Jonathan’s Hart: Part One

J.J. has a special weekend visitor and Jonathan finds he has to protect her and her guest from danger. 

Part One

Friday, just about noon.

Having essentially finished with his business for the week, Jonathan Hart sat back in his chair to think some more pressing things through. He had been just about to leave his office to pay a visit to the head of his security team when he was notified by the front lobby reception desk that his daughter had arrived to the building. J.J. was back from her hair and nail appointment where he’d dropped her off earlier that morning.

Anticipating his scheduled 9:00 A.M. meeting would last much longer than it had,  he made arrangements with Salvatore for her to be brought back to the Towers when she was finished. When she moved to Los Angeles years before, his wife, Jennifer, often patronized Salvatore’s salon. His styling of her full titian mane resulted in much free advertisement. Once J.J. began receiving those types of professional services, it was into his hands she had been trusted.  Because of that, Salvatore wouldn’t hesitate to see to J.J. being picked up or dropped off by his personal chauffeur when the need arose.

Jennifer had flown to New York on the day before to tie up some loose ends on a major article she was completing for a publication there. It took longer than she planned, so at the last minute she decided to stay over. In her absence, it fell to him to take J.J. that morning.

It wasn’t unusual for him to transport their daughter to those types of appointments. In fact, it was he who initiated them several years back. When J.J. was a little girl, Jennifer diligently oversaw their daughter’s grooming, but once she turned thirteen, the year he considered her as entering into being a young lady, it was important to him that J.J. begin to see those things as a personal priority for herself.

He found good grooming an extremely appealing quality and took great pride in his own appearance. Jennifer was a natural beauty, but her attention to her personal maintenance was a trait he admired in her. It was something he wanted J.J. to learn from her. At sixteen, it seemed the lesson had taken, and it had taken well. The consummate athlete, J.J. was still somewhat tomboyish at times, but with an almost religious conviction, she personally scheduled her bi-monthly appointments, and she made sure one of them saw to her getting there. Having to keep the appointment that morning was why she was still in California and not with her mother in New York. She rarely missed an opportunity to get to the Big Apple and to see her Aunt Pat, but there was no way J.J. was going to miss getting to the salon, what with such an important weekend coming up.

A  whole weekend. He wasn’t sure he was ready for it. In a couple of hours it would all be beginning. J.J. would be leaving on her first real date. She’d been out with other boys before, but this time it would be with someone to whom she was attracted. He was Theodore Martin Baxter, Jr. of Boston, Massachusetts, a.k.a Teddy, who was accompanying his father to LA. Baxter Sr. was coming to see a client on business. Baxter Jr. was making it his business to see J.J. Hart.

As J.J.’s father, he’d been trying to loosen up in that area, and on the surface he felt he had. But underneath it all, his heart couldn’t help but secretly tighten every time he thought about her growing up so fast on him like it seemed she was. He closed his eyes, folded his arms, and traveled back in time.

He could still feel her tiny warm body nestled close to his heart as she slept in his arms, the memory of her contented infant sigh because she was safe with her daddy caressed his ears. He could feel her tiny palms pressing his cheeks together, making his lips push out so she could give him his lucky kiss in the mornings before he left for work. He could see her little freckled nose, that downy soft, sausage-curled ponytail, and he could hear her squeaky, raspy evening voice as she sat on his lap after he came in. There was always some amusing story she couldn’t wait to re. She would wait until they were alone, and then like water from an open faucet, all the ‘wrongs’ her mother had done to her while he had been away rushed from her quick, precociously articulate tongue, demanding Jennifer be punished for “acting so ugly” to her.

Daddy, guess what happened today.

What, baby?

Mommy had a very bad day, and she acted so mean to me. You should punish her.

Well, Mommy told me you had the bad day, and she had to punish you. What did you do?

I di’n’ do nuffing.

Well, something happened. Tell Daddy about it.

I just di’n’ want to hold her hand in the store, Daddy. I told her I could walk by myself ’cause I’m big now. She fussed at me, and she made me hold her hand anyway.

And what happened at lunch?

“What did Mommy say?”

I want you to tell me.

Well, I just di’n’ want to sit in that baby chair. She said I would get food on me, so she made me sit in that baby chair. Then she got mad ’cause I wasn’ hungry any more. I wasn’ hungry sitting in that baby chair. Then after, she wouldn’ take me to the park to see the ponies like she said. I asked her why nicely, and she said it was ’cause I was ‘corr’gible. What’s ‘corr’gible?

“It’s being just like Daddy.”

Oh. (Nodding head, bobbing pony tail) Well ‘corr’gible is okay then.

What else happened, J.J.? What happened with the water?

I just wanted to see if alligators would come to my swamp. ‘Fore I got the water, I tooked off my shoes and socks so they wouldn’ get wet. I was being careful, but then I slipped and fell in by accident. I was being careful, Daddy, but I slipped. I don’ know why Mommy was so mad. Marie said she could wash my dress and my panties, and the mud washed right off me, too, when Mommy put me in the bathtub. I di’n’ want to wear that silly old dress anyway. I told mommy that, but she told me to hush, and she made me wear it. That’s why all the bad stuff happened to it, isn’t it?

That’s not why it happened, J.J.

Yes it is. Then Mommy made me take a nap after my bath ’cause she said I had made her tired. If I made her tired, then why di’n’ she take a nap? I wasn’ even sleepy. Mommy was so mean to me all day today, Daddy. When you go to work, she acts all ugly to me. She fusses at me and makes me wear dresses, and hold her hand all the time, and take naps.

But J.J., Mommy holds your hand to keep you safe.

I’m a big girl. I can keep me safe.

You look so pretty in dresses.

I don’t care. I don’t like ’em.

Mommy loves you. She takes you to lunch because she loves you. She takes you to so many nice places.

Mommy likes shopping. I don’t like shopping. I like when Marie makes me lunch. I like when you make me lunch. I don’ like to sit in the baby chair at lunch.

Doesn’t Mommy buy you books, and doesn’t she read to you ? You like when she reads to you. Doesn’t she brush your hair so pretty, and doesn’t she tell you nice stories? Doesn’t she kiss you before you go to sleep? Doesn’t she lie down with you sometimes at nap time?

As little as she was, J.J. was as stubborn as they came. She wasn’t hearing anything he had to say to try to make it better to her or to make her mother sound the least bit reasonable in her dealings with her. She wanted someone to pay.

 I can read all by myself, and I still don’ like naps. You’re the daddy. Make her take a nap for being so mean to me.

J.J., Mommy isn’t mean.

Yes she is. You can tell her what to do. You can make her take a nap, can’t you, Daddy? Tell her to go to her room. Tell her right now. Call her in here and tell her. (Small shove to his shoulder, preciously devious look on that little face.) Go ‘head. Call her. Tell her. You’re the daddy. Make her do it.

The memory had him chuckling to himself.

J.J. Hart had been born with an iron will and a strong sense of her own identity. At three, she was already plenty smart, plenty manipulative, and plenty tough. But at that point in her life, she had yet to realize who she was up against. That little redhead of his could thoroughly charm everyone else in the world except that one other redhead in his household, the one with seniority, the one who “wasn’t having it”.

That power struggle between J.J. and Jennifer began the day that little girl first rolled over on her own as an infant, and since that time, the struggle for independence had become and ongoing exercise utilizing any number of frustrating, but often amusing, strategies. It took J.J. almost fourteen years to fully accept that the odds were slim to nil of her being the winner in any conflict of wills between her and Jennifer. But in that time, she’d finely honed her skills in the area of compromise, and in picking her battles. She seldom won, but by the end of whatever it was that went down, she would have at least established her point.

As he listened to the voice of that little girl talking in his head, trying to convince him of the unreasonable witch her mother was, he could smell that talcum powder Jennifer once used on her after giving her a bath. He also loved that other, more earthy child-like smell she would have after playing. She would run to hug him, and he would gather her up in his arms and simply inhale her. J.J. played hard, and when she was little, she would get so dirty; her face perpetually smudged with something. Jennifer used to call that smell her “puppy smell”, fuss about the persistent sorry condition of her clothes, hands, and face; and would be quick to dunk her in the bathtub, sometimes several times a day.

He was sure that at times the littlest angels in heaven must play as hard and smell like puppies, and that at others times, they smelled just like that talcum powder.

After sixteen years, his wife and daughter had finally reached a happy medium, their positions firmly established. However, it couldn’t be said with any degree of finality that J.J. Hart was totally accepting of her subordinate role in the relationship.

Teddy Baxter.

Who would have thought that a class reunion at Gresham Hall would have brought such a change into their lives? J.J. was growing up, and soon would be growing away. From there on out, there would be other men taking up space in her life, crowding him out.

Kissing her.

In Maryland, he walked up on J.J. and Teddy kissing. Teddy kissed her, she kissed him back, and he had been right there to witness it. The very vivid recollection raised his blood pressure every time it flashed in his mind.

When did his baby become old enough to kiss boys? How long had she been doing that? How long would it be before-? If his daughter was anything like her mother…

“Oh, Jesus…” He sighed and for a moment he had to put his head down on his arms.

At least this boy had a father who knew what it was like. Baxter, Sr. had personally phoned him directly from Boston earlier in the week to talk. He said he had three daughters of his own, all older than his son, so he’d been there. He said that as soon as he and Teddy Jr. touched down in Los Angeles, the boy would be dispatched to see him to get the ground rules for dating J.J. Hart that weekend. Baxter believed his son to be a good boy, but he wanted him to get the lowdown straight from the horse’s mouth. It was what he had required of the boys who wanted to date his own girls.

With that call, Baxter, Sr. earned his total respect. He was eagerly awaiting his meeting with young Baxter, Jr.

Although she had been trying to play it close and low key, as the week progressed, he could tell that the closer it got to Friday, the more wired J.J.’s behavior became. He figured she and Teddy had to have been talking back and forth all that time. J.J. and her friends had been burning up the phone lines almost non-stop. Her personal house line rang constantly, and her cell appeared permanently affixed to her body. Either it held to her ear, or the hands-free cord kept her connected to it, constantly feeding her the latest scoop like a hospital patient being fed vital intravenous fluids. A couple of times Jennifer had run into her with the handset to the cordless phone to one ear and the cell held to or the hands-free cord running from the other. At those times, she made J.J. hang up both to give her brain and her tongue a rest.

