Those Hart Pictures

J.J.s school prank turns into a disaster for her mother….

Jonathan Hart came through the front door door grateful to be back on his own turf at the end of another long work day. He dropped his keys and called for his family.

“Jennifer! J.J.! I’m home!”

Mildly disappointed when neither of them answered, he went ahead and hung his coat in the closet under the stairs.

Jennifer’s car sat parked out front, and it was time for J.J. to be home from school, which meant one, if not both of them should be at home. Concluding they might be outside, he decided to go up and change out of his business suit and get into something more casual. That way, he could relax fully once he finally caught up with them.

Upon opening the bedroom door, to his surprise and delight he found Jennifer inside, seated at her secretary. She looked up at him from the paperwork on the desktop, but said nothing. The look in her eyes, though, made it immediately clear to him that something was up, and whatever that something was, it probably wasn’t pleasant.

Despite that, he held onto his cheerful demeanor.

“Hello, my darling. I called for you when I came in, but I didn’t get an answer. I was going to get changed and look for you out back. ”

She accepted his kiss to her cheek, but he sensed tension, a more than unusual reaction from her when kissing her.

“Marie went to the market. J.J. is in her room with the dog,” was her curt report on the whereabouts of the other occupants present.

He removed his suit jacket. The air in the room itself  thick with uneasiness, his mind took off, backtracking over recent events in an effort to recall what he might have done to offend her.

Before he could get very far, she asked, “Jonathan, you’ve seen J.J.’s school pictures, haven’t you?”

“Sure, I have one here in my wallet. You’re talking about the most recent ones, right?” he said while thinking, “Okay, so maybe it’s J.J. who screwed up. What trouble am I going to have to try to get her out of this time?

“Yes, I am,” she said. “Let me see what you have, and then I’ll show you what I have.”

“Oh, I like the sound of that!”

He grinned at her in an attempt to lighten the moment. She did not return the smile. Instead she stood up from the desk and walked over to him. As usual, she was impeccably dressed, and lovely. His inclination was to reach out and hold her, but thinking better of it, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet.

“I am not in the mood, Jonathan Hart,” as if she detected his attempt at deflection, confirming his instinct to hold back from any physical interaction beyond that earlier quick kiss.

“Your child has gone way too far this time. She will be in that room of hers until I calm down or until she’s twenty-one, whichever comes first. Right now I’d bank on the latter.”

He flipped through the wallet to find the photo. “Your child,” she said. Relegated to single parent status, he figured the situation to be pretty bad.

“Here it is. This one?”

He handed her the photograph.

It was J.J.’s most recent school picture, taken about three weeks before, just after she turned fifteen. It was a bust shot, and in it she wore a navy blue silk blouse and two diamond studs sparkled at each ear. The extra set of holes in her ears was the end result of a recent shopping adventure with her best friend and partner in crime, Marnie.

Marnie’s mother had taken the girls out for an afternoon at the mall. The two girls slipped away from her and had their ears pierced for the second time. They came home with little gold balls in their ears. As soon as she was able to wear them, he bought J.J. a second set of diamond studs, delivering them to her with the stern warning that there was to be no more body piercing of any kind:

“You are neither a pincushion nor are you a pirate. I will not have you setting off metal detectors everywhere we go. We’re in and out of too many airports around the world to have to be delayed each time so they can check you for weapons.  No more holes! Are we understood?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

But the whole time he talked, his daughter’s eyes remained focused on the gems he held out to her. Diamonds had always been his little girl’s best friends. Apparently his big girl had an affinity for them also. Two days later, Jennifer had second holes pierced in her ears, and he gave her diamonds for them, also.

“Jonathan, did you mention about no tattoos when you were talking to J.J. about piercing her ears?”

“Oh Jesus, Jennifer. Do you think……”

In the picture, a diamond drop suspended on a thin gold chain glittered at the hollow of her neck. That thick auburn hair fell in layers over her shoulders and continued in unseen waves down her back. Her bright blue eyes and long lashes, that sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks, along with her beaming smile projected an air of girlish innocence. Like her mother, she was naturally photogenic, and he thought that one to be a particularly flattering reflection of her.

He asked,”Is something wrong?” knowing full well there was.

Jennifer moved closer. “Now allow me show you the versions that fell out of her notebook when I was bringing her home from school today.” She handed him one photo from several held behind her back.

It was a 5X7 full body shot of J.J. seated on a large white cube onto which two huge metallic gold J’s had been affixed followed by an equal sized bright red heart. She wore black denim boot jeans, a black leather bomber jacket, and a v-necked white tee shirt. The same diamonds twinkled at her ears and on her neck as in the more demure photo he possessed. One long leg extended to the floor, and the other was propped up on the cube. On her feet were very expensive, distinctively designed Western-styled boots. Her hair pulled up into her customary ponytail, hung in waves down the front of one shoulder. Between the manicured fingers of the hand riding atop the propped knee was a single playing card, her favorite, the Joker. In the fingers of the other hand resting on the thigh of her extended leg was a cigar. Her gold double heart bracelet glistened on that wrist, the single diamond in it sparking like fire from the camera flash.

Her face, so much like her mother’s, bore an expression of absolute confidence. From this school picture, there was no denying the start of J.J. Hart’s transformation from his baby girl into an attractive, self-assured, and yes, sexy young lady.

“And that’s just the one shot,” Jennifer said.”There are probably several other poses. These were the only two she had with her at the time. I was afraid to delve too much more deeply than I did.”

She handed him another from the collection.

In this one, J.J. sat with her back to the camera. Still seated on the cube with the double J’s and the heart, this time she straddled it with her hands resting on both thighs. She peeked at the camera over one shoulder with the ponytail pulled over the front of the other so as not to obscure the word “INCORRIGIBLE” stretched in gold letters across the back of the black bomber jacket, each letter ‘i’dotted with a tiny red heart. The cigar, actually lit in that shot, remained pinched between the fingers of her left hand.

“Jonathan, I swear to God…” Her head down, Jennifer rubbed at her furrowed brow, the sole of her beige leather pump tapping out her frustration against the hardwood floor. “That girl….It’s just one thing after another with her. And if you look closely, you’ll notice those appear to be my boots on your daughter’s feet. She has completely lost her mind.”

It took everything in him to suppress the urge to laugh out loud right there. Biting his lip, he mumbled a hasty excuse himself and rushed for the bathroom. Closing the door to the water closet and flushing, holding the handle down to prolong it, he laughed until he cried.

He knew that he and J.J. were wrong, but that made it even funnier. Every time he tried to stop, the thought, planning, and the workmanship that went into that cube; the obvious bribing of the photographer; and the word she chose for the back of her jacket, would start the tickle and then the laughter all over again. What Jennifer always said about him as it related to J.J. was true; he didn’t care what she did, as long as she wasn’t hurting or disrespecting anyone, that girl was still the apple of his eye. She was as wrong as hell, but she was clever, and definitely funny.

She had probably commissioned one of her art or woodshop friends at that gifted high school she attended to put that cube together for her. More than likely it was her friend and his protégé, Tommy, who was getting to be pretty creative at woodworking and design.

Returning to the dressing room, he put the two very different sets of pictures together on the counter. The stark contrast between the typical teenager in the one, and the junior biker babe in the other spoke volumes about J.J., the person. She was growing into a multifaceted young woman who would be able to accomplish anything she set out to do. And to her father’s delight, one of those things would be having the nerve to enjoy having a good time wherever one might pop up.

She was smart and had an innate ability to charm people into doing what she needed done. In her anger, he knew that Jennifer would not be able to see that their child could have gotten those qualities from either of them. Today those would definitely be traits she could only have inherited from him, especially the charming part.

But at that moment, his immediate problem was not his daughter’s incorrigible behavior. It was dealing with that woman out there in his bedroom. One look at his teary, red eyes and she would be all over him for not taking J.J.’s antics seriously once again.

How in the world had J.J. gotten the school photographer to take a picture like that? And when did she do it? How long did it take her to think the details through and to execute the plan?

And then he was going to have to explain the boots.

He had commissioned a pair of boots for Jennifer while on a business trip to Australia, and since she had not been at home when they arrived, J.J. saw them first and tried them on. She fell in love them and had lusted after them so much, he ordered a pair made for her to keep her from being tempted to ‘borrow’ Jennifer’s. J.J. was definitely a girl whose style lent itself to a good pair of boots. The only difference in the two pair was the small metal plates on the toes of J.J.’s boots. Her very active lifestyle tended to make her be rougher on a pair of boots than her mother and she liked having the plates to protect the toes.

How, he wondered, could he get mad at such a cute a kid? She was first in her class in school and never got into any real serious trouble outside of home. Every day with J.J. brought something new. His daughter was his wunderkind.

Jennifer was going to string her up anyway.

And him too, once she realized what he paid for boots for a fifteen-year old. It would not help his case to reveal that because of the special metal plates, J.J.’s had cost more.

In the end, he figured it would be best to go on and get it over with.

He took his time to change clothes and then splashed cold water on his face several times in an attempt to minimize the redness in his eyes and cheeks. Going back into the bathroom, to buy time he flushed the bowl once again. Then he made his way back through the dressing room and into the main bedroom.

“I thought you’d drowned.” Jennifer was back at her desk going through some mail. It was obvious from her dry tone that she was not through with the matter at hand.

“Sweetheart.” He began. “I have to tell you something.”

As he spoke, he stayed on his side of the room. “If it’s any consolation to you, I don’t think those were your boots. If you look closely, you’ll notice that they aren’t quite the same as yours.”

He gritted his teeth as she picked up another copy of the picture from her desk. She put on her glasses to peer at it closely.

“Jonathan! You didn’t!”

“Darling, she loved the ones I had made for you.” He was talking fast. “I didn’t want her to try and sneak yours out.”

“She’s as wild as a colt, Jonathan, but she’s not insane! She would not have come in here and gone into my closet. You go to any lengths to appease that girl. What, I ask you, are we going to do with her? I’ll tell you what, I’m considering a convent school in Switzerland. I’ve got the brochures right here.”

She held up a handful of pamphlets. He could not be sure from where he stood if they were convent school pamphlets or not. J.J. was mischievous at times, and she did do things that occasionally tested her sophisticated mother’s sensibilities to their limits, but he couldn’t see Jennifer actually sending her away to school. He could, however, see her using that particular threat on J.J. to keep her in line.

“A cigar! A lit cigar!” Jennifer stood to continue her tirade. “I can’t believe it! Is she smoking now? What school photographer would do this? I know that she probably came up with that design for that cube herself, but who made it for her? More than likely that rogue pupil of yours, Tommy.”

In obvious disgust, she tossed the pictures onto the desk .

“And then you go and have those boots made- especially for her. Do they have “J.J.” branded into the bottoms too? I’m calling up that school the first thing tomorrow morning and giving somebody a piece of my mind. I want answers. And you Jonathan, you can consider yourself in hot water also. You encourage this behavior in her. She’s going straight to juvenile hall holding your hand.”

When she looked over at him, he ducked his head.

“What’s the matter with you, Jonathan? Your face is awfully red.” Then she must have realized. “I do not believe you! Were you back there laughing? I know you weren’t back there laughing. You think this is funny, don’t you?”

“No, darling. I wouldn’t- ”

She cut him off. “Yes you were! I can see it in your eyes! Jonathan Hart, you think this is funny. You think everything that little Jezebel does is funny.”

He crossed the room to her, standing facing her as she sat on the other side of the desk. He leaned over to her, looking directly into her eyes.

“Come on, Jennifer. Lighten up. It is funny and you know it.” He leaned farther down into her face. “Come on. Two J’s and a heart, that’s pretty creative if you ask me. Black denim and diamonds, the jacket, she looks like you and she looks at you like me-”

“And has a cigar like Max, so what is your point?”

He leaned in even closer.

“She’s the best of all three of us, Jennifer, you, me and Max. Relax and enjoy her! She’s naughty, but she’s nice.”

In one smooth move, he leaned all the way across and pressed a soft kiss to her lips.

“Just like her daddy.” He grinned.

“I haven’t forgotten about the damned boots, Jonathan.” She whispered, but he could hear the familiar rasp in her voice. “It’s because of you that-”

He kissed her again, lingering this time just long enough to turn up the heat a notch or two.

“I know that you haven’t forgotten, darling.” He whispered.

Then he pulled her up and around the desk to him. She came, but she continued to protest. “You can’t wear me down, Jonathan Hart. This is doing absolutely nothing for me.  I’m still extremely upset with both of you.”

“I know you are, darling.”

He brought her to him, and he could feel her iron resolve rusting away under his kisses as she melted in his arms.

__________________________________________ 

J.J. rushed to punch in the number on the phone and then waited impatiently for her friend to pick up.

“Hello.”

“Marnie, I’m in big trouble!”

“What’s up, J?”

“My mother found the pictures!”

“Oh snap! How the hell did you let that happen?”

“Look it’s a long story. I just called to tell you, don’t call me. I’m probably going to be on lockdown without a phone for a while. My phone is always on the front line and is usually the first casualty of a Jennifer Hart assault. Right after she saw the first picture, she picked up her car phone and called Coach Rogers to tell him that I wouldn’t be at the track meet on Saturday. He must’ve said something to her about needing me because I’m fast. Her exact words to him were that she “didn’t give a damn” how fast I was, I wouldn’t be fast enough to get away from her this weekend. She told him that I would be spending some quality time with her trying to “acquire some class”. I’m in for it, Marnie!”

“What did she say to you?”

“Nothing. All the way home, she didn’t say one word to me. When we got in the house, all she said to me then was that it would be best for me to go to my room until she sent for me.”

“Did her eyes change color?”

“Who looked at them?”

“J.J., I don’t know why you sweat about getting in trouble.” Marnie reasoned, trying to make her friend feel better. “You hardly ever get into any real trouble and when you do, it’s not like they beat you or anything. She’ll probably just make you spend the day with Megan and Tiffany or somebody else stiff at the Country Club. I’ll go with you if she does. I was going to go to the track meet to watch you run on Saturday anyway.”

“I sure hope that’s all she does. My mother can do a number on me with words. I think the cigar was what took her over the top. I hope she doesn’t ask me too many questions about that. I can’t lie to her and she’ll kill me if she finds out I smoked that one. I don’t know why I do this stuff, Marnie.”

“Well it’s not like you do it on a daily basis. It was just that one cigar and you were stressed over trying to get the pictures taken on schedule and everything.”

“Marnie, do you really think she’ll care about how many cigars I smoked or why?” J.J. asked incredulously. “One or one hundred, I’m dead if she brings it up.”

“Did she get the one with the lit cigar?”

“Yeah.”

“Then your ass is toast , J.J. I hate to be the one to tell you. She’s gonna ask you about it.”

There was the sound of footsteps coming up the staircase.

“Somebody’s coming, Marnie. I gotta go!”

She eased the receiver down into its cradle.

“Yes?” she called, responding to the knock on her door while nervously scratching Third, her dog, behind his ears as he sat huddled with her on the bed.

“God, please don’t let it be my mother,” she prayed as Third licked her hand.

“It’s me, J.J.”

She and Third hopped off the bed upon hearing her father’s voice. Him, she could deal with right now. The thought of the inevitable meeting with her mother had her petrified.

Opening the door, she peered past him into the hall. Third ran out and around the corner. The little traitor was going to her mother, J.J. noted to herself. He was her dog, but Jennifer Hart gave him real good love and doggie treats.

“Daddy! You alone?”

“Yeah, I am.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him in, closing the door behind him.

“Did my mother tell you what happened?”

“She told me.”

“Is she real mad?”

“She was.”

“Was?”

“Yes. I took care of that for now. We both want you to come downstairs and talk with us.”

“We?”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. A double-teaming by her parents, oh yeah she was really dead. He must have defected to the other side. Resigned to her fate, she opened the door and started slowly out.

He stopped her, taking her by the arm, pulling her back in. He closed the door back behind her this time. He turned her around to face him, pointing his finger at her.

“Look you,” He said. “I almost got it for those boots! I thought we had a deal; I get you the boots. You keep them under wraps for a while. No, the first thing you do is go out and get pictures taken in them!”

“Those pictures were for my friends, Daddy. My mother wasn’t supposed to see those, honest! But,” She stopped and grinned mischievously at him, nodding as she spoke. “You gotta admit, they were perfect for the shots, though, weren’t they?”

He could not believe her. She was just as incorrigible as her mother and that jacket said she was.

“Come on downstairs, J.J.” He said shaking his head. “And your mother says for you to bring the jacket and the boots with you.”

__________________________________________ 

“So, how did you make out last night?” Marnie asked as J.J. joined her on the front stairs of the school the next morning. She waved to Mrs. Hart as she pulled away from the curb after letting her friend out of the car.

J.J. sat down next to Marnie on the step. Checking her watch, she determined that she had roughly twenty minutes before first period.

“Well she took my jacket, but she gave it back after she found out that the letters were peel-offs. She kept the letters. She kept the boots, too. She said that I could have them back after the Mission Street Charity Ball provided that I don’t get on her nerves before the ball which means that I’ll probably never see my boots again. Two weeks is a long time for me to stay off somebody’s nerves, especially hers.”

“She didn’t ask you about the cigar?”

“No, thank God, I didn’t have to incriminate myself any further. I was praying the whole time that she just wouldn’t ask. As part of my penance, she gets to arrange my escort to the ball.”

“Damn, J.J. That is rough.”

“Yeah, I know. I don’t know if the boots are even worth it. I should just let her keep ‘em. I’m going to end up going out with one of those military school misfits that she keeps trying to hook me up with every time there’s some function I have to attend. It’ll probably be Bradley with the ant farm or Sidney who’s about as interesting as lint. Her favorites are the guys from that all boys’ school that used to be her brother school. Some of the boys are kids of friends of hers that live here now. When they’re home, she wants me to do their mothers the favor of allowing them to escort me to functions when the occasion arises. She thinks they’ll have the proper influence on me. It’ll probably Ollie Jr. that she sticks me with.

“Ollie?”

” You remember Ollie. You know, from my party. Looks and acts just like his name sounds? Nice guy, just boring as all get-out.”

Marnie could see the anxiety on her friend’s face and she felt for her and her dilemma. J.J. preferred regular guys, not the Bel Air/Beverly Hills crowd, and even them she didn’t date. J.J. had male friends with whom she hung out. That was as far as it went with her.

“She hasn’t accepted that you prefer the roughnecks, huh?”

J.J. held her chin in her hand. “She only does this to punish me. She knows that I could just as well go unescorted and have a better time than I would by being escorted by somebody. When you go alone, you get to talk to and dance with everybody. She says that I’m getting too old for that and that the other girls will start to resent me. A whole lot I care about that. When you go alone, you’re not stuck with just one boring guy all night. She’s messing with me, Marnie in the best way that she knows to get to me.”

“So, did she get all of the pictures?” Marnie needed to get back to business.

“No, I still have three packages left in my locker.”

“Well give me those. I still have about seven orders to fill, and there are some messages on my voice mail that I haven’t picked up. Your boy, Wesley emailed me that he had some orders at his school. Who would’ve thought that we would have a market way up in Massachusetts? We’ve made a killing on these. This was a great idea!”

Marnie had already decided that she had a definite future as a publicity agent. She had already experienced a satisfying measure of success promoting her and J.J.’s parties and school functions. She had also headed up J.J.’s successful campaign for this year’s sophomore Student Council treasurer. Naturally gregarious and outgoing, J.J. had talked her into exercising her talents by working on the school paper soliciting the ads from the local businesses. She usually did not participate too much in school activities, but J.J. had convinced her that the newspaper job was a good way of getting some service credits for college; Marnie was the best one for putting the squeeze on someone. She was now in charge of promoting their latest joint fundraising venture; the sale of J.J. Hart locker pinup pictures complete with the necessary magnet strips.

J.J. sighed, “You and I know that it’s for a good cause, but my mother would never understand if she found out what I was really doing. I’d probably be on lockdown until the day I leave for college. She said last night that she was real hurt that I was trading on my looks like that. I wanted to tell her what the real deal was so badly. I don’t want her to think that I’m exploiting myself. Maybe we should scale back operations on this one.”

“Are you kidding? I know J.J. the Magnificent is not losing her nerve! No way are we stopping! We know why we’re doing this and she’ll know soon enough. You gotta admit, J.J., this was brilliant. Sales have been off the chart! From the seniors to the freshman, all the boys want them. I even got other orders from guys at private schools.” Marnie slapped J.J. on the thigh. “Girl supermodels don’t have anything on you right about now and you have all your clothes on! I even sold all those pesky wallets we had left from the first two packages. You know the ones we thought we’d get stuck with? I sold them yesterday in lots of five for ten bucks apiece. Hell, J.J., the whole package of pictures cost thirty dollars. We made more than the cost of a package on the wallets alone! For somebody who’s not giving up anything, you sure have a lot of tongues hanging out all over the map!”

“Did Mr. Frieson get in touch with your mother about our balance?”

“Yeah she said that he told her that we were almost at our goal. She went over and met with him at the Hart Towers yesterday to go over the ledger. Those short-term investments that they put the money into have really added up for us. We’ll probably have some left over to carry over into next year. She says that she’s pretty sure that we’re going to go over what we projected at the rate that we’re going. She deposited the money I gave her yesterday into the bank when we were on our way home.”

J.J. nodded and checked a notebook that she carried. She pointed to a figure. “Is that the amount that she put in?”

Marnie looked into the book and answered. “Yeah, that’s it. Damn, this has been a good year!”

J.J. wrote a check mark next to the figure. “Where’s the deposit slip?”

Marnie dug it out of her purse and handed it to J.J. who clipped it into the notebook.

“How do you keep all your ledgers straight, J.J.?” Marnie asked. “You must have three or four going what with this, Student Council, your personal stuff, and the bets.”

“I keep them color coordinated. You just have to be organized.” J.J. closed the notebook and sighed “My mother has a call in to the principal this afternoon.” She remained unmoved by Marnie’s glowing financial report and stuck on her mother’s reactions. “She’s ratting out the photographer. He’ll probably lose his job when she gets through with it.”

“He didn’t like the job or his boss anyway. He told you that when he agreed to do the pictures. Damn, J.J., that was really something; he did it for you without you even having to bribe him. What was that he said, “Give me a kiss when you’re eighteen”- Get real! Did he really think- puhleese… Girl, we’ll be long gone from here by then. If he can find you,” Marnie waved her hand. “You give him that kiss!”

“He was fun and kind of cute.” J.J. finally had to grin. “If he does find me when I’m eighteen, I just might.”

“You are amazing, J.J.! The guy just goes ahead and puts his job on the line to do what a fifteen year old girl tells him to do.”

“People, especially guys, tend to do what I want them to do. He thought it was funny, too. That’s really why he did it.” J.J. stared off out into the street in front of the school. “I sure wish I could get my boots back for the dance on Friday. I had my outfit all picked out.”

“Is Jennifer Hart still going to let you go to the dance?”

Both girls looked at each other questioningly.

“I didn’t even think of that!” J.J. worriedly exclaimed. “I hope so! I’m the chairperson of the entertainment committee! I have to set up the lights and help wire the sound. She didn’t say that I couldn’t, but we didn’t cover that topic during our ‘Let’s browbeat J.J. over her delinquent behavior’ session last night.”

“You’d better find out. Folks are going to be mighty upset if you don’t show. It’s your party, J.J, and it’s the last school dance of the year. You better talk to her tonight and straighten that little detail out. Call me either way it goes.”

“Alright,” J.J. agreed, getting up from the step, dusting her bottom. “But for now, I better go in. I don’t need to be late and have them panicking and calling my house or ringing her car phone saying that I didn’t show for class. Then I know I won’t be at the dance for sure.”

__________________________________________

Part Two

“Where in the hell is that damned Russell!” Andy Seagren yelled into the outer office. “Tell him I said to get in here to me the moment he steps in this office!”

The secretaries and clerks in the outer office cringed. Their boss could be downright volatile at times, especially lately since he opened this new branch. He seemed to stay close to edge all the time. He truly needed to get an outside life.

“Yes sir.”

Slamming the door shut, he returned to his desk. He was sick of lazy goldbricks and goof-offs trying to give his photography studios a bad name. He had worked too hard for too long to have that happen. This business was his entire life. There wasn’t room for foolishness.

Here was this knucklehead Russell, with the biggest contract he had been trusted with thus far, that Gifted and Talented high school right outside of Bel Air, and he screws around and ticks off one of the heavyweight parents with some gag pictures that he took of her kid. There was too much big money in that school for that kind of crap.

It dawned on him that he didn’t get the woman’s name. He would like to call her himself and offer his apologies. Maybe Elite Photography Studios could salvage some of its credibility before she spread the word about this irresponsible photographer and ruined their foothold in this affluent community. School picture contracts were a cash cow. People loved pictures of their kids. This office had opened too late for this year’s high school commencements, but he was hoping to get referrals for graduation pictures next year. Those were really big business.

“Mr.Seagren, the gentleman that you asked for is here.” Came the voice over the intercom.

“Send him in”

There was a knock at his door.

“Come in, dammit!”

Russell Thomas, a young staff photographer entered carrying a folder under his arm. He was new generation: laid-back, very good looking, smart, and a definite thorn in Andy Seagren’s side. He charmed all the secretaries out front to get the best assignments, and carried himself with a general air of nonchalance. But, the boy was so good with a camera. His portfolio had been quite impressive. If it hadn’t been for his skill with the equipment, his knowledge of the business, and his obvious talent he never would have been hired. Andy Seagren generally did not believe in hiring guys that were better looking than he . There were very few young male photographers on his staff, but this young man came highly recommended.

Russell Thomas was well aware of his value to Elite Photography’s LA branch. That knowledge lowered his level of concern about pleasing Andy Seagren. His joy came from taking good pictures. He wondered what in the world he could have done to get him called into the office with the big boss. Well, whatever…

“You wanted to see me, Boss?” Andy was immediately annoyed at the seemingly unconcerned manner in which this boy sauntered into his office. Someone had to have given him the heads-up that he was treading on thin ice, but he came in too slowly, casually brushing his abundant chestnut hair back out of his eyes to be appropriately concerned about it. Behind him, before the door closed, Andy could see his secretary and his receptionist assessing the younger man’s backside as if they could see right through his tight fitting jeans.

“I just got off the phone a little while ago with the principal over at that high school where you were assigned a few weeks ago. You know that last big commercial assignment that I sent you on? What all did you do while you were there?”

“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I just took pictures of the kids.”

“Well, one of the parents, apparently one that the principal doesn’t want upset, said that you took pictures of her daughter that were highly inappropriate. Do you have any idea what that’s all about?”

Russell thought a moment, and then a smile slowly formed on his boyishly handsome face as the memory came back to him. He nodded slowly at the pleasantly amusing recollection.

“Oh yeah, cute little number! Came in with her own crew and set-up.” Russell was becoming visibly more excited as he related the incident to Mr. Seagren. “Boss, you had to see it! She had a front kid doing her P.R, and her own props. She knew lighting and angles, just the smartest little thing you ever wanted to see, and gorgeous for such a little girl. All I did was take the shots. You gotta see this.” He dug around in the folder he carried. “I got two of ‘em here. They came out so good, I had to keep these for my portfolio.”

Andy snatched them from his hand when he held them out.

