The redhead unlocked the door to her temporary lodgings, glanced up and
down the hallway to make sure there was no one nearby, and went in. Kim
threw the deadbolts before setting her suitcase down, shrugged out of
her coat and hung it on the peg on the back of the front door. Taking
up the suitcase again, she carried it through the empty living room and
set it on the floor beside the closet door.
With a sigh, she headed back to the lobby to pick up her mail. Inside
her box was a small gift wrapped in gold paper. It was addressed in handwriting
she recognized immediately, the same bold lettering that had sent her
off to the Twin Cities. She smiled, shaking her head at the Pretenders
audacity, and took the assortment of bills and cards with her to her flat.
Once bolted safely back inside, she retreated to the bedroom, swiveled
down into a cross-legged position on the sleeping bag, and proceeded to
open her mail. Intentionally, she saved the gold package for last. With
a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, she unwrapped the present
and discovered a small silver picture frame. Inside it was a black and
white photograph of a man and woman in a romantic pose, though the second
glass of the twin-frame was empty.
They looked happy. They looked like lovers, and the womans face
she recognized instantly. After a moment, she knew who the man was also,
and her fingertips touched the cold glass fondly.
Mom and dad, she whispered aloud.
Tucked into the corner of the frame was a small note card. She opened
it and read Jarods message.
No more Christmases alone, Kim. You have family now. Cherish them
while you can. Love, J.
She knew whose picture needed to go in the empty frame. That would be
for her Uncle Sydney, and she was going to have to take that photograph
herself. Jarod had given her the empty place to fill, and it was going
to bother her until she did it.
Blinking away the blur as tears filled her eyes, she smiled. Okay,
Jarod. Its the least I can do for you.
She pulled out the piece of paper that Sydney had written his address
on, and decided it was time to finally see the place where Horror lived
for herself. Shed get that photo, all right. And shed see
for herself if there was room for one more light in the Centres
* * * * * * * * *
The room was dark, but sounds of movement, of clothing rustling and heavy
breathing told Jarod who was in there, and what was happening. He stood
in the doorway, not daring to turn on the lights, not needing illumination
to know what the teenagers were doing. A feminine gasp told him that he
had been spotted, and a moment later Merritt pushed past him, pulling
her sweater down as she ran from the room.
He waited a minute longer before hitting the light switch.
Jordan knelt on the bed, pulling his sweater over his head and yanking
it quickly back into place. He kept his back to the doorway, glancing
guiltily over his shoulder. Dad, I can explain
You dont have to, Jarod shot back. I know what
you were doing. Or almost doing.
The boy stood up, straightening his clothes and finger-combing his hair
back into place before turning to confront his progenitor. He glanced
around the room, at the mussed covers on the bed, and then looked up at
Jarod. You and Miss Parker were here, werent you?
Yes, Jarod admitted. But were adults. Youre
And that makes it right? the boy asked with a glare. His
cheeks were reddened with guilt and embarrassment. How can it be
right for you and not for us?
For a moment, Jarod was silent. He hadnt expected to have this
talk with Jordan. He assumed the Major had already broached the subject,
but maybe this was something his father saved for him to take care of
He cocked his head, clasped his hands behind himself, aware that his
body blocked the doorway and that Jordan was cornered. Are you ready
to be a father, Jordan?
Shock settled into the boys features. No, of course not.
Are you in love with Merritt? Are you ready to commit yourself
to her for the rest of your life?
Jordans mouth opened to reply, then closed again wordlessly. He
glanced down at the bed, then turned hot eyes back to the man in the doorway.
Are you in love with Miss Parker? Are you ready to marry her?
Jarod looked at the floor for a moment, aware of the game the boy was
playing, of the test being given him. You know I cant marry
her, Jordan. Not now. But maybe someday
He smiled softly,
remembering Prom Night with her. She has always been the center
of my universe, son. Can you say the same for Merritt? For any girl? Youve
barely started living. You dont know yet what the future holds.
