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Jarod stumbles through the front door, his legs and lungs both burning from the intense workout he subjected himself to. Pretends like his last one always left him desperate for some sort of catharsis. A release of the pressure that had built up during the pretend. So he ran. He ran and he ran until his legs couldn't carry him anymore. He ran until all of the anguish he picked up from the pretend seeped out with each drop of sweat. He ran until he was himself again. But this time, he couldn't run far enough. There was no escape from this last pretend. Because it reached deep inside of him and grabbed a hold of a pain that was already present. A pain he was trying to forget.
His aching muscles cried out for a hot, steamy shower and he eagerly relented. The warm spray gently massaged his body, easing some of the tension, but not enough. He was still wound up tight. He knew that eventually the pain would dissipate or that something else would come up and he'd forget about it. So until that time, he just had to keep himself busy to keep from going crazy. He picks up the phone and dials a number that's become very familiar to him.
"Hello?" a woman answers.
"Hi ZoŽ," Jarod greets.
"Jarod," she says excitedly. "I was wondering when you'd be done with your latest thingy."
"It's a pretend," he chuckles at her phrasing of his 'job'. It was hard explaining to her the things that he could do. But she seemed to accept it, along with the little time they got to spend together. "And yes, I'm done."
"It was pretty bad, huh," she guesses. "You sound exhausted. Worn out."
"It was. And I am," he confesses. "I could use a break. You want to meet somewhere?"
"Jarod, you know you're always welcome here."
"I know that, ZoŽ. But I can't bring that kind of trouble on you. After Lyle got to you that last time, we need to be more careful. Meeting at your place would be too dangerous," he insists. "How about we meet in paradise."
"Ooh, sounds heavenly," she giggles. "What do you have in mind."
"Barbados. Warm. Tropical. Beaches that go on forever. With water as blue as . . ." he ends off suddenly, ashamed that he was about to compare the beach to Miss Parker's eyes. He remembers first hearing about the beaches in the Caribbean. He was 14 years old. Miss Parker had been gone for about 2 weeks and he was beginning to worry about her. But she came back, happy and tanned, excitedly telling him about the cruise her father took her on. She told him about the endless beaches with the heavenly blue water. He could only imagine the water, but in his mind it only paled in comparison to her eyes. The first trip he ever made to the Caribbean after he escaped, he realized he was right. The water had nothing on her eyes.
"Water as blue as what, Jarod?" she asks him.
"Actually, I'll let you tell me, ZoŽ when we get there," he smiles, trying to shove the image of his huntress from his mind. "So, will you meet me?"
"Of course I will, Jarod," she agrees. "I'll see you soon."
They hang up the phone and Jarod busies himself to making the arrangements. This was just the type of diversion he needed. He just hoped that this trip would help him forget for a while.
"Sweetheart, I think it's a wonderful idea," Mr. Parker's voice booms. "You and Carson should get away."
"You don't mind that I'm taking a vacation with him?" Miss Parker eyes her father curiously, wondering why he was making this so easy for her.
"Angel, Carson is just the kind of man I've always wanted for you. I think a vacation would be nice for you both."
"See, Parker. I told you it would be no problem," Carson said, kissing her hand gently. "So, what do you say?"
"Okay," she tells him. "I'll go away with you."
"Wonderful," her father grins. "Well, I have to go. Leave you two lovebirds alone." He stands to leave.
"Actually, I have to be going, too," Carson announces. "I'll walk out with you, Mr. Parker." He kisses Miss Parker good night before leaving with her father.
Miss Parker sits in the silence after they're gone, wondering if she was ready for this step with Carson. She met Carson Stone three months ago. She was instantly attracted to him. He was tall with dark hair and chocolate eyes that she couldn't resist. He was very charming and swept her off her feet. She knows that she doesn't love him. And she knows that she never will. But he makes her happy enough. And her father approves of him. At least she won't have to worry about finding him on her front porch with a bullet through his brain. She sighs and shakes herself before standing up. If she was going on this trip, she had much to do.
"Barbados?" Miss Parker comments dryly when they land.
"You sound disappointed," Carson pouts.
"It's not that," she quickly says. "I love it here. I came here a long time ago when I was younger. But I haven't been back." Or couldn't come back, she thinks to herself. When she was about 12 or 13, her father brought her on a trip out here. For two weeks she played in the sun, frolicked on the beach, and had a good time. She couldn't wait to get back to the Centre to tell Jarod all about it. And when she did, she was rewarded by the look on his face when she described it all. She vowed that day that she wouldn't come back unless she could bring him.
