After leaving a voicemail for her oldest son, Gretchen stuffed her phone back into her bag, adjusted the tab on the back of her right boot, and let herself back into the crowded gym, scanning the crowd for the man she needed. "Hey, I just left Parker a message, I sent him a text too. Can you call him please?"

Parker's father shrugged as Brad's shoulders went up half an inch and then down again. "If you left him a message and sent him a text, he'll get back to you when he's able."

"He's sitting at home pouting because I told him that Taylor wasn't in love with him. I'm sorry if his feelings are hurt, but he asked me what I thought about the engagement ring he wanted to get for her, and I had to tell him the truth."

"Did you apologize to him?"

"I said I was sorry. I really need to know if he's going to be able to take care of the birds while we're down in Florida. All he has to do is say yes, or no. I can find someone else to go over and make sure that they have food and water. Brent is worried that they're going to be kept in their cage and not get any exercise even though I told him that they would be fine. Did you talk to Parker about Taylor?"

"I will find someone to take care of the birds. My dad will if nobody else wants to volunteer."

Her fingers touched his forearm lightly. "Honey, you know Brent doesn't want your dad to forget."

"He won't. I can call or text to remind him. He wouldn't forget about that though."

"What did you say to Parker about Taylor?"

"There isn't a lot to say. Is there some reason Benji isn't going to be able to take care of the birds?"

"I tried." Gretchen said wearily. "When I asked him he gave me a bunch of attitude. Did you at least tell Parker that Taylor isn't in love with him and he's better off without her?"

"Parker is an adult. People rarely want to hear what others think they should be doing. I asked if he wanted to talk, he said no, so I left it at that."

"Honey, you are his father. He needs you to be affirming. Don't you want him to be happy and marry the right woman?"

"At no point in my life have I ever wanted either of my parents to tell me who I should go out with or marry. Telling adult children what to do with their hearts and lives when they have no desire to talk to you about it is poor parenting in my opinion."

"Your parents were happy that you married Lana. Your dad wanted you to go out with her way before you did."

"I like Taylor. I think she was good for Parker in some respects. They were an attractive couple, and he took school more seriously than he had before they started going out. The fact that she lied about who the father of her child is, that's upsetting and not anything I would want to talk to anyone about if that had happened to me. Trust is a critical component of a healthy loving relationship and I would have a very difficult time with that type of a lie if I was Parker, or in his situation. I feel like giving him time to just be by himself is the best thing we can be doing for him right now. He will have no trouble finding someone else after he spends whatever time he needs to get over Taylor. I'm not sure he did really love her the way she needed or wanted to be loved, I think he felt a strong sense of duty and obligation toward her and the unborn baby, I also think that seeing his sister who is younger than him get engaged was a motivating factor in his decision to go ring shopping. Parker will be fine. He's just down because now it probably feels like everyone else has a great life and he's going to be lonely without a romantic relationship. There are many women who would love to go out with a guy like him. I'm not really worried about that."

"Can you please call him and ask him about the birds?"

"You called, you sent him a text. I see no reason to bother him when he has much larger issues on his mind, and he may very well be busy and not near his phone or he would have gotten back to you by now."

"You know he has his phone with him 24/7."

"Either he can't get back to you, or won't. Again, he is an adult. You would not want someone harassing you about feeding pets if you were upset about a major life issue."

"Can you at least call and see if he's okay?"

"Okay is such a generic and broad term. There isn't really anything I can say or do that's going to make him feel better about anything."

"You could at least reach out, I think that would help."

"I disagree."

"You could at least call and tell him you love him. Have you tried that?"

"I am out late on a bitterly cold night to watch my nephews play basketball. Parker was invited, I reminded him that we would love to hang out with him at the game tonight, and I would like to actually see some of the game as long as I am out and about, so if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to Lana."

"Call him. It will take two seconds."

"Not calling him will take zero seconds."

"Please honey? He needs you. You're his dad. It will mean more to hear from you than it will coming from me."

Brad pulled his phone out, found Parker's name, and pressed the button that would connect him to his son. When the call went to voicemail he spoke clearly and distinctly. "Hi Parker, it's just your parents calling to check in and see how you're doing. We understand that you may need to be alone, however we are around if you would like to talk to one or both of us. We love you and are praying for you. Take care." He put his phone back into his pocket, but only advanced two steps before receiving an incoming call. "Hi Parker. Thanks for getting back to us."

"Hi, sorry I missed your call. I was trying on my new clothes. Can I come with when you go to Florida?"

"How are you planning to make a trip like that if you still have classes and exams?"

"I only have a few classes left, I can ask for permission to take my exams early."

"As long as you work it out with everyone involved on the academic side, what are you going to do about the hours that you're scheduled to work?"

"I can see if others will help me out. I pick up a lot of shifts for other people. I can do some ordering ahead of time."

