Ben Miller was not a man accustomed to surprises. With one or two extremely notable exceptions, his life in the small town of Lake Catherine, Maine, was one of predictability and routine. Oh, the names and faces of the guests at his B&B changed, kept things from getting too boring, but pretty much, he knew what to expect from the beginning and end of each day.
Unless, of course, people showed up on his doorstep at midnight. People he knew, who were connected to Catherine Parker, and to her daughter. Then, things were liable to get more than a little unpredictable. More than a little dangerous.
The sun was rising over the lake, just visible through the light curtains over the kitchen window. Ben sipped his coffee at the kitchen counter, and waited for his latest guests to stir. He'd been waiting for this day for quite a while; he could wait a while longer.
Not very long, though; Jarod wandered into the kitchen barely half an hour after the sun came over the horizon, still yawning. "Good morning, Ben," he said casually, as if he'd just dropped by for breakfast. "If there any more of that coffee?"
"Help yourself," Ben invited without moving. "You know where it is."
"Thank you." Jarod moved comfortably around the kitchen -- he'd stayed with Ben twice before, and knew where everything was kept. Half the time, he'd insisted on cooking for Ben and his guests, and delivered a better meal than they could get at any of the restaurants within driving distance.
Jarod settled himself and his mug against the counter, leaning against one hip as he drank and looked out the window in silent appreciation of the peaceful scene. Ben sipped at his own coffee in silence. Waiting.
Jarod finally set his mug down, clearing his throat a bit nervously. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here," he said, without quite looking at Ben.
Ben nodded thoughtfully. "The question had crossed my mind," he drawled easily. No demand; Jarod, always intense, was wound tighter than a drum, and liable to snap at any sudden moves, no matter how relaxed he was trying to look.
Jarod rubbed his eyes with his free hand, and finally looked at Ben. "It's the little girl, Ben."
"I thought it might be. Who is she?"
Ben paused, absorbed it, then nodded again. "Why bring her here? What can I do to help?"
Jarod half-smiled. "That's actually what I was going to ask you." Ben lifted his eyebrows in mild inquiry and Jarod shrugged. "I... I need someone to take care of her for a little while. I'm going somewhere where she can't come, and this is... the only safe place I could think of. The only refuge."
That made Ben stop and blink. "Here? Why...?"
It was the little girl, her voice carrying easily through the quiet inn. Jarod winced, and muttered, "Darn it, I wanted more time," then raised his voice. "In here, munchkin."
A tiny form appeared at the door, dressed in a pink nightgown and with brown hair falling into her yawning face -- and Ben's heart stopped.
He knew this little girl, or had known her picture, rather. Once upon a very long time ago...
Seeing the shock on Ben's face, Jarod swore again mentally, but smiled at his daughter as she walked across the room and into his hug. "You're supposed to be asleep, Kristin," he chided mildly, pushing her rumpled hair out of her face. "It's still early."
"Well, I woke up," she offered logically enough. "And I didn't know where I was, so I came to find you. And I did."
"Yes, you did." He took the seat opposite Ben's and swung Kristin up into his lap. The older man's hand was still clutching his coffee mug in a deathgrip; he was staring at Kristin as if he'd seen a ghost. Not an uncommon reaction these days, Jarod mused, wishing again he'd had more time to prepare Ben.
"Hi," Kristin offered, when Ben didn't seem to be about to start a conversation, snuggling back into her father's chest and rubbing her eyes of the last bit of sleep. "Who are you?"
"I'm... I'm Ben," he finally managed to stutter out, regaining some control.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Ben" Kristin said, offering her hand for a grownup handshake. "I'm Kristin."
"Hello, Kristin." Ben took the offered hand, then his fingers drifted up to carefully touch Kristin's cheek. She cocked her head in question, but otherwise didn't seem bothered.
"Are you one of my uncles, like Isaac and Sydney and Axe?" Kristin asked with great interest. "I've got lots and lots of uncles and some aunts. I'm really lucky."
"I..." Ben stopped and cleared his throat. "Uncle Ben would be just fine," he managed to say.
"Coool." Kristin turned her head to grin up at Jarod. "Daddy, is there breakfast?"
Jarod grinned back, keeping an eye on Ben, who was still looking a little pale. "There will be in, say, as long as it takes you to get dressed?"
"Okay!" She scrambled off his lap and headed for the door, calling over her shoulder, "I'll be back, Uncle Ben."
"My god," Ben said unsteadily, as the clatter of her footsteps on the stairs faded away. "Jarod...?"
"Yes," Jarod agreed with a certain sympathy. "It's kind of spooky. I take it Mrs. Parker showed you pictures of her daughter?"
"Yes," Ben nodded. Then he blinked, and looked up at Jarod. "You said... she's your daughter?"
"Yes," Jarod said again, grimacing. "Another lovely product of the Centre. Long story," he waved off Ben's suddenly alert eyes. "I broke her out a few months ago, and we've been running ever since."
"Does her mother know?"
Jarod paused. "No. Not yet. That's one of the things we need to talk about."
"I'm sure." Ben got up and poured another mug of coffee, with the look of a man whose sanity depends on getting that next jolt of caffeine. "My god, Jarod," he repeated helplessly.
"I know it's a lot to take in," Jarod said gently, "I'll tell you the whole story, or as much of it as I know. But first, I have to know two things."
Ben leaned back against the counter, an aging but still-sturdy figure in a plaid flannel bathrobe, his large, work-roughened hands cradling the coffee mug between them as if for comfort. He'd once represented safety to Catherine Parker; Jarod could only pray her grandaughter would agree. "What? What do you need to know?"
Jarod didn't go for delicacy this time; the truth was too important. "Do you know why Catherine Parker died?"
Ben didn't answer for a long second, although his hands tightened around the mug. Finally, he nodded. "Yes."
Jarod took a deep breath. "Then why hasn't the Centre killed you?"
Ben stayed still, then, carefully, turned and placed his coffee mug in the sink. Slowly, he came back to the counter and sank back onto his stool. He studied the scene out the window for a long time before speaking. "Do you know, I almost keeled over in shock the first time I saw your Miss Parker? Standing behind me in the hallway, just where Catherine had stood so many times. For just a moment, I thought, somehow, she'd come back to me."
He paused again, and Jarod willed himself to remain quiet and still, waiting for the reason behind the non sequitor. "It wasn't her, of course," Ben went on, "but her daughter... that was almost enough." He looked at Jarod again, with something resembling a twinkle in his eyes. "It seems I'm doomed to have Parker women always turning up on my doorstep unannounced."
