Resolutions – 34

Epilogue

by MMB

Ginger squirmed yet again beneath the patient fingers of both her grandmother and aunt as the two women tucked the silk flowers into the French braiding down the back of the child's head. "But Gamma, I wanted to wear my butterflies!" she exclaimed petulantly.

Margaret and Emily exchanged glances, and Margaret shook her head in defeat. "If I go get the butterflies, will you PLEASE hold still so we can finish this?" she asked in exasperation.

"OK," Ginger smiled in delight at her grandmother through the mirror.

"I'll be back," Margaret promised her daughter and left Emily in charge of the finishing touches with the silk flowers.

"You've grown so much, I'm surprised the dress fits," Emily commented, turning Ginger to take a good look at the total picture. "You sure don't look much like our Mouse anymore."

"I'm a Sprite, Aunt Emmie," Ginger reminded her, smiling at the return to a very old joke that hadn't been aired for months. She stared at her aunt's tummy, which had grown huge in the time since she'd seen her last, and put out a cautious hand. She hadn't had much chance to talk to her aunt alone since the plane had landed the afternoon before. "That's the baby?" she asked in quiet awe.

"Mmm-hmmm," Emily nodded, then took Ginger's hand and put it over the spot where the baby had been kicking last and held it there until…

"Oh!" Ginger's eyes were wide and startled as she looked up at her aunt. "He kicked me!"

"Or she," Emily reminded her with a smile. "It could be a girl too, you know…"

"Here you are," Margaret said, walking up behind her granddaughter and turning her back to the mirror. "Do you want them in front or back?"

"In back, Gamma, with the flowers," Ginger told her, surprised that Gamma didn't know this already. "Butterflies like flowers."

There was a knock on the door, and then Jarod was peeking around the corner. "Can I come in?"

"Of course you can, dear," Margaret replied, backing away from Ginger, "and you can see how sweet Sprite looks in her special dress for a special day."

"Oh, now, aren't you a vision?" Jarod smiled. Ginger's butterflies sparkled delightfully from amid the silken miniature roses that garlanded the girl's hair. The pink dress fit perfectly — and with the black patent leather shoes and white anklets, Ginger looked perfect for her role as flower girl in the wedding procession.

"Do I look OK, Daddy?" she asked, spinning around quickly and making her skirt fan out in a way that none of her other fancier clothes would.

"Better than OK, Sprite. You look almost as beautiful as your Mommy."

"Who's the only person you're not supposed to see — and she isn't even here right now," Emily reminded her brother with a grin. "She's safe and sound over at her father's house."

"Don't remind me," Jarod grumbled good-naturedly. He'd gotten a thorough indoctrination into the traditions and little superstitions of weddings when Sam and Mei-Chiang had gotten married several months ago — but that didn't mean that he didn't miss having Missy around him today. He was nervous and jumpy, and even having his brothers around to talk and joke with again wasn't helping. He'd be glad when the wedding was over and he could have Missy at his side again — and Sydney, who had stayed at home to help his daughter stay calm too.

"Now that you're all dressed up, Sprite, you're going to have to stay nice and quiet so you don't mess up your dress or hair," Margaret warned her granddaughter. "What are you going to do? Play with your dollhouse?"

"Can't I play with Sammy and Davy?"

"No." The word came from both Jarod and Margaret in unison. "You know how Davy gets when Sammy's around," Jarod explained. "You used to get very tired of that. Besides, I don't think Gamma wants to have to put the flowers back in your hair again if you run around too much and they start falling out…"

"That's for sure," Margaret mumbled to Emily in a low voice, making her daughter chortle quietly.

"Yeah, OK…" Ginger moped for a moment. "I need to go find Bear," she exclaimed suddenly and bolted from the room.

"She's not going to…" Emily worried, and then relaxed when she heard Ginger's bedroom door slam. "No, I guess not."

"How are you holding up?" Margaret asked her oldest son, moving to stand in front of him and straighten the white tie and smooth down the tuxedo shirt. "You look like you've eaten Mexican jumping beans, Jarod," she commented when he shifted away from her.

"Easy for you to say," he grumbled. "You're not getting married."

"Calm down, Jarod," Emily moved forward to straighten the shirt again. "For God's sake, you've been living with her for over half a year now — this is just a formality." She looked up into the disbelieving dark eyes of her brother, so much like her own, and sighed. "Yeah, I suppose I'd be on pins and needles too."

Jarod decided to force himself to think of something else for a while. "You look nice, Mom, Em." Both women were wearing a soft pastel green — Emily's dress was long and flowing from a high empire waist to accommodate her stomach, where Margaret's was more form fitting and tailored at the bodice and waist with a chiffon skirt swirling below. Emily's short, dark hair was curled softly around her face, where Margaret's long red and silver locks were held back from her face with sparkling silver combs but otherwise allowed to tumble down her neck and back in ample abandon.

"Thank you," Margaret smiled at her son, then clasped a hand tightly. "And you are one incredibly handsome fellow, you know…"

"Imagine, my brother can clean up pretty decently when he wants to," Emily smirked at him.

There was another knock on the door, and then Jay and Ethan were walking in. "Ah-HAH! So this is where you're hiding now," Ethan teased his half-brother.

"Now THIS is true Russell spirit," Jay chuckled, "hanging out with the ladies."

"Where's Nathan? I thought he was with you two…" Emily asked when her husband didn't materialize behind his brothers-in-law.

"He's keeping the boys occupied in the library until things get started," Ethan told her. "Davy told Sammy about the tree house over at his Grandpa Sydney's, and Sammy was starting to fuss about going over there to play. Nathan's trying to keep them busy and out of trouble playing computer games on Jarod's laptop until things get going — after which I hope Sydney will be ready for visitors…"

"Who all else is here?" Margaret asked Ethan.

"Kevin Green and a Mr. Broots arrived a few minutes ago," Ethan said with a frown. "At least, that's what I THINK their names are. I haven't exactly got them all straight yet…" He grinned at Jarod. "You never said that your family over here was so big."

"I suppose I should go downstairs and say hello," Jarod pulled on his black satin vest. "Besides, somebody who knows Sam and Tyler needs to be there to greet them — or they'll think they came to the wrong place." He looked at his wristwatch. Only an hour left before…

There was a soft knock on the door, and then Sydney's voice came through the wood: "Is it safe to come in?"

Deb chuckled, pulling the zipper on the back of Missy's wedding gown up to the top. "Now it is," she called out and went around front to help adjust the bodice. "There," she said with a note of finality. "All that's left is the veil — and we can wait on that for a bit. Lemme go see how Crystal's coming," she added after getting a glance at her grandfather's face. "I'll be back in a bit."

Missy continued to adjust herself in the mirror as Deb kissed Sydney on the cheek and then pulled the door closed, leaving the two of them alone. Then, taking a deep breath, she turned to face her father. "Well, what do you think?"

Sydney's eyes shone with pride and happiness — his daughter was stunning in her wedding gown of off-white chiffon and brocade, her shining, dark hair a startling counterpoint. "Magnifique, ma cheri," he said with a wide smile. "You are beyond beautiful." He stepped close and turned her with a finger at a shoulder. "I'm wagering good money that Jarod's jaw hits the floor when he sees you."

Missy put her arms around his waist and leaned in carefully. "I never thought I'd see this day."

