Angelwing by Jaclyn Parker, admin

1. An Unexpected Gift by Jaclyn Parker

2. A Mother Found by Jaclyn Parker

3. Welcome Home by Jaclyn Parker

4. Desolate Hearts by Jaclyn Parker

5. Found and Lost by Jaclyn Parker

6. A Connection Discovered by Jaclyn Parker

7. Reunited by Jaclyn Parker

8. An Inevitable Confrontation by Jaclyn Parker

9. Long Awaited Reactions by Jaclyn Parker

10. Awaiting the Morning by Jaclyn Parker

11. Reality Strikes by Jaclyn Parker

12. Heart Strings by Jaclyn Parker

13. Lies, Upon Lies, Upon Truth by Jaclyn Parker

14. Past Answers for the Present by Jaclyn Parker

15. A Special Day for a Special Girl by Jaclyn Parker

16. Sunday Dinners Are Not A Choice by Jaclyn Parker

17. Anger and Madness by Jaclyn Parker

18. It's All My Fault by Jaclyn Parker

19. Not Her Time To Go by Jaclyn Parker

20. Miracles by Jaclyn Parker

21. Second Chances by Jaclyn Parker

An Unexpected Gift by Jaclyn Parker
Title - ANGELWING

Keywords - MPJR

Summary - Miss Parker finds another Pretender in the Centre in the form of a little girl with a link to Miss Parker herself.

Disclaimer- Miss Parker, Jarod, Sydney, Broots, Sam the Sweeper, Willie, (Whew! Am I done yet?!?) Raines, Lyle, Mr. Parker, Brigitte, and Mrs. Catherine Parker do not belong to me....that was depressing. They belong to NBC and now, maybe, TNT. No infringement intended so please don't sue me. On the other hand any other characters you run across and don't sound familiar are probably mine so you can sue all you want about them, but you won't see a penny.

A/N: An old story that was my first, but please R&R!!!!

ANGELWING By Jaclyn Parker

All the earth, though it were full of kind hearts, is but a desolation and a desert to a mother when her only child is absent. -Elizabeth Gaskell

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Miss Parker walked towards her office with her usual brisk pace and her usual "I-own-the-world-and-it's-all-on-my-shoulders" attitude and sighed heavily when she noticed Broots and Sydney waiting for her inside. Pushing the door open hard she smiled to herself when Broots jumped slightly.

"What now?" she said crossing over to stand in front of her desk. "A package from Wonder boy?"

When she got no response she turned to face the two men, her head titled and a look of mock amazement on her face. "Don't tell me we have a lead? You boys do remember what those are, right?"

Broots cleared his throat and glanced nervously at Sydney who normally had a calm facade was visibly shaken. Miss Parker, seeing this exchange of looks, approached Broots and raised her eyebrow.

"Well, umm, Miss Parker, you were kinda right on the first guess." Broots stammered out. "He sent a DSA."

"Of my mother?" Miss Parker said voice turning soft and curious. Broots once more shot a look to Sydney who nodded slightly. Again Miss Parker saw this and began to feel a stir of something in her gut.

"Not exactly. Um, you need to sit down to watch this, Miss Parker." Broots said walking over to stand behind her office chair, where a DSA player had been set up on the desk. Next to it was a glass of clear liquid which Miss Parker had a feeling wasn't water but vodka.

"What the hell is going on here?" Miss Parker asked wary of where the conversation was headed.

"Please, Parker." Syd said gently. "Trust us. You need to sit down."

Now Miss Parker was nervous and the gut feeling intensified greatly. She walked over to her desk, took her seat and watched the screen expectantly. Broots inhaled deeply, pushed the disc in, and typed in the play code.

The screen came to life and Raines' face appeared immediately. He and his sidekick in the world of evil, Willie, were talking to a young child seated at a child's play table. The room was completely barren with the exception of a white movie screen in what appeared to be the back of the room. On the far right of the room a tiny cot was visible and a lone teddy bear was on the bed. The shot was now focused on the young girl's face. The child could have been no more than 3 or 4 years of age. Her hair fell to just past her shoulders and her eyes were wide like those of a frightened animal.

"Are you going to cooperate today or is Willie going to have to punish you again?" Mr. Raines wheezed out slowly and menacingly. The child shook her head violently and looked up at Mr. Raines. Miss Parker couldn't explain it, but there was something about the girl that got to her. Not in a bad sense, just she couldn't put her finger on it.

The girl opened her mouth and then closed it again. Then as if she had come to a grave decision, she spoke.

"Mr. Raines?" the girl spoke in a tiny bell-like voice. "Please. This is the last time I will ever ask you. Please, I wanna see a picture of my mama. Please?"

Raines sighed deeply and nodded to Willie. Willie's arm lashed out and caught the young child across the face. Miss Parker felt uncontrollable rage as her eyes gathered with tears and her hands clenched and unclenched. The child was knocked off her tiny chair and huddled on the floor. Raines began to move towards her and she scurried, on her hands and knees, to the cot. She grabbed the bear off the bed and clutched it to her chest, trying in vain to hide herself from Raines' harsh words. Raines crouched down to her eye level and put his face right in front of hers.

"Because you solved that difficult SIM earlier and I know you will never disobey me again, I will show you a picture of your mother." He made a move as though to leave, but turned back around and gave the child a look of disgust. "But you do remember that your mother is dead, right? She killed herself to get away from you, her rotten and selfish daughter. I am the only who cares whether you live or die."

The girl nodded and Raines moved away. Off camera you could hear the door to the room slam shut and the child winced. The girl climbed onto the cot and watched the canvas eagerly, a bruise already forming where Willie had struck her. Miss Parker gasped again and covered her mouth with her hand. Sydney and Broots again shared a look this time knowing that the woman in the seat in front of them would never be the same. For the picture on the canvas in the room was none other than a picture of Miss Parker.

Miss Parker looked at the bottom left hand corner of the screen, her hand covering her mouth and her eyes wide in shock. The words read Catie 3/03/98 and just under them said For Centre Use Only.

"Syd?" Miss Parker finally spoke and cleared her throat. She looked for the glass of liquor that had been sitting next to her and she drowned the whole thing before she spoke again. "Syd, how...when...why?"

Miss Parker stood and paced her office violently. Frustrated she slammed her palms down onto her desk and hung her head.

"Dammit!" she yelled making Broots jump at the amount of anger and malice in her voice.

"Parker, the package the DSA came in had a note inside too." Sydney said handing a slip of paper to the distraught young woman. Miss Parker opened it quickly and read it aloud:

"Miss Parker, this came to me addressed under the name project ANGELWING. Looks like brother, Lyle, wasn't the only family member Daddy didn't tell his Angel about."

"Broots! Search the mainframe for anything in reference to ANGELWING." Miss Parker said throwing a glance his way.

"Already started." Broots said quickly. He and Sydney made their way to the door and just before Broots followed Syd out he turned back to Miss Parker.

"Miss Parker?" She turned and looked at him with pain in her eyes. "We will find her. I know we will."

Miss Parker just nodded and he slipped out the door. Miss Parker walked back over to her desk and looked at the still fame of the little girl crying on the gray cot. She cursed the day she ever heard of a place called The Centre and touched the screen gently where the image of the child was.

"Where are you little one?" she whispered her voice filled with pain. Miss Parker hit play and watched the girl cry herself into a restless sleep, every tear striking her heart like a blow. She echoed Broots earlier words, "We'll find you.
A Mother Found by Jaclyn Parker
Two Weeks Later

"Miss Parker!" Broots burst into her office and startled Miss Parker out of her deep thoughts. She rose and looked as though she was about to shoot Broots in the head. He ignored the look or was too excited to see it because he rushed right on. "Miss Parker, we found her! Or rather Angelo did."

"Where?" Miss Parker said previous thoughts dissipating to nothingness. She followed Broots past Sydney's office to Sydney's work area and rushed over to where Angelo was sitting at a small play table, much like the one the girl had been sitting at. Sydney held up a hand to stop her from asking questions and held his finger to his lips. She listened and soon heard Angelo muttering under his breath.

"Littlest Angel so sad. Poor Catherine. Poor Catie." He repeated this over and over until finally Miss Parker couldn't take anymore.

"Angelo, please, where is she?" Miss Parker kneeled next to him and looked into his face.

Angelo tilted his head and studied her. "Miss Parker...is...Miss Parker is..." Angelo paused for a brief moment and then grinned. "Miss Parker is Mama! Catie's mama!"

"Please, Angelo." Miss Parker pleaded gently. "Take us to her. Take us to Catie." Angelo nodded and rose from the table. He took Miss Parker's hand and pulled her to the door. They wove in and out of hallways and doors that Miss Parker, Broots, and even Sydney had never known existed. Suddenly Angelo stopped at the end of a hallway and no coaxing could move him. He pointed to the door in front of them and then hid behind Sydney.

"Bad men." he whispered. Sydney moved to go forward, but Angelo stood rooted to the spot and shook his head violently. "No, Sydney, bad men!"

"What does he mean?" Broots asked puzzled.

Miss Parker looked from Angelo to the door and then back again. Her face took on a look of sudden understanding and she glared at the metal door.

"He means that Raines is in there." Miss Parker said un-holstering her gun and cocking it.

"Miss Parker? What do you intend to do?" Broots whispered worriedly, eyes wide.

Miss Parker glanced at Sydney who gazed back at her and then nodded slightly.

"Get her out of there by any means necessary." she answered Broots and yanked open the door.

The scene that greeted her was almost exactly as the one on the DSA. The girl was huddled by the cot, face buried in the teddy bear, but instead of Raines advancing towards her it was Willie.

"I wouldn't move another step, if I were you." Miss Parker said and raised her gun so that it was level to his head.

"What are you doing here?" Raines wheezed out eyes bulging.

"I will deal with you later but for now I suggest you get yourself and your goon out of here, before I put another hole in that tank of yours." The gleam in Miss Parker's eye must have made her point because Raines motioned for Willie to go and then practically ran out of the room himself, but not before Miss Parker caught his arm. Leaning towards him she whispered in his ear "This is far from over!" Then she released his arm and watched him slither after his covert in crime. Miss Parker reholstered her gun and looked over at the small child crouched by the bed. She bent down and balanced her self on her heels and just watched her for any movement.

Finally the girl lifted her head and her tiny face appeared over the top of the teddy bear. Her blue eyes connected with Miss Parker's and she let out a small-strangled cry. Rising to her feet, the child dropped the bear and ran to Miss Parker, one word escaping her lips "Mama."

Miss Parker felt Catie's arms encircle her neck and the little girl clutched her with an amazing bout of strength. Miss Parker had never had a hug from such a small child, not even Broot's daughter Debbie was this tiny. Catie buried her face in Miss Parker's neck and she could feel the child's hot tears run down her neck and into her blouse. A wave of protectiveness hit Miss Parker full force sand wrapping her arms around the child, she lifted her up to settle her on her right hip. Holding Catie tight to her body, Miss Parker motioned for Sydney and Broots to go and she followed them out of the cold room.

Once back in Miss Parker's office she realized Catie had fallen asleep on her shoulder and gently pried the girl off of her body. Laying her down on the small couch in her office, Miss Parker went to a small cabinet nearby and pulled out a sofa throw. She draped it across the tiny body and ran her hand over the girl's dark head. Catie smiled lightly in her sleep and snuggled deeper into the couch.

Miss Parker felt Sydney and Broots come up behind her and heard Broot's voice in her ear. "She's beautiful, Miss Parker."

Sydney echoed Broots' comment with "She looks like a tiny angel."

Miss Parker felt a surprising bout of pride swell in her chest, even though she had the girl for only a mere ten minutes.

"What are you going to do to Raines?" Broots said quietly not really wanting to hear the answer.

"I don't think the Triumvirate knows about his little experiment with her yet, and I don't think they would appreciate it." Miss Parker said hatred for the wheezing doctor evident in her voice.

"Miss Parker, they'll kill him for something like that." Sydney said gently.

"I know." She answered and walked over to stand in front of the sleeping girl again. "Better them than me."

A few silent moments went before anyone spoke then Sydney asked, "Do you want me to do a blood test, Parker?" At her nod, he left the office and returned a short while later with a small kit.

"I'll do you first, then we'll wake Catie up and take her sample." Sydney said as he swiped a vein with rubbing alcohol and stuck the needle in. After Syd was done he motioned for Miss Parker to wake Catie for her sample.

Gently shaking the child Miss Parker whispered "Time to wake up, Catie." The girl woke quickly and a mask of fear came over her face and she sat straight up on the couch. She looked next to her and noticed Miss Parker sitting there. Smiling shyly, Catie relaxed the death grip she had on the sofa throw and leaned back against the couch.

"Catie, we need to take a little bit of blood from your arm to make sure you are healthy and Mr. Raines didn't do anything bad, okay?" The girl's small smile disappeared, but she nodded. The child rolled up her sleeve and took the strip of rubber that Sydney was holding. She tied the rubber just above her elbow and then expertly tapped the crook of her arm a few times. As soon as the vein became prominent, she stopped tapping and held out her arm towards Sydney, expectantly. The adults' faces displayed shock and more than a touch of anger. The child had obviously given blood before, but for what no one wanted to know that answer. Sydney stuck the needle into Catie's arm and she placed her other thumb into her mouth. Not being able to help herself, Miss Parker ran her hand over Catie's dark head and smiled at the girl when she looked up. Catie smiled back and Miss Parker took Catie's hand into her own. She knew that holding Catie's hand wouldn't disturb Sydney's process and that it may even help the girl feel more relaxed. Miss Parker looked down at their entwined hands. Catie's tiny child hand was nearly invisible in Miss Parker's slender fingered adult grip, but it looked like it belonged there.

Catie looked up at Miss Parker, seeming to ignore what Sydney was doing to her arm, and smiled shyly. "Are you really my mama?" Catie asked tentatively mouth moving around her tiny thumb instead of her taking it out of her mouth.

"I think I am, but I am not sure. That's what Sydney is going to find out. " Miss Parker said honestly.

"I know you are 'cause I can feel it here." Catie thumb slid out of her mouth and with her finger pointed to her chest over her heart.
Miss Parker just smiled and nodded when Sydney motioned that he was running down to the lab. She then focused on the man standing awkwardly by. "Broots, you don't need to stay. I know you have to pick up Debbie from play practice in about a half hour."

"You remembered that?" Broots asked, astonished. "I didn't think you were really listening when I told you about Debbie getting a part in the play."

"Shows what you know. And I still think that eight thirty at night is way too late to end a rehearsal. Especially for a fourth grader." Miss Parker said still smiling.

"Yeah, but you have to remember that my Debbie is has a lead part in Les Miserable and that it is a high school production. Out of all the students they chose her to play Cosette." Broots said pride echoing in his voice.

"Whose Debbie?" Catie piped up innocently, looking over at Broots curiously.

"Debbie is my little girl. She is older than you, but I think she would love it if you came over to play sometimes." Broots said crouching down to Catie's eye level.

"You really think so? I never had a friend to play with before. Could I, Mama, please?" Catie turned her pleading eyes on Miss Parker and the woman had to laugh at the sad look. It looked like a puppy pleading with its owner.

"It's okay with me, but it will have to wait for a while, okay? Just until you get settled." Miss Parker told her gently.

"Oh, thank you!" Catie cried and hugged Miss Parker quickly and then reached over to hug Broots as well. Broots was surprised, but glad. He felt very protective of this little girl. Since Miss Parker felt like his sister it was only natural that he felt as though Catie was his niece; therefore when she smiled it pulled his heart almost as if it were his own Debbie. Catie's blue eyes sparkled with her happiness and Broots found himself staring at the similarities between the two females. Their hair was dark and both were fair skinned, although Catie was considerably paler because of the lack of sunlight. Broots wasn't worried though because he knew that would change fast once she began her life with Miss Parker. They both had cat shaped eyes that Broots knew they had inherited from Miss Parker's mother. Their eyes were both blue, but unlike her mother's piercing crystal blue gaze the little girl's eye color was darker and deeper in emotion. She had little dimples when she smiled and Broots wondered if she got them from her father's side of the family. With that thought Broots rose to a standing position abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that Miss Parker was startled.

"Broots! What is the matter? You look as though you've seen a ghost." Miss Parker told him with a small look of concern mixing with one of annoyance.

"Um, I need to catch Sydney, and then go get Debbie so...uh...I guess I'll see you two later." Broots waved and practically ran out the door to catch up to Sydney in lab.
Broots found him sitting at a DNA machine staring at it intently while it calculated its findings. Broots cleared his throat and Sydney looked over his shoulder at him. "Yes, Broots?" Sydney said titling his head and turning the chair around to look at him.

Broots looked around the lab to make sure no one was about and pulled up a chair next to Sydney. "Syd, I know this is gonna sound weird, but hear me out, okay?" When Sydney nodded and placed his face in his hand to listen. "We both know that Catherine is Miss Parker's daughter without the results of that machine. Now I was just thinking, we know the mother, but who is the father?"

"Broots..." Sydney began to say in a condescending tone, but found himself without an answer and stopped.

"Yeah, well, there was something else too." Broots said hurriedly dismissing Sydney's try at an explanation. "Syd, her eyes seemed to be reading my mind or seeing into my soul." Sydney looked amused, but Broots kept going knowing what he was about to say would wipe any smile off of his friend's face.

"Sydney, I have only felt that gaze a few times before and each time the eyes staring at me belonged to...Jarod." Broots finished waiting for Sydney's reaction.

He didn't have to wait long, for Sydney's face grew hard and Broots almost could see the wheels turning in his head. Sydney began to nod slowly and then started to voice his thoughts. "They would need a sperm donor and to make a perfect pretender why not use the finest the Centre ever had to offer."

"Syd, do know what this means? When Jarod finds out, and you know he'll find out, he will try and get Catie out of here as fast as he can." Broots said looking at Sydney with a frightened facade.

"Broots, we can't tell Miss Parker or anyone for that matter. It would devastate her if Jarod took Catie away, especially when Miss Parker has just found her. And Lyle and the Triumvirate would know that holding Jarod's child would be the perfect bait for a trap for Jarod. It would be the one thing that could actually work to capture Jarod and I will avoid that at all costs."

So Broots and Sydney promised not to revel the identity of Catherine's father unless it was absolutely necessary. Sydney gathered up the results of the DNA test and followed Broots out of the lab, the heads of both men full of thoughts and their heart very heavy.
Welcome Home by Jaclyn Parker
After Sydney said good-bye to Broots and told him that he would call in the morning to fill him in, he headed back towards Miss Parker's office. First though he stopped off at his office and gathered his belongings then wrote an e-mail to Jarod just to say hello and that he missed him. About twenty minutes later he was done and he entered Miss Parker's office. He found Miss Parker showing Catie a picture of her mother and explaining that her mom went to heaven when she was little. Sydney cleared his throat and Miss Parker looked up.

"Well Syd?" She asked, but they both knew that she already knew the answer.

"She's your daughter, Miss Parker." Sydney said handing her the folder with the lab results in it.

She took it and placed it next to her, not even bothering to open it up to check. She glanced at the wall clock and noticed it read five of nine.

"Then I suggest I get my daughter," Miss Parker paused a second and let the word roll around on her tongue before continuing, "umm, my daughter home and in bed."

"It is way past her bedtime." she said directly to Catie and tried to suppress a grin when the girl pouted back. Miss Parker then looked up at Sydney and raised an eyebrow. "Syd, I need to talk to you, so if you don't mind would you follow us to my house?"

"Of course, Miss Parker. I shall give you about an hour and then drop by. That should give you some time to get settled in." He said smiling at the little girl leaning against Miss Parker's side. "Goodnight, Catie. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

Catie smiled shyly and wiggled her fingers good-bye at him. Syd smiled back and he placed his hand on Miss Parker's shoulder. She reached up and covered his hand with hers. He gave her shoulder a light squeeze and then withdrew it. He nodded good-bye again and left her alone with Catie. As Miss Parker looked down at Catie, the girl looked up at Miss Parker with a confused look on her face.

"Is Sydney your dad?" she asked innocently. Miss Parker was caught by surprise by the question and took a moment to think.

"Sometimes it feels like he is, but no he is not my father. You ready to go?" Catie nodded and slid off the sofa. Miss Parker stood and felt Catie's hand slip into hers.

She led Catie out of her office and towards the elevator. She ignored the looks some of the other people in the Centre gave her and hit the down button. Catie's hand tightened in Miss Parker's grip and she tugged on her arm. Miss Parker looked at Catie expectantly.

"Is this where your mama went to heaven?" the child asked in all innocence. Miss Parker nodded and Catie's eyes grew round. Her grip on Miss Parker intensified and she clutched Miss Parker's leg with the other arm.
"Catie, what's wrong?" Miss Parker asked beginning to lose feeling in her leg.

"I don't want you to go to heaven, too." Catie said in all seriousness.

"I won't, Baby. I promise." Miss Parker said lifting Catie into her arms. They stepped inside the elevator and descended to the parking garage. Miss Parker noticed a car seat had been placed into the back of her car and was suspicious until she saw the note attached. Recognizing Jarod's writing she read over the note quickly.

Thought you might need this. Catch you...oops...catch me later!

Miss Parker shook her head, placed the note in her jacket pocket, and buckled Catie up into the seat. During the ride to Miss Parker's house Catie chattered on about all the things she like and disliked, all the while asking questions that Miss Parker never even had a chance to answer because as soon as the child asked one, another would shoot out of her mouth right behind it.

Since the roads were pretty empty that night and Miss Parker hit almost every green light, they reached the house at about nine thirty. Miss Parker could tell that Catie was exhausted and her energy level was diminishing quickly for about halfway there her chatter had slowed considerably and her eyelids were drooping. She unbuckled Catie and led her into the house. She guided her to the bedroom that had used to be hers as a child, but now served as a guest room. Again, it was evident that Jarod had been here as she opened the door. Just as she walked into the room, directly to her left, replacing the queen sized guest bed, was a white, twin-sized canopy bed with guardrails and a set of pink sheets and a matching pink comforter. Resting at the bottom of the bed was small white hope chest overflowing with stuffed animals, as was the fisherman's net slung in opposite corner of the bedroom. A new set of white dresser drawers replaced the old set of oak ones across from the bed, while two white end tables accented each side of the bed's headboard. Just above the headboard was a hand painted sign that said An Angel Sleeps Here. There was a white lamp with an angel resting at the base on each of the night tables and directly across from the bed next to the dresser was a bookshelf filled with children's stories. Even the window seat pillows had been replaced with white and pink ones that were spread across it, just underneath a pair of white lace curtains that now covered the windows. Miss Parker chuckled when she saw the frilly pink nightgown that was lain across the bed.

"Jarod, you really are something else." she said. She helped Catie into the nightgown and then into bed. Miss Parker covered the tiny girl up with the covers and watched as she seemed to disappear in the down mattress. With a surprising amount of swiftness Catie wrapped her arms around Miss Parker's neck and kissed her goodnight. Within minutes her thumb was in her mouth and she was fast asleep. After recovering from the shock of receiving her first goodnight kiss as a mother, Miss Parker decided to see what goodies Jarod had left her. Making sure she was as quiet as possible, Miss Parker wandered over to the dresser drawers and peeked in. She gasped seeing each drawer was full of clothing. The top drawer had little girl's undergarments including panties with the latest Disney characters on them. The second drawer contained only shirts, but there was at least one shirt in every color and even some tie-dyed ones. The third drawer contained shorts, mainly denim, but there were also a couple pairs of khaki and colored ones. Also tucked in the drawer were a few pairs of long jeans and leggings. The fourth drawer had socks and stockings; some socks were frilly and some had crazy designs on them. The final drawer had a couple of blankets, one fleece and one cotton. But what caught Miss Parker's eye was a tiny pink and green knit baby blanket. Miss Parker picked up the baby blanket, confused as to why Jarod would leave it. Then she noticed a monogrammed name on the side. It said Catherine Elaine, in script, and written under it also in script was the date of July 21st, 1994.

She smiled at Jarod's thoughtfulness and replaced the blanket into the drawer. Not only did Catie have something to treasure all her life, Miss Parker now knew that her daughter would be turning 4 in July. Miss Parker wandered over to the closet and again was astonished at its contents. Hanging up was almost every kind of dress ever introduced to the world. A few play dresses, a couple for school, and even some for fancy occasions. Miss Parker noticed three of the fancy ones right off and pulled them out to examine them. The first was none other than a lightweight, pink, organza dress with two layers of skirt with a tank top cut front and roses going around the middle. She could tell it was a birthday dress because of a tiny tiara that was attached to the back of the dress with a pink ribbon. The second was a pale yellow one with white satin trim around the bottom of the skirt and on the cuffs of the short puffy sleeves. A wide white satin sash was around the waist that was meant to be tied in back in a bow. A set of white gloves and a white handbag was attached to it with a white ribbon. The third dress was a exact replica of the one that Miss Parker had worn the Christmas when Jarod had sent her the white rabbit as a gift. The only differences in the two dresses were that instead of Catie's being low cut in front like Miss Parker's, it was a full chest and it looked to be an empire cut waist. The dress would reach around Catie's ankles, but it was short enough that if she ran it would not trip her. Around the hanger's neck was a gold hair ornament with gold lace and small gold beads sewn into it.

She shook her head at Jarod's extravagance and put the delicate dress away. Just as she was about to close the doors she noticed a shoe rack on the bottom and crouched down to examine the pairs of shoes. There were two pairs of patent leather Mary Janes, one black and one white, a pair of sandals and a pair of white sneakers with pink hearts on them. Finally closing the doors of the closet, Miss Parker picked up the discarded clothing that had been forgotten after they had been taken off of Catie. She held the stiff gray material between her hands and bent down to pick up the gray slippers that had been on Catie's feet. Throwing her shoulders and her head back she walked out of Catie's room shutting the door behind her. She strode with a purpose to the front door and onto the porch. Miss Parker drew in a deep breath and walked over to where she usually burned the dead grass and tree branches. She tossed the clothing onto the heap and grabbed the matches that were located in the metal box next to the pile.

Sydney had arrived while she was doing this and he walked over to where she stood lighting the bonfire. He noticed the clothing and shoes and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Those clothes will never touch my daughter's body again. They should never have been on any child in the first place." With that reply Miss Parker watched the flames engulf the horrid past of an innocent child. She felt an inner peace and sighed. She had a feeling that she had won this battle and that it was over for now, but she knew deep down inside that the war was far from finished
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"I've been thinking about it, Sydney. About how they could do this." Miss Parker said waving a hand at the door behind which her daughter slept.

"How, Parker? You never had surgery, have you?" Syd replied leaning back against the sofa and focusing on the woman in the armchair.

"In February of 1993, I went in to my doctor's office for my annual checkup." Miss Parker began slowly letting details come into play and then voicing them. "He said that he had found something abnormal and wanted to do a biopsy. I never gave it a second thought, he had been my doctor since I can remember. Anyway, I went to the hospital about two weeks later for the surgery and they put me under."

"That's when you were supposedly on vacation in Tahiti, right?" Syd asked quietly.

Miss Parker nodded and continued. "I went home two days later and my doctor called and he said that it had been a false alarm. That everything was fine. I had thought, at the time, that it was weird he had gotten the results so fast because I know they usually take up to a week or so, but I seriously didn't want to think that maybe they were wrong. I dismissed it and went on. I haven't thought about it since." Miss Parker's face grew grave and she sighed heavily. "What it really means is that my doctor is working with the Centre or at least with Raines. What if he does it to someone else? We warn the police?"

"Parker, relax. I have a feeling that once Raines got back to his office he alerted your doctor. The man is probably in Pago Pago by now." Syd said leaning forward.

Miss Parker smiled despite the situation and sighed again. She looked at Catie's bedroom door and looked back at Sydney.

"Syd," Miss Parker began quietly, "I never thought it was possible to love someone so much in such a short period of time. I have known her for what? 6 hours? Not even. And yet I know I would do anything in the world to protect her. It scares me, Sydney, and I don't even know why."

"It's because you have so much love to give and it's been bottled up so long that when you finally let it out it became overwhelming. You would kill and you would die, yourself, to protect her because she is yours. A part of you that you can never replace and wouldn't even know where to start. That feeling won't go away, Miss Parker. Catie is your daughter and now that you found her, those feelings are going to deepen significantly." Sydney said gently and waited for Miss Parker to look at him. "It is how your mother felt about you. She told me once during a session that the love she had for you could make her do anything and stand up to anyone."

Miss Parker's eyes filled with tears as she listened to Sydney talk about her mother and clasped her hands tightly in her lap. "That is exactly how I feel, Syd."

"Trust your heart, Miss Parker. You are a natural mother whether you realize it or not. Just keep doing what you are doing. Besides it seems to be working, from what I've seen Catie is completely taken with you. And if I may be so bold, I think it is mutual."

While Miss Parker let his comments sink into her brain, the clock over the mantle struck 11:30 and Sydney stood to leave. "Will you be coming into work tomorrow, Parker?" he asked.

"No, Syd. But I am sure Catie would love it if you and Broots joined us for dinner. And tell Broots to bring Debbie. I know Catie would enjoy that." Miss Parker said knowing that she didn't have to get up and show him out.

"I would love to and I sure Broots would love it too." Sydney put on his coat and hat and made for the front door.

"Syd," Miss Parker said looking up at him. He turned from his position in the doorway and waited. "Thank you."

Sydney just smiled and nodded, then left closing the door behind him. After a few minutes to herself, Miss Parker stood up and locked the house up.

She wandered back into her bedroom and took a quick shower. After drying off and changing into her satin pajamas, she laid down in her bed and stared at her mother's photo. Tracing the outline of her mother's face with her fingertip, Miss Parker whispered "I miss you, Mom."

Miss Parker was just about to turn out the light when the phone rang. "What?" Miss Parker said into the mouthpiece knowing without a doubt who it was on the other line.

"Did you find the room to your liking?" Jarod's voice floated over the phone.

"You must be close by to have done all that." Miss Parker said.

"Always the huntress." Jarod said his voice tinted with soft sarcasm.

"Just doing my job." Miss Parker retorted.

"Is Catherine settled in her bed?" Jarod asked, serious now.

"Yes, she is. Thank you Jarod for...everything." Miss Parker said settling herself into her own soft mattress.

"You're welcome. She is a beautiful little girl. She reminds me of someone I knew a long time ago." he said remembering the days when all he lived for was to see a smile on a certain young girl's face.

"Hmmm," Miss Parker murmured thinking back also.

"No child should grow up with out its mother. And no mother should have to face the agony of their child growing up without them." Jarod said gently.

"I get it, Jarod, I really do. I am sorry for what the Centre did to you but I had nothing to do with it." Miss Parker replied just as gently.

"Maybe, but your father certainly did and your mother tried to rescue me. Maybe somewhere in your brain is a conversation you overheard or something you read that could lead me to my family." Jarod said passionately.

Miss Parker sighed, "I don't remember anything like that, Jarod."

"It's in there, Miss Parker. And when you do remember I will be waiting." Jarod told her.

Miss Parker sighed deeply and then felt a weariness wash over her. "Jarod," she started to say.

"I know, Miss Parker. It is late and you've had a lot to deal with today. I'll let you go, but you have to understand that this is not over." Jarod said.

Remembering that she said almost those exact words to Raines today, she shivered. "I know, Jarod. Until we can lead our own lives without fear of Centre, it will never be over." Miss Parker said into the phone quietly and then added, "Goodnight, Jarod."

"Goodnight, Miss Parker." Jarod said then hung up.

With that she placed the phone back on it's hook, turned her light off, and laid her head down on her pillow in exhaustion. God, she had a daughter. A perfect, little, precocious baby girl.

A few moments after she had that exact thought she sensed a movement outside her room. The doors slid open and the silhouette of Catie stood in the doorway. The child padded over to stand before Miss Parker. She crouched down so her nose was touching Miss Parker's and Miss Parker smiled.

"Mama, I can't get back to sleep. Can I sleep with you?" Catie asked timidly.

