"Old friend," repeated Avery dubiously, dissatisfaction evident. "Mommy, don't you know anyone who isn't elderly?"
"He's an old boyfriend," needled Eli mischievously.
"Ooh," cooed Avery, "is your old boyfriend handsome?"
"Jarod and I weren't romantically involved."
"Does Daddy know you invited your ex-boyfriend to dinner? What if he comes home?"
"Greg's away on business until Saturday."
"On Business," repeated Avery thoughtfully. "Is business a nickname for Daddy's girlfriend," she asked. "Yesterday you called her a different name that begins with b."
"I've apologized for the expletive; I didn't know you were in the room."
"So," Avery purred, "it would have been okay if we hadn't heard?"
"I made a mistake, Avery."
"Not exactly, Mommy: Faye is a bitch," informed Avery matter of factly, ignoring her mother's disparaging expression. "Isn't your ex-boyfriend late?"
"We usually have dinner at six," Parker answered, judiciously choosing her battles, ultimately deciding to reserve her strength for their guest rather than squander it on silliness.
"I'm hungry now," Avery pouted.
"So am I," agreed Eli earnestly.
"Start on your salads, and I'll," Parker swallowed the remainder of her statement, pour myself another glass of wine. She was well into her third when Avery exclaimed: "Mommy didn't tell me that you were so tall! She only said you were old."
"Did she?" Inquired Jarod jovially, all genteel charm and exuberance, kneeling and presenting Avery English lavender, caspia, nigellas, daisies and pink roses bound in hemp. She accepted the bouquet with a gracious curtsey and hushed, "Beautiful."
"Avery," admonished Parker brusquely, arriving in the foyer composedly, only marginally confounded by her daughter's animated expression and vigorous gestures of approval. Jarod abruptly fell silent and smiled broadly, unreservedly when Avery pressed her face to a rose. "We don't open the door to strangers."
"Your mother's right," Jarod agreed with some solemnity and explicated with a wink and grin, "It's a good thing I'm not a stranger hmm?"
The girl giggled, informed the flowers they were thirsty and stomped away gaily, presumably to fetch a vase, trailing flower petals behind her. Jarod observed her departure, rose to his full height, and swung his gaze to Avery's mother. "Isn't it, Parker?"
"Rules," asserted Parker suddenly.
"Rules," Jarod repeated thickly with distaste. "Now that doesn't sound like fun."
"You cannot charm your way into any sort of position of authority, apply your good cop-bad cop philosophy to parenting in some futile attempt to turn my children against me so they'll only listen to you and you will not," she continued savagely, hitting her stride effortlessly, like old times "dismiss the established rules or-"
Jarod expelled a breath of exasperation, disrupting Parker's diatribe, and doffed his thigh length blazer, revealing black slacks and a moss green shirt open at the neck that, prior to the evening's conclusion, he'd unbutton and fold up the sleeves. "Should I be writing this down?"
"He doesn't know about the divorce yet and if you tell him tonight-"
"Relax," interrupted Jarod, his eyes wide with concern, and offered her a paper bag. "Sparkling juice," he explained. "The finest in Lavender Gardens. I hear it pairs decently with grilled lamb and vegetable tian, although," he added with a quirk of brow, "probably not quite as well as the bottle of Sancerre you just polished off. Speaking of which," he said, "your judgment is obviously impaired." Bordering disrepair. "Did you honestly believe I would introduce myself to Eli, and in the next breath tell him that I'm his father? Is that what you're worried about?"
"Do I look worried to you, Jarod?"
Jarod appraised her earnestly and answered softly, "After an entire bottle of Sancerre? You certainly shouldn't, and yet-" he sang.
Parker's scowl silenced him. "Well," announced Jarod, eager to shunt the conversation elsewhere, "I'm starving."
With the forbearance of a saint, Jarod endured Parker's vacuous glibness, sidelong glances, and Avery's barrage of inquiries. There were few omissions when he spoke about his family and career, satisfying the child's curiosity. Tactfully, he directed the conversation elsewhere, complimenting Parker on her culinary talents, asking several casual questions of his own.
Incomprehensibly, Parker employed misdirection and prevarication and pondered each query prior to divulging information. She meticulously selected peremptory answers that precluded additional questions, elaboration, an endeavor that was challenging, consequently fatiguing. With a look of bewilderment and an exaggerated flourish directed at Jarod's plate, Parker cautioned solicitously in a remarkedly maternal voice, "It doesn't taste as good when it's cold, Greg."
Jarod acknowledged with a nod and simply pretended not to notice Parker's blunder. Avery, however, wasn't as charitable. "Mommy, that's the second time you've called Jarod by Daddy's name."
"Did I?" Asked Parker, ignoring Jarod's agonised grimace.
"It's all right," Jarod assured her. "Really."
"Their names aren't even similar," contended Avery with the merciless tenacity for which children are infamous.
Jarod said, smiling pleasantly a the girl, "I don't know many children who enjoy vegetables."
Avery shrugged, intoned pleasantly, "They're okay."
"What's your favorite?"
"Artichoke," answered Avery enthusiastically.
