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The World According to Miss Parker

Trust

by Annabelle Leigh


She couldn't remember the last time anyone had called her by her name, the one her mother had chosen for her—her actual, intimate, given, proper, first name. She supposed it must have been her mother. She couldn't recall anyone else saying it in all these years.

Miss Parker. She'd begun insisting on it just after her mother's death. She had framed it, in her own mind and to others, as a matter of respect. She was her father's daughter after all, his princess. She had taken that seriously. She'd wanted everyone at the Centre, everyone who worked for him, to take it seriously as well. And they had. They'd taken it, and her, very seriously indeed. She could see now that she'd probably gone a little overboard, that she'd confused fear with respect, not that it would have mattered to her at the time even if she had understood the difference. She had wanted them to fear her, to stay back, keep out, only see what she wanted them to see. She'd been willing to employ any means, land any low blow, hurl as much icy sarcasm as it took to accomplish that.

She'd succeeded remarkably well. She was a goal-oriented person after all. Most of the people she worked with did, in fact, fear her or were at least greatly intimidated. Broots just kind of dreaded her. Even Sydney knew better than to push her too hard, too far and never in a direction she really didn't want to go. She was her father's daughter to be sure.

She tried not to think about why that left such a bitter taste in her mouth these days, when once it had made her so proud. Don't think things to death. That had been her father's wisdom, something he'd drilled into her head as she was growing up. Analyze, plan, foresee, strategize, out-maneuver your opponents, certainly, but don't get caught up in philosophical debate, never let ambivalence or moral dilly-dallying stand in the way of taking action.

She pursed her lips and applied her lipstick. She stared at herself for a long moment in the mirror. Don't think too much, Parker. You can't afford it. She rolled her eyes. Even she didn't call herself by her first name. She stared into the mirror, and it was her mother's face looking back at her. Am I my mother's daughter? What would she think of me?

Maybe that's really why she never let anyone call her by the name her beautiful, lost mother had given her. She had so few things left from her, and all of them were sacred. She hoarded them—the letters and birthday gifts and photographs—in a box she kept hidden at the bottom of her closet, taking it out occasionally to remind herself, never sharing it with anyone. She treated her name the same way, like a legacy, her mother's voice unspooling in her head, calling to her, the only one ever to use the precious, forbidden name.

Shake it off, Parker. She pulled herself up to her full height and squared her shoulders. As a teenager, she'd gone through a period of embarressment about her height. She'd been a good head taller than even the tallest boy in her grade, and she'd taken to slumping to try to look shorter, to fit in better. She clearly remembered the night her father called her into his study to lecture her on how height could be a valuable asset. He'd said he never wanted to see her slouching again, as if she were not proud of who she was, of being a Parker. The whole thing had come out in a bark, like an order, which of course it had been.

She straightened the pearl necklace and smoothed back her hair, assessing her image in the mirror. The dress was new, expensive, flattering. She looked good. Cool. Seamless. Opaque. Untouchable. Just what she was going for, what she was always going for. She'd taken that lesson from her father and learned it well. She'd taught herself to use her height. She'd taught herself to use all her assets.

Just like her brother. She thought about his performance at the cemetary and then later in the day in her father's office. When she'd come in and found them there, she couldn't help being struck by how alike they were. Perhaps it was nature after all and not nurture. Perhaps she hadn't absorbed these lessons from her father's words so much as from his very genes.

Her mind flashed, against her will, onto the open, trusting, innocent face of her brother's young wife, Shai Ling, his mail order bride. She'd looked so hopeful in that picture, eager almost, the expectation evident in her expression, looking forward to her new life in America. She tried not to imagine the fallen body, the woman who was her sister-in-law, discarded like so much trash along the side of some god-forsaken road in the middle of nowhere, all that naive hopefulness betrayed and extinguished. She replayed once more the scene in her father's office, her brother's studied innocence, her father's pat denial. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. She forced down an unexpected wave of nausea.

The phone ringing on her desk caused her to start, and she quickly threw the brakes on her runaway thoughts. Close the door on all that, Parker. Thinking about it isn't going to do you any good. You should know that by now.

"What?" she answered, impatiently.

"I assume you found Shai Ling."

It was Jarod's voice.

"I found her. She was in the county cemetery with a wooden grave marker," she said, unable to keep the disgust out of her voice.

"Another casualty of the Centre."

