Chapter 36

Miss Parker did something she'd never done before; she hesitated at the threshold of her father's office. She was glad his secretary had already left for the day. She didn't need a witness to this sudden moment of indecision.

She could see her fingers trembling on the door handle. Damn it, what was wrong with her? Just a short while ago she'd told Sydney she was ready to march in here armed with her letter of resignation and a few choice words to finally get the closure she needed. She'd waited too long for this day to have any second thoughts now.

Maybe that was the problem. Because she'd imagined this scene so many times, she felt extra pressure for it to play out as she hoped. The unexpectedly emotional goodbyes she'd just exchanged with Sydney and Broots didn't help; she needed to be in complete control when she walked into her father's office.

Miss Parker took a deep breath and a firmer grip on the door handle. Shaking off the last vestiges of "stage fright," she thrust open the doors.

She'd dressed more conservatively than usual for this meeting. Her black pencil skirt was tight but a modest length, and her heels were high but not boots. In fact, she was not wearing any leather, but her blood-red silk blouse still gave her a feeling of power. She paused in the doorway as she normally did; she knew she made a striking figure. Plus it gave her a few extra seconds to gauge her father's mood, always a good idea when entering his office, but especially today.

Mr. Parker glanced up from his desk. "Angel!" His surprise was quickly replaced by a guarded expression, understandable given the outcome of their last face-to-face. "Working late?" he added somewhat stiffly.

She closed the doors behind her and crossed the room in a few quick strides. "Just needed to drop this off," she said and placed her resignation on the desk in front of him. Then she took a step back, folded her hands, and waited.

"What's this?" he asked, frowning down at the envelope.

"My resignation."

"What?" This time the quick look of surprise gave way to one of annoyance. "You can't be serious."

"We had a deal, Daddy. Jarod's back, so my services are no longer needed here."

He glared up at her, so it was her turn to be surprised when after a beat he merely grunted and said, "Well, Corporate will be glad to have you back."

"I'm not going back to Corporate. I'm leaving the Centre altogether." She was proud of the neutral tone she was maintaining, even as she braced herself for what she was certain would be a decidedly more negative reaction once he realized the full extent of her defection.

"Eh, what are you talking about?" Mr. Parker finally opened the envelope. She noticed his hands were shaking slightly as he read the letter. "I don't understand," he said slowly.

"I'm quitting." She heard the satisfaction in her voice at finally being able to say those words.

Her father must have heard it, too, and it caused his temper to flare. "This isn't just some nine-to-five job you can walk away from, jot down on your resume, and move on to something better!"

"You're mostly right," she said. "It's not an ordinary job, and I could never include this on my resume. No one would believe me. Or they'd throw me in jail or a mental institution." She paused. "But I'm sure I could find something better. Practically anything would do. Maybe I could get a job cleaning out sewers; I have experience dealing with rats who scurry around in underground tunnels."

"This is not a joke!" her father snapped.

"Who's laughing?" she countered sourly.

"The Centre is not an ordinary company. It takes more than hard work and dedication to move up the corporate ladder here. I have spent years laying the groundwork so that you could take over for me one day. And now you just want to throw it all away!" He crumpled up her letter and tossed it down on the desk in disgust.

"What do you care? I thought I was dead to you. That's what you said, right? The moment I shot Lyle you 'lost both of your children'?"

Her father's eyes widened and he sat back heavily in his chair, as if pressed there by the force of his own terrible words she'd just flung back at him.

No doubt he was shocked she'd finally broached the subject of that terrible day in the cemetery. She had spent weeks avoiding it – and him – so he may have hoped she'd moved on. But there was no way she could move on until he'd looked her in the eye and explained how he could have betrayed her like that.

Right now he was doing anything but meeting her demanding gaze. He squinted uncomfortably in her general direction. "I was upset, I wasn't thinking clearly…"

"I got all your messages, I've heard your excuses. What I want now is the truth!" No longer content to maintain the somewhat docile pose in front of his desk, she moved to stand behind one of the guest chairs and gripped the back of it. "You certainly were thinking clearly enough when you and Mutumbo planned to ambush me! How could you do that to me, Daddy? Especially after you were once a prisoner in Africa yourself. You knew what kind of hell was waiting for me."

