Jennifer’s Hart

J.J is faced with a mystery very close to her own heart….

Jennifer Hart anxiously tapped the steering wheel with her nails and scanned the hordes of young people milling about in front of the school after last dismissal.

If anyone tried telling me fifteen years ago that one day I’d be sitting in a car outside a rowdy public high school waiting to pick up a teenager of my own, I would have called him a liar and laughed in his face.

There were kids everywhere, running, gliding past on skateboards or roller blades, riding bikes, and scooters. They were planted on the steps and perched on the low cement wall meant to keep them off the lawn, although there were several Frisbee games in progress on the grass. Kids ran past screaming, and walked past calling and laughing. A few feet away an irate girl cursed a shamefaced young man.

Obviously a domestic dispute.

On the stone steps leading up to the front walkway, a couple sat kissing, oblivious to everything else going on around them.

On her left, right at the open window, a motorcycle roared up.

“Hello, Mrs. Hart.”

It was Tommy Steele, a frequent guest in their home who she suspected might be developing a few hoodlum tendencies. That newly acquired bike seemed to be bringing out another side of him, a more macho, rugged side.

She made herself smile as she took in the leather jacket and steel-toed riding boots.

“Hello, Thomas, and how are you?”

He had been, after all, polite enough to stop and speak, and Jonathan seemed to hold him in high regard.

Jonathan was still in the dark about Tommy kissing his daughter in their gazebo.

“Fine, Mrs. Hart. Tell Mr. Hart I’ll be looking for him on Saturday. He said  he would be at my wrestling match. See you later.”

He roared off, making the bike lurch forward and the tires squeal as he accelerated into traffic.

           J.J. where in the world are you? 

Anxious to get away from the noisy crowd and the disturbing side shows, it seemed to be taking longer than usual for her own child to come out of that building.

           There must be every color of hair in the spectrum out there.

This was a special high school for exceptionally gifted and talented students, so it stood to reason extreme creativity was to be expected, and apparently was being actively encouraged and accepted. Continuing to watch, she relaxed and sat back when she finally spotted the familiar LA Dodgers baseball cap with the long, thick ponytail swinging out of the back.

Justine Jennifer Hart, better known as J.J., descended the school stairs with several boys orbiting around her. A short white tee shirt emblazoned with DKNY stretched across her bosom and reached just to the waistband of a pair of tight black jeans that hugged her narrow hips. She was tall and willowy with dancing blue eyes and a megawatt smile. She and the boys were all engaged in an animated conversation, and J.J. was laughing and bantering back and forth casually with them.

Jennifer enjoyed observing her daughter from a distance; at those times that J.J. was unaware her mother was watching. At fifteen, she already possessed her father’s casual and sexy self-assuredness, and the boys seemed to just love her. Thankfully, J.J. didn’t seem interested in boys or dating anyone exclusively just yet.

Watching J.J., Jennifer eased into a satisfied smile. The girl was coming into her own, and the aura of confidence she exuded made her physical appearance even more striking. She walked with her head high, her movements sleek and smooth like a champion racehorse, that lush auburn ponytail in constant movement.

J.J. looked very much like her mother and possessed her feminine charm, but she had inherited her father’s rapier wit, nerve, and directness; as well as, unfortunately, his fondness for gaming. J.J. would bet on anything if she thought that the odds were in her favor. An excellent student and athlete, she constantly made her mother proud despite the fact that she could be headstrong. outspoken, and a bit naughty at times.

It was an extraordinary thing. Even after all of those years, it still felt a little strange to think of herself as someone’s mother. For a while it bothered her, but she had long ago accepted that it was not in her to be motherly, except when it came to he own child. It was as if the powers that be had only given her enough of that particular juice for that specific child. But with J.J., it was pure and it was, oh, so sweet.

J.J. came to the car and stuck her books through the open passenger side window handing them off to her mother, and calling to the boys behind her, “You’re just gonna to lose your money. That’s a sucker’s bet, if I ever heard one! They don’t stand a chance against LA! I’ve got five bucks that say that I’m right.”

Jennifer shook her head recalling a long departed friend, his bookmaking deals that originated in their kitchen, and his ever- present cigar.

“Max,” she thought, “you would love this gamble of a girl. She might have been a long shot, but she’s definitely a winner.”

“We’ll just see, J! Hey, Mrs. Hart!” came the calls and waves from the boys. “Bye, J.J.! Nice to see you Mrs. Hart!”

J.J. opened the door and slid onto the passenger seat of the black Mercedes. She took her books back from her mother and kissed her cheek. “What’s shaking, Mommy Dearest?” She grinned and crinkled her freckled nose just like her father would do.

Jennifer, rolled her eyes, deeply loving that silly girl.

“Hello J.J,” she finally said. “Honey, I don’t think it’s very ladylike to use the term ‘sucker’ out loud like that, and please tell me you’re not taking sports bets at school.”

She started the car. “I thought Marnie was coming home with you.”

Marnie was J.J.’s best friend and almost constant companion.

“First of all, Mom, ‘sucker’ was the most accurate description for his silly wager. They don’t know who they’re talking to when it comes to placing bets. And no, Mom, I’m not taking bets. That was just a side thing. Daddy said not to make book on school property any more.”

J.J. smiled sweetly, and then quickly added, “He said to take them at the coffee shop across the street.” Then she winked at her mother and grinned mischievously. “How was your day? Did Aunt Sabrina get off alright.”

Jennifer looked closely at her, not knowing whether to believe her about the coffee shop thing or not. She didn’t put anything past Jonathan and J.J. when it came to that sort of thing.

“I’ve been busy all day, J.J. Aunt Sabrina made her flight. She said to tell you she’ll miss you and she’s looking forward to your two weeks in France next summer. What about Marnie? I thought you told me she was coming with you today?”

“Oh yeah, Marnie! She came to my Humanities classroom to tell me she was staying after for tutoring or something. She said she would get a ride to our house after school in time for her mother to pick her up at 5:30.”

A red flag immediately popped up in Jennifer’s mind.

“But I thought the last thing, last night she called you to say she was riding home with you after school to study with you. When did this tutoring thing come up? J.J, you know I don’t like it when you girls switch up on me at the last minute.”

J.J. took off her cap, and removed the band holding her ponytail to run her hands through it.

“I didn’t switch up, Mom; I’m here in the car with you.”

But J.J. did know.

She was very aware that in their past, her parents had led a rather precarious life with several close calls, kidnappings and near death experiences. Now they were always careful to stay in contact and to keep each other notified when their plans changed. All of her life, it had been impressed upon her that she could make no moves or alter any plans without notifying her parents or Marie, their housekeeper. She kept a charged cell phone with her at all times.

“All I know, Mom, is Humanities is my next to last class. She met me at the door of the classroom right after that class and said she was staying. I’m pretty sure she said for math tutoring.”

“With whom?” Jennifer asked, reaching for the phone in the dashboard of the car.

“I guess Mr. Morrisett. That’s who we have for math.”

“Did she call her mother and let her know?” Jennifer asked while at the same time pushing the buttons on the phone.

“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”

J.J. scanned the crowd as her mother punched in the numbers on the phone, praying Marnie had changed her mind about staying. Jennifer Hart was going to wring her neck when she did catch up to her. Her hope was Marnie would realize it in time to make it to the car.

Jennifer let the phone ring, and when the answering machine picked up, she left a message for Marnie’s mother detailing the information J.J. had given her about Marnie’s change of plans.

___________________________________________

J.J. was out on the patio with a Coke, engrossed in her homework. Third, her shaggy little dog sat in the other patio chair, looking as if he were assisting her. Third was actually Freeway the Third. Freeway I and Freeway Junior had been Jennifer’s dogs, but Third was clearly J.J.’s. Jennifer could see them both from where she sat at the kitchen table with her laptop working on some story notes and waiting for Marnie to arrive. The waiting was getting on her nerves and her neck was beginning to stiffen.

“Jennifer, J.J., I’m home!” Came the familiar call from the front of the house.

The heavy front door closed shut, and she got up greet Jonathan. As she entered the foyer, he was setting his briefcase down. He stood upright just as she approached, reaching for her and wrapping his arms around her waist to pull her to him. She inhaled, loving his smell and how good he it felt to be near him. He kissed her deeply, and when their lips parted, she lay her head on his broad shoulder.

“Hello, darling. It’s good to have you home.”  She told him.

He moved his hand into her hair. He had always loved her hair; he loved smelling her hair. It was still good between them. They both hoped it always would be.

“It’s always a treat to come home to you.” He said into her ear, kissing it lightly.

They released each other, and she took him by the hand.

“Come in here with me.” She said leading him to the couch.

“Ooh”, he grinned. “The couch? It’s been a while since the couch.”

“No, silly!” She laughed pulling his hand away from the buttons on her blouse. “I just need you to rub this knot out of my neck.”

She sat down pulling him down next to her. Turning her back to him, she pulled her hair around, exposing her neck.

“Right here.” She said, indicating the spot with her fingers.

“Right here?” He asked, kissing the spot softly. She could immediately feel the customary, responsive heat rising.

“How does he do that with just one kiss in that one place?” She wondered, before reproaching him.

“Jonathan! Be serious! I’ve got a kink! Please rub my neck.”

He continued to nuzzle sexily at her neck.

“I’ve got a kink of my own.” He murmured. “What are you going to do for me?”

“You’re horrible!” She exclaimed, enjoying the sensations that the vibrations of his baritone voice was sending through her. “But please rub my neck. There really is a tension knot in it.”

He discontinued his kisses and amorous attentions to her neck. “Okay, okay. But I think my way would have relieved your tension much faster and much, much better.” He began to rub her neck. “What are you so tense about? J.J. get detention again?”

The mention of his only child- and partner in crime- as far as Jennifer was concerned, widened his smile and brought a twinkle into his eyes.

“No, but she did mention your suggestion about the best location to set up her sports betting operation- the coffee shop across the street?” She turned her head to give him an exasperated look, and then turned back around to let him continue her massage. “Jonathan, how is it that she knows how to do that kind of stuff? She’s a fifteen year old female bookie.”

She rolled her head to the movement of his hands and continued to fuss.

“You and J.J. are no good together. I was teaching her to read stories and I find out that you were teaching her the shell game. I knew something was wrong when she asked me why I didn’t have a picture of a club or a spade in my stack of shape flash cards like the ones that you used with her. You were the one who taught her to read racing forms and then-”

“Jennifer, she has a race horse!” He cut in. “She needed to know.”

“She only has a race horse because you bought it for her as a visual aid in reading the racing forms! Honestly Jonathan, J.J. would be doing time in Juvenile Hall right now if it weren’t for me!” She moved back a little to allow him to get to more of her neck.

” I’m tense because of Marnie.”

“J.J.’s Marnie?”

“Do you know another one? Yes, J.J.’s Marnie”

His hands felt sooooo good.