"Believe me, having the opportunity to walk a daughter down the aisle wasn't something I ever thought I'd be able to do either," he answered, wrapping his arms around her gently. "I love you so much, cheri…"

Missy closed her eyes and held on tightly. "I love you too, Daddy."

As close as she and her father had been before the amazing revelations of Charles Parker's journal, nothing could have prepared her for the closeness they had achieve afterwards. It was as if finding that the tie that both had only wished for actually existed opened the floodgates between the two, and the sharing of their memories good and bad had been a healing experience for both. Now, when she thought of the days when the two of them were merely work colleagues, she found the distance she'd maintained difficult to swallow. She loved him with all her heart, just as she'd always wanted to be able to love a father — and he doted on her and her children completely and shamelessly.

In order to give her a sense of where she came from, to introduce her to her real family, Sydney's lingering reservations at talking about his life before she had met him finally dissolved. He regaled Missy over the course of many quiet and private evenings with stories of his childhood and youth, of his parents and beloved grandmother, of his childhood home in Lyons that had been destroyed in the war, of his utter dependence on his twin for a sense of family. He no longer balked at telling her about the concentration camp and what had happened to him — to both him and Jacob — and the honesty and candor needed to tell the stories properly went a long way toward relieving him of the need to deal with them in nightmares.

Missy, in return, opened up at long last about her own childhood and youth — her love and devotion to her mother, her fear and loathing of a father figure that had beaten and molested her for so long. Sydney had taken the news of the full extent of her abuse harder than she had anticipated, and yet his raging against the Parkers allowed her to finally express in clear words all the thoughts and feelings she'd held down so very tightly for so long. Through his harsh and complete repudiation of the kind of treatment she'd received at Parker's hands, he helped wash away any lingering doubts about self-worth. And his devotion to her otherwise gave her an even greater sense of security as a person and as a mother to her own children.

"I was wondering if you could give me a hand…" he said finally after he felt and heard her pull a long breath of contentment. He knew she'd been nervous as this day had drawn closer — giving her the opportunity to recharge a little had been three quarters of his reason for not going to the townhouse to prepare for the wedding there. Then again, it would be easier to ask HER for help…

"With what?" Missy pushed herself away far enough that she could look at him.

Sydney flicked his fingers at his tie. "I never can get those things to work right…"

Missy chuckled, removed her hands from around his waist and busied herself with tying a proper bow tie, happy that she was doing this small intimate task for a father who loved her as if it were a regular occurance. "How DID you manage at all those fancy affairs I can remember happening at the Centre back when I was a kid? You always managed to look pretty sharp back then…"

"Simple — I didn't manage anything," he replied, lifting his chin to give her more room to work. "If they wanted me in one of these monkey suits, either they let me use a snap-on tie or put up with one that was crooked."

"There." Her hands smoothed the tie into place and then rested against his chest. "You look very handsome, monkey suit or no."

He kissed her forehead gently. "I should go now, and let Deb and Crystal help you finish getting ready. The limousine will be here in just a little bit, you know…"

The shortness of time caught her by surprise. "Daddy…"

Sydney cupped a shoulder gently in one hand. "This is your day, ma petite. You know this is what you want."

"I know, but…"

"But nothing," he soothed. "You're going to remind that Pretender of yours that brains isn't the only thing." His lips twitched. "Sometimes beauty wins. And let me tell you, the object lesson today will be long remembered. He's not going to know what hit him."

Her lips twitched as well, and soon both were grinning. "Thanks."

He bent forward and kissed a cheek, then opened the bedroom door. "Deb? Crystal? I think we need a veil here — it's almost time…"

The back yard of the townhouse had already seen a similar event the autumn before — a very intimate affair where close friends celebrated Sam and Mei-Chiang's wedding. Now it was springtime, and the backyard this time had many more chairs filling the space between the back of the house and the gazebo where Jarod and Missy would take their vows. Business associates and department heads from the Centre had nearly filled the seats allotted, leaving only the reserved front rows for family intimates. Nature had cooperated with an unusually warm day for that time of year, a blue sky arched overhead and the fresh green of new leaves on the trees and vines made for a refreshing counterpoint. Everywhere were white ribbons trailing lazily in the gentle breeze.

As the soft strokes of music from the string quartet filled the yard, Ethan walked his foster mother to her place in the very first row to sit next to her daughter and her family. Nathan and Emily had placed Sammy between them, and the two held hands across their son's back both in enjoyment of the occasion and as a quick way to control their headstrong son. Margaret bent forward slightly and smiled across the aisle, where Kevin nodded at her past the empty spot where Sydney would sit eventually. Beside him sat Crystal, still a little pale from her near brush with death and long recuperation but pretty in an apricot-colored pantsuit with white silk flowers tucked into her French braid. Next to her sat Sam and Mei-Chiang, and beyond them, Missy's assistant Cody Tyler and Xing-Li. Beyond Xing-Li sat the inscrutable Mr. Ikeda, sitting next to a charming Japanese woman that she assumed was his wife, freshly arrived from Tokyo. On the edge of that row was the wheelchair that held Mr. Broots — a man Margaret had yet to meet other than very superficially at the dinner the evening before.

Margaret hadn't had a chance to do much more than say hello to any of the others yet since she'd arrived the day before, but she knew she'd have at least a little news to catch up on once the reception started. There was a bright sparkle on Xing-Li's left hand that hadn't been there the last time she'd seen the woman, and Tyler seemed quite content to keep close possession of the other hand. Kevin had gained an element of self-sufficiency in the months since last she'd seen him too, and had that quiet and intense intelligent air about him that so reminded Margaret of her sons.

The music swelled, and onto the steps of the gazebo near Father Murphy came first Jarod, then Ethan, both looking impressive in their tuxedos. As the onlookers rose, first Davy walked toward the gazebo with a pillow in his hands, then Ginger, spreading petals from a small basket on her arm. Behind her, Deb carried a single pink rosebud trailing white ribbons; and as she moved down the aisle, a vision in pink and shimmering golden hair, the sparkle of the diamond that Kevin had given her several months earlier was visible.

Then the music swelled yet again, and as the onlookers rose, Missy came down the aisle with her hand tucked into her father's arm. Margaret caught her breath at how lovely Missy was with her gown and veil, and she turned to catch the reaction Jarod had to his first glimpse of his bride and then chuckled. His face had slacked into shock at first, but he was slowly recovering and regaining that contented, cat-ate-the-canary smirk that came only when he was inordinately pleased with either himself or the situation around him. Margaret now let her eyes rest on Sydney, pleased to see that while he still had a slight limp, he wasn't even using his cane anymore. She had to admit that he cut a fine figure in a tuxedo, and the smile on his face was of the deepest pride and happiness that was the prerogative of being the father of the bride. She turned and gave over her attention to what was going on at the gazebo, allowing herself to be caught up in the emotions.

Missy and Sydney arrived in front of the minister as the music swelled to a climax and died away. Father Murphy had a few words of welcome to start the service and then intoned loudly enough for the audience to hear, "Who gives this woman to be married?"

"I do," Sydney responded firmly, according to tradition. He impulsively kissed her cheek before stepping aside to let Jarod take his place at Missy's side. He returned to the place that had been left vacant for him and took his seat with the others. His eyes were sparkling, and he gave Margaret a wide and warm smile just before turning his attention back to what was going on at the gazebo.

