——————

Christmas Day, Parker’s Private Wooden Lodge

“Hello again, Sydney.” Margaret sat on the other side of him with a nice mug of cocoa. She handed it to him. “Here. This was Catherine’s recipe. It’s not from the book. Just an old fashioned cocoa recipe. Try?”

Sydney looked toward it then back to her. “I graciously accept.” Margaret watched him as he took several drinks.

Margaret smiled at the cocoa. “Catherine was very good at that kind of thing.”

“Yes, I remember,” Sydney said. “She was a lovely woman.”

“Very lovely.” Margaret reached out to his arm. “I need you to tell Jarod the truth soon. It will only become harder if you don’t.”

Sydney stirred the cocoa and stared at her. She was full of life, like Jarod, but different. Her life force, the way she didn’t seem to care about the rights or the wrongs, and did everything the best she could. He hadn’t felt that life force since . . . since a very long time.

“Sydney?” She readdressed him. “Please tell him.”

“What is it you want me to tell Jarod?” Sydney watched as she moved over closer and whispered in his ear. “I can’t say that, Margaret. How did you even know?”

“Few secrets escaped me over the years. I Pretended more than my fair share around,” she revealed. “I’m betting even Charles knew it. It wasn’t that deep, it was just in an old area he’d never poke around. Tell him.”

Sydney shook his head. “Jarod and I are fine. Why are you pushing this?” Her soft eyes lit up her delicate expression.

“Because I know what happens next. Catherine found out too. If you don’t tell him, the future will be harder for him to accept.” She patted his arm. “I was scared. I rejected it for the longest time, but, sometimes . . . when you get to where the scroll is, and you know what’s going on. It’s. Not as hard anymore.”

Sydney sighed softly and looked toward her. She was gentle yet strong. It made sense why she fell for a military man. He must have taken great care of her. He took another sip of cocoa. Even though the subject matter she brought up was hard, she was so easy to talk to. He wanted to say yes, just so he didn’t displease her, but he couldn’t. “If I tell your son that, it will only drive him further away. I am fine where I am. This is the distance we’ve always been.”

“And so, you will hang onto that secret until your very death? Or are you going to tell him right before so you go with a clear conscience, and he’s left with the consequences?” she asked.

“No.” Sydney shook his head. “No, no. I will let it haunt me even in my grave. I would never do that to him.”

“Some things can’t be hidden forever.” Margaret rose from her spot. “No matter how painful the road is, it always comes true. I’ve tried multiple times to diverge, to stop the fate. Destiny, Sydney, must be followed.”

She left her happy family, taking a peek. Everyone seemed happy, even Catherine’s child, Ethan. She went over toward Miss Parker, but didn’t look toward her.

Gemini and Debbie were both putting popcorn on string. She came over closer and smiled at them. “Are you having fun together?”

Gemini looked toward her, his eyes were all lit up. “Yes. Placing this popcorn on the string is quite fun. An interesting tradition. I will have to read about when it started.”

“You will have to read a lot of stuff.” She patted his head and looked toward Debbie. She breathed softly as Debbie smiled at her. “Remember this Christmas.” She gently touched her hand. “There will never be another one like it.”

“Uh, hey, can I help?” Broots asked them.

“No, Broots,” Miss Parker insisted. “Buzz off, okay?”

Margaret left toward her room. Scrolls. Please let it be wrong. Her senses already knew, but she rejected it for as long as she could.

Real life was calling though, and she needed to answer it. She closed her door rebelliously and dialed her husband’s number. He didn’t answer. She tried again. He didn’t answer. She tried again.

“I have nothing more to say.”

“Charles,” she said softly. “I wish you would come to see Jarod. Our grandchildren, they are so beautiful too.”

“I would, but you’re still there. Even though you know you don’t have any right to be! How could you hide everything from me? Hide your true self from me?!”

