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Disclaimer: Although I very much doubt that anyone associated with The Pretender would ever stake claim to this (I'm planning to disavow all knowledge myself when asked about it later), the characters of Jarod, Miss Parker, Sydney, Broots, Angelo, Sam, etc. are not mine. The character of Bambi Murphy is, as far as I'm concerned, the creation of Andrea Parker (see author's note at bottom for explanation). Oh, but her surname was chosen in honor of a certain little furry gal who loves sitting on the porch with her mom and munching baby carrots... don't ask!

Warning: I may actually get hate mail over this one and I'm, strangely, looking forward to it! This one pushes the envelope of good taste even for me, and I'm the woman who wrote "Weapons of Choice!" So, considered yourself warned: this is an NC-17 FIC!

Fate Worse than Death

A Smutty Little Pretender Story by Ginger

"She's alive, I swear!" Lyle shouted as he dangled, head first, off the side of a bridge.

"Then where the hell is she?" Jarod demanded, adding, "And I suggest you tell me quickly because my arms are getting tired."

"She... she's fine!"

"I asked WHERE she is not HOW she is!" Jarod growled then slackened his grip on Lyle's ankles.

"New Jersey!" Lyle screamed in response. "Fort Lee!"

In one swift motion, Jarod hauled Lyle back onto the bridge and held him tightly by the lapels. With a dangerous glint in his eye he warned through clenched teeth,
"All these years you've been lucky; I've held back. But, so help me, if you're lying about this, I WILL kill you."

"I... I'm not lying."

"Then what the hell is she doing in Fort Lee, New Jersey? The Centre doesn't have a facility there."

"Th... they didn't want it handled that way. The orders were clear: she was an obstacle that needed to be removed but they wanted her n... neutralized... n... not killed. I... I don't think I have to tell you what that means."

"Renewal Wing," Jarod sneered then shoved Lyle to the ground.

* * * *

"Renewal Wing," Jarod uttered shakily into his cell phone as he sped up the New Jersey Turnpike.

"My God!" Sydney gasped.

"Afterwards... they settled her into a new community with a new identity. I'm on my way there now."

"Jarod," the older man counseled. "You must exercise extreme caution. You know they will be watching her."

"Well, they can watch all they want. This time tomorrow she will be gone for good and they won't be able to touch her."

"You must realize," Sydney began in a sad, tired voice. "She will not be the woman we know, and you must prepare yourself for thssibssibility that she may never be again."

"I know... But at least she'll be safe."

"And Lyle?"

Hearing trepidation in his mentor's voice, Jarod expelled a weary sigh then reported, "A little tied up at the moment, which is exactly how he'll remain until I reach her and get her safely away. But he's alive... for now." On that note he severed the connection then tossed the cell phone onto the passenger seat and pressed the accelerator.

* * * *

Ten days.

She had been gone for ten days. He'd tried not to worry at first, assuring Sydney and Broots that she was probably off on some quest for the truth about her family. But then one day stretched into two, two days stretched into three, and by the time a week had elapsed they couldn't pretend that it wasn't a very bad sign that they hadn't heard from her. Suspecting she might be locked away somewhere deep in the bowels of the Centre, they enlisted Angelo's help, only to have their worst fears confirmed.

"Angel gone," he'd whispered through tears as he cradled a few of her personal belongings in his hands. "Can't find her."

At that point Broots became half-hysterical, fearing the worst; Sydney grew quiet and grave. But Jarod wouldn't bring himself to believe it and, despite how aggressive the Centre had become of late with Raines at the helm, he risked coming to Blue Cove to get his hands on a person he suspected would know exactly where she was. It had been worth the risk; Lyle was up to his ears in it, of course.
If only he'd acted sooner. Centre "scientists" had apparently perfected what they referred to as "express reconditioning." According to Lyle, she was held in Renewal Wing for only 48 hours. She had gone to bed as Miss Parker on a Tuesday night and awaken as Bambi Murphy on a Friday morning. That thought chilled Jarod to the bone as he sat in his car and waited for her to emerge from the apartment building.

He had ruled out going in because he couldn't be sure that she would be alone. Despite Lyle's assurances that she was set up on her own, he thought it likely that they assigned a local sleeper to play the role of trusted friend or relative. Jarod had to get this exactly right and there were simply too many unknown variables to go barging into her home. Besides, she wouldn't know who he was and he didn't want to frighten her. Instead he planned to follow her to her place of employment and initiate an acquaintance there. He only hoped Miss Murphy would be more amenable to his presence than Miss Parker tended to be.

There was nothing to do but wait, and wait, and wait, until a little before 10:00 a.m. when the door swung open and out she came. Were it not for those spectacular legs of hers, which were very much on display on this particular morning, he might not have recognized her. She was... she was... BLONDE for one thing and her hair was just so BIG and FLUFFY and much, much longer than it was the last time her saw her. In fact it was a good deal longer than it could have possibly grown in that time. Was rapid hair growth some kind of bizarre side effect of the powerful psychotropic drugs they'd given her?

And then there was her attire. While Miss Parker was certainly not averse to wearing clothing that accentuated her gorgeous figure, she did usually appear in public more or less fully clothed. For her it was all about sleek lines and control; she dressed to intimidate. Mouth agape, it occurred to Jarod that Bambi's aim was probably NOT the same. She wore a tight lace top that was largely transparent, a skirt so short that it barely cleared her... um, black leather boots that went to mid-thigh (and yet still left several inches of leg to afford visual verification of her identity) and a black hat that was simply beyond comprehension, let alone rational explanation.

She was halfway down the block before the profound shock wore off and he mustered the brain cells to start the engine. Following her proved more hazardous than he'd anticipated because a car in front of him kept slowing down. Jarod began to wonder if the driver was having car trouble until he saw the man stick his head completely out of the window to yell something to her.

Oh boy, Jarod thought to himself, you'd better floor it, Buddy.

He cracked his tinted window an inch so he could hear what was going on. Fearing she might charge the vehicle and attempt to wrench the man out through the window, he prepared himself to intervene if necessary. It wasn't. She cast the man a coy look and giggled - yes, giggled - then continued on her merry way.

His heart sank. Angelo was right; she really was gone.

* * * *

Jarod frowned, shaking his head and letting it come to rest on the steering wheel. He had assumed she would be doing high-level professional work of some kind, and had worn an expensive suit in order to slip into an appropriate guise in which to approach her. As if it hadn't been glaringly ous aus already, when she entered Kiki's Nail Salon it became absolutely clear that he would have to come up with a Plan B. Lifting his head off the steering wheel, he sighed and opened the car door. It was going to be a long day.

Jarod took a deep breath and entered the nail n. Sn. She was, conveniently, stationed behind the front counter, blowing bubbles with her gum and thumbing through a magazine. A sudden jolt of anxiety coursed through him, compelling him to draw a fortifying breath before approaching, clearing his throat discreetly and asking,

"Excuse me, Miss, but do you serve male clientele?"

She glanced up from her magazine and, as eyes he knew so well met his, there was another moment of panic. After all, somewhere in there - buried under all the gaudy makeup, hair spray, and tacky clothing - was Miss Parker. Panic soon gave way to sadness when he failed to detect even the slightest flicker of recognition in her artless, almost vacant, stare. Her gaze grew more penetrating as she gave him the once-over, a coquettish smile gracing her lips.

Batting her eyelashes at him, she drawled, "Depends on the male. If he's cute..." Her eyes took another slow journey, making him feel supremely uncomfortable. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, swallowing several times before she finally tacked on, "Then I'm happy to serve."

Tossing her magazine aside she rose from her seat and offered a hand across the counter. Jarod blinked incomprehensibly at her until she nodded in the direction of her manicure table. He took her hand and allowed her to lead him around the counter as she called over her shoulder,

"Take the counter, Shirl! I've got a customer!"

* * * *

"Ooh, you’ve got nice hands," Bambi cooed as she leaned forward across her manicure table, much more than the task really called for, to buff Jarod’s nails.

His eyes bounced around the shop like a ping-pong ball as he strove to avoid looking squarely at her, for doing so would inevitably give him an eyeful. Not that he had been averse on previous occasions to stealing a glimpse at her flawless, milky white flesh: soaking wet as he tied her up when they were trapped together in the Keys, leaning over her shoulder to taunt her in the Dover Town Bank, as she lay sleeping soundly in her bed when he removed the firing pin from her gun, through frustratingly tiny holes in the screen at Ocee’s. But the whole point was that he had "stolen" those glimpses; she hadn’t been shoving herself in his face. Miss Parker wouldn’t do that. It wasn’t how their little game was played.

"You never know who might be peeking over your transom," he’d teased once, early on. Typically, she hadn’t reacted to the implication; she’d simply let the comment go. There was a lot less hostility than one might have expected, even back then. But now she was gone, leaving only a woman who looked like her buried under mountains of dyed hair and considerably less cheap clothing, practically climbing into his lap as she gave him a manicure. He looked at her left index finger and, as he wondered what had become of her square ring, despair rolled over him in waves.

"Bet you know how to use ‘em," she commented breathlessly, adding coyly, "Your girlfriend must be one lucky lady. Planning a special weekend?"

"Well," he began on a sigh. This was clearly a shooting-ducks-in-a-barrel proposition. So unlike Parker: nothing with her was ever like shooting ducks in a barrel.

"I do have a nice little getaway planned. Unfortunately…" He dragged his gaze to meet those eyes, so like hers and yet so difnt, nt, and continued, "I don’t have anyone to share it with." Forcing a leer which seemed to work so well on women, well it had always worked on Zoe so something told him it would work on the stranger seated across from him, he tacked on, "Pity, isn’t it?"

Practically bolting from her seat, Bambi pulled off her white coat and announced, "Cancel my 3:00, Shirl!"

Ducks in a barrel, he thought forlornly, forcing a grin as he, too, rose from the table.

* * * *

"I think it's a good idea if you put your seatbelt on. We don't want an encounter with the State Police putting a damper on our weekend, do we?"

Jarod hoped his words would compel Bambi to move into her own seat instead of attempting to share his as they sped down the highway. Since the moment they left the nail salon, she had been plastered to his right side, making it very difficult for him to concentrate on the road.

"I'm afr afraid of some nasty old cop," she purred, tracing his earlobe with her fingertip and causing his hands to slip on the steering wheel, the SUV swerving ever so slightly. He commenced a deep breathing exercise to steady himself. If he wasn't careful they really would end up dealing with the troopers or, worse yet, overturned in a ditch.

