The spacious two-story brick Tudor Revival—rumored to be haunted and Victorian—had been vacant, but somewhat maintained, for eight years and Jarod, exhausted and frustrated, was relieved to enter the spacious foyer, despite the horrors that may or may not have transpired beneath the slate roof.
Illuminated by his mobile's display, he loosened his tie and the top three buttons of the charcoal shirt he wore and listened to his voice mail messages—all from his mother, and none, as he'd hoped and anticipated, from Parker.
Jarod pushed a hand over his face and through his hair. His forlorn sigh preceded a confounded, remorseful, "Jesus" and Parker's name. His attorney, Drake Calvier, had confirmed an hour earlier and in the most condescending told-you-so tone he could summon, that Parker was imprudently avoiding every civil attempt at communication.
It had been a humbling experience, particularly when Jarod recalled the previous meeting during which he had apprised the attorney of his intention to allow Parker to retain uncontested custody of the child they shared. Calvier had strongly advised against it, had argued, tossed around the phrase "naïve and expensive blunder", and had been reminded multiple times by Jarod that he wasn't the only attorney in Lavender Gardens.
Naïve and expensive blunder, indeed.
Pivoting, Jarod reached into the library for the light switch and started suddenly. Drawing a breath, he uttered Parker's name once more, adding in vague amusement, "Not funny."
"Perspective, Jarod," intoned Parker thinly. Dressed for the office in gray slacks and a powder blue blouse, Parker sat stiff and straight on the edge of an ivory armchair.
Jarod chuckled his agreement. "I suppose it is hilarious. And this is," he added with some solemnity, "a rather pleasant surprise. Ah," he grunted his umbrage and with a small gesture indicated the lidded file storage box at Parker's feet, "I see you found the letters I never mailed— uh and the six composition books. I'd intended to destroy those," he murmured. "I don't suppose I can persuade you to leave those here and unread?"
"You concocted this— sadistic precedent of annihilating boundaries, violating privacy," Parker answered in a deceptively tranquil voice. "I'm embracing it."
Jarod's low moan of discomfit preceded a curt nod of understanding, tacit consent. Despite having grudgingly relinquished ownership of aforementioned parcel to Parker, he, nevertheless, remained cordial. "How are you?"
"Never been better," Parker answered, her voice low and flat.
"Hmm, doubtful," Jaod commented dryly. "Are you hungry? I can offer you Farro salad, chocolate mousse, last night's butternut squash bisque, this morning's leftover quiche. Sparkling cider. Water?"
Parker, categorically astonished to find that Jarod no longer subsisted on candy and processed foods, answered with a slow head-shake.
"Then you came to talk," Jarod said, dropping into the armchair opposite hers. "I'm listening."
Parker's eyes hardened.
"Ah, I see. I was supposed to become enraged, shout, and demand you leave, not insist you stay for dinner. The truth is you're welcome to break into, and enter, my home at your leisure. I know," he said sympathetically, "I'm incorrigible, aren't I? Why don't you slug me and get it over with?"
"Don't tempt me," cautioned Parker.
"Exit strategy can be quite the dilemma hmm," mused Jarod, leaning forward and steepling his fingers. "I never did particularly enjoy shouting at you and I enjoy your company immensely. You could pretend to receive a text and excuse yourself or," he suggested sweetly, "stay. This is a perfect opportunity to express your feelings and you don't have to compete with loud music or worry that the children or neighbors will overhear your obscenities."
"Right," sang Parker sardonically, adding numbly, "You actually believe that what I feel can be expressed verbally."
"Don't underestimate yourself," advised Jarod, relaxing his posture and slouching, slightly. "I certainly don't. You're intelligent, tenacious, capable of just about anything. I imagine it's simpler to convey your emotions via fists- and satisfying, too," Jarod continued with a grin, "however, you were rather opposed to physical contact last we spoke." Following a sweeping head-to-toe appraisal, he added gently, "I have a feeling I'm safe."
"For now," Parker clarified.
