A/N: This story follows “Under Pressure” and “Under Cover”, and is easier to understand if you’ve read the first two installments. If you haven’t, then it might help to know that this series is set in modern day. Lou and Kid (“Michael Kidd” in this story), were agents together in a branch of the CIA, and had a son, Zachary Kidd, together. They broke up when Lou discovered that Kidd had an affair with a suspect, in order to get information about a terrorist attack. Lou fell in love with Jimmy, another agent, who died while Lou was pregnant with his child, Jamie. Lou and Kidd resolved their differences, and married. Kidd adopted Lou’s daughter with Jimmy. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s sister Celinda fell in love with Noah Dixon, another agent. They had twins together, Chloe and Connor, who are Jamie’s cousins. Whew . . . that’s probably enough to set the stage for this story, set a number of years later.
Lying in bed, Kidd glanced up from his newspaper as his wife came out of the bathroom.
"What are you so excited about?" he asked, taking off his reading glasses and setting the paper on the nightstand. "You look like you won the Lottery."
Lou ran and jumped on the bed, kneeling next to him. "Well, not exactly. But something great, and just as much of a miracle!" She was forty-four but she looked like a little girl in a candy store, Kidd thought affectionately. He rubbed her thigh through her nightgown.
"Sounds exciting. So spit it out," he said.
Before she could answer, a knock came at the door. A girl's voice called, "Mom? Dad? You up yet?"
"Come in," Kidd called out.
Mary Theresa stuck her head in the door, a cellphone hanging from her ear. "Kayla wants to know if I can come over; can I?"
Lou nodded to Kidd and he started to get out of bed. "Sure, I'll throw on some clothes and drive you over."
"They said yes," Mary Theresa said into her phone. "Don't bother, Dad. Zach already said he'd drop me off."
"He's busy, though, Mary. He's heading back to college today, and he already promised Jamie he'd take her to the mall on his way."
Thirteen year old Mary rolled her eyes at him. They were large and wide like her mother's, but bright blue like her father's. Tossing back her long hair a little petulantly, she said, "Dad, Zach's fine with it, and he's waiting in the car with Jamie. Please?"
"What time should I pick you up?" Kidd asked, wearily.
"I'll call you," she yelled back as she ran down the stairs, slamming the front door on the way out.
"Well, looks like we've got the whole house to ourselves for the day," Kidd said, turning back toward Lou. "I can think of a great way to spend a Saturday morning alone, how about it?" he said, tugging at her nightgown teasingly.
"Sure, but I still have some news," Lou said, as Kidd started pulling the nightgown up. "We're going to have another baby!"
Kidd's arousal disappeared abruptly and he let go of her nightgown, staring at her.
"That's impossible," he said flatly.
"Michael, I know, it's a miracle," she said, her face shining.
"I don't know if that's the word I'd choose," he said. "How could this have happened?"
"Michael, what are you implying?" she said irritably.
"I'm implying I had a vasectomy so this couldn't happen again. We agreed it was best at our age, and with your medical history, that hasn't changed."
"You're... you're not suggesting I cheated on you, are you? You know the doctor told you that sometimes vasectomies don't work. I guess yours didn't, because you know I never would cheat on you. "
"I know that, Lou."
"Besides, I'm positive it happened while we were on our second honeymoon camping for a month in Colorado. So unless you think I sneaked off and drove 100 miles to find somebody to cheat with, then –"
"Okay, enough, Lou. Of course I know it's my baby, I just can't believe this is happening."
He stood up and stared out the window. "You know this is crazy. And if anything happens to you this time..." He broke off, his voice cracking. "Maybe it's a false alarm? Maybe you're just slowing down with your periods?" he asked hopefully.
"Nope. Just took a home pregnancy test and both tests in the box came back positive."
He turned and looked at her glowing face. "How can you be so happy about this? Don't you know the risks, at your age, with your medical history?"
Her smile didn't dim. "Yeah, I know."
"And even if everything works out okay for once, are you ready to go through all the baby stuff again? The diapers, the 3 a.m. feedings, all of it? We've been finished with all that for eleven years, since Mary was a baby."
"I can't wait."
He shook his head, wonderingly.
She got up from the bed and approached him. "Michael, I know what you're saying. But I've gotten well enough that I haven't needed any medication for years. I'm so much better now than I was right after the accident. I can handle it. We can handle it."
Kidd looked down, worry etched on his face.
"Honey, it's a miracle! It must be meant to be, or how could it have even happened?"
He took her hands in his, looking into her eyes. "You'll be extra careful? You'll do anything the doctor suggests, take it easy?"
Her joy and excitement started to have an effect on him. He drew her close. "Okay, then, I guess we're going to have a baby."
"Yes, can you imagine how the kids are going to react?" Lou giggled. "They'll probably be more freaked out than you just were. This is proof their parents are still having sex."
Kidd chuckled a little, then brushed a strand of hair out of her face, looking into her face lovingly. He drew up on the sides of her nightgown, pulling it over her head. "Well, since that may be about to be a thing of the past, at least for a while once the new baby shows up - - let's not waste any time alone, okay?" She shivered with pleasure as he picked her up and carried her to the bed.
Three years later.
"Jamie?" Lou called as she tapped on her daughter's room door before she entered.
"What is it, mom?" Jamie asked, standing in front of the mirror applying makeup.
"Are you going out again tonight? I was hoping you'd be able to babysit Michael Jr. tonight, your father and I are going out to dinner with Noah Dixon and some of the guys from the agency."
"I'm meeting up with some friends, Mom. I do have a life."
"Are you going to be drinking?" Lou questioned.
Jamie stopped and looked at her mother in the mirror. "Mom, you must know everybody does. I'll be careful."
"That's not the point, Jamie. You know how I feel about drinking," Lou said, a catch in her voice. "Your Aunt Theresa died because of a drunk driver. I almost died. You're under age, and I don't approve."
"I won't be driving, Mom. And I won't get in a car with anybody who has been drinking either. We're going to take a cab from Laura's house."
"Jamie," Lou persisted. "I thought you said your audition for the department production was on Monday. You're supposed to be serious about..." Lou swallowed, "Musical Theatre... as a career. You're not acting like it by going out to party two days before your big audition."
"Mom!" Jamie finally cried. "Will you stop? I'm not a child."
Lou's eyes met Jamie's, and she spoke softly. "I just want to know that you're being careful, Jamie."
"I am, mom," Jamie said and kissed her mother's cheek. "I know you're worried about me, but I'll be careful, I promise."
As she stepped out on the porch and fumbled for her keys, Jamie snapped open her cell phone. "Hi, I'm leaving now. I'll meet you at our place. I love you." She looked back guiltily at her mother, staring at her through the window, but kept going to her car.
Lou shook her head and picked up her phone, dialing Noah's number. "Hello, Noah? It's Lou. I'm fine, thanks. I may have to bail on dinner tonight, none of the kids is available and it's too late to get another babysitter now. Mary is at a sleepover, Jamie's gone out, and I even left a message for Zach but he didn't call back." Her youngest, a sweet-faced little boy with dark brown hair and big brown eyes, pulled on her sleeve and Lou smiled, whispering, "Just a minute, M.J."
She paused, listening on the phone. "Oh, Chloe and Connor are spending the weekend with you? Are you sure she won't mind? Well, then, that works out perfect. You can bring her on over and we'll drive to the restaurant together. See you in a few hours."
Zach opened the door to his parents' house with his key, yelling in, "Mom? Dad?"
That's odd. Their car is still here, and I'm not that late.
A beautiful teenaged girl with olive skin and chin-length black hair emerged from upstairs, leading his little brother Michael Jr. by the hand. The boy ran to him, happy to see his older brother.
"Zach," she said, surprised and pleased.
"Hi, Chloe, what are you doing here? Where are my parents? Mom called and said she needed a babysitter for eight o'clock, so here I am."
"I don't think they were expecting you, they called and asked me to come over and watch him," she said, her eyes flickering over him.
"I only got the message twenty minutes ago, I was on a long stakeout that just ended," he explained, looking down at his clothes, rumpled from sitting in a surveillance van for almost 24 hours straight. "I wasn't too far away, so I thought I'd head over," he explained. "I tried to call but nobody picked up."
"Oh, I was giving M.J. a bath," she explained. "I couldn't get to the phone in time." He nodded and peeled off his jacket tiredly and flung it on a hook. He ran his fingers through his hair and yawned, heading toward the living room. Her eyes followed him, and she picked the tired looking little boy up and whispered, "M. J., how do you feel about a little nap?"
"Well, that was a nice evening," Noah remarked to Lou and Kidd as they got out of his car in front of their house. "I'll get Chloe and we'll head out."
"I'm glad she was available to babysit little Michael, when all my children went and made other plans tonight," Lou commented as they walked up the lane.
"I guess Zach's plans changed," Noah said. "There's his car."
As they entered the house, they saw little Michael asleep face down in his playpen, but neither Chloe nor Zach in sight. The water could be heard running in the downstairs shower, though, and Chloe's dress was lying on the floor outside the door.
Just as Noah went to knock on the bathroom door to let his daughter know they were home, the water shut off and Zach opened the door, wearing a towel around his waist– with Chloe standing naked behind him, about to wrap a towel around herself.
The pair stood frozen, staring back at Noah, Chloe desperately clutching the towel around herself.
"Daddy - -"
"Get yourself dressed," Noah said, his voice deadly quiet.
"Mr. Dixon –" Zach started.
"Get away from my daughter," Noah said, still with that steely anger in his voice. "The only reason I don't kill you right now is for your parents' sake."
Lou and Kidd stood, numbly, in the hallway.
"Zach, please," Lou said, moving forward and picking her son's clothes up off the bathroom floor and pulling him desperately by the arm.
"It isn't what it looks like," Zach tried to explain as Chloe started to cry and shut the door behind him. "Mom, Dad, you have to believe me, nothing happened," Zach insisted as they hustled him up the stairs.
"Just get dressed, for God's sake, and shut up," Kidd snapped. "Of all the dumb stunts I've seen you pull, this is beyond the stupidest."
"Michael, give him a chance to explain –" Lou started.
"Explain? Explain what, how he's having sex with a sixteen year old? He's a grown man."
"I didn't have sex with her, and she came on to me, not the other way around. She- –"
"You think it excuses it if she said she wanted something? She's a child compared to you, Zach. I can't believe your lack of judgment," Kidd interrupted, furious. "You sleep around enough as it is, now you decide to take advantage of a little girl?"
Zach shook his head in disbelief, pulling on his clothes. "I'm telling you, she came in the bathroom after me, she wanted sex, and I said no," he insisted.
"Why was the bathroom door unlocked? And why were you here in the first place, when you said you were busy?" Kidd shot at his son.
"Michael, listen to yourself, you sound like you're interrogating a suspect. Zach says nothing happened, she came on to him, you should believe him."
"I'm not the one who's going to have to believe it. If I know Noah, he's going to call the police and if he does, it's them you're going to have to convince. She's under age, Lou, it's against the law." He turned to his son. "You know what it'll do to your career if he pursues this with the police? You know if you're convicted of statutory rape, you'll have to register as a sex offender?"
Lou started crying. "It won't come to that, Michael, I'm sure Chloe will tell the truth and –"
Kidd sighed, putting an arm around his wife. "Honey, even if she says nothing happened, it might look like she's covering for him. It looks bad," he finished, looking dismally at his son.
Downstairs, Noah sat seething in the living room. I can't believe Zach could be capable of this. I've known him since he was a baby. But right now, I could kill him with my bare hands, he thought as Chloe continued to cry in his arms.
"Daddy, please, just let's forget the whole thing – " she pleaded.
"I can't, Chloe. What he did is illegal, I'm calling the police –"
"No," she shrieked. "Please don't. I - - I love him," she wept.
Noah stiffened. "I know you may think that, but you're too young to understand love. And you're too young to consent to – to what you just did with him."
"Daddy, I'm not a baby. And nothing happened, really," she insisted.
"What were you both doing in the bathroom with no clothes on, Chloe?" Noah asked.
She faltered, casting her eyes around. "I don't want to talk about that," she said, crying again.
"Did he force you to –"
"No, of course not. Daddy please, can't we just forget this whole thing and not make a big deal of it? Can't we just drop it? I'm telling you nothing happened."
"I found you with an older man, naked, and you've got no reasonable explanation. I think you're lying to get out of trouble," Noah said, pulling her up. "Let's get out of here, and this isn't finished, young lady."
Kidd came downstairs and saw Noah and Chloe approaching the door.
"Noah," Kidd called awkwardly. "Please, let's talk about this."
Noah didn't turn around. "I need to talk to Celinda and decide what's happening next."
Kidd nodded silently and followed them downstairs. He locked the door after them and returned to the room, where Zach and Lou still were. His heart broke at seeing Lou's red, teary eyes.
"What happened? Did she tell Noah that nothing happened?" Lou asked in a whisper.
"I don't know," Kidd answered and sat at her side, taking her hand in his. "Maybe you should go to bed, Lou? You must be really tired."
Lou shook her head before she laid it on her husband's shoulder.
Zach looked at his parents, then headed out of the room.
"Where do you think you're going?" Kidd asked angrily.
"Home," Zach answered abruptly.
"Not until you explain to me what went through your head," Kidd said and stood in his son's path. "What were you thinking?" Kidd stopped at hearing Lou sob. He continued in a lowered tone. "You're going to be lucky if he drops this, and doesn't get the police involved. I don't understand, Zach. Your mother and I taught you better. I can't even begin to tell you how disappointed I am with you."