As she rested her head on his shoulder, he mused bitterly that only the twisted minds of the Centre could conceive of this particular brand of hell. For that's truly what it was, a scenario beyond Dante Alighieri's wildest imaging: to finally be close to her, to be touched by her, to hear that smoky voice whisper in his ear and feel the body that launched a thousand late-night fantasies pressed against his. Only she wasn't occupying it anymore; she was gone. Words like cruel, inhumane and torture didn't even begin to cover it.

Murderous rage swelling within him, Jarod gripped more tightly on the steering wheel and pressed the accelerator. A merciful silence reigned for a time and he thought she might have drifted off when she abruptly sat up, stretched and asked, "How long until we get to the mall? You haven't forgotten, I hope, since you were such an eager little beaver you wouldn't even let me stop home first."

"I haven't forgotten," he replied on a sigh. "A little shopping spree is the least I can do for a pretty lady willing to keep a lonely guy company for the weekend. I just wanted to get a good start on our drive before we stopped. You're probably getting hungry; I know I am."

In truth, he wasn't the least bit hungry, which was unusual.

* * * *

Jarod hoped that Bambi didn't notice his grimace and wince as she greedily consumed a variety of greasy fast food items and sipped on a strawberry shake. More than once he stopped just short of warning, "That's not good for your ulcer," only to remind himself that she might not even be awthatthat she had an ulcer and, even if she were, that wouldn't explain how a man she'd only met a few hours earlier could possibly know about it.

"Ah," she sighed with satisfaction, flopping back into her chair and adding, "That was yummy." Snickering she continued, "But if Rocco ever found out, he'd kill me. He's always trying to get me to eat healthier. And he's right; I've got to watch my figure. I don't plan on being a nail technician forever. I've got career plans. Rocco knows the manager of the Hooters on Route 17 and he's promised that, as soon as a position opens up, I'm in."

"Rocco?" Jarod inquired as casually as he could manage. "Who's Rocco?"

"A friend," Bambi replied distractedly as she eyed the Belgian Waffle stand at the far end of the food court.

Jarod followed her gaze over his shoulder, stared blankly for a beat or two then shook his head and refocused, probing, "Friend? I... I hope I'm not stepping on anybody's toes here. I was under the impression that you were unattached."

"Oh, Rocco's not THAT kind of friend," she explained as she reached for her shake with the apparent intention of polishing it off.

"He isn't?" he replied, wondering if he sounded as immensely relieved as he felt. For that was the moment it was decided that at least one Centre employee would be spared the full force of Jarod's wrath and fury.

"Nah, he's more like a big brother. He looks out for me. And, boy, am I going to have to lie through my teeth about this. I mean, taking off with a guy I met while doing a manicure: for all I know, you could be an ax murderer. You aren't, are you?" she teased with a wink before taking a sip of her shake then continuing, "Rocco says I'm too trusting of people, that I need to be more careful."

"Sounds like good advice to me. I can assure you that I am not an ax murderer but I could have been. What made you come with me?"

Bambi pondered a moment then shrugged and responded, "You mean besides that body, those dimples, that cute little mole? Your eyes, I guess. I don't know... there's just something about them... made me feel safe. You have kind eyes, sort of like Rocco, although his are blue. He comes across as such a tough guy but he has a sweet side too. And sad... he gets this sad lon hin his eyes sometimes. Come to think of it, so do you."

*Sam*

A faint smile graced Jarod's lips as it dawned on him. Despite her rough edges, Miss Parker ultimately commanded the loyalty, and even the affection, of those around her. Well, those with a shred of common decency, anyway. He wondered how Sam had managed to get the assignment, for he was certain that "her" sweeper had not been complicit in the reeducation. He must have stumbled upon the scheme and somehow convinced them that he was the best man for the job. As the cream of the sweeper crop, Jarod knew better than to underestimate him. Perhaps Sam had witnessed the entire exchange at the nail salon and had simply stood by and let Jarod whisk her to safety, even though it would likely mean a world of trouble for him later on. So, he owed a man he once glued to the floor a debt of gratitude, although he was still a little troubled by the "Hooters" reference. He'd never been but he had a feeling it was not the type of establishment Miss Parker would have frequented or found in any way pleasing.

"So, Jarod," she began, breaking his reverie. "You wanna blow this popcicle stand?"

Rising from her chair, Bambi straightened what little there was of her skirt before bending to pick up her bags, at which point Jarod found himself shooting several warning looks around the food court at the legions of men leering at her. In the old days, they may have wanted to leer but one look from Miss Parker would have proved a sufficient disincentives chs chest constricted with grief.

"There's that look I was talking about," she said as she foisted the bags into his arms, adding, "We'll have to see what we can do about that. Now, I just need to make a stop at the drugstore to get a few things a girl needs for the weekend and we can be on our way."

Following her out of the food court with the air of a condemned man following his executioner to the gallows he offered weakly, "We're in no hurry if there are any other stores you would like to visit."

"Nah, got everything we need," she replied, casting him a sly smile over her shoulder.

Glancing forlornly from his left hand to his right, he read five words that struck terror in his heart: Frederick's of Hollywood Victoria's Secret.

The trip to the drugstore began innocently enough. Bambi picked out a toothbrush, shampoo, flower-scented body wash, and a few other assorted toiletries and cosmetics. She spent a considerable amount of time in the nail products section, picking out just the right top coat to protect the brand-spanking-new airbrush on her fingernails.

"Palm trees," Jarod observed bemusedly, wondering how he'd managed to miss that detail.

"I love the beach and Rocco says we'll go to Florida someday. Wait 'til you see my toes," she added, wagging her eyebrows suggestively.

"Which reminds me," mut muttered under her breath as she headed toward the back of the store. Jarod dutifully followed, slowing to a standstill when he realized with horror where she was going.

Stopping at the rack she perused the available options then turned to consider him, her brow knit with concentration. After several of the most uncomfortable moments of Jarod's life she shrugged and said, "What the hell," then cleared one rack. Pausing a moment, she pressed a finger to her chin then gave him one more quick glance before clearing another rack.

"I think we're done here," she announced, a phrase so evocative of the woman she used to be that it sent Jarod reeling.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when she planted a kiss high on his jaw line, just below his left earlobe, as she passed him heading toward the checkout. For several moments he just stood there, immobilized by the prospect of the daunting task ahead of him as he stared blankly at what remained of the condom display in the wake of Bambi.

* * * *

If Jarod thought the day had been long then he was in for an even longer night. Alas, Bambi did not heed his advice about the seat belt. Instead she spent the remainder of their trip to one of his "safe" houses - a modest but homey cottage in Pennsylvania's Juniata River Valley - attempting to disprove a basic principle of physics: that two bodies cannot simultaneously occupy the same space.

When they reached their destination, she seemed pleased enough with it. But then, Bambi was nothing if not easy to please. And while that was a quality he had always appreciated in Zoe, he found it bordering on irritating in this situation. Hoping against all hope to hear a caustic remark about tractor pulls or inbreeding, a deep melancholy settled over him when none came.

"Make yourself comfortable," he advised when they entered the house.

"I plan on it," she purred, taking the bags from his hands and twirling away from him.

"Only one bedroom in this place?" she called out from the back of the house after a few moments.

"Um, yeah, but it's no problem because I'll be perfectly comfortable out here on the..."

"Not complaining, just asking," she said with a smile as she poked her head out of the bedroom. Her shoulders were bare; Jarod gulped and turned away from her.

"There... there's a lot to do around here," he began awkwardly. "We could visit the Amish store. They... they make these delicious little cookie sandwiches called whoopie pies. Or... or we can take a ride over the mountain to State College. The university is there and... and lots of restaurants and shops... great bookstores."

"Bookstores?"

He turned to find her standing in front of him in a short, hot pink robe under which he knew from their shopping excursion would be a matching hot pink nightie that revealed rather more than it concealed. Jarod sighed, closed his eyes and rubbed the spot between his eyebrows.

"Aw, poor baby," she cooed, sidling up to him and adding, "You look so tense but Bambi will make it all better."

"I... I'm fine, really," he responded, backing away from her and abruptly changing the subject.

"I've got a satellite dish. We could watch TV."

"Okay..." she replied bemusedly.

"The couch and easy chair are both quite comfortable. Please take a seat wherever you like," he offered, gesturing toward the furniture arranged in front of the televsion. Bambi flopped unceremoniously onto the couch then patted the spot beside her. With a deep breath Jarod propelled himself forward to join her, picking up the remote along the way and switching on the television. She snugglp nep next to him the moment his derriere hit the sofa and inquired,

"Got the Playboy Channel?"

"Um," he replied scratching his head. "I don't think so."

"Too bad," she sighed. "Might help get SOME OF US in the mood."

"We... we can find a nice movie to watch," he offered then began channel surfing in earnest.

"Nice" was, apparently, not in the offing. Among the movies that Jarod stumbled upon and immediately ruled out were "9-1/2 Weeks," "Basic Instinct," and an older film with a deceptive title that had absolutely nothing to do with people doing an Argentine dance in The City of Light, but did feature unorthodox use of a dairy product. This piqued his curiosity but he decided that now was definitely not the time to explore the matter further.

"Oh, turn it back!" Bambi protested.

"Let's see what's on the Discovery Channel," he muttered.

It appeared to be a special on large predators. Sighing with relief, Jarod relaxed a bit and tossed aside the remote, which ultimately turned out to be a mistake for it was actually a Desmond Morris documentary on animal sexuality and fead ald all manner of beasts going at it like, well, animals.

"This is a lot less boring than I thought it would be," Bambi purred into his ear, her breasts pressing against his side in a most disconcerting manner. He tugged at his collar, squirming as he felt beads of sweat run down his torso.

"You know," she continued huskily. "This couch is comfy but I'd REALLY rather be sitting someplace else."

"Okay... where?" he inquired innocently.

"On your face," she whispered, her lips brushing the senstive flesh of his ear, hot breath making him tingle in all the right - make that wrong - places.

Turning his head to face her he began, "Why would you want to sit on my..."

His eyes grew impossibly large as it dawned on him. That was the moment she chose to pounce. Struggling to extricate himself without sending her crashing to the floor, Jarod noted that Bambi had retained at least one characteristic of Miss Parker: her cat-like reflexes.

Make that two. There was also the superior muscle control, as evidenced by the vice-like grip of her thighs as she straddled him. Before he even knew what had hit him she had her arms around his neck, latching onto an earlobe to commence nibbling. He was momentarily shocked into paralysis, his arms seemingly incapable of action.

"Ba... Bam... Bambi..." he stammered in an attempt to get her attention.

