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Disclaimer: The characters Miss Parker, Sydney, Jarod, Broots etc. and the fictional Centre, are all property of MTM and NBC Productions and used without permission. I'm not making any money out of this and no infringement is intended.



Always & Forever
By Jennifer DeNaughel







The newspaper article caught his attention immediately: Blue Cove Girl Missing. The picture below the headline was of Broots’ daughter, Debbie. Scanning the story quickly, Jarod carefully cut it out of the newspaper and placed it inside his red notebook.

Pressing speed dial on his cell phone, he waited for Sydney to pick up. There was no answer.

Dialing Miss Parker’s number it only rang once before she answered.

„What?"

„Any word on Debbie?"

„Jarod…I might of known." Miss Parker laughed softly.

„Miss Parker, I can help."

After a moment of silence she gave in, „If I agree to this, it’s only because I care for Debbie and Broots."

„I know you do."

Miss Parker released a heavy sigh, „Broots is falling apart at the seams. I’m worried about him, Jarod. Debbie is his life."

„If anything happens to her, it will kill him."

„What are you going to do?"

„I can be in Blue Cove in about an hour. Can you meet me?"

Miss Parker’s surprise was evident as she whispered, „You are trusting me to show up alone."

„You will," Jarod said, his words were followed by a click as the line went silent.

„Damn," Miss Parker swore under her breath. „I really hate it when he does that."

„When who, does what?" The sound of her brother’s voice nearly caused Miss Parker to jump out of her skin. She turned to face him with a look that would turn any mortal man to ashes. Lyle just stood there with a smug look on his face.

„Lyle, if you ever do that to me again, I will put a bullet between your eyes."

„Temper, temper, Sis." Lyle grinned.

„What the hell do you want anyway?"

„I was merely passing by and thought maybe you were talking to our estranged lab rat."

„Not that it’s any of your business, but the person I was speaking to was someone working on Debbie’s kidnapping."

„If it is a kidnapping."

„Lyle, Debbie is Broots’ life. And he is hers. There is no way in hell I am ever going to believe that she ran away. Someone has taken her and when I find out who, believe me they are going to pay." Miss Parker stood and moved toward her brother.

„Why do you care what happens to Broots and his daughter?" Lyle asked while bracing himself for the wrath of his sister.

„Lyle I suggest you leave this office now or I will carry out my earlier promise."

„Just remember, if Jarod shows up in Blue Cove, we’re bringing him in." Lyle raised his eyebrows as he turned and disappeared into the corridor.

Lyle’s parting words suddenly made Miss Parker want to warn Jarod off, tell him to stay away from Blue Cove. Though she knew nothing would keep him away. Not even his fear of the Centre. He trusted her to help him without taking him in, for Debbie’s sake she would. Nothing else mattered. They would work together to find her and bring her home safely to her father. Then the person or persons responsible will pay dearly for what they have done.

Miss Parker slipped her phone into her bag, then checked her gun to be sure it was loaded and the safety was on, before placing it back in its holster. A few minutes later, she was in her car.

She had barely left the parking area when her phone rang. Retrieving it quickly, she pressed the button. „Where do you want to meet?"

Jarod laughed softly, „The lighthouse."

„I can be there in twenty minutes," she said and cut him off. Smiling slightly Miss Parker nodded, „There’s a little taste of your own medicine, Jarod."

Jarod was waiting on the beach when Miss Parker arrived at the lighthouse. As she approached she noticed that he was dressed in jeans and a loose-fitting, white shirt that buttoned down the front. Its long sleeves were pushed up to his elbows. He looked good, real good.

„Jarod."

„Miss Parker, I see you came alone."

„Are you disappointed?"

„Not particularly."

„They are expecting you."

„I figured as much."

„Lyle walked into my office just as you hung up on me earlier. He was asking who I’d been talking to. I covered, but I think he suspects. He’s going to be watching for you. Are you sure you want to risk this? If you want to leave now, I’ll understand."

„I’ll leave when we have found Debbie, and not before." Jarod paused and glanced out over the bay and shook his head slowly, „That is if you will let me walk away when the time comes."

„Jarod, I promise you that I won’t stop you from leaving, but don’t expect this to change things between us. I cannot give up trying to bring you back to the Centre. I have a job to do."

„And so do I, Miss Parker. What can you tell me?"

„Debbie was with Broots at the supermarket yesterday. He was loading their groceries into the trunk of their car while she went to get into the passenger seat. When he got into the car, she was gone. They took her in broad daylight, Jarod. And no one saw anything."

„Damn."

„My sentiments exactly."

„Who would take her, and why? Broots isn’t wealthy, so it can’t be for ransom."

„And who would be able to steal a little girl right out from under Broots’ nose without anyone seeing anything?"

„I think that you and I both know the answer to that question," Jarod’s voice was laced with bitterness.

Miss Parker felt a stab of emotion she did not dare try to identify. Meeting Jarod’s angry gaze she whispered, „The Centre." After a moment she shook her head, „But why?"

„We both know why," Jarod kicked up the sand at his feet. „Damn," he swore under his breath.

Miss Parker nodded in understanding, „They did it to lure you here."

Jarod ran a hand through his dark hair, the overpowering feeling of guilt clearly shone in his brown eyes. „Miss Parker, if they hurt her…"

„We won’t let that happen, Jarod. We can’t let that happen. Debbie will be home with Broots, safe and sound, in no time. Then I will personally make the Centre regret their existence."

Jarod glanced sideways at her, „You are amazing, you know that."

„What’s that supposed to mean?" she asked as she watched that annoying little half-smile appear on his face…the one that always seemed to put another chink in the ice.

„You pretend not to care about anyone around you, but then here you are risking the wrath of the Centre to find Debbie. How did she do it?"

„Do what?"

„Penetrate the walls around your heart."

„Wouldn’t you like to know."

„Actually I would," Jarod grinned. „I’ve been trying for the past twenty years."

„Maybe you haven’t tried hard enough," Miss Parker could not hold back a slight smile.

„Maybe not," Jarod whispered as their gazes locked.

„So what’s the plan?" Miss Parker shook herself, trying to ignore the amused glint in those brown eyes. She wasn’t about to let him know that he had penetrated those walls long ago.

„We have to get inside the Centre."

„What do you mean, ‘we’?"

„I mean you and I."

„And just how do you propose we do this without you getting caught?"

„You will walk in the front door, I will come in the back. It’s that simple."

„That simple? Are you forgetting security?"

„That’s where you come in…"

***

Miss Parker paced her office anxiously. What was keeping him? It was after midnight and everyone had gone home. At least she hoped everyone was gone. The last thing they needed was uninvited company. Lyle was off on a wild goose chase she had arranged by planting a lead on Jarod in his office. But of course, he had no idea where the information had come from.

„Are we alone?" Jarod whispered as he stepped out of the shadows.

Miss Parker turned to face him and nodded, „I think so."

„We need to get to the Tech room on SL-5."

„I had Angelo loop the cameras and shut down all security systems on SL-5. We should be safe for a couple of hours at least."

„Good, let’s get going. We are going to need every bit of that time to find something to link the Centre to Debbie’s kidnapping."

All was quiet as they moved cautiously along the corridor and entered the Tech room. Jarod immediately went to work in the Centre mainframe. Miss Parker alternated her position from guarding the door to looking over Jarod’s shoulder.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor, heading in their direction, brought Jarod to his feet. Miss Parker pulled out her gun and stood poised next to the door. She glanced at Jarod who was hiding in the shadows.

The door opened and Miss Parker grabbed the intruder and jabbed her 9mm into their back. „One peep and you’re dead," she whispered harshly.

„Miss Parker?"

„Broots?"

„What are you doing here?" Broots’ voice was quivering.

Miss Parker let go of him and returned her gun to its holster. „What the hell are you doing here?"

Broots shrugged sadly, „I couldn’t stand the silence at my house. I thought I would come in and catch up on some work. I miss Debbie."

„I know, Broots. That’s why we are here."

Broots looked at her in confusion, „’We’?"

„Jarod!" He glanced quickly from Miss Parker to Jarod, then back to Jarod who had returned to his position in front of the computer. „You two…here…together?"

„Only until Debbie is safe and sound, then it will be business as usual," Miss Parker caught a glimpse of Jarod’s amused grin before turning back to Broots. „Go home, get some rest. You look like hell."

Broots shook his head, „I can’t go home. I need to keep busy, let me help."

Jarod met Miss Parker’s gaze and nodded slowly. Miss Parker maneuvered Broots into the seat next to Jarod then she hovered over them.

Hours passed, and still nothing. Broots suddenly jumped up and began pacing the room. Jarod looked up from the computer screen. „Broots, can you remember anything out of the ordinary at the supermarket? Any strange cars, dark colored cars?"

