What Price Freedom

Chapter 2

Jarod came awake as he often did – abruptly, in a cold sweat, with an overwhelming urge to flee. But this time his nightmare followed him into the real world – in the form of one tall brunette with murky blue eyes, legs that went on forever, and a rare but bewitching smile. But the woman leaning over him was all business as she snapped a pair of cold, very real handcuffs onto his wrists.

Still fighting to surface through the fog of sleep, Jarod tried to spring up off the sofa. . . and collapsed back down again when a sharp pain sliced through his injured left side. He stifled a moan.

“Rise and shine, Jarod,” Miss Parker said. “Time to go home.” She aimed a gun at him. “Don’t make me ask you twice.”

Jarod sighed and started to stand up, more carefully this time, but he couldn’t hide a slight wince as he felt another twinge from his side.

“Wait!” Miss Parker pushed him back down on the couch and lifted his black t-shirt; they could both see the blood seeping through his bandage. “Damn it. Don’t move,” she ordered and strode over to the table where Sydney had the medical supplies laid out as neatly as any exam room.

Jarod considered making a run for it but knew the odds were against him. Presumably, she hadn’t come alone, which meant Sweepers were waiting in the hall or downstairs or both places. There was always the fire escape, but Miss Parker stood between him and the window, the gun still in her one hand while she gathered items from the table with her other. And he wasn’t exactly in the best shape for moving quickly.

He’d barely had time to decide to stay put before she was back with bandage and tape. She looked down at him for a second, frowning, before putting her gun in the pocket of her trench coat. Then she knelt down beside the sofa.

He must look pretty bad if she felt comfortable enough to put her gun away. He wasn’t sure if he should feel relieved or offended.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” she replied testily. “Can’t have you bleeding all over the leather seats in my car.”

Her car? Maybe she had come alone, and he’d just missed a chance to escape. Hopefully there would be another. If his body would just cooperate…

Miss Parker peeled away the tape around the edges of the bandage, and Jarod’s stomach muscles spasmed. “Lie still!” she commanded.

Aware that her gun was still very much in reach and more than a little concerned about her other weapon – her long sharp fingernails – and her lack of nursing experience, Jarod complied. He took shallow breaths to remain as motionless as possible.

The only light was from a weak ceiling fixture, and Miss Parker’s shoulder-length hair threw additional shadows across his body. She pushed a stray lock away from her cheek in irritation, and Jarod stifled the urge to help by tucking the tendril behind her ear himself. Miss Parker bit her lower lip as she concentrated on the task at hand, and Jarod wondered who was more nervous at this particular moment. As she applied a clean piece of gauze and carefully taped it into place, smoothing the edges with her fingers, Jarod was surprised by her gentle touch. He decided that the warm tingle he felt where her skin came into contact with his was the result of nerve damage from the bullet wound.

Miss Parker finally nodded grimly, apparently satisfied with her patch job. She rose and disposed of the blood-soaked bandage in the paper bag Sydney was using for trash.

Time was running out. “Why are you doing this?” he asked quietly.

She turned to him in exasperation then saw the serious look on his face and seemed to realize he wasn’t asking why she was playing nurse. She sighed. “It’s my job, Jarod,” she replied wearily. “You belong at the Centre.”

So she was sticking with the company line; why had he expected anything different? He couldn’t understand the profound disappointment he felt.

Jarod could see daylight leaking through the tears in the window’s venetian blinds. Yesterday Sydney had promised that he’d be back early this morning to check on him. He had probably figured Jarod would be long gone by then. Damn, if only he had been. But this injury was worse than he expected – which was the only reason Jarod had called Sydney for help in the first place.

“Time to go,” Miss Parker said, pulling out her gun again.

Jarod struggled into a sitting position. With his hands cuffed, he had to rely mostly on his stomach muscles to make the move, and right now they were not exactly in the best shape. To stall as well as to catch his breath before standing, Jarod tossed out casually, “I thought you didn’t want to see Lyle get the credit for catching me.”

Miss Parker’s gaze sharpened on his face as her own words were thrown back at her. “I knew you weren’t really asleep. You were pretending,” she accused him.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Jarod’s lips twitched at her unintentional pun. But he sobered quickly, acknowledging the urgency of his current situation and wondering if what he’d overheard yesterday could help. When he’d first awakened and realized that Miss Parker was in the room talking to Sydney, a wave of despair had washed over him as he lay there, sure she was there to drag him back to the Centre. But as he continued to eavesdrop on their conversation, he came to the stunning realization that Miss Parker was there to help – had actually brought medical supplies – and was no imminent threat to him. Could he somehow tap into the sympathetic Miss Parker of yesterday?

“But don’t worry, Jarod,” Miss Parker was saying, “the only credit Lyle will be getting is for botching the job. I’m the one who’s successfully going to return you to the Centre.”

“I’m not there yet,” Jarod said with more bravado than he felt.

Miss Parker was unimpressed. “Stop stalling, Jarod. Let’s go.” She gestured with her gun.

