T'S TIME FOR BREAKFAST IN THE SUBURBS, AS JENEANE, a pixieish girl of 8, dark curls in pigtails, bounds into the kitchen for a bowl of Life cereal before ballet class. Her mother pours milk for her and for two little boys, visiting cousins. Suddenly, her mother freezes. Crackling from the radio -- gunfire, news of the latest in Beirut madness -- inspires the two boys to strut some pint-sized macho. "Here's how you shoot an M-16," brags one, looking down a butter knife as if it were a rifle barrel. Jeneane cuts him short.

"When I was in Beirut," says the budding ballerina, "a man came to our apartment in a bloody shirt and aimed his gun out the window like this . . ." The cousins gape: "Wow!" Jeneane Aoude (the name sounds like Audi, the car) simply shrugs, as if every little girl already knows all about war.

Spirited away by her Lebanese father after her parents had split up, she slept through the bombs and bullets of Beirut for almost a year. Her American mother, Mary Aoude, had no idea where she was. And when she tried to find out, she learned how helpless the U.S. government can be in recovering children held hostage overseas by ex-husbands who have the support of foreign courts.

An estimated 350 children are taken from America every year, usually by a parent who loses custody in a divorce. In many cases, "the long arm of U.S. law cannot reach" them, says Donna Sherman, a State Department press officer who tracks 2,300 unresolved cases of snatched children.

Most wind up in West Germany, where many American servicemen have tied the knot, or Mexico, which pumps hordes of immigrants across the border. Few children are ever returned. And the handful who surface in the Middle East, like Jeneane, are all but given up for lost.

Mary Aoude is among the rare parents: She got her child back. But she had to launch a daring rescue of Hollywood bravado -- a young American mother alone in a war zone, in a part of the world where women have few rights.

"You go a little crazy when your child is missing," says Aoude, 33, hiding out in a three-bedroom house on a quiet cul-de-sac in an Atlanta suburb. She lives with her mother and Jeneane, and she has altered her name to ward off fear that her former husband might try to snatch his daughter away again. This day, after Jeneane heads for ballet, she sits on a couch and ponders the first mistake of parents who have faced similar predicaments: falling in love with a foreigner. "I'd always been attracted to foreign men," she says. "American men just never seemed to find me interesting at all." SHE WAS 22 WHEN THEY MET, A STUDENT X-RAY TECHNICIAN with car trouble who limped into a Mobil station just off the Massachusetts Turnpike. All she had was a $2 bill. "I can't take that," he laughed, filling her tank for free. "I'll let you pay me back later."

Maurice Aoude was 10 years older, charming, self-assured, a gas jockey with a green card, a mustache and an immigrant's dream of making it big in America, perhaps someday buying his own service station. He lived in Hopkinton, 30 miles west of Boston. And if he radiated good looks and intrigue, she played to his fantasy as The Beautiful American Girl, half Irish, big hazel eyes, easy laugh, a hint of auburn in her hair. "I thought he was cute," she confesses. She kept going back. For $5, he performed major surgery on her clunky green '72 Firebird. She bought him a fifth of Southern Comfort. He asked her out.

She was living at home with her parents in Upton, Mass. -- before later moving on to her own apartment -- the third of five children born to a hard-working electrician and his wife. One night Maurice rolled into the driveway in a gleaming maroon Monte Carlo. It was brand new, a 1976 model with a white vinyl top. He ran around to get the door, lit her cigarette. For mood music, he popped a whiny-voiced Arab tape into the deck: Fay Rouz, the Linda Ronstadt of Lebanon.

He spoke of growing up near Tripoli, Lebanon, in a close-knit family of four brothers and sisters, of his late father, of how he yearned to get rich. "My station is a gold mine," he bragged. Mary, a nice Catholic girl with modest dreams, was overwhelmed.

"It was culture shock for me," she says, "like the Twilight Zone." But he was so exotic, like someone from "Casablanca," her favorite movie. "I really fell for him. I'd always wanted someone to take care of me. He made me feel as if he might."

They dated for six months, and one day Maurice showed up with a ring. Her mother wanted a Catholic wedding, but Maurice had been divorced once, from a Texas girl, so that was out. They settled on a Greek Orthodox church -- Maurice was Orthodox Christian, one of 16 sects vying for power back in Lebanon. They were married on July 9, 1977. The best man was Maurice's boisterous boss and mentor, Al Daher, a pudgy, fast-talking con man from a village back home, Kfarhazir. A band played for 100 guests at Finnerty's, a local restaurant, where toasts in Arabic mingled with Boston brogues.