Broots turned to Jarod, as his face took on a horrified look. „You think the Centre is involved? They took Debbie?"

„We aren’t sure…yet. So far we are running into brick walls. Can you remember anything that might help?"

„No, nothing. Everything seemed like any other normal day at the market…except…"

„What is it, Broots?" Miss Parker moved to stand next to him.

„When we were shopping I thought it was strange that there were several businessmen in the store. They were all dressed in either black or navy blue suits. Do you think they were sweepers?"

„How many were there?" Jarod asked him.

„Four…five…six…I’m not sure. None of them looked familiar though."

„Anything else, Broots?" Miss Parker whispered.

„Well, I noticed that during the time we were waiting in line at the check-out counter, they all seemed to disappear."

„You didn’t see any of them in the parking lot?"

„No, no one. The parking lot was deserted."

Jarod glanced up from the computer screen, „What time of day was this?"

„Three-thirty or so."

„Isn’t it rather unusual for a supermarket parking lot to be deserted at three-thirty in the afternoon?" Jarod asked.

„Come to think of it, I have never seen that parking lot deserted no matter what time of day I go shopping there," Broots sat down next to Jarod again.

Miss Parker watched Jarod’s facial expressions evolve from suspicion into a look of sheer anger, „What is it, Jarod?"

„Where did you say you sent Lyle?" Jarod asked.

„Chicago. Why?"

„Then tell me, why would he take a car and file a travel itinerary for Dover? Jarod leaned back in his seat as Miss Parker came over to see for herself what Jarod had found.

„Damn," she swore.

„Lyle took Debbie?" Broots asked.

„If he did, Broots, I will personally make sure he pays the price," Miss Parker leaned over Jarod’s shoulder and pointed to something else on the screen. „It appears that our favorite oxygen-sucking physician sent him there. This means that he probably authorized this."

Jarod shook his head, „I’m sorry, Broots."

„Jarod, why should you be sorry?"

„Lyle and Raines are using Debbie. They knew I would come here to help find her."

„This is not your fault, Jarod," Miss Parker said as she turned and headed for the door.

„Where are you going?" Jarod asked as he stood.

„After brother dearest," Miss Parker looked back over her shoulder. This time he is going to lose a lot more than a thumb."

***

They drove to Dover, with Miss Parker behind the wheel, and checked into a hotel. The room was large, two bedrooms and a small sitting area. Broots collapsed on the bed nearest the window. Miss Parker went straight into the bathroom and locked the door behind her.

Jarod sank down on the edge of the other bed and studied Broots closely. He knew what this man was feeling. He knew it all too well. Out of control emotions tearing you apart inside. Wondering whether she is hurt, or worse…

„Don’t worry Broots, we will find her."

Broots nodded slowly, his arm resting over is eyes. „I hope you’re right, Jarod. I can’t lose her. She’s everything to me. She’s all that I have." He choked back a sob as he quickly wiped away a stray tear.

„It’s okay to cry," Jarod whispered softly.

„I can’t, if Miss Parker saw me crying like a baby, I’d never hear the end of it."

„Broots, Miss Parker always hides her true feelings behind the mask of a cold-hearted woman. Refusing to show any weakness. She wasn’t always like this and I’d give anything for a way to find the real Miss Parker again, the one hidden beneath all that bitterness and the pain."

Broots glanced at Jarod, „I think you are the only one who can, Jarod."

„What do you mean?"

„You care about her, don’t you?"

Jarod’s gaze shifted to the floor then back to Broots, „I care…too much, I think."

„That’s why you have a chance at reaching her."

„It doesn’t matter, she hates me to her very core. Catherine Parker died trying to save me from the Centre. She will never forgive me for taking her mother away from her."

Broots pushed himself up into a seated position, shaking his head slowly, „You weren’t the one who pulled the trigger. How can she blame you?"

„In a way, I understand why she does. I just wish she could find it in her heart to forgive me."

„Someday she will, Jarod."

„I hope so. Now let’s get some sleep, it’s nearly three in the morning." Jarod reached over and shut off the bedside lamp, „Good night, Broots."

„’Night, Jarod."

Neither of them had noticed Miss Parker come out of the bathroom. She’d sat on her bed in the next room, listening to their deep conversation. Tears filled her eyes as she heard Jarod’s words over and over again in her head. How could he possibly care about her after all she’d put him through? She didn’t hate him. She could never hate him. Never would she dare to admit it out loud, but she cared about him too. She sometimes found herself longing for days gone by. The days they had shared as children, laughing and playing…finding in each other the light that had been missing in both of their lives.

Why had things gone so very wrong between them? Why couldn’t they find that light again?

Unfortunately, she knew the answer to both questions…the Centre. It had constantly loomed over them as children; just waiting for the chance to strike, to destroy any chance they had of ever finding the lasting happiness they both searched for. And now, here they were making each other’s lives a living hell. For what…a chance at freedom from the place that existed only to deceive and betray anyone who was unfortunate enough to come within reach of it’s lethal tentacles.

Glancing into the full-length mirror that stood in the corner of the room, Miss Parker studied her reflection. She saw the woman she’d become. The Centre had managed to transform an innocent, wide-eyed, precocious, little girl into a bitter, angry, vengeful bitch bent on making those around her as miserable as she was. Pushing away anyone who came to close to discovering the truth behind her facade.

It was Jarod that she pushed harder than anyone...because he knew her better than anyone. He always knew how to bring out that little girl in her. With just a look, or a choice of words, he somehow reminded her of who she had been before…before the Centre had taken away her innocence and left her with a frozen heart.

She lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, waiting for sleep to come. But instead, her tears began to flow freely.

****

The morning dawned foggy and drizzly. Weather perfectly suited to her mood, Miss Parker thought to herself as she stepped out of the hotel room and onto the balcony overlooking the bay. It was still early, she hadn't slept at all. But then, it wasn’t the first time and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. Broots was still sleeping and Jarod was in the shower.

She could not bring herself to wake Broots. He needed rest. She thought about what he had said to Jarod, about not wanting her to see him cry. It broke her heart to realize that he’d been right, she never would have let him live it down. What kind of person treated another human being the way she treated him? Made them afraid to show any emotion for fear of being ridiculed? What kind of person was she?

Thoughts of her mother crept into her conscious mind. What would she think if she saw what her daughter had become?

„Are you okay?" Jarod whispered softly as he stepped out onto the balcony.

Turning, Miss Parker saw that he was barefoot and wearing only his black jeans with a towel wrapped around his neck. „I don’t know anymore, Jarod."

„What’s bothering you?"

„What isn’t?"

Jarod leaned on the railing, staring out over the bay. „I’m here, if you want to talk," he turned his head toward her and their gazes locked. An unseen force seemed to be preventing them from moving or speaking.

Miss Parker found herself struggling to regain control of the situation. Finally she tore her eyes away from his and stormed back into the room. Jarod watched her go, wishing with all his heart that he could find a way to reach her. Since his escape from the Centre, he had been able to help many people. But the one person he wanted to help most of all, always left him feeling powerless and confused.

It was nearly seven when they left the hotel and drove to the bed & breakfast where Lyle’s itinerary said he would be staying. They checked every license plate on every car in the parking lot until they found his car, a dark blue BMW convertible. Jarod parked a short distance away and they waited for him to appear.

Around eight-thirty Broots’ voice startled the car’s other occupants, „Debbie!" He reached for the door handle but Miss Parker stopped him.

„Quiet, Broots!" she hissed, „If Lyle sees us, he’ll take off and you’ll never see her again."

Broots reluctantly settled back in his seat. Just then, two sweepers joined Lyle and as the three men guided Debbie to the BMW, she turned her head and looked directly at their car. Broots sat up straight and smiled, „She knows, Debbie knows we’re here."

Miss Parker watched as Lyle put the girl in the passenger seat and then went around to slide into the driver’s seat. As he backed the car out of it’s space, Debbie again glanced in their direction. „How could she possibly know we’re here?"

„Maybe she somehow heard Broots call out to her and Lyle didn’t." Jarod waited until the sweepers walked toward a black van, then followed Lyle at a safe distance. He couldn’t take a chance of getting too close. Even though they had rented a Jeep Cherokee instead of driving Miss Parker’s car, Lyle would run if he caught sight of them.

They had followed for nearly an hour when Lyle turned off the highway near Millsboro. He was headed for the seashore. Jarod pulled off the road and brought the Jeep to a stop.

„Why are we stopping?" Broots asked as sudden panic took over, „He’s getting away."

„No, Broots, he isn’t. I know where he is taking her. I’ve been here before. We can’t risk him spotting us now. Calm down." Jarod waited only a few more seconds before pulling back onto the highway and turning the Jeep down the same dirt road Lyle had taken.