The shots were very good. The setup was unique, the lighting was excellent, and the kid was a natural. Those custom snakeskin boots on her feet were easily four hundred bucks or better. In fact, nothing that girl was wearing in the pictures was cheap. Looking closely, she had diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, a ring, and a bracelet with diamonds in them. Andy Seagren knew quality when he saw it. He had spent his life surrounding himself with it: his homes, his travels, his women, all were top of the line.

“What do the letters stand for?” He asked, intrigued against his will.

“Nice design isn’t it? Those kids made it. The letters and the heart are for her name, J.J. Hart.”

“Hart?”

Andy could not take his eyes off her face. She instantly stirred something in him, something very familiar, but it was something that he had not felt in years. The hair was longer; her eyes were the wrong color, but her face and her overall appearance… No, it couldn’t be. He looked closer. That face, that dark red hair, especially that hairline, those long legs; it had to be.

Picking up the phone, Andy quickly punched in the number he recently jotted down on his memo pad. Russell watched, noting with curiosity, his boss’s strong reaction to the pictures. Asking for the principal, Andy requested the name of the parent who lodged the complaint against his photographer. He explained that he would like to arrange to correspond with the person himself to address the situation.

He looked up from his desk, holding his hand over the mouthpiece, “If this kid’s mother is who I think she is, I might not fire your ass- today anyway!”

The principal informed him that he would relay his message, and that he could expect an irate call from Mrs. Jonathan Hart, first name, Jennifer.

__________________________________________

“So, have you made up your mind who you’re going to torture my daughter with at the ball?” Jonathan called into the bathroom as he sat on the side of the bed waiting for Jennifer to come to bed.

He knew that there was no way that Jennifer was going to allow J.J. to make her own selection. If she did, it would most certainly not be anyone that Jennifer would approve of for this occasion. This would be J.J.’s second time attending the ball. Last year she attended for the first time and she went without an escort. That was a matter of little consequence to her. She spent the night dancing with everyone else’s escort, much to the consternation of the other girls in attendance whose escorts left their sides to ask J.J. to dance. Even though she did not seem interested in any one particular boy, her mother insisted that this year J.J. attend with her own escort . It certainly would not be any of the the jocks, the card players, the motorcycle riders, artists or musicians with whom J.J. preferred to spend her days. This was especially true in light of the school picture fiasco.

Jennifer entered the room wearing his red pajama top this evening. As always it aroused him when she did that. He took note of her long shapely legs and caught a flash of red panty as she passed him to go to around to her side of the bed.

It still looked good.

“Well, I sort of got a monkey wrench thrown into my plans this afternoon.” She answered, sitting on her side to lotion her arms and legs. “Georgette Singleton called me. She was ordering her tickets for the ball and she told me that Wesley would be home that weekend. She wanted to get a ticket for him, but he only wants to go if he can escort J.J. Georgette wants him to be there, so she called to ask if J.J. was still free, and if we would consent to him being her escort. What could I say? She’s an old friend, and she’s been so generous and helpful to the Mission Street Foundation all these years. Besides, Wesley is an awfully nice boy. He and J.J. have always gotten along well.”

“Wesley!” Jonathan twisted around abruptly to face her. “Isn’t he seventeen now?”

“He just turned seventeen a few months ago, Jonathan.”

She could tell that this was going to another adventure in fatherly paranoia for him.

“And J.J just turned fifteen a couple of weeks ago!” He countered. “He’s three years older than she is! Why is he making a special request for her?”

“Jonathan, they’ve been friends for years. And it’s only three years for part of the year. They enjoy each other’s company and have similar interests, that’s all.”

“Jennifer, he’s three years older than my daughter for most of the year. He wants more than just her company, and I don’t even want to talk about any similar interests. I was seventeen once in my life. If my neighbor had a daughter with a face and a body anything like J.J.’s, I know what would’ve been going through my mind. Where in the hell is Ollie Jr. when I need him? Isn’t he out on break too about that time?”

“He was my original choice for her, but Georgette beat me to the punch!”

“I don’t know about this, Jennifer. Ollie Jr., I can take. But I don’t know about that Wesley. I saw how he was looking at J.J. at her birthday party, not to mention the last few times he was over here before that. She had the good sense not to slow dance with him at the party when he asked. It was bad enough when I looked out there, and she was dancing close with Tommy, both of them in swimsuits! Some days I’m not so sure about Tommy either, and he’s like a son to me.”

He put his hand to his forehead, shaking his head at the memory. His heart had nearly stopped that night. J.J. was just a baby- a baby who looked more and more like Jennifer in every single way that mattered. She even had on a toe ring and an ankle bracelet that night- a diamond ankle bracelet purchased by, of all people, her mother. He could not believe that Jennifer had done that.

“Look, you should have just told Georgette that she was going with Ollie and then made sure that she did.” He continued. “Ollie’s harmless. He doesn’t know his head from his-”

“Jonathan!” She scolded, cutting him off. “I don’t lie! And if that little minx of yours would stop her antics, I could stop applying the brakes. She’s going to be dangerous if she isn’t checked soon. She has tendencies that need redirecting. You saw her at that dance the other night. That quick mind of hers races out of control at times, and she ends up doing things that aren’t good for her! Wesley is a complete gentleman. Maybe some of that will rub off on her.”

He shot her a look. “I don’t want any part of him rubbing anywhere on her.”

“Sorry, Darling. Bad choice of words,” His distress was so amusing. “But you know what I mean. She’s just so fearless. I get worried for her.”

Nothing was going to change by discussing this thing any further. He had more pressing things on his mind. He leaned across the bed and lay on one elbow looking up at her. She looked so good. Even after sleeping with her all these years, Jennifer still looked and felt so good.

“Well, there’s one something in this world that I know she definitely fears.” He said.

“And what may I ask is that?” She looked down at him loving those blue eyes. J.J had the same mischievous look most of the time in her blue eyes, and the same dangerous spirit as her father in her heart. It made loving both of them so easy and being anxious for both of them a daily part of her life.

“You.” He said.

She laughed. It did tickle her that she was the one thing in life that J.J. Hart backed up from without fail.

“Don’t I know it? And I love it! She was so shocked that I’m allowing her to go to that dance on Friday. You should have seen her trying to work up the nerve all evening to ask me. She was so cute- all sweaty and nervous. I’m only letting her go because she’s in charge of one of the main committees, and I don’t want her shirking her responsibilities.”

“So what’s the trade-off?”

“Are you busy Friday night, Mr. Hart?”

He thought for a moment. “No, not that I can think of.”

“Up to chaperoning a high school dance?”

“Jennifer, you wouldn’t? Without telling her?”

“Wouldn’t I?” She clasped her hands together and smiled looking devilishly at him. “The power is intoxicating! I can just see the look on J.J. Hart’s face when she sees mine!”

The look on J.J.’s mother’s face was just too much. He had to laugh. Their daughter was going to die when they showed up unannounced at her dance. He pulled Jennifer down onto the bed and rolled her on top of him, loving how her hair became tousled in the movement and they way that she shook it to straighten it out as she sat looking down on him.

“And you are intoxicating too, Jennifer Hart.”

__________________________________________

“So, she’s letting you go to the dance.” Marnie concluded, leaning against her locker while J.J. pulled what she needed for class from hers.

“Yeah, but there’s something so wrong with this picture. She didn’t give me a fight or anything. She seemed almost happy that I was going. This isn’t feeling right to me at all. Feels like a setup to me.”

“You worry too much.” Consoled Marnie. “Just be happy that you’re going. I mean, if she’s letting you go, what could she possibly do to mess that up ?”

“I don’t put anything past J.J., Sr. I told you before she knows how to make me tow the line. I just don’t know where I’m supposed to be holding on to it to get the best grip right now. It makes me nervous.”

J.J. slammed the locker door shut and they walked down the hall toward their respective classes.

“Look, you’re worrying about nothing.” Marnie said, trying to get J.J. back into her usual easy-going self. “Just relax and enjoy the night. You still have that ball escort thing to be concerned about. You know, J., you’re going to end up on the couch if you keep letting her mess with your head like this.”

“I’d rather be in therapy than to get called on the carpet by her one more time. You just don’t know.”

__________________________________________ 

“Mr. Seagren, you have a call on line one.”

Andy reached for the receiver, putting down the contract he was going over.

“This is Andrew Seagren. How may I help you?”

“Andy! Can this really be you?”

The register of the voice was lower and richer, but it was definitely the same woman. The corresponding rush of heat shooting through his loins like lightning at the sound confirmed her identity. That was something that had not happened in years and she was the only one who could do it just by speaking to him.

“Jennifer Edwards. It can’t be! I saw the name ‘Hart’, but I couldn’t believe that you could be the parent calling to give me hell about their daughter. I didn’t even know that you had a daughter!”

“She’s been ours for the last fifteen years, and she’s something else. What a surprise, Andy! This is such a small world!”

He relished the sound of her voice. It rubbed itself against his ear feeling like the downy fur of a Siamese cat. It had been much too long, and he wondered what she must look like after all of the time that had gone by. Jennifer Edwards had been one of the most beautiful women to pass through his life.

“But, seriously Andy, as much as I’d like to reminisce, we really must talk about this situation. I’m very upset about it. ”

“Well we certainly can’t have that, Jennifer. Being that we’re such old friends, why don’t we talk over lunch this afternoon? I’d love to see you again. Have you had yours yet? Let me meet you somewhere.”

He hoped that she hadn’t become one of those wrapped-up wives that thought that they couldn’t be seen in the company of another man.

“Oh Andy, I’m so swamped with things that I need to finish up here. It seems I’m involved in about a hundred different projects. But I’ll tell you what, why don’t you come out here to the house and have lunch with me. Marie is preparing something now, and I’m sure she can stretch it to accommodate one more. I’d love to see you too!”

Her suggestion was even better.

“I think I can do that. You just name a time, give me directions, and I’ll be there.”

__________________________________________

“3100 Willow Pond Road” was engraved on the sign that hung from the gatepost and the wrought iron ‘H’ on the front gates told him that he had reached the Hart estate. Upon ringing the buzzer to announce his arrival, the gates were remotely opened to allow him to enter; the beauty of the grounds overwhelmed him as he drove inside. The lush, abundant, park-like landscaping was breathtaking. Nothing could be seen of the main house from the road or from the gate entrance, and it wasn’t until he crossed the bridge that traversed the large pond that the house itself came into view. It was a massive stone and wood home, understated, but clearly the home of someone of means. A pair of top-of-the-line roller blades rested against the legs of the park bench by the front door.

“Must be the daughter’s.” He thought to himself.

If he had been unprepared for the estate, he was totally unprepared for the woman who met him at the door. It was definitely Jennifer. After over twenty-five years, that megawatt smile remained the same. She was as beautiful as he remembered her, even more so. Evidently she had been very well cared for; her auburn hair, her face, and her entire person radiated elegance and good health. Apparently she was one of those rare women who like fine wine, only get better with age. She wore a simple black silk blouse with long sleeves and black slacks, cinched at the waist by a black leather belt with a large gold buckle. She had her same slim frame and same gracious manner. She was no longer a young girl, but she was most certainly one magnificent woman. Opening her arms to hug him, he gladly entered her embrace. She smelled and felt wonderful.

“Andy, it’s so good to see you! What a coincidence us meeting again like this!”

He stood back, holding her hands to admire her. “Jennifer, however did you manage it?” He couldn’t help but notice the magnificent wedding ring she wore on her left hand. It was like a lighthouse beacon to a ship lost at sea. Seeing it, though, made him a little uneasy and sort of sad.

“Manage what?” She asked. Her lower register of her voice was mellow and soothing to his ear. He loved it.

“How did you manage to not change? You’re as lovely as ever!”

“Well you don’t look so bad yourself. Other than the hair color, you haven’t changed much either. Silver is very becoming on you, Mr. Seagren. It gives you a very distinguished air. Come on in.”

She led him by the hand into the foyer.

He was floored.

“My God, Jennifer! It’s like a magazine layout for ‘House Beautiful’.” The great room in front of him was tastefully and elegantly appointed.

“It’s just our home.” She said lightly, taking him in. “Sit down and make yourself comfortable. Lunch will be ready any minute.”

Looking around, he could see her good taste everywhere. He had known her when she maintained that large apartment in New York. It was tastefully and expensively furnished also, but always welcoming, comfortable, and full of books, just like this room. There were photographs all about, and it was these pictures that he noticed over the fine works of art that adorned the walls and tables. Recognizing her style, he knew that she had taken many of them.

Their mutual interest in the field had been the catalyst for their initial meeting, that and how good they looked together. He had been captivated by her fearless pursuit of getting the best shots. She would climb, hang off of, stand on top of anything to get the best angle, and she usually did. Her fiery good looks also bewitched him then, as they were rapidly doing now. He loved entering a room with Jennifer Edwards on his arm. They turned heads everywhere, and he lived for that in his women. This was one, however, to whom he had been unable to hold. She grew weary of just being a pretty face. She moved on, but he never completely removed her from his mind. No one had come along after her to match her spirit and independence, qualities that he did not have the good sense to appreciate during that year that they spent as an exclusive couple.

“Jennifer, I’ve followed your career some. I know that you’ve done quite well for yourself. The last time I saw you in the flesh, however was in Monte Carlo. You were getting into a car with your husband, and I didn’t get the opportunity to speak to you. You got away before I could cross the avenue to say hello.” He allowed his eyes to sweep the room. “I see that things have worked out well for you and your husband.”

In reality, he had avoided speaking to her in Monte Carlo. What he wanted to say to her could not be said with Jonathan Hart around. It was much too painful to see her so obviously happy with the man who stole her away from him. He had watched as Hart purchased a large bouquet of fresh flowers for her from a street vendor, and as she showed her appreciation by sharing a passionate kiss with him outside of their waiting limousine.

“We’ve done extremely well together, Andy” He heard her say as the pictures of that day flashed in his mind. “And I’ve been very happy. What about you?”

“Well, I’ve been married twice. Divorced twice. No kids. But I’ve developed the business into quite a successful venture. I have offices in New York, Chicago, Seattle, and I just set up here in Los Angeles. Your daughter’s school was our first major project here. Do you and Jonathan only have one child?”

His eyes took in the magnificent oil painting of Jennifer and evidently her daughter on the wall near the entrance to this room. The child was very much like her mother. If he had been smarter years ago, that might very well be his daughter, although he felt that he would have been man enough to give her a son- or even several sons.

She laughed again. “There’s only one J.J. Hart. That’s quite enough, I thank you.”

“What does J.J. stand for? I take it that isn’t her given name.”

“No, it isn’t. Jonathan gave her that nickname shortly after she was born. He named for me-”

“Beautiful!” He cut her off. “Jennifer Justine.”

“No, she’s Justine Jennifer. She’s her own person.”

“And quite a person according to my photographer. He said that she came in with her own Public Relations representative-”

“That would be her friend, Marnie.” Jennifer shook her head. Those two were joined at the hip when it came to mischief, that Marnie and J.J. They always had been.

Andy Seagren continued:  “She had her own setup, had her own ideas about lighting, props, and everything else. She even had lookouts stationed in the hall. My man said that all he had to do was take the shots. He told me that the kids were in and out in under fifteen minutes. That doesn’t let him off the hook, but he said that your little girl was quite a dynamo. He found it quite impossible to tell her no. When I put it together that you were her mother, I really couldn’t be too hard on the boy. What’s the saying, Jennifer, “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree”? Aren’t you the party responsible for her solid knowledge of photography?”

She ran her hand through her hair, and he was immediately astonished at how that simple gesture on her part so involuntarily aroused him, even after all this time had gone by. She had always been an effortlessly sexy woman. That evidently had not changed.

Finally sheepishly looking up at him with those eyes, she admitted,

“I stand guilty as charged. But Andy, a lit cigar and a playing card? Those poses he allowed her to effect? She’s just a young girl. He was supposed to be the responsible adult in the situation and tell her “no “. I’m sort of afraid to ask this, but what did she bribe him with?”

“Once again, Jennifer. I’m not making excuses for his irresponsibility but after all she is your daughter. If you remember, I had a hard time using the word “no” with you a lot of times also at one time in our lives. According to him, no bribe was needed. He was so fascinated by her knowledge, her confidence, and her nerve that he just went along with what she wanted to do.”

Jennifer sighed, picturing her child as she masterfully orchestrated the sitting.

In-cor-ri-gi-ble (in kor’i ji bl) n.  J.J. Hart

Marie stepped into the doorway leading from the kitchen.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Hart. Lunch is ready for you and your guest on the patio.”

__________________________________________

Jonathan fixed himself a drink after sliding a vodka martini to Jennifer as she sat perched across from him on one of the barstools.

“So old Andy Seagren is the person in charge of this latest episode with my daughter.”

As he spoke, he noted to himself how good she looked in that black outfit. “Is he still stuck on himself?”

“Yes, he is, on both counts, I think.” She answered. “He’s really still a very good looking man though, Jonathan. Tall, fit, and he has his same thick hair only now it’s completely silver. He’s very distinguished looking and was as well dressed as he always used to be. We talked on the patio while we had lunch. It was mostly about him, of course. That hasn’t changed either, but it sounds as if he’s become quite successful.”

“And you sound smitten.” He said playfully, taking a sip of his drink and leaning on the bar toward her.

“No way, Jose’. I have all the handsome, successful man I can handle. You are everything that I need and all that I want.” She kissed him playfully on the lips. “He’s making the situation with J.J. good by donating his services at the Mission Street Ball. He’s offered to do all the photography for the event gratis. The money that I budgeted for paying for a photographer can go back into the general operating fund. Isn’t that great?”

Jonathan tried not to look as leery about Andy’s offer as he felt. Jennifer had such a good heart. With her, she trusted until given a reason not to trust. For him it was the way around. He tempered his next words so that she would not immediately hear his automatic sense of alarm kicking in.

“I’m not so sure about free services. Nothing is free. There’s usually a catch of some kind.”

“Well, he felt that he owed us for this mess. The damage with J.J. had already been done. Maybe that was the catch. It just came up front this time.”

“I hope you’re right. I got the feeling when I met him the couple of times before we married and that one time at our wedding reception that he never really got over you.”

He had also seen him when they were in Monte Carlo that spring,  he just didn’t say anything to her about it at the time. Seagren had watched her hungrily from the other side of the avenue as they stood talking and kissing until the point that she climbed into the limousine. His eyes clearly said that he had not gotten over her. At that time, they had been married for over five years.

“Jonathan!” She exclaimed. “It’s been many, many years since we’ve seen each other. Surely you don’t think he’s carried a torch for me for all that time. Please! You’re biased in your opinion of me.”

“I admit to the bias, but if I had been the one to lose you, I know that I would definitely still be carrying my torch, fully engulfed in flame.” He said, knowing that the words he spoke were genuine. Her honey brown eyes were beautiful. “Say, don’t you think we’d be more comfortable finishing these drinks upstairs?”

Her eyes met his. She read his message, and immediately he could see her answer reflected in her gaze before the word, “Sure.” left her mouth.

Sliding off the stool, she took the hand that he held out to her.

__________________________________________

Marnie stood in the restroom mirror putting the finishing touches on her makeup and checking her outfit: a short tight red dress that emphasized every curve of her petite, but well developed young body. She liked that the red patent leather mid heels of her strappy sandals accentuated her slim calves and her round bottom. It was her intent to attract attention this evening and to go home with several requests to “call me”. Of course she would never call, but it was always nice to be asked.

“J.J. are you ready? You know we have to take tickets at the door on the first shift. We’ve got about ten minutes before we have to be there.”

“Just about.” Came the voice from the stall. “I just gotta get zipped up.”

The stall door opened and Marnie’s eyes widened as she sucked in her breath. “Damn J.J.!”

J.J. Hart stood tall and sleek in a pair of tight shiny black pants with a spangled tight red low cut tank top that reached just to her midriff, leaving her navel and her developing cleavage exposed. In her navel sat a jewel that sparkled like the diamonds she so loved. Red leather Cuban heeled boots were on her feet, to match the sequined top. She was pulling on the short black jacket that matched the pants as she cleared the door. Her abundant auburn hair was twisted and pulled up into a glittering red clip that left it falling down her neck and back like an auburn waterfall.

“Did you get your navel pierced?” Marnie asked, still wide-eyed. “I know your mother doesn’t know about that, if you did.”

“The navel stone is a fake. I glued it in. You know full well that Jennifer Hart has to be totally unaware of this entire outfit. I’m in it, aren’t I? If she knew, she’d have it and I wouldn’t be here.”

She fiddled with the straps of her top, adjusting them under her jacket. “I had to switch up tops when she took my other boots. I really wanted those boots tonight.”

“You are a knockout anyway, girl! When did you get cleavage?”

“It’s just the tight top. Looks good, though, doesn’t it?”

J.J. checked herself briefly in the mirror, fluffed her hair a bit and turned to Marnie. “How are you breathing in that dress?”

Marnie countered. “Just like you are in that damned top. I can’t believe you, J.J. We’ve been friends a long time. You know that I ain’t gay or anything, but damn, girl!”

J.J. grinned. “Even if we were both gay, you know you wouldn’t have anything coming from here. This is all for show, period. And you ain’t chopped liver yourself in that dress. Your mother would have a fit if she only knew.”

“My mother would probably want the dress for herself.” was Marnie’s response as she checked herself one last time in the mirror.

They looked at each other, smiling mischievously and nodded. “Let’s do this.”, they both said at the same time.

The girls proceeded to the gymnasium ready for the dance.

__________________________________________

They had been taking tickets in the gym lobby for the first forty-five minutes of the dance. Sales were brisk. J.J. had hired the same disc jockey that had entertained at her birthday party, and he had not let her down. The music from the gym was thumping loudly and kids were packed inside dancing. Everyone knew that a Hart/ Benson production was not one to be missed. When J.J. and Marnie put a school dance together, everybody showed up- including the faculty who were also very aware of the drawing power of those two girls.

Teachers were taking the ticket stubs at the entrance to the gym. Most of the male teachers manned the parking lot and the outside doors. The Vice-Principal strolled through the lobby on a regular basis to make his presence known and to keep his eye on J.J. Hart. Periodically, he would collect some of the money from them after they had counted it into a pick-up envelope to be put in the school safe. He wanted nothing going wrong with the dance or with J.J. on his watch. He admired their efforts at being civic, but J.J. was clever and smooth, and could pull things off without getting caught right away. He did not want to have to be the one to have to answer to either of the Harts. The picture thing was disaster enough. Mrs. Hart had nailed the principal firmly to the cross on that one.

Charmaine bounced out to the lobby from inside the gym, her thick dread-locked braids dancing to the beat of the music.

“J.J., get up. I’m taking your place out here. They’re about to play Janet Jackson, and Brittney says they need you now for the front group.”

J.J. slid out from behind the table and removed her jacket, hanging it on the back of the chair. Two boys standing at the table waiting for Marnie to give them change from their ticket purchases, loudly whistled their admiration.

“Not even the time of day, guys.” Marnie advised coolly, counting their money back to them as J.J. stood smoothing her pants, ignoring them completely.

“Are we doing, “I Miss You Much” right now?” She asked. It was an old cut, but that was J.J.’s favorite artist and  “I Miss You Much” was her favorite dance video. She and the girls had ordered it off the Internet and had studied every move.

“Yeah that’s why they want you.” answered Charmaine, sliding behind the table with Marnie into the chair taking J.J.’s place at the ticket table. “The D.J. says that you did a good job with the speakers. And Tommy’s asking for you to come in too. He ‘misses you much’, I think.” She grinned at J.J. mischievously.

“I’m here to dance. That’s it. I’m not looking for Tommy or anybody else in particular tonight.” Were J.J.’s parting words before entering the gym.

As the intro beats for the Jackson tune boomed through the speakers, Marnie propped open the gym door so that she and Charmaine could watch from the lobby while they continued to work. Brittney, Pilar, LaShawn, and J.J. performed their dance routine on the apron of the stage complete with the chairs just like Janet Jackson and her dancers. The modern dance class performed as their backup dancers on the main stage. The crowd was on its feet cheering wildly. J.J. had arranged for the Audio-Visual team to work the lights. She had set the light board up earlier just like she wanted it, and the guys were on their job. The colors flashed wildly as the girls danced, all of it exciting everyone.

Marnie looked on in admiration as the four girls whipped the crowd into a frenzy, accurately mimicking Janet Jackson’s moves from the music video. J.J. was dead center of the action.

“Look at that!” Charmaine remarked with admiration. “J.J. Hart can step for a white girl- or for anybody of any color, for that matter! Who in the world could tell right now that she’s a mega-rich Country Club girl straight outta Bel Air? I could take her down to South Central and with the way she can move, she could wear out some of the sisters and brothers down there! My cousin, Deon worked with them most of those moves. He says that J.J. is bad.”

“You know, it’s funny as hell,” Marnie giggled. “Because she looks just like her mother. Only refined, cultured J.J., Sr. would not be caught d-”

“Marnie.”

She thought that kind of sounded like J.J.’s mother calling her name. But nah, it couldn’t be. This was not the type of school function at which you would find Mrs. Hart. A School Board Meeting, a theatre arts production, Literary Club Circle, Honor Society Induction- something like that; not a thumping Friday night end of the year dance like this, no way. Marnie turned around to see who it could be that was calling her; the person who sounded so much like Jennifer Hart.

There stood both the Harts.

She spun back toward the gym, closing her eyes tightly. Holy shit! J.J. might not have been looking for anybody in particular, but somebodies in particular were apparently here looking for her.

She turned all the way back around in her chair, assuming her business position and managing a weak smile.

“Hey, uh, how are you?”  She said as her mind automatically shifted into overdrive attempting to accelerate into a workable plan to get word in quickly to J.J. to tone it down.

Charmaine, of the same mind, had begun easing slowly sideways from her chair, her eyes honed in on J.J.’s parents, trying to sneak in to J.J. to somehow deliver a relay warning while her parents were still involved in talking to Marnie: “Your folks are in the house!!”

Jonathan caught the slight movement out of the corner of his eye.

“Oh no, Charmaine. Don’t get up on our account!” He said smoothly, smiling his cat that swallowed the canary smile, easing her back into her chair by gently taking her arm. “You have things to do out here.”

Charmaine, mesmerized as always by Mr. Hart’s eyes, melted silently back into the chair. As far as she was concerned, at that point, her friend J.J. was on her own.

Rhythmic cries from the crowd inside of “Go J.J.! Go J.J.!” emanated from the gym at just that moment.

Marnie lay her head down on the table. Her partner, J.J. was burnt toast at her own end of the year dance.

Drawn by the sound of the cheers, the Harts stepped into the gym door in time to witness their daughter in full precision movement with the group onstage. The four girls in front, one Black, one Asian, one Latin, and J.J. had the boys crowded around the stage whooping and cheering. Some boy seated on the shoulders of another was whipping a tee shirt around above his head to the beat. Throughout the gym, kids danced with their arms above their heads, raising the roof.

Jonathan estimated that from the sound of it, there must have been at least three subwoofers operating the many speakers throughout the gym. The mega bass was actually vibrating the floor under their feet. He figured they would all be deaf in the morning, and that wiring had “J.J. Hart” written all over it.