“I was supposed to pick both of them up from school today, but J.J. said that at the last minute Marnie told her that she was staying after for tutoring. She said that she’d get a ride here in time for her mother to pick her up. I don’t like it. It sounds like she’s slipping around to me.”

When he hit that right spot, her whole body dipped with it. “Oh yeah, Darling, right there.” She crooned.

“Sounds like you’re familiar with the old slipping around routine.” He observed.

She could feel his mischievous, accusing grin behind her head.

“I admit. I was a teenage girl once. I was able to commit a transgression or two in my day while slipping around.” She said. “I still remember how it works and what stories have to be put into play.”

She could feel her neck relaxing. Jonathan was so good with his hands.

“She hasn’t gotten here yet.” She told him. “And you know how I hate last minute changes like that with them. You can stop now. I think you got it.”

He stopped rubbing her neck, but his hands began gently massaging her shoulders. She felt herself relaxing into him even more. That man was so smooth with his moves, and she knew that she was powerless against them once he got started. What woman in her right mind would want to stop him?

“Where’s J.J. now?” He asked near her ear, his voice husky with desire.

She had to smile. He knew what that did to her when he talked near her ear like that.

“She’s on the patio with Third doing her homework. Marie’s in the basement with the laundry…” She managed to get out as she felt his hands move down to her buttons again. He undid the first two and slid his hand inside as his lips  lightly grazed her ear.

The gate buzzer sounded.

“Damn!” They thought in unison, getting up and readjusting their clothes to answer the call.

___________________________________________

“Hart residence.” Jonathan announced into the speaker.

“It’s me, Mr. Hart.” Said a small voice. “It’s Marnie. I’m supposed to get picked up by my mother here at your house at 5:30.”

Jennifer, standing behind himl, looked at her watch. It was 5:20.

“Marnie, is your ride still there or will you need a ride up to the house?”

They could see Marnie on the monitor, but not a car.

“Mr. Hart, my ride pulled off already.”

He buzzed the gates to allow to her step in. “Alright, I’ll be there in a second to get you. Stay put.”

Jonathan handed Jennifer his suit coat, and he grabbed his keys. “I’ll be right back.”

J.J. entered the foyer carrying her books just as the front door was closing.

“Marnie get here yet?” she asked seeing her mother standing by the door.

“Yes. She just arrived. Your father has gone down to get her.”

J.J. could hear the tension in her mother’s voice, and could see the aggravation in her body language.

“Not a good sign.” she thought to herself. “I think I’ll just go and get lost.”

“I’m going on up to my room now.” She said aloud.

As she eased up the stairs followed by Third, she sent a psychic message to her friend at the gate, “Marn, my mother can speak seven different languages and she can cut you to ribbons in each one of them. The worse thing you can do to Jennifer Hart is to not be where you are supposed to be. I shudder to think what she’s going to do to you in her mother tongue.”

She closed her bedroom door.

Jonathan was back with Marnie in minutes. Jennifer was seated back in the great room on the couch facing the foyer. Her legs were crossed and she was leaned forward in what J.J. described as ‘interrogation mode’. Marnie came in carrying her books. She was a shorter girl than J.J. with a cute dimpled face, straight dark, bobbed hair, was much more developed physically;, and as always, she was sharply dressed. Marnie also looked scared.

That fear caught her attention. Jonathan would not have mentioned anything to Marnie about her being in trouble on their way up to the house. He would have been his usual charming self, leaving the dirty work to her. Why was the girl looking so frightened?

“Hi, Mrs. Hart.” Marnie said. “Where’s J.J.?”

Jennifer patted the place on the couch next to her. “Sit down, Marnie.”

Jonathan’s footfalls could be heard going up the staircase. Jennifer made note that he would be in search of J.J., his daily tonic.

“Marnie, where were you? I thought you were coming home with us today?”

“I stayed after to get help from a math tutor.” Marnie answered, but Jennifer noticed that she would not meet her eyes.

Marnie, for her part, was petrified. She knew that she was in deep. Mrs. Hart was very pretty, but her eyes could be scary, especially if she was upset. It was clear from the tone of her voice that she was upset. Ever since she and J.J. were very little girls, Mrs. Hart’s rule had been “make a plan and stick to it”. That rule had slipped her mind when she made her last minute decision to not ride home with them.

“When did you decide to stay? J.J. says that you didn’t tell her until almost the end of the day. Don’t you have to make arrangements for that kind of thing in advance?”

Marnie nervously shifted position.

“I’m doing so poorly, Mrs. Hart. I really needed to get some help. I’m going to fail if I don’t get my grades up. If that happens, I’m going to get put out of the Gifted Program and I’ll have to go back to private school.”

When Marnie looked as if she wanted to cry, Jennifer eased up some on her.

“Marnie, I am only upset because I don’t like last minute changes with you girls. You know me well enough to know that. Did you let your mother know that you were changing your plans? As far as I know, she thought you were going to be here with us from the time that school let out until 5:30.”

“No, I didn’t think to call her.”

“Marnie, what if something had happened to you? Your mother would have thought that you were here and you wouldn’t have been. Mr. Hart and I are responsible for you if this is where you are supposed to be. Do you understand?”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m sorry.”

She still would not make eye contact. Two red flags went up.

___________________________________________

J.J.’s door was closed, so he knocked.

“Come on!” called the voice inside.

Jonathan opened it. J.J. was lying back on the many pillows on her big bed with a book open on her lap. She was holding the headphones of the CD player away from her ears and looking to see who was at the door. She put the headphones down and sat up when she saw it was her father.

“Hey Daddy! I thought you were Marnie.”

He bent down to her and she hugged his neck and kissed his cheek.

J.J. was his wonder.

From the time that he met Jennifer, he had always wanted a child with her. But feeling that their active lives would have to change too much, she had resisted him for years. It was always his unspoken belief that Jennifer’s reluctance to be a mother stemmed more from a fear of failure on her part.

But no matter what, child or no, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, so he respected her wishes on the subject of children. Just when he had resigned himself to accepting that a child was not to be, there she was. As his friend, Max had left his life, J.J. glided in.

She was smart and he liked that. He couldn’t get enough of her. Any child that he and Jennifer had together, he knew would be special, and she was. He watched through the years as Jennifer enhanced her intellect with art, languages, and travel. He in turn, worked on her survival skills. She could pick a lock or decode a combination almost as fast as he could, she was a deadeye shot with a pistol as well as a rifle, and she had good instincts. That racehorse that Jennifer thought he had bought for her had actually been her cut for picking a huge winning race for him. Aside from life with Jennifer, being a father to that kid was the most fun he had ever had.

His only regret was that Max had not lived to see her and that J.J. had not experienced the individual that was Max.

“Marnie still downstairs rubber hosed by my mother?”

Jonathan smirked and sat down in the overstuffed chair by the window. He picked up the deck of cards off the table next to the chair and began absent-mindedly shuffling them.

“Yeah, why do you think I came up here with you? She was waiting for her on the couch. I didn’t want to be witness to it.”

“Interrogation mode?”

He nodded. They both snickered.

“Listen, why didn’t you tell Marnie that she shouldn’t stay today? You know how upset your mother gets you girls don’t stick to the set plan.”

“I don’t know.” J.J. shrugged. “I guess because she caught me at the last minute in the hall, I didn’t think about it.”

He watched as she crossed her legs under her. It always amazed him how she and Jennifer could so easily affect that lotus position with their long legs in the way that they could. He couldn’t do it to save his life.

J.J. continued. “I’ve been trying to help her with her school work, and that’s why she said she was coming here today. But Marnie actually wants me to do the work for her. She doesn’t even pay attention when I show her. I don’t think she really wants to learn how to do it herself. She doesn’t seem to care much about school these days.”

“Well, if we follow your line of thinking, doesn’t it seem a little strange that she would stay after school with a teacher for tutoring?” Jonathan cocked his head giving J.J. time to process his question.

She was quiet for a moment. “Yeah, that is a little weird, now that you mention it. What else could she be doing?”

She and her father exchanged a look.

“Yeah right, any number of things.” J.J. said nodding.

“Is she having any problems, J.J.? At home or something?”

“She hasn’t mentioned anything specifically. She’s always had to go back and forth between her parents. Then she’s had all those step-parents. I think her mother and the last stepfather have broken up. She said that her mother had packed up all of his stuff. But, Marnie didn’t like him anyway. She doesn’t like her current stepmother either. She usually doesn’t do her homework lately for any of the classes that I have with her. I know that she’s been signing the missing homework notices herself that the teachers send by her to her mother.”

Jonathan put the cards down and rose from the chair.

“Well look, Marnie is your friend. Sounds like she’s going through a rough patch. You keep an eye out for her. That’s what good friends do.”

He peeked out into the hallway. “I guess the coast is clear.” He smiled back at J.J. “You want this door closed?”

“No, it’s all right. You can leave it open in case there’s something left of Marnie to crawl up the stairs to me.”

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

Jonathan was already lying on the bed reading a book when Jennifer came into the bedroom from the bathroom. She sat on the bed next to him, rubbing the back of her neck. He put the book on the night table and looked to her.

“Is your neck still bothering you? Want another rub?”

“Oh yes, if you don’t mind.” She turned her back to him and lifted her hair.

He began the massage. “What’s wrong now?”

“Why does something have to be wrong?” She asked, relaxing under his expert touch.

“I’m working on your neck again, aren’t I?”

“Mr. Hart, you know me too well. I guess I’m still bothered about Marnie. I don’t think I got the whole story. This tutoring thing just doesn’t sit well with me. She wouldn’t look me in the eye, and she was looking scared about something before she even realized that I was upset with her.”

“She was rather quiet on the way up to the house.” Jonathan mused. “You know, normally she’s a real chatterbox, especially with me. I don’t think she said a word after she said hello.”

“Did you talk to J.J. about her when you went slinking up the stairs to avoid the confrontation?” Jennifer asked, rolling her head in rhythm to the movement of his hands, totally unaware of the effect those movements were having on him.

“I did not slink. I just went to see my daughter while you conducted the Grand Inquisition in the living room.”

He continued to watch her move as he worked on her neck. God, how he loved that woman with that beautiful neck. He knew that he wasn’t going to be able to do that much longer without expanding his skills to the other areas of her lovely body.

“I spoke with J.J. about it briefly.” He continued. “She said that Marnie’s mother and stepfather might be breaking up. She mentioned also that Marnie isn’t doing very well in school these days, but that she thought Marnie wasn’t really trying. What did Marnie say?”