Jarod rose stiffly to his feet, pressing his shacked wrists against his injured side for extra support (and making a bigger show of it than was entirely necessary). “Thanks for patching me up, but you shouldn’t have bothered. I’m sure I’ll be the worse for wear after Lyle has a few ‘sessions’ with me.” It took an effort to keep his voice light; his insides churned at the memory of the torture he’d endured the last time he was at the Centre.

Miss Parker looked away (how Jarod wished he had the strength to go for the gun!) but sounded determined when she said, “That’s not going to happen this time. Both my father and I are there to keep Lyle in check.”

“Your father doesn’t care what happens to me! As long as there’s no permanent damage, he’ll let his son do whatever he wants.”

This time she met his gaze. “That’s not true! Daddy’s gone against Lyle in the past; remember, he helped orchestrate Lyle’s falling-out with the Tanaka family that resulted in him losing his thumb.”

“That was before he knew he was Lyle’s ‘Daddy,” too,” Jarod pointed out. “Amazing how strong family ties are; you both know that Lyle is a psychotic killer, yet you work side by side with him every day.”

“Do you think I have a choice?” Her voice was bitter.

“Which means I’m right in assuming I can’t rely on you or your father to protect me from your brother.”

Her eyes flashed. “You will not be tortured, Jarod. You have my word.”

Sounded like she meant it. Did she really believe she could deliver on that promise? He wondered if the guilt angle might be the best approach. Maybe he could keep her talking until Sydney arrived and at best, made her see reason, or at worst, provide a distraction he could use to get her gun and escape.

“Just being trapped at the Centre is torture enough.” Jarod let some of his growing desperation show. “Now that I’ve been out in the world, I don’t think I could stand being in a cage again.”

“Oh, come on, Jarod. Just ‘pretend’ you’re on a beach somewhere enjoying an ice cream cone,” she smirked. “Now, get moving.” She reached out, grabbed hold of the cuffs and gave a yank.

Jarod stumbled forward a couple of steps but then stopped and tried again to appeal to her carefully-hidden sensitive side. “This isn’t just about me, Miss Parker! You know I’ve done some good these last few years.”

“Oh, so now you want me to feel sorry for all the victims you won’t be able to help if you’re back at the Centre?” Her voice was hard. “Sorry, Jarod, that’s not my job. I didn’t sign up for your rescue mission.”

And it came to him. The one surefire way he could distract her enough to possibly wrest the gun away from her. “Interesting choice of words, Miss Parker,” he said. “After all, it was your mother who tried to ‘rescue’ me from the Centre. I wonder how she’d feel about what you’re doing.” He paused, then, letting himself slip into the harsh accuser mode he’d used on so many pretends when he confronted the villains with their crimes, he added, his lip curling in an unnatural sneer, “I bet she’d be so proud.”

“I’m not my mother!” Miss Parker shouted in his face. Jarod braced himself for the slap he was sure would follow.

But it never came. Miss Parker backed off a step, and Jarod saw that the hand holding the gun was shaking slightly. “I’m not my mother,” she repeated, and the tremor in her voice matched that in her body. “I’ll never be my mother.”

Her sad, wistful tone caught Jarod completely by surprise. Her next words were said so quietly, he had to strain to hear them. “But I don’t want to be my father.”

She was looking off to the side, almost like she had forgotten where she was, what she was doing. It was the perfect opportunity to go for her gun and add one more miraculous escape to his resume.

But he found he couldn’t move. The look on Miss Parker’s face transfixed him; a strange combination of yearning and disgust warred for dominance. She was paler than usual, her hair a ribbon of black satin pulled back from her face. Her neutral lipstick was almost invisible along the thin line of her tightly compressed lips. She seemed to be fighting to remain in control. Jarod wished he had a sketch pad so that he could capture the essence of the woman in front of him as he’d once captured on paper the despair of a stricken little girl who’d just lost her mother. That child’s face had haunted him for years, and he sensed that what he was seeing now would also be with him for a long time.

Remembering the young Miss Parker at a happier time, Jarod moved slowly as in a dream towards the grown-up version. He touched her chin, turning her face to him. “To me, you’ll always be the little girl who gave me my first one of these,” he murmured and kissed her.

The kiss was gentle, tentative, much like the one he’d received so many years ago. He still felt a boy’s wonder at it, even as his adult self appreciated the softness of her lips, the scent of her perfume…

It was only a few seconds before Miss Parker pulled away. Jarod bowed his head in apology, his cuffed hands held up as if in supplication. He fully expected to feel the sting of her hand on his cheek this time. “Sorry,” he started.

He never had a chance to finish. Miss Parker’s free hand shot out, grabbed the back of his head, and pulled him to her. This kiss was just like her – hot, demanding, passionate, and totally on her own terms. Jarod reveled in the sensations coursing through his body as he did his best to return the kiss with just as much fervor.

It seemed longer this time, but Miss Parker was the one to pull away again. Jarod saw the turbulence in her deep blue eyes as she stared at him in shock, before she turned and ran out of the apartment.

His head swimming from the intensity of the last few moments and his side suddenly throbbing with reawakened pain, Jarod managed to make it to a chair at the table before his legs gave way.

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