"I am sorry that I hurt you. I'm more remorseful than you'll ever believe. When he confiscated marina surveillance that revealed Levi and Sydney boarding my boat, Lyle made an assumption. My family certainly wasn't going to argue with the Centre's official statement, release a counter statement.
You're behaving as if I maliciously plotted to hurt you. I didn't do that. I've never wanted to hurt you," Jarod assured her. "Unlike that ex husband of yours who committed adultery and lied to you for twenty months, I'd never do that to you. I certainly hope you're reserving some anger for him and not squandering it all on me. He deserves it."
"Why is it that you always talk about what the people I've lost deserve? My mother? Thomas? You're not the prevailing authority on what anyone deserves."
"Consider it an observation."
"I suggest you swallow unsolicited and inconsiderate observations."
"I'll bear that in mind," Jarod said. "It's disheartening that you continue to interpret my sincerity as aggression and impertinence, that you're still so acclimatized to betrayal and manipulation, that dishonesty was so commonplace in your life you, invariably, anticipate it from everyone. Your mother didn't deserve her fate and Thomas- please," Jarod implored when Parker's hands curled into fists, "hear me out. I couldn't have predicted the two of you would fall in love, but I'm not sorry you did. You both deserved to be happy."
"He'd be alive now if he hadn't fallen in love with me."
"Thomas was miserable before he met you, filled with regret for leaving behind his life after his parents were killed. I believe he wasn't entirely ignorant of the risks. In retrospect," Jarod said reflectively, "I'm certain he had suspicions."
"Such as," prompted Parker with equal measures of eagerness and apprehension.
"Thomas talked about the Centre's inordinately rigid security, Mr. Parker offering him a blank check, bribing him to give you up."
What is this anyway? The Godfather? She's a grown woman, Jarod. It's unbelievable that he is still trying to control her. Have you ever heard of anything so strange? It's like he can't let her go, like he's afraid she has found happiness. Something is really wrong with her family and that— place. I'm worried about her.
"Go on," demanded Parker, irritably.
"Thomas pondered the absence of friends, visitors. He believed, erroneously, that you and your family were close and simply didn't have time for friendships. The apparent tension when he dined with your family banished that belief, however. He spoke of a similar tension each time he broached the subject of your career and family, the future. And he wondered if you were being defensive when he saw you putting away your gun."
"He thought he was dating a dangerous mob boss's daughter."
"That doesn't seem improbable. Thomas loved you more than anything and he made his peace with the unknown and was optimistic you'd eventually confide in him, unburden yourself. He accepted whatever risks accompanied his decision."
"You're alarmingly certain of that."
"Yes," confessed Jarod. "Yes, I am certain. And I know it's no consolation to you, but Thomas, if given the choice, would always choose you, regardless of the conclusion. I understand your anger, I understand if you never forgive me, but we both know in our hearts that Thomas would change nothing."
"You're right," murmured Parker absently. "It's no consolation. Never talk about Thomas again."
Jarod nodded his affirmation. "What shall we discuss then?"
"This was a mistake," Parker announced crisply; she, however, made no effort to leave.
"That's severe," Jarod said in a tight, wounded voice. "Why is it a mistake for friends to visit? We share a child. I'm told things of that nature typically require occasional communication. I'm aware of how difficult this must be for you," he explained, adding optimistically, "but I'm confident that I haven't exaggerated your fortitude."
Parker—in no way assured by his words—scrutinized the room.
"You disapprove of the house?" Jarod asked. "Or of Eli visiting me here?"
"It's— a lot. The attorney, this house. It's too fast."
"Are you asking me to slow down? Back off? Do you believe that's fair to Eli?"
"I don't know what I believe." Or what the hell I'm doing here. "Last month I believed you were dead. You're alive, you're my son's father, you've transferred here permanently, we're encountering each other at the same establishments. My God, Jarod, you purchased a house that I run past every morning." It's truly inhabited by a specter now.
"Yes, I noticed," he said. "You're welcome to drop by for a glass of water any time. Please don't view the proximity as an attempt to torment you. My primary focus is on the long term, making this transition as painless as possible for everyone involved. I considered every option and eliminated those you'd deem intolerable. Eli can simply ride his bike if he chooses to visit."