"Just so you know, this is primarily a business trip on my side. I don't have a problem with you accompanying us if you can arrange matters at work, home, and school, but I won't have much free time to hang out and play games or go sight seeing while I'm down there. I would have some time, but not much."

"That's fine. I was thinking about transferring schools and going to school down there."

"I see."

"You wouldn't have to do anything."

"Did you have a school in mind? It would be nice to be included in this discussion if you're expecting someone else to pay for your tuition next semester."

"I have a list. I was hoping you and Lana would let me stay at your place."

"We share that place with Natalie and Ryan as well, you would want to run that past them although my hunch is that we can work something out. Otherwise I know your mom would let you stay at her and Brent's place if school in Florida is your plan for next semester. Are you quitting your job?"

"Not yet. This is something I need to look into more first."

"I see. Perhaps we could pick this conversation up later. I did want to see the game, and I already missed the first half. Are you going to be out at the farm when we arrive?"

"I'm here now. Nelson said he might stop by when he gets off of work. But I don't think we're going out tonight. I told him I want to get to bed early."

"Are you going to be home for breakfast tomorrow?"

"I already started getting things together. If Nelson decides to spend the night, I'll let you know as soon as I can."

"Thanks. Otherwise, we can just plan on him. I can't imagine he's going to want to drive back home if he drives out to the farm tonight. Did you want to talk to your mom for a minute?"

"No thank you."

"Are your feelings hurt?"

"She told me Taylor did not love me and I shouldn't have spent so much on her. My mom was pregnant when she got married. She has no right to judge me like that."

"Can you find it within yourself to forgive?"

"I've forgiven her. But I have no desire to talk to her. My mom doesn't like anyone I go out with, it's tiring."

"I can imagine."

"She said that you and Lana were trying for another baby."

"Did she?"

"I'm not asking if you are, I'm just telling you what she said."

"I see."

"If that's what you want, then I would be happy for you if it happens."

"Thank you. That means a lot to me."

"I won't say anything about it to anyone else either if it's a secret."

"Respecting the privacy of others is always in good taste whether a topic of conversation is a secret, or merely a flight of fancy that was never intended to be taken seriously."

"So you're not trying then?"

"Do you want me to ask you questions about your sex life; or would you prefer that I accept the fact that you are an adult and can make your own consensual decisions?"

"I'm not the one having sex in the kitchen with my partner."

"I wasn't either, but it is my kitchen, and I will defend my right to perform acts of love and service in it."

"What were you doing if you weren't having sex with her?"

"It's our house, and we do not owe you or anyone else explanations. You are free to move out if you would rather not live under our roof."

"I get that, but people are going to talk if you do things in the kitchen that look like you're having sex."

"People are going to talk regardless. I love my wife. We have a great relationship, it's my kitchen, half mine, and if I want to have sex with my wife there, or anywhere else in my house, then I will. I really do not care what others are gossiping about as long as none of their talk hurts Lana. People who haven't tried it might want to give it a go. It's still on my bucket list and I've been married for more than twenty years."

"It's fine as long as other people in the house don't have to avoid the kitchen because you two are in it practically screwing each other in there."

"I'm not going to apologize if someone who lives with us is offended. We try to be discreet, but, and this is something you'll understand better if you are ever in a relationship like the one I have with Lana, it is incredibly easy to get so caught up in what you're feeling and doing that you really don't give a damn who walks in on you or what they happen to see. I don't intentionally try to show her off or anything like that. I don't even know who saw us kissing, and I really don't care either. If they can't handle mature romantic love where people give and take, that's on them."

"It's your house. I wouldn't do anything like that. People should be able to control themselves."

"Yes, they should. But I stand by what I said too. Just remember, pride goes before the fall Parker. I know you're upset about this Taylor situation, but acting like Lana and I are somehow in the wrong because we were enjoying the company of one another is misplaced superiority on your part."

"I'm not upset. I just think you could be setting a better example for others."

"You're probably right. I will never be perfect. You won't be either."

"Someone is at the door. I'll talk to you later."

"We love you, your mom and I both do. I do feel bad about the way things went down and I am available to talk when I get home."

"It's no trouble, really. Nelson said he might stop by, but he doesn't get done with work for a while. Enjoy the game." He opened the door thinking that the woman who stood in front of him bore no resemblance to any of the friends he had. "Hi, what brings you here tonight?"

Polly coughed into her elbow as warm air from the entry way collided with the frigid blast that howled behind her. At five-ten she was considered tall for a woman, but she had to look up to catch the eyes that were eight inches above her own. "I'm here to see Brad Summerville."

"He's not here right now." Parker said as he set his phone down. Whoever she was, this strange woman was bone thin, but her expensively cut clothes suggested that it wasn't a lack of money that prevented her from eating well. "Is there something I can do for you, or did you want me to relay a message to him?"