Jarod grinned. "I know the feeling. The two I've met certainly have a talent for it."
Ben grinned in return, but it left quickly, and his gaze wandered back out the window. "Catherine wrote me, a few days before she... died. She told me she'd made airplane reservations, for her and her daughter... and me. To Europe. As far away from her husband and the people he worked for as we could get." He shook his head. "She said she'd tried, but she couldn't live with it anymore."
His voice trailed off. "It?" Jarod prompted, when Ben was silent for too long.
"It. The Centre."
Jarod nodded slowly. "What did she tell you?"
"Too much." Ben smiled faintly, almost laughed. "Not enough." The spurt of grim humor faded immediately. "She said something was being planned for a boy named Timmy, and another named Jarod -- you, I'm assuming." Jarod nodded. "Thought so. She didn't tell me any details, but she said she couldn't stand by and watch it happen."
He stopped again, staring back out the window, but obviously seeing something a million miles away, and 20 years earlier. "She said it would be dangerous, leaving, but that she had to try, no matter what *he* threatened. For the boys, and for her daughter."
"Mr. Parker?" Jarod asked, sitting up abruptly. Could this be it? The proof he'd been looking for?
But Ben shook his head. "No, the other one. Mr. Raines."
Not a surprise. But still... "Do you still have the letter?"
"Sure do. Almost burned it a few times, when I first found out she was gone. Then those boys from Delaware came, and I was real glad I hadn't burned any of it."
"Delaware? Boys?" Jarod leaned forward. "So the Centre did know about you. And you're still alive?"
Ben almost laughed again. "I'm starting to guess that's something of an accomplishment, huh? Well, it was a close thing. I managed to convince them I knew what had happened to Catherine, knew about the children she'd rescued; told them the information was safe, but it would get out if anything happened to me. It was all I could think of."
Jarod sat back, impressed. Humble, folksy Ben Miller had stared down a Sweeper team, fought the Centre to a draw. Not bad. Not bad at all. "Did you have evidence, Ben? Do you know what happened?"
Ben stared out the window in silence for a long time. "I know most of it," he said, finally, his voice old and tired, the lines in his face suddenly more pronounced than Jarod had ever seen them. "I know enough. Some of it I can even prove."
"Then why didn't you ever do anything?" Jarod demanded, suddenly angry. "Catherine Parker was dead, we were still there, why didn't you *tell* someone?! Why did you just bury it, just like they did?"
His anger flowed over Ben like water, leaving no trace of itself behind in the older man's face. "I didn't have a choice, Jarod. If I'd said anything, they would have killed her. They would have killed Catherine's daughter."
That silenced Jarod more effectively than any defensive denial. He could suddenly see it clearly, the twenty-year Mexican stand-off -- Ben holding information that could destroy the Centre to save his life, but with Miss Parker held hostage by the Centre to guarantee his silence. And he also could see what it would have cost Ben to make that deal, and hold to it for so long, now that he knew what it was to have Kristin.
"I'm sorry," he apologized quietly, laying his hand on Ben's shoulder. "It wasn't your fault. I know that."
Ben sighed heavily, tiredly. "I keep telling myself that. It helps to see you to know that you survived, that you got yourself out. Maybe someday, Catherine's little girl will be able to do the same."
"Maybe sooner than you think," Jarod said with, he would admit, more than a trace of satisfaction. On cue, Kristin's footsteps came pelting through the halls again, and Ben started, then nodded his understanding.
"Daddy, daddy!" Kristin came flying into the room with her shoelaces tied almost correctly, and her flowered T-shirt on backwards. "I'm in a princess's room!"
"Really?" Jarod asked with amusement, kneeling in front of her to fix the T-shirt.
"Uh-huh!" Kristin bounced, talking right through the T-shirt as it came over her head, then back down. "It's pretty and it's got mirrors and flowers and big pillows and it's for a princess! Did you give me the princess's room?" she asked Ben when her face was free again.
"I suppose I did," Ben admitted, smiling down at the little girl with affection -- and more than a little bittersweet nostalgia. "In fact, a princess or two has slept there. Yes, indeed."
"Miss Parker would love to hear you call her a princess," Jarod said under his breath, and Ben grinned. Then Kristin's voice drifted impatiently across the counter.
"Daddy! Where's breakfast? You said it'd be done!"
"Duty calls," Ben said, trying and failing to keep a straight face. Jarod groaned, and prepared to defend himself to his pint-sized dictator.
It had been just under a week since the confrontation with Christine Walsh in West Virginia, and there had been no further progress in finding Jarod... or his daughter. Lyle, thankfully, was off on some business to do with Donoterase; Miss Parker didn't know what, exactly, but she also didn't care if it meant that Lyle was far, far away from her. She had sent out Sweeper teams along every possible trail, set Broots to re-analyzing the incoming data, and allowed Sydney to leave for a conference in Seattle--- all to give her time to consider what to do next, without distractions. Miss Parker leaned back in her chair, tapping her nails on the armrests, thinking.
The trick would be separating them when Jarod was caught; when, not if. She, and more importantly, her father, had too much riding on Jarod's re-capture to ever consider giving up the chase. Someday, it *would* happen.
But the girl--- Kristin--- was another story. If they get her back in here, she'll never see the light of day again... and they might put Raines in charge of her. They didn't tell Sydney what was going on, and the only other option would be Raines. Something she flat-out refused to allow. The shaking form of Davy Simpkins, the old film of Timmy's death and re-emergence as Angelo, her own shadowy memories of his actions toward her mother--- any one of those things would have made it impossible to let Raines be put in charge of another Pretender. She'd sooner drink hydrochloric acid than be responsible for Raines ruining one more child's life.
And Jarod would never forgive me if I let that happen. Most of the time Jarod's forgiveness would have been completely irrelevant. But not about this. No. She might never face him again after his capture, but if she did, it wouldn't be with another death between them. Especially his daughter's.
So.... There would have to be a contingency plan. And a contingency plan beyond *that*, to let her get away with it. Fortunately, Miss Parker already had some plans in place, for herself alone; the situation within the Centre had been dicey enough before Lyle's last mistake that an escape hatch seemed prudent. It would work for Jarod's daughter as easily as it would have for her.
She was carefully weighing the pros and cons of suborning a few Sweepers into following illicit orders when the timid knock came on the door. A mousier, female version of Broots peered around the glass and chrome, looking like she expected to be lasered into non-existence. "Mail, Miss Parker."