“Well, Marnie gave me that same song and dance about not doing well in school. She thinks she’s failing and says she needed the help. But Jonathan, the whole point of her coming home with J.J. today was for J.J. to help her with her work. Why would Marnie be failing? She’s always done pretty well in school. And when her mother came for her, Marnie wouldn’t even let Maureen come in. It was as if she didn’t want me to talk to her. She just ran out and jumped into the car as soon as it pulled up to the door. I had already left a message on their answering machine earlier, so Maureen will know what happened today once she listens to it, anyway. ”

Jonathan slid down the thin straps of her nightgown to work on her shoulders as he said, “J.J. did tell me that she felt that Marnie wanted her to do the work for her more than wanting to learn how to do it herself.” He leaned forward and began softly kissing her neck as he continued his efforts on her shoulders. “Maybe she could feel J.J. shutting down on her, so she went seeking help elsewhere. You know, J.J. isn’t one to allow herself to be used by anybody.” He said between the kisses.

“Mr. Hart, do you still have that kink?” Jennifer asked seductively, allowing the nightgown to fall to her waist. She had taken all that she could take. “You know, the one that you mentioned earlier?”

“As a matter of fact, I do, Mrs. Hart.” He reached around his lovely wife to hold her soft, fragrant flesh in his hands, feeling with satisfaction, her immediate response to his touch. “Are you going to do something to help me with my kinks now?” He was whispering close to her ear again.

She leaned back into him and felt him bury his face in her hair as it fell back around her neck. “I’m only too happy to be of assistance.” She purred. “Personally, I don’t have a problem with being used…by you.”

___________________________________________

J.J. slammed her locker shut and immediately came face to face with Tommy Steele, who had been given the nickname. The  “Kissing Bandit”, or KB for short. Her mother had given him that name after she once caught the two of them kissing in the gazebo when they were twelve. He got his kiss and ran away, leaving her to face her mother all alone. Even so, they remained friends and had been for years.

Startled, J.J. first jumped back. Then she slapped him hard on his arm.

“Boy! You scared me to death! What do you want?”

He leaned against the locker with his arms folded. “I was just wondering if you wanted to ride home with me on my new bike? You haven’t been on it with me yet.”

“I have track practice.” She said leaning into the lockers, stretching her hamstrings. “And besides, you know I could sooner ride Jack the Ripper home piggyback before Jennifer Hart would let me ride home on the back of your motorcycle.”

Even though her mother liked him, she considered suspect, especially since he had started riding the Harley and wearing those steel- toed motorcycle boots. Her father on the other hand had taken to him. Tommy didn’t have a father and his mother worked for Hart Industries, her father’s company. Consequently, he spent a lot of time down there, at their house, and hanging out with her father.

Tommy nonchalantly popped the gum he was chewing.

“I’m not scared a’ Jennifer Hart.” He looked down to admire J.J.’s long shapely legs as she stretched. “As long as she’s not here.”

His gaze eased around to sneak an admiring peek at her equally shapely backside.

“A whole lot you’re not scared of Jennifer Hart.” She countered. “That’s why you ran like a little punk when she caught you kissing me in the gazebo, and that’s why you left me there to take the rap by myself. And why you know that wouldn’t be here right now if she was here. And quit looking at my butt.”

“And a mighty fine hinie it is.” Grinned Tommy. “And that kissing thing was three years ago. How long am I going to have to live with that?”

“For the rest of your life, Mr. Kissing Bandit.” J.J. peered over at him questioningly. “I thought Marnie told me this morning that she was riding home with you on the bike?”

“She was supposed to, but right before last period she said she couldn’t go because she had some after school thing to do.”

“Math tutoring?” J.J. asked. She stopped her stretching and faced him, folding her arms.

“She didn’t say nothing about tutoring. She just said some activity. I thought I saw her go into Mr. Morrisett’s room with his senior aide, that Craig guy, on my way down here, though, so it could be for tutoring.” His voice turned to pleading. “Come on, J. Call your father. He likes me. He’ll let you ride with me, and then he can let your mother know not to come get you. You know I hate to ride by myself.”

“What you hate.” J.J. said looking him in the eye while poking her finger into his chest for emphasis, “Is not feeling a girl’s boobs on your back when you ride. And I am definitely not the one. No cheap feels here, Tommy, boy. See ya!”

She pinched his cheek playfully and trotted off down the hall toward the field, her long ponytail swinging behind her, and he stood watching her as she moved away from him.

“That is one fine girl.” He thought to himself. “And I, Thomas (KB) Steele, kissed her first.”

___________________________________________

J.J. was distracted during track practice.

Why was Marnie switching stories so much? When she thought more about it, she could recall several instances in the past few weeks that Marnie had not followed through on plans that had been made. She hadn’t been calling as frequently, and had been hard to find at school.

J.J. and Marnie Benson had been friends since they were five. Marnie lived on Willow Pond Drive also, but a couple of  miles down from the Hart estate. Marnie’s parents were divorced and since that time each had remarried more than once. The girls had visited and slept over back and forth until three years ago when Marnie’s mother, Maureen married her third husband.

J.J. and her mother had driven down to pick up Marnie for a day of shopping. Marnie’s mother, Maureen had been out when they got there, but the new stepfather was there waiting with Marnie. He leered and made suggestive comments to her mother that had unnerved her to the point that she had taken her and Marnie and had almost thrown them into the car to get out of there. J.J. saw how the man looked at her mother, and although she hadn’t understood all that he said, she took note of her mother’s reaction. After that, Marnie, as always, was welcome at their home, but J.J. was no longer allowed to go Marnie’s.

There were differences between the two girls but through the years, they had remained fast friends. Both were only children in their homes, although Marnie had half and step siblings. J.J. liked people, but she did not always have to be surrounded by them. A very popular girl, she had a small circle of close friends that included Tommy, and Marnie, but she also liked having time to herself.

Marnie, on the other hand, craved social activity. She too, was popular and well liked, but she had always been a needy child. She liked to be noticed, sometimes going out of her way to get someone to pay attention to her. She was constantly inviting other girls to spend the night at her house.

J.J. was focused and excelled in academics and athletics. Marnie had been a good student also until the present school year, the tenth grade. She had always preferred socializing with friends to organized school activities. Lately she seemed to lack all interest in school and she seemed to be drifting away from her friends.

“What after school activity could she be involved in?” J.J. wondered as she ran laps on the track. Marnie hadn’t never mentioned anything she was doing after school and she always told everything. Why would she say that she was riding home with Tommy and then turn around and tell him something else? What was with the tutoring thing? Marnie didn’t even like math. And why did she seem to be avoiding her?

Something was not right with the picture.

“Hey Hart! Hey, J.J.!” The coach’s voice broke into her thoughts. “You gonna hit the showers or are you gonna run till school opens again tomorrow?”

J.J. slowed and looked around. Everyone was walking across the field. She hadn’t even heard the whistle that signaled the end of practice.

She trotted off the track, grabbing the towel that Coach Rogers held out to her.

“I’m sorry.” She said. “I’m a million miles away today.”

“We need you here, J.J. You’re going to be one of my best runners and I need you to be focused.”

Coach Rogers liked J.J. For a sophomore and a rich kid, he thought she had a lot of moxie.

“Get some rest.” He urged. “Work out those issues you’re having, and come back ready on Monday.”

“I will, I promise.”

J.J. trotted off to the locker room.

___________________________________________

After showering and dressing, J.J. filled her gym bag and headed for the parking lot where she knew her mother would be waiting to take her home. The door was propped open and she could see the Mercedes. She could see her mother sitting inside talking on her telephone. At that moment J.J. decided to act on a hunch she’d had all through practice.

Leaving her bag by the door, she quickly turned and ran back through the gym and into the school building. Taking the back hall she stealthily made her way to the math wing. There was nobody in the hall, no teachers and no kids. She crept to the door of Mr. Morrisett’s room. The door was closed. She couldn’t see in through the small window because there was a math poster on the other side that covered it. Slowly she tried the handle, trying not to make noise, the way her father had shown her during the lock-picking lessons that her mother wasn’t supposed to know anything about. The latch wouldn’t turn; the door was locked. She leaned in to see if she could hear anything.

Nothing.

Feeling a bit relieved, she sighed and started back toward the stairs. She knew that her mother was not going to stay in that car if she took too much longer coming out of the building. And she definitely did not want her having to come in looking for her.

Just as she was passing the Coke machine in the hall, the door to Mr. Morrisett’s room opened. Hastily, she slid herself into the space between the wall and the machine and positioned herself to see.

It was Marnie. What was she still doing there that late? As Marnie passed her, J.J. could see that her face looked flushed. She appeared to be nervous, watching around herself as she raced to the end of the hall.

Waiting until she thought Marnie had gone down the hall and turned the corner, she squeezed out of her hiding place. Just as she did, Mr. Morrisett’s aide stepped out of the classroom. He was Craig Thorne, a senior who excelled in math and assisted Mr. Morrisett. He also tutored underclassmen. It was widely assumed that he would be the top recipient when senior academic scholarships were awarded this year. He was also a fullback on the football team and a contender for an athletic scholarship as well. Most girls considered him quite a hunk. To J.J. he seemed to be just too full of himself.

Quickly jamming her hand into her pocket, she grabbed some change.

“Well hello, Miss J.J. ” Craig called, when he spotted her. “What are you doing up here so late?”

He sauntered up to her smiling a plastic smile. She could feel his eyes on her as she stood much too close. J.J. dropped some coins slowly into the machine and pushed the buttons casually.

“I had track practice, and thought I left a book I needed in my locker. I came up here to get it, but it wasn’t in there.”

“You’re looking real good these days.”

He sized her up, thinking to himself  that J.J. Hart was young, but she was a real looker, even if she was a bit standoffish.

“Is that official now that you’ve decreed it?” She asked looking him in the eye.

She had seen him watching her during the days that he was working with Mr. Morrisett while her class was in session. He seemed disappointed that she did not request his assistance like the other girls. He had offered it, but she didn’t need or want the help.

His comment angered her, but she thought it best to remain neutral since they were there alone in that hall. The Coke dropped down to the bottom of the chute.

“See you later. My mother’s waiting.” She said it before he had a chance to answer her.

For some reason she really did not like him. Why was he closed up in that room with her friend?

Strolling slowly toward the back hall, she popped the top off her Coke and took a long swallow, sure that his eyes were on her. She gave him enough time to have something to look at.

He was watching. Why was a smart, pretty girl like that not interested in a guy like him? He just couldn’t understand.

___________________________________________

By this time, Jennifer had indeed gotten out of the car after sitting for what seemed like an unusually long time. Other girls on the track team had come out of the gym and had left already. She asked the last two to exit if they had seen J.J.

“Yeah, she’s here, Mrs. Hart. J.J. was the last one off the track, but she should be out in a minute.”

Ten minutes had gone by since then.

She checked her watch as she leaned anxiously against the car.

“I’m going to give her just two more-

“Here I am, Mom!” J.J. called running out of the gym. “I’m sorry I took so long.”

She opened the back door and threw her bag in. Then she opened the passenger door and threw herself in. Jennifer watched with raised eyebrows. She got back behind the wheel and looked J.J. over.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, Mom. I’m fine. I’m just tired.” She leaned over and kissed her mother’s cheek. Then she looked into Jennifer’s eyes, “Mom, why are some guys such jerks?”