“I didn’t hide my true self,” she assured him. The door was still closed. “Honest. What you see is what you get. You know that. I mean, yes, the last name, but I didn’t hide anything else. Just my past.”

“They were all taken. It can’t be coincidence, stop lying to me about that. Someone caught you, someone knew of your abilities, and they tagged our children. They took away Jarod and Kyle because of you!”

“It wasn’t like that,” she tried one more time, still watching the door. It was still closed. “I never knew. Nugenesis, blood samples. It was that. It had to be that.” She felt tears start to fall again. “Or, maybe, maybe I was in the scrolls too. They knew about the name Jarod. I never saw the whole thing, only the ending.”

“I can’t believe you are using ancient relics for this. Our son, my son, is out there right now in some jungle fighting for his life! And Jarod? Oh my god, he is stuck between The Centre and Pretending, still unable to be the father he wants to be! And who’s to blame, Margaret?”

She heard the heater kick on and the door started to crack open.

“I wish. I really wish I could have just grown old, died and never knew this terrible secret . Then . . . at least I could have continued to love your memory as my wife. But, you never bothered even telling me your real name, our wedding was never legal.”

“Actually, it was, because even though an alias was given, we have done plenty that-“

“Don’t start getting all genius on me. All charming now. Don’t do it. Is it legal?”

“Of course.”

“Then use your Pretender skills and make it illegal.”

She dropped the phone from her hands.

Fate.

Fate. Hurt.

“Margaret?” Sydney opened the door as he saw her crumpled, lying on the floor. He closed the door behind him and came over to her. “Are you alright?” Sydney tried to figure out what was going on. Jarod’s mother looked awful. He picked up the phone.

“That’s not a woman breathing.”

“Pardon me.” Sydney had an idea who it had been. He had talked to Miss Parker about the incident. Major Charles. “This is Sydney.”

“Oh.” The voice on the phone softened. “How is Jarod?”

Did he honestly want him to discuss that while he painfully must have hurt his wife? “He is fine. I believe we can talk about him later.” Sydney hung up and tried to come closer. The poor woman. Jarod was not the only one hurt in the whole Centre charade his entire life. He wanted to comfort her, but he hardly knew her yet. But.

That look. That was the look Jarod described she always had whenever he caught up to her. Sad. Misery. She didn’t deserve that. Even if The Centre had tailed her, she didn’t deserve any of that. He stepped closer toward her. “Are you alright? Do you want to talk?” He bent down towards her. “I’m sure you know I have experience.”

Her eyes drifted up toward his. “It’s getting closer. I’m scared, Sydney.”

“What is getting closer?” Sydney asked. “Do you feel unsafe? Unhappy?” He didn’t want her to feel unhappy. The beauty she possessed normally, her bright and loving spirit shined so brightly when she smiled.

“Yes and no. As strange as that is.” She wiped her eyes. “I haven’t seen him in so long. I was hoping it wouldn’t be this hard when the moment came.” She reached out a trembling hand. “I want to be beyond the glass already, looking in.”

Sydney took her extended hand and held it with the gentlest empathy he could. “Miss Parker told me some of what was said last time. I too, have not always followed my heart. I . . . feel you may be on a path I once traveled upon. Would you like to have a session with me?”

“No, just hold me.” She took her free hand and held his back with it.

Oh dear. She was so  hurt. Sydney pulled her closer, letting go of her hand and embracing her. It was so obvious she was Jarod’s mother. While the need for revenge and justice was certainly instilled from his father, Major Charles. The gentle and loving side was clearly from his mother.

She didn’t want words, only actions.

“I am so cursed,” she said softly. “He’ll never forgive me. My marriage to him. He. He told me . . .” She began to weep again. “To use my Pretender skills to find my own way out of it.”

Oh. Sydney held her gently for several more minutes. Her body was so drained, she was almost asleep in his arms. Picking her up, he lifted her to her bed, placing her gently down upon it. That feeling. That regret. That torture after realizing there was nothing that could be done for the mistakes that were made. That tender, painful moment.