"Sure." Miss Parker scooted over to make room and felt the bed dip slightly as Catie climbed on. The little girl spooned into Miss Parker and Miss Parker felt Catie place her thumb in her mouth.

"Night-night Mama." Catie said tiredly and snuggled closer.

Miss Parker studied her daughter by moonlight as she began to succumb to sleep once more. Thick dark eyelashes lay on pale ivory skin and her mouth was a perfect little cupid's bow. She watched in fascination the girl's mouth move in sucking motion around her thumb and knew in her heart that this was what Catie had looked like as a baby. A tear slid down Miss Parker's cheek and she wiped it away. She laid her cheek down on Catie's head saying quietly, "Go to sleep, Baby. Mama's here." Then, remembering the words she had never gotten to say to her mother, she said as an afterthought, "I love you."

"Luv you, too, Mama." Catie whispered back and both mother and daughter fell asleep peacefully for the first time in a very long time.
Desolate Hearts by Jaclyn Parker
Miss Parker looked at the address on the slip of paper in her hand and then at the building in front of her. "This is it, I guess."

Miss Parker took out her gun and unlocked the safety catch. She got out of her car and felt a slight uneasiness surround her. She suddenly wished that Sydney hadn't had to do those other projects today and that Broots hadn't had to clean out their old computer files on Jarod today. As much as she wouldn't like to admit it, she could use some back up. She shook that thought off and held her head higher. She didn't need anyone to help her catch Jarod. He had no idea she was coming. She would surprise him and cuff him, then take him back to the Centre. That's it. She would probably even be back to take Catie to dance class like she had promised.

Miss Parker approached the desolate building, her gun up by her head. Something wasn't right. She could feel it. Jarod had never stayed in a place like this before, but it was a lead and she had to go after every one. Miss Parker heard a sudden noise behind her, but before she could turn around to investigate she felt a needle pierce the back of her neck. Within seconds she felt woozy and she heard her gun fall to the pavement, just before her world went black.

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Miss Parker awoke in a dark room and when she tried to move she found that she was bound to a pole in the middle of the room. The light from a small window on the opposite side of what she could now tell was an empty warehouse, helped her eyes adjust to the dark settings. She twisted her head to look around and was immediately hit with an overwhelming headache.

"Hurts doesn't it?" came a familiar voice.

"Jarod!" Miss Parker said angrily. "I should've known. Did you do this to me?"

She turned to her left only to be taken aback in surprise. Jarod was also bound to a similar pole next to her.

"Yeah, Miss Parker, and then I did this to myself out of boredom." Jarod said sarcastically.

Miss Parker gave him an annoyed look and struggled to untie her wrists.

"It's no use." Jarod said as he watched her, slightly amused. "Is it just me or does this have a familiar look to it?"

Miss Parker paused as she remembered the hurricane in Florida and the monster called Bartlett. She shivered in relived fear and returned to trying to loosen the rope that held her to the cold concrete pole.

"How did you end up here anyway?" Jarod asked still amused at her useless attempts to free herself.
"I could ask you the same thing, couldn't I?" Miss Parker growled in frustration as she gave up on the ropes.

"Told you." Jarod said in reference to the ropes. When she just glared at him he answered her other question. "I was leaving my building when some guy grabbed me and knocked me out with what I suspect was chloroform. I woke up about three days ago here and I'll tell you this, I'm starving!"

"They haven't even given you any food to eat?" Miss Parker asked in horror.

"Nothing. And I have yet to meet our captor so don't ask me who it is. I saw a couple of men bring you in Monday evening, but they kept giving you something that kept you asleep. They stopped about three hours ago. What are you doing in this city anyway? I hadn't calculated your arrival for another day or two."

"I got an anonymous tip on where you were so I took the jet out here and pretty much the same thing happened to me. I was about to enter the building that the tip said you had stayed in, which I am beginning to doubt, and..." she trailed off shrugging, then she winced as pain coursed through her body. She forgot about it a moment later when something he had said reentered her mind. "Wait, you said they brought me in Monday evening? What day is this?"

"Wednesday." Jarod said.

"I've been here for two days already?" Miss Parker said softly her head beginning to hurt again. "Oh, God, Catie! What happened to Catie?"

"I'm sure she's fine. Sydney would have seen to it." Jarod said reassuring her. Miss Parker nodded, somewhat relieved. Jarod asked "So how has motherhood been treating you?"

Miss Parker's eyes softened and she smiled faintly. "She is such a special little girl. I never knew such love, not since...not since my mother was alive."

"I saw she had taken up dance when I left that bracelet of your mothers." Jarod said remembering the photograph of Catie in a cute little ballerina costume, posing gracefully.

"Yes, she is very good too. My mother's talent seems to have found a home in her." Miss Parker said proudly. She found herself thinking about Catie's upcoming recital and if she would be around to see it.

After a few minutes of silence she spoke up, "So, any idea on how to get out of here, Boy Genius?"

Before Jarod could answer her a deep voice echoed throughout the warehouse. "I wouldn't bet on it. He is tied tighter than you are, my dear Miss Parker."

A man stepped out from the shadows and an evil karma permeated room. He had a pointy goatee and small beady eyes that seemed to look at you with a slightly crazed look. He was muscular, but because of the bad feeling that surrounded him, a person could tell that the muscle was used for evil and not good. In short, he looked the way Hollywood would depict Satan in a movie minus the horns and pointy tail.

"Oh, do forgive me," the man said frowning at his "guests". "Since neither of you know me let me introduce myself. I am Jonathan Krieger, but you can just call me Krieger. Everyone else does."

"I know what I want to call you and Krieger isn't even close." Miss Parker spat at him.

"Tsk, tsk." Krieger said very disapprovingly, shaking his head slowly. He advanced towards her and stroked her cheek gently. "Is that any way to treat your host?"

He abruptly stopped stroking her cheek and slapped her hard. Miss Parker's head whipped to the side and her cheek turned an angry red. She squeezed her eyes shut to keep to the tears of pain at bay and Krieger shook his head again seemingly satisfied. "I didn't think so."

He studied Miss Parker closely taking in her black leather pants and bright red blouse and grinned sinisterly.

"You know, I think I could have fun with you." He trailed his hand over her face again, but this time he continued down her chest until her reached her stomach.

"What do you want, Krieger?" Jarod called out feeling the desperate need to get him away from Miss Parker. Thankfully Krieger seemed distracted by Jarod's question and backed away from the shaking Miss Parker.

"Thank you, Jarod, for reminding me of my original agenda. But don't think that let's you off the hook, Sweet cheeks." Krieger directed towards Miss Parker who had overcome her pain and was now staring at him with an intense mixture of hate, disgust, and the smallest hint fear.

"I only want the twenty million dollars offered to me if I caught you two...and maybe a little fun with Gorgeous over there." Krieger said stepping back and folding his arms across his chest, studying his captives.

"The Centre, right?" Jarod asked.

Krieger paused then shrugged. "No point in lying. Yeah, they're the ones who hired me."

At Krieger's nod Jarod looked confused.

"Why would ask you to catch they her? She's one of them." Jarod asked.

"That's true. Actually, they really just wanted you, but I got another offer about four days ago, from some man, for an extra ten mil, but that was only if I...uh... 'took care' of Sweet cheeks over there also." Krieger said taking a toothpick out of his pocket and began to chew on it.

"My father will double the amount of money, if you let me go. Please, I have responsibilities. I need to get home." Miss Parker said almost pleading. She had never felt this helpless before, but somehow she knew without a doubt that this man was not as sane as he seemed. He would kill them if they didn't get out of there.

"Yes, I know you have 'responsibilities'." Krieger said mocking Miss Parker. "A very pretty one in particular. She is what four, maybe five years old? What is her name again? Cathy, Callie, Cody..."

Krieger paused seeming to think a moment then grinned. "Oh, that's right, it's Catie isn't it?"

Jarod watched as Miss Parker's face became red in rage.

"You touch her and I swear to you, I'll kill you." Miss Parker screamed at him.

The man just laughed and the sound chilled Miss Parker and Jarod to the core.

"Relax, Babe. I haven't got her. In fact I think she is in the wonderful hands of her loving Uncle Lyle." Krieger said watching her reaction.

Miss Parker felt her stomach flip in horror at the thought of her precious little girl having to stay with Lyle. Krieger laughed again and walked to a door at the right.

"I'll be back to check on you in a little bit. Don't miss me too much." With that and another insane laugh he left, slamming the door in his wake. The sound echoed for a beat or two after he was gone and went straight to the bones of his two prisoners.

Miss Parker slid down the pole and placed her head on her knees. She felt a weariness go through her and a stray tear slipped from her eye to land on the cold cement floor beside her.

Jarod watched her and felt his heart go out to her. "Miss Parker, there has to be a way out of this. Don't give up hope."
Miss Parker raised her head and gave him a look of contempt and anger.

"We are not getting out of here, Jarod. You are finally going back to the Centre and I..." she stopped mid-sentence and thought about the man in the next room. Her blood ran cold and she felt the need to gag.

Another though hit her and she said quietly, "My daughter is going to grow up without her mother as well, isn't she? Just like me. I should've known that this would happen. My life seems to work this way."

She laughed at the irony and her laughter had an empty and slightly hysterical ring to it, making Jarod shudder.

"Miss Parker, listen to me. If you give up you can be certain that Catie is not going to have her mother around, but if you stop feeling sorry for yourself we might be able to figure out how to get out of here!" Jarod said hoping to snap her out of her trance-like state.

"You don't think I wanna get out of here?" Miss Parker snapped at him. "My daughter is going to be worried sick. I have been gone for two days when I told her I would be back for dinner and to take her to dance class!"

Jarod sighed and slid down his pole so he was in the same position as her. He leaned his head back against the pole and tried desperately to think. His head jerked up moments later and he looked over at Miss Parker, who had her eyes closed in defeat.

"Miss Parker," Jarod said quickly and in an energetic voice. "I think I have a plan." Miss Parker looked at him and waited. "I bought a pocket knife and it's still in my pocket. I didn't realize it was in there until now. My left leg pants pocket."

Miss Parker looked over at his legs and saw the slight bulge in his pocket. "Why didn't they find it earlier. I mean they don't seem to be the kind of men that refrain from pat downs."

"Umm they did, but it kind of slid over..." Jarod trailed off, very uncomfortable.

"Oh." Miss Parker said understanding. "So what do you want me to do?"

"See if you can't maneuver your leg so that it reaches mine and try to slide it out of my pocket." Jarod said shifting so that he was as horizontal to the floor as he could be.

Miss Parker nodded and did the same. She kicked her shoe off and slid her foot up Jarod's leg until she reached his pocket. Both ignored the sultry way that it felt and concentrated on trying to free the knife.

After about ten minutes they had success and Jarod slid the knife over to behind him, He cut through the rope with little difficulty and stretched his wrists. Ignoring the pain, he cut Miss Parker loose and motioned for her to stay in that position until Krieger came back. He moved back over to his pole and waited.

Sure enough about five minutes later the warehouse door opened and Krieger strode in with a 9 mm gun in one hand and a whip in the other. Both were meant for Miss Parker and everyone knew it. He stepped over to Miss Parker and let the edge of the whip scrape down her cheek and leaned forward so that his face was directly in front of hers.

"Ready for me, Gorgeous?" he breathed into her face.

"Are you?" Jarod's voice came from behind Krieger and before he had a chance to turn around Krieger found himself face down on the cement. He struggled to get up but Miss Parker kicked him and he rolled over onto his back. He curled up into a ball and tried to protect his body from other blows. Jarod growled and hefted the man up as if he as nothing more than a piece of garbage. He slammed him into the wall before he tied him to the pole that Miss Parker had been held captive on.

"See ya, Sweet cheeks." Miss Parker said leaning down and whispered into his face. She slapped him hard and then followed Jarod to the doorway. They could hear the two goons that had tied them up in the first place talking.

Jarod put his finger to his lips and motioned for her to go to the other side and distract them. She nodded and moved to where they could see her.

"Uh, you guys might wanna go help your boss." She said motioning inside the building. The goons looked at her and then at each other. They started towards her but before they could reach her completely Jarod hit them from behind with a long piece of plywood he had picked up.

As they crumpled to the floor, Miss Parker stood over them and shook her head. "I thought that only worked in the movies."

Jarod just grabbed her arm and pulled her to the black sedan that she had shown up in. He hot-wired the car and they peeled out of the parking lot at top speed.

He parked in the airport parking lot and watched Miss Parker fish around in the glove compartment. Giving a hoot of success, she pulled out her cell phone.

Opening it she dialed a number and placed the phone to her ear. "Sydney, it's me. Yeah, I'm fine. It's a very long story and I promise to explain it all when I get home. How's Catie?" She paused a second to listen to Sydney and grinned after hearing what he had to say. "Yeah, that sounds like Catie."

Jarod looked at her his eyebrow raised. She told Sydney to hold on while she checked something out and placed her hand over the mouthpiece. "She refused to stay with Lyle. Threw a huge temper tantrum in front of a few, very elite, members of the Centre and wouldn't let him touch her. Finally Sydney was called to take her and she went to him quietly and willingly. Sydney said Lyle turned more shades of red than he thought existed in the color spectrum." She grinned, obviously proud of her daughter and not caring who she was sharing the information with.

Jarod laughed quietly and then placed his hand over his mouth to stop any other sound from escaping. Miss Parker went back to her phone conversation and placed her head against the window glass as she listened to Sydney speak on the other end.

After a few beats she glanced over at Jarod and then cast her eyes out the car window. "No, I missed him by about a half a day. Well, right now I really don't care what Lyle has to say. I'll deal with him later. Actually that's what...um...the Rockford Airport. First class? Good God, yes! Okay I'll see you in a couple hours. Tell Catie I love her. Bye."

Miss Parker hung up the phone and looked over at Jarod. He smiled at her and she looked at him like he was insane. "What?" she asked.

"Missed me by a half a day, huh?" Jarod said knowing he was probably pushing his luck, but doing it anyway.

"Don't start with me!" Miss Parker snapped. "I can still bring you in."

"Yeah, you and what army?" Jarod laughed and then genuinely smiled at her. "Thank you, Miss Parker."

"Don't thank me, Jarod. I will get you, just not today." With that she got out of the car and disappeared into the airport.

Jarod sat and thought a moment then followed her in. He kept out of sight, but when the flight to Delaware was called he flashed his pilot ID card that let him on any flight and followed her onboard. It's not like he was worried about her or anything, he just was being cautious. Besides, he had a little business to care of with Lyle, who he just knew was behind the whole thing with Krieger. Jarod watched Miss Parker take her seat up in first class and he sat himself down in coach. Two hours later, he followed her out o the parking lot and waited for her car to come pick her up.

Surprisingly it wasn't Sam, her personal sweeper, who came and got her. As Sydney stepped from his car, he looked around for Miss Parker. They saw each other in the same instant and Miss Parker walked over to where he stood. Jarod watched Sydney ask her something and gently touch the bruise on her face from when Krieger had hit her. Miss Parker nodded and pulled Sydney's hand down from her face, but held it a moment in her own. He opened her door for her and she slid into the car. Sydney climbed into the driver's seat and they left the airport. Jarod went over to the rental place and picked up the car he had ordered over the plane phone and clandestinely followed them back to Miss Parker's place.

He got there first by taking shortcuts that he had found a long time ago and parked across the street. He immediately noticed Catie sitting on the front step, clutching a beat up teddy bear and Broots with his arm around the child's shoulders, hugging her to his side. Catie was dressed in overalls and a lightweight jacket and because it was cool for mid-September Broots kept gesturing to the house. Catie however shook her head adamantly and just folded her arms across her chest. She played with her braided pigtails, slipping one inside her mouth and chewed on it, thus giving away how much the child was worried. About ten minutes later Jarod saw Sydney's car pull into the driveway and Miss Parker practically burst out of the passenger side door. Catie jumped up and the teddy bear was dropped on the ground, immediately forgotten. Miss Parker dropped to her knees just as Catie launched herself into her mother's arms and began to squeeze the life out of her. Miss Parker held Catie to her just as tightly and kissed the little girl's cheeks and forehead. After a moment of just holding Catie to her, she suddenly straightened, but Catie wasn't quite ready to let her mother go. So when Miss Parker stood she took the little girl up with her.

As Jarod watched from afar Miss Parker stood shock still for a second, then began to bounce up and down slightly trying to playfully shake Catie loose. The child's laughter rang out as she slid down her mother's body to find herself sitting on Miss Parker's feet. Catie wrapped her arms around Miss Parker's calves, laid her head on Miss Parker's knees, and giggled. Miss Parker grinned down at her daughter and bounced her knees back and forth, making Catie's head bump up and down. Catie laughed harder, then apparently decided enough was enough. Miss Parker waited patiently until Catie stood up again on very unsteady legs. She then took Catie's hand into hers and led the child up the stone steps towards the house, with a grinning Sydney and Broots in accompaniment.

Suddenly Catie stopped and let go of her mother's hand. She raced back down the steps and picked up the forsaken teddy bear. Straightening up again, her gaze shifted to connect with Jarod's across the street. Jarod froze, unsure of what to do, but the girl just titled her head and then grinned at him as if she knew who he was. The connection was broken when Miss Parker called to Catie and the girl whirled around and raced back to where her mother stood. She took hold of Miss Parker's hand and with a backward glance at Jarod, she and the three adults disappeared into the house.

The shutting of the front door brought Jarod out of his mesmerized state and he was very confused. What had just happened? He had felt a connection with that child like he had never felt before and he was very certain she had felt it too. Jarod shook his head, started up his car, and drove off to his next destination.

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"That is not a word, Syd!" Miss Parker exclaimed smiling as she raised her glass of lemonade to her lips.

"It is, Parker. Look it up. It is the tree from which cocoa seeds come from." Sydney said leaning back in the porch wicker chair and folding his hands into his lap. "I think that puts me in the lead actually. Where is the score pad?"

Miss Parker turned to her right and noticed Broots nodding along with everything that Syd was explaining.

"Oh no, you don't!" she said in mock anger. "Don't you dare tell me you have any idea what he is talking about."

She leaned toward him, placing her elbows on her porch table and stared at him.

"I do too!" Broots said indignantly. "Debbie and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for a vacation a few summers ago and they told us that at the Hershey Chocolate Factory."

Sydney chuckled as Miss Parker gave him a funny look and pushed his shoulder, shaking her head. Broots started to laugh and even Miss Parker cracked a smile.

"Aww, man they are too cute." Broots said grinning at the two children running around on the front lawn. "Did I tell you that Debbie was telling our next-door neighbor about Catie the other day. She said that she was going to visit her cousin Catherine and teach her how to do a cartwheel."

Miss Parker looked over as well and watched her daughter and Debbie race after each other and thought about what an odd friendship the two children had. They were as close as twin sisters, despite the fact that Debbie was a good six years older than Catie. In fact, most ten year olds would pitch a fit if they had to spend time with a four year old, but Debbie Broots seemed to understand that Catie Parker was a very special child and that her brain was on a level much like her own. The children had formed a fast friendship and now every chance they got they spent their free time together.

The two girls that scampered around the yard, in their now dry bathing suits, were oblivious to the fact that the sun was setting and the day was almost over. Since it had been a pretty hot day for early May, when Broots and Debbie had arrived Miss Parker had allowed Catie and Debbie to play in the sprinkler from the early morning into afternoon. It was now around four o'clock and the sprinkler had long been put away in the shed. The girls had gotten restless and after the ground had dried considerably, they scampered off to play tag. Catie was "it" and was chasing after Debbie, both giggling like crazy. She managed to tag Debbie's waist briefly and they changed positions almost immediately. Now it was Catie who was being pursued. All of a sudden they stopped at the top of the slight hill and dropped to the ground. Miss Parker jumped up, upsetting the Scrabble board in the process, thinking they were hurt and then sat back down again when they both began to laugh hysterically. Catie crossed her arms over her chest started rolling down the hill and Debbie, doing the same with her arms, followed a few beats later. They came to a stop at the bottom of the hill and just lay there panting and trying to catch their breaths in between laughs.

After a few minutes they simultaneously got up and wandered over to the porch. Debbie flopped down on the third step and began to play with Peter, the rabbit Jarod had given Miss Parker on that seemingly disappointing Christmas. Catie skipped over to where Miss Parker was sitting and she wrapped her arm around the tiny girl's waist. Catie leaned into her mother and laid her head down on Miss Parker's shoulder listening to Sydney tell a story about a puppy that had been found in his neighborhood.

Inside the house, the faint chime of the oven timer and Broots jumped up knocking over the game board once more, receiving glares from Miss Parker and Sydney because they had been the ones to pick up all of the letters the first time.

"Sorry...uh...hey girls, you wanna help me get the cookies out of the oven?" Broots said edging towards the front door. Broots opened it and Debbie raced in to turn off the oven. Broots looked over at Catie and raised his eyebrows. Catie smiled and placed a quick kiss on Miss Parker's cheek, then scampered inside after Debbie, grabbing Broots' hand and yanking him inside after her.

Sydney chuckled and dropped the last few letters into the box. "Who'd have thought it, Miss Parker? Us coming over to spend Mother's Day with you and your daughter, you baking chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen while we all sit on the porch drinking lemonade and playing Scrabble? In fact this past year there has been quite a significant change in you and I'm very sure it is for the better."

Miss Parker smiled brilliantly then shrugged her shoulders, placing the lid on the game. She remember many things from the past year, a lot of them fond memories of Catie and her new found "family". One that stuck out the most was of Catie's fourth birthday, for it had been a very momentous occasion. It had marked the point where Catie had officially begun her real life with Miss Parker. Now her little girl was only two and a half months from celebrating her fifth birthday. Miss Parker was surprised at how fast she and Catie had connected and formed a schedule. At times it seemed as though Catie had always been with Miss Parker and they had never been separated at all.

Breaking into Miss Parker's thoughts, came Catie's voice ordering her and Sydney to come inside to eat dinner so that they could open presents. After putting the glasses and pitcher in the kitchen sink, Miss Parker joined the rest of them at the table.

Dinner went fast with lots of laughter and silly comments form the two highly energized children. After the table was cleared away and the dishes in the sink for later, Miss Parker wandered into the living room. Sydney sat next to her and Broots was in the armchair. Debbie was sprawled out on her stomach, kicking her legs lightly, on the rug in front of the unlit fireplace bathed in the light of the tall lamp by the couch. Miss Parker settled onto the sofa and patted her legs for Catie to come over. The girl climbed up onto Miss Parker's lap and leaned back onto her mother's chest. Miss Parker kissed Catie's dark head and then placed her chin on Catie's shoulder lightly.

"Well, let's see here. There are three gifts, two addressed to Miss Parker and one is addressed to...Broots?" Sydney looked over at Broots quizzically and he blushed slightly.

"Debbie usually picks something out for both Mother's Day and Father's Day." Broots said shrugging his shoulders and smiling over at Debbie.

"Open mine first, Daddy!" Debbie exclaimed crawling over to the edge of the coffee table and handing him the gift, anticipation in her eyes. Broots opened the paper and smiled brightly when he saw what was in the package.

"A G.I. Joe action figure set from the 60s. It's perfect, Sweetie! How did you know that this was a favorite of mine, Debbie?" Broots asked happily.

"A little birdie told me." Debbie said giggling, sharing a secretive look with Miss Parker.

"Thank you, Honey. It's great!" Broots said giving his daughter a huge hug and Debbie moved to lift one of the gifts off the table. She walked over to Miss Parker and handed it to her solemnly.

Miss Parker took it, a look of surprise on her face and then smiled at Debbie. She ripped the paper off and grinned at the sight. She held up the copy of Little Men to show Sydney and Broots and then looked at Debbie, her eyes bright.

"You told me your mom used to read to you and then you gave me the book she was gonna give to you. Well, I was thinking maybe, you could read this one to Catie and me sometime." Debbie said scuffling her toe into the carpet. Miss Parker grinned and pulled Debbie in for a hug. She let her go and glanced down at Catie who was grinning happily at her mother and her "cousin".

"I'd love that." Miss Parker said and squeezed Debbie's hand. She watched as the girl walked back over to her dad and settled herself onto his lap.

"Mama?" Catie said sliding off of Miss Parker's lap. "Mine next, Mama."

She placed a heavy present in Miss Parker's hands and stood waiting. Miss Parker ripped the bluish-purple flower designed paper, almost regretfully and pulled out a gold double photo frame. She turned it over and gasped. In one frame was the picture of her and her mother that she thought she had lost years ago. It had been Miss Parker's spring break from her school and her and her mother had gone to the nearby park. They had found an old tire swing and decide to have some fun. They both climbed on and began swing their legs. In no time they were swinging into the air and laughing in pure joy. A college student who was majoring in photography had snapped the photo of them swinging and had gotten their address, then sent it to them later. Her mother had told her that it was a memory that she would treasure all her life and they had gone to pick out a frame the very next day.

In the opposite frame was another photo, only this was of Catie and herself. It had been the first day of spring and Miss Parker had taken Catie to the same park to show her the tire swing. They were both in matching sun dresses and Miss Parker was seated on the swing and Catie was on her lap. Catie had whispered a joke in her ear and Miss Parker was caught on photograph throwing her head back and laughing while Catie grinned at her. It was perfect picture to complement a perfect day.

Miss Parker looked up and saw Catie smiling hesitatingly. "Do you like it, Mama?" she asked tentatively.

"Oh, Baby, how could you doubt that for a second? I love it. It's of the most beautiful gifts I have ever gotten in my life and I will cherish it forever." Miss Parker said pulling Catie into her arms and hugging her tight. "Where on earth did you get that picture?"

Catie sat up and looked over Miss Parker's shoulder. "Uncle Sydney took it. He said that it was perfect for a Mother's Day gift and he helped me pick out the frame too."

Miss Parker looked at the man beside her, with tears in her eyes and squeezed his hand. "Thank you, Syd." she said her voice catching.

"It was my pleasure. Catie had the idea after she found the photo of your mother and you in your closet and then when Catie said you were taking her to the park to see the swing, it seemed perfect. I guess you could say things just took off from there." He said squeezing her hand back and then threw a look at Broots and Debbie. He laughed when he noticed that Debbie could barely keep her eyes open and then he noticed the same about Catie. He brought this to the attention of Broots and Miss Parker and they all agreed it had been a long day and everybody needed to go home and sleep.

Miss Parker gave Debbie a hug and accepted a peck on the cheek from Broots as Catie sadly hugged Debbie good-bye.

"Girls, cheer up. We are all going to the movies on Tuesday. That is only two days away. I think you can handle it." Miss Parker said at the girls' pouts. The adults laughed and Sydney saw Broots off while Miss Parker shooed Catie towards the bedroom to pick out her pajamas and then get ready for her bath. As she placed the photo frame and the book on her night table, she noticed Syd was still in the den staring out the window into the dimming evening.

"Syd?" she asked coming out to place a hand on his shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
"I have a gift for you too, Parker." Sydney said and handed her a pale green gift with a white rose threaded through the white ribbon wrapped around it.

"Did you wrap it yourself, Syd?" Miss Parker asked pulling out the rose and smelling it. When he nodded yes, she smiled and unwrapped the gift slowly, trying not to rip the paper. Her own father had not even gotten her a gift, yet this man had found it in his heart to buy her one. She finally got to the actual present and turned it over. It was another photograph only this time it was very candid and seemed to touch Miss Parker's soul.

"I took it on the day we came over to compare notes on Jarod. Remember? You had just put Catie down for a nap in your bed and when you didn't come back right away, I went to check and apparently you had dozed off also." Sydney said and pointed to the picture. "It tells you what I found."

The photograph did indeed reveal the rest of the story. In their sleep they had shifted on the bed so that Catie's head was right next to Miss Parker's head their noses inches apart and their dark hair was spread out on the white sheets. Miss Parker and Catie both wore slight smiles as though they were sharing the same dream and it was just between the two of them. Sydney had taken the picture on black and white film and it had turned out beautifully. In it a person could see the obvious resemblance between the two females and somehow the overwhelming love that Miss Parker felt for her daughter seemed to shine through the picture also. Looking it over, a tear slid down her cheek and she looked up at Sydney.

"Syd, I don't even know where to begin. It's beautiful. Thank you." She was enfolded in a hug and let the fatherly feel of it flow over her. He pulled back and she smiled self-consciously.

"Geez, Syd, do you keep a camera in your pocket or something? Well, look at it this way, if you ever decide to quit the Centre, you definitely have a job in photography." She said jokingly.

Sydney laughed and then moved to get his coat from the kitchen chair.

"Good-bye, Catie!" he called on his way out.

"Bye-bye, Uncle Sydney!" came the child's voice from the bathroom directly across from Catie's bedroom. Miss Parker walked Sydney to the door and then watched him pull out of the driveway. Closing the door, she ran her hand over the photo once more. The sound of running water brought her back to reality and she turned quickly.

"Catherine, what are you doing?" she yelled, afraid of the answer.

"Nothing, Mama!" Catie yelled back. A pause went by and then she yelled out again. "Mama, how much bubble bath do you usually put in?"
"Why?" Miss Parker asked rooted to the floor in horrific anticipation, her hands clutching the photograph frame in a death grip. She thought of the fist sized, strawberry smelling, bubble bath tablets she had bought for Catie last week at the store in the nearby mall. The directions said to use only a half of a tablet for a full bathtub of bubbles. She had a sinking feeling that Catie hadn't bothered to read the directions.

Her suspicions were confirmed when Catie yelled out "Do you think three is enough?"

"Catherine!" Miss Parker hurried to save the bathroom although she suspected it was a too late.

**********************************************************************

Two weeks later everything was pretty much the same around the Centre. They had gotten a lead on Jarod that had just missed him by an hour and Miss Parker had been working on a report to send to the Triumvirate all week explaining the loss of expenses. She had managed to be able to pick up Catie from preschool everyday except Wednesday the 26th, which happened to be the deadline for her report.

So it was around twelve o'clock that afternoon and Miss Parker was hunched over her desk deep in her thoughts when Sam the Sweeper knocked on her office door.

"You wanted me, Miss Parker?" Sam said coming to stand in front of her desk hands clasped in front of him.

"Yes, Sam. Could you do me a favor and pick up Catie from preschool and take her to my house. I have to finish this report, but I'll be home by about one-thirty, two o'clock. You know the routine. Lunch then a nap. I should be home by the time she wakes."

"Of course, Miss Parker." Sam nodded and gave a tiny smile when she grinned back her thanks.

As he walked out of the office, Miss Parker couldn't get rid of the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She shook it off and continued flipping through her papers and typing her latest report on Jarod.

**********************************************************************

"Hi Sam!" Catie bounced out onto the school yard, her loose hair flying out behind her, and her school uniform skirt swishing. She stopped in front of the tall man and grinned up at him. "Where's my mom?"

"She had to work a little later than planned, kiddo. You mind if an old guy takes you home and feeds you lunch?" Sam said affection dripping in his voice.

"No, silly." Catie giggled and took his outstretched hand. "Besides, you're not that old."
She began to laugh hysterically as Sam tickled her in payback for the remark. When he stopped and she had calmed down, he buckled her into the car seat. She showed him her drawing of her and her mother outside of their house she had done in art class. He smiled and made comments about her artistic ability as he climbed into the driver's seat and pulled out of the school parking lot.

Neither noticed a black car following them nor the sniper that took out the left front wheel of their sedan. They had been on a road that was virtually empty this time a day and so no one noticed a two men in all black, drag Sam out of the car and hit him over the head with a gun. No one heard Catie's screams as other man, also dressed in black, took her out of her car seat and placed her into the vehicle he had just sprung from. And no one noticed them drive off with Miss Parker's now sedated daughter.

**********************************************************************

Broots opened the door to Miss Parker's office slowly, Sydney's urgent prodding the only reason he kept walking to her desk.

"Um, Miss Parker." Broots said softly and waited until she looked up.