"Not according to Mr. Lyle and my father."

"And you think you can trust what they say?"

"As opposed to trusting you? That's kind of like jumping out of the fire into the fire, isn't it?"

"You think you know the truth about your father and Mr. Lyle and who killed your mother, but the fact is, you only know what the Centre wants you to know."

"What do you want from me?"

"The same thing you want from me—a little trust."

"I have to go."

"Be careful, Miss Parker. Remember what your mother used to say. Trust can kill you or set you free."

Hearing Jarod speak her mother's words gave her a haunted feeling, and she quickly replaced the phone before he did. She liked it that way. He could call her with cryptic messages, fool with her head, taunt her with those annoying red notebooks, play cat and mouse, make her look like an idiot, but she wouldn't let him hang up on her. It was a pathetic little victory, but for now, it was all she could manage.

I'm not thinking about this anymore. I'm having a "family" dinner with my father and brother. God help me.

They weren't a family, and they never would be, no matter how hard her father tried, no matter how much pressure he exerted on them to pretend. The mistrust would always be there. It didn't matter what the DNA test said. Lyle was no brother of hers, not in any true meaning of the word.

Seeing yourself ripped away from family is enough to tear anyone's heart open.

That's what Sydney had said when she'd told him about finding Lyle watching the DSA of their birth. Good old Syd, always the psychiatrist, believing that everyone had an inner life, that people could change, that someone like Lyle had anything inside him that could be broken, much less a heart of all things.

You have to see people for what they are.

Jarod's voice insinuated itself inside her head. Her mind flashed again on that scene in her father's office, the two men, so alike, so clearly father and son, so many things in common, even their dead wives...

No, I'm not going to let Jarod mind fuck me. I'm not. I'm going to have dinner with my father and brother. I'm going to enjoy my evening. She laughed at herself. Yeah, right.

She left her office and went to find her father. He was waiting for her, looking impatient. He did not appreciate being kept waiting, not by anyone, certainly not her.

"Where's Lyle?" she asked, looking around.

"He called and said he had something to take care of. He'll meet us at the restaurant," her father said, heading toward the door.

"Daddy?" she said, calling him back, not even sure why.

"Yes, Angel?" he said, turning to her, expectantly, waiting for her to say something.

She froze for a moment. There were so many things she wanted to tell him, so many things she wanted to ask. A part of her wished, not for the first time, that things could just be straight-forward between them. She would ask her questions, and her father would answer them. She would tell him her hesitations, her fears, and he would really hear her. There would be no Centre, no repercussions, so there would be no need for bluffs or strategems, ruses or manipulations. There would just be the God's honest truth, at last, and the two of them would simply be father and daughter, family, in the true sense of the word, and nothing else would matter.

Remember what your mother used to say. Trust can kill you or set you free.

She smiled at her father. "You're looking very handsome tonight," she said, all her nerve failing, and she didn't even know why. She didn't want to think about why.


Dinner would have been the excruciating experience she'd anticipated if she'd been able to pay any attention at all, but her mind kept wandering back to Mr. Raines weeping over his dead daugther. Who would have thought the old viper had it in him to shed tears for anyone? She watched her father choose from the wine list, scutinizing it carefully, looking for just the right thing. Would he cry if something happened to her? She couldn't imagine it. She tried to play the scene in her head, but nothing would come, at least not the true expression of grief she'd seen from Raines. She remembered her father's glazed over reaction to her mother's death all too well. She couldn't believe that it would be any different for her.

I might not be able to protect you, Angel. How many times had her father said that or something like it? There were so many instances, whenever he wanted her to do something she really couldn't, like when he'd ordered her to kill Lyle, before either of them knew their relationship to him. Her father had been willing to sacrifice her, destroy her peace of mind, make her dirty and corrupt, beyond redemption, just to keep ahead of his enemies at the Centre. That thought touched an open wound; it was every kind of agony at once.

A part of her couldn't help feeling that Annie Raines was better off. Not that she'd died an easy death. No, it had been terrifying, gruesome, cruel beyond belief. But that young innocence she'd seen in the girl's photograph had never been perverted, twisted, destroyed. She'd left the world as unsullied as she'd come into it. She hadn't lived long enough for regrets, for shame, for doubt.