"No thank you." Polly's tone was as icy as the layers of frozen water that encased branches of a nearby bush. "I'll catch up with him later."

Her voice was slightly accented, but he couldn't place the origin. "Did you want to wait for him?"

Now she regretted leaving her phone in her car. "When do you expect him to return?"

Her cough bothered him. The way her shoulders caved in around her chest was disturbing, but he kept his tone moderate. "I'm not exactly sure. He's at a basketball game with the rest of my family. Two of my brothers play, but they go to different schools so he went to part of one game and then the other. I'm his son, I'd be happy to tell him you stopped by if you give me your name and the reason for your call."

"I need to see him in person." Polly insisted. "How do I know who you are or that you're telling the truth about your relationship to him?"

"I don't know anything about you either. You don't have to believe me and I don't have to trust you either." Parker said in a tone that was as close as he could come to hers without being downright rude to a stranger.

"I have some personal property that belongs to him. Even if you are really related to him," Her look and tone conveyed the dubious nature of her belief in his claim. "I'll wait out in the car."

"In this weather? You're perfectly safe here. Call or text a friend or family member if you're so worried that I'm going to do something to you. I'll go upstairs, you can have the downstairs to yourself."

She took a moment to stare at his orange polo shirt, reluctantly admiring the fit and the navy trim that complemented the tan of his skin. Most of the people she knew had winter white complexions such as her own. "Why are you wearing riding clothes?"

He should have been more annoyed than he was, but he kept up the banter for appearances. "My mom bought me some things and wanted to know how they fit. I didn't realize I needed your permission to try on new clothes in my own room."

"I was just asking. Next time please call me first. I'm with the fashion police."

Normally he would have challenged this assertion, but she was spectacularly clothed even if she could use more flesh on her frame. From the cut of her navy coat to the margin of patterned ivory and navy skirt that peeped out beneath the brass buttons, everything she wore was white, ivory, or navy right down to the navy flats that were foolish in this weather, but finished off the outfit from his perspective. Even her hat was a jaunty sailor style affair, capping off a head of spicy corkscrew curls. "Oh really? Where's your identification?"

"I'm working undercover. We received a report that you were wearing riding clothes late at night. I was called to go out and investigate."

"How am I supposed to call if I don't have your number?"

"I can't do everything for you."

"You haven't done anything for me. I don't even know your name."

"I don't know yours either."

"It's Parker."

Hearing her own last name startled Polly, but she gathered her composure quickly. "What's your middle name?"

"Noah. What's yours?"

"When is your birthday? I have to verify this or I wouldn't be asking."

"July Fourth. Why do the fashion police care when I was born?" The conversation was fun he decided. He didn't know what to make of this woman who was so haughty, yet obviously joking with him. 

"I don't make the rules. I just follow them. I'm new so they sent me on an easier case."

"What sort of trouble am I going to be in for breaking these unwritten fashion rules?"

"I'm just here to report and investigate. You seem to have a legitimate reason for this infraction, I'm still in training. I'll report this incident to my superiors. They'll get back to you if there's a need." She said as her eyes focused on his feet. Everything about him spoke of a much easier life than she had had. His freshly cut hair, blemish free skin, upright posture; Polly wondered what kind of clothing he wore normally. She had a feeling it was not jeans paired with a crumpled t-shirt. Luxury, elegance, class, and simplicity were his trademarks if the watch on his wrist was anything to go by. 

"People are concerned about my riding clothes, but not my dad who wears black almost every single day? I feel like this is an oversight on their part."

"What's wrong with black? I love black. You're not with the fashion police, I am."

"Seeing it every day gets tiresome. Are you going to stand in the doorway letting the heat out, or can you come in to discuss fashion crimes in a more civilized environment? I can get you something to eat and drink, it has to be tiring working for the fashion police. I see many crimes myself. You must be exhausted."

"I've had worse cases. This one isn't too bad." She stepped into the kitchen and stared at a stainless steel colander. "Why do you have so many mushrooms?"

"My dad grows them. Are you not a fan?"

"Mushrooms scare me. They're spongy and spooky. That's a lot of them. You said it was perfectly safe in here. You lied to me."

"My dad makes breakfast for us on Saturday mornings. I was just getting things ready for him. Are you spending the night?"

"In a house where people leave mushrooms on the counter? I don't think so."

"I can put them away. I promise that they will stay there until my dad is ready for them."

"What is he going to do with them?"

"He's serving a mushroom frittata with a winter fruit salad and sweet potato pancakes. Charlie signed up for a cornmeal cake, but last I heard she wasn't feeling well so I don't know if we'll actually have that or not. I guess I could make it for her. Do you drink white wine? The recipe calls for it."

"Wine in cake? What kind of cake calls for wine?" Polly asked.