Miss Parker also knew where they were going, she had been there before as well. Lyle was taking Debbie to their mother’s beach house. She didn’t bother to ask Jarod when he had been there. She knew it had most likely been one of the many places he’d searched for clues to both their pasts. The thought of going near that house again gave her the chills. The last time she had been to the beach house was on her tenth birthday. The last birthday she spent with her mother.

Jarod glanced at Miss Parker, trying to judge her reaction. She was terrified, he could see it in her eyes. He reached a comforting hand over and took hold of her shaking hand. She looked at him first with surprise, then gave him a faint smile and accepted the gesture.

„Are you going to be able to handle this, Parker?" Jarod whispered.

„It doesn’t appear that I have a choice in the matter, do I?"

„No, I guess not."

The cottage was just the way she remembered it. From their vantage point, they could see Lyle’s BMW and the sweepers’ black van. Jarod gone off on his own to see what exactly they were up against. Miss Parker glanced at Broots, he didn’t look well. His face was pale and his eyes glassy.

„Broots, are you all right?" she touched his arm.

He met her gaze, shaking his head slowly. „How could I let this happen?"

„Broots, you can’t do this to yourself."

„What kind of father am I? I should have known this would happen. I should’ve left the Centre long ago, but I am a coward."

„Broots, I would give anything if my father could be more like you. Debbie is a lucky girl to have a father who loves and cherishes her. And you are not a coward. It takes one hell of a brave man to put up with me and my moods." Miss Parker laughed softly and squeezed his hand.

„Thank you," Broots smiled slightly.

„You’re welcome."

Jarod slipped silently out of the brush behind them. „I saw her, she’s watching television in the back bedroom. Lyle and his two sweepers are in the living room. All three are armed. We will wait until it’s completely dark then make our move." He sat down on the ground next to Miss Parker. „I can’t promise you that Lyle is going to come out of this alive."

Miss Parker flashed him a deadly smile, „I can promise you, he won’t."

„He is your brother."

„Jarod, Lyle may be related by blood, but that’s as far as it goes. I hate him to the very core of my being."

„Funny," Jarod grinned. „I thought you reserved that place for me."

Miss Parker turned and met Jarod’s gaze, „I don’t hate you, Jarod. I could never hate you."

The sincerity in her eyes caught him off guard. Unable to look away from her, Jarod could only stare in confused silence.

„Cat got your tongue?" she smiled.

„I just never thought…"

„…I would ever admit that to you," Miss Parker finished for him. „If you ever tell anyone I did, I’ll be forced to kill you."
„Don’t worry, no one would believe me anyway." Jarod chuckled softly and settled back against a large rock.

„You’re probably right," she whispered.

Broots could not help but smile at the easy banter between the hunter and her prey. It was amazing to him that two people could be so stubborn. Neither of them would ever admit their true feelings. Just as neither could see that they were traveling the same road. All they needed was a road map to bring them together. Fate was slowly sketching that map…every hill, every curve, and every bump bringing them closer to each other.

Miss Parker turned and caught the amused grin on Broots’ face, „What’s so amusing, Broots?"

„Oh, nothing," he shook his head.

„Out with it."

„No, I don’t think so, I don’t feel like dying today."

„It’s a good day to die, Broots." Jarod laughed, „Better tell her, she’s going to shoot you anyway."

Miss Parker turned back to Jarod, „You know me too well."

„I know," he said, all humor gone from his voice.

Broots shook his head, „I think I’ll take my chances."

„Broots," Miss Parker warned.

Just then, the lights in the beach house went out except for the living room. Jarod got to his feet and dusted off his black jeans. „Time to go."

Miss Parker checked her gun to make sure it was loaded and ready to fire. „Let’s do it. Broots, stay here. Watch our backs and if anything happens, go for help."

„Miss Parker, don’t you think I should go in with you. Debbie…"

„You are not going to do Debbie any good if you’re dead. Don’t worry, we’ll get her."

Broots nodded slowly, „Be careful, both of you."

„We will," Jarod said and turned to Miss Parker. „Are you ready?"

„Ready as I’ll ever be."

Jarod reached out and touched her cheek. „I won’t let anything happen to you."

Stunned by the gesture, Miss Parker could only stare in silence. „Just don’t get in my way," she said, as soon as she was able to find her voice.

Jarod’s hand dropped to his side. She could see in his eyes that her words had stung. „Don’t worry, Parker. I won’t. Despite what I said earlier, I don’t have a death wish."

As Jarod turned and disappeared into the shadows, Miss Parker fought back tears. She could still feel the warmth on her cheek where his hand had been. Why did she keep hurting him? Why couldn’t she just accept what he was offering her?

Following him into the darkness, Miss Parker caught up with him quickly. „I’m sorry, Jarod."

He froze in his tracks, „For what?"

Jarod’s reaction caught her off guard, „I’m sorry, isn’t that enough?"

„I guess it has to be, doesn’t it," he said. „Come on, let’s get Debbie. The sooner we do, the sooner we can get back to our little game of cat-and-mouse."

They both fell into an uneasy silence for the rest of the way up the incline to the beach house. Miss Parker followed Jarod around to the back of the cottage. The back door was locked, as were the windows. They found the window to the back bedroom, where Debbie lay sleeping, unlocked. They reached the same conclusion, either Debbie knew they were coming and unlocked it, or they were walking into a trap.

Miss Parker held her breath as Jarod slowly raised the sash and then slipped inside. He turned to help her through, guiding her carefully into the pitch darkness. He took hold of her hand as they waited for Lyle to spring his trap. When nothing happened, they took a deep breath. Jarod squeezed her hand then let go as he switched on his flashlight.

As the light swept around the room, they saw a small bed. It was empty. Miss Parker touched the sheets. „They are still warm. Where could she be?"

„I don’t know," Jarod whispered.

Just then, the closet door opened slowly. „I’m right here," Debbie whispered as she stepped out of her hiding place. „Miss Parker, I knew you’d come." The girl threw her arms around Miss Parker.

„Debbie, thank God you’re okay."

„Where’s my daddy?"

„He’s outside, waiting for us."

„Who is he?" Debbie asked as she huddled closer to Miss Parker.

„That’s Jarod. He is a friend."

„Hi, Jarod," Debbie held her hand out to him.

„Hello, Debbie. It’s nice to meet you. Let’s get you back to your daddy. He’s missed you so much."

„I missed him too."

„Come on, Debbie, let me help you out the window." Miss Parker climbed out first. Jarod lifted Debbie out to her then followed.

Then suddenly they heard a sound behind them. Jarod whispered, „Take Debbie and go. I will hold them off. Get her to Broots and get out of here. I’ll catch up later."

„Jarod, no. Lyle will kill you."

„He’ll try. Now go."

Miss Parker held on to Debbie’s hand as they ran through the brush to where they had left Broots. All she could think about was Jarod. He was risking his life for them. Damn, why did he always have to play the hero?"

Broots heard them coming and met them part way. „Debbie!"

„Daddy!" Debbie ran into her father’s out-stretched arms and hugged him fiercely.

„Oh, God, Debbie. Thank God, you’re safe," Broots looked up to thank Miss Parker, but she was gone. „Where did Miss Parker go?"

She ran as fast as the uneven, rocky ground would allow, back to the beach house. Angry voices resonated through the night air. As she approached the cottage, she saw Jarod and Lyle facing each other, weapons drawn. Lyle’s two sweepers where nowhere to be found. This isn’t good, she thought to herself. Checking her own gun, she waited a few seconds then stepped out of hiding. „Drop it!" she ordered as she aimed her 9mm directly at Lyle’s head.

Both men turned to look at her.

Lyle grinned, „You heard my sister, she said to drop it."

„I was talking to you, brother dear."

Jarod turned back to Lyle, eyebrows raised, „Well, you heard the woman, drop it."

„I don’t think so," Lyle said as he made a gesture with his arm and Miss Parker suddenly found herself restrained by the two sweepers. One of them quickly relieved her of her gun, while the other jerked her arms painfully behind her back and held them there.

„Lyle!" Miss Parker hissed, „Tell your goons to let go of me or they will live to regret it."

„I don’t think that would be wise, we can’t have you interfering in this little face off. Besides, I thought you might enjoy a front row seat when I kill the lab rat here."

Jarod held his gun on Lyle, „Let her go, Lyle! This is between you and me."

„Drop it Jarod, or she is dead where she stands," Lyle nodded to the sweeper holding Miss Parker’s gun and the man raised the gun to her temple.

Jarod’s face went pale as he saw the terror in her eyes. „All right," he said, his voice barely audible. „Let her go," he slowly lowered his gun, placed it on the ground and kicked it toward Lyle.

„Wise choice." Lyle turned slightly toward his sister, „Say your good-byes now, Sis."

„Lyle, don’t do this. The Centre wants him alive," Miss Parker reminded him.