///Not even He can forgive me for what I have done. ///

That. Moment. Was now her moment. And. “I have been there, Margaret,” he said delicately, scooting her wet hair out of her face. “I don’t want you to dwell alone there, like I did.” Her eyes. So lost. He found himself almost drowning in them, wanting to take away all that pain. She had lost her sons for so many years. Still never found Kyle, and only met Jarod when he was an adult. Her life was nothing but pain, yet she had hung on.

He remembered that smile. That rebellious attitude when she first came in through the door. A lesser woman would have been trampled upon all those years ago, but she carried through. She carried on.

That’s when the telephone rang again. Sydney fetched it for her, but she answered it again.

“Margaret. I’m . . .” Margaret held her breath. Sorry. Please say sorry? Instead she heard the phone change hands. “Momma?”

“Emily?” Oh, her Emily. “How are you?”

“I came with dad. We are back in America. Jarod . . .”

“You want to see your brother?” she asked.

“We should all see him on Christmas. We should all be together at once, momma. And, I miss you. I haven’t seen you in five years.”

“There are some problems with seeing him though,” she had said. She gulped. “Your father wants to come too?”

“Dad . . . um, he . . . doesn’t want to talk or see you mom. He’s. Confused maybe? I don’t know, I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore. I just, I still love you.”

“Oh.” She looked toward Sydney almost automatically. There was something warm in his eyes that seemed to pull her through. As a Pretender, she knew how to get through the rough cracks in life. “If he comes, I’ll stay in my room the entire time. I’ll say I’m not feeling very well.”

“You are . . . probably a good actor for it. Just, ask Jarod?”

She nodded and hung up the phone. She pulled herself back up on the bed. “My daughter and Charles want to see everyone for Christmas too. Let’s see what I can pull out of my butt.” She stood up, but felt Sydney helping her up anyhow. “I’ll be fine.”

“You are a stronger woman, than the man that I am.”

Her spirit almost seemed to return at his words. “It’s alright. I’ve known for years this had been coming. Thank you, Sydney. Catherine was right. You are a true friend. I must talk to Miss Parker. My skills . . .” she admitted. “Have a limit I’m afraid.”

“I will go and tell her for you,” Sydney said. “Just about Christmas. Okay?” He patted her hand and moved away. He closed the door behind her.

“There is no escape from destiny.” She always knew it. The emotions. It hurt, and it felt good. It was a painful, but needed release, with moments she would cherish in the future. She wrapped herself up tighter.

While her strength had left her, hope had appeared through an open door. She even thought she would try, one more time to rebel against the scrolls, by watching the door. Keeping it closed. But there was no way to ignore it.

She knew, and felt it. Ever since she met him in person. She wanted to deny it, but the action he just took. The place he had appeared. The transition, was terrible and wonderful. She laid her head down on the pillow. It couldn’t be denied.

She lost her husband today, but she had gained the love of her life.

At the exact same time.

Miss Parker had to give him one thing. Jarod? Made a great father. He didn’t complain about needing a swing, or where to put a baby down. He never got tired of the task of watching them, and he even managed to do everything with everyone else. At any one time, he had at least one.

But even then, his genius seemed to remember which one he put down and paid attention too, so he could be fair.

Then again, this was his week. After this, he would only get to see them when the others snuck them down on the weekends, or when he snuck into her house. She was finishing up decorating the Christmas tree with popcorn string with Debbie and Gemini, when she saw Sydney. He looked terrible, waiting in the hallway. Jarod was laughing with Ethan while he was trying to hold Onyssius, so she went ahead and slinked around the corner.

“Hey, Syd.” She tried to be casual. “Too much Christmas for you?”

Sydney still seemed lost. “Emily,” he said to her. “Emily and Major Charles want to see Jarod too.”

Ooooh . . . Miss Parker folded her arms. “What?”