"I survived," Mr. Parker said gruffly. "I knew you would, too. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?"

She stared at him, finding it hard to believe that he was spouting clichés and still trying to avoid giving her an honest answer. "Were you stronger when you came back, Daddy?" she pressed. "You certainly acted crazy, running around town and hiding out in homeless camps."

"I admit the shock of what happened in Africa took a while to wear off," he said a bit stiffly, "but I came out the other side. And the Triumverate respects me for that," he added, leaning forward and jabbing a finger at her. "That was their way of testing me, making sure I was still fit for this job. That experience could have been your trial by fire, a good way to prove that you could handle the position of Director."

Despite the fact that she no longer wanted the damn job, it still irked her that anyone would question her qualifications. "Are you actually saying you were willing to have me go through torture as some kind of sadistic job interview? I think I've already proven myself, Daddy, especially the time I took a bullet meant for you!"

"Oh, Angel, of course I know how strong you are. Which is why I knew you could withstand anything Mutumbo threw at you." Having gotten over his initial shock, her father had adopted his most persuasive tone. "Letting them take you to Africa would have accomplished two goals: appeasing the Triumverate's need to punish you for Lyle's death and demonstrating to the powers-that-be that you have what it takes to run the Centre one day."

Not only did he expect her to forgive him for turning her over to Mutumbo and his goons, he actually seemed to think she should take it as a compliment!

Miss Parker clenched the back of the leather chair more tightly. "Well, I don't think you need to worry about that day any time soon," she said. "With Jarod back and finally willing to do the Centre's bidding, I think the Triumverate is satisfied with how you're handling business here. You're quite safe in your position."

"I still need to plan for the future, which is why it's so important to make sure you're prepared to take over for me." He frowned slightly. "I thought that's what you wanted, too."

"I did… a long time ago." It seemed like a lifetime ago when she'd been a brash young woman fresh out of college and eager to start her career with the family business. "At least I thought I did, but now I realize I was just doing what I thought would make you proud of me. I can't do that anymore. I need to live my life for me, do something that will make me happy."

The frown became a full-fledged scowl. "Well, like it or not, you have a responsibility here. The Centre must stay under Parker control! Since you killed your brother, you're the only one left to take the reins."

She chose to ignore his accusing tone and tried to sound casual as she asked, "Just out of curiosity, Daddy, if Lyle were still alive, which one of your children would you want sitting in your chair?"

The question caught him off guard, and he took a long moment to consider his reply, during which Miss Parker wondered wearily why she'd even asked him in the first place. If he said Lyle would have been his first choice as successor, what did she care? She wasn't going to be jealous of her dead freak of a brother.

"I always imagined you behind this desk one day," he finally said, lovingly caressing the edge of the gleaming wood surface. "But once I knew Lyle was my son, I'd hoped the two of you would run this place together. I always thought you'd make a great team," he went on earnestly, as if eager to make his point before she protested. "You were both smart and ambitious, but you also both had your own strengths that would have balanced you perfectly to create a force to be reckoned with!"

She was already a force to be reckoned with. Lyle's greatest "strength" had been his ability to torture and kill without blinking an eye, not a skill set normally needed by a CEO but one that the Triumverate no doubt admired. But she couldn't believe her father also believed that his late son's penchant for violence had been an ability that would have nicely balanced her more traditional leadership qualities.

"If you thought Lyle and I should run the Centre together, then why didn't you arrange for him to be sent to Africa when we all thought he'd caused Jarod's death? Wouldn't his own 'trial by fire' have been a good way for him to prove his worthiness to the Triumverate?"

Mr. Parker shook his head. "No, he'd already gone through so much in his life that showed he could handle adversity, like the way he escaped from his abusive adoptive parents."

"He faked his death and framed his father for it!"