"Leave it in the tray." She flicked her fingernails at the In box absently, still considering her options.
"Um, there's one here that's kind of odd.... Kind of a, a, whatyoucallit... UPS urgent package, but with no return address," the woman stuttered, dumping the rest of the mail in the tray. "But, um, the postmark is out of town---"
Parker frowned and leaned forward, snapping her fingers. "Give it to me. Then get out."
"Yes, ma'am." The mouse nervously jittered the envelope into Miss Parker's fingers, then stumbled out the door before Miss Parker could think of any cutting or bracing remarks to make. At least Broots waits until I open my mouth before he cringes...
Even Broots would have found this odd, though. Even Sydney might have. A yellow UPS claim receipt, yes; with the "awaiting retrieval" box checked. She recognized the pick-up location immediately, as Jarod certainly knew she would.
Lake Catherine, Maine. Ben's inn. She let out a slow breath, feeling her fingers tighten on the slip. Ben...
It was tempting, too tempting, really, to immediately go running off to Lake Catherine, to see what Jarod had no doubt left for her there. He was the only person who knew of her innkeeper's connection to her mother, and her own past; the only one who would leave her something to be picked up there. He'd be long gone by the time she arrived, but something important probably *would* be left there. Some clue to her past, or to her mother's death.... Jarod always knew what bait to set. And she could use the break; it was always good to see Ben.
Of all the people in the world, he was the one person besides her father who could get past her barriers without even trying--- but with Ben, it never hurt so much. Maybe because she didn't have to try so hard for him, because he would forgive her anything, simply for being Catherine Parker's daughter.
She steadfastly ignored the possible significance of the photo inside her mother's music box. It didn't matter if April plus nine months equalled her birthday. She was a Parker. And Ben had never mentioned it, anyway. He'd loved her mother, and that was all that mattered to him.
"Limited retrieval time. MUST be signed for in person, by 5pm, May 19. Otherwise package returned to sender." Of course it would be. It'll probably self-destruct like some damn Mission Impossible tape if I'm late.... And Jarod would get away. WIth his daughter.
Choose. She could alert the Sweeper teams that Jarod was on the move, and then wait at the Centre for reports, ready to follow him and chase him down again. Or she could gain possession of some vital piece of her mother's life. And death.
"Just this once," she said aloud, straightening in her chair. "Just this last time, Jarod, I'll play it your way. But it better be worth it."
It was almost a week before Jarod couldn't put it off any longer. The package had been sent to Miss Parker, and the Centre could be closing in Emily; there was no more time to spare. He had to talk to Kristin.
He found her sprawled, as usual, on the floor of the kitchen, chattering away to Ben as he baked for the guests who were due to arrive the next day. Ben, as usual, was listening patiently and with great affection to the little girl, who had accepted him as 'Uncle Ben', and therefore part of her life, almost instantly.
It was a great comfort to Jarod that Kristin and Ben got along so well. It would make what he had to do just a little easier. Even if it was still going to be harder than anything he'd ever done.
"Hello, everyone," he greeted the pair with forced cheerfulness, fooling Kristin only because she wasn't paying attention, and not fooling Ben at all.
"I've got to go get some rooms ready," Ben excused himself quickly, letting the oven door close. "Pardon me, Princess Kristin," he said as he stepped over the little girl. She giggled without looking up from the sky she was enthusiastically coloring purple. There were traces of chocolate on her face, proof that Ben had let her lick the bowl, an her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated.
He sighed, screwed up his courage, and sat cross-legged on the tile floor next to his daughter. "Kristin? Um.. I need to talk to you about something."
Kristin finally looked up from her coloring, all ears. "Sure, Daddy. What?"
She offered him a red crayon; Jarod accepted, but only fiddled with it as he tried to figure out how he was going to break this to her. Nothing good came to mind; there was just not going to be an easy way to do this. "You remember when we left Colorado, how we had to leave because you have to do things you don't want sometimes?"
"Uh-hunh." She frowned. "Do we have to leave again? 'Cause I don't want to. We just got here. I want to stay with Uncle Ben."
"No." Jarod sighed again, mentally. "No, you don't have to leave. You're going to stay here. But.. *I* have to leave, sweetheart."
Kristin stared at him with big eyes. "Leave?"
"Not for very long!" Jarod reassured her quickly, "Just for a little while and then I'll be back. But... I might be gone for a little while. A week. Maybe a little more." He made himself be honest. "Maybe a lot more."
"A whole *week*?" Kristin sat back, staring at him, and then stuck out her lower lip. "You can't. You promised."
Jarod reached over and smoothed her hair, wishing he could make this easier. "I know I promised. But..."
It was a real, honest-to-god wail of terror, and it broke his heart. But it couldn't change his mind. "Kristin, I have to go help your aunt. Your real aunt, my little sister."
As he'd hoped, Kristin was momentarily diverted from panic by this idea, and she tilted her head as she thought about it. Encouraged, Jarod raced on. "She might be in trouble, and I have to find her, to make sure she's safe."
"But, but, why can't she come *here*? Why do you have to go there?" Her mouth turned down again, in an even more severe scowl. "Are the bad people looking for her?"
His little girl was far too smart. But Jarod still couldn't bring himself to lie to her. "I think they might be. That's why I have to find her first. And she can't come to us because she doesn't know where we are. We've been.. separated, for a long long time, just like you and I were."
Kristin thought furiously about this, then her eyes lit up as she found a solution. "You could call her on the telephone. Or send her secret e-mail, like Angelo does."
Jarod put the crayon down, picked up another, stared at it helplessly, then put it down again. "I don't.. I don't know her telephone number, honey. And even if I did, the bad people might know it too. I have to go find her in person, so she'll know it's me."
The pout was beginning to get more angry and less frustrated. How did other parents deal with this? He knew, he just *knew* what the next words out of her mouth were going to be, and he wasn't disappointed.
"Then I have to go too," she declared.
He braced himself. "No, Kristin. This time, you can't go."
"Then *you* can't go," she informed him, in the lofty five-year-old tone of voice that said she expected that to end the argument once and for all. It was the exact same tone her mother used. "You said we would always be together. Always. Always. So you can't leave." She turned back to her coloring and began to furiously fill in one of the trees with Jarod's abandoned red crayon. Conversation over as far as she was concerned.
But Jarod gently took the crayon away, making her look at him. "I know what I promised, Kristin, believe me." He blew out a hard breath, trying to figure out how to explain, when he was guiltily aware he *was* breaking his promise. Kristin wouldn't look at his eyes, and he could see tears around the edges of hers.