I dont think you can make any sort of commitment to any girl just
yet, and it would be unfair to her to pretend that you would, solely for
the sake of sexual gratification.
If we both wanted it
the boy rationalized, "what
harm could it do?
She could get pregnant, answered the man gently. Then
youd be a father. And Id expect you to answer that responsibility
with honor. There arent any birth control devices here, you know.
Jordan bowed his head and stuck his fingers into his jeans pockets. He
shrugged. Okay, so I wasnt thinking. Maybe later on, I could
get some protection
And would it be fair to Merritt? Ill bet shes never
done this before, either. It hurts girls the first time, you know. Are
you prepared for that? Do you want to hurt her in that way, and not have
it mean something special to both of you?
no. But Ive seen enough TV and movies and stuff,
Can easily get inferior programming about sexual mores and techniques
from the media, Jarod cut in. He stepped fully into the room and
sat down on the bed, memories of his beautiful lover making it difficult
to think. Sex is a tremendous responsibility, son. Youve got
your whole life ahead of you, but youve also got some maturing to
do. Even someone as smart as you are can make mistakes out of ignorance.
Study human nature. Study popular culture. Map out the human heart, and
when you feel confident you know your way around well enough, maybe then
youll be ready to take this step. He smiled, remembering another
lover, long ago and far away. I was in my thirties when I finally
found out how it felt. He raised his eyes to his son. Surely
you can wait a few more years, till youre really ready.
He rose and put his hands on Jordans shoulders. The boy would be
as tall as he was in another year or two, and soon enough hed be
a man. Be fair to Merritt, first of all. Put her needs above your
own. Shes embarrassed now, and hurt. Shes confused and scared.
You need to apologize, and to promise her that you wont let things
get out of hand again. Show her that you respect her, that shes
important to you, more than just for this. And I need to have a talk with
Fear glimmered in Jordans dark eyes. About what?
Jarod shook his head and sighed. I have to find out if her parents
had this talk with her before they died, and if not, then I get to treat
her like my daughter and tell her to slap you down if you try this again.
He grinned. I have to be fair, you know. Youre the one who
brought her here. I have to be chaperone.
I couldnt let her spend another Christmas alone, Jordan
insisted. She hates it.
Jarod ruffled the boys hair with his hand and stepped away. Im
glad shes here. Well all treat her like shes part of
the family, so remember that
While shes here, shes your
I dont think I can do that, Dad. Shes just sooo
Yes, she is. And shes also a vulnerable teenage girl who
needs to be treated with respect. See that you do, or youll answer
to me. And l promise you, the consequences will be permanent.
Jordan swallowed hard, nodded in acquiescence, and watched his father
leave the room.
Jarod poked his head back into the doorway briefly for emphasis. And
you can start off by dismantling this room. You dont need the temptation.
The only answer was a heavy sigh, and the rustling of bed linens as Jordan
began to strip the mattress on his fathers orders.
* * * * * * * * *
Balcony office #2
The digital trail was difficult to crack, but Broots diligently traced
the worm that had so recently delved into Centre files. It had taken weeks
to trace, but the clever penetration of the Centres Asian Operations
Headquarters did not go unnoticed. The program that activated the alert
was Broots own creation and he undertook the exploration personally,
backtracking the hackers path through the electronic maze that was
the Internet with dogged determination. And now, nearly two weeks later,
he had a result.
Gotcha! he whispered aloud to his otherwise empty office.
Its Jarod, I know it! Now, lets see what you were after.
He pulled up the files that had been compromised and read them, took
note of the exchange of addressees, and put it all together into a report.
What Sun-Chai wanted with the Seraphim wasnt important to him, nor
was Coxs refusal to allow her to be part of the training program.
Why Sun-Chai would then send those cryptic photos of dolls to Jarod seemed
to be some kind of message through imagery, but Broots didnt particularly
care what it was all about.