It was evident that there were many plans being formulated for her special guest. Jennifer had been busy with committee meetings, fittings, and shopping for what she and J.J. were going to need for the annual summer’s end dance at the country club on Saturday night. All week she’d been on J.J.’s case about her constant phone use and her resulting erratic, absent-mindedness. Despite that, her fussing had little effect on the volume of J.J.’s incoming calls or the length of her conversations. To circumvent her mother’s fussing, J.J. merely took greater care to stay out of her line of vision when she was on the phone.

Then, at the last minute, Jennifer got called to New York, and she reluctantly left J.J. to finish her final preparations on her own, warning him to not let her out of his eyesight except to go to her appointment that morning. Because of that, he found himself having to nix her request to make a last minute trip to the pier to roller skate with the gang on the night before. J.J. made no attempt to hide the fact that she was displeased with him about it, but in light of what he’d learned about her last night out, that previous weekend, he maintained his position.

It worked out for her in the end. Her friends ended up crashing his gate to come to her and hang out around the pool until midnight, her curfew.

With all that was going on, it hadn’t escaped his attention, however, that for once, J.J. hadn’t balked once at her mother’s suggestions for her attire on the night of the dance. Customarily, J.J. dreaded formal events and the myriad of preparations her mother made for them, especially those that related directly to her. But this time it almost appeared as if J.J. was looking forward to going and to dressing up. She hadn’t fought Jennifer on any of it. He attributed that unusual submissiveness on her part to their consenting to her being escorted to the event by Teddy. Jennifer had impeccable taste. J.J. knew it, and was counting on it to be looking her best that night.

For that boy.

One had to give him credit, though. He had good taste and good timing. He was coming on just the right weekend to see J.J. at her best.

He sat back up and sighed a heavy, deep, cleansing sigh.

Fortunately, there was one very up side to it all. With a broken nose and a trampled ego, Wesley Singleton had been keeping a low profile all week, and most likely would not be attending the dance at the country club. Because of that, there wouldn’t be as much need to worry about him and his reaction to Teddy being there to escort J.J. Wesley had been trying very hard for weeks to get in touch with J.J. He figured that Wesley entertained the idea that he would get to spend time with her even if he hadn’t been able to get close enough to her to ask to escort her.

That boy just didn’t get it.

It had been almost a week since the incident that caused Wesley’s injury. Ollie Jackson and Wesley Singleton, were lifelong friends, but on the previous Saturday night, Ollie had jumped on Wesley, viciously assaulting him while they were stopped for a traffic light in the middle of a main thoroughfare.

At the police station, after being hauled in by two officers on patrol, neither boy would say what precipitated it. Although Wesley was the apparent victim, he neither claimed nor denied giving Ollie a reason for attacking him. Ollie, smolderingly angry, also offered no reason for his actions. When questioned, both of them remained largely silent on the details. Wesley’s parents threatened to file charges, but according to Ollie Sr., it was Wesley who, quite oddly, begged them off.

In the days that followed, very little additional information had been forthcoming. The Jacksons and the Singletons, longtime friends, remained at the strained odds which began that night. Although he held no real fondness for Wesley or his mother, himself, he was baffled and extremely curious as to what was actually at the bottom of it all. After giving it some thought, he finally informed Jennifer of the fight, concluding that it wouldn’t do to let her find out on her own. Given his in with the kids in J.J.’s immediate circle, Jennifer would immediately suspect that knew of it and was holding out on her. She was very aware of Wesley’s obsession, for lack of a better word, with J.J., but like him, she hadn’t put that and the fight together with anything else- just yet.

While he conducted his own investigation for answers to his questions, he hesitated to go to J.J. to ask what she knew. She had been out on the town that night as well. Ollie was very protective of J.J., and that had him worried that the fight might have had something to do with her. But to have asked J.J. about it earlier would have been to alert her. Whatever went down, if she knew the details, there was some reason why she hadn’t shared them. In fact, she hadn’t mentioned one word of it- the fight, why it happened, nothing. With the network she had going, there was no way in the world that something like that had missed getting back to J.J. Hart, and if she had any idea that her daddy was poking around in it; she would put the word out that the details of whatever happened were to be kept “on the low”, and that was just where it would be. People tended to do what she told them to do.

As he sat there mulling it over, it occurred to him that she had already done that, and that was why he couldn’t find anything out.

His gut was insisting that the fight had something to do with his daughter, and no matter how quiet she might be trying to keep it, or whatever the reason she had for suppressing it, he needed to know what that was. According to Ollie’s father, Wesley had been doing some very suspicious things. Since the fight and Wesley’s subsequent injury, he had put off directly confronting the boy about it, but he couldn’t put if off much longer. Wesley wouldn’t be down for the count forever.

He had caught up with and cornered that slick Chase Barnett at the marina that following Monday. Knowing that Chase and J.J. had been together that night, he’d attempted to break him down for information. But the boy had been just too good. Not once had he wavered. Not once had he given even the slightest clue that he knew something beyond what was already out there.

Despite his failure to get anything out of him, he had come away admiring the kid’s resolve. Chase was loyal and he wasn’t afraid to stand up for that in which he believed; two valuable traits in a person.  That was one kid he would be keeping an eye on for the future. He could be a true asset.

Finally, he’d had to resort to his ace in the hole; Marnie, J.J.’s best friend, who was still holding his marker from the previous Saturday. She owed him one, and it was as good a time as any for her to pay up. He got her by phone on the next day.

“Hello, Marnie.”

Mr. H.? Hi. What’s up? Strange to hear from you.

“Not so strange. Remember the other night? About the car?”

(Small audible gulp) Uh, yeah, I remember.

“Remember what I told you?”

About it not being a freebie?

“Yep.”

Is it time to pay up?

“Yep.”

(Huge sigh) Okay. I do owe you big. What do I have to do?

“Just talk to me. What happened last Saturday night with Ollie and Wesley?”

How would I know, Mr. H.? I wasn’t there. All I know is they got into a fight.

“Let’s cut to the chase, Marnie. This is you and I talking, and you know the score. Now, Mrs. H. is in the great room. I’m in the kitchen. It’s very quiet here tonight, and sound travels in this house. Just the other day she was asking why she hadn’t seen you. It’s simply a matter of my talking a little louder. I’m sure she’d love to know that the reason you’ve been so scarce around here is because you’re  hiding a brand new-”

Okay. Okay. Shhhh! Shhhh! Okay, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you.

“I thought you might, if I shined the headlights just so. You know, so you could clearly see what I was saying.”

I see it. Yeah, I see it. Look, this is just hearsay. I really wasn’t there. I was with you, remember? It’s the story I got from other people. Geez, Mr. Hart,  you sure play dirty. I thought you liked me.

“I only play dirty when the stakes are important to me. And as a matter of fact, I love you. Now just tell me what you know, Marnie. Was the fight between Ollie and Wesley about J.J.?”

Yeah.

“What happened?”

(Another sigh) Well, I think it started because they were following J.J. and Chase all around. J.J. and Chase left from the DQ, and other people saw Wes and Ollie pull out behind them.  J. and Chase were on the bike. Wes and Ollie were in the car.

“I’m aware of them following J.J. and Chase, but why would that start a fight between Wesley and Ollie? I would make more sense if it had been between Chase and Wesley or Chase and Ollie.”

Well, I heard that it was Wesley who was driving Ollie’s car. I’m guessing that Ollie wanted Wes to stop following them, and when he wouldn’t, Ollie clocked Wes. He’s been telling people for a while that he’s had enough of Wes. I think he’s sick of Wes running over him. Ollie was mad bec- well, Ollie knows J. He wouldn’t do anything like that to be getting into her business. We all know how J., is, and I guess it made him mad that Wes was doing that to her, and that he keeps trying to do stuff like that.

“Is that it, Marnie? The whole story?”

(Silence)

Have you talked directly with Ollie to get his side of it? Did he tell you anything more?

(Again, silence)

“Marnie?”

That’s the gist of it, Mr. H. That’s what I heard that the fight was basically about. 

He hadn’t pressed her any farther than that. There were certain codes of ethics that had to be respected and upheld, even among kids, and he understood that. But he was fully aware that Marnie knew more than she had been telling. Something serious had happened that was the catalyst for Ollie’s attack, and Marnie knew what it was, but she wasn’t going to, or maybe she couldn’t, divulge it. As much as they had talked together, surely she and J.J. had discussed it. If the girls were keeping something secret, it must be something big or something dangerous from which J.J. had somehow managed to extricate herself. He concluded that Marnie was either protecting J.J., or she had been protecting him from himself.

So, that fool of a boy had actually taken to following J.J. How long had he been doing that?

Tommy had brought it to his attention a couple of weeks back that Wesley had been staking out places where he thought she might be. Twice, before he left for Barcelona, he’d had to talk Tommy out of going after Wesley. He had managed to talk Tommy down, but he completely understood his irritation. It was a good thing that Ollie had done the job on Wesley that he’d done. That had kept him from being able to act on it right away himself while he was still furious over it. If he had been able to get to him after talking to Marnie, Wesley would be suffering from far more than just a broken nose.

Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate.

GHB. What reason other than the obvious would that boy have for making inquiries about a drug commonly known as the date-rape drug? Was he really studying on the topic? Or was he just speculating at the time? And had he managed since then to acquire it?

Kids with money, credit cards, and little parental supervision could get practically anything off that internet. There was always some sleazy lowlife lurking out there in cyberspace willing to fill any kind of order for any kind of thing if the price was right. If Wesley had gotten his hands on some, had he used it on other girls? What else was he into? Ollie, Jr. had his suspicions, but he hadn’t been sure. What possible legitimate reason could Wesley have for having an interest in something like GHB?

Damn, the boy had truly gone around the bend.

