It would be a beautiful day for a beautiful bride. Thinking of the slender, soft-spoken girl made Jarod smile wistfully. He adored Ethan’s tiny fiancÚ. He’d move mountains for the girl if necessary. Arranging for the autumn foliage to oblige her wishes for one day seemed like a trifle compared to the miracle she had performed with Ethan.

Jarod’s younger brother was no longer the cowering, hunted creature he had found in a warehouse years ago. Every day brought Ethan more confidence and increased self-worth as Heather’s love buoyed him. She depended upon him, needed him in a way Ethan had never been needed before. She accepted him for what he was, never questioning his odd behavior, soothing his bad dreams even if he wasn’t asleep when they came.

Jarod envied them both. He spent a lot of time with the couple, content to hover at the edges of their lives. He basked in the glow that seemed to radiate from their happiness, refusing to look too closely at his reasons for doing so.

“Would you like some breakfast?” a soft voice spoke. Jarod pulled himself away from his thoughts long enough to smile at his mother. He shook his head.

Jarod watched his mother pad across the porch and stop at his side. She hugged him around one arm and rested her head against his shoulder as she gazed at the panorama before them.

They stood in silence for a time. Mother and son comforted each other as they dwelt in separate thoughts. Finally, Margaret turned to look up at her firstborn, studying his profile inquisitively.

“Nervous?” she asked him.

Jarod shrugged. “I’m not the one getting married tomorrow Mom,” he replied.

The older woman gave her son a knowing look. “But you are the one going to pick them up at the airport today,” she said. When Jarod showed no intention of responding she went on. “You haven’t seen either of them in a long time. You must be feeling a bit anxious.”

Jarod looked down at his mother and grinned. The woman didn’t look anything like him. As a matter of fact, Jarod didn’t look like either of his parents. He and Emily both had dark eyes but aside from that, there was little family resemblance to be found. It had bothered Jarod more than a little during the early days of their reunion.

But as the weeks and months had passed, Jarod had come to see his parentage reflected in other ways. The Major was a brilliant, determined man with an unstoppable force of will. When Jarod’s father set his mind to something, he didn’t give up easily. Father and son had yet to lock horns over anything serious but the joke between them was that perhaps the Centre had done them a favor in keeping them separated while Jarod was a teen.

Jarod’s mother, equally as smart as her husband, was far more insightful. The empathy she had for those around her was almost eerie. She alone knew how troubled Jarod had been the first time his father had commented on the Centre’s interference in their lives. Margaret had an uncanny ability to know when Jarod was feeling unsure of himself and his place in their family. She always seemed to know when he was frightened or just in need of a hug.

“You’re reading my mind again, Mom,” Jarod teased her.

With a tender smile, Jarod’s mother hugged his shoulders. “I don’t read minds,” she replied automatically. This exchange had been repeated many times in the last couple of years. “Your eyes tell me everything I need to know.”

Jarod turned so that he could pull his mother into a full embrace. Laying his cheek against the top of her head, Jarod closed his eyes and savored the feeling of unconditional acceptance that flowed from this woman.

“Their coming here frightens you,” Margaret tried again.

“Frightens?” Jarod frowned. “No. I’m not afraid of them.” He straightened, folding his arms back across his chest. “Anxious? Yes. Nervous? Very. I haven’t seen them for a long time. I have to admit that I’m more than a little excited as well.”

Margaret cocked one eyebrow at her son. Jarod knew that his mother didn’t approve of his continued contact with Sydney. Her displeasure was a big part of Jarod’s current anxiety.

“Look,” Jarod said. “I don’t expect you and Sydney to hit it off. You have every right to detest his existence. But I really would appreciate it if you and Dad could at least tolerate his presence.”

Margaret’s eyes softened lovingly at her child. “I don’t detest his existence,” she soothed. “Sydney raised you. You’ve become a remarkable man because of his influence. I can’t fault him for that.”

“But he kept me from you,” Jarod sighed. “Or helped to do so at any rate.”

“Yes,” Margaret admitted. “And for that I can never truly forgive him. But I promise to be civil while he is here. For your sake, I’ll be cordial.”

“Thank you,” Jarod said as he kissed his mother’s cheek.

With a shrug she added, “They can’t be all bad. If they love you as much as Ethan says, there must be goodness in them somewhere.”

“Sydney has a good heart,” Jarod assured her. “Misguided and easily misled perhaps, but essentially good.”

“And Miss Parker?” Margaret asked.

Jarod’s body went very still as if waiting for some nasty trap to spring on him. “She had a heart once,” he replied slowly.

“It was nice of her to bring Sydney to the wedding as her guest,” Jarod’s mother said. “She didn’t have to give you the chance for a visit. She didn’t have to come at all.”

“Ethan is her brother too,” Jarod reasoned. “She probably wants to be sure he isn’t making a mistake.”

“I’m sure that she and Heather will be great friends,” Margaret said affectionately.

Jarod glanced at his mother warily. “I just hope Parker doesn’t shoot anyone during the ceremony,“ he said, only half joking.

Margaret frowned. “She can’t possibly object to Heather. Not a sweeter person exists on the planet.”

“If Parker shoots anyone, it will be me,” Jarod said. With a shrug he added, “We can really bring out the worst in each other.” Embarrassment colored his cheeks. “I have been intentionally cruel to her in the past. We’ve both been cruel. And neither of us is very good at forgetting that kind of thing.”

Jarod’s mother eyed him critically for a long moment. Her sharp gaze seemed to bore into Jarod’s soul. He did his best to feign innocence, to hide the thudding in his chest. But for some reason, he doubted he was successful.

“If this woman dislikes you so much,” Margaret said. “Perhaps I should send Ethan to the airport with you. He can serve as peacekeeper.”

“No,” Jarod answered. He hoped that his refusal came out sounding as casual as he had wanted. “It’ll be fine.” How could he explain the truth? How could he describe his need to have Parker to himself for a while? True, Sydney would be there. But Sydney understood. At least Jarod believed he did.

So, Jarod would go to the terminal himself. He would meet the plane and greet his old mentor and ex-huntress. He would welcome them both and try to find some neutral topic to discuss for the hour-long drive back home. Sixty minutes. It would be the longest stretch of unoccupied time Jarod had ever spent with either of them. At least he’d be driving. He could always pretend to be concentrating on the road if things got uncomfortable.

It was strange. Never before had Jarod so looked forward to something he dreaded this much.

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