Suddenly, projected on a huge screen behind the dancers on the stage, and on both sides of the gym walls, flashed a huge picture of J.J. sitting on the cube, this time with sunglasses, and the jack of hearts, but minus the cigar. Marnie, and five other girls of different ethnic backgrounds flanked her on both sides in different poses. All the girls wore outfits with a black and white color theme. The caption, “Diversity is a Thing of Beauty” had been superimposed onto the top of the projection on stage. “Enjoy Each Other and Thank You, Love J.J. and the Dance Committee Chairpersons,” flashed at the bottom. The pictures began to flash in rhythm to the music.

Her parents looked to each other and then back to the stage. J.J.’s seductive dance movements on the stage said the she was totally unaware of her parents’ presence in the crowd. Jennifer was floored to say the least.

“Oh, but she didn’t want to take ballet lessons from Madame Stefania when I tried to get her to go.”

Jonathan watched as J.J. danced out in front with  the others all using the chairs as props. Even though he wasn’t too pleased with her shaking it in front of all those howling jackals surrounding the stage, he had to give her credit. The sentiments she expressed in the poster projection represented the foundation of her personality. As a result of her travels with them through the world, he knew that she found being among all kinds of people to be fascinating and stimulating.

The originality and the hard technology she utilized in putting the poster projections together were most impressive to him. He knew that she had to program a computer to do the flash sequences for those. He also recognized her signature on the light show; J.J. had run those light board sequences. Her electronic talents were obvious in the wiring of those speakers; she had an innate ability for knowing how make them achieve maximum sound and clarity. He had taught her the basics of electronics, but she had not learned all of that from him. She had taken what he taught her and run with it. Then, her social skills, and the apparent success of the organization of this dance, furthered his speculation that J.J. was becoming a very diverse person herself.

Despite some of the stunts she pulled from time to time, he felt that their daughter was rapidly becoming a person who would be well prepared to face the real world head on. The question was would the world be ready for J.J. Hart?

“Ready to chaperone a dance, Mrs. Hart?” He asked taking his wife’s hand.

“And to give my daughter a good shock? I’m ready if you are, Mr. Hart. I can’t wait to see the expression on her face. Where in the hell did she get that outfit? She and I will definitely be having a conversation when this is done.”

And they waded in to mingle with the crowd of kids and the other chaperones.

__________________________________________

Part Three

“So how many of these do we have left to do?” Asked Marnie yawning as she and J.J. sat at a back table in the empty Country Club reception room stuffing programs for the upcoming Mission Street Foundation Charity Ball.

Both girls were dressed much differently this afternoon than they had been on the previous evening. On this day they wore demure sundresses and matching flat sandals. J.J.’s hair was down for once, held neatly back from her face by two crystal butterfly clips.

“About a million.” J.J. responded dejectedly. “You know she could have hired a service to do this for her. Instead we get stuck with the grunt work and she saves a buck in her budget.”

“What time did you go to bed this morning?” Marnie asked, still yawning.

“I wish you’d stop that!” J.J. yawned in response. “About one, I guess. It was late. I stayed after with the clean up crew in the gym. Then my mother got me up at eight this morning to get ready to come here. I am so tired. I need my full eight hours every night.”

“You always could sleep. Sorry I couldn’t get word to you quicker about your parents being there. They had me hemmed in at the ticket table, and they wouldn’t let Charmaine out either.”

“Tommy spotted them and told me, but by that time it was way too late. You know my Daddy spent the whole night watching like a vulture every time a boy got near me. After a while they all knew who he was and kept their distance, even Tommy. I just went and worked the sound booth with the DJ. I told you Jennifer Hart had something up her sleeve.”

“So did your mother give you hell about the outfit?”

“Let’s just say that I’ll probably have to get another top to match those red boots. Oh yeah, and just so that you know, I heard her telling your mother this morning about your dress too. Your mother now knows that you changed to go home after the dance. They both know that we got that stuff the last time that your mother dropped us off at the mall. Big Jennifer Hart broke me down after we got home. I had to tell her where and when we got the outfits. We probably won’t get to the mall again any time soon- at least not alone.”

“Dammit, my mother will be around to my room to collect the dress as soon as we get home today from here. It was a real winner, too. I must have collected about fifteen phone numbers at the dance. How many numbers did you get? Did your mother actually take your top from you?”

“I don’t collect numbers, you know that. And yep, she confiscated the top, the pants, and the belly button jewel. That was after she said that I have all the class of a Jezebel, and that she’s determined that I’m not going to be a harlot if it kills her. Hence, this dress and these…” J.J. pointed to the butterfly clips in her hair.

“I kinda wondered about those, J. They don’t look like something you’d pick out.” Marnie’s eyes traveled up to the top of J.J.’s head. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“It’s not just the clips. She actually came in my room and did my hair this morning. I already had it up and was just about dressed, when she came in and made me take off what I had on. She pulled this dress and the shoes out of the closet and told me to get in them. Then she took my hair back down and when I tried to say something about it, she told me to ‘just hush’. Marnie, my mother hasn’t done my hair since I was nine. I could not believe she was doing that. She’s on the warpath. I’m going to be walking the white line until the ball.”

Two other similarly dressed girls bounced into the room carrying more programs and inserts. Marnie rolled her eyes as they approached. These two were so preppy and perky they were sickening.

“J.J., your mother sent these in. She said to tell you that these needed to be done also.”

They placed the two stacks on the table. “Are you two going to be able to have lunch with us outside on the patio? Jake and Ben are visiting their uncle from Texas and they want to meet you and Marnie.”

“We can get out to the patio if you guys stay and help us with these.” J.J. replied, irritated by what she was sure was their insincere invitation to lunch.

“Nope, we can’t.” The girl lifted her chin haughtily, and J.J. resisted the urge to reach out and smack her right on it. “Your mother specifically said that she only trusted you and Marnie to do it right, so I guess we’ll just have to entertain Josh and Ben by ourselves!”

“Besides,” The other girl continued, “Mrs. Hart said that a certain Bel Air princess shook her groove thing for everybody at a dance  and had plenty of male attention all last night. So she said that this certain bit of royalty would be spending today doing something civic- all day long.”

They flounced out waving and laughing. “See you, girls!! We’ll give the fellas your regrets!”

Marnie watched their backs.

“Two words come to my mind.” She prepared to call out across the room. “Fuc-”

J.J. quickly reached over and covered Marnie’s mouth.

“Don’t. They’ll just go and tell our mothers what you said. They both know how you cuss, and you know that no matter how much we try to deny it, they’ll believe that you really did say it. Then we’ll just be in more trouble. Let’s just get through with this so I can get home, out of this dress and into some shorts.” J.J. sighed, pondering the sorry state of her life at that point: incarcerated at the Country Club on work detail on a Saturday instead of running track and later flying with her father. “I wonder how the meet went this morning?” She mused aloud. “I know I could have swept it or at least been in serious contention for first in most of the events.”

They stuffed a few more programs, and finally J.J. disgustedly pushed the leaflets, booklets and papers back away from her; she was thoroughly sick of them. Marnie looked up from her work, waiting for J.J.’s lead. “What now?”

” Look, I’m going to the restroom. Why don’t you go take a look at this Jake and Ben, and see if it’s worth feeling like you’re being left out of something. I don’t really care, but I know that you do. Those names don’t inspire much confidence, but then you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

As Marnie eagerly made her way through the reception room to the patio door, J.J. walked in the opposite direction out into the main hall.

Approaching the windowed office where she knew that her mother was working up front and would see her as she passed by, she noticed a man standing back, away from the window on her side of the hall. It was obvious that he was watching whatever was going on inside the office.

J.J. quickly took inventory of him. He was tall, very nice-looking for an older man, dark handsome features, and immaculately dressed in gray flannel slacks and a black wool blazer. He had a shock of beautiful thick silver hair. From a strap slung over his shoulder, he carried an expensive 35mm camera with a macro lens. From her perspective, she could see that he was watching her mother, but that her mother most likely could not see that she was being watched. Voices carrying from inside the office indicated that there were other people inside with her. Since she wasn’t alone, J.J. continued on to the restroom, but hurried to get back. When she entered the main hall again, she looked for him, but the man was gone.

She wondered who he was, where he went, and what he wanted as she stood scanning the hall for any sight of him. By now, she was used to men sizing her mother up, but something about this felt different. Most of the men who did that eventually tried to say something to her or get her to somehow notice them. This one acted like he was spying on her.

Passing directly in front of the office window, she stopped and looked in to see if maybe he had finally gone inside. Her mother was now alone and she was talking on the telephone. Looking up,  she waved, and pointed with a pen to the reception room mouthing “Where’s Marnie?”

J.J. nodded toward the reception room and then walked off in that direction.

__________________________________________

Climbing into her mother’s car, J.J. was worn out. She and Marnie had worked on the programs all afternoon. Staying off her mother’s nerves, wearing a dress, being a proper young lady all day on a Saturday, and winding down from the dance had left her completely exhausted.

Caitlin and Megan, the other two girls, made it a practice the entire afternoon of parading back and forth with other girls who were visiting with their parents, doing and saying things to tease her about not being able to have fun. J.J. was the one who usually got most of the attention from new boys at the club even though she was rarely interested. It was amusing to the girls that today J.J. was off limits. Irritable and tired, it was all she could do to contain her own temper, and to hold Marnie off from cursing them out. She just wanted to go home, get a shower, and pull her covers over her head. Then she thought about it; her mother was probably going to make her get up in the morning and go to church. When would it end?

As her mother backed the car from the space, J.J. leaned her head back against the headrest and caught sight of the man in the distance behind some shrubbery. This time he had a telescopic lens on the camera, which was now held up to his face as he quickly snapped pictures of them. It dawned on her then that she had been hearing a tiny clicking noise the whole time that they were getting into the car. She looked over to her mother, who was absorbed in maneuvering the car out of the space. When she turned to look back behind the bushes, the man was gone. Looking back at her mother, about to mention him to her, it was apparent that she had not seen him. Deciding to wait and watch, a tactic she learned at her father’s knee, she sat back ready for the ride home.

__________________________________________ 

Andy Seagren worked most of the evening in his darkroom. He was very anxious to develop these latest pictures. Ever since the day that he had lunch with her, he had been like a man possessed. His every thought seemed to be of her.

He put Jennifer out of his mind he thought, years ago. It was a terrible blow to his ego when she left him to go to Australia to research a story that year, but he always thought that he would have the opportunity to win her back. She would not consent to marry him when he asked her. She explained that marriage did not fit into her plans for her life. It was not her intent to be anyone’s cook and bottle washer, and he had made it clear to her that was what he wanted in a wife, not a woman with a full-time career. There was no way that she was going to give hers up for him or for any man. He figured then that if she wasn’t interested in marriage in general, then he had time. He wasn’t real crazy about the idea himself at the time; he just did not want to risk losing that pretty girl to someone else. He would give her time to get the restlessness out of her system and then surely she would come back to him.

Word of her violent affair in Australia with Elliot Manning snaked its way through the grapevine and got back to him. The story was that Manning’s efforts to control her had deteriorated to violence and to defend herself she had opened the back of his head with a table lamp. Figuring that he needed to give her time and space to recover, he left her alone and did not try to contact her after she returned to New York. He opted instead to go on a fashion shoot to Madrid thinking that maybe by the time he got back to Manhattan, she would have come to her senses and would be ready to settle down with him.

While on location, he got a call from her best friend, Patricia Hamilton telling him that Jennifer was in London where she had accepted a marriage proposal from the millionaire industrialist, Jonathan Hart. She would be moving with him to Los Angeles. That was unbelievable! Pat said she met him in London on an assignment and that she had accepted his proposal after only two days. Two days! He and Jennifer had been an item for a year and she turned him down flat. It wouldn’t last, he thought. Hart had a global reputation as a real lady’s man. He gave it a year, two at best. Jennifer would not tolerate infidelity and surely a leopard as powerful as Hart would not change his spots.

But, they had indeed lasted. Hart won and apparently held onto Jennifer’s heart. She had even given him a child. Jennifer would not even entertain so much as a speculative conversation about children when she was with him. Besides his money, what did Hart have that held her attention and affection all these years, he wondered? With Jennifer it had to be more than money. To begin with, her father had money. Then through her own hard work as a writer and some shrewd investments on her part, she was loaded on her own.

Now here she was once again, haunting his thoughts, and more and more lately, his life. He knew that he was going headlong down the slippery slope when he volunteered to work her charity ball for her for free as compensation for Russell’s gaffe. But, in doing that he would at least have other opportunities to be close to her again. He could meet with her to get things set up and then there would be the ball itself where she would appear for an entire evening in her full splendor. He went to the country club building to check out the logistics and had been pleasantly surprised to find her there. He took the opportunity to observe her as he preferred his subjects, candidly. Even then she was still beautiful and very, very desirable.

He pulled the photo paper from the solution. A smile of satisfaction tugged the corners of his mouth. There she was, in several varied shots waiting in the car outside of her daughter’s school. Hart didn’t play around. He had her in a new big black custom Mercedes sedan. There was another series of shots of her, leaving a publishing house; she still had those beautifully long dancer’s legs. Jennifer had been a fanatic about staying in condition. He figured that she must still work out. The next set were photos of her as she had lunch on a restaurant patio with another woman complete with an excellent shot of her legs alone, crossed with that thin chain at her ankle looking ever so fetching. He stared at that photo entertaining the thought of what it would be like to make love to her again. He wondered if those long legs would still feel as good wrapped around him as they used to so long ago.

There was an excellent shot of her with her daughter getting into the car at the country club. The wind was blowing through her thick wavy hair, the sun highlighting the red in it, as well as the flecks of gold in her brown eyes as he  adjusted the lens with each shot to bring her in even closer to him. In the last pan was a picture of the daughter alone. The girl was a lovely little thing. He stared very closely at that one. Although she very much resembled Jennifer, there was something about the girl that was different from her mother, and it wasn’t just the difference in the eye color. There wasn’t Jennifer’s warmth in the child’s eyes or in her general body language.

But, then it wasn’t the child who interested him- not at all. It was the mother who was driving him crazy. He eagerly anticipated the Mission Street Foundation Ball and a night with Jennifer Edwards.

__________________________________________

Wesley Singleton carefully drove his mother’s Cadillac through Bel Air. He wanted to be as responsible as possible with her car so that she would not have an excuse to not let him drive whenever he wanted to while he was at home. His parents were reluctant to get him a car of his own since he was not living at home for long stretches of time during the year. Up at school he had a car at his disposal, which he kept off campus at his uncle’s house.

It was good to be back here in warm, sunny California, and it was even better to be on his way to pick up J.J. Hart. He could hardly wait to see her again. When his friend emailed him that first picture of her with that playing card and then the other one with that lit cigar, he thought he would die laughing. That was J.J. all the way. He wondered if her mother knew anything about that jacket. “Incorrigible” was her mother’s favorite description of J.J. when she got into trouble, which could occur with regularity once she got a rhythm going. Once Marnie let him know what they were doing with the proceeds, he had been helping with the distribution on his campus.

When he was home for J.J.’s birthday party a few weeks ago, there just was not enough time to be alone with her. Even though he took her out to the airport the next afternoon so that she could show him her father’s latest personal plane, there just hadn’t been enough time then either. Mr. Hart wanted her back before dark and by the time they left her house, it was already well into the afternoon. he had the feeling that Mr. Hart wasn’t real pleased about them being together.

At the tender age of seventeen, Wesley felt that he had completely made up his mind that J.J. was the one for him. She was younger, and he understood her father’s concern, but he had known since she was thirteen and he was fifteen that she was the girl that he wanted.

Tall and handsome with curly dark blond hair, deep brown eyes, and a charming smile, other girls were always after him. He was an athlete, an academic leader in his class. Consequently, he was never short of invitations to the various social activities on and off campus. At school he frequently dated, but it was always J.J. who remained etched on his mind. Whenever he came home, the Willow Pond estate was the first place that he wanted to visit- just to see her. She was the total package: smart, well traveled, beautiful, and not to mention wealthy. His family was also well heeled. With her, there wasn’t the nagging suspicion that she was only with him for his silver spoon; she had her own and hers was solid gold. He could be himself with her. J.J. was always herself, no matter with whom she happened to be or what she was doing.

He suspected that his parents were aware of his feelings for her. When he told them, while home for J.J.’s party, that he wanted to come back to Bel Air to finish high school, they insisted that he return to Massachusetts to boarding school. Their explanation was that he needed to finish what he started.

His parents and the Harts were good friends; his mother had gone to Vassar with Jennifer Hart, and they were well acquainted with J.J. He felt they were really sending him back to put some distance between him and her. What they probably did not realize was that he was alone in his feelings at this time. He was pretty sure that J.J. didn’t have a clue about how he felt.

Before now she was been way too young for him to let her know how attracted he was to her. He wanted to tell her at the birthday party. At fifteen, she was still pretty young, but he could see that she was drawing plenty of male attention. That night while she entertained her guests in her bathing suit with that shawl tied around her tiny waist she was so attractive. She danced and laughed all night with everyone. There were so many of her friends there that he didn’t have much of a chance to get her alone to talk with her. When he did manage to get a brief conversation in,  he tried to tell her that he loved her eyes. J.J. really did have beautiful blue eyes. Evidently she hadn’t heard him clearly. In response, she asked him about school.

She would not dance on a slow tune with him when he asked her, but he noticed that she did dance with her friend, Tommy, twice on slow songs. That bothered him some, but she did consent to dance with him several times on other faster songs. She was some dancer. She was right out there with all those different ethnic kids that went to her school. His mother looked down her going to public school and mixing in like that even if it was a school for gifted kids. But he thought it was pretty cool that she could be so versatile; she fit in with anybody. Her friends had been a lot of fun that night even if some of them were a little rough around the edges for his taste.

On the day after the party, when he took her to the airport, he just could not put the words together. Sitting with her in the cockpit, he could see just how attractive she was, how good she smelled, and how smart she was. She knew all about that brand new plane her father had purchased to replace the one that they had flown for years. This one was top of the line. It was equipped with a lot of new technology, and she could explain it all.

He hoped that he could get up the nerve to talk with her about how he felt about her tonight at the ball. For once that Tommy guy would not be around. He lived outside of Bel Air and he wasn’t a member of the Country Club. J.J. said that she and Tommy were just good friends, but he had seen Tommy watching her from different vantage points at the party. That might have been all that it was for J.J., but he detected something else was up with Tommy. He was with her every day at school, and Wesley understood that Mr. Hart was his mentor. That meant that Tommy spent a lot of time at their home. Tommy and J.J. seemed very comfortable with each other even though it didn’t seem to go beyond friendship that night. But then again, she had only danced the slow dances with Tommy…

He just had to let J.J. know his heart this time before he went back to school.

Arriving promptly at seven o’clock at the gates of Willow Pond, her father buzzed him in. At the sound of that baritone voice, Wesley was filled with a sudden uneasiness that escalated rapidly as he drove up the road to the house. He had forgotten about that particular obstacle.

At the party her father was always either somewhere lurking in the background, conveniently in the food tent eating, or stationed at a back window peering out into the yard. Periodically, Mrs. Hart would pull him away or call him into the house for something, but without fail he would turn up again at some point. Mr. Hart did not play when it came to his daughter.

Wesley pulled up behind the Rolls Royce parked in the driveway in front of the house. Checking over the corsage that his mother purchased for him to give to J.J., he hoped that she had spoken with J.J.’s mother to be sure that the flower matched her dress. Reaching for the knocker, the door opened before he could grasp it. There stood Jonathan Hart. He was dressed for the ball wearing an elegant black tuxedo with a navy cummerbund and matching bow tie. As usual, he was charming, but intimidating.

As he reached to shake the hand that was offered to him to Wesley the man appeared to be a giant, although Wesley knew that he was probably just as tall. Mr. Hart scrutinized him from the very top of his head to the tip of his shiny black shoes before asking him all the way in.

Wesley followed him into the great room and took the seat on the couch that he indicated. He thought he could feel perspiration trickling under his dress shirt down both his sides as this bear of a man sat leaning forward across from him on one of the side chairs, his piercing blue eyes locked on his face. He thanked God for his tuxedo jacket, just in case there were puddles forming under his arms.

“So,” Jonathan began. “I understand that you made a special request to escort my daughter to the ball tonight.”

Wesley cleared his throat. He was trying hard not to appear fearful of this powerful, very serious man in front of him.

“Yes sir. I didn’t really want to go if I wasn’t going to be able to escort J.J.”

“Why is that? J.J. is so much younger than you.”

“Just in age, Mr. Hart. She’s a lot older in the mind than a lot of girls my age.”

Wesley wondered what was with this guy’s eyes? He had the most penetrating stare he had ever seen.

Jonathan’s eyebrows rose. He knew that J.J. was mature, and that her intelligence did sometimes make her seem older. He also knew that thanks (or no thanks) to her mother she was very knowledgeable about and comfortable with sexual matters. So now, what the hell was he talking about- ‘older in the mind’? This boy was going to have to elaborate on that before he took his daughter anywhere.

“How so?” He asked, amused that he could note signs that even though he was trying to appear calm, Wesley was becoming increasingly nervous and fidgety, as he remained seated across from him.

Wesley had to clear his dry throat again. It felt as if it was lined with sandpaper.

“She’s not silly like a lot of girls, sir. She likes things that matter, not just typical teenage girl stuff. Like, for example, she likes and knows planes. She’s interested in all kinds of people getting along. She does well in school. I can talk to her about the places that we’ve been. I don’t have to sit and tell her how good she looks all night. She already knows it, and she’s O.K. with it.”

“So you’re saying that you’re not interested at all in how she looks?”

“Well yes, I mean no, I mean she’s very pretty, but that’s not the real reason for me wanting to go to the ball with her. I enjoy J.J.’s company, sir.”

Jonathan allowed for a significant pause. Then he went for what he really wanted to know.

“Are you planning to try and kiss her tonight?”

Wesley’s eyes grew wide. Mr. Hart had moved his knuckles to rest at a higher point on his thigh, and in doing so, his jacket pulled back just enough to reveal the shoulder holster and the shiny black butt of a gun that he was wearing under his tuxedo.

“I, I, well, no sir. Not if she doesn’t want a kiss.” Those steel blue eyes had zeroed in on his own two eyes. “Maybe not even if she does?”

“Wesley, just know that I am sending my only daughter, who I love like my my life, out with you tonight with this understanding between us. When you leave here with my daughter this evening she will be a good girl and if you love your life, that is exactly how I expect her to be returned to me. You’re older and more experienced than she is and I don’t expect that you are going to use any of that to take any liberties with her- even if she might want you to, which I doubt seriously will happen. Are we understood, and I do mean clearlyunderstood?”

Wesley thought that he could feel his skin searing at the places that those eyes continued to bore into him like ice blue laser points. “Yes sir, Mr. Hart. I understand.” He nodded. “I assure you that I’ll be a perfect gentleman and your daughter will be treated like a lady while she’s with me.”

“That’s a good boy.” Jonathan stood quickly and adjusted his jacket; he heard their footsteps descending the staircase.

Wesley stood also as J.J. and her mother appeared at the entrance to the room. He suddenly had trouble breathing, and he thought that his heart had stopped beating. He looked quickly back to Jonathan as if seeking permission to look at them.

Jonathan, however, was finished toying with the boy for now. His gaze was fixed upon the two of them, and his face eased into a loving, appreciative smile. He had two very beautiful females living under his roof. What had he done to get so lucky? It never ceased to amaze him how Jennifer could so effectively and completely transform J.J. from  tomboy into Cinderella. It was also amazing how J.J.’s demeanor could go from maverick to debutante just as easily. She looked like an exquisite porcelain doll this evening. Damn, it was all happening much too fast.

“Good evening, Wesley.” Jennifer welcomed him graciously as she entered the great room. “Don’t you look dashing!” Wesley couldn’t help but notice that J.J.’s mother was extremely lovely herself as he took the hand that she offered.

She wore a splendid navy blue satin floor length gown. The long sleeved bodice was tastefully low cut and had ruffles at the sleeves and at the V neckline that framed her bosom. The very full skirt accented her small waist. As she moved into the room, Jonathan found the rustling sound made by the dress and its many underskirts to be strangely erotic. He envisioned it all bunched at her feet after he had undone the zipper and pushed the gown from her shoulders. She wore her hair up in a French roll this evening. It worked with the style of the dress, but it wasn’t a style that he cared for on her. Diamonds sparkled at her ears and from the choker at her neck. Over her arm she carried an ivory satin shawl. His thoughts immediately fast-forwarded to the wee hours of the next morning when she would allow him to pull the pins from her hair and he could watch as it fell in soft waves back down onto her bare shoulders the way the that he liked it.

“Good evening, Mrs. Hart.” Wesley answered but his eyes were now focused over her shoulder on J.J. who had stopped to fiddle with the diamond choker at her neck.

J.J.’s gown was ivory satin. It had a girlish sleeveless scoop neck bodice, and the full, floor length skirt had a tulle overlay with a floral motif, the pastel colors of which were brought out by the ivory satin underneath. A coral-colored wide satin sash cinched her waist finishing in a bow in the back, its ends hanging half the length of the skirt. Part of her long auburn hair was swept elegantly up to the crown of her head into a comb of silk orchids. The rest hung in waves and curls down her back. She finally floated into the room behind her mother like an angel.

“Hello J.J.” Wesley managed to say. “You look really beautiful.”

It was hard for him to believe that she was only fifteen- had just turned fifteen. Why was she only fifteen?

She looked up first at her father under those long lashes, catching his adoring eye. She twirled slowly for him to see her dress while smiling coyly at him. Then she looked back to her escort. Jonathan felt an ache in his heart. Just yesterday it seemed she was a baby bouncing happily on his shoulders, confident that Daddy was not going to let her fall. Two weeks ago she was the girl with the boots and the cigar in the photographs. This evening she was the young lady wearing a light dusting of eye shadow, lipstick, and high heels.

“Thank you, Wesley.” J.J. answered with all of her mother’s graciousness. “You look quite natty yourself.”

They stood in awkward silence, neither knowing what else to say, at least he didn’t, not with her parents standing there.

“Is that corsage for one of us?” Jennifer finally asked to break the tension, watching with interest how her daughter so mesmerized her escort, and amused in the knowledge that J.J. didn’t care about that particular detail one way or the other.

Wesley looked down, suddenly remembering that the flower he had brought in was still in his hand. Oh, God, was he supposed to pin it on her with her father standing there?

“Uh, yes, it’s for you, J.J.!”

He walked up to her and held out the box. She took it and opened it. It was an orchid, like the ones in her hair, only the one in the box was fresh.

“It goes on my wrist.” She said looking to her mother who smiled her quiet approval. “Does it matter which one?” It was her first corsage from an escort.

Wesley breathed a sigh of relief.

Without waiting for an answer, he quickly slipped it on her left wrist. Her heart bracelet from her father was worn on the right wrist, and he knew that she almost never wore anything else with that. He noticed that she smelled like orchids herself as he stood close to her adjusting the flower to the outside of her wrist.

“You two had better get going.” Jennifer said. “Georgette will be waiting for you.”

Standing behind her, Jennifer put the wrap she carried on her arm around J.J.’s shoulders pulling her daughter close to her as she did so, putting her head down next to J.J.’s ear. It almost looked like she was kissing her. Jonathan observed the interaction. Jennifer, he knew, was delivering the final riot act.