There was Christmas shopping to do, and as soon as he delivered the information
to his boss, he was going to be off to the city with Debbie to play Santa
for her, even though she was too old for all that nonsense now. She was
indulging him, and he knew it, but he didnt care. That was a Daddy
thing, and as long as she played along, hed keep up their traditions.
He printed out the report and carried it next door. Humming Silver
Bells to himself, he laid the paper on her desk and started back for
the door. She looked busy, so he had chosen not to interrupt her as she
Broots, whats this? she demanded curtly.
He stumbled to a stop, his mind already out the door. Uh, we can
talk about it later. Im going out with Debbie. Christmas shopping,
you know. Ho ho ho, and all that.
But as her eyes scanned the page, they widened and her free hand covered
her mouth. Where did you get this? she demanded in a strangled
He started trying to explain about his brilliant sentry program, but
she cut him off. He simplified, cutting directly to the end result, and
she said nothing, just stared at him for a moment before turning horrified
eyes back to the paper in her hand. That was enough to get his full attention.
It was also enough to make what hair he had stand on end.
Whats the matter, Miss Parker? Whats so important about
that trace, except that its another lead on Jarod?
She stood, stepped out from behind her desk and came toward him, shoving
the paper back into his hand. She grasped the front of his shirt with
the other hand and pulled him right into her face, eyes flashing with
fear. Destroy this, she ordered him. Wipe every trace
of those memos off your computer. Dont leave any way that anyone
can ever know you read it. Are we clear?
He could hardly catch his breath now, he was so scared. Wh-whats
so important about those memos?
She let him go and backed off a space, but did not raise her voice above
a whisper. Sun-Chai found out one of those kids was hers. Thats
why they killed her, Broots. Thats what the sanction was for.
He swallowed as some of the ramifications came home to him. You
mean, just knowing where those kids came from could get me killed?
She just glared at him. If one of them belonged to you, yes.
She turned away then and strolled slowly back to her desk, head down in
Broots felt suddenly grateful that he wasnt part of that. He didnt
even see Centre doctors when he was sick, because he didnt want
them having any of his body fluids or genetic material on hand to monkey
with. But as he watched his boss sit back into her chair, he saw that
the fear in her eyes was still there.
And he wondered why she should be afraid.
He crumbled up the paper and shoved it into his pants pocket. Ill
wipe those files off my sentry program, and make sure I take this to the
Burn Room personally.
She nodded, sighed and returned to work.
Still reeling from her terrified revelation, he sat down at his computer
in his own office and initiated the wipe of his trace into the Asia files.
And as he watched the screens cascaded across his monitor disappear in
reverse order, he remembered Miss Parkers eyes. No one had to tell
him why the Seraphim sanction frightened her so much. After thinking about
it for a moment, he knew. And he would never tell anyone that he did,
not even Miss Parker herself.
* * * * * * * * *
The girl turned around as soon as he came into the room. Jarod could
tell she had been crying, and wanted to comfort her, but was sure that
touching her would be the wrong move at that moment.
Its okay, Merritt, he assured her. Im not
angry with you for what happened.
She sniffed and wiped at her eyes, but did not turn around. Nothing
happened, she snapped. We were just kissing.
He decided not to correct her. Has Jordan talked with you yet?
She shook her head. I wouldnt let him in. I was too
Embarrassed, I know. I sent him to apologize. Jarod crossed
his arms over his chest and wandered over to the bureau to look at the
Parker family photos he had copied to make Morgan feel at home there.
Youre a smart, pretty girl, Merritt. Hes an attractive
young man. Its only natural that youd be attracted to each
other. And as strong as that attraction is at the moment, its not
enough. You both need to wait till youve grown up a little more
before you carry it much further.
Merritt whirled to face him. We werent going to
didnt think Id let him
Omigosh, no! I swear, Jarod.
We were just kissing. Thats all that was going to happen!