Jarod could hardly believe the beautiful creature at his side was the same woman he'd been living with for the last half a year. Never, in all the times he'd SIM'ed being the groom in a wedding, had he imagined that his senses would have gone so suddenly on overload. Father Murphy was continuing with the traditional words and prayers, and finally the slightly louder invitation that "if any man knows just cause that this man and this woman not be joined, speak now — or forever hold your peace," and it was only barely registering. Jarod was bemused. This was his wedding day, and he was marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. He stumbled over his answer when asked if he took her for his wife, no matter what the conditions. Of course he did! How could anyone believe otherwise?

For her part, Missy was entranced by the tall, dark and extremely handsome man who stood at her side and with a slight stammer agreed to take her as his wife, but when her turn came, found the "I do" no more simple to say. She had been independent and self-sufficient her whole life — and here she was, putting her entire life into the hands of another. Then her grey gaze lifted to look into Jarod's and her insecurity evaporated. Her voice steadied, and she answered with conviction. They were two halves of one whole — always had been, always would be — and this didn't make either of them any less than they'd been before. If anything, it made them greater than the sum of the two parts. She did indeed take Jarod as her husband.

Jarod felt the impact of that grey gaze all the way to the bottoms of his shoes. He heard Father Murphy on the edges of his attention prompting him through the vows, and he repeated the words with the proper break. And yet, despite the almost automatic recitation, he knew he meant each and every thing he said. Nothing, nobody, would ever be able to tear him away from her again – not even the most dire or tragic of circumstances. For the briefest moment, his mind flashed back to the face of the little girl who had given him his first kiss and so captured his heart. This, then, was the end of that tale.

Missy felt as if she were drowning in those chocolate brown orbs and was grateful for Father Murphy's gentle prompting to help her through her vows. She belonged to him — and he belonged to her. This is the way it had always been meant to be with them, whether it was "you run, I chase" or the long years of no communications at all. Nobody had ever been able to take his place in her heart, and now nobody ever would.

Davy was called forward to give the priest the wedding bands, and then Jarod had Missy's hand in his and was slipping that slim ring of gold onto her finger. Missy felt the brand that the ring represented echo through her — and then it was her turn to take his hand in hers and return the gesture. Jarod' eyes watched her nimble fingers slip the band into place and then latched onto her grey gaze again as Father Murphy pronounced them husband and wife and invited him to kiss his bride. Missy smiled at him almost shyly as he lifted the veil away from her face and then lowered his lips to hers gently.

The music from the quartet swelled elegantly again as Father Murphy introduced the newly married pair for the very first time in public as Doctor and Mrs. Jarod Russell, and then the pair headed down the aisle amid the round of applause. Ethan leant his arm to Deb and escorted her down the aisle again, and Davy even waited for his little sister to walk with him.

As the music continued, Sydney rose from his seat and, stepping across the aisle, extended his arm to Margaret. This hadn't been the way it had been practiced at the rehearsal — the night before, he had escorted Crystal down the aisle and out to where the reception would later be held — but Margaret smiled and rose and put her hand on his arm, accepting the gesture. At her side, Jay blinked, and then decided that maybe this cross-aisle escorting wasn't such a bad idea. He rose and went across the aisle and offered his arm to the very pretty girl with the white flowers in her dark hair who had been sitting next to Sydney. She blinked up at him, startled, then glanced to the other side at Kevin. He was no help, being just as bemused about the whole thing as she was and imagining what it would be like to be the groom rather than just an onlooker. So Crystal decided to go with the flow, rose and let this very handsome man who looked remarkably like Jarod take her hand and lead her down the aisle.

Emily watched with deep suspicion the dapper and elegantly attired gentleman who had claimed her mother's attention as the wedding ended. She had not been given any reason to dislike Sydney outside the obvious ancient history that had evidently been generally forgiven — indeed, her mother had come home from her time over here in the fall speaking very highly of the man who had raised her brother deep inside the Centre. And yet, Emily continued to feel that he had somehow cheated her of her brother's presence in her life as she'd grown and matured, and she was having to struggle with herself to keep that animosity to herself, in honor of her brother and his new bride.

"What is it, honey?" Nathan asked solicitously. Emily had been quiet and almost withdrawn for the whole meal. "Is it the baby?" She was, after all, only a month from her due date.

"No," she relented and smiled at him. "I'm just in a funk — and having trouble with the idea of Mom with… HIM." She pointed to where Sydney had leaned close to Margaret's ear to tell her something, only to have Margaret chuckle at the apparently private joke and then give him the kind of smile that she had once reserved solely for her husband.

"Your father's been dead almost a year…"

"Nine months," she corrected him sharply. "Technically, she shouldn't even be out of mourning yet."

"What?" Nathan looked at her with shock and surprise. "You'd force her to wear black and withdraw from the world?"

"No, but…" Emily shook her head at the difficulty she was having expressing her feelings. "Why does she have to suddenly wake up for HIM?"

"Have you considered that it's because he's a nice guy after all?" Nathan suggested dryly. "God knows that you thought Missy was an absolute ogre until she spent time with us and you got to know her. You two were pretty fast and good friends by the time she left…"

"That's different."

Nathan's brows shot up towards his hairline. "Really? Why? Do you think it was a bigger sin to take Jarod and try to protect him and teach him right from wrong than it was to chase him all over the globe and occasionally take shots at him?" Emily looked at him in frustration. "I'm just saying that before you start getting all hot and bothered, you should at least take the time to talk to the man — and like Missy, find out if he really IS the ogre you've thought him to be all this time." Nathan picked up his fork and stabbed a piece of barbecued meat.

"What's going on here?" Jay asked, putting his plate down on the table and taking the chair next to his sister. "Hey, Em, what has the storm clouds gathering?"

"Look!" she pointed at the head table where Jarod and Missy and Sydney and Margaret were sitting.

"What about it?"

"She's not happy at the attention your mom is giving Sydney," Nathan clued in his brother-in-law.

"Ease up, Em," Jay told her in a no-nonsense tone. "We've been wrong about him. I got a chance to talk to him myself last night after the practice and before the dinner — and I found out a few things I didn't know. For one thing, all this time I thought he was just a pawn of the Centre when he became my mentor just before Jarod found me. Now I find out he'd demanded to be put in charge of me only so that he could leak my whereabouts to Jarod, so I could be stolen from the Centre before they shipped me to Africa."

"And you believed him?" Emily stared. "Why didn't Jarod tell you that?"

"He did," Jay answered with a guilty look and then a sniff. "I didn't want to believe him at the time. After I talked to Sydney, I realized that I've been holding a grudge for no good reason."

"He still kept Jarod at the Centre almost his entire life…"

"Sydney didn't," Jay shook his head. "That was Raines and the others. I remember Raines." He shivered. "I remember being afraid to cry because Raines would have the guards beat me for it. I didn't have a Sydney. Ethan didn't either — and look what Raines did to HIM! Or have you forgotten…"

"I haven't forgotten." Emily closed her eyes. Ethan's screams during his nightmares had been eerie, blood-curdling things — and her youngest brother steadfastly refused to talk about his experiences at the Centre at all, except for describing his brief contacts with his half sister before coming to California. "Jarod had nightmares too — you know that…"

"Yeah," Jay nodded, "and if you remember, they usually were either about being stolen or something RAINES did to him. Sydney himself was never a part of those dreams."

"Damn it, you two, stop defending the man!" Emily burst out and got to her feet as quickly as her bulk would allow and stormed away.

