Truth and Consequences - Chapter 20


by MMB

Sydney let the latest sheaf of papers land on his stomach, put his mug of coffee down on the coffee table next to him and picked up the telephone handset. "This is Sydney."

"Hi, Syd. It's me."

"Parker!" The smile on his face was one of relief. Her voice sounded much more natural - more like the woman she'd been before all this trouble began. "How are you?"

"Fine. I actually got a good night's sleep for a change." She waved her hand dismissively at the sound of the snort from the kitchen. She HAD slept well, damn it, just not fallen asleep immediately. As if Sydney needed to know THAT...

"I'm glad to hear that." He glanced at his watch. "It's still fairly early where you are. Are you on your way back home already?"

"Uh, no... That's what I'm calling you about," she said gently. She sat down at the dining table with her coffee and pulled her bathrobe closed. "Jarod has talked me into staying for another day."

"GOOD!" Sydney was nodding vigorously. "These last few days have been harder on you than I think you realize - you can use the time to just decompress a little. I'm glad to hear you're listening to reason. How's Davy this morning?"

He heard her chuckle. "Fine - still a little sunburned and gravel-voiced, but otherwise OK. He's been fascinated by the view from Jarod's balcony this morning. You should be here, Syd - this place is beautiful. The balcony is right at the top of a cliff - the ocean is straight down from there." She twisted in her chair so that she could see Davy and Ginger both sitting in their pajamas side by side on the floor by the picture window, Davy pointing something out to the little girl beside him. Davy seemed to have taken the idea of an addition to their family better than she'd thought possible.

"Sounds wonderful. What about Deb, Parker - how is she?"

There was an ominous pause as Parker turned away and lowered her voice. "Physically, she's coming along, but emotionally she's struggling. As of yesterday, she wasn't cooperating with her therapist at all..."

"That's normal in cases like this," Sydney told her quickly. "Some assault patients go into a state of emotional suspended animation, while others attempt to convince themselves that nothing really happened. Still others can have such a hard time coping with their memories that they can trigger a fit of hysterics just by being reminded..."

"From the sounds of it, Deb tends toward borderline hysteria, or at least has been. But I talked to her yesterday, tried to give her a reason to cooperate. I told her that she had to convince her doctor and therapist that she's better emotionally before they'd let her come home."

Sydney nodded thoughtfully. "Sometimes that will work for a while. Did the doctor give you any idea of how much longer she'll be hospitalized?"

"At least a few more days - it all depends on how her therapy goes from here. I'm going to call the therapist today and see if there was any improvement."

"Do you think it would help if Broots or I called her - let her know we're thinking of her?"

Miss Parker thought for a minute. "It might just upset her more, because she knows she can't come home yet. Better not try it for a day or so."

"She might start feeling abandoned with you having taken off..."

"Sam's there. He's commuting between LA and Adelanto for the next few days, finishing with his dissection of Flores' office and staying close to Deb evenings and mornings." Sydney heard her sigh. "You know, it would be ideal if the doctors thought she could go home with me tomorrow or Monday - it would take a miracle, I know, but it would be wonderful... I think I could even be talked into staying here until she's released if there were a chance..."

"Why don't you stay anyway?" Sydney urged her. "Knowing you're nearby and waiting for her will give her the kind of incentive and support she may need to make the effort. If you call her and tell her you've decided to wait for her, it might add just enough incentive for her to make the extra effort. Why fly home only to turn around in just a day or so to fly back again when you have a perfectly good place to stay while she's still recuperating in the hospital?"

"I know Jarod wouldn't mind a bit if I did hang around a bit longer," Miss Parker said, turning as the Pretender wandered out of the kitchen with coffee mug in hand wearing only his pajama bottoms. He slid a hand along her shoulders as he walked past her, leaving his coffee on the table next to her. He walked over to behind the children, bent down to ruffle his son's hair and then lifted his daughter up high from behind. "I think you two are conspiring to get me to take a vacation. Tell me, did you cook this up with him?"

"Not this time - but I'll remember this," the psychiatrist chuckled. "As long as it works."

"Well, if that's what's going to happen, I suppose I'll need to call Tyler today sometime and tell him that he's on his own for a while longer. But that can wait. How are YOU doing?"

"Same as always," Sydney grumbled. "Sitting here with one leg going up and down, up and down. The only thing that makes it even halfway bearable is all this wonderful reading material you had dumped on me. Kevin and I have had a couple of very interesting discussions regarding the kind of experimentation the Centre was doing and why."

That got Miss Parker chuckling. "Oh Lord, I can imagine. Find anything really despicable yet?"

Sydney snorted softly. "There have been a few projects with Mr. Raines' fingerprints all over them - and one or two that your... Mr. Parker initiated that were highly questionable... I think the part that disturbs the both of us is that there's enough genuine research involved that we haven't really found anything that hasn't got something that makes it worth re-entering the data." He grimaced. "I almost feel sorry for our data entry typists when they get some of this. We may have to set up therapy appointments for them just to make sure they cope with some of what they'll be asked to copy."

"Oh boy." From his description, she wasn't sure she WANTED to know all the details. "But you're enjoying yourself otherwise?"

Now he laughed outright. "I suppose you could say that."

"Good. I figured it would help keep you out of trouble since you can't get around so much anymore..."

"You would..." Sydney shook his head and smiled.

"Oh, and Syd, get ready for a shock..." Parker's tone grew mysterious. "You have another grandchild - Jarod and I have a little girl."

"What?!" Sydney's tone of surprise even brought Kevin in from the kitchen to listen to the one side of the conversation more closely.

She could well imagine the look on the old psychiatrist's face. "Jarod's adopting a little girl," she repeated patiently, "a former patient of his."

"A little girl? How old?"

"Just seven. She looks a lot like Jarod, to be honest. Dark hair and eyes... She's beautiful."

From the sound of her voice, Sydney could well picture that she was looking at the child as she had described her. "You said she was a former patient..."

"Yeah. She was abused, Syd." Miss Parker's voice grew grim. "Badly enough that she's stopped talking completely and started to withdraw. The look in her eyes, Syd - she reminds me of Angelo sometimes."

He could remember that expression, and he'd hoped never to see another one like it again. "Christ!"

"Yeah. But she hasn't quite gone completely inward yet - I think Jarod's hoping that with a more stable and loving home, she'll pull out of it." Miss Parker paused and then said a little more softly and wistfully, "As for me, I'm just hoping that by the end of the day, she can look at me without cringing. She's been following Davy around like a puppy this morning - much to Davy's delight - but she won't let me get anywhere near her unless Jarod holds onto her."