He smiled at her. Good. I dont want either of you to get
hurt. He cleared his throat nervously. But I also need to
ask you whether or not your parents had a chance to talk with you about
adult sexual behavior. If they havent, then Ill-
She held up both hands to stop him. Fifth grade health class started
it, and my dad finished it, Jarod. Thanks, but no thanks. I know what
I need to know about boys.
He sighed and relaxed. Thats a load off my mind. He
turned to leave.
Jarod, I wanted to ask you- Merritt froze when he faced her
again. She looked at the floor rather than at him.
She huddled into herself, crossed her arms over her chest as if she felt
naked. When we
Jordan and I
were, you know, kissing
Could you feel it? Is that why you came in?
He grinned, and shook his head. No, Merritt. The connection between
us doesnt work like that. I was just looking for you both, and discovered
you there by accident. This is a big station, but there arent any
places to hide. He winked at her, certain she understood what he
She looked distinctly relieved. Thats good to know.
She sighed, and smoothed her hair back from her face in a gesture that
reminded him of Miss Parker. I just dont understand how this
twin thing works, and why I dont feel it for her, you know?
Maybe nothing serious enough has happened to either of you that
touched that bond yet, he offered warmly. Give it time.
The girl met his eyes steadily. Tell me about her, Jarod. You grew
up with her, didnt you? I want to know what shes like, what
sort of person she is. I get the feeling that shes angry about something
all the time. I want to help her if I can. And maybe, if I knew more about
her, Id know how to act with her. Right now, I just feel
Like she doesnt want you around? Jarod filled in after
a long pause.
Merritt nodded sadly.
She does. She wants very much to get to know you, but your safety
comes first with her. When she can, shell be spending time with
you. Right now, it just isnt safe.
Yeah. I know. She sighed. Everything Ive learned
about the Centre scares me. And sometimes I get these feelings, like I
know something needs to be done, but I cant
frustrating. She crossed her arms over her chest again, her body
stiffening with bottled-up tension. A tear rolled down her cheek. I
feel like such a freak! Im a clone, for Gods sake, a Xerox
copy of somebody else. Somebody I cant even talk to when I want.
He felt her anguish from across the room, and opened his arms as he strode
toward her. Merritt, he breathed. She ran to him, buried her
face against his shirt and began to sob as he held her. Youre
not a freak. Youre a twin. Thats all. Just a twin.
Jarod kissed her hair, closed his eyes and walked in her shoes in his
mind. Jordans situation was different, in that he had a relationship
with the man whose DNA he shared. Merritt was isolated, with hardly any
connection to her roots, other than a few glimpses. Her pain went deep,
her sense of identity fractured by the events of the past year that had
left her orphaned in more ways than one. She desperately needed a family,
and he was willing to provide it.
And if things went well with Morgan, once they had a future free of the
Centre, he could certainly be a father to this girl. Perhaps what should
have been between himself and Miss Parker might be fulfilled through Merritt
and Jordan instead. He could dream on that, possibly even watch their
relationship develop and blossom into something meaningful and deep. Giving
them a happy ending would be sweet.
But as long as the Centre existed, it would never be anything more than
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker watched Angelo and Gabriel open their presents, appreciating
the delight in their eyes as they took their toys out and began to play
with them on the floor of her office. She fed them a gourmet turkey dinner
followed by cookies and pumpkin pie, apple juice for Gabriel and spiced
apple cider, hot and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves for herself and
Angelo. She talked to them until she saw the babys eyelids begin
to droop with fatigue, then sent for Pennywhistle to carry him back to
his bed. She put Angelo down on her sofa when he grew tired, and covered
him with a chenille throw rather than have him sent back to his new rooms.