Nathan watched his wife walk up the back steps and into the house with a thoughtful look on his face. He glanced at his brother-in-law. "You think I should…"

"Nah. Let her be," Jay advised. "I'll find a chance to warn Mom that Em's on the warpath about her choice in escort, as if it really matters to her at the moment. Look at her…" He gazed at his mother, basking in the attention of the very interested Sydney. "She hasn't been this happy since we first found Dad."

"Hey there, Princess," Sam said gently, coming up to the banquet table and finding Ginger stretching as far as she could toward the three-tiered dessert. "What do you want?"

"More cake," she answered, pointing. "Please," she added, remembering her manners.

Sam reached out easily and snagged an apple instead and put it on her plate. "Maybe you'd better have one of these instead. Your mom will be in a tizzy if all you eat today is just dessert…" Ginger had shown signs of having the same dedication to nutrition that her dad did — much to her mother's dismay.

"I already had a sandwich and some salad," she told him quickly. "Mommy fixed my plate for me."

"OK, then, if you've eaten what your Mom wanted you to…" Sam took the apple off of the plate and put a relatively small piece of the wedding cake in its place. "Better?"

"Yeah!" She looked up at him with a dazzling smile. "Can I have a tip later?" Sam's tips really WERE the best after Daddy's… and Daddy was going to be gone for a few days with Mommy soon.

"We'll see, Princess — maybe after most of these nice folks go home and it's just US, you know…" Sam sighed. His left arm would be sore as hell by the end of the day once Ginger talked him into giving her his tips — picking her up and tipping her over upside down. No doubt Davy would want the same – and there was now another little boy running around with him…

"OK." She looked up at him, her smile dampening some. "How's your shoulder today?"

"It's doing fine, Sprite, I promise. After all, I can give you tips now, can't I?" The status check on his health was a side effect of his time under her care — she had taken her mother's injunction to help him very seriously.

"It's all healed up now?" The dark eyes were wide. "You're not hurting anymore?"

Sam put his plate on the buffet table next to him and squatted down so that he was at eye level with Ginger. "We talked about this before, haven't we, Princess?" In fact his direct participation in Jarod's efforts to help his daughter process the horrific scene she'd been a part of had been essential. Ginger had become both very protective of Sam — taking care of the man who had saved her mother having become a paramount motivator — and terrified that he would be injured again.

There were still times, random and unexpected, when she would suddenly remember the blood and the terror. In those moments, it was as if her mind had taken her back to that horrible night and her time on the floor next to Sam trying to get the gushing gunshot wound to stop bleeding. Once in that state, she would need quite a bit of reassurance that her world was a safe one before she'd calm down again. She'd had her share of nightmares about the ordeal, especially after things calmed down and she'd moved back into the big house where everything had happened. Over time, the adults had come to recognize that only Sam himself could reassure her properly when that happened. The Security Chief had patiently put up with a frantic child being brought to his home — sometimes quite late at night — to receive his attention several times at first. Thankfully, over time, the incidents had slowly spaced themselves out to become rarer and rarer and lost the hysterical edge. Now she would just become very, very wary and insecure.

But the last thing Sam had expected was for her to flash like this on her mom and dad's special day. "You know that my arm has been healed for a long time. There's no more blood, honest. You know this, don't you?"

Ginger dropped guilty eyes from his and self-consciously ran her finger over the smooth fabric of his suit jacket. "Yeah…"

Sam took her plate from her and put it on the buffet table next to his own. "Come here." He knew the one and only way to convince her that things were better now, and he opened up his arms and gathered the little girl to him. "Better now?" he said gently as she wrapped her arms around his neck tightly and felt his big, strong arms fold around her.

"No bad men will come to our house today, will they?" she asked in a small voice.

Sam finally figured out what was really going on. "Are you feeling a little scared because there are too many strange people hanging around today?" he asked, planting a kiss against a cheek.

"Uh-huh." She nodded against his neck.

"No, Princess, there are no bad men coming to your house today. All the bad men are in jail, and they'll be there for a very long time." The last verdict had come down only the previous Friday – rejecting Tom Jackson's defense of diminished mental capacity and finding him guilty of all charges against him.

"Promise?"

"I promise, baby doll." He kissed her again and set her away from him. "Now, where is Bear?" The toy remained a security blanket for her and was rarely very far from her, especially in situations such as these.

"Sitting in my chair so I'll have it when I get back," she said knowingly. "He's patient."

"You'd better get back to him, then, before he gets lonely." Sam handed her plate to her and rose to his full height. "Tell him I said hello, OK?"

"OK." The little girl smiled up at him again. "Thanks, Sam."

"At your service, Princess."

"I remember her being terrified of you the first time she saw you," Ethan commented as Sam watched his boss' little girl skip back toward where she was sharing a table with Davy and Sammy. He had walked up behind the two during the end of their exchange and just quietly observed.

Sam turned and then gave Missy's half brother a smile as he shook the man's hand. "Not anymore," he replied. "not for quite a while now."

"Sounds like she keeps pretty good track of you."

Sam's smile turned very indulgent. "She's a lot like her mother."

"Now that doesn't surprise me much." Ethan clapped the big Security Chief on the back and moved on by, heartened to see that the damaged little girl his brother had adopted had made such great strides in putting her life back together.

"Thought you should know," Nathan said very softly into Margaret's ear that was not next to Sydney, "that Emily is upset with you, in case you want to go into the house and try to talk some sense to her…"

"Whatever is she upset with me for?" Margaret frowned.

"You know how she feels about your friend here," he replied with his lips even closer to her ear. The brilliant blue came up to gaze into his understanding face. "Jay and I tried to talk to her, and got nowhere. I just thought you'd like to know…" He straightened and headed off toward where Jay was talking to Kevin and Deb.

"Damn!" Margaret swore to herself under her breath. Emily had promised…

"What's the matter?" Sydney bent close solicitously.

Margaret gazed up into his gentle chestnut eyes apologetically. "My daughter," she said unhappily, "it seems, is unhappy with my spending so much time with you. She still hasn't forgiven you for your part in…" She grimaced. "You know…"

"Ah." Sydney looked out over the crowd of wedding guests for the other green gown that was Margaret's daughter but didn't see her. "Where did she go?"

"Into the house." She put a restraining hand on his arm. "Don't. You don't have to…"

"Ignoring the problem isn't going to make it go away," he told her with a gentle and sad smile. "Maybe the time has come for her to voice some of her feelings to the actual target of them, rather than continue to spout off at everyone else but."

"She's got a hot temper…" she warned him.

"Any hotter than Jarod's?" was the response. When after a moment's thought, she shook her head, he patted her hand on his arm and rose. "Save my place here, I'll be back in a bit."

Sydney moved smoothly through the collected guests and finally up the back steps and into the house. Without trying to look like he was searching for someone, he wandered through the rooms. His search was fruitless until he ended up in front of the closed door to the library. He knocked softly and pushed the door open to find her staring out one of the tall windows at the car-lined street in front of the house. "I hope I'm not disturbing you," he said carefully, moving into the room and shutting the door behind him.

"You are," she bit off, deliberately turning her back on him. "Please go away. You and I have nothing to talk about."

"On the contrary, we have at least one necessary discussion pending that I think should happen sooner rather than later," he corrected her gently and moved to a spot on the opposite side of the window, far enough away to give her a comfort zone, yet close enough to be able to observe her face. "I understand you are angry with me."