Zach looked straight in his father's eyes. "I didn't do anything to her. It really hurts that even my own father doesn't believe me." With that, he brushed past his father and left the house, slamming the door behind him. Lou called after him, but he was already gone.
The next day, Zach looked over the people gathered in the back yard of his Uncle Jeremiah's house. There were his parents, his youngest sister and brother, and his cousins. A few of Jeremiah and Daisy's friends were also present with their families, just like every previous year as long as he could remember.
He eyed his father, who was looking away from him deliberately. He seethed at his father's lack of trust in him, but he forced a smile for his mother as she came to stand at his side.
"I'm glad you came, Zach."
Zach shrugged. "It's tradition, right?"
"I know, but I wasn't sure, with what happened last night..."
"Just keep Dad away from me, if you don't want a scene here," Zach said, still smiling.
Lou's eyes filled with tears, but she nodded and walked away.
Jamie came through the gate to the yard, pausing for dramatic effect as she always did. She hugged her Aunt Daisy affectionately.
"So, are you ready for the big audition?" Daisy asked.
"As I'll ever be. I don't think it does any good to over-prepare," Jamie explained. "Truth in acting comes from living in the moment."
Jamie looked around at her family, uncharacteristically scattered as far apart as possible in the yard.
"Hey, big brother," she laughed, sidling up to Zach. "What's up? You look like this is a funeral, not a barbecue." She was surprised when he turned his back and walked into the house. Curious, she followed him into the kitchen.
Zach was standing sullenly at the sink when she popped her head in.
"Zach? What's the matter?" she asked, concerned.
"Not much," he muttered. "Dad's not speaking to me. I don't know if I'll have a job Monday morning. Other than that, nothing's wrong."
"What happened?" Jamie asked, pulling a wine cooler from the refrigerator.
"Put that back, sis. You're too young to drink, and you drove here."
"For pete's sake, I just got here and it's just a wine cooler."
"Put it back," he said firmly.
"So when are you going to tell me what's crawled up your rear end and died?"
He groaned. "I had a major disaster last night. I went over to the house to help Mom and Dad out with babysitting M.J. I'd been out on a stakeout for 24 hours, so I thought I'd take a shower, and your little cousin Chloe decided she'd join me."
"What?" laughed Jamie. "She didn't!"
"It isn't funny, Jamie."
"Well come on, it is a little funny," Jamie said. "She's had the hots for you for years, I guess she finally worked up the nerve to make a move. And what a move!" she giggled.
"Yeah, the laughs died out when Mom, Dad, and Noah walked in and caught us coming out of the shower half dressed."
Jamie's smile faded. "Well, when they found out what Chloe did, I'm sure she got in a lot of trouble, Zach, but I don't see why you're upset. It wasn't your fault."
"Dad and Noah don't seem to believe that she came on to me and that I turned her down. And you know Noah's my supervisor at work."
"Oh, no!" cried Jamie. "What are you going to do?"
"Well, we'll have to wait and see what happens when Noah calms down, if he finally believes Chloe that nothing happened."
Jamie's brow furrowed. "But you're saying Dad didn't believe you either? Even after you told him what happened?"
"No, I guess he believes I'm capable of molesting a little kid."
"Well, she's not exactly a little kid, Zach. She's fully developed and she came on to you."
He snorted. "Like that matters? She's a teenager, Jamie. I'm a grown man, seven years older than she is. I've known her since she was a baby. It's disgusting. And... and Dad actually thinks I did it," he said, sadly. "That's how highly he thinks of me."
Jamie became aware that someone was standing just outside the doorway to the kitchen. To her dismay, she saw in the living room mirror who it was. She turned to her brother and gave him a hug.
"Well, I know you didn't do anything if you said you didn't," she said hurriedly. "Listen, I have to go to the bathroom," she said quickly, walking away. "We'll talk some more later."
Yanking the man standing by the doorway along with her silently, she drew him into one of the bedrooms.
"You're not going to let that bother you, are you?" she asked, worriedly scanning his face. She realized, with a sinking heart, that he most certainly was going to let it bother him.
"Jesse, there's nothing wrong with what we have together," she said desperately. "What my brother was talking about was totally different."
The man turned and faced a shelf full of photographs, his shoulders slumped.
"It's not different. I'm almost thirty-nine. You're a teenager –"
"I'm nineteen," she said, furiously. "I'm perfectly legal."
"I'm twice your age. You're only a few years older than your cousin, and look what's happening. Look how your father's reacting to it when he thinks your brother slept with her."
"That's totally different," Jamie said. "I love you, and you love me, for two things. And I'm so much more mature than she is. She's a little kid, in high school. Of course he wouldn't approve, but I'm over eighteen and there's nothing wrong about us being together."
Jesse turned and looked at her morosely, holding a framed picture in his hands.
"And I've known you since you were a baby, too. Remember this?" He turned the picture around. It was of Daisy and Jeremiah's wedding party. There was Jesse, the best man... and little Jamie, the flower girl at age two and a half in a sparkly fairy princess outfit. He looked at her now, with new eyes. She was dressed like many of the other drama students he saw walking around campus... just as flamboyant as she'd been that day he'd stood up for her uncle at his wedding and she'd skipped down the aisle wearing a pair of butterfly wings Daisy'd made her. "You haven't changed that much," he said sadly.
She snatched the picture from his hands. "You're wrong," she insisted, slamming the picture back on the shelf. "And it's a little late to decide you're too old for me," she argued. "We've been sleeping together for months now. You can't put that genie back in the bottle, Jesse."
He shook his head. "But your father will never understand it. Your uncle won't, and he's my best friend. I can't believe I let things get this complicated," he muttered. "Why didn't I just wait for you to grow up?"
Jamie looked as if she'd been slapped. "I am grown up," she said, her voice shaking. "And I'm in love with you. You can't pretend you don't feel the same," she said, moving closer.
"I know, Jamie. But it... it's different here. At this damn party, you and I've been going to every year for fifteen years. With your mother and father and uncle here. I don't know what I was thinking," he whispered.
Her brown eyes were filled with tears. "Are you breaking up with me?" she asked, as the tears overflowed.
His heart felt like a band of iron was squeezing it at the sight of her crying because of him, and instinctively he pulled her to him. "No," he murmured into her hair. "No, but... but let's slow things down a little... I need to think about what all this means, for you, for my friendship with your uncle. Give this some time," he begged, though the feel of her in his arms was making him want her as much as ever.
"If that's what you need," she said, pressing her mouth against his neck. "I can give you as much time as you need."
God help you, that's true, Jesse thought wretchedly. One thing you have plenty of, it's time. He watched her sadly as she walked away, her shoulders slumped dejectedly.
Noah was silent as he drove his children back to their mother's place. Chloe had shut herself in her room the whole day, and refused to speak with him about what happened the night before. His son Connor was sitting beside him while Chloe sat forlornly in the back seat. He hoped she would open up to him at some point, but figured it was a long shot. It's all my fault, he thought dismally. If I'd spent more time with them, not put my work before them...
"Dad, can I have fifty bucks?" Connor asked.
"What do you need fifty dollars for?" Noah sighed.
"There's a couple of new CDs I really want to buy..."
"Since when do you buy CDs?" Chloe mumbled.
"Shut up," Connor said, then, thinking of her behavior that whole day, he asked suspiciously, "what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing!" Chloe snapped, her eyes filling with tears.
Connor looked at his now crying sister. They were never close, ever since their parents divorced when they were two years old. He was an A student, popular, and captain of the basketball team. His sister was at best a B student, and had few friends. He usually didn't give her problems much thought, but now, seeing her crying and obviously distressed, something moved him. He turned in his seat to better look at her. "Are you all right?"
"Does it look like I'm all right?" she answered sarcastically.
"Look, it's no wonder you barely have any friends if this is how you act when someone tries to be nice," he muttered, annoyed.
"Cut the phony concern, Connor," she snapped. "You don't have to pretend you care about me just because you're my twin. Even Dad doesn't care, so why should you?"
"Fine, you big crybaby, be that way," Connor retorted, turning on his iPod and tuning out his irritating sister.
Stung by her words, Noah protested, "Chloe, you know I care about you and your brother more than anything else –"
"Yeah, sure. Whenever you can squeeze it into your schedule between your busy social life and working. You barely know me, let alone care about me."
Hearing the venom and resentment in her voice, Noah was shocked into silence. She hates me, he thought sadly. My own daughter hates me.
They arrived at the house and Chloe opened her door and rushed inside, not waiting for her father and brother.
"Hello, honey," Celinda called after her as she ran up the stairs to her room. "What's wrong this time?" Celinda asked Noah as he and Connor came inside. "Hey, Connor," she smiled at her more agreeable child, who hugged her and went to the kitchen for a drink.
"Can we talk?" Noah asked. "Something happened last night."
"Sure," Celinda answered and led him to the living room, while Connor bounded up to his room.
Noah stood in the living room, glancing over the pictures of his children on the mantel. He picked up one of the pictures of Chloe riding a pony, at two years old. She was such a happy child, he thought, wishing he could somehow turn back time and fix things, maybe even try harder with Celinda. He smiled sadly at Celinda, who was staring at him expectantly.
He pulled out a chair and sat down. "I found her... with Zach..."
"What do you mean?"
Noah took a deep breath. "Last night I went out with Lou and Kidd, while Chloe babysat for them. When we came back we found Zach and Chloe together... in the bathroom... naked."
Celinda gasped in surprise and brought her hand to cover her mouth. "What were they doing?" she stammered.
"Maybe you should ask her," Noah fumed. "I couldn't get a straight answer from her. She insists nothing happened, but she has no reasonable explanation."
"What did Zach say?" Celinda asked.
Noah rose angrily. "Of course he said nothing happened. He knows I can have him arrested for this. She's under age, for crying out loud," Noah almost yelled.
Celinda was about to say something when she noticed Chloe standing at the doorway, her eyes red, and her face wet.
"Nothing happened," she whispered, desperately. "Please, can't we just forget this whole thing?"
"Then what were you doing in the bathroom with him?" Noah asked loudly.
Celinda went to hug her daughter and she led her to the couch. "What happened, sweetheart? What were you doing in the bathroom with Zach?"
"Nothing happened, Mom, really. I told Dad that, but he doesn't believe me."
"What do you expect me to think, Chloe? Can you give me one reason why I shouldn't take this to the police?" Noah shouted, frustrated.
"Honey, did Zach try something?" Celinda asked more quietly, noticing her daughter's distress at Noah's yelling.
Chloe shook her head furiously. "No, Mom! He didn't!"
"Then what were you two doing naked in the bathroom together?" Noah yelled.
"Noah, will you stop shouting?" Celinda cried, then she continued in a lower voice. "Maybe you should go and relax outside for a minute." The look on her face told him he should comply, and with a deep sigh, he left the room.
"Chloe, honey," Celinda took her daughter's hand when Noah was out of earshot. "You have to know we love you and are worried about you. What happened last night?"
Chloe lowered her head, shamefaced, and bit her lip. "Zach didn't do anything, Mom. You have to convince Dad not to go to the police."
"How do you expect us to believe that? What earthly reason could there be for the two of you to be in a room together naked?"
"Please, Mom, just trust me on this."
Celinda sighed and rose. "I'm sorry, Chloe, but you leave us no choice. For the time being you're grounded. You come straight home from school. Is that clear?"
Celinda stared at her daughter for another minute, searching for something else to say, before she turned and left the room. She found Noah sitting in the kitchen.
"Well?" Noah asked.
Celinda shook her head, taking a seat, feeling drained of energy. "I don't know, Noah. She insists nothing happened, but the story doesn't add up. And even if they didn't have sex this time, they probably were about to, but you interrupted them. And who knows how long it's been going on..."
Noah nodded. "That's what I was thinking, too. But she won't admit it, because she knows he'll get in trouble. She said she loves him," he said, disgustedly.
"I think we'll need to get her in to a doctor to make sure she's all right physically," worried Celinda. "And then a counselor. Even if they didn’t . . . there could be long-term damage emotionally if he was touching her or trying to seduce her." She put her head down on her hand dejectedly. "I'll take care of that part of it," she said. "I'll keep you advised of course."
"Thanks, Celinda," he said gratefully. "But, at a minimum, he had his clothes off and hers, a little girl. Something isn't right here. Don't you think we should report him to the police?"
Celinda sighed. "I think we're getting ahead of ourselves here. I want to see a counselor first. If she refuses to cooperate with an investigation, we could be hurting her even more if we force her to talk about it to the police. Her well-being is all I care about, not punishing Zach Kidd."
"Easy for you to say, you don't have to look at the animal at work every day," Noah pointed out.
"Well, that part is your decision, Noah. I leave that up to you, but I think we should see a counselor first before we decide on pressing charges."
Noah nodded. "I already decided. He's off my team starting first thing tomorrow."
Zach sat at his desk, nervously, waiting for his boss to arrive. Relax, he told himself, you have nothing to be nervous about. You did nothing wrong. But the truth was that he was very nervous about seeing Noah again. He knew what his parents and Noah saw in the bathroom looked bad for him.
Noah went past Zach's desk, snapping out, "Zach, please step into my office," without even looking at him.
Zach took a deep breath, feeling the questioning looks from his teammates. They all knew he was the son of the site director, and he rarely got in trouble, but now, it seemed like he was.
Noah was facing the window when Zach entered and closed the door behind him. "I spoke with your father this morning and he agreed that you should be assigned to a different team," he said without even turning.
"Why?" Zach asked defiantly. "This is my team. I've been training and working with everyone for the past couple of years..."