“You’ve been an imp for the past two weeks; just one wild thing after another.” She whispered. “I’m not having it this evening, do you hear me? Don’t do anything to make me embarrass you. Toi, tu sais que je ferai cela, n’est-ce pas?”

“Oui, Mama” J.J. whispered in answer, nodding solemnly. “Je vous comprends.”

The list of ‘don’ts’ had been reviewed before they came down the stairs. There wasn’t much that had not been gone over. The playing cards had been discovered and removed from her purse at the head of the stairs on the way down. She was glad to be going to the ball with Wesley. At least he was game for whatever might come up that had not been on the list. Ollie would have been too fearful and nervous to go along with anything risqué.

Jonathan and Jennifer walked them to the door. He kissed J.J. on the cheek. “Have a good time, Baby.” Then, making sure that he made eye contact with Wesley, “We’re right behind you. We’ll see the two of you at the Club shortly.”

Wesley’s mother, Georgette, wanted pictures of the two of them taken in her garden. She had hired a photographer and he and J.J. were going to his parents’ house to have the pictures taken first. They would leave from there for the ball.

Once the door closed behind them, Jennifer returned to the great room to gather her purse and her own wrap.

“Jonathan, why are you so hard on the boys that come to see J.J.? You scare them to death. They leave here looking like deer caught in headlights.”

Her back was to him as she spoke. He took her by the shoulders and turned her around to face him.

“Because I remember what I was like at that age. If boys are still thinking like I used to think while they’re out with my daughter, they’re in my headlights and I don’t brake for deer on my own road.”

Still holding her by the shoulders he took in the sight of her, shaking his head. “You are so very beautiful.” Then he whispered seductively. “We’re all alone. We have the whole house to ourselves, and that doesn’t happen too often any more. Do we have any time? It wouldn’t take much maneuvering.” He pulled her into a close embrace. “It would be greeeeaaat.” He whined in her ear. She could feel his hands pulling the back of dress up ever so slowly and smoothly from the floor.

“Jonathan!” She exclaimed, pushing his hands back to his sides. “I am certainly not redoing all of this just so that you can indulge your carnal impulses. Besides, we’re on the dais this evening. We have to be there early.”

She looked into his eyes and almost could not resist the desire there. “But, I’ll make it up to you later.”

His pouting mouth was not to be resisted. She kissed his lips.

“Promise?” He asked, fighting with himself. She was so damned sexy and he already knew how good it could be.

“Promise.”

“Do I get to do the zipper and the hair pins?”

Just like a naughty boy, she laughed to herself. “You know nobody else gets to do that but you. I’ll make it worth your wait.”

“Then let’s go ahead and get this night over with so that we can get back.” He sighed, letting her go. “Besides I want to see what time that boy gets my daughter to the Club. I’m giving him an hour before I turn on the headlights. Because-” He patted the place under his left shoulder. “The clip is loaded.”

__________________________________________

J.J. settled her skirts and then herself into the front seat of the car. Wesley pulled off slowly going down the horseshoe drive and back to the bridge over the pond, crossing it to return to the front gate. He was so unusually quiet. Normally they would have the music up and be plotting where else they could go after leaving his parents’ house and before going to the ball. She looked over at his face. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead and the bridge of his nose. Nodding to herself knowingly, she asked him,

“So, did Daddy let his jacket go back just enough for you to see the gun?”

“Yeah.” He answered quietly. She could hear his stress. “J.J., your Dad is crazy. Is he like that all the time?”

“Just with the boys who come to take me out. Or the ones that get too close to me. Or the ones that look like they want to get near me. Or-”

“Is the clip loaded for real?”

“Of course, silly.” She answered matter-of-factly. “What would be the point of carrying a gun if the clip wasn’t full?”  “Don’t take it personally, Wesley. It wasn’t just for you. Daddy just believes in being prepared. He keeps guns everywhere, including under his arm.”

__________________________________________

Russell Thomas loaded his equipment into his camera bag. He was somewhat ticked off that he had to spend his Saturday evening with his boss on a shoot at some Country Club affair instead of snuggled up with one of his many female friends. But, since he didn’t get fired after all over the incident at the school, he needed to cooperate for a minute to keep this job. After all, the commissions were more than good and the rent was coming up due. And then, this whole thing was really his fault for letting that kid talk him into taking those pictures.

Remembering that episode, he had to smile. He had never seen anything like that. It seemed as if those kids had rehearsed everything several times. They literally had things timed down to the minute. The front girl, Marnie, had the stopwatch and was calling off the time. That little J.J. bit off the end of that cigar and then lit it like she had done it a million times before. When she turned her head to look at his camera on Marnie’s cue, he knew that if he sent that picture to his friend at the Ford agency, they would cut that girl a modeling contract before she got there in person. Surprisingly, when he mentioned that to her, she told him that she wasn’t the least bit interested in that sort of thing. She further informed him that he was messing up her timing and that he needed to get on with it. The kid was all business that day.

Russell felt like he had opened some strange can of worms with the Hart photographs. After putting that call in to the school, Seagren began acting so flaky: out of the office for hours, missing appointments;  that was all out of character for him. Once he found out that the woman lodging the complaint was someone he used to know named Jennifer Hart, it was as if Seagren lost it completely. Usually focused strictly on himself and his business, Russell heard through the office grapevine, that he met with this woman for lunch at her home, and that since that time he had not been himself. During the brief times that Seagren was in his office, he seemed distracted and even more irritable and short with everybody than usual.

While talking to his favorite sister, he mentioned the woman’s name as he told her about the amusing incident with J.J. Hart and the school pictures. She liked to hear about his clients and his adventures with them. Russell, himself being full of fun, usually had many amusing anecdotes to relate about his photography sessions. His sister was a national reporter working out of New York, and her jaw dropped at the mention of J.J.’s mother.

“Are you kidding! Jennifer Edwards Hart! You don’t know her? What rock have you been under, Russell? Don’t you remember when we were kids and Uncle Robert  photographed those ads for that company that made those expensive synthetic fur coats?”

It was coming back to him. “Wasn’t the company called White Fury or something like that??” He asked.

‘Yeah, that’s it. They were running that campaign where they used beautiful and famous women to model the fake fur coats and suddenly the models started dropping dead. At first it looked like somebody was killing the them over the coats, but it turned out that the killer, Michael Carney was trying to cover up for the fact that he killed his wife who had been one of the models. She was that heiress, Evelyn Carney. It was in the all of the papers.”

“How does Jennifer Hart fit into this?” Russell was intrigued, but impatient to see how the puzzle came together. His sister was an excellent writer, but was inclined to orate a story in a manner that took her listener through a maze.

“It wasn’t widely publicized,” She continued, but Jennifer Hart was the last model; she was the one that got away. Her husband had the ad campaign shut down before White Fury could run the promotion using her pictures. He got paranoid about her safety. He nearly choked out the editor of one of the tabloids for trying to run with the story.”

Russell sat up in his chair. It all came back to him. “Yeah Sis, I do remember.”

They had been teenagers when their uncle was on that shoot. He recalled him telling their parents about the incident. Russell finished the story: “The killer came after Jennifer Hart, but her husband caught him.”

” That’s right,” his sister concurred. “Her husband is Jonathan Hart of Hart Industries right there in Los Angeles. But Russell, she’s big herself in the literary world. You’ve got to see her. If Seagren was with her and lost her, I can see why he’s flaky. She’s gorgeous, classy, and she’s smart. I’ve still got those White Fury pictures of her that Uncle Robert took. He let me have them after I raved to him about meeting her at a conference that she headed up when I was in college. Want I should email you one to refresh your memory? I saw her at a seminar a couple of years ago and she hasn’t changed a whole lot. She had her daughter with her then. She was a cute little thing.”

She scanned, uploaded and emailed him three shots. It all came together. Based on how he was acting lately, Seagren must have either let this one get off his hook or he must have wanted her on his hook pretty badly at one time but had not been able get her to take the bait.

Russell took the pictures of J.J. out of his portfolio and hung them up in the light next to the old White Fury pictures of her mother. Yes, Seagren would definitely have recognized Jennifer Hart from looking at the pictures of her daughter. There was a very strong resemblance. And he could see from the White Fury pictures why old Andy would have been stirred by memories of her. If it turned out that he had any kind of a past with her, and if she still looked anything like those pictures, Seagren would have to have been dead to not be stirred by seeing her in the flesh again. It was apparent why he was giving his services away to her for free, which was something that Seagren generally would not do under any circumstances that he could remember. A discount maybe, but never for free. Either he was trying to maintain his business reputation in the community, or this was his opportunity to get up close and personal with Jennifer Hart. Knowing Seagren, it was probably it was a little of both.

Well, at least this was a swank Country Club affair. He might as well make the most of it. Russell stuck a stack of business cards in his camera bag. If he had to be there, he was going to do some networking of his own on company time.

__________________________________________

Part Four

“Andy, you remember my husband, Jonathan Hart. Of course, he was my fiancé when you first met him.”

“My God, she is still breathtaking,” Andy thought, distracted by her smile, that beautiful gown, and that marvelous cleavage. As shook hands with her husband, he hoped his palms weren’t as sweaty as they felt.

“It’s good to meet you again, Mr. Hart.” Andy smiled his most engaging smile, making sure that his grip was firm.

“It’s Jonathan.” His smile was as engaging as always and the attempt to impress him with the exaggerated grip did not go unnoticed. Jonathan could not wait to let go of the damp hand.

He and Jennifer had been together many years, and when they met they had not been children. This was not the first time that he found himself in the company of a man with whom she  had a past. It never bothered him to know that there were other lovers before him. Through the years, she had occasion to come face-to-face with some of his past. Their relationship was built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect, and it was rock solid. Meeting former lovers had never been a problem for them. In fact they had laughed about some of them. It was often even a turn-on of sorts.

He knew that the impression Andy Seagren left with Jennifer was benign to say the least. In their conversation or two in which his name had occasion to come up before this last one, she had only mentioned the length of time they dated, and that she had found him to be somewhat self-centered. According to her, they parted on amicable terms a couple of years before they met. He seemed a little too taken with her at that moment, but then, who wouldn’t be? She was gorgeous this evening.

“Jonathan, then. This is my assistant for this evening, Mr. Russell Thomas. Jennifer, just so that you know, he is also the culprit responsible for your daughter’s second sitting.”

Russell turned red with embarrassment as he attempted to address and apologize to the charming and attractive woman with the very expressive eyes, “Mrs. Hart, I am so-”

She held up her hand. “There’s nothing to say, Mr. Thomas-”

“Russell.”

She took his hand.

“Russell. We’ll consider this water under the bridge if you’ll just make sure that all of the pictures that you take this evening are lovely- and tasteful- and then I’ll consider us even.”

Jennifer could see that he was young and that he had not stood a snowball’s chance in Hades against that particular brand of Hart charisma that was her daughter.

“I can do that.” Russell was sincere. “I’ll get behind it.”

Something about this lady made him want to do his best work. It was easy to see from where the kid got her powers of persuasion. With those two females, not much persuasion would be needed to get anything they wanted. One smile from either of them and it was over for a guy.

He stole a look at Seagren who was trying not to get caught stealing a peek at Jennifer’s bosom.

“Boss, we’d better get set up.” Russell said abruptly. “Looks like people are starting to come in.”

He did not want Hart noticing that Seagren obviously still had the hots for his wife. The lady and Seagren might have had a past relationship of some kind, but Jonathan Hart did not look like the type of man that played those kinds of games in the present. It was evident from his body language and from that arm that he kept about her waist that his wife was first and foremost, his woman.

“Oh, ah yes, Jennifer, will you show us where you want us to get set up?” Andy Seagren finally managed to say. His throat was dry and tight.

“Excuse us, darling.” She replied, leaving Jonathan’s side to take the photographers to a utility room to get their equipment together.

__________________________________________

Jonathan nervously checked his watch after they departed. He made small talk with the guests that were arriving early for the ball. He walked the ballroom for a short time stopping to talk with a couple of his golf buddies. Then he made his way into the main corridor pleasantly, and good-naturedly welcoming old friends and acquaintances, all the while anxiously looking for his daughter to come through the door. Wesley’s parents had come in thirty minutes ago and were already seated. Where was he? And more importantly, where was J.J.?

“Jonathan, will you please come in and take your seat.”

Jennifer had been waiting for him inside the ballroom. After getting the photographers settled, and while mingling among the guests, she could see him pacing, and eventually meandering out into the main hall, his eyes scanning the growing crowd. While she enjoyed watching him from afar, admiring his handsome frame, and savoring the thought that she would be the one to go home with him tonight where there were promises to be kept; she knew what he was doing.

Catching up to him, she put her arm in the crook of his and continued to try to persuade him back into the big room.

“Darling, stop worrying. J.J. is in good hands. Wesley isn’t going to let any harm come to her. They probably just went for a ride before coming here.”

“A ride where? He’s supposed to bring her right here after the pictures. I’m turning the headlights on, Jennifer.” He warned without taking his eyes off the door. “High beams. The bright light helps me with my aim!”

Marnie entered the hall with her mother and their escorts. Since she got rid of her last husband, her third, Marnie’s attractive and wealthy mother had a different escort for every social function. Jennifer disapproved of the example that was being set for Marnie, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that Marnie and her mother seemed to click in their own way. Marnie spent a lot of time with J.J. in their home. She hoped that spending time in the two situations balanced things out for Marnie, but Marnie’s interest in boys far outpaced J.J.’s at this point.

They could see Marnie’s escort abruptly turn to try to go back out of the door, and Marnie pull him back to her by the sleeve of his jacket, obviously scolding him about something. After checking their wraps, the four of them walked through the main foyer. Marnie called waved and called out to them as she and Steve, her escort, approached,

“Hi Mr. and Mrs. Hart! We saw J.J. out in the parking lot. She said to let you know that she and Wesley are here,”

“See Jonathan, I told you that she was fine.” Jennifer whispered. “Now relax. Let’s go back inside.”

“Just a minute, Jennifer. I need to see J.J. in the flesh. You know she and Marnie cover for each other sometimes. She may not even really be out there. You go ahead. I’ll be right there.”

He released himself from her arm and strode through the front doors into the parking lot. Looking around, he could see the valets meeting the cars entering the long circular drive. He also thought that he could hear faint shouts and the echoing sound of a bouncing basketball coming from the rear of the building. There were courts were out back, but he thought it was strange that someone would be playing a game on this evening with this scheduled formal event in progress.

Taking the walkway that traveled alongside the building and turning the corner that took him to its rear, to his surprise he found several young men in tuxedo and valet pants, sans jackets and shirts, on the court engaged in a pick up basketball game. J.J. stood at the nearest sideline in her ball gown and wrap looking at something in her hands with which she was working. She was so engrossed in what she was doing that she did not hear her father walk up on her.

“What are you up to?” He asked abruptly upon reaching her. The unexpected sound of that voice scared her. “J.J., do you have a death wish or something?”

She had been sorting a fistful of several denominations of bills. Startled, she shuddered, almost dropping the money.

“Daddy!” Guiltily, she put the bills behind her back, then sheepishly she grinned, “Hi!”

“Hi, my foot, J.J!” He held his hand out. “Give me that money! What are you doing out here? I saw your mother whispering in your ear! What did she tell you?”

“She said for me to not make her embarrass me. In French she said that I knew she would do what she said she would.”

“And you know full well that she will. Where is Wesley?”

She handed him the bills with one hand and pointed with the other. Wesley was in the middle of a full court press. It appeared that the tuxedos were playing the valets.

She began to plead her case.

“They were waiting for us when we got here, Daddy! Wesley got mad when when we pulled in and he saw who was here on valet and he made a smart comment. Then two of the valets challenged Wesley and it was on after that. They couldn’t fistfight, so they took it to the court. They bet for ten points, a buck a point per man, and they just wanted me to hold the money. That was all I was doing, Daddy. Honest! I was just holding the money!”

Exasperated, he looked down at her. “You just better be glad that it was me who came out here and not your mother. She would be setting those boots of yours in the fireplace and lighting the gas as soon as she cleared the door tonight.”

He stalked out onto the court into the middle of the game, his commanding presence bringing it to a screeching halt. He walked up to Wesley. At the same time he noticed that Tommy, for whom he had gotten this job this weekend, was playing for the valets. He gestured for the latter to come to him. Grabbing both of them roughly by the ears, he marched them wincing in pain off the court, calling to the others, “Get to where you’re supposed to be, all of you!”

There was a flurry of young men running for jackets and shirts.

“You two,” he said looking to Wesley and then Tommy, pinching them even more tightly. “Get your clothes, go through the back door to the restroom and get cleaned up. Don’t let anybody see you and don’t make me have to say anything else to either of you for the rest of the evening!”

He released them with a shove and then turned to J.J. who stood behind him with wide eyes, unsure of her personal fate. As her father turned to her, she automatically took a step back.

“And as for you, young lady,”

He dug the bills he had taken from her out of his pocket,

“Go into the office, get a donation envelope, put this money in it and give this to your mother for the Scholarship Fund.”

He pressed the money into her hands. “Who did you have, by the way?”

“I didn’t bet, Daddy. Wesley was on one team and Tommy was on the other. They’re both good. I didn’t want to seem partial,” she shrugged her shoulders, “So I kept my money.”

“Smart move.” He patted her cheek. “Good thinking. Now go on and do what I told you.”

He never could stay angry with her for long.

Watching her hurry around the corner, he stood, shaking his head.

“Just go ahead and light the damned boots on fire, Jennifer.” He thought to himself. “It’s not going to get any better. Your daughter’s just bookie in a ball gown.”

__________________________________________

Andy sent Russell off to take random informal pictures of the guests as they entered the Country Club and the ballroom. He stayed behind on the pretense of arranging the camera equipment so that they could get to it as they needed it without having to dig around for it.

He had propped the door to the room open purposely so that periodically he could look out and catch a glimpse of Jennifer on the dais, which was in direct line with the door, although the actual platform was somewhat elevated. He could see her clearly talking and interacting with the other dignitaries that were sharing the spotlight with her this evening. She was stunning in her elegant gown and hers had to be the prettiest smile in the room. It was hard to believe that it had been over twenty-five years since he had last been with her. It seemed like just yesterday that he was holding her in his arms. He wondered if she ever thought about him and those days. Before this night was over, he intended to find out.

__________________________________________

Jonathan watched from the floor as Jennifer talked among the others at the long table on the platform. She was his wife, but even if she hadn’t been, he knew that this was a woman he would want to get to know. Aside from her physical appeal, there was just something about her person that called to him. His chest tightened with emotion as he recalled to himself the first time that he told her about being raised in the Mission Street Orphanage.

It was the morning after he proposed to her in London. After two tumultuous, dangerous, and exciting days together, and nearly losing her, she had accepted his proposal of marriage. She also accepted his proposal that she remain in London and go from there to Los Angeles with him instead of returning right away to her apartment and her job in New York.

He awoke that next morning not believing his good fortune. There he was waking up in the penthouse suite of the Ritz Hotel in London, England holding the most beautiful, exciting woman he had ever met while she slept in his arms. Not bad for a poor little orphan boy from the mission district of San Francisco, California.

All of the previous evening, into the wee hours of the morning before, had been spent making love with that marvelous woman. Even with that he had not been able to get enough of her. He had experienced his share of women in his time, but not one was like her. At that time, she had not yet developed the ability to sense when he was watching her, so he had been able to just lay there holding her, marveling at her, and watching her sleep until she woke on her own.

When she did finally arise, she immediately phoned her father to tell him that she was getting married. There was just the two of them, she and her father; her mother had been killed in an auto accident when she was very young. The old man had been irate. Stephen Edwards could be heard ranting on and on as she held the phone away from her ear. She hung up from him saying that her father was demanding that she bring ‘that impertinent boy’ to his home in Maryland immediately. He made the arrangements to fly them from London straight to Maryland.

Then she wanted to know who would be yelling at him about their whirlwind courtship and their abrupt decision to spend their lives together. That was when he told her that the only person he needed to tell already knew about them and she had already met him. He was Max, and he had been the one wearing the uniform and wig driving the horse and carriage that brought them back to that suite at the Ritz. Max was all there was of his family.

He pictured her, naked, soft, and beautiful as she lay back on the pillows listening to him as he told her of growing up at Mission Street. He could still almost feel that lush auburn mane of hers fanned out on the silk pillowcase and between his fingers, the entire time genuine concern reflected from her heart through her deep brown eyes. With every word he could tell that she was feeling the pain that once filled his heart and his life. On that morning he realized that in her he had finally discovered his soul mate.

For many of his early years, he had been an angry, lonely child. The Sisters had been kind to him. They did what they could to make his and the other children’s lives as full as possible, but it was not the same as having parents.

With his feet firmly planted on the road to damnation, he had run into Max during a raid on an after-hours gambling house. He happened to be running errands for the owner in the evenings after spending his days playing hooky from school and selling newspapers on the corner. He was fifteen years old and had discovered a love for gambling and that he had a knack for beating the odds. The older guys hanging out at the house were fascinated by his abilities and they respected him because he never stepped on their toes while he was taking their money. Always friendly and deferential to his elders, he was honing that ability to charm way back then.

Max, unbeknownst to him had been watching him and had recognized that he was a smart kid with potential. One night, while the police were breaking down the front door, Max threw him out of a back window, and climbed out behind him. Yanking him up from the ground by the seat of his pants, Max drug him through the yard and they both took off running down an alley.

He never spent another night in that orphanage. Max harbored him and took care of him from that point. He sent him to high school and made sure that he attended daily until he graduated. Then he had him to enlist in the Navy where he learned to fly and where he learned discipline and honor. Once his tour of duty was up, Max sent him on to college.

By that time he discovered that he had a talent for manipulating numbers, legal ones, the ones outside of the the ones on playing cards, dice, and racing forms. In the Navy, he found that electronics fascinated him and he pursued that interest in college. His engaging personality and a transistor were the foundation for establishing Hart Industries.

Max stood at his side on the day that the bronze letters of his name were affixed to the newly constructed Jonathan Hart Towers in downtown Los Angeles.

After he and Jennifer returned to the States, calmed her father, and were married; Jennifer made the Mission Street Orphanage her pet project, establishing the Mission Street Foundation. Before her, he had always been personally generous in the form of monetary donations and service, but Jennifer had expanded upon that. Thanks to her efforts in soliciting community support, in the form of donations from patrons, the children at the orphanage now had a computer lab, a photography studio, a library, within the living quarters, and the school itself was state of the art. Every year she held this charity ball to solicit donations to continue to give back to Mission Street what she told him that it had given to her; her life. It was for these types of gestures on her part that he loved her more with each day that they spent together.

Watching her now, he knew that this gala affair and her smile would bring in a hefty sum for the orphanage’s general fund and that some needy children would have the chance to attend college. There were some real heavyweights here and she was seriously working this room. Checks were being written at almost every table, not to mention the donations that had been made in advance of the ball. Presently, she had a handful of envelopes in her hand as she spoke with the State Senator from California’s 18th District, who he noticed was trying to peek discreetly down the front of her dress. Jonathan felt for him. It must be rough to want it, and know that you can never have it.

“Just look, but don’t even think about touching anything, Senator. The entire package goes home in my car when this is over.”

J.J. and Wesley entered the room together. As he caught sight of them, he noticed with satisfaction that Wesley had put himself back together. His curly hair looked freshly washed. Obviously he had gotten over into the shower. He wondered for a moment where in the world had J.J. been while he was doing that, then he dismissed the question from his mind, checking himself for being overly paranoid.

He watched as J.J. left Wesley and crossed the room. She walked up the stairs onto the dais to her mother. The soft colors in the skirt of her dress and her long auburn hair accentuated her healthy California glow. Jonathan was proud of the beauty his daughter was becoming. He could see people whispering and turning to look as she passed their tables.

Despite Jennifer’s protests about the scamp that she frequently was, he knew that neither of them would have her be any other way. She too was a wizard with numbers, and had his same talent for electronics. Unfortunately his fondness for gaming must have been genetic also. Taking on the odds and winning seemed to be in her blood.

They never did tell Jennifer that J.J.’s racehorse, Triple J., was a gift she won for herself after picking a big race for him. Jennifer had always assumed that the horse was just another gift he had needlessly lavished on their daughter. Boy, she really let him have it that day- with both barrels and a horsewhip- about indulging that girl yet another time. She didn’t speak to him for three days after that. At that point, he and J.J. just allowed her go on believing that was the case. It was probably better to have her go with that assumption rather than letting her in on the real truth of the situation. She was not pleased that her daughter was a card shark, and a gambler who knew how to make book. It was still a sore point that he and J.J. avoided bringing up around her.

Once, when J.J. was a baby, Jennifer asked him if he regretted not having had a boy, a son to carry his name and to take on Hart Industries, since it was evident, as far as she was concerned, that they would only have that one child. In answer he spoke his heartfelt truth: with J.J. he had the best of both worlds. She was most definitely all female, but she was as tough as nails both in mind and spirit. There were absolutely no regrets on his part.

Even though he never voiced it, he wanted a daughter. All the while that Jennifer was pregnant with their baby he had secretly hoped that the child she carried would be born a girl, and when J.J. came, he felt like the luckiest man in the world. In his opinion, it was the female who was the most clever and interesting of the species anyway. His daughter proved him right on that daily.

Lately though, it made him nervous the way that the boys hovered around her, but he knew way deep down that she could handle herself. Despite her earlier reluctance to have children, he could see that there were no regrets on Jennifer’s part either. J.J. and Jennifer proved to be good for each other. J.J. kept Jennifer sharp and Jennifer kept J.J. from straying too far off the straight and narrow. He knew that his daughter was growing up to be a different type of girl than Jennifer might have expected to have for a daughter, but she suited him just fine. It was interesting watching as the two of them shaped and reshaped each other over the years.

J.J. handed her mother the envelope containing the filthy lucre from the basketball game. He watched, amused as Jennifer flipped the envelope over to one side and then back to the other. It was apparent that J.J. had given it to her blank. As J.J. shrugged her shoulders and walked back off the dais down to the main floor, Jennifer watched her with a questioning look on her face.

As she got to the foot of the stairs, something in the room directly across caught J.J.’s eye. He could see her stop, look, and then proceed back across the room.

Jennifer looked out into the crowd, met his eyes, and held up the envelope. He merely smiled his brightest, most innocent smile as J.J. took her seat at the table where Wesley now sat with his parents, Marnie and her mother, and their escorts.

Looking at his watch. It was nearing nine o’clock. It was time to join Jennifer on the dais.

__________________________________________

“J.J., where did your mother get that gorgeous dress?” Marnie asked as they sat at the table listening to the people on the dais address the assembled guests. Ever since she was a little girl, Marnie had taken notice of what J.J.’s mother wore. Marnie, a clothes horse herself, greatly admired Mrs. Hart’s sense of style.

Jennifer Hart had just left the podium. As she was returning to her seat, a woman handed her another stack of donation and pledge envelopes. She added them to the ones already in front of her. There was a basket under the table at her feet that was overflowing. The woman took the basket with her.