"Bambi!" he blurted, near panic as she began to rock in hip. Sp. Somehow mustering the will, he grabbed hold of her upper arms and shook her then pushed her far enough away from him to look into her face.

"Hmmm?" she replied with a lazy smile.

"I need to talk to you and you need to listen to me."

"Talk later," she groaned as she attempted to lean forward again.

"No," he stated with a frown, again shaking her gently. "We talk NOW."

Furrowing her brow she asked, "You're not going to tell me that you play for the other team, are you?"

"Team?" he muttered shaking his head.

"You know, boys. You don't like boys, do you?"

"That depends on the boys. If they're nice boys then I... oh... OH! No, Bambi, I am not homosexual, if that's what you mean."

"Then why don't you want to?" she whined.

"It's not that I don't want to. It's... it's complicated. You see, there... there's somebody else and..."

"I knew it! You're married!," she accused adding, "Not that I give a rat's ass about that sort of thing, but if you're going to act all guilty about it then you won't be any fun at all."

"I am not married. I... I recently lost someone... someone very special to me. And, ever since, it's been difficult for me to get close to anyone else."

"Oh," she responded, her face softening as she added a heartfelt, "I'm sorry, Jarod."

A sad smile gracing his lips, he tenderly stroked her cheek and said, "So am I,"
then with a sigh and a small shrug of his shoulders continued, "But that's in the past. Now I want to get to know you, spend some time together before we... we decide to take it to another level. I like and respect you too much to jump into a physical relationship."

"You do?" she asked looking perplexed. "Well that's one I've never heard before."

"Then you haven't been keeping company with anyone worthy of you," he stated as he gently eased her off his lap to settle beside him.

ept ept maybe Rocco," he tacked on. "I think he may be alright."

Rg frg from his seat he advised, "It's getting late so I think we should call it a night. You take the bedroom and I'll sack out here."

"Sure you don't want to share?" she inquired hopefully as she stood up.

"Yes, I'm sure," he replied with a small smile.

"Can a girl at least get an innocent little kiss goodnight?"

Eyeing her warily he commented, "The operative word being 'innocent.'"

"C'mon, Jarod, you're not afraid of little old me. What could I possibly do to you?"

"Tonight, I have no intention of finding out," he insisted crossing his arms at his chest. She pouted. He sighed and relented, leaning in to let her kiss him.

"Mmm... mmm... mmm," he chided, pulling back when he felt her tongue trying to slip between his closed lips. He cast her a stern look.

"Can't kill a girl for trying!" she chirped with a rakish grin then bounced out of the room.

"Nightie night!" she called over her shoulder before disappearing from view.

Jarod expelled a deep breath then sank down onto the sofa and dropped his head into his hands. Shaking his head he moaned, "What are we going to do, Miss Parker," into his palms.

* * * *

He peered into the bedroom and sighed, slumping against the doorway as he gazed upon her reclining form. Except for the waves of golden hair cascading around her on the pillow, she looked much like her former self in a state of slumber. Jarod watched over her for as long as he could stand it, turning away only when the pain in his chest became too much to bear.

Ambling over to the couch, he sat down, picked up his cell phone and dialed.

"Hi Sydney," he offered wanly.

"Jarod. It is good to hear from you."

His mentor's standard salutation was delivered without any of the usual enthusiasm. The older man's grief was nearly as palpable as his own. After a pause Sydney asked, "How is she?"

"She's..." Jarod began but the words simply failed him as tears welled in his eyes.

"I know this is extremely difficult for you," Sydney observed, making no attempt to offer words of consolation because there weren't any.

With a bitter chuckle his protege replied, "You have no idea."

* * * *

It was just before dawn when, physically and emotionally exhausted, Jarod finally slipped into a fitful, troubled sleep. And it was several hours later when he began to wake to a strange, if not unpleasant, sensation. The sensation intensified as he ascended toward consciousness, swiftly surpassing not unpleasant on its way to pleasurable.

Jarod moaned softly and turned his head from side to side as he struggled to shake free from a web of slumber while striving to process the sensory signals now flooding his semi-conscious brain: hot, moist, soft, friction, nice, nice, nice, very nice friction. Somehow he was able to put it together, launching him into full consciousness. His eyes popping open, he craned his neck to look down his body and his jaw dropped in shock.

While he thought he'd succeeded in reasoning with her the evening before, she had clearly not taken his words to heart. For she was now kneeling beside the sofa with her head bent over Jarod's body, her hair spilling down around her face and tickling his skin as she held his penis firmly at the base with one hand, her mouth working confidently, insistently over the tip.

"Oh, Bambi," he groaned, his head dropping back onto the sofa.

* * * *

*Focus! You must focus! Damn it, Jarod, focus!*

Sydney's voice thundering in his head finally brought him to his senses. He forced his eyes open and lifted his head slowly off the sofa.

"Bambi," he rasped. "Bambi, please listen... I... I need to..."

He raised a trembling hand toch hch her shoulder. The good news was that he succeeded in getting her attention. The bad news was that getting her attention meant meeting those devastating blue eyes as she continued doing that thing with her tongue which provoked what Jarod determined to be the most pleasing sensation he had ever experienced.

*I said focus!*

"Please, Bambi," he whimpered which, in retrospect, probably wasn't the best choice of words.

She smiled. Lord help him she smiled... all around him. The smile lit up her eyes, making the birthmark perched just beneath her lower left eyelid, which he'd always considered one of the loveliest things in the universe, evene pre prominent. A pleasure bordering on pain was building in his abdomen when she did the unthinkable. She winked at him, her hand snaking further between his legs to caress and tickle his most intimate flesh.

"Oh, God!" he gasped, feeling his willpower slipping away.

He was on the verge of giving in, of letting her guide him to the release his body was screaming for, when Sydney's voice again broke through, this time sounding sad rather than angry as he demanded,

*What about Miss Parker? Would she want this, Jarod?*

That was enough to compel him to act, so quickly that he wasn't even aware of what he'd done until he found himself sitting up with his feet planted firmly on the floor and Bambi seated on her backside wearing an expression of profound stupefon.
on.

"What is it, baby?" she inquired, making a move toward him. "Did I hurt you?"

"Don't!" he growled, waving her off.

He ran a hand over his face and through his hair, trying to regain some semblance of control as his body trembled with anger and frustration: anger at himself for letting it go so far and frustration as his body protested, loudly, the loss of contact with her heavenly mouth.

"But... but look at you," she observed defensively. "You look like you are going to explode."

He stared blankly at her for a beat or two before his eyes settled on the raging, weeping erection poking out of his open fly in a most undignified manner. Groaning in humiliation and discomfort, he hastily struggled to reign in his unruly anatomy, which was no inconsiderable task. He succeeded in readjusting his underwear but refastening his fly proved problematic, especially when he felt her hands on his thighs. While he was otherwise engaged, she had seized the opportunity to move closer and was now kneeling in front of him. He met her eyes to find them filled with a lethal combination of sadness and compassion.

"Please tell me what's wrong. There's nothing to be ashamed of if you have some sort of... problem."

"My PROBLEM is that YOU don't listen!" he barked then gave her shoulder a shove with enough force to send her toppling backwards.

Bolting from the couch he stormed out of the room without aer wer word, ignoring Bambi's pleas of remorse as she called after him:

"I'm sorry! Please don't be mad, Jarod! I'm sorry!"

* * * *

Jarod splashed another handful of cold water on his face then glared reproachfully at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Of course Miss Parker wouldn't have wanted this; she had made her feelings quite clear on the runway in Glasgow. He was overcome with guilt, compounded by his cruelty toward Bambi who was, after all, an innocent. None of this was her fault and, yet, part of him could not help hating her, just a little, for inhabiting the body of the woman who, right or wrong, had captivated him since the day he first set eyes on her.

But that woman was gone and, as Sydney had warned, more than likely for good. Jarod's priority now had to be Bambi, the innocent who needed protection from any further exploitation by the Centre as well as, given her temperament and judgment, a staggering array of other potential hazards. So protect her he would, with his life if necessary, in loving memory of the woman she once was. On that thought, and with a fortifying breath, he turned to exit the bathroom.

He opened the door leading into the bedroom to find Bambi seated on the edge of the beth hth her head down. Only then did it register that she wasn't wearing her robe, just the hot pink, and more or less transparent, nightie. The darker flesh at the tips of her breasts was clearly visible, as was another dark patch lower; the matching panties were essentially transparent too. He was momentarily transported back to that firelit room, and to the sudden, illicit thrill awarded him amidst so much fear and danger. He reckoned it had been like receiving flowers or a special gift out of the blue, one of those small blessings that one fell back on later when life inevitably - in his experience, anyway - grew unpleasant again.

Another wave of grief washed over him and he wanted nothing more than to retreat back into the bathroom. But then she raised her head and her red-rimmed eyes, tear-stained cheeks and trembling bottom lip prompted him to set aside his own pain. He noted how small and vulnerable she looked as he approached, gently taking a seat beside her on the bed.

"Bambi," he began softly. "I apologize for being so... abrupt... with you earlier. I hope that I didn't hurt you when I pushed you away."

She shook her head then sniffled and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand and replied, "You didn't hurt me but I... I just like you so much and I want you to like me too."

"I do like you, but when people are just getting to know each other I think it's better if they..."

"God," she interjected shaking her head. "Sometimes I think I'm completely losing it. I'm so sad theses...s... and for no reason. I'm really good at hiding it, but it sure as hell doesn't help when Rocco goes around acting like he's just come from a funeral. And always the same answer when I ask him what's wrong: 'Nothing, sweetheart.' Then you come into the salon and for the first time in, like, ages I feel just a teeny bit happy inside. Then you ask me to go away for the weekend and I feel like the luckiest girl in whole fucking world. But then you start to go all squirrelly on me too. Jesus..." She paused a moment, sighed and continued, "It aint all rainbows and puppies for me but at least I go through the trouble of pretending. Can't you do that, just a little? Can't you pretend, Jarod?"

He didn't know how he'd have responded were he capable. It was irrelevant because something in him had broken open, unleashing emotions he'd been struggling to keep under control for days in torrents of tears and body-wracking sobs.

"Oh, honey!" Bambi gasped then pulled him into a tight embrace that he didn't fight.

"What is it, sweetie?" she cooed, rocking him gently in her arms. "Please tell me."

"Can't," he choked against the crook of her neck, where his face was now buried.

"Is this about the girl you lost? Is she... is she... dead?"

"Not... exactly," he hiccuped.

"Then if she cares about you at all, she'd want you to be happy. I mean, how could she not want you to be happy?"