"Well, how about we get settled into the beach house and then go out for some dinner and dancing," he suggests.
"Sounds good," she says with a forced smile. Generally she enjoyed Carson's company. But lately, little things were starting to rub her the wrong way. As if some kind of radar on the inside of her was going off warning her about this guy. And it was a little disconcerting how well he got along with her father.
Miss Parker pushes those thoughts out of her mind and follows Carson to the car. They arrive at the beach house and unpack. She dresses for dinner and two hours later, they're at the restaurant. That's when things start to go bad.
"ZoŽ, will you hurry up? I'm hungry," Jarod calls out to his companion. She'd been in the bathroom for almost an hour now, trying to get ready for dinner. "My friend will only be able to hold our reservation for so long."
"Okay, I'm coming," she says, stepping through the door. She pauses and lets him take in the sight of her, making a little turn for him to see it all.
"Wow," Jarod says breathlessly. "You look great. Definitely worth the wait."
"Thank you," she blushes. "Let's get going." She takes his hand and they leave the hotel. The restaurant is just down the beach, so they walk, enjoying the setting sun on the way.
"Jarod," the host says when they arrive at the restaurant twenty minutes later. "I'm so glad you could make it. We almost had to give away your table to this one angry couple. I told them they had to wait, but the guy just got angry and tried to rough me up a bit. Luckily his lovely companion was just as scary as he was. She barked at him until he backed down."
"Jameel, that's awful," Jarod sympathizes. "We didn't mean to cause you any trouble. But I'm glad we still have a table. ZoŽ and I are starved." Both men look appreciatingly at ZoŽ and smile at her.
"Right this way." The host leads Jarod and ZoŽ through the crowded restaurant to a quiet table by the back deck. "How is this?"
"This will be lovely. Thanks." Jarod says with a smile. He helps ZoŽ into her seat and they sit to enjoy the evening.
Miss Parker watches as Carson orders yet another drink. They were forced to wait at the bar until a table became available. Carson hadn't had the foresight to make reservations. She wanted to just go to another restaurant, but he insisted on staying, saying that this was the best in the area. After attempting to bully the host, they were banished to the bar.
"Slow down on the drinks, Carson," she suggests. "We may be here awhile."
"You're one to talk," he slurs. "You've had a few yourself."
The drinks were fairly heavy on the rum. By the time she realized it, she had a pretty nice buzz going. But she's slowed down. Carson is still going and is starting to get drunk.
"You don't want to cause another scene, do you? They may throw us out this time," she warns him. She couldn't believe how he erupted at the host earlier. If she hadn't yelled at him to back off, he probably would have put the poor man in the hospital. Carson had been angry with her interfering. And he was becoming nastier with each drink he took.
"I caused the scene?" he asks, raising his voice some. He leans over until he's right in her face. "I wasn't the one to cause the scene. We should have been able to get a table. These island people should be happy that people like us are frequenting their establishments instead of making them stay in the back and cook for us."
"You racist pig," she gasps, pushing him away from her. "I'm leaving now. And I don't ever want to hear from you again," she yells, causing a few of the patrons to look her way. She gets up to leave, but Carson grabs her arm, squeezing it tightly.
"No Parker. You can't walk away from this. I own you," Carson sneers.
"Get your hands off of me," she says icily. She reaches back for her gun, but realizes that she didn't have it on her. She was on vacation. She was supposed to be having fun. But this evening was starting to not be so fun. In fact, it was going from bad to worse. Before she could blink, she feels the sting of his free hand across her face. She attempts to fight back, but the alcohol in her system left her a step behind him. He had punched her several times before she finally delivered a blow, knocking him back a step. He stumbles and hits his head against the bar as he goes down, rendering him unconscious.
"Jarod, did you see that?" ZoŽ asks in shock. "I can't believe it. That guy just hit his date. She fought him back and he fell and hit his head."
"They were fighting?" Jarod turns and looks at the situation at the bar and sees a crowd already surrounding the area. A waitress was putting ice on the woman's face and several of the men were trying to rouse the unconscious man on the floor. After the unsuccessful attempts, they ask if anyone's a doctor.
"ZoŽ, see if you can get the woman out of here," Jarod says, turning back to the perky red head. "I'm going to go . . . take care of her date." His eyes cloud over with something dark. And even though he had every intention of making sure the man was okay health wise, he also planned on making sure the man never had the inclination to hit another woman again.