Sydney closed his eyes. There was another little girl - another granddaughter. He found himself suddenly resentful. He would far rather be out in California with his family than strapped into his damned 'gizmo'. He swallowed back his frustration with difficulty. "How far along is the adoption?"

"Just getting started - but I think I'm going to call up one or two of Daddy's old friends and cash in some IOU's to see if I can't get the process moving faster. I'd rather the adoption be final when Jarod's ready to come home, so that he can bring her with him without having to go through legal hoops to get the case transferred." She smiled and thought for a moment. "Come to think of it, those are some calls that can be handled while I'm HERE a whole lot more effectively than when I'm there."

"It's good to see that all that influence-peddling that yo... Mr. Parker did all those years ago can be put to GOOD use for a change," Sydney said fervently. "What's her name?"

"Ginger." Miss Parker saw the little girl give her a cautious glance at the sound of her name from her perch in Jarod's arms. "But Jarod calls her 'Sprite' - something about Ethan calling her a wood sprite when she first got here and having the name stick. She's such a tiny little thing - the name fits."

Sydney smiled to himself - he could almost picture the scene. Still... "Have you met any of the rest of Jarod's family out there yet?"

"Ethan met us at the airport. He looks really good - so much happier than he did the last time I saw him. And then Jarod's mom was here and cooked dinner for us last night," she replied and took a sip of her coffee.

"How did that go? I know Jarod said that his mother was really unhappy about the whole idea of..."

"Actually, she apologized to me."

"Really?" That did surprise Sydney. From what Jarod had said, Margaret had sounded quite bitter and determined.

"We were getting on nicely by the end of the evening. Did you know that she and my mother were good friends?"

Sydney shook his head. "No, of course not. I knew nothing of Jarod's parents at all. That must have been before Catherine married Mr. Parker."

"I suppose." Miss Parker sighed. "Still, it was good to hear about my mother before..."

Before the Centre and the evils she'd found there had trapped her, Sydney's mind filled in the end of the sentence for her quite easily. "I'm glad to hear that things went so well," he said instead, letting his relief color his voice. "She'd been very distressed since Jarod left the first time, and I was afraid that she'd make your stay there difficult at the worst possible time."

"Oh, no!" Parker could still feel the hug she'd gotten when the woman had finally decided it was time for her to go home and let Jarod have time alone with his family. "Maggie and I are on good terms. We'll see what happens today, though - Emily and her family are coming by for lunch."

"What about Gemini - Jay? Will you see him at all?"

"We're all doing dinner at Maggie's tonight, and I guess he's driving in sometime this afternoon."

"Sounds like you're being checked out by the whole group."

She chuckled. "Considering everything, are you really all that surprised, Syd?"

He chuckled back. "I suppose not. Well, you call Tyler, and then enjoy your time off, Parker. You've earned it - you really have! I hope your day today goes as well as your evening last night."

"Thanks. Tell Kevin and Broots what's going on here - and that I send them both my love."

"I will. Be good now, Parker." Sydney was smiling. This time away would be good for her - and when she came back, she'd be more than ready to handle any new challenges. "And you rest up. Give those grandchildren of mine big hugs from me and tell Jarod I said hello."

"I will. Have a good day, Syd."

"You too. Talk to you later."

Miss Parker disconnected the call and moved slowly and carefully across the living room until she was sitting on the end of the couch near Jarod. "Grandpa says to say hello and to give his love to everybody."

"How's he doing?" Jarod bent forward at the waist, tipping Ginger almost on her head toward the floor and earning himself a squeak of surprised delight.

"I'm glad I gave him the job of going through the hardcopy archives from SL-25 - he sounds like he'd be just about ready to jump out of his skin otherwise. That therapy machine ties him down pretty much all day..." She grinned at the two of them. "You're going to get her all dizzy, Jarod..."

He straightened quickly, making the little girl giggle. "Maybe, but this is the first time I've had a chance to just PLAY with her since she came to live with me." He smiled into dark eyes that were aglow with happiness. "And I'm not sure she's ever had a daddy just play with her before. So this is new for both of us." He tipped over again and drew another squeak.

"I'm not doubting that." Miss Parker could remember clearly playing with Davy in much the same way until the boy grew too big for her to handle. "You just don't need to have her losing her breakfast first thing in the morning."

Jarod straightened again, and Ginger gave a small peal of genuine laughter as she settled back into his arms. She put her hands on either side of his bearded face and patted his cheeks, then caught him around the neck and leaned back again. "Oh, you like that, do you?" he chortled and tipped over yet again. Laughter like a clear bell sounded.

"I remember Grandpa playing with me like that," Davy said, watching the antics with a smile of his own. "Lately, though, Sam's been the only one big enough to play with me like that."

Jarod straightened yet again and gave his son an assessing look while Ginger fairly bounced with excitement and delight. "What do you say, Sprite? Should I give Davy a tip too?" The dark, little head nodded enthusiastically. "OK. Let me put you down..." He looked at Parker and caught her eye. "Will you go to her while I tip Davy?" Ginger's smile faded almost completely, and she gave her guardian a look of uncertainty. "Can you trust me just a little, and just give it a try? Remember how scared you were of Grandma Maggie at first too?"

The little girl looked down at the 'mommy,' who was looking back up at her with a gentle expression. She didn't move her gaze from the 'mommy,' but finally gave a tiny nod. Jarod moved closer to Miss Parker and then tipped slowly.

Miss Parker held her breath and put up her arms to receive the little girl into her lap. She didn't try to hug the girl close or restrain her at all, but put a balancing hand at her back and stroked the child's hair as Ginger sat stiffly. But then Jarod swooped down on his son and swung him high into the air, and a small smile cracked that serious little face. Jarod tipped forward and actually touched the top of Davy's head to the floor, making the boy squeal in surprise - and Ginger giggled.

She looked up into the 'mommy's' face and saw that the 'mommy' was watching Davy have his fun with such a look on her face that Ginger's heart bumped hard in her chest. It was the same look that He had when He swung HER up high and called her 'Sprite.' When Jarod straightened and Davy let loose a laugh of his own, the 'mommy' chuckled with him.

Miss Parker turned her smiling face to her wary, new daughter and found the girl watching her face closely. She put up a hand and gently smoothed back tendrils of dark hair that had escaped the day-old braid job. "Is that fun?" she asked softly. The little head finally nodded slightly. "I think Davy likes it too," she commented and looked back at Jarod and their son and laughed again.