Laughing bily tly through tears he replied, "She's had her reasons."

"But that's over now. It's all in the past," she soothed as he felt her press him gently back onto the mattress.

And this time Jarod did not resist as Bambi moved over him, kissing away his tears. Nor did he raise any objection as her mouth closed over his, her tongue invading for a thorough exploration. If Sydney had anything further to offer on the matter, Jarod either could or would not hear him. Instead, he did his best to cooperate as she removed his clothing. And then his demeanor shifted from merely compliant to enthusiastic and his hands were everywhere on her, first touching through silk and lace then removing it to lay claim to her bare skin. And then his mouth was following the trail blazed by his hands. And then she was slipping a condom onto his second erection of the day. And then she was sinking down slowly to take him into her body because he did, in fact, have an answer to her questind tnd that answer was yes, he could pretend.

In some rational corner of his mind Jarod managed to appreciate the irony, even as he watched her move gracefully above him and experienced another impressive demonstration of her superior muscle control. He was finally inside of that exquisite body - at once sleek and muscular, soft and yielding, just like he'd always dreamed it would be. Only she wasn't in there anymore, which made a certain kind of twisted sense. After all, she had spent over five years just missing him. Now it was his turn to just miss her.

"Ooh, you've got a great cock, Jarod!" Bambi squealed as she picked up the pace.

His eyes widened; while he'd never had any complaints, nobody had ever paid him that particular compliment either. He managed to gasp out a "thank you" before another creative display of her talented muscles rendered coherent speech impossible. He reached up to cup her breasts, so round and warm and they fit perfectly in his hands.

She was bouncing in earnest now, making sexy little noises as he plucked at her nipples. Her pleasingly flushed skin was slick with sweat and so was his, combining with the other delicious moisture from her body to make their bodies slide together in splendid harmony. And there was no turning back now. This time he'd permit himself that moment of ecstasy, and feel it as keenly as he felt his despair and guilt.

"Jarod," she gasped as he felt her body tense around his, signalling the start of her orgasm.

"Jarod?"

As she began to quiver all around him, something in her tone made him open his eyes to search hers. If he had been breathing at all, he would have stopped at what he saw there: confusion, surprise, a faint glimmer of...

"Jarod!"

Recognition.

And that was it. He was history, coming so hard that he practically roared with pleasure and, for a few blissful seconds, forgot everything he had ever known. But then he remembered and opened his eyes to find her staring down at him, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open as though she were paralyzed with shock. With little time to recover from a powerful orgasm, his heartrate had barely begun to slow when it again accelerated with the combination of dread and hope now coursing through him. Propping himself up on his elbows he gazed intently into her eyes and inquired softly,

"Miss Parker?"

* * * *

“Jar…?” she muttered, still somewhat breathless as she blinked at him in bewilderment.

“It's… okay,” he said in a low, soothing tone as he reached up to gently stroke her arm.

“What the…”

Her voice trailed off as her head dropped, her gaze falling to where their bodies remained intimately joined. That was the point at which it occurred to Jarod how much trouble he was truly in but he had no time to initiate damage control before…

“What the fuck!”

Parker slapped him hard across the face before scrambling off his lap and pulling frantically at the bedspread in an attempt to cover herself. After taking a moment to see to a personal matter of some urgency, Jarod reached out for her but she backed off the bed, stumbling into a standing position. Picking up the first article of clothing she spotted - his shirt - she held it tightly in front of her as her eyes darted around the room.

“Miss Parker, please calm down and listen to me,” he pleaded softly, striving to keep the rising panic out of his voice in order to avoid alarming her further.

“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND? Of course you are! You’ve done some pretty nasty things to me over the years BUT DRUGGING ME TO GET INTO MY PANTS?”

“No! That’s not… something… something’s happened… something terrible and…” he struggled to explain as he climbed out of bed.

“Damn right it did!” she yelled then averted her eyes, the color deepening in her already-flushed cheeks.

Taking the cue Jarod yanked the bedspread off the bed and wrapped it around his waist then moved cautiously around the bed to approach her. She backed away slowly, her voice low and trembling with anger as she warned,

“Stay away from me, you freak. I never had you pegged for a rapist. What did you do, invent a new and improved date rape drug and decide to have another good laugh at my expense by testing it on me? That’s low even for you and a very bad idea, old friend, because even though we both know you've never really had to face me as an enemy, so help me God I WILL destroy you for this.”

“No!” Jarod protested miserably, guilt and shame creeping over him like a chill and making him feel quite unwell.

“I said stay the hell away from me!”

Her voice rising as she made contact with the bathroom door, she reached blindly for the knob, jerked the door open and quickly slipped inside then slammed it in Jarod’s face. Despite hearing the lock click closed, he futilely tried the door as he begged, “Please, Parker, you have to listen to me. I know this is very confusing and terrifying but if you just let me explain…”

He cut cut off by a blood-curdling scream and began to pound anxiously on the bathroom door insisting, “Parker, I’m coming in one way or another even if I have to break this door down!”

After a moment or two of complete silence he heard the lock click open. When she didn’t emerge, he slowly turned the knob and pushed open the door to find her wearing his shirt and slumped on the edge of the bathtub with her head in her hands. He approached gingerly, careful not to make any sudden movements as he kneeled in front of her. Gently taking her by the wrists, he pulled her hands away to look into her eyes, which were filled with a combination of fear, sadness and determination as she demanded,

“Tell me what they did to me.”

* * * *

“Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Tammy Wynette!”

Her sarcastic grin quickly faded as she stared into the bathroom mirror. In renewed horror she whimpered, “Couldn’t they have just KILLED me?”

Of course not, she mused, pulling piles of repulsive blonde hair into a pony tail then securing it in place with a rubber band. That would have been more humane. Instead they made her into everything she despised and, apparently, everything Sydney’s trained chimpanzee desired. In apprising her of recent events, the asshole had moved briskly over that portion of the narrative but it wasn’t difficult to get the gist. And she shouldn't have been surprised in the least. Having seen photos of the redhead he was banging a while back - the one Lyle and Cox had abducted but in their complete and utter uselessness had failed to torture - it was obvious that his tastes ran down-market. Bambi must have been a living fantasy.

“Sorry, Ratboy, but I’m baaaaack,” she seethed.

He was SO dead once she was firmly in control of the situation. In the meantime, and as much as she hated to admit it, she needed him. She needed him to devise a way for her to safely contact her allies back home. He was, after all, an expert on the subject. And there was the business of acquiring the basic necessities for her to begin making herself presentable again. Once those priorities were seen to, she would be free to torture him to a slow, excruciating death and scatter his remains across several states. It would be worth the wait.

Tapping her fingers on porcelain, she glanced down at her hands and groaned at the unwelcome reminder of the artwork displayed on her fingernails, which was nothing compared to the tiny, smiling (baby blue!) octopi currently gracing her big toes. She had to admit that their little sailor hats were a nice touch. The devil, as they say, is in the details and this was an experience straight out of hell.

Pinching the bridge of her nose she contemplated her latest foray into the wacky and wonderful world of utter humiliation. Heretofore, she had always considered herself well-traveled here but this... this was the trip of a lifetime, the grande tour! Never in her wildest dreams had she pictured herself wearing Monkeyboy’s shirt with a pair of his boxer shorts pinned at the waist so they would stay up. Still, it beat the hell out of the alternative: wearing Bambi’s clothing.

“Parker?” he called softly through the door.

“What,” she replied exasperatedly.

“I’m on my way out but I have something to give you first. May I come in?”

“It’s open,” she stated on a sigh, turning to lean back against the sink and folding her arms at her chest.

Peeking around the door he smiled weakly and observed, “You look better,” before fully entering the room.

“Yeah, I’m just peachy,” she scoffed.

He frowned then reached behind him to produce a gun - a Smith & Wesson 9 mm very much like hers - and offered, “Here; the safety's on and it’s loaded.”

She stared dumbly at it until he coaxed, “Go ahead take it.”

As she accepted the offering he went on, “I’m sorry I couldn’t find yours. They must have taken it because it was nowhere to be found at the house and, believe me, I looked.”

In reply to Parker’s questioning stare Jarod swallowed hard and explained, “I am reasonably confident that you are safe here.”

“Reasonably?”

With a shrug he continued, “That’s about as confident as I am of my own safety on any given day - any GOOD day - but, as you know only too well, anything can happen. I didn’t want to leave you here alone and unarmed. To get everything on the list you gave me, I have to go over the mountain to State College so I'll be gone a while."

His expression darkening he advised, “Don’t hesitate to use it if you have to.”

“Don’t worry,” she shot back with conviction. "Hesitating will NOT be a problem."

"I didn't think so but I felt compelled to say it anyway."

He lingered for several moments, wordlessly meeting her intense gaze until something compelled them both to avert their eyes. Parker wondered about it then reminded herself that less than three short hours ago she had awaken as if from a dream to find Wonderboy's dick inside her.
eariearing his throat Jarod muttered, "I should get going. I'll see you later," then moved toward the door.

"By the way," Parker began. He stopped and turned to face her again.

"Were you planning to teach Bambi how to use this?" Holding her hand out and dangling the gun by the trigger guard from her index finger, she swung it gently to-and-fro for emphasis.

"No."

"Really? Wouldn't she have needed to learn to protect herself?"

Another resounding "no" prompted her to ask, "Why not?"

"Because it wouldn't have been necessary. I didn't intend to let her out of my sight."

With that he turned and exited the bathroom, leaving her alone to remark through a bitter smile:

"I'll bet you didn't."

* * * *

Jarod had barely stepped into the house when he heard the gun cock. He hesitated, a wholly unpleasant moment passing during which he entertained the possibility that she might have called in to offer him up as a conciliatory gesture - one that most certainly would have been accepted. And he wasn't sure what was more disturbing: the prospect of losing his freedom or the fact that it hadn't dawned on him *before* he handed her a loaded gun and left her alone for several hours.

"Oh, it's you," Parker stated sleepily then pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle a yawn as she clicked on the safety and set aside the gun.

Emitting a heavy sigh of relief when it registered that she had been dozing on the couch hplieplied, "I'm sorry I startled you. Now that I'm back you can rest in the bedroom if you're..."

"No, thank you," she responded sharply. "The couch is fine."

Jarod colored, nodding and averting his eyes as he held up the bags in his arms and offered, "I think I remembered everything. The clothing is a bit less formal than you're accustomed to, but also less conspicuous. I'll put these in the bedroom. You can sort through everything at your convenience."