He pushes his way through the crowd, a path being made for him when he tells them he's a doctor. He finds the man on the floor, just starting to come around. He looks around wildly, a little nervous at suddenly being the center of attention.
"Sir, are you alright?" Jarod asks.
"Yeah. I think so. Just had a bit too much to drink. Fell off the stool," he covers.
"Can you tell me your name?" Jarod lifts the man's eyelids, checking to see if his pupils were dilated.
"Carson. Carson Stone. I was here with a woman. Did you see where she went?"
Jarod grits his teeth, trying hard to hold in his contempt for this man. But it was hard. He just couldn't understand why a man would ever do something like that to a woman. But at least the woman had fought back in this case. His last pretend was so disturbing because of the number of women he met who couldn't fight back. They couldn't stand up for themselves. Even more shocking was no matter how much he tried to help, the women ended up back with their abusive mates. That wouldn't happen in this case. He'd make sure of it.
"Actually, I think she's in the restroom freshening up," Jarod tells him. "Why don't you go out on the back deck and wait for her. Get some fresh air."
"That's a good idea. Thanks man," Carson says gratefully.
Jarod's phony smile disappears as the man walks out the door. All he had to do now was get the woman out of here and then he'd come back to take care of her violent date.
"ZoŽ," he whispers through the restroom door, knocking lightly on it. "Is everything alright?"
"We'll be out in a minute," ZoŽ says, poking her head through the door.
"Tell her that the coast is clear. She can get out of here without him seeing her."
"I don't think it's going to be that easy. She's determined to face him. I think she's really going to hurt him. She keeps on mentioning something about her gun," ZoŽ tells him.
"Miss, I don't think killing him is going to solve . . . " Jarod's thoughts freeze when the bathroom door opens, revealing the woman standing inside with ZoŽ. Three fist size bruises were situated around her face, starting to discolor her porcelain skin. One bruise was around her mouth. The others were around her eyes. Jarod locks on the woman's eyes, seeing straight into the one that wasn't swollen shut. He never thought he'd see her like that again.
"He did that to you?" he gasps, slowly lifting a shaking hand to touch the one unbruised area on her face. He fights to hold in the tears, but they break loose, streaming wildly down his face.
Miss Parker just stands there while a myriad of emotions race through her head. Disbelief at actually running into Jarod while on her vacation. After all the attempts at catching him, she just happens to meet up with him by chance. There's also shame, at having him see her like this. Grief over watching his forgotten torment return. And comfort from his presence. Her own tears start to flow at the gentleness of his touch and the sympathy in his eyes.
"It looks a lot worse than it is," she tells him, trying to give him a reassuring smile. But it's too late. She can see that something dark has overcome him. His eyes were filled with vengeance. It was like something in him just snapped.
"I'm going to kill him," he growls.
"Jarod," ZoŽ calls out to him. She was shocked at the transformation that took place right before her eyes. First he was crying over this woman's injuries. She knew he was sensitive about things like that, so it wasn't so strange. But all of a sudden, anger took over. And she actually believed he would kill that man. "Jarod come back," she calls again. But he's already gone out to the deck to get Carson.
"We have to stop him," Miss Parker pleads desperately. She knew the look in Jarod's eyes, too. She could see he was out for blood. But only she and Jarod knew the real reason why. She grabs ZoŽ's hand and they take off after Jarod. When they get out to the deck, the men are gone. "Where did they go?"
"Out on the beach," ZoŽ screams. Jarod was on top of Carson, throwing endless punches before finally wrapping his hands around his throat. He begins to squeeze, not letting up when the man begins to struggle for breath.
"Jarod," ZoŽ yells. "Stop. Don't kill him." The women continue to run until they reach Jarod and Carson. "Jarod," she yells one last time, but with no effect. It was like he didn't even hear her.
"Stop this, Jarod," Miss Parker pleads, grabbing his hand. Jarod stops squeezing just as Carson loses consciousness. He looks down at what he's done and breaks down in sobs. Miss Parker pulls him off of Carson and embraces him. Cradling him in her arms, she runs one hand through his hair and the other up and down his back.
"I'm sorry," he sobs. "I'm so sorry."
"He's alive," ZoŽ announces after checking for a pulse. "He's just unconscious." Sirens blare in the distance and they realize that someone had alerted the authorities. ZoŽ looks at the two people clinging so tightly that they almost seemed like one person. She wondered who this woman was that could affect Jarod so deeply in such a short period of time. He's never opened up to ZoŽ that much.