She wondered what would have become of Annie if she hadn't died. Would she have grown up only to be an employee of the Centre? Would she have followed in her father's footsteps? Would she have met some other kind of horrible end, in the line of duty, yet another casualty of the Centre? Or would Raines have kept her out of it, kept her safe, kept her clean? Would he have made the ultimate sacrifice and allowed Annie to be her mother's daughter instead of his?

"Isn't that right, Angel?" her father's voice jolted her out of her thoughts.

"I'm sorry?"

"You haven't heard a word I've said," her father said, sounding exasperated and a little surprised, since she usually listened to him with such care, greedy for his attention.

She looked down at her plate. "Sorry, Daddy. I'm just a little tired. It's been a long day."

He smiled at her. "That's all right. I was just telling your brother about our plans to go to Martha's Vineyard this summer. It should make the perfect family holiday."

"Mmm," she said, noncomitally. "It's a beautiful spot."

"I look forward to seeing it," Lyle said, his voice cloying, falsely familiar.

Someone who got caught up with the wrong people. That's what Jarod had said about Shai Ling. She looked into her brother's cold, dead eyes, and any thought she'd had of eating her own dinner deserted her. The nausea returned, along with just a hint of desperation, a feeling she was not used to, that she could never be comfortable with. She pictured Shai Ling's body, beaten and broken, dumped along the side of the highway. Lyle reached for his wine, smiling at her over the rim of the glass, before taking a sip. The sickness churned in her stomach. The wrong people. She was at dinner with the wrong people. Shai Ling had married the wrong person. Her mother...

No! She tried to turn off her thoughts with a vicious snap of will, but her normally well-disciplined mind refused to cooperate. The photograph of her father outside the apartment complex where her brother and Shai Ling had lived flashed through her imagination, along with the remembrance of his denial that Lyle could possibly have had anything to do with Shai Ling's death. Never touched her...because he said he didn't. The picture of her mother's body, sprawled so hideously on the floor of that elevator, discarded like a rag doll, came unbidden and unwanted to mind. He said he didn't.

Her father and brother didn't seem to notice her loss of appetite. They went companionably about their meal, silverware glinting under the restaurant's soft lighting. They shared so many mannerisms, their movements almost synchronized. Like father, like son.

She moved the food around on her plate, but she couldn't force herself to eat it. If you can't trust your family, who can you trust? Her father had wanted to know.

She had no answer for that question.


"Good morning, Miss Parker," Sydney called to her, breezily, casually, as if she had no reason to still be annoyed with him for that fiasco down in Florida, for not leveling with her in the first place about the whole Annie Raines situation.

"Oh really, Syd," she said, taking off her sunglasses to glare at him. "What's so good about it?"

"I see you're in a fine mood today. Did you enjoy dinner with your father and brother?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at her, giving her that appraising look of his, as if she were one of his patients.

"Don't start with me, Sydney."

"As I recall, Miss Parker, it was you who started with me. I know you're still angry with me about not being open with you, but I explained why I backed Raines this time. I thought you understood it has nothing to do with our search for Jarod."

"I do understand. I just don't like being made a fool of, even if it's for a good cause. And I certainly don't appreciate it coming from you."

Sydney nodded, his eyes cast downward, considering what she'd said and what she hadn't. "You don't like being left out of the loop where Jarod's concerned," he said.

She took a step forward, invading his personal space, staring him dead in the eye. "You're damned right. Don't let it happen again."

He smiled at her, that mysterious, knowing smile of his, as if he understood her far better than she could ever hope to understand herself. She hated that smile.

"I certainly won't," he assured her.

"Good," she said, with emphasis, and turned on her heel, heading for her office.

She could feel Sydney's eyes still on her as she walked away from him, as if he wanted to say something else, ask her questions, pry inside her head. She didn't turn back around. Instead, she stood up even straighter and walked more deliberately, taking her good, sweet time, showing him who was the boss.

She really was still furious with him. Worse than that, she felt betrayed. She'd been wrestling with that since last week, trying to figure out why it bothered her so much. At first, she'd just thought it was because he'd wasted her time with that wild goose chase down to Florida, when she'd known Jarod wasn't there. Her instincts were good; she'd realized immediately that Sydney was trying to keep her out of something involving their missing Pretender. Fear had flashed through her then, the sick dread that someone else would bring Jarod in, and that would be so wrong. He was hers. He always had been.