At the last moment, Maurice canceled a honeymoon to Hawaii -- he had to get back to work at the gas station -- and they spent their wedding night at Mary's apartment, with two Aoude cousins in tow. The cousins spoke no English. She tried to be polite, "but after a week of this, I was ready to go home to my mother. It was a disaster right from the start." (Despite repeated attempts, Maurice, who has lived in Lebanon and Iraq in recent years, could not be reached for his perspective on the family relationships.)

Maurice pitched his new wife's father on buying out his boss, and they made a down payment. The deal ran into trouble when Daher was arrested for faking a burglary and filing phony insurance claims. Convicted of mail fraud in that case, and subsequently indicted on an additional 10 counts of mail fraud, Daher posted a $25,000 bond and was last seen in Lebanon. Maurice took over the station and, by all accounts, did not run it well. He kept incomplete records and ran out of gas regularly, according to a former employe.

Steve Seamans, Mary's brother, came home from the Navy to shepherd his father's investment. He was appalled, he says, when Maurice told him to sell a nun in full habit an $80 alternator when the only thing he thought was wrong with her car was a loose belt. Two weeks later Seamans was fired by Maurice. Tempers ran hot. Although her parents had just moved to Syracuse, N.Y., to work, her father exploded when he found out about Steve, fired Maurice and sold out to a man who hired Maurice to pump gas.

Mary wanted to split. Maurice begged her to stay. She reconsidered and got pregnant. Yet there was little intimacy, she says. He would read the paper, watch the news. At night, she would cry herself to sleep. Near term, she announced, "I'm leaving." He was laughing as she walked out the door. She drove around the block and came home. "I had no place to go," she says. IT WAS AN EASY LABOR, AND JENEANE weighed in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces at 2:24 a.m., April 2, 1979. Maurice drove them home and disappeared, soon launching another career as a traveling tool salesman. When his truck was stolen, he turned to hawking pita sandwiches in Harvard Square. Mary worked hard at home, soaking beans for falafel, dicing onions for tabooli. He opened a cafe'; it burned. Soon he was sleeping on the couch, staring at static on the TV when there was nothing on. "It was very sad," Mary says. "He must have been as unhappy as I was."

It was fall 1981, and she enrolled Jeneane in day care at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where she worked as a $300-a-week secretary in the mental-health clinic. Jeneane was waking up at night, screaming. Mary asked for a separation. She thought Jeneane was picking up the tension at home. "In Lebanon," fumed Maurice, "families stay together no matter what."

They were hardly speaking when he took off for Canada to work with an older brother, George, a convenience store owner in Edmonton, Alberta. He promised to fetch his family and soon started sending a little money. "I felt very relieved when he left," she says.

Mary celebrated the new year, 1982, by consulting a Boston lawyer, Sarah Singer, but she didn't have the cash to file for divorce. Her father was dying of cancer in Syracuse, and she had to budget for visits home. Jeneane "was my only joy," she says. FIVE MONTHS AFTER MAURICE LEFT, he flew in to visit on Jeneane's third birthday, took her to the movies, bought his little girl a big stuffed goose. "She was a little bit shy at first," says Mary, "but by the next day, it was, 'Mommy, don't make the toast like that. That's not how Daddy makes it.' She was thrilled to see him."

It seemed harmless enough. "I would never take Jeneane from you," he said, lulling Mary into an illusion of home sweet home. "A little girl belongs with her mother."

Snow began coming down in sheets, the worst storm of the year. Mary felt duty-bound to go to work. She dressed Jeneane in brass-colored Oshkosh jeans, clashing pink jacket, strawberry sneakers. Maurice at the wheel, they piled into Mary's '78 Cutlass and dropped her off at work. Maurice promised to return at 5:30 p.m. sharp. "Mommy, pleeease don't go to work today," pleaded Jeneane.

"Honey, I have to go."

"Why?" asked Jeneane. Her mother kissed her goodbye and disappeared. That afternoon, Maurice never showed to pick Mary up at work. She caught a taxi home. "It was awful." She dialed the Newton police. "Do you have any wrecks with a little girl?" She blurted out the facts.

"Lady," said the cop, "sounds like your husband has run off with your kid." Two officers were dispatched, mid-thirties, cold, stiff. Said one, "Your husband has just as much right to that kid as you do."