"You have the nerve to stand there and ask why, after what you did to my little girl?" Noah asked sternly.
"But I didn't do anything! Didn't Chloe tell you?"
"She said nothing happened. Just like you did. But I can't figure what two people are doing with their clothes off in a bathroom, other than sex. I hope to God I did get there in time, before you got to do anything. But if that's true, it's just pure luck."
"I'm telling you, Noah. I was in the shower, and out of nowhere, she was in there with me. I shut off the water and told her no, got out of the shower, and opened the door right when you came in."
"You son of a..." Noah restrained himself, then continued, coldly. "There's an old saying, Zach. Where there's smoke, there's fire. I think it's a hell of a lot more likely that you were a willing participant, if not an aggressor, than my little girl. I choose to take my daughter's word over yours," he said, forgetting that Chloe had never actually said how she ended up in the bathroom with Zach.
"She... she said I came on to her?" Zach said, disbelieving.
"No. She's too upset to talk about what you did to her. She keeps just crying and asking her mother and me to forget this, but you know, it's not that simple."
Zach stood open-mouthed, casting his eyes around wildly. This is a nightmare, he thought. This can't be happening.
"Since she insists nothing happened, I can't go to the police just now. But if she comes around and admits what you did to her, you can bet your sorry life you'll pay for it, and pay dearly," Noah said, ominously. "And don't even think about trying to talk to her or go near her," he warned.
Turning to his desk, Noah continued, "And in the meantime, get down to Officer Cody's office. You're going on his team. And you should know, I told him why, so he can be aware of what he's got on his team and act accordingly."
Zach opened his mouth to protest his innocence again, but Noah picked up the phone and said brusquely, "You're dismissed, Officer. Get out of my sight."
Jamie waited dejectedly for her turn to audition. The play was Les Miserables; as a sophomore, the best she could probably hope for was a supporting part. She was signed up to sing for Madame Thenardier, and she flipped over the lyric sheet to her song, "Master of the House", idly. Jesse's face kept rising up and haunting her; he hadn't answered her phone calls last night, and she hadn't spoken to him since they'd seen each other at the barbecue. He's serious about taking a break from us, she realized, and the thought had her heart aching so she could barely breathe; she was so despondent that at first she didn't hear the director bark, "Hickok!"
At the second call, she jumped up and raced to center stage, looking down at the producer, the casting director, and the director.
"Nice of you to join us, Hickok," the director drawled.
"Sorry, Mr. Colter," she said hastily. "And it's 'Hickok-Kidd', it's hyphenated –"
"No time, Hickok! Start singing!" Mr. Colter snapped.
Jamie paused a split second, then, instead of Madame Thenardier's part, she suddenly burst into another song, one that felt like it had been written for her broken, sore heart. Fantine's main number, "I Dreamed a Dream", poured forth instead, her whole, sensitive heart behind the lyrics. Colter looked up, shocked, as she sang the final lyrics as if her heart was breaking:
He slept a summer by my side He filled my days with endless wonder He took my childhood in his stride But he was gone when autumn came
The room fell silent after the last note rang in the auditorium. Colter regained his poise, and smirked up at her. "You're a sophomore, aren't you, Hickok?"
"So you think you should get to sing a lead in the production, instead of a senior?"
Jamie stood silently, as someone snickered behind Colter's head. She threw her head up proudly and nodded.
Colter grinned and nodded back. "I think so too, Hickok. You're Fantine," he said. The producer and the casting director started to protest. "We need to hear the rest of the auditions, Jake," the casting director said, low. "We've never given a lead to a sophomore before."
Colter shook his head. "I've heard all the seniors and juniors before, and none of them can do that number like that. She's Fantine and that's final. Get off the stage, Hickok," he snapped. "Who's next?"
Jamie smiled in spite of her aching heart, and gathered up her backpack to leave. She ignored the jealous, annoyed looks of the other students waiting to audition, and flounced out of the theater.
As she pulled a cell phone from her pocket, eager to share the news, she stopped herself. She'd been about to dial Jesse, the first person she thought of now when she had news, good or bad, to tell. But she couldn't call him now. Bitterly, she pushed "end" on her cell and stuck the phone in her pocket. I could call Mom or Dad, she thought idly, but somehow she just didn't feel like it. Without Jesse to share it with, nothing seemed important anymore.
Jesse walked slowly back to his office. Jamie had called him last night, a few times, and though he had longed to answer, he had resisted the temptation. Though nothing ever felt more right to him, and there had been no other woman he ever loved as much as Jamie, there were others to consider. But still, knowing today was her big audition, he had been unable to resist sneaking into the theater to watch her.
He was stunned when he heard her sing, and not just by her talent. He'd already known she was a brilliant singer. What had devastated him was the emotion in her voice as she sang those heart-breaking words. He was so proud when the director offered her the lead role that he'd had to fight down the urge to run to her to congratulate her. He simply watched her leave the theater without a word, or even letting her know he had come to see her.
Jesse went in to his office and closed the door behind him. He sat heavily in his chair and opened the desk drawer, taking out a photo he'd been hiding there. He ran his fingers over it, looking at Jamie from last year's barbecue, when it all had begun.
His best friend and fellow history professor Jeremiah McCloud had called him asking if he could give Jamie a lift to the annual barbecue, since her car had broken down and she lived just off campus, not far from his place.
Somehow, things had progressed from there... he felt guilty about keeping their relationship from his best friend, and hiding from her family, but she insisted that they wouldn't approve and refused to see him openly. It was a sour note in their love affair, perfect in every other way... somehow it felt wrong, cheap, to sneak around with her the way they did, but he wanted her so much he couldn't go against her wishes. It was only when he'd seen her in the familiar setting at Jeremiah's, and heard Zach talking about her father, that he realized he couldn't keep going this way, that it was wrong. She was a young girl and she shouldn't be tied to a secret romance with a man twice her age. But knowing that and erasing her from his heart were two different things.
Lou opened one eye and looked at the clock by the bed. 2:30. "Michael, it's your turn," Lou nudged her husband.
"He's calling for you," Kidd said sleepily and turned to the other side. "Besides, I have to wake up early and go to work tomorrow."
"And I'm sleeping the whole day away," Lou remarked sarcastically, as she rose and left the room, putting on her robe on the way.
She entered her youngest son's room. Three-year-old Michael Jr. was sitting in his bed, crying. "What is it, M.J.?" she asked, sitting on the bed, only to jump up when she felt the wetness. "Michael!" she called. "I need your help here." She picked her son up and carried him to the bathroom, just as Kidd showed up at the door.
"What happened?" he asked, stifling a yawn.
"He wet the bed. Do you want to wash him off, or change the sheets?"
"I'll wash him," Kidd said and entered the bathroom. Lou stood for a few more minutes, watching lovingly as her husband undressed M.J., speaking softly to him the whole time.
"What happened, M.J.? Why didn't you call us?"
"I don't know..." the boy mumbled.
"It's all right," Kidd said, checking the water's temperature. "Mommy will change the bed sheets and you can go back to sleep, ok?"
When the bed was made and M.J. was dressed for bed again, Lou sat by him, caressing his hair. "You know Mommy and Daddy love you very much, right?"
"And Zach and Jamie and Mary Theresa, too," the boy recited.
Lou smiled and kissed Michael Jr.'s head before she left the room.
"Maybe we should go back to pull-ups at night, Lou?" Kidd asked when she climbed on the bed.
Lou laughed. "We had five dry nights, Michael. We can't go back now. It'll ruin all the progress he made."
"I know, I know. I just wish he'd stay a baby for a little longer. They're so easy when they're babies."
Lou smiled and kissed him before she turned on her side and closed her eyes. "You know what they say, Michael, little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems."
Clutching a paper in her hand, Jamie walked up to the secretary's desk in the administration office. "Excuse me... I was sent a letter asking me to come in and see the Assistant Dean?" Jamie said, her face worried and confused.
"Go ahead in, Ms. Hickok-Kidd. They're waiting for you."
"They?" Jamie whispered. She went down the hallway to the conference room the secretary had pointed to, and opened the door. The Assistant Dean, the assistant head of the Drama Department, and three other administrators were seated and looked up at her entrance.
"Thank you for agreeing to come in, Ms. Hickok-Kidd," the Assistant Dean said.
As Jamie took her seat, the Assistant Dean continued. "Might as well get right to the point, Ms. Hickok-Kidd. I'm afraid there's been a complaint against Professor Colter, and an allegation that you received preferential treatment at the audition because of a romantic relationship."
Jamie's face flushed with fury. "That's... that's impossible. There's not a shred of truth to that, I've never even seen Professor Colter outside the classroom or rehearsals," she spat, standing up, her voice rising. "Who would say such a thing about me?" she said grimly. Though she was only a teenager, the Assistant Dean quailed just a little under her steely, furious gaze. He collected himself, then continued.
"It's a student grievance against Professor Colter, Ms. Hickok-Kidd."
"Oh, I see. Some jealous student who wasn't good enough to get a part, and is just making trouble. You brought me in here based on that?"
"Actually, the student did get a part in the play, Ms. Hickok-Kidd," the drama department head cut in. "A substantial one. It's Sarah Downes, and she has a bigger part in the play than you do, she's Cosette."
Jamie's mouth dropped. "Sarah made that complaint?" she whispered, forlornly. "But where on earth would she get the idea that anything happened between me and Professor Colter?"
"She seems to believe that's why you got the part. She said it wasn't fair to the other students for you to get special treatment, and she felt it was her duty to come forward."
Jamie shook her head. "Well, I don't know why she's so quick to assume something happened, but I'm sure you know there's no proof, there can't be. I've never spoken two words to the Professor outside of class."
"She says she saw you two together off campus. Are you sure there isn't something you'd like to tell us? Ms. Hickok-Kidd, if Professor Colter engaged in a relationship with you, and you tell us the truth, cooperate, we won't seek any academic sanctions against you, other than removing you from the play," the drama head said gravely.
Jamie's lips trembled as she looked back and forth at their faces. "I haven't got anything to say. I didn't do anything and neither did Professor Colter. And I won't say he did something he didn't, to get myself out of trouble," she said firmly, her head high.
She stood a moment longer, before asking, "If that's all, can I go now?" The professors looked at each other and nodded.
At the door, Jamie turned and said, her head still high, "And the auditions were taped. I'd suggest you review those, you'll see. I was the best one there, and that's the only reason I'm Fantine. No matter what some dirty-minded people might think."
"There's Kristen," Jeremiah pointed out to Jesse, as he spotted their fellow history professor across the dining hall.
"I know," Jesse said uncomfortably. "I was married to her for two years, and she's in our department, so I guess I'd know her when I see her."
Jeremiah bit into his sandwich, musing. I'll never get what went wrong there. Those two were perfect for each other. Same age, same interests, same profession. She's gorgeous, Jeremiah thought, appreciatively eyeing the slender, red-headed woman as she stood at the cash register paying for her salad. She always seemed nice enough, and they seemed happy. Go figure.
Swallowing, Jeremiah warned Jesse, "Speaking of dating, Daisy is worried about what she refers to as your 'pathetic single state'."
Jeremiah sighed apologetically. "I know. I'm just giving you a warning, she's invited a friend for that dinner tomorrow night. A single, attractive, female friend."
"God help me," Jesse muttered.
"Hey, Jeremiah, Jesse," Kristen called. "I'm glad I ran into you, Jeremiah. There's a rumor going around you might want to hear about."
Jeremiah rolled his eyes. Kristen always was interested in the rumor mill. "What is it, Kristen?"
She looked uncomfortable. "It's going around the faculty that Professor Colter is having an affair with one of his leading ladies."
Jeremiah snorted. "That's hardly news. A version of that old chestnut goes around every semester, Kristen."
Kristen nodded. "Well, this semester they're saying it's your niece. And there seems to be some weight to it; they're saying she only got the lead because she went to bed with him. No sophomore's ever gotten a lead before, so most likely there's some truth there."
"I'll have you know my niece wouldn't stoop to that. She's plenty good enough of a singer to get the part without..." Jeremiah broke off angrily, before he got up and stormed away.
"I... I'm sorry, I just thought he'd want to know..." Kristen stammered.
Jesse sat speechless, shocked by his ex-wife's story. The rumor about Jamie and me is true enough... could it be true about her and Colter? He tried to shake the thought. Jamie was the best one at the audition. It's just a vicious rumor... he tried to convince himself, but his heart was sinking. She was so hurt when I rejected her. What if... what if she turned to another man, and he took advantage when she was vulnerable?
After a couple of awkward moments, Kristen stood. "I'd better be going now," she said. "Please tell Jeremiah I didn't mean to offend him."
Jesse nodded again, too shattered to utter a word. Puzzled, Kristen nodded a good-bye and headed toward her class.
Jeremiah reached his office and started to pick up the phone to call Jamie, warn her about the gossip that was circulating about her. Before he could even dial, though, a knock came at his office door.
"Come in," he shouted, irritably.
"Jeremiah?" Jamie stuck her head in. "I need to talk," she said. Jeremiah hung up the phone quickly and gestured her to come in. She shut the door behind her.
"I think I'm in a lot of trouble, Jeremiah," she said, twisting her hands. "I just got called down to administration, and," she swallowed, putting her head on her hand. "One of the seniors put in a complaint against Professor Colter, he's directing the play I'm in. She... she said she thinks I'm having an affair with Professor Colter and that's why I got the part of Fantine," she said, her voice shaking.
"Why would she say that, Jamie?" Jeremiah said, taking a seat next to her and holding her hand. "Did Professor Colter try anything with you?"