Jarod had once more tipped forward so that Jarod was tapping the boy's head very carefully on the carpet, and Davy was laughing hard. When the Pretender straightened this time, he looked a little winded and his face was red from exertion. "You're a whole lot bigger than your new sister, Squirt," the Pretender told his son. "You're wearing me out already."

"You're getting old, Dad," Miss Parker told him with a mischievous smirk on her face.

"Thanks a lot," he grumbled back. He walked over to the couch and collapsed next to her, still holding Davy and then setting the boy on his lap while he stretched back. Davy settled back against his father's chest, and Jarod put his arms around the boy. "So... Did Sydney have any objections to your taking an extra day?"

Miss Parker's lips twitched, and she suddenly focused on smoothing more of Ginger's hair back from her face, wishing she dared pull the girl into her arms and relax back herself. "Actually, Sydney is of the opinion that Davy and I should stay here until Deb's ready to be released - that I need the time off." She looked back over at him with mischief in her eyes. "Think you can handle having us in your hair until, say, Monday or so?"

"Yeah!" Davy cheered. "Can we, Dad?"

Jarod's mouth had dropped open, and he pulled himself up. "What about the Centre?"

"Like you said last night, Tyler has things pretty well in hand. He just needs to be told that he's in charge for a while longer." She found one of his hands with hers. "Sydney's right - I need to spend some time with my family." She tucked a tendril of Ginger's hair behind an ear with her free hand. "Especially the new members."

Ginger turned to study the 'mommy's' face again and found that her head had slid onto His shoulder, and He had an arm around her. Those storm cloud eyes looked up at her wishfully. "Come on," she said, putting the balancing hand on Ginger's shoulder and pulling very gently at her. "Come on, Sprite, be with us."

Davy put up a hand and grabbed at one of Ginger's to pull on her as well, "Come on - family snuggle time. It's fun - trust me!"

Ginger's gaze moved to her guardian's and found it warm and happy. "Come on, Sprite," he invited.

With a sigh, she finally stopped resisting the 'mommy's' gentle tugging, and soon her head was resting against the 'mommy's' shoulder just as Davy was resting against his father. Ginger closed her eyes as an arm wound around her and held her close, soothing up and down her upper arm in a gentle caress. She felt a kiss being dropped onto the very top of her head, and was suddenly very confused. Was He right - did most mommies give hugs rather than scream or ignore or take delight in causing pain? WAS this 'mommy' different from all the rest she'd ever known? Did she dare begin to believe?


Doctor Ramsey opened Deb Broots' chart and began reading the reports of her condition as measured through the night. Her temperature had dropped to nearly normal, which meant that the antibiotics were finally getting on top of the systemic infection that had nearly killed her. Her blood pressure had stabilized nicely - physically, she was almost at the point that discharging her would be his next order of business.

Claire's notes from her meeting yesterday were included in the chart. While the lack of hysterics this time was encouraging, her refusal to cooperate at all was troubling. His brows pulled together as he read a post-it note that Claire had obviously inserted after the fact for his benefit. A new player in Deb's emotional well-being had come into the picture - and an agreement reached that gave Deb another day or two to begin to respond to therapy before any commitment decisions would have to be made. Well, he thought to himself, he hoped Claire knew what she was doing. He let the chart fall closed and pushed through Deb's door with Bonnie, the floor nurse, at his heels.

Deb's eyes flicked down from the overhead TV screen where she's been watching a mindless cartoon without really paying attention. "Good morning, Doctor Ramsey," she said, twisting for the control and turning the TV off.

Ramsey's eyebrows rose - this was the first time she'd initiated conversation, and her voice was even and almost congenial. "Good morning to you, Deb. How are you feeling this morning?"

"Better," she answered him truthfully. Being able to actually eat again had done her a world of good, as had the call from Miss Parker a half-hour earlier. She could hardly believe that Miss Parker was staying in California and waiting for her - AND had promised to fly down to at least visit tomorrow even. The phone call had underscored her determination to do whatever it would take to convince the doctors to let her out, to let her go home.

"You look better," Ramsey remarked with some relief. "Let me see now..." He settled the stethoscope into his ears and moved the little metal disk first around her back and then under her gown on her upper chest. Deb sat very still and uncomplaining as he fitted the otoscope with a shield and peered first into her ears and then shined the bright light into her eyes. With a nod from the doctor, Bonnie gently pulled the gown down from Deb's shoulder and removed the patch over her damaged nipple, and then used a moistened swab to cleanse the area so the doctor could see its condition. "That's looking MUCH better!" he announced, looking up into Deb's passive face with a genuinely pleased look.

After he'd similarly checked the cut on her foot, he came toward Deb with a smile on his face. "I think I remember you wanting a shower a while back. Are you still interested?"

Deb's impassive face broke into the first smile, a hopeful one, he'd seen. "Really?"

"I don't want you to scrub too hard, and I'd really rather you not scrub your wounds at all," he told her with a pleased twinkle in his eye, "but I can't see a reason you can't clean yourself up - wash your hair..."

"Thank you!" Her gratitude was sincere.

Ramsey made a few notations in her chart and then looked up at his patient once more. Deb Broots was a pretty girl - it was good to see her begin to look more like he imagined she had before her nightmare had begun. "I'll be seeing you later today - after your appointment with Ms. Jackson - but it's good to see you feeling better. Bonnie will get you set up in a bit for your shower." He turned to the nurse. "Let her bathe, then re-bandage. No use putting new bandages on just to get them soaked." He smiled and patted Deb's hand and then left the room, the nurse trailing behind him.

Deb let out a long breath. At one level she could see that the doctor really was concerned for her welfare and letting her do things as her condition improved. On the other hand, she was pleased that she'd managed to hold back her temper so well that he'd been impressed. Doctor Ramsey would never have to know how long it had taken her to steel herself into a state of calm acceptance - how much quiet practice it had taken to be able to talk to him without growling.

Maybe this Pretending stuff wasn't such a hard thing to do after all?


"Good morning, Tyler"

"Miss Parker!" Tyler's face broke into a smile. "Does this mean our bet's off, since you called ME?"

"Fat chance, Sir Edmund." Miss Parker's face cracked into an impish grin. "I'm just calling to let you know that you get to stay in charge for longer than we anticipated. The bet stands - I STILL think that you won't need to call Syd..."

"You're staying there for a while yet?" Tyler didn't know whether to be glad that she was willing to take time for herself or seriously concerned that she trusted him with SO much for probably several more days.

"Yeah. I talked to Sydney earlier, and he thinks that it would be better if I stayed here and waited for Deb to be released. I need the vacation, and it might help Deb get better faster..."