"Yes, Broots? Is there something I can do for you?" Miss Parker said sounding the way a dog baring its teeth would, if it could talk. "I was supposed to be done this report and on my way home about a half hour ago, so whatever it is make it quick." When Broots didn't say anything right away, she raised her eyebrow. "Broots?"

"It's, umm. it's about Catie, Miss Parker." Broots said, his voice small and scratchy.

"What about her?" Miss Parker asked the uneasy feeling returning, making her dread the answer that was going to come. When Broots hesitated Miss Parker asked again slowly, "What about my daughter, Broots?"

Broots cleared his throat and continued. "The police found Sam and the car on the side of the road. Sam was knocked out and one of the tires had been shot out."

"Where's Catie? Is she okay?" Miss Parker asked rising to her feet quickly and stepped forward to stand in front of Broots.

"She wasn't in the car, Miss Parker. They have reason to believe she was taken. Her car seat buckles were ripped off the car seat and they found a drawing of Catie's ripped up as if someone had torn it out of a person's hands."
Miss Parker felt her knees go weak and then Sydney's arm about her waist holding her up. She found herself short of breath and looked at Sydney with an expression of panic on her face. "Syd...I...can't...breath! Sydney, I..."

"You're in shock, Parker. Sit down and try to take deep breaths." Sydney said slowly and settling her down on the couch in her office.
When Miss Parker seemed to have control over her breathing, she looked up at Sydney. "I have to go to the police station."

"Do you want me to go with you?" Sydney asked gently. When Miss Parker shook her head yes, he helped her to her feet. Turning to look at Broots he added, "Broots, keep an eye on any activity in the Centre. Make sure you check all aspects of the mainframe. This is Catie's life we are talking about."

Broots gave him his wholehearted assurance he would pay the utmost attention to the Centre's business while they were gone and watched as Sydney led a blank faced Miss Parker to the elevator. As soon as the elevator doors shut, the phone in Miss Parker's office rang.

"Hello?" Broots said hurriedly into the phone.

"Broots, what are you doing answering Miss Parker's phone?"

"Jarod!" Broots exclaimed.

"Hey, Broots, how are you and Debbie?" Jarod asked from the couch of the New York apartment he was currently renting.

"Uh, we're fine, thanks. Um, you know this is definitely not the best time to be messing with Miss Parker's head. I'm telling you now, whatever it is that you have to tell her can wait." Broots told the man over the phone.

"Why? What's happening over there?" Jarod asked hearing the anxiety in Broots voice.

"Ah hell, you're gonna find out anyway. You know Catie, Miss Parker's daughter?"

"Yeah, I know who she is Broots." Jarod said rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, well, she was kidnapped about two hours ago. And man, Jarod, I have never seen Miss Parker so out of it. I mean if they don't find Catie...I don't know what she'd do. Jarod? Hello, Jarod?"

But Jarod didn't hear him for he was already packing his bags and making a flight reservation for the next flight to Delaware.
Found and Lost by Jaclyn Parker
From the time they had gotten to the police station and to when Syd drove her home, the situation had gone from bad to worse. They police had no leads and Sydney had just gotten Miss Parker out of there in time to save the lives of a few good...well a few cops anyway.

He led her into her house and stopped dead when he caught sight of the man sitting on the couch waiting for them.

"Jarod." Sydney said then the happiness in his voice turned to worry when he felt Miss Parker tense by his side. Before anyone knew it, Miss Parker's gun was drawn and pointed directly at Jarod's head.

"Where is my daughter?" Miss Parker growled advancing towards him, her gun and eyes never leaving his face.

Jarod looked up into Miss Parker's face and caught her gaze. He immediately saw what Broots had been talking about. There was a crazed look in her eyes, one he had seen too many times by people who had lost loved ones and felt complete terror. Even with all those opportunities she had ever had to shoot him and never done so, he knew that she would shoot him now if she had even the slightest inclination that he was involved with taking her daughter.

"Miss Parker, listen to me." Jarod said his gaze never leaving hers and raising his hands in the air. "I had nothing to do with Catie's disappearance. After what I went through, I would never take a child away from a mother who loves them as much as you love Catherine. If you ever had to trust me, now would be that time. Listen to your heart, what is it telling you?"

After a few agonizing moments the glazed look on Miss Parker's face changed to one of pain and her arm lowered. Jarod and Sydney let out the breaths they had been holding and watched as Miss Parker looked around the room. She almost seemed to be looking for sign Catie was actually in the house and it had all been a bad dream.

It was in that moment she caught sight of Catie's teddy bear on the armchair. Miss Parker crossed over to reach it and with empathy on their faces Jarod and Syd watched her drop to her knees and clutch the bear to her chest. They observed helplessly as she rocked back and forth on her knees, shoulders shaking with the fierce sobs that escaped her body. As the cries began to subside, Jarod moved over to where she knelt by the fireplace and lifted her into his arms as if she were as light as a feather. He felt her head bury into his leather jacket and her lean form tremble.

His ears caught the phrase "I want my baby. God, please give me back my baby" repeated over and over in a weak and helpless voice.

In any other situation he would have found himself calling a proctologist about a 5-inch heel stuck in his ass, but she was apparently too emotionally spent to realize that she was in her prey's arms, let alone care. Jarod carried her into the bedroom and reluctantly laid her down onto her bed, gently. His arms felt empty almost immediately and he felt a sense of loss he hadn't remember feeling before. It was as if when she was in his arms that that is where she was supposed to be.

Shaking it off he watched as Sydney, who had followed him with a small medical kit, give Miss Parker an injection in her left arm. She gave a small cry of discomfort when the sharp needle was embedded in her arm, but her face finally relaxed in slumber by the help of the small sedative Sydney had given her.

Sydney left the room to go make some coffee, leaving Jarod alone with Miss Parker. Jarod noticed, sadly, that even in the beginnings of a dreamless sleep, tears flowed down her face and continued to make a dark spot on the light blue pillowcase. Wiping them away, Jarod covered the sleeping woman and brushed his hand down her face lightly.

"Catie." she muttered the defeat in her voice striking Jarod's heart. He felt immense hate towards the people who had taken her daughter from her and who made the strongest woman he had ever known have to grieve like that in front of witnesses.

After raking his gaze over her once again to ensure she was completely under the drug's influence, he then followed Syd's example and left the room, leaving the door cracked in case she woke up. Sydney was getting two mugs out of the cabinets when Jarod entered the kitchen and he turned to face the younger man.

"Why are you here, Jarod?" Sydney asked placing the dark blue mug in front of Jarod and he kept the dark green one for himself.

"You remembered my favorite color." Jarod said more matter-of-factly instead of asking.

"Answer my question, Jarod." Sydney said tilting his head and pouring the hot coffee.

"I don't know, Syd. I know I should just stay out of it, out of her life, but I can't. I don't why, Sydney. I just can't help remembering that little girl that I once knew. The one who smiled and laughed, and had memories of pain, but was starting to heal. The Centre took that healing process away from her and took her away from me." Jarod said wrapping his hands around the hot cup ignoring the burning sensation on his palms.

"Are you sure that's the only reason, Jarod?" Sydney asked sipping the hot liquid and staring straight into his pupil's eyes.

Jarod just sighed and glanced away. Sydney always could tell when Jarod was holding back and being away from him these past years hadn't dulled that insight. After a couple of silent minutes Jarod gave in.
"There is a connection between us, Syd. Between Miss Parker and I. Something even fear of Centre can't break. I'm so scared of that bond, but I know inside I would give anything to find my family and then..."

"And then?" Syd prodded.

"Recently I've been having this dream where I am reunited with my family and we are at a family barbecue. I am on a porch laughing at something someone has said. I hear my name being called and I look up. I see Miss Parker coming towards me with Catie holding her hand and they both have a huge smile on their faces. And it's just for me. Catie calls me 'Daddy' and climbs into my lap and Miss Parker..." Jarod trailed off embarrassed at the thought of telling Syd that Miss Parker kissed him at this part.

Sydney sighed, placed his hand over Jarod's and just squeezed. He gave no lectures, no comments, no advice. But in that one gesture he gave Jarod a sense of reassurance that he had missed after waking from those dreams.

He glanced at the kitchen clock and was surprised to see that an hour and a half had passed since Sydney had given Miss Parker the sedative. Knowing that it had only been a very mild one, he suggested that they go see if she had awoken yet. Jarod peeked into the room and noticed that she was now sitting on the edge of the bed, still holding the teddy bear to her tightly. She was playing with the edge of a small white lace nightgown that was lying on the bed next to her, waiting for the tiny girl who would not be wearing it tonight.

Before either man could speak her own voice broke the silence.

"We bought this the first weekend she was here." Miss Parker's voice was tiny and she almost sounded as though she was speaking on automatic pilot; not to anyone in particular, but just to talk, to rid the air of it's unwanted silence.

"She was so excited. It was the first thing we had ever bought together. She told me that she would wear this to bed every night, because I bought it for her. Because it had come from her mother." Her voice cracked on the last part and her fingers froze in their graceful movements over the delicate looking garment. Miss Parker looked up at Jarod and Sydney in the doorframe, her eyes bright and pleading.

"I have to get her back. If I don't..." she trailed off, her eyes flickering over to the nightstand.

Jarod followed her gaze and stood up straight when he noticed her gun sitting quietly on top of the table by her bed. He glanced quickly at Sydney and then walked over to crouch down in front of Miss Parker.

"We will get her back, Miss Parker." He saw the brief flicker of hope in her eyes then watched it die as quickly as it came. They both knew that she had seen too many promises broken to believe any more, no matter how deeply she wanted to.

Before he could give her any more reassurances his laptop beeped, signaling he had mail. Jarod looked into the den, surprised. He had forgotten that he had setup the machine on the coffee table and he got up see what the e-mail said.

The e-mail was already brought up on the screen, waiting to be opened and he gasped inwardly as he read it. Then, just as he finished reading it and was going to show it to Miss Parker and Sydney, it disappeared. He began to frantically try and retrieve it, but to no avail. Nonetheless he turned to face the other two adults with a victorious look on his face.

"I know where she is." he said rising, a plan already forming in his genius mind.

**********************************************************************

"Jarod, I'm going with you. I can't just sit here and wait, you know I can't." Miss Parker said arguing her point with him for the umpteenth time. He had been royally pissed off when he heard her voice in his ear moments ago, just before he was going to break into the place that held Catie. Apparently she had followed him there and he knew that he had a snowball's chance in hell of making her change her mind. In fact, her eyes caught and held his and he knew without a doubt that if he didn't take her she would go in after him, alone. Truth was, she would be useful as a lookout while he got to Catie. Jarod nodded reluctantly and motioned for her to follow him.

"You go in the normal entrance and I'll meet you in your office." Jarod said waving her around the corner of the Centre.

"Jarod..." Miss Parker said warning in her voice.

"I promise. I won't find Catie without you. Now hurry." Jarod said quickly and watched as she made her way into the building. Jarod ran around to the manhole he usually used to get in and out of the Centre. Ten minutes later he was sliding along the vents of the Centre and found himself in Miss Parker's office. He watched Miss Parker from the shadows for a few seconds as she paced the office floor clutching a photograph to her chest. He could see her gun was on her hip and the clasp was undone. She was ready to shoot her way to her daughter if necessary and they both knew it. Jarod stepped out of the shadows and cleared his throat. Miss Parker jumped, her hand reaching for her gun. Seeing it was only Jarod she relaxed slightly and hurriedly put the photo in her jacket pocket, but kept her hand on her gun.

"You ready?" She asked, voice more steady than she felt. Jarod nodded and waved for her to follow him. They wound around corridors just as Miss Parker had done the first time she had searched for Catie. Miss Parker wanted to ask Jarod how he knew where he was going, but didn't dare speak up in case her voice carried and they were found out. Jarod stopped in front of a short staircase leading down into another sub level.
"Stay here. I have to go figure out the door code and you'd only get in the way. I'll be back in about ten minutes and then we only have less than five before all hell breaks loose, so be ready!"

"Wait, Jarod. She might not go to you right away, so show her this." She held up a diamond ring on a thin gold chain. The main stone was between two marquisette halves and Jarod recognized it immediately as Catherine Parker's wedding ring. Jarod remembered he had given it to her out of one of her mother's safe deposit boxes. In fact, a hurricane in Florida popped into his head and he smiled despite of the situation.

"She will go with you then." Miss Parker finished.

He took the delicate looking piece of jewelry from her and at Miss Parker's nod Jarod ran down the stairs and found himself in a tiny corridor. There were about four rooms on either side of him each with a porthole window. He glanced into each one before arriving at the far left room. There on a standard issue gray cot was Catie curled up into a little ball, lying so still. Jarod figured the door code out with minimum difficulty and opened the heavy door.

Catie sat up on the cot and stared at Jarod with wide and frightened eyes. Jarod put his finger to his lips and quickly knelt in front of the scared child.

"My name is Jarod and I'm going to get you out of here, okay?" Catie looked at him as if he had two heads and slid back a little. "Your mom is waiting for us upstairs so we have to hurry, Catie."

The little girl just pulled her knees up to her chest and rocked slightly. Jarod took out the necklace and put it around her neck. Catie's tiny hands trembled as she held glittering ring in the palm of her hand.

"Mama?" Catie whispered in disbelief.

When Jarod nodded Catie quickly latched onto his neck and clung to him hard. Jarod hastily flew out of the room and began up the stairs. When he reached the top he spied Miss Parker keeping watch around the corner.

"Mama!" Catie cried and began to wiggle to get down. Miss Parker turned around and her face lit up.

"Catie!" As she and Catie made their way toward each other time seemed to slow down and Jarod looked up to see Mr. Raines with a few of his men enter the hallway.

Miss Parker saw Jarod's look and glanced over her shoulder. Catching a glimpse of them too, she whirled to fire her gun at the same time screaming at Jarod, "Get Catie out of here!"

Jarod's arm, of it's own accord, whipped out, snatched Catie around the waist, and picked her up again. A second shot rang out and Jarod saw the bullet hit Miss Parker in the left shoulder. As she went down he heard her yell out, "Get out of here. I'll find you. Go!"

Knowing his first duty was to keep Catie safe, Jarod turned around and ran. Catie began to cry and scream hysterically and her tiny hands clawed at him to put her down. He ran to the end of the hallway and turned quickly down another. Bursting through the door that was at the end of the hall, he felt a blast of air hit him and he knew he was outside. He ran towards the car he had planned to be waiting and placed Catie in the passenger seat and then jumped into the driver's seat.

Catie was still sobbing and frantically trying to get out of the car. Jarod locked the doors and put the driver's side control on and peeled out of the Centre's gate just before they shut it with a loud bang. How Jarod managed to reach over and buckle Catie into the passenger seat and still get onto the highway in one piece, he'll never figure out, but he accomplished it. As Jarod drove away from Blue Cove he swore to himself he would protect Catie with everything he had until he could give her back to Miss Parker.
A Connection Discovered by Jaclyn Parker
Finally Jarod stopped at a hotel in Kingston, New York and looked over at the silent and spiritless little girl. Catie sat looking sullenly out the window, her hand fiddling with the ring around her neck, while her reflection showed the silent stream of tears that flowed down her cheeks.
Jarod sighed and said, "Catie listen to me okay? I know you are mad and upset right now, but I promise you that your mom will find us. I'm going to call tomorrow and find out what happened to her and then we'll make some sort of arrangement to have her come and get you. But right now, I know you are tired and so am I. Now there is a hotel right here, so do you want to sleep there or keep driving and fall asleep in the car?"

Catie sighed and wiped the tears from her face and turned to Jarod. She shook her head and pointed to the hotel. Jarod smiled and used his thumb to wipe a missed tear off of her cheek.
"Okay. It's settled then." Jarod hesitated and then looked seriously at Catie. "Catie, there is something I need you to do while we are together and waiting for your mom to find us okay?"

Catie looked at him, her head tilted in curiosity.

"I need you to call me Dad. Otherwise people might get suspicious and ask a

lot of questions we can't answer, okay? Can you remember to do that?"

"Uh huh." Catie said softly and nodded her head lightly.
"Great. Let's go get some sleep, kiddo. I think we need it." Jarod got out of the car and walked around to Catie's side. Unlocking her door her helped her unbuckle her seat belt. Jarod reached into the back of the car and pulled out the small canvas bag that Miss Parker had packed earlier. He then went around to the trunk and pulled out his bag and DSA player. Walking back around to the front of the car he noticed Catie was barely keeping her eyes open and smiled. Catie held on to Jarod's hand and followed him silently into the hotel lobby, sucking on her thumb in half sleep and half awe. Jarod

walked up to the registration desk and tapped the small bell on the counter. A thin man appeared and smiled at Jarod.
"May I help you, sir?" he said and folded his hands onto the counter.

"Uh, yeah. I'd like a room with double beds, please." Jarod said setting the bags on the floor.
"Of course, sir. Just sign here, please."
Jarod looked around him for a last name and quickly found his gaze resting on a forgotten shopping bag near a chair in the lobby. Using the Lord might be overdoing it, but the other name would do just fine.

"Thank you, Mr. Taylor. Here is your room key. And if I might be
so bold as to say, I suggest you get your daughter to bed as soon as
possible." Jarod looked over at Catie who was weaving slightly, eyes
fluttering closed and then springing open again. Jarod and the deskman
laughed and Jarod lifted Catie into his arms. She settled on his hip
and snuggled into his shoulder. Within seconds he knew she was fast
asleep.

"Here, let me help you." The man from the desk said and gave Jarod the bags from the floor. He then led Jarod over to the elevator and hit the up button. While they waited for the elevator to come down, the two men chatted and Jarod found himself completely at ease with the man. By the time the elevator arrived they were on a first name basis.

"Okay, Jarod, I'll see you tomorrow morning. And tell the sleeping Angel we have the best blueberry chip pancakes in town, when she wakes up in the morning."

"Thanks, Jim, I will. Night." Jarod pressed the button for the 8th floor. After he had found the room and unlocked the door, Jarod laid Catie down on one of the beds and placed the bags near the table in the center of the room. He set the DSA player on top of the table and then walked over to where Catie lay sleeping. He pulled off her tiny sneakers and then covered her up and tucked the blankets around her. About a half hour later Jarod was ready for bed himself after picking a place for them to go while waiting to contact Miss Parker and was about to put out the light out in the bathroom when he heard Catie cry out in her sleep.

"MAMA! No, Mama. Mama, don't leave me! Please, come back. Mama!" Catie was tossing and turning fitfully in her sleep, her small head rocking back and forth on the pillow.

Jarod rushed over to her and sat down on the edge of the bed. Catie sat up, eyes wide, and seeing Jarod sitting there hurled herself into his arms, sobbing with such ferocity Jarod could feel his own body shaking along with hers. Jarod had never held a little girl before, but somehow this felt natural and he held her closer and shushed her cries. Smoothing down her hair he listened to her tell him about her nightmare and then he assured her that her mother was fine, all the while praying to God that it was the truth.

**********************************************************************

Miss Parker woke on a couch, but she was not in her house. Sydney stood over her and she looked to her left and saw Broots sitting in a nearby chair.
"What...?" Miss Parker began to sit up and felt a sharp pain shoot through her shoulder and arm.
"Ugh!" she cried in pain and grasped her arm. Then as if it were a movie she

saw what happened replay in her mind. "Oh my God, Catie!"

Miss Parker disregarded the pulsing throb in her left arm and shoulder

and sat straight up. She noticed she was at Sydney's cabin in the mountains

and glanced over at Syd.

"We brought you here while Raines and his men were looking for Jarod and Catie. Don't worry, Miss Parker, they got away. I expect Jarod will contact me tomorrow to find out about you and to tell us about Catie. Until then, however, you need to stay low key." Sydney said meanwhile bringing her a cup of tea and then began to reapply her bandage.

"Broots, will you get me my jacket?" Miss Parker said grimacing, as Sydney accidentally pressed too hard on the wound. Broots nodded and grabbed it off the back of a chair. As she reached for it, he caught and held her hand.

"Jarod will keep her safe, Miss Parker." Broots said softly and
smiled.

Miss Parker gave his hand a slight squeeze and took her jacket from him. She pulled out the photo she had been clutching earlier. It was a smaller copy of the one that Syd had given her for Mother's Day. It was her favorite of Catie and her together and she kept one close to her at all times.

"Do you really think Catie will be okay with Jarod?" Miss Parker asked

worriedly. "I mean I know Jarod would never hurt her, but she doesn't even

know him. They have...no connection," she said searching for the right words.

"Miss Parker..." Broots started to say and then chickened out. "Syd, you have to tell her."

"Tell me what?" Miss Parker said anxiously. "Is Catie okay? What happened? Sydney!"

"Calm down, Miss Parker," Sydney said and seated himself next to her on the couch. He took the photo of Catie and studied it as he talked.

"Catie does have a connection to Jarod. One, even he isn't aware of." he continued.

"I don't understand, Syd." Miss Parker said shaking her head slightly.

Sydney looked at her and handed back the picture. "Jarod
is Catie's father."

Miss Parker studied the photograph with a new interest and began to see little hints. She had his nose and sometimes that smug little smile of his too, when she knew that she was right about something. And her eyes. Those should have told her right away. And anyway she knew how the Centre worked. It should've connected long ago. God, how blind had she been?

"He doesn't know, Miss Parker." Broots said coming towards her as well.

"We figured that if he knew..."

"...he would take her away from the Centre...and me." she finished for him. Broots nodded and Miss Parker laughed cynically. "Well, it looks as though we won't have to worry about that scenario anymore will we?"

She looked up at Broots and Sydney, then choked back a cry and covered her

face in her hands.

**********************************************************************

Jarod awoke the next morning and glanced over at the empty bed next to him and sat straight up. He looked around the room frantically before his eyes caught sight of the small child on the window seat looking out at the beautiful view. He watched her face closely for a few moments and could see the resemblance towards her mother. Her eyes seemed to follow every thing see was seeing outside and a small smile graced her lips every so often. Catie looked up, noticed Jarod watching her and smiled shyly.

"Hey, whatcha doing?" Jarod asked softly.

"Watchin. My mama and I used to do it all the time at parks and stuff."

Catie answered quietly.

"Oh, anybody interesting?" Jarod asked smiling again and slipping out of the bed to walk over and join her by the window. Catie shrugged and then glancing at his pajamas she grinned widely.

"What?" Jarod asked knowing perfectly well that he looked ridiculous in his Scooby-Doo pajamas. On his last pretend as a children's counselor he had been introduced into the world of Cartoon Network and had fallen in love with Scooby-Doo and Yogi Bear immediately. Catie just giggled and gave him the first real smile he had seen from her since he had almost reunited her with her mother. He realized that now would be the perfect time to call and he kneeled by Catie.

"Hey, what do you say we call Sydney and see how your mom is doing?" Jarod asked looking into Catie's eyes. He was reward quickly by a brilliant smile and a set of twinkling blue eyes.

"Can we really?" Catie asked excitedly leaning in towards him. Jarod nodded and Catie whooped in delight. She gave him a quick hug and then raced over to the hotel phone.

"No, Catie-Bug. We'll use my cell phone." Jarod said surprising Catie and himself by using a nickname. It had just seemed to slip out, but Jarod relaxed when Catie paused then ran back over to him, her smile even wider. She grabbed his hand and pulled him over to the table and began to hop up and down while he dialed Sydney's cell phone number.

"Sydney," the voice floated over the phone.

"It's me." Jarod said his shoulders shaking in quiet laughter as he watched Catie bounce in front of him, impatiently.

"Thank God, Jarod." Sydney said his voice conveying his relief. "Are you both okay?"

"We're fine, Sydney. The question is, how is Miss Parker? I have one very worried little girl over here." "She is okay, the bullet went clean through her shoulder and we are doing everything we can to prevent an infection."

"That's great!" Jarod said in earnest. He looked at Catie and grinned. "You're mama is fine. Just a little scrape. Sydney says she will be fine."

Catie's face relaxed in relief and she wiggled her fingers to signal that she wanted the phone. Jarod held up a finger and went back to talking to Sydney.

"Where are you two?" Sydney asked.

"I can't tell you, Syd, in case they tap your phone. Just know that we are fine." Jarod said regrettably.

"Jarod..." Sydney said in a warning tone.

"Jarod!" Miss Parker's voice found Jarod's ear through the line. He heard the phone being taken from Sydney and a few seconds later came Miss Parker's voice only this time it was much louder as a result from being directly next to the phone.

"Jarod, where's Catie?" was the first thing out of her mouth and Jarod had to grin.

"She's right here, Miss Parker." Jarod said and if he ever entertained the idea that this little girl wasn't Miss Parker's, it was put to rest in that moment. As soon as Miss Parker's name was out of his mouth Catie grabbed the phone out of his hands.

"Mama?" Catie cried into the phone.

"Oh thank God." Miss Parker said sitting down hard on
Sydney's couch, the phone pressed to her ear. "How are you, Baby?"

"I'm okay, Mama. I miss you, though. When can I come home?" Catie asked, her voice small and pleading.

Both Jarod and Miss Parker winced at hearing the longing in the child's voice, because both adults knew that it would a while before Catie would be reunited with her mother. There were people at the Centre to deal with and things to do before it would be safe enough for her to come home.

"I'm afraid not for a little while, Baby." Miss Parker said sadly.
"No," Catie said her face falling and tears forming in her eyes. "wanna come home now! Mommy, please!"

Catie began to cry and Jarod's heart broke at the sight.

"I know, Baby, and I want you to come home as much as you do, but that isn't possible right now." Miss Parker said her heart breaking in two for want to comfort her daughter.

"I'll be good now, I promise. Please let me come home." Catie sobbed into the phone.

"Aww, Catherine, you weren't bad. That is not why you had to go away.

Don't ever think that. You know as well as I do that it's not safe right now.

Jarod will keep you safe and as soon as everything is okay, we'll be together again. I promise." Miss Parker said pressing her hand to heart as though that would stop the intense pain she felt. Catie just continued to cry softly and
Jarod took the phone back. As he held it to his own ear, with the other arm he gathered Catie close and let her cry on his shoulder.

"Jarod," Miss Parker started the worry in her voice evident.

"She'll be okay, Miss Parker. I'd give my life willingly before anyone hurt her." Jarod said knowing without a second thought that it was the truth.

"In the past 24 hours I feel as though I have a connection to her."

Miss Parker felt a twinge of guilt hit her at the thought that she knew exactly what that connection was and swallowed it quickly.

"Thank you, Jarod." was all she said ignoring his last comment. She paused then said, "It is 8:20. Has Catie eaten yet?"
"No," Jarod "I was just about to reserve a table downstairs for breakfast. I'm glad we called because I have no idea what this one likes to eat."

Miss Parker could tell that although it sounded like he was talking to her, in actuality he was directing his statement towards her daughter.

Knowing Catie's huge appetite, she knew that Jarod would have no trouble winning over Catie's heart through her stomach.

"Mention anything having to do with pancakes and she's yours." Miss Parker said helpfully.
Jarod looked at the little girl huddled into his side and said, "I'm thinking blueberry pancakes, how bout you Catie? The manager downstairs said they make the best in town."

Catie's tearstained face appeared to him like a miracle and she gave a small smile. Jarod grinned and turned his attention back to the woman on the phone, trying to figure out how to tell her that he needed to cut the communication between her and her daughter.

"Don't worry about it, Jarod." Miss Parker said stopping him from speaking, guessing what he wanted to say. "I need to go take care of some things anyway. I want to speak to Catie for a minute, though."

Jarod handed the phone to Catie who took it more calmly than before.

"Uh huh," Catie replied to something Miss Parker said on the other line.

"I know, Mama. I understand now. Uh huh. I love you too. Bye, Mama."

Catie's voice caught on the last sentence and Jarod was afraid she would start to cry again, but to his relief and surprise she just held her chin a little higher and handed the phone over to Jarod.

"Take care of her." was all Miss Parker said. They both knew that this would be the last time she would hear from Jarod in a while. He had to take care of Catie and she needed to explain a few things to Raines and the Triumvirate about their boundaries and how her daughter was off limits.

"I promise." Jarod answered and he heard the phone click. She was gone and he looked over at Catie. In the small amount of time that had passed since Jarod had taken the phone from her, she had dressed herself in overalls and a new T-shirt out of the canvas bag. Catie was now back in her original position by the window and she looked so small and scared that Jarod felt his heart constrict with protectiveness.

"I promise." he whispered and went to go get dressed himself.

A few minutes later they were headed down to the dining room, Catie's hand snugly held in Jarod's hand and she watched everything with a gaze of awe. Because she had been practically asleep when they arrived last night she had missed the huge chandelier on the ceiling of the lobby. And the mermaid fountain with cushioned seats around it so people could sit and watch the golden colored fish swim around in the clear water. Catie raced over to look at the beautiful statue while Jarod bid Jim a good morning and got table for breakfast.

"Angel!" Jarod called, remembering the name he gave her last night, and waited 'til she scampered back over to where he stood. "Ready to eat?"

"Yes, Daddy." she said slipping her hand back into his. He looked at herin slight shock until he remembered what he had asked her to call him last night to throw off suspicion. Jarod's heart did a leap and the word reverberated in his head. He could get used to that and it scared the hell out of him. He knew that it was just a lie and sooner or later he would have to give her up.

"Daddy," Catie said tugging on his hands and giving him an impatient smile, "I'm hungry!"

Jarod laughed and decided to forget those sobering facts and enjoy the time he had with the precious child while he had it. After they ordered, Jarod asked Catie general questions about things such as her favorite color and animal and things like that. Soon he found himself entranced by the young person as though he were under her spell. She laughed easily and had her mother's smile that, if given in sincerity, could warm even the coldest heart. Catie regaled him with tales of her and her mother and after a while it struck Jarod that this young child had done in a couple of months, what Jarod had been trying to do for almost three years. She had managed to shed some of the layers of hurt and anger around Miss Parker's heart and lead her back into the world of the feeling.

By the end of the meal, Jarod had found himself completely and utterly in love with the little girl across the table from him. He watched the waiter sneak a free, after-breakfast, chocolate-covered strawberry to a grinning Catie and realized that it wasn't only him. This spectacular child had
the ability to draw people to her like a moth to a flame. Her contagious laughterand prepossessing smile had won over the chef and every waiter in the dining room. Jarod laughed as two waiters tripped over each other in trying to be the first to get Catie another child's milkshake and he shook his
head. Jarod knew he really should stop them, considering it was Catie's third milkshake, but as he watched Catie giggle hysterically he realized he didn't care. He would give the girl the moon if it made her smile.

"Daddy, can we go to the docks and see the boats? Please?" Catie asked excitedly. "I've never seen a real live boat before."
Jarod tilted his head and thought of his first experiences away from the Centre. Today would be his day to show Catie some of the finer things that maybe Miss Parker couldn't have understood to show her.
"Let's go!" Jarod said and stood placing the money down on the table for the bill, with a hefty tip, and was led out of the restaurant by a very excited Catie.

**********************************************************************

The day had flown by quickly for Jarod and he had thoroughly enjoyed himself. Catie had been a pleasure all day and Jarod could see that although she was a very precocious child she also knew her manners and respected other people.

At the end of the day, Jarod decided to grab some ice cream before heading back to the hotel. They had just come from an ice cream shop, two double fudge sundae cones in their hands and Catie chattering away happily when they suddenly noticed an old woman who couldn't get herwalker up onto the sidewalk without her purse sliding down her arm and falling. Before Jarod could do anything Catie handed her ice cream to Jarod and rushed over to where the old woman stood. She picked up the purse and even though she was half the size of the walker itself, Catie helped the old woman up onto the pavement. Jarod had, by now, made his way over to their location and was just in time to hear Catie refuse a reward for helping the old woman. Jarod handed Catie's ice cream back to the little girl and took her hand in his. The old woman looked up at him and grinned.

"You must be so proud to have such a beautiful little girl.
Inside and out." she said and pat Catie on the head. Catie beamed up at the woman and continued to eat her rapidly melting treat.