Around midnight, she phoned her lawyer. "As soon as I heard her crying, I said, 'Oh my God, I know what this is,' " says Sarah Singer. The lawyer filed for Mary's divorce and shopped for a judge to grant her client temporary custody. "I feel sorry for you, lady, but there's nothing I can do," said an elderly probate judge. Singer found another, a father of two girls. He stared at the dubious restraining order barring Maurice from taking the child out of state. "You'll lose on appeal," he said. "I'll take that risk," said Singer. He signed.

At Newton police headquarters, they got an arrest warrant for Maurice. "So where do you think this person has gone?" asked an officer. "Well," said Mary, "he's got relatives in West Germany, Australia, Canada, Texas and Lebanon." The cop cracked up. "So what do you want us to do about it, lady? Find a needle in a haystack?"

"Mary, it could take years," soothed a friend who dropped off $100, a sack of groceries and her American Express card. Mary's car was found abandoned at Logan International Airport, in a lot across from TWA. Records showed a passport for Jeneane had been issued two days before she vanished. But there were no clues, and nothing could be learned from Lebanese acquaintances. If they were out of state, she was told, it would be difficult. If they were out of the country, forget it. "THESE CASES ARE NOT MUCH DIFFERENT from cases of Americans arrested overseas," says Donna Sherman, press officer in the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. "Families say, 'Well, go over there and spring them.' We can't do that. The fact is, we leave the Constitution behind when we go overseas. The rules of behavior and law are dictated by a foreign government."

The State Department refuses to take sides in such disputes. All it can do if the child is found is dispatch an officer to monitor whether the child "is being treated fairly in accordance with the laws in that country," says Sherman. Parents are offered a list of local attorneys to call, little else, and warned that court battles overseas are rarely won by Americans.

Even with a treaty now before Congress designed to resolve such custody disputes, sponsors doubt any Arab countries will ever comply. Moslem countries rarely settle child custody via legal channels, and some 25 American parents with children abducted to the Middle East are lobbying through a group called American Children Held Hostage. "I don't know any other American mother except Mary who has ever gotten her child back from an Arab country," says founder Holly Plannell, 24, a UPI correspondent who had custody of her 2-year-old son when her ex-husband, a Palestinian, abducted the boy from Tennessee to Amman last summer. The father, Assam Yousef Aqqad, is wanted on a felony warrant in Tennessee for kidnapping, but Plannell's repeated attempts to recover her son Huey, via U.S. and Jordanian channels, have failed. TO FIND JENEANE, MARY RECRUITED Ken Lewis, a Philadelphia-based child hunter who plays legal advocate for missing children and, as their court-appointed guardian, gains the cooperation of courts and access to crucial records. After an investigation, he recommends to the court where the child is best served, voting for the abductor about one out of four times. Mary was willing to take the chance. "Try anything," she said, shelling out her savings, borrowing from her dying father to launch the costly search.

Next, she went cop hunting, stalking the halls of the Middlesex County district attorney's office for a sympathetic soul. "Something about her just pulled my heart out," recalls Frank O'Halloran, 55, a homicide cop detailed to the district attorney's office. "It would have been easy to brush her off." Instead, he began tacking up homemade "WANTED" posters at Lebanese gas stations, warned Maurice's friends that Interpol and the CIA were on the case. Lewis put on the squeeze as well, phoning Aoude cousins from Texas to Europe. Mary tried to get welfare officials to declare Jeneane an "abused" child so felony charges could be brought and state police enlisted in the hunt. They refused. She screamed into the phone at his friends: "WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?" No one talked.

Her biggest fear was that Jeneane might be in Lebanon. The war there was heating up. She coaxed her husband's brother's phone number in Canada from one of his cousins. "We tried to help her," says the cousin. "She's a great mother, a very nice lady. How can a girl be raised by a father? It's ridiculous. I was amazed he took the child. He always seemed like such a nice person." She passed the number along to Lewis. He placed the call. "Is Maurice in?"

"He's at the store," said a woman.

"Is that the same one where he used to work, uh, the 7-Eleven?" he improvised.

"You know, the Mac store, the chain," she said.

"Right, thanks." Click. He hit the Yellow Pages, found a convenience store with an owner named Aoude -- brother George. "I'm looking for Maurice," he said.