She didn't know why she should feel so outraged. It certainly wasn't the first time Sydney had dealt with Jarod behind her back. In fact, there had been several instances when she suspected him of aiding and abetting his escape from Centre operatives. Hell, Sydney was rooting for Jarod. She knew that. She'd always known that. So why was this case different? Why did it feel so threatening? Maybe because Raines was involved. Maybe because Lyle was underfoot every time she turned around. Maybe...

She closed the door to her office and put her briefcase down on the desk. She tried to shake away the cobwebs, clear her head, put Jarod, Sydney, her father, Lyle, all of it, out of her thoughts, at least for a little while. After the disaster of an evening she'd endured last night, the least she deserved was a relatively peaceful morning.

A knock came at the door. "Go away," she yelled.

"Uh...Miss Parker?" Broots called, hesitantly peering around the door.

"What is it, Broots? Can't you see I'm not in the mood right now?"

He flinched at her tone, but persisted anyway. That was Broots. "Sorry to bother you. It's just that...well, there seems to be an e-mail message from Jarod for you."

"What?" she asked, getting up from her chair, walking around the desk to stand next to him. "Well, where is it?"

"It came in on the Centre's special secured network, encrypted. I managed to decode it and transferred it to your regular mailbox."

"Good," she said, crossing her arms over her chest, waiting for him to go.

"Don't you want to...aren't you going to check it?"

"Yes," she said.

"Well, I guess you don't need me to stick around for that, huh?"

"Give that man a prize," she said, letting her inflection express her irritation.

"I guess I'll be going then."

"Good idea."

"Okay then, Miss Parker," he said, before finally leaving, extremely reluctantly.

Once he was gone, she hurried back to her computer to check her e-mail, and there it was, the message from Jarod:

Miss Parker,

If you want the truth about what happened to
Shai Ling, along with proof, meet me at the
Anderson Consolidated Warehouse outside
Tempe tonight at 6 o'clock. Come alone, if you
really want the evidence.

J.

She blinked at it, needing time to process. Jarod had answers. Jarod had the evidence, at last, not just unsettling questions or innuendo, but actual, verifiable proof that Lyle wouldn't be able to weasel out of. She picked up the phone without a second's hesitation and ordered the Centre jet ready to go.

She grabbed her bag and headed out. With the time difference, there was still plenty of time to make it to the meeting, but she couldn't stand a moment's delay. She just wanted to be there now, wanted the evidence in her hands. Maybe now she could convince her father what a snake Lyle really was, genetically related or not. At the very least, she would see, once and for all, what her father was made of. She would finally know the truth, for the first time in her life.

"Ooh," she said, colliding with Sydney, as they both rounded the corner outside her office.

"I'm sorry, Miss Parker."

"How about watching where you're going next time, Syd?" she said, even though she knew she hadn't been paying attention either.

"I'll try to be more careful," he told her, patiently. "Broots said you received a message from Jarod."

"Broots needs to learn to mind his own business," she snapped.

"He was just concerned that it might be something important."

"It's not. Just more of Jarod's usual fun and games, taunting me with misinformation and red herrings. I deleted it."

Sydney stared at her.

"Listen, Syd, I'm kind of in a hurry here. I've got some things I need to take care of. You think we could talk about this later?"

"Of course, Miss Parker. I'll see you when you get back, which should be...?"

She glared at him. "I'll guess you'll find out when you see me."

She turned her back on him and headed for the door.

"Have a good trip," he called after her.

She could hear the amusement in his voice, but she refused to turn around. She had more important things on her mind.


The road just kept going and going and going, taking her further and further into the middle of nowhere. There were no lights, no other cars, no houses or gas stations, hardly even any road signs. It unnerved her terribly. She was a city person by nature, and for city people, there was nothing more threatening than the absence of life, the lack of bustle.

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and told herself to quit being silly. She was far too old and way too smart to be acting like a school girl afraid of her own shadow.

Still, she couldn't quite force aside her hesitations about why Jarod would have chosen such an out of the way place for their meeting. Sure, he always enjoyed playing with her a little bit, making her work for the information, and it wasn't the first time he'd picked an abandoned building for one of their rendezvous. Still, something just didn't feel right.