The proper parties had been alerted, but he had been told that there was nothing that could be done about it until it could be proven that it was in his possession and/or he used it. The substance was illegal in California, but it had to be proven that he had it. If Wesley Singleton thought he was going to get anywhere near-

The pencil that had been being absent-mindedly twiddled between his fingers, suddenly splintered, disintegrating into several sharp bits of wood. He was momentarily startled by the physical manifestation of the tension he was feeling. Sweeping the shards from the desk, he dropped them into the wastebasket and went right back to where had been in his thoughts.

-he could forget it; Wesley would die first.

Ollie Jr. had told his father of looking over Wesley’s shoulder in their dorm room at school that previous spring as Wesley worked on the computer. He noticed that Wesley had been engaged in a search for that chemical. When he asked Wesley why he was looking for that, Wesley had at first been defensive. Then he said that he was doing some research for a paper he was writing for his Social Science class. According to Ollie, Sr., Ollie Jr. said that at first he accepted that explanation. But after they got back home and after watching Wesley’s growing consuming interest in J.J., he’d had second thoughts. Finally, he had taken his concerns to his father, the doctor. Ollie Sr. had come to him with it at a recent dinner party at which they had both been in attendance.

A research paper? Bull.

Ollie Jr. knew it. Ollie Sr. knew it. And J.J.’s daddy knew it. Only Wesley didn’t know… just how close to real danger he was getting.

Jonathan leaned back, closed his eyes again, and massaged his forehead with his fingers in an effort to ease his tension before his daughter’s arrival in the office. She could always tell when something was bothering him. He was going to put it to her when she got there, but he didn’t want her to know that it upset him so. She was still just a child, and she wasn’t going to be bothered with any of that if he had any say in it.

He knew most of the story, but he needed to know the bottom line.

“Mr. Hart, J.J.’s here.” Came Liz’s voice through the speaker.

“Send her in.”

J.J. breezed through the door. Her freshly-done hair was down from the usual ponytail. Parted on one side, It was full and wavy, and it was being held back from her face by a plain black stretch headband. With her hair like that, she looked even more like her mother.

She was casually dressed in black jeans, a white tee shirt, and a pair of glittery, but simple, expensive black sandals that she had brought back from her last trip to France. Footwear was the only area in which J.J. fully exercised her heiress status. She had a thing for good shoes and boots, and she had a closet full of them.

Her nails were manicured and done to perfection, and she was smiling Jennifer’s pearly smile. Like Jennifer, she was naturally pretty, and he was very pleased with her unadorned, but at the same time, polished appearance. Looking at her filled him with pride.

“Hi, Daddy.” She sang out as she blew him a kiss.

Heading straight for the couch, she dropped down her purse and the books she’d taken with her to the salon.

“I’ve been worked all the way over.” She sighed, pulling a hairbrush from the purse and snatching the headband from her hair. “From head to toes.”

As she had passed by his desk, he had taken notice of the hair hanging down her back. J.J had marvelous hair; it was hard not to notice it, especially when she was wearing it down.

“You look nice.” He said. “Did you eat yet?”

“Just the breakfast we had before we left home. Salvatore ordered in for everybody, but I didn’t want anything. I’m still not all that hungry. When I talked with my mother last night, she said that we were going to lunch when she got here this afternoon to pick me up, so I can wait. I wish it was you and me going to lunch, though. We know how to eat. We’d do deli, wouldn’t we?”

“You know it.” He grinned. “I still might.”

“Tell me something, Daddy. Is my mother trying to be a vegetarian these days?”

He laughed. J.J. noticed everything Jennifer did, and she worried over her at times as if she were the mother and Jennifer was the child.

“She’s just cutting back a bit on her meat.” He explained. “We ate all that steak at your grandfather’s while we were there, and she feels she overdid it.”

“But she didn’t hardly eat it. She barely ate anything, even after she came down from the attic. While she was up there going through her mother’s things, if you didn’t take it to her, she didn’t eat.”

“She feels she ate too much.

“Whatever.” J.J. sighed. “She lets herself get too skinny. You should tell her about it; she’ll listen to you. I say it, and she looks at me like she wants to clock me one. You know, Daddy, there’s really nothing like getting your hair, nails, and toes done. You guys don’t know what you’re missing. It’s so relaxing. All I need now is a good massage, and I’d be down for the count. Salvatore had the Jag, not the limo, today. I got brought here in the Jag. Sooooo cool. I’m going to have one of those one day. I think that’s me. Sleek, low key, and fast.”

He sat and watched with folded arms as she quickly brushed her hair up and pulled it together to use the headband as a tie for the ponytail she formed. When she finished, he asked, “Now tell me why I paid all that money for you to have your hair done, and then as soon as you get back, you go and do that to it?”

“It’s clean, trimmed, and conditioned.” She answered. “That’s what you pay for. I can only stand wearing it down for so long. It gets in the way. I have more control over the situation when it’s up like this.”

He smiled. They were so much alike in disposition, he and his daughter, both of them having a serious need to be in control of their immediate personal situations, but he really wished she’d leave her hair alone. It was so thick, shiny, and gorgeous; it was really was her crowing glory, but she had so little use for it.

“Come here and sit with me.” He said to her when she had put the brush away.

Obediently, she crossed the room, but instead of sitting down in the chair in front of his desk, she came around and perched herself on the end of his desk top.

“Yes?”

He thought he could see a bit of apprehension in her face as she stared attentively down at him.

“I’ve put off coming to you with this,” He said. “But I really need you to level with me now.”

“What is it?”

“Tell me what happened last Saturday night that made Ollie fight Wesley.”

She immediately looked down to her lap and began slowly twisting that ring around her finger. He picked up on those signs of nervousness and discomfort on her part right away.

“I wasn’t in the car with them.” She quietly answered. “So I couldn’t really say for sure.”

“So, what do you think happened? J.J., I know that you know about it, and that you’ve thought about it. I know you’ve had to have talked to Ollie in all this time. Tell me, baby.”

With a pained look, she sighed, “I don’t really want to talk about it, Daddy. It’s the same old stuff. Wesley likes me. I don’t like him. You know about it. I told you all about it.”

“I know you did, Sweetheart, but I need to know all of it. Something more happened that night. Did Wesley threaten you or try to harm you in some way? I want you to tell me.”

“He didn’t say anything to me, and he didn’t touch me. He wasn’t anywhere near enough to me at any point that night to do either. I was fine, Daddy. Honestly. I was with Chase, so you know nothing much could have happened with me. You know that I wasn’t going to let anything happen to me. I can hold my own just fine. Ollie just got mad at Wesley. He’s been mad at him a long time, and he just had enough that night. He lost it and he jumped on him.”

Jonathan stared at J.J. until she was forced to look at him. Their eyes met and their minds connected, father to his beloved uneasy daughter, daughter to her beloved concerned father. Between them, it was silently communicated that they both recognized that she had said enough to let him know that something more had happened.

“Who are you trying to protect, J.J.?” He asked, reaching out to take her by the hand, stopping her from rubbing her finger raw with that ring. “Is it Chase? Ollie? Yourself?”

He leaned in closer. “Your father?”

She looked away for a moment. Then she slowly turned back to him and admitted, “Okay. I was on the bike that night, Daddy, with Chase. Wesley kept following us all over after we left the Dairy Queen. We were getting your ice cream. See, I had gotten you some earlier when I had been there with Marnie, but it got left on the Barnett’s boat when Marnie and I went to the marina with some of the other girls to meet up with Chase and Chance. We put it in the galley freezer to keep it cold. Chase took me for a ride to try out his new bike, but we couldn’t go back and get the ice cream because we got word that you and my mother were there at the boat. I knew you had your mouth all set for it, and I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so we went back to the DQ to get you another one.”

She looked down to her hands again and he could see her distress in having to reveal that much to him, “I just didn’t want to say that I was on the bike, Daddy.”

“J.J., I knew that already.”

She looked with surprise, her eyes immediately searching his face for his reaction.

He released her hand and nodded. “I know you were on the bike with Chase. I know that Wesley was following you and Chase. I’ve known that for a while.”

Quickly J.J. jumped to her own defense. “But my mother didn’t say I couldn’t ride with Chase, Daddy. She just said Tommy.”

“I’m not the one you have to convince.” He sat back to calmly reply. “If you’ve reconciled in your mind that it’s okay to interpret what your mother said in that way, you’re the one who’ll have to live with the consequences should there be any. And I can almost guarantee you that there will be some when it comes to the light. You know that what’s done in the dark, young lady…”

It was she who nodded in response to that.

Her phone chimed the theme to the Addams Family, an old television show that she’d seen in reruns with which she had fallen in love, and she reached into her pocket for it. The smile that immediately crossed her face, and her hopping down from the desk told him who it was. She walked slowly away from him, talking quietly into the cell. Then, heading for the wall which was actually a disguised door to his private elevator, she waved to him.

This time, he blew her a kiss. Seconds later, the door rolled opened, slid closed behind her after she stepped in; and she was gone.

Just like Jennifer Hart, J.J. Hart could put a period behind a conversation like nobody’s business. And they both did it with so much quiet grace that the severance was almost painless. But the other party was left with no doubt that the discussion had ended.

Again, the mitigating detail had been left out. Wesley had either done something or been the cause of something that J.J. didn’t want her father to know about. It must have been something to which she knew he would have a strongly negative, perhaps even violent reaction.

He no longer had any doubt that he was the one who was being spared.

Instead of going down to Security, he picked up the phone and summoned Mr. Lamb up to his office. He instructed him to take the private elevator.

___________________________________________________________

The chime faintly sounded, breaking the unusual Friday morning quiet on Mr. Hart’s private floor. When the H on the stainless steel elevator doors at the end of the short hall in front of her desk parted, Liz Anderson looked up from her work to peer through the glass double doors of the outer office in which she was sitting. Expecting to see an employee assigned to that floor, she was somewhat surprised when it was Jennifer Hart who stepped from the car. Although Mrs. Hart could easily have used her passkey to take her husband’s private elevator directly into his office, which he would undoubtedly have welcomed, during office hours she always elected to use the public elevator. Once she would arrive on the top floor, she always graciously and respectfully stopped to be announced, just like anyone else who was allowed to come up to see the CEO. She had taught her daughter, by her example, to do the same.