"Not at all," Jamie said. "I thought maybe it was a senior who didn't get a part, and was just making trouble. But it wasn't, it was Sarah Downs. She's got an even bigger part than I do, she couldn't be jealous."
Jeremiah looked down. "Tell me the truth, Jamie, was he taking advantage of you for the part?"
"What? No!" Jamie exclaimed, irritated at the insinuation. "Is it so hard to believe I was actually good?"
"No, honey, but no sophomore has ever gotten a lead in a school production before. I'm just worried about you."
"I know you are, but nothing happened between Colter and me. You believe me, don't you?"
"You know I do, but this could be a real mess if the administration decides to pursue it, Jamie. You might want to talk to your parents about this, maybe a lawyer." Jeremiah said, coming to stand by her. "Well, you know where my office is if you want to talk, or take a break from everything, ok?" he asked softly, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"That's all they need right now," she said. "With this big fight they're having with Zach over my cousin. And my dad doesn't seem to believe Zach's innocent, I'm not sure he'll believe me either," she said bitterly.
"Well, you know no matter what happened, Lou and Michael will stand by you, Jamie, and so will I," Jeremiah said encouragingly.
"Nothing happened, Jeremiah!" Jamie insisted. "Will you quit saying it did? I'm telling you the truth."
Jeremiah nodded, doubtfully, and an exasperated Jamie whirled and left the office. As she stormed to the elevator, Jesse came up the stairwell, and paused as he watched the girl getting on the elevator. Part of him wanted to call out to her, but he couldn't. Not here, not now.
Zach pinned on his badge as he headed toward the entrance to the Atwood Federal Prison Camp, dispiritedly. It was clear enough that his new team leader, Officer Cody, had as low an opinion of him now as Noah Dixon, thanks to Noah's telling him about the incident with Chloe. Ever since he'd been on the team, one assignment was worse than the one before. Boring stakeouts, interminable research, writing reports for the other team members. It was a relief to at least get out of the agency and interrogate a suspect, he thought wearily. Though this prisoner's been sitting in this prison camp for over twenty years, so it's an off chance at best that I'll get any real information, he knew. That's probably the only reason I got tapped for this assignment.
He signed and went through security.
"You're here to see Baxter?" the security officer asked, surprised. "That's one of our only high-security prisoners."
"I know," Zach commented. "They said arrangements would be made to talk in the cell?" Zach shook his head slightly as the officer turned to answer the phone. Unbelievable, the way they're treating this prisoner, he thought. Confined to the cell 23 out of 24 hours a day, and can't even be brought out to the visitor's area.
The officer turned back. "Yes. And we'll provide two guards to wait outside the cell in case you get in trouble."
Zach smothered a smile as they proceeded down to the tiny maximum security section in the prison camp. I hope I could handle this prisoner, he thought to himself, as the guards pulled back the iron door and gestured to him to head inside.
The cell was small, but had room for a toilet in the corner and a cot, as well as a small desk, to Zach's surprise. The prisoner was turned toward the desk, as he greeted her.
"Thanks for agreeing to talk to me, Ms. Baxter. I'm sure it'll help at your next parole hearing."
The slender, dark-haired woman stiffened at his voice, then turned sharply, gasping in surprise at the sight of him.
"I... I don't believe it," she choked, before regaining her poise and smirking at him. "So I guess they think if I'll fall for it once, I'll fall for it twice?" she sneered.
"What are you talking about, Ms. Baxter?"
She laughed, her still-pretty face twisted to ugliness by bitterness and sarcasm. "What, does the federal government have a cloning program going now, or... or you're his son, aren't you?" she demanded, triumphantly. She glanced quickly at his badge, her icy green eyes flickering over it, committing his name to memory. "Zachary Kidd," she muttered.
"Ms. Baxter, why don't we get down to business –"
"Sure. You look enough like your father, if you make love like he does, I'm sure I'll enjoy it."
Zach's face flushed. "I thought you were willing to cooperate with our fact-gathering, Ms. Baxter–"
She interrupted again. "Call me Marissa. Your father was never this formal." She turned and pulled a box from her desk drawer, rummaging through it. "Especially when we were in bed together."
"You never knew my father, and you never slept with him," Zach said, evenly. "If you're only interested in nonsense, then I don't have time for this interview," he said, about to tap on the door for the guards.
"Not so fast, Junior. A girl doesn't forget the last time she had sex, when she's gone without a man for twenty-three years." She produced a picture from her box. "Here, see for yourself."
Hesitating a moment, Zach reached out and took the picture. It was a picture of his father... asleep... naked... at least twenty years before.
"I took that when he fell asleep after we made love. He told me he loved me, and I trusted him, let him into our operation. Found out later it was just a trick, but it was still the best sex I ever had."
Zach saw that the picture had a date automatically stamped on it by a digital camera. A date several months before he was born. His head started swirling. Mom and Dad broke up when she was pregnant with me, for four years. That's when Mom met Jamie's father... Could this be why? But his officer's training kicked in immediately, despite his inner turmoil.
"Nice picture, Marissa, but that's not my father. Just somebody who looks a little like me."
He pulled out a pad of papers and sat on the bed, forcing himself to conduct her interview without outer sign of his fury and disgust at his father.
After the guards came and escorted Zach out, Marissa was doubtful for a moment. He really didn't seem to recognize the picture. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but he looks just like him, she thought, glancing down at the picture again. I'll have my people check into this, find out... and if I find you again, I'll arrange for you to pay, she thought, viciously tearing the faded picture into shreds. It may take me some time, but finally I'll punish you for betraying me. You and whatever other family you have now.
Jamie felt slightly better sitting between her youngest brother and sister at her parents' house that night, watching American Idol. "You should go on this show," Mary Theresa urged her. "You sing better than any of them."
Jamie smiled at her. "I'll think about it," she laughed, as her baby brother cuddled up to her on the other side. Yes, sometimes it's nice to come home where I'm appreciated, she thought, putting an arm around M.J. and squeezing him, then getting up and wandering into the kitchen. Lou, who'd been curled up in the corner, looked after her.
"Seacrest Out," blared the T.V. Mary Theresa clicked the T.V. off, and picked M.J. up. "Time for your bath and bed, sweetheart," she said. "I'll do it tonight, Mom, you go see what's wrong with her."
Lou smiled at her perceptive younger daughter, thanking her.
"So, to what do we owe the honor of this visit?" Lou said, smiling and patting her older daughter on the back.
Jamie sat down, pulling the top off a bottle of iced tea. "I'm having some problems at school," she admitted. "I was hoping to talk to you about it."
"Sure, honey. What is it?" Lou asked, sitting down opposite her at the kitchen table. Before she could answer, the doorbell rang. "Who on earth?" Lou asked, getting up. Going to the front door, she looked out the peephole. "Zach?" she exclaimed, opening the door.
"Is Dad here?" Zach said, his face strained.
"Sure, he's in his office," Lou said. "And hello to you too."
"Sorry, Mom. I came to talk to Dad," he said, hurriedly kissing her on the cheek.
"Go on in, then," Lou said, mystified.
By the time Lou returned to the kitchen, Jamie had already finished her drink. She was sitting at the table, looking miserable.
"What is it, Jamie? I thought you enjoyed school. You told me you got that big part..."
Jamie looked up sadly. "Mom, there's a rumor going around..." Jamie lowered her head on her arms on the table. "I really don't understand why... I really didn't do anything..."
"Jamie," Lou said, putting her hand on her daughter's slumped shoulders, "You're talking in riddles. What's going on?"
"Someone said I slept with Professor Colter to get that part," Jamie blurted, unable to meet her mother's eyes.
Lou sighed. "Did you tell that person that you didn't do it?"
Jamie nodded. "She'd already made a complaint against him. This morning I was called to this meeting and I told them nothing happened between the professor and me but I'm not sure they believed me. Even Jeremiah didn't believe me."
"You spoke with Jeremiah about it?"
Jamie nodded. "I went to see him this morning. He already knew about it somehow. I guess this rumor really got to everybody..."
"Well, Jamie," Lou said. "You'll just have to prove everybody wrong. Hold your head up high and show them you don't mind their petty rumors." She patted her daughters back and kissed her head. "I'll just go and check that your brother and father didn't hurt each other," she tried to joke. "I'll be right back."
Kidd turned from his desk and looked a little coolly at his eldest as he came in to the office. "This important, Zach? I've got a report I need to finish tonight."
Zach shut the door. "This is more important, Dad."
"Let's hear it then. This about Chloe or Noah?"
"No, Dad, it isn't. It's about Marissa Baxter."
Kidd's face went taut. "What about Marissa Baxter?" he asked slowly.
"You can cut the games, Dad. I know you had an affair with her when Mom was pregnant with me."
"That was 23 years ago and none of your business, Zach. And it wasn't an affair, it was necessary to get information, to stop a second 9/11."
"You had sex with someone who wasn't Mom, while she was pregnant with your child. Last time I checked, that's an affair, Dad. And I've been an agent for a few years now and I don't remember ever having to have sex to prevent a terrorist attack."
"I don't owe you an explanation, Zach, but that's what it was. You'll have to take my word for it."
"Like you took mine?" Zach threw in his face.
Kidd fell silent.
"I guess I can see now why you're so quick to assume the worst, since you're obviously not the saint you pretend to be."
"I never said I was a saint. I had to do it, and I paid dearly for it. I lost your mother and you for years."
"Yeah, I thought that was probably the mysterious reason Mom and you broke up back then. You two would never say why it was you weren't together when I was little."
Kidd's gaze met Zach's. "That's because it was between your mother and me, and nobody else. That's in the past now. You come here just to throw this in my face?"
Zach looked down. "No. I came here right from Atwood Federal Prison Camp. I didn't want to wait until tomorrow in the office. I think there's been a security breach with Marissa."
"You were at Atwood?" Kidd said, confused. "That's where they sent Marissa after –"
"Cody assigned me to interrogate her for a case we're working. I'm sure he had no idea about your connections with her."
Kidd's face went pale. "Did she see you?" he asked, jumping up desperately.
"Yes. And she saw the resemblance, Dad. I covered for you, pretended I didn't know you, but I'm not sure she was convinced. She showed me a picture of you back then and it could have been taken of me."
"God," Kidd whispered. "Please tell me she didn't get your name –"
"She did, Dad. I was there on official business, I had my ID on. She looked at it before she told me about you and her. She's still pretty mad –"
Kidd went to the phone and started dialing. "I don't know how this could have happened, how you could end up on this file –"
"Simple enough, Dad. Your operation wasn't in the files Cody and I saw. I guess it must have been archived or reclassified for your security. Since we haven't been talking the last couple days, I didn't think to mention I was going to Atwood to see her, like I probably would have otherwise."
Kidd looked up from the phone at Zach's words, as the terrible implications of their fight became clearer to him. "I have to get a hold of Atwood's warden, let them know to keep a watch on her –"
"Dad, I already told them, before I even left, that she might have a grudge against a family member of mine, to keep a tight lid on her. She's in solitary confinement, I think it'll be okay."
Kidd replaced the phone. "Maybe for a while. But she's patient, and vindictive, and may still have terrorist connections."
"She does," Zach confirmed. "Here's the dossier on her," he said, handing it to him. "That's what I was there for."
Lou tapped on the door and stuck her head in as Kidd opened the dossier and a picture fell to the floor.
"Everything okay in here?" she started, then fell silent, looking at the picture. She bent and picked it up, her fingers trembling.
"Lou, I can explain –"
She turned her back a moment, staring at the picture. "Why do you have her picture?" she said, her voice deadly quiet and almost dangerous. Her face reddened, and she flung the picture at Kidd. "How could you still have her picture in this house, how could you do that to me?" she shouted angrily.
"I brought it, Mom," Zach intervened. "I interrogated her today in her jail cell. I didn't know she'd had an affair with Dad. But she told me –"
Lou's eyes flew to Kidd's. "Michael – does she know who we are?" she said, frightened now.
Kidd answered her gravely. "Not yet, but she could probably track us down through Zach, if she can get word out of prison to her associates. Thank God all the kids are here tonight. We'll have to consider the witness protection program for all three of the younger ones, and for us."
Jamie, who had silently followed her mother down the stairs, stepped into the room now.
"What's this about the witness protection program?" she asked, upset.
"A prisoner who got arrested because of me may have found out who I am, honey."
Jamie nodded. "So what?"
Kidd patiently explained, "This prisoner has a grudge against me personally, and she's very, very dangerous, honey. It's not an ordinary prisoner –"
"Yeah, I heard what Zach said, you had an affair with her," Jamie said stiffly. "I suppose that means you think I should give up my whole life? Because you cheated on Mom and now this woman is going to come after all of us?"
"I'm just worried about you," Kidd pleaded. "You don't know what she's capable of." His face dropped as he looked at Jamie's accusing, disgusted eyes.
"She's in jail, isn't she? What can she do to me?"
"I'm worried, if she gets word to her organization, they could come after us. Jamie, please, just think about this," Kidd pleaded.
"I won't do it," she said. "I won't leave school, not now. If I disappear from school, everyone will think –" she broke off.
Lou stepped over to her daughter. "We need to talk this through, Jamie, but people thinking the worst about you as far as Professor Colter, is better than something happening to you."
Jamie threw off Lou's arm. "And what about Professor Colter? If I'm not there to back him up, he could get in trouble for something he didn't do. And what about all my friends and –" she stopped short, her eyes welling with tears. And Jesse. I'll never see him again, never have a chance to work this out. She shook her head. "You're both being paranoid. Even if this woman can find out who I am, she can't hurt me from jail."