“What brings this on?” Jennifer asked.

“Nothing really,” She waved her hand dismissing the thought. “Just asking.”

Looking over at J.J., Jennifer could tell that something was definitely wrong, but her face was closed. J.J. tended to try to deal with her problems in her own way and in her own time. Jennifer started the car and resolved, as always, that if she were needed she would be there when the call came.

___________________________________________

Part Three

“Did J.J. eat dinner?” Jonathan asked. He was sitting on his side of the bed playing with Third.

When he got home, his daughter was already in bed, and Third was curled up right outside of her door. When he knocked, there had been no answer.

“Is she feeling alright? It’s not like her to go to bed so early and sleep all night.”

Jennifer came in from the dressing room and sat down on the side of the bed, still brushing her hair.

“She came home from track practice and worked on her homework in her room. She said that she wasn’t hungry when I asked her about dinner. I didn’t push it this time. When I went in to check on her later, she had fallen asleep. She didn’t feel warm to me, so I don’t think she’s sick. She did say that she was tired on the way home in the car.”

Telling him that J.J. seemed upset about something wouldn’t be wise. He would want to know all of the particulars and she did not have any yet.

“I missed my smile and my hug tonight.” He said pensively. “I think I’m going into withdrawal.”

She put her brush down and climbed all the way into the bed, pulling him backward to her. Leaning over him, she smiled, “I’ve got just the drug that’ll fix you right up.”

“Take me to cloud nine?” He asked.

“And beyond.”

___________________________________________

She eased Jonathan’s arm from her side where it draped protectively over her as he slept soundly behind her. She eased silently from the bed trying not to wake him. Picking up her gown from where it lay next to the bed, she slipped it over her head. Wrapping her robe around her, she padded barefoot out into the hall, closing the bedroom door softly behind her.

Not bothering with the lights, she made her way down to J.J’s room and quietly pushed open her door. From the moonlight streaming through the windows, she could make out her child’s slender form as she lie on her side facing away from the door. Third, the naughty rascal, lay curled at the foot of the bed on top of her bed covers. She must have gotten up, let him in, and gone back to bed, Jennifer surmised.

Thinking that J.J. was asleep, she started to back out, closing the door.

“Mom.” The figure rose from the bed.

“J.J, you’re not asleep?”

“Mom, please come in and close the door.”

As if he knew that Jennifer had been invited in, and that he wasn’t supposed to be on the bed, Third quickly jumped off and crept underneath.

J.J. sat up and turned on the bedside lamp as Jennifer closed the door and came to sit on the side of the bed. The soft light illuminated their faces. J.J. was a younger, blue eyed version of Jennifer, including the light freckles across the nose and cheeks. The picture of Jennifer’s late mother on J.J.’s night table reflected that Jennifer bore a striking resemblance to her own mother.

“Ma petit Coeur,” Jennifer cooed looking into those sad eyes. “What’s wrong?”

J.J. reached for her mother’s left hand and fiddled with the large stone in her wedding band. She loved that ring and diamonds were her favorite.

“Mom, I don’t know if anything’s wrong. I do know that something’s not right. I don’t know what to do or if I should do anything at all. Listen, I don’t want you to get involved. I just want your opinion and your advice.”

“Tell me what’s going on, J.J.”

J.J. released her mother’s hand and flopped back on the pillows, looking at the ceiling. Jennifer adjusted some of the pillows and lay back next to her.

“I’m worried about Marnie. Last week she didn’t come home with us like she was supposed to because she said she had math tutoring. The next day, she didn’t even have her math homework. Yesterday morning I invited her over to work on her history project that’s due. She blew me off saying that she was riding home with Tommy. After school he was trying to get me to ride home with him on his motorcycle-”

“You told him ‘no’-” Jennifer cut in.

“Yes, I told him ‘no’. Besides, he had been ogling me the whole time he was asking. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere with that nasty boy. Anyway, he said that Marnie had come to him the last period to say that she was staying for an after school activity, so she wouldn’t be riding after all. Mom, you know she doesn’t do school activities.”

“Is that it?”

“No. After track practice, I went back to the math wing to see if I could see Marnie. Tommy said that he thought he had seen her going into Mr. Morrisett’s room. At first I didn’t see anybody, but as I was leaving to come back to get to you, she came out of his classroom.

“Did you talk to her?”

“No, I was hiding. I didn’t want her to think I had been spying on her or anything, even though I was. I waited until I heard her go down the hall and came out of my hiding place. Just as I did, Craig Thorne came out of the room. He saw me there, so I acted like I was just there getting a Coke out of the machine. He walked up on me all close and starts right in with how good I look.”

J.J. stopped and sat up to look at her mother. She lay next to her listening with her eyes closed.

“Mom, why do guys always have to assess girls like we’re just a collection of body parts? Just a face, some boobs, legs, and a butt. I get so tired of it. Daddy always treats me like I should be locked up, like I’m the one with the problem, but it’s the boys who are so nasty like that. They say and do stuff to me, but I don’t do anything back. Craig had just been closed up with Marnie doing God only knows what. They weren’t doing any tutoring in there- not math tutoring, anyway.”

Jennifer was processing all that J.J. was saying to her. She could hear that there were a lot of things on her mind, but she wanted to keep her focused on the one thing.

“J.J. we’ll talk about the guy thing and your issues with your father another time. Let’s just deal with Marnie right now. How do you know that they weren’t working?”

She could feel J.J. lie back down.

“Mom, first of all, the door was closed and locked. Why would a senior lock himself in a room with a fifteen-year old sophomore female? Then, when I listened at the door, I didn’t hear anybody talking and I thought at first that nobody was in there. And then when Marnie did come out, her face was all red and her lips were all red, like they get when people kiss too much.”

Jennifer turned to look at J.J. and then suppressed the urge to ask her how she recognized the physical manifestations of extended kissing. She tabled that topic, too, for another conversation at another time.

“Mom, at the beginning of the year when I was late getting back to school, Craig kept trying to get me to stay after for tutoring. This was even before he knew if I needed any help. I told him that I had been in school while we were in France and that I had studied the work that Mr. Morrisett was teaching when I was in school there. Craig kept insisting that I was probably behind and needed to get up to speed. For about a week or two, he kept bugging me about staying after for help. Finally I just went ahead and told him whose daughter I was and that I was not allowed to stay after school without the actual teacher calling and making prior arrangements with my parents. I don’t think Craig had made the connection to my parents and my last name until then. He didn’t mention anything more to me about my staying after I told him that.

Jennifer continued to lie there with her eyes closed while J.J. was talking to her. That was to keep J.J. from reading her eyes. J.J. and Jonathan had a habit of attempting to gauge her reactions by looking into her eyes. Tonight she preferred that J.J. just be able to talk. She didn’t like what she was hearing about that Craig person

“Mom? You’re not asleep are you?” J.J. asked, confirming to her that she had been checking for her reaction.

“No, sweetie. Just thinking.” Jennifer answered, placing her hand on J.J.’s, lightly squeezing it.

J.J. had always been a brilliant student. Her and Jonathan’s world travels were the one thing that had not changed when she was born. It was fun doing it all over and showing the world they knew to their child. From the beginning, the little girl was a quick study and a good traveler. If anything, her intellect had only been enhanced by her experiences.

Jonathan tried very hard to minimize pulling J.J. from regular school when they were both forced to travel away from home at the same time, but he refused to leave her behind with Marie, their housekeeper, or anyone else if they were required to be away for a long stretch. Family was priority with him, and J.J. was to be with them. Consequently, when their Aunt became ill in France toward the end of that past summer, and they had to go see to her, J.J., who was fluent in the French language, was enrolled in school there until they were able to return.

J.J., for her part, rarely discussed her parents outside of the context of being her parents. She understood early that Jonathan and Jennifer Hart were unusual people, even among the other affluent and famous Bel Air residents. As she grew older, she recognized more and more clearly that her parents’ economic and social status sometimes influenced how other people reacted to her. Either they expected her to a spoiled rich brat, assumed that she was snooty, aloof, and stuck up; or they went out of their way to be exceptionally nice to her.

At age eleven and entering junior high school, she sat her parents down and told them that she wanted out of the private school where she had gone up to that time. She felt stifled and unchallenged. Traveling with her parents had exposed her to many different cultures and lifestyles. J.J. explained that she wanted to go to a regular school with regular people, not one where just the people who could afford it sent their kids. Jonathan happened upon a gifted and talented program being offered at a public school in their area. It drew children from all backgrounds and cultures, and she had thrived tremendously as part of that program. She enjoyed her freedom and the fact that nobody seemed to care who she was or where she came from.

For J.J. to have to resort to using her father’s name to get someone to leave her alone meant that she had felt extremely pressured at the time.

“Why didn’t you tell us about this?” Jennifer asked.

“I really didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought maybe he felt because I was a girl and the class was Calculus, I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Or that he thought that since I had been going to school out of the country, I hadn’t received an equivalent education. I took into account, too, that maybe he was just trying to get next to me. I don’t know. I just handled it, and he left me alone. I‘m acing the class now.”

Jennifer smiled to herself at J.J.’s attitude: She had handled it. It was done. No further discussion was needed. She was her father’s daughter, a true Hart.

“J.J., have you talked to Marnie about any of this?”

“I tried to call her tonight, but she didn’t pick up. She has caller I.D. so I know that she knows it was me. I left a message for her to call me back, but she didn’t. I called her mom’s line and her mother said that she was asleep. Mom, you know we’ve have always talked almost every night, sometimes more than once. How many times have you put us off the phone? But lately, it’s like she’s avoiding me. This has been going on for about a month or two and it’s getting worse. Something is wrong with Marnie, but I don’t know what it is, and I can’t get close enough to her to find out what it is. We’ve always talked about everything. What could be going on that she can’t tell me about it?”

Jennifer rolled over onto one elbow and faced J.J., hoping that the girl couldn’t see that she didn’t feel as calm as she was trying to sound. Her intuition told her that Marnie might be sailing in murky waters for a girl so young.

“I think you should talk to Marnie first. If she won’t come to you, then you’ll have to go to her. I don’t think that you can jump to any conclusions before you talk to her.”

“Mom.” J.J. said quietly. “I still don’t think she’s doing any tutoring with Craig

“Why not?”

“She didn’t have any books at all with her when she came out of that classroom, and neither did he.”

___________________________________________

Jennifer slid back onto the satin sheets and pulled up the covers. It appeared that Jonathan hadn’t stirred from the position in which she had left him. Just as she settled down into her pillows, she felt his arm encircle her waist and draw her body to his. He snuggled into her neck and kissed her behind her ear.

“Why did you put that gown back on?” He whispered seductively. “I love to feel your skin against me. You two have a good talk?”

“Jonathan! I tried not to wake you up. I’m sorry.”