"Yes, ma'am." Jarod said nodding his head and squeezed Catie's hand. "I am."
He wished the woman a good day and they continued on their way back to the hotel. Jarod had never felt so proud of anyone or anything in his entire life. He was shocked as he realized he felt just like a father and basked in the wonderful sensation.

After a short pit stop in a restaurant to clean Catie's hands and face, they reached the hotel around 5 in the evening. Jim met up with them as they walked in and walked with them to the elevator.
"Did you have a good time today, Angel?" Jim asked the happy little girl.

"Yes, sir! A lot of fun!" She said enthusiastically. Then yawned immediately after. She placed a tiny hand over her mouth and looked up, apologetically.

"I'm sorry." she said, and then yawned again. Jim and Jarod laughed, then Jim suggested she take a nap and that Jarod
order room service for tonight. Jarod agreed and bid Jim goodnight, as did Catie. She was asleep before she hit the bed and Jarod laughed at the sight of the exhausted child. He knew just how she felt. Jarod's cell hone rang and he looked at it cautiously. Then he remembered he had given it to Sydney last night and hurriedly picked it up, before it could wake Catie. Then glancing at the child on the bed, he chuckled doubting anything short of a marching band could wake her.

"Hello?" he said into the phone, settling himself onto the window seat.

"Jarod?" Miss Parker's voice came through to his ear.
"Hello, Miss Parker. How are you feeling?" he asked genuinely
concerned.

"As well as can be expected. How's Catie?" she asked softly.
"She is good. She is sleeping right now, or I'd let you talk to her."

Jarod felt bad about her not being able to speak to her mother.

"No," Miss Parker said surprising him. "I'd rather not anyway. It's too hard as it is." Miss parker's loneliness made it's way through the phone and made him ache. "Just tell her I love her."

After a minute of silence she spoke up again. "I am calling to let you know that Raines has been dealt with." Miss Parker
said stolidly.

"What did you do to him?" Jarod asked worriedly.
"Let's just say he is renewal wing and not expected to be out of there anytime soon." she answered back.

"Do they suspect you?" Jarod wondered.
"Yes, but they can't do anything to prove it. There is no evidence." Miss Parker said with finality in her voice. The topic was closed.

"So you will be wanting to come and get Catie?" Jarod said the words slicing through him.
"Not yet. There are still things I have to take care of." Miss
Parker said regretfully. "But soon. I have to go. Broots is telling me the line is not safe anymore. I'll find a way to contact you."

"We'll be waiting." Jarod said and with that they both hung up.
Jarod looked over once more at the sleeping child on the bed. She would be gone soon and he wanted to remember everything about her. The question was, why?

Why did he feel so attached to this little girl and why did it
scare him so much that he was going to lose her. Jarod laid his head against the cool glass of the window and tried to think. But all it came to was, why?
Reunited by Jaclyn Parker
ONE MONTH LATER

"Jarod! Look at me!" Catie's voice cut into Jarod's thoughts and he watched the little girl jump down the concrete playing a game called Hopscotch. "I did it all the way down!"

"That's great, Catie," he told her, grinning at the kiss she blew him before starting to jump again. He had no idea how that was important to the game, but from the pride in her voice he supposed it was a great accomplishment.

He grew somber again as he watched the girl he had grown to love as his own in one short month. And in less than five minutes he would have to give her up. But he knew how much Catie missed her mother. So much, in fact, she had cried every night for the first week and a half and when that had ceased she had still been unable to sleep without having dreams of Miss Parker. He himself had been having trouble sleeping soundly lately and he knew it was because that Catie was so miserable without Miss Parker. She never showed it to him, stubborn as her mother, but he heard her cry out in the middle of the night and then cry herself to sleep when Jarod, not Miss Parker, did show up to comfort her. Jarod had finally called Miss Parker and even though he would be the last to admit it, he was glad Miss Parker was coming to meet them today to take Catie home. It had been arranged so that she would come alone, but it was also agreed that Catie should not and would not be told in case a problem arose and they had to cancel. But so far she had not called to say she would not be coming and it was now noon, the agreed meeting time.

Catie stopped jumping and walked over to where Jarod was seated on the nearby bench. She stood between his knees and took his hands in hers. "Jarod, will you sing me the lullaby. The one my mama sang to me and your mama sang to you?"

Jarod noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye and smiled to himself. He then focused his attention on the child once more.

"Okay, Catie, why don't you sing first line, I'll sing the second and we'll both sing the third." Catie nodded and smiled the brilliant smile that made Jarod's heart leap to his throat.

"Cree craw..." Catie began.

"...toad's foot..." Jarod continued.

"...geese walk barefoot." Jarod's voice and Catie's finished up the song, but a third voice had joined theirs. As Jarod watched, Catie's eyes grew round.

"Mama?" she whispered shakily. She whirled about and with a frenzied cry of "Mama!" rushed in to the waiting arms of Miss Parker. The tiny child was caught immediately and held close by Miss Parker who let the silent tears fall in contrast to the body wracking sobs of her daughter.

"Catie, my baby." Miss Parker clung to her daughter with as much strength she could get away with without hurting her.

"Mama, I missed you so much. Don't let me go." Catie sobbed into Miss Parker's neck and wrapped her small legs around Miss Parker's waist when Miss Parker rose to sit on the bench next to Jarod.

"Never, Catherine. Never." Miss Parker said smoothing Catie's hair down and settling her on her lap.

Jarod watched the reunion with blurred vision and met Miss Parker's gaze over Catie's head. She held his gaze for a few seconds and then bent her head down to kiss the top of Catie's. She held the girl so she was sitting across her lap and Miss Parker rocked back and forth slightly as if she were in a rocking chair. Jarod smiled and felt at peace for the first time a long while. Finally, hating to break them up, he knew they had to get moving before Lyle or someone else from the Centre tracked them down.

"Miss Parker, we need to get you guys out of sight. Come on, I'll take you to the townhouse we rented. It will take them a while to figure out that it is mine, and that will give Catie enough time to take a nap before we catch our plane."

"We?" Miss Parker looked at him eyes huge and face half between disbelief and fear.

"I talked to Sydney before you came and he said to use his cabin to settle in until you come up with a plausible story to how Catie was returned." Jarod said meanwhile wondering whether the fear in her eyes had even the slightest bit to do with him.

She nodded and rose up, Catie still attached to her. Jarod thought briefly of offering to carry Catie, but he changed his mind knowing there was no way the child was going to dislocate herself from her mother anytime soon, or visa versa. He motioned for Miss Parker to follow him to the sedan he had parked nearby. They reached the car and he opened the back seat, where Catie's car seat was then stepped back to let Miss Parker place Catie in. As soon as Miss Parker bent down to put her in the car, Catie's grip tightened and she began to whimper. Jarod could feel the anxiety emitting from the girl in huge waves and he could see Miss Parker felt it too. She straightened again and looked at him with a helpless expression.

Jarod sighed and nodded, "I'll drive slowly."

He shut the back door and opened the passenger side. Miss Parker pulled back to look at Catie.

"Catie, go to Jarod while I sit down, okay?" Surprisingly Catie let go and reached over for Jarod. He took the small girl and held her to him. She gave him a small smile and kissed his cheek. He gave her a small squeeze and then placed her onto Miss Parker's lap.

"Jarod, I have a small overnight bag by the tree." Miss Parker said indicating the tree that she had been standing by when he had first noticed her. He nodded, went to retrieve the bag, and put it in the back seat of the car.

"Thank you." Miss Parker said wrapping her arms around her daughter more tightly.

Jarod didn't answer her, just looked at her in quiet surprise and then shut the door and walked around to the driver's side. After climbing in and made sure they were buckled in, he fastened his own seat belt and put the keys in the ignition. Looking over at Miss Parker they smiled together as they noticed that Catie had promptly fallen asleep on her lap. Jarod shook his head and pulled out of the parking lot and began down the road.

Catie slept soundly the whole ride and even when Jarod took her from Miss Parker. He carried the sleeping child into the townhouse and into the small bedroom that had been hers while they stayed here. He came back out into the living room to find Miss Parker out on the deck staring out at the ocean. Her long skirt blew with the gentle breeze, the fabric tie-dyed with many different shades of blue and white. Her shirt was white and in the direct sunlight barely concealed the white lace bra she had on underneath. Jarod could see right through the T-shirt and he didn't like the feeling it gave him. It reminded him of the crush he had on her when he was younger. A sudden gust of wind whipped her hair into her line of vision and after brushing it out of her face; she pushed her sunglasses back from where they had slid off the top of her head.

As he approached he heard her say, "It is so beautiful and so calm."

"Yes, it is. That is a main reason I came to Maine. I wanted to show Catie this. How peaceful it is." He said surprised that she had known he was there considering she hadn't turned around when he walked outside.

"For now anyway. But it will go back to being choppy and unsettled." she said softly.

"We are no longer talking about the ocean, are we?" Jarod said just as soft. He watched her shake her head slowly, almost imperceptibly. "You're talking about us. The huntress and her prey."

"Jarod." she said softly, a hint of warning in her voice. "Don't."

"Why not? Why don't you stop chasing me and let me live my life. I gave you back yours, didn't I?" Jarod said referring to the child that slept inside.

"Yes, you did." she replied, not rising to his tone.

"Why can't you leave me alone?" he asked becoming angry. She looked at him briefly and he searched her face for any sign of reaction. He received none and she looked away again, out to the powerful image of the sea.

"Come on Miss Parker. Don't tell me the great 'Ice Goddess' has given up," he said bitterly, now deliberately trying to evoke some emotion. This calmness surrounding Miss Parker was beginning to scare him. He had never seen her so unresponsive.

"You are always so close, yet never mange to quite go the distance. Must be a huge disappointment to Daddy and the Powers That Be. Besides, let me ask you this. If you catch me, what do you gain? Self-satisfaction and Daddy's approval? Is that all my life is worth to you? My freedom is worth?" He had advanced towards her during his speech and was now directly in front of her chest to chest.

"No!" she said just as angry now and she shoved him away, hard. "It is how much my freedom is worth!"

Jarod was taken back. He had been hoping for a spark of response, but he had a sinking feeling he was about to get the Chicago Fire.

"What are you talking about?" he asked puzzled.

"I am talking about the deal I had with my father and now I have with the Triumvirate about as soon as I catch you I get to leave the Centre for good, with my daughter, and never be bothered by them again. That is what you are worth to me. My safety and freedom and that of my daughter's."

Jarod snorted with scorn. "You really think they will let you go Scot free? Remember whom you are dealing with? This is the Centre. They will never let anyone free of their rein."

He was going to add that her mother had tried, but decided against it. He wasn't willing to go that far to prove his point.

"Maybe not, but there is a chance they will be so occupied with you that they won't notice when my daughter and I disappear from their radar. You did it for a while and I intend to do the same. Maybe not in this country, but I plan to keep my daughter as far away from that place as possible. It's what my mother tried to do for me and it's the least I can try to do for Catie. She would have wanted me to try. I have to take that chance. For both of our sakes." Miss Parker's anger spent she sighed and seemed to deflate a little. "I don't know how many more lies I can take, Jarod."

Jarod could see that Miss Parker was serious about this and he held back the sarcastic comment that threatened to spill off his tongue, about dishing it out when you can't take it. He just nodded and glanced over at the clock on the far wall.

"I think it is time to start dinner if we are going to catch our plane."

Jarod held open the glass doors for Miss Parker and she slid by him, her body slightly brushing up against his. Jarod sucked in a breath and as she wandered around the living room he forced himself to exhale and follow her in. The clock he had previously been looking at chimed five and he shook off the feelings of warmth and something else he couldn't put his finger on. He moved to go cook the hot dogs Catie liked so much and salads for him and Miss Parker. Jarod glanced over at Miss Parker from the countertop separating the kitchen from the living room and saw that she was settled on the couch and was trying to keep her eyes open.

"Why don't you take a short nap, Miss Parker? I'll wake you up in about a half hour. Dinner will be ready by then and Catie should be waking around that time also." Jarod offered knowing that she hated sleeping on planes and figured if he got her to sleep now she wouldn't be so disagreeable later.

Miss Parker nodded and within fifteen minutes she looked to be fast asleep. Jarod walked into the living room and laid the couch throw over her gently. He noticed that she looked more peaceful now then any of the times he had snuck into her house looking for clues to his past or to leave clues to hers. He tucked a stray strand of hair behind her right ear and placed her sunglasses on the nearby coffee table. Spooked by the emotions he was feeling, he hastily moved back into the kitchen to finish up dinner. Unfortunately by doing so he missed the light smile that crept onto Miss Parker's face and hearing her breath go even in slumber for real.

***********************************************************************

Miss Parker woke to the smell of hot dogs and a stiff neck. Then remembering where she was and whom she was with, she sat up straight and smoothed her hair back down. She could feel Jarod's eyes on her back and felt her shoulders straighten of their own accord. She heard a soft chuckle come from his direction and relaxed her shoulders again. Feeling a tiny smile on her lips, she made it disappear before he could catch it. Miss Parker turned to ask him what time she should go wake Catie only to see him answer the question before she even asked it, with a pointed finger directed behind her. She turned back around and her smile came on full wattage. Catie padded out of the bedroom, a little pink stuffed rabbit tucked under her left arm and her right hand in a fist rubbing her eyes. Catie caught sight of her mother seated on the couch and broke into a grin. She ran over and launched herself onto Miss Parker.

"Mama, I didn't dream it. You're here!" She grinned over Miss Parker's shoulder at Jarod in the kitchen and squeezed her mother tightly.

"Of course, silly, where else would I be? Who have you got here?" Miss Parker said happily pulling Catie to straddle her thighs facing her. She took the toy out of Catie's arms and made the rabbit dance on Catie's arm. Catie giggled and took the rabbit back from her mother.

"That's Pinky, Mama. Jarod gave him to me so I wouldn't miss you so much. And know what?" Catie asked excitedly. When Miss Parker shook her head, Catie barged on. "Jarod read to me and he sang our lullaby. Well, sorta sang."

Miss Parker laughed at the grimace Catie made and hugged her daughter. God, she had missed her sweet little girl.

"Dinner!" Jarod called into the living room and Catie jumped out of Miss Parker's lap. Pulling her mother into the kitchen she promptly took her seat and bowed her head. Clasping her hands in front of her, she made an impatient noise causing the adults to smile.

"Think she's hungry?" Jarod asked Miss Parker smiling.

"She's always hungry." Miss Parker said, smiling back.

Jarod felt a flutter in his chest, but shook it off. He pulled out the chair next to Catie and held the back as Miss Parker slid in. Nodding at her whispered thanks, he slid into his own seat. After saying grace, they meal was eaten in silence on the adult's part, while the youngest member of the table regaled her mother with stories the things she had done while with Jarod. Miss Parker listened and laughed, and made comments at the appropriate times in the stories, but she noticed Jarod was staring at her all during the meal. Truth was she wanted to stare at him too. He looked mighty fine in his white T-shirt and a tight pair of blue jeans, and she wanted nothing more than to gaze at the man before her. But she couldn't let him see that, or he might take advantage of it. Too many people had taken advantage of her during her life and she wasn't about to relax that much around anyone, except for Catie. The only problem was that she had always felt safe around Jarod and that scared her. It scared her a lot.

"This is fun. It's like we're a real family." Catie piped up, pausing in her quest to become the world's fastest eater.

Miss Parker choked on her dinner and paled considerably. "It's really warm in here, don't you think?"

Jarod smiled wanly and looked somewhat confused at Miss Parker's reaction. The meal continued in silence, but Miss Parker would no longer meet Jarod's gaze and seemed all too interested in her salad. Too soon they had to be packed and ready to go to the airport. As Jarod packed his few belongings, he heard giggles emitting from Catie's bedroom, not all of them Catie's childish ones. He grinned to himself, glad that Miss Parker had reason to smile again. It had been a long time since he had seen her smile in earnest and in the past few hours he had seen her mouth curve up more times than he could count.

"We're ready." Miss Parker poked her head into the doorway and he nodded meaning he was done too. He noticed that she had changed into a more comfortable outfit of jeans and a light pink T-shirt and had changed Catie into a pair of red pajama bottoms and an oversized black Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Jarod gathered up Miss Parker and Catie's bags and placed them in the truck of the car along with his bag and his DSA player. Of course, only moments later he ended up having to take out Catie's bag again because she had packed Pinky by mistake. After all that was taken care of, he put the keys to the townhouse under a flowerpot as instructed by the real estate agent. Then running his eyes over the house and view one last time, he sighed.

"On the move again." he said feeling a sense of loss he couldn't understand. He felt a hand slip into his own and looked down.

Catie stood next to him and was staring out at the ocean like him. "Are we ever coming back, Jarod?"

"I don't think so, Catie. At least not anytime soon." Jarod said and lifted the girl into his arms.

She leaned her head against his and sighed. "I'm going to miss it."

"Me too, kiddo. Me too."

***********************************************************************

Miss Parker's fingers gripped and re-gripped the armrest for the umpteenth time and Jarod finally couldn't take it anymore. Placing his hand over her hand, he refused to let it slip out of his grasp when she tried to pull away. Glancing over her to check that Catie was still sleeping he again focused on the antsy woman next to him.

"It is only a two hour plane ride. Not even that long. Relax." he said in a soothing tone. Miss Parker ignored him and glanced over at Catie also.

"Is it good that she is sleeping so much?" she asked a twinge of worry in her voice.

"She hasn't really been sleeping well since...." Jarod trailed off knowing she knew what he meant.

"I haven't either." Miss Parker confessed.

"I don't think any of us have." Jarod answered back quietly.

The plane hit a patch of turbulence and he saw Miss Parker's grip tighten to the point that her knuckles were white with strain.

"Miss Parker, what did I say not five seconds ago. Relax." Jarod said trying not to let the amusement he felt slip into his voice.

"I can't!" Miss Parker whispered violently. "I hate planes with a passion!"

"You do everything with passion, I bet." Jarod said and went back to the magazine he had been reading. However he did not release Miss Parker's hand and she let him keep it there. And like he had intended it to, his last phrase ran through her head the rest of the plane ride.
An Inevitable Confrontation by Jaclyn Parker
Sweet is pleasure after pain. ~ John Dryden

***********************************************************************

They reached the cabin around eight o'clock and despite the hour Catie was practically bouncing off the car walls. The second Jarod pulled into the driveway, she pleaded to be let out of her car seat. Miss Parker smiled and shrugged at Jarod's confused look.

"Why is she so excited?" he asked.

"It is probably because Sydney called me while you were picking up the car and I told him and Broots and Debbie to meet us here." At the panicked face of Jarod she shook her head. "Don't worry. They booked a flight to California on a 'lead' on you and aren't going to be missed for at least a day or two. They'll call now and then to check in, but there is nothing to worry about. Broots is going to scramble the signals."

Jarod nodded and unbuckled his seat belt quickly because, although he was afraid to admit it, he was very eager to see Sydney again. He helped Miss Parker get Catie out of her car seat and with that accomplished, looked over at the porch of the cabin. Sydney, Broots, and his daughter Debbie were gathered there and he watched as Catie ran to greet them.

"Uncle Sydney, Uncle Broots, Debbie, it's me! I am home!" Catie cried out and threw herself at Sydney and then Broots. She and Debbie hugged and he saw that they were all crying. Even Sydney had a few tears in his eyes. He watched Miss Parker receive a hug from Debbie, after which the child promptly took Catie's hand and disappeared with her into the house. He was taken by complete surprise when Miss Parker accepted small hugs from Sydney and Broots and laughed at something Broots said. She turned back to Jarod and motioned for him to come over. Jarod sighed and started up the steps.

"Jarod." Sydney said the tears in his eyes multiplying and drew Jarod into a tight embrace.

Jarod smiled and hugged his mentor/father figure back. Straightening he accepted Broots' hand and grinned back at the beaming man. He turned to look at Miss Parker, but she no longer stood in the doorway.

As they all walked inside, Broots commented, "Debbie was so excited she baked a welcome home cake."

Miss Parker was waiting in the den standing over two chocolate cake faced girls.

"I think they started the party without us." she said arms akimbo.

The house echoed with laughter as she shooed the girls toward the bathroom, muttering about stains and about not saving her a piece of cake.

***********************************************************************

The rest of the evening passed quickly with mainly small talk about some of Jarod and Catie's adventures, and about how much Catie had been missed. Later the two children had gone into the master bedroom that was now Miss Parker's room to watch a movie called The Parent Trap and the adults settled in to the den of the cabin. They had discussed Raines' disappearance from the Centre and plausible stories of how to explain Catie's sudden return.

They agreed on the story of a stranger finding Catie alone in a restaurant after being left by the people who took her. They had seen a missing children's ad for Catie and contacted Miss Parker. She had gone to pick her up and that was that. Jarod promised to make a few call for favors from the people he had helped in the last town, to conspire with the tale. Even though it was around eleven o'clock when they checked the time it seemed all too soon that Broots had to take Debbie home, because of a field trip the next day and Sydney, somewhat reluctantly followed suit.

"I'll return tomorrow and maybe, Jarod, you and I can do a little fishing." On that note Sydney had said goodnight to Catie, reassuring her he'd be back the next day, and left Miss Parker and Jarod alone in the den. An uncomfortable silence settled over the den and Miss Parker was about to go get Catie ready for bed, when the child in question padded in.

"Mama, I'm ready for bed." Indeed the girl had put on her pajamas and had Pinky clutched under her left arm.

"Okay." Miss Parker rose and started to walk out of the den.

"Wait, I hafta say goodnight to Jarod." Catie said and ran over to where Jarod was seated on the armchair. She wrapped her arms around Jarod's neck and squeezed tight. Kissing him on the cheek she said "Night, Jarod. Luv you."

Clearing his throat Jarod replied "Night, Catie. Sweet dreams."

He watched Catie grab hold of Miss Parker's outstretched hand and as they disappeared into the left guest room that was now Catie's bedroom. He couldn't resist the urge to listen in on their goodnight ritual. He crept over to the right side of the doorway so he was out of sight and leaned just outside.

"Mama," came Catie's voice, "what did you do while I was gone?"

"Besides miss you like crazy and drive Uncle Broots and Uncle Sydney up a wall?" Miss Parker asked jokingly.

"Besides that!" Catie said giggling.

"Well, I worked a lot, and I tried to find you." Miss Parker said.

"Did you cry?" Catie asked seriously.

Jarod heard Miss Parker sigh and then say, "Yes, I cried."

"I didn't mean to make you cry, Mommy." Catie said apologetically.

"No, Baby. It wasn't your fault. When people are away from the ones they love, sometimes they cry." Miss Parker said soothingly.

"I know, Mama. I cried too, but at least I had Jarod to make me feel better." Catie told her in a voice more mature and sad than a four year olds should be.

"You felt safe with him around, didn't you? Like nothing bad could ever happen as long as he was there." Miss Parker said distractedly.

"Uh huhs. And he said that if I thought about you really hard, I wouldn't miss you so much 'cause you would be in my heart." Catie said then paused. "Mommy, is Jarod my daddy?"

"I think it's time to get some sleep. You have had a very big day and you should have been asleep long ago." Miss Parker said without answering the question.

Apparently Jarod wasn't the only one to catch her sly evasion, because Catie spoke up. "You are avoiding the question, Mama."

Miss Parker chuckled and he heard her lean down and kiss Catie goodnight.

"Goodnight, Catherine." she said ending the discussion with the ease of a practiced mother. She tucked Catie in tighter and got up, moving towards the door.

Defeated Catie sighed and snuggled down into the bed. "Night-night, Mama. Luv you."

"Love you too, Baby." Jarod heard Miss Parker's voice catch with emotion and he knew she was glad to be saying that again.

Miss Parker backed out of the room closing the door as she did. Turning to her right to reenter the den she came face to face with Jarod's chest. Gasping she placed a hand over her heart and glared at him.

"What the hell are you doing?" she whispered furiously. "Trying to scare me to death?"

"Why didn't you answer Catie's question?" Jarod asked disregarding hers. Miss Parker's eyes grew round in an expression that reminded him of Catie.

"I don't know what you are talking about." she said and moved around him to go towards her bedroom.

He grabbed her arm and she whirled back into his chest. To stop herself, she had put out a hand, but now that hand was flat against Jarod's chest and she felt his breath suck in. She looked down and realized that her body was in full contact with Jarod's and felt a vaguely familiar heat go through her. She looked up and found her eyes locked with Jarod's.

"Parker," he growled huskily.

"Jarod, I mean it. Let me go." she said. She tried to pull away but his grip on her arm held her fast.

"Not before you answer the question. Am I Catherine's father?" Jarod asked her his breath hot on her face. "Parker, answer me! Before I find out from someone else."

"Yes!" Miss Parker threw at him. "Yes, you're Catherine's father."

She looked at him and waited for his reaction. She didn't have to wait long.
Long Awaited Reactions by Jaclyn Parker
Jarod's face grew hard and he looked at her with an expression of hurt and confusion.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I only found out after you had taken Catie away." she said.

"What about all those phone conversations?" he said referring to the times she had called him in order to discuss Catie's well being and they had talked well into the night. "Why didn't you tell me then?"

"It is not exactly something you blurt out over the phone, Jarod!" She said angrily, upset that he still held her captive.

"What else?" Jarod said, instinctively knowing there was more.

"I was...afraid." she said still trying to pull out of his grip.

"Afraid? Of what? That I would hurt her?" Jarod asked incredulously.

"Of course not!" Miss Parker said shocked he would even think that of her, even after all the anger and hurt that was between them..

"I was afraid that you wouldn't bring her back to me." Miss Parker said truthfully and looked up into his eyes. The pain and the silent plea in her eyes made his hear skip a beat and he forced himself to listen to her.

"Now that you know, you can't take her away from me. I won't let you. They took away the one person I loved most in the world once and I won't let you do the same." She said fiercely, her mouth slimming into a line of determination on her angry face.

"I could never take Catie away from you. I saw how she was when we were hiding and waiting for you. She missed you so much, she cried every night and a few times even I couldn't calm her down. I had to give her a child's sedative." Jarod told her and brushed an escaped tear away from her cheek.

Miss Parker searched his face for any sign of deception and when she found none she released the breath she didn't even know she had been holding. Again she tried to slip away to go into her bedroom, but again he held tight to her arm. She looked at him in confusion and what she saw in his eyes took her breath away. It was raw desire and she felt the warmth in her body spread again and lick at her insides.

"It's a shame, isn't it?" Jarod asked her looking into her eyes. Miss Parker shook her head slightly, telling him that she didn't understand.

"That they didn't let us make Catie the old fashioned way." he continued. Miss Parker caught his meaning and he watched her eyes widen. Without giving her time to realize what was going on, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her into her bedroom. After Jarod shut the door and carefully deposited her on the bed, she gently pushed him away.

"Jarod, we can't. Don't do this." she said looking hard into his eyes.

"Don't tell me you don't want this." Jarod said running his hand down her front and hearing her breath suck in sharply. "Go ahead. Tell me that when we are together you don't feel it. What people call 'chemistry'."

All the while he was tracing his finger up and down the valley between her breasts. His touch was hard enough that she felt it, but light enough that she wanted more. A lot more than she cared to admit, especially to herself.

"Jarod..." Miss Parker got out in a ragged breath. She was going to tell him to stop, knowing that he would if she even sounded like she was thinking the word. She even knew that he wouldn't hold it against her. The only problem was she didn't want to say no. Without any more hesitation she made up her mind.

"Catie...might...hear us." she breathed out in pants.

"No, she won't." Jarod assured her. "I was a child psychologist once. I know for a fact that she will sleep a good 12 hours without even stirring after a exciting series events like today."

He looked down on the bed to see Miss Parker staring up at him with an unreadable expression.

"What?" he asked.

"Get over here or so help me God, I'll get my gun." She demanded half- serious.

He laughed and then came at her again with a playful grin, "That could be fun."

Clothes were shed as were inhibitions that had kept them apart outside of their obvious circumstances. The pleasure of the following closeness between them could never be described, except maybe as close to heaven as two people could ever get.

When they both finally came back to earth, he felt tears on his chest where she was huddled against him.

"What? What is wrong? Parker, please, what's the matter?" he asked her smoothing her hair away from her face.

"I am so sorry. For everything. But especially for Catie." she said muffling her words by keeping her head tucked under his chin.

"Aww, shhh. Don't cry. It is okay. I understand. Really, I do. Just promise me one thing, okay?" he said rocking her gently in his arms. He felt her nod and continued. "Let's tell her tomorrow, in case I have to go."

Miss Parker looked up sharply and her eyes glared him.

"We'll tell her tomorrow, but don't say anything like that again." she asked him, her eyes bright in the moon's glow.

"I won't. I promise." he said and he felt her shift so that her back was to his chest and she was spooned up into his body. He crossed his arms in front of her and she covered them with her own. They both relaxed and succumbed to the peace and sated state of their bodies, falling asleep simultaneously. **********************************************************************
Miss Parker slept without dreaming and awoke to find herself entangled with Jarod. She lay in his arms and their lower ends were a mass of legs and feet. For a moment she couldn't tell where she left of and he began. After untangling herself, she propped herself up on her elbow and studied him in the early morning light.

The beautiful angles of his face were blurred by the growth of an overnight beard, his dark lashes long against his cheeks, his tousled hair going in all directions on his head. She tucked the image of him sleeping in the section of her heart, she kept for the long and lonely days she knew had to come. They always did, when she gave her heart away. It was better to prepare now, then let herself be hurt again.

She slid from the bed, soundlessly. Her body, tender in places she had almost forgotten existed, and her heart encouraged her to slip back into bed and continue where they left off last night. But in the light of the early morning, Miss Parker could think straight and she headed for the shower. After she turned off the pulsing water, she toweled off her body and her hair, then hurriedly got dressed in a light blue T-shirt and a pair of denim cutoffs, still resisting the temptation of climbing right back in bed with Jarod. Not bothering to blow-dry her hair, she piled it up in a clip and ignored the few tendrils that escaped and hung down the back of her neck. She went into the kitchen and started brewing a pot of coffee and glanced at the clock. She knew from experience and from what Jarod had said last night that Catie would be up within an hour and so Miss Parker took out the ingredients for pancakes. She heard a movement behind her and turned to see Jarod standing in the kitchen doorway.

"Morning," he said leaning against the door frame looking more handsome than he had the right to in a pair of jeans and an unbuttoned green men's work shirt. "Sleep well?"

Her heart rebelled, knowing that it was only a matter of days, maybe even hours before he had to run out the door. Tell him, her conscience prompted her. Tell him to leave now while your heart is still in one piece instead of breaking it into a million little ones when he does actually go. But she wouldn't, she couldn't. Selfishly she craved more memories to store away in that little section her heart and she knew that she would do anything to keep him with her and Catie as long as possible.

"I slept fine. You?" she said smiling over the carton of milk she carried to the counter.

"Like a baby. I could get used to that," he said coming into the kitchen and standing behind her.

So could I. Miss Parker bit her lip, holding back the words. She wouldn't let herself care. She couldn't afford to. Not with all the promises she wanted him to make and the promises she knew he couldn't keep. Ones they both couldn't keep. She shifted away from him and moved over to the window to look out at the wide creek that surrounded the cabin. He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked out with her. She shrugged his hands off and turned to move away again. But this time he caught her and held her fast, just like the night before.

"What's going on here?" Jarod asked impatiently.

"Nothing. I don't know what you mean." She answered him, but refused to meet his eyes.

"What do you mean, nothing? What's with the cold shoulder?" he insisted.

"I don't know what you're talking about." she said and again made a move to get away from him.

Once more he held her fast and made her stay where she was. "After last night, what is this?"

"What was so special about last night?" she asked hating herself for it, but continued anyway. "It was fun, but it was a mistake. Enough said."

"That's a lie!" he said angrily. He forced her to meet his gaze and saw why she had refused to look at him. Tears were shining in her eyes and her lip was trembling. "Parker, what is the matter? I care about you, please tell me what is wrong?"

"I know you care about me Jarod, that's the problem. I can't care about you," she said.

"What are you talking about?" he asked confused.