"You didn't tell me how badly Deb was hurt, you know," Tyler's voice was soft, and Miss Parker could hear the note of hurt in it. "I had to find out from someone else..."

"No, I didn't," she admitted. "I'm sorry. I didn't know how to..." She paused - she knew it was no excuse. "Who told you?"

"I had Gillespie and Harrison in your office yesterday," he explained frankly, "looking for more answers from me than they'd been able to get from you. I didn't have much to give them - and I gave them nothing they wouldn't have found out themselves eventually."

Miss Parker's eyebrow shot halfway up her forehead. "Why Tyler, you're sounding as if you'd trained to be Centre management all your life."

"Why, shucks, ma'am," he drawled back at her, "I jus' followed the example you gave me." His voice sobered. "They told me what happened."

"Then you know why I'm staying."

"Yes, ma'am." He thought for a minute. "I think it's a good idea too."

"I'll call you when I have a better idea of time frames - will you have Mei Chiang clear my calendar for a few more days, probably through Tuesday at least?"

Tyler nodded. "Can do. Incidentally, I got a call from Chet - the sweeper you have assigned to watch your father and cousin..."

"Yeah?" Miss Parker's voice grew cautious. "What's up?"

"Seems that your Mr. Ikeda's former employers tracked him to the motel he was staying at - and he needs to find new digs."

She thought for a while. "Call Sydney and have him give Ikeda the key to my summerhouse. He can stay there until I come home, at least. We'll figure out a more permanent solution when I get back."

"Yes, ma'am." Tyler's lips twitched into a mischievous smile. "I'll see how much trouble I can get into until you get back, so you enjoy your vacation..."

"You do that," she chuckled back at him. "Just leave the place in one piece, OK?"

He laughed outright. "I think I can manage that. Talk to you later, Miss Parker."

"Have a good day, Tyler."


"Here." Sydney held out a key.

Ikeda looked at it, his expression deceptively neutral. "What is this?"

"The key to a house just outside of town. Miss Parker told me to give it to you and tell you that you could stay there until she gets back and can make other arrangements." The psychiatrist dropped the key into Ikeda's slowly outstretching hand.

"I'm curious - at whose house will I be staying?" Ikeda asked quietly.

"Hers," Sydney answered with similar neutrality. "This works out well, as far as I'm concerned. How much do you know of alarms?"

"Enough to know how to disarm most of them," the Japanese replied without sounding boastful. "Familiarity with such devices is essential to my former line of work."

"Then perhaps you can work on a way to make the one there a little less penetrable for when she returns," Sydney suggested cannily. "I'm sure she'd appreciate the heightened sense of security at home."

Ikeda began to smile, and then bowed deeply. "I am honored you and your daughter trust me to this extent, Green-san. I shall strive to prove myself worthy of such consideration."

"Just keep her safe for me," Sydney said softly. "She means more to me than anything else in the world."

"Hai, Green-san," Ikeda bowed deeply again, this time far more efficiently. "Wakarimasu." (I understand.)


Miss Parker stood at the bathroom mirror brushing her hair slowly. She missed her vanity - she by far preferred to sit and brush her hair the hundred strokes in comfort - but this was, after all, a bachelor 'pad' with few female-centric amenities. She frowned as the brush snagged in a snarl - her hair was getting long again, and she'd been far too busy or preoccupied to make an appointment to have it trimmed.

She heard a rustling and looked down and at the doorway to find Ginger peeking in at her, dark eyes wide and clinging to a rather new looking teddy bear. She smiled and looked back up into the mirror to continue brushing her hair. "Hi there," she said softly, acknowledging the child. "What are you doing?"

There was another soft rustling, and when she looked back down, the girl was gone. She put the hairbrush down with a sigh. She really didn't have a lot of time to convince a very skittish child that she wasn't a bogeyman before she'd disappear from the girl's life again for a while. And she had a lot of history and a lot of pain to overcome. Jarod had told her Ginger's story after the children had gone to be the night before so that she could understand a little of the girl's actions and attitudes. The tale had almost made her sick.

Still, it seemed, there was some hope. This was the first little sign that the child was at least curious about her despite being frightened by her. Miss Parker picked up her hairbrush and looked at it. Perhaps that could be a small icebreaker. She walked into the living room, where Ginger had once more joined Davy sitting next to the windows overlooking the ocean. The girl's braids looked frayed and bedraggled - obviously she'd not had Jarod brush her hair yet that morning.

She sat down on one of the easy chairs after pulling an ottoman close. "Ginger," she called, and the dark head whipped around at the sound of her name. She held up the hairbrush. "Would you like me to do your hair?"

Dark eyes grew very wary, very cautious. Ginger looked into the 'mommy's' face for any indication that there was anger there, but could see nothing the least threatening. The 'mommy' had been very gentle, very sweet before on the couch with Him and Davy. Still, hairbrushes had been used for purposes other than brushing hair far too often to be trusted now, and 'mommies" carrying hairbrushes were to be avoided at all costs. She slid nervously toward Davy and held her teddy bear tightly, shaking her head vehemently.

Miss Parker saw the girl look back and forth between her face and the silver hairbrush again and give a shudder, and a tiny voice spoke to the very inner recesses of her mind. Her eyes widened at the idea; and she slowly and carefully put the hairbrush down on the ottoman, chiding herself for not thinking about this before now. "Or, if you want, you can use my brush for yourself, and I'll just help you braid it afterwards..."

Ginger shook her head even harder, sprang to her feet and made a mad dash for her bedroom. Davy stared after his new little sister and then looked at his mom in confusion. "What was that all about?"

"I miscalculated," Miss Parker explained to her son with a sigh. "I didn't think about the many ways others evidently have used hair brushes on Ginger. I scare her enough already without recalling bad times to her too."

Jarod walked out of the hallway and into the living room. "What's with our Sprite? She flew past me like greased lightening."

"I didn't think before I acted, and I frightened her," she explained again, rising. "I don't know whether to go in there and try to calm her down or leave her alone to figure out that I'm really not going to make her life miserable all the time." She picked up her hairbrush, looked at it with a mixture of wistfulness and frustration. The tiny voice in the inner recesses of her mind whispered again. "I think I'll just leave her alone. I have a few days before I have to leave - and considering everything, I'd do better in the long run to be patient now."

The Pretender sighed. He'd known that Ginger's problems and issues would eventually become obstacles - but now he could see that she'd obviously directed all her fears and apprehensions onto the mother-figure in any situation. Miss Parker would not only have to win the girl's affections, but win her trust before she could even start the other process. "Do you want me to talk to her?"