Chocolate eyes that were so much like his former protégé's came up to meet his sharply. "Angry doesn't begin to describe how I feel," she retorted.

"OK," he responded mildly, leaning against the wall by the window ready to listen to whatever he'd be able to encourage her to say. "How do you feel?"

"I really don't want to talk about this," she responded, turning away from him again.

"You're hurting your mother…"

"How dare you!" She spun at him, eyes flaming. "YOU hurt her, for years – you had her son, my brother, and kept him trapped underground in that… PLACE. And now you go sniffing around her like a dog after another man's…"

"Are you angry at me for hurting your mother, or are you angry because I hurt you?" he pressed pointedly, ignoring the insult. "Because if you're angry at me on behalf of your mother, then you need to have a talk with her. She and I have settled our scores between us."

"Not for me…"

"That's what I thought," he nodded. "This is about your feelings, then." He watched her face closely. "Well, here I am, in the flesh. Here's your chance to unload on me the way you've wanted to for years. Take it."

"And have Jarod take me to task for daring to speak ill of his beloved mentor? I don't think so…"

"Jarod's not here," he reminded her gently. "It's just the two of us here, and nothing you say will go any further."

The chocolate eyes stared at him in impotent frustration for a while, and then she turned away from him again. "Stop it, damn it!"

"Stop what?"

"Stop being so normal, so… nice." She backed away, putting more space between herself and this enigmatic man with the indescribable accent whose words were confusing her. "I've hated you for a very long time."

"I know that," he answered mildly. "You hold me responsible for keeping you and your brother apart."

"It's true, isn't it?" she cried.

"In a manner of speaking, yes," he admitted without rancor. "I raised your brother and worked with him for nearly thirty years before he escaped. That's not a secret, nor do I deny it."

"You stole him from us…"

"Now that," Sydney said with an uplifted finger, "isn't true. I had no part in the Centre's stealing your brother. I was presented with a little boy that I was told was an orphan. It wasn't until your brother escaped and the Centre lies began to unravel that I discovered the truth."

"Mom said she saw you…"

"No." He shook his head gently. "That was my brother, Jacob. He's dead now."

She stared at him again for a long moment, then turned away again. "You're confusing me."

"I'm telling you the truth," he countered gently. "I won't hide or deny things that I actually did do – and there is enough of that, believe me – but I won't let you continue to make me responsible for things I did NOT do."

"I don't believe you. You'd have done anything to keep him near you, to hang onto him…"

Sydney smiled sadly. "Did Jarod ever tell you of the last time I saw him before he put your family together?"

She kept her back to him. "No…"

"It was after Mr. Parker died, and he'd just missed finding your mother on Carthis. He came to see me, wondering if the Centre would ever stop hunting him. I told him that I doubted it – that for as long as he played 'catch me if you can', the Centre would hound him with everything it could. I could tell he was getting tired of the game – and so I told him to stop playing."

Emily turned to look at him, her face a study in disbelief. "You're lying to me."

"You can ask Jarod if you don't believe me," Sydney simply shrugged. "I told him that he deserved a life, and that with the Centre constantly on his heels, he'd never get one. I told him to leave – to drop off the Centre radar screens – to vanish and cut off all contact with all of us in order to find all of you and put together the family he'd always wanted." Sydney's face grew distant with the power of the memory. "And then, once I'd finally convinced him to leave, I walked away from him – and I didn't hear from him again until after your father's death." His eyes shone with the pain of the memory. "It was quite possibly the most difficult thing I'd ever done in my life — and the one thing in my life that I'll never regret."

The chocolate eyes were thoroughly confused. "Why?"

"Because the time had come for him to let go of me and find you," Sydney offered simply. "And he did."

"But he went back to you…"

"But that was not my doing," he shook his head. "I walked away, and as time went by and it began to seem as if he had disappeared completely, I grieved for him as if he'd died – and then moved on with my life. I had no idea that he'd ever get in contact with me again."

She looked at him for a very long time. "It wasn't fair, keeping him locked up like that."

"No," he agreed, his gaze not flinching from hers, "it wasn't."

There was another long pause while she stared out the window and considered everything he'd said. Then she turned back. "What about Mom?"

He gazed up at her, startled. "What about her?"

"What are your intentions toward her?" she asked defensively.

Sydney's face again grew soft, and despite herself, Emily could tell that it indicated a genuine affection for her mother. "She is a remarkable woman," he said, pulling himself back to the present with some difficulty, "with whom I have a great deal in common. We are… friends…"

Emily knew that the unspoken words that ended his thought were 'for the moment' — and she was more than aware of her mother's feelings, as she'd been battling them for nearly six months now. "If you hurt her…" she threatened seriously.

"Then I would deserve anything and everything you or Jarod or any of the rest of your family would care to visit on me," he replied with equal seriousness.

She looked at him from beneath lowered eyelids. "I wanted to keep hating you, damn it," she grumbled. "It was so much easier when I could think of you as an ogre…"

"You mean you don't think I'm such an ogre anymore?" he teased very gently. "I must really be slipping."

"You really do like my mom?" she asked more softly, turning to face him fully for the first time.

"Yes, I really do like her a great deal."

The sincerity was impossible to mistake. "Then you should go spend some more time with her," she advised with a sigh. "I happen to know that she's been looking forward to this trip as much for the time she'd be able to spend with you as for the wedding itself."

"Indeed?" That thought pleased him immensely. "May I escort you back to your husband, then? He was rather upset that you were out of sorts…"

Emily thought for a moment and then put her hand very carefully on the offered arm. "He's just worried about the baby."

"As would I be in his position," Sydney smiled as he opened the library door.

"There he is," Jarod remarked to Jay as Sydney emerged from the back door of the house again, and then both men stared as the old psychiatrist carefully and gently assisted their sister down the steps and back into her husband's keeping.

"Whoa! He must be one helluva smooth operator to have Em calmed down so quickly," Jay shook his head in disbelief. "You should have heard her…"

"Sydney can be quite persuasive when he wants to be," Jarod nodded to the leader of the stringed ensemble that had, until then, been providing soft background music. He walked over to his former mentor with a glow in his eye. "The first dance is traditionally for father and daughter," he stated, remembering the lecture on wedding traditions that he'd gotten just prior to Sam and Mei-Chiang's nuptials. "Missy told me once that you taught her how to waltz to this song," he smiled down, "so I thought maybe…"

The opening chords of "Somewhere My Love" flowed from the little orchestra, and with a quick punch to the shoulder of his grinning protégé, Sydney rose and claimed the hand of his daughter. "Was this your idea, Daddy?" she asked him as he expertly began to lead her about the small square of dance floor that had been waiting for them. "I haven't ever danced with any man without thinking of that day in the Sim Lab…"

"Blame your husband, my dear, he chose the music," Sydney shook his head and smiled as he looked at her glowing face. "I don't have to ask you if you're happy, do I." It wasn't a question.

"Did you have any idea what you were starting when you introduced us all those years ago?" she answered him with another question.

"Not exactly," he admitted, "but, after a while, I was starting to get the idea that the experiment had gone considerably further than ever intended." He danced gracefully with her for a long moment. "As long as you're happy, ma petite…"

"I am, Daddy, I am." Her eyes caught Jarod's and held them. "More than I deserve, I think."

"Rubbish. You deserve all the happiness in the world, ma petite."

She kissed his cheek gently. "You're biased."

"No! You think?" he grinned at her and turned her expertly around the dance floor.