“Good afternoon, Liz.” The woman smiled as she pushed open the door to enter the room, looking as effortlessly lovely and stylish as ever.

Liz quickly checked out her outfit, her smartly trimmed shoulder-length red hair, and her elegant, self-assured carriage. Mrs. Hart was considerably older than she, and although she didn’t consider herself unattractive or shabby by any means, still she found herself feeling a bit inadequate in her boss’s wife’s powerful presence. It was hard to believe how that woman could look so good all the time. She figured that it had to, first be good genes and then the love of such a good man that kept her so well preserved. Mr. Hart was a prince of a boss and a prince of a man. He really had a gift for making a woman feel special, and as his wife, Mrs. Hart had the good fortune to receive the constant full benefit of it.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Hart,” She answered. “And welcome back from New York. I wasn’t expecting you. Mr. Hart told me that you would call so that I could arrange for your car at that airport.”

“Well, Liz, when my plans changed, I changed right along with them and came home. I had to stay over last night, but when the opportunity arose this morning for me to get on an earlier flight, I took it. How’s Mr. Hart? Has J.J. arrived yet?”

“Yes, she has, and Mr. Hart is just fine. Salvatore had his car deliver J.J. about thirty minutes ago. She’s in with her father. Her hair is all done. Got those nails and toes all in order. She’s so cute. She stopped out here with me for a little bit when she got here, telling me about her weekend plans. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen J.J. excited over a boy. Is he cute? She wouldn’t elaborate. I guess that was too much information.”

“I’m afraid he is rather cute, and knowing her, that probably was more than she was willing to say.” Mrs. Hart sighed, smiling a small smile. “I’m not so sure how excited I am, though. This is a first for us, too, and what’s more, this weekend is panning out to be a full one. Keep your fingers crossed, Liz, and say a prayer for Mr. Hart and for me. He’ll be contending with J.J. being out with the young man, and I’ll be contending with him.”

“I will.” Liz laughed as she lifted the receiver and pressed the intercom button. Mr. Hart doted on his only child, who for years had been a confirmed tomboy. J.J. Hart was still a different sort of girl, athletic and unaffected, an individual; but lately she seemed to be taking on an air that was a lot more attractively feminine, and that  had to be making her father very anxious.

“Yes, Liz.” The male voice spoke through the speaker on her desk.

“J.J., your mother’s here.” She announced when the indicator light said that he was on speaker on his end.

After Mrs. Hart left her to enter the office, Liz realized that she had completely bypassed her boss to page his daughter. Although she regretted the gaffe to which he probably hadn’t paid any attention, she was amused by it just the same. J.J. Hart had that kind of effect on a person. Like her mother, the child commanded attention just by entering a room- she always had, even as a very little girl. Her blue eyes and the look they usually conveyed were riveting. She always seemed to be assessing, taking stock, checking things out,  just like her father. And having inherited all of his technological savvy, his diplomacy and his charisma, as well as her mother’s good looks, she was the darling of the Jonathan Hart Towers.

Liz wondered to herself how many years it would be before another secretary, seated at that same desk in that outer office, would be greeting a visitor to that private floor, pushing the intercom button, and saying to the person seated inisde, behind the CEO’s desk, “Ms. Hart, your appointment is here to see you.”

___________________________________________________________

J.J., I’m in love with Los Angeles. I love the feel of it already. It’s so pretty here. I even like the smog. It kind of adds to the legend and the glamour. Downtown is great. I can’t wait to see the rest of it.

How long have you been here?

About an hour or so. We’re staying downtown at the Westin on South Figueroa. The Bonaventure?

I know exactly where that is. My father’s building is about ten minutes from there. He’s had some business breakfasts there. In fact, you can see the  Hart Towers from there if you’re on the right side of the hotel. Are you and your father staying in the all-suites tower?

Yeah. A real nice suite. I’m loving it. I feel so cosmopolitan.

I’ll have to bring you here so that you can see what Hart Industries looks like, and so you can know what to look for once you get back to the hotel. You can see the building from that tower where you are. Maybe we’ll get a chance to come down here while we’re out so you can see the inside for yourself. I can show you around.

You’re at your father’s building now?

Um-hmm, I’m waiting for my mother to come and pick me up to take me to lunch. She’s flying in from a business trip and coming straight here just to take me. She needs to give me the speech.

Speech?

You know. The one they give you when they don’t want you shaming them by having too good a time while you’re busy having a good time.

Oh, yeah, that speech. My mother came to Boston when she brought my tux. She gave me her part of the speech then. My father gave me his part on the plane on the way here. He was talking to me like I have some kind of latent pervert tendencies or something.

So like, do you?

No comment- at this point.

You are so silly. I can’t wait for you to meet my friends. Some of them will be at the club tomorrow night, but you’ll meet most of them, all the really good ones, tonight, if we can get away for a bit. We’re supposed to all hook up at the marina.

Ooh, the marina! Off the Pacific? Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve been on the west coast stateside. I’ve been to Europe and all up and down the Atlantic on the east coast. I’ve been to a couple of Pacific islands, but that’s not the same as being here. I love boats and the water. I love the Atlantic, but I can’t wait to put my feet into the Pacific here in California.

I know you love boats. My friend, Chase does, too. I told him all about you, and that I would bring you down. Their family has a sailboat and a powerboat there. They’re on the water all the time. Chase wants you to see the sailboat since you sail. He just got a motorcycle, too. A Harley.

I’m so excited, J.! But I’m a little nervous, too.

How come?

My father is making me go to see your father this afternoon and talk with him.

How come?

Because we’ll be together this weekend, you and me. He wants me to talk to your father first. So what should I expect?

Teddy, have you ever seen the Lion King?

The play or the movie?

Either one.

I saw both. You know I love cartoons, so of course, I went to see the movie. When the stage version came to town, I had fifth row seats on opening night. I saw both the movie and the play more than once. I loved it.

Well, so did I. The characters stay pretty much the same in both types of productions. That’s the only time that I ever watched something aimed at kids that I could relate to. After a couple of times, I figured out why. You know the character, Mufasa? The daddy lion? Simba’s father?

Yeah.

Well, when it comes to guys and me, my father’s Mufasa.

That would make you Simba.

Something like that. Actually, at my house, it’s more like the Lion Queen, and I’m still Simba. But when it comes to me going out with you, you’llbe dealing with Mufasa, the daddy lion.

So you’re saying I shouldn’t look him in the eye or anything?

No. By all means, look him in the eye. If you don’t, he won’t respect you. It doesn’t matter if my daddy doesn’t like you. It does matter if he doesn’t respect you. They’re not the same thing, you know.

I didn’t know. I’ve never thought about it until just now, but I guess you do have a point. So what advice can you give me?

Just be yourself, Teddy. He’ll see clean through anything else. It’s not like he’s never met you before. Keep in mind, he did see us kissing that time, and I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten it. My father is not easily fooled, even by the best of them. Just being a kid, you don’t stand a chance of trying it. Your best bet is to just be honest. Just be you.

Is he going to eat me up?

And spit you out probably. Then he’ll sit back and pick his teeth afterward. Check through your bones to make sure he didn’t leave anything good. But in the end, we get to go out. Just keep that in mind while he’s doing you. It’s sport with him, I think. He’s a contender, an elder, and he needs to feel like he’s got you young boys where he wants you.

I guess I can handle that. Geez J., this is a real first. I’ve never been serious enough before about taking a girl out that I had to go meet her father.

What? You don’t think it’s worth it?

Please, I can hardly wait to see you, J. I’d jump through flaming hoops if you were on the other side. I’ve come all the way across the country to see you. Dealing with your father is just the final few steps. Guess what? My father rented me my own car for the weekend so that I can get you home on time, and so I don’t mess him up by having the car. I won’t be having to hurry and get back to him and all of that. So, is the country club event seriously posh?

It’s in Bel Air, Teddy.

My mother said it would be posh. Well, I have my monkey suit. She had it tailored and brought it to me. A bow tie. Who would have thought? Me, Teddy, in the summertime, wearing a bow tie. I guess I can stand feeling like I’m being choked all night if it means I’m going to be able to spend that evening with you.

Oh, this is going to be the bomb, Teddy. I have such marvelous plans. What time are you coming to see Daddy today?

I’m going to call him right after I get off the phone with you and set it up. I’m so nervous.

Whatever you do, do not let him see you sweat. He gets off on that. And Teddy, if you happen to see the butt of a gun sticking out from under his vest or something, don’t pay that any attention. He does that for effect.

A gun, huh? I’ll try not to sweat, J., but I can’t promise anything. With my stomach problems, I’ve learned to control my emotions, so I ought to do okay, I guess, as long as he doesn’t press me too hard. I’ve only met him up close a couple of times. He was no joke then, and that time all I was doing the first time was sitting with you. The second time, I was pushing you in a wheelchair to the common room in the dormitory. The third time, I met up with him, I didn’t even stop. I just walked on past.

I was wearing a nightgown the first time. The second time, I was in my robe, and the third time we were kissing. I think that sort of made him a little crazy. Just be you when you see him, Teddy. That’s your best bet. I’ll see you later.

J.J. had gone down to the mezzanine of the main tower of the Hart Industries building when she left her father’s office. She clicked off from her call with Teddy and turned around to gaze down over the railing onto which she had been leaning. The rear atrium was below. It was the spot where many Hart employees took their lunch break or just came to sit and talk. She saw several people whom she recognized, and she backed away to keep from being seen and having to speak. She needed a few quiet minutes alone to think.

      Daddy.

He knew something was up, but she couldn’t let him in on it. If he got wind that the reason Ollie beat Wesley to a pulp was because she had almost been run over by a car because of Wesley, it would set her father off for real. She could tell that he was already agitated about the whole thing in general. He had been holding back for just the right moment. More than anything, she didn’t want there to be any more undue anxiety for anyone on her account. It was enough that her parents knew that Wesley was being a pain.