“They are not in Africa,” Sydney said. “They want to see-“

“Sure one big explosive family reunion. Where a bitch steals my kids and leaves me for dead? No thank you.”

“Stealing kids?”

Oh, of course he’d hear. She turned around and noticed Jarod. Before he even asked. “No.”

“Jarod,” Sydney said looking toward him. “Your father and Emily are in America. They would very much like to visit you.”

“No,” Miss Parker repeated again.

His dad? Emily? “My entire family would be here with me.” Everyone but Kyle.

“Jarod,” Miss Parker seethed. “They kidnapped me.”

“They thought you were going to return to The Centre,” Jarod reminded her. “Oh, and you did too.”

“I wouldn’t have if your serial sister wasn’t out there!”

Okay. Okay. He held his hands out. He looked toward Ethan and Gemini. A family Christmas, where he could see the whole family? “I promise nothing will happen,” he said looking back at her. She was far from convinced. “They probably want to see the new members of the family.”

“Or steal them,” she muttered.

“Miss Parker,” Sydney insisted. “All of this . . . family business. I believe it would be a good idea to perhaps have our own little Christmas again? With perhaps, one other?”

“Good idea, Sydney. Take Onyssius,” Jarod insisted, handing her their son. “I’ll hold Angel.” She looked a little more eased, but still. “I absolutely promise. I will not let Emily take her.”

“I won’t get stabbed in the middle of the night after the festivities are over?”

“I’m  . . . sleeping next to you,” Jarod reminded her. “What I’ve done with The Centre is my choice. They know that.” An entire family together for Christmas. Just once. It was probably too much to ask. “I appreciate having-“

“If anything happens to Angel, Jarod,” Miss Parker warned him, without finishing the sentence.

Jarod beamed. “A couple of hours at most.”

“Emily comes first. Then, Major Charles,” Sydney said.

“Hm.” She placed her hand on her hip. “Fine. Broots! Debbie!” She shouted holding Onyssius. “We’re out of here for a couple of hours.”

“Thank you.” Jarod held her arm, wanting to hug her. Being there with his children. Then being there with his mother. Then having Ethan and Gemini? Now, everyone that could be there.

“If Emily comes after me at any time, Jarod, I’m shooting her.”

“Of course you would,” he said in a perky manner. “I couldn’t blame you. Merry Christmas.”

———————————————

Convenience Store . . .

“This is kind of nice,” Debbie smiled at Miss Parker as she drank her hot cocoa. Convenience store hot cocoa.

“Whoopee,” Broots said looking around. “Well? At least Jarod gets his whole family.”

“Almost.” Miss Parker looked down at Onyssius. He was wrapped in double layers. Jarod got to show off Angel, while she held her son tight. Damn, the things she did for him sometimes. “This town has a sleigh ride today. Long and short. I’m not taking Onyssius for too long.”

“Well, that’ll be fun,” Broots said, looking over toward his daughter. “What do you think, sweetie?”

Sydney on the other hand simply looked at his cocoa, thinking about the cocoa Margaret so lovingly made for him. He stared off out the window. She would see Emily, but she would have to deal with Major Charles. It was clear that he wanted nothing to do with her.

Just as Jarod . . . Sydney noticed Miss Parker and Broots looking toward him.

“Syd?” Miss Parker adjusted Onyssius. “What’s wrong? You look like your whole world is falling apart.”

“Not mine, but . . .” He couldn’t continue. The thought of Margaret, alone in her room, Pretending that she was sick and couldn’t come out on Christmas of all days? “Miss Parker. I’m afraid old habits die hard.” No. No, not like that.

“Old habits?” She questioned.

“Yes. I want to go hunting for someone,” Sydney said.

“Oooohh.” Miss Parker chuckled and gave him a devilish smile. “Why, Sydney? Who do you want to hunt?”