"Jarod, look at me," Miss Parker orders, lifting his head up to meet her eyes. "I'm fine. See for yourself. I'm okay."
"He hurt you," Jarod whimpers. "I wanted to kill him. I can't take it when anyone hurts you, Miss Parker." Jarod's tears start again as he falls back into her arms. This time, her own tears mix along with his.
ZoŽ watches the whole scene in shock. It becomes clear to her that Jarod not only knew this woman, but that he cared very deeply for her. And by the way she was holding him, she cared for him as well. ZoŽ suddenly felt out of place.
The ambulance finally arrives and tends to Carson. They take one look at Miss Parker's face and insist she goes along with them.
"I'm not going anywhere without him," she insists.
"Go ahead. I'll ride along with him in the other ambulance," ZoŽ assures her.
Miss Parker reluctantly releases Jarod from her embrace and goes with the paramedics. Another team swoops in on Jarod and begin treating him for shock. Miss Parker keeps his eye contact for as long as she can until her ambulance zooms down the beach. She sends up a prayer, begging God to help Jarod through this one more time.
At the hospital, the doctors treat Carson and Miss Parker while the police question them. Carson's taken away to jail when the whole story about his assault comes out and Miss Parker is told she's free to go. She goes to the admission's desk and attempts to track down Jarod, which is a difficult task since he has no last name. She was about to get agitated when ZoŽ bounces down the hall.
"Miss Parker?" she asks tentatively. "Jarod's down here. He's been asking for you."
Miss Parker glares one last time at the nurse at the desk before hurrying to where ZoŽ was pointing. The women quietly walk in the room and stand by Jarod's bed. The doctors had to sedate him and he was still sleeping. Miss Parker brushes a lock of hair out of his eyes, lightly grazing her fingers across his forehead.
"How long have you two known each other," ZoŽ finally asks, breaking the silence.
"All our lives almost," Miss Parker tells her. She pulls a chair close to the bed and sits down. She takes Jarod's hand in her own, not wanting to lose contact.
"Jarod was locked away when he was younger. So that means you must know him from that horrible place," ZoŽ concludes. "Are you the one he keeps on running from?" ZoŽ casts an accusatory glare in her direction. Miss Parker can only nod her head in shame.
"I think you should leave," ZoŽ orders. Miss Parker stares in defiance for a moment before ZoŽ becomes more forceful. "Now, Miss Parker. I know about you people. I don't think you want me calling the police, do you?"
Miss Parker sighs in resignation. The truth was, she's done nothing but hurt Jarod. He seems to have found someone who can make him happy. Someone who can look after him. ZoŽ was right. She shouldn't even be there. She didn't belong. Miss Parker looks one last time at Jarod and kisses his forehead before heeding ZoŽ's wishes and leaving. She manages to wait until she got outside the room before the tears fall.
Jarod's agitation wakes ZoŽ, who was sleeping uncomfortably in the chair next to him. He's flailing in the bed and she's afraid he's going to hurt himself. Suddenly, he sits straight up and his eyes pop open.
"Miss Parker," he gasps, over and over. "Miss Parker, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he sobs.
"Jarod, wake up," ZoŽ shakes him. "It's okay. You're okay."
Jarod opens his eyes and sees ZoŽ smiling down at him. He scans the room looking for someone else.
"Is she here?" Jarod asks her, his sad face looking like a little boy who lost his favorite blankie.
"Jarod, I told her she shouldn't be here," ZoŽ tells him. "I sent her away."
"I can understand that. But I need to see her," he begs.
"ZoŽ, please," he begs.
ZoŽ just stomps off in a huff, going out in the hall to try to find the doctor who treated Miss Parker in the emergency room. Maybe he'd know how to contact her. She didn't expect on running into Miss Parker in the hallway, however.
"You're still here," ZoŽ snaps. "Well, that's good because he wants to see you. And against my better judgment, I told him I'd come get you. Don't you hurt him," ZoŽ warns.
Miss Parker walks around the protective woman and goes into the room. ZoŽ follows her in and stands by the door, ready to toss Miss Parker out if necessary.
"Jarod, are you alright?" Miss Parker asks with much concern.
"I'm better. Now that I know you're okay. I can't believe I let him hurt you. I always let them hurt you," he blames himself.
"Don't do this, Jarod," she gently scolds. "None of it was your fault. Carson was the one who hurt me. You had nothing to do with it."
"Thomas was a nice guy. I knew he'd never hurt you. I thought you two could be happy. But you ended up hurt anyway."