Beside all of that, there was no denying that she had been somewhat at fault. If her mother had found out what happened and that she had been on that motorcycle at the time, it might have put a serious crimp in her weekend plans. Jennifer Hart had no sense of timing or decorum when it came to lowering the boom. She did it anytime, anyplace, under any circumstances, or in any situation she felt warranted it; and this one probably did. This time she had “pushed the envelope” a little farther than she knew she should have. As much as she hated to admit it, she understood that the reason her mother objected to her riding on motorcycles with her friends was because she thought that she and they were all too reckless. The Duchess, a more cautious person by nature, felt that they all took too many chances, carried things too far, and that her daughter riding with boys on Harleys just wasn’t proper or safe.

But what did she know? The heck with proper. Riding with the wind was such a rush that safety and propriety were relatively unimportant issues.

That episode at the traffic light had been an anomaly, a once in a lifetime freak thing. She hadn’t had any problems at all that night until Wesley and the messy crap that came with him entered the picture. She and Chase wouldn’t have almost gotten hit by that car if it hadn’t been for Wesley. It was too bad that Ollie ended up being dragged into it, but it was great that he got to vent his frustrations in the manner that he had. It took a broken nose to get Wesley to hear what Ollie had been trying so hard to just tell him. J.J. reflected that her mother had a thing she that would say about some people not being heard until they screamed. Ollie’s fists had certainly been screaming that night.

Even with all the craziness that had happened, nothing worse than Wesley’s broken nose had come of it. It was exactly what Wesley deserved for how he treated people. The rest of it wasn’t worth mentioning. Especially if mentioning it meant  having to hear her mother fuss, having to go on lockdown and not seeing Teddy, or having her father put a hit out on Wesley; which she was sure he would have done if he had known exactly how close she and Chase had come to being wiped out at that intersection. But in the end, nobody who mattered had gotten hurt, and it was over and done with.

Outside of the people immediately involved, nobody else really knew first-hand what had happened. She hadn’t even told Marnie about the actual incident. She was fairly certain that Chase hadn’t said anything, and she’d heard that Ollie and Wesley had kept mum. Since then, everyone else had been put on alert to squash the rumor mill before it got going too strongly. She couldn’t risk even having speculation getting to the wrong parties. That one detail was bound to somehow leak out in time, but if it could stay suppressed and not reach either of her parents before the weekend was past and Teddy was on his way back to Boston, that would be just fine. By that time, if it did get out, she’d probably be so worn out anyway that the inevitable lockdown until school started back might not be such an unwelcome thing.

She sat down on one of the benches that lined the wall and leaned back to close her eyes and relax. It was essential for her to get it together before she headed back to her father. Jonathan Hart could sniff out and identify apprehension and uncertainty in a person like a bloodhound on the scent. It was his strong suit in business, and he was really good at  detecting it in her.

There were so many things to consider and to put into their proper perspective. She had been trying to consider them all week, but her thoughts were coming in jerks and jumbled blurs, and she hadn’t really been able to focus on any one thing. It had even begun to affect her life in general. A couple of mornings before, she’d awakened to discover that she had left the dog outside all night. That same day, while she lie across her bed, thinking, she nearly let the bathtub overflow. Then, that morning, she had burned her father’s toast after mistakenly changing the setting on the toaster. Crazy stuff like that seemed to be happening a lot lately.

Focusing on getting back to her usual calm and collected self, she wiped her moist, clammy palms on her jeans. Anticipation of the upcoming weekend was exciting, but a little intimidating at the same time. There were just so many things to look forward to, so much she was eager to do, and so much to make her nervous.

What in the world was it about that one boy that made her heart race in that way?

___________________________________________________________

Mr. Lamb hastily made his exit through the private elevator as Jonathan got up to come from behind his desk to greet his wife. He and Jennifer had been married for years, but still he hated being away from her, and he was always happy to be reunited with her after a separation, even an overnight one.

“Hi, darling.” He smiled, inviting her into his open arms. “What a wonderful surprise. I thought you were coming in later, and that you were going to call and let me know your flight number so that I could send a car for you. I think J.J. was planning to be here for a while.” He hugged her tightly to him. “You feel so good. Welcome home.”

“You feel good too.” She smiled up into his beaming face. “It’s good to be home. Pat arranged all that before I left New York. I had booked that commercial flight for late last night, but Bill was there and he told me that he could arrange to get me out first thing in the morning. He arranged a private flight. You know he knows everybody in that field. He had me flown in this morning. Pat had already taken care of my ground transportation while I was there with them and for when I came home. It turned out that all I had to do was be in the right places at the arranged times.”

“You’re a very well-connected lady.” He remarked after kissing her on both cheeks.

“Yes, but my best, most secure connection is holding me in his arms, and it’s so good to be back in them.”

After sharing their first kiss of the day, she unwrapped herself from him to go put her purse and her portfolio down on the couch where J.J.’s things still lie.

“Where’s your daughter?” She asked upon seeing them, while she removed the jacket to her emerald green suit. “Did she get everything done?”

“She’s here in the building someplace. She got back from the salon a while ago. I should tell you, she’s cut her hair.”

Jennifer stood upright and whipped around to face him. “Cut her hair? How much?”

“Not a lot.” He replied. “Maybe an inch or two, perhaps a little more. She’s real slick. She had it feathered in the back and then shaped into a wedge so that it’s not so noticeable, but you know that I noticed it.”

“Jonathan, that girl is such a little pill. She mentioned in passing to me not long ago that she thought she should have it cut. Now it seems she’s trying to ease it off a little at a time. Well, I’m not having it. I’ll talk with her about it this afternoon at lunch. I know it’s on her head, but I’ve told her that she and that hair belong to me until she’s eighteen. Where did she say that she was headed when she left here?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t say. She got a call, and she had to leave me in order to take it.”

“Leave you? To take a call?  Jonathan, is she still glued to that phone? Why did she have to leave to take a call? Wait, don’t tell me. Teddy’s arrived.”

He nodded as he sat down next to where she had placed herself on the couch after sliding J.J.’s things to the other end.

“I guess so. From the look on her face and going by how fast she got out of here, that’s who I’m assuming it was.”

She slowly shook her head and chuckled softly, “Who would have thought…”

He caught onto her line of thought. “I wouldn’t have. That’s for sure. I thought she’d give my heart a couple more years. But I guess it could have been worse, couldn’t it. We could have had one like Marnie. She’s liked boys since what? Age six? Seven?”

“At least the second grade.” Jennifer laughed. “She’s always been a hot little mess in that department. There’s always been some boy or boys trailing behind her. And it’s not like she wants them for anything. She simply craves the attention, and they’re too simple to realize that.”

He had to laugh, too; Jennifer’s observation was right on the money.

“Sometimes you don’t care.” He said. “Sometimes it’s enough to just be able to get close. It’s a young guy thing..”

He’d had occasion to see Marnie in action, and he’d felt sympathy for some of the boys whom he knew had fallen victim to her overt coquettishness. Marnie was a collector, but she wasn’t giving away anything. A guy could pay her tribute, but he got little more than a smile, a kiss, or perhaps if he was extremely lucky, an occasional feel in return. She reminded him a lot of Jennifer’s aunt, Sabrina. Sabrina might be getting up there in age, but she was still drawing them in. Her date book stayed full, and there was always a man or two about her house. And age meant nothing to Sabrina. Eventually, he knew,  it wouldn’t matter to Marnie, either.

“How did your meeting go?” He asked, changing the subject back to focus on Jennifer. “Did you get everything all worked out?”

“Actually, yes.” And he noticed the glow that lit her face as she spoke. “Remember the magazine piece J.J. and I did together? The one she wanted me to write about the girls involved in that mess, you know, after her own bad experience last spring?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it gave me an idea for a short story which I submitted to Pat to take a look at for me. She thought it was good, so I kind of built upon it and wrote a kind of young people’s novel from it.”

“You didn’t tell me about that, Jennifer. That’s great. I didn’t know you wrote for that audience.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t, but I was, I guess, inspired behind that incident. It was a story that begged telling. Anyway to cut to the chase, it’s up for an award and that’s really why I had to go to New York. Pat was supposed to be getting the book ready for publication, but she took a shot and submitted the manuscript to the committee when she heard they were looking for that type of work. It wound up being nominated. I had to sign the release papers while I was there.”

“Well,” He said, beaming proudly and taking her by the hands to squeeze them gently in his. “That certainly calls for a celebration. What do you say? A quiet dinner for two? A little dancing?” He leaned in closer to run his finger under her collar, lightly tracing her collar bone. “A moonlight cruise?”

“How about a quiet night at home?” She asked. “Just you and I. J.J. will be out for most of it. We can spend some time together, just talking.”

The intercom buzzed. “Mr. Hart.”

“Yes, Liz?” He had placed it on speaker before leaving his desk.

“Excuse me, but you have a call from a Mr. Theodore Baxter, Jr. I would have taken a message, but he said that you were expecting him to phone you.”

“That I am. Would you please give him directions to my house, and tell him to meet me there at four?”

“Yes, sir.”

When he looked back to Jennifer, she was watching him with a look of warning in her eye. He released her hand and held up his own in surrender.

“I promise you I won’t grill him.” He said. “I just want to talk with him, and make sure we’re on the same page.”

“You don’t need to press him to that page, Jonathan. I know you. J.J. likes this boy a lot and she won’t appreciate it if you scare him like I know you enjoy doing.”

He tried to hide the mischievous grin that was threatening to stretch his face. His wife knew him only too well. It was true; he did get a kick out terrorizing J.J.’s male acquaintances in the same way that Jennifer’s father once tried to do him. He had been too old and way too confident to intimidate by the time he met Stephen Edwards, but he did like and appreciate the man’s style. Her father had clearly delivered the message of how precious Jennifer was to him, and that if she was going to become a part of his life, he had better be about the business of treating her right and keeping her in the style to which she had become accustomed. It was the same message he wanted the boys who cruised his house, trying to get close to J.J., to get from him. And being that they were so young and impressionable, they were ripe for the picking.

“I don’t try to scare them. Can I help it if they’re a little timid to begin with? Besides, like I’ve told you time and time again, I know what it’s like to be a seventeen year old boy. No matter how good your intentions and your upbringing might be, there’s always that little demon sitting on your left shoulder, poking you with that pitchfork, whispering things into your ear, telling you where to look, telling you what to try and touch.”