The tree in her office corner was small, but when she plugged it in,
the lights were festive and the decorations a strange mix of designer
perfect and childish homemade, the result of several recent projects she
shared with Angelo and Gabriel. Broots had attempted to tease her about
getting sentimental, but she had shot him a look that made whatever he
had intended to say wither on his tongue. It wasnt for herself,
she had assured him, and he had said nothing more about it. The tree had
been for her twin and her son, and she had blocked off time on Christmas
Eve specifically for Gabriel to come up to her office and celebrate with
Her trip to Barrow had been lengthy and she was tired, but she promised
herself she would not let another Christmas go by without sharing it with
her family. This time it had been her excuses that kept her out of the
Chairmans presence for the holiday, and she was grateful.
But she was exhausted as well, and went to her cabinet for a second thermal
throw. Curling up into one of the chairs, she drew the blanket across
her and closed her eyes. Santa had already given her the best present
ever, and tomorrow morning she would share the holiday with them, and
the others she cared about.
* * * * * * * * *
Faith marked off the date on her pocket calendar. It was Christmas Eve,
and she hadnt witnessed this particular holiday in action since
she was almost too young to remember. The mercantile spirit bothered her,
because it was so out of synch with the underlying message of sacrifice
For a while, she walked the streets of the little rural town, watching
the people hurry on last-minute errands, arguing with one another, exchanging
unpleasantries as tensions rose. Now and then she would see a parent smiling
with their children, playing in the snow and enjoying the holiday, which
eased her disquiet somewhat, but not completely. At some of the stores
were Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells and offering kind words to
people as they passed by with closed pocketbooks. She watched one woman,
obviously suffering from some kind of pain, but smiling into the faces
of those who dropped their meager coins into her donation kettle, and
thanking them for their generosity.
From across the street she observed the old lady, stocking cap squashed
down over a mop of gray hair, tattered coat barely holding closed against
the gusty wind. She wondered what made the woman stay there, when she
was obviously in no shape to be doing the job. Curiosity got the better
Holding a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa from the diner across the street,
Faith opened herself to the strangers emotions. She blinked, stunned
by the depth of the old womans love. There was darkness in her as
there was in everyone, but it lay quietly in the shadows beneath the blinding
light of her compassion. For such a long time, Faith had not believed
such people existed.
She picked up her hot cocoa, went to the counter and bought another,
and took it to the woman across the street.
God bless you, dear, the woman said cheerfully, accepting
the warm cocoa gratefully.
God doesnt even know Im alive, Faith returned
flatly. She started to turn away.
The woman touched her coat sleeve. Oh, yes, He does, she
argued gently with a gleam of merriment in her blue eyes.
Faith didnt know why she stayed. Moments after she arrived, another
bell ringer relieved the old woman, who introduced herself as Mamie. Faith
walked with her to the womans tiny house one street over, and soon
found herself sitting at her kitchen table while she baked up some cornbread
with blueberries and honey for them to share. Faith started talking, and
Mamie listened, believing every word. Faith couldnt believe the
secrets she told this stranger, but couldnt seem to keep them buried
any longer. The glow of Mamies understanding took away her resistance,
and she was left weary and empty, too weak to return to her cabin in the
Mamie let her sleep on the sofa, and the next morning, she found a gift
under the womans tiny Norfolk Island pine tree, neatly potted and
decorated with miniature lights and tiny ornaments, complete with a small
angel on the top. The package had her name on it, but she didnt
open it. Instead, she left the house, hoping to find a store still open
Everything was closed. Faith drove out to her cabin, searching for something
she could give to her new friend, but all of her possessions were so basic
and meager that there was nothing suitable for a gift. She reached for
her recently purchased coat to return empty-handed, and smiled as an idea
came to mind.
Straight into the kitchen she went, packaging up the ingredients for
a meal for two. Once the groceries were in her car, she drove back to
Mamies house and knocked on the door. The two women cooked and talked
for hours, enjoyed their simple meal together, and in the evening Mamie
read the Christmas story to her and prayed. When the old woman retired
for the night, Faith went to the hook on the back of the door and reached
for Mamies tattered old coat.
It fit. She glanced back at the sofa in the warm little house, and walked
out into the snow. Her fingertips touched the locket Mamie had given her,
and she blinked back tears before they could freeze to her eyelashes.