A brief flutter of fear turned her stomach upside down. What if Jarod wanted to get her away from the Centre, alone, out in the middle of nowhere for some other reason than to give her evidence of Lyle's crime? What if he'd finally grown tired of her chasing him and was ready to end it, once and for all? They were on opposite sides after all. They always had been, and there was no remedy for that. There was too much history between them now, history that could never be rewritten, too many tragedies—his abduction, her mother's death, his father's possible involvement in it, the Centre's directive to bring him back dead or alive. Why would he want to help her? Why would he bother? Why had he ever bothered?

Trust can kill you or set you free.

Something about the long drive and the solitude made her feel outside her own life, as if she were an objective observer, watching herself from a distance, taking in her recent thoughts and actions with an analytical eye. In her memory, she watched as she pulled away from her brother at the last moment, not showing him the incriminating photograph. She watched as she complimented her father on his appearance instead of asking him for answers, not even telling him that Jarod had called. She watched as she picked up the phone, ordering the Centre jet, not hesitating for a second as she made the necessary arrangements to meet the man she was supposed to be hunting.

It all added up to a pefect understanding of who she trusted and who she didn't, but she balked at taking the final, irrevocable step. She left the pieces purposefully unconnected, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the shift that had gradually been taking place in her ever since Jarod escaped from the Centre, not yet ready to accept what it would mean for her future.

In the distance, she could make out the roofline of a building in the last lingering remnants of daylight. She crested a slight rise in the road, and then she could see the entire warehouse, a long, squat building the color of dust, blending into the dull brown countryside. She drove up to the building and parked the car. She dug her gun out of her purse, just in case, and cursed when she tried the flashlight, only to find that the batteries had gone dead. She got out of the car and took a good look around. It was completely silent, with no hint of life anywhere. Her skin prickled, the instinct to flee slamming into her with a vengeance.

She fought off the bad feeling and forced herself to go inside. The place was a mess. It looked like business had ended quite abruptly. There was trash and debris scattered everywhere, along with stacks of boxes, what appeared to be abandoned inventory. The light was very dim, and she moved carefully, feeling her way first so she didn't end up falling on her face.

"Jarod?" she called.

Her voice echoed in the cavernous space, but no one answered. She drew her gun and ventured into the next room. The survival instinct shrieked at her to leave, but the rest of her was determined to get the evidence Jarod had promised her.

"Okay, Ratboy, if this is your idea of a joke, we can move on now. It's not funny."

She didn't hear the telltale clicking in time to do anything more than whirl around, giving the shooter her chest for a target, rather than her back. The quick flash from the gun muzzle lit the darkness for an instant, but not long enough for her to see the assailant. Then she felt the impact of the bullet, ripping through flesh, spinning her around with its force. Jagged pain lanced through her shoulder, shooting down her arm and into her chest, knocking the breath out of her. She fell back against the wall and slumped to the ground.

She thought she heard the crunch of broken glass underfoot, the shooter retreating back down the long corridor and out of the building. She hoped that was true, but there really was no telling. She tried to raise her gun, just in case whoever it was came back to finish the job, but her right hand was weak and useless from the shoulder injury. She held the gun in her left hand, but she wasn't sure she could hit anything like that. She tried to stay quiet, but her lungs hurt so much that her breath came in loud, labored, rasping gasps. If anyone came for her, there would be no hiding. She would be defenseless. She would be dead.

Of course if she sat too long, she would just keep hemmoraging and also end up dead, so she forced herself to her feet, pulling herself up with her good arm. Her head reeled, and she felt certain she was going to throw up. There was no way she could stay standing. She let herself sink down to the ground again, panting, her chest feeling like it was on fire. She couldn't walk, but she still had to get out of there, get to the car, make her way back to civilization, get help, before it was too late. She began to slide on the ground, very slowly, heading back in the direction she'd come. Even the smallest movement was agonizing and difficult, and she had to rest every few seconds. But she was determined. She kept at it, inching slowly along, making her way to the door.

In the end, we all get what we deserve. That's what Jarod had said. Was this his handiwork? Was this her judgment day? Had he finally given her what he thought she had coming?

Even as she asked herself those questions, she knew the answer. Be careful, Miss Parker. That's how he'd ended their last conversation. From anyone else, it might have sounded like a threat, but from him, even with the anger and sarcasm in his voice, it really was concern for her safety. In the end, he didn't want to see her hurt. When they'd gone to find Fenigore at that bank, Jarod had become suddenly protective when the idiot bank robber threatened her, warning the guy off, even though she was the one who'd provoked the run in. Not in her wildest imaginings could she picture him luring her here, tracking her in the darkness, raising a gun to shoot her in the back, pulling the trigger, abandoning her to bleed to death. It was far too cold-blooded and vicious. He just didn't have it in him, not any of it.