As he had been speaking, he had been watching Jennifer’s long, crossed legs. His eyes traveled slowly up her torso and rested upon the ivory silk blouse she wore. The top three buttons had been left undone, and just the tiniest bit of the ivory lace from her bra highlighted the ample lightly freckled cleavage visible from his somewhat elevated position over her.

Her voice cut through the swirling, lust-driven mist clouding his brain. “He’s talking to you right now, isn’t he?”

“Yeah,” He murmured through lips that suddenly seemed to require moisture. “He’s been jumping on and off on my shoulder for as long as I can remember. Once you came into the picture, he seems to have set up permanent residence. After all this time, you should be able to see the little prick marks all around my ear.”

“What’s he saying now?”

“You don’t want to know.” He answered. “But then again, knowing you… Look, if J.J. does go out of the house with this Teddy-fellow this evening, make sure she has on long pants and something that fastens all the way up to her neck. I know that joker probably has two of those little guys riding his left shoulder, and the pitchfork tends to be a bit sharper when you’re that young and still have that tender skin.”

“Jonathan, it’s called a trident when the devil is wielding it.”

“Pitchfork, trident, whatever.” He whispered, leaning in to her again, sliding his arm about her, making sure that his hand fit snugly into his favorite warm spot right underneath her left breast. “It serves the same purpose, and it aims for the same results.”

___________________________________________________________

“May I have wine with my lunch?” J.J. asked her mother as she sat across the table from her at the bistro to which they had come.

“I am not your father, nor am I your grandfather, or your Aunt Sabrina. They indulge you. I do not.” Jennifer replied without looking up from her menu. “No, you may not have wine with your lunch. You knew what I was going to say when you asked. Why do you like to test me?”

J.J. shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I live in hope that one day I’ll catch you slipping.”

“Give it up, Sweetie. When it comes to you, I don’t slip. I can’t afford to slip; you’d have a field day. Your father tells me that you had your hair cut. We didn’t talk about your doing that.”

J.J. rolled her eyes. Her daddy didn’t miss anything when it came to her. He liked for her to look nice, but he sure had a thing about that hair. He didn’t say no about much, but when it came to that hair and trying to cut it…

Self-consciously, she reached and pushed the pony tail off the front of her shoulder, moving it to hang down her back. “I just had my ends trimmed, that’s all.”

“It’s a little more than ends, J.J., when there’s over a three-quarters of an inch involved. Your father says it’s more like two inches, maybe more if you’ve had it wedged like he says that you have.”

As soon as she thought it, it raced past her tongue, “It’s my hair.” And J.J. instantly regretted how insolent it sounded when she said it.

Jennifer raised her eyes from the menu to look across the table. “Getting flip, are we?”

“No,” J.J. contritely answered, knowing that in order to be able to present her case, she needed to sound a lot less defensive. “I’m just stating fact, Mom. I am the one who has to deal with it. It is on my head.”

“And that head still resides under my roof.” Jennifer deftly countered. “I’ve told you, when you’re eighteen and out of the house, you can get pierced, tattooed, go naked, eat all the fattening junk you want, be bald; do anything you want to do- when you are grown. You are not yet grown.”

“But other girls get their hair cut.” J.J. protested, careful this time to check her tone. “They get it cut, dyed, streaked, crimped, braided, twisted- everything. Their mothers let them. Their fathers don’t get all bent out of shape just because they do that stuff to their hair. I trim mine a little, and I get the electric chair.”

“Those girls don’t belong to Jonathan and Jennifer Hart. Most girls are not blessed with a head of hair like yours, and some girls don’t have mothers who are as concerned as they should be about giving their daughters time to grow up. I care very deeply about that. It’s important to me that you take it one step at a time, and that you enjoy each one of those steps. Whether you realize it or not, you are entering the best phase of your life. You have plenty of time to be grown. Enjoy being a little girl, J.J. It doesn’t last that long, and when it’s over; it’s over.”

“Well, what if-”

“Let it go, J.J. There is no way you can win this one; there’s no point in trying to debate it. I really don’t think you want to be fighting with me at this stage of the game anyway. You have a lot riding on this weekend.”

Realizing that this was one of those battles that probably wasn’t worth waging, considering that the odds of her winning were zero to whatever, and taking into account what all she had to lose, J.J. quietly conceded, “Okay.”

And then she changed the subject entirely. “How come Daddy didn’t come to lunch with us? I thought he would have come with us since you came back early from your trip. He likes French.”

Jennifer’s eyes shot across the table to see if she could detect any of the double entendre that J.J. was becoming so skilled at using. Along with his ways, J.J. had inherited her father’s naughty wit as well, and occasionally, as she was getting older and becoming more worldly, she tried to slip things in. This time, however, it appeared she was innocent of it; she was on the other side of the table, seemingly studying her menu in earnest.

“He said he had some loose ends to tie up at work, and then he had to get home. Teddy is coming over to see him.”

J.J. looked up. “To our house?”

“Yes.”

Jennifer discreetly peeked over her menu to gauge J.J.’s reaction to that news.

J.J. was turned around, scanning the restaurant, beginning to fuss. “What’s taking the waiter so long to come and take our order?”

“Relax, J.J.” Jennifer almost laughed. “Teddy’s not coming to see your father until four. We’ll be home in plenty of time.”

Blushing at being caught acting so obvious, J.J. looked down to her menu and muttered. “I’m just hungry, that’s all.”

Jennifer reached across the table and pulled the menu down from her daughter’s embarrassed face to look her in the eyes.

“It’s okay if you like him, J.J. You don’t have to try and fool me. I won’t make fun, and I won’t get too far into your business. I won’t tell you any fairy tales either.”

“Fairy tales?”

“Fairy tales. You’re beginning a new phase of your life, and it’s a very serious one. It’s going to set the foundation for things to come, and you need to know the truth about boys, girls, men, women, and the dynamics between them, not fairy tale stuff. You’re going to be learning, and some things are going to confuse you. Please know that you can always come to me. You may not always want to tell me things. You may not always want to hear what I have to say, but I’ll be there just the same, and I will always tell you the truth.

You see, with you, I’m going to call things like I see them. It’s goes back to what I said about you taking your time. When I think things are going too far, too fast, or that they’re getting out of hand, I am going to let you know, and I hope you understand when I do, that I’m not trying to mess up your fun or get into your affairs, or tell you what to do. All I want you to do is listen and then think before you act. I’ve been there. I’ve been there a lot. I’ve been in deep, and I’ve gotten hurt at times. I tried to do things too fast. I wanted to be too grown too quickly.

I want you to understand when I’m talking with you that I know what I’m talking about. I didn’t have anyone to tell me that real life is not based upon fairy tales; that relationships aren’t like the ones you read about in books. I think if my mother had lived, she would have taught those things to me. Instead, I had to find that out the hard way. You have a mother, and I won’t have you hurt like that without letting you know that you can be. You may still get hurt, you may not always be happy, but you at least you won’t be blindsided by things unless you close your eyes and choose to be.”

J.J., who had been listening intently to the words she hadn’t ever heard her mother say to her before, put her menu down and reached for her mother’s left hand, which lie on the table. She fiddled with her mother’s ring as she spoke to her.

“You’ve never told me fairy tales when it comes to real life stuff. I’ve always appreciated how you’re so straight up with me about those things. Most of the time, I don’t mind you getting into my business. Most of the time, I don’t have any anyway. But regardless, I like how you don’t pry a lot, and I think you understand me better than anybody. I trust you totally; but then, you already know that. Mom, I know that it might seem like I don’t listen a lot of the time, but I do hear you. I might not always do things the way you’d have me do them, but I do hear what you say and I do respect your opinions. You said that sometimes things might confuse me. They already do. Can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

“Mom, I’m kind of a wreck these days. Ever since Teddy told me that he was coming, I’ve been feeling like this. The closer it gets to him being here, the worse it gets. I talked to him a little while ago, and when I got off the phone, I was just through. I don’t know what I’m feeling or why. I like him- a lot- but I still don’t want a boyfriend. I hope so much that he doesn’t go there. I don’t want to feel what I think I’m feeling. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know exactly what it is that I’m feeling. All I know is that I haven’t ever felt like this before. And you know something else?”

“What?”

“I want him here so badly, but in a way, I don’t want him here at all. Does that make any sense?”

Jennifer nodded and smiled knowingly. “Yes it does. Teddy represents a significant change in your life. That’s why you feel like you don’t want him here. You’re resisting that change. It’s normal and it’s natural to do that. His being here in Los Angeles is moving you out of your comfort zone. That much, I know about.”

“You’ve felt that way before? You’ve been moved out of your comfort zone by a guy?”

“A few times.”

“Did Daddy make you feel that way?”

“A little bit in the beginning. He made me change my mind about a lot of things that I thought I was so sure of up to that point. But it didn’t last long with him. I knew he was the one, and after I got past it, I always wanted to be with him and to have him with me. We were right for each other, and we both knew it. But you know that story.”

J.J. smiled mischievously at her mother. Indeed she did know the story. What her parents had couldn’t even be called a whirlwind courtship. They had been struck by lightning, or hit by one of Cupid’s largest arrows, but then, she didn’t believe in Cupid at all. That had been one of those fluke things, one of those things that only happens to other people. Both of them had just gotten lucky running into each other like they did. She’d get killed by both of them for “running into” some guy in the way that her mother had, no matter how old she was when it happened.

“Over the years,” Jennifer continued. “Being with your father has taught me that moving around outside of my comfort zone isn’t such a bad thing. That’s why he’s right for me.”

“So, are you saying that Teddy isn’t the one for me, and that’s why I’m all mixed up and uncomfortable like this?”

“I’m not saying that at all. Look, let’s get one thing straight. For you, right now, Teddy or anybody being the one for you is not an issue. I was way older than you when I met your father, and by that time, I had been through enough to be able to recognize the right guy from the wrong guys. That comes with experience. With experience, you get something to which you can compare and contrast other things and people. Secondly, keep in mind that you’re only sixteen, and that you’ve got a lot of living in front of you. God willing, you’re going to be grown a lot longer than you’re going to be a child. Teddy’s probably the first of many young men who will be running in and out of your life. This weekend, while he’s here, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

“What’s that? What have I been doing?”