"This cake does. It's an olive oil cake. I can show you the recipe if you're skeptical."

"Who is Charlie?" Parker wanted to ask who she was, but decided to let it ride. He sat down in a chair, feeling slightly silly dressed in riding clothes without his boots, but he wanted to keep the conversation going. 

"She's my sister Liesl's friend. She lives with us. It's a long story. I can share it, but I would like to be considerate of your time. I don't know how the fashion police would view you taking a break from your duties while you're on the job. Even if they're okay with it, you must have a man in your life that would like to know what you're doing out this late on a Friday night without him."

"I'm sure your girlfriend is wondering the same thing." Polly said with a glance at his bare left ring finger. "How old are you?"

"I don't know your name. I don't know anything about you. I've answered all of your questions, I think I'm owed answers to some of mine."

"I ask the questions around here Parker. Are you old enough to vote?"

"I'm old enough to appreciate a woman like you if that's what you would like to know."

"You appreciate people being rude to you?"

"My dad is a billionaire. As his son I'm a tall, straight, wealthy, well-educated, privileged, white, single male. I don't know too many people who are brave enough to be rude straight to my face much less women who are as well dressed or as mysterious as you are. It's very refreshing."

"You still haven't explained why you're wearing riding clothes at night."

"Yes I did. My mom bought me new clothes and I was trying them on so I could tell her what I thought of them."

"Where are your boots?"

"I have to get a new pair. Do you ride?"

"I ask the questions Parker. Sit back down."

"Why should I? Give me one good reason why I should do anything you tell me to do."

"You said you appreciated a woman like me. If that's true, then you should be listening to me."

"What's in it for me?" He said as he put a bare foot up on the seat of his father's chair. "I need an incentive, some motivation to give in and obey your demands."

"It was a command, not a demand. I told you to sit down. But you didn't. So you ignored my command. If I asked you to do something, like kiss me, that would be a demand. Read up on the distinction, you won't make that mistake in the future if you do."

"I don't have to sit down to kiss you."

"You have to sit down if you want to be kissed. I'm not tall enough to kiss you when you're standing up."

"So if I sit down in this chair, you'll kiss me?"

"Is that a demand?"

He sat in the chair wondering if her lips were fuller than they had been previously, or it was just his overly active imagination. On impulse he leaned back, using his foot to stabilize himself as he reached for the light switch near the stairs. The kitchen went dark. He settled back into his chair and waited. Gloved hands cradled his face as her mouth melted into his. Skin tight riding breeches grew tighter as the kiss deepened. Her nails raked across his scalp and he sent shivers down her spine by breaking the kiss to explore the scarred lobe of her left ear. Until she sat on his lap he had kept his hands to himself. With her straddling him, her skirt rode up, increasing the tension between the two people sharing a chair. His hands touched her thighs lightly, making it clear to her that she was free to leave, or move. Polly chose the latter, pressing herself against him until the thin layers that separated them grew damp. Her chest heaved, she couldn't see his face in the darkness, but he gave her every other indication that he was as caught up in the pleasure as she was. Her ragged breath ended in a sigh of his name, meanwhile he was incapable of coherent speech, holding onto her while caught up in what had to be the most erotic and intense escapade he had ever partaken of in his father's kitchen. He hadn't had many women climax against him, especially not while fully clothed, but he took her increasing quiet and lack of movement to mean that she was finished, whether she had actually had an orgasm, or was merely tired of kissing him. He was going to be in trouble if his mom came over and saw what he had done to his new clothes, fortunately she was miles away watching his brother play basketball.

"I love you." He whispered. "Are you okay?"

Still reeling from the unplanned encounter Polly shivered against him. She coughed, sneezed, and banged her nose against his chest as he sat up. Her hand went up to her face as she pinched her nostrils together, feeling blood slide down her throat and into her stomach until he jostled her arm. Not knowing why she wasn't responding was alarming to Parker. Retrospectively his decision to turn out the lights seemed like a poor one, despite the outcome. He repeated his words. "Are you okay?"

"My nose is bleeding." Polly responded as she tried to get away from him. "I'm ruining your clothes."

They stumbled over each other in the darkness. Polly backed into the table, Parker hit his knee against the underside of it, extracted himself, and flipped on the lights. True to her word fresh blood was now the primary decoration on his father's kitchen floor. "Sit down. I'll get you a towel."

But Polly pushed it aside when it arrived, afraid that she would ruin the fine white cloth. She sneezed again, sending fine particles of blood tinged spray into the air, misting droplets onto his white riding breeches. When her fearful eyes caught his, she saw love, concern, and confusion in the tender gaze that had unsettled her previously. It gave her enough hope and comfort to smile at him before slipping away into the place where she was free from cold, dampness, terror, and the ghosts from her past that still haunted her

To be continued...

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