You have to help me! He will hurt me. He's angry. He's always angry. He going to hit me, beat me. He's coming back...please, he's going to kill me. The 911 tape of Shai Ling's desperate cry for help played in her head. A sick chill stole over her as she crawled along the ground. All the women in her family seemed to end up the same way. And now I'm going to die too. Please, I don't want to die. She tried not to sob, since it was hard enough to breathe and crying made her feel weak, something she despised, could never afford. Her mind flew back once more to that moment when she'd come into her father's office and found the two of them there together, father and son, so much alike. If you can't trust family, who can you trust?

Her stomach lurched at the thought. She could feel the blood soaking through her blouse, warm and sticky. There was so much of it, and she was beginning to feel light-headed.

It was terribly ironic, the kind of irony that made her cringe rather than smile. She'd just been wondering the night before what she had in common with her mother, and here was the answer. Now she understood why she'd tried so hard for so many years to be her father's daughter, why she'd pushed aside that memory of her mother crumpled on the floor of the elevator. Somehow, she must have always known where it would lead. She must have seen her own future in her mother's death. She had been fighting so hard ever since then to rewrite the story, to create a new ending, to be nothing like her mother, the one person she'd ever loved, because she was so terrified of winding up just like her.

And now the inevitable had happened. She'd tried to play along with them and her mother had tried to beat them at their game, but in the end, they'd both lost. Neither of them had ever stood a chance in the first place. Another casualty of the Centre. Just as Jarod had said of Shai Ling. Like mother, like daughter.

Her chest tightened painfully with each labored breath, and she had to stop, had to rest. She closed her eyes and leaned heavily against the wall. Her ears rang, and her body was going numb. In the back of her mind, a voice urged her to stop fighting, to just let go, to float away, have it all over and done with. But the voice in the front of her head retained its fighting spirit. I'm just resting. I haven't given up.

"Miss Parker?"

It sounded like Jarod, but she knew that wasn't possible. Oh, great! Now I'm hallucinating. I must be in really bad shape. But a moment later, she saw a circle of light moving along the wall, the beam of a flashlight.

"There you are," Jarod said, his voice coming toward her now.

The bright light flashed in her eyes, and she shielded her face with her good arm. "Could you get that out of my eyes?"

"Sorry," he said, kneeling down beside her. "Are you okay?"

"Do I look okay?" she snapped at him, because it was the only way she could keep from crying.

"Now that you mention it, I have seen you looking better."

"Can we dispense with the banter and get me out of here?"

"Let me look at your shoulder first," he said.

"Forget it, Ratboy. Just get me to the car."

He ignored her and began easing the blouse off her injured shoulder.

She jerked away. "Shit!" she screamed, a jagged wave of pain ripping through her, taking the breath out of her lungs.

"Stop fighting me," he ordered, in a voice that allowed for no disagreement.

She couldn't get her breathing under control. It hurt so badly. She closed her eyes and went lax, letting him inspect the damage, too tired and miserable to resist anymore. His hands moved over the wound, quickly and efficiently, with remarkable delicacy, trying not to cause her any further pain.

"It's a clean shot at least," he told her. "There's an exit wound, which is good. It means the bullet's not still in there. I don't feel any bone fragments. I think it's probably just tissue damage, which will heal."

"I'm going to bleed to death," she said, matter-of-factly, with sudden certainty.

He shook his head. "Not if I can help it." He pressed his handkerchief firmly over the wound.

"Owwwww! Fuck, that hurts!"

"Sorry," he said. He took her hand and placed it over the handkerchief. "Keep the pressure on it. We need to stop the bleeding."

"You enjoyed that," she accused him.

"Surprisingly, I didn't." He put his arm around her waist and lifted her onto her feet. "Can you walk? Or do you want me to carry you?"

"I'll walk," she said, pulling away from him a little, trying to salvage something of her dignity. But she was even more unsteady on her feet than she had been earlier, and she stumbled, nearly falling.

Jarod quickly grabbed her to prevent that from happening. "Will you just let me help you?"

She didn't answer, but she did lean against him, letting him support her weight. She didn't even know why she was fighting him. If he hadn't come for her, she would certainly have died. Not allowing anyone to help her had become a habit that was hard to break.