"C'mon, Mom," Jarod urged at his mother's elbow. "We can't let them have all the fun for the entire time."

As the first waltz ended and the music modulated into the opening bars of yet another waltz, several other couples slowly joined Sydney and Missy on the dance floor, so Margaret willingly put her hand in her son's and let him lead her out and then into the gentle waltz. Not long into the waltz, Jarod steered his mother close to Sydney and Missy. "Wanna trade?" he asked his mentor impishly.

With Margaret and Missy chuckling gaily, the two men exchanged partners, and Jarod swept away with his wife in his arms. Sydney paused for a moment, relishing the feel of actually holding Margaret close in something other than a companionable and brief hug and grateful to see Emily moving to the edge of the dance floor on the arm of her husband.

"I saw you come out of the house with her," Margaret said, following his gaze. "I take it you two managed not to kill each other."

"I think I was able to lay a few demons to rest," he replied and then tightened his hold on her. "But I don't want to think of her right now."

"Oh?" she chuckled knowingly.

"Right now I have a beautiful woman dancing with me for the first time, and I intend to do my best to make sure that she doesn't dance with anyone else. Consider your dance card filled, my dear."

"Except my other sons," Margaret smiled up at him. "They deserve a chance too, you know…"

"Oh, all right — one dance each," he bargained with her.

"You're acting very possessive today."

"Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"On how good a dancer you are."

"Another challenge?" He smiled and bent his lips to her ear. "I told you once before that I never can resist a challenge."

Margaret's face attained a satisfied smile at the multi-layered exchange, and then Sydney led her into a complicated ballroom dance that both tested her own abilities and showed off his own.

"Daddy's sure enjoying himself," Missy commented, looking over to where her father was waltzing expertly with Jarod's mother.

"And Mom is having the time of her life, I can tell," he responded. "We're going to have to watch those two."

"We're not going to be here that much longer," she reminded him. "They'll just have to shift for themselves."

Jarod watched the rapt expressions on the faces of his mentor and his mother and pulled his new wife tighter. "That, I don't think, will be much of a problem…"

"You two be good for Grandma now," Missy told her children, bending down and giving each one a tight hug.

"We will," Ginger assured her, hanging on tightly for a little while, glad she hadn't had to fight her way through the chiffon skirt of her mother's wedding dress for her goodbye. Mommy had changed into regular clothes again — which meant that she'd be able to change too soon. "Are Aunt Emmie and Uncle Nathan staying too?"

"Not for long," Jarod told her. "Aunt Emmie's almost ready to have her baby, and she wants to get home to her doctor. But Uncle Jay and Uncle Ethan are sticking around for a few more days, at least until Mommy and I get back, and Grandma is staying for two whole weeks this time…"

"Yeah!" Davy cheered after his mother released him. "Uncle Jay said he could help me with my science project."

"That toothpick bridge? I'm not surprised," Jarod looked at Missy with a smirk. "Get him to explain the mechanics behind what he tells you," he advised, avoiding his wife's raised eyebrows. "You might find it interesting."

"OK."

"Is that it?" Ethan asked, returning from putting luggage in the back of Jarod's little sports car.

"We're off," Missy nodded and then gave her half brother a hug. "I wish I could see you more often, little brother."

"At least we see each other once in a while now," he reminded her, returning the hug. "That's better than it used to be."

Jarod gave his mother a hug. "You be good now," he told her with a knowing smirk. "We'll see you in a week."

"Why Jarod Russell, whatever gave you the impression that I'd ever be anything BUT good?" she teased him back. "You and Missy have a good time."

Jarod turned and grabbed Missy's hand. Ben Miller had promised that there were still very few tourists wanting to stay at the Inn at this time of year, so he could guarantee them as much privacy as they wanted by simply closing the Inn to customers for the week they'd schedule for their honeymoon. "We will," he said and began to drag her toward the front door.

"NO! Wait! Give us a chance to get out there," Ethan demanded, grabbing a child with each hand and pulling them ahead of the couple, with Margaret echoing the sentiment and following her foster son out the door.

"Did you say goodbye to your Dad?" Jarod asked Missy quietly while they waited for their guests to make the final preparations outside.

Missy nodded. "And to Broots and Tyler and Sam and Em and Crystal…"

"And Deb, I hope…"

"Oh yeah." She smiled widely. She seriously doubted it had been any coincidence that her foster daughter had caught the bouquet. "We can expect another one of these events fairly soon, if Broots gets his way. Maybe we should rent out the back yard on a regular basis?"

"Heaven forbid," Jarod chuckled. "I see two, maybe three more — but after that, it will wait until it's Ginger's turn." It had grown quiet outside the door. Jarod gave Missy a big grin and said, "Ready?"

When she nodded, he threw open the door and moved out onto the porch. Everyone who had stayed had gathered about the front steps with their little bags of rice, and now the cheer went up along with a shower of the white granules. Missy broke into laughter as Jarod led her down the steps of the townhouse and helped her into the sports car, noticing that someone had tied cans and painted "Just Married" on the trunk lid. Jarod threw the car into gear and, with both of them giving a jaunty wave, sped off down the driveway.

Sydney had Margaret's and his own punch glass in hand as he approached the bowl, only to find Broots leaning forward working hard at serving himself. "Here," he told his old friend, "let me help."

Broots sat back and shifted his chair out of the way so his psychiatrist friend could have easier access to the drink bowl. "Who would have imagined it, Syd?"

"What's that?" Sydney asked, handing down the refilled glass and picking up Margaret's.

"That this would be the way things would turn out? I mean, just think — where were we ten, twelve years ago?"

Sydney gazed down at his friend. Broots had chosen to use the wheelchair that day in order not to become overtired, but was slowly getting more and more mobile on his crutches and brace as time when on. Sydney knew that Broots was working hard towards the day that it would be his turn to walk his daughter down the aisle — and that Deb and Kevin had agreed to wait with their wedding until that was possible. And yet, he knew what his old friend was asking.

This wedding and their current situation was a far cry from the hell on earth they had both survived. Broots was now far more than an extra talented computer specialist assigned to a search project now — thanks to his eye for innovation and cutting edge technology, the Centre now boasted some of the most efficient and technologically advanced systems in the country. Firms from around the globe were competing for the right to hire him in to help them set up their systems in a similar fashion. Hardware and software research and development had become a particularly profitable Centre endeavor, and as head of the Computer Science Department, Broots was carrying plenty of authority and responsibility now.

"You know, I can't even remember the last time I saw Missy bark and you cringe," Sydney teased his friend gently.

"Oh, she still barks," Broots assured him. "It's just that she doesn't usually bark at ME anymore, so I don't NEED to cringe." He sipped at the punch. "I just mean… can you believe it?"

"It has been quite the rollercoaster ride, my friend," Sydney replied with a nod. "And now, with Kevin and Jarod restarting the Pretender Project under new guidelines and standards, it seems that in some ways we've come full circle."

"Yeah, I just about fell outta my chair when she announced that one at last week's board meeting, I tell ya," Broots replied with a still disbelieving shake of the head. "And to think that it was Jarod's idea…"

"It's a new day at the Centre," Sydney quoted Charles Parker from nearly ten years earlier.

"That's for damned sure," Broots responded, amazed that old man Parker's words could have such a prophetic dimension.

"Say, why don't you come over and join us?" Sydney suggested, nodding in the direction of the table that he now shared solely with Margaret.