She paused for breath, looking back and forth between her parents. I don't even know who you two are, anymore, she thought dazedly. Looking at her father, she whispered, "When did this happen? How long did it go on?"
He looked away. "It was one time. 23 years ago."
Jamie looked back at her mother. "Is that why you broke up for a while... why you ended up having me with my real father?"
Lou nodded silently.
"But you took him back? Even after what he did?" Jamie asked, astonished. She shook her head. "I thought you had more self-respect than that."
Lou's face flushed. "That's between your father and me. Let's focus on the present, shall we?"
"Yes. Let's," Jamie said icily. "Say goodnight to Mary Theresa and M.J. for me, will you? I think I'm leaving."
Kidd said quickly, "Jamie, it's almost ten o'clock. Please stay here tonight. We need to decide how to handle this –"
"I'll handle myself, thanks. I'm going."
She stormed up the steps and grabbed her bag, slinging it over her shoulder. She ignored her parents' pleas to listen, and rushed out the door.
Zach caught up with her when she opened her car door. "Jamie, don't get me wrong, I'm disappointed in Dad too, but he's right about being careful. That woman is very dangerous."
Kidd came out of the house and approached them. "Please come back inside," he said softly.
Jamie looked at him then at her brother. "I'll be safe tonight."
"Where are you going, Jamie?" Kidd asked.
"I'll call you when I get where I'm going," Jamie said as she got in her car and drove away.
Kidd pulled his car keys from his pocket and headed for his car.
"Where are you going?" Zach called after his father.
"I'm going to follow her home."
"Dad, she'll be furious at you if you do," Zach warned.
"She can be as mad as she wants to. I just want to know she's safe." Kidd stopped when he reached his car. "That's all I ever wanted for you, Zach." Kidd entered his car and drove away, following his daughter.
Zach set on the steps to the house, watching the street. Jamie was even madder than me, he thought. He looked back as the door opened. His youngest sister came to sit next to him.
"Where are Dad and Jamie?" Mary Theresa asked.
Zach shrugged. "Jamie took off and Dad went after her."
"What happened tonight?" she asked.
Zach put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her closer to him. "It's complicated... better talk to Mom and Dad about it."
"I saw Chloe today at school," Mary said, sensing her brother was not going to elaborate.
Zach withdrew his arm and stiffened. "Did she tell more lies?" he asked sadly.
Mary shook her head. "I didn't speak to her, but she looked sad. Have you sorted things out with Dad?"
"There's nothing to sort out, Mary," Zach said sadly. "It's whether he believes me or not. He decided not to." Zach stood and kissed his sister on the head before he walked away. "Tell Mom I'll call her later."
Jesse wearily tossed his keys on the entry table on his way into his empty house. The house he'd lived in alone since his divorce five years ago. Most of the furnishings had been his ex-wife's choices... he still sometimes felt like it wasn't really his house, though he had been living there alone for five years, ever since he'd come home one day to find Kristen's things gone and a note telling him she was in love with someone else, with no warning. He tossed the paper wrappings and bag from his takeout dinner into the trash can, and opened the refrigerator for a beer, slamming it shut again.
He passed the answering machine, and a glance told him Jamie had called several times. Stop calling, Jamie. I won't share you... I can't. It hurts me too much. It's over.
He cracked open the beer and flung himself down on the sectional couch, fumbling around for the remote control to his stereo. He pointed toward the CD player and it came on, the opening guitar notes to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" issuing forth.
Perfect, he thought moodily. Bobby sure knew what he was singing about. He took a sip of his beer as he hummed along darkly to the lyrics:
< blockquote >It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe It don't matter, anyhow An' it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe If'n you don't know by now When your rooster crows at the break of dawn Look out your window and I'll be gone You're the reason I'm trav'lin' on Don't think twice, it's all right
He passed a hand over his eyes, trying to blot out the thought of her innocent, sweet face. That face was nothing but a living lie. But it haunted him... hurt him to think of her. Why can't I just hate you? That would hurt so much less than this.
The phone by his head rang again. Her cell phone number flashed, but he couldn't bring himself to answer it. What did you expect, he mocked himself. That a girl like her, young, beautiful, talented, would stay with a middle aged professor like you forever? That she wouldn't get bored?
It ain't no use in callin' out my name, gal I can't hear you any more I'm a-thinkin' and a-wond'rin' all the way down the road I once loved a woman, a child I'm told I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
The phone stopped ringing. He knew he owed her the decency of an explanation, no matter what she had done. But... Dylan's voice finished the thought...
But goodbye's too good a word, gal So I'll just say fare thee well
The doorbell rang, and he dragged himself up, toward the door. He opened it and saw her standing there, her backpack slung childishly across her shoulder, her eyes pleading silently. Her face was tear-streaked, her lips trembling.
It was all she said, but in spite of the still burning jealousy and insecurity, the bitter disappointment in her, his heart twisted with painful, aching love for her. And his arms reached out to crush her body to his.
Kidd followed Jamie for the better part of an hour until she stopped in front of a house, not far from the campus. This isn't her apartment, he thought curiously, when he pulled the car to a stop.
He watched as Jamie knocked on the door for a couple of minutes and gasped in surprise when he saw a familiar man open the door. Jesse? Kidd thought, confused. Why would she come here of all places?
His jaw dropped even more when suddenly Jesse pulled Jamie into his arms, she dropped her backpack on the ground and wound her arms around his neck, and they kissed passionately in the light from Jesse's doorway.
Jesse staggered backwards into the apartment, pulling Jamie with him. They both giggled and broke the kiss when his back bumped into the wall.
Jesse caressed her hair, the love shining in his eyes.
Jamie hugged him closer and buried her face in his chest. "Please hold me, Jesse. Please tell me I can stay here tonight."
Jesse pulled back, leaving her standing in the middle of the room. He silently cursed himself for giving in and kissing her when she showed up at his door. She cheated on me, he remembered, sadly. She's no different from Kristen.
Jamie's eyes filled with tears at his retreat from her, her heart breaking. "Please, Jesse," she begged. "My life's a mess. I really need you tonight..."
"What about your new boyfriend? He busy tonight?" Jesse asked bitterly, unable to stop himself.
Jamie felt like she had been hit in the stomach. She tried to say something, but no sound came out.
Jesse turned and watched her. "I know about you and Jake Colter. The whole campus knows about it. How long has this been going on, Jamie?"
Jamie felt suddenly as if she couldn't breathe. She had come here for sympathy and support with the problems that had overwhelmed her all at once today – the vicious accusation Sarah had made, learning of her father's long-ago betrayal of her mother, and the danger her father insisted she was in as a result. And here Jesse already knew about the complaint against Professor Colter, and what was worse – believed the worst of her. She suddenly felt weak and her legs began to tremble. She sank to sit on the step down into his recessed living room, her body racked by sobs and gasps for air.
Jesse softened at her distress and he sat down heavily by her side. He longed to touch her, but something held him back.
"Why did you do it, Jamie? I thought we were happy."
Jamie looked up at him, tremendously hurt. "I didn't do anything. It breaks my heart that you believe I did."
"I didn't want to, Jamie. I wanted to believe you loved me as much as I love you, but everyone's talking about it. They say that's why you got that part in the play..."
"I aced the audition!" she said angrily. "I thought at least you'd believe I got the part because I deserved it."
"I know you were the best one there. I saw you audition," he admitted in a low voice.
"You did?" Jamie asked confused.
Jesse nodded. "I didn't want to go at first, after our talk at the barbecue, but I couldn't stop myself."
"So you know I deserved the part," Jamie said hopefully. "Please Jesse, look at me and tell me you believe me. It's you I love, and I've never been unfaithful."
Jesse turned his head away, but Jamie turned his head back toward her with her hand. "I know how much your ex-wife hurt you, when she betrayed you and left you. I'd never do something like that, Jesse, don't let what she did keep you from trusting again."
Jesse's barriers crumbled as he watched her teary eyes. She does love me, he thought, there's no doubt there. He felt tears stinging his eyes and closed them, wishing the tears away, and was surprised when he felt Jamie's lips on his. She kissed him tenderly, almost apprehensively at first, as if afraid he'd pull back. He tasted her salty tears in the kiss and his heart ached, knowing he was the one to cause her such pain. His arms lifted, as if on their own, and held her closer as he deepened the kiss.
"I love you," she whispered when they pulled apart, their faces still mere inches apart.
"I love you too," he said before kissing her again.
Jamie pulled back and looked searchingly into his eyes. "Do you believe me, Jesse?" she asked. "I need to know you believe me."
Jesse nodded and pressed his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry I ever doubted you. How can I ever make it up to you?" He was relieved when he saw a familiar mischievous glint in her eyes and her mouth broke into a smile.
"Well, we can start there," he said before she captured his mouth in a kiss, as her fingers started to pull his shirt up.
Seeing his stepdaughter tumble into the house with Jesse, Kidd sat dumbfounded. He pulled around the corner and parked, then got out of his car, and stood hesitantly in the street. After a moment's hesitation, he walked up the sidewalk and onto the porch, intending to get to the bottom of this. He didn't know Jesse very well, just to say hello at Jeremiah's house when he happened to see him there, but he was confused about why Jamie would have any interest in Jesse. He's twice her age, Kidd thought grimly, storming up the steps. She's upset, I'd better make sure she's not getting taken advantage of.
As he passed the open window on the porch, his stomach lurched and he whirled away from the unwelcome sight that met his eyes. He blindly rushed back down the steps and toward his car. I'm too late, he thought, anguished, as he leaned against the gate to the house, trying to collect himself.
He opened his car door with shaking hands, and pulled the car back around, heading toward home.
Lou met him at the door, with a questioning look.
"She's with Jesse, your brother's friend," he told her.
"Why would she go there? She barely knows him," Lou said, puzzled.
"She knows him a lot better now," Kidd said wearily, climbing the stairs toward the bedrooms.
"Well, did you talk to her? Tell her she needs to come home and discuss things rationally?" Lou demanded.
Kidd sighed. "I couldn't exactly go in. They were going at it on the living room floor when I went onto the porch. My little girl, squirming around with that... that old guy... I just... turned around and left." He sat on the bed and rubbed his eyes, as if he could rub out the memory.
"Oh, Michael," Lou sighed, watching as he got up and restlessly stood by the shelf in their room, staring at a picture of Jamie's first ballet recital at age three. "I know how hard it must have been for you to see that. I'm really shocked, myself," she added, perplexed. "He's... so much older."
He nodded as she stroked his shoulder comfortingly. "It's all my fault," he said sadly. "If we hadn't had this fight, he wouldn't have seduced her."
Lou smothered a smile. He still thinks of her as an innocent little girl, she realized. "I think you're overestimating your own role in this, Michael. I'm surprised too, but now that I think about it a little, I really doubt it was their first time. Jamie hasn't brought a boy around here in over a year. Considering how much she dated in high school, didn't you find that strange? And Jeremiah mentioned to me that Jesse hasn't been seeing anybody for about the same length of time. Obviously this is a long-term relationship."
"You can't tell me you're happy about her starting to have sex? And with that... that–"
"She's had sex before tonight, Michael," Lou pointed out.
He stared. "No, she hasn't. Not my little girl."
"You're not serious. You didn't know?" Lou said, astonished. "There was Kyle Wilson, and then–"
"I don't want to hear about it!" Michael erupted, desperately.
Lou stood, almost laughing in spite of the horrible night they'd had, as her naïve husband stormed from the bedroom. Becoming serious, she pulled out her cell phone and left a message. "When you aren't too busy, give me a call, young lady. We need to talk as soon as possible." At least she's safe from Marissa if she's sleeping over at Jesse's, she reflected. It's not likely Marissa could get to Jamie this quickly anyway, if at all. But if I don't hear from her first, I'm going to go over to campus tomorrow morning and talk to her about how we're going to deal with keeping all of us safe, she thought, sighing.
Jamie snuggled into the arms encircling her. She smiled contentedly as she recalled the words of love she and Jesse spoke the previous night. Then, remembering the events that caused her to show up at Jesse's door in the first place, her face fell. She sat up and crept out of the bed as quietly as possible, so she won't wake Jesse up. She grimaced as she turned and saw him watching her amusedly while she pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from ‘her drawer' in his dresser.
"What time is it?" he asked.
"06:00. I have a class at 9 o'clock and I want to get a shower before..."
Jesse stood and pulled her into his arms. "Is everything okay, Jamie? You seem upset."
Jamie pulled away from his embrace and headed towards the door. "I really need to go now," she said evasively. "I need to shower and change before class..."
"Will I see you tonight?" Jesse asked.
Jamie smiled seductively from the door. "Maybe." She grinned. When she saw him pouting she laughed. "I'll call you later." Suddenly she rushed back to bed where he was sitting, watching her, and kissed him. "I love you," she said.
"I love you too," Jesse replied as he watched her leave the room.
Lou entered the history department building and headed straight to the third floor, where she knew the professors' offices were. Checking the directory by the elevator, she bypassed the department secretary, and didn't even see her brother when she passed by his open door.
"Lou!" Jeremiah called, going after her. He was surprised when he saw her walking straight into Jesse's office.
"Lou," Jesse said, standing up, shocked to see her. "Are you looking for Jeremiah? He has office hours now, he should be in his office."
"Where's Jamie?" Lou asked.
"What?" Jesse stammered.
Lou slammed her hand on his desk. "Stop this game," she almost shouted. "I know she spent the night with you. Now, where is she?"
Jesse sighed. "She left this morning, said she had an early class. I hadn't seen her since. Did you try her cell?"