Oh, that old flame sparked right up into her. Was it enough though? Could he convince Margaret to leave the room, to spend Christmas with them? “I know things, that I can’t share,” Sydney settled for. “However, I know Margaret is in a form of hell in that house right now.”

“Major Charles.” Miss Parker seemed to know. “He wasn’t very nice on the phone from before. He call her again?” Sydney nodded. “Was it bad?” Sydney couldn’t nod, but slightly looked outside. “Debbie. Broots. Pack up. We’re going hunting for Christmas, and I’m not talking deer.”

“Thank you,” Sydney said with a smile.

——————————

Private Parker Winter Lodge

“I can’t believe I’m hunting from my own lodge,” Miss Parker said. They were pulled up slightly in the back, but not enough to be seen. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this.”

“If I can convince her, I will be back with her.” Sydney closed the door, and held his coat around himself. He could not get the thought out of his mind. It reminded him too much of all the mistakes he made with Jarod.

Except, she was Sydney. Stuck. Caught. He opened the back door with the key Miss Parker had and looked around. Her door was closed, except by a crack. He knocked on it. “Margaret?”

Margaret was lying on the bed. It probably wasn’t hard to pull off her Pretend of being sick. “Sydney? I thought you were gone.”

Sydney heard Major Charles talking to Jarod. “He’s here now?” he whispered. She nodded. “Did you see your daughter?” She nodded. “Would you mind terribly if we captured you for an evening with us?” he asked. Oh. There it was. Her bright spirit in those eyes returned as she handed him her hand.

Making sure no one was coming, he pulled her to the back door, relocking it. He took her hand again and moved through the snow to the hiding car. And while he did that, he found himself chuckling. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m capturing Jarod’s mother.”

Margaret joined him in the laugh, covering her mouth. Oh, she sounded so happy.

Sydney pulled her all the way to the car and gave her the front seat while he sat in the back.

Miss Parker looked at her with her old shades on. “I think we can skip the handcuffs this time?”

Broots just covered his face. “We kidnapped Jarod’s mother. This is going to break his perfect Christmas. He’s not going to be happy.”

“Oh, knock it off,” Miss Parker insisted. “He doesn’t have his brother. Maybe next year they can all be together and he can experience the entire migraine of the family holiday.”

“But this year?” Sydney patted Margaret’s hand from the back seat. “We’d like to kidnap you for a sleigh ride?”

“Short sleigh ride. Onyssius is not going to be out in this weather too long,” Miss Parker insisted as she pulled away.

Left in the lodge, unaware of the capture . . .

“There she is.” Emily stood over the crib. “Your daughter. My niece.” She sighed and stroked her cheek.

“Yes,” Jarod said looking over the crib too. “This is Angel.” He looked back toward her. She still refused to call her by her name. “I know what you’re thinking.”

“Miss Parker’s pet name,” Emily said bitterly. “From her ‘daddy’, Jarod?” she scoffed. “Don’t you have a real name you call her, when that Parker isn’t around?”

“Emily,” Major Charles sighed. “Don’t start, not now. We are lucky we even get to be here.”

Lucky was right. “You are here because Miss Parker trusts me enough to watch over her,” Jarod warned Emily. “Dad’s right.” But. “As for your question? When Miss Parker isn’t around I call her . . .” Jarod smiled, touched her nose, and then looked back at Emily. “Angel.”

He wasn’t going to at first. Anything but Angel, that was what he once believed when he started Pretending with Miss Parker. Her daddy’s pet name for her. The daughter of her great-grandfather that was burned alive. “The name Angel makes Miss Parker happy,” he said to her. “She wants her daughter to share that happiness.”

Emily still didn’t look happy.

Major Charles continued to look down at her. “She’s got some fancy clothes there.”

“Oh, yes.” Jarod picked her up out of the crib with a wide smile. “Momma always has you in pretty things, doesn’t she?” He adjusted her red dress. The bottom layer was a silky red material, with the top layer being a thin fish netting with sequined hearts on it. The top was similar. She even wore little matching socks that went with it. He could see them clearly as she started to wiggle her feet. “Her Christmas dress.”