"How did you know where to find me?" she suddenly wondered, as they slowly made their way to the door.

"I happened to call Sydney. He asked about an e-mail I was supposed to have sent you. I didn't, so I knew you were in trouble. Broots managed to restore a copy of it, and we got your location. I could get here faster, so I came."

She wanted to ask him why, but each step took every ounce of her energy. Each breath felt like her lungs were about to explode. Even if she had been able to get the words out, there was a part of her too terrified to hear his answer. There was a niggling voice inside her that said she didn't deserve anything from him.

Walking to the car felt like journeying to the edge of the earth. Nothing had ever seemed so far away or so difficult to accomplish. She'd never been more tired in her life. Jarod held her against his side, one arm firmly around her waist, as he opened the car door. He lifted her in his arms and settled her gently, carefully onto the passenger seat, closing the door after her. She slumped against it and leaned her head against the cool glass. It had been one hell of a day.

She heard him open the other door and slide behind the wheel, turning the key in the ignition, starting the engine. Jarod drove very slowly, but the car still bounced over the rough, uneven pavement of the abandoned building's neglected parking lot. She gripped the door handle, her knuckles turning white, riding out wave after wave of searing pain as her shoulder was jostled.

He laid his hand lightly on her arm. "I'm sorry."

She nodded, not enough breath in her lungs to answer. It wasn't his fault; she realized that. After what felt like millennia but was actually only seconds, they reached the paved road, and she let out her breath in relief. Her shoulder still throbbed, but at least it no longer felt like she was being stabbed.

She rested with her head still against the window, her eyes closed. They rode in silence, Jarod's hand still on her arm. When he'd first touched her, she'd tensed, out of habit. There were so few people she let touch her. But after a moment or two, she'd been able to relax, and now the gentle, warm pressure of his hand felt comforting, like a lifeline that would pull her back to safety.

"How's the bleeding?" he asked.

She forced herself to open her eyes and take a look. "It's less."

"Good," he said. "We still have a long way back to town."

"You could drive faster, you know," she said, letting her voice slip back into its usual sarcasm, finding reassurance in the familiarity of it.

He broke into a smile. "At least we know your spirit's not broken."

She stared at him, unabashedly, feeling safe enough to do so in the dim light of the car's interior. He understood her like no one else had since her mother died. Her last little display of attitude, sounding as ungrateful as it had, could have seriously pissed him off. If he were anyone else, it would have. But he knew it was her way of managing the terror. He always had been able to see through her, past the barbs and the razor wire defenses, to the heart of who she was, to her terrible sadness, all her many failures, the vulnerabilities she would have done anything to hide from him. He might call her Miss Parker, but that's never who she'd been to him. He was the only one who'd never been fooled by the act, not even for a moment.

She loved him and hated him for that.

Sydney had been right, although she'd never admit it to him, when he'd said that Jarod was more important to her than she liked to believe. That's why she'd poured so much passion into finding him, why she'd been so nasty, because she was pissed off as hell at him for leaving her all alone at the Centre. If she were really honest with herself, it was the same feeling she'd had when she believed her mother had killed herself, the empty, bottomless sense of abandonment. It made her feel small and defenseless and frightened, and there was nothing she hated more.

At the same time though, there had always been a part of her that savored Jarod's freedom, that rooted for him, just like Syndey did. Perhaps, that's why she'd never caught him, because she didn't really want to. In a way, his freedom equaled her freedom, the only taste of it she'd ever have. The Centre's tentacles wrapped around her so tightly they could never be completely broken, and even if they were, her freedom would be short-lived. They would never let her leave and survive it. She was trapped, and she had been for such a long time, all her life really. The only difference between her and her mother was that she'd bought into it, colluded with the enemy, deluded herself for a time that she was in control, that it wasn't a cage.

That illusion was breaking down, and she had no idea what to do about it. She had no clue how she would survive.

"Miss Parker?" Jarod called to her softly, sounding concerned, probably worried about why she'd been so quiet for so long.

"Mmmm," she murmured, letting him know she was still alive.

He moved his hand up and down on her arm to comfort her. It felt nice. There. She'd admitted it. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had touched her with kindness, the last time she'd allowed it. Probably, it had not been since her mother died. It had certainly never been with any of the men she'd taken to bed. She'd only ever fucked, never loved, not once. She'd never trusted anyone enough to be that vulnerable. Somewhere, deep inside her she must have always known what could happen to a woman who made the mistake of trusting the wrong man. She must have realized all along that her mother was such a woman, that she'd paid a terrible price for the innocent error of her marriage.