Parker's face twisted in incredulity. "Intolerable?"
"Uh are you reacting to my factoring your feelings into-"
"Yes," affirmed Parker hotly. "No," she amended, clarifying aggressively, "your presumptions."
Jarod offered her a warm, wistful smile. "I want to be wrong."
"But," prompted Parker suspiciously.
"The origin of your opposition isn't exclusively anger and is unrelated to your training," Jarod answered delicately, his voice dropping to a near whisper. Neither his tone nor the small gesture—his joined hands briefly parting as if presenting Parker something tangible to visually observe—went unnoticed. "It's far more complex than that.
I represent the ugliest chapter of your life and I should have taken that into consideration last evening, not bothered you. I wasn't aware then, and I'm not certain you were either, of the extent of your repulsion. I misread your behavior during previous encounters, mistakenly attributed any peculiarities to stress and perhaps the resumption of established hostilities.
There's a lot more going on inside your mind than anger and you seem to be as baffled as I by your presence in my home." Jarod whispered her name, frowned. "I know you're armed. Did you come here to kill me? Or only maim me?"
Prompted by Parker's continued silence, Jarod repeated her name, inquired solicitously, concern creasing his forehead, "Are you all right?"
"Why," Parker answered at last. "Last night," she clarified, haltingly.
The significant twenty-three hour interval between discovering the identity of her dance partner and that particular question was, believed Jarod, rather revealing. He imagined the overwrought hours during which Parker had alternated bedamning herself and the universe's deranged sense of humor, recapping the prior evening's highlights, attempting to dismiss her actions, the opposing thoughts, feelings, warring with herself. Only during hour twenty-three had it occurred to her to interrogate Jarod, the party who'd initiated the dance. Jarod couldn't plead ignorance; his eyes had riveted on Parker when she'd ordered her drink.
"You won't be pleased with the answer," cautioned Jarod.
Parker fashioned a smile. She'd been dreading the answer for nearly an hour. "Why," she demanded.
"You were, without success, searching for a partner and I know precisely what you want. It was instinctive, logic." Jarod drew a breath, grimaced unconsciously at the blank expression she wore. "It didn't feel like a reprehensible indiscretion or a crime— did it? Or is that why you felt it necessary to bring along your weapon," he pressed.
"No," she said, brusquely.
"That's a relief, because I'm afraid that any apology I issue will be disingenuous; after all, we both enjoyed ourselves for half an hour. Are you certain I can't get you something to drink?"
A barrel of Glenfiddich.
Parker declined with a headshake.
"I was never fond of the Centre monsters," Jarod said, "but now I truly abhor them all for what they've done to us. I was confident that even Mr. Parker could never entirely poison you against me. They've finally succeeded," he added sorrowfully, "and I will never forgive them."
Parker rose and collected the box.
"You're not seriously choosing again to leave this entirely unresolved?" Jarod asked incredulously. "You've barely spoken." He called her name, briefly halting her retreat.
"You don't have to bring the gun on your next visit. You should know by now that I pose no threat to you; I never have. That was Mr. Parker's lie," he explained, rising abruptly and with startling rapidity joining Parker at the door. "I'm hurt that you still believe it."
Jarod searched Parker's face, said, "This reminds of that time Mr. Parker flew to Gabon and neglected to make arrangements for your care. You must have been— nine?
You jimmied the lock to my humble abode and climbed into bed with me— yes," Jarod confirmed sternly when she swung her surprised gaze at him, "It's really me and I'm afraid I remember everything you've prayed I'd forgotten.
It was a simpler time and you were a child, but you promised we'd always be the closest of friends. Instead, I watched you slowly disappear. You ran away long before I did, left me with only memories."
Parker dropped her gaze to the box, considered leaving it, thrusting it at him, contemplated unwashed cutlery, enumerated neglected duties.
Please. Anything but this.
"I've always remembered your promise," Jarod said, pulling open the door and stepping aside. "And I still want to believe you."