"He's on the night shift," said the clerk. Later, he phoned back, tape recorder running, for a voice ID.

"Maurice?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, sorry, must have the wrong Maurice." Click. He played the tape for Mary.

"That's him," she said.

Lewis flew to Edmonton. A local judge ordered police to produce father and child and, constables in tow, they appeared at Maurice's brother's home. Maurice never showed, and police lost his trail. ON JUNE 18, 1982, MARY'S FATHER DIED, and she moved to Syracuse and took a job as a medical secretary. After work, she stuck around to work the phones, hunting leads. "She spent all her salary on long distance," recalls her boss, Dr. Herbert Lourie, 57. She scouted tips in the local Lebanese community and cranked up a letter-writing campaign. Calls to senators, congressmen and State Department officials were little help. A Lebanese Embassy officer in Washington warned that custom weighed heavily in favor of the father in such disputes. She had run out of leads when a priest put her in touch with a Lebanese lawyer in Washington, D.C. -- Antoine El Gemayel, 50.

Gemayel was upbeat, and he had connections: a cousin, Bashir, had just been elected the new president of Lebanon. Gemayel was also fluent in four languages, billing himself as a "Middle East law consultant" at the International Law Institute on Connecticut Avenue, where he was hunkered down writing a two-volume tome on his country's legal system. His rate was $300 an hour, he said, but he would work for half that since she was referred by the priest. For a $1,000 retainer, he agreed to write a legal opinion saying that Lebanese law should grant Mary custody.

She was elated, then a few days before a trip to D.C. to meet Gemayel, she turned on the news: Bashir was dead, assassinated in the blood-soaked land of civil war. How would this affect their plans? Gemayel wasn't sure. Now that Bashir's older brother, Amin, was to become consensus president, his influence was diminished. "I'm not as close to Amin," he said, "but we should proceed."

She flew to Washington to meet him, planning to go home that night. This is how she remembers it: Gemayel marched into his waiting room to meet her, a short, stocky man in a blue suit with dark eyes and thick black hair graying at the temples. His suit was Savile Row, double-breasted, without vents, his tie was silk, his shirt had French cuffs. He evoked authority, an Edward G. Robinson look-alike without a cigar. He scribbled a few notes as she poured out her heart for two hours. AT CHRISTMAS, GEMAYEL FLEW TO BEIRUT rut on other business and found rumors, but no proof, that Jeneane was there. Mary was furious, convinced her daughter -- whom she had not seen for nearly a year -- was in Lebanon. As leverage, Gemayel decided she needed a permanent custody decree to wave in a Lebanese court. In March, she got one from a Boston judge.

A month later, frustrated by the delays, she announced, "I'm going to Beirut." Shrugging off warnings of danger, she quit her job, made up a cover story for colleagues and bought a ticket. One day before her flight out, she flipped on "Good Morning America": a bomb had just ripped apart the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 17 Americans and throwing her odyssey into doubt. She phoned Beirut.

"Are you still coming?" asked Gemayel.

"Absolutely."

"I'd prefer you wait."

"I'm flying out tomorrow."

She gave him the flight number; he promised to pick her up. As her near-empty 747 lifted off, attendants pampered the 50 passengers, and she scribbled in a diary: "Finally, I am going to do something." MAURICE GREW UP IN KFARHAZIR, A small village in north Lebanon where Aoudes are commonly Christian; their cousins in south Lebanon are generally Moslem. "He was just a regular guy," says a cousin.

As one of four boys born to a businessman and his wife, Maurice Nicolas Aoude graduated from Bishmezzin High School outside Tripoli, migrating to San Jacinto College near Houston with the wave of young Lebanese who flocked to the States to study in the early '70s.

With a few business courses under his belt, he worked pizza joints part-time and dated a bevy of pretty girls. "He was always with a nice-looking woman," recalls a cousin, a Boston gas station owner who attended the same college. "I told my wife, 'I don't understand it, honest to God. He's such a shrimp.' "

Says another classmate, "I called him, 'The Lucky Monkey.' He had blue eyes and the Texas girls went for it." Shy and polite in the land of blue-jeaned cowboys, he drove a beige VW, wore suits to class.