“You know I can’t sleep when you aren’t with me.”

The feel of his voice behind her was comforting and sexy making her body settle right back into his.

“Is J.J. all right?” He asked.

“She’s working through some things.”

“Female, girl-type things?”

“Sort of.”

“Jennifer, are you being evasive on purpose?”

“Jonathan, I would never try to evade you, darling.”

She rolled over in his arms and pressed a soft kiss to his face, making sure that he could feel all of her against all of him. He reached down to tug at the hem of her gown, and she lifted herself to permit him to pull it up and off over her head.

He loved getting it in the middle of the night, and so did she. And he was asking way too many questions.

___________________________________________

Part Four

“Marnie, how come you didn’t call me back last night?” J.J. said into the telephone. “I left you two messages. Then I called your mother’s line and she said you were asleep. It was seven o’clock at night when I called, Marnie! Why were you asleep at seven o’clock?”

The voice on the other end still sounded sleepy. “J.J.? What time is it?”

“It’s time for you to be up for school! You’re not still in the bed, are you? You’re going to be late!”

“I must have slept all night, then.” Marnie said with a huge yawn. “I don’t care. I don’t think I’m going.”

“Yes you are! Look, get up and get dressed. Meet me in the first floor restroom before first period. Don’t let me down.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll be there.”

Marnie hung up, and J.J. slammed her handset back into its cradle.

Third sat on the bed looking up at her, his shaggy little head cocked to one side.

“She’s making me mad!” She explained to him, rubbing him under his neck more to soothe herself than to appease him.

Going over to the dresser, she adjusted her ponytail through the back of her cap, took a last look in the mirror. Then she grabbed her books and then ran out to go down the stairs.

Her father was coming through the foyer on the first floor sipping coffee from a travel mug.

“Want a ride in?” He asked, hugging her to him with his free arm. “I missed you last night.”

“I missed you, too, Daddy. Are you driving your car in?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Seeing as how I am on my way to work.”

“Okay, but you know to drop me off on the corner.”

She released herself from his arm. “Hold on, Daddy. I’ll be right there. I just have to say bye to my mother.”

He walked out of the front door, shaking his head, to wait in the car. What kid didn’t want to be seen by her friends getting dropped off in a Rolls Royce? Only his.

In the kitchen, Marie was loading the dishwasher. Through the kitchen window, J.J. could see the top of her mother’s head where she was sitting outside on the patio.

“Good morning, Marie.” J.J. cheerfully called out. “I was just looking for my mother, but I see her.”

Marie smiled warmly. “Hello Sweetie. You’re not eating?”

“No, I’ll get something at school.”

J.J. stepped out onto the patio, and Jennifer looked up from the newspaper. “Are you ready to go?” She asked, picking up her keys from the table.

Looking at her with an appreciative eye, J.J. reflected that her mother looked particularly pretty that morning out there in the sun.

“I’m going to ride in with Daddy. I just wanted to tell you thanks for staying up and listening last night. Sometimes I just need to hear myself think out loud to see if I’m making any sense. I’m going to do what you said.”

She slid her arm around her mother’s neck and put her cheek up to her face. “I love you, Mom. See you later.”

Jennifer watched as J.J. left her to catch her ride. Amused at the sight, she slowly shook her head.

“Those jeans just seem to get tighter and tighter.” She thought to herself.

Her heart was full. It was oh, so sweet.

___________________________________________

“Daddy, were you a jerk when you were a teenage boy?” J.J. suddenly asked as Jonathan made his way through the heavy morning traffic.

Caught off guard, he laughed aloud. “Probably, baby. I don’t remember. That was a long time ago.”

“Okay, but do you remember making stupid comments to girls about how they looked?”

“I didn’t think they were stupid at the time, but I probably did do that. The girls I made them to might have thought they were stupid. What brings this on?”

“I just get so sick of guys sometimes. They don’t even have to know a girl all that well, but they’re all up in her face, talking about how good she looks. Why can’t they just say ‘hi’ or something? Even if they do say “hi”, their eyes are anywhere but on your face. Why is it always about how we look or how we’re built? Why can’t we just be people?”

As he listened, it sounded to him as if she had been dwelling on that particular irritation for a while.

“Daddy, my mother told me a long time ago that this was going to happen, but I didn’t know it would be like this. I feel like I’m in a fishbowl sometimes. I’ve even caught Tommy checking me out a couple of times. He’s been like a brother to me ever since we’ve known each other. But all of a sudden, now- Boys are so nasty! All they think about is sex!”

“Now, I did tend to do that a lot.” Jonathan thought to himself. Images from the previous night came to his mind. “Still do.”

J.J. had taken off her baseball cap and let her hair down. The morning was still cool and the windows in the car were down. The breeze blew her hair, lifting it around her face like a soft red mane.

Jonathan slowed to a stop for a light. As he did, he looked over at her and it hit him like buckshot. Damn. She was getting to be beautiful! She looked so much like Jennifer. In the morning sunlight, she even glowed like her mother. When the hell had she grown up like that?

And how come nobody told him about it? No wonder she was catching it from the fellas.

That sight caused him to become even more serious about what she had been saying to him.

“J.J., your mother has taught you a lot about how to handle yourself as a person and as a lady. She knows what’s down the line for you because she’s been there. She didn’t have her mother with her to talk with like you do. Because of that, I think that there might have been a lot of sadness in her life. I know that she doesn’t talk about it, but I can sense it sometimes. She had to handle herself on her own. You’re a little more fortunate because at least you know what to look for.

You can’t control what people think. Not about you. Not about how you look. Not about what you have. You can only control who you are, what you are, and what you do. You’re getting to be very attractive, and guys are going to say things to you that you may not want to hear. That’s the nature of the beast. You can’t change that. People are going to be what they are. All you can control is how you allow them to affect you- or not. I know that you don’t let any one disrespect you, and I wouldn’t expect that, but as far as guys go, some of usare dumb like that.”

J.J. pondered his words for the rest of the ride. When he slowed at the corner that he normally dropped her off on, she reached out to touch his arm.

“Daddy, you can go on and drop me off in front of the school.” She said, looking up at him. “I’m the daughter of Jonathan Hart. The car he drives when he goes to work and when he drops his daughter off on the way just happens to be a Rolls Royce. That’s who he is and what he likes. That’s who I am. And we cannot control what other people think about us.”

They both smiled.

Jonathan pulled in front of the school and J.J. took her time getting out. A few heads did turn to admire the car, and to see who was getting out of it. With her hair down and windblown, Jonathan couldn’t get over how striking she had become in what seemed like overnight.

“Thanks for the reality check.” She said, sticking her head back in the window and blowing him a kiss.

He watched her as she walked into the building, and he could see the male heads turning as she passed through the crowd.

“She’s definitely a winner, Jennifer, just like you.”

___________________________________________

After her father dropped her off, J.J. made her way to the restroom to wait for Marnie. Standing before the mirror, she put her hair back up. Then she took a seat in the bay window of the restroom. She waited until the bell, but Marnie still had not shown. J.J. hesitated, and briefly considered skipping class to wait for her, but then decided at the last minute that she’d better go. None of her crew was assigned to that class, so there wouldn’t be anyone to cover for her, and being who she was; the counselor called her house to check her attendance when she didn’t show for a class, especially first period. She got up and gathered her things, making it through the door of the classroom just as the tardy bell was ringing.

At the end of first period, as she was leaving the classroom, she found Tommy waiting for her at the door. He was leaned against the frame, trying to catch his breath.

“J.J., your old man is here!” He wheezed when he saw her. “He had Marnie with him. He found her hitching on Beverly Drive!”

“Tommy, I told you about that ‘old man’ stuff.” J.J. admonished him. “Did he look like he was mad?”

“Your old- your father always looks like he’s mad to me. It’s a good thing that I know him. He’s a nice guy, but he’s got those eyes, you know. I was late myself. I saw him pick Marnie up. I couldn’t believe she was hitching like that. I would have got her, but he got to her first. He didn’t see me. He brought her in and walked her all the way to her class. Then he put her inside the door even though it was the end of first period. I saw it all. Now he’s looking for you.”

“And just how would you see it all?” A booming male voice came from behind him. “Where were you that you could see me doing see all of this with Marnie? “Why weren’t you in class?”

Tommy turned slowly to come face to face with the source. There wasn’t that much difference in their height, but Jonathan Hart seemed at least nine feet tall and getting taller as he stood in that hallway over him. Other kids on their way to their next class turned, too, curious to see who the man was with the big voice.

“Whose father is that?” The question was filtering through the hall.

Those who knew were whispering, filling in the others, the word passing swiftly through the crowd.

Dressed in an obviously very expensive tailored suit among the eclectic throng of young people, Jonathan Hart was an imposing, distinguished figure. The overhead lighting reflected off his thick, meticulously styled salt and pepper hair and highlighted his raised, fierce eyebrows. He looked down on Tommy with piercing blue eyes and at that moment, a deeply furrowed brow. Tommy, normally overtly macho in his carriage, backed up a step and gulped hard.

“I got here late, Mr. Hart, sir, so I didn’t go to first period.”

“Oh, so, you ditched class, too, I see. I thought you and I just talked about accountability last weekend?” Then frustrated, he threw up both his hands to roar, “What the hell is going on up here? You kids just come and go as you please at this school?”

J.J., mortified, grabbed her father’s arm and pulled him over to a corner. “Daddy, please!”

He suddenly realized that he had to be embarrassing J.J., but he did not care. Marnie and Tommy were special to him. They had both spent too much time at his kitchen table and his pool for too many years for him to let them mess up without some intervention on his part. He felt like a father figure to both of them at times.

“J.J., I don’t like this.” He said to her in a slightly lowered tone. “Marnie’s out in the street hitchhiking. Anything could have happened to her. I get here with her and find that Tommy’s not been in class either.”

Then he stopped, cocked his head to the side, and looked directly at her through narrowed, suspicious eyes.

“What about you? Were you in your first period class?”

J.J. hurriedly pointed to her notebook and textbook, then held them out for him to see.

“Daddy. I just finished first period. The room is right there.” She pointed to where Mr. Morrisett stood watching what was going on outside his door.

The man nodded to her father to confirm her attendance, and she silently thanked the heavens that she hadn’t ditched like she started to while waiting for Marnie in that restroom.

“Daddy, did you want me for something?”

“Ah, uh, yes.” He answered, as if it had just come to him. “Before you leave here today, you talk to Marnie and try to find out what’s going on with her. I won’t have her hitchhiking. And I really won’t have your mother tossing and turning another night worrying about the two of you. That’s the best way to get me involved in whatever is going on and you girls don’t want that, and that includes your mother. She didn’t want to tell me anything last night, and I’m not really sure that I want to know. Cut to the chase. J.J., and get to the root of this problem, because apparently there is one.”

He bent and kissed her cheek. “I love you, baby.”