Trust can set you free.

But what if she made the right choice and trusted the right man? Could she still really find a way to be free? To be clean and safe and sane? What would it feel like to be loved? To give love? To be touched with tenderness and affection? To be known?

She closed her eyes and let her mind wander, fantasizing about Jarod, the way she sometimes did, to her very great dismay, late at night as she drifted off to sleep. With Jarod, it would not be fucking. He only ever made love; she was sure of that.

She had so often pictured how it would be. He would undress for her, giving her that, and she would watch, dry mouthed, as his body was revealed, beautiful inch by beautiful inch. Because he would be beautiful beneath those black T-shirts and jeans—of that, she was certain. And then he would ease the clothes off her, kissing and touching her as he went, and for once, the sensation of naked flesh pressed against naked flesh wouldn't feel even remotely like an invasion. He would bring all that Pretender skill of his to bed with them, along with his unique understanding of who she was and his own generous nature. It would make their loving sweet and thrilling, adventurous and profound, complete, in a way she'd never imagined it could be.

She realized it was only a dream. There was too much Jarod could never forgive her for, and there was a determined part of her that preferred the possibility that it was Jarod's father, and not her own, who'd killed her mother. All that had happened would always be between them. Even if it weren't, the Centre would never allow them any peace. She could be her father's daughter and their pawn. Or she could be her mother's daughter and dead. But she could never simply be her own woman, leading her own life, making her own choices.

The sob surprised her. She truly hadn't expected it, could not have been more stunned. She was tired, hurt, miserable, weak—her guard down completely. She could literally feel her defenses straining, crumbling, giving way. Her shoulders shook, even as she tried so hard to keep it in. It hurt like hell, and she didn't want to cry. She certainly didn't want Jarod to see her cry. But it was too late now; she couldn't help it. Great, heaving sobs wracked her body, and tears rolled down her face, as she cried from her heart, the first time she'd ever done that in her life, silent and stoic even when her mother was buried.

"That bad, huh?" Jarod asked, his voice a whisper.

She couldn't answer. He slid his hand down her arm to take her hand in his, squeezing it, holding onto her, once again throwing out a lifeline. She continued to cry, and he let her, without speaking, without interrupting, respecting her grief.

When the tears were over, she had to know. "Why?" she asked him.

Why had he come to rescue her? Why did he bother? Why was he helping her find the truth about her mother, her family? Why did he see any good in her? Why had he chosen her for an ally? Why did he want that little bit of trust from her?

Why?

She watched him in the near darkness, and if her question surprised him, he didn't show it.

He took his eyes off the road ever so briefly to look back at her. "You know why."

In the distance, she could see the lights from Tempe twinkling like a beacon. "Thank God," she said.

"Yes," he said, something strange and indecipherable in his voice.

She had no idea what it meant.

Jarod followed the signs to the hospital and pulled up to the emergency room entrance. He got out and came around the car for her. He helped her out, and her knees buckled. This time, he didn't ask. He simply picked her up and carried her inside.

"This woman's been shot," he told the nurse at the desk. "She's lost a lot of blood. She needs immediate care."

"Trauma room 1," the nurse said, snapping to attention. "Through that door," she said, pointing the way.

Jarod carried her into the examination room and laid her gently down on the table. Her vision was beginning to cloud, and the room spun. He brushed the hair out of her face. She could feel her own blood in it, dried and stiff.

Now that she was safe, now that she knew she wasn't going to die, a wave of humiliation washed over her. Someone had seen her at her weakest, and that someone was Jarod.

"This doesn't change anything," she warned, staring up at him from the examinating table, wishing she weren't at such a disadvantage.

He just smiled at her, that mysterious smile of his, that she could never quite read. "Yes, it does."

She curled her hands into fists and set her jaw, bracing herself against the pain, steeling herself against her tenderness for him.

"Well, I guess I'd better go," he said. "I'll be seeing you, Miss..." He broke off the good-bye with a crooked little smile and moved closer, leaning down to her, his mouth next to her ear. He spoke one word—a promise, the hint of redemption, the lifeline once again.

He called her by her name, at last.

THE END


 

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