Kicking the front door closed behind him, he did precisely that. Setting the various parcels on the bed, he sank into a seated position at the end, swept a hand over his face and frowned. Of course Miss Parker wouldn't feel comfortable sleeping in the bed after what had transpired there. Fortunately, she had no recollection of her time as "Bambi" because that would effectively rule out the sofa too. He flopped onto his back with a groan and closed his eyes, wondering if at some, far distant, point in time he would stop feeling like a sexual deviant.

"I don't even want to KNOW what that bimbo put in my mouth," Parker announced entering the bedroom.

His eyes flew open to find her pressing a hand to her belly but, unfortunately, he comprehended her meaning too late to stifle his look of horror. She turned a bright crimson and muttered, "And I can't believe I just said that," before swiftly crossing the room to enter the bathr



Clamping his eyes tightly shut, Jarod shook his head several times before rising and approaching the door slowly. Rapping softly on it he cleared his throat and began,

"I'm afraid that she... you... did consume a fair amount of junk food in the last 24 hours, and who knows how much in the days before that. I have your prescription medication and there's liquid antacid if you need it. Are you alright?"

"Define 'alright'," she shot back through the door.

Smiling ruefully he replied, "I'll leave you be and fix us something healthy to eat. Just call if you need anything."

"Stop fussing, already! I'm not going to keel over!" she snapped when he was back at the bathroom door almost immediately.

"I just received an email from Sydney," he explained. "We have a small window of opportunity... even sooner than I anticipated. Apparently, Mr. Broots encountered little difficulty in deciphering and following my instructions. They're ready so we need to do this now and we need to keep it brief. They are incessantly called into meetings to answer vague, loaded questions obviously aimed at discovering what they know... Miss Parker?"

After a beat of silence she opened the door and remarked, "Broots will crack like an egg," before slipping past him. Stifling a smirk he followed her out of the bedroom.

* * * *

"WELL?" Parker demanded, her patience dwindling with each and y quy question that had to be repeated, at least once, to Broots, who was clearly distracted by her appearance. His eyes were positively glued to her hair.

"Uh... um... we... we're not sure but I'm on it. Angelo did sneak into Syd's office about an hour ago to inform us that 'Angel's friend' is back at the Centre, and we figure he's got to mean Sam."

"We have not had an opportunity to get anywhere near him yet," Sydney piped ining,ing, "But we will make contact as soon as it is reasonably safe to do so. I am hoping that he will be able to fill in the considerable blanks."

"Do you think he's safe?" Parker inquired as a sudden, unanticipated wave of affection for a man she'd taken for granted for years - a man who had heroically proven his loyalty and common decency - swept over her.

"Angelo did not indicate otherwise," the doctor replied with a small, encouraging smile.

"Unfortunately," Jarod interjected. "Noneus wus will be safe unless we wrap this up."

"Indeed," Sydney concurred on a sigh. "And I very much appreciate your and Mr. Broots's efforts in arranging this video conference. It is a relief to see first hand that you are back, safe and sound, Miss Parker."

Rather more safe than sound, she thought wryly. With a vague approximation of a smile she offered a heartfelt, "Thanks, Syd."

"And, Jarod, someday I would very much like to discuss the methods and techniques you employed in bringing Miss Parker back. They could prove most useful in helping victims of the Centre's Renewal Wing as well as brainwashing victims all over the world."

"It must have been quite a shock," Broots offered sympathetically. "I mean, the moment you snapped out of it, I can only imagine what you were thinking."

"Jarod? Miss Parker?" Sydney inquired in a concerned tone. "Is there something troubling you, something we should know about?"

"No!" thlurtlurted in unison, their eyes meeting momentarily in a sideward glance before darting to opposite sides of the room.

"Well, then," the doctor stated, noting with considerable interest the facial expressions of his protege and colleague and finding it most intriguing. "We will bid you adieu for now. Be safe."

"You too, Sydney," the pretender replied then added with nod, "Mr. Broots. We'll be in touch."

With that the connection was severed, leaving techtechie to comment, "Debbie says it all the time when she's thumbing through magazines at the orthodontist's office but, until now, I never really knew what she meant."

"Hmmm...?" Sydney inquired distractedly, turning slightly on his heels to cast his colleague a look before staring off into space again.

"She says that some women were just never meant to be blonde and, as the saying goes..." Broots paused then went on with a shudder, "Out of the mouths of babes."
* * * *

Although she immediately vacated the seat beside him, Parker did not leave the room. After several minutes of excruciating silence, Jarod mustered the courage to look up at her and wasn’t at all surprised to be met with a chilly glare. Arms folded tightly at her chest she remarked,

“Freud will be most impressed with your distinctive ‘therapy’ techniques. In addition to your other abilities, you obviously possess a ‘unique talent’ for healing. Perhaps you two can co-author a paper on the subject.”

He couldn’t help but wince, her every word like a knife sharpened by the fact that he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Blinking away from her he muttered,

“I won’t say anything, I promise. No one ever has to know.”

“Why not?” she asked, her tone growing even more caustic as she continued, “Oh, that’s right, because it makes YOU look like the lecherous sleaze ball you are. You may be a genius with the ability to be anyone you want to be, but you can’t seem to keep your hands off the nearest available bimbo, even if that bimbo happens to be inhabiting MY body at the time.”

Laughing bitterly she went on, “Poor lab rat; what an unfortunate accident. Enjoying a roll in the hay with the perfect woman - eager, tacky, nary a thought in her head nor opinion of her own - only to end up having to deal with ME!”

Up to that point Jarod’s guilt over his own actions, as well as concern for Parker’s mental and emotional wellng, ng, had prompted him to tread lightly around her. But it was one thing to take responsibility for his reckless behavior and quite another to stand by and be accused of something that was patently untrue. As she turned away from him to leave the room a sudden, powerful surge of anger compelled him to bolt from his seat and grab her arm. Spinning out of his grasp she shot him a glare that was one part incredulond ond one part warning but held her ground.

“Is that REALLY what you think?” he demanded in a voice quivering with rage. “Are you really so deluded - or maybe just pig-headed - as to think that my having sex with Bambi had to do with ANYONE other than you?”

“You were in her company ONE DAY, Jarod! ONE FUCKING DAY!”

“And it was one of the worst days of my life! Have you any idea what it’s like to mourn someone while still in her physical presence? You were gone but your eyes, your voice, your skin were RIGHT HERE! It was like attending some sort of ghoulish wake… where… where they managed to reanimate the body of the deceased but the soul was gone! And I didn’t know how I was going to do it, how I was going to look after Bambi without coming unglued, and without DESPISING her for not being YOU!”

“Jarod,” she rasped, her expression morphing from anger to surprise. “You don’t have to…”

Ignoring her he continued more calmly, “So, weakling that I am, I broke down in front of her, accepted the comfort she was offering, and let her try to help me forget... for a little while.”

Shaking his head he emitted a bitter chuckle and lamented, “Of course I did! It’s been the same miserable pattern with me since Carthis, probably earlier if I really thought about it… and tried being honest with myself for a change. The pleasure passes, the infatuation wanes and I’m left facing that inevitable conclusion: the woman I am with, like the others before her, few and far between as they’ve been, is really just a substitute for… for the woman I truly want. Only this time was different; this time I wanted the genuine article so desperately that I would have done anything, struck any bargain, to make it so because making it so would have meant that she wasn’t gone forever. And, suddenly, she WAS here - and, BELIEVE ME, I was as surprised and shocked as she was - but it just felt so… damned…”

He paused a moment, as though striving for the right word, then frowned and grumbled, “Why do I even bother? What I felt - what I feel - doesn't make any difference. It’s over and it will never happen again.”

“I… I don’t know what... what to…” Parker stammered but was silenced as Jarod abruptly stalked past her and out of the house, leaving her wide-eyed and blinking after him.

* * * *

A woman on a mission, Parker charged into the bedroom and hastily emptied the bags from Jarod's shopping trip in desperate search of the items required to unhe che cosmetic abuse she'd been subjected to. Snatching up the box of hair dye, barber's shears, comb, nail clippers and polish removshe she spotted a dark blue silk robe, grabbed it and chewed off the tags before dashing into the bathroom and slamming the door behind her.

Working on autopilot, the way she always did when her life depended on it, she methodically saw to each task. First she chopped off as much as she couldthe the extensions that had been added to her hair then applied the dye. While waiting for the color to set, she went to work on her fingers and toes, wiping away the artwork then clipping her fingernails to the quick to remove the acrylic tips. After showering to rinse out the dye, she combed out her hair and trimmed it neatly to about an inch above her shoulders, shorter than she usually kept it but it couldn't be helped.

Staring into the mirror, she emitted a deep sigh of relief and whispered, "I'm me again."

And that's when it hit her, forcing her to grab onto the sink with both hands to keep from falling over, and to clutch it for dear life as she sank to her knees on the floor. She continued to hold on, trying to bring her increasingly labored breathing under control as her whole body shook. Later she would wonder why it hadn't dawned on her sooner: perhaps because of the nature of her "rude awakening" and the ensuing drama; perhaps because of her preoccupation with, and horror at, what they'd made her. Maybe it was shock or adrenaline or both that had prevented her from seeing it earlier. Didn't matter, really, because she was seeing it now and it was one mother of a revelation.

It was easy to make herself *look* like the woman she had been twelve days ago. But *looking* like Miss Parker didn't alter the fact that life as she had always known it - Miss Parker's life - was over.

* * * *

She awoke to the sound of singing birds. Blinking her eyes open, she was momentarily stymied, lifting her head off the pillow to glance around the room illuminated by the bright light streaming in through the gaps in the curtains. Then she remembered, letting her head drop back onto the pillow. It was morning so she must have slept through the night.

She had no idea how long she'd remained on the bathroom floor, only that she had curled into a fetal position by the time he found her there. She had neither seen nor heard him enter, and had only become aware of his presence when she felt his arms close around her. He'd carried her into the bedroom then laid her gently down, tucking the covers around her before disappearing briefly and returning with a tall glass of water and two tablets. She hadn't wanted to take them at first, but his voice was so reassuring, so soothing, as he helped her sit up to drink the full glass. She hadn't objected when he sat down beside her, tenderly stroking the damp hair from her forehead as he spoke softly, reminding her that Sydney always said that rest was the best medicine and assuring her that she would feel better after she slept.

And, damn, if he wasn't right.

Parker sat up then stretched and yawned mightily. Rising from bed she tightened the belt to the robe she still wore and padded to the bedroom door, which was slightly ajar. Pushing it open a bit wider, she peeked into the living room to find Jarod asleep on the couch, wearing not only every stitch of clothing he had put on after his shower the morning before, but also his shoes.