"Have you ever tried wheatgrass?"
"That sounds revolting," proclaimed Avery, her face twisting in disgust.
"Probably because it is," conceded Jarod with a chuckle. "What's your favorite," Jarod asked Eli, swinging his gaze at the child, concealing his consternation when the gray eyes regarding him surreptitiously and with hostile curiosity lowered abruptly.
"Everything," the boy answered and hastily shoveled another forkful of vegetable tian into his mouth.
"I'll bring out dessert," Parker announced, rising.
"Did you have to do that, Av," Eli scolded his sister. "In front of a guest?"
"He noticed too," contended Avery. "He's not stupid. Are you, Mister Jarod?"
"Uh, I suppose I have my moments," Jarod answered sweetly and rose. "Excuse me."
"No," exclaimed Eli sharply. "Stay. Tell us about yourself. Do you live nearby," he insisted. "Do you have children? Do you own a cat?"
Jarod lay his napkin aside. "Does anyone own a cat? Look, I'm going to give your mother a hand with dessert. Okay? Eli," he added with a frown, awaiting permission.
"Well," Eli said after some thought, "Okay."
Without so much as a backward glance of confirmation, Parker snorted when Jarod entered the kitchen, "You don't look anything like him either."
"Certainly, you anticipated a period of adjustment," he said, observing from a distance as she sliced a fruit tart into tidy, uniform slices. "It's not as bad as it seems."
"Yes, it is," countered Parker aggressively.
"Avery's a rather obstinate child, but polite and intelligent," said Jarod with an amicable smile. "She reminds me of you at that age. Eli reminds me of you, too," added Jarod tersely, his smile vanishing. "He's distrustful, guarded, suspicious of questions."
"It's not too late to walk away, Jarod, before this becomes complicated, and be remembered fondly as a family friend who came to dinner. Full disclosure: they aren't always this well-behaved. You don't have a monopoly on pretending, artfulness, acting charming."
Jarod gazed steadily and silently at Parker, absorbing her words with an inscrutable expression, detecting nuances of chicanery, deducing that the developing amicable rapport was feigned. Reestablishing credibility and communication, he realized, would be challenging. "What," she demanded in apparent perturbation, her eyes wide and fierce.
"You're trying to frighten me away."
"If the truth frightens you, Jarod, I suggest you leave before Eli becomes emotionally invested, before someone gets hurts."
Electing to circumvent hostility, Jarod swallowed his expostulatory disquisition regarding nettlesome, albeit significant, distinctions between attempting and achieving. Contrarily, he wasn't frightened; however, he bridled his tongue, forbade the doubtlessly incendiary term projection to leave his mouth, not because he was apprehensive about incurring Parker's ire, but rather was determined not to squander time.
"Someone else, you mean?" Jarod asked pointedly, dropping his voice to a hush, deliberately enunciating her name. "I'm sorry that I hurt you," he asserted, categorically accepting the responsibility evidently assigned to him, "for whatever my apology is worth."
Parker scoffed her incredulity. "I'm perfectly capable of saying precisely what I mean," she snarled at him. "For all the good it does," she added hotly. "That isn't my name."
"Nevertheless," Jarod said, maintaining a placid, soft tone, observing as Parker opened a drawer, shuffled its contents. "It would have hurt you a lot more had I stayed after Glasgow, after clarifying my feelings when, clearly, you didn't reciprocate."
"I'm not doing this," insisted Parker, slamming a cabinet closed.
"No," agreed Jarod, the passivity and softness in his voice bizarre if not incongruous, considering the implied audacity. "I am. Each time I considered returning, I remembered the tears in your voice, your eyes, and those words." Just forget. "I believed I was only capable of causing you pain and, apparently, I wasn't wrong."
"Heaven forbid," snarled Parker, bordering contentious.
"When Sydney and Levi died, Mother's health became my primary concern. It had been four years since our post-Scotland debrief and I couldn't imagine a better opportunity to sever ties, provide you closure."
"Closure," she repeated, laughing contemptuously and retrieving a ceramic pastry server.
"Honestly, I'm not certain it exists. You and I," Jarod said with a measure of helplessness, "we'll always be unfinished business."
"I assure you," sibilated Parker, collecting the tart, "we are finished."
"You'll alarm the children," Jarod gently advised, gracefully taking possession of the dessert. "Neither of us wants that."
Parker concurred tacitly, sedately, without objection. "I'll make tea."
"May I suggest strong coffee instead," Jarod insisted softly and observed her brusque nod. "Rarely am I impulsive," he explained conciliatorily, observing Parker fill a carafe. "I've weighed complications, contemplated alternatives. I'm aware that I'm changing lives- yours, your children's, and if I truly believed that your happiness was absolutely contingent on my absence ----I'd still find it difficult to capitulate, disappear," he continued after a studious pause. Not," added Jarod hastily, "as you might believe, because I luxuriate in tormenting you. I'm a father who wants to know his son and while you probably—justifiably—feel that I have no right to ask you for anything, my motives are unselfish: Eli deserves to know his father. Please consider his rights."