“Just continue to have fun, J.J. Just keep being you and having fun.”

“You sure you want me to be me while I’m having that fun, Mom?”

“Absolutely. I know that I’ve called you a Bohemian from time to time, and you are one still, but quite honestly, the J.J. I know and love has her own mind, and she follows her own heart. She does do some things from time to time that give her mother pause for concern. But my J.J. doesn’t get talked into things. In fact, it’s probably more to the contrary. My J.J. considers the consequences of her actions. Now that doesn’t always stop her from doing whatever it is she wants to do, or keep her from doing things she knows that she shouldn’t, but at the time that she does them, it’s her choice and nobody else’s, and however the cards fall, to her credit I have to say that she accepts her responsibilities and/or her punishment. I know that I fuss about some of the things you do, but J.J., please know that I really do admire you. Those qualities that I mentioned, I respect them in you. I wish I’d had them so firmly established at your age. You’re still a mess, but you’re my mess. I just wish you wouldn’t try to grow up any faster than it’s naturally going to happen. Take your time. I think you’re going to be a fine young woman.”

J.J. lowered her eyes and smiled, blushing brightly.

“Well, that means a whole lot to me coming from you, Mom. But then, it’s not like I haven’t had a very good example to follow all my life. Thanks. And I will try to take my time. I think I’ll be more comfortable if I do.”

“That’s the name of the game, J.J. When you’re not sure about things like this right now, stay within your comfort zone. If it doesn’t feel right or you’re not sure, leave it alone.”

“Okay.”

Then J.J. looked back up, concern creasing her teen-smooth brow. “Do you think Daddy is going to work Teddy over like he does everybody else who has to come see him about seeing me?”

“More than likely.” Jennifer answered, going back to her menu.

“I sure hope he sticks around after.” J.J. mumbled.

J.J. sighed and nervously folded and then unfolded her own menu. She lay the menu down and picked up her napkin from the table, unfolding it and placing it in her lap. After a couple of seconds, she pulled it up from her lap and placed it in a heap back on the table. Again she turned to scan the area. “The service sure is getting slow here.”

Jennifer watched her daughter’s agitation with amusement.

“Relax.” She finally smiled as she reached across the table to pat her cheek reassuringly. “Everything is going to be fine. Just be you and have fun this weekend. Look, here comes our waiter now.”

___________________________________________________________

Having dispatched Jennifer upstairs to keep J.J. in her room for the time being, it was Jonathan who answered the knock at the front door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hart.”

The boy extended his hand. Jonathan took it, and was surprised, then satisfied with the confident grip he received in answer to his own.

“Teddy.” He said in greeting. “It’s good to see you again. Come in.”

Following the young man into the foyer, Jonathan quickly sized him up.

Jennifer’s observation was ringing loudly in his mind. She said that J.J. seemed to be attracted to guys who physically resembled her father: tall, broad shoulders, lots of dark hair, on the huskier side, but physically fit. Younger pictures of Jennifer’s father showed that at one time Stephen Edwards had also sported those same physical features. Maybe there was some truth to the idea that girls looked for their fathers in the men they selected for themselves. Teddy totally fit that bill. So did Chase. On an even larger scale, Tommy.

Not that sixteen-year-old J.J. Hart was going to be doing any exclusive selecting at that stage of the game. Not if her father had a say in it.

No wonder Wesley hadn’t cut it with her. Aside from all the other less desirable things about him; he was too slim, too blonde. Too arrogant, too stupid.

“Jeez, Mr. Hart,” Teddy was saying. “Your house- these grounds- it’s fantastic. Just beautiful and so peaceful. It’s like a park. I couldn’t believe the bridge and the pond. J.J. told me it was called Willow Pond, but I didn’t know it had a real pond and real willows. This must be a wonderful place in which to live twenty-four seven. It must be nice to come home to a place like this at the end of the day.”

When Teddy turned and he could better see it, awe and appreciation were reflected in his face. J.J. had good taste, too. Teddy was quite handsome. Even her Daddy had to admit that, no matter how begrudgingly.

“We like it.” He casually replied as he gestured for Teddy to take a seat on the couch while he went to the bar. “It’s home. May I fix you something to drink? Coke, Sprite, Ginger Ale?”

“No thanks, Sir. I’m too nervous.”

Jonathan was thrown off by that admission. It wasn’t in the plan for the boy to admit to that. Normally, he got his kicks from bursting through the show of paper-thin, youthful bravado that was usually put on for his benefit. Behind that, he didn’t really know what to say except to try to make him more at ease, which also hadn’t been in the game plan.

“No need to be nervous.” He found himself saying. “I just wanted to talk with you. I’d like to get to know a little more about you.”

After fixing himself a gin and tonic, he came over and took the seat facing Teddy who was watching him with what he could see were wary, but honest brown eyes. To his chagrin, despite his height and his size, he could see that the person seated before him was just a boy, and strangely enough, one with whom he instantly felt himself empathizing. Somehow, he was transported back to that first meeting with Jennifer’s father. He had been much older than Teddy was at that moment, but he had been very much in love with Jennifer. It really wouldn’t have mattered what her father had said or done to him. Nothing he could have said would have changed how he felt about her or changed his intentions toward her. All he could do in that situation was to be as honest as he could be with that mean old man who it seemed was set to dislike him from the outset.

That boy across from him was giving off that same air. It was evident that Teddy probably felt the same way as he had with Jennifer’s father: he might have been nervous, but he wasn’t really afraid. Jonathan had the sudden strange hope that he wasn’t making him feel as unwanted as Jennifer’s father had made him feel in those first moments of talking with him.

He pulled his vest around so that the shoulder holster he’d placed under it in anticipation of the visit, couldn’t possibly be seen.

“Tell me a little about yourself, Teddy.”

“I don’t know what it is you want to know, sir. If you’ll be more specific, I can be more specific in my answer. There’s quite a bit that I could tell you about me, but that’s probably not what you want to know.”

“Smart response.” Jonathan noted to himself. The boy was a clear thinker who needed clear parameters before he gave out answers. There was nothing wrong in that.

“All right,” Jonathan said aloud as he sat back to get himself in gear for the “interview”. “What is the most important thing that I should know about you since you’re going to be with my daughter this weekend?”

Teddy sat back, too. Jonathan thought he could almost see the wheels turning in that curly head.

“Well,” Teddy started out slowly. “You should know that I like your daughter very much, and that I would like to be her friend. You should know that I respect her. You should also know that I have three sisters, and I wouldn’t do anything to or with your daughter that I wouldn’t want somebody to do to or with my sisters. My father would skin me alive if I did anything out of the way with J.J., and he’d give whatever was left of me to you to finish off. But it’s not the fear of you guys that will keep me honest this weekend, though. It’s the regard I have for J.J. She’s the best. I wanted to meet her a long time before I was lucky enough to run into her at the reunion. She’s everything I thought she would be. I didn’t come this far to mess up with her, Mr. Hart, or with you.”

Jonathan was slightly taken aback by Teddy’s directness. He decided to cut to his “straight through the heart” question.

“You planning to kiss her?”

“I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t.” Teddy candidly answered. “I know that you know that I already have kissed her. That time, I thought I wasn’t going to see her again for a long while. But this time, we have more time together. I want to get to know her better, but not like that. You can be sure that nothing more than that will happen this weekend. And even with that, it will only happen if she wants it to happen. I just want to spend time with her and have fun, and like I told you, I didn’t come this far to mess up. I’ve done my research on you, Mr. Hart. You’re an admirable man, someone I respect. I want you to be able to respect me, too.”

Jonathan hoped that the boy didn’t see it when he had to swallow- hard. He was rarely caught at a loss for words, but at that moment that was just where he found himself, and the airless gap had him choking. Earlier that year, Jennifer had also brought it to his attention that their daughter surrounded herself with young people in possession of firmly established personalities. She’d described them as having “big personalities”. Teddy Baxter, Jr. was obviously yet another “big personality” to be added to that circle.

He leaned forward, placing his hands on his knees to look Teddy in the eye.

“Teddy,” He said. “My daughter is a very good girl. You seem like an upstanding young man. Do not let me down, and don’t call me “Sir” any more. Mr. Hart will do.”

Teddy smiled. “I won’t, Si- Mr. Hart.”

___________________________________________________________

Jennifer sat in the big chair in J.J.’s bedroom as J.J. paced, her arms crossed and fussing, next to her.

“I don’t know why I couldn’t at least go down and say hello first. I could have at least tried to put him at ease before he went in to Daddy. Daddy’s probably down there raking him back and forth across the hottest coals he could find.”

“J.J., please sit down.”

“I can’t. I just know Daddy’s down there giving Teddy the third degree- rubber hose, naked light bulb, the works.”

“Your father wouldn’t do that.” Jennifer assured her, leaning forward to pat the hassock. “Come on. Sit down.”

J.J. paced a little more. Then she straddled the hassock and plopped dejectedly down before her mother. She snatched off the white baseball cap she had been wearing, flipping her ponytail through the hole in the back of it as she did.

“Yes he would.” She declared. “And you know it. He’s probably down there, sipping his drink, making sure that Teddy sees the butt of his gun, looking at him all hard, asking him a million embarrassing questions. You know how he is when it comes to that. Did you even try to soften him up some?”

“I spoke with him, if that makes you feel better. He’s only looking out for you. Jeans and a tee shirt? Is that what you’re going to wear? All the beautiful outfits that you have, and that’s what you choose to wear on a first date?”

J.J. looked down at what she had on: a pair of black jeans, some white running shoes, and a black tee shirt that read “Cute, But Psycho”.

“What’s wrong with this?” She asked. “We’re just going to hang out. That’s if Daddy let’s me out of my crate.”

Jennifer snickered. “You’re not a puppy. He knows that. And you aren’t kept that close. Just last Saturday, you were all over LA without any adult supervision, doing whatever you wanted.”