“My poor niece.” Emily touched the top of her head. “Dressed like a doll.”

Jarod . . . didn’t appreciate that. “Miss Parker dresses her the way her mother used to dress her.”

“Like a doll,” she muttered again.

“I find all the little ensembles of Angel Parker fascinating,” Gemini said as he approached the crib.

“Angel Parker?” Emily’s nostril flared. “Jarod?”

“The Triumvirate believes them to be Broots’ children.” Jarod held Angel closer. He wanted to share so much with Emily, but all the hate was still deep within her. “But Parkers hold power, so they were going to-“

“Rename this Broots guy, Parker. Total control of everything, even the last name of the man makes no difference if the woman’s Parker?” Emily crossed her arms. “Can’t you take any control at all, Jarod?”

“I’m taking what control I can,” Jarod said firmly. “The illusion has to remain.” He looked down at Angel. “What do you think of her, dad?”

“I think that your little Angel is very pretty.” Major Charles gave him a light smile.

Jarod smiled back. “I do too. Hm. Little Angel. You know, I like that. Especially with all the other angel and devil talk with the scrolls. Little Angel. It really helps define her.”

“No one names their kid Little anything, Jarod,” Emily complained. “Oh wait, I forgot. The Centre with their nonsense names was where you were forced to grow up.”

Okay. Trying. Jarod watched as Emily started to look at the baby’s set of drawers. “Emily? What are you doing?”

“Nothing.” She sniffed and looked away. “Just seeing if her or the boy wear any normal clothes that don’t cost at least a hundred dollars apiece.”

“Emily,” Major Charles warned her. “Are you wanting to see how far you can push Jarod?”

“No,” she insisted. “What do they wear when they want to play, Jarod? Outside?“

“Too small right now.” He tried to keep his voice level.

“Oh, I asked that of Miss Parker,” Gemini said to Emily. “When they get a little older, they will have play clothes.”

“Buying clothes for play?” Emily didn’t say anything else. Which was good.

Jarod placed his Little Angel back down in her crib. She reached back out toward him, kicking and hollering. Separated from Onyssius she was fussier than ever. He picked her back up. “Dad? Do you want to hold her?”

Major Charles let out a small sigh, then accepted. Not quite the response Jarod was looking for, but at least it was something. “Hey there, little Angel,” he said sweetly to her. “You entered into one strange world, didn’t you?”

Jarod watched as Ethan came into the room. Wow. Almost everyone was in there now. “Come on in.”

Ethan nodded to Jarod. He looked toward Emily. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “How are you, Ethan?”

“I’m . . . okay?” He looked toward Jarod, then at Little Angel. “She’s so pretty for Christmas.”

“Yep,” Emily said curtly. “Like a doll.”

Okay, that was it. “You know why she wears all these pretty, expensive things, Emily?” Jarod tickled Angel’s foot and it wiggled. He used her happy reaction for concentration. “It’s not because Miss Parker thinks our children are dolls. She wants to give them the best that she can. So, yes, Little Angel wears pretty dresses. At least Miss Parker cares to put her in something pretty. There are a lot of parents out there that won’t spend anything on their kids.”

“Money doesn’t replace anything, Jarod.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“My sister left, so you could see Jarod,” Ethan said to Emily. “Can you be nicer to her please?”

“Getting the whole family together for Christmas,” Emily said, “doesn’t change anything that she did to Jarod, or anyone else. It doesn’t change who she’d been. Or that Jarod is still stuck in The Centre.”

“Unable to . . .” Major Charles started to back her up slightly. “Whether she meant it or not, you are still owned by The Centre, Jarod.”