“She had both of our dresses made especially for this.” Answered J.J. “She’s been going to a lot of fittings and stuff and making me go with her. You know I hate that kind of thing. I asked her to just get me something off the rack. She said she thinks that they must have given her the wrong baby at the hospital; that she can’t understand why I feel that way being that I’m her child.”

“I think so too sometimes.” Said Marnie, her eyes still focused on the dress. “I just asked because those ruffles, and that cleavage have worked magic tonight. The Duchess has gotten her full money’s worth from that dress! It is absolutely fabulous!”

“The Duchess?” J.J. laughed. “That’s a new one.”

Up to now between the two of them her mother had always been referred to as ‘Jennifer Hart’, and sometimes “J.J.,Sr.”.

“From now on, that’s who she is.” Marnie asserted. “Your mother has a smile like royalty. She dresses like royalty twenty-four seven; makes the men drop to their knees to pay homage to her. Look at the Senator! He’s had drool on his chin over her all night. Keeps having to wipe his silly face with his handkerchief every time she comes around. Even Father McDonald, and he’s a priest for Christ’s sake! Yep, from now own, Jennifer Hart is ‘the Duchess’. I just renamed her.”

Georgette Singleton, catching the last part of what Marnie was saying, had to agree,

“Jennifer could always do that. Even in college, when she showed up to a function, the rest of us might as well have just gone on home. She has always been special like that. All the guys wanted her. We’d get mad about it, but despite that you couldn’t help but like her. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t even like the attention. Jennifer was always so nice that we had to like her.”

“A Duchess.” Said Marnie, with a tone of finality. “All class, all the time.”

Turning to look at her own husband, Georgette just sighed. His eyes too were locked on Jennifer Hart. She nudged him hard in the ribs.

__________________________________________

Russell Thomas had entered the now full ballroom to take more candid shots of the guests at their tables. At a table in the middle, right at the edge of the dance floor, he caught sight of the Hart kid and her friend, the PR person. He walked over and took a picture of their table. Without the ponytail, jeans, boots and the cigar, J.J. appeared the picture of girlish innocence this night.

“J.J. Hart, as I live and breathe!” He exclaimed as he approached their table. “I was really hoping that you’d be eighteen when I saw you again!”

J.J. looked up at him questioningly, trying to figure out from where she knew him.

“The photographer!” She and Marnie exclaimed together pointing and giggling, both suddenly catching the meaning in what he was saying to J.J.

“The photographer’s name is Russell Thomas.” He said gallantly introducing himself as he shook both girls’ hands, as well as the hands of the others at the table. “I met your mother tonight, J.J.” He smiled.

She sure was an adorable kid. Looked just like her mother. “And I met your father, too.”

“You didn’t tell my mother who you were, did you?” J.J. asked, looking him up and down. “You couldn’t have. Your clothes aren’t ripped, your eye isn’t black, and you’re not limping.”

Turning to Wesley, she said, “He’s the guy that took the pictures of me that John emailed to you.”

J.J. introduced him to everyone at the table.

“Those were some excellent shots, guy!” Wesley affirmed, giving Steve, Marnie’s date a high five, and then shaking Russell’s hand. “Just awesome! All the guys thought they were great.”

“What pictures, J.J.?” Asked Wesley’s mother. “Have I seen them?”

Georgette Singleton thought that J.J. Hart was the just the most lovely little thing, and so smart. She and her husband hoped that one day they would get lucky and get her for a daughter-in-law. Wesley was especially fond of J.J., she knew, but now was not the time to encourage a serious relationship between the two of them. No way was he coming home for high school. Down the line they could make a nice couple seeing as how they both came from such good families.

“He took my school pictures, Mrs. Singleton.” J.J. answered. “I think my mother sent you one.”

“The one in the blue blouse, Honey? Oh yes, that was a lovely picture! Why would Jennifer be upset about those?”

“I think it was the lighting.” Answered Marnie quickly.

Marnie’s mother looked first at Marnie and then at all of the teens at the table. She was very well aware of which set of pictures they were initially speaking. She had seen them in Marnie’s room and had been sworn to secrecy once she was told what they were doing with them. She had even been drawn into the conspiracy surrounding them and was now acting as a go-between in their little drama. At this particular moment she just could not believe how smooth they were with this story. She swore that she could see a cartoon halo over each one of their adolescent heads.

Russell Thomas wanted to crack up with laughter. These kids were good. He snapped a picture of J.J. and Wesley and another of J.J. and Marnie.

“My boss told your mother who I was, but she forgave me anyway. She asked me to take some pretty pictures tonight to make it up to her. Why don’t you and your escort stand up?”

“Your boss?” J.J. asked as she and Wesley stood and posed for the shot. “Is he here too?”

“Yeah, that man right there.” He pointed to where Andy stood on the empty ballroom floor taking a picture of Jennifer at her seat on the dais talking with her husband. “His name is Andy Seagren. He owns Elite Photography Studios.”

J.J. could see her father watching the man snapping the pictures. It was the same man she saw in the hall that Saturday, the same man that was taking her pictures in the parking lot, and the same man that was in that little room by the stage intently watching her mother.

So, he did have a legitimate reason for being there that Saturday. He wasn’t from a tabloid as she had initially suspected. That made her feel better about opting not to say anything about him to her parents, but why was he hiding in the bushes like that to take pictures of them that day if he was legitimate?

For some reason the fine hair on her neck seemed to bristle. She was glad that her father was right next to her mother up there. Something did not feel right.

“Keep your eye on her, Daddy, and stick close. I don’t trust this guy at all around her.”

__________________________________________

The band shifted into a song called “Now” that J.J. recognized as her parents’ favorite. They considered it their theme song. She watched as her mother and father danced together in the center of the ballroom floor. There were several couples on the floor, but she saw only her parents. They danced gazing into each other’s eyes. Whenever she heard that tune she immediately thought of them. She had even taught herself to play it on the piano; she secretly played by ear even though they had been paying for her lessons for years. From her angle, she could see that her father had nothing but love and respect in his eyes. She knew that if she could see her face, the same would be reflected in her mother’s eyes.

What she could not see at that moment was Wesley looking at her.

“J.J.” He finally said, touching her arm. “Would you like to dance?”

She was lost in thought and he caught her off guard. She jumped. “I’m sorry, Wesley. What did you say?”

“He asked you to dance.” Interjected Marnie, exclaiming “Damn!” not quite under her breath. Her mother, embarrassed, tapped her shin with her foot; Marnie had such a foul mouth.

Marnie found her friend exasperating at times. Here she was stuck tonight with Steve’s no-dancing behind, and J.J. was at the ball with a hunk who loved to dance, could do so very well; he obviously liked her a lot, and there she sat acting so damned clueless.

“I’m sorry, Wesley.” J.J. finally answered. “Yes, that would be nice.”

Wesley took her hands in his and they danced onto the floor.

“Don’t they make a lovely couple!” exclaimed Wesley’s mother.

“For tonight.” Thought Marnie. “J.J. doesn’t give a rat’s ass for any one boy right now.”

__________________________________________

“Mr. Hart, you dance divinely!” Jennifer smiled as they glided over the ballroom floor. “Did you  request that of the band?”

“When I hired them, that was the first thing I asked them if they could play. They wouldn’t have gotten the job if they couldn’t.”

She laughed. She knew that he meant what he said. That was their song; it always had been.

“And you are so very, very beautiful. Every time that I think you can’t look any better, you make a liar out of me. I am so proud of you.”

“Why?” She turned her head to one side questioningly.

“For all of the wonderful things you’ve brought to my life, and for all of the wonderful things that you’ve done for Mission Street. This ball is going to be a great success because of you and your hard work.”

“Well, they haven’t figured the total amount of the donations from the ball yet, but it seems that people have been more than generous. We’ll be announcing the donors as soon as the computer generates the list. Besides, you know how I love a party!”

“How could people help but be generous what with you soliciting donations in that dress? You’re captivating, Red. The senator couldn’t take his eyes off of you.”

“Jonathan, you know better than to call me ‘Red’. We’re having such a nice evening, and I don’t want to fight with you, but you know that I will right here in front of everyone.” She winked at him.

Secretly, he was the only one in life that she would ever allow to get away with calling her that name. It was ever so sexy when he occasionally slipped that name in on her as they made love, and he knew that she wasn’t in a position to protest. But he didn’t need to know that.

“I don’t think the Senator was looking at all of me,” She laughed. “But the part that he was interested in got the desired result. Take a look over there!”

She nodded toward J.J. and Wesley as they danced across from them. “Aren’t they cute? They’re both such good dancers.”

“Yeah, whatever. I wonder what he’s saying to her.”

“It’s none of our business.” She kissed his cheek and nosed his neck. “Let her be. She’s been a perfect lady all evening.”

The picture of J.J. on the side of that basketball court with that handful of bills played before his eyes.

Your daughter’s a bookie, Jennifer. A cute, cunning little bookie. You put a ball gown and heels on a bookie.

He looked down into that face that he so adored.

“She is the number one most wonderful thing you’ve done for me.” His voice was husky, full of the love he felt for her.

Bending to catch her lips with his, he stopped dancing to hold her and swept her into a deep kiss in the middle of the ballroom floor. He could feel her arms wrap around him as she returned his love.

Andy snapped that picture. He knew that it would be magnificent. And as far as he was concerned, it would also be the last one like that. Not completely sure just how far he wanted to go before this moment he had made up his mind with this shot. Jennifer would be leaving with him this evening, and if all went according to plan, would be waking up in his bed tomorrow morning. Then how much would Jonathan Hart want his wife?

But, he would not take it all from him. He could keep the child. After all, she was completely his.

They could hear the crowd clapping and cheering and broke the kiss smiling sheepishly and then laughing.

“Look at your parents, J.J.!” Wesley said stopping in mid-step.

Mr. and Mrs. Hart were kissing each other in the middle of the ballroom floor. Even he knew of their legendary magical marriage. Watching them with each other made everyone feel good. People began clapping.

“They are so sickening. It’s like this all the time.” J.J. shook her head, secretly delighted, and compelled to clap also.

“It’s embarrassing. They’re always all over each other like a bad rash. You can’t take them anywhere. I wish they’d just get a room.”

“I hope it’s like that for me one day.” Wesley looked meaningfully at J.J. “It must be nice to love somebody like that for life.”

She didn’t look over at him, but she heard him.

“Who knows?” She said, “You’re young. You have your whole life in front of you. Who can tell what might happen? My mother and father only knew each other a couple of days and fell in love, and they’re still hugged up like that. Life is funny; you never know what’s going to happen. I like to play it by ear. Maybe we’ll be that lucky with somebody one day. Maybe we won’t.”

She hoped that was enough to keep him at bay.

Always intuitive, she sensed that Wesley liked her way beyond just being a friend, but she was not ready for more than that. She just wanted him to continue to be her friend. Boys didn’t always understand that about her. It was becoming more difficult lately to make them understand that relationships with her did not have to be exclusive, nor would she let them be exclusive at this point in her life.

Even Tommy was acting a little differently of late. That had been the major reason for that basketball game out back earlier in the evening. Tommy saw her in the car with Wesley and Wesley had been surprised to see Tommy working there as a valet. The two of them got into a verbal confrontation after Wesley made an uppity remark about Tommy’s social status, and knowing that they couldn’t argue or duke it out right there, one challenged the other to a duel on the court. They were each trying to outdo each other to impress her. She liked and was nice to both of them, so what was the big deal? Tommy especially knew better. Why did he feel that he had to fight over her? They had always been close.

The other guys out there had joined the game for a good time. They tried to recruit Marnie’s escort when he arrived, but Marnie would not let Steve go out to the court when they got there. He wanted to, but she dragged him up into the Club with her.

Once everybody was out on the court, the suggestion was to put money up on the game and of course somebody neutral had to hold the money.

Nobody complained later when she told them what her father made her do with the money once he came out there and broke up the game. Nobody was going to say anything to Jonathan Hart about that. It pretty much boiled down to a good time being had by all, and leaving the court with lighter pockets. She still had her money, though; she was nobody’s sucker.

Later she would have to ask her mother why it was that boys were like that; so territorial and all. She would know the answer, and could tell her the best way to handle it.

J.J. and Wesley went back to their table.

__________________________________________

A short while later, while Wesley danced with his mother, J.J. wandered outside for a breath of night air. A lot of the boys that were valets and busboys tonight were her friends, including Tommy, one of her closest friends. The guys might be into something interesting. Standing on the top steps, she looked for Tommy, but didn’t see him. She walked to the railing.

“Hey J.J., what’re you doing out here?” Robert asked as he came from around the side of the building walking on the lawn under the porch railing.

“I just wanted some fresh air. Have you seen Tommy?”

“He took a guy’s truck around to the service door. I think he’s the photographer. Said that he had to load his equipment in it, and he didn’t want to be lugging it out the front among the guests.”

“Oh. Well tell him I was just looking for him. I didn’t want anything in particular.” She turned to go back in. It was kind of cool out there and her wrap was at the coat check.

“Hold on, J.J. The guys have a game going over here on the side. Wanna play a hand?”

J.J. hesitated. She knew she should straightaway decline, but her natural instincts got the best of her.

“What are they playing?”

“Poker. Dollar a hand. You up for it?” Robert knew that J.J. loved a good card game, and the guys loved it when she played.

J.J. looked back behind her into wide the front hall. She wrestled with her conscience for a moment, the flesh weakening by the moment.

“Well….I’ll just go watch for a minute.” She grabbed his arm and walked quickly with him around to the side of the Club.

The game was being played at a picnic table on the lawn under a gaslight. It was down time. Most of the guests had arrived, and it was too early yet for them to leave, so cars weren’t moving in and out much. A couple of the valets would stay out front in shifts to cover for the others involved in the game.

“Look who’s here: J.J. Hart! Lookin’ real good tonight, girl!” Deon exclaimed, speaking with cigarette balanced on his bottom lip. “You in? Ain’t no real game without your pretty face at the table!” He pulled a Black and Mild cigar from his jacket pocket. “Just for you, baby girl!”

“Not this hand.” She said, declining his invitation and the cigar with some regret.

Her mother’s warning echoed in her head, “Toi, tu sais que je ferai cela, n’est-ce pas?”

That question did not even have to be asked. She knew full well that whatever Jennifer Hart said that she would do that was exactly what she was going to do.

From experience, J.J. knew that her mother’s verbal reprimands in any of the seven languages that she could speak stung like she imagined the worst physical beating must feel like. The mental effects surely lasted a lot longer. And to get caught with a cigar between her fingers to boot…she did not even want to think about it.

Standing with her hands behind her back, she looked on. Just looking could not be a problem.

Her feet were beginning to hurt in those heels. There was an empty seat on the bench next to Gordon. After a few minutes, she slid onto it- just to get off her feet for a minute.

“You smell good, J.J.” Gordon said, not taking his eyes off his cards.

“Smelling me isn’t going to get you the pot.” She replied. “You better focus on the game. You know Al over there is always trying to slip something in on somebody. But I thank you, anyway for the nice compliment.” She leaned back to see what he had in his hand.

A full house. Why doesn’t he call it?

“J.J. Hart! You honestly do have a death wish, don’t you?”

She dropped her head forward on her left arm and reached with her right arm for her father to take it. They walked back up to the Clubhouse in silence hand in hand.

__________________________________________

Russell could see Jennifer Hart talking with his boss at the foot of the stairs leading up to the dais. He watched as the two of them started off together walking across the back of the ballroom and then was distracted as J.J. and her father stepped out onto the ballroom floor.

Russell could see Jennifer Hart talking with his boss at the foot of the stairs leading up to the dais. He watched as the two of them started off together walking across the back of the ballroom and then was distracted as J.J. and her father stepped out onto the ballroom floor.

The band segued into “Daddy’s Little Girl” and the other couples on the floor allowed the two of them have the center. He was saying something to her, and it was obvious that she was listening intently. They made a wonderful father and daughter picture. He could tell that J.J. was crazy about her father and that she was precious to him.

He snapped several shots of them. The Harts were special people, he reflected. There was a lot of love between those three. That J.J. was a lucky kid, and he sincerely hoped that she knew that. He wondered if he could get a picture of her mother watching as her husband and daughter danced together. With her soulful eyes, that ought to make a good picture of her. Peering into the crowd, he did not see her, and he figured that she must be involved in ball business. The donation envelopes had been coming to her steadily all night. People had been picking them up from her periodically and going into what he supposed was the accounting room.

He had made some important contacts himself during the course of the evening, and had gotten referrals to photograph two more functions. The stack of business cards he brought out with him was nearly depleted. There were more in his other camera bag, he needed more film, and he had to use the facilities. With the thought covering all of his bases in one trip, he decided that he would go to the restroom and then go the back way into the utility room for his supplies.

__________________________________________

“Andy, what are you thinking?”

That was Jennifer Hart’s voice he could hear.

“It’s been eons since we parted company. That was another time in both of our lives. Surely you cannot be serious!”

Russell set his bulky camera down on a small table and pressed himself against the wall. This was the more isolated side of the Clubhouse, the side where the private scheduling office was located. The tone of her voice said that Seagren must have been trying to come on to her. This would be good. Despite her soft exterior, he got the impression that Mrs. Hart was a lady who could handle herself. He stood frozen, pressed into a corner.

“Jennifer, when I saw you that day at your house, it all came flooding back. Nothing’s changed for me. I realized then that I’ve always loved you. I never had the chance to let you know that after you came back from Australia. I was gone to Madrid and then you met him. I’ve been burying myself in my work all these years trying to forget you. I even thought I’d found someone to replace you a couple of times, but it never worked out. You’ve had all these years with him. Can’t you spare just an hour tonight or a night or two another time away from him for me?”

Russell figured Andy Seagren must be nuts. This was so out of character for his usual stick-up-the- butt demeanor. He must really have it bad for her. Most certainly that lady was not going to risk all that she had for a quick romp in the sack with him. She had a husband who seemed to love the floor she walked on, and she was obviously pretty fond of him too. Then she had a beautiful daughter to think about. Why would she screw Seagren and risk losing that girl to Hart? No way. What made that idiot think that she was going to put all that to the side? He had to be as crazy as they come.

“Andy, my husband’s name is Jonathan. Even if sleeping with you was something that I was willing to do, which it positively is not, how could I do it with my husband and my daughter right here? What am I supposed to do, just leave here with you? And then how would you propose that I explain my absence? You’re not making any sense. Andy, I think we should just act like this conversation never, ever happened. You’re really not thinking clearly. Can we just finish what we came here for? Now tell me, what is a good day to meet with you to see the proofs?”

“It doesn’t have to be tonight, Jennifer.”

“It won’t be any night, Andy.” Her voice had taken on a hard edge.

“Jennifer, please. I don’t want to beg.”

“Then don’t.”

Russell could see a standing shadow suddenly lurch forward.

At that point, picking up his camera making sure to make an excessive amount of noise in doing so, Russell coughed and walked heavily toward the office.

“Oh hey, you two!” He said cheerfully stopping at the door, poking his head in. “Mrs. Hart this has been a lovely affair and I’ve had a lot of fun. A lot of nice people are here tonight.”

She was seated in the chair at the desk with a planning calendar spread before her. Andy stood much too closely over her. The expression on her face and her body language said that she was just about to recoil in protest. Looking down quickly he noticed that Seagren’s hand was around her wrist. Upon hearing Russell’s voice, he released it and stepped back from her.

He turned his head to look back at the man in the doorway, his expression clearly conveying that he was irritated at having been interrupted. Then he turned back to her saying pleasantly, “The first would be good, Jennifer. Just let me know what time.”

“Around one in the afternoon.” She said penciling it in. Then she stood smoothing her dress, looking past Andy Seagren to Russell. “Thank you, for your nice compliment, Russell. It has been an interesting evening so far.”

Russell stayed at the door until she brushed gracefully past Seagren into the hall. She walked back toward the door leading to the ballroom leaving his boss standing there in the office, the skirts of her dress rustling and billowing as she moved regally, away from them. He watched her until she reached the end of the corridor.

Jennifer Hart was one classy lady. He knew that Seagren had unnerved her, but nobody could have guessed that from looking at her at that moment.

__________________________________________

“I’ll be back, Marnie. I’m going to ‘powder my nose’.” J.J. said standing.

Marnie snickered and whispered up to her, “What? It’s not ‘I have to pee’ tonight?”

“Do try to have some class, Marnie.” J.J. whispered back with mock haughtiness. “The Duchess would like that I said ‘powder my nose’ instead of ‘pee’.”

She turned around to Wesley, and said sweetly, “I’ll be right back.”

He stood and watched her go. He was taking her out for a walk in the moonlit side garden when she got back; her father would just have to be damned. Mr. Hart would have to take his best shot tonight. Wesley knew that had to leave to go back to school in a few days and there were not going to be many better opportunities than this.

J.J. found that there was a bit of a crowd in the ladies’ general restroom, and the first floor salon was standing room only. The second floor had been roped off for this affair. She really had to go, so she decided to take a chance and use the one that she knew was in the powder room of the front business office. It was usually off limits, so not many people knew that it was there. She only knew of it because she had worked with her mother in that office on occasion. Who would be the wiser?

Slipping inside the office, and pushing open the door to the powder room, she was surprised to find her mother sitting at the long dressing table with her forehead in her hand.

Jennifer was startled. She sat up quickly upon hearing the door open. She thought she would be alone here. It was going to take a few minutes before she could calm down enough to return to Jonathan. If she went to him in the condition she was in at the moment, he would sense immediately that something was wrong. She was not going to be able to smooth this over with him and a nasty scene was the last thing that she wanted on this night, which up to that point had been going so well.

Now this scenario could be even worse. J.J. was just as perceptive as her father, but a lot more vulnerable. Why did Andy have to do this? She felt so extremely angry and hurt, for her two powerful emotions upon which J.J. would pick up right away.

Jonathan said that that nothing was free and he was right. His instincts were always right.

“Mom,” J.J. called softly from the door. “What’s wrong? Is it your head?”

She knew that her mother sometimes got headaches when she was tired or stressed out, and that was the posture she would assume at those times.

“Oui, Cherie. Just a little.” Jennifer answered. “I’m sort of tired. I was just resting for a few minutes before I went back out. What are you doing in here? Where have you left Wesley?”

“I left him at the table because I had to pe- powder my nose. The other restroom was full and I had to go. I didn’t think anybody would be in here. I’ll just do what I came to do, and I’ll leave you alone. Do you want the lights turned down?” Sometimes the brightness of the lights in a room affected her headaches.

“No, the lights are fine and you don’t have to rush. In fact, stay with me for just a minute. Go ahead and then come back and sit with me.”

J.J. returned after washing her hands. She took the seat next to her mother.

She studied Jennifer’s face in the mirror for a moment.

“It’s not your head, is it?” She asked.

Jennifer immediately lowered her eyes. It was too late. J.J. had already read her eyes and what she saw let her know that her mother was troubled about something.

“It’s O.K.” Jennifer said. She began fluffing the hair that hung down J.J.’s back. She was fully aware that J.J. could do that, just like Jonathan could. “I can handle it.”

“What is it? Is it something that you can’t tell me about?”

“Yes, it’s something like that. But trust me, it’s fine now. Are you having fun?” She wanted to change the subject. “I’ve been watching you tonight, and I’m so proud of how you’re handling yourself. I haven’t had to speak to you once. Maybe you can get those boots back when we get home.” She inwardly winced at the thought of what Jonathan must have paid for those boots for that little girl. “Your father indulges you so, too much if you ask me.”

J.J. sent a silent message to her father, “Thank you for not ratting me out, Daddy. I owe you big. I’ll be good for the rest of the night, I promise…. I sure hope it’s almost time to go home.”

She turned to face her mother.

“Mom, I know we don’t have a lot of time to talk, but I want to ask you something.”

“If it’s something that you need to know, we have time. What is it?”

She took note that her mother spoke slowly, as if she were tired for real. It was as if she was trying to control something going on inside of her. J.J. filed that observation and went on with what she wanted to say.

” I just need to know why it is that guys can’t let girls just be friends with them? Why do they always want to have us just to themselves? Then, if we don’t want to be with just them like that, it’s a problem for them. They get all mad at us or they start fighting each other over us? I really don’t understand why that is. I think Wesley is going to go there with me, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. But, I just don’t want that right now.”

Jennifer looked over at J.J., puzzled. It was as if she knew. But there was no way that she could possibly know. Of course she couldn’t know. This was about her and Wesley. And perhaps Tommy. Jonathan’s eye was on Wesley, but Tommy, she noticed was becoming more and more attached to J.J. of late. With him, it was just not as obvious. And with Tommy, it probably even went deeper than with Wesley.

Jennifer reached for her hand and squeezed it gently in her own.

“That’s one I haven’t figured out yet either.” She sighed. “I think that just might be one of life’s great mysteries; one of those nature of the beast things that defy rational explanation. But you just keep doing what makes you happy and what keeps you comfortable. That, my darling, really is all that matters.”

__________________________________________

Her mother sent her back to the ballroom. Both of them being out of immediate sight, she said, would draw her father’s attention for sure; he would be up looking for them. J.J. didn’t want to leave her, but she did as she was told to do. Besides, her mother looked as if she wanted to cry and she did not want to be in there for that.

But for her mother to be looking and sounding like that, somebody had upset her and J.J. had the feeling that she knew exactly who it was. That detail needed looking into immediately. The uneasy sensations she had experienced earlier returned with a vengeance.

There were several people in the main hall talking in groups or simply standing around. Several people spoke to her as she moved through. Acknowledging them, she continued to make her way toward the entrance. The front doors had been left open and the cool night air was flowing through. She wanted her wrap, but she didn’t want to take the time to go and request it. Her parents would be taking their places at the podium to announce the donors soon and to thank them. She would need to get back inside to Marnie before too long, but before that she needed to find Russell Thomas.

From the doors, she could see him outside on the sidewalk in front smoking a cigarette. She started out, but just as she did, Tommy walked up to him and they began talking. For what she had to say to him, Russell needed to be by himself. Before she could turn around to go back in, a voice came from behind her,

“Aren’t you Jennifer’s daughter?”

Slowly she looked back. It was Russell’s boss.

He was smiling a condescendingly bogus smile. “You look very much like her. Your name is Justine, isn’t it?”

It was a deeply ingrained habit not to volunteer personal information to people to whom she had not been introduced. Since she learned to talk she had been trained to do that; it was now as natural to now her as breathing.

The girl did not respond to his query, and in the ensuing silence he found her eyes disconcerting. Her gaze was indeed very different from Jennifer’s. It made him uncomfortable, and somehow unsure of himself; it was strangely intimidating, as if she were sizing him up. He proceeded with attempting to engage her in conversation anyway. He needed to know where Jennifer had gone.

“Have you seen your mother recently? I have something to ask her about the book that she wants me to put together of the photos from this ball.”

“I see that you’ve met our daughter.”

She exhaled. For the first time that night, J.J. was glad to be walked up on unexpectedly by her father.

“J.J., this is Mr. Seagren. He’s an old friend of your mother’s. Mr. Seagren, our daughter, Justine.”

“It’s a-” She started, cut off that greeting, and then finished with, “Russell Thomas told me who you were, Mr. Seagren. I’m J.J. Hart.” She extended her hand. He accepted it with exaggerated graciousness.