"You noticed him," says Lisa Plaster, the attractive daughter of a Houston cop. He invited her to spend the summer in Lebanon. He proposed marriage. She was 19, "a little knock-kneed girl from Texas." She said yes. The marriage license got his passport stamped. "I think he was more in love with his green card than me," she says now, on reflection. They settled in Pasadena, Tex. He quit school to pump gas, then migrated to Boston, where she woke up one day and left. "I was bored and getting fat doing nothing," she says. "I got homesick." Then she got a divorce. And along came Mary. FOUR HOURS INTO MARY'S FLIGHT TO Beirut, a voice crackled over the speaker: They were turning back; they'd just lost an engine. She glanced out the window: An engine had fallen off the plane.

The next day, she was off again, dropping out of a cloudless sky into Beirut as an orange sun sank into a turquoise sea. A hillside of sun-bleached houses twinkled white. She squirmed in her seat. "I felt as if I could reach down and pick her out."

It was a Friday. The airport was choked with soldiers, machine guns at the ready. "Mary Aoude! Mary Aoude!" A man was yelling her name. "Welcome to Lebanon," he said. "Dr. Gemayel is waiting outside."

The next day Gemayel drove her to the office of the attorney general, who had just filed a lawsuit charging her former husband and family with kidnapping. Mary was introduced. He shook her hand, then lapsed into Arabic with Gemayel. "Everywhere we went, they ignored me, as if I wasn't there," she says.

Gemayel had an address where he believed the child was being held -- the East Beirut apartment of Aoude's sister. He handed it over to investigators who took off with the information. Mary settled down to wait.

By Sunday night, with no word, she was sinking into the blues, eyeing a sleeping pill to get her through the night when the phone rang. It was Gemayel. "They've found her," he said. "I'll be right over to pick you up."

She let out a shriek and began bouncing on the rickety hotel bed, changed into a cotton maternity dress, a flower print she hoped Jeneane would remember, and grabbed a suitcase of her daughter's mementos. And, as they drove off, she threw her arms around Gemayel. "You are WONDERFUL!" she said. "I take back any nasty thing I've ever said." He smiled as she rambled, "Can we leave with her tomorrow? Where is she? How is she?"

"Calm down," he said. "We are going to see."

It was 10:30 p.m. when they pulled up to police headquarters. She was ushered into a room alone and told to wait. "I want to see my baby!" she protested.

"Wait," said an officer who returned to take her to another room. Jeneane was asleep in the arms of her aunt. The room was hot and crowded with Aoude relatives, including two Texas cousins she hadn't seen since the wedding. Mary, tears streaming, ran over to her sleeping little girl, touched her cheek, stroked her hair, kissed her face again and again.

Jeneane snoozed through it all in a yellow pinafore dress, white sweater, white tights and patent leather shoes. "She was so big, with chubby little cheeks," she says. "I couldn't believe how much she had grown."

"Mary, how are you?" It was Geannette Sakr, a Texas cousin who spoke English. Her father, Maurice's brother-in-law, gave her a hug.

"How do you THINK I am?" she exploded. "I haven't seen my daughter for over a year. WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME SHE WAS HERE?"

"I was going to call you when we got back to the States," said Geannette, a Houston interior decorator.

Mary rocked her sleeping child on the wooden bench while Gemayel negotiated. "They won't let you take her," he said, "but you are invited to go home with them." She wasn't about to let Jeneane out of her sight. So off they roared to an apartment in East Beirut. It was pockmarked by bullet holes, surrounded by sandbags. Clothes hung from the balcony. Two flights up crumbling stairs with no railings was the apartment of Maurice's sister, Afifi. She had two sons and a teen-age daughter who looked after Jeneane. She was shown to a bedroom. Suddenly, Jeneane woke up, confused as she gazed at her mother for the first time in more than a year.

"Jeneane," a cousin barked in Arabic, "it's Mamma, Mamma! From America! America!" The entourage crowded around.

Mary opened a suitcase and, one by one, pulled out Jeneane's teddy bear, two necklaces and her favorite book, The Pokey Little Puppy. Suddenly Jeneane smiled and threw her arms around Mary, yakking away. Everyone in the room broke up laughing. Mary was the only one who didn't get the joke; she couldn't understand a word. Jeneane was speaking Arabic a mile a minute.

On the wall was a child's drawing of a woman's face, a caption in Arabic underneath. Jeneane had done it at school. "What does it say?" asked Mary.

" 'I love you, Mommy,' " said a nephew.