"Sometimes, we have to do things we don't want," he resorted to repeating, helplessly. "I promise, I'm not going to be gone long, and then we'll be together again, just like I promised."
Kristin was not even close to being convinced, judging by the way her lower lip was quivering. The tears were getting closer to spilling over, and his own eyes burned. "The bad people might get you while you're gone." She sniffled a little, and pressed her lips together, hard. "You should stay *here*."
He winced as she zeroed in on his own greatest fear, holding her eyes only by force of will. "I won't let them get me," he told her with all the confidence and authority as he could muster. "I've gotten away from them before; I got you away from them, remember? But now, I have to get Emily away."
"I don't care about Emily." Her fists were starting to ball up, and she kicked at the Crayon box. "I don't. I don't!" Her body was tense with all the signs of a major temper tantrum on its way; he honestly couldn't blame her.
But he also had to try to stop it, try to get her to understand. "Kristin. Kristin!" Jarod tried to hug his daughter, but, for the first time, her body was stiff, refusing to be comforted.
"She's making you go away! You won't come back, you'll stay there, and I'll never see you again---" Kristin inhaled hugely, and her voice rose as she started to squirm.
He held on grimly and, in desperation, told her, "Kristin, someone very special is going to come to take care of you while I'm gone."
She darted a wary glance at him under her eyelashes, but her squirming stilled. "Yeah... who?"
*My oldest friend. My worst enemy. The only person I trust with you. The last person I trust with myself.* "Someone I grew up with, that I've known since I was a little boy. She's going to take care of you."
Kristin seemed to consider this, torn between anger and curiosity; for the first time in her life, anger won. "Doesn't matter. I don't want her. I want you! You *have* to stay!" She crossed her arms and scowled at him again. "You have to stay, like you promised! Daddies have to stay!"
Jarod shook his head helplessly, torn between his daughter's unhappiness, and his sister's life. He'd never faced a harder choice. "I can't, Kristin." It took what felt like a physical effort to say the words. "I'm sorry, but I have to do this. I *have* to."
"No." Her face was screwing up even more tightly. "No. What if the bad men get me?"
"They will *not* get you." He hugged her stiff, unwilling body close. "Do you think I would leave you anywhere, *anywhere* that I thought they could get you? The lady who's coming can protect you from the bad men, protect you better than any one except me. As well as me. I *promise* you will be safe."
Kristin was so quiet, but he could feel her trembling. "But you promised before," she said, her voice catching. "What if the promise changes *again*?" The tears were leaking out now, and she choked on a sob. "You'll go away and never ever ever come back!"
"I am coming back, Kristin." Jarod tried to wrap his arms even more tightly around her shaking body, feeling her fear and sadness as if it were his own. And maybe it was. "I will come back for you. You have to believe that, Kristin, I will always come back for you." He buried his face in her hair. "You're my daughter, and I will never let you go."
"*Your* daddy didn't come back!" She was shaking her head wildly now, the whites of her eyes showing around the edges. "Your mommy didn't. Emily didn't. No. No no no no no!"
"No! You can't leave! I say so!"
"Kristin--" She was really struggling to get away now, hitting at his arms and twisting like an eel. "Kristin, stop! Sweetheart--"
"You don't love me!" Kristin's voice was high and hysterical, and choked with sobs. "You don't! No! You wouldn't leave if you loved me!"
It hurt, like a bullet to the shoulder, a blow to the head. But this was to his heart. He shook his head in frantic denial, trying to hold her even as she was intent on pulling away. "No, sweetheart, you know I love you, I just can't take you with me! Not this time!"
Kristin was in a full-fledged panic attack now, and she threw her full weight forward in a sharp jerk that broke his hold on her for the moment, then ran for the door.
"I hate you! I hate you! You lied! You don't love me!" She turned around and stamped her feet on the floor and screamed, "I hope you go away forever and ever!"
Then she turned and ran up the stairs, stumbling and crying until she got to the top and ran into her room, leaving her father sitting alone the floor, reaching helplessly after her.
Ben stood at the door to the kitchen, watching Jarod with deep sympathy. He'd never been a father himself, but he didn't have to be to see the grief written all over Jarod's face.
"She didn't mean it," he offered quietly, to break the silence.
Jarod shook his head miserably, still looking at the doorway through which his daughter had just disappeared. "She meant it."
Ben considered, then nodded. "You're right, she did." Jarod flinched, and Ben finished, "But she won't mean it in half-an-hour, when she's had time to calm down."
"Do you think so?" Jarod looked up at him hopefully, and Ben nodded, offering the younger man a hand up from the floor.
"Pretty sure." Ben laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Look, Jarod, I've seen a lot of families come through here in the last 30 years, and some things never change. Kids get mad, they yell and scream, they cry for a while, then they feel better. You just have to wait out the storm."
Jarod took a deep breath, then nodded. "You're right. I know."
"Good." Ben nodded, squeezing Jarod's shoulder. "You know the other thing you have to do?"
"Clean up the crayons before someone breaks their neck."
That startled a suprised chuckle out of Jarod and Ben grinned in return as they both bent down to collect Kristin's coloring.
It took five minutes to clean up the crayons, another half an hour for the muffled sounds of Kristin's sobs to fade. Only then did Jarod take a deep breath, and quietly enter Kristin's room.
She was curled in the center of the huge four-poster bed, her body limp with exhaustion and her tear-stained face buried in Henry's shabby fur. Her breathing was still a little ragged, punctuated by the occasional sniffle. When Jarod sat carefully on the edge of her bed, she didn't flinch, but she didn't open her eyes eeither.
"Kristin?" The eyes stayed stubbornly closed, even when he carefully brushed aside the hair clinging to her sweaty cheeks. "Kristin, sweetheart. I've got to go pretty soon."
She sniffled once, loudly, but opened her eyes to peer up at him with utter misery. Jarod sighed, and put his arms around her, pulling her up into his hug. She didn't fight him, but put her arms, still clutching Henry, around his neck. She held on tightly as he rocked her, his cheek against the top of her head.
"I'm sorry, Krisin," he said into her sweet little-girl smelling hair. "I'm sorry I have to leave you. I'm so sorry."
"You'll come back?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"I'll come back. I promise. And I'll keep that promise, no matter what."
She buried her face deeper into his neck. "I'm sorry, Daddy," she said, her voice muffled against his shirt. "I'm sorry I yelled, please don't go away forever."