"But I was happy, Jarod. And you made that possible by sending Thomas to me. When we love somebody, we run the risk of losing them. When are you going to realize that you're not to blame for what the Centre does? You weren't responsible for my getting shot. You almost lost everything trying to help me. I even stopped blaming you for Mama's death. You helped me survive that. You were the one there for me everyday."
"I should have known about Carson. I should have been able to stop him. You shouldn't have been hurt like that. Not again," he says with a few tears starting to fall. "Not like before."
"Jarod, that wasn't your fault, either. And you couldn't stop it. You were just a little boy." She cups his cheek, wiping away the tears as they fell.
"But it's like you said, Miss Parker. I was the one who helped you survive that place after your mother died. I should have been able to protect you from those sweepers. If I hadn't tried to run away . . ."
"Stop, Jarod," she says, putting her finger to his lips. "Those sweepers may have caught me helping you escape. But it wasn't your fault that they beat me. You were beaten pretty badly as well if I remember correctly. You *were* trying to protect me."
"Do you know what it was like for me when you came out of that bathroom last night? It was like we were kids again. The bruises were the same. And I felt the same anger and hatred rise up in me. I just wanted to punish whoever had hurt you like that. I almost killed a man, Miss Parker." Jarod sits up in the bed and pulls Miss Parker into his arms. They sit together, holding each other for a while. Crying silent tears of a past hurt that they desperately needed to let go. Miss Parker looks across the room and sees a dejected ZoŽ still standing by the door. She remembers her vow from the previous night to allow Jarod to be happy.
Jarod groans in protest when Miss Parker pulls herself from his arms. Inwardly, she lets out the same protest, but had to be strong on the outside.
"Jarod, it's time we got over this. It's time we healed," she told him. "I think ZoŽ can help you. She cares a lot about you." She leans down and captures his lips with hers for a repeat performance of that innocent kiss they shared two decades prior. She forces herself to stop the kiss before she was tempted to go further.
"Take care of him," she begs ZoŽ as she walks past the woman. "He's one of a kind." She pauses when she reaches the door and turns back to look at him one last time. "Be happy my friend," she whispers before finally leaving. 'Be happy, my love' she cries to herself as she runs from the hospital.
Miss Parker sits out on the beach, staring out at the water as the sun sets. She retrieved her things from Carson's beach house and found a hotel to stay at the rest of her trip. She tried hard not to think about Jarod, but it was difficult. It's been five days since she said good-bye. She knew she'd eventually catch up with him one day, but she had no real intentions of trying to take him back to the Centre. Not anymore.
The sun is finally laid to rest and she can practically hear the sizzle and it dips into the water out on the horizon. A sadness comes over her as she realizes this marks the end of her journey there. She was leaving to go back to Blue Cove in the morning, and hopefully leaving behind an era of painful memories.
"I once heard of a beautiful sunset before," a deep voice from behind her rings out. "The reality still doesn't compare to how that little girl saw it."
"Jarod?" she gasps, turning around to come face to face with the man.
"You see, I had never seen a sunset before that day. And the way she described it to me, it seemed like the most amazing sight I could imagine. She said that one day, the man of her dreams would kiss her, just as the sun kissed the ocean and she'd know they'd be together forever. That very day after she left, I promised myself that I'd find her a sunset just as she described. Then I'd take her into my arms and make her dreams come true."
"Jarod, those were just the childish ramblings of kids. We've grown up since th . . " She's stopped by the force of his mouth meeting her own. Shock and disbelief soon melt away to passion as she begins to kiss him back. Her hands clasp behind his neck, pulling him closer to her until there's not an inch of her body not touching his.
Slowly, he pulls away, peeling his face from hers, but still making eye contact. He stares deep into her eyes and realizes for the first time ever that there's love there. The same love he knows is reflected in his own eyes.
"Now we have to be together forever, Miss Parker," he gasps, still trying to catch his breath from the kiss before.
"Forever's a long time, Jarod," she says with a smile. "Think you can put up with me for that long?"
He finds her mouth again and gives her another sweet kiss, his gentleness bringing tears to her eyes.
"Forever and longer," he promises. "My heart belongs to you - and only you - for always."
"I love you," she whispers, more sure of that than she'd ever been of anything in her entire life. She'd never been able to say those words. Not even with Thomas until it was too late. But that's because it's never been so right. Not how it is with Jarod. "I've always loved you. And I always will."
They seal their vows with a kiss, the sunset no longer marking the end of a sad journey, but the beginning of a happy one.
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