She smiled sadly at the man she'd been encouraged to despise and ordered to hunt; the same man who, she'd be willing to bet her last dime, had spent the better part of the night watching over her before finally succumbing to exhaustion.

"Well, I guess it's good to know that some things never change," she whispered then pushed the door softly closed.

* * * *

Parker spent the next couple hours finishing what she had started before her meltdown the day before. She filed her fingernails then applied a clear coat of polish that would look best until they grew out a bit. Painting her toenails a pleasing shade of deep rose, she mused that she'd assume Jarod was gay were it not for recent, compelling evidence to the contrary.

He'd been a busy boy while she was dead to the world, placing her newly-acquired wardrobe in the closet next to his modest collection - with a respectable gap left between the two, she noted with faint amusement. He had also given her the top two drawers in the tall chest. She selected an outfit to wear then slumped onto the bed and, sighing, shook her head and cast a heavenward glance.

There was something presumptuous, and yet at the same time respectful, about the way he had integrated her into hirsonrsonal space. It was just so quintessentially Jarod. Duality had characterized their interaction from the moment she'd been charged with bringing him back. Hostile by day, they'd spent countless hours commiserating at night, ostensibly bitter enemies feeling more at ease with one another than with anyone else in their lives. Officially, she had been the pursuer and he the pursued but, she realized, it had really been the other way around.

Running her fingers over the smooth fabric of the heather gray drawstring pants she'd selected to wear with a matching sleeveless top - both from a high-end line of yoga-wear launched by an aging supermodel - Parker marveled at how well he knew her. This was her idea of casual attire: relaxed and comfortable with sleek lines and a body-conscious fit. Yes, she could definitely wear this... and with those cute black sandals she'd spotted on the closet floor.

"Could he be 'bi'?" she muttered under her bre



Her resulting smirk evaporated when she glanced at the bra and panties lying beside her on the bed. Blacemi-emi-sheer and decadently soft to the touch, they were sexy in all the right ways, and she knew that wearing them would make her feel good about herself. Sheginegined Jarod in a boutique, running his fingers across the material and frowning over his choice as though it were a matter of vital national security. Her mind wandered from that notion to a single moment in time: skillful hands, soft and warm, tenderly cupping her breasts; deft fingers tugging on her nipples, just so; her body perched on something delightfully firm; her interior flesh stretched and flexing around something gloriously hard.

Shaking off the vivid memory she emitted a soft chuff of amusement. Her return to consciousness likely qualified as the most sordid tale of resurrection to ever grace the annals of human experience. Well, it would, had she any intention of telling it. Living with the memory, while living alongside the man who shared it, was proving enough of a challenge. On that thought, she rose from the bed and headed to the bathroom for the long, hot and, hopefully bracing, shower she needed before facing him again.

* * *

*

Parker entered the living room to find Jarod gone and the front door open. Looking out the screen door she saw him sitting on the porch swing, staring off into space and occasionally sipping from a mug of coffee. She sighed, recalling another occasion in which they were in identical positions, the morning after she had learned that she, too, was a red file. She had always wondered what she might have done if Garr and the other goons hadn’t shown up. Would she have helped Jarod, Davy and Angelo disappear? Would she have gone with them? She had been deprived of that choice then; now it had been made for her. God, she thought shaking her head, they shared enough history to fill volumes.

Taking deep breath she pushed open the door, stepping out onto the porch with an amiable, “Good Morning.”

Turning his gaze to her, a warm smile slowly unfurled across his lips as he took in her appearance. Gesturing at her attire he observed, “It suits you.”

Her response was a nod and shrug. He slid over to the far end of the swing and she took a seat. Sipping again from his mug he offered, “There’s fresh coffee. I can get you some if you like.”

Shaking her head she replied, “No thanks. I can get it myself when I want it. I feel pretty good, actually. I don’t know what you gave me last night but it worked like a charm.”

“Just a mild sedative, something to relax you sufficiently to be able to fall sleep. Your body did the rest.”

“Thank you, Jarod.”

He nodded diffidently and took several more sips of his coffee before clearing his throat and beginning, “You are probably waiting for an apology for… for the way you found us yesterday morning. And I’ve spent virtually every available moment since then trying to come up with the right words, but I just haven't been able to. Sitting out here I realized that I’m not going to because, frankly, I’m not the least bit sorry.”

He forced himself to turn and cautiously meet her eyes and was relieved to find mild surprise but no anger. Emboldened, he explained, “Which isn’t to say that I do not deeply regret certain elements of the situation, chief among them your lack of consent to…” He cleared his throat again and continued, “The act you found yourself engaged in.”

“Jarod,” she interjected, hoping to stop him before he said something that made her cry or, worse yet, burst into hysterical laughter. In her current frame of mind either was possible.

“Please let me finish,” he insisted. “It isn't easy talking to you about ‘us.’ You’ve never made easy and… well… I have been a bit of a coward. But too much is at stake now for me to be anything other than completely honest with you. I am not sorry about what happened yesterday morning because, for whatever reason - who knows, maybe you were so appalled that it gave you the incentive to break free of whatever psychological prison they'd consigned you to - anyway, whatever it was, it brought you back. And not only am I not sorry but I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Flushing in response to her raised eyebrow, he sd and and went on, "I know how difficult this is; it's never a picnic to have your life stolen from you. You were the victim of a horrible violation, something beyond the comprehension of most people. There is and will continue to be a lot to process; what happened to you in the bathroom yesterday is just the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid.

"But I can help you if you'll let me. If there's one thing I knit'it's this life, and I can teach you to live it as safely and comfortably as possible. Then you can do whatever you like, go wherever you wish, and never set eyes on me again if you don't want to. Please let me help you, Parker, in spite of how you feel about me. Bringing you back is without question the single most important thing I have ever done because it affects everything else that I do.

"The moment Lyle told me what they'd done to you the world ceased making sense; it didn't begin making sense again until yesterday morning. And I seriously doubt whether I could have continued to make a difference in a world that no longer made sense to me. I can live with you hating my guts as long as you're out there in the world. What I don't want to - probably, can't - do is navigate a world without you in it. I'm not claiming any of it makes the least bit of sense, but I swear on everything I hold dear that it's the truth."

After a few moments she inquired, "May I assume by your silence that you are finished?"

"Yes."

"May I be permitted to speak now?"

"Of course," he replied, rolling his eyes at her.

"I don't hate you, Jarod. The truth is I never hated you. Oh, I've been angry with you, and wanted to choke the life out of you more than once, but despite the best efforts of the man who raised me, I never hated you. Somehow..." she pondered a moment then shrugged and continued, "I always figured you knew that. I mean, you clearly operated under the premise that I would never inflict any physical injury to you."

"I knew you would never hurt me because hurting me would have been wrong."

"I've done plenty of wrong things over the years."

"Maybe, but you do not possess the soul of an assassin."

"Oh, I don't know. In my darker moments I think we all do."

Chuffing he replied, "Touche," then added hopefully, "So, you'll let me help you?"

"Hell yes! There is something I want to do and you are uniquely qualified to help me. And don't get too excited, Wonderboy, I'm not referring to THAT."

"I know," he muttered defensively, blinking away in embarrassment.

Feeling decidedly upbeat at the prospect of future opportunities to torment him, Parker rested her head on the back of the swing, smiled serenely and asked,

"So tell me, genius, how do we go about making the bastards pay?"

* * * *

In retrospect, it probably should have been weird. Then again, the two of them did share a pretty warped perception of "normal." Living platonically together after her "rude awakening" turned out to be remarkably easy. Well, aside from a few minor embarrassments stemming from living in such close quarters, like catching the occasional glimpse of one another in various stages of undress. But even then things tended to settle back into routine after a few muttered apologies and a couple hours of tense, awkward silence.

They stayed in Pennsylvania about a week before departing for Montreal, where someone Jarod had helped owned an apartment that wasn't currently occupied. He figured placing a little more distance between themselves and the Centre would be a good thing; he also thought Parker would be happier there. She couldn't deny it was a nice place, a spacious two-bedroom with a balcony affording a panoramic view of Mont Royal. And it was right on Sherbrooke, walking distance from the boutiques of the Latin Quarter, as well as the higher end stores on St. Catherine. Out strolling one day shortly after their arrival, she realized Jarod wasn't thinking only of her in selecting the location when she passed a storefront bearing a colorful sign that read:

Sacre Bleu! Candies! Bonbons! Pez!

When she confronted him about it later on, he sheepishly confessed that the college girls who worked there - and even one of the boys - usually threw in something extra free-of-charge. Quirking an eyebrow she remarked, "I'll bet they do," then tossed a bag of treats at him. Turning away she smirked and muttered,

"PEZ whore."

If she were totally honest with herself, she'd call her needling for what it was: flirting. Yes, she was flirting with Jarod. That is, when she was feeling up to it. He wasn't kidding when he’d warned her about the mental baggage she’d be dragging around.

* * * *

When she could p atp at all, she often woke up gasping for air. And on one particularly unpleasant evening, she awoke screaming for her father or, rather, the man she had believed to be her father for most of her life. On that occasion, Jarod skipped the customary polite knock on her door and burst into the room to take her into his arms, rocking her gently as she sobbed against him.

Later, over hot cocoa spiked with brandy, she explained, knowknow he had his faults, Jarod, and I don't expect you of all people to ever really understand. But, right or wrong and despite what some blood test says, he was my father and, if he were around, they never would have dared. I... I..."

She looked away, either unable or unwilling to complete the thought. He nodded and with a sad smile stated softly, "You loved him and you should never apologize for loving someone. Of all his sins the worst was squandering his daughter's love. At this point, I think I pity him more than anything."

After a few moments of quiet, Parker looked up at him and asked,

"Anything good on TV?"

* * * *

And that’s how it began. Insidiously, over the weeks, they grew closer. The days were spent learning what they could about what was going on at the Centre with the assistance of their allies in Blue Cove and discussing, sometimes arguing about, possible acts of retribution. Nights passed in largely genial conversation and usually ended on the couch in front of an old movie. The first morning they awoke to find themselves curled up together was awkward, the second less so. After a while, curling up together happened before they went to sleep and, before long, neither was really sleeping in their respective bedrooms anymore. But even as they became more intimate, their relationship remained chaste. Parker still didn't feel totally at ease in her own skin and Jarod would have flung himself off the balcony before doing anything that could possibly be construed as sexually aggressive.