Then he turned and put his finger in Tommy’s face. “And you get your ass to class. Don’t skip another one this term. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Don’t think I won’t be checking on you.”

“No, Sir. I mean, yes, Sir.”

With that, Jonathan strode off down the hall, the sea of teenagers parting in his wake, heads turning to watch as he went by.

A cute brown girl with dimples and thick dreadlocks, who had been rummaging aimlessly in the locker behind J.J. and her father during the entire exchange, in an obvious attempt to eavesdrop, leaned over to J.J. after her father had walked off.

“J.J. girl, your daddy sure is fine! I don’t know about you, but he made my day!”

J.J. turned to look at her and couldn’t help laughing, secretly thinking that same thing about her dad. He was a cutie.

“Put your tongue back in, Charmaine and wipe that drool off your chin. My mother has the lock on that.”

“Don’t hurt nothin’ to look, though!” Charmaine grinned back devilishly, giving another girl who was standing near them a high five. “Does it?”

Other girls standing around giggled their consensus on the matter.

___________________________________________

After J.J. told her that she was driving in with her father, Jennifer took the free time to go for a morning run. She wanted to clear her head before sitting down to her desk to work. The girls were still on her mind. Those two had been friends for a long time. They rarely argued or fell out with each other. Marnie had practically become one of the family; she there all the time, it seemed. If her distancing herself from J.J. didn’t have anything to do with something that happened between them, then whatever it was had to be serious.

After running the entire perimeter of the estate, she returned to the house exhausted and dripping wet.

Just as she was stepping out of the shower, she heard the sound of the gate buzzer coming from the console. Marie was downstairs, so she didn’t bother responding to it. As she was sitting at the dressing table, applying body lotion, Marie’s voice called to her from the intercom.

“Mrs. Hart, Mrs. Tolbert, Marnie’s mother is at the gate. She says she would like to speak with you if you have the time to see her. She apologizes for not calling ahead.”

Jennifer looked into the mirror, lotion bottle in hand. She was stark naked, with no makeup and wet hair, but no way was she going to turn that woman away.

“Buzz her in, please, Marie. I’d like very much to talk with her. If you’ll make her comfortable, I’ll be right down. ”

___________________________________________

 Maureen Tolbert was greeted at the front door by the Hart’s housekeeper, Marie. She accepted the offer for coffee and took a seat on the couch that faced the foyer to wait for Jennifer Hart. As the housekeeper disappeared into the kitchen, and she was left alone, she took the opportunity to check out her surroundings.

The house was massive; a foyer as large as two rooms in an average home, canyon stone walls, a huge stone fireplace that was an entire wall itself. The furnishings were tasteful and comfortable. There were collections of books on the shelves behind the desk, original artwork graced the walls and tables, and there was an elegant ebony grand piano in front of one set of windows. It was beautifully overwhelming. But, somehow it still felt like a home. She could feel the life and love of a real home. Among the various other exquisite paintings and family photographs about the room, a large oil painting of Jennifer and J.J. Hart dominated a wall near the main entrance to the room.

It was stunning. They were both dressed in long emerald green dresses. J.J. was seated at Jennifer’s feet, leaning against her mother’s legs and looking up at her. One of Jennifer’s hands touched the child’s face. A soft light placed above it, illuminated the painting. The tones were warm; the red in their hair, the colors of their eyes, and the hue of their skin had been so accurately captured. J.J. appeared to have been about twelve or thirteen when the painting had been done. Maureen reflected on how much J.J. looked like her mother and on how the artist managed to convey the essence of the love and admiration that she knew was shared by the two of them. She couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy.

Willow Pond Drive had been named for the home and estate. The story had been in all of the media when the original house had burned to the ground about sixteen years back. She remembered seeing pictures of the smoldering debris and the massive stone walls of the home, which were all that remained after the fire. Jonathan Hart rebuilt the house, according to the original specifications, for his wife when he learned of her pregnancy.

Looking around at just the room in which she was sitting, she was overwhelmed by the thought of the amount of money and effort that it must have taken to put it all home back together. The depth of feeling that the man must have had, to go to such a monumental effort for his wife and child, had to be awesome. It occurred to her that even though she had been married three times, she had yet to find happiness or love.

J.J. and Marnie first  met when they were both attending a private kindergarten in Bel Air. Marnie would come home every day chattering excitedly about her friend, J.J. and what they had done together in school. One day, the phone rang and a small voice asked for Marnie. The little girl identified herself only as J.J. That had been the start of the ten-year telephone marathon between those two girls.

Eventually, J.J. invited Marnie to visit her at home. The housekeeper phoned to confirm the time to bring Marnie and provided her with the address. She had been delighted to find that J.J. lived on their same street, Willow Pond. Delivering Marnie to her playmate, she was floored to find that 3100 Willow Pond Road was the address to the Hart estate and that little J.J. was actually J.J. Hart, daughter of Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. Feeling a little intimidated, she rang at the gate, but all of that trepidation passed when she met J.J. and her parents at the front door. The Harts, for all of their money, power, and fame, were two of the nicest people she had ever met. She had come to trust them completely with Marnie. When Marnie was safe with the Harts, she could deal with some of the disorder in her own life.

Jennifer Hart entered from the kitchen. In her hands, she carried a wooden tray with two steaming coffee cups, cream and sugar.

“Well hello, Maureen.” She smiled pleasantly, setting the tray down on the coffee table and taking a seat on the other facing couch. Maureen took note of her hostess.

She was wearing a sky blue silk caftan and a simple pair of silver sandals.

Her hair, which appeared to be wet, was twisted into an elegant knot at the top of her head. Several loose tendrils curled on her long, graceful neck. Small diamonds sparkled at each ear.

“I must apologize.” She said cordially. “You caught me just as I was coming out of the shower. I had a break this morning, so I’ve been out jogging. I must look a mess. Please, help yourself.”

“Who was she trying to kid?” Maureen thought incredulously as she reached for a cup.

Jennifer Hart had to be at least ten years older than she, had just left the shower, wasn’t wearing a drop of makeup; she had been interrupted by an unexpected guest, and still she was gorgeous, not to mention chic and gracious.

Aware of having inconvenienced her hostess, she felt the urgent need to explain herself.

“I’m so sorry to have come unannounced, Jennifer, but I don’t know what else to do. I am so worried about Marnie. We can’t even have a conversation these days that goes three words before we’re screaming at each other. I got your message about her not coming home with you last week. I was so angry with her that I forgot to even call you and thank you for letting me know. She’s been lying and sneaking around like that for the past few months, and it’s getting worse. I know that it has a lot to do with her stepfather and me. Things have just been a mess at our house. I finally had to put him out.”

As her guest spoke, Jennifer was making her own assessment.

Maureen was a much younger woman, about thirty-five, petite and pretty. Her father was in Texas oil, and she was living in Bel Air on her trust fund, child support, and alimony between marriages. She gave the impression of being coquettish, spoiled, and flighty. Marnie spent a great deal of her time in their home and was always going places with J.J., but other than brief phone calls or chats when picking Marnie up or dropping her off, or brief meetings at the Country Club, they really didn’t know that much about each other.

As far as she could recall, in all those years, that was the first time that Maureen had actually come that far into the house. She always seemed ready to leave Marnie at their doorstep so that she could get on with what she wanted to do. In the time that the girls had known each other, Maureen had divorced Marnie’s father, remarried, divorced again, and remarried. In the beginning, she had been resentful that Marnie was left with them so often, but it took Jonathan to remind her that Marnie was good company for J.J., and that maybe they could be a positive factor in her seemingly chaotic young life.

Maureen looked as if she might break down at any moment. Jennifer wanted to reach out to her, but she didn’t want her to lose it before she finished explaining the reason for her visit.

She thought that she had figured it out, but she hoped that she was wrong.

“If I might ask’” Jennifer said softly. “What was the reason for your having him leave?”

Maureen’s face turned red and she looked very uncomfortable as she began.

“Marnie has been telling me for some time that Bernard was looking at her in a way that made her uncomfortable, and that he had been saying things to her that were inappropriate whenever I wasn’t around. I didn’t want to believe her. I knew that she didn’t like him much. She’s been through a lot what with going back and forth between her natural father and me and my marrying again. Her attitude has been so negative toward her stepfather from the beginning that I thought she was just trying to make trouble”

For a moment, she dropped her face into her hands to rub at her eyes. Then she looked up and slowly continued.

“We got into an argument over it, and she let it out that the reason that J.J. didn’t visit us anymore at home was because you and Jonathan wouldn’t let her. I assumed when she said it that it was because you keep her close, you know, for security reasons. But then Marnie said that it was because you didn’t feel that J.J. was safe around Bernard. At first I resented that. But then…” she hesitated, and took a deep breath. “I caught him peeking at Marnie when she was in the shower. Oh Jennifer…she knew that he was doing it!”

The dam broke, and the torrent of tears came.

Jennifer didn’t know what to say. For a moment, she sat stunned. She knew that whatever the problem was, based upon the abrupt change in Marnie’s behavior, it would probably be something unsavory. But to actually hear it confirmed, shook her to the core. It was good that it wasn’t anything worse than voyeurism, but for a little girl like Marnie it had to be devastating and humiliating. No wonder she seemed to be so frightened and was falling apart at school. She forced herself to get up and went to Maureen. Putting her arm around her, she let her to finish crying.

“Jennifer, she told me. I didn’t believe her. She purposely left that door unlocked so that I would catch him at it. As soon as I saw it with my own eyes, I packed his things and put him out. Marnie hates me for not believing her.”

Jennifer pulled tissues from the dispenser on the side table and handed them to her guest.

“Did he leave? Were there any problems?” She asked while Maureen wiped her eyes and her face.

“Yes, he did leave. I told him that I would file charges, if he didn’t. But Marnie has been so defensive since then. I can’t get her to do anything. She’s not doing her work in school, and I think she’s doing something with a boy from school. I overheard her making plans to meet him after school.”

Involuntarily, Jennifer’s lungs took on more air. J.J. said that she suspected something. Now the hope was that things hadn’t gone too far. She hoped that Marnie wasn’t acting out her anger by doing something that would be self-destructive.

“I came here to see if J.J. had said anything to you, Jennifer.”  Maureen sniffed. “I just don’t know what’s going on with Marnie any more. Before all of this, she would always tell me advice that J.J. given her about how to handle herself. Marnie always talked about how you and J.J. discuss everything. I know that when J.J. was allowed to come to our house, I was surprised by some of the things that she seemed to know and even the way that she behaved. She always seemed so much older that she is- so mature. I have to say, it embarrasses me to discuss certain matters with Marnie. J.J. seems so self- assured. I allowed her to fill in the gaps with Marnie. I know that has a lot to do with how you’ve raised her. I watch you with her at the club. You have such a wonderful relationship with your daughter. I never worry about Marnie when she is with you.”

Jennifer saw her eyes drifting to the oil painting of her and J.J.