"Of course I did. And I left her a message to call me first thing in the morning." Lou sank down on the chair, her head in her hands. "When she didn't call this morning I waited for her at the drama department. A friend of hers told me she didn't show up to class."
"Well, I wouldn't start worrying so quickly, Lou," Jesse tried, taking a seat beside her. "Maybe she's at the library, or went to the mall."
"You don't understand," Lou cried at him. "She's in danger."
"What do you mean, 'danger'?" he asked, suddenly frightened at her desperate tone. "What's going on, Lou?"
Lou's eyes were filling with tears. "A terrorist Michael sent to jail a long time ago, when he was an undercover agent, found out who he is. It's possible... that she's trying to get back at Michael through Jamie," she choked.
Jesse stared at Lou and got up. He picked up the phone and dialed Jamie's number. "I'm getting her voice mail," he said, panic-stricken.
Lou wiped her eyes and stood up. "I should call Michael."
Jesse nodded. "I'll go get you some water." He left her in his office and closed the door behind him, surprised to see his best friend standing outside his office.
"What's going on, Jesse? Why is my sister here?" Jeremiah asked, puzzled at Lou's frantic face as she spoke into her cell phone.
Jesse walked to the water cooler and got a cup. "She's here looking for Jamie."
"Why would she come to you? Jamie hardly knows you."
Jesse set the cup down and turned slowly. "I'm sorry, Jeremiah. I didn't want you to find out like this, but she more than knows me. She loves me," he admitted. "I spent the night with her last night, that's why Lou came looking for her through me."
Jeremiah's jaw dropped. "You slept with my nineteen-year-old niece last night," he repeated, slowly. "A student here."
"She's not my student."
"Sounds like you're trying to teach her a thing or two," Jeremiah said, harshly. "Can't cut it with the women your own age, you have to resort to a child?"
"She's not a child, she's almost twenty years old. We have a real relationship, we have for almost a year. I'm sorry you're finding out like this, but I don't really have time to explain this to you right now."
Jeremiah grabbed Jesse's arm. "I think you do owe me an explanation, actually. Not as her uncle – but as my friend. How could you have sat and looked me in the face and never mentioned a word of this to me for a damn year?"
Jesse turned back. "Jeremiah, I know we'll need to talk this through. But now isn't the time. Jamie might be in trouble, some terrorist is after Michael and his family, and we can't find Jamie. If anything's happened to her, I'll..." his voice broke. "I'm telling you I love her, she's my whole life. If someone's hurt her, I don't know what I'll do."
Jeremiah drew back, struck by the passion in Jesse's voice. Jesse walked back to the office, where Lou was getting off the phone. Jeremiah stood in the doorway watching.
"Michael thinks we'd better go to her apartment, see if she made it back there at least," Lou said. "I'm going to meet him there. Jesse, please keep your cell on in case she tries to call you, and keep trying to reach her."
"I'm coming with you. I have a key to her apartment."
Lou nodded stiffly. "I have one too, but if you have to come, then come. And I'll need you to start thinking about where else she could be. I'm calling Mary Theresa and have her start calling her other friends. Jeremiah, I'll keep you updated when we find her."
They started off quickly to the parking lot.
Lou pulled up to the apartment building at the same time as Kidd and Zach, and Jesse pulled in behind her.
"What is he doing here?" Kidd asked, indicating Jesse.
"Michael," Lou sighed, putting a calming hand on her husband's chest. "Let's concentrate on finding Jamie. Jesse obviously cares about Jamie. Once she's safe we can all sit and talk, but right now, the most important thing is finding her."
"There's her car," Lou noted, as they passed it in the parking lot. She glanced into the window. "Nothing in there, it's locked, no sign of a struggle."
Kidd nodded and the group quickly advanced to the apartment entrance and into the elevator. They rushed off and down the hallway to her door. A package from Amazon.com was leaning against her door.
Lou opened the door and they came in, scanning the room quickly. The message light was blinking on the answering machine; she rapidly went and checked it as Kidd checked the rest of the apartment.
"She hasn't checked these messages since last night," Lou concluded.
Jamie's cat Sundancer leaped onto the counter, meowing loudly. Jesse looked down at the cat's bowl. "She hasn't fed Sundancer either," he whispered. "Both her bowls are empty."
Kidd came from the bedroom, his eyes frantic. "She isn't here. It doesn't look like she got from the parking lot up to the room," he said, starting to dial the phone. "I'm going to call in for the police to set up some checkpoints, try to close off the roads, get some helicopters to sweep the area," he said, turning toward the window. "If they've taken her somewhere, maybe we can..." he trailed off, despairing.
Lou's legs buckled and she sank down, her head resting on her knees, as Kidd started speaking into the phone.
"But they couldn't have gotten far," Jesse said, desperately, looking at the stricken woman.
Zach looked gravely up at Jesse, from where he knelt beside his mother. Jesse paled. He knew from Zach's expression... they don't think Jamie is still alive, he realized. "You're all wrong. She's alive. I'd know it if she was dead, I'd feel it in my heart," he cried desperately. "You have to be wrong."
Zach held his mother's shaking shoulders. "Not now, Jesse, we need to think, plan. Dad – we have to get someone to question Marissa, see if we can get her to talk about what they've done to Jamie. Dad?"
Kidd turned towards his son abruptly, then stormed away.
"Where are you going?" Lou called after him.
"Atwood. I'm going to talk to her myself," Kidd called back, while he headed towards the parking lot.
"Well, this is Baxter's lucky week. Two visitors... and both from the same agency at that. That young officer forget to ask a few questions?"
Kidd ignored the guard's questions, steeling himself to face Marissa after all this time. I have to be careful how I play this, he thought. Jamie's life depends on it... assuming she's still – he forced the thought from his mind. She has to be alive. She has to. Whatever Marissa wants from me, I have to convince her to leave my children out of it, somehow.
Marissa glanced up from where she was seated on the bed in her cell. "I'll be damned," she murmured. "You decided to come for a little visit to an old friend, did you? What's the occasion, sweetheart? You're a little early for Valentine's Day."
Kidd stood by the door, silently, assessing her as he would any suspect he was about to interrogate.
"So did Junior forget something?" She tossed her book on her desk. "He seemed pretty thorough to me. Not that he got anything, of course. But you could have told him he wouldn't, huh, Dad?"
"I've come to negotiate, Marissa. What is it you want?"
She looked at him calmly. "Well, you read the manifesto when we were working together for the cause. What else do you need to know about what I want?"
"Stop talking in riddles, Marissa. I said I'm here to negotiate. You wanted my attention, you have it, let's stop the games."
Marissa's beautiful green eyes narrowed. "What makes you think I want your attention? And what is it you want from me? I already told Junior all I intend to. Unless you're going to make it worth my while, but I doubt you will."
Kidd tried to control his frustration. "Where is she, Marissa? Tell me where she is and this will be easier on you. You know you can't get away with this."
"Where who is?" Marissa asked. "Say what you mean, will you?"
"My little girl," Kidd said, clenching his fists by his side. "Where do you have her?"
Marissa turned her back to him and looked down at her desk a long moment, idly flipping over a paper. "Your daughter. You're here to get your daughter back, you... you figured out I had her taken," she said slowly. "That's pretty good detective work on your part, honey."
"If you just get word to your people to let her go, don't hurt her, I can make things easier for you here with the warden. But if you don't, I can make things worse for you."
Marissa flipped her long hair back over her shoulders. "I doubt that, baby. I'm in solitary, high security lockdown. You know what that means? I get out of this cell one hour a day, that's it. I'll never get parole anyway, I'm in here for the rest of my life. Thanks to you, of course. So what difference does it make to me what happens to your daughter? How are you going to make it worth my while to call off my people?"
"You tell me, I'll see what I can do."
She turned and sat against the desk, folding her arms across her chest. "You know, I thought of what I want."
He stood waiting.
"I want you to beg me for your daughter's life." Her eyes were cold and glittering. "Beg me on your knees, you son of a bitch."
Kidd's jaw tightened, but after a split second he knelt in front of her. His desperation made it easy to grovel, his pride was meaningless to him now.
"I'm begging, Marissa. Please, tell me where my daughter is," he said hoarsely. Her eyes shone malevolently, and she made him repeat his begging, over and over, until she abruptly laughed.
"That'll do. I'll tell you what I know about it."
He looked up hopefully.
He knelt looking up at her blankly.
"Wish I could help you, but I have no idea where your brat is."
The rage went through him like a bolt of lightning, so fast he never remembered afterwards grabbing her by the neck and forcing her face down on the cell floor.
"You tell me where she is, or I'll kill you," he growled, pulling her head back by the hair, his knee planted in her back. "So help me –"
The guards outside were fumbling with the locks.
"Too late, lover boy," she managed, even as he brought her head down against the floor a second time.
As the guards pulled him off her, he lunged at her again, screaming. "Tell me where you have her, Marissa!"
She rubbed her face, angrily, and glared at him from the corner, hissing like a wildcat. "I'll tell you where she is. She's dead! You think I'd just have her kidnapped? I told them to find her, torture her –"
Kidd groaned in agony. He'd known all too well, if Marissa was behind this then Jamie was already dead. But to hear Marissa's confirmation, tore the last shreds of his heart from him.
"And then kill her. You'll never find her body, never," she screamed as the guards dragged him from the cell. "Live with that, you live with that the rest of your miserable life –"
The cell door clanged shut and Kidd stood heaving wildly outside it. The guards looked sympathetically at him, but he blindly staggered down the hallway toward the exit. There was no comfort for him now.
He found his way out of the facility, walking unseeing to his car. He stood outside the car, his hands shaking, then slid down to sit beside it, his mind overwhelmed. The memories washed over him. Jamie at six months, splashing in her tiny plastic tub. At a year, her face plastered with pink birthday cake icing... at two, dancing and singing along with the commercials on TV. So many memories over the last twenty years. Thank God, she'd always been happy, always singing, living her life to the fullest, not a minute wasted... but that beautiful, bright spirit was snuffed out now. And Lou... this will kill her, he thought. She won't be able to bear it, he thought wildly. I won't be able to, either. But I have to... the other children... but how can I go on living after my girl is gone? It's not right, not natural, he raged to himself, to God in heaven. He tried to breathe, tried to get control of himself, but all he could do was pray for God to give him the strength to face this, somehow. To help his family face it.
Zach knocked on another door, the twenty-second by Lou's count, as she dully followed behind him. She was too overwrought to take part in the questioning, but couldn't sit behind and wait. It's pointless, she thought wearily, these kids don't know anything. But Zach doggedly had gone from door to door asking just the same.
This door opened and a young woman, a year or two older than Jamie, opened it. Her face was streaked with tears, her face haggard looking.
"Agent Kidd," Zach informed her, showing his badge. "Mind if I ask you a few questions?"
The girl's face went ashen. She slumped to her knees, shaking. "How did you find out already?" she whispered, hoarsely.
Lou and Zach looked at each other, shocked. "Find out what, Miss –"
"Downs. Sarah Downs," she sobbed. "I'm sorry. It was an accident."
"Ms. Downs, please, we're here about Jamie Kidd, she's a neighbor and classmate of yours."
"I know!" she shrieked. "I'm telling you it was an accident. I never meant for her to get hurt." She was choking with sobs, and a heartsick Lou snapped, stepping forward and slapping the girl roughly across the face.
"Stop that whining, and tell us where my daughter is!" she shouted, grabbing the girl's shoulders and shaking her. "Tell us now!"
Jamie looked up into the brilliant spring sky, dazed and weak with pain. Glancing up the steep hill, she knew no one could see her from the road... and she had already screamed herself hoarse trying to get someone to find her. No one could hear her passing by on the highway, unless they pulled over at the park and ride above. She'd best save her strength until someone did. She winced in pain from her leg. She knew it was broken, both from the agonizing pain and from the odd angle it was lying in. A fine mess I've gotten into, she thought. It could be days before someone stops at that park and ride. But Sarah won't just leave me here, she couldn't... could she? She thought back to the morning events and wasn't entirely consoled... Sarah might very well have left her here for dead.
Jamie had stepped into the off-campus housing apartment building and waited for the elevator, her thoughts on the message her mother left on her voice mail. The message was odd, as if her mother knew where she'd been last night. 'She can't possibly know', she told herself.
Jamie didn't remember much of what happened afterwards. She didn't even know how she ended up in the deep trench, and she wasn't sure how much time had passed. If only I had my phone with me... she thought. No one even knows I'm missing yet. Jesse thinks I'm at class, and Mom and Dad are preoccupied with that terrorist woman...
Kidd drove his car slowly back to the campus, trying as best as he could to stay calm.
His thoughts traveled to his family. His sons, and his remaining daughter. Poor kids... to lose a sister... he pulled his car to the side of the road as the tears blinded him and he couldn't drive anymore. He broke down in sobs, realizing this would be his only chance to grieve his daughter. I'll have to be strong for Lou and the kids when I see them. He rested his head against the wheel and cried for long minutes.
A knock on the window brought him back to reality. He looked up to see a police officer standing outside his car. Kidd rolled down the window.
"Is everything alright, sir?" the police officer asked.
"Yes, I'm sorry, officer. I'll be on my way," Kidd answered.
"Where are you coming from?" the officer asked suspiciously, glancing around the interior of the car. "Please get out your license and registration, sir."
Kidd wearily pulled his badge from his pocket and opened it, and the officer nodded, handing it back with the license and registration.
"You're okay to drive, Officer?"
Kidd nodded and the officer left.