„Not anymore. He’s dangerous. He knows too much…and so do you." To the sweepers he nodded, „Kill her."

Jarod cried out, „No!" As he lunged for the sweepers, Lyle fired three shots and Jarod dropped to the ground at Miss Parker’s feet.

„Jarod, no!" She screamed, „Damn you to hell, Lyle."

„See you there, Sis." Lyle grinned smugly and spoke harshly to the sweeper, „I said kill her."

Miss Parker stared at Jarod lying on the ground, „Jarod, you can’t die. You hear me? You can’t leave me. Please don’t leave me."

„Very touching," Lyle nodded slowly as he walked toward them. „Jarod, are you listening?" he called out to him then he kicked Jarod violently in the ribs.

„Leave him alone!" Miss Parker screamed and ripped her left arm free. She slammed her fist into the stomach of the sweeper holding her gun. He gasped in pain as his hand went lax and she ripped her gun out of his grasp. The second sweeper received a kick to his groin and dropped like a rock. Lyle couldn’t react in time. She leveled the 9mm, aiming it at a point between his shifty eyes and smiled, „I do believe it’s past time to prune the family tree, don’t you?"

Lyle dropped his gun and raised his hands in the air, „You can’t kill me, what will our father say?"

„You were going to kill me."

„It was a joke. I was only kidding. You’re my sister, I could never hurt you."

„Well, as you can see, I’m not laughing."

„Please, don’t do this. He’s nothing to you. I’m your brother."

„Well, Lyle. I hate to break it to you, but he means more to me than you ever will," Miss Parker smiled sweetly and squeezed the trigger. She watched as Lyle stumbled and fell to the ground just beyond the place where Jarod lay bleeding. She felt no grief, no sadness. She’d killed her own brother and felt nothing.

Slowly she dropped to her knees, her gun clattered to the ground next to Jarod. „Oh God, Jarod. Please God, don’t let him be dead." She lifted his head and laid it gently in her lap. She found a pulse, it was weak, but he was alive. So much blood…everywhere.

Just then Broots came tearing out of the darkness behind them, „Miss Parker, I heard gunshots." He froze as he observed the scene before him, „Oh no, Jarod. Is he…?"

„Get help, Broots. Hurry!" Miss Parker’s panic-stricken plea sent him charging back through the underbrush. „Please hurry," she whispered. She touched Jarod’s face and smoothed his hair as her tears fell. „Hold on, Jarod. Please hold on. I can’t lose you too. Please don’t leave me."

The minutes passed like hours as she held him, cradling him in her arms, rocking gently back and forth. In her mind, memories came flooding back. Her heart was breaking. The knowledge that Jarod could die without ever knowing what he meant to her shook her to her very soul.

Finally, an ambulance came to a stop in front of the house. „We’re back here," she called out. „Hold on, Jarod. They’re going to help you now."

Three paramedics appeared and two immediately went to work on Jarod. The third gently pulled her away from him, „Come on, Miss. He’s in good hands."

Broots appeared and took over for the paramedic, „Come on Miss Parker. Let’s let them do their job. Jarod is going to be fine."

„Broots, he doesn’t know," she whispered, „I never told him."

Broots did not have to ask what she meant, „He knows, Miss Parker. He knows."

Fifteen minutes later, she was in the back of the ambulance with Jarod. Holding his hand she stared at his ghostly pale face and cried. „Jarod, if you die on me, I won’t ever forgive you."

****

The hospital was quiet. The hallways deserted. Broots was in the waiting room asleep. Miss Parker paced anxiously in the hallway, glancing into the room every so often. Debbie was awake. She was sitting in a chair in the hallway reading a book and watching her friend pacing.

She sat the book down in the chair next to her and stood. Miss Parker turned and looked into the girl’s angelic face. Debbie reached out to her, „Need a hug?"
Nodding slowly, Miss Parker dropped to her knees in front of her and accepted the precious gift. As Debbie wrapped her arms around her neck she whispered, „Don’t be sad, Jarod loves you."

Miss Parker pulled back slightly, surprised by the young girl’s words, „How could you possibly know…"

The doctor’s arrival interrupted her question and Miss Parker stood, bracing herself for the worst. His face gave nothing away. „Doctor, is he…"

„He has lost a lot of blood. His blood type is very rare, AB negative. Does he have family? We are trying to locate enough blood, but we are a small facility."

Miss Parker shook her head, „His father…but I don’t know where he is."

„He’s right here," said a voice from behind her.

Turning toward the elevator, she saw Major Charles, Sydney and Jarod’s clone coming toward them. „How did you know?" she asked.

„Broots called me and I called Major Charles," Sydney said as he took her into his arms. „Are you okay?"

„Better now," she whispered.

Major Charles went with the doctor while Sydney took her into the waiting room. Debbie and Jarod’s clone followed. Broots woke up as they entered.

„Any word on Jarod yet?" he asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

„His father is here, they are going to do a transfusion," Sydney said as he gently lowered Miss Parker into a chair. „Thank you for calling, Broots."

„I knew you’d want to be here. They both need you right now."

Miss Parker curled up against Sydney. He held her while she cried. „Sydney, he can’t die. Don’t let him die. Don’t let him leave me."

„Miss Parker, Jarod is going to be okay. You know as well as I do that he is a fighter. He isn’t going to give up this easily."

„I never told him the truth, Syd."

Sydney glanced down at her at first with a puzzled expression, but then he just smiled, „He knows."

A few minutes later, Miss Parker was asleep. Sydney carefully lifted her, carrying her to a couch in the corner of the waiting room, where he gently laid her down and covered her with his coat.

Broots came up behind him, „She’s exhausted. I’m worried about her, Sydney. If Jarod dies…"

„We have to remain positive, Broots. Think positive."

„I’ll try, Sydney."

The doctor returned an hour later, „Dr. Green, I need to speak with you in private."

Sydney nodded and followed the doctor out into the hallway. „Dr. Michaels, how is he?"

„I won’t lie to you, Dr. Green. It doesn’t look good. The bullets damaged several organs, including his heart. We have done all we can do at this point, the rest is up to him. The transfusion has been completed. His father is resting. I will release him in the morning. Jarod, I’m afraid, may not survive the night. I’m sorry."

„Oh God, Jarod!" Both men turned to see a grief-stricken Miss Parker, with her back to the doorframe, slipping slowly down to the floor.

„Miss Parker." Sydney and Broots reached her simultaneously and gently lifted her to her feet.

„Sydney, you said he was going to be all right," Miss Parker cried, her tears soaking Sydney’s shirt.

„You said he was a fighter. Why isn’t he fighting?"

„Would you like a sedative for her, Dr. Green?" Dr. Michaels asked over their shoulders.

„No!" Miss Parker whispered, „No sedatives, I want to see him. Sydney, I need to see him."

„I’m afraid that isn’t possible, Miss Parker," Dr. Michaels said. „He needs to rest."

„Sydney," Miss Parker pleaded.

Turning to Dr. Michaels, Sydney said something to him that Miss Parker could not hear. Then he held out his hand to her and she took it. He led her down the corridor and into the ICU.

When Miss Parker saw Jarod through the glass, the sight nearly shattered her, heart and soul. She struggled to hold on to some thread of control. She could do this. She’d spent her entire adulthood feigning control. She had to do so now, or risk falling apart. „Come on, Parker," she whispered under her breath.

She followed Sydney into Jarod’s room, watching as he adjusted the blankets and gently squeezed his lifeless hand. She had always known that Sydney loved Jarod as a father loves a son. But until that moment, she had never seen him openly show that love.

„I’ll leave you alone with him, now. I will return in ten minutes."

„Thank you, Sydney." Miss Parker hugged him and watched as he left the room, closing the door behind him.

„Jarod," she began as she approached the bed and reached for his hand. „I don’t know if you can hear me. The doctor told us you may not survive the night. Jarod what are you trying to pull? This is not how things are supposed to be. You are a pretender, adapt. Heal thyself. Whatever you have to do. You can’t give up. Fight Jarod. Don’t you dare die on me. Without you, I’ll have no one around that I cannot intimidate." She laughed softly.

„Jarod, I can’t do this alone. You did this to me, you made me care. Don’t leave me the way my mother did, the way Thomas did. You told me once that the people we love go on touching our lives long after they’re gone. I just want the chance to love you in this life, Jarod. Please, give me that chance."

Miss Parker searched his face for any sign that he had heard her words. None came. Tears filled her eyes as she struggled to hold herself together. Leaning over him she lightly pressed her lips to his then whispered, „I love you with all my heart and soul, Jarod."

Sydney returned, „Any change?"

„None."

„We’d better go, Miss Parker."

„If he is dying, Sydney, I’m not leaving him. He has lived his entire life alone, I’m not going to let him die alone. He doesn’t want to die alone."

Sydney thought for a moment then nodded, „You’re right…he doesn’t. I’ll be right back."