Miss Parker shook her head. "No, no... Let her be. She's curious about me, even if she runs every time I pay her any attention. Something tells me that she's always had people trying to force themselves on her - sometimes violently. Nobody's just let her come out of her shell at her own pace." She raised her eyes to Jarod. "At least she has you, whom she trusts, and Davy, whom she's getting very attached to. I'm going to see what happens if I don't chase after her all the time, but rather just treat her as if she's perfectly fine."

"I didn't know you were a psychiatrist," he remarked gently, putting an arm around her shoulder and hugging her to him.

"I'm not. But I have this little voice inside me..." she mentioned quietly and felt him look down at her in surprise. "It doesn't sound off often, but when it does, I've learned to pay attention."

"Your inner sense again?"

She nodded. "I need to do things right for Ginger and can use all the help I can get. Even less than ordinary help, if it helps makes things happen faster."


Miss Parker decided that the best place for her to be when Jarod let his sister and her family into his home was standing in the middle of the living room, her hand holding Davy close to her. She watched her fiancé greet his sister with obvious affection, then swing his little nephew high in the air in much the same way he'd swung both Davy and Ginger earlier in the day. The little boy's squeal of delight was a give-away that this was a tradition for them.

Emily moved into the house and immediately caught sight of the pair standing in the living room. "So you're the infamous Miss Parker," she said in a tone of voice that clearly showed that she wasn't entirely sure how to feel about this interloper in their family life.

"And you must be Jarod's sister," Parker responded in a neutral tone. "This is our son, Davy. Davy, this is your Aunt Emily."

The shorter brunette looked down into clear, grey eyes that shone with the intelligence of his father. "Hello, Davy," she said simply, her tone gaining a measure of warmth while addressing the boy.

"Hi," Davy said shyly. It was obvious that his mother and his aunt were not entirely comfortable around the other, and as a result, he wasn't exactly sure of his own status in things.

"This is Nathan," Jarod added, his hand on the shoulder of Emily's husband. "This is Missy and our son, Davy. And this little urchin is Sammy." Sammy waved at the new people from his post in his uncle's arms.

The blonde man bent and extended his hand to his nephew. "Good to meet you, Davy," he smiled, and Davy immediately took a liking to his uncle. Nathan glanced around the room. "Hey, Jar, where's your Sprite?"

"I'll get her," Davy piped up brightly and trotted off in the direction of his sister's bedroom. She was sitting on her bed, indulging in her favorite playtime activity: combing the long mane on her toy pony. "Hey Ginger! Aunt Emily and Uncle Nathan are here. C'mon!"

Ginger's dark eyes became wary, and her face showed her reluctance.

Davy put his hand out. "I'll take care of you," he promised, wishing he could help take the fear of strangers away from his new little sister. "You just stick with me and you'll be OK."

The little girl looked into clear, grey eyes that had the same kind of regard that His eyes did, and she reached for her teddy bear with one hand as she reached out to Davy with the other. Davy waited until she had slid from her bed and then, her hand tightly in his, led her out of the bedroom and down the hall toward the living room. "Here she is," he called to the adults.

Emily noticed how Jarod's little girl was clinging to her new brother, and she smiled. "How do you like being a big brother, Davy?"

Davy's smile was immediate and brilliant. "I think it's cool," he bubbled with a fond glance at the girl at his side. "I always wanted a brother or sister."

Miss Parker smiled softly at that. She too had noted how Ginger and Davy had apparently bonded together - and that made it all the easier for her to accept this new addition to her life. She looked up into the blue eyes of Emily's husband and put forth her hand. "It's nice to meet you all at last."

Nathan's hand in hers was firm and warm. "Jarod's been a little closed-mouthed about you since he got back - which isn't surprising since there were a few of us who were less than thrilled at his news..." The blonde man gave his wife an indulgent look. "But I don't see..."

"She chased him for five years - even shot at him. I think a little skepticism at this sudden turn of events isn't all that unreasonable," Emily grumbled in her own defense.

Jarod watched Miss Parker take the criticism without a single flinch. "If she'd wanted to hit me, Em, she would have. Missy's a crack shot." He put Sammy back down on the floor. "Why don't you kids play for a bit while we get lunch around."

Sammy ran to the cupboard drawer in a sideboard near the picture windows and opened it, exposing a basket piled high with toy cars and trucks that had been a permanent fixture here for years. Davy looked down at Ginger and jerked his head for them to follow Sammy, and the two of them trailed off.

"C'mon, honey, give the lady a break," Nathan glanced at Miss Parker apologetically.

"Don't you have anything to say in your own defense?" Emily challenged the tall brunette doggedly. "Or do you prefer to have men stand up for you?"

"I can defend myself," Miss Parker finally said softly. "But you haven't said anything that isn't true, so I have no need to defend myself. I DID hunt Jarod for over five years. I DID shoot AT him a few times, although my aim was off - obviously. That was my job at the time. I'm glad it isn't anymore." She looked at Emily with a frank expression. "So if you've decided to dislike me based on past history, then I have nothing else to say. I'm not the same person I was when I was chasing Jarod - I have a son, a family."

"And you're still at the Centre."

"I'm still at the Centre," Miss Parker agreed with a slight nod. "I'm actually RUNNING the Centre now - trying to turn the place around and make it the kind of place a person can be proud to work for. The Centre that chased Jarod and exploited him for so long is gone - the people who wanted to exploit Jarod are all dead, and even part of the building has been blown to smithereens." Her steady gaze didn't waver. "So again, you're not saying anything but the truth. I don't have to have your approval to be who I am."

"Emily..." Jarod stepped closer. This was the kind of difficulties he'd been expecting to have to handle from his mother, NOT his sister.

"Do you love him?" Emily asked her question without sugarcoating it.

"Yes." Miss Parker's response was immediate and fervent. "Very much."

Emily's dark brows slid up her forehead. "So do I - I just don't want to see him hurt."

"Then we agree on one thing, at least," Miss Parker's tone was balanced precariously on a fence between neutrality and vexation.

"Emily," Nathan spoke up at last, his own voice overshadowed by a subtle frustration. "I remember being the outsider to your family a few years back - your brothers were merciless in making sure I understood what I faced if I hurt you at all, not realizing that you were at a point that their opinion wouldn't have changed your mind anyway. Remember?"

"Yeah," Emily conceded reluctantly.