The note she had left in her coat pocket would serve as a Christmas card,
thanking Mamie for her hospitality and generosity. Faith had been restored
somewhat by a gentle stranger, and she knew it was time to move on.
Merry Christmas, Mamie, she whispered to the night as she
climbed into her car. She would not forget Mamie, she knew. And Mamie
would remember her as well, every night, in her prayers.
* * * * * * * * *
The tree was bright with lights and unbreakable plastic ornaments. Though
small, it was the focal point of the room, sitting on a pedestal in the
back corner. Around the base were brightly colored packages with each
childs name written on them.
The Seraphim came quietly into the room, their eyes wide with awe at
the display. For a moment, they were quiet, just looking at the pretty
objects stacked up neatly under the tree. Then, all eyes went to Miss
Parker, who stood to one side with a wide smile on her face.
Merry Christmas, children, she said brightly. Find
the packages with your name, and carry them to your special play area.
She watched patiently as the little ones raced to the tree and began
to read each label.
Nancy strolled up to Miss Parker and stood by her, watching the excited
children sorting through the treasure trove. You know the bigwigs
are going to have your head for this, she said softly. Penfields
already gone to call the Chairman.
Thats okay, Nancy. Im ready. She clapped her
hands when she saw that all the children had separated the presents into
individual piles. Okay, now that youve done that, were
going to have story time. Im going to tell you about a holiday called
An hour later, the room was littered with shredded paper and discarded
ribbons, except for the ones now being worn as personal decorations. The
children were singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and having
a wonderful time playing with their new books and toys. Parker sat on
the floor with Gabriel in her lap, pushing the colored flashing buttons
on an electronic game that tested memory. Gabriel never missed, but laughed
with her when she did.
Just as he got up to show his toy to Kayla, Parker heard the door open
and smiled up in the face of the glower the Chairman aimed in her direction.
Whats the meaning of this? he demanded hotly, eyes
darting about the room.
Its Christmas, Daddy, she answered smoothly, and rose
gracefully to her feet. She strolled closer. Or did you forget?
I didnt see any presents for my little brother from you yet.
His face reddened. These children are not supposed to be distracted
by such nonsense.
All trace of levity left her face as she stared hard at him. Gabriel
is your son, remember? Hes not a project. She swept a hand
out over the room to draw his eyes to the other toddlers dashing madly
about. You were the one who said Gabriel needed to be integrated
into their group. And theyd pick up on the fact that he enjoyed
the phenomenon of Christmas, and they didnt. That would set him
apart from them, and thats not part of the scheme of things, is
it, Daddy? You want him to be accepted as one of them. If Gabriel gets
Christmas, so do they.
She stepped closer, watching the color of his face darken as he struggled
to find an argument against her logic. Or is Gabriel one of your
projects, too, Daddy? she added softly. Without another word, she
turned away and started picking up the trash, ignoring the man while she
let her attention return to the happy children.
Carrying the paper to the waste can near the door, she breezed close
enough to jab him with one more line. And besides, theyre
all educational toys.
The Chairmans eyes narrowed at her, but he had nothing to say.
After a few moments of clenching his fists, he pivoted on his heel and
stormed back out the way he had come.
With a broad smile, she resumed her seat in Gabriels play area.
That felt really good, she said to no one in particular. The
toddler came up to her and sat down in her lap again, clinging to her
sweater briefly until she gave him a hug and began to rock him gently
in her arms.
Gabriel sighed. I miss Jawid, he whispered. He pushed back
enough to look up at her, and she made eye contact. Jawid is happy
now? Mine make Jawid happy?
Guiltily, she glanced around them. The other children were busy and not
listening, and the caregivers had removed themselves to benches on the
far end of the room where they could oversee without interfering in the
play. They were out of earshot of that quiet little voice, and the noise
from the other children would obscure his questions from anyone listening
from the observation room.