"I'm not going to, sweetheart." He rocked her back and forth, trying to memorize her hug for the long dry spell coming. "I'll always come back for you, Kristin. Always."
Miss Parker put her rental car in park, cutting the engine and taking a moment to study the inn before her. The white-framed Victorian shone brightly in the mid-morning sun, and the flowers were blooming vividly in their neat beds next to the porch. The trees were already leafy and green, and the sky was that perfect New England blue that couldn't be found anywhere else. Mom always loved it here in the spring... But her mother had come here in April, not May. And Catherine Parker had come to Lake Catherine as a means of escaping her problems, not in order to confront them.
Not that there'll be much for me to confront when I walk in there... No, that wasn't quite true, even if Jarod *was* probably long gone. Whatever 'gift' he had left for her, it would certainly have the effect of shattering one more assumption, one small corner of her peace of mind. But it might be worth it.
Sighing, she got out of the car and walked up the steps of the B&B, opening the door and listening to the bell ring. Ben Miller stood behind the registration desk, his spectacles perched on his nose, making some note in the guestbook. He looked as she walked in, and his face creased in a smile.
"Hello, Ben," she said, holding out her hands as he came around the desk to squeeze her fingers. Warmth that she didn't dare show anyone else found its way into her voice, and she knew it was in her smile. "Did you miss me?"
"You know I did," he said in return, leaning forward to kiss her on the cheek. "It's been too long since you were here last."
"I've been busy," Miss Parker admitted, shrugging, her mouth turning up wryly. "As your last 'guest' probably told you."
"That he did." The lines around his eyes crinkled as she crossed her arms and mock-glared at him. "Now, you can't blame him for having his little joke, can you?"
"Oh, yes I can. The only good thing about *this* joke is that it brought me here." She fished her UPS claim slip out of her pocket, and held up the yellow slip of paper that Jarod had sent her. "I suppose I should ask for my package now."
"Package..." Ben's expression clouded, then his eyes opened extremely wide. "Well, yes, he did leave something for you here. He didn't tell you what it was?"
"No, of course not. That would spoil it for him when he calls later," Miss Parker said, rolling her eyes in disgust. "He wants to get the best possible reaction out of me---"
The sound of galloping feet overhead was all the warning she had, and then a small girl dressed in blue jeans, a bright red shirt, sneakers, and carrying a stuffed toy dog under her arm came bouncing down the stairs. For a moment, she thought that the child was just another guest at the inn; but that didn't explain the sheepish expression on Ben's face. The little girl stopped on the landing and cocked her head, studying Miss Parker, and that was when she knew, that was when she realized what Jarod had done.
That. Rat! He wouldn't dare! He didn't! She closed her eyes as a wave of fury swept over her so strongly that she had to clench her jaw on the unspoken curses that came to mind.
He *knew* Miss Parker was getting close. And he knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't let Raines take his daughter back to the Centre. So Jarod had killed two birds with one stone: thrown her off the track, and protected his daughter.
He was going to make her *babysit* this little girl. He was going to leave her in charge of his only child, expect her to entertain the kid and feed her and protect her, while he was off doing some other vitally important stupid thing which required his undivided attention. And he expected to get away with it without getting caught when he came back.
I'm going to kill him for this. Slowly. One vital organ at a time. *After* I take him back to Blue Cove. She took a deep, deep breath, and then forced herself to look at Jarod's child. Who was looking right back at her with big, dark, curious, very familiar eyes.
"Are you Meredith?" The little girl asked, hanging onto the banister, her voice doubtful. "My daddy said that his friend was coming to take care of me, and her name was Meredith. Are you her?"
Meredith? She stared, rattled down to her bones. "Uhh... yes, I am."
"I'm Kristin. Hi." She waved tentatively at her, then grabbed the banister again, clutching her stuffed dog closer.
"Hi," Miss Parker rasped back, shaken. Too many shocks at once.... It wasn't just that Kristin looked familiar--- she had caught a glimpse of her before, after all, in Miami--- or that she had her father's distinctive gaze. Although that was bad enough; seeing those brown eyes in miniature, just as wide and ten times as innocent as his had ever been brought back far too many memories of their childhood.
It was the surprise of hearing that name, after so long. He'd never, ever played that card before, never once taunted her with the fact that she'd trusted him with her real name, a lifetime ago. It had been so long since she'd heard it, been called that, that she couldn't honestly swear to when the last time was. Maybe when her mother was alive.... Her father called her his Angel, Princess, Sweetheart--- to everyone else, she was Miss Parker. She was just Parker sometimes, to her few friends; Sydney could get away with calling her Parker on occasion. But she was never Meredith.
He'd told his daughter that Meredith would take care of her. He was trusting her to do that, and he'd told Kristin her name in a gesture to cement that trust. The sheer enormity of that took her breath away.
"Umm... Your daddy's going to come back soon. Real soon. But..." She took a step forward, cautiously, and grasped the lower portion of the banister. Oh, God, how old was this kid? Five? Four? She wasn't good with children, she was never around them. Broots' daughter Debbie was older, twelve, on the verge of becoming an adult, and she was the only one with whom Miss Parker had had even sporadic contact with. This small person was only a few years away from babyhood. How dare he do this to me. How dare he *trust* me like this!
She felt so totally out of her depth that she could only stare at the girl. Kristin. "But we're going to have lots of fun. Okay?" She smiled, tentatively, and Kristin ducked her head and nodded, her mouth quirking sideways in a half-smile. "Okay." She nodded to the dog, striving to make her voice sound normal. "Who's your friend?"
Kristin's eyes lit up, and she smiled brightly, holding the dog toward Miss Parker. "This is Henry. He's my best friend in the whole world, except Daddy."
"Hello, Henry," she said lightly, reaching out to pat his head. Meeting Kristin's eyes, she felt her guarded, protected heart give a lurch. How can I catch Jarod and turn him in, betray this little girl? Oh, God. That *bastard*. He planned this! He did this deliberately, hoping I wouldn't be able to turn him in...
"Daddy promised he'd come back soon," Kristin said wistfully, cuddling her puppy. "But I miss him lots anyway. Henry and I wanted to go with him, but he said no. He has to go do secret things, and we can't go along."
"Oh. That *is* too bad." No, that wasn't at all familiar. 'Daddy has to work, Princess. But I'll be back soon. You won't even have time to miss me.' Ohhh, had Jarod ever set her up. She *would* kill him. This was so damned unfair, death was too good for him, but it would have to do. The roil of emotions he'd dropped her in deserved the most painful payback possible.
