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"Day drinking," chided Stella, entering Parker's office and depositing herself primly into a corner wing-back. "This isn't you."

"It was once," remarked Parker softly.

"When you knew Jarod," Stella ventured, apprehending instantly that Parker's inebriation was in no way related to her failed marriage or Greg's adultery. "I don't like the negative energy that man has stirred up inside you," she added softly, retrieving the fifth of scotch from Parker's desk and capping it.

"I suppose brunch at Estelle's can wait. What I came to say can't. I've researched extensively," Stella said. "He's clean, has spread a lot of positive juju, been a powerful force for good, corrected injustices, restored order. My Grandmawmaw Celeste has the vision. You met her in the French Quarter- the spiritual practitioner?

She said his soul and motives are pure. She's never been wrong. But if you tell me she's wrong, I'll believe you."

"Yeah," Parker said absently.

"Girl, you're going to feel like shit on a sole later," groaned Stella, advancing. "Where's Miranda?"

Parker snorted obscenely. "I sent her home."

"And your clients? Meetings? Eli? Avery? I know you don't feel like adulting or CEOing or Mothering right now " Stella's face twisted in disbelief and sympathy when Parker, unceremoniously and inexplicably, began sobbing.

Stella quietly sank to her knees and drew Parker into her arms. She made no attempt to shush her; rather, she believed the purge was a cathartic release of negativity, toxins. A body, she mused, instinctively knows what it needs to do to heal itself.

She had no doubt that Parker's body would soon purge itself of the poison she'd drank and despite her enduring aversion to vomitand secretions in generalStella would remain at Parker's side and pull brunette locks into a loose chignon, and later, serve Parker raw ginger and brew matcha tea with assorted roots and herbs and Parker would recall Ocee and Carthis, and, at long last, purge her remaining secrets.

Stella would demand that Avery and Eli accompany her to the market, purchase a myriad of ingredients, and treat the children to a crudités platter, crawfish Étouffée with shrimp croustades, and a single praline for dessert with a stern caveat: don't snitch to your mother.

Drawing Parker closer, Stella shed tears of empathy for the woman she loved as a sister, perhaps even as one loves their child, and fantasied about punching Jarod in the face.

Damn but I'd hesitate to break a face as nice as his.
It's a shame he didn't hesitate to break a heart as fragile as hers.

Stella would soon discover what Parker had already gleaned from Jarod's unmailed letters: he had been reluctant to implement his mother's wishes. In leaving Parker behind he had lost three people he dearly loved, sacrificed his happiness to ease his mother's anxieties.

He'd acted unselfishly again upon discovering Parker was happily married and a mother, had chosen not to disrupt her life. Jarod had thought of Parker every day since Levi and Sydney's death, had written to, and about, her extensively.

Presently, Jarod groaned Parker's name and turned off his mobile, vowing to read the thirty unread messages from his attorney later that morning. No doubt demanding that I sue her for full custody.

Jarod wasn't quite prepared for that much responsibility (or to piss her off); it was two-fifteen in the morning and he was just returning home from the field office after a twenty hour workday. A child abduction case was growing colder and a suspected organized crime syndicate was distributing roofies.

Jarod was exhausted and no closer to finding the stolen child or the Flunitrazepam distributors. He couldn't imagine waking in three hours, preparing breakfast for a child, driving across town.

He barely resisted the temptation to dive into the sofa and sleep. In the darkness Jarod arrived at his bedroom and, yawning exuberantly, unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt.

Adept fingers became motionless on the buckle. Jarod expelled a tremulous breath, said aloud, "You're welcome to stay as long as you'd like, however, it's only fair I warn you that I'll be completely naked in about twenty seconds."

With that conveyedand no doubt comprehended by his guestJarod switched the closet lights on, turned and studied Parker's barely illuminated form in the mirror. "I trust Stella is supervising the children in your absence."

"Stella is family; she taught Eli to play the guitar and piano, brought him his first Fender and the Blüthner grand in my sitting room. Eli loves and confides in her. If you have a problem with Stella, Eli is going to have a problem with you."

"It's evident that you're the one with the problem," Jarod said, advancing."'I'm your problem; I've never wanted to be. Do you mind if I lie down?"

"It's your house," remarked Parker stonily.

"True," Jarod agreed, sitting on the edge of his bed, distantly aware of his shirt falling open, as apathetic to his state of undress as Parker.

"However, it's your life I'm apparently intruding upon. You look as exhausted as I feel. Are you feeling all right?"

"How dare you ask me that," returned Parker loftily, her face and voice deceptively calm.

"Do you still believe I'm Levi, that I intentionally aged myself somehow, sprinkled gray into my hair? What would be the motive? He admired you, recalled the tenderness you showed him. Why would he want to pretend to be the man he knows you loathe?

You're repulsed by my presence. The look in your eyeshell, I don't even want to be me. Ethan can easily remove any doubt you might have. Why haven't you telephoned your brother?"

Prompted by Parker's silence, Jarod drew back the sheets. "I can open a cranium, excise a tumor, repair an aneurysm; I can design, construct, and operate aircraft. I can be anyone, do anything---except make this easier for you."

Jarod lay flat on the bed, crossed his legs at the ankles.

"I know what you're thinking: you're thinking a real genius would have foreseen and prevented what those monsters did to you. I wish to God I had saved you from that pain."

"Keep your day job, Jarod," advised Parker tartly, rising with abruptness. "Because you suck at mind-reading. I met with our attorneys this morning. A copy of Eli's amended birth certificate is in the mail. I didn't think you'd object to unsupervised visits," she said, adding forcefully, "at Eli's discretion.

Your attorney was displeased with that stipulation, however, Eli's mature for his age and I don't think either of us approves of coercing him to do anything and some advice: you won't succeed in coercing Eli to do anything. Greg dragged him along to his annual deep sea fishing trip last year hoping to cure him of sea sickness; Eli sidled away and hitched a ride home- a four day journey," Parker added numbly.

Jarod stared absently at Parker, murmuring at last, "What?"

"I'm telling him the truth tomorrow after dinner."

"Are you----" Jarod frowned, "certain about this?"

"No," answered Parker stiffly. "I don't have a lot of options."

"You don't," agreed Jarod softly. "That's my fault, I suppose."

"Assigning blame is impractical," Parker said.

"Perhaps," remarked Jarod dubiously. "A conversation, however, would be prudent."

"There's nothing to discuss."

"Nothing," Jarod rebutted incredulously. He frowned deeply. "You look ill," he observed softly, whispering her name. "Can I get you something? Peppermint tea? A cool washcloth?"

"No," answered Parker curtly. "I want this to be over."

"Please tell me you haven't deluded yourself into believing this will be over once you've told Eli I'm his father," Jarod said, sympathetically. "It won't."

"Wow, Jarod, you must be an absolute sensation at parties."

"You'd prefer dishonesty?"

Parker contemplated Jarod's question for several moments and quietly withdrew from the bedroom.

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