And Jeneane fell asleep in her clothes, arms wrapped tightly about her mother's neck. "She does not belong here," Mary wrote in her diary. IN THE MORNING, JENEANE PUT ON HER necklace, took her mother's hand and led her into the kitchen to a tiny table with cheese and bread. "I didn't know where you were," Mary said. "But I'm so happy I found you." Jeneane had no idea what she was talking about, but she seemed happy. "She was sitting on my lap, singing a song in Arabic, clapping her hands and going, 'Cluck, cluck, cluck,' " says Mary. "She was a totally different child, yet she was herself. She had adopted their mannerisms." Mary especially resented one courtesy Jeneane had been taught: she offered cigarettes to visitors from silver trays, then fired them up with a butane lighter. "I was horrified."

Jeneane wanted her to speak Arabic. Mary held up a loaf of bread. "Bread" she said. "Kubis," said her daughter.

Mary bought Aunt Jemima pancake mix at a local shop and whipped up what had been a favorite breakfast. Children came in from the hall to taste American pancakes with maple syrup. Mary was a hit.

The family telexed Maurice to come home. He was working in Baghdad. Mary got nervous -- she had found a pistol beneath a towel in the bathroom. "The place gave me the creeps," she says.

By day, Gemayel was busy arguing for custody based on jurisdiction of the marriage contract, Massachusetts court orders in hand. Local judges weren't buying continued on page 41 it. A promise from the attorney general to turn over the child suddenly evaporated.

After one hearing, Mary bolted from court, Jeneane in her arms, ran down the street, tried to get away. "Mary, you can't do this!" yelled Gemayel, as Maurice's family gave chase. Mary screamed back at them all, "WHY WON'T YOU LET ME HAVE MY CHILD?" They stared with blank faces.

Gemayel sent a telex to Amin Gemayel, his cousin the president, asking him to intervene. There was no response. The word on the street was that all judges had been ordered to keep the child in Lebanon. "Everyone was telling us, 'You're fighting the president,' " says Mary. Indeed, Maurice's sister had worked as a cook for Eli Salem, the foreign minister; one nephew soldiered in the Christian militia. Another was a presidential bodyguard who waved a machine gun when the lawyer dropped by one day to check on Mary. "Nobody is going to take the child," he said.

It was beyond bizarre: Mary was a prisoner of kindness; the Aoudes cooked up feasts in her honor while guns echoed in the night. "You're being silly," said cousin Geannette, as Mary dialed the U.S. Embassy.

She pleaded to bring her daughter to the embassy, but the place was in shambles. Secretary of State George Shultz was in town to assess the damage. Security was tight.

"Mary," said an official, a woman, "you have to understand. The embassy was bombed last week. Our friends were killed. Everyone here is busy."

"But my husband's coming back to town," she wept. "Who's going to stop him from taking my little girl?"

The voice grew cold: "Go wash your face and act like a grown-up. Do what you have to do. I'm sorry we can't help. We don't mediate domestic disputes." Click.

Maurice showed up. "Baba!" squealed Jeneane, racing into his arms. "Baba! Baba!" They talked in Arabic. He offered his ex-wife a cigarette.

"So how are you?" he asked.

"How could you have done this?" she said, seething. "Why didn't you at least let me know she was all right?"

"You see her now," said Maurice. "She's all right."

In court the next day, the chief of police spoke to Mary in broken English. "I ask your daughter, 'Do you want to go with mother to America, or stay with father in the village?' And she says, 'I love my mother, but I want to stay with my father.' "

Mary lost it. She shouted at the chief: "I can't believe it! You asked a little girl to make that decision?"

Maurice hinted at getting back together. "Why don't you stay and get a good job," he said. "You could work for the hospital or American University." She put on a poker face. "I'll think about it," she said, but she had decided to escape.

Two weeks had gone by when, one night, she awoke to rolling thunder nearby. Shelling. It got louder. Children began screaming. Jeneane slept soundly. Suddenly, they were herded into the hall, down the stairs, into a basement shelter, wooden chairs and mattresses on the floor. For four days, she slept sitting against a wall, legs drawn up, Jeneane curled at her feet. It didn't faze cousin Geannette. "She put on a silk skirt and did her makeup," says Mary.

Gemayel arranged for Mary and Jeneane to stay at a convent until custody could be settled by a court. He'd filed four lawsuits with assorted tribunals, and the next hearing was at least a week away.

They settled into their own room with a bath and hot water, and the nuns warmed them with good cheer. One gave Jeneane a ball. There was a swing in the courtyard, and as Jeneane played below, nuns appeared at a window, giggling, and began tossing down pieces of candy. Maurice dropped by each day to visit.