That is until the night they watched "Bambi" together. Earlier that day, they had been discussing the reason for her banishment, which was that the Africans had remained twitchy since the unpleasant business with the scrolls. Feeling the pressure and doubting her loyalty, Raines had made her the scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb, directing Lyle to "take care of it."

"I don't know why they didn't kill you," Jarod pondered with disgust.

"Because of you," she replied matter-of-factly. "Raines and Lyle aren't complete idiots, nor are the people they answer to. They were afraid of what you might do so they hedged. They had me out of the way, but I was alive, so they figured you'd pull your punches. If I was dead, you might have let go when you were dangling Lyle off that bridge... and you probably wouldn't have stopped there."

The look in his eyes told her she was right, sending a cold shiver down her spine. Not wishing to dwell on the "what ifs" she abruptly changed the subject.

"I do havegivegive it to Lyle; it was a nice touch, naming me 'Bambi.' His parting shot, even though, in theory, I would never have gotten the irony as I spent the rest of my life answering to a name that mocked the biggest tragedy of my life."

"I don't follow," Jarod stated bemusedly.

"You're kidding," Parker replied.

He went out after dinner and returned with the DVD, announcing that she did not have to watch it but that he needed to know so he'd wait until after she went to sleep. With a shrug she replied that she was a big girl and could handle an animated children's film. What she didn't anticipate was Jarod's despondency. But then, he had a boat load of maternal anxieties of his own, and she figured that pretty high on the list was the fear that his mother would die before he found her.

"This is horrible... horrible!" he gasped. "Who would let a child watch this?"

"Just about every parent who has raised children since it was released. Besides, it's only one in a long tradition of films in which a beloved parent suffers a grisly demise. I think it has something to do with the fact that, for kids, being left to fend for oneself is both the biggest fear and the biggest fantasy. Freud could probably spend hours expounding on the topic if you're really interested."

"No child of mine is EVER watching this!" he declared, adding, "And it was no fantasy of mine."

"Mine either but that's probably because it was our reality. But it does get better, Jarod. Bambi will be fine."

"But he's so alone," he observed miserably as he shifted to be closer to her.

Sighing and shaking her head, Parker slid her arm around him, rested her chin on his shoulder and assured, "He won't be for long. He'll make friends and they'll help him through it."

Jarod perked up considerably as the movie progressehuckhuckling out loud several times at Bambi's adventures with Thumper and Flower. When it was over he turned to her and remarked softly,

"You're right; his friends saw him through it."

Parker knew the look in his eyes; she had seen it before on that godforsaken island. His desire to kiss her was so ise tse that the energy walpaalpable, electricity sparking in the air around them. He didn't make a move though, nor would he have in the wake of his earlier indiscretion. But the way she figured it, after enduring the ordeal of "Bambi" - twice - he'd earned a kiss. So she leaned in and pressed her lips to his.

Pulling back he uttered with wide eyes, "Parker?"

"Were you expecting somebody else?" she teased.

"What are you doing?" he asked, looking both hopeful and afraid.

"Thanking you helphelping me through it," she replied before leaning in to kiss him again.

That night the kisses were rather more sweet than passionate. Jarod was obviously holding himself in check, which might have offended Parker under any other circumstances but, in this case, made her only want to kiss him again and again, which is precisely what she did until fatigue overtook her and she drifted off in his arms.

* * * *

The next night she dragged Jarod over the couch, made him sit down and, hovering over him, insisted,

"Okay, spill it."

"Huh?" he responded, blinking incomprehensibly at her.

"I want to know exactly what transpired between you and Bambi."

To his whimper and emphatic shake of his head she countered, "It was MY body, Jarod; I have a right to know," before taking a seat beside him and adding determinedly,

"I'm waiting."

He stammered and huffed his way through the narrative with his eyes glued resolutely to the floor, his complexion bearing a rosy hue that deepened when the details became particularly embarrassing. Parker had to admit that the story bore an element of humor or, rather, would have if she wasn’t featured so prominently in it. And she had to give Bambi credit for getting the best of Jarod, effectively thwarting his good intentions. In fact, she felt a strange sort of pride.

“And you know the rest,” he concluded on a deep sigh of relief then paused and added, “Except to say - and I’m sure you already know this - that Bambi would never have stood a chance if she were ANYONE else. I didn’t even… you know… until you…”

“I know,” she interjected, hoping to change the subject before the vivid memory of that moment fully resurfaced.

The ensuing uncomfortable silence was broken by Jarod’s offer of, “TV or movie?”

“What have you got?” Parker asked with relief.

“‘An Affair to Remember’ or ‘Dirty Harry?’”

“Take a wild guess.”

“‘Dirty Harry’ it is!” Jarod chirped then rose to pop the DVD into the player.

When choosing entertainment fare for a romantic evening, the adventures of San Francisco detective, Harry Callahan, and his .44 Magnum do not necessarily leap to mind. And, yet, as they watched Harry employ his imposing firearm to cut a swath through the Bay Area criminal element, their attention was increasingly drawn away from the movie and toward one another. Parker could feel Jarod’s eyes on her much of the time, but whenever she would look over at him he had turned his attention back to the screen.

She had a pretty fair idea what was on his mind because it was the same thing on hers: the kisses they’d shared the evening before. Did he want more? Did she? If so then it was up to her to seek them out. After several more minutes of reflection, she reached the conclusion that she did indeed want more kisses and inched closer. His eyes were on her again and she had to struggle to keep from smiling. His apparently unconditional and deep affection for her, combined with his relative innocence and profound guilt over the Bambi fiasco, added an element of delicious fun to the experience. With all she’d been through recently, didn’t she deserve a little fun?

Pressing her body against his, she lifted his arm to place it around her shoulders and nuzzled her head against his before meeting his eyes, which were dark and penetrating as he searched hers for a signal. She provided one by raising her chin until her lips were less than an inch from his.

“Parker?” Jarod whispered.

“C’est moi,” she sighed in reply.

That was all he needed to hear before leaning in to kiss her with more confidence and ardor than he had on the previous night. He was letting himself go a little, which was also evidenced in the way held her, although his hands never wandered where they were not expressly invited. Again, she fell asleep in his arms.

* * * *

On the third night, they dispensed with the movie altogether. He simply sat down beside her on the couch and cast her one of his charm-your-pants-off smiles before pulling her into an embrace. Several minutes into their exquisitely steamy make-out session, his hand brushed the side of her breast. When she raised no objection he did it again.

Smiling against his lips she purred, “What do you thinking you’re doing?”

Pulling back he stared intently into her eyes and replied with conviction, “Nothing you don’t want me to.”

The look on his face was priceless as she guided his hand to her breast and prompted him to give it a gentle squeeze, after which she enjoyed some first-rate petting that evoked the simple pleasures of her boarding school days and all those hot weekend dates with the cute boys from the school down the road. When Jarod snaked his hand up her shirt, her thoughts turned decidedly adult. She was on the verge of saying, "What the hell," and diving into his pants to release the erection that was straining so delightfully against her when he murmured a non sequitur.

"What day is it?"

"What? Um..."

She had to take a moment to think as he nibbled on a lovely spot behind her right ear. The sensation of one of his hands pushing aside her bra to gain access to the flesh beneath while the other held her tightly to his firm body stimulated many things, but her memory was not one of them. Several soft moans, sighs and gasps later, it finally came to her.

"Thursday... I think," she stated haltingly.

"Hmmm...? Jarod replied, having apparently lost his train of thought.

"It's Thursday," she whispered into his ear before latching onto the earlobe.

“Thursday…” he sighed dreamily.

“Thursday?” he repeated then emitted a deep groan and propelled himself off of h



“What’s wrong?” Parker inquired breathlessly.

“We have a plane to catch in a few hours,” he answered with a glance at his watch then ran both hands over his face and through his hair before turning to her and adding, “It’s show time.”

Bolting upright she demanded, “And you’re just telling me this NOW?”

“You’ve had enough to deal with so I didn’t want you losing any more sleep over it than necessary. I meant to tell you earlier in the week but I got… distracted and lost track of the days.”

Glaring at him as she adjusted her disheveled clothing she remarked, “Great, I’ve joined forces with a ‘genius’ who can’t remember what day it is.”

“Sorry,” he responded with a sheepish expression. “When I’m around you, the blood tends to flow AWAY from my brain.”

“Lucky for you I didn’t know that sooner,” she observed with a sigh, climbing off the sofa. Padding across the room toward her bedroom she continued, “I’d have dragged your ass back to the Centre years ago and gone on my merry way.”

Stopping in the doorway she turned to him and, her stony fašade already beginning to crack, added, “Hell, I could be sitting on a beach somewhere, sucking down drinks with little umbrellas in them while beautiful nineteen-year-old boys rub suntan oil all over my body.”

On that note Parker turned and stepped into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Jarod took a moment to reflect on the concept of rubbing oil all over her body then rose from the couch to head for his own bedroom. Casting a sideward glance at her door he grinned and muttered,

“Lucky me.”

* * * *

When flying, even with connections, Montreal to Las Vegas isn't more than an eight-hour trip. For them it had been three times that thanks to the circuitous route they’d taken to prevent being traced back to their present location. As a result, three full days of travel had turned a visit of less than twenty-four hours into a four-day excursion: four days in which she’d slept very little and he not at all.

They had arrived back at the Montreal apartment after midnight on Sunday night or, rather, Monday morning, each collapsing into their own beds in their respective bedrooms for the first time in weeks. Parker awoke almost twelve hours later to find Jarod hunched over his laptop at the table in the dining area.

“There’s coffee,” he stated without looking up.

“How long have you been up?” she asked on a yawn as she leaned over his shoulder to look at the screen.

“I don’t know,” he began, shooting her a brief sideward glance and smiling unconsciously at her proximity. Typing away he continued, “Two… three hours maybe. Still had some business to attend to and… I’m… just… about… FINISHED,” he announced haughtily before turning to share a conspiratorial grin with her.

Their lips hovered inches apart before each leaned in to share their first kiss in four days; they had been all business on the trip. Pulling back Parker purred, “Now what?”

To which Jarod replied in a low, slightly breathless, tone, “Now, we wait.”

Straightening with an exaggerated stretch that drew his eyes to her body, she mused coyly, “Wait? You mean just sit around here all day, staring at the clock, wondering and worrying until we hear something?”

“You have a better idea?” he inquired with a sly smile.

“I don’t know about you,” she began with a shrug. “But after that trip, I need a long, HOT shower.”