She reached out to offer Kristin her hand, and the little girl grabbed it, jumping down each step with both feet, coming to a stop next to Miss Parker. "Meredith, can we go for a walk?"
That name again, making Parker jitter with discomfort. "I guess. I mean, I just arrived, I need to check in, but, after that... I suppose we could go for walk." She walked over to the registrar's desk, shaking her head, and met Ben's eyes for the first time since Kristin had come down the stairs. He was definitely looking relieved, but--- there was still a lot of worry mixed in there. He opened his mouth to say something, then pursed his lips, and she raised an enquiring eyebrow at him.
"Goody. I like walks. And maybe we can get some ice cream!" Kristin reached up and handed her the pen to the guestbook, and Miss Parker took it from her with an ironic smile. The little girl was *so* much Jarod's kid. Parker glanced up from signing her name, and a picture of Kristin that Ben had set next to the basket for business cards caught her eye. Kristin was wearing a black velvet dress just like one she'd had as a little girl....
No. She blinked. It wasn't a photo of Kristin. It was a picture of herself, on her fifth birthday, grinning into the camera with glee as she clapped her hands over her presents. Her mother stood behind her in a corner of the photograph, watching her with glowing pride.
Her gaze flew from the old photograph to Kristin, and then back, and she choked as the significance of Kristin's very familiar little face smashed into her mind. "No. Oh, God. No. Ben? What...?" She looked up at him, begging him to deny what she was seeing. "That's..."
"You. When you were Kristin's age," Ben said very gently, his eyes full of unspoken sympathy. "Your mother left it here." The compassion on his face was all the more terrifying because it confirmed that she wasn't hallucinating, wasn't losing her mind; no, the truth was much, much worse.
"Of course she did." Miss Parker could hear the trembling in her own voice, felt her chest seize up as she tried to breathe through her shock. Kristin was looking at her in concern, and all Parker could do was stare at her. At her daughter. Her *daughter*. "This isn't happening...."
"Sit down," Ben ordered her, grabbing her elbow and steering her to a chair. "You need to relax. Kristin, honey, could you get a glass of water for Meredith?"
"Okay." The little girl threw her a worried look as she pattered off to the kitchen, and Miss Parker felt it like a knife in her heart. She turned to Ben, shaking her head in numb denial, trying to imagine any other possibility, but unable to think of one that would explain what she had just seen.
"Tell me this is a mistake, tell me I'm wrong, tell me anything, Ben, just please, please don't tell me that little girl... that she's.... Christ, I can't even say it."
"I told Jarod that he should've warned you," Ben sighed, rubbing her fingers, trying to warm them up. "I thought he'd changed his mind, and let you know, but... Well, I guess he thought you ought to meet her, first."
"I can't believe this. This is *insane*." She could hear her voice rising, and she exhaled shudderingly, squeezing her eyes shut, trying to block out what she'd just seen. "*How* is this even possible?! It can't be real, it can't be, I'd *know* about it, damnit, this isn't..." She inhaled again, exhaled, then the import of his words reached her and her eyes snapped open. "He didn't warn me. He let me walk into this without a *clue* of what he was up to! That sonuvabitch! I'm going to kill him!"
"Now, Miss Parker, you have *got* to calm down." Ben lowered his voice, one hand stroking her shoulder in a way that comforted her for reasons she couldn't define. "I know it's a big shock, but you can't be upsetting Kristin. She needs you to look after her, and if you're all riled up, she'll get het up too. She's a very sensitive little girl, she picks up on things, on what you're feeling---"
"Just like her daddy. Sweet mother of... *We* have a child. Oh, God. Somebody pinch me, this has to be a nightmare."
"Meredith? Are you okay?"
She was back. Kristin--- her daughter--- was standing in front of her, holding out a glass of water to her. Right *there*. Oh god oh god oh god.... I can't do this. No. I have to. I have to do *something*.... While one part of her brain babbled to itself, Miss Parker mechanically reached out, took the glass of water from Kristin, and gulped half of it down, keeping her eyes shut as she listened to the girl's chatter.
"Daddy said you were friends and played lots of games when you were little. He said when he got back, maybe we could play together, all of us."
She brought the glass down, and took a slow, steady breath. "That's true. Your daddy and I played hide-and-seek a lot." Still do, actually...
"Neat! We can play that when he gets back."
Parker opened her eyes, and looked, *really* looked at Kristin for the first time. The resemblance was beyond eerie. The nose was the same, the chin, the rosebud mouth; the hair was exactly like hers had been, baby-fine and thick, with just a little bit of curl; even the bone structure, jaw, brows, and cheekbones, were all the same. Except for the eyes. Those were her father's, an inescapable stamp of Jarod's genes that stared at Parker with his enthusiasm and curiosity. No matter how much she wanted this to be a hoax, a dream, or a coincidence, those eyes in that face simply couldn't be ignored.
I can't handle this.
"Kristin, I have to... go outside, and be by myself a while." Her voice wasn't shaking, at least. She was proud of that.
"Where are you going?" The girl's enthusiasm immediately dampened down into worry again, along with a little hurt. "You don't want to go for a walk with me? Are you going away?"
"No!" Where had that vehemence come from? No way of knowing. But Kristin's sad look had stabbed at her like a scorpion, bringing up every childhood memory of her father abandoning her. She couldn't see that kind of loneliness and not respond to it. "I just... I need to be outdoors, to get some fresh air. And think. Your daddy will be calling me soon---" He'd better, if he knows what's good for him. "--- and I need to be alone, when I talk to him." At Kristin's doubtful look, she added, "I'll have him call here too. And you'll be able to see me the whole time. I'll be right out there, by the fence. Okay?" Wait a minute. I sound exactly like... my mother. Ohhh, God. Oh God. Ohgodohgodohgod...
"Okay," Kristin assented, looking slightly reassured, then, more fiercely, "You promise?"
"I swear," she said quietly, getting to her feet with extra carefulness. "Ben? Will you wait with her?"
"Of course. Come on, Princess Kristin. We still have some cookies to take out of the oven, remember?" He held out his hand to the little girl, and she skipped over to him with a big grin.
"Yay! Yummy! You come back in and have cookies with us real soon, okay, Meredith?"
"Okay. Kristin." She watched her daughter gallop down the hallway next to Ben, then turned and walked out the door, toward the stand of trees behind the inn, wishing with every fiber in her body for a cigarette. Or a drink.