Alone again with Jarod, she smiled down at him and brought his hand to her lips. „I’m here, Jarod. I’m not going anywhere."

A few minutes later, Sydney entered the room followed by Major Charles, in a wheelchair. Then came Broots and Debbie. The boy, Jarod’s clone, hesitated in the doorway before entering and coming to stand next to Miss Parker. He laced his fingers with hers and stared at Jarod with tears filling his eyes.

„I don’t want him to die," he whispered.

Miss Parker took him in her arms and hugged him, „I know, neither do I."

Major Charles raised himself up out of the wheelchair and stood at Jarod’s bedside. His voice was shaky as he spoke to his son. „Jarod, I only just found you. I can’t lose you. Not now." His voice broke as he cried.

Miss Parker embraced him, „I’m sorry. I wish I could turn back time and give you back the years you’ve lost with him."

Major Charles nodded slowly, „I wish I could just have the chance to get to know him."

„I know him better than anyone, with the exception of Sydney," she glanced at him then back to Major Charles. „I will make sure that you know everything we know about your son."

„Thank you, Miss Parker," Major Charles whispered and hugged her. „You don’t know what that means to me."

Debbie slipped away from Broots and walked slowly toward the bed. She stood next to Jarod and whispered something into his ear. She waited a moment then smiled. „He can hear you. Don’t stop talking to him. He doesn’t want to leave us, but he doesn’t have the strength to fight anymore. He loves you Miss Parker. And Major Charles, he loves you and wants you to promise to find his mother and Emily. Sydney, he wants to thank you for always being there for him. He forgives you, he knows you tried your best to protect him from the Centre. Daddy, he said that you have been a good friend to him and wants you to take care of me. Then she approached the boy, Jarod wants you to live the life he never was able to. Use your gift to help others and always follow your heart."

The boy smiled and hugged her, „I know, I heard him too."

Sydney approached the two of them and dropped down on one knee. „What do you mean, heard him? He’s talking to you?"

Debbie nodded, „I just feel what he is feeling and say what he wants to tell you all."

Sydney stood and looked at Broots, „Do you have any idea what this means? Have you had her IQ tested? Recently?"

Broots was staring at his daughter in shock, then nodded as he turned to Sydney. „Yes, the school tested her last month. Sydney, are you telling me that my daughter is…"

„…A pretender," Sydney finished.

Miss Parker shook her head in amazement, „Broots, the Centre…Lyle, they didn’t take Debbie to use her to lure Jarod out of hiding. They took her because they found out what she is. They were going to do to her what they’ve done to every other child they have ripped away from their families. What they did to Jarod."

Broots stood and shook his head, „I can’t believe this. My little girl…a pretender. How? Why didn’t I see it before now."

„That’s how she knew we were coming for her. At the hotel, this morning, she looked right at us because she knew we were there," Miss Parker went to Debbie and hugged her.

Broots knelt down and took Debbie into his arms. „Debbie, why didn’t you tell me what you were feeling? Doesn’t this ‘gift’ frighten you?"

„No, Daddy it isn’t scary at all. It is kinda fun to feel things that other people don’t. I can help people, just like Jarod. I want to help people." Debbie hugged Broots tightly around his neck. When she pulled back, she smiled, „Don’t be scared, Daddy. It doesn’t hurt or anything."

„Sydney," Broots stood and turned to the older man, „What am I going to do? The Centre knows about her gift. She’ll never be safe. They’ll take her again if I give them half the chance."

Nodding slowly, Sydney moved to the bed. He stood silently staring at Jarod. He remembered all the times he had hurt Jarod, unintentionally, but he’d hurt him. The Centre could never get their hands on Debbie. „Broots, you can never return to the Centre. You need to take Debbie and go far away from here. Someplace where they will never find you."

„Where? The Centre…they’ll find us…no matter where we go," Broots stammered.

„He’s right, Syd," Miss Parker went to stand next to him. „Jarod has been running for four years. They do not want him back anymore. They want him dead."

„But I thought…"

Miss Parker interrupted him, „Lyle told me that the Centre ordered him to kill Jarod because he is too dangerous…knows too much. If he lives, which I pray he does, he won’t be just running for his freedom…he’ll be running for his life. Now that Lyle is dead, they are going to expect me to finish the job. That is, if my father doesn’t disown me for killing my own brother."

Sydney placed a hand on her shoulder, „Are you okay with what happened?"

„If you mean, do I feel any guilt? The answer is no. I put a stop to a monster, a monster who had no conscience. My brother is dead, I killed him…no regrets," Miss Parker whispered and placed her hand over Sydney’s. „I did what I had to do, nothing more…nothing less. „

„Miss Parker, what are you going to tell your father?"

„The truth, if he can handle it. If he can’t, well then, I guess I’ll be joining Lyle in hell."

„Your father would not hurt you."

„Don’t be so sure, Syd."

„Have you called him?"

„No, but I am sure Lyle’s sweepers have clued him in on the latest events. He isn’t going to be pleased with my actions."

„Particularly your change of heart towards Jarod," Sydney shook his head slowly.

„It won’t matter…if Jarod dies."

„Don’t give up on him, Miss Parker. He loves you, love is more powerful than death. It transcends death."

Miss Parker smiled, „Now, where have I heard that one before?"

A few minutes later, Miss Parker, left alone with Jarod again, smiled down at him and touched his unshaven cheek. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she took in the beauty of the man she loved. She remembered his smile. She longed to see that smile again. She thought about all the times she’d pushed him away. If only she hadn’t been so blinded by bitterness and anger. If only they could have held on to the light and let it guide them through the darkness that had kept them both prisoner all their lives. Maybe they could have had a chance.

„Jarod, I know now that you can hear me. I’m asking…begging you to fight. Don’t give up, never ever give up." Carefully, Miss Parker slipped into the bed next to him and held on to him for dear life. She was not going to let him slip through her fingers…not this time.

****

The darkness that surrounded him was somehow comforting. He could feel her there, lying next to him. He could hear her voice. Her words reached out to him. He wanted to fight, but he could not find the strength.

„Jarod," the familiar voice came from somewhere in the darkness.

Jarod whispered, „Kyle?"

„Hey, big brother. What do you think you’re doing?"

„Dying, I think," Jarod smiled.

„You have to go back, Jarod. Our family needs you. The world needs you. And she needs you."

„I know, but how?"

„Jarod, the strength you need is in her love. Reach out for it, accept it. She is offering you the most precious part of her…her heart. Draw your strength from that love. Hold on to it…never let go."

Kyle’s voice faded into the darkness and Jarod whispered, „Thank you, little brother."

***

Miss Parker opened her eyes and blinked at the bright sunlight pouring through the windows, its glow illuminating Jarod’s face. She smiled as she realized that he was still with her…still breathing. He had survived the night. He was fighting.

„Jarod, come on, open your eyes. Keep fighting. Hold on to me, don’t let go." Miss Parker held on to his hand and waited. Hoping and praying with everything she had. „I love you, Jarod. I need you."

Jarod’s hand moved, his fingers weakly intertwined with hers. His eyes opened. He saw sunlight. He saw her…smiling…crying…then she kissed him, he could taste her tears. She was laughing and touching his face.

Miss Parker felt her heart overflow with love as she stared into those warm, brown eyes. „Jarod, what took you so long?" she asked as she kissed him again.

„If I’d known it would be like this, I would have come back sooner," Jarod smiled weakly.

„It’s going to be like this from now on, I promise."

„Parker, I hope this means I wasn’t dreaming everything. I thought I heard you say…"

„…I love you," she finished for him.

Jarod raised his hand to her face and grinned, „Do you have any idea how long I have waited to hear those words from you?"

„Too long, Jarod. Too long."

„I love you too, Madeline Parker."

It was the first time she had heard her first name spoken since childhood. It was music to her ears coming from him, the only person she had ever entrusted with the secret.

„How do you feel? Do you want me to get Dr. Michaels?"

„I hurt, all over."

„I’ll get him."

„No, Maddie," Jarod shook his head slowly and whispered. „You are all the medicine I need right now. Just stay with me for a little while."

Miss Parker smiled, „I’m not going anywhere."

An hour later, Sydney came quietly into the room. His eyes lit up as he observed Miss Parker sound asleep with her head resting on Jarod’s chest. Jarod’s eyes opened as Sydney approached the bed.

„Hello, Sydney."

„My God, Jarod, you are awake," Sydney smiled, his relief and happiness shone openly from his eyes. „Jarod, I never dreamed that the Centre would ever try to kill you. When Broots called…I felt the weight of the past come crashing down on me. All I could think of was how I had never told you how much I really care. In my eyes, you are my son. I’m sorry, Jarod.