"You said you could get used to us and the truth is so could I, but it is only a matter of days before you have to leave again. Then I go back to chasing you for my freedom and to rid you of yours and I can't do that, feeling the way I feel right now. I can't!" she said letting it all out in one explanation.

"Geez, Parker." he gathered her into his arms and felt her arms encircle his waist. "Don't you know, that as soon as I find my family we can start a new life? I will find us someplace to be where the Centre could never find us and then you, Catie, and I can be together forever. Don't you realize that is all I want? For us to be together. It is all I ever wanted."

Damn the Centre, damn her father, damn Raines, and damn her too cautious brain. She was going to have "happily ever after" even if only for a few days, Miss Parker thought, and hugged Jarod's waist even harder and pressed her face into his chest, breathing him in deep.

Jarod held her tightly against his chest and he heard the faint rumble of thunder in the distance. "It's going to rain again. I hope Broots and Sydney know not to try and come up."

"They know." Miss Parker said her head still resting on his shoulder. "If not, I am sure one of them will call."

As if on cue, the phone in the living room rang. Miss Parker made a move towards it and waited until the answering machine picked up. "Parker, it's Syd. It's okay. Pick up the phone."

"Hey, Syd."

"Parker listen, there is supposed to be a really bad storm headed your way so I don't think we should try and make it up there. Especially since Debbie says that if I'm going so are she and Broots."

"She is stubborn, isn't she?" Parker said laughing.

"Yeah, I think maybe she is around you too much." Syd shot back jokingly.

"Don't worry, Syd. We'll be fine. And before you lecture me, I will make sure the house is locked up tight." Miss Parker and Sydney said their good-byes and she hung up the phone.

"There is a major storm headed our way and Syd says to lock the window and doors and use the shutters too." Miss Parker said turning to face Jarod.

"I'll go do that, if you make those pancakes I interrupted." Jarod said moving to let her back into the kitchen.

"Oh, sure. You get to lock a few lousy windows and I have to make breakfast for three. Two of whom, eat like there is no tomorrow." Miss Parker said picking up the dishtowel to wipe up a spill on the counter.

"Just get in there and make my breakfast, woman!" Jarod jokingly told her in a Neanderthal tone. He ducked out of the kitchen just in time to escape the dishtowel that hit the door fame where he was standing. Miss Parker heard him laughing all the way upstairs to close those windows. She had just finished mixing the pancake batter when she heard a noise behind her. She turned just in time to have a tiny body fling itself at her.

"Morning, Mommy." Catie said lifting her face from where it had been buried in Miss Parker's stomach.

"Morning, Baby." Miss Parker said giving her daughter a squeeze. "Why don't you help Mama by setting the table, okay?"

She handed Catie three plates and turned her in the direction of the table.

"Where's Jarod?" Catie asked placing the plates down at the appropriate chair. As another bout of thunder rumbled, obviously getting closer for it had gotten louder, Miss Parker looked down to her left at Catie who was waiting patiently for the cups and silverware.

"He went to go shutter the windows. There is a storm coming and Jarod is making sure that we will be safe."

"Oh, okay. Are Uncle Sydney, Uncle Broots and Debbie coming over?" Catie asked as she took the cups, with the silverware in them, over to the table.

"No, we don't want them getting hurt in the storm so they are going to try and come over tomorrow instead." Miss Parker explained as she drizzled the first three pancakes onto the griddle.

"All right. I guess that's okay." Catie said sighing heavily and Miss Parker had to suppress a smile at the dramatically despondent tone.

"I got all the windows and I locked the doors. Since there is a damp chill in the air I brought in some firewood just in case. I know it is summer, but the storms up in the mountains can make it feel pretty cold." Jarod's voice floated in from the den moments before he appeared in the kitchen doorway.

"Jarod!" Catie jumped up from her chair and raced over to give him a hug.

"Catie-Bug! You slept a pretty long time you know?" Jarod said swinging the giggling child up into his arms and settling her onto his shoulders.

"Hi, Mama!" Catie called from her perch. Miss Parker looked up briefly and waved.

"I guess you guys don't want any pancakes, huh? Oh well, I will have to eat them all by myself." Miss Parker said feigning putting all of the pancakes onto her plate.

"No!" Catie cried and wiggled to get down and ran over to her plate. "I want three blueberry."

"Well, I don't know..." Miss Parker said looking up at Jarod and winking.

"Please, Mama?" Catie pleaded and began to pout. Miss Parker laughed along with Jarod and placed the three pancakes onto Catie's plate. As soon as Miss Parker had finished cutting her pancakes, Catie was attacking them with the syrup and her fork.

"Catherine, what do you say?" Miss Parker scolded gently as she watched Catie shovel more of the syrup-covered, fluffy pancakes into her already full mouth.

"Fank oo!" the girl said and kept on eating. Miss Parker and Jarod shook their heads and began to eat their breakfast as well. Miss Parker looked up and met Jarod's gaze. She nodded and he nodded back, understanding what she was telling him. After breakfast they would tell Catie. They would tell their daughter who Jarod was and he never felt more scared in his entire life.
Awaiting the Morning by Jaclyn Parker
The wind and rain pounded against the side of the cabin and was suddenly accented by a display of lightning and a crash of thunder, making Catie snuggle more deeply into Miss Parker's side on the couch. Jarod looked over from where he was lighting the fire in the fireplace and caught Miss Parker's eye. She nodded her head knowing exactly what he was asking her.

"Catherine, baby, I need...we need to tell you something very important." Miss Parker said shifting so that Catie was facing her. Catie tilted her head and looked curiously from Miss Parker to Jarod and then to Miss Parker. "Do you remember last night, when you asked me if Jarod was your father?"

Catie nodded and Jarod sat down on the edge of the coffee table.

"Your mom didn't answer you, did she?" Jarod asked the confused little girl.

"Uh-uh." Catie said looking askance at Jarod and shaking her head.

"Well, Baby, I am going to answer you now, okay?" Miss Parker said quietly and then looked to Jarod for support. Catie nodded and looked at her mother waiting. "Yes, Catie, Jarod is your father."

The room grew silent except for the sounds of the storm raging outside and the crackle of the fire. Catie looked over at Jarod and studied his face as though she had never seen him before. Jarod held his breath and waited for something to happen although he didn't know what exactly.

After a few moments of silence Catie said softly, "You're crying, Daddy."

Jarod exhaled slowly and sure enough he tasted the salt of tears along side of his mouth. Catie's tiny hands came up to his cheeks and patted the tears away.

"It's okay, Daddy. I knew you would find me. Mommy did." Catie said in mature voice and Jarod felt her small arms wrap around his neck and he clutched his daughter close. Miss Parker felt a few tears slide down her own cheeks and wiped them away hurriedly, before Catie could see them and think something was wrong. Catie sat back on the sofa again and grinned at Jarod. The she looked over at her mother and tapped her leg.

Miss Parker looked down at her daughter and Catie asked, "Can we play a game, Mama?"

Catie looked at her innocently as if totally unaware of the emotional encounter that had just happened.

"Sure, Baby. What do you want to play?" Miss Parker said clearing her throat when her voice came out deep and full of emotion.

"Ummm, Monopoly." Catie said after thinking it over quickly. "I know where Uncle Sydney keeps it. I'll be right back!"

Catie leapt off of the sofa and ran into the hallway to grab the game out of the closet. Jarod took Catie's place on the sofa and placed a gentle kiss on Miss Parker's forehead. She leaned into it and then pulled back smiling lightly. They both watched as the child set up the game and then declared herself banker. Knowing that she could easily handle the large sums of money, the adults conceded and then moved onto the process of picking game pieces. Jarod reached for the small dog, but Catie's hand shot out and stopped him.

"No!" she said loudly. Jarod pulled his hand away slightly taken back and exchanged a glance with Miss Parker. "Here, Jar...Daddy. You get the shoe. And Mama gets the car, and I get the thimble."

Catie said and placed the appropriate piece in front of each player with self-assurance. Miss Parker was confused until she remembered a game long ago with her own parents on a winter's day with the fire blazing. She looked at Jarod and could see he remembered the mementos he had left for her, Broots, and Sydney to find while he was on a pretend. The Wizard of Oz being theme, no less. To this day she couldn't watch that movie without thinking of him and considering it was Catie's favorite movie...well, let's just say there was a constant reminder of Jarod playing on the living room TV.

They took their respective pieces and played well into the morning and early afternoon. Around twelve thirty Miss Parker told a pouting child that it was time for her nap. The storm hadn't quieted at all in the long hours and while Miss Parker put Catie to bed Jarod put a few more logs onto the fire. After a few minutes Miss Parker returned to settle down between Jarod legs on the couch, her back to his chest. They listened for any noises coming from the bedroom and when a few moments of silence with only the rain passed Jarod turned to smile at Miss Parker.

"I think she's asleep." Jarod said wrapping his arms around Miss Parker's waist.

"No she's not, Daddy." Catie called from her bedroom.

"Well she'd better be or she's not going to be able to finish playing Monopoly! " Miss Parker yelled back sharing a secret smile with Jarod.

"She's going to sleep. Nappy nap, Mama. Nappy nap, Daddy."

Jarod laughed along with Miss Parker, then nuzzled his face into her neck. She kissed him on his right temple and they sank down into the couch. Within minutes they were curled up asleep, her head resting on chest and his arms about her. They awoke about a half hour later and Jarod was just about to suggest that they move into the bedroom while Catie napped when a bright flash of lightning appeared to light up the cabin followed by a huge clap of thunder. An earsplitting scream that shook the walls was trailed by a long mournful wail that came from Catie's bedroom.

"Catherine!" Miss Parker jumped off the couch and flew down the hallway. "It's okay, baby, Mama's coming." she called out reassuringly.

Catie's cry became more insistent and more frightened. Miss Parker burst through the bedroom door and found her daughter sitting up in bed, her tiny arms outstretched.

"Mommy!" Catie cried out spotting her mother and started to cry harder. Miss Parker reached the bed and scooped up the sobbing child. She rocked her back and forth, while standing and saying soothing things into Catie's ear. Miss Parker carried her over to the oak rocking chair that was in the far right corner of the bedroom and sat down continuing the rocking motion. She held the trembling child to her body and kept up the soft murmurs in her ear and stroked her back reassuringly. After a few minutes Catie's cries dwindled down into sniffles and Miss Parker shifted her to sitting position on her lap.

"Are you okay, Sweetie?" Miss Parker asked in a soft voice cradling Catie like a baby in her arms. Catie lightly shook her head no and laid her head on Miss Parker's shoulder. Her thumb slipped into her mouth and Miss Parker caught Jarod's concerned gaze from his place in the doorway. "Can you tell Mama what happened? Did you have a bad dream?"

Catie nodded yes and her thumb slid from her mouth. "I dreamed we were back at the beach and Daddy and I were building sand castles. Then Daddy stood up and began to walk away. I called to him, but he kept walking away. He didn't even hear me."

Catie paused and took a breath, her body shaking and tiny hiccup cries still occasionally erupting. "Then I waited for you to come and get me, Mama, but this time you didn't come back. Mr. Raines came instead and took me back to 'the bad place'. And you and Daddy didn't come and get me."

With this Catie began to cry again and buried her face in Miss Parker's neck. Miss Parker just held her, rocked back and forth in the chair, and ran her hand over Catie's hair. Jarod came over and crouched down so that he was height level with Catie.

He placed his hand on top of Miss Parker's and said quietly, "We would never go away and leave you alone, Catie. Mr. Raines will never get you again, even when you go home."

"And you don't ever have to worry about you father and I not coming to find you. We would search for you 'til the end of time. Do you understand what I am saying?" Miss Parker added. Catie looked up at Miss Parker and then at Jarod.

"Uh huh." she said giving a tiny smile.

"Good. Now, who's up for pizza?" Miss Parker said patting Catie's tush and wiping away the final traces of tears from her daughter's face. When Catie's smile grew Miss Parker stood and placed Catie on her hip. "That's what I thought. Let's go see if we find a frozen one without anchovies. I don't see how your Uncle Sydney can eat those things."

"Hey," Jarod said in an indigent tone. "I happen to like anchovies."

Catie laughed at Jarod's face and Miss Parker joined her. Soon Jarod was laughing too and they all padded into the kitchen for dinner.

**********************************************************************

Later that night Miss Parker was coming to tuck Catie in when she noticed that her daughter was staring out the bedroom window into the night and frowning.

"What's wrong, Baby?" Miss Parker said coming up behind her and putting her hand on Catie's head.

"Daddy is going to have to go away again. I can feel it." Catie said her voice full of tears. Miss Parker closed her eyes briefly and dropped her chin to her chest. She knew exactly what Catie was talking about. Miss Parker had that same feeling of impending doom all-day and hated that her daughter could feel it too. Looking up again she stared out the window with Catie.

"Yes, I think he is too." she told Catie regretfully.

Catie turned and looked up at her mother, tears flowing down her cheeks. "I don't want him to go away. Why can't he come home and be with us?"

Miss Parker sighed and led Catie over to the bed. She seated herself on the edge and pulled Catie in to her lap.

"You know how the bad men took you away?" When Catie nodded Miss Parker continued. "Well, they want to take Daddy away too."

"'Cause he's a pretender like me?" Catie asked, her tears turning to sniffles and she placed her thumb in her mouth.

"Yes, because he is a pretender." Miss Parker said kissing the top of Catie's head. She noticed that although Catie had been listening her eyes were drooping and she settling deeper into Miss Parker's lap. She stood and tucked Catie into the bed and kissed her goodnight. She turned off the light and shut the door, placing her forehead against the cool wood, trying to keep the tears of frustration at bay. She felt Jarod come up behind her and leaned back into his embrace. He had been in the process of changing and he had his shirt unbuttoned and she could feel the heat coming off of his body.

"She asleep?" he whispered into her ear.

"I just tucked her in. She's dead on her feet, so I think she'll be out cold in about ten minutes." she replied taking his hand and leading him to the bedroom.

"I don't we'll have the same problem. Do you?" he asked rubbing her back through her blouse.

His eyes locked with hers; deep and dark and bottomless in their depths. And she returned his gaze with all the love and compassion and hope that had been bottled up for years; brought to the surface by her being there in his arms. His hand swept around the back of her neck and began to tangle and swirl in the raven colored strands. He smiled. A devilish twist came to his lips. He scooped her up into his arms and carried her into the bedroom. The smile didn't even leave his lips later as the lover's lay spent in each other's arms.

Holding him to her chest, she increased her grip on him as she felt him try to move away; she couldn't bear to lose his touch so soon. She needed to feel him near her for he made her feel safe in a way she had never felt before. Remembering how they had spooned up last night, Jarod shifted positions and gathered her in his arms, his chest facing her back. He immediately felt her relax into his embrace and he rained kisses down the back of her neck.

"Hmmm." She murmured sleepily. "You feel so good."

Jarod chuckled and nuzzled her neck with his nose then breathing the scent of them, he fell asleep. Miss Parker however, stayed awake, fighting the urge to close her eyes and join him in slumber. She felt his breath on her neck and just reveled in the sensation of being in his arms. She held back tears and swallowed hard.

She couldn't shake the feeling that it would be the last time for a long time that they would be together like this and it made her feel sick. Finally the glorious feeling of being safe and sated got the best of her and her body and she closed her eyes in sleep. But before she was lost in the land of Nod, she made sure Jarod's arms were still tightly wrapped around her.
Reality Strikes by Jaclyn Parker
Miss Parker rose to the ringing of the phone and slapped out a hand to pick it up. When she encountered only warm flesh, she sighed heavily and slapped at Jarod until he was awake also. When he realized the phone was ringing, Jarod whipped out his hand and placed the annoying machine into her outstretched palm.

“What?” she barked hoarsely into the phone.

“Miss Parker!” Broots’ voice came to her over the phone.

“Broots! What the hell are you doing? Do you realize that it is three ‘o clock in the fucking morning?” Miss Parker asked angrily and then feeling Jarod’s hand run up her thigh lightly, she shivered and batted his hand away from her sensitive skin.

“Stop it!” she whispered over her shoulder ignoring Broots’ whining on the other end of the phone.

“Miss Parker, listen to me!” Broots yelled at her over the line. “They are coming to the cabin. Raines told Lyle that it was where Sydney took Jacob before he died and Lyle thinks Jarod is hiding there also. You have to get out of there. They’ll be there in about an hour, maybe two at the most.”

Miss Parker sat straight up in bed, ignoring the fact that she was unclothed, and felt Jarod sit up behind her. When she looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes wide with worry, Jarod knew immediately what was happening.

In lightning speed movements she hung up on Broots, who was in mid- sentence, and she and Jarod were out of the bed. Jarod got dressed and began the familiar routine of cleaning the house to make sure there was no evidence of them being there. Miss Parker paused briefly to watch him and he caught her gaze. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears and he smiled at her sympathetically. She shook her head and finished getting dressed. She then ran into Catie’s bedroom, flicking on the light. Catie was huddled down underneath the covers, but she somehow felt her mother’s presence in the room and wiggled out.

“Mama?” she asked sleepily. “Is it morning already?”

Then with the amazing speed only a child has to wake up without the aid of coffee, Catie’s sleepy look disappeared and she looked excitedly at her mother. “Are we going to swim in the lake today, Mama? I wanna show Daddy how good I can swim.”

She looked at Miss Parker with trusting eyes and Miss Parker felt her breath catch. She was about to destroy her daughter’s happy image and she felt like a complete jerk.

“No, Catie. We can’t go swimming. We have to leave here very quickly.” Miss Parker said breaking her gaze with her daughter and moving to grab a little sundress out the tiny bag, that had served as the closet for the past two days.

Catie sat shock still absorbing the information then small cry escaped her lips. “Mama, they’re coming aren’t they? The bad men.”

Miss Parker just nodded quickly and helped her daughter dress. When the top of the dress slid over Catie’s head, her tear-streaked face was revealed to Miss Parker.

“Oh, Catie. It’ll be okay. I promise.” Miss Parker said quietly pulling the tiny child into her embrace. Catie’s arms encircled Miss Parker’s neck and she clung to her for a few agonizing moments. Miss Parker gently rocked her from side to side, stroking her soft hair before pulling away and kising the top of her head. As soon as she let go, Miss Parker grabbed her hand and the overnight bag, leading Catie into the hallway.

Jarod was waiting for them and he took the bags from Miss Parker slightly caressing her hand in passing. She looked up at him and he smiled sadly. When he returned from putting the bags in the car, he took out his cell phone and dialed a number quickly. While he waited for the other person to pick up, he motioned for Miss Parker to take Catie out to the car. Although somewhat reluctant, she had seen the chemical spray on the coffee table and she knew that he was the best one to erase any sign of their activity from the past few days. She led Catie to the car and buckled her into her car seat, smoothing back the child’s dark hair so it was out of her face. She gave her daughter a reassuring smile and then walked around to settle herself into the passenger seat. A few minutes later Jarod appeared in the doorway, paused then continued down the porch steps.

Jarod buckled into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The sound seemed so loud for the early morning and Miss Parker winced. After squeezing her hand in encouragement, Jarod’s face became hard and he shifted gears. Then pulling out onto the dirt road that Syd had told him to take, neither adult looked back knowing that it would do no good thinking of things they couldn’t have at the moment.

In silence they traveled for an hour, each respectively noticing the clock when it read four thirty. Jarod and Miss Parker exchanged glances sharing the same thought. Lyle would be just arriving at the cabin with his sweeper team and in a few seconds realized he had missed Jarod, again. Miss Parker turned to check on Catie, who had gone back to sleep after about twenty minutes on the road; her dark lashes still wet with the silent tears she had used to cry herself to sleep.

They arrived at a little diner that Miss Parker knew was only about twenty minutes from her house. She immediately noticed Sydney in a seat by a window, sipping a cup of coffee. Miss Parker looked over at Jarod who had also seen Sydney.

“You planned to stop here. It was Syd you called back at the cabin.” She said, not accusingly just stating a fact. He nodded and sighed, leaning back against the headrest.

“I can’t take you all the way. There will be sweepers waiting at your house, they have probably been there since you and Catie disappeared, and if I show up I am bound to be caught. I have to disappear now, while I have a chance. We both know that Sydney has to be the one to take you home and there’s no use pretending otherwise.” He chuckled a wry laugh at his choice of words. Even she had to smile at the irony of it.

They slid out of the car and the shutting of the doors woke up Catie. While Jarod handed the bags over to Sydney, who went to put them in his car after his own good-byes with Jarod, Miss Parker got Catie unbuckled. She lifted her out of the car and set her down to stand in front of her, placing her hands on Catie’s chest and pulling her towards her so the little girl’s back was pressed into Miss Parker’s legs. She realized only too well that she was holding her close, not only for the girl’s sake but her own. Jarod moved to kneel in front of his daughter, unbelievable pain slicing through his chest at Catie’s dejected face. Wordlessly he gathered Catie into his arms, feeling her arms squeeze his neck forcefully.

“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered and pulling back she kissed him good-bye.

“I love you too, Catie-Bug,” he said caressing her cheek tenderly. “Never forget that.”

“I won’t.” Catie said solemnly, stepping back to be held once more in her mother’s protective embrace.

Jarod stood and looked into Miss Parker’s eyes. So much to say, so little time. He let his eyes convey his thoughts and she did the same, knowing that if she uttered a word it would break her.

Miss Parker had never felt this kind of bond before with a man, not even Tommy, and as he moved to climb back into the car, she literally felt as if part of her body was being amputated. The pain was so deep she felt it in her bones and lifting Catie into her arms, she knew that she would not see him for a long time. He would call her as usual, maybe even sometimes at work so she could play the game of huntress/hunted in front of witnesses, but she would not physically feel his touch. And that alone would kill her.

Jarod caught Sydney’s eye again from where he waited in his own respective car and nodded, then with a final boyish smile disappeared into the car and pulled away leaving the image of his daughter in his lover’s arms imprinted in his brain for the rest of his life.

**********************************************************************

Sydney drove them to Miss Parker’s house and remained silent throughout the entire ride, seeming to sense that Miss Parker couldn’t express her emotions for fear she would fall apart. Catie had refused to sit in the back seat even to the point of tears. She had clung to Miss Parker’s waist and Miss Parker had relented, knowing that her daughter’s mood was the result of all of the emotions she was feeling and the lack of sleep. So Miss Parker had done the same thing she had done on the ride with Jarod. Catie now sat contentedly on her mother’s lap, thumb in her mouth awaiting the site of her beloved house.

Then it appeared over the rise of a slight hill, and Catie’s thumb slid out of her mouth in delight. “Mama, there it is! We’re home!”

The car had barely come to a halt when Catie unlocked the door and jumped out. She raced up the driveway and onto the porch, shoving open the front door and disappeared into the house. Miss Parker and Sydney chuckled and she allowed Sydney to get the bags as he shooed her towards the house. Catie burst out of the front door again, this time holding her long missed teddy bear. She raced over to meet Miss Parker halfway and jumped into her arms. Miss Parker laughed and swung her daughter up into her arms, making Catie laugh also.

As she held Catie tight to her chest, Miss Parker heard Catie whisper happily in her ear, “I’m home, Mama.”

She felt a sense of some unknown emotion flee Catie’s body as if it were a dog shaking off water. Again Catie whispered the words, but this time Miss Parker heard the undeniable relief in her daughter’s voice. Finally Miss Parker understood that the unknown emotion had been fear. The fear that Catie had held inside for over a month was of never seeing her beloved home again. Miss Parker set her down on the grass and then after kissing her mother’s cheek, Catie looked over to where Sydney stood by watching them, a tiny smile on his lips, and blew him a kiss also. Sydney and Miss Parker laughed, then took her daughter’s hand and started to move towards the house.

As she made her way to ask Sydney to join them for lunch, Sydney’s face grew hard as he focused on something behind her. Miss Parker turned her head and saw Lyle begin to climb out of an ominous black sedan followed by her father and Brigitte. Miss Parker felt Catie tense up at seeing them and she squeezed her daughter’s hand tighter. Catie ignored the reassuring gesture and wrapped her arm around Miss Parker’s leg and slipping her hand out from Miss Parker’s, she stuck her thumb in her mouth.

“Angel!” her father called out and moved to envelop her in a hug.

“Daddy.” she said hugging him back. She would never forgive him for not telling her about Catie, but she had learned to accept it and move on. Seeing her father bend down to scoop up his granddaughter, she felt a twinge of sadness. She didn’t want Catie to worship her grandfather as Miss Parker had done him when she was younger. It had only brought her pain when she realized all the suffering he had caused to other families and her mother. Miss Parker vowed to try to do whatever it took to keep that pain from ever entering Catie’s heart.

“And how’s my Littlest Angel?” Mr. Parker asked holding Catie at a short distance and flashing his I-can-charm-a-snake smile.

“Fine, Grandpa.” Catie said earnestly as he put her down next to Miss Parker once again. But when Catie spoke, Miss Parker could tell there was a change in the little girl’s attitude toward her grandfather. Miss Parker was slightly confused by this, because before she had gone away Catie had always loved being coddled by her grandfather. She made a mental note to ask Catie about it later and focused her attention on the other two people that had accompanied Mr. Parker on his visit.

“We missed you, Muffin.” Brigitte said smiling at Catie and looping her arm in Mr. Parker’s. Miss Parker felt Catie stiffen at the false note of concern in the blonde’s voice and she mentally cursed Brigitte for treating Catie as if she were an idiot. Even if she hadn’t been a pretender she was still an extremely perceptive child who could detect when people were lying to her. Miss Parker was stopped in her thinking by the large collection of questions coming her way from her odious brother.

“Where have you been, Sis?” Lyle asked and brushed his hand over Catie’s dark head. Catie shrunk back against Miss Parker’s legs and Miss Parker lifted her up into her arms and out of Lyle’s reach.

“I went to go get Catie,” she said telling her psychotic twin as much of the truth she was ever going to tell him.

Shifting farther away from Lyle as he opened his mouth to ask more questions, she then suggested they all go inside the house. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a movement and she grabbed a hold of Sydney’s arm as he made a move to go to his car. She caught his gaze and pleaded silently with her eyes. Sydney sighed and then reached out to take Catie from Miss Parker. The little girl went willingly and Miss Parker followed them into the large house. Sydney took Catie to Miss Parker’s bedroom and came back moments later, after quickly explaining that he had set up a new Disney movie for Catie to watch so the adults could talk.

Miss Parker could tell her father resented having Sydney here, but she also knew that he wouldn’t say anything to cause a scene and apparently Lyle and Brigitte were taking their cues from him, because they didn’t say anything either. She began to tell the tale that she, Jarod, Broots, and Sydney had agreed upon. Her father seemed to accept it and therefore again neither of the other two spoke up, but Miss Parker knew without a doubt that her brother and Brigitte would do some checking up on the story. She wasn’t worried in the least, though. She had complete faith in Jarod and the fact that he had contacted the people to collaborate their tale. Catie walked back into the room, apparently bored with the film, and she climbed into Miss Parker’s lap, snuggling back into her mother’s chest. Miss Parker breathed in the sweet smell of her daughter and smiled when Catie yawned.

“I think it is time for someone’s nap.” Miss Parker said to Catie, but directing the statement towards the other adults in the room, hoping they would take the hint.

“Well,” Sydney said understanding what Miss Parker was trying to do, “I think I had better get going.”

“Yes,” her father spoke up not to be outdone by his employee. “We should all be going.” He leaned over Miss Parker and kissed her forehead. “Good-bye Angel. We’ll come visit again soon. After you get all settled.”

Then he kissed Catie’s head and murmured something about finally being able to get back to business. He led Lyle and Brigitte out, neither of whom said good-bye to Miss Parker. Lyle, however, did pat Catie on the head as he passed and Miss Parker felt her daughter shudder violently. Once they had left, Sydney gave Catie a hug good-bye and then kissed Miss Parker’s cheek.

“I’ll talk to you soon, Parker. Don’t forget that I’m here if you want to talk.” He said earnestly looking into her eyes.

“I know, Syd. Thank you.” Miss Parker replied smiling gratefully. She walked him tot he door and watched him pull out of the driveway. She then turned back to where Catie had been standing, but she was nowhere in sight.

“Catherine,” Miss Parker called out. “Catie, answer me.”

She refused to panic as she walked towards her daughter’s bedroom. She sighed in relief when she noticed Catie lying, sound asleep, on top of her bed. She covered the small girl and kissed her cheek lightly.

“Sleep tight, my beautiful little girl.” Miss Parker whispered. “Welcome home.”
Heart Strings by Jaclyn Parker
Life was pretty much the same as before Catie left in the weeks to follow. School had let out while Catie was gone, but Miss Parker had no worries about her daughter’s learning process suffering at all. The result of being a pretender, her daughter had the genius of an adult and therefore she was on a much higher learning scale than the other children. So summer school wasn’t necessary and after what had happened she couldn’t bear to send Catie away to camp, even a day camp. Miss Parker left her with Debbie and Annie, a college junior who was taking classes to get a child care degree and who earned credits and money by watching the two children during the summer. Catie loved going over to Debbie’s house to play, but so far, all Catie had wanted to do anyway was talk about her upcoming birthday and ways to spend the special day.

Catie had readjusted very well since her return home and for all outward appearances seemed to be the same bright and bouncy kid she was before she had left, but Miss Parker could tell that she missed Jarod a lot. Catie would sometimes stare out the window at the driveway as though waiting for him to show up on their doorstep. Or she mentioned things she had done with him while in the privacy of their home around the dinner table, and then become silent for the rest of the evening. After times like that, a smile couldn’t even be coaxed by her favorite video, The Wizard of Oz.

Although it had her slightly worried, Miss Parker could hardly blame her. She had found it very hard to pretend that all she wanted to do was catch Jarod and return him to the Centre “where he belonged” when all she could think about was the way his hands had felt on her body and the way that her heart jumped when he smiled at her. Or the way he had treated Catie even before he had known she was biologically his. But most of all she couldn’t forget his face as he drove away that last day. That was a constant image in her head. She could see his heart in his eyes as he looked at her for the last time and she could feel his heart beating in the same rhythm as her own, as they both held back the words they had wanted to say for fear that they wouldn’t be enough.

Broots and Sydney had understood well enough and even helped botch some of the leads on Jarod for her, but after the fifth failed attempt in two weeks even her father began to seem suspicious. Which was exactly the case the week before Catie’s birthday, when he called her into his office to talk to her.

“Angel, what is going on with you? I understand you went through a great deal with Catie, but we must catch Jarod!” he’d said frowning at her while he paced his office. “Then and only then, will everything return to normal around here.”

She had gazed at him silently, knowing inside that it wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t understand what she was feeling. He had no idea that his daughter had fallen in love with the so-called enemy. She had simply apologized and he had suggested that she take some time off with Catie to get back in the swing of things. To her father’s surprise, she had agreed and walked out of his office without a word, a location already forming in her mind.

So without telling Catie where they where going, she had packed two suitcases and drove her confused daughter to the airport. A few hours on a plane and a short drive later they stood in front of the most perfect spot that Miss Parker could think of.

Catie’s face had lit up when she saw the townhouse set directly on the beach and immediately raced over to where she knew the key was hidden. Lifting the flowerpot she unlocked the front door and ran into her old bedroom, the one she had been in when she was with Jarod.

“Mama,” Catie said racing out again, panting with excitement. “Thank you!”

The tiny girl threw herself at Miss Parker knocking her back slightly and making her laugh.

“I told you I knew the best spot. And guess what? Uncle Broots and Debbie have rented the townhouse next door, and Uncle Sydney has the one on the other side of them. They are all coming tomorrow to help celebrate your next Sunday.”

“But that’s a whole week away. How long are we staying for?” Catie asked confused, but definitely not unhappy.

“I told Grandpa, over the phone, that we were going to be gone for about a week and a half.” Miss Parker answered moving to bring in the suitcases.

“Are he, Brigitte, and Uncle Lyle coming too?” Catie asked quietly.