How, how, how did this happen? Miss Parker walked blindly out to the back yard, until she was leaning against the split-rail fence and studying the woods nearby with unseeing eyes. All she could see was Kristin. Her daughter. Not the name she would have picked out, even; she would have named her daughter after Catherine Parker. And she sure as hell wouldn't have picked Jarod for the father. Why? Why did they do this? *How*? Daddy couldn't have known, he'd never have stood for it.... Raines. That unspeakable bastard, I have to kill him, I'll kill him the next second I see him, just rip that oxygen tube out and shove it down his throat before I ignite it... No getting out of *that*, you son of a bitch. Kyle should have killed you, Sydney should have killed you, *I* should have killed you, long before this....
She didn't know how long she stood there, trembling with the overwhelming emotions tumbling through her. Horror. Fear. Rage; at Jarod, the Centre, life, Raines... Sydney. He knew. He had to have known. How could he not have *told* me? I'll choke him if he gets within arms reach in the next 48 hours... The very concept of Kristin herself was just too much to think about. Panic waited in that direction.
It could have been an hour, or only a few minutes, but when her cell phone rang she nearly jumped out of her skin. Taking a second to let her heartbeat return to normal, she opened the phone with over-steady fingers. "Parker," she said, just in case it wasn't who she suspected.
"Hello, Miss Parker. I assume you got my package?" It was Jarod, sounding relentlessly pleased with himself.
How dare he. How goddamn *dare* he do this to her, and sound so amused. "You son of a bitch," she enunciated icily. "Package? A *package*? Is that what you call her?" She started pacing back and forth. "I got the slip, I'm here, and yes, I met her. I can't believe your colossal *nerve*! You absolutely *insane* idiot, *no one* passes off a kid like a UPS package! You're out of your mind!"
"Well, I didn't exactly wrap her up in brown paper and stick her in the mail. And you did pick her up very promptly," he said, in a smug tone that made her want to reach out and strangle him through the carrier waves of the phone.
"You rat, you creep, you lunatic! You can't do this to me! You can't!" She knew she sounded like a crazy woman, but that was the very last thing worrying her now. She took a moment to get her breath back before speaking again, then she gave up the effort to control herself without a second thought. "How do I even know she's mine?!"
He actually had the nerve to laugh. "I thought that was supposed be *my* line."
She screamed--- loud, long, and piercingly. Her throat hurt, but it was worth it. Maybe he'd go deaf from it, and it would serve him right if he did. "I can't do this! You can't make me--- What the hell do you expect me to *do*---" She inhaled, and Jarod broke in on her panicked stammerings.
"I expect you to protect her from Mr. Raines and the Centre," he said. His voice had gone from obnoxious to grimly, dangerously serious in a heartbeat. "Don't let them get her back."
"Of course not," she said, stung. "That's not even open to question." More oxygen must have been going to her brain after she'd screamed, which seemed to have jumpstarted it back up several gears higher than the level it had been operating at a few seconds before. Even though her ego still smarted from his smart-ass attitude.
"Jarod..." She was flailing, and knew it, and he was the last person she ever wanted to do that in front of. But she couldn't find her feet. The entire framework of her life was dissolving under her, and she had no idea how to act, what to think, what to feel... She felt as if she'd been hit by an earthquake, and didn't even know which way to crawl out of the rubble.
"They made her, you know. Took her out of you and me and made her in a test tube. NuGenesis again." Jarod's voice had that tone it got sometimes, the beyond-dark expression of hatred for the Centre that made it so hard to predict what he would do next, but that always made her a little afraid, no matter how she tried to avoid it.
This once, she sympathized with it completely. Rage-induced adrenaline shot through her at his words, calming her again. "I know. I haven't been able to think of anything else for the last hour." She closed her eyes, and a sudden insight hit her. This time, the Centre had done the exact same thing to him as they had done to her. They were on the same side, completely. Except... "How long have you known, you bastard? And why didn't you tell me?"
The barest suggestion of a sigh came through the phone. "Since January. Angelo gave me some DSA's that had Kristin's genetic records on them when I rescued her. I realized she was yours the second I got a good look at her, but finding out I was a daddy was... fairly incredible." He was actually sounding apologetic, now. He *never* apologized for his games, but this time, he might have been truly sorry for not telling her sooner. "As for why not--- you know you wouldn't have believed me until you saw her. And it wasn't safe to have the two of you meet until now. I had to be sure Lyle was busy somewhere else."
"How did they do this? You saw the records. How did they do this, without me having *some* clue---"
"The appendectomy you had in 1993 gave them the opportunity to do some extra surgery, and harvest a few ova. They were probably wondering how they'd do it themselves, and when they had the chance, they took advantage of the opportunity." And then he actually said it, out loud: "I'm so sorry...."
Rage at the violation, the actual theft of a part of herself, drowned whatever anger she felt at him for not telling her sooner. "You're not the one who should be sorry. Do we agree on this much: that they're going to pay for this? Painfully?"
"Oh, yes. I think we can definitely agree on that point." He took a deep breath. "But Kristin comes first. She has to."
"Jarod, I'm serious. I *can't* take care of her. I can't. I ..." She looked back, involuntarily, towards Ben's Inn. "I'm no good with kids. Debbie is older, and she's the only one I've ever been around ... This is a mistake, there has to be another way!"
"You'll be fine," Jarod said soothingly, if unconvincingly. "I've pulled it off for the last five months, and you did great with Debbie. It really isn't that hard."
She took a deep breath of her own, before admitting to what really had her concerned--- that Kristin wouldn't accept the situation. "She wants you. You have to come back."
"I.. can't. Not now." It sounded hard for him to say. "I think Lyle is close to finding Emily. I can't let him get her. I have to find her first, before the Centre."
"Who the hell *is* Emily, anyway? Broots found the name in your file search--"
"Sister. I didn't even know you *had*..." She sighed, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose, trying to fight off the headache throbbing behind her eyes. "The other woman in Boston. That was your sister in the cab." She shook her head. "I should've known. Hell. Well, how long before you're back?"
"A week. Maybe two. I have to find her, I have to get to her, and I have to get her someplace safe. Then I'll come back for my daughter."
"*Our* daughter." Oh God, she'd admitted it. Out loud. No going back now. Miss Parker dropped her hand and opened her eyes, turning back to stare at Ben's inn again, where Kristin was waiting. "And that still won't work." Rage was a drug, like caffiene, like nicotine, like alcohol; calming and focusing her to a pinpoint.