“Thank you, Maureen. My daughter makes it fairly easy. I have been extremely fortunate with her. J.J. told me that she and Marnie hadn’t been talking as much lately, and that has bothered her. I told her to find Marnie and sit down and talk with her. I’m hoping that they’ll get together at school today.”

She felt that was enough to say given what had already been revealed.

“Jennifer, will you please let me know if J.J. is able to talk with her?” Maureen said, standing as if she were ready to leave.

“I’ll call you if J.J. tells me anything happened. She doesn’t always, you know.” Jennifer answered standing also, but thinking to herself that she wouldn’t betray J.J.’s trust.

She couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed at being put in the middle, but she knew that it would probably be the only way that Marnie would get the help that she needed. It looked like it might be a while before she turned to her mother on her own.

Jennifer walked her to the door.

Just before going out, Maureen turned back around to face her. The look on her face conveyed the sincerity of her words.

“Jennifer, thank you so much for today and for all the times that you and Jonathan have looked out for my daughter when I wasn’t on my job.”

Jennifer reached out and took her hands to squeeze them reassuringly.

She sometimes had to stop and remind herself that everyone was not as fortunate in their lives as she had been in her own.

___________________________________________

Part Five

After a few inquiries, J.J. finally caught up with Marnie in the lunchroom. She spotted her sitting at a corner table. Wading through the tables and students, J.J. waved and spoke to friends as she made her way to Marnie’s table.

“Hey J.J.!” Somebody yelled. “Heard your dad set it off outside your Math class this morning!”

She responded by holding up her hand, cutting the comment off, signaling that she was not going to dignify that rumor with an oral response. But she was amused that word had spread that fast and was apparently the talk of the town that day.

Marnie and the girls sitting with her were talking when she reached their table.

Without waiting for a break in their conversation, J.J. stood over the table to announce, “Marnie, I think that we need to talk.”

Marnie stiffened at seeing her there, but she immediately went on the defensive.

“Why? Something wrong?”

J.J. did not back down at Marnie’s hard stare. “Don’t make me embarrass you in front of Cheryl and Tiffany. You know I will. I’m not afraid to act out and you know it.”

Marnie tried to stare down her friend, but the look in her eyes said that she would do just what she said. She knew that she had to get rid of the other two girls in a hurry if she didn’t want an embarrassing scene. She was well aware that J.J. was not afraid to say what she had to say in front of anyone.

“Can you guys excuse us? J.J. seems to have a problem with me that she feels we need to iron out.” She said to the other girls, trying to sound flippant, but secretly terrified of what J.J. might do or say to embarrass her if she didn’t comply. They were good friends, but J.J. could be unpredictable at times.

Tiffany and Cheryl gathered their things and left the table without comment.

In the fifth grade, J.J. had beaten a boy up for saying something derogatory about her mother. He had never lived it down. J.J. was not a bully, nor was she in any way mean to anyone, but somehow, that incident, together with her confident manner, her assertiveness, and her occasionally sharp tongue, made respecting her a given.

J.J. sat down across from Marnie on one of the seats that had been vacated. Their eyes met and for a moment there was a standoff. Then finally, Marnie had to break down. She smiled a small smile, and her posture softened as she took down her invisible shield. She and J.J. had been friends for way too long.

“What’s so funny?” J.J. asked, tilting her head in puzzlement.

“Your father. He is crazy, J.J. He caught me hitching this morning. I saw a Rolls coming. I saw “1 Hart” on the plate, and I knew it was him. I tried to walk away real fast before he could see me. J.J., the man drove a top of the line Rolls Royce onto the sidewalk, cut me off, and made me stop and get in the car with him. He brought me to school, and drove the car up the walkway right up to the damn steps. As if that wasn’t enough, he escorted me personally to my class. I was trying the whole time to tell him that first period was almost over. He shoves me in the door of the classroom anyway and tells me to soak up something in the last few minutes.”

J.J. snickered. The story was funny if you weren’t the person that it was happening to at the time.

“You know how my daddy is.” She laughed. “He hemmed up Tommy, too. Cussed at him in the hall with everybody looking.”

“What did Tommy do to make him mad?”

“Tommy claimed that he was late getting to school, and that’s why he didn’t go to first period. He was trying to give me the heads up about my father being here, but daddy walked right up on him right in the middle of when he was telling me about you.”

Marnie sighed. “It’s been a wild morning, J.”

J.J. noticed that she seemed tired.

“Have you been to any class today? I mean, other than the one my father put you in?”

“No. I just didn’t feel like it.” Marnie ran her hand through her hair that usually shone like polished mahogany, but looked dull and oily at the moment. “I skipped the rest of them. I can’t concentrate. J.J., I’m a mess. My life’s a mess.”

J.J. noticed that her friend’s clothes looked like she had slept in them and that her eyes were dull. Slight purplish shadows ringed them. Normally Marnie was one of the school’s fashion trendsetters. Certainly she was a member of the fashion police force there.

The lunchroom was loud, and they could barely hear each other without raising their voices.

“I wish we could go outside, J.J. But I know you have class.”

Marnie knew that J.J. was a scholar and that she took school very seriously. Skipping class was not something that J.J. normally did. She also knew that the Harts had an arrangement with the school and their private security that they were to be notified immediately in the event of an unexcused absence.

“So do you.”  J.J. said, standing up and stacking her books. “But let’s go.”

Marnie was shocked at first. But then she got up to follow J.J. out of the lunchroom, realizing how much she had really missed her friend.

___________________________________________

Part Six

“J.J., your mother is going to be as mad as hell if she finds out that you’re ditching the rest of your classes today. Won’t they call her?”

They had settled in on the lawn behind the school building after carefully selecting a place out of easy sight of nosy school officials.

Marnie used the jacket she had been wearing for a pillow and lay back on it. J.J. pulled her hair loose from the ponytail. All of a sudden the band that held it felt too tight. She sat upright with her legs crossed, looking down on Marnie.

“I only had two more classes. Tommy is in both of them. I told him to cover for me if I didn’t show up and to get the homework for me. I get A’s. Nobody is going to freak out about me missing one lesson. Tommy’ll make up something to cover for my missing person. He’s good at that kind of thing. Lord knows I’ve covered for him enough times. He’ll get my notes and homework and stuff.” She said, running her hands through her hair, pulling loose the tangles.

“Marnie, what’s going on with you? We’ve always talked about everything. All of a sudden, I don’t hear from you. You’re acting all shady, like you’re avoiding me… I want to help. I can listen, if you can talk.”

Marnie rolled over on her stomach to toy with one of the many silver rings that she wore on her fingers.

“It’s such a mess, J.J.”

“You’ve told me that. Now will you elaborate?”

“To start, my stepfather is a pig and my mother is so, so stupid.”

“Marnie, please don’t call your mother stupid.”

That day at Marnie’s, where the stepfather had harassed her mother, played in J.J.’s mind. The stepfather was a real pig.

“But she is stupid, J. She keeps getting married like she’s playing musical chairs or something. I kept telling her that Bernard was doing stuff and saying nasty stuff to me, but she wanted to be with him so much that she wouldn’t even listen to me.”

J.J. thought she felt her heart stop beating. “What was he doing to you? He didn’t-”

“Hell no, you didn’t read about his dead ass in the newspaper or hear about it on her eleven o’clock news, did you?”

They both snickered at that.

“No, he just kept talking about how I needed breaking in. Kept getting me by myself, telling me how I looked like I was old enough to have it done to me, stuff like that. I knew that he was going to try something before too long. I was so scared that I couldn’t sleep good at night. Then I found out that when I was taking a shower, he was peeking through the door. J., I don’t lock the door to my room because the bathroom is inside my bedroom. You know, it’s like yours. The pig was sneaking into my room when he could hear me in the shower. He was invading me, my space, and my privacy.”

Marnie was still on her stomach, but J.J. saw a tear fall from her face onto a blade of grass. She instinctively reached out to run her hand down her friend’s back.

Marnie continued.

“I told my dumb-ass mother that he was doing that, and she said for me to lock my door. What the hell is that for her to tell me? Why should I lock my goddamn door in my own bedroom in my own house? He’s just not supposed to do that, and that’s all there is to that! She acted like I was the one doing something wrong. She is so stupid!”

J.J. could see Marnie’s whole body shake as she was overwhelmed by silent sobs.

J.J. continued to stroke Marnie’s back like her mother did for her when she was really upset about something. Her doing that would calm her. She hoped that it did the same for Marnie.

They were quiet for a few minutes before Marnie started back to telling the story.

“She made me so mad that I started screaming at her. I told her why your mother wouldn’t let you stay down to our house any more. You and I never did talk about that, but I knew why, and I told her. Bernard acted so nasty with your mother that time. I was so embarrassed. Your mother wouldn’t let you come back, but I live there. I had to keep on being there with that rat bastard.”

“Did you ever tell your Dad?”

J.J. couldn’t imagine any girl’s father allowing his daughter to live like that if he knew about what was going on. She knew that her own father would very likely attempt to kill someone for violating her in any way, but especially that way. She wondered if her mother had ever told him the whole story about Marnie’s stepfather. Probably not: Bernard Tolbert was still drawing breath and walking without a limp.

Marnie rolled over on her side to face her.

“J.J., my father is just as bad with the marrying thing. He has a whole other family now and they’re little boys. He doesn’t need me and my problems. And anyway, lately if I don’t call him, I don’t hear from him very much.”

She rolled back over. “I stopped calling you, J.J., because I thought I could only bring you down. You’ve got it made. You’re smart, you’re rich, you’re pretty-”

“But you’re all of those things!” J.J. cut in.

“Yeah, but you have your parents too. Good ones. Your Dad looks out for all of us and your mother is good people too. Out of all of our friends’ mothers, your mother is the most real person. She doesn’t switch off and on like some mothers do. She’s the same all the time. Even when she was all over me about not coming home that day, it was okay. I knew I had it coming, and even though I was scared, I could take it. She didn’t go off on me, screaming and stuff like my mother would have. She told me why she was mad. It’s like you can tell that she respects you as a person, she doesn’t just treat you like a kid. Your mother would never let her husband misuse you.”

J.J. mused for a moment choosing her words carefully, trying to decide if her wanted to share her secret. Then very quietly, she finally said, “No Marnie, she wouldn’t have.” She had never revealed what she was about to say to anyone.

“If she hadn’t been with my Daddy, there would have been no me. The only man that she would have had me or any kid by is my father. If it weren’t for him, there would be no me. She didn’t want to have any children. I was a slip-up in her life.”

“What!” Marnie rolled over, shocked.

It was J.J. who was doing the looking away.

“What are you talking about?”

J.J. chewed at her lip a moment and quietly, thoughtfully continued.

“I have wonderful parents and a wonderful life.” She began. “And you of all people know how I feel about my mother. It goes beyond just loving her because she’s my mother. I respect her. I’m proud of her as a person aside from being my mother.”