“No, Baby. They had to go far away for business and they can’t make it. You remember that Grandpa gave you your gift yesterday. The China doll?” Miss Parker said unpacking and helping Catie to the same, as she talked. “And the dress that Uncle Lyle gave you to go with the doll?”

Besides, Miss Parker thought to herself, how could they come when I didn’t tell them where we were going?

“Uh huhs.” Catie replied and moved off to her room to hang up her dresses and put away the rest of her clothes. Catie remembered getting the present all right, just like she remembered being visited by both of them when the mean man had taken her back to the “bad place”. They had thought she was asleep, but she knew they were there. At first she had thought they were here to save her, but after a few minutes she understood by their words that they were going to try and keep her there without telling her mama. That was when Catie had given up hope. If her own uncle and grandfather were in on this, she would never see her mom again. Catie couldn’t tell her mom any of that, though because her mama was so happy now and it would ruin everything. Besides the bad people couldn’t ruin her birthday. Her mama would see to that.

Pushing aside those ugly thoughts a more cheerful one popped into her head. If only her daddy could come, then everything would be perfect! Maybe her mom knew. The question that Miss Parker had been dreading was asked when Catie wandered back into the room.

“Is Daddy coming?” Catie asked again softly, looking up at Miss Parker with a hopeful expression. Miss Parker sighed and sat on the edge of the huge bed that was next to a big bay window.

“Come here.” she said and settled Catie onto her lap. “I honestly don’t know if your father is coming. I know you miss him and I do too, but you know as well as I do that it might not be safe for him. But we can hope, right?”

Catie nodded and Miss Parker kissed the top of her head. Changing the subject, Miss Parker shifted so that Catie was looking at her.

“In the mean time, what do you say to a walk on the beach and then we go for a swim before dinner?”

Catie gave a small smile and nodded, and then a mischievous look came over her face. She bit her lip to stop from smiling and deadpanned, “Are you gonna cook? Cause I don’t mind orderin’ pizza...”

Miss Parker made a face at her daughter, then laughed and hugged Catie tightly. “Don’t get smart with me young lady! Go pick out a bathing suit, okay?”

“Okay!” Catie yelled and ran off into her bedroom, Miss Parker on her heels.

**********************************************************************

Sydney was just about to leave his office, his suitcases already in the car, when the phone began to ring. It had been so long since he had been to the beach and now he was going to spend the time with very special people. So he was not very thrilled at the shrill sound coming from the telephone on his desk.

“This is Sydney,” he said answering phone, causing the irritating noise to cease.

“Hello, Sydney.” Jarod said smiling at the sound of his mentor’s voice.

“Jarod! How are you?” Sydney said sitting back down in the chair he had just evacuated, his annoyance dissipating quickly.

“I’m fine, Syd. I’m calling, because I can’t get a hold of Miss Parker. I was wondering if there was something going on that I should know about.” Jarod said trying to sound disinterested and trying to be careful not to let the concern he felt slip into his voice, just in case the line was being monitored.

“She is fine, Jarod. In fact she just took some much needed vacation time.” Sydney said picking up a pencil and toying with it.

“Anyplace in particular?” Jarod asked hope at seeing his family again springing up.

“I’m sorry, Jarod. I can’t tell you that.” Sydney said instantly regretting the words, but he knew that the Centre had been tapping his phone since he had gotten back.

“But Sydney...?” Jarod asked, shocked that Sydney wouldn’t tell him.

“All I know is that she said she was going someplace that had warm, family memories. Now I have to go, Jarod. Take care of yourself.” With that Sydney hung up the phone on a stunned Jarod. He stood for a few seconds staring at the phone, then grinned and flicked off the lights, locking his office door behind him.

For a few moments Jarod just stared at the cellular phone in his hand in utter shock, then Sydney’s final words ran through his head again. Sudden realization dawned on him and Jarod grinned. He flipped open his phone again, making the necessary flight arrangements.

**********************************************************************

Jarod stepped out of his rented, red, Jaguar convertible and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. He saw Broots on the patio of one of the beach town homes, with Debbie, trying to explain how to grill a perfect hamburger. He chuckled as Broots flipped a hamburger and it landed on the ground. He laughed again, louder this time, when Debbie expertly flipped one and it landed on the grill perfectly. He switched his gaze over to where he had noticed Sydney standing by the railing, looking out over the ocean and he walked over to him.

Sydney heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Jarod approaching. He enthusiastically embraced the young man and grinned. Jarod heard Broots shout to him and Jarod waved at him and his daughter, who waved and smiled back shyly. Again he focused his attention to the older man in front of him and raised his sunglasses.

“Where are they, Syd?” Jarod asked not being able to hold it in anymore. Sydney laughed, not offended in the least. And knowing exactly whom he meant he pointed over Jarod’s shoulder. Jarod turned and saw them appear right before his eyes, as though a mirage in the desert.

Miss Parker wore a pink halter-top and a matching pink and yellow sarong wrap around her waist. Her hair was pulled up in a messy twist and her dark sunglasses were perched on top of her head. She wore nothing on her feet and the waves were just licking them as she walked along the water’s edge. Just ahead of her, ran Catie in a light green sundress that swished around her knees. The child was running into the water, then running out again and over to where Miss Parker was walking, repeating the process over and over again. Her bare feet were making small imprints in the sand and Catie became fascinated by her being able to make her mark on the world. The slight breeze carried the girl’s laughter to where Jarod stood and he felt drawn to them as if by magic.

Miss Parker watched Catie chase the waves and smiled widely. Suddenly Catie stopped short and stared straight ahead. Then she began to run down the stretch of beach, screaming at the top of her lungs.

“Daddy!” Catie cried and leapt into the strong embrace of her father. Jarod lifted Catie way over his head and spun in a circle causing the child to laugh hysterically. He brought her down to his chest again and she buried her face in his neck clinging to him tightly.

“My Catie-Bug!” he said happily, not caring at all if she hugged all the oxygen out of his body.

“Daddy, I knew you’d show up. Mama didn’t think you would, but I knew. I knew.” Catie said over and over.

“I will never miss your birthday, Catie-Bug. Not for anything in the world.” Jarod said pulling her back so she could look into his eyes.

Catie grinned and kissed him, sweetly, on the nose. “I missed you so much, Daddy.”

“I missed you too, Catie.” Jarod said tenderly.

“Catie!” came Debbie’s cry from the patio. “My dad says you can flip a burger if you hurry!”

Catie wiggled to get down and she began to run towards the house. She stopped and turned back to look at Jarod.

“You won’t leave will you, Daddy?” Catie asked a worried expression on her face.

“I won’t leave, sweetheart. I promise.” Jarod said solemnly and that seemed to satisfy her for she ran the rest of the way to the house. Jarod turned and saw that Miss Parker had not budged an inch, from the time he had made his appearance on the shore, and he made his way over to where she stood.

Miss Parker saw him approaching and couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of him. He looked to good to be true, with an open white shirt showing off his tan and a pair of black pants rolled up over his ankles, so that they wouldn’t get wet. His feet were bare, like hers, and she stared at his feet rather than looking up and have him disappear in front of her eyes. He stopped right in front of her and she reluctantly looked up, certain he was a figment of her imagination. They just stood there staring at each other as if in disbelief.

“Hi,” he said smiling at her.

“Hi,” she whispered, but not smiling back. He titled his head and looked at her, a slightly confused expression on his face. Miss Parker swallowed hard and looked up into his face her eyes bright.

Clearing her throat she asked, “Are you real? Or am I dreaming again?”

Jarod just smiled, eyes twinkling, and let her talk.

“I imagined something like this happening at least a thousand times, but each time I would wake up before I could touch you.” Miss Parker reached out a hand and let her fingers graze his chest. Then taking a deep breath she laid her whole palm down firmly on his hard front. Jarod sucked in his breath, as though he had been burned, and looked down at her, his face now deadly serious. She shook her head as if in disbelief and he stroked the side of her face with his hand, to assure her. She looked up at him, a wondrous expression on her face and held his hand to her cheek.

“I’m real,” he said leaning his forehead against hers and letting it rest there a second or two before lifting it again and staring into her eyes.

Miss Parker nodded and sighed quietly and found herself wrapped in his embrace. Her head rested on his chest and she was filled with an emotion so far beyond happiness she doubted that it had a name. Jarod held her head to his chest and just hugged her tightly.

“Everything’s okay now, Parker. I’m here now.” he whispered into her hair and hugged her tighter, not to reassure her anymore, but to make sure he believed it as well. “We’re together.”

From his view on the porch, Sydney smiled as he watched two of the most important people in his life reunite. He looked down to his right and saw Catie next to him, watching her parents. She leaned into Sydney’s side and grinned also.

“Hi, Pop-Pop.” Catie said lifting her arms up to be held by her grandfather. Sydney just smiled at the bright child beside him thinking that she was too smart for her own good.

One day, not long after she and Miss Parker had returned home, she had caught him watching a DSA of one of Catherine Parker’s therapy sessions and had said something that, luckily, no one else had noticed before.

“You were in love with her, Uncle Sydney.” Catie had said matter-of- factly leaning on his arm. He had been surprised, but not as much as he should have been. He was tempted to lie to her, but when he glanced into her young eyes he had seen that she already knew the truth. She had just been waiting for him to confirm it. And so he had.

“Yes, Catie. I was.”

They watched the interaction between the two adults on the screen and Catie again made a correct assumption.

“You are my Mama’s daddy, aren’t you?” She had asked him not expecting an answer, because again she had no need for one. She was certain she already knew it. That had definitely taken him off guard and he thought back to a long time ago.

“What makes you ask that, Catherine?” he had asked, surprised.

Catie had just looked at him, with an expression much wiser than her years and said, “There is a connection between you and my mama like there is with me and my daddy. Mama feels it too, but she doesn’t know what it is, like I do. It’s a heart string.”

“A heart string?” Sydney had asked puzzled.

“Uh-huh. It’s like when a person is born they automatically have an invisible string from their heart to their moms and dads. Then as they get older and learn to love more people more strings appear so that when you die, your heart has so many strings it looks like a sun with it’s rays of light.” Catie had told him tilting her head and talking as though she were a Greek philosopher instead of a four-year-old child.

Sydney had smiled and nodded, realizing for the first time he was talking to a pretender and not just a little girl. She had a wisdom and comprehension that many adults don’t ever achieve. He didn’t even remember Jarod having such a grasp on things at two years older than her. Sydney liked this theory of Catie’s, so when she asked him again moments later if he was her grandfather he said yes. Although he knew he didn’t have to, he had made her promise not to tell her mother. She had agreed, but like he had guessed she’d said that it wasn’t her place to tell her mother. It was Sydney’s job.

Since then, in private she had called him Pop-Pop and he had let her, clandestinely delighted that his secret had been found out. So far he had just never found the right time to tell Miss Parker about her true parentage, but if all went well he had decided to tell her sometime this weekend.

His mind drifted back to the present when his impatient granddaughter stomped her small foot and again lifted her arms to held.

Once in his arms she leaned her head against his and smiled. “It’s gonna be okay, Pop-Pop. It’s all going to be okay.”

“I hope so, little one.” He said, looking out again to watch his daughter and the man he already thought of his son kiss in the dying sunlight. “I hope so.”

“Pop-Pop, when are we going to tell Mama our big secret?” Catie asked grimacing at the sight, like any normal kid would, but secretly loving seeing her parents together.

“I don’t know, Catherine.” Sydney said knowing that she meant about him being Miss Parker’s father. “I don’t know if there is a perfect time. We just have to see the way the cards fall.”

“Okay, I understand.” Catie said, but she knew deep down he was afraid to tell. A plan formed in her head and she grinned to herself.

A small smile must have escaped onto her lips because her grandfather looked at her and asked, “What is so funny, Catherine?”

“Nothing, Pop-Pop. Nothing at all.” Catie said and wiggled to down, then ran into the house to join Debbie at the computer. She knew what she had to do. Come hell or high water, her mother would know the truth that night.
Lies, Upon Lies, Upon Truth by Jaclyn Parker
Truth confronts us, and we can no longer understand anything.
~Paul Valery

**********************************************************************

“But I don’t wanna go to bed now!” Catie said pouting and folding her arms over her chest trying to look fierce, but not succeeding. It probably had to do with the fact that she was four and dressed in a Winnie-The-Pooh nightgown.

“Catherine Elaine, you have stayed up two full hours past your bedtime. Even Debbie went to bed a half hour ago. Now march into that room!” Miss Parker told her stubborn daughter sternly, placing her hands on her hips.

Jarod laughed as he watched the standoff between his lover and their daughter. They both stood legs braced apart and arms akimbo. Each wore a scowl saying that neither one was ready to give in. Jarod decided to intervene before things got ugly. He jumped up, swept Catie into his arms and held her upside down over his shoulder.

Catie squealed at the unexpected change in positions, frantically squirming to be upright. She lifted her head to see her mother standing in front of her, a slight smile on her lips.

“Give up?” Miss Parker asked tilting her head.

“No!” Catie said curious what would happen if she disagreed.

“Okay, let ‘er rip, Jarod!” Miss Parker said crossing her arms in front of her chest. Catie looked at her mother suspiciously and then began to laugh hysterically as her father began to tickle the hell out of her.

“Ahhhh!” the little girl screeched writhing in laughter. “No fair. It’s two against one!”

“It’s called parenting!” Miss Parker said smiling in earnest now. After a few more seconds, Catie knew she was beaten.

“Okay!” she yelled out in a breathless gasp. “I give up! I’ll go to bed!”

Jarod placed her down and Catie sunk to the floor in a heap. She lay on the living room rug panting and letting the giggles subside. Finally she sat up and looked over at Sydney who had stood by and watched the comedic scene.

“Can Uncle Sydney tuck me in?” Catie asked, suddenly remembering her plan.

Miss Parker shrugged and looked at Jarod who also shrugged. Miss Parker nodded at Catie and the child got up. She gave each of her parents a hug and kiss good night, then lifted her arms expectantly towards Sydney. He walked over and hefted the little girl into his arms and Catie promptly laid her head down on his shoulder, placing her thumb in her mouth. He walked her into her bedroom and laid her gently on the bed. Sydney waited patiently as Catie scrambled to say her prayers then slid back under the covers.

Back in the living room Miss Parker looked over at Jarod. “You know Sydney is a total pushover when it comes to your stubborn daughter.”

Jarod looked at her in mock hurt.

“Oh, so when she is stubborn she becomes my daughter?” Jarod asked nodding his head slowly. “I see how it is.”

Miss Parker just grinned at him.

“You idiot.” she said laughing. Then her eyes took on a mischievous gleam and she looked over at Jarod.

“What do you say we listen in on Sydney’s bedtime stories? I want to make sure he isn’t explaining Freud’s theories to her.” Miss Parker told Jared, smiling.

“Nah,” Jarod deadpanned. “She already knows those.”

Miss Parker gave him a look that showed him what she thought of that comment and grabbed his shirt, pulling him to just outside their daughter’s bedroom door. They leaned on the opposite sides of the door and listened. Knowing that her mother wouldn’t be able to resist listening in, Catie spoke loudly to Sydney. And just like she had planned, her voice drifted out to reach their ears.

“So are we gonna tell Mama tomorrow?”

Miss Parker raised her eyebrow at Jarod and Jarod shrugged, signaling he had no clue either.

“Catherine, we have been through this. I will tell your mother when the time is right.” Sydney replied.

“But you don’t wanna. You’re scared she won’t love you anymore, but my mama has to know.” Catie said her voice losing all childlike qualities and sounding like a mature adult.

“Catie, enough.” Sydney said sounding weary as if he had just fought a great battle.

“No, it’s not enough. I hate having to hide this secret from Mama and I know you do too. Please, why can’t we just tell her? Please, Pop-Pop?” Catie’s voice pleaded.

“Catie, you know better than to call me that when your parents are around.” Sydney said sternly.

“They're in the other room. Anyway, that’s what I am supposed to call you. You my mama’s daddy so that makes you my Pop-Pop!” Catie said happily.

“Yes, I know it does.” Sydney said chuckling quietly.

At the last statement Miss Parker felt all the air rush from her lungs and she looked shell-shocked at Jarod. His eyes had also widened and he stood straight up, not believing what they had just heard. Miss Parker stumbled away from the doorframe back into the living room and reached out her arm to try to find something stable to support her. She found it in the form of the back of the couch and clung to it, her knuckles white from the strain of trying to hold herself up. Jarod had followed her in cautiously, knowing from personal experience that she could blow any second. He watched her take shaky deep breaths and when she seemed to be calmer he started towards her. It was at that moment Sydney chose to walk back into the living room. Miss Parker stood straight and stared at him, betrayal in her eyes.

“Sydney...how...?” she asked her voice ragged and disbelieving. Sydney stopped short and quickly realized what was going on. His face flashed guilt at the expression of pain Miss Parker wore. He wiped his face with his hand and looked at her, devoid of excuses. Miss Parker felt anger rise quickly and moved a step towards him.

“How could you not tell me? How long have you known, Syd? How long? Dammit, tell me! You owe me that much. How long have you fucking known, Sydney?” she screamed at him ignoring Jarod’s attempts to quiet her.

She moved again, only this time Jarod could see her fists curled at her side and her eyes flashing anger and hurt. Jarod stepped in front of her, caught her and held her back before she could do Sydney bodily harm. She fought against him, screaming at Sydney. The man took every word in stride and flinched occasionally at some of the words she hurled at him. Suddenly before Miss Parker could say anything more, a small body hurled itself between Sydney, Miss Parker, and Jarod.

“Stop it!” Catie screamed, surprising everyone. She glared at her mother saying, “Stop yelling at him!”

“Catherine,” Miss Parker said shaking her head, “this is a grown up matter. It doesn’t concern you.”

“Yes it does! I knew who he was, but I didn’t say anything either. That makes it just as much my fault as his. So be as mad as you want, but just stop yelling at him!” Catie said angrily. “I won’t let you yell at him!”

“Catherine, go back to bed.” Miss Parker said sternly her voice shaking with anger towards Sydney.

“No!” Catie said defiantly, crossing her small arms to prove her point.

“Catherine, do as your mother says.” Sydney said.

“I don’t need your help.” Miss Parker said raising her chin in defiance that matched her daughter’s inch for inch. She couldn’t think past the betrayal and hurt that she felt and spoke the first thought that came into her head. “I want you to get out of here. Right now! Don’t ever come near me or my child again.”

Sydney nodded at this, but Catie began to cry softly. Sydney knelt down to her level and smoothed his hand over her dark hair.

“No, Pop-Pop, no!” Catie said tears streaming down her face, shaking her head no to accent her words. “Please don’t go. Please, Pop-Pop.”

She was shaking visibly and her little grip on his shoulders tightened. “I want you to stay.”

“Thank you, Catherine, but your mother is right. I should have told her a very long time ago.” Sydney said to her quietly, gathering her up in a hug.

“But, Pop-Pop, it wasn’t your fault. They would’ve killed you.” Catie said her voice choked up by her tears that continued to make little rivers down her face.

Miss Parker and Jarod both stiffened, knowing that it was completely true, but hating the fact that their four-year-old daughter had to be the one to point that out. No child should know that type of thing about anyplace, especially a place like the Centre. Sydney looked up at them and sighed deeply.

Catie leaned back out of his embrace and placed her small hand on his shoulder comfortingly. “Tell them, Pop-Pop. They’ll understand.”

“Tell us, Syd.” Jarod said softly.

Sydney and Jarod looked at Miss Parker to see if she would agree. Miss Parker looked at Catie, whose face pleaded silently with her mother, and finally she nodded slowly.

Miss Parker and Jarod sat down on the living room couch and waited as Catie led Sydney to the armchair. As soon as he sat down she crawled into his lap and snuggled into his chest. Sydney looked down at the child sitting on his lap, feeling the support radiate from her and flow into him. He smiled and wrapped his arms around her in a small hug of gratitude.

“It was about a year after your mother had started her therapy sessions with me and she was becoming more and more depressed.” Sydney began his voice taking on a distant tone and eyes a faraway look as if he was watching it all again.

“Her husband and Dr. Raines had been talking about something called the Pretender Project and whatever it was, Catherine knew it was going to be horrible. Her husband began to ignore her and spend more time at the Centre. She was becoming more and more withdrawn and the only time I ever saw her smile was when she talked about her love of painting and the prospect of having children. She felt that she couldn’t talk to him about it so she came to me. We began to find that we had a lot of things in common and before long we were spending more and more time together.”

Sydney paused and looked down at Catie in his lap. She had dozed off and Jarod rose to lift her into his arms. Sydney kissed the top of child’s head and relinquished her to her father. Sydney and Miss Parker sat in an uncomfortable silence and waited until Jarod came back from putting Catie back to sleep. Syd waited for Jarod to get settled again on the sofa and then continued.

“Well it was around late March, maybe early April, when Mr. Parker and Raines went away for a week. It was a trip to ‘seek prospective candidates for the Pretender Project’ and Catherine was un-movable in her opposition to the whole thing. They had an argument the night before he left and he ended up hitting her. She called the next day, after he left, to say she wouldn’t be in for her normal session. I knew something was wrong almost immediately. I could sense it and I think she knew that I could, too, because she wasn’t surprised when I showed up at the house and demanded to know if she was okay.”

“When I saw the bruises he had given her...I lost it. I told her to leave him and come away with me. I knew I was in love with her by then and I believe now, she was in love with me also. But she refused. She said that there were to be more important things ahead for us in the future and she had no right to alter its course. I never asked her how she knew that nor did I ask her to change her mind. I knew she was right and not only that, but we would have never been able to hide for long. It was long ago, but it was still the Centre. But we did have that week. That one glorious week and for the entire time we never left each other’s side. Mr. Parker and Raines came back as planned and the after a few days, she went away on her regular vacation to Maine. She continued to have sessions with me, but we never spoke of it again. You were born the following January. Of course, I always suspected that Mr. Parker knew you weren’t his, but he never brought it up.”

“When you were born, I went up to the maternity ward and watched you for over an hour. Later I visited Catherine in her room when her husband had to go to a Triumvirate meeting and she was sitting in the bed holding you. She looked up at me and just smiled. ‘Come see your daughter, Sydney.’ she’d said softly. I walked over and she placed you in my arms. You looked at me and I swear you smiled. Then I began to cry because I knew I would never be able to acknowledge you as my own and Catherine was weeping silently because she knew it too. I gave you a kiss and handed you back to your mother. It was the last time I was ever allowed to hold you as your father.”

“We continued our sessions and we stayed close, but never became intimate again. It was about five and a half years later when she came to me in utter desperation. She said her husband had found the perfect pretender to start the program and I had no idea why, but the candidate seemed to upset her so much that she was physically ill. She never told me why she was so upset about the pretender, but I knew I had to help her in some way. I had an idea and begged her to get her husband to have me run the research program. I knew that if I took charge I might be able to control it and she might feel better. Catherine was a very smart woman and she knew what I was doing. Even though she agreed she said that there were some things even God couldn’t prevent and that the project’s ruin would be one of them. I was determined to prove her wrong. You came, Jarod, about three days later and were placed in my care, a request made by Mr. Parker, personally. Of course, Catherine was really behind it, but she and I were the only two that ever knew.”

Sydney looked up briefly at Miss Parker and tilted his head and said, “You asked me once, during a time of uncertainty for both of us, why I didn’t leave the Centre when things got bad?”

Miss Parker felt something stir deep inside of her as she remembered the few days that she and Sydney had been trapped together and forced to confront some of their deepest fears. She had indeed asked him that question and he had answered her, but apparently he hadn’t told the whole truth.

Sydney continued, “What you really meant to ask me was why didn’t I leave when your mother died, for that indeed was when things became bad for me and the Centre. Well, the day your mother died a part of me died as well, but I still had to watch over you and Jarod. It became the only joy I had when I saw you two together. I knew that you and Jarod had been friends and seeing each other even though the Centre had strictly forbidden it. But it was the only time I could see you and I distracted the Centre as many times as I could. But your father found out what I was doing and sent you away to boarding school so you wouldn’t distract Jarod from his work. But I always suspected it was to get at me for some reason. I guess, thinking about it now, he must know about your mother and I.”

“Anyway, after you left Jarod and I both went through a period of slight depression, but Jarod could express his when I had to keep it down inside. But I would get pictures and reports on you by stealing them from the computer mainframe from e-mail’s to Mr. Parker or in the old fashioned way of reading his mail. The next time I saw you was after Jarod escaped and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Sydney stopped and his expression cleared as though brought back to reality. Miss Parker had listened to this whole account with silent tears and Jarod in complete shock. Miss Parker watched Sydney’s facial expressions and felt a profound sense of loss at the years they had missed. She thought back to when her mother had just died and her father...well the man she had thought was her father...wouldn’t even talk about her. He didn’t even comfort her at the wake. In fact, she didn’t even remember seeing him there. It was Sydney who had held her hand and comforted her with his kind and soft words. It was he who had told her it was all right to cry and then hugged her to his side as she let the tears of pain flow. He had told her he would always be there for her and then he had kissed her head. She had felt such a calm sweep over her that she hadn’t felt since she was in the presence of her mother.

Miss Parker came back to the present and found both men staring at her, waiting for her reaction as if she were a time bomb. She cleared her throat and sat straight up, placing her hands in her lap calmly.

“I’m not sure what to say. I do feel betrayed, in a sense, but knowing the way the Centre works I agree with Catie. They would have killed you if only to get to me or Jarod.” she began her eyes clear and voice strong. “It will take time, but I think eventually it will be easier to accept. I will allow Catie to call you Pop-Pop, but it must not be revealed to anyone else at the Centre. Lyle and Brigitte would undoubtedly use it against us and I don’t even want to think about what the Triumvirate would do.”

Sydney nodded in agreement and Jarod did the same. The latter spoke up and stood. “I think it is time we all get some sleep, It has been...a long night, to say the least.”

Sydney and Miss Parker stood and just looked at each other for a long moment. Sydney broke the gaze first and moved to the front door. A few seconds later they heard the door shut and knew he was gone. Jarod stood and place his hand on Miss Parker’s elbow as though to hold her up. She looked at him her eyes bright with unshed tears.

“I don’t understand how you can stand all the lies and cover ups of your parentage?” She said quietly. “Jarod, what am I going to do? I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Jarod took her chin in his hand and shook his head. “Follow me.”

He led her down the small hallway and stopped in front of Catie’s bedroom and pushed open the door. The pale light from Catie’s night light mixed with the light of the moon and together they cast their glow on the small child sleeping in the bed. She was sprawled on her back with her dark hair spread around her like a raven colored aura. Her tiny lashes lay against her rosy cheeks and her cupid’s bow of a mouth was turned up in tiny smile. Her small hands were in loose fists and directly on either side of her head, the thumb on one hand still slightly wet from being inside Catie’s mouth. Catie looked so tiny in the huge full-sized bed. So small, in fact, that it seemed if she shifted she would disappear in the soft folds of the sheets and never be seen again.

Miss Parker swept her gaze over her child and felt the immense love hit her full force as it always did when she thought of this tiny creature that was hers.

“You know who you are.” Jarod whispered in her ear. “You’re her mother and nobody could ever take your place in her life. You need to ask yourself a question. Am I going to keep all the bitterness and hatred inside me for the rest of my life and pass the anger onto my child; or am I going to forgive and hopefully teach my daughter the right way to love?”

Miss Parker felt the tears catch in her throat as she realized that he was right. “I have to do the right thing, if only for Catie. And she loves him so much already, how can I do what they did to me and to you. How can I deny Catie her family?”

“You can’t, because that is who you are. That is who you were always meant to be.” Jarod told her hugging her to his chest.

She wrapped her arms over his and leaned back into his embrace, savoring the moment. Together they watched their future sleep peacefully in her bed and waited for the morning.
Past Answers for the Present by Jaclyn Parker
Quick Author’s note: The starred (*) part of the story is a DSA and takes place in the past

The next few days passed slowly and along with them came much healing between Sydney and Miss Parker. The breaking point for them came on the day before Catie’s big birthday party. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon and Jarod and Broots had decided to take Catie and Debbie to the beach to look for seashells while Miss Parker finished up the wrapping of Catie’s presents. Sydney had declined the men’s offer to join them on the account he had a little bit of wrapping to do himself. And so the two younger gentleman and their daughters left, excitement surrounding them like a cloak. From certain viewpoints within the house, the girls could be seen scampering along the private section of the beach with their attentive fathers following them closely.

Miss Parker had just finished wrapping her final gift in the living room when she noticed Sydney slip out onto the balcony. He seemed to be deep in his thoughts and moments later he walked down the balcony stairs onto the beach and began to walk along the shoreline. Catie spotted him immediately and rushed over to him. She latched onto his leg and even from Miss Parker’s point of view she could see him hug the four year old to his side and laugh. She got up to get another ribbon to curl from the decorations bag in her bedroom and was about to pull out a bright pink one when she noticed a DSA on top of her bed with a slip of paper containing a DSA code next to it. She approached it cautiously and lifted it up to the light. It reflected brilliantly and caused her to flinch when the light struck her eyes. She walked over to where she knew Jarod kept his DSA player and slid the small disk inside the DSA slot and typed in the code.

The screen came to life and almost immediately she recognized the little boy seated on a small cot much like the ones that were still in the deepest sub levels of the Centre. The DSA was set about a month after Jarod had been brought to the Centre and Sydney was trying to teach him the basics of a simulation they were about to do. Before they could start Catherine Parker appeared on the screen with a child, who looked like a slightly older version of Catie, clutching her hand tightly. Miss Parker recognized it as herself by the dress the child was wearing, remembering that it had been one of her favorites as a little girl. She watched, entranced, as the scene played out.

***
“Mrs. Parker?” Sydney exclaimed surprised. “What are you doing here? And with...Miss Parker.”

“Shh, Sydney I know. And don’t start with the Mrs. Parker again. It’s Catherine to you and it will always be Catherine to you.” Catherine Parker replied placing a placating hand on his arm. “I came to see how he is doing.”

“Well, I think Mr. Parker is pleased. As well as Dr. Raines and the Triumvirate.” Sydney said watching the little boy trace his hand along a seam in the cot.

The young Miss Parker suddenly let go of her mother’s hand and wandered over to where the young Jarod sat. She smiled tentatively at him and he smiled back at her shyly.

“Hi,” Miss Parker said to the boy, her head high in courage.

“Hi.” Jarod replied quietly.

“Wanna hear a joke?” the five year and a half old girl asked the six year old boy, seating herself down next to him on the bare cot.

“Okay,” the little boy shrugged and shifted closer to the small girl.

“Catherine,” Sydney said sounding alarmed.

“I know, Sydney. We shouldn’t let them even see each other, but look at them. I have never seen her make a friend so fast. Usually she is very shy with other children.” Catherine Parker said watching the children’s interaction carefully.

“And just look at Jarod. He is laughing. I haven’t seen him even smile since he was brought here.” Sydney said nodding along with his own words.

“Sydney, we need to talk.” Catherine looked directly up into the camera’s face and then leaned over to whisper in Sydney’s ear. They moved into the shadows, out of audio range of the camera and began talking furiously. Meanwhile the two children continued to have their own repartee and even laughed together a few times.

Sydney and Catherine Parker moved back into the camera’s focus and stopped when they caught sight of the two children. They had fallen asleep during the adult’s rendezvous and Jarod had his arm protectively draped over the young Miss Parker’s body. Catherine Parker gasped quietly and covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes tearing slightly. Sydney placed his hand on her shoulder and she covered it with her own, her head leaning towards his unconsciously. He did the same and they just stood there watching the two innocent children sleep peacefully for a few moments in time. Their heads were leaning against each other and Catherine Parker still had her hand over top of Sydney’s hand. Suddenly, as if they both remembered where they were, they jumped apart and Sydney cleared his throat. Catherine’s eyes darted over to his face, but he refused to look at her. He calmly walked over to the cot and lifted the young Miss Parker into his arms as if she weighed nothing at all. She snuggled closer into his chest and Sydney looked down at the young girl in his arms and smiled sadly.