Kidd pulled his cell phone out of the glove compartment, unwillingly. He turned it back on, checked the display, and saw that Lou and Zach had been calling him non-stop since he had been back in Atwood. He'd left the cell in the car, since it wasn't permitted in the jail, and in his misery he'd forgotten to turn the damn thing back on.
They must be beside themselves with worry by now. And I'm going to have to give them this horrible news. He wavered, not sure exactly where they were... they were calling from their cell numbers. This isn't the kind of news I can break over the phone, but I can't keep them hanging like this. If I knew Zach was with Lou, at least...
He stopped and looked out the window, indecisively. I can always count on Zach, he realized. I was so unfair to him that day with Chloe, he had some wild days as a teenager, sure, but he's been a great agent and a good son and brother... and I never knew him to lie. Lou was sure he was telling the truth, but I couldn't have any faith in him, he thought guiltily. In my own son. He sighed, realizing he needed to find a way to make it up to his son, somehow. We have to pull together as a family now, God knows.
The phone rang again, Zach's number. Kidd clicked it open reluctantly. "Zach, it's me."
"Dad, thank God I got you. We've got a lead on Jamie. Marissa Baxter had nothing to do with this, it's some student who had an axe to grind with Jamie, shoved her out of her car and left her on the side of the highway, she was hurt, but we're on our way there. Hopefully it's not too bad, and –"
Kidd dropped the phone and choked with sobs of thankfulness and relief. She's alive, she wasn't kidnapped at all...
"Dad? Dad?" the voice on the cell phone was repeating, worriedly. Somehow, he managed to pick it up.
"I'm here, Zach. How did you find all this out? How –"
"I just followed procedure. Questioned all the other kids in the apartment building, and got lucky."
"It wasn't luck, Zach, it was great agent's work. I'll never be able to thank you enough."
Zach's voice was starting to sound a little strained. "Yeah, well, no need for thanks, Dad. I did it for Jamie."
"Zach, there's something else. I owe you an apology for doubting you about Chloe. I want you to know, I believe in you, if it still matters."
There was a long pause at the other end of the phone, and Kidd waited anxiously for his son's response.
Zach's voice, softer now, finally answered. "Well, it did look pretty bad at that, Dad. No hard feelings. Let's just focus on Jamie now, okay? I called an ambulance just in case. Keep your cell on so I can let you know where to meet us."
"Thanks again, Zach. I love you."
Zach gruffly answered. "You too, Dad," and hung up.
Zach pulled into the park and ride and stopped the car. "We're the first ones here," he said, unbuckling his seatbelt and getting out. Jesse and Lou got out quickly and ran to the guardrail. "My God," Jesse moaned, looking down at Jamie's motionless body, her leg twisted under her.
The three skidded down the steep incline, with Jesse reaching her first. "She's breathing," he gasped, gratefully. He touched her face gently and her eyes fluttered open.
"Thirsty," she whispered. Zach handed Jesse a bottle of water he'd brought down from the car for his sister, and Jesse tenderly held it to her mouth.
"Just lie still, the ambulance is on its way," Lou murmured, stroking her daughter's arm.
Jamie nodded weakly.
"I love you," Jesse said, stroking her hair. "I was so worried." Lou and Zach exchanged glances, struck by Jesse's emotion.
"I know. I'm sorry –"
"You have nothing to be sorry for, baby, just rest and don't wear yourself out."
She blinked, confused. "I think my leg's broken... she hit me with the car." Her eyes filled with tears, and gazed back and forth between her lover, her mother and her brother. "I... I'm scared."
Jesse held her hand and spoke soothingly to her. "Everything is going to be okay, Jamie. The ambulance is coming, can you hear the siren?"
"I know," Jamie wailed. "But if my leg's broken, how can I be in the play?"
Zach sputtered a repressed laugh in the background and Lou grinned. Even Jesse managed a smile, and leaned down to kiss her. "You could have died, sweetheart. You being all right is all that really matters. There will be other plays."
"But I have a lead," Jamie said piteously. She started crying, more in disappointment than pain, as the EMT's lowered a gurney down the hill for her.
Chloe got off the elevator after her mother, who had insisted she come along to visit her cousin Jamie. Since the incident with Zach, she kept to herself as best she could. She barely even spoke to her mother when she was home, but stayed in her room, doing homework or reading. She didn't really have patience for anything, and nothing seemed to bring her troubled soul relief.
"Jamie!" Celinda called as they entered the room, and rushed to hug her niece. "You had us all scared to death!"
Chloe stood awkwardly by the door, upset to see it filled with the last people on earth she wanted to spend time with right now – her father, Zach, and Zach's parents.
"Hi, Chloe," Jamie smiled from the bed, trying to ease her cousin's mind. "Have a seat."
Chloe took a hesitant step forward but stopped when Zach stood up abruptly. When he brushed past her, she reached out and touched his arm. "Zach, please wait," she whispered.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her father standing up from his seat next to Kidd. She ignored him and locked eyes with Zach.
"I'm sorry," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm sorry for all I've put you through by not telling the whole truth earlier."
She turned to watch her father fully. "Zach didn't do anything. It was all me." Her face was burning red with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. I should have told you all what happened sooner, but I was ashamed..."
Zach was surprised to find that he pitied her but wasn't angry at her, as she stood shamefaced in front of the group.
"I'm not sure why I did it, but when Zach was in the shower I came in after him. I took off my clothes and used my credit card to unlock the door." Tears were running down her face now, but she did nothing to wipe them.
"I've been in love with you for years, but you treat me like a little girl. Everybody does. I thought if you saw I'm a woman now, if I gave you sex, you'd love me back," she said, addressing Zach, who shook his head slightly in disbelief.
Noah sighed, upset at his daughter's confused ideas of what love was, at her low self-esteem. We have a lot to work on as her parents, he thought sadly.
"I asked Zach to make love to me, but he told me to get dressed. He turned his back to me and wouldn't even look at me. He grabbed a towel and opened the door to get out – that's when you all came..."
The room fell silent; Jamie looked down uncomfortably. Chloe was her friend and cousin, and even though she was loyal to her brother, she pitied Chloe in her humiliation.
"Why didn't you tell us the truth from the start?" Celinda asked, coming to hug her daughter.
Chloe buried her face in her mother's arms. "I was afraid you'd be angry with me..."
Celinda steered her daughter out of the room, motioning for Noah to follow them. Noah nodded and rose from his seat. Before he left he approached Zach.
"I'm so sorry, Zach," he said, his voice low. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you when you told me the truth. I was so sure about everything, but I was so wrong. I'm going to call Officer Cody and tell him the truth, tell him how wrong I was about you."
Zach nodded. "I guess you'd better go talk to her," he said. Chloe's not a bad kid, just mixed up right now, he thought pityingly. "Tell her not to worry. I'm not mad at her." Lou and Kidd looked proudly at each other, at their son's kindness.
Noah nodded back and turned to face the room. "Michael, Lou, I'm sorry... for everything..." he said, as he left to catch up to Celinda and his daughter.
The ride home was silent. Chloe sat in the back of her father's car, while her mother sat in the front seat. She was staring out the window, surprisingly feeling better than she did in the last couple of weeks. I should have said something sooner, she thought.
She was glad at least her brother wasn't at the hospital. Since he learned what happened he'd been impossible, taunting her all the time, making snide remarks. If he got wind of just how big an idiot she'd made of herself, she'd never hear the end of it.
"I'll make some tea," Celinda said as they entered the house, while Noah motioned for Chloe to follow him into the living room.
They sat facing each other, in silence, until Celinda returned with a tray with three mugs of tea. She sat next to Noah and stared at her daughter.
A few moments passed before anyone spoke, until Chloe could take it no longer.
"I'm sorry," she started. "I should have told you everything from the start."
Celinda put her hand on Chloe's knee. "Sweetheart, we were worried about you..."
Noah interrupted. "I just don't understand how you could sit by and let me believe the worst of Zach. You know this little prank of yours caused a lot of trouble at work for him."
Chloe turned sullen. "I told you nothing happened. You're the one who assumed I was a liar and Zach was worse."
"Chloe, be fair. You certainly didn't come clean and it looked pretty bad. You can't blame your father for you keeping part of the story from us," Celinda pointed out. "And you still haven't explained what on earth you were thinking playing a silly, dangerous trick like that on Zach in the first place."
"It wasn't a trick, Mom," Chloe protested feebly. "I love him, I thought this was a way to make him fall for me."
"Oh, Chloe," Celinda sighed. "You're sixteen. What could you possibly know about love?"
"Never mind that, I still don't understand why on earth you didn't tell us the whole story days ago, Chloe?" Noah demanded.
Chloe looked up at her father, tears running down her cheeks. "I was ashamed. And I did try to tell you nothing happened. I just wanted to forget the whole thing." She wiped the tears and took a deep breath. "When Zach told me to get dressed I was so ashamed for telling him how I felt, for being naked in front of him... I just wanted to put it all behind me. It was so humiliating, and I know you two wouldn't understand, you'd just be mad at me."
"Chloe," Celinda started again, as she motioned for Noah to sit down. "First of all, you can come to us with anything. We'll always love you, no matter what you do, and we'll always try to help you the best we can. Second," she sighed. "Second, I'm concerned that you seem to think that if you offer sex to a man and he takes you up on it, that means he loves you."
"But isn't it part of it?" Chloe asked. "Sex? It's a way to show him how I feel, isn't it?"
"Oh my God," Noah sighed and buried his face in his hands.
Celinda smiled at her daughter. "When you're grown up, and when you're sure you and the one you love share the same feelings, then yes, sex is one way to express love. But you're not grown up enough for that yet, and I think you should wait until you're older."
"Other girls in my class have sex," Chloe said.
Noah's face tightened. "You're not old enough and that's it!" he exclaimed.
Celinda looked at him disapprovingly, then turned back to her daughter.
"The thing is, Chloe, you need to have respect for yourself and love yourself first, before someone else can really love you. And trying to get a man's attention by having sex isn't respecting yourself. If Zach had been the type of man to take advantage of the situation, I think you would have been very disappointed in the experience. Trust me, it's worth it to wait until you meet someone who loves you for you."
"How..." Chloe stammered. "How do you know when the right person comes along?"
Celinda looked up at Noah for a second, blushing like a teenager. "You just know."
Jamie smiled at her mother from the pages of her script, lying in her hospital bed.
"Studying, I see?" Lou smiled back.
"Yes, I'm missing rehearsals lying here, if I'm going to be able to catch up and be in the play with everyone after my surgery, I'd better practice my songs."
Lou nodded approvingly. "It's lucky Fantine doesn't dance too much, I wouldn't want you to overdo it right away."
Lou sat down in a chair pulled up next to Jamie's bed. Seeing her mother's face, Jamie laid down her script. "What is it, Mom?"
"Well, a lot of things. I feel badly that you didn't confide in me about you and Jesse. It's quite a shock to find out you've been in love for a year and never mentioned it to me." Lou glanced at her hands and spoke softly. "I thought we were closer than we are, I guess."
Tears started flowing in Jamie's kind eyes, and she sat up and put her hand on her mother's. "Oh, Mom, I'm sorry. I guess it's true, what a tangled web we weave, and all that. Please forgive me, I do love you and Dad, and I'm sorry I kept this from you. But I was eighteen and a freshman when it started. I didn't think it was wrong, but I was worried about Dad's reaction, and I didn't want to put you in the middle. Before I knew it, I was in love and didn't know how to tell you two. I just thought Dad would have a stroke over it. And from what I hear, he did."
Lou bit back a smile. Oh, Jamie, you don't know the half of how badly you traumatized him. And maybe it's better you don't. She held Jamie's hands. "Your father is going to accept it, Jamie. It may take a while for him to like it, but he's accepting it. And you know you can tell him anything too, he'll always love you no matter what."
"I know that, but you know how he is, Mom. I don't like being told what I should or shouldn't do in my own personal life, and, well, he can be a bit... overbearing... about his opinions sometimes. Look at what happened with Zach and Chloe."
Lou stroked Jamie's hands. "He's a kind, concerned father, Jamie."
"I know he's a wonderful person, and he loves me. But he takes the kind, concerned thing too far sometimes. I'm not a baby anymore and I can make my own decisions."
Nodding, Lou agreed. "Sure you can. So how come you hid your decision, instead of being up front about it? The truth, now."
Jamie leaned back and looked embarrassed. "Because I didn't want him to be disappointed or upset. I'd just as soon let him keep thinking I'm still a little girl, and not have him be disappointed in me," she admitted. "It was the chicken's way out."
"Well, that's all water under the bridge, honey. He's so glad you're safe he isn't concerned about your love life now."
Jamie grinned. "Yeah, that's the upside of almost getting killed. I'm going to skate by on that one for weeks, probably," she laughed, before wincing uncomfortably at the twinge in her ribs, which had been strained in the fall.
Lou fumbled in her bag, and drew something out. "Since you're grown up now, and after what almost happened, I've been thinking about giving you something. I was going to wait until after your premiere, but I'd just as soon you have it now."
She held out a gold cross with a diamond pendant. Jamie gasped.
"Mom, that's from your charm bracelet. It's the diamond from the engagement ring my... other father gave you."
"Yes, if you'd like to have it, I think you should have something special of your father's to wear."
Jamie started to cry. "But Mom, it was the last thing he gave you, it's... it's too much, I couldn't take that from you."
"It's not the last thing your father gave me – or the most precious."
Jamie looked up, confused, as she fastened the cross around her neck.
"You are, sweetheart," Lou said, her voice choking. "As long as you're around, you're a living reminder of him. You're so much like him. He'd be so proud of you. I think, wherever he is, he is proud of you - and so am I. I just want you to have that, and when you wear it, remember how much all three of your parents love you. No matter what," she added.