Yes, honey. Hes fine now. But we mustnt talk about
him, remember? None of the children should tell any of the grownups about
Not empty man, too?
Her brows twitched together. The empty man? Who is that?
Gabriels speech was improving by leaps and bounds, but he didnt
have the skills to describe whoever he meant. Never mind, honey.
Whoever the empty man is, he shouldnt be told either. You tell your
friends, okay? Nobody talks about Jarod. Okay? Youll see him again,
Merry Christmas, Gabriel, she whispered, and kissed his dark
hair, cupping his soft baby cheek with one hand.
Mewwy Kwismas, Mine, he returned with a dimpled smile.
A moment later, he wriggled out of her lap to play with Gideon and his
new water pistols, screaming with delight as he got sprayed with a small
jet of water.
That wasnt exactly an educational toy, but for a little fire-starter,
she thought they just might come in handy.
* * * * * * * * *
The two men stood in the doorway to the greenhouse, rigged up with banks
of full spectrum lights and water sprinkler pipes. The scent of rich earth
filled their nostrils, and pots filled with plants of all sizes, types
and colors sat in neat rows on the shelves. To one side was a table on
which sat a variety of measuring instruments, a large microscope and attendant
supplies. It was a botanists paradise, and Jordan was personally
inspecting every plant, reeling off the Latin names of the ones he found
most interesting to his teenage companion.
Hell enjoy this, observed the major. Its
a great gift. He turned to face his oldest son with a knowing look.
I suppose that, by setting this up for him here, you intend for
us to stay.
Jarod nodded. Youll both be safe here. At least, for a while.
I need that security right now.
So you wont be staying with us?
Ill take Merritt back to the convent school when the holidays
are over, but Ive got things to do.
Dont you always? He sighed. When will it be time
to settle down, Jarod? When can you come home?
When my family is safe. All of them.
You cant go back to the Centre for Gabriel. Charles
laid his hand on his sons shoulder, and gave it a fond squeeze.
How can you get him out of that place?
Jarod crossed his arms. Im working on it. Its just
going to take me a little longer to figure out a plan. Every time I come
up with something that I think will work, I look at it from another angle
and its full of holes. I have to wait till I have a plan that accounts
for all the contingencies.
That could be years, son. Charles turned his gaze back to
the beaming teenager in the greenhouse. Meantime, you have Jordan.
He needs you.
Thats another reason for this place, Jarod assured
him. I can stay in contact with video conferencing, using a satellite
feed and firewalls to keep the signal secure. And when the weather permits,
I can come back here every so often for a weeks visit. This will
be home, until its compromised. After that
I know the drill, son. Jordan needs the stability, but not the
Im working on that, too. He eyed Merritt, knowing how
much the teens needed each other. He wanted them together for more than
a brief visit. They needed to grow up together
but Merritt needed
parenting that Major Charles couldnt offer her at the moment. The
teens were at a very vulnerable age, and things could get quickly out
of hand right under his nose without help, as it almost had already. A
womans touch was what was needed, and Jarod was fresh out of those.
Emily would be ideal for an ally, but she had told him she couldnt
come. That bothered Jarod. He wondered what she was so involved in that
she would choose to miss Christmas with their family, and promised himself
to check into it as soon as he got back. He needed to have a long talk
with her anyway, and this gave him a good excuse.
Jordan told me what happened, Charles confessed. He grinned
at his son. That was a talk I missed having with you. But I think
you turned out all right without it. Must be Sydneys doing.
Jarod met his frank gaze. Sydney gave me a lot, Dad. He taught
me to care, to be compassionate. But he didnt teach me about women.
Even when I called him for help, he still didnt give me what I needed.
I got that from a woman who knew without being told.
Charles nodded. Women are the best teachers, if a mans willing
to listen. He sighed and turned back to the teens. I learned
everything I know about love from your mother. Shes the only woman
who ever owned my heart. I miss her.