For some reason, it did not feel like a pleasure to meet him and she was not going to lie about it. She said the only polite thing that she could think of at the moment. Her mother always told her, “J.J., you can at least be polite.”

“Excuse us, please Andy. I need to speak with my daughter.” Jonathan put his arm about her waist and walked her away from him; he didn’t want Seagren anywhere near her. He was just as uneasy with him being around Jennifer for some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but that experience told him was very real.

“Have you seen your mother? She’s missing in action.”

“She was in the powder room up front.” J.J. tried to sound casual in the presence of her persistent father, hoping that he wasn’t going to dig too deeply.

“She’s been gone a while. Was she O.K.?”

“She said that she was, Daddy. She’ll probably be right out.” He was making her nervous. He was not one to ask the idle question. There was always a point to queries.

He stopped walking with her and held her gently by the wrist.

“J.J., you know you can’t fool me about her. From what you just said, I can hear that you had to ask her if something was wrong. You slipped up. Now what’s going on?”

J.J. mentally checked herself for the gaff. He was constantly teaching and testing her. Only situations involving her mother made her lose her cool like that, and he had picked right up on it.

“Daddy, I think her head just hurts. Let her be for a minute. She told me that she was just going to sit in there and rest for a bit, and then she would be right out.”

She suddenly felt that she really needed to get to Russell quickly. Then she remembered that her mother was alone in that powder room that was located inside an unlocked, unoccupied office.

“Daddy, maybe you should go check on her after all.”

She just hoped that her mother had pulled herself together by the time he got there. It wouldn’t be a good thing for her to be upset when he got to her. Stuff would hit the fan for real then. Her father walked off from her toward the front office, and she headed for the front doors once again.

__________________________________________

“Look.” She said. “I need you to tell me something.”

“Look.” She said. “I need you to tell me something.”

Russell was taken aback by her direct manner. He knew that she was fifteen, but right now she seemed more like fifty.

He was compelled to pay attention. J.J. had sought him out as he finished his cigarette in the parking lot, and had pulled him by the arm around to this corner of the side if the Country Club’s main building. She stood before him now in her pretty dress leaned forward from the waist with her hands on her hips. She meant business.

“What is it, J.J?”

“What is the deal with your boss and my mother?”

Her question caught him off guard. What made her ask and how much did she know? He didn’t know how much to tell her in answer to her very exact inquiry; after all she was just a kid.

“I think that he’s attracted to her.” He answered weakly, trying to get his thoughts together.

“How attracted?”

Her eyes now conveyed her emotions, but not like mother’s eyes; hers were crystal blue, calculating, and penetrating like her father’s. She really meant business.

“I think very, J.J. Look, I don’t know what their past is, or even if there is one.” That last part, he added quickly. He really didn’t know for sure.

This little girl literally had him sweating in those few minutes that they had been standing there. He wiped his brow.

“Russell, I need to trust you. Something is going on. My father says that your boss is an old friend of hers, but I sense that it was deeper than that. My mother is really upset about something; she was near tears in the restroom and that isn’t at all like her. She was angry-crying. I can’t put my finger on it, but I think it has something to do with your boss. I asked her, but she isn’t going to say anything to me because I’m her child. She won’t tell my father because she won’t want a scene. And Russell, just so you know, my father is packing lead. He’s not afraid to use it if he has to and he will use it where it concerns Jennifer Hart. Please tell me if you know something about this. I have really good instincts. It’s a gift. I can tell when things aren’t right, especially where they concern my mother.”

He looked at her helplessly. How could he tell this little girl that a dog of a grown man wanted her mother to sleep with him on the side and that he had his hand on her when he saw them together last. He couldn’t just make up something. He sensed that J.J. was smart enough to pick up on a lie when she heard one.

She gave him an out. “O.K., Russell, I see that you want to treat me like I’m just some kid, so I’ll let you off the hook. Don’t answer me about that; that’s not important anyway. Your not saying anything tells me what I need to know. Just do something for me. But you have to promise you’ll do it first. Promise me you’ll do it.”

“Alright, I promise, J.J. What?” What else could he do?

“You know my friend, Tommy? He made the cube for me for the pictures you took. You were talking to him at the curb just a little while ago.”

“Yeah, I know Tommy. Tall dude with the ponytail and the boots.”

“That’s him. Russell, if you see, feel, or know that something is going to happen or just seems out of the ordinary, go to Tommy. Tell him exactly this: ‘Hart Code-Just-Jen-357’. Don’t say anything else. He’ll know what to do. Will you remember that?”

He repeated what she said and then asked. “What’s that about?”

“If you have to use it, Russell, you’ll know what it’s about. I have a hunch that I can count on you to come through. I’ve got to go back in. Remember, if you see or feel anything that doesn’t seem right, go to Tommy.”

Gathering her skirts she ran back around the corner and into the building.

“Thank you!” She called behind her.

__________________________________________

As Jonathan entered the office door, Jennifer was exiting the powder room door. Again, thinking that she was alone, she was startled and stopped short upon being approached so abruptly.

Taking a sharp breath, she exclaimed, her hand to her breast, “You scared the life out of me!”

“I’m sorry, Darling. I was coming to check on you. Are you all right? J.J. said that you had a headache.”

She smoothed her dress and patted her hair in place, checking herself in the full length mirror behind him to avoid his scrutiny of her face.

“I’m alright now. Do they have the donor list ready yet? It’s about that time isn’t it?”

She took his arm and tried to walk him out.

“Wait, Jennifer.” He stopped and turned her to face him. “What’s going on? Look at me.”

She wouldn’t look.

“I’m fine, Jonathan.” As she put her arms around him she could feel that lump under his jacket.

“I wasn’t feeling well, but I promise you, I am fine now. It’s probably just that everything has finally caught up with me. I haven’t had much rest these last few days.”

She lay her head on his shoulder for strength. Taking a deep breath, she admonished herself, “Don’t lose it, Jennifer. He’ll kill that bastard if you let on.”

He forced her back from him, holding her by the upper arms. She was giving him a rush job, and he needed to slow her down. He looked into her eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Jonathan. I am.” She made herself look directly at him. “We better go. It’s almost time.”

Taking one last suspicious look at her, he put his arm around her and they went out to enter the ballroom.

__________________________________________

“Where have you been, J.J.?” Wesley demanded to know.

She had been gone for too long to be up to any good. As soon as he took his mother out onto the dance floor earlier, he saw her get up and leave. She came back for a while and then she left again. Marnie said that she had gone to the ladies room that last time, but she had been away long enough now to have gone home to the bathroom and come back. He knew that a lot of the guys out front were her friends, and he was only too aware that Tommy was out there with them.

Immediately incensed by his tone, she turned on him, her blue eyes flashing and that red hair falling forward as she leaned into his face.

“Who are you, my father?” Her hands went to her hips. “I think not. I just spoke with him in the front hall!” Her head rocked for emphasis as she spoke.

Instead of taking the seat next to him as she initially intended to do, she remained standing staring him down. He had his nerve. Nobody but her parents questioned her whereabouts like that.

He softened his tone. “I just asked because you were gone so long.”

She continued glaring at him. “I was attending to something that required looking into at the time. Was there something that you needed?”

He knew that he had messed up. J.J. was not like the other girls he had encountered. He realized too late that she did not intimidate easily and she wasn’t going to back down from a confrontation.

“Look, I’m sorry. I just didn’t know where you went and you were gone so long. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

After a tense moment, she finally sat down. He was glad that everyone else at the table was out on the dance floor. She had definitely won that round.

“I really didn’t mean to leave you hanging like that.” She said arranging her skirts. Her tone had softened also. “Something just came up while I was away from the table and it took longer than I thought it would.”

Wesley knew that he probably should not do it but he felt that he had to ask.

“J.J., were you outside with Tommy?”

She turned again to stare at him. There it was: that question.

“Wesley, if I was with Tommy, what difference would it make? Tommy is my friend, just like you’re my friend. I‘m free to go outside and talk to Tommy if I want, just like I came back in here to be with you on my own. You cannot be jealous of who I talk to just because I came here with you. I don’t belong to anyone, except maybe to my father and that’s just for right now.” She placed her hand on his arm. “Wesley, please don’t try to put me in a box. I won’t go into it.”

“J.J., don’t you know how I feel about you?”

She was so pretty and he admired her spirit, despite the fact that she could be scary when her back was up. Looking into her face, he wanted so much to kiss her. They should be outside in the garden; there he could take her in his arms and make her understand. He no longer cared that she was two, nearly three years younger and that her father had a gun under his arm.

“Yes, Wesley.” She answered, trying to choose her words carefully. She knew that she had a tendency to be direct, and she did not want to hurt his feelings. “I do have an idea. But there isn’t anything that I can do about that right now, I don’t want that kind of relationship with anyone. It isn’t personal. Please, Wesley don’t take it personally. And just so you know, I was gone so long because I was in the powder room most of the time- with my mother. She wasn’t feeling well.”

He put his arm around her, and when she didn’t move away, he kissed her cheek. “I’m sorry, J.J. I’m sorry for pressing you, and I’m sorry about your mother. But, I’m not sorry about how I feel about you. I do respect what you’ve told me. Like you said earlier, we have our whole lives ahead of us. May I at least keep my hopes?”

“We all have our hopes, Wesley.” She smiled and kissed his cheek in return. “Let’s just have fun while you’re home.” She hoped he really did understand.

His friendship was important to her, but he had to understand that he would not be allowed to lay claim to any part of her.

They watched as her parents took the dais. The band ended the song they had been playing and people started moving from the dance floor back to the tables. Marnie and Steve came in from the side garden door, both of them looking flushed.

“You easy hussy!” J.J. hissed in her ear when she sat down.

“Might as well have some fun.” Marnie whispered back. “Hell, he can’t dance, but he sure can kiss!” She fanned herself with a large envelope that was on the table. “Whew! I mean….”

Standing at the podium, Jonathan Hart introduced his wife as the founder of the Mission Street Foundation and as his partner for life:

“…My personal Steel Magnolia. She possesses the delicacy of that sweet-smelling beautiful flower, but she has a level of tenacity much like steel, as I’m sure some of you have already witnessed as you were writing those checks to fulfill those pledges you made to her. As for me, I thank the powers that be for sending Mission Street and Jennifer Edwards into my life. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you this evening my wife, my love, my life, Jennifer Edwards Hart.”

Sharing a quick kiss and thanking her husband, she greeted the assembled and began by reading off the names of the corporate donors and thanking them. Then she acknowledged the generosity of the individual donors who were too numerous to thank individually on this night. She then detailed what was planned for Mission Street Orphanage and Academy thanks to their generous donations.

Toward the end of her oration, Jennifer noticed that Marnie and J.J. were crossing the ballroom floor. She noted to herself how pretty they both looked in their evening gowns as they approached her. When they got there, together they handed her up a large envelope.

With one eyebrow raised she warily accepted it, turning it over to release the string clasp. A message was written on the same side, ”

“Read the note inside aloud.”

Jonathan looked on, slightly apprehensive, but amused. What were these rascals up to? It couldn’t be too risky. J.J. would not dare try Jennifer’s patience too much in public.

The crowd had gone silent.

Inside was an 8X10 picture of J.J. and Marnie. They were both sitting on that cube with their backs to the camera. J.J. was wearing that ‘Incorrigible’ jacket and Marnie’s very similar black jacket said ‘& Company’. The picture was addressed to “Jennifer E. Hart” and was autographed “with much love and enormous respect” by both of them. The two of them grinned over their shoulders for the camera, and obviously for her.

Jonathan sputtered in an attempt to suppress a belly laugh. He had to turn his head to keep from being noticed. Jennifer looked over at him disapprovingly.

“There’s something else!” They whispered smiling mischievously.

Jennifer reached inside again. There was another smaller envelope. Opening it, she removed the note first and read it into the microphone.

“On behalf of Miss Justine Jennifer Hart and Miss Marnie Elaine Benson, the students of the West Los Angeles School District, and all the children stateside and abroad whose lives you have so lovingly touched over the years, we donate this check to the Mission Street Foundation Scholarship Fund in the amount of-”

She unfolded the check and gasped,

“Five thousand dollars!?”

At that moment, as if on cue, the two girls were joined on the floor by the valets from the parking lot, the teenaged busboys and servers and wait staff from the kitchen, and many of the other teenagers and young people in attendance. Tommy maneuvered his way through the crowd to stand next to J.J., a place he had occupied in a brotherly fashion for years. He slipped his hand inside hers and she laced her fingers in his. They held onto each other tightly for a few brief minutes.

Jonathan and Jennifer Hart had indeed touched many young lives over time in many different ways. Students from all over had been arranging fundraisers and donating to the Mission Street Foundation fund for a year. The picture sales and the dance were J.J. and Marnie’s final fundraisers. This was also their first real civic effort. As J.J. and Marnie hugged each other, Russell snapped their picture. It felt good to watch those two friends. This would also be a picture worth keeping.

By this time, everyone in the ballroom was on their feet applauding the Harts and these children. Jonathan and Jennifer could not believe what the girls had accomplished. It was in the midst of celebrating that Jennifer made the connection that J.J. and Marnie had probably sold those pictures of J.J. that she had been so upset over to raise some of that money. A conversation would most assuredly be held with Ms. J.J. Hart on this topic in the near future. She still disapproved of J.J. trading on her looks, even for this worthwhile cause. But at that place in time it was a wonderful moment in all of their lives. She and Jonathan descended the dais to congratulate and thank the girls and the other young people personally.

__________________________________________

Looking carefully around himself to be sure that he was alone as he stood in the utility room, Andy Seagren pulled the small bottle from the bottom of his camera bag. The night was rapidly coming to a close and it would not be long before she had to come down that back hall again.

This time he would approach her correctly. That back office where she put her things had a door that opened to where he had the boy park his truck. She would have to come down that hall again at least once before going home. The outside door leading from that office to the rear of the building was already slightly ajar. It shouldn’t be that difficult to move her from that room to his truck. Before anyone missed her, he would be gone with her, and where he was taking her, it would be a while before anyone found her.

By that time, it would be over. And when that happened, she would not want to go back to him. Jennifer was principled. No way would she be able to face her husband after she had been intimate with him. His life partner, indeed! Andy laughed to himself and hoped that Jonathan had enjoyed that part of his life with her because after this night, it was over. Hart would still have the girl to remember her by. She was a smaller, but tougher version of Jennifer. He could make do.

Putting the small bottle in his pocket along with his handkerchief, he went to the front door of the utility room and looked up to the dais where she stood with her husband being applauded by the crowd. The two of them descended the stairs and he watched as Jonathan wrapped his arm about her waist as they entered the crowd on the ballroom floor. Jennifer hugged her daughter. In appearance they were so very much alike. He could see the flash of Russell’s camera coming from the opposite side of the room, which meant that he was occupied. Andy then put his camera down on the table. He strode casually through the utility room and out of the back door. He needed to position himself to be able to meet Jennifer when she came down that back hall.

__________________________________________

Russell Thomas was caught up in the moment. His photographer’s instinct had taken over and he was furiously going about his work. Jennifer Hart had come down from the dais to take her daughter in her arms. That one was going to be a masterpiece. There was one of her with the two girls, and another of all three of the Harts together. After a time, Russell realized that there were no flashes coming from the other side of the room or from the rear, points from where he expected Seagren to be capturing images also. Only the videographer’s cameras were rolling from their stationary positions taping the dais and the guests in the ballroom.

Andy Seagren, he knew was the consummate photographer. He was so good that he could anticipate a good shot before it even happened. No way was Seagren, in his right mind, going to miss moments like these, seeing as how Jennifer Hart seemed to be his subject of choice tonight too. She had to be at her absolute best right now. Her happiness at the success of the evening, her satisfaction with her child, and her love for her husband were all reflected tonight in that million-dollar smile. Russell Thomas didn’t usually go in for older women, but this was a unique case. Mrs. Hart was one of those eternal babes, a real lady, and he couldn’t help but notice, mighty sexy in a low key, classy kind of way. Yeah, a woman like that could take a guy over the edge at any age. Looking around the entire room, Seagren, was nowhere to be seen.

Then it suddenly struck him. This was the type of situation of which J.J. had been speaking; it was out of the ordinary and it did not feel right. Seagren had been missing for a while. The only camera flashes had come from his own camera.

Tommy still stood on the floor near J.J. She was holding court in the middle of a group of kids, and he was looking on and listening.

Russell approached him from behind and leaned in close enough to whisper in his ear, “Hart Code-Just-Jen-357.”

Tommy turned briefly to see who was speaking to him and then said quietly, “Come on.”

They walked through the ballroom into the front reception hall and out the front doors. Tommy dug in his pocket and pulled out a set of car keys as he continued walking swiftly out into the parking lot. Russell followed, wondering what he had triggered with that code. Coming to a money green Rolls Royce with the plate ‘1HART’ parked in a nearby space, Tommy unlocked the door.

“Stand right behind me.” He ordered, quickly checking his surroundings.

Russell moved directly behind him and watched as Tommy reached just under the steering column, touched something, and the steering column pad sprung open revealing a .357 Magnum tucked snugly inside the steering wheel. It backed out automatically butt first into his waiting palm. Popping it loose, Tommy quickly handed it behind him to Russell. “You know how to use it?” He asked before completely relinquishing the gun.

“Yes, I do.”

Tommy let it go.

He closed the steering column and stood upright, pushing the car door shut and locking it back .

His young face was deadly serious as he advised Russell, “If she sent you out here for it, you might have to use it. Keep your eyes open in there. Something must be about to go down in there. She’s obviously put her trust in you. She knows her stuff.”

Russell heard him, but was stricken with amazement at the coordination and precision involved in what had just transpired, and that little J.J.’s father evidently had that much faith in her judgment, not to mention Tommy’s. These were teenagers, fairly young ones at that. He thought back to the picture session. What kind of kids were these that he had gotten himself involved with on this level?

He tucked the gun into his waistband and pulled his blazer around to be sure that it was concealed. Despite his confusion and astonishment over the children, his allegiance was firmly on the side of keeping any further harm from coming to Jennifer Hart.

__________________________________________

J.J. could not shake the nagging nervous feeling she had, but she was confident that her faith had been placed in the right person. Her father seemed to be sticking close to her mother and she had not seen that Seagren guy in a while. It was getting pretty close to the end of the ball, and guests were beginning to leave. Maybe whatever it was that was troubling her would play itself out. Maybe it was nothing. She didn’t put much stock in the latter. Her hunches were usually valid.

Wesley wanted her to go walk with him in the garden before they left. His parents had gone home already, and she knew that at any minute her father was going to give the signal for him to take her home. The garden was well lit and beautiful at night. She felt that she at least owed him that walk. He had been so nice all night, even after she went off on him about trying to keep tabs on her and trying to pin her down.

As Wesley returned to the table with her wrap she stood to meet him.

“Slut.” Whispered Marnie out of the side of her mouth, “Call me tonight with the details. We’re leaving. We’ll be gone when you guys get back.”

“Hush, strumpet.” J.J. whispered back. “If you weren’t riding with your mother I know you’d be at Lookout Point with Steve there, in a shot!”

Steve overheard their exchange. “You could bet on that! I can’t wait to get my license! Marnie owes me big for not letting me go out on the court when we got here.” His interjection into their conversation earned him a hard elbow in the ribs from Marnie.

J.J. and Wesley left the ballroom hand in hand for the garden.

__________________________________________

“Jennifer, where is he taking her?” Jonathan asked as he caught sight of J.J. and Wesley leaving the ballroom via the garden door. He noticed that she was wearing her wrap and that he was holding her hand.

They were seated together on the dais having a champagne. Their official duties for the night were essentially over. A few couples were dancing still to the music of the band, which continued to play into the evening. People also remained at the tables talking.

“Jonathan, would you please leave that girl alone. She’s been an angel tonight, and she’s a very good girl when it comes to boys. That’s the one area where she hasn’t given me a moment’s concern. She’s not going to do anything to shame you. Let her be.”

“It’s not her I’m worried about. It’s that wolf in sheep’s clothing, Wesley. He’s been trying to get close to her all night. I get the impression that he wants to date her, and I’m not having it, Jennifer. I don’t care how good you say she is. She’s too young for that.”

Jennifer laughed softly. It was amazing how her sexy, virile husband could not abide those same qualities in any male that came near his daughter. She had come to the conclusion some time ago that he must have been a serious predator as a teenager; and he was now living in fear of turnabout. As J.J. had come into puberty, he was almost neurotic when it came to her and boys. She placed her hand on top of his lacing her fingers in his fingers.

“Darling, J.J. is a step ahead of you. She knows that Wesley likes her and that he wants a steady relationship- a friendly steady relationship- with her. But Jonathan, she doesn’t want that. She doesn’t want it with anyone. Tonight when she was with me in the powder room she told me so herself. She says that she isn’t ready for that yet. Your daughter has her own mind. No boy is going to talk her into anything that she doesn’t want to do. She’s as stubborn about things as you are- and as I am. I wish you wouldn’t worry so.”

“Yeah,” He said, his eyes still focused on the French doors that his daughter had just gone through. “But she’s also very pretty, just like you are. That tends to bring out the canine side of guys.”

“Don’t I know it.” She thought to herself.

He lifted his drink. “Feel like a walk?”

“In the side garden? I won’t spy on her, Jonathan. I trust her to do the right thing.”

“O.K., then,” He conceded. “Let’s just take a walk and get some air. It doesn’t have to be out there. I just want some time with you alone. We can’t leave until everyone is gone anyway. When those two come back in, I’m going to have Wesley take J.J. home. There’s plenty of ground to cover out there other than that particular garden. I’d like to check on Tommy anyway while we’re out there. I’ll get your wrap from up front.”

“It’s not up there. I wore it to the back when I put my purse away, so I just left it back there too. I’ll go and get it and I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll go with you.” He said, standing when she did.

“No Darling, that isn’t necessary. You wait here. I’ll only be a minute. No sense in both of us going all the way around there only to have to come back this way to go out.”

As he watched her leave him, he again pictured her watching his face as he slowly removed the pins from her hair, that satin gown bunched around her bare legs and feet. The shoes, pantyhose and the panties were always the first things she came out of after one of these evenings. He envisioned her reaching up under all those skirts, without giving a thought to the fact that he was watching, pulling them down and off, tossing them onto the chair. Then she would walk around taking care of last minute things in the house, moving about the bedroom and all the time he would be very aware that under that gown… Experiencing that hot lusty rush that only she could send through him, he closed his eyes briefly and went inside himself to savor it.

That was when he realized that he hadn’t seen Andy Seagren in some time.

__________________________________________

Jennifer crossed the back of the ballroom, pausing to look out of the beveled glass window into the garden. She could see Wesley and J.J. walking together, holding hands. This was a confusing time in life for J.J., she knew. Her appearance, her wealth, and her natural wariness of people and their motives compounded those feelings for her. Although she was basically confident and self-assured, J.J. was not yet sure enough of herself as a young woman to allow any boy to get too close to her. Jennifer recalled having those same feelings when she had blossomed, as had J.J., seemingly overnight. Only along with the wariness, she dealt with loneliness. There had been no one she trusted enough to help her understand. Her mother was dead and Pa, well he was Pa. There was only so much that she could say to him.

Away from him at school, she isolated herself by immersing herself in her studies. Doing that, the perception the boys generally had of her was that she was square and stuck up, and that worked out well until she felt comfortable enough to handle their attentions on her own.

J.J.’s wariness was natural. She was like her father in that, and it probably was not a bad thing given all the attributes she possessed that made her so attractive to people. She had to be sure of someone or something before she became too involved, but her instincts about people were usually pretty valid.

From the time that she first held her in her arms, Jennifer had been careful to foster the understanding in her daughter that when she wasn’t sure of something, and she needed help,  that there was one someone to whom she could always turn; she had her mother. J.J. totally trusted her for that. That aspect of their relationship brought her great comfort. As long as it was within her power to be there for her, J.J. would always have her mother.

She stood at the window a moment longer. Realizing the Jonathan was waiting for her to come back, she turned from the window and went through the door that led to the back hall.

__________________________________________

Jennifer Hart was in Russell’s eye line. He was inconspicuously mingling in what was left of the crowd on the floor and in the doorway between the ballroom and the front hall, taking the random picture and being pleasant. All the while he was looking for Seagren to resurface and keeping track of where Mrs. Hart was in that huge room. He noticed that her husband kept himself somewhere nearby after the period of time that J.J. said she was upset in the powder room.

Although he appeared to be relaxed and congenial, Russell could see that Hart was an alert, coiled-spring of a man. He had taken notice right away when his daughter and Wesley rose to leave the room and he kept his eye on them until they cleared those doors. When his wife got up to leave she never left his sight until a couple approached him from behind and began talking to him, distracting him from his silent surveillance.

Russell’s heart rate speeded up as Jennifer Hart moved toward that back door. For some reason, he felt that Seagren was lurking somewhere back there. Where else could he be for so long? What else could he be doing that would keep him from his job and from photographing his subject of the evening?

She stopped at the garden window. He could see her smile a quiet, private smile and he knew that she could probably see her daughter out in the garden at that moment. Then she went through the door. Hart was still engaged in conversation with the couple, and Russell could not be sure if he saw that his wife had left the room. It was hard to gauge what Hart saw or did not see. In any event, Russell began making his way across the ballroom floor trying to be casual while at the same time trying not to let on as to how fast his blood was now pumping.

__________________________________________

“Jennifer.”

She stopped. With all the good things that had happened this evening, she had put him out of her mind for the moment. What on earth could he possibly want now? She thought that she made herself clear with him before.

With her back to him, she asked, “What it is, Andy?”

He walked up slowly behind her, and was slightly disappointed when upon hearing his steps she turned to face him just as he got close enough. No matter. It would just take a little longer this way. The details from that web site were clear in his mind. He had studied the information hard and often. The pictures made it even clearer to him. It would go just as he planned.

He held his hands out to her, hoping she would reach for him. But she did not. Her hands remained at her sides. Stubborn she was then and stubborn she remained.

“Jennifer, I just wanted to apologize for upsetting you earlier. I don’t know what got into me. There’s never been anyone else in my life like you. To know that I can never have you again has been killing me these past weeks.”

She held up both hands, dismissing his words. “Andy, I don’t mean to be rude. But I really don’t care to hear it or discuss it. Jonathan’s waiting for me.”

She turned to walk away. As she did, he reached out and grabbed her by the upper arm. Outraged at being touched again by him, she jerked her arm back trying to draw it out of his grasp.

“Andy what do you think you’re doing? Let me go!”

She could not believe that he was doing this again.

“Not this time, Jennifer. I’m not ever letting you go again!”

The eyes looking into hers were not Andy’s eyes; she did not know this person. Suddenly fear replaced the outrage and she tried to scream. Quickly, he whipped the damp handkerchief from his pocket and attempted to raise it to her face. He shifted his hold on her to a powerful arm about the waist, and she used her hands to try to push it away.

“No!” She managed to get out, and she began to struggle to get free from his grasp.

She was deceptively strong, and he really had not expected her to put up this much of a fight. Jennifer had always appeared feminine and fragile, but in their days together he always had the feeling that she could be a wildcat if pushed. He had never taken her to the place where he had to find out, but the incident with Elliot Manning had proven that theory.