Miss Parker awoke slightly and looked up into the young man’s face that unbeknownst to her was her father. A child should have been scared to have woken up in someone other than their parents’ arms, but Miss Parker just smiled and blinked innocently. Sydney couldn’t control himself and held the girl to him tightly in a hug, breathing in the scent of her. The DSA captured the anguish on his face and even some of the joy of being able to hold her. A door slammed and caused the young boy still asleep on the cot to jar awake and everyone else to go still.

A younger and very angry Mr. Parker entered the room and Catherine Parker immediately seemed to cower slightly in the presence of her husband. Mr. Parker looked over at her with a look of disgust then turned to the man holding his five year old “daughter”.

“Give her to me.” Mr. Parker growled slightly and practically ripped the young Miss Parker from Sydney’s grasp. The little girl protested and wiggled to get down.

“Mama.” she cried and reached out her arms for her mother.

Mr. Parker almost shoved the child to her mother who clutched the shaking girl to her body. He glowered at his wife and said menacingly, “Take her home and don’t ever let me catch you in here with them again.”

Catherine Parker backed out of the room, Miss Parker still on her hip, the little girl’s head buried in the safety of her mother’s neck. All of a sudden Jarod leapt up and yelled out.

“No, come back!” Jarod screamed out to the retreating females in desperation and moved forward.

The little girl raised her head and looked back at the frightened little boy that had become her friend. She stretched out her arm towards him, the other still wrapped around her mother’s neck in fear, and called out his name.

Catherine Parker seemed to hesitate, but only a glance at her husband’s face changed that and despite the plaintive pleas from both her daughter and the upset boy calling to her, she left the room. Mr. Parker waited until he was sure they had gone and turned towards Sydney and the boy who was now crying.

“If I ever see you hold my daughter or have her or her mother in here without my permission I will see to it that you are disciplined. Don’t ever forget that I can make you disappear, Sydney and know one would ever question that disappearance.” Mr. Parker said his face turning red with the anger in his voice. “Do you understand me, Sydney?”

“Of course, Mr. Parker.” Sydney said, strain evident in his voice. Jarod hadn’t stopped crying and Mr. Parker was staring to get angry at the sound.

“Can’t you shut that sniveling brat up for five minutes?” he yelled at Sydney. He turned to Jarod and yelled at him. “I said shut up, Kid!”

This only made Jarod cry harder and that was the last straw for Mr. Parker. He raised his hand as though to hit Jarod, but his wrist was caught by Sydney. Mr. Parker turned to the other man and the camera sure didn’t miss any of the anger that shone off of Sydney’s face.

“Don’t you ever raise your hand to that boy again,” Sydney said strongly and even though Mr. Parker glared at him for a few minutes, Sydney still didn’t back down or let go of his wrist. Finally Mr. Parker ripped his wrist out of Sydney’s grasp and stalked out of the dark room. Sydney put his hand on the top of Jarod’s head and drew him to his side. The boy stiffened and then relaxed into the man’s side.

Sydney looked at the camera that he knew had recorded every moment that had passed and sighed. Letting go of Jarod, he walked over to it and then after hesitating a moment his hand covered the lens and the screen went dark.

***

Back in the present, Miss Parker sat in her chair astonished at what she had just seen.

She had known Jarod before the staged simulation where she had placed her hand against a glass pane that separated her and the young boy. In fact it looked like they had been very close in those brief moments together. The image of herself wrapped in the little boy’s arms, so innocent and protected, gave her goose bumps and she rubbed her arms. Then the sad image of her in Sydney’s arms and his anguished face as he held her close and then her father’s angry threat struck her as well and she felt her heart skip a beat.

“I see you found it.” Sydney’s voice came from behind her and she whirled around, surprised. “The DSA I left you, I mean. I see you played it.”

“Yes.” Miss Parker said her voice quieter than she would have liked. She cleared her throat and repeated herself. “Yes, I did. Why don’t I remember any of it? Why doesn’t Jarod?”

“After an experience like that it isn’t uncommon to block out the memory. Especially for children in unhappy home environments. They tend to only want to remember the good things.” Sydney paused and looked at her meaningfully. Miss Parker knew he meant her and she thought about her memories of her home life as a child. True enough, she didn’t remember many good things from her childhood except for the times she had spent with her mother. A few with her “father” popped into her head, but not enough to meaningfully count.

Sydney continued, “As for Jarod, he did remember for a very long time, but eventually I convinced him it was a dream. It was better for all concerned that he believed what I told him and after a while he stopped talking about it. As for did he ever really forget? I doubt it.”

“Parker, I didn’t leave the DSA to make you feel guilty or pity towards me. I left it so you could see some of the truth. I believe you deserve at least that after all that the Centre has put you through. Someday I hope you can understand and maybe even forgive your mother and I for what we did.” Sydney said and turned to leave.

“Syd,” Miss Parker said after him. He turned back around and looked at her expectantly. “I’m not sure I understand completely or if I ever will, but I want you to know that I do forgive you.”

Sydney smiled. “Thank you, Parker. I just want us...our relationship...to be okay.”

With that he nodded to her then quietly slipped out of the room. Miss Parker watched the doorway where he had just stood and sighed deeply. The truth was harder to swallow, but somehow it didn’t hurt as much as she thought it would. She smiled too and then grabbed the DSA from the machine. Slipping it into a small pocket in her suitcase she grabbed the ribbon she had originally came into the bedroom for and then went back to wrapping the gifts, feeling as though a large weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
A Special Day for a Special Girl by Jaclyn Parker
“Mama, wake up! Come on, wake up!” Catie’s voice echoed in her ear and before she could do anything, Miss Parker found herself being a human trampoline for a very excited five year old. “Mama! It’s my birthday! Wake up, it’s already six thirty!”

Miss Parker groaned from under the covers and turned her head, the only part of her body that was moveable at the moment, only to realize Jarod had slipped out of the bed before Catie had gotten there. She felt a twinge of disappointment, but shrugged it off. Today was Catie’s day and she would let nothing ruin it.

Miss Parker felt Catie slip off the bed and then she waited until she could feel Catie standing next to her peering at the covers as though she had x-ray vision. She heard Catie sigh and sensed the little girl start to move away. Having found the opportunity she had been seeking, Miss Parker flipped back the covers and whipped out her arm to snag Catie around the waist. She yanked the tiny girl off her feet and hauled her under the covers with her while Catie giggled insanely.

“Hi, Baby.” Miss Parker said once she had Catie snuggled up against her body. “How are you this morning? I could’ve sworn I heard someone mention something about a birthday?”

Catie giggled again and wiggled to turn over and face her mother. “I said that. It’s my birthday!”

“So it is!” Miss Parker said and kissed Catie’s forehead. “Happy birthday, my sweet girl.”

Catie sighed and stuck her thumb in her mouth, then wiggled even closer to her mother’s chest. Mother and child fell back asleep almost immediately, continuing the ritual started by Miss Parker and her mother.

It was around eight o’ clock that morning when Miss Parker finally opened her eyes again and came face to face with another blue gaze. Catie watched her mother yawn and then she kissed her good morning.

“Now, Mama?” Catie asked impatiently. Miss Parker laughed and nodded. Catie whooped in delight and threw back the covers. Miss Parker grabbed her short, satin bathrobe from the end of the bed and wrapped it around herself, covering up the short light green satin nightie she wore. Then she took Catie’s hand and let the excited child lead her into the kitchen. They both stopped short at the sight of the whole town house decorated in streamers all different shades of pink. Presents were piled high by the sliding glass doors where just outside was the picnic table set up for the party that was to be in a couple of hours and balloons and streamers tied to every place possible.

“What took you guys so long? I nearly went in there with a bullhorn to try and wake you two up!” Jarod’s voice asked from the kitchen.

“Good morning, Daddy!” Catie yelled and ran to hug Jarod. He swung her up into his arms and placed her on his hip.

“Hi, Catie-Bug. How’s our little birthday girl?” Jarod asked as he tickled her slightly, making her giggle quietly.

“Fine, Daddy. Can I go outside and look at the table and all the party stuff?” Catie asked straining to see over her father’s shoulders.

Jarod chuckled and nodded. He let Catie slide down and watched her scamper over to the glass doors. “Oh wait, Catie.”

The little girl turned around and titled her head waiting for him to ask his question, “What do you want for breakfast?”

Catie placed her hands upon her hips and gave him a funny look. “Pancakes, Daddy. Duh!”

With that she opened the sliding doors and ran to look at the party setup.

“Duh!” Jarod said shaking his head. He caught Miss Parker’s eye and she smiled at him. She walked over and gently ran her hand through his hair and then let it trail down his cheek. She smiled self-consciously and stepped back, pulling her robe tighter around herself. She turned away to go over to the stove and was stopped when he snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her against him. Jarod wrapped his other arm across her chest and she lowered her head so that her lips were kissing his forearm. Jarod put his own head down atop of Miss Parker’s and then kissed it.

“Morning.” He whispered into her hair and she smiled against his arm.

“Morning.” She said back, her breath fluttering across his arm.

“Are we cold or something?” Jarod asked in regards to the bathrobe.

“No, it’s just that a certain vampire’s love bites have not exactly disappeared yet and I didn’t want to scare Catie. You know what I mean...it’s kind of like you wearing that undershirt with your pajama pants to hide the nail marks down your back.” Miss Parker said lifting her head and whispering into Jarod’s ear. She playfully nipped at his earlobe and he laughed.

As soon as Jarod’s grip loosed, Miss Parker stepped out of his embrace and moved again to the stove. “Catie is going to be very upset when she doesn’t see any pancakes on that table so I suggest you hurry and get me the mix.”

Jarod chuckled and did as Miss Parker said. Twenty minutes later they were all seated around the kitchen table eating and talking about the upcoming party. When they were done, Jarod offered to do the dishes so that Miss Parker and Catie could finish up the decorating. It was around noon when all of the decorating was finished and Miss Parker told Catie it was time for her nap.

“But, I’m not tired.” Catie protested loudly and crossed her arms, pouting.

“Catie, I don’t want you to be tired for the party okay? We do this every time you have to go to a birthday party. You say you’re not tired and we argue, but eventually you go down for a nap, right?” Miss Parker said and leaned down to her daughter’s level. Catie nodded, reluctantly. “How about we just skip the arguing part today, okay?”

Catie sighed and let her arms drop.

“Okay. But only an hour and a half! Not two hours like normal.” She said stubbornly.

“Only an hour and a half.” Miss Parker agreed holding back a smile. “Come on.”

She led Catie into her bedroom and tucked the girl in. Then as Catie instructed from her reclined position in bed, she placed the pink dress that Jarod had bought Catie specifically for this occasion on the dresser with the bow and tiara. Finally satisfied, Catie dozed off and Miss Parker slipped out of the room.

Miss Parker walked back in her own bedroom and then into the master bathroom. She turned on the shower full blast and then went to go pick out her own outfit. Pulling out the pale yellow sundress that used to belong to her mother, she held the material up to her nose and breathed in deeply. If she tried real hard she still smell her mother’s perfume in the fabric and Miss Parker felt her eyes tear.

“I wish you were here. You’d be so proud of her, Mama. She is so special.” Miss Parker whispered into the dress imagining her mother could hear her.

“Both her daughter and granddaughter are special and she would be proud of both of you.” Jarod said from behind her. Miss Parker brought the dress down from her face and she straightened, embarrassed to be caught talking to a piece of clothing.

“Don’t, Parker. Don’t hide your emotions. You’ve done that for too many years.” Jarod said pulling her to him in a hug.

Miss Parker just sighed and relaxed against his chest for a few brief moments. Then remembering that the shower was running she slid away from him and placed the dress on the bed. In silence, she gathered the towel and loofah sponge from the bathroom closet and slipped into the shower. She let the hot water run over her body for a few minutes and then let the tears flow with it. After a few minutes of releasing the pent up emotion, she felt somewhat lighter and began to wash herself with the vanilla scented body wash she had purchased on a whim.

The sudden feel of cold air made her shiver and she heard the shower door re-close. Knowing instinctively that Jarod was there, as she always seemed to do, Miss Parker just closed her eyes, and didn’t turn around.

“Are you all right?” Jarod asked a beat or two later. She smiled and nodded her head against his chest. He put his finger under her chin and lifted her head up so that she faced him and he kissed her forehead. She grinned wider and he took the loofah sponge from the dish on the shower wall. Squeezing body wash onto the white colored object he began to wash her lightly, in a erotic, but loving manner. She shivered in his arms and he kissed her tenderly on the lips. She let him turn her around so that he could wash her hair and sighed in contentment when he was finished.

“You need to go get dressed.” Jarod told her softly, almost reluctantly. He didn’t want to let her go, but he knew that she had to get ready. Still not ready to break the moment with words, Miss Parker just nodded and smiled at him. Then slipping around him she opened the shower door, letting a blast of cold air hit his body and make him shiver. The door shut momentarily and Jarod let the now lukewarm water run down his body. He waited and wasn’t disappointed when a few seconds later, heard the blow dryer come on. She was okay and he had put upon himself to see that she remained that way.

Jarod appeared out of the shower ten minutes later and found Miss Parker, dressed in a crop-top, loose fitting, sweat shirt and a pair of leggings, setting up her makeup on the vanity dresser top. She caught his gaze in the mirror and he winked at her. She smiled back and continued to arrange her makeup. Jarod got dressed in his white shirt and lightweight khaki pants, then moved out of the room to go put the presents out on the patio on the second picnic table.

While he did that, Miss Parker noticed that it was time to wake up Catie. She ran the bathtub full of semi-hot water then walked over to the little girl’s bedroom. She pushed the door open and tiptoed over to the bed. She gently shook Catie awake and waited. Catie rubbed her eyes sleepily and looked up into her mother’s face.

“Is it time for my party?” she asked. Miss Parker nodded and Catie grinned.

“Come on, Baby. Time for your bath and then we can get your pretty party dress on, okay?”

Catie nodded and got out of the bed. She helped Miss Parker carry her dress and underwear over to hang on the back of Catie’s bedroom door. Then they made their way into the bathroom and after checking that the water had cooled down like she had expected, Miss Parker slipped Catie’s nightgown over the girl’s head and helped her into the bathtub. Catie immediately went for her Mermaid Barbie and began to play with the doll in the water. Miss Parker smiled and just let her play as she soaped up the washcloth and washed the little girl’s back. She rinsed her off and then did the girl’s front. Then she told Catie to close her eyes and she washed her face, scrubbing it playfully, making Catie giggle. Miss Parker washed Catie’s hair, making a side comment that the little girl would need a haircut soon and soon they were finished.

Miss Parker pulled the drain and let the water flow out of the tub then held up a big, fluffy, blue towel to dry off her daughter. Catie stood up in the tub and let Miss Parker wrap her up like a bundle and carry her into her bedroom again. Miss Parker sat Catie down onto the bed and began to rub the water off her body. Miss Parker looked up and noticed Catie was watching her closely.

“Are you okay, Baby?” Miss Parker asked titling her head to study Catie.

“Mama, are you still mad at me and Pop-Pop?”

Miss Parker was taken aback by her daughter’s question and stopped drying Catie off. The large towel hung on the girl’s shoulders making her seem so small and bringing out the deep blue of her innocent eyes. Miss Parker took the little girl’s hands in her own and held them tightly.

“No, Catie. I am not mad at you...or your Pop-Pop. I was at first, but you have to understand that it was a very big shock for me. Do you remember how it felt when you learned that Jarod was your father? Well, you had only known him for a little while. I have known Sydney my whole life and to learn that I am his daughter felt ten times as surprising. Do you understand?” Miss Parker asked Catie and smiled when the little girl nodded.

“Pop-Pop is still coming to my birthday party though, right?” Catie said anxiously biting her lip.

“Yes, Baby, he is coming. Don’t you worry. Everything is all right. This is your big day and it is going to be perfect. I promise you.” Miss Parker said and then stood abruptly. “Now then, let’s get you dressed in all your finery and then maybe you can help your mama get dressed herself, okay?”

Catie grinned and threw off the towel. She grabbed her underwear and began to dress hurriedly, while Miss Parker laughed and then began to help her daughter into her clothes.
Sunday Dinners Are Not A Choice by Jaclyn Parker
Jarod was done setting up the picnic table and was laughing at something Broots had said when he started to wonder what was keeping Miss Parker and Catie. He excused himself and slipped back inside. Upon hearing laughter, Jarod briskly walked over to the master bedroom door and pushed it open slightly. He peeked in and felt his heart tighten with love at the sight. His daughter kneeled on the vanity bench beside Miss Parker and had her tiny hands fluttering around her mother’s head, trying to explain how she wanted to style it. Miss Parker watched her in the mirror with an amused expression, but even so seemed to be listening to very word that came out of Catie’s mouth.

Miss Parker picked up a lip-gloss while Catie continued to talk and began to slide it over her lips. Catie stopped mid-sentence and watched her mother entranced. Miss Parker caught sight of Catie’s mesmerized face in the mirror and smiled. She shifted so that she was facing Catie and gently took Catie’s chin in her hand. She made a kissing face at the little girl and the child imitated her immediately, understanding what her mother was about to do. Miss Parker took the shiny gloss and spread a small amount on the girl’s lips. Letting go of Catie’s chin, Miss Parker leaned back and rubbed her lips together in a motion that Catie again followed. Then Miss Parker made a loud smacking sound and Catie did the same, immediately dissolving into a fit of giggles. Miss Parker smiled and then told her to turn around. Catie complied and Miss Parker took her silver backed brush in her hand and began to brush Catie’s silky hair into an elegant up do. Then, after bobby pinning the hair, Miss Parker placed the tiara upon Catie’s head and the child grinned in delight. She whirled around to face her mother and gave her a huge hug around the neck. Miss Parker hugged the girl and then pushed her gently back, but Jarod saw her bat her eyes to try and keep her mascara from running.

Jarod let the door slide shut and sighed. The guests would just have to wait. There was no way in hell he was going to break that up!

They didn’t have to wait of long though, because ten minutes later they appeared and if anyone had asked Jarod at that moment he would have said the wait was worth it. Mother and daughter looked almost ethereal walking into the room the sun behind them creating a gorgeous backdrop.

Miss Parker had her hair loose and slightly curled to give it a soft look. She wore low sandals with her pale yellow sundress and the only jewelry she had on was her silver ring and a thin strand of pearls that Jarod guessed had also belonged to her mother. Catie was wearing the dress that Jarod had selected and put in her closet the first night Miss Parker had brought Catie home. She wore the white Mary Jane shoes and a pair of summer weight lace socks. Her hair had been swept up into a bun of tiny curls and the small tiara was placed around it. She had a huge smile on her face and when she saw Jarod it lit up even more.

“Daddy, look at me!” Catie said letting go of Miss Parker’s hand and racing over to where her father stood.

“I see! You look like a princess.” Jarod said bending to Catie’s level. The child beamed and hugged Jarod around the neck. Jarod stood up and placed Catie on his hip. Miss Parker smiled and took Jarod’s arm as he led them outside onto the patio.

“No stilettos?” he whispered into her ear as they stepped out into the warm air. She laughed and pinched his arm slightly, making him cry out, then join her in grinning.

Broots was talking to Sydney holding a bottle of beer in one hand, moving it as he talked, his other arm wrapped around Debbie’s chest holding her to him in a half hug. Sydney was leaning on the balcony rail listening to Broots talk, while holding a bottle of beer himself. Both men had suits on, but without ties and the jackets had long since been discarded over the back seats of their chairs. Debbie, like Miss Parker and Catie, had on a dress and was swaying side to side as she stood in front of her father. She was the first to notice when Catie, Jarod, and Miss Parker came outside and she broke away from Broots and rushed over as Jarod set Catie down. The two girls immediately ran over to the presents and began to guess what was in them.

The warm summer afternoon began with games for Catie and Debbie with occasional participation from Broots and Jarod, the honoree children of the day. About an hour into the party Sydney looked at his watch and held up his hand to make an announcement.

“I invited a couple of other people to join us, but no one to worry about I assure you.” Sydney said at the brief look of panic on Jarod and Miss Parker’s faces. At that moment the doorbell rang and Sydney smiled.

“What timing!” he said and stood to get the door. He appeared moments later and Catie jumped up at the sight of the people with him.

“Miss Michele! Nicholas!” She cried and ran to embrace the newly arrived adults. She had met the two adults while staying at Sydney’s one night while her mother had to go off on Centre business. They had dropped in to visit Sydney and the little girl had taken an immediate liking to both of them. And the feeling was mutual. They adored the child and were more than happy to come to her birthday party when Sydney suggested it.

Michele bent down and gave the happy girl a huge hug. Nicholas did the same and when he stood again he took Catie with him and placed her on his shoulders. Catie giggled and waved to Debbie from her perch. Debbie smiled and waved back, while Broots went to greet Michele and Nicholas.

Miss Parker just stood there for a few beats and then shook off her surprise. Having recovered she smiled widely and went over so Sydney could introduce her properly. Miss Parker turned to Nicholas and studied him closely, realizing that this man was her half-brother. Sydney watched her closely before nodding to Jarod who took Catie from Nicholas and introduced himself. Sydney’s smile soon faded and he moved to stand next to Michele.

“Michele, Nicholas. Would you please come with Miss Parker and me? We need to talk.” Sydney said placing his arm around Michele and leading her into the living room. Nicholas and Miss Parker followed, the latter sliding the glass doors closed behind them. Jarod held Catie in his arms and walked back over to Broots and Debbie. The two children began to amuse themselves by making necklaces out of stray ribbon, while the two men watched the unfolding scene intently.

Miss Parker stood by the armchair gripping the back so hard her knuckles were white and Sydney stood nearby talking. After a few minutes Michele sank onto the sofa, her hand to her chest, over her heart. She looked from Sydney to Miss Parker, then from Miss Parker to Nicholas. He looked as shell-shocked as his mother, but he walked over to where Miss Parker stood. She looked at him cautiously and nodded as he spoke. Nicholas paused a minute then peeled one of Miss Parker’s hands off of the sofa. He held it in his grip and Miss Parker looked down at their hands. She looked up again into Nicholas’s face and smiled, tentatively. He squeezed her hand and then surprising them all he pulled her into a hug. She stood stiffly in his embrace for a second then relaxed and hugged him back. Michele walked over to Sydney and placed her hand on his arm. He looked down at her and then smiled. Sydney lifted up his arm and she slipped under to settle into his side. Miss Parker pulled out of Nicholas’s embrace, but continued to hold onto his hand. They walked over to where Michele and Sydney stood and Michele cupped Nicholas’s cheek, then placed her hand on Miss Parker’s shoulder and smiled at her warmly. Miss Parker smiled back then caught Jarod’s gaze outside. Jarod couldn’t tell exactly what the emotion was that he saw in her eyes, but the closest thing he could name would have been hope.

The adults came back out moments later and the party got underway once more. It was not more than an hour later when a soft song came on the radio that had been playing softly in the background. It ended up being about a father and his daughter and Jarod got an idea. He stood from where he had been sitting at the picnic table and offered his hand to Catie. She giggled and gave it to him. She placed her feet on top of his and he began to dance with her, making sure she was balanced. Broots stood and held out his hand to Debbie and she too laughed and accepted. Nicholas held his hand out to his mother and she smiled and shook her head in amusement, but she took it and he led her to the makeshift dance floor. Miss Parker was not surprised when Sydney came up to her, but what he said did surprise her.

“The other parents are dancing with their children. I never had the opportunity to dance with my daughter so I am going to take a chance right now. May I?” he held out his hand and she looked at him, her eyes bright.

“I thought you’d never ask.” she said and placed her hand in his and he pulled her into his arms. ********************************************************************** Many hours later Miss Parker asked a sleepy eyed Catie, “Did you have a good party?”

“Uh huh, the best!” Catie exclaimed happily. “My favorite part was when Uncle Nicholas and Daddy put the sand crab in Pop-Pop’s water when he wasn’t looking! No, it was when Mom-Mom Michele put the cake in Uncle Nicholas’s face and then in Pop-Pop’s face. No, wait! The best was when Debbie put sand in Uncle Broots’s sandwich! Crunch!” Catie mimicked the sound it had made, then giggled and Miss Parker had to laugh with her at the memory of Broots’s face. “What was your favorite part, Mama?”

“Your daddy’s expression when he first tasted ice cream cake. I’m lucky we bought two, huh? He almost ate that first one by himself.” Miss Parker said laughing again. Catie laughed too and then snuggled deeper into the bed. She yawned and Miss Parker kissed her goodnight.

“Luv you, Mama.” Catie whispered.

“Love you, too.” Miss Parker said flipping light off and closing the door.

Miss Parker walked into the living room where Jarod was seated on the carpet in front of the sofa surrounded by a mountain of presents. Jarod looked up with the face of a child who had been let loose in a toy store with strict instructions to play with everything. Miss Parker smiled at him and then looked down at the stash.

“God, we must have bought out the entire toy store between the six of us.”

Jarod laughed, remembering when Michele and Nicholas had returned from their car with an arm full of gifts each. Then when Sydney and Broots had done the same from their respective apartments and when everything had been added to the pile made by Miss Parker and Jarod, everyone had lost it. Catie and Debbie’s eyes had practically bulged out of their heads, while the adults couldn’t stop laughing at the size of the pile of gifts.

Miss Parker sat down next to Jarod and helped him set up the beautiful dollhouse that Sydney and Michele had bought for Catie. They then began to arrange the small oak furniture that Nicholas had purchased to go with the Victorian house. Jarod paused and pulled a small wrapped gift and held it out to Miss Parker.

“Not another one.” Miss Parker sighed heavily, seeing the present that Jarod held.

Jarod shook his head and smiled. “It’s for you.”

Miss Parker hesitated then took the gorgeously wrapped present from him. She hurriedly unwrapped it and opened the small box. She pulled out the antique bottle of perfume and read the label. She felt her eyes tear up when she realized it was the perfume her mother had worn.

“Where did you find this? I’ve been looking for so long.” Miss Parker asked incredulously.

“It was at a collector’s in the town I was last in and I knew you were looking for it, so...” Jarod said shrugging. She leaned over the huge pile of toys and kissed him deeply.

“Thank you, I love it,” she said and after a second’s pause added, “And you.”

Jarod’s eyes widened as he realized that was the first time she had ever said it to him and he pulled her to him tightly. “I love you too, Parker. God, how I love you.”

She let herself feel his warmth through her body and felt her body relax and her eyelids grow heavy. Jarod felt Miss Parker fall asleep and grinned. He picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. Placing her gently onto the bed, he covered her lightly and kissed her on the lips. “Goodnight, my love.”

At around one o clock in the morning Jarod woke feeling something wasn’t right. He looked to his right and noticed that Miss Parker wasn’t lying next to him. He sat up and noticed her sitting in her bathrobe on the window seat. Her knees were drawn and her arms were resting on top of them. She stared out at the moon and Jarod could see her depressed expression reflected in the window glass. He moved silently and in his pajama pants he padded across the room to stand behind her. He was about to say something when she spoke.

“It’s all ending,” she said, not moving but somehow knowing he was there.

“What is?” he said amused at her talent to know where he was and settled himself down opposite her.

“This.” she answered fluttering her hand in emphasis. “Happiness, I guess. Tomorrow we all go home and you...” she trailed off and chuckled mirthlessly. “You go back to being my prey.”

“Parker, “Jarod started placing his hand on her arm.

“Don’t!” she said whipping her arm away from his touch. “Don’t pretend you can make this all better because you can’t, Jarod.”

He stared at her in surprise at the anger in her voice.

“Don’t you get it? This is going to be our whole lives. Brief periods of happiness followed by good-byes. The last time nearly broke my heart and Catie...God, what are we doing to Catie? I wanted to give her a normal life and this is anything but one.”

“Parker, Catie loves her life and her family. She has grandparents, two loving uncles, a ‘cousin’ who is her best friend, and two parents who would give their lives for her in an instant.” Jarod said trying to place a spark of hope in his lover’s eyes.

“And after tomorrow? What then, Jarod? We all go back to our houses that are within two blocks of each other and see one another on Sundays for that big family dinner?” Miss Parker laughed cynically. “Wake up, Jarod! What’s going to happen is that Catie’s grandparents are going to be separated again like they have been for over 3 decades. Her grandfather, her ‘uncle’ and her mother go back to work hunting down her father to bring him back to a place that wants to experiment with him in order to do God knows what!”

Miss Parker had tried to keep back the tears of anger, but it was no longer working. Jarod shifted her so that she was in his arms and she stiffened, then relaxed into him.

“I'm sorry.” she murmured a few seconds later into his shoulder. “I’m just so tired, Jarod. Just so very tired of everything.”

“I know, Parker. Me too.” Jarod kissed her head and rocked her as though she were a child. “Me too.”

“I'm okay,” she said pulling out of his embrace. “I just needed to vent, I guess.”

Jarod could feel her pulling away from him not only physically, but emotionally as well and tried to stop it.

“Parker...” he began, but she shook her head.

“Lets just get some sleep, okay?” Miss Parker said rising and placing her robe on the edge of the bed. “It’s going to be hectic tomorrow.”

She slid under the covers and turned on her side. “Goodnight, Jarod.”

Jarod stood looking at her still form and felt like crying. He knew it was her defense mechanism, this pulling away from him, and didn’t blame her. At least not much. It had been a very emotional week and she had been so shut off to that part of her soul for so long it was only natural to want to go back to what was familiar. He just wished it didn’t have to hurt so much.

Jarod woke up about 5 hours later to get a head start on helping everyone pack and was prepared to move softly in order not to wake Miss Parker, only to find out she had already slipped out of the bed. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Miss Parker, fully dressed, came into his line of vision with an armful of clothes and placed them into the suitcase on the edge of the bed.

“Hi,” he said quietly watching her hurried movements and mentally trying to slow her down.

She looked up and caught his eye. He saw a parade of emotions go through her blue gaze and then it turned into the cool look he had seen so often from her before Catie came into their lives.

“Hi.” she said and then went back into the closet to gather more clothing.

Jarod felt his heart tighten in pain at her cool tone and started to get up to go to her. She breezed out of the closet again and right past him. He almost felt the icy wind that came with her and it stopped any movements he was going to make.

“Mama? Daddy?” came Catie’s voice from her bedroom. “I'm hungry.”

Miss Parker paused in her motions at the sound of their daughter’s voice and turned to Jarod. She looked at him long enough to ask, “Would you make her breakfast? I still have to finishing packing.”

With that she walked over to the vanity and opened the drawer underneath and pulled out the shirts that were inside. Jarod looked at her in mock amazement, then shook his head and chuckled but the sound had a sad and slightly angry tint to it.

“Yeah, I’ll make her breakfast.” He stalked out of the room and called Catie into the kitchen.

Miss Parker felt him rather than saw him leave the room and as soon as he was out of the doorway she sunk onto the bench in front of the vanity. She looked at her image in the mirror and her anguished face reflected off of it. Miss Parker covered her face with her hands and let a sob escape her body. Suddenly she took in a deep breath, looked up again at the mirror and squared her shoulders.

“It’s the only way. Pull yourself together. It’s working so far; just keep it up until you get home. Then you can cry all you want, you wuss.” She said to her image angrily.

She scrubbed the tears from her face with the heels of her hands and ran her hand through her hair. She stood up again and vainly tried to ignore the happy sounds coming from the kitchen. With an aura of determination she resumed her packing, then started on her daughter’s clothing, ignoring every instinct in her body that was telling her to go into the kitchen and be with her family.

During the time it took for Miss Parker and Jarod to pack up, Catie had felt the tension between the two people. She remained on the couch, thumb in her tiny mouth, just watching with wide eyes as her mother and father packed up the car. She followed every movement, her blue gaze picking up every look or action that passed between her parents. Finally it came time to leave and go to the airport. Catie said good-bye to Sydney, Michelle, Nicholas, Broots, and Debbie for they were all taking different flights home as not to rouse suspicion from the Centre. Miss Parker did the same, but when Miss Parker reached Sydney she held him a little longer than the rest.