Jarod lifted his free arm and took hold of Sydney’s hand. „Thank you, that means a lot to me. I guess I already knew how you felt though. I wanted to give up, Sydney, but I was more afraid of what lay ahead than what I would be leaving behind."

Nodding slowly toward the sleeping Miss Parker, Sydney whispered, „We almost gave up on you, all except her. I must admit, I never thought she would ever realize her true feelings for you."

„That makes two of us," Jarod smiled. He gently brushed her hair back from her face. „It still seems like a dream. I never stopped loving her, Sydney."

„I know, Jarod. I’ve always known."

„She’s in a lot of trouble, isn’t she? She killed Lyle, to protect me. Her father is never going to forgive her. Neither will the Centre."

„Mr. Parker called this morning. He wants her to return to the Centre immediately. That is what I was coming here to tell her."

„She can’t go back there."

„I’m afraid that she has no choice in the matter. Jarod, I think the are going to give her a new
directive…"

„…To kill me," Jarod nodded and looked down at the woman he loved, still sleeping so peacefully. He would rather die than see her revert back to the tortured woman she had been for so long.

„Miss Parker will never follow their directive. She will die to protect you now. She loves you."

„That’s what scares me. They want me dead because I am dangerous to them and they won’t hesitate to kill anyone else who gets in their way. Even if she is a Parker."

„What will you do now?" Sydney asked, though he already knew the answer.

„Heal and then disappear. It’s the only way she, and you and the other people I love will be safe. The Centre will have to believe that I am dead."

„Jarod, you can’t disappear, especially now." Sydney tried to hide the mysterious smile that came over his face.

„Sydney, you’re keeping something from me. Out with it now, please."

„Your father left this morning for the airport."

„He’s gone?"

„For a little while, but he will be back. He was praying he could make it back in before you passed on. But now, he just has to make it back before you disappear on him."

„Sydney, you still aren’t telling me everything."

„Just be patient, Jarod. I will go call him now and tell him that you are awake and progressing nicely. He will tell you the rest when he gets back."

Miss Parker stirred and opened her eyes. Jarod grinned at her, „Sleep well?"

She nodded, „Better than I ever have in my life."

„Miss Parker," Sydney shook his head slowly and looked down at the floor for a moment before continuing. „Your father called this morning."

Miss Parker’s smile faltered, „What did he want?"

„He said you were to report to him at the Centre immediately. You and Broots."

„Broots is not going back there. We have to find someplace where they will be safe."

„Then it’s true, Debbie is a pretender. I was hoping I had dreamed that part," Jarod frowned. „She is never going to be safe if Broots goes back to the Centre."

Sydney nodded, „I must go back too. I am hoping that I will find a way to protect both Miss Parker and Broots."

„It doesn’t matter, not anymore. I am not going back there, Syd. And neither is Broots. If we don’t go back, then you have no reason to either," Miss Parker came around the bed to stand next to him. „No offense, Sydney, but you are no match for the Centre. You cannot protect us."

„No, but I can," the voice came from the doorway and Miss Parker jerked her head around to face the source.

„Daddy."

„Don’t I get a hug from my Angel?" he smiled.

Miss Parker stared at her father in disbelief, he had not smiled at her like that since she was a little girl. „Daddy, I don’t understand. I thought…"

„You thought I would never forgive you for killing your brother."

She nodded, „Yes…something like that."

„Angel, you are my daughter. You are my whole life. I love you and I know that you did what you had to do."

Miss Parker gasped, „I killed my brother…your son."

„Lyle would not have let you walk away, Angel. He has been planning your death all along. The only thing he didn’t count on was your love for Jarod."

„Daddy, where did you get this information?"

„About Lyle’s plans? Brigitte told me. About your feelings for Jarod? I’ve known all along. Why do you think I would never let them remove you from his pursuit? I knew that you would do everything in your power to bring him back alive and unhurt. Lyle was looking for his chance to get rid of the both of you. He was working with Raines ever since his return to the Centre. He and Raines had a hidden agenda that I only became aware of when Lyle slipped up and bragged to Brigitte."

„Why would that witch ever do anything to save my ass?" Miss Parker turned away and met Jarod’s bewildered gaze.

Mr. Parker placed his hands on his daughter’s shoulders. „There’s something you need to know about her."

„I know all I need to know. She hates me and the feeling is mutual," Miss Parker turned back to her father again.

„I know you two have had your differences, Angel. But Brigitte is not the person she pretends to be. She has been helping the Centre expose Raines for what he really is. Uncovering Lyle’s betrayal was purely accidental. She also told me about Mr. Broots’ daughter. Raines and Lyle planned her kidnapping after they received the test results from her school’s principal, who was on Raines’ payroll. I assure you that Mr. Broots and his lovely daughter will be protected. No one is going to touch her, I promise you."

„Daddy you have promised me a lot of things. How do you expect me to trust you now, after so many lies?"

„I deserve that, Angel. I hope you will forgive me. I never wanted to lie to you. It was the only way I could keep you safe. If I had told you what I knew about Raines and the things he has done, you would have killed him before we had a chance to expose him. Before we could find out the truth about your mother’s death."

Miss Parker’s eyes filled with tears and pain. „He killed her. I’ve known that for a very long time. I tried to tell you, but you would never listen to me."

„I’ve known also. I wanted him to pay for taking her away from us, Angel. Death would have been too good for him. A mercy killing…"

Miss Parker nodded her head slowly, „Very true…so where is Mr. Wheezer now?"

„The Triumvirate is dealing with him. They were not pleased to find out about his extracurricular activities."

„You expect me to believe that they were not behind everything he was doing?"

„Yes, Angel. The Triumvirate is not, by any means, guiltless. But they never authorized Raines’ abduction of Debbie or his attempt to assassinate me, which you thwarted by almost getting yourself killed. I have made many mistakes, I almost lost you because of them. Please believe me when I tell you that things are going to be different from now on."

„I wish I could, Daddy. I really wish I could."

„What do you need me to do to prove to you that I am telling the truth?"

Miss Parker fell silent for a moment. She turned to glance at Jarod. He looked as confused as she felt. Their eyes met for a split second before she turned to face her father again. „If you want to prove yourself to me, Daddy, you can do it by setting Jarod free. Give him the chance to live a normal life. I won’t return to the Centre until I know that they will stop chasing him."

Mr. Parker glanced toward Jarod. There was no mistaking the look of pure love in the younger man’s eyes. He remembered feeling that way, long ago. His beautiful Catherine…he still missed her so very much. If only her could have a second chance…he could give their daughter a second chance…

Shaking his head, Mr. Parker frowned, „Angel, Jarod will never be able to live a normal life…"

„Daddy…"

Mr. Parker silenced her with a glare. „…not without you."

Miss Parker froze, „Daddy, what are you saying?"

Chuckling softly, he hugged her. „Angel, I give you your wings. Go, live your life with the man you love and don’t let me ever catch you setting foot inside the Centre again."

Miss Parker looked into her father’s laughing eyes. It couldn’t be true…she was free. Free to be with Jarod and free from the Centre. „Daddy, why?"

„Because I don’t want to see you make the same mistakes I made. I put the Centre before my family and it cost me dearly. You are my legacy, Angel, but I won’t stand by anymore and let you follow in my footsteps. You are your mother’s daughter and by giving you your future, maybe I can begin to make amends for the past and the pain I caused her."

Miss Parker hugged him, „Daddy, I love you."

„I love you too, sweetheart. I have to be getting back to the Centre. I have a lot to do if I’m going to fulfill my end of the bargain. Call me, Angel." He turned and approached Jarod and smiled,

„Good luck, son. Take care of my little girl and make her happy."

Jarod took hold of Mr. Parker’s outstretched hand and shook it, „I will, sir. I promise you."

„You are a good man, Jarod. You take after your father. I hope that someday you can find it in your heart to forgive me for what I allowed them to do to you and your family. I will have any and all information about your past delivered to you as soon as possible." Turning to Sydney, „It will be Sydney’s final act of duty as a Centre employee to personally deliver the information to you. Then I am going to arrange for him to retire with full benefits."

Sydney’s eyes lit up, „Thank you, Mr. Parker."

„You have done your job well. But now that Jarod is free, we won’t be needing your services any longer."

Jarod shook his head in amazement, „It’s over."

Miss Parker moved toward the bed and into Jarod’s arms. „It’s finally over."

Mr. Parker and Sydney smiled at each other as they witnessed destiny fulfilled. Then silently they slipped out of the room.

****

Two weeks later, Jarod was strong enough to leave the hospital. Miss Parker entered his room and found him sitting on the edge of his bed smiling at her. Fully dressed in the new clothes she had bought for him: black jeans, a white shirt similar to the one he’d been wearing that day on the beach, a new black leather coat and boots. He looked so good he nearly stole her breath away.

„Hey, beautiful," Jarod grinned, „I hear I’m sprung from this place. Where to now?"