"Well, I think you're seeing the same thing from the other side of the coin now - and you're being no more merciful in your turn. And no more fair to her than Jarod and Jay and Ethan were to me." Nathan turned to Miss Parker. "This outsider has been in the hot seat you're in - and I sympathize. This is a tough group to win over."

Miss Parker decided that she liked her soon-to-be brother-in-law very much. "At least I know that it CAN be done eventually," she smiled at him warmly.


Sam paid no attention to the clerical workers as he walked through the Centre satellite office. His goal was the door at the back of the suite, a door he'd carefully locked and sealed the last time he'd been here. He swiped his ID card in the slot and then sliced through the sealing tape so he could step through the door and stare around him at the ruined mess that was what was left of Flores' office.

He'd been completely through all the file cabinets, looking for anything that didn't seem like it belonged - and finding nothing. He'd been completely through Flores' desk, taken all the pictures and certificates down from the walls in search of any wall safes - and finding nothing. It didn't make sense, the Security Chief shook his head to himself and made his way to the comfortable chair to sit down and ponder. From the documents Flores had never bothered hiding, it was obvious that Raines had considered Flores one of his closest and most trusted associates in the Centre organization second only to Lyle. Several of the more questionable lucrative projects had landed on Flores' desk for management and oversight, but not enough to have generated the kind of cash flow that had always been attributed to the California operation.

Sam tipped back in the chair and started to put his feet up, but the chair rolled backwards just enough that he had to put his feet down very quickly to keep from falling over backwards. His heels landed on the floor with a thump, and his brows suddenly furrowed. He rose and moved the chair out of the way and then knelt to examine the floor upon which the chair had habitually sat. The carpet of the office had been laid in squares, giving it a somewhat tiled look. At the seam of one carpet tile, however, there was a short clear-plastic tab that would escape notice under normal circumstances. Feeling his heart begin to pound, Sam pulled on the tab and found that the carpet tile easily pulled out of the way, uncovering a shallow depression with a safe front mounted into the cement.

That sneaky bastard, he thought as he grinned to himself in triumph, he put the safe right at his feet, where nobody would suspect it! He climbed to his feet and reached for the phone. "Karen," he asked the clerical worker assigned as his assistant, "get a hold of a good locksmith. We have a safe to crack in here."

He hung up and moved to a corner of the room and began examining the floor carefully. If there was one floor safe, there might be more. This was, after all, one of Raines' protégés - a person for whom too much security and secrecy could never be found.


Sammy looked up from his running his toy truck across the carpet next to the fireplace to where Ginger sat cradling her teddy bear and watching the two boys at play. Curious, he rose, leaving his truck behind, and walked over to her. "Can I see your teddy bear?"

Ginger looked up at him, pulled her teddy bear tighter to her, and shook her head. Sammy had lots of toys - he didn't need her protector and shield.

"C'mon," Sammy urged, reaching out for one of the toy's arms that dangled over her arm. "I just want to look at it."

"Sammy, just let her have it and leave her alone," Davy advised from the side of the basket, from which he'd fished several very interesting looking model trucks. "Let's play truck stop."

"No," Sammy shook his head stubbornly. He'd watched as she'd clutched that teddy bear all the way through lunch, never once letting it go so he could get a good look at its face or touch it himself. "I want to see it," he announced imperiously and pulled on the arm a little harder. "Let go," he scowled at her

Ginger whimpered and pulled back again a little harder too. Her frantic dark eyes connected with her new brother's grey, and Davy rose.

"C'mon, Sammy. She's not bothering you. Leave her alone." Davy reached for the smaller boy.

"I wanna SEE!" Sammy yelled and gave a hard tug - and the teddy bear's arm pulled away from the body with ripping sound that was followed by a high keening sound as Ginger realized the damage her protector had suffered. Sammy dropped the arm immediately. "I didn't mean it," he complained, his face losing its belligerent expression in favor of guilt and remorse. "I'm sorry," he told Ginger belatedly.

Ginger was in shock and horrified. She barely noticed as Davy moved to her side and put his arm around her shoulder to try to comfort her. All she could see was the white cotton stuffing protruding from the hole in the side of her toy where the arm had once been attached, and the arm that was tossed carelessly on the floor at her feet. Her eyes filled with big tears and she began to cry.

"What's going on out here?" Jarod asked sternly as he walked into the living room from where the four adults had been talking quietly around the remains of their lunch.

"I didn't mean it, Unka Jarod," Sammy's lower lip began to quiver.

"Sammy wanted to see Ginger's teddy bear, and he tried to take it away from her," Davy explained, ignoring the dirty look the younger boy was giving him for 'telling' on him. "When she wouldn't let go, he pulled - and the arm came off."

Jarod dropped to a crouch and opened his arms to his little girl, who threw herself at her guardian with a sob. "Sammy," he scowled at his little nephew, "I think you need to pick up your toys now, and then you can go and tell your mom and dad what happened just now."

"Unka Jarod..."

"NOW, Sammy," Jarod barked softly at the boy. As the younger child slumped over to where he and Davy had been playing and began piling the trucks and cars into the basket again, Jarod continued, "You just can't help yourself to other people's things, Sammy. Did you ask her if you could see her bear?"

"She wouldn't let me..." Sammy complained bitterly.

"So you thought you could just take it from her?" Jarod asked, his voice clearly showing his disapproval. "That teddy bear was Ginger's special friend - it made her feel safe. How do you think she feels now?"

"I'm sorry..."

"Saying 'I'm sorry' isn't going to fix the teddy bear's arm, Sammy," Jarod chided softly. He watched as the little boy closed the cupboard door on his basket of toys. "Now, go and tell your mom and dad what you did." He straightened with Ginger in his arms and carried her to the door of the dining room so that he could listen as Sammy haltingly told his story.

"I think you need to come home with me, young man, where we're going to have a serious talk about how you treat other people's things," Nathan glowered at his son, then turned an apologetic look to Miss Parker. "Sorry I'm going to have to duck out here..."

"No, I understand," she replied, looking up to see Jarod with Ginger on his shoulder shaking with sobs, her damaged teddy bear dangling over her guardian's arm. "I think I'll see you later today anyway, at Maggie's?"

"True. I'll see you in a bit, Em," the blond man told his wife and took his remorseful son firmly by the hand. "Jarod - see you tonight."

"Hang on, honey. I suppose I should be going too," Emily decided to let Jarod and Miss Parker deal with their child's tragedy in private. "I'm sorry I gave you such a bad time at first," she said to the other woman sincerely. "I hope you can understand..."

"I do," Miss Parker nodded. The long conversation over lunch had gone a long way toward building bridges with this very protective sister of Jarod's. "To be honest, I wasn't really expecting anything much better. I'm just glad that we were able to talk through most of it."