Her father's eyes flashed. "Lyle did what he had to do to survive, like a true Parker!" He took a breath. "Unfortunately, the damage had been done by the time he found us, his real family. I wish I'd had longer with him." Seeing her tense, he went on quickly, "Now, I'm not blaming you, Angel. I understand that you only did what you thought you had to do to protect yourself."

"Like a true Parker," she muttered.

"Exactly. You can be ruthless when necessary, which is another reason I know you'd make a good Director." He gestured to her crumpled letter of resignation. "So, please, don't let this be your final decision. Take some time to think about it."

"Daddy, I'm not going to change my –"

"You don't know that!" She heard the note of desperation in his voice, saw the slightly wild look come into his eyes. "Look, I know it's been a rough year for you. You just need some time to relax, clear your head… Why don't you take a leave of absence? You could travel, stay at our place in Mexico, allow yourself to be pampered. You deserve it. And you'll see, when you come back, you'll have a whole new perspective on things."

She shook her head. "Getting away is a good idea, but–"

"Excellent!" Mr. Parker abruptly stood, as if eager to end their meeting on a satisfactory note. "I'll call the staff at our villa and have them prepare for your arrival."

She held up a hand. "No, Daddy, wait. You need to know that I'm not just leaving the Centre; I'm also leaving Blue Cove…for good."

He paled and laid a hand on the corner of his desk as if to steady himself. "Why?" he finally managed.

"I need a new start, a whole new life."

"So you're just going to walk away from the only home you've ever known? Away from your only family?" He swallowed hard. "From me?"

She unflinchingly met his gaze, telling herself he couldn't hear the hammering of her heart. "Yes."

"But… what, what will I do without you?"

"It's not like you've ever done that much with me." She let her bitterness show. "Other than Centre business, the most time we've spent together in years has been at the cemetery. I wouldn't exactly call those happy father-daughter outings."

He drew himself up to his full height, angry blotches of color returning to his cheeks. "Don't you dare make light of those moments we shared at your mother's grave!"

He wasn't going to intimidate her. "I cherished those moments!" she shot back. "You're the one who's ruined that place forever by what you did there!" She could still feel the sting of his slap.

He blinked rapidly, having the decency to look uncomfortable with the memory. "We will always share the sorrow over your mother's death," he said quietly. "It breaks my heart to think what she'd say about us being separated."

"She'd be happy that I'm leaving," Miss Parker said. "Remember, right before she died she was planning to escape from the Centre with me and the other children."

A look of disgust crossed his face. "Your mother was weak."

"I'm not my mother." For the first time ever, she felt not an ounce of regret as she said those words.

She saw the approving gleam come into her father's eyes and she mercilessly tried to quench it. "And I'm not you either, Daddy."

So she was surprised when he said gruffly, "No, you're the best of both of us. And I'm damn proud of you."

She felt more than heard her quick intake of breath and hoped the sentimental twinge that tugged at her gut did not show on her face. No! She would not let one kind word from him soften her resolve. Not this time.

"I'm my own person," she said firmly and started backing towards the door, needing to end this before her emotions betrayed her. "It's time for me to go find out exactly who that is."

"But I need you, Angel!"

She didn't doubt he meant it… in this moment. The problem was that these moments – ones she'd craved for years – were too few and far between. "No, you don't, Daddy," she replied calmly. "You think of me as your guardian angel, but I'm no longer that little girl who kept you from falling off the ladder. If you take a wrong step now, you'll just have to deal with the consequences."

Suddenly desperate to get out of there, she whirled and swept out of her father's office, leaving him standing beside his empty chair.

Jarod lay on his back on his cot, trying to will his heart rate to return to normal. He'd just clawed free of the suffocating grip of his latest bad dream and knew it would be a while before he could safely shut his eyes again.

Since he'd been plagued by nightmares for as long as he could remember, sleep was not something he enjoyed. He got the bare minimum of hours his body required but spent a good portion of most nights awake. Even using relaxation techniques or employing his highly-developed visualization skills, it always took a long time for him to calm down enough to fall asleep again. He was always relieved when morning came. No matter how dire his situation, the real world was preferable to the land of dreams where he felt powerless.