Jarod put his arm around his fathers shoulders. Ill
find her, Dad. I promise.
Your sister knows where she is, but she wont tell me.
He shook his head. I cant help wondering whats so wrong
that shed keep that secret from me. Talk to her, son. Find your
I will, Dad. Jarod wondered about that, too. His mind went
in all sorts of directions, contemplating possibilities that frightened
him. He wasnt sure he really wanted to know the answer yet, but
he did need to talk to Emily. As long as one of them knew, it was a secret
that would keep. As long as his mother was safe, that was what mattered.
He turned his attention to the teens flirting with each other among the
potted plants, and went to make preparations for their special Christmas
* * * * * * * * *
Miss Parker's house
The table was set, the candles were lit and the scent of food and spices
filled the rooms. Miss Parker had spent the afternoon in the kitchen,
humming to herself while she worked. Her morning had been beautiful -
the Seraphim enjoyed their presents, and when it was time to say goodbye,
she had phoned in an invitation to those she held closest in her heart
to share dinner at her home.
This was a first. She was good in the kitchen, though she hated cooking
for herself and never indulged in that habit. But today she had dragged
out her mothers old cookbooks, reimbursed the Centre for the foodstuffs
she appropriated and carried them home with her, since there were no stores
open in town that day. Preparing the meal had been a sort of pleasant
meditation, busying her hands with something tangible, something she could
see come into being from a multitude of separate parts into a fragrant,
She answered the door with a smile, dusting off her hands as she gestured
Sydney into the living room.
He looked startled, and sniffed the air. Merry Christmas, Miss
Parker, he greeted her, and handed her a silver-wrapped box. My
goodness, it smells marvelous. Who catered?
I did. She winked at him. Betcha didnt know I
could cook. Please, come in. She took the box and set it under her
tree, all but bare of decorations, since Jarod had stolen hers for use
in Barrow. All he had left her was the angel for the top and the bulb
she had made for her mother as a child, now hanging by itself on a branch
near the middle of the tree.
She gestured him toward the sofa and offered him a drink. By the time
she had it poured, the rest of her guests had arrived, and she ushered
Broots and his daughter into the room. Their gifts went under the tree
with her presents for them, and she invited Debbie into the kitchen to
help her with some last minute preparations.
When her mother had been alive, it was a tradition that the women who
made the meal would share a fun secret in the kitchen before Christmas
dinner was served, followed by a special, sweet drink topped with whipped
cream and cinnamon. She still had the recipe, and after fulfilling the
tradition with Debbie, they began to carry serving dishes to the table
as their laughter drew the men to the dining room.
Whats so funny? asked Broots hesitantly, trying not
Parker winked at him and said, Cooks secret, as she
set the small golden roasted turkey on the table. Please, take your
seats, gentlemen. Sydney, will you sit at the head of the table?
With a look of surprise, he moved toward the indicated chair, but did
not sit down. Isnt your father going to join us?
Her good humor evaporated instantly. Her face stiffened, eyebrow cocked
and ready to fire. Then she relaxed again. I told Daddy Id
be meeting with members of my team today, she informed them. I
did not tell him we wouldnt be discussing business, which, by the
way, is the order of the day. Nothing regarding the Centre crosses anyones
lips in this house today. Its Christmas, after all. She sighed,
and looked at them one by one. And Christmas is for families.
She poured a little wine into the adults glasses and milk into
Debbies, lifted her own goblet in a toast as she took the chair
at the other end of the table and said, To families. By blood or
by common bond, may they always look out for each other.
Sydney smiled and nodded, raising his glass in answer. To love,
and the ties that bind.
Broots thought for a moment. To trust. May we always have it for
Debbie responded with a little girl grin and musical chuckle. To
presents! Merry Christmas, everybody!
Glasses clinked all around to the tune of soft laughter, and the family
settled down to eat and share an evening of joy and peace.
* * * * * * * * *
End of Episode
Holidays to all, from
the VS Staff!