"We'll be seeing you at Mom's later then?"

"We'll be there." Miss Parker rose. "I'll see you out."

"See you later, Jarod," Emily dropped a kiss on her brother's cheek and then tried to nuzzle the inconsolable little girl, only to have the child turn her face away. She looked up understandingly into Jarod's face. "Good luck."

Jarod nodded at his sister and then turned his attention to his grief-stricken daughter. "It'll be OK, Sprite," he comforted softly, kissing the side of her head. He sat down in his chair at the dining table and settled her onto his lap, still holding her tightly. "Why don't you let me see the teddy bear?"

Ginger offered up her injured companion for inspection, and Jarod could easily see that the stitching that had held the arm to the body had simply turned loose. "What do you think we should do?" he asked the child seriously.

The little girl gazed at her damaged toy sadly and then put the teddy bear in her guardian's hand gently. With a shuddering sob, she climbed down from his lap and ran to her room, closing the door loudly. Davy sidled up to his father. "I didn't think he'd break it," he admitted sadly. "I didn't think..."

"This isn't your fault," Jarod reassured his son quickly, seeing in the ease with which the boy was willing to accept responsibility the first of probably many subtle wounds that his nightmare had caused.

"I didn't think," Davy repeated to himself, "just like I didn't think when I asked Deb to kick out the window. I didn't think she'd cut herself like that... She almost died..."

"Hush," Jarod put his arms around his son now and held that child close. "You got the two of you out of that mess alive - you have nothing to be ashamed of. And just now, you couldn't see Sammy was going to insist. I saw how you were trying to take care of Ginger. You were being a good big brother to her. I'm very proud of you."

Davy leaned against his father unconvinced, but still seeking comfort nonetheless.

"Where's Ginger?" Miss Parker asked, returning to the dining room and taking in the scene.

"I think she went to her room," Jarod patted Davy on the back and put the damaged toy on the table. "This has been her security blanket toy since I brought her home..."

"Davy, go to my bag and get my sewing kit - and bring me the arm from the floor," Miss Parker directed her son as she sat down next to Jarod. Davy trotted off to do as she asked.

"What are you going to do?"

She gazed at her love with fond indulgence. "I'll have you know that my mother did try to raise me with all the traditional values and skills. I can sew - a little. Maybe I can fix the bear for her." She picked up the toy and examined it while waiting for her sewing kit and the arm to arrive and then took the articles from Davy when he came back. "The seam just let go," she told Jarod. "This shouldn't take long."

"I'll go tell her..."

"No," she held out a hand to him. "Let me surprise her. What you CAN do, however, is get me a cotton handkerchief."

Jarod blinked. "What the hell for?"

She smiled. "A sling."


By the time the locksmith arrived, Sam had located two other floor safes in various corners of the room; and while the locksmith worked at opening the three safes already located, he found one more. The locksmith merely nodded and packed up his equipment when he was finished and walked out, leaving the Security Chief looking at four gaping holes in the floor.

He was just walking toward the desk when the phone rang. "Hello?"


"Debbie!" His face broke into a wide smile. "You're sounding better, kiddo."

Debbie ran her fingers through her hair, which now framed her face like a cloud. "I'm feeling better. I was wondering..."

"What?" Sam asked as she paused.

"Could you do a little shopping for me?"

Sam cringed. Buying feminine articles was not his favorite pass-time - but still, she probably needed quite a few things. "Lemme get to where I can make a list," he delayed, bending over the desk and retrieving both a memo pad and pen. "OK, shoot."

"I need a decent hairbrush," she told him, "one that is marked for use with a dryer. And some deodorant. Underwear..."

"Maybe I can get Miss Parker to buy you the clothes you need," Sam hedged. "She knows more about women's sizes..." He scratched his head with the non-business end of the pen. "Anything else?"

"Something to read," she answered with a tired glance up at the TV. "I'm getting SO bored just sitting here - and I hate the TV around here..."

"What do you want?" he asked with a puzzled frown, "a magazine, book..."

"A good murder mystery," she told him. "You're a doll, Sam. I'll owe you big-time for this."

"Nonsense. I'm glad to help." Sam smiled at his memory of her face. "It's good to hear you sounding more like yourself."

"Feels good to feel more like myself too," she said, turning the TV off. "Can you bring the stuff up tonight?"

"I'll do that," he promised her. "I have a few more things to do around here, and I'll get right on the shopping for you."

"Thanks, Sam."

"Don't mention it, Deb. I'll see you later."

He hung up the phone and looked down at his list. It shouldn't take too terribly long for him to get what she wanted. He pulled the top sheet from the memo pad and folded it into his shirt's breast pocket, got to his feet.

He once more bent to look into the safe that was located under Flores' desk, figuring that the most important or incriminating documents would most likely have been stored as close to the man as possible. This particular safe was crammed with file folders, as if it were a buried file cabinet. The Security Chief reached into the safe several times before he had the entire collection of documents piled on the floor next to him. After shining his penlight into the safe to make sure he had everything, he closed the safe and replaced the carpet tile so that he could move his chair to a more comfortable spot. It took two bends to retrieve the collection of folders up onto the desk where he could look at them more closely.

Sam pulled the chair up to the desk, seated himself and pulled the first folder in front of him to begin reading. In less that two minutes, his eyes had widened and his jaw had dropped open at the implications of just the first few paragraphs. He knew that he'd found exactly what he'd been looking for - and what he'd needed to find. Miss Parker would be pleased.

And when she heard just exactly WHAT he'd found, she'd be infuriated - or sick - or both.


Ginger stroked the mane of her pony with the tiny plastic comb, her mind somewhere else. Her teddy bear - the first thing He had given her when she'd come to stay with him - was ruined. It had been the first possession she'd had that she'd genuinely treasured as much because of the person who'd given it to her as for what it was. It had sat on the desk at the office while she'd folded papers for the Happy Lady. It had been her constant companion in her Happy Time. And now...

A soft knock sounded on her door, and then the door opened slowly to reveal the 'mommy'. "Can I come in?" she asked gently, then moved carefully and slowly to a point just shy of making Ginger flinch away. "I have something for you."

Dark eyes that were made darker through sadness and grief widened as Miss Parker pulled a repaired teddy bear from behind her back. "You'll have to keep his arm in a sling for a while, until he heals properly," she pointed out, holding the bandaged teddy bear with obvious respect, "but in a few days, he'll be as good as new. It's just that I think he wants to be with you now." She held out the bear with both hands. "He wants HIS mommy."