Jarod shifted uncomfortably on the hard, thin mattress and wondered when he'd be given better quarters. Yet he couldn't blame the Centre for putting him back in this cell. The lengths he'd gone to to escape this place…and for what? So he could roam the country like some kind of vigilante dispensing his own brand of justice by whatever means necessary? He'd acted like a crazy man. Thank goodness the Triumverate's team of doctors had been able to diagnose and fix the defective part of his brain.

Yes, he'd come back from Africa a new man, but definitely one changed for the better. Finally willing to use the Centre's resources to make a real difference in the world, he was no longer at odds with himself. He could put all of his energy into his assignments, which should only enhance his abilities. Jarod finally felt at peace.

So why did his subconscious have to interfere? He'd been left with a few lingering impressions from his earlier dream: someone – Miss Parker? – had been screaming at him to RUN, but he hadn't done so. Unlike normal nightmares, he hadn't been unable to move; he simply hadn't seen the need to.

Perhaps this was his mind's way of forcing him to replay the conversation he'd had with Miss Parker a few days ago, which was not something he wanted to do. It had been an entirely unsatisfactory meeting; even the kiss they'd shared – while as passionate as ever - hadn't felt quite right. He'd hoped she would have been happy for him, relieved that he'd finally accepted his life at the Centre. Instead, she'd seemed determined to sow the seeds of rebellion in him, actually expecting him to make another attempt to escape.

Jarod, you're hurting me.

The memory of her quiet accusation seemed to echo loudly in the darkness of his cell. He felt the same stab of confusion and panic as he had when she'd actually uttered those words a few days ago. Now, as then, he couldn't understand what had made him grab her arm so roughly. He remembered the sudden rage he'd felt when she'd mentioned Raines, but he also recognized that his reaction had been too severe. He couldn't believe he had acted like that. In fact, he'd felt somewhat disconnected through that whole meeting with Miss Parker, like he'd been watching from a distance. Not like an out-of-body experience; he'd gone on vision quests and knew what it felt like to leave your corporeal self behind. This had been more like he was viewing a DSA of himself doing a simulation. It was an unnerving sensation, one he hoped he wouldn't have to experience again.

Jarod could feel a headache forming. He'd been getting them frequently since returning to the Centre, a side effect of the medication the doctors in Africa had prescribed to help with his recovery from the treatments on his brain. He could put up with this mild discomfort in exchange for a life free of the pain of loneliness. It was such a relief to finally feel like he belonged somewhere. The Centre had become his family now.

Jarod sighed. He really needed to get some sleep; he wanted to be at his best when he was given his first assignment tomorrow morning. Taking deep even breaths, he closed his eyes and tried to imagine a pleasant scene: Mr. Parker shaking his hand and congratulating him on a job well done while Miss Parker stood nearby, pride shining in her clear blue eyes…

Jarod fell asleep with a smile on his face.

As eager as she was to get on the road, Miss Parker still took a moment after closing her front door to pause and lay a hand against its solid oak surface.

She would miss this house. Her mother had loved this summer retreat where she'd spent the happiest times of her life. Miss Parker was grateful that she'd been able to make this place her home, cherishing the memories of precious moments she'd spent within these walls with her mother. It would be hard to leave here, but she had no choice.

She'd meant what she'd told her father: her mother would have approved of her decision to leave Blue Cove, especially under these circumstances. She'd want her daughter to start a new life elsewhere and hopefully find happiness. That's exactly what she had been planning to do herself right before she died.

Her father was wrong in thinking her mother weak for wanting to run away. Miss Parker realized how brave that decision had been, how it took a strong person to leave behind everything familiar. She knew her mother had felt that that course of action was the only way she could rescue the children from the Centre, her own daughter included.

Miss Parker understood that instinct now. She let her hand slowly fall from the door and come to rest on her stomach.

She'd do anything to protect her child.


(for now)

Author's Note: I am immensely grateful to everyone who took the time to read

and review this story. Feedback really helps to keep the creative juices flowing.

Look for the sequel – WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU – later this year!