Continuing to struggle against him, he held her so tightly that she could not manage a decent scream and she could not break free. He had to move his feet constantly to keep her from stomping his instep, which twice she had attempted. He maneuvered the handkerchief to her mouth and nose as she continued to fight for what seemed like forever. She resorted to scratching at his hands and at his face. Reaching back with her left hand, her nails gripped and cut deeply into the skin of his cheek.

“Bitch!” He hissed, knowing that the cut would leave a scar on his unblemished face. He clutched her about the waist even more tightly, squeezing the air from her as he continued to hold the handkerchief tightly to her nose and mouth. Then, slowly, he could feel the fight going out of her as her upper body folded over his arm and her legs began to buckle.

“Now that’s how I want you, Jennifer.” He whispered to her, breathing heavily, taking some of the pressure from the cloth he held to her face. “Nice and quiet and still.”

He began to adjust her body preparing to carry her in his arms. He bent to get his arm under her legs.

“Put her down, Andy!” The voice from behind him commanded.

“Go away, Russell.” He responded in an eerily flat tone. “This is between grownups.”

He heard a loud click. “Don’t make me do this, Andy. I said let the lady go.”

“She’s mine. She’s always been mine. I was first- before Manning and before Hart.” Andy answered, cradling her back and neck and trying to get low enough to lift her into his arms. There was simply too much skirt to her dress. He adjusted his hold on her deciding that he was going to have to drag her to the office and out of the door.

“He has had her long enough! She leaves with me this evening!”

“No.” She moaned softly.

“One last time, Seagren, put her down.”

Russell had been moving slowly toward them while Andy’s back was tuned. He was gratified to hear Jennifer moan. At least she was alive and somewhat conscious.

Andy also realized at that point that she wasn’t all the way out. He stopped struggling with her and placed the handkerchief over her face again holding it tightly again over her nose and mouth. A shot rang out, startling him and causing him to release his hold. The dead weight of her body pulled her from his loosened grasp and she slid to the floor in a satin heap.

Andy whirled around to see Russell holding a smoking gun pointed at the ceiling.

“The next one goes in your gut, you crazy bastard.” Russell pointed the gun at him.

As if the sight of the gun was a sort of wake-up call, the hall seemed brighter; everything suddenly in razor sharp focus. Andy could not believe what was happening. Everything seemed surreal, as if he were on the outside observing. Jennifer lay at his feet. As her left hand moved ever so slightly, the overhead lighting picked up that magnificent wedding ring; the facets of the main stone sparking like flashes of fire. What happened here? Had he done this to her? What he done to her? How could he have done this to her? He wanted to drop to his knees and beg her forgiveness. He held his hands out to her as if he were pleading.

“Get away from her, Seagren. Move. NOW!” And the gun clicked again.

Her husband’s voice could be heard calling for her. Frightened by it, Andy turned and ran. He was cognizant enough to know that Jonathan Hart would kill him over this if Russell didn’t. Russell followed, keeping the gun on him. He didn’t really care where Seagren went as long as he moved away from the woman on the floor.

“What the hell is going on?”

Jonathan rushed through the door into the back hall followed by several other people. He heard the gunshot along with everyone else left in the ballroom and realized that it had come from the direction that Jennifer said that she was going.

Seeing his wife on the floor, he assumed the worse and dropped to his knees in anguish, calling her name. As he lifted her head gently into his lap, his eyes scanning the length of her body, trying to find where she had been injured, she moaned quietly. A woman kneeled down next to him and immediately began taking her pulse. This was Jennifer’s doctor, Kate Kendall. She and her husband were waiting with Jonathan on the ballroom floor for Jennifer to return to say good night to her when the shot rang out. A handkerchief was under Jennifer’s head as Jonathan lifted her into his lap. She picked it up. It was damp. Holding it to her nose, she could detect an acrid chemical smell.

Andy Seagren ran through the office and out of the back door that he had earlier left ajar to more easily complete his plan. Now he needed to get away. Jumping into his unlocked truck, he attempted to start it, but it was silent. He tried again and cursed. Tommy stepped out of the darkness in front of him.

“Going somewhere?” He asked.

Russell appeared at the driver’s side, gun drawn. “Not until the police get here anyway. Get out of the truck, Seagren.”

Several young men suddenly stepped from the the darkness, surrounding the truck. Russell opened the door, as Tommy spoke into the cell phone Mr. Hart had given him at the beginning of the ball. It was the one that was programmed with the direct line to the police captain.

Still holding the gun on him, Russell yanked a confused, dazed Andy Seagren from the behind the wheel of the truck, his cheek and the backs of his hands now bleeding profusely. Before he could get completely upright, a powerful right hook to the jaw sent Seagren flying from Russell’s grasp back across the front seats, his head smashing into the passenger side door. He lay still, his legs hanging out of the open driver’s side.

Jonathan stepped back rubbing his knuckles.

“I haven’t had to do that in a long time.” He said grimacing. “God, that sure felt good.”

“I believe this is yours, Mr. Hart.” Russell replaced the safety and handed him the gun from his car. “I’m sure you already know this, but you have one very special and smart daughter.”

Tucking the gun in his waistband, Jonathan nodded in agreement and patted Russell on the back.

“Thanks. You’re pretty smart and special yourself.”

Russell went back inside as Jonathan Hart took the phone that Tommy held out to him.

__________________________________________

Inside, Kate Kendall had already sent for an ambulance, and was now gently wiping Jennifer’s cheeks, nose and mouth with a damp towel. She called her name and patted her cheeks. Kate knew that she had been drugged, but she had no idea what substance had been used on her. She was trying to keep her awake and to remove any residue of whatever it was that was used from her fair and sensitive skin.

Jennifer was in and out, near unconsciousness, but she floated in long enough to say to whoever was listening, “Please… get my daughter out of here …”

From where he was kneeling at her side holding her hand, Russell got up

“I’ll see if I can find her, Mrs. Hart.”

__________________________________________

“What was that, Wesley?”

J.J. stopped in her tracks; every nerve in her body was tingling. “It sounded like a gunshot!”

“Here at the Country Club? I don’t think so, J.J. It must have been a car backfiring or something.”

Wesley had heard it too, but he did not want to upset her.

She tugged at his hand, trying to get him to come with her back up the path to the Clubhouse or at least to let her hand go. “No Wesley, I know a gunshot when I hear one. I’m not stupid. I want to go back in.”

“J.J. if it was a gunshot, we’d be safer out here.” He held tighter to her hand, not wanting her to yank loose from him. If she got loose, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to catch her. She ran track and had a reputation for being swift. She could probably outrun him even in those heels she was wearing.

Wesley understood her wanting to get inside to her parents; but he didn’t know what was happening in there and it was his responsibility to keep her safe. He promised her father to return her to him without any harm coming to her. Now she was angrily pulling at him trying to get away.

“Wesley let me go! Please! My mother and father are in there!”

All of her instincts were screaming that something was terribly wrong.

He walked a short way up the path with her, still holding tight to her hand, and then he stopped short, pulling her back to face him. Her eyes flashed with rage as he spoke to them. But he needed to make her understand that he was older and he was taking charge of this situation.

“Look,” he said pointing his finger at her. “I told your father that I’d take care of you. We don’t have a clue about what’s going on in there. You’re going to let me go in first and then if it’s cool, I’ll come for you. Now you wait here, O.K.?”

“Yeah, alright.” She agreed sullenly.

As soon as the door closed behind him, she ran up the path. No way was she staying out there. Just as she pushed the door open and stepped inside, Russell Thomas met her, blocking her way. He took her by the shoulders, and stopped her.

“It’s time for you to go home.”

“Who says?” She queried, trying to push past him. “Move, Russell, I’m coming in. you can’t keep me out here.”

“Your mother says, J.J.”

At the mention of her mother, she immediately stopped pushing against his arms and looked up into Russell’s face.

“Is she O.K.?” She asked. “Russell, please don’t lie to me. Where is she?” She felt like she was choking; the anxiety was so thick.

A familiar arm encircled her shoulders. It was Dr. Kendall. The doctor was also a family friend. From the beginning, she had always been a part of her life.

“She will be, Sweetie. Jennifer’s had an accident, but I’m here and both your father and I are going to be with her. I’m sending her to get checked out. Your mother does want you to go home now. She’ll rest better if she knows that you are safe at home.”

“But what’s happened to her, Dr. Kendall? I heard a shot.”

The doctor knew that J.J. was especially sensitive when it came to her mother and she did not want her frightened unnecessarily.

“Nobody has been shot. I’m sure that your father will tell you everything when he gets there. For right now, you need to do what your mother wants you to do.”

“Can I see her before I go home?”

The wail of sirens could be heard outside. J.J.’s heart tightened at the sound. At that point she was ready to disregard even the doctor, and race to the back where she suspected that her mother had to be. Dr. Kendall’s voice brought her back to reality.

“Your father is with her. She wants you to go home.” The doctor repeated. “Russell, Mr. Hart wants you, Wesley and Tommy to see to J.J. getting home. He said to tell you that he feels that he can trust you to see to her getting in safely. He’s arranged for security for her at the house.”

J.J had not noticed until that moment that she was surrounded by all three of the guys.

__________________________________________

“Damn, it looks like Fort Knox here!” Wesley cried as he pulled up to the gates of Willow Pond with J.J. in his car. Bel Air Security stood sentry and two police cars were parked on either side of the gate walls. “I guess I’d better let them see your face before we get shot.”

“You know my father knows everybody in law enforcement here in LA. He probably told them that it was Marie’s night off and that I’d be here alone.”

“Well, the heck if that’s so.” Wesley said pushing the button to let the window down. “I’m staying right here with you until your old man gets back. He’s not going to be blowing my head off because I left you here by yourself.”

“What do you think he’ll do if he finds you there with me while nobody was at home?”

“It’s a chance I’ll just have to take.”

“Good evening, Miss Hart.” Said the patrolman who stuck his head in the window. “Your father said to expect you. What about the truck and the motorcycle behind you?”

“Good evening, officer.” She answered, pushing the code into the remote in her hand to open the gates. “They’re with us.”

There were two more officers and cars stationed on the property at the front door. J.J. knew that the police captain, her father’s poker buddy, had let them in. He was the only one who was privy to the auxiliary access code.

“J.J., your father doesn’t play around when it comes to you, does he?” Asked Wesley overwhelmed by the security presence. This far outpaced the security at his parents’ estate.

“Or when it comes to my mother.” She said quietly.

The idea of not knowing what was going on with her mother was tearing at her. Evidently it was must be pretty serious if Dr. Kendall thought that it required an ambulance to come for her. She assumed that the sirens were an ambulance coming for her. Wesley, Russell, and Tommy had whisked her out of the Country Club so fast that there had been no time to even get the smallest detail. The only reason she did not protest was because Russell and Dr. Kendall said that this was what her mother wanted, and she recognized it as her mother’s style. She knew that if she could keep it away from her, her mother would not want her involved in anything painful or distasteful.

Waving to the officers to let them know that she was home, she let herself in along with Wesley, Tommy, and Russell. Upon entering the foyer Russell, quite impressed, whistled. Third ran down the stairs and was immediately excited to see that his mistress had guests. He circled all their legs, sniffing and yipping.

“And a cute little dog too!” Russell exclaimed, bending to pet Third’s hairy little head and then picking him up. “J.J., do you know how lucky you are?” He exclaimed looking all around himself.

He had been in some of the better LA homes, but this one definitely ranked around the top. As well as being exquisitely furnished, it had a good feel to it. It was huge, but welcoming.

Wandering into the great room still carrying the dog in his arms, he took a slow rotating turn, surveying the entire room, stopping at the warmly lit large oil painting of mother and daughter on a wall facing into the room.

“My God.” Was all he could whisper as he took it in with his photographer’s eye.

The artist’s rendition of Jennifer and J.J. Hart was so lifelike, it was nothing short of extraordinary.

Then J.J. sauntered slowly into the room in her stocking feet, her wrap across her arm. He watched as she absently pulled the comb from the back of her hair and tossed it on a side table. Her hair fell around her face and over her shoulders, and she brushed it back out of her way by combing her fingers through it. Russell bent down and released the dog, and it ran over to her. She squatted to pet him, the ball gown spreading around her on the floor.

Those two, that girl and her mother, were even more impressive to be in the company of in real life, he thought. Her mother was apparently a very lovely and capable woman and J.J. was going to be something else. He hoped that she still remembered him when she turned twenty-one. By then she would probably be running Hart Industries for her father during the day and throwing the best parties in town at night.

Standing up again, she tossed the wrap across the back of the couch, and plopped down. Third jumped up and sat on the couch beside her nosing at her hand in a bid to have his ears scratched some more. She absentmindedly obliged him.

“Russell, why don’t you help yourself to a drink. Daddy has everything over there.” She gestured to the bar.

Knowing that he would have to be talking to the police in the near future, and still dealing with the events of the evening, he took her up on it. She was right. Everything was back there, including the ice.

“Fix me one too, guy.” Called Wesley.

“Me too.” Said Tommy taking a seat on the floor at J.J.’s feet.

He brought four drinks from the bar on a tray; a gin and tonic for himself and three Sprites.

Tommy took a sip and choked, “I thought you were hooking us up!”

“Yeah, we thought you were gonna to be cool!” Cried Wesley.

“I am cool.” Said Russell taking a seat on the couch on the other side of the coffee table with Wesley. “I’m just not crazy. I’m not letting you minors get drunk on my watch. Just drink your Sprite and be happy.”

He looked over at J.J. She looked so lost holding on to her dog and staring off into space. As smart as she was, she knew that something was terribly wrong. She needed to be let in on some of what was going on. There would be no rest for her until she did. He got up to switch couches to sit next to her.

“Look J.J., I don’t know how much your parents want you to know, but I do know that you handled yourself tonight like somebody much older than you are, so I’m going to assume that you are mature enough to handle the story.”

“Is it that bad?” Her eyes were fastened directly on him. There would be no half-stepping. She was not going to tolerate it, he could tell.

The boys were also listening. Wesley took notice as Tommy pulled Third down to sit in his lap and then took J.J.’s hand and that her fingers curled right between his. The gesture seemed second nature to both of them, like they did it all the time. The dog curled up comfortably as Tommy rubbed his ears and under his chin.

Wesley realized at that point that Tommy obviously had the inside track on the story, and maybe on the girl that he wanted so much for himself. J.J. and Tommy seemed very comfortable with each other even though Tommy rarely said very much whenever they all happened to be in the same place. Tommy and J.J. seemed to move in synch, and appeared to share a comfortable familiarity with each other. He surely wished that he were staying home instead of going to his uncle’s this summer.

“I don’t know all of it.” Russell answered. “I’m just going to tell you what I know. You sure you’re ready?”

“Yes, Russell, I am. I need to know.”

Wesley, still watching them, saw Tommy gently squeeze her hand and she squeezed his back.

Russell began his story with the pictures that they took at school and how they connected Andy Seagren to her mother. He told of the changes that he observed in Andy Seagren’s behavior, and about a web page he had left up in the lab that listed chemicals that Russell recognized as being no longer used in developing film because of their toxicity. He ended with what he saw transpiring in the back hall of the Country Club.

He spared her details of Seagren grabbing her mother the first time, and the details of the part of the struggle he witnessed the second time. He figured that she already knew that her mother would not have gone down without a fight. He let her know that when he left her mother she was still somewhat conscious and was with her father.

“Oh, my…” Was J.J.’s sole response to his revelation.

“You should’ve shot the crazy son-of-a bitch when you had the chance.” Wesley growled angrily. “Why would he do that to a lady like Mrs. Hart? You should have at least aimed for his behind.”

“He might’ve hit Mrs. Hart if he had. Tommy spoke in his quiet way from the floor. “Shooting into the ceiling scared him off of her. I knew something was up when he had me move his truck so early in the night saying that he had equipment to load. I saw him when he got there, and he didn’t have that much stuff when he came in. I thought he was planning on stealing something, so I disconnected his battery cables when I parked the truck back there so that he just couldn’t get in and drive off right away. I didn’t know that it would be Mrs. Hart he was trying to steal. I realized that something bad was going down when I got J.J.’s code from you.”

Russell cocked his head. “I’ve been wondering about that. How did you know right away that it was J.J. sending you the message?”

” Hart Code Jus-Jen. Justine Jennifer.” Tommy answered shrugging his shoulders. “And then .357 is the Magnum, the gun.”

Russell looked at him like he still didn’t understand. Tommy furthered the explanation, “Justine Jennifer is J.J. And it was a Hart Code which means it’s-”

Russell smacked himself on the side of the head and laughed. ” A code for that gun from that Hart! I never stopped to ask what J.J. stood for! I guess that isn’t what it says on your birth certificate, is it little girl?”

When she did not answer him, he realized that she was heavy against his shoulder. Having gotten the details that she needed she had gone into herself. No longer in the room with them; she sat staring off into space, her head leaned against Russell’s arm.

“But how did she know that I could do what she wanted?” He whispered down to Tommy.

“She had a hunch.” Tommy and Wesley whispered in answer together.

__________________________________________

It was nearing dawn when they pulled up to the gates. Jonathan was pleased to see the patrolmen and the police still stationed there. They waved and started their motors as the gates opened and he pulled in. The two women in his life had him worried. J.J. had been home alone since last evening. He knew that she was probably still awake, pacing, and worried about her mother. Jennifer, lying on the seat next to him, stubbornly refused to be admitted to the hospital and insisted on him bringing her home. He hoped that he hadn’t made a mistake by giving in to her.

The two occupied police cars were still there, up at the house.

Kate wanted to admit Jennifer for at least a day to observe the effects of the drug. But once the first tests had been run, Jennifer wanted to get home to her child. She kept repeating that J.J. was waiting for her to come home to her. Making her stay until after it appeared that she was more alert, Kate allowed her to check out on the condition that she stay in the bed once she got home. The doctor said that she would come by the house to check on her later in the day.

Jennifer lay twilight sleeping now, her head back on the headrest.

“Darling.” He kissed her gently after shutting the motor down at the front door. “Jennifer, we’re home.”

“Hmmmm, are we? Home. That sounds so good.”

He got out and came around to her door. She leaned on him as he helped her out of the car. The full skirt of her dress was cumbersome.

“I can’t wait to get you out of this.” He said as they walked slowly to the door.

“Jonathan,” She said drowsily. “I know that you’re not going to attempt to take advantage of me in my weakened condition.”

“If your condition was due to too much champagne, I certainly would without a doubt. No, this time there’s just too much dress. I want you out of it so that you can lie down properly.”

“My poor gown. I’ve put it through everything.” Her words were somewhat slurred. “I’ve been fighting, I was on the floor, on a gurney in an ambulance, it’s been off, back on..…”

“Shhhhh” He wanted her to stop trying to talk and just go inside with him.

Opening the door, he could feel her beginning to drag beside him and he gave her more support. As much as he wanted her home with him, he could not help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been wiser to insist that she stay at the hospital. How he was going to get her up the stairs, he did not know. In her condition, she was going to be heavy and would not be able to offer him much assistance..

Then he saw it.

“Jennifer!”

The tone of his voice snapped her momentarily to attention.

“What?”

In the great room, J.J. was lying on her side on the couch in her ball gown, her arms covered by the wrap she had worn to the ball. Her head, with all of that loose hair, rested on the large couch pillow that lay on Russell’s lap. Russell sat upright with his stocking feet propped on the coffee table. Tommy was on the floor under her, leaned back against the couch. Her feet rested on his shoulder against his cheek. Third lay curled in his lap. The dog raised his head to see who was there and then curled back up once he realized it was just them. It wasn’t until they came all the way into the room that they found Wesley lying stretched out on the other couch on his back, one leg hanging down onto the floor. They were all fast asleep.

Jonathan held out one hand to the tableau facing them.

“What is it J.J.? It isn’t enough to kill your old Dad by having him come home to find you sleeping with just one guy?” He grumbled while propping Jennifer against the back of the couch so that he could tend to his daughter. “I come home to find you sleeping with three of them!”

“She’s a true Hartbreaker if I ever saw one.” Jennifer smiled drowsily. “You go, little girl!” She swayed slightly and caught herself. “She’s your issue for sure; always seeking a thrill.”

He looked over at her and reached to steady her as she held herself up. “She does not need this kind of adventure.” He shook his head at his beautiful, but not-quite-there wife. “Ifyou’re not appalled by this scene, then you have an awful lot of that stuff in your system still.”

Gingerly making his way between the table and the couch, he gently shook J.J. awake. Tommy stirred as she moved her feet from his shoulder, but he went right back to sleep.

Jonathan and J.J. walked Jennifer upstairs where she helped him get her onto the bed, and then she sent her on her way. Coming back down when he was finished with them, he threw blankets over his daughter’s sleeping bodyguards.

The Mission Street Foundation Ball had been a hell of an event this year, he reflected as he wearily climbed the stairs to put himself to bed.

__________________________________________

Part Five

Jennifer sat watching J.J. She could see her daughter from her position on the great room window seat as J.J. sat draped across a chaise lounge out by the pool. She was reading now, but she had been out there most of the morning staring across the water of the pool and into the mountains behind Willow Pond. School was out for the summer and J.J. was scheduled to leave at the end of the week for her annual two-week visit to her Great-Aunt Sabrina’s home in France.

It had been over a week since that fateful night of the ball. Although most of that time for her had been spent in a fog, she could sense the almost palpable rage that both her husband and her child were struggling with in their own ways. She anticipated it in Jonathan. He had always been extremely defensive when it came to her. From watching Jonathan watching over her in the past days she knew that Andy Seagren was going to pay a high price for his actions; but whatever it  turned out to be, he needed to pay it. For Jonathan, the score could easily have been settled that evening by reaching under his tuxedo jacket. She was grateful that he had opted out of those terms.

It was J.J.’s reaction that had her confused and concerned. The two of them had been at home together all week; and although she and her father appeared to by carrying on as usual, alone with her, J.J. had been unusually quiet and distant. As Jennifer sat observing her child from the window, she reflected upon the days following the incident.

The first few had been extremely rough. On a couple of occasions, even she secretly questioned her decision to return home rather than remain hospitalized. With the drug still in her system, she slept heavily. Awake, she suffered from powerful headaches. On the third day, Kate had her back in the hospital for more tests. She said that it sometimes took 24 to 48 hours before internal effects, if any, could be seen. Under vigorous protest, she was made to stay for observation for most of that day. When those tests finally came back normal, she was allowed to return home. For most of those first days, J.J. stayed in the background. She could not recall one time waking to find J.J. with her. It was always either Jonathan, Marie, or Dr. Kendall, once or twice it was even the dog.

On the fourth day, during a time that she was feeling better, J.J. came and sat with her in the bedroom for a few minutes, but she seemed to be very uncomfortable being there and said very little. It was then that she realized that J.J. had not finished the last days school. That child lived for the last days of school. All her work would be done, and she simply showed up to socialize. Every year since her junior high days there would be at least one call from the school where J.J. been caught misbehaving. The girl was such an excellent student, she usually allowed her one end-of-the-year transgression. Sitting there together on that day in the bedroom, J.J. appeared thin, gaunt, and depressed. In her own condition at that time, she had been helpless to offer her comfort.

Under duress from her persistent questioning, Jonathan finally reluctantly informed her that J.J. had been being sick in her bathroom. It had begun with him sitting her down on the morning following the ball to tell her what actually happened. He was worried because she did not appear to be getting better, he knew that it was emotional, and he was not the one to whom she took her troubles.

On the one day that he attempted to force her back into her routine, he had been called by the school counselor to pick her up early not long after he had dropped her off. It seemed that J.J. had been found out in front of the school attempting to hail a cab to return home. Once she was brought back inside the school to the counselor, she shut down on Ms. Grimsley completely. That was the reaction that Jennifer would have anticipated from her; J.J. did not accept outside help. Her personal business was her business.

On intuition, she had Jonathan to check J.J.’s journal to see if she had attempted to write about what had transpired. She knew that it was in her nature to close up and try keep things to herself. This was not something that would be preserved on the inside; it had to be purged. Jonathan himself needed to let go of some of it.  She instructed him from her bed to go to her and to stay with her while she wrote it all down.

He returned after a very long time to say that they were finished, and to report that J.J. had been sick several times during the process; but that she had not shed one tear. That still wasn’t good. Since that brief bedroom visit, J.J. had not been back to her, and it was almost as if she was avoiding talking to her at all. On top of that it seemed as if she was now trying to put physical distance between the two of them also, which was something altogether new.

Up until that night, her daughter always seemed to enjoy being close to her. As independent as J.J. was, it was not unlike her to stop and call on her cell from school  just to say hello during the day. If one of them happened to be out of town without the other, J.J. checked in daily, often more than once, via email or phone. It always seemed important to her that she maintained a connection. Even during those times that she had trampled her mother’s last good nerve, and she knew that she had taken her as far as she dared, J.J. still seemed to want to be close in body or in spirit.

After a long week inside, she was feeling cramped and confined. But as she sat in the window watching her, she knew that there was something weighing very heavily on her daughter’s mind. Whatever this was, it seemed like a sizeable burden for such a young person to carry alone. On the morning before, she peeked in on her to find her sitting on her bed reading her Bible. If she was searching through Scriptures for comfort and/or answers, J.J. was reaching the end of her rope, she knew.

Jennifer watched her with an aching heart. That baby was so much like her father. There was no way to get in until they decided to let someone in. One had to wait and hope for an opening. She prayed that J.J. would not try to carry the load by herself for too much longer.

Leaning back against the window frame, she pulled her knees up to her chin. Closing her eyes, she rode the wave of dizziness that suddenly washed over her. She still did not feel her best, but these last couple of days she had longer periods of feeling better. Kate told her that the substance that Andy used on her would be working on her system for a while. She might feel tired or dizzy from time to time, but that all of that and the headaches would lessen in frequency as time went by.

After that third day with the tests and the hospital, she sent Jonathan back to work. The tests showed that there was nothing physically wrong with her that would not be fixed by time. She reasoned with him that J.J. and Marie were there. She couldn’t tell him that he was driving her close to crazy with not letting her do anything for herself.

Andy Seagren…who could have anticipated? He had always been so nice, in no way threatening, but just so superficial. Never in a million years would she have expected him to lose it like that. That crazy part of her life was supposed to be over.

There had been a few instances in the past similar to this one, but those were years ago, before J.J. At this point in her life, she never would have anticipated something like this happening to her. These things happened to much younger women. This episode certainly was not to have happened anywhere near that child. J.J. was the major reason that she and Jonathan stopped involving themselves in those kinds of ‘things’. Her fear had been of someone harming her to get at them, so Jonathan had scaled back his involvement in risky business as much as he could. She would have expected Andy’s attention to have been drawn more to J.J. Although in that scenario he would then have been dealing with Jennifer Hart and that pearl handled gun in her sequined bag. The outcome for him might have been more final.

But, she had to admit, smiling to herself with a some self-satisfaction, that it was kind of nice to know that after all this time she still had it, whatever it was.

“Mama.”

J.J. was standing right next to her when she opened her eyes.

“Are you sleeping? I could see you from outside and I didn’t want you to fall from there if you were asleep. Dr. Kendall said that you might go to sleep sometimes without realizing it. I was just going to tell you that you needed to lie down on the couch.”