Mary asked Gemayel if he thought "they're ever going to let me leave." He was pessimistic. "I got to the point where I was feeling, 'As long as the law is protecting you, you abide by it, but when it no longer protects you, like in Lebanon, you have to take the law into your own hands,' " Gemayel said later. "As an attorney, I hate to do it, but when I see my way barred by so many {obstacles} which are illegal, my concern is to make justice happen."

An embassy official was consulted. He advised, "The border with Israel is open." Mary lined up a car and driver and plotted her getaway. Geannette, the watchful Texas cousin who was leaving for the States in a few days, grew suspicious. "Mary kept asking me, 'When are you leaving? I want to send some letters with you,' " she recalls. "I told my Uncle Maurice, 'Something is going on. Don't you think she is acting funny, maybe thinking of taking the child?' And he said, 'No, she'd never do that.' "

Mary bided her time. The next day, Maurice left for Tripoli to work, saying he'd come by later with a new pair of shoes for Jeneane. Mary phoned her driver, and the next morning at 6 a.m., Friday, May 13, a car rolled up outside the convent. The nuns were in chapel, soft voices lifted in song, as Mary tiptoed past the empty front desk, a sleepy Jeneane in her arms. A gate normally locked was somehow open that morning. To allay suspicion, she left behind her blue suitcase and a note: "Dear Sisters, we're going to spend the day with a friend." She'd never lied to a nun, but figured God would look the other way this time. She felt guilty about Maurice's showing up later with the shoes. "It wasn't easy," she says. "I knew Jeneane loved him. I remembered how much it hurt when it happened to me."

"You want to back out?" asked her driver.

"No."

"Then stop worrying about it."

Indeed, she might not get another shot, she figured, as she climbed in the car and roared north on the coast road. Tel Aviv was 150 miles and six checkpoints away. She clutched their passports, hugged her daughter close.

At the Israeli border, security guards hassled her Lebanese driver, then just as she was about to hop in a taxi, they waved him along. Suddenly, six Israeli soldiers, Uzis in hand, flagged down the car. All they wanted was a ride.

Eight hours later, she climbed out at Tel Aviv International and scanned the departure board for the first flight out. Al Italia had one leaving for Rome in 90 minutes. She pulled $2,000 from her briefcase and bought two tickets. The next stop was Israeli security.

"I see you've been to Beirut for three weeks," said an officer, suspicious. "Why are you in Tel Aviv?"

"I wanted to see Israel," said Mary.

"How much could you see if you just got here this morning?" asked the officer. "Do you know anyone in Israel?"

"Yes," she lied.

"Can I have their names and addresses?"

"Uh, I think they're right here." Flustered, she fumbled in her purse.

"Why don't you have any luggage?" The tone was stern. And then, as Jeneane ran about the concourse, curiously babbling away in Arabic, it hit her: They must think I'm a terrorist.

"I left it with friends," she said.

"And you don't remember their names?"

The officer signaled for help, and out strode the burly chief of security. "Please come with me," he said. He wanted her to go in back for further questioning. It looked as if they weren't going to let her leave. She broke into tears, blurted out the truth:

"That's my daughter over there," she sobbed. "Her father kidnapped her a year ago and took her to Lebanon. And now I've found her and I'm taking her home. And no one is going to stop me."

"That sounds a lot more believable than what you've been trying to tell us," said the chief. "Have a nice trip." EPILOGUE:

A well-adjusted third-grader, Jeneane remembers little about Beirut except the toys she got from her father and the "yucky music." Maurice is remarried, working in the construction business, and he lives in north Tripoli, Lebanon, according to his cousin Geannette. He has not tried to contact Mary, but would love a photo of Jeneane and an address, she says, "so he can send money."

Money has been a problem. Mary is a single parent who works as a hospital secretary. Gemayel billed her $90,000, but offered to cut the bill in half if she would pay it immediately. She paid $6,000 and offered to send him weekly payments out of her meager paycheck. So he sued her mother for the $90,000 and was awarded reduced fees totaling $22,000 by a New York judge last year. An appeal is pending.

Mary is determined to carve out a life for Jeneane -- and maybe even find her ideal man. "I want a good father for Jeneane who really loves me," she says. "But I still want some of the other stuff. I'd like a man who knows how to order a bottle of wine." ::