"I don't think so," the technician shook his head. "I'm starting to wear down, and Deb and Kevin are thinking of taking off. Thanks anyway." Broots refrained from mentioning that he'd gotten several glimpses of the interaction between his old friend and Jarod's mother and knew better than to want to get in the way there either. It was good to see Sydney enjoying himself with a pretty woman — and Margaret Russell looked particularly fine that day. "I'll see you at work on Monday."

"Count on it." Sydney extended his hand, and the two friends shook hands firmly. Broots then finished the last of his punch and put the empty glass on the table to be collected and wheeled himself off in search of his daughter and fiancé. Sydney took up both refilled glasses and headed back to the table where Margaret was waiting for him. "Here you are," he said, sitting down and putting her glass down in front of her.

"It was a beautiful wedding," she commented softly, looking around at the mostly empty tables. "What a lovely day."

"You realize I'm going to have to head home soon," he told her with some regret. "I think Davy and Ginger want to introduce Sammy to the tree house while he's still here — and they deserve some decent running around time to work off all the sugar they've been eating…"

"Would you like some company?" Margaret asked softly.

Sydney turned and gazed at her warmly. "I certainly wouldn't mind it," he replied, putting his hand over hers on the table. "You go get the kids changed out of their good clothes and back into play clothes while I get things arranged out here."

"Who's handling clean up?" Margaret asked, casting her eye around the back yard.

"Sam and Tyler," he answered — I just need to let them know that they're now officially in charge, and I thought maybe I should tell your daughter that we're going to take her son with us…"

"What about Crystal?" Margaret asked suddenly. "How is she getting home? Do we need to take her too?"

Sydney smiled and led her eyes over to where Crystal and Jay were sitting at another otherwise abandoned table, talking quietly. "Jay knows where I live — I'm sure he'll see her home safely."

"She still doesn't look well, Sydney."

"She's not, but she is getting better — finally." Sydney was glad to see something approaching a smile on the newest lost lamb he'd invited into his house. Her recovery from the gunshot that had nearly killed her had been agonizingly slow. More surgery had been needed to correct some of the massive but not life-threatening damage that had been left until after she recovered from the first emergency surgery. Her psychological recovery had been equally slow, although the dedicated and determined efforts of two skilled Centre psychiatrists to see her through had eventually paid off. Still, her stamina had been seriously damaged, and her strength sapped easily. She'd spent most of the day before lying down to save up the energy it would take to be up most of the day of the wedding.

Family and Children's Services had at first been very interested in her case once it became known who she was and how old she was. Missy had filed legal papers with the courts almost immediately to have her placed in the custody of the Centre — but an eighteenth birthday less than three weeks into her hospital stay had rendered the entire process moot. When Sydney had insisted that she come stay with him after her release — his guest room once more vacant as Deb and Kevin had moved into the Broots' house when her father had come home from his long hospital stay — Crystal had eventually agreed. Zeke Cavendish quickly became a frequent visitor, helping especially once Sydney resumed his position at the Centre in not letting her be alone for long stretches of time. Missy had quietly removed her from the payroll, had sweepers bring her belongings from the little apartment to Sydney's, and informed the girl in no uncertain terms that her job, when she was finally well, would be to finish her education properly.

"Jay seems to like her," Margaret noted with some approval. "I was wondering if there would ever be any girl to catch his eye." She glanced at her companion. "Interesting that the only one I've ever seen him look twice at is… once more… over here on the other side of the world. What is it about Delaware…"

"He could do worse," Sydney responded, not at all displeased to see his latest orphan with a man who resembled his old protégé both physically and mentally. "She's smart as a whip and a fighter. Don't let that sweet face fool you — she survived on the street for years before she came here. She can still cop an attitude faster than just about anybody I've ever met. Even now, on the mend, it isn't wise to cross her."

"Good. That sounds like just what that boy needs," Margaret grinned. "So, are you going to get going, or what?"

"I can see where Jarod gets his drive," Sydney chuckled at her.

"In that case, you haven't seen nothin' yet."

Now the smile was wide. "Promises, promises."

"Did you say goodbye to your uncle?" Broots asked as Kevin waited patiently for him to make the awkward move from wheelchair to car seat. The revelation of that last bit of Centre intrigue had come only a few weeks earlier, and Broots was still having a hard time trying to keep up with the transitions in relationships that had happened within his unusual family. The only comfort came from knowing that he wasn't alone. Discovering that Kevin was the product of the Centre experimenting with Jacob's genetic material and that of another in order to try to force the recessive Pretender gene to the fore had hit Sydney very hard, yet drawn the young Pretender closer to his uncle as his closest relative. The pending wedding between Deb and Kevin only cemented in real terms the family link that had been there in concept between Sydney and the Broots' for years.

"I caught him while he was talking to Sam and Tyler," Kevin related and pulled up on the seat of the wheelchair to render it flat enough to fit in the trunk of the car. "I guess he and Maggie are going to take the kids over to his place and let them play in the tree house for a while before Sammy leaves for California again tomorrow morning." He slammed the trunk closed and shut Broots' door for him before climbing into the passenger seat next to Deb.

Broots grinned knowingly. Syd and Maggie, eh? So he HADN'T just been seeing things! He'd have to talk to Jarod when the Pretender got home and find out what others thought of the possibilities there.

"So… Are we ready?" Deb asked, smiling as Kevin quietly took her right hand in his for a moment before letting her go to turn the key and run the shift lever.

"Let's hit it," Broots called from the back seat. "I'm beat."

"When are you going to start letting me drive?" Kevin asked his fiancée as she put the car in gear and pulled it away from the curb.

"One of these days," she promised with a smile. "Don't pout — you're driving Dad into the Centre every morning nowadays. You should relax and enjoy being chauffeured around once in a while."

"Dad, didn't you tell me the other day that there was a study out about the frequency of one spouse driving the other?" Kevin tossed over the back of his seat with a mischievous smirk.

"Don't you try to get me in the middle of this," Broots chuckled back. "If you want to drive all the time, I suggest you and Deb go off somewhere private and duke it out between the two of you."

"Duke it out?" Kevin looked over at Deb. "What does a royal title have to do with…"

"Forget it," Deb shook her head, laughing. "I'll explain it to you later."

Sydney stood at his bedroom window and looked down to watch three laughing children scramble like monkeys up the wooden ladder and into the tree house. He tossed his tuxedo jacket onto the bed and tugged to untie the bow tie at his neck and unhook the cummerbund from about his waist. "You kids be careful!" he heard Maggie yell as he came down the stairs far more comfortable with his dress shirt unbuttoned at the top.

He followed Maggie's voice into the kitchen and found her watching out the arcadia door as the kids first put down and then raised the canvas tarp and then lined up along the edge of the platform with feet dangling in the air. Maggie was still dressed in the gown she'd worn to the wedding, although she'd shed the orchid corsage that had been at her wrist at the townhouse and put it in the refrigerator to keep. He paused and drank in the sight of her once more in his kitchen after all this time, and then walked quietly up behind her and put a hand at her shoulder to watch with her for a moment. "Would that we had so much energy."

Maggie leaned back against him. "What a day!" she sighed and then smiled softly to herself when she felt the other hand land on the opposite shoulder. "I've eaten too much, and danced too much, and I'm ready to stay quiet for the next year or two."

Sydney let his hands wander just a little up and down her arms. "I've missed you," he said softly, "more than I expected to. You've been gone too long."