That precious face, that ponytail; she loved this girl so much. Her usually bright blue eyes were so sunken and hollow this morning.

Jennifer reached out and touched her cheek. “I’m not asleep. I’m fine. But what about you?”

Seeing that her mother was actually awake took her a little by surprise and it caused J.J. to take a tiny step back, away from her hand.

“What, what do you mean?” she stammered, looking disturbed and confused at the same time.

Jennifer was annoyed; this had to stop. She immediately sat upright, swinging her legs down to the floor, leaning forward to fill the space left by J.J.’s slight movement away from her.

Raising her voice a bit, she asked in a distinctly direct tone that J.J. recognized right away, “I mean why are you avoiding me?”

J.J. dropped her eyes to the floor. “I’m not avoiding you.” She answered softly. “I just…”

Jennifer persisted in the same tone, not letting her off the hook. “You’re not talking to me either. Have I done something to you? Are you angry with me about something?”

This time J.J. looked up at her. Jennifer noted for perhaps the first real time that her daughter stared at her with her father’s same questioning visage. J.J. looked like her, but she definitely could turn on Jonathan’s ice blue direct stare.

“Have you done something to me? Am I angry with you?” J.J. asked, incredulous. “All of what happened to you was my fault! I made all of this happen to you and you’re asking me if I’m upset with you? It’s you who should be furious with me!”

“Is that what this is about?”

Jennifer patted the window seat pad next to her and very slowly J.J. sat down.

Softening her tone, Jennifer asked, “Did I say that I was angry with you? Did anybody tell you that it was your fault? I think that when I am angry with you I let you know that I am in no uncertain terms. Has your father said anything to you along those lines?”

There was silence. Then, “No.” was the almost inaudible answer.

“Maybe you should tell me what’s on your mind then.”

J.J. shifted uncomfortably. This was so hard. In the past few days, she had thought about it over and over again, she had felt so many ugly emotions, but she still was not sure if she wanted to talk about it, especially not with her mother. As articulate as she normally was, she was not sure if she could put the words together for this. The pain was still too close to the surface to talk about. It was still too hard to look at her and be close to her.

When she looked back up from staring at her thighs, her mother was watching her, and her eyes said that she was not going to drop it. She decided against fighting her; She knew that she wouldn’t win even if she did.

Sighing with resignation, she began.

“If I hadn’t taken those pictures, that guy never would have found you. He never would have been able to hurt you.”

The underlying thought was overwhelming, but she had to ask. It was eating her up on the inside and nobody was talking. She had not been able to ask her father. Even though he didn’t appear to be, she knew that he was in just as bad of shape as she was on the inside. Her mother was honest and she was strong. She could trust her tell her the truth.

“Mama,” She whispered, “Was he trying to kill you?”

Jennifer reached out and put her arm around J.J.’s shoulders. There was some attempt at resistance at first, but she made her come close. This was not a conversation she ever thought that she would be having with her child. This nonsense was surely supposed to be behind her. But up this point, she had always been candid with J.J. Knowing that she depended upon her for that, it would be that way in this situation also.

“No Cherie, he didn’t want to kill me. He wanted me to go away with him and he knew that I wouldn’t go without a fight. That’s the reason that he tried to drug me. He knew that was the only way that he could get me to go with him.”

J.J. looked over at her, searching her face.

“I know that there’s some stuff that you probably don’t want to tell me, that probably isn’t my business, but I really need to understand. Mom, what did he want with you? Why did he want to take you away from us? Daddy told me that he was just an old friend of yours, but guys who are just friends don’t act like that. Who was he really?”

“Mr. Seagren and I dated many, many years ago. It was a few years before I met your father. We met again when I called about your pictures. He owns the company that hired your photographer. I invited Mr. Seagren here for lunch to discuss what to do about the problem I had with the pictures and because I considered him an old friend. That was when he offered to photograph the ball.

At the ball, he told me that he’d never gotten over me and that he was still in love with me. He wanted me to go out with him. I wouldn’t agree to see him behind your father’s back, so he became angry. He was trying to force me to be with him.”

“Mom, if he just wanted you to go out with him, you would have gone because he was your friend. You and Daddy don’t trip out over petty stuff like that. It was more than that. Don’t talk to me like I’m a little girl, please, I need to know for real. This is just you and me talking. Did he want sex with you?”

Jennifer sighed deeply. J.J.’s eyes pleaded with her to be told the truth.

“Yes, Darling.” Jennifer sighed again. J.J. was only fifteen, but she asked old questions that demanded answers. “I told him that I’d never do that with another man. He didn’t want to hear that.”

“But he knew that you were married and that you love my father. Why would he ask you to do that? I don’t understand, really I don’t. Why do guys want to wrap women up or just have sex with them for no reason?”

” J.J., you have to realize that Mr. Seagren wasn’t in his right mind first of all. And just because a man says that he wants to make love with a woman doesn’t mean that he’s in love with the woman. Some men just like to sleep with what looks good. Some women do too. This thing with Mr. Seagren was about physical things; it didn’t have anything to do with love, or his feelings for me, and it certainly didn’t have anything to do with you or anything that you did. There was no way for any of us to see this coming.”

J.J. shook her head slowly in disagreement.

“Yes it was.” She admitted.  “I saw it coming. I just didn’t say anything to anybody about it.”

The sorrowful tone of her voice made Jennifer look into J.J.’s face. She took her chin in her hand and turned her face to make her look at her. When she tried to turn away, she held on and forced her to look.

“What are you talking about?”

The words spilled from J.J.’s mouth as if they tasted bad and she was in a hurry to get rid of them.

“That Saturday that you made me work at the Country Club with you, he was there. He was spying on you in the hall while you were working in the business office. He was taking pictures of you in the parking lot when we came out too. I saw him in the bushes”

Tears began to course down her pale cheeks.

“I thought it was nothing. I thought maybe it was just one of those tabloid photographers or something. I waited and watched, but I didn’t follow my hunches right away. By the time I acted on my feelings, it was too late, and you ended up getting hurt. I know better than that. I should have said something to you or to Daddy right away. I know better than to wait.”

She jerked away and cried into her own hands.

Jennifer was shocked. Andy had been stalking her? He was sicker than she realized. It all could have been much worse. Thank God for Russell Thomas. Thank God for J.J. and Russell Thomas. Jonathan had told her about J.J. telling him about their meeting in the powder room, her delivering the code to Russell which put the wheels in motion to intercept Andy before he could carry out his plan.

Jennifer eased J.J.’s head onto her shoulder.

“Hush.” She finally said after giving her some time get it out. “You want to be so grown, but you’re still just a child. You’re only fifteen and that’s a baby in terms of a lifetime. Nobody is right all the time, and while you’re very smart for your age, you’re still learning. I think we all tend to forget that sometimes. You’ve come a long way in these last few months with listening and obeying , and I’m proud of you for that.” She wiped J.J.’s cheeks with her fingers.

“Honey, I’m not upset with you at all, and I don’t want you upset with yourself. I do want you to listen to me right now, though. Stop crying so that you can hear me.”

After a moment, J.J. was able to stem the flow of tears. She felt like her heart was breaking. None of this was supposed to happen, but it happened because she let her guard down. And it happened to her mother which was too much to take. This was the second time that she let that happen. The first time was last year when she left out of the house to sneak to Marnie’s sleepover. Her mother had come after her, and had become seriously ill shortly afterward. That was last year, and while her mother getting sick really was not related to her sneaking out, in her mind it was. This thing with the ball was yet another time that she let her mother down with devastating consequences. It would never, ever happen again after this time, she vowed to herself, ever.

She wiped at the remaining tears in her eyes with her hands. “I’m O.K. now.”

Jennifer asked, “Do you remember when we had that talk some time ago about beauty drawing people to you whether they know the real you or not?”

“Yes, that was the time that you caught Tommy kissing me in the gazebo.”

“Yes, the time that I caught the two of you kissing each other in the gazebo.”

That one detail had to be cleared up every time that incident was brought up. She always suspected that Tommy was not alone in initiating that escapade even though J.J. consistently tried to lay the blame solely on Tommy.

“Well, that’s what was going on in this situation. Mr. Seagren always liked me for how I looked not who I was. That was why we didn’t stay together a long time ago. I realized it too late, but I got out of it. That was all that he was attracted to me for this time. He never wanted the real me, not in the past and not now. If he knew anything about the real me, then he would have known that there was no way that I would do anything to hurt either your father or you. When I was your age, I had a very hard time with getting guys past how I looked. You handle yourself much better with that than I.”

“Me? Better than you? How so?”

J.J. was surprised. Her mother knew her way around everything, she thought. How else was she able to teach her so much?

“I retreated. I just didn’t deal with guys much at all. You go right into their world and you maintain your relationships with them on your terms. The boys like you and they respect you. I watched you at the ball. You’re becoming quite a lady. That’s why I got so upset about those pictures. It was so unlike you to trade on your looks like that.”

J.J. sat upright. She could see that it was time that her mother heard the whole story. The air needed clearing on the matter of the pictures while they were airing out everything else.

“Look, that wasn’t what that was all about.” She explained. “The first set of pictures, the ones that you and Daddy paid for, that’s the way that you like for me to be, and that’s okay. I can do that when I need to do it, and there are times that I have to be that way. But those other pictures that I took on my own, those were for my friends. That is who I really am; that’s who my friends know me to be. I’m the J.J. who likes jeans, and wearing my hair up. I like good boots, diamonds, and being able to be laid-back. I like to play gin and poker, and ride horses, and you’re probably going to kill me for this, but I think cigars are really, really sexy.” She was doing her nodding thing, that ponytail bobbing. “I don’t really smoke them as a habit or anything, but there’s a real lady that I know who looks really good when she smokes cigars while she’s ruling the poker table. Just ever so sexy and classy. I know that it’s not good for you, but you can’t always be doing what’s good for you. Where’s the fun in that?”

With some satisfaction, she felt her mother stiffen a little at that observation. She continued with her explanation when she didn’t get a comment or a reprimand for being where she shouldn’t have been when she saw that real lady smoking that cigar and having fun.

“I really love that my mother has her own distinct word for my out-of-line behavior, even though when she uses it I’m usually scared to death of what she’s going to do or say to me next. All my good friends know who’s incorrigible. Daddy called me “Miss Incorrigible” and he says that he likes me like that.”

Her mother chuckled a little, and said, “Unfortunately, I know that he does.” And J.J. was relieved. She wasn’t sure how that and the cigar dig were going to go over. After all, she was supposed to have been long asleep for that cigar-smoking poker game. She did not mention the straight whiskey that she saw her mother drink even though she thought that was pretty cool too, along with how Sidney Sheldon lost his brand new Rolex to her.

“What I love most,” She continued, “Is that I am J.J. Hart, the only daughter of Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. That’s what the two J’s on the cube are really about- not just me. “J.J.” is for Justine Jennifer, but it also represents that I come from two J’s: Jonathan and Jennifer. I think sometimes that’s really where Daddy got “J.J.” from. Those pictures were of me, the total person. They weren’t meant to advertise my looks. I want you to know that more than anything. I can’t help how I came out looking on them. That’s just how they turned out. You told me yourself that the camera doesn’t lie. I look like you, Mom.

Then I got the idea for the one with the girls and me that we used at the dance from the ones that Daddy had done for me at my birthday party. My pictures only ended up getting sold because Marnie bet me that she could sell them to raise more money for the Scholarship Fund.”

“I knew it!” Jennifer exclaimed. Until that moment she had not been completely sure, but she had her suspicions. Now J.J. had just added a new dimension to this naughty business. “You raised money for Mission Street with those pictures over a bet, J.J.?”

“Yes Ma’am,” J.J. realized that she had given up too much information, but it was too late to go back on it. She continued with the whole story: “But selling them wasn’t our original intention. We were pleased with how well they came out and laughing about how slick and smooth the operation with Russell went down. Marnie bet me that she could sell them to help reach our goal. I didn’t think she could do it, so the bet was if she sold all of one package by the end of the first day, then I would let her sell the rest of the packages that I bought.”

“Rest of the packages you bought, J.J.?”

“Yeah.” She answered sheepishly. “I bought six. They were really good, Mom and I have a lot of friends!”

“You know, I think you have entirely too much disposable income. Your father and I are going to have to talk about that, but do go on.”

“Well she sold all of the first package by the end of third period that first day, and it kind of mushroomed from there. We ended up having to fill orders with copies of pictures we scanned on the computer ourselves.” She held up her hands. “How was I to know that it was going to take off like that? Marnie has the Midas touch, and we had a marketable commodity.”

Then she turned her body to face her mother completely for the first time during their entire exchange. She took her mother’s left hand in hers to finger that huge diamond ring of hers that she so loved and from which she strangely enough, drew comfort.

“Mama, I am so sorry. I wouldn’t deliberately do anything in the world to hurt you, or to get you hurt. I don’t want to do anything that makes you disappointed in me either. This whole thing was just horrible. I just didn’t know it would all turn out like this.”

She stopped talking for a brief moment, and she then told her as she released her hand, “I stayed away from you because every time I saw you asleep or suffering with those headaches, I was ashamed. I couldn’t face you. I’m so ashamed about all of this. I wasn’t sure that you still loved me.”

She hated crying, and having someone see her cry, but the tears started on their own and for sure wouldn’t stop when her mother whispered in her ear, “You’re stuck with me for life and beyond, my Darling. I could never stop loving you. I’m your mother.”

It felt good to finish on her shoulder. Nothing felt better to her than to have Jennifer Hart’s, the Duchess’s, her mother’s, arms around her when the world felt like it wanted to cave in for real.

__________________________________________

Part Six

The amusing, delightful sight of J.J. Hart wearing headphones and boogie dancing on roller blades was what Russell Thomas encountered as he approached the head of the driveway of the Hart estate. He observed with great admiration that she was accomplishing on skates what most people could not do on their feet. As he passed her to park in front of the house behind her father’s car, she danced/skated backward toward him, braked and pivoted to greet him.

“Where’s your helmet and pads, girl?” He asked her as she glided up to his car after he got out of it. “You have on shorts and no sleeves and there’s nothing to protect your legs and arms if you fall.”

“That stuff’s for the faint of heart, not J.J. Hart.” She exhaled pulling her headphones off her ears, leaving them hanging around her neck. “Did you bring my mother’s pictures from the ball?”

He pulled a large box from the back of his truck. “Yes I did. Are you coming in to look at them with us?”

“I sure am. I leave for France tomorrow, and I was hoping that you’d get finished developing them before I left. Let me get these off.”

J.J. rolled up to the bench outside the front door and sat to unfasten the skates.

“She’ll have a fit if I wear these into the house; she says that they scratch up the floors. But the wheels are fiberglass. I don’t understand what the problem is, but I indulge her anyway. She’s my mother and she’s a redhead too. You don’t want to mess with us. We say what we mean and we put a period behind it.”

He smiled, watching her remove the skates. From what he had seen of her in his brief time knowing her, she was a girl with a personality and self-confidence as big as all outdoors. Some poor guy was going to have heck on his hands with this one. Russell was the baby boy in a family with four sisters, so he considered himself an expert on females. This one was a real pip.

Leaving the skates on the bench by the door, she took him inside, calling out for her parents. Leading him into the great room, she instructed him to ‘pick a seat’ on one of the couches. As he did, he recalled his last time in that room; how upset J.J. had been and how she had fallen asleep on his shoulder. He had eased her head onto a couch pillow and Tommy had covered her arms with her wrap from the ball. He was glad to be there for her that night. He was also glad that everything turned out as well as it had for all of the Harts.

Jonathan Hart descended the spiral staircase that led to a loft at the rear of the room. He was carrying some paperwork that he had obviously been going over. He was sticking a pen behind his ear.

“I hope I haven’t interrupted you, sir.”

Jonathan shook his hand. “No, Jennifer told me that you were coming with the pictures. I was looking forward to seeing you.”

They shook hands.

Jennifer Hart entered the room from the front. Once again, although she was a lot more casually dressed on this day than when he has last seen her, he was overwhelmed by her presence. Beyond her elegant physical appearance, there was something about her that caught the attention, a sort of serene inner glow as well as her extremely beautiful smile. Standing again as she entered the room, he hoped that what he had in the box brought her comfort, not bad memories, after her ordeal with Seagren.

Her ball had been a huge success. The society sections of the papers had carried several pictures and flattering articles detailing the event. Somehow mention of the event with her and Seagren had been omitted and was not mentioned in any of the articles that he had read and collected. Russell was glad of that. Her success should not have been tainted by one that tawdry, tacky occurrence in an otherwise glamorous evening.

“It’s good to see you, Mrs. Hart. How are you feeling these days?”

“Everything’s fine, Russell. There don’t seem to be any lingering effects. You stopped him before I inhaled too much of that stuff. I have you to thank for that.”

“Can we please get into the box?” J.J. asked impatiently, hovering over it. “You know I’m nosey! I’m dying over here!” She also still had trouble dealing with that night. She wanted no discussion of it.

Russell had processed all the film from the rolls that were shot that night: his and Seagren’s. When the police hauled Andy out of there, all the equipment had been left behind since he had already left with J.J. and the boys. Jonathan arranged to have it all locked up at the Country Club, and once Russell was finished with the police the next day, he retrieved it. With all that he knew that she had been put through, he was determined that Jennifer Hart at least got the pictures that she was promised.

He developed and cut the best shots and put them in the box for her, but he had no idea how she was going to get her souvenir albums processed for her patrons. With Seagren most likely out of the picture, the LA branch was pretty much over. His plan was to leave her with all of the pictures. She could label and catalog them, and maybe she knew someone that could put them together for her.

At the top of the box, on top the separate pictures were three individual boxes. He reached in pulled those out.

“I did these myself for you.” He said as he handed each of the Harts a box labeled with the respective name. “I hope you like them. They’re my gift to some pretty special people.”

“Mom, open yours first. You like surprises.” J.J. beamed.

“Oh, like you don’t.” Her father said to her.

Jennifer’s box contained a large framed picture of Jonathan and J.J. dancing together. “I didn’t see you two dancing!” She exclaimed. “Where was I?”

“Well, you’ve got the evidence that it happened.” Answered J.J. quickly.

Her mother was unaware of the fact that her father had her on the dance floor at that time scolding her about catching her outside getting ready to play poker, and warning her that it had been her second transgression of the evening. He was threatening to turn her in on the next one. Three strikes and the boots were going to be out, he said to her as he danced her around the floor. The boots now lay in their box on her closet shelf where she hoped they would remain for a while. They were so fine.

Russell merely said that he thought that she would like to have that picture. He knew that she had not seen the two of them dancing and why.

“Daddy, open yours!”

“Why do you always think that you can just boss me around?” Jonathan asked, opening his box as his daughter had instructed him.

His gift was in a double frame: a picture of the three of them together after Jennifer announced the donation from the girls, and the other was the picture Seagren had taken of he and Jennifer kissing on the dance floor. Both were beautiful shots, particularly the latter.

“I thought you might like those for your office. But if you think the one is too racy…”

“No, that’s us and everyone knows it. I love them both.” Jonathan answered as he admired the beautiful woman in both photographs. “Thanks, Russell.”

“Me now?” J.J. squeezed her eyes closed excitedly. “Oooh, I do love surprises!”

Her box was larger and she knew hers had to be good. Lifting the top, she gasped.

Inside was the picture of her mother and father standing together on the ballroom floor. The background objects had been airbrushed out to make it look like a vignette. The lights from overhead and from the flash made the dips and folds in her mother’s dress look sapphire contrasting against the navy. They both looked so elegant together holding each other. The photographer managed to catch them while the skirts of her dress were swinging and her father was in mid-step. Russell had placed it in an expensive ornate gilt frame making it look like it should be an heirloom. J.J. could not tell if it was taken before or after they had kissed, but the look on their faces was what took her breath away. It was one of pure love. She could hear the music from their song playing in her head as she gazed at the picture.

“This is absolutely beautiful.” She whispered in reverence. “I’m going to keep this picture with me wherever I am in the world for the rest of my life.” She ran her fingers along the frame and then their figures. “This is definitely my mother and father.” She swallowed hard, and managed to get out the words, “It’s the essence of my mother and my father.”

The thought of what happened to her mother shortly after that time went through her mind. She thought of what might have been and in that instant it nearly stopped her heart.

Handing the picture to her father, she suddenly got up, crossing over him to Russell. Standing before him, she bent to take his face in both hands and placed a soft kiss on his forehead.

Looking into his eyes she said quietly, “I’m not eighteen yet, but you deserved that. Thank you for this picture, Russell. Thank you for treating me with respect that afternoon at school even though I got you in deep trouble with everybody. And thanks for being with me that night at the ball. And mostly I want to thank you for keeping my mother here safe with us.”

She took the picture back from her father and went quickly from the room. Jennifer could see the tears welling in her eyes as she passed by her to leave. This whole episode would be with J.J. for a long time, she knew and she hated that for her.

Jonathan sat back. He had to gather himself also. After a moment, he spoke.

“We have a surprise for you, Russell. A sort of proposal, if you will.”

Russell was collecting his thoughts. J.J., once again, had shaken him up. Seagren was a genius with catching a shot and the picture was amazing, but he wasn’t expecting that reaction from that cool and collected teenager. Maybe she did know how lucky she was. Once again, he hoped he was around when she turned twenty-one. What an interesting woman she was going to be. He would be too old for her, but it would be fun to see what she was doing to the world as an adult.

He noticed that Jennifer and Jonathan exchanged looks at the mention of a proposal for him.

“What is it, Mr. and Mrs. Hart?”

“Well, as you know, Mr. Seagren won’t be doing business in Los Angeles any more. Also, as you know, Jennifer here has a dilemma with getting her souvenir booklets completed.”

“I feel real bad about that, Mrs. Hart. That’s why I brought all the pictures to you.”

Jonathan held up his hand. “Hear me out. In exchange for our not pressing charges against Mr. Seagren for drugging my wife with a potentially lethal substance, as well as with attempted kidnapping, he agreed to turn over his Los Angeles branch to Hart Industries lock, stock and barrel. He’s just walking away, leaving everything.”

Russell listened, but was trying to keep up with where he was going with the story about Seagren.

“As I’m sure you also know, the foundation of Hart Industries is technology, which of course encompasses photography, photographic equipment, and photographic processing. I sent my people over to take a look at the operation and they deem it solid and viable. But I need a man to head that unit if it’s to become a part of Hart Industries. I think you’re that man.”

“Me, Mr. Hart? I’m only twenty-seven years old!”

“Obviously, you know your equipment and you know how to use it.”

“Yes sir.”

“You know something about how the business is run?”

“Yes sir, quite a bit.”

“Were Seagren’s secretaries any good?”

“I think they’re the best. They kept him and all the rest of us organized.”

“Then what does age have to do with it? I started Hart Technologies at age twenty-six. The towers for Hart Industries were constructed the year that I turned thirty-two. You start now. After five years, if you want to break off from Hart Industries, you have the option of buying it from the corporation. You’ll be able to name your price. You’ll be thirty-two years old.” Jonathan shifted so that he was leaned forward.

“Russell, the night of the ball, you helped to save the most precious part of my life, that woman right there. Going beyond that, you made sure that our daughter was secure and safe with you until we could get back to her. She told us how you reassured her and put her somewhat at ease. For those things, we will be eternally grateful to you. We think that you can do this. We believe in you.

J.J. gets her talent for knowing which hunches to follow from both of us. She trusted you on a hunch that night and that saved my wife from greater harm. Who knows what Seagren had planned for her? If you trust us and our hunch about you, sign your name right here and let us get you started with the exciting business of your life.”

He pointed to a line at the bottom of one of the documents that he had been carrying when he came down from his office in the loft. He took the pen from behind his ear and held it out to the young man across from him. Russell took the pen and signed his name without hesitation. If this powerful, successful man trusted this much in his abilities, there was no way that he could turn him down.

When he looked up from the papers, they were both beaming at him.

“Now your first job.” Said Jennifer. “Is to get my souvenir booklets done. I’ll be over later this week after you get settled to help with the labeling and cataloging, so now you can just take that big box right back to your truck. When I get back from picking J.J. up in France, I’ll be expecting them to be ready for distribution. That gives you about three weeks. Think you can handle that?”

“I think I’ll have to.” He said to her, knowing that there was no way that he was going to fall short on the first job that he was given by Jennifer Hart. 

__________________________________________

Finale

Jennifer stood by her desk in the bedroom. She held the picture that Russell had given her that afternoon in her hands, studying it. It was simply wonderful. The mutual respect father and daughter had for each other was evident in the way they looked at each other, but for some reason she thought she could sense that some mischief had transpired and he was getting after her as much as was enjoying dancing with her. It was evident from the look in his eyes, and the deer in the headlights look she could detect in J.J.’s. Once again, she wondered where she had been that she had not seen them dancing together for herself.

As she stood there, she felt Jonathan’s hands slide around her waist from behind. The warmth of his palms permeated the thin material of her nightgown and felt sensuously delicious as they rested on her belly.

“A penny for your thoughts.” He said into her ear.

“I was just wondering again where I could have been at the time that this was taken. I wish that I could have seen it with my own eyes.” She answered still gazing at the photograph. “I’m so glad that Russell took it for me, otherwise I would never have seen you two together like this that night.”

“She’s really something else, Jennifer. We waited a long time for her, but she’s truly special; I love that little girl. ”

“That’s your kindred spirit, Jonathan. In her ways and in her thinking, she’s the mirror image of you. You’re easy to love, and so in turn is she, the scamp. She was worth the long wait for her.”

Placing the picture back down on the desk, she then turned in his arms to give her full attention to him.

“You know what? You never got to take my hair down on the night of the ball like I promised you. I put it up tonight just for you.”

“So you did.” He said, noticing it. Her hair had been down earlier, but indeed she had pinned it up, apparently as she was dressing for bed.

“But there was something else that that you promised me that I didn’t get to do that night either.” He said.

“I did? What was that?”

He pushed her thin robe from her shoulders and it slid onto the floor.

“Oh yes,” She laughed quietly, recalling the promise with that action on his part. ” I remember.”

Then he lifted the straps of the nightgown from her shoulders, sliding them slowly down her arms, and finally over her hands. It also fell to the floor at her feet. He imagined that it was that navy blue ball gown.

One by one, watching her eyes watch his, he slowly pulled the pins from the roll at the back of her head dropping them onto the floor with the gown and robe until all of her hair fell sensuously onto her bare shoulders, just the way he liked it. He could feel her unbuttoning his pajama top and running her hands across his bare chest. As he slowly kissed her, he ran his hands through her hair. He had always loved her hair. Then he stood back to look at her.

“Now that’s the picture that’s been reflecting on the lens of my mind since early that night. You are still the most beautiful and perfect woman in the world. These last twenty-five years of my life, the ones I’ve spent with with you, have been my best.”

“Ditto, Jonathan. ” She whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck, pressing her body against his, feeling his desire for her.

They had not made love since the night before the ball, and they were long overdue.

Sweeping her up into his arms, he carried her to their bed to take, develop, and publish those beautiful Hart pictures that were in his mind.

End

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2 Responses to Those Hart Pictures

  1. cindie neu says:

    Marie, I wish you would let us people that do not speak French know what you are saying and translate for us !!!

    Like

  2. That one brought me to tears. Beautiful.

    Like

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