“We’re okay, Syd.” Miss Parker whispered into his ear and pulled out of his embrace. Sydney felt a rush of relief wash through him and he grinned at Miss Parker. She squeezed his hand and nodded her head. Miss Parker turned and saw Jarod bend down to Catie.

“Bye, my Catie-Bug.” Jarod said running his hand over Catie's dark hair and cupping her cheek. “I love you.”

Catie tried to keep a brave face and smiled slightly. “I know Daddy. I love you too.”

She gave him a big hug and walked over to where Miss Parker stood by the car door. Catie sighed and climbed into the car, settling herself in her car seat and hugged her teddy bear to her chest. The bravery was now completely gone and quiet tears ran down her face. Miss Parker leaned into the car to buckle Catie into her car seat and went to wipe the tears away.

“Tell him you love him too, Mama.” Catie soft voice whispered in Miss Parker’s ear. Miss Parker leaned back and look into Catie’s pleading gaze. “Please, keep us a family.”

Miss Parker was awed by the insight of her daughter, but when she considered that Catie was you could call an ultimate pretender and that she had a heightened sense of empathy anyway due to being a child, her surprise disappeared. She thought of how Catie had behaved earlier and realized that she had been getting into their heads and trying to simulate what they were feeling. Miss Parker’s heart broke at the thought that Catie had carried around Miss Parker and Jarod’s pain all day. She kissed Catie on the forehead and pulled out of the car.

Miss Parker looked over to where Jarod stood, silently watching his family leave him once again. She walked over to where he was and he looked at her in surprise. She let her eyes roam over his face and seemed to be memorizing every feature. Then her eyes took on her old icy glare. She stood on her tiptoes and reached her arms around his neck.

“Just hug me and don’t say anything.” She said, her voice cold.

“What?” Jarod asked not understanding.

“I am doing this for Catie so just go along with it!” she growled angrily. She pulled back and kissed him, but the passion that he had felt from her once, was now buried again or gone completely. He couldn’t tell which, for she broke it off before he could get a full reading on her.

“I need to go.” she said and let her arms drop to her sides.

He nodded and let her go, saddened but more determined than before to get back what they had. Without a backward glance to him, she walked back over to her car. With a small wave to everyone else who were still gathered by the doors of their respective beach house apartments, she climbed in and started the engine. She glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled at her daughter.

Catie smiled back and snuggled into her car seat, as Miss Parker began to drive to the airport. While Catie amused herself by watching the scenery go by, Miss Parker sighed and tried to hold in the pain that seemed to threaten to tear her heart out. But she was determined as well, not to be hurt like she had when her mother died. It is for the best and maybe when she is older, Catie will understand, Miss Parker thought. With that thought in mind, Miss Parker turned on the radio and got off at her exit onto the highway.
Anger and Madness by Jaclyn Parker
Anger is a brief madness.
~Horace

**********************************************************************

Three months passed quickly since the birthday getaway and she had put on a great routine for the Centre on trying to find Jarod. So far her “father” had bought it hook, line, and sinker. She wasn’t sure about Lyle and the blond bimbette, but she really didn’t care about them. She could handle them if necessary. There was only one problem and it came in the form of her five year old daughter.

Catie had shown signs about a week later that she was aware of the act pulled on her back at the beach house. Miss Parker had let Catie talk to Jarod on the phone a few times, but every time she had made up an excuse not to talk to him herself. Catie’s mood began to shift slightly and she became more and more defiant towards Miss Parker.

“Catherine, you are going to be late for school again. Now get downstairs!” Miss Parker called to her daughter and shook her head.

This was getting to be routine with them. Miss Parker would yell and Catie would ignore her until the last minute when she would saunter downstairs like nothing ever happened. If this was her being defiant at age five, Miss Parker could only imagine what it would be like in her teenage years. Just thinking about it gave her a headache. Five minutes later they were on their way to preschool. Miss Parker was busily trying to finish up her coffee and Catie was singing to herself.

“I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves. Everybody's nerves. Everybody's nerves. I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves and this is how it goes.” Catie chirped in her pixie-like voice. She opened her mouth to start another round of the song and by the fourth rendition Miss Parker had had enough.

“Catherine Elaine, I swear to God, if you sing that song one more time you are going to be in serious trouble.” she said blowing out the words in frustration.

“But Mama, I like that song. It’s funny to sing.” Catie whined, upset that she had been interrupted.

“I don’t care, Catie. It is making Mama’s head hurt and she needs to save that headache for when she talks to your Uncle Broots and your Pop- Pop.” Miss Parker told the mad child in the back seat. She was still unaccustomed to using the phrase Pop-Pop when in reference to Sydney, but it was getting surprisingly easier.

“But Mama...” Catie whined again, obviously not giving up on her right to sing.

“I said no!” Miss Parker said loudly. “Now, I mean it.”

“I want to sing it!” Catie said loudly from the back seat, kicking her foot into the back of passenger’ side seat. “I know a song...” she started again.

“Catherine, that’s it! You are on punishment from now until tomorrow night. That means no TV or videos.” Miss Parker said fed up.

“Daddy wouldn’t punish me!” Catie spat out, pouting and glaring at her mother from her car seat.

“Well, Daddy isn’t here!” Miss Parker said and slowed down at a red light.

“That’s your fault!” Catie suddenly screamed at her, making Miss Parker look at her in shock. The months of anger, sadness, and tension had reached its boiling point and suddenly poured out.

“You lied to me and you made Daddy go away! You lied to me just like they did! They said they would take me back to you and they didn’t. I hate you and I hate them! I don’t want to be with you anymore. I wish you’d go away and then I could be with Daddy!” Catie yelled at Miss Parker, her arms folded across her small chest in anger.

Miss Parker turned back around, trying to make sense of what was happening and saw the red light she had stopped at was now green. She started to pull ahead and opened her mouth to talk to her daughter, when something caught the corner of her left eye. It was too late however for her to avoid the truck that was heading straight towards them. Miss Parker thought to swerve, but didn’t have a chance to carry the thought out before the large vehicle struck her small sedan.

“Catie!” she screamed out as she threw her arms up to protect her. She heard an echoing scream of “Mama” before the pain over took her and her world went black.
It's All My Fault by Jaclyn Parker
Sydney was just finishing up his daily log on the Trahern project when Broots came flying into his office.

“Is she here yet, Broots?” Sydney asked looking up at the flustered man standing in his doorway.

“Syd...” Broots began, but trailed off his voice catching. His eyes filled up and he blinked hard to clear his blurred vision. Sydney jumped up out of his chair, scared by the look on Broots’ face. He gripped the littler man by his shoulders and looked him hard in his eyes.

“Broots, what is it? What happened?”

“There was an accident, Syd.” Broots finally choked out. “A truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit the driver’s side of the car. He wasn’t hurt, but they just finished pulling Miss Parker and Catie out of the car a few minutes ago.”

“Oh, God. Catie was in the car too?” Sydney cried picturing the happy little girl and then picturing...

Sydney shook his head to clear out the gruesome image

“Miss Parker was hit head on, but since Catie was in the back passenger side, she only has a few cuts and bruises. They took them to Saint Hope’s Hospital.” Broots said already halfway out the door.

“Broots, how badly hurt is Miss Parker?” Syd asked as he grabbed his jacket off the back off his chair and flicked off his office light.

When Broots didn’t answer him, he grabbed the man’s arm and whirled him about to face him. Broots wouldn’t meet his gaze and Syd felt his heart tighten.

“How bad is she?” he asked again enunciating each word. Broots just looked at him and shook his head. That was all it took for Sydney to take the lead in the race to get to the elevator and over to Saint Hope’s Hospital. **********************************************************************
Sydney paced the hospital waiting room twice before a nurse came in again.

“Dr. Greene?” she said cautiously when she noticed the man looked like a caged lion.

“Yes? Is the doctor ready to see me?” Sydney asked the nervous looking woman.

“Uh, he’ll be in shortly, but first I believe you signed a release form for a certain someone?” The nurse smiled and motioned behind her.

Catie appeared behind the nurse, looking small and lost with her thumb in her mouth and her other hand in a nervous fist. She looked up and caught sight of Sydney standing in front of her and her eyes widened in relief.

“Pop-Pop!” she cried out and ran into his open arms. She sobbed into his neck as he tried in vain to calm her down.

“Pop-Pop, she wouldn’t wake up. I called to her and called to her, but she wouldn’t wake up.” she sobbed out and he knew she was talking about Miss Parker.

A man in green scrubs came into the room and caught Sydney’s eye. Thankfully at the same time, Broots hurried in from his run to get coffee and let out a sigh of relief when he saw Catie in Sydney's arms.

“Catherine,” Sydney said pulling the little girl back to look him in the eye. “I want you to go with Uncle Broots, while I talk to your mama’s doctor, okay? He’ll get you some hot chocolate and maybe something to eat too.”

She nodded and he handed her over to Broots who stood still long enough to hold the tiny child close to him before carrying her out to the cafeteria.

“I'm Doctor Smythe, the resident neurosurgeon.” The man was tall with a thick mustache and friendly eyes. Sydney liked him immediately and took the man’s extended hand in his own.

“I'm Dr. Greene.” Sydney looked at the exhausted doctor and clasped his hands in front of him. Wanting it straight Sydney asked, “How bad is she? No euphemisms, please.”

“I won’t lie to you, Dr. Green. It doesn’t look good. The driver hit her straight on and crushed her to the steering wheel. She has four broken ribs and her right arm was also broken. Unfortunately one of her ribs punctured her lungs. She arrived unconscious and when we got her into the room for surgery, her heartbeat fluctuated. We think the lack of oxygen inadvertently caused her heart to fail and for a while we weren’t positive we were going to be able to revive her.”

Sydney looked at him and sucked in his breath hard.

“But you did revive her?” he asked sure his heart would stop if the answer was no.

“Yes, we were able to bring her back, but she is in a coma and the outcome doesn’t look good.” the doctor said. “I’ll let you know if there is any change.”

“Thank you. Can we sit with her?” Sydney asked quietly, his strength running low.

“We need to settle her in her room first, then you are welcome to be with her. It may help.” Dr. Smythe said. He nodded and then left the room.

At that exact moment Sydney heard a shrill ringing and he looked around for a second, wondering what the noise was, until he realized it was his cell phone.

“Hello?” Sydney said into his phone, not understanding who could be calling him.

“Syd? What’s going on? I can’t get a hold of Parker or Broots.” Jarod’s voice floated out into Sydney’s ear.

“Oh God, Jarod.” Sydney sighed trying to figure out how to tell this man that part of his newfound family might be gone forever.

“Sydney, what’s wrong? Something is wrong. I can hear it in your voice. Where are you?” Jarod asked getting a queasy feeling in his stomach.

“Jarod, there’s been a car accident.” Sydney said slowly trying to form the words in his head before saying them.

“Is Catie okay? Miss Parker?” Jarod asked again frightened.

“Catie is fine, but Miss Parker...” Syd trailed off.

“Syd, what is it? How bad is she?” Jarod asked his mentor.

“Jarod, if you can find a way to get out here undetected, come.” Sydney said.

“Oh, my God.” Jarod said knowing that Sydney would never risk his safety unless it was life or death. That thought hit him hard and he got a chilling thought. “Syd, is she...?”

“Just hurry, Jarod.” Sydney said and hung up the phone, knowing the young man was already planning how to get here.

The waiting room doors swung open and Broots came in, trailed by a wide-eyed Catie. The little girl was still sucking her thumb and seemed to be in a trance-like state.

Sydney picked her up and settled into a chair with her on his lap. She sat stiffly, her back erect and stared straight ahead. Sydney recognized the signs of shock and whispered soothing words to her. She showed no signs of hearing him, until he noticed her thumb had slipped out of her mouth and she was saying something. He leaned closer and placed his ear by her lips to catch her words.

“It’s my fault. All my fault.” Catie chanted to herself and as she repeated it her voice got louder and louder until finally she was just screaming. Sydney called her name, but Catie continued to yell until he couldn’t take anymore and whirled her to face him.

He gripped her tiny arms and said into her face, “Catherine, it was not your fault.”

She stopped in an instant, startling Sydney and Broots with its abruptness. She blinked and her eyes focused on Sydney.

“Yes it is, Pop-Pop.” she said quietly and with an eerie calmness. “I was being bad and she got mad and yelled at me. I told her I hated her and wanted her to go away. Don’t you see that I made her go away? It’s my fault.”

Catie trembled and finally she broke down again into sobs.

“All my fault.” she cried into Sydney’s neck, wrapping her arms around his neck and clinging to him hard. Sydney met Broots’ gaze over her head and saw the man was crying himself. Broots backed out of the room and let them be alone.

“I didn’t mean it, Pop-Pop. I didn’t really want her to go away.” she said still crying.

“Shh, I know.” Sydney said and rocked the tiny child. Soon she cried herself to sleep and Sydney sighed in relief.

Mr. Parker burst in and caught sight of Sydney holding Catie. He motioned to her and asked, “Is she all right?”

Sydney nodded and unconsciously held Catie a little closer to him. Mr. Parker didn’t notice and continued. “Where is my daughter?”

“She is being settled into her room, Mr. Parker.” Sydney said his stomach turning at Mr. Parker’s use of the phrase “my daughter”.

The doctor came in and immediately Mr. Parker accosted him. “Doctor, the young woman who was in the car crash this morning, how is she?”

“Who are you?” Dr. Smythe asked puzzled.

“I'm her father.” Mr. Parker growled in annoyance.

“But I thought...” Dr. Smythe looked over at Sydney in confusion, and then shrugged it off. He turned back to Mr. Parker, saying, “If you’ll come with me sir, I can show you her room and explain her condition.”

The doctor left with Mr. Parker on his tail. Mr. Parker turned back to Sydney briefly, with a smug look on his face. He again motioned to Catie with his hand and smiled his ugly smile.

“Take care of my granddaughter while I am gone, Sydney.” he said and left the room, the waiting room doors swinging with his departure.

“My granddaughter.” Sydney said angrily at the still moving doors. He looked down at the sleeping Catie and hugged her closely. “My granddaughter.”
Not Her Time To Go by Jaclyn Parker
It had been five days since the accident and Miss Parker's condition had not changed. Catie had withdrawn into a protective shell despite Mr. Parker allowing her to stay with Sydney. She hardly talked and anyone had yet to see her smile in the entire five days. Michele had come to stay with Sydney while he took care of Catie and Catie had immediately attached herself to her and not let go.

Sydney explained that it was a type of Post Traumatic Stress and because her mother was not around Catie had instinctively attached herself to a female. Michele agreed and didn’t mind at all. She coddled the girl, but even she couldn’t bring the normally happy child out of her silent and sad state.

In the five days Sydney had not heard anything from Jarod, but he was not worried. He knew that he would show up eventually and sure enough on the sixth day Sydney found an e-mail waiting for him on his personal computer.

MEET ME IN PARKER’S ROOM AT 11:00 TONIGHT. URGENT! TELL NO ONE...EVEN
BROOTS.

It wasn’t signed but Sydney knew immediately who it was from. Sydney told Michele he was going to visit Miss Parker and left around 10:30. He arrived at exactly eleven and told the nurse at the night desk, he was on the permanent visitor’s list. She asked his name, looked on her sheet, and then told him to go right ahead.

Sydney walked down the dim corridor and stopped in front of room 630. He took a deep breath before pushing it open. Even though he had prepared himself, just like every other time he visited he felt his heart tighten in fear and worry when he saw her lying in the cold hospital bed. Tubes came out of her nose and a breathing tube came out of her mouth. So many IVs were imbedded in her arms they looked like strings coming out of a puppet. At least five machines beeped and the noise grated on his nerves. It was a constant and painful reminder that she wasn’t really in the body that was lying there. Sydney walked over and kissed her forehead, then leaned back and brushed his hand over her cheek tenderly.

“You’re really scared, aren’t you?” came Jarod’s voice from the back of the room.

Sydney nodded, not even flinching when Jarod spoke up. He had somehow known the younger man was in the room and was waiting for him to speak up. “Yes, I am. It’s like seeing...”.

“Like seeing your brother, Jacob.” Jarod finished for him, appearing to his left. Sydney nodded again and Jarod placed his hand on Syd’s shoulder. “I know how you feel, Syd. I always thought that if I ever lost her it would be to The Powers That Be from the Centre. Never anything as normal as this. The thought never even entered my mind. I came early this morning and when I saw her lying here Syd, I felt as though I wanted to die, right then and there. If I didn’t have Catie to worry about or my family to find...”

Jarod trailed off and Sydney placed his hand over Jarod’s in comfort and understanding.

“It’s scary knowing a loved one may not return to you and knowing that you are helpless to do anything about it.” Sydney said knowing the feeling all too well.

“We may not have to stand by and do nothing, Syd.” Jarod said softly and looked down at the woman he loved. “I think I have a way to help her.”

Sydney knew instantly what he was talking about and whirled on him whispering, “The vaccine you made for Jacob.”

Jarod nodded and removed a syringe from his white doctor’s coat. “I know it was only temporary when we gave it to your brother, but I modified it and it may work. The only problem is there is only a seven day window from the time of the accident. It is very specific.”

“Tomorrow is the seventh day.” Sydney said realizing this may be her only chance.

“I would have come sooner, but Mr. Parker was constantly around as were Centre sweepers. This was my first break.” Jarod said with the guilt of not coming quicker ringing in his voice.

“You’re here now, Jarod.” Sydney said comfortingly, then his voice grew gravely serious. “Are you sure it will work?”

“No, not all my tests were conclusive, but we have to do something.” Jarod said and looked deep into Sydney’s eyes. “Because you are her father, I would like your permission to give it to her.”

Sydney looked at Jarod in shock and then at the still form on the bed. He nodded and placed his hand on Jarod’s arm. “I trust you, Jarod.”

Jarod nodded and took the cap off the needle. He pressed the air out of it and with a final glance at Syd, pushed it into her left arm. There was no immediate reaction and Sydney looked at Jarod.

“There should be results in about 10 to 12 hours, but I need to leave before they find me.” Jarod said reluctantly. He leaned over and kissed Miss Parker tenderly on the corner of her lips, ignoring the breathing tube, and whispered “I love you” before turning to Sydney again. He hugged the older man and Sydney squeezed him back.

“Take care of our family, Sydney.” Jarod whispered and then slipped out of the room. Sydney stayed an extra minute and looked heavenward.

“Send our daughter back, Catherine. She’s needed down here. It’s not her time yet.”

With a final kiss on his daughter’s forehead, Sydney also left to let the mysterious drug to do its work.
Miracles by Jaclyn Parker
Around noon the next day Sydney, Broots, Michele, and Catie went to visit Miss Parker in the hospital, but when they arrived they found an elated Dr. Smythe and Mr. Parker.

“What’s going on?” Broots asked when the doctor smiled happily at them.

“She woke up.” Mr. Parker said grinning from ear to ear. “She opened her eyes, staring choking on the breathing tube, and pulled the tube out of her nose. The doctor has examined her and says she will make a full recovery. I have to go tell Lyle and the Triumvirate.”

He ducked his head and thinking he was unheard he whispered, “They will be pleased that we can continue on with the Jarod pursuit soon.”

With that he pushed past a shocked and very angry Sydney and rushed to the elevator. As soon as he was gone, Sydney let out a huge sigh of anger and felt Michele’s calming hand on his arm. She had heard as well, but now was not the time or the place. Knowing she was right, he placed his hand over hers and turned his attention to the still smiling Dr. Smythe.

“When?” Sydney asked.

“About twenty minutes ago. It was a complete shock, but a very pleasant one. To tell the truth I don’t know what happened. It was like a miracle or something,” the kind doctor said sounding almost giddy.

“It was something all right!” Sydney said the man’s happiness contagious. “Can we see her?”

“Sure, but be very quiet. She is surprisingly alert, but I would like her to rest.” The doctor said and shooed them towards the room. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Sydney, Broots, and Michele all moved to go in, but they noticed that Catie hung back. Michele turned and knelt down to the little girl’s height. “What’s wrong, Catie? Don’t you want to see your mother?”

Catie shook her head emphatically and stepped back.

“What if she remembers that it was my fault? What if she doesn't love me anymore?” she whispered staring at the door as if a monster was on the other side.

“Oh, Catie. Why don’t we let the men go see your mama first, while we have a little talk?” Michele said and took Catie’s tiny hand into her own. She motioned for Sydney and Broots to go in and Sydney nodded, knowing that Michele would convince Catie to see Miss Parker.

Broots went in first and Sydney quietly followed him. The room was lit by sunlight that poured in through the window, most of it falling on the pale woman in the bed. Miss Parker was propped up by two pillows and seemed to be resting. Sydney was about to suggest to Broots that they come back when she turned her head slightly and smiled when she saw them.

“I'm not going to bite.” she said her voice soft and raspy.

You sure about that?” Broots said jokingly and she gave him glare reminiscent of her old ones before laughing slightly. Sydney walked over to her and kissed her cheek lightly.

“You scared me, Parker.” he said gruffly his voice full of emotion. “This is the second time you have done this to us. Two times too many, I say. Don’t ever do it again.”

“I’ll try to avoid it in the future, Freud,” she said, giving him the same glare she gave Broots, but her soft smile betrayed her happiness to see him. Michele’s head appeared in the doorway and she smiled when she noticed Sydney holding Miss Parker's hand.

“Is this a private party or can anyone join in?” she joked.

“Hi, Michele.” Miss Parker said smiling at the woman in the doorway. “Come in, please.”

“I brought a special guest, if that’s okay?” she said and then stepped out of the way so that Catie could be seen. Miss Parker’s breath caught in her throat and her eyes teared up.

“Catherine.” she whispered.

Catie wouldn’t meet Miss Parker’s gaze and clung to Michele’s hand. Miss Parker looked at her in confusion, not understanding why her daughter was behaving his way. Catie finally looked up and Miss Parker saw the tears streaming down the child’s face.

“Oh, Catie, what’s wrong?” Miss Parker said pressing her hand to her heart at her daughter’s pained expression.

“I...” Catie stuttered. “I...I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean it. I love you so much.”

Tears choking off the rest of her words, she flew at her mother. Miss Parker ignored the flash of pain she felt when Catie launched herself into her mother’s arms and hugged her daughter to her tightly.

“Shhh, Baby. I know. I love you, too.” Miss Parker said into Catie’s soft hair. “I missed you so much. I was so worried about you.”

“I missed you too. I don’t want you to go away like that ever again. Pop-Pop says you did this two times too many.” Catie said into her mother’s stomach and Miss Parker laughed at her daughter’s repetition of Sydney’s earlier words.

“Pop-Pop was right.” she said and looked up at Sydney in amusement. Thank you, she mouthed. He nodded and wrapped his arm around Michele, drawing her into his side.

“Nicholas would have come, but he is away teaching children in Mexico. Catie and I called him before coming in. He sends his love and will see you the second he gets back, hopefully at home and not here.” Michele told Miss Parker and squeezed the young woman’s hand when Miss Parker reached out.

Dr. Smythe appeared in the doorway and smiled. “I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to break this little reunion up. Someone needs her rest.”

Miss Parker nodded and kissed Catie goodbye.

“You can come visit me later tonight, okay?” She said when Catie’s lower lip began to tremble.

“Promise?” Catie asked her lips beginning to turn up in a smile.

“I promise.” she said and kissed her again in reassurance. Catie grinned and took Michele’s hand.

“Mom-Mom Michele, I'm hungry. Can I have a hot dog?” she said chattering away happily.

“Of course you can, sweetheart.” Michele said bending down and hugging the girl to her tightly. She looked up at Sydney with tears in her eyes and smiled. “You can have anything you want.”

She led Catie out of the room after giving Parker a soft hug good bye. Catie turned before she disappeared out the door and wiggled her fingers good bye at her mother. She blew a kiss and grinned when Miss Parker blew one back and waved good bye. As soon as they were gone, Miss Parker looked at Sydney in confusion.

“What was all that about?” she asked in reference to Michele's reaction to Catie asking for a hot dog.

“Catie hasn’t quite been herself since the accident.” Sydney tried to explain. “She hasn’t spoken except to say her prayers at night nor has she smiled or laughed.”

He looked at the door that the other two females had just exited from. He smiled again and looked back at Miss Parker. “She’ll be all right now.”

“I think we all will be.” Broots piped up and looked embarrassed at what he had just said.

“Broots, where’s Debbie?” Miss Parker asked, letting him off the hook.

“She doesn’t like hospitals, but that reminds me. She sent you this.” He handed her a huge homemade card, with a drawing of eight people on the front. Underneath she had labeled each one and Miss Parker realized it was everyone from Catie’s prior birthday party. At the top were the words “Our Family”. She opened it up and felt her heart tighten at the words printed inside.

“Please get well. We need you to complete the picture. From the rest of your family.” she whispered reading the simple, but heartfelt words aloud. Broots cleared his throat and Sydney looked at his watch.

“We’d better go, before Dr. Smythe kicks us out,” he said blinking back tears of his own at the truthful words from a ten year old.

“Too late.” came the doctors strong voice from the doorway.

Sydney looked at him sheepishly and kissed Miss Parker’s forehead. Broots looked embarrassed, but determined as he planted a quick kiss on her cheek, before bolting out the door. She rolled her eyes, chuckled slightly, and waved goodbye as Sydney followed shaking his head at the younger man. She settled into her bed and slept, dreaming about her family.
Second Chances by Jaclyn Parker
A week passed by quickly and by the following Monday, Miss Parker had almost fully recovered. Even her ribs and arm bone had almost mended itself completely. The doctors were speechless as to how it could happen so fast and calling it a miracle. Around five o'clock that Monday evening Sydney came by himself to see how Miss Parker was doing. Michele was going to bring Catie by later, around 6 or so. Sydney crept into her room and saw that she was asleep. Deciding to let her get her rest, he turned to leave, but stopped when he heard the bed shift.

"Daddy?" she whispered her voice sounding dry.

"No, Parker. It's Sydney." He said turning back to face her. She was looking at him, with a funny smile on her lips.

"I know." was her reply and Sydney felt his heart flutter and then soar. She shifted again and hit the button to make her bed rise so that she was in more of a sitting position. He walked over to the table beside her bed and poured her a glass of water. Handing it to her, he caught her gaze and she covered his hand with hers before accepting the water.

After she had drunk the glass and handed it back to him, she folded her hands in her lap, grimacing in slight pain at moving her fractured arm, and looked him square in the eye.

"It wasn't a miracle that saved my life, was it?" she asked him solemnly. "It was Jarod. He came here and gave me something."

Sydney didn't answer her with words, only shook his head yes. She sighed, leaned back, and laid her head down on the pillow again.

"I thought I dreamt that, but somehow I knew it was true," she whispered more to herself than to Sydney. She looked at Sydney again and asked, "Did he stay to see if it worked?"

"I'm sure he did, Parker." Sydney honestly told her, "But I never saw him. It was too dangerous for him to stick around in the open."

"I know and I am thankful that he was able to come despite the risks." Miss Parker said softly.

"Parker," Sydney said placing his hand on her shoulder and making her look at him. "He would have come even if it meant he would have been caught."

Miss Parker nodded and he squeezed her shoulder lightly. Before either one could say another word, the door to the room burst open and Catie flew in. She ran over to the bed and wiggled to stand in between her mother and Sydney. Grinning from ear to ear, she leaned over to kiss her mother's cheek.

"Hi, Mama!" Catie said, her eyes shining bright with joy.

This was a very different child than the one who had come earlier in the week. Michele, who had come in moments after the excited five year old, chuckled at the girl's exuberance and Sydney reached out to take her hand.

"I'm sorry. I was going to bring her later, but she insisted on seeing you now. Are you feeling better?" Michele asked Miss Parker, her soft voice happy yet concerned.

"Much. Thank you, Michele." Miss Parker answered the woman, pronouncing her French-sounding name correctly unlike how she said Brigitte's name.

"Mom-Mom Michele and I brought you a present, Mama. I guess it's kinda from Pop-Pop too, but he doesn't really know what it is either." Catie said, hoisting herself up onto the bed and crawling as she talked until she was seated next to Miss Parker and bouncing slightly.

"Oh? What?" Miss Parker asked, smiling warmly at Michele who smiled back. Miss Parker turned back to Catie and began to teasingly said, "I hope it's a pony. I really wanted a pony."

"No, Mama!" Catie said giggling loudly. Catie jumped off the bed again with uncontainable energy and raced over to the door. She opened it and disappeared for a moment. The door opened again and Catie entered backwards dragging someone into the room by their hand. As soon as the person was revealed Miss Parker couldn't help the smile that came acrss her face.

"Nicholas!" she said and reached out her hand to her half-brother. He came closer and took it, then leaned over to kiss her cheek. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in Mexico."

"I was." Nicholas said and grinned at the surprised expression on his sister's face. "Mom flew me back in. I couldn't stay away."

"I'm glad you came." she replied and squeezed his hand.

"So am I." he said then made a face. "Of course, all of this sort of makes sense to me."

Miss Parker raised her eyebrow for him to explain.

"It's just typical older sister stuff. You see, the second I find out I have a sister after all these years of wanting a sibling, you try and get out of the deal!"

Everyone laughed and Miss Parker shook her head. "No, little brother. I wasn't going anywhere, if only to get a chance to boss you around."

Everyone laughed again and someone clearing his or her throat loudly brought everyone's attention to the door once more. Dr. Smythe stood there his arms crossed and Miss Parker's chart in his left hand.

"I must be mistaken. I could've sworn the visitor rule was only two at a time for this ward of the hospital." He said looking at each person in turn.

"You shouldn't swear!" Catie piped up, making even Dr. Smythe chuckle.

"You're right, young lady." He said to Catie before handing her a cherry lollipop from his lab coat. He looked at Miss Parker and smiled.

"She is definitely your daughter." He said then turned to address everyone else.

"This one," he said indicating to Miss Parker, "has been nothing but trouble since she got here. Always ringing the nurse's bell, demanding to see me. Then when I came, all she asked was when she could go home. You would think she wanted to leave us or something!"

Laughter erupted again and even Miss Parker gave a grunt of a laugh. Dr. Smythe turned to her and grinned. "Now, we usually don't allow this considering you have only had a week to recover, but in your case we've decided to make an exception. Miss Parker, although it's not as nice as the one your daughter gave you, I have a gift for you also."

"Is it a pony?" Catie asked innocently, from her spot next to Miss Parker again and Miss Parker pulled her closer to shush her.

"No, I'm afraid not, but I think you'll like it too, Catie." Dr. Smythe said to the young girl, his mustache curling up with his lips in a smile. "Your mom is free to go home, as long as she follows strict orders from me and doesn't go back to work for good three weeks."

"Maybe you can convince her to go vacation or something." He added and winked at the girl.

Miss Parker beamed and held out her hand to the doctor. He shook it and she whispered her sincere thanks. Sydney did the same and after making arrangements for Miss Parker to go home the following morning, Dr. Smythe left. Catie kneeled so that she was face level with Miss Parker and Miss Parker placed her hands on Catie's cheeks.

"I'm coming home, baby." she said her voice full of happiness and Catie grinned.

"Yay!!" Catie cried throwing her arms around Miss Parker and hugging her tightly. Catie sighed and nuzzled her face into her mother's neck, too happy to continue her normal chatter. Miss Parker breathed in the scent of her little girl and was struck by a severe longing to see Jarod.

Suddenly, she felt the urge to look at the window on the hospital door and in doing so found herself staring into the deepest set of dark brown eyes she had ever known. Jarod smiled and winked at her through the window, then as quickly as he appeared he was gone again.

Miss Parker's eyes misted and she held Catie tighter. The tears were not of sadness though, but of joy, for she knew that she would have a second chance to make her family work. The second the truck had hit, her all her fears, hopes, and dreams had flashed before her and when she had woken up she knew she could no longer let her fear control her life. It was time to heal, but little did she know that although the road of Hell she had been on was coming to an end, she had one last revelation to go.


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