J.J. twisted some of her hair around her finger absently while trying to gather her thoughts. It was a personal thing, and sharing personal things was very hard for her.

“Marnie, you know her journals that she writes in and keeps? And the finished ones that she stores in the upstairs library?”

“Yeah, I know. The leather ones.”

“Yes, those. I knew it was wrong, but I read one. I was just a kid and curious about what kind of stuff she wrote in them. She and my father were out for the evening and I was there with Marie. She was downstairs so I got one and took it to my room. It just happened that it was the one from the year that she was pregnant with me. I started reading it. I was just going to read a little bit at firs, but then I couldn’t stop.

She didn’t really want children ever. She was scared to have kids. She was afraid that she couldn’t love anybody but my dad. She wrote that she knew that he wanted her to have a baby, but she didn’t think that she could be a good mother because she never really wanted to be a mother.

I felt really bad while I was reading it. I felt like maybe I had interrupted her good thing by showing up when I did. She kept talking about their lives changing when she had the baby. But you know Marnie, if anybody’s mother was stupid, it was my mother.”

Marnie was stunned. The magnificent J.J. Hart actually had a dent in her shiny armor. She could not believe that J.J. was calling Jennifer Hart stupid. J.J. absolutely revered her mother.

“She was always a great person by herself, Marnie. Before me, and before she met my dad, she traveled all around the world. She had written two best-selling books, and had met and knew all kinds of famous people. She earned a Phi Beta Kappa key in high school. She went to the Sorbonne on a fellowship. She dated all kinds of rich and famous men. Then she fell in love with a wonderful, wealthy, handsome man who just happened to love her back, and she married him on a whim.

But if she hadn’t trusted my father, she would never have known what an even greater person she was to become. She would never have known that she really was capable of loving a child, and that I would love her back like I do. My father would never have known what being a father was like, and she would have been hurting him even though she loves him, and he still would have loved her anyway. She wrote in that journal over and over that she knew that a baby was what he wanted, but she just wasn’t sure that she could do it.

I say that she was stupid because she doubted herself. She would have sold herself short. I’m not saying that all women should have babies, but it’s right for some people. It was right for her and for me. I mean, let’s face it, who else could be my mother like she’s my mother? I would steam roll right over anybody else. With Jennifer Hart, the more insane I try to be, the saner she becomes. Remember that night I tried to sneak out and come to your sleepover when she said that I couldn’t and she caught me?”

“Yeah J. I remember that one. You better be glad that it turned out that she was sick. If she had been at her best, you wouldn’t be here right now asking me if I remember.” Marnie replied, temporarily forgetting her own troubles for the moment. “J.J. does your mother know about the journal? Does she know that you know?”

“I don’t think so. It’s hard to know what she doesn’t know about what I do, but I really don’t think so. I put the book back, and I never touched any of them again. A person’s private thoughts should remain private, even if they’re your mother’s. If something ever happens to her, I’m going to put those journals away so that nobody else can do to her what I did until we are both out of here.”

J.J. then reached out for Marnie’s hand. Marnie closed her hand around her friend’s hand and held on tightly.

“Marnie, you’ll be stupid too if you let this thing with your stepfather shut you all the way down. You’ll be selling yourself short. Yes, your mother was wrong to let it go on so long, and for not listening to you, but a least she finally did get rid of the creep. People are who they are and we don’t all do things the same way. For whatever reason I came to her, my mother held on and gave us a chance and we worked out. Hold on and give your mom a chance to make this right.”

The girls sat silently for a long time before J.J. asked, “Marnie, are you involved with Craig?”

“Involved? Now you sound like your genteel mother interviewing someone for one of her stories.”

“Okay then, I’ll be me. Are you screwing Craig? Is that better?”

Marnie giggled and then sighed. “No, but he wanted me to. He said that he was going to fix my grade if I did it with him. I made out with him a few times in Morrisett’s room after school when he was supposed to be tutoring me and a couple of times in Craig’s car, but I couldn’t go through with it all the way.”

“The pig.” J.J. thought to herself. “He better not ever say anything to me again.”

“J.” Marnie continued in a hushed voice. “I felt so dirty after that thing with my stepfather that I just didn’t care anymore. My mother didn’t seem to care, so why should I? I didn’t care about school. I didn’t care about what happened to me. I wasn’t mad at you when I didn’t call you or come around. You have it all together all the time. I just felt like I couldn’t do anything for you except to depress you. Your life is magic compare to mine.”

“It’s all relative, Marnie. There are things that I go through too. It’s not as magical as it looks. I’m just glad that we’re talking again.”

“When I was hitching this morning and your father caught me, I had just about made up my mind to do it with Craig this afternoon. I was late, I missed my ride, I had missed the school bus, and I thought that after I didn’t meet you this morning in the restroom you would be through with me. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I just figured… stupid, wasn’t it?”

She lay on her back and turned her face to J.J.

“You’re my best friend, J. I love your parents too. They look out for all of us. Your dad scared me back to reality this morning.”

Well that was two reality checks for Jonathan Hart today, J.J noted. Three, perhaps four, if you counted Tommy and his ass.

“Hey J.J., do you think that Craig will tell everybody about what I did with him? you know how guys like to talk and brag.”

Marnie sounded worried. J.J. shook her head.

“I don’t think you have to worry about that. Craig would get into a lot of trouble if the right people found out that he was making out with an underclassman in the math room after school when he should have been tutoring her. He’s got too much on the line to risk that. If he starts talking,” J.J. was nodding with that faraway look that Marnie knew so well. “-the right people will find out.”

Marnie had no doubt that they would.

J.J. checked her watch.

“My mother will be out front in a few. We’d better go.”

“We?”

“Yeah, you have a lot of homework to catch up on. And we have a lot of catching up of our own to do.”

They got up brushing the telltale grass from their jeans. J.J. suddenly looked over at Marnie with a twinkle in her eye.

“Hey Marn, just as an aside, I know that you’re all devastated and everything, but since you thought you were going to do it with Craig, making out with Craig must have felt pretty good. Why don’t you fill an inexperienced friend in on what it was like?”

Shocked, Marnie’s head snapped around, and she caught the mischief in J.J.’s eyes.

“J.J., you are crazy, just like your damned daddy!”

They both laughed out loud.

They went into the building from the back to walk through. They came out of the front door and down the front walkway, just like they normally would after their classes, to meet their ride.

___________________________________________

Jennifer Hart sat out front tapping her nails against the leather steering wheel cover watching the teeming mass of youth, waiting for her daughter.

J.J. and Marnie came down the stairs together. They were both talking and smiling and both of them were carrying books. J.J. got into the front seat and Marnie climbed into the back.

“Hi, Mrs. Hart.” Marnie said, getting settled.

“It’s nice to see you, Marnie. In the car. And on time.” Marnie looked shame-faced down at the floor.

Jennifer turned to give her a reassuring smile. “I am glad to see you, Marnie, really.”

“I know Mrs. Hart.” Marnie looked up to her. “Thanks, that means a lot to me.”

Tommy roared up on the driver’s side and slid to a stop. It startled her, and in whipping around, she felt her neck stiffen immediately. The chiropractor was going to be able to pay off his time share in Florida with the changes the kids were sending her body through.

“Hey Mrs. Hart. Sorry if I scared you.” He apologized as he pulled folded sheets of paper from his back pocket and handed it to her. “Will you hand this to J.?” He asked leaning in to briefly catch J.J.’s eye.

“J.J., these are those instructions’ you told me that you needed.” He peeked into the back seat. “What’s up, Marnie. How come you’re not riding with me?”

“I got lots of homework. I’m going to work with J.J.”

“Suit yourself.” He said. Well, see you all.”

He pulled off into traffic.”

Jennifer held onto the package a moment, suspiciously cutting her eyes over to J.J. who was warily looking to her. She was sure that there sure was some hidden message in what Tommy had said, but dismissing it, she leaned over and handed the papers to J.J., kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m proud of you.” She whispered.

“Thanks.” J.J. whispered back. “I’m proud of you, too.”

___________________________________________

Finale

It was dark. It was late, and the house was quiet. Still awake, Jennifer lay with her head on her husband’s chest listening to the rhythm of his heartbeat. She could feel his fingers gently stroking her hair and her neck.

Jonathan lie there, relishing the feel of the woman lying on him. As her fingers smoothed the hair on his chest, he was running what she had told him about Maureen’s visit through his mind.

Finally he asked, “Did J.J. say whether or not she talked to Marnie today at school?”

“I assume that they talked.” She answered. “They came home together with me this afternoon, and they worked out on the patio for a long time. It was almost dark when Marnie called her mother to come for her.

“Did J.J. mention anything about what they talked about?”

“No. We didn’t talk about it at all.”

“Good. Then they must have worked it all out.”

He knew that if their daughter hadn’t come back to her mother, there was no longer a problem.

He put both of his arms around his wife and laced his fingers together to keep her close.

After a time, she asked, “Jonathan, if I had been a single woman with a young daughter when you met me, would you have still wanted to marry me?”

He smiled.

“Jennifer you wouldn’t have been a single woman with a child. With anybody else you wouldn’t have taken that chance. You would have been too careful for that. Any child that you gave birth to would have been mine, and with my child, you wouldn’t have been alone. You would have been my wife.”

“Are you saying that you are the only man on earth that could have gotten me pregnant? Darling, I think you arrogance is showing.”

“I think that the proof is in the bed across the hall. If you check the records, I am the only man on earth that got you pregnant… unless there’s a little something that you haven’t told me.”

She was forced to concede, “I guess you do have a point.”

Grinning a self-satisfied grin at both her concession and the thought that he was the father of her only child, he held her closer and bent to kiss her forehead.

“I love you, Jennifer. I know that you worried about it, but you’ve done an excellent job with our daughter.”

“She has a lot of you in her, Jonathan and that makes it easy to love her so much. She’s the best surprise you’ve ever given me. And for your record, we’ve done a pretty good job with our daughter. It seems good old Max knew what he was talking about, doesn’t it?”

“He always said that life was an exciting business, didn’t he? Watching her- and her counterparts- grow up does make this part of life an exciting business.”

The thought of J.J. at the poker table crossed his mind and made him smile again. That girl played like she was born to it- down and dirty. No prisoners, just patsies.

“J.J.’s a lot of fun.” He chuckled.

“And a lot of work, but I wouldn’t have her any other way. She makes motherhood easy for the most part. I never would have thought that one child could move herself so totally into my heart.”

J.J. Hart hadn’t been in her mother’s plan for her life, but since her arrival she had become one more thing that made life with Jonathan Hart so good. Thinking of that freckled face and that ponytail made Jennifer smile quietly to herself.

When they finally fell asleep, his arms were still about her, her head and hand were still resting on his chest.

And with her world once again in order, for the time being, their Hart was sleeping soundly across the hall.

End

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