Ginger scooted across the bed toward the 'mommy', barely believing her eyes. The teddy's arm was tightly bound with the handkerchief sling, but it was obvious that the arm had been skillfully reattached to the body. No more of the white stuffing was evident anywhere, not a frayed edge of fabric showed at all. In fact, if she hadn't seen the arm separated from the bear herself, she wouldn't be able to believe that the bear had ever been harmed at all.

She stroked the bear's face, marveling at the softness of the plush fur, then carefully took the toy from the 'mommy' and cuddled it gently against her. The bear felt right, cradled in her arms like He held her sometimes, and Ginger felt the little knot that had tightened in her stomach relax and unsnarl. She turned wondering eyes on the 'mommy'. How had her bear come to be whole again?

"There now," Miss Parker soothed, pleased that her offer had been accepted, and then turned away. The child needed that toy - Jarod was right in that the teddy had become a security blanket for her. The way she was handling her toy now told her volumes - now she had her best friend back. It was time for her to pull back and let the girl snuggle with her friend. She left the bedroom and closed the door softly behind her and walked toward the kitchen with a smile. She could remember having a teddy bear be HER best friend as a child - and she still had that teddy bear, carefully stored away somewhere in her closets.

"Well?" Jarod asked, looking up from his reading.

"I think I surprised her," Miss Parker remarked, pausing to look at her son as he sat in one of the deck chairs on the balcony, looking out over the ocean. "I wonder that she ever had anyone genuinely care about her at all."

"Not often, if at all," he responded, pulling his glasses down on his nose. "I didn't realize, however, that she'd transferred all her fears to the female figure of authority - although thinking about it now, it makes sense."

"It may make sense," she answered with a sigh, "but it doesn't make things any easier." She moved the fabric-covered elastic band from her wrist to hold her hair back. "I'm going to make cookies for tonight's dessert. I hope you have a well-stocked larder?"

"Mom uses it often enough that it gets replenished," Jarod chuckled.

"What's so funny?"

"You, making cookies," he continued to chuckle. "If anybody had asked me ten years ago..."

"Oh, shut up," she grumbled at him before kissing him and moving on toward the kitchen.


Davy stared with open mouth as the newcomer came through the front door and immediately was embraced by his grandmother. He glanced up at his mother and found that she, too, was rendered speechless by a man who looked almost exactly like his father. Only the lack of silver hair at the temples, a beard and glasses demonstrated that this was another individual entirely. Behind him, he heard a wordless "uh!" of surprise from his little sister, who immediately moved next to and clung to her guardian tightly.

"Jay!" Emily greeted her younger brother with a hug as warm as her mother's had been. "How's university life treating you these days?"

"Give me a chance to slip into the routine after classes start, Em. That isn't until next week," he hugged her back, then looked over at the tight little wad of children around a once-familiar face. "And just who all is this?" He walked right up to the woman in the center of the cluster and put out a hand. "It's been a long time, Miss Parker."

"Yes, it has," she answered softly, looking into the self-confident face of a man who WAS Jarod only a generation younger and remembering the young boy afraid to show emotions lest Raines punish him. She took the hand in her own and found it firm and warm. "You look well."

"I am, thank you." He bent down to Davy. "You must be Davy. We've heard a lot of good things about you, young man. I'm your Uncle Jay."

"You look like my daddy," Davy blurted out without thinking, making his parents and new Uncle chuckle uncomfortably.

"I noticed," Jay ruffled the boy's hair and then bent toward Ginger. "And who is this beauty?"

"Ginger," Jarod answered softly, putting a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder. "I... we're adopting her."

Ginger looked back and forth between Him and this new man. No, there were many subtle clues that showed that the new man was very different than Him. Still, the voice was almost identical, and she was finding it hard to be frightened of a man so much like the one bright spot in her world.

"Quiet little mouse," Jay commented after waiting for Ginger to say something.

"She doesn't talk right now," Miss Parker explained quickly, "to anybody. Not yet, anyway."

Jay straightened and looked around. "Where's Sammy?"

"Time-out chair," Emily said firmly. "He had some problems recognizing another person's possessions, and has had his socializing privileges revoked for the evening."

Jay nodded. "So, you two are together now?" he asked Jarod with an eye to Miss Parker.

Margaret leaned over and said to Ginger, "Would you like to help me get the table ready?"

The little girl nodded and, with a backward glance at her guardian for reassurance, willingly let Grandma Maggie claim her empty hand and lead her off toward the kitchen.

"Geez, Jarod - I turn my back on you for what? A week? And you suddenly turn into a family man like Nathan!"

Jarod put an arm around Miss Parker. "What's the matter, Jay? Confused?"

"No, jealous." Jay smiled at Miss Parker with an expression so like the Jarod's of old that her heart contracted. "Tell me, YOU don't happen to have a clone of yourself lying around here somewhere, do you?"

"Not that I know of," she chuckled, and then began to laugh. "But we're still turning over rocks at the Centre. So if I happen to trip over one, you'll be the first person I call."

"You're kidding!" Jay exclaimed around his own chuckles.

"I'm serious," she retorted, leaning against Jarod. "You never know exactly WHAT we'll find."

"Enough about the Centre," Emily shook her head. "Now that we're all here, you two can finally start spilling your plans for the wedding." She turned and called out, "Sammy, you can come to the table now."

As the family gathered around the huge table that Maggie had filled with delicious-smelling foods, Miss Parker finally began to relax. She looked up into Jarod's face and found him gazing down at her with a warm contentment deep in his eyes.

It wasn't quite Delaware. But while there still might be rough spots ahead as everyone got to know each other, the feeling was unmistakable: this was her family - the rest of it. And, miracle of miracles, they were actually making room for her in their midst.

Suddenly she felt as if she could take on the world - as long as she had her family behind her.


[Author's note: I don't think I could possibly say enough to express my gratitude to my beta team: Nans, Pam, Heidi, Laura and occasionally Deb. These ladies keep me honest, keep me true to the facts of the broadcast series - and, best of all, they find all my typos. They are a wonderful bunch of folks to work with, and I am so lucky to have them in my corner. Then there's my son Lee, who reads my latest offering and then nags me to "finish this - GOD but you're slow!" And last but not least, thanks so much to all of YOU for reading, and for all the excellent feedback.

And before you ask, yes. I have every intention of tying up all the loose threads left dangling here. I will be taking a short break from this storyline, but will continue with it as soon as other projects are finished. So stay tuned for the final part of this series, which will be entitled "Resolutions". - MMB]