She crossed her hands and captured each of his hands with one of hers and held them in place. "I've missed you too, a heckuva lot more than I thought I would," she answered honestly. "Do you know that after about the second week I was home, I started counting the days until we'd talk on the phone the next time?"

"Had you told me that, I'd have called more often," he bent to her ear and made her skin tingle. "You could have called me more often too, you know — I wouldn't have minded…"

"You would have thought me forward…"

"No, I wouldn't — I would have been glad for the call," he retorted, his hands tightening and then turning her to him. "I don't know about you, but I've been looking forward to our having some time alone together practically from the day you got on the plane to go home last September."

"I have too," she sighed, her hands finding his chest and smoothing the fine linen. "Poor Em was finally getting quite perturbed with me there just before we came — she was the only one I could talk to, and she wasn't wanting to hear me at all."

"I told you before, I don't want to think about her right now."

"Oh, yeah?" she responded, echoing an exchange made not that long before. "And just what DO you want to think about right now?"

"This." He lowered his lips to hers and felt her melt into his embrace at long last.

Ben had given them a cottage of their own for the week — set back from the rest of the inn and practically at the edge of the cliffs. There, even if he had allowed for other boarders, they would still have had near-total privacy except during mealtimes — although the refrigerator in the tiny kitchen was well stocked, as was the small pantry. The cottage had a weathered New England décor with many small-paned windows to give the interior an open and well-lit ambience. The bedroom was nothing fancy — a chest of drawers, a vanity with a massive, round mirror, a pair of night stands with lamps, a set of French doors that opened onto a veranda that quite literally WAS at the edge of the cliffs, and a king-sized bed.

The moon was just rising in the dark evening sky over the waters of the Atlantic when Jarod came through the bedroom door to find Missy standing and gazing out at the sight. She turned to glance at him and then returned her gaze to the sparkling quicksilver waters below. "It's real, isn't it?" she asked softly.

"Yes," he came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. "It's very real." He bent and dropped a kiss on her neck after gently easing her hair out of the way. "We have seven days and six nights of absolute peace, quiet and relaxation. No phones," he kissed her neck again, "no Centre," he kissed her behind her ear, "no kids," he kissed her earlobe and made her giggle, "no interruptions…"

She turned in his arms and put hers around him. "What I meant was, this is real — we did it, what we set out to do — right?"

"You're the Chairman of the Centre, right?" he asked after dropping a kiss on her nose.

"Yeah…"

"The Centre is completely legit now, right?" The kiss landed this time on a cheek.

"Yeah…" Her voice was filled with amusement and something else.

"All the bad guys are where they can't do anymore harm, right?"

"Yeah…" She pulled her hands up so that she could put her arms around his neck and play with his hair a little, finding it interesting the way the moonlight caught on the threads of silver amidst the dark. "And you're back in the Centre where you belong," she smiled at him, "just as I promised you years ago that I'd have you eventually."

"Uh-HUH," he drew her closer to him. "You're saying you have me exactly where you want me, is that it?"

Her smile shone bright in the moonlight. "Kinda looks that way, don't it?"

"And now that you have me back in the Centre, does that mean you're free?" he asked, his chocolate eyes sparkling.

"As free as I'm ever going to get," she replied, her fingers lifting his glasses away from his face and carefully dropping them so that they'd land on a nearby nightstand. "And now that I do have you right where I want you…"

"Yes?" He was interested in where she intended to take their repartee.

With a quick brush of her body against his that was deliberately intended to arouse, she had his eyes wide with surprise and delight as his body instantly responded to hers. "I'm never going to let you go."

Jarod's hands landed on her hips and pulled her into him, making them both sigh in anticipation. The pleasure and excitement at knowing her to be willingly in his arms, loving him as nobody else ever could, had never abated. "Really?" he asked, his voice low and rumbling in the tone that never failed to excite her.

"Mmm-hmmm…" she managed before he had lowered his lips to hers and caught her up in a deep and passionate kiss that took her breath away. His body pressing insistently into her abdomen left her no illusions about his feelings for her, and his hands were already seeking out where the shell top of her pantsuit tucked into her trousers. As they broke apart and her fingers began opening the buttons on his dress shirt, she said breathlessly, "Absolutely. We're right back to you run, I chase — just like always."

He pulled the shell over her head and bent to drop hot kisses on her shoulder. "That sounds kinky, and maybe a little bit fun," he said with hoarse breathlessness as her fingers opened the shirt and spread across the skin of his chest. "Let's see just where I have to run to this time." His hands went to her back and the fasteners of her bra, releasing them and then pulling the garment away so that the next time he pulled her close, it was skin to silken skin.

He pulled her close to kiss her deeply again, his tongue dancing sweetly with hers as one hand went to her back and splayed warmly to hold her and the other began to explore the wonders of the soft flesh he had liberated. She sighed and then moaned and arched into him as his fingers brushed lightly across a nipple made firm and hard by the slight chill of the room and in anticipation of his touch, his kiss.

Impatient now, it was her turn to drop kisses of fire onto his chest while her hands dropped to the front of his pants, undoing the button and pulling the zipper down with a slow movement that brushed softly over his groin. Groaning, he quickly found the zipper to her trousers too, and both of them stepped out of their shoes when they stepped out of the pooled garments. Jarod wasted no time but placed a hand behind her knees and swept her off of her feet and carried her over to the bed, his kisses firm and insistent now.

When he deposited her gently on the bed, his hands drew the pantyhose and panties beneath away, trailing warm and provocative fingers on the newly exposed skin. "Jarod," she called with a voice that shimmered with desire and reached out for him.

He stepped out of his boxers and knelt on the bed over her, looking down at her intently. "You know, I'm not exactly sure who's been doing the running and who's been doing the chasing lately," he whispered to her, bending and beginning to drop kisses in places that made her arch with pleasure, "but I think it's over for the time being."

"Yeah. I do too," she sighed, and pulled him to her.

Fin

Author's Notes: I have one of THE best beta teams around, in case nobody's aware of that. Nans, Heidi, Laura, Pam, you ladies are the best – thank you is so inadequate to express the gratitude I have for you all. You've kept me honest, kept me inspired with plot ideas, and kept me motivated to continue writing when those times came that I could have easily have just quit. Deb, your knowledge of tP canon is without rival and having you able to answer my questions has been deeply appreciated.

There are also some regular reviewers I'd like to mention who have helped me remember that people have still been reading this – even though I had no way of knowing if anybody was or not. Mercy, Sky, Art, Elisa, you've been a good part of why I didn't throw in the towel a long time ago. Your remarks and questions have been so appreciated, especially after the move from to here. Without your comments along the way, I would have figured nobody cared anymore and stopped posting publicly altogether (and just sent out email updates to those who asked while I finished the story for myself – I hate to leave things unfinished after so much expended effort.)

Finally, to my son Lee, who has often quite literally been the voice behind me saying, "Aren't you finished with that chapter yet, Mom? GOD you're slow!" I'M FINISHED NOW! ;-

This has been a very long road that began in June, 2002 with one little stand-alone story called "Retrospective" – one that has ultimately taken over a year and a half to complete. I hope you've enjoyed reading "And Then…" as much as I've enjoyed writing it. And no, I have no intentions of carrying the story on any further, folks. From here on, it's up to YOU to use your imaginations! ;-

This has been a neat fandom to write for. Thank you all for your patience and attentiveness.

MMB

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