"It'll work. Trust me, you two are going to get along fine. Just don't try to tie her shoelaces for her and don't try to make her eat Wheaties every morning," he said, back to sounding confident and amused.
"Wheaties? What are *talking* about... Never mind." She waved the subject away, afraid she'd know more than she'd ever wanted to soon enough. "And that's not what I meant." She clenched her jaw, making her decision. Or it made itself. "I'm taking her out of the country. *You* are going to have to catch up to us. And make sure they don't follow you. I'm not going back to Blue Cove."
"Now wait a minute!" *That* got his attention. "I left her with Ben so she'd be safe, so *both* of you would be safe! You can't take her--"
"The hell I can't! You think for two seconds that she'll be safe here for longer than a week? And I am *not* having my daughter anywhere near Lyle if he gets a happy thought to follow me here." She hadn't even known she was going to say the 'out of the country' part before she said it, but as soon as she had, she knew it was the right decision. It was far, far past time to go. She paced out a few more feet, then demanded in a low voice that shook no matter how she tried to keep it steady, "Do you honestly think I could go back there now? They took my mother, Jarod. They're not getting my daughter." Her voice hardened. "So deal with it. We're out of here."
Jarod didn't answer, but she heard something distinctly like her own hiss of frustration. "Dammit, at least use the Refuge address to tell me where you are! Sydney will tell you how."
"Fine. Whatever. Oh, hell. Sydney. *And* Broots--- you left me all the details, didn't you, Jarod?"
"Damnit." That was twice he'd sworn in one conversation. A new record. "If you're leaving, they have to leave, too."
"Very good, Wonder Boy. Any suggestions?"
"Never mind, I'm thinking faster than you, this time. Fatherhood must have sucked up a few brain cells. I'll get them the money to disappear. You get them the papers. We'll use your little 'account' --- and how long has Syd known about that, hmmm? --- and if something goes wrong, they'll contact us through that."
A long, tense silence as he obviously bit back about three retorts. "I'll leave a bank account access number in Broots' email," he said, slowly and carefully, as if through clenched teeth. "You can all draw from that."
She hated to admit it, but that made more sense. "Fine. It's all Centre money anyway, isn't it?"
"Of course." He sounded marginally more cheerful at the reminder. "They started this little mess, they might as well finance it."
"Fine." She turned away from the inn, her voice dropping slightly. "And after this is all sorted out, we find Raines, and make his life a nightmare he doesn't wake up from."
"With pleasure," he responded, the grimness in his voice promising lengthy retribution on the Centre when he caught up to them.
"Yes, Miss Parker?"
She laughed, unwillingly, feeling herself on shaky ground, but having to ask the next question. "You told her my name?"
He chuckled under his breath, amused again. "I figured you would prefer that to 'Mommy', at least for right now."
"God, yes." She shuddered. "I would have thought you'd tell her the whole story.... but I'm glad you didn't." Not yet. I can't handle it yet....
"Meredith." He'd called her by her name so few times their lives that it sounded strange. Like he was talking to someone else. "You're going to be fine. I trust you."
He trusted her. With his... *their* daughter. "Jarod--- I was just going to say..." She wanted to express the sheer ground-shaking feelings that were breaking her world apart; but there weren't words for that. "Thank you. For finding her. And for... trusting me...." The words 'I'm sorry' almost slipped out, but she bit them back. She didn't know what *she* was apologizing for. She was still furious with him--- for setting her up, for not telling her, for leaving her with Kristin, for so many, many things... But even feeling all that, she had to admit that every other thing she'd ever held him responsible paled in comparison to what the Centre had stolen from them.
"I wouldn't have left her with you if I didn't know you could take of her. Just keep her safe. Everything else will fall into place."
As reassurances went, it was one hell of a thing to leave her with. Now if anything went wrong, it would be her fault. "You better be right about that, Jarod. Or you're going to *pay* for it when you finally catch up to us."
He had the nerve to laugh again. "I never doubted it. Contact Sydney, leave me the information on where you're going and remember: Refuge." He disconnected, going who-knew-where to rescue his sister. Hopefully making Lyle's life hell in the process.
"Refuge. Refuge, my ass. There is no refuge any more." She flipped the phone shut and tucked it back in her pocket, then ran her fingers through her hair.
He got me to leave. He finally did it. He got me to leave the Centre. And he wasn't even trying to do that. Sometimes Jarod's synchronicity was just terrifying.
"Fine, then," she whispered to the surrounding trees. "Time to put up and shut up."
Obvious. Trite. No.
No. Not this time.
Parker put down the pen for a moment, and gazed out the window of the airplane. The pink-tinged clouds concealed all traces of the ocean far below, as the setting sun behind them threw shadows across the wings. They were flying into the falling night, and for the first time in twenty years, there was no one to depend on but herself. No Centre. No Daddy. No Sydney. No Broots. No Jarod. Only her, and the child she had to protect.
She turned her gaze on the sleeping girl seated next to her, curled away from her side, clutching the small toy dog that she'd refused to put in the carry-on bag. Kristin's eyes flickered in sleep, her mouth turned down as she frowned at something in her dreams. The impulse to brush the girl's hair out of her face was surprising. Parker didn't indulger herself, though. She might be Kristin's mother, but she wasn't her mom. Being Meredith again to someone else-- for the first time in decades-- was enough. Asking for more would be unfair to both of them.
Parker picked up the pen again.
The photo is of the two of them at the ice-cream shop. Kristin is holding her double-scoop ice-cream cone out for Ben to see, smiling into the camera. Parker is watching her, smiling, but her eyes are worried, and she has one arm curved around the back of Kristin's chair, protecting her. She couldn't say from what, yet -- "everything" seemed to sum it up.
Parker folded the pages together carefully around the photo, slipped them into an envelope, and then dropped it into her bag. She'd find someone to mail it from London, or Paris, after they arrived where they were going. Cash and traveler's checks all the way; no trace of them left to be found by the Centre. Old friends, unknown to her current associates, would help along the way. And at the end of the journey, there was a refuge waiting; a place for Kristin to be safe, and for Parker to sit back and re-evaluate her plans for the future.
It could all end very badly. They could fail to keep Kristin safe. Fail to thwart the Centre's plans. Suffer and die, as her mother had.
And yet... Strangely, she couldn't find it in herself to be afraid. Or regret what she'd done. For the first time in years, she felt at peace.
Parker turned to watch Kristin sleep, and gradually felt her breath slow to match her daughter's. Her last thought before drifting away was to wonder what would happen next.