“Whether she meant it or not?” Jarod repeated him. Emily was starting to fill his own father’s head with things. “How about the fact if she isn’t at The Centre, there’s someone else out there, like me, killing people that I knew and cared about!” Like those kids. “Eighteen. Eighteen children from my first Christmas.”

“It’s okay, Jarod.” Gemini patted his back. “We’re here.”

“We are here,” Ethan agreed coming over toward Jarod.

“It was a tragedy,” his father said. “This whole year was just a tragedy.”

“Yeah.” Jarod had to agree. “Although, two wonderful little souls came out of it. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.” He looked toward his father. “How are you and mom doing?”

Major Charles didn’t answer.

“Is mom actually sick?” Jarod asked him. “I heard what you said last time to her. That was harsh, dad.”

“Here you go, Jarod.” Major Charles gave Little Angel back. “You better hold her while you can. Never know when they disappear. Or why.”

“Mom wasn’t responsi-“

“She was a Pretender, Jarod,” he said. “She was the exact thing The Centre turned you into.” He gestured around the room. “All of this. Everything. It can’t be coincidence.”

“Nugenesis-“

“Was her idea, Jaro-.”

“Both of you had that idea,” Jarod said, interrupting him right back.

“Well, she had it first.”

Jarod rubbed his face. This must be what people are talking about when they say they’ve had too much family time over the holidays. It was always hard to understand why certain people reached for a bottle or no one could get along. Gemini, Ethan and his mom had been great. But Emily and his father? His father tried to hold it together. Emily cared less to hide it.

Jarod put Little Angel back down in her crib. “Why don’t we all go over and have some cocoa or something? Lessen this stress?”

“Oh yes,” Gemini agreed. “Margaret’s cocoa is quite tasty. She made it this morning.”

“Mom’s cocoa?” Emily smiled. “I miss mom’s cocoa.” She looked toward her dad. “Dad, do you want-“

“No.” He rubbed his mouth. “Nothing of hers.”

“Dad.” Jarod tried again. “You can’t blame mom for everything. She was a Pretender. She kept that from you, and I know that hurts,” he said, “but it isn’t responsible for what happened.”

“I spent years, Jarod,” he said huffily, “years, searching for you and Kyle! Because I married and made a family with a woman that I thought I knew.”

Huh? “You did know her.”

“Did I?” he asked. “Did I ever? She was just a Pretender, never even gave me her real last name. She kept that lie up. All the way through it all. All. The. Way,” he said punctuating each word with a breath. “Who knows how much she hid from me, for how many years?”

“What you see is what you get with mom.” Jarod tried to talk his father down.

“I’m still looking at the places you told us to check in Africa,” Major Charles said. “Nothing’s worked so far. We don’t see anything.”

“She’s not sick at all, is she?” Jarod asked. “She’s faking it so you can be here.”

“Eventually something will pop up, son,” Major Charles said, like he hadn’t even heard what he said. “We’ll find it. It’s what we do.”

Jarod continued to stare at him.

“Family.” The Major shook his head. “We might be close to reuniting everyone, but it doesn’t mean everything’s perfect.”

Jarod was hearing it loud and clear. He was more concerned about their hurt, then how them not being together affected him. After all, he’d never even seen them in the same room. But, each of them hurt. His father felt betrayed, and Jarod knew that feeling. He knew it well. Trusting someone for so long, just to find out . . . “Why don’t you go and get some cocoa, Emily? Dad, there’s cookies out there Miss Parker made.” Don’t get the two confused. As they headed out, he went to go check on his mom. He knocked on her door. “Mom?” No answer. “Mom, I know you’re not sick. Please talk to me?” No answer. He slowly opened the door and looked inside.

There was a small strip of paper on the bed. He picked it up, expecting it to be a goodbye to him.

Hunted down your mom. We captured her and now the Pretender is out on a sleigh with us. –Miss Parker

Jarod tried to hold back his laugh. It was good to know she wasn’t stuck in there after all. My Miss Parker. For once, he didn’t mind the capture.