Miss Parker flashed him a stunning smile as she moved slowly into his arms, „We are going home."

Jarod touched her face and stood, „I think I like the sound of that." Then he kissed her like he’d never kissed her before.

„Me too," she whispered.

Sydney appeared in the doorway and cleared his throat to alert them of his presence. „Time to go."

Jarod pulled back from their kiss, „Sydney, you sure have a bad sense of timing."

Miss Parker nodded and kissed him again, „Come on Jarod, we have a surprise for you at home."

Jarod cast a questioning look at the two cohorts. „What are you two up to?"

„You’ll see," Miss Parker took hold of his hand and led him to the wheelchair Sydney had brought with him.

„I can walk," Jarod complained.

„Sit, Jarod. Hospital policy," Sydney smiled as he laid a hand on each of Jarod’s shoulders and lowered him into the chair.

„Parker," Jarod asked, „Where is home anyway?"

„Home is where the heart is, Jarod."

Baffled by her answer, Jarod sat back in the chair and enjoyed the ride. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine what the rest of his life would be like now that he was free. In his mind he saw children with dark hair and blue eyes. He also saw her. She was laughing and dancing in the sunlight. The house he imagined was large but simple. A porch with a swing, two stories with a two-car garage and a sprawling lawn. It felt like a home.

The feeling of sunlight on his face brought Jarod out of his trance. He opened his eyes as Sydney helped him out of the wheelchair and into Miss Parker’s Porsche. Miss Parker slid into the driver’s seat, lowered the top and started the engine as she waited for Sydney to get into his own car. Then she pulled out of the parking lot and Sydney followed them. She turned the car west and smiled to herself. Jarod would never guess where they were taking him. She could not wait to see the look on his face…

An hour later, Jarod had fallen asleep. It was going to take a long time for him to regain his strength completely. Miss Parker vowed that she would see to it that he received all the rest and love he needed to recover. She would also have to be on her guard just in case her father failed to keep his word. Deep down, she wished she could trust in him completely again, but she had made that mistake one too many times not to be wary now. And there would always be the Centre and the Triumvirate to deal with should her father not be able to convince them to go along with his decision.

****

It was late afternoon when Miss Parker pulled into the small town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Jarod opened his eyes and sat up straight.

„Where are we?"

„Almost home," Miss Parker smiled and touched his cheek.

„How long have I been asleep?"

„Nearly six hours. I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever wake up."

Jarod turned around to look behind them. Sydney was still following. Smiling, he waved and his friend returned the gesture.

Facing forward again, Jarod laid his head back and gazed up at the blue sky. „Do you really believe it’s true? That we’re finally free?"

„I don’t know what to believe anymore, Jarod."

„I can tell you one thing that I do believe," Jarod turned his head slightly flashing her his infamous grin that could melt anything...it had melted her heart.

„What’s that, boy genius?" she asked as she pulled the Porsche into a parking space in front of a small restaurant.

„I believe that we were meant to be."

Miss Parker smiled and leaned over to kiss him lightly, „So do I."

Jarod watched her as she exited the car and came around to open his door. „I think that’s supposed to work the other way around."

„So humor me." She held her hand out to him and he took it, „Come on, let’s get you something to eat. You need to build your strength."

„You are my strength, Madeline Parker. I only wish I’d realized it sooner."

Miss Parker blinked back tears at his tender words, „And you are mine, Jarod."

He kissed her so sweetly and as he embraced her, she realized that she had come home. In his arms was where she truly belonged. Never in her life could she remember feeling so cherished than at that moment. And never had she felt so safe and content.

„I love you, Maddie."

Miss Parker straightened the collar of his leather coat and whispered, „We have lost so much in our lives, Jarod. I realize now, that I pushed you away out of fear. I was so afraid of losing you forever, I couldn’t allow myself to love you. I thought that I could hide my feelings behind a wall of anger and bitterness, but you broke through. I have been so cruel to you, all the insults…"

„Stop right there, Parker." Jarod placed his hand under her chin and lifted her gaze to his, „I knew you never meant those things, just like I knew what you were hiding. Are you forgetting who I am?"

Miss Parker smiled, „No, I just forgot who I really am…my mother’s daughter."

„That you are." Jarod grinned, „That you are."

Sydney had been standing near the door of the restaurant pretending to read a newspaper. „If you two are finished, can we maybe go inside and eat. I, for one, am starving."

„Go on inside, Sydney. We’ll join you in a minute," Jarod said without taking his eyes off her.

„This is going to be a long trip," Sydney smiled and shook his head as he went into the restaurant.

After an early dinner, they left Murfreesboro by way of two-lane country roads. Jarod wondered where they were headed. He could not imagine Miss Parker living in the country. But she’d said that they were ‘almost home’." He glanced over at her. She was intently watching the road, but he could tell she was fighting back a smile. What was she up to?

Thirty minutes later, Miss Parker slowed the car and turned into a gravel driveway. She brought the Porsche to a stop in front of a house that Jarod suddenly remembered…somehow.

He stared, unblinking, at the simple farmhouse. So familiar…but how could it be? He’d never been here before…had he? Jarod opened his door and got out of the car. Miss Parker came around and shut the car door behind him.

„Jarod, are you okay?"

„Yes, I think so. I know this place. How could I know this place, Maddie?"

„It’s home, Jarod."

Jarod took a hesitant step toward the porch just as the front door opened and a dark-haired woman stepped out letting the screen door close softly behind her. It took only a moment for the realization of who she was to hit Jarod full force. His face lit up with sheer joy and his eyes filled with tears.

„Emily," her name escaped his lips as little more than a breath. Jarod moved closer to the porch as Emily came quickly down the steps and ran into her brother’s arms.

„Welcome home, Jarod," she said as she hugged him tightly.

Jarod released her, „It’s really you. I can’t believe it’s you." He touched her face gently with both hands as if he was afraid he was hallucinating.

„Jarod, I have dreamed of this moment for so long," Emily smiled. Ever since that day on the street, in Boston, I could not close my eyes without seeing your face. I prayed every night for God to bring you home."

„Emily," Jarod pulled her into his arms again.

„Come on, Jarod," Emily stepped back and held out her hand to him.
He took hold of her hand and she led him around the side of the house where he saw a figure kneeling in front of a rosebush. Her red hair was spilling out from under the large hat that covered her face.

She was dressed in a simple, floral print sundress. Her hands and upper arms were protected from the thorns by gardener’s gloves.

Emily smiled and turned to Jarod, whose eyes were focused intently on the woman. „Go to her, Jarod."

He glanced at her and without saying a word, started to walk toward his mother.

Margaret felt his presence before he had taken two steps. Looking up suddenly, she gasped and got to her feet so quickly that her hat fell from her head. She yanked the gloves from her hands as she ran toward him with tears streaming down her face.

„Jarod!" she cried out.

„Mom!" Jarod embraced his mother. His tears flowed freely as he held on to her. „I’m home, Mom. I’m finally home."

„I love you, Jarod. I have missed you so much. I never stopped searching for you. I never stopped hoping."

„I know. Neither did I. I love you."

Margaret held her son and cried as three decades of pain and anguish melted away. Her son was home. „Thank you, God," she whispered.

Jarod stepped back and stared at her through his tears. „Mom, I found Dad. I have to call him."

Margaret smiled, „Jarod, he’s already here." She glanced toward the back porch and Jarod followed her gaze to see his father standing there grinning from ear to ear.

„Dad!" he grinned as he moved toward him.

„Hello, son. Sorry I didn’t get back to the hospital before they released you. I’ve been busy." He hugged Jarod and smiled at his wife."

„Why didn’t you tell me?" Jarod asked.

„We wanted to surprise you." Major Charles nodded toward Miss Parker and Sydney as they came out of the house through the back door.

Miss Parker was beaming, her blue eyes shinning with tears. Jarod ran up the steps and took her into his arms. „I’m really home, Maddie. I have my family back. Thank you. Thank you both." He looked at Sydney who nodded.

„I’m happy for you, Jarod," Sydney whispered.

Jarod hugged the man who had been his surrogate father and mentor. „Thank you, Sydney."

When he turned back to Miss Parker, Jarod smiled. „Madeline Parker, I have almost everything I have ever dreamed of. If you would agree to marry me, my life will be complete."

Miss Parker gasped, „Jarod." She nodded and threw her arms around his neck, „Yes! Jarod, yes I will marry you."

Margaret and Emily were holding each other and crying tears of happiness. „We’re going to have a wedding!" they sang in unison.

Major Charles and Sydney exchanged knowing looks. Both of them were thinking the same thing, ‘Love conquers all’.

****

Miss Parker stood in front of the mirror in the upstairs bedroom of the farmhouse. She was nervously pulling at her hair. She would never be able to do this on her own, she needed help.