With that she turned on her heels and strolled out of the room. Jarod relaxed into his chair and reached back to lace his fingers behind his head. Smiling dreamily as he heard the water go on followed by her soft humming, his expression grew alert and he sat up straight in his chair when something dawned on him.

He hadn’t heard the bathroom door lock.

* * * *

Parker groaned in contentment, letting the hot spray work its magic on her muscles before opening her eyes and furrowing her brow. Was it possible that Jarod had missed her tacit invitation? Had she been too subtle? No, she hadn’t, at least not by any reasonably accepted standard. Perhaps he’d simply spent too much time around bimbos lately, impairing his ability to appreciate subtlety.

“Genius,” she muttered with a weary sigh.

The answering soft knock on the door made her smile as she called out, “Yes?”

There was a beat of hesitation and then, “You didn’t lock the door.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Another beat of silence forced her to bite her bottom lip to keep from laughing out loud. He had to be playing her; NO ONE could possibe Tbe THAT thick. Didn’t matter, though; she knew where she wanted him and it wasn’t on the other side of the door.

“I was wondering…” he began softly but stopped when he heard what sounded like her footsteps on the bathroom floor even though the shower was still running.

He started slightly as the door swung open, his eyes nearly popping out of their sockets at the sight of her standing - dripping wet and naked - in front of him. Grabbing a fistful of t-shirt she purred, “Well you can stop wondering,” then pulled him into the bathroom.

Some situations, she concluded, just don’t call for subtlety.

* * * *

“I am beginning to detect soreness in several muscle groups.”

Jarod’s declaration, uttered against the sweat-slicked skin between Parker’s heaving breasts - was delivered with a combination of fatigue, humor and satisfaction. The sound and vibration of her throaty laughter made him smile as he gazed up at her adoringly then placed a chaste kiss to each nipple before rolling onto his side and propping himself on one elbow.

Turning her head to look at him she smiled lazily and asked, “What time is it?”

“Four? Four thirty?” he replied with a shrug.

“Where did the afternoon go?” she mused with a cat-like stretch.

“Well, let’s see,” he began, happily running his fingertips along the sharp angles of her collarbones as he spoke.

“There was the bathroom… Which reminds me: I’ll have to remember to toss my clothes in the dryer. You COULD have waited until I was undressed to drag me into the shower.”

“I don’t recall hearing any complaints at the time,” she shot back.

“Fair enough,” he said with a slight shrug. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, there was the shower then drying off afterwards… which brought us to the bathroom floor. Are you sure your knees are okay?” She nodded and he continued, “Then there was the sofa and, because you’re evil, the living room floor…”

“Are you sure YOUR knees are okay?” she interjected with a wicked grin that compelled him to lean forward to kiss it away. Afterwards he replied huskily, “My knees are fine but other parts of me may never recover.”

“Oh, you’d better recover,” she warned playfully. “Because now that we’ve seen to things back in hell, and you’ve shown me enough of your little tricks to get by out here, I’ll need some sort of incentive to keep you around.”

“Will you?” he responded in a low voice, narrowing his eyes at her. Climbing over her he purred, “How’s this for incentive?” then dipped his head to kiss his way down her body.

“Mmm… It’s a start,” she sighed, smiling contentedly as her eyes slipped closed.

* * * *

“Jesus, Dawson. Would you relax a little?” Sam advised as he pulled into the parking lot of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

Tugging at his collar, the younger sweeper replied, “I’m trying but, based on what I’ve heard about Jarod’s antics, I can’t imagine it will be pretty.”

“No,” Sam concurred. “It definitely won’t be pretty.”

“There’s been a lot of talk, you know, among the sweepers and cleaners. Everyone wonders what they were thinking in sending her away like that. It was one thing to have him out there, taking pot shots at the Centre whenever he felt like it, but her too? Some of the guys have been saying she was hard enough to deal with when she was on OUR side.”

“Actually, she was harder to deal with, so you’ve picked a great time to come on board. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, kid. I think it's safe to say they have bigger fish to fry.”

Gesturing toward the concrete building, Dawson asked nervously, “How do you think THEY'LL take it when they hear about the $100 million donation of Centre funds to that foundation that helps sexually exploited women?”

“Not well,” Sam replied on a sigh as he popped the trunk. “You’d better let me do the talking. Actually, would you mind watching the car?”

The young man’s gigantic sigh of relief was almost comical and was followed by a heartfelt, “Thanks, Sam. I owe you one."

* * * *

“You know, I’ve seen plenty in my dozen or so years in law enforcement in this nutty town,” the desk sergeant commented as the sweeper stood across from him filling out the requisite paperwork. “But I can tell you that the oxygen tank is definitely a first. I know there’s a market out there for that sort of companionship but…” The officer shuddered.

“And they have no memory of how they came to be found wandering on the Police Chief’s lawn?”

“So they claim. But I will tell you one thing: the Chief was NOT amused,” the sergeant replied with a chuckle.

“I think this should do it,” Sam stated, shoving the paperwork across the counter and reaching into his inside pocket to retrieve an envelope.

“The bail money…” He gestured at the envelope, lowered his voice and added knowingly, “Plus a little extra for the Police Athletic League, compliments of our mutual friend who, I believe, contacted you this morning about arranging a certain 'transmission.'”

“Already done,” the officer replied with a wink, continuing, “Don’t know what this is about and plan to keep it that way, but I owed that man a favor and was just happy to have a chance to repay it. And when you talk to him, please convey my warmest regards. Normally, we have no use for feds - hate it when one thing or another brings them onto our turf. But he’s the finest federal agent I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, let alone work with.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Sam remarked with a smirk then advised, “I think it’s time to collect what I came for.”

“Follow me,” the sergeant offered.

Picking up two large duffel bags, Sam followed the officer to the back of the building as he explained, “We’ve got ‘em locked in a conference room in back. We generally keep our more 'colorful' visitors sequestered from the assorted drunks, disgruntled gamblers, and your garden-variety streetwalkers in lock-up - tends to keep things more ‘peaceful,’ if you get my drift.”

“Ah, here we are,” he announced, jiggling the keys on his belt to find the right one. Unlocking the door, he offered, “I’ll give you... gentlemen... a few minutes then I’ll come back to escort you to the exit.”

“Thanks.”

He’d barely gotten the word out of his mouth when the door flew open. And as much as he’d prepared himself for this, he still had to dig his fingernails into his palms to keep from laughing at the sight he beheld: Lyle in a bright peach organdy halter dress.

What an unfortunate choice with those broad shoulders, Sam thought wryly.

His new boss had removed the wig and shoes, and had obviously made some attempt to remove the makeup, but remained a vision as he snatched the bags from where they lay at Sam’s feet and barked, “What the hell took you so long!”

“Get in here and shut the door!” a familiar, wheezy voice called out and, as the sweeper stepped into the room, he began praying to a God he’d barely spoken to since his days as an alter boy back in Flatbush for the strength to face the Chairman of the Centre without bursting into a fit of laughter that would most certainly result in his swift and violent demise.

The power of prayer prevailed, although Sam seriously questioned his ability to make love to his girlfriend - or anyone - ever again as his eyes fell upon the man wearing a French maid’s costume and fishnet stockings.

* * * *

Wincing, Parker spoke into the phone, "Oh, I am sorry to hear that. That's definitely above and beyond the call of duty... I suppose you could poke out your eyes but you might want to consider having Sydney hypnotize you to wipe the images from your psyche... Oh, and while he's at it, he can expunge 'Bambi' from your memory too... Uh-huh... Yes... Jarod's friends really outdid themselves. You know him; winning friends and influencing people wherever he goes. Well, I'd better let you go. We'll be in touch... Oh, and thanks again, 'Rocco,’" she added with an affectionate smile before clicking off her cell phone and setting it down beside her on the table. She looked up to find Jarod standing in the doorway, holding a large wooden salad bowl in one hand, a bread basket in the other.

"Well?" he inquired as he stepped into the room to set the bowl and basket down on the table.

"Well," she began as she reached over to pick up the salad tongs. "Apparently, your friends really outdid themselves. I know the ‘muscle’ was compliments of the casino owner you worker yer years ago, but I never asked how you happen to know the cast of the premiere Vegas drag revue… um, never mind, I don’t think I want to know. Anyway, you’ll be able to see their handiwork when you check your email. Raines and Lyle's mug shots were sent hours ago, although Sam strongly recommended that we NOT look at them until AFTER we've eaten...

“What?" she tacked on, shooting him a wary look as she filled their salad bowls.

"Your face," he replied with a warm smile. "You're positively beaming."

"Am I?" she inquired with a grudging smile.

"Come here," he demanded with dark, mischievous eyes.

Raising her eyebrows and cocking her head, she stared at him for a beat or two before slowly rising from her seat and moving around the table. As soon as she was within reach, Jarod grabbed her and pulled her into his lap. As he commenced feasting on her neck, she sighed and asked half-heartedly,

"What about dinner?"

"Who needs food?” he murmured against her skin.

Pulling back to look into his face she teased, "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Jarod?"

"I think the pertinent question is what have YOU done with Jarod?"

"And what have I done?"

"You've made him feel like a new man."

"A new man, eh?" she remarked, tracing his earlobe with her fingertip before leaning in to whisper, "Then maybe we should give him a new name. Hmmm… let’s see… I think we'll call him...

“Thumper"

Jarod shot Parker a wry look and observed playfully, "That isn't very dignified."

“On the contrary,” she responded with a rakish smile. “You’d just better live up to it, that’s all.”

“Why, Miss Parker, that sounds like a challenge.”

“Think you’re up to it, Wonderboy?” she asked on a sigh as he began unbuttg thg the blouse she’d put on less than an hour earlier.

“Indeed I do,” he purred.

And indeed he was.

FIN


A/N: In case some of you were wondering why Ginger, who is commonly known as someone who WORSHIPS Miss Parker, would ever subject her to such indignities, it is really about the woman whose brilliant portrayal of her has always been a source of inspiration. I've come to expect ill-advised hair and career choices from MTW and, in fact, find it almost charming. But since I consider Andrea Parker to be the real talent of the two, I find it unfortunate that she has apparently adopted Pamela Anderson as her role model, as evidenced by a recent pictorial in Razor Magazine that is wrong IN SO MANY WAYS that I could not possibly live long enough to list them all. If you are curious about the photo that inspired this story it is second from right in the second row (these are only thumbnails but, unless you are a 15-year-old boy holed up in the bathroom, they should suffice):

http://missandreaparker.free.fr/photo_shoot_razor.htm


I know the woman needs to make a living in what I imagine is a pretty tough business. I just wish she didn't have to use Miss Parker's face and body to do it!











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