Lou entered the house after her visit to the hospital, her mood lighter. The house was dark and silent, which brought her unease at this early time of the evening. She searched the upper floor for her kids, but the rooms upstairs were dark as well.
"Michael?" she called once she returned to the bottom floor. That's weird, she thought when she got no answer, his car is outside.
She walked down the corridor to his study. The door was partially open and through the crack, she could see her husband sitting in the dim light, staring at a piece of paper. He looked ten years older, and her heart went out to him at seeing him so saddened.
"Michael," she called softly, opening the door a little wider. "Where're the kids?"
He looked up from the paper, a little startled to see her. "They... I..." he stammered. "I asked Mary to take M.J. outside. I needed some time alone."
"What's wrong?" Lou asked, the concern clear in her voice. She came closer and put her hand on his shoulder. "You're scaring me."
Kidd didn't answer her but kept staring at the paper in his hand.
"What's this?" Lou asked, indicating to the paper.
"It's my resignation letter," Kidd answered in a low voice.
Lou's jaw dropped. "You're resigning from the agency?"
Kidd looked up to meet her eyes. "I was going to talk to you about this first. I just can't do it anymore."
Lou leaned against his desk, facing him, and took his hands in hers. "What happened?"
"I hit a woman, Lou. In all my years in the agency, I've never done that. And I wasn't even on duty. I was so mad, and I used my power as an agent..."
"Who is she?" Lou whispered.
Kidd lowered his head in shame, and rested his head against her, hugging her around the waist.
"Marissa... when I was there questioning her, she told me she'd had Jamie kidnapped and killed, I snapped," he admitted. "I roughed her up a little, before the guards came in and broke it up."
Lou nodded, stroking his hair. "Michael, I would've done the same, maybe worse," she said. "Our little girl was in danger. I know you feel bad, since she didn't actually have anything to do with it, but it's partly her own fault for taunting you like that. I hope that's not the reason you're giving up on your career, honey."
"It's not just that. It's been too stressful for this family. I've put you all at risk. Zach and Jamie have their own lives now, but I'm not going to wait for something to happen to you or Mary or M.J."
"Well, what do you have in mind?" Lou asked, continuing to stroke his hair.
"I want to go away, Lou," Kidd answered restlessly. "Maybe somewhere in the mountains. We always said when we were old we'd own a horse ranch. Let's do it now, when we're still young enough to enjoy it."
Kidd rose from his chair and rested his forehead against hers. "Please, Lou. Let's get away from all this. I want a quiet, peaceful life with you and the children."
"And you're willing to leave the agency? That's what you've been doing for the last thirty years."
"I'm not even sure I have a place there anymore, Lou," he said sadly. "I was out of line when I hit her. I shouldn't have done that."
"I'm sure they won't fire you over it, Michael. There may be an inquiry if she makes a complaint, but under the circumstances, with your good record for the last thirty years, I'm sure they'll just reprimand you. You're too valuable to be let go."
Kidd shook his head. "I'm through. I'm done with it. I can't do it anymore, Lou. Please don't fight me about it."
Lou kissed his lips softly, then deepened the kiss, clinging to his body. "I love you, Michael," she whispered. "I'll back you up on whatever it is you want to do."
"Thank you," he said, pulling her closer to him. "I love you too. So much."
They kissed again, desperately needing to feel and be as close as possible to the other.
"So, where did you have in mind?"
"Well, there's a place I've heard of. A little town called Rock Creek. What do you say we'll take a short vacation, go see the place?"
After her talk with Michael, Lou couldn't fall asleep. She lay awake for hours, until finally, when the sun begun to rise she got up and started breakfast for everyone, then called Noah for clearance into Atwood to see Marissa Baxter on death row. After getting a sitter for M.J. and seeing Mary off to school, she drove to the prison.
On arrival, she wondered if she was making a mistake, whether anything could be gained from this other than making more trouble. But something inside her needed to close this chapter.
Looking up from a book, Marissa tossed it aside and asked, "And who are you?"
"Zachary Kidd's mother."
"Oh. The little missus. I suppose judging from Zachary's age, you must have been together when I had my little affair with his dad. He's quite a performer, your husband. He sure had me convinced he loved me." Marissa grinned. "Hope you weren't too upset when you found out about him and me."
Lou glared at her angrily. "I've known for years, and I'm still with him," she said, low. "Don't flatter yourself. You were nothing to him, he just was using you to get information to stop your insane plans, to save the lives of innocent people you wanted to kill."
Marissa paused a second, then looked up with hate in her eyes. "There was one person he couldn't save, isn't there? Your daughter. Just keep in mind, she's dead because of your husband," Marissa said, viciously. "I hope you think about that every time you look at him."
"She's not dead. She's fine, she was just missing for a few hours. You never hurt us, and you never will."
"If that's all you came to tell me, then I think it's time for you to leave. I have a lot to do here," Marissa said, irritably.
"Yes. And I hear you don't have a lot of time to do it in. I found out from the guard, that your appeals finally ran out, and you're going to be executed this week."
Marissa's lips twitched.
"I'll be there, front row, center, to see them send you to hell, Marissa," she said, tapping on the metal door for the guards. "Good bye."
Kristen James turned off her engine and sat a moment in the driveway of the house she'd lived in with Jesse for two years. She glanced over at the garden she'd planted for them; Jesse liked being outside but had no talent or interest in gardening, and it had been her pet project. Irises and lilac bushes she'd started, were in harmonious monochromatic bloom now.
She tapped nervously on her steering wheel, working up the courage to go up to the door and ring the bell. She'd had an affair with a graduate student, her teaching assistant, while married to Jesse. It was infatuation on both their parts, it turned out. But she'd been enthralled by her young lover and made the stupid mistake of throwing away her marriage to Jesse for it. When her student finished his dissertation six months ago, he moved on to a full teaching position across the country. She had tenure and couldn't give that up and go with him – especially since Justin hadn't even asked me to, she thought with humiliation. What a damn fool I was.
She started gathering up the source materials she'd obtained on Jesse's pet topic of the Pony Express, one that he was writing a book about right now. These original historical documents were her excuse to drop by unannounced at his house. She was well familiar with his work, since they'd managed to remain cordial colleagues at the history department since their divorce, awkward and even hostile though it had been between them in the very beginning. Over the last five years, they had managed to almost become friends again, she thought. Checking herself in the makeup mirror, she nodded, satisfied she looked her best. Jesse didn't start dating until almost a year after I left him; and even then only casually. And nobody in over a year. There's a good chance he still cares, she told herself. Only one way to find out.
Walking up the path, she saw that there were new plants put in all along the walkway and along the front of the house, probably this year. Bright multi-colored dahlias and foxglove. Petunias, pansies and impatiens in every color. She paused. Jesse's picked up gardening? And he picked out all these wild colors to plant? Kristen shrugged and continued up the walk, and pulled her shoulders back straight, ringing the bell.
There was a long pause, and Kristen looked curiously at the driveway. His car's here, and it's only 8 in the morning on a Sunday. Maybe he went for a run? She thought, disappointed. He's usually an early riser. Or at least he used to be. She looked down at her papers and debated what to do, and then heard the strains of music from inside the house. It sounded like an a cappella version of a song she remembered from Les Miserables, from years ago when she saw it on Broadway with Jesse. I guess he's into show tunes now? She thought, confused. She rang the bell again, and this time heard Jesse call out.
"I'm coming, I was in the shower," he yelled, opening the door quickly and hoping to catch whoever it was. He stood in the doorway, hair wet and a towel tied around his waist. "Oh," he said. "Kristen? What are you doing here?"
With the door open, the warbling, beautiful voice was clearer, and Kristen looked past Jesse into the living room, where she saw a young girl with long dancer's legs – clad only in a pair of tiny boy shorts and a tight tank top – lying on the sectional couch, her casted foot propped up on a chair. And she was singing at the top of her voice, sheet music in her hands blocking her face.
"Who - - who's that?" Kristen stammered.
At that moment, the singing angel put down her sheet music and popped out her iPod. "Oh," she giggled, almost moronically. "It's Mr. and Mrs. Professor James."
"Jamie?" Kristen exploded. She turned to Jesse in a fury. "You're sleeping with a student?" she demanded, as if she were a betrayed wife.
"I wouldn't go around criticizing other people for that, Kristen. At least she's not my student, like Justin was yours."
Kristen looked abashed for a moment... she hadn't realized that gossip was a two way street, and that the whole campus had known about her and Justin. "Well... at least Justin had a brain or two in his head, not like that bimbo," she snapped nastily.
Jamie chortled merrily at that, but Jesse was furious. "She's no bimbo," he said, even as Jamie started to get up, forgetting about her broken foot, and tumbled onto the floor, laughing idiotically.
"She's on morphine, it's her first day home from the hospital after her surgery on her ankle. She isn't used to it," Jesse said, rushing to her side. "It's okay, baby. Try to remember not to move around too much."
Jamie was laughing as Jesse helped her carefully back on her couch and replaced her foot on the chair. "And the doctor said to keep that foot up. I'd better call and tell him you can't handle this morphine," he said as she clung affectionately and drunkenly to his neck. "Your mother told me she has trouble handling medication too. I guess you take after her. Just be careful, will you? And if you need something, let me get it. That's what I'm here for."
"Thank you honey," she slurred. "I love you."
He forgot Kristen a moment and kissed his darling girl on the cheek. "I love you more," he told her, holding her close.
Kristen felt a lump rising in her throat. "I... I came to give you these source materials for your book," she said lamely.
"Thanks. Next time, do you mind leaving them in my mailbox at work? I'll be glad to do the same if I find anything on your area of interest," Jesse said formally, still stung by Kristen's rude comment about his beloved Jamie.
Kristen looked at the young girl clasped in her ex-husband's arms and nodded, placing the papers on the table and backing out without a word.
"She's nasty," slurred Jamie after the door shut. "She said I was a bimbo." Indignantly, she added, "I was smart enough to get an A in her boring class."
"Never mind her, baby," Jesse soothed her.
"She's going to tell everybody I was here. Nobody at school knows about us, except my uncle," Jamie said, her eyes clearing a little. "Will that be a problem for you?"
"No. I'm not breaking any rules by loving you, you're not in my department and won't be taking any of my classes."
"I know. But..." Jamie shook her head, and closed her eyes. "Tired," she said wearily.
Jesse sat watching her lovingly as she drifted to sleep. He glanced toward his jacket, hanging on a peg by the door. He’d been carrying an engagement ring for the last two days in the pocket, waiting for the right moment to ask her to wear it.
Jamie packed her things into her overnight bag, preparing to return to her apartment. Jesse came to the doorway and watched her a moment.
"It's been great having you here," he said, softly.
She smiled up at him. "Yes, it's been fun. I really appreciate your letting me crash here when I was getting over my surgery." She zipped up the overnight bag and limped slightly to the dresser, carrying a duffel bag. She started piling her toiletries into a plastic bag to put in the duffel. "Maybe you can help me get Sundancer back into her carrier for the trip? I'm not quite as fast on my feet as I need to be to get her in there. She doesn't like it very much," Jamie added.
"I've been meaning to ask, actually –", he paused. "Ask you not to go," he added. "Stay here with me."
"What? Jesse, I have my own place, remember?"
He pulled her to him. "I love you. I want you here always, please, live with me." Emboldened, he dropped to his knees. "Marry me," he pleaded.
Jamie looked into his eyes, seeing he was serious. As he pulled a box from his pocket, she stopped him.
"Jesse, please. Get up and let's discuss this."
Jesse looked up at her, seeing the refusal of his proposal already on her face. He looked down sadly, then nodded and got up from his knees.
She sat on the bed and patted next to her. He joined her and she took his hand.
"Jesse, I think maybe what just happened shook you up a little bit, and this might be a reaction to it."
"No, it isn't. I love you and I think it's time to go to the next level."
She stroked his hand. "A few weeks ago, you wanted to take a break, slow things down. Now all of a sudden, you want to get married?"
"I was wrong, honey, I'm sorry about what I said then."
She shook her head. "I'm not so sure you were totally wrong."
"What are you saying? You don't love me?" Jesse choked.
"I do love you. You know that."
He nodded. "Just not enough to live with me or marry me."
"That's not fair, Jesse. I couldn't love you any more than I do. We don't need to share an address or have a piece of paper to prove we love each other."
"I'm not just asking you to change your address or get a piece of paper. I'm asking you to share our lives together."
Jamie struggled to find the right words. "Jesse, I love you with all my heart. I want us to keep seeing each other exclusively. And I can't imagine my future without you in it. But I'm not ready to move in together or get engaged. I'm sorry."
"Why, Jamie? If we love each other –"
"Honey, I'm nineteen. I moved out of my parents' house a year ago. I want to have my own place, my own life, for a while before I move into someone else's house."
"So we can still get engaged, can't we?"
"But I want to finish school. I want to go to New York this summer and try to make a go of it auditioning, I was going to go with Laura and stay there for the summer."
Her eyes were dim with tears. "Jesse, I have things I want to do before I settle down. Please don't make me choose between you and following my dreams. I'll stay here with you if it's what I have to do not to lose you, but..." she trailed off.
He looked at her sadly, taking in her pink school sweatshirt, her youthful face. God, he thought. What am I doing to her? She deserves the chance to experience life first... not tie herself down at 19. He nodded. "You won't lose me, baby. I'll... I'll wait for you to be ready," he promised her.
She looked at him gratefully and leaned in to kiss him, then pulled him down on top of her on the bed, whispering, "I love you."