As if in answer to her silent plea, Emily and Margaret entered the room and stood staring at her, smiling. „Need help?" Emily laughed at the image her future sister created standing there in her slip, trying to come up with an acceptable hairstyle.

„Are you laughing at me?" Miss Parker turned around to glare at the younger woman.

„Yes," Emily stifled a giggle.

Margaret smiled, „Now girls, behave. We have a lot to do and only three hours to do it. Emily, go help your father." Emily left the room in hysterics.

Miss Parker turned back to the mirror and took a good look at herself. Then burst out laughing.

„What has happened to me?" She shook her head in amazement, „I used to have self-control."

„Love tends to do that to you," Margaret smiled and stepped up behind the beautiful young woman who had stolen her son’s heart. „Now let’s see what we can do with your hair."

As Margaret’s hands gently began to braid her hair, Miss Parker’s eyes filled with tears. „My mother used to braid my hair."

Margaret shook her head slowly, „I am so sorry about your mother, Madeline. She was a beautiful, compassionate woman. You look just like her and you have her compassion."

Miss Parker smiled, „I think that Jarod would disagree with you on that last part."

„My son loves you. You can’t hide the person you are inside from someone who truly loves you."

„I’m slowly finding that out."

„I want to thank you, Madeline."

„Thank me?"

„I want to thank you for being there for Jarod. If not for you, he wouldn’t be home now."

„Margaret, I think there is something you need to know…"

Margaret shook her head, „I know everything. I know what the Centre forced you to do. I count my blessings that it was you they sent after him instead of someone else who would have hurt or even killed him, if given half the chance.

Miss Parker thought of Lyle. „My brother tried to kill him."

„And you saved him."

„I can’t believe that you don’t hate me."

„I can’t believe that you would ever think that I could. I couldn’t love you more if you were my own daughter. You were there for Jarod when you were children, when he needed a friend. You found each other in that place. I think that you and him were meant to be from the very beginning."

Miss Parker fell silent as Margaret finished with her hair. „I never wanted to hurt Jarod," she whispered.

Margaret hugged her from behind, „I know that, honey. And so does Jarod."

„Thank you, Margaret."

„You’re very welcome, now let’s get you dressed."

***

An hour later, Miss Parker stood in front of the mirror fully dressed in her simple, but elegant gown. Her hair was perfect, as was her makeup. Now if only she could keep from crying…

A soft knock on the door startled her. „Yes?"

The door opened slightly, „Can I come in?"

„Daddy."

Mr. Parker stepped into the room and froze. „Angel, you are so beautiful, just like your mother."

Miss Parker smiled and hugged her father, „Thank you, Daddy."

„Are you happy?" he asked her.

„Yes, Daddy, I am."

„Jarod is a good man. I couldn’t ask for better for my Angel."

„Did the Centre agree to leave us alone?"

„I left them no choice."

„It’s over then?"

„Yes, Angel. It’s over. You are free to live your life with Jarod. But I demand compensation," Mr. Parker scowled at her.

„Daddy?" she asked, suddenly fearful.

„Four or five grandchildren would do nicely," he smiled.

Miss Parker laughed and hugged him. „I think that can be arranged."

„I love you, Angel."

„I love you too, Daddy."

***

Jarod paced nervously in his room. Major Charles sat on the edge of the bed watching him, „Jarod you are making me dizzy. Please sit down."

„I can’t," Jarod smiled.

„Why are you so nervous?"

„I’m not sure."

„She’s a beautiful girl, Jarod."

„I know."

„And she loves you."

„I know."

„Then what’s bothering you?"

„I don’t know."

Major Charles laughed, „I think you need professional help, son. I’m going to get Sydney."

Jarod barely heard him as he left the room and Sydney entered. „Jarod?"

„Sydney."

„Do you need to talk?"

„Sydney, what am I going to do?"

„Do?"

„I don’t know how to be a husband…or a father."

Sydney chuckled softly, „Jarod, take things one step at a time. Just concentrate on Miss Parker and making a life with her. Fatherhood will come naturally. I know you are going to be just fine."

Jarod stopped pacing and stared out the window. On the back lawn below, people were arriving and everything was perfect. He smiled and glanced sideways at Sydney, „I really love her, Syd."

„I know you do, Jarod."

„I only hope I can make her happy."

„You already have."

„Thank you, Sydney."

„You’re welcome, now let’s go downstairs. Your bride awaits."

A few minutes later, Jarod stood at the end of the aisle, watching his sister and mother coming toward him. They were both stunningly beautiful. His father, standing next to him, smiled and winked at the two of them as they took their places across the aisle. Debbie followed, grinning from ear to ear as she tossed rose petals on the ground around her as she walked.

Then the music changed and Jarod’s breath caught in his throat as his gaze met hers. She smiled and began to walk toward him on the arm of her father. His heart overflowed with love for this incredible, beautiful woman who was about to become his wife.

Miss Parker looked into Jarod’s eyes and saw his heart. He loved her. After all they’d been through, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She barely heard her father’s words as he gave her away.

Jarod took her hands in his and whispered, „I love you."

„I love you, too."

The minister smiled and began the ceremony. Then when the moment came for their vows, he nodded to Jarod.

Jarod touched her cheek and smiled, „Maddie, you are my light in the darkness. I thank God for bringing you to me so long ago. Without you in my life, I would have been hopelessly lost. We have come a long way, and traveled so many rough roads. I want our future together to be perfect, but if it isn’t, I promise you that our love will carry us through the rough spots. I love you, always and forever."

Miss Parker smiled through the tears and began her vows, „Jarod, you have always been here in my heart, I’m only sorry it took me so long to see that. We are soul mates. Some people can go through their entire lives without finding theirs and I almost lost you because I was blind. You are my hero, my knight in shining armor and I love you with all my heart, always and forever."

The minister asked for the rings, which Margaret and Major Charles presented to him.

Jarod slipped the band of gold onto Miss Parker’s finger and then she placed his ring on his finger.

„I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may now kiss your bride," the minister smiled.

As their lips met in a tender kiss, Jarod suddenly felt whole for the first time in his life.

„I present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Jarod McKenna."

As their family and friends began to applaud, Jarod swept his bride off her feet and carried her into their midst.

They had finally found the light again.

***

Five Years Later

Maddie watched her family from the porch swing. Jarod was on the ground, and being attacked by two dark-haired little girls. She laughed and shook her head. He was a wonderful father and husband. The past five years she had watched him as he experienced life, for the first time, without fear. Their painful past had become no more than a dim reminder of how far they’d come. And it made life more precious to them.

Jarod escaped his captors and ran for the safety of the porch, „Good morning, beautiful. How are you feeling?"

„Better, but I don’t think it will be much longer."

He kissed her then placed his hand on her swollen abdomen. „I can’t wait," he said just as his captors reached the porch. „Oh no, save me please," he cried out and hid behind her.

Maddie laughed, „Hope, why don’t you and Faith go inside and watch television for a little while. I think daddy needs to rest."

Jarod jumped up, grabbed his squealing daughters, one under each arm, and laughed, „Gotcha!"

„Mommy save us," Faith giggled.

„Help, Mommy!" Hope squealed.

Maddie laughed, „Sorry, you two are on your own."

Just then, a black car pulled up in front of the house. Both girls shouted in unison, „Grandpa Sydney…Grandpa Parker."

Jarod released them and they were off like a shot.

„How are my little angels?" Mr. Parker bent down and scooped them up in his arms.

Sydney got out of the car and waved to Jarod and Maddie. Then he smiled, „Hello, girls. We brought you someone to play with." He reached into the back seat and produced a squirming little puppy.

Faith took the little dog from him and Hope smiled, „Thank you."

„What will you call him?" Sydney asked.

Faith thought for a moment and then said, „His name will be Pretender."

Hope nodded in agreement and then the two girls took the puppy into the back yard leaving Sydney shaking his head.

Jarod came to stand next to him, „They are amazing, aren’t they."

Sydney nodded, „Just like their father."

„In more ways than one, Syd. In more ways than one," Jarod laughed. Then he laid an arm over Sydney’s shoulder and guided him toward the house.

„Then you must really have your hands full," Sydney teased.

„You were right, Syd."

„About what?"

„Everything…marriage…fatherhood. It has all come naturally for me."

„Doesn’t everything? You are a pretender."

„Even being a pretender doesn’t prepare you for everything. Child birth for instance…now there’s an experience that nothing can prepare you for."

„Miss Parker was pretty brutal?"

„Oh yeah."

„I guess it won’t be long now."

„No, it won’t be long and we’ll have a son. Sydney, if it’s all right with you, we would like to call him Jacob."

Sydney’s eyes filled with tears as he nodded, „I am deeply moved. And Jacob would be honored."

„Good, now let’s go eat. I am starving."











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