J.J. stiffened, waiting for the other shoe to fall, wondering how much her mother actually knew about that night. She didn’t dare look up to see how her eyes were looking. Jennifer Hart had a way of knowing things and not letting on until the opportune moment.

When she didn’t elaborate, J.J. took the opportunity to try to turn the conversation. “How late may I stay out? Providing Daddy lets me go. He wouldn’t let me go skating last night because you weren’t here.”

“You made up for it. He told me you had a pool party instead.”

“It wasn’t a pool party. My friends just came over here since I couldn’t go out.”

“And your father fed them, I heard.”

“He ate crap, too. Did he tell you that while he was busy ratting me out?”

“What have I told you about saying “crap”? It isn’t the least bit ladylike.”

“Okay, but I could not believe that he wouldn’t let me go skating. What did he think? That I was going to go wild because you weren’t around.”

“I wouldn’t let you go skating, J.J.. I told him to keep you at home.”

Immediately chastened, J.J. looked up sheepishly at her mother. “You? How come?”

“Because you haven’t yet told me the whole story about last weekend.”

Still feeling around in the dark and realizing with dread that they were right back at the spot from which she had tried to run, J.J tentatively ventured, “Tell you the whole story about what?”

“Let’s say we start with Marnie’s car.”

“What car?” Was the knee-jerk response to that inquiry.

Jennifer slightly cocked her head, and her eyes bore down into J.J.’s lowered face. “You know full well what car.”

J.J. slowly shook her head in surrender. The jig was quite obviously up.

“How did you find out?”

“Purely by coincidence. It seems Marnie emailed Pat a picture of it, and Pat printed it out and left it on her desk. I saw it when I was there at Pat’s place while I was in New York. I was taking a call, and there it was, right there for me to see. Marnie was in the picture, standing next to a brand new red BMW, grinning like a Siamese cat who swallowed a prized canary. The message said, “Don’t tell the Duchess.” Who might the Duchess be, J.J.? And why shouldn’t she be told?”

J.J. stared miserably down at the hassock, following the pattern of the brocade cloth with an index finger, trying hard to formulate an acceptable answer.

After a few silent moments, Jennifer reached out and tapped her shoulder. “I asked you a question.”

“Actually, you asked me two questions, and I’m trying to come up with some decent answers to both of them.”

“The truth will set you free, my little love.”

J.J. sighed and finally looked up.

“The Duchess is you. But you knew that already. I know you have that figured out. And we didn’t want you to know about the car because I was afraid that you wouldn’t like me riding in it with her. Marnie was afraid that you would be all over her about being all over. She knows that you think she’s wild.”

“Think?”

“We were just going to keep it quiet until school started back.”

“And I was only going to be let in on it then because I was bound to find out about it once I saw her driving in it at the school.”

“Well… Yeah.”

“And why am I “the Duchess”?”

“It isn’t anything bad. Marnie named you that because of how you look so nice all the time and how you carry yourself. She thinks you have a lot of class. I do too.”

Jennifer sat back in the chair and folded her arms, eyeing J.J. in a way that made the girl drop her own eyes back down to the hassock

“Well, I have always preferred to not have nicknames, but I guess I can live with that one if that’s the reason why it was bestowed upon me.”

“Nicknames are terms of endearment, Mom.” J.J. said, hopefully looking up at her mother. “Not disrespect.”

“In some cases.” Jennifer reminded her. “You also neglected to tell me about Wesley and Ollie having that fight up on Santa Monica that night. I know that you know about it, but you haven’t even mentioned it.”

“They just had a fight.” J.J. said shrugging her shoulders. “What’s there to tell?”

“What was the fight about? And don’t you sit there and try to snowball me. Under normal circumstances, if anybody had a fight like that, and you knew anything about it, it would be dancing all over your tongue. This time, there’s not been a word, even though it was your two good friends, Wesley and Ollie. The fact that you haven’t said a word about it speaks volumes to me. You know I can read you like a book, little girl, and I am a very voracious reader, especially literature of the J.J. genre. ”

J.J. knew that, but she couldn’t afford to elaborate. She was too close to her weekend. In fact, it was right below her, on the next floor, just waiting for her to get there.

“I guess Ollie just got sick of Wesley dogging him.” She stalled. “He had Ollie’s car, and he was driving it. Ollie must have wanted his car back or something.”

“J.J.” Jennifer’s tone implied an impatient warning.

“Mom, please.” J.J. cried, her voice rising an octave in tune with the panic she was beginning to feel creeping in on her. “I wasn’t in the car with them. How can I know for sure?”

There was a knock, and Jonathan stuck his head in.

“Teddy’s waiting downstairs for you.” He said. “Why don’t you show him the grounds and then after you two have dinner, you can show him around LA. If your mother is finished with you, you can come on down now.”

J.J. first looked to her father. It was out of character for him to be that pleasant about her spending time with a boy. Then she looked to her mother, who after staring skeptically back at her for a few scary moments, finally nodded her consent.

Grabbing her cap, J.J. put it back on her head, quickly threading her ponytail through the back of it. Jennifer quickly leaned forward and firmly took hold of J.J.’s shoulder to whisper in her ear, “You know that I’m not finished with this.”

“I figured that.” J.J. whispered back. “But thank you for cutting me loose now.” She turned her head to look into her mother’s face which was inches from hers. “Tonight?”

“You can count on it. Don’t miss curfew by a moment. I will be waiting.”

“I won’t.” J.J. said, and then hearing herself, she suddenly turned back from where she’d started to get up to clarify it,  “Miss curfew, I mean.”

She bolted for the door, and as she passed him, Jonathan thought he detected traces of rare fear in her eyes.

“What was that all about?” He asked.

Jennifer was rising from the chair, moving J.J.’s genie puppet from her lap.

Carefully placing it back into the spot from which she had taken it when she sat down, rearranging its limbs into their original position, she matter-of-factly answered his question.

“Pinched nerve.”

___________________________________________________________

After a brief meeting in the great room with Teddy and her parents, and after introducing him to Marie as they passed through the kitchen, J.J. walked with Teddy, showing him the rear grounds to her home.

“Marie is arranging for you and I to eat together on the patio.” J.J. informed him. “She said she’d serve at 5:00. We can eat, and then we can hit the road. I told the guys we’d be at the marina around seven, seven-thirty. There are a few places I’d like you to see first.”

She was still a little jittery and her palms felt sticky. She wanted to believe that it was from her encounter with her mother, and to mask it, she had her hands stuck down into the pocket of her jeans to steady and to dry them. She also made sure to keep a subtle distance between herself and Teddy. He was way cuter than she remembered him being, and they weren’t yet far enough away from the house to let him get too close. He’d brought those butterflies with him all the way from Boston, and they had once again found their way to the pit of her stomach where they made themselves at home.

Teddy walked next to her, his eyes taking in everything.

“I cannot get over this place, J. You are so lucky to live like this. So huge and lovely. A lake. Like a park with all those mountains right outside your window every morning and every night. The sky, all this land. I’d never leave here if I lived in a place like this.”

“Yes, you would. If you lived here everyday, it would just be home, the same as where you live now is home to you.”

“This is simply magnificent, though J. You have to believe me. I’m looking from the outside in. It isn’t just the house and all. It’s the landscape. It’s the land. You guys actually have your own small lake with a bridge. When I drove in, I- It’s just fantastic, that’s all I can say about it. My mother has a huge place in Virginia with the horses, but it’s not nearly as pretty as this. I love space and feeling like I can breathe.”

“So does Daddy.”

They had reached the tennis courts. He unlatched the gates, and they went in, where they sat down at one of the umbrella tables along the sidelines.

“My father picked this place.” She explained. “He grew up an orphan.”

“I know. Before I came here, I looked him up. That’s what I read.”

“Doing your homework ? Finally.”

“Yeah. The only good thing that came out of doing hard time in summer school for getting mediocre grades during the regular school year was meeting you.”

“Anyway.” She continued. “He told me once that up until he was fifteen, he slept in a dorm room at the orphanage with seven other boys. He left the orphanage when he was fifteen and went to live with his mentor, Max. That’s when he got his very first bedroom. It was the living room of Max’s apartment, and his bed was Max’s fold-out couch. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Navy and he had to sleep in a barracks, I guess that’s what it’s called in the Navy. There he was again bunking with a bunch of guys. He got out the Navy and went to college where he had to share space in a dorm. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, when he went into business and could afford his own apartment, that he got his very first real bedroom in his whole life.

When he and my mother purchased this estate, he said that he liked it because even though the house is large, it wasn’t a whole lot of house; it just had a whole lot of room on the inside. He wanted great big rooms. He said that he never again wanted to be able to stretch out his arms and touch the walls on both sides of him with both hands. And he wanted his own land. He wanted to be able to walk out of his front or his back door and stomp and strut all over land that was his.”

“I think he got what he wanted. He’s a remarkable guy.”

J.J. looked up to him with skeptical eyes. “You can still say that?”

“Say what?” Teddy looked confused.

“Say that about Daddy. Didn’t he give you the third degree? Ask you your life story? Make you show him any identifying marks, scars, tattoos? Ask you for your driver’s license number, your social security number, your mother’s maiden name?”

Laughing, Teddy answered, “No. I don’t have any scars or tattoos yet. J.J., you had me all worked up, expecting this ogre of a man, and your father has to be one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He’s direct, but I like that he gets to the point. It’s apparent to me that he certainly loves you. By the way, I’m loving that shirt you have on, too, but I have to say that right about now, you’re kind of living up to it. What’s up with you, J.?”

“What do you mean?”

“Aren’t you glad to see me? You seem sort of different. A little standoffish, a little too quiet. Kinda nervous. Almost skittish, like a colt or something. You wouldn’t even hold my hand on the way out here. Is something wrong?”

She slowly pulled off her cap and smoothed hair back from her face, smiling sheepishly.

“It’s not you, believe me. I’m real happy to have you here. It’s just that it’s been a little intense around here lately. See Teddy, all week now I’ve been trying to keep the lid on some stuff that happened last weekend. While Daddy had you tied up downstairs, my mother had me hemmed in upstairs. She was just about to press my ‘eject’ button when he came up from you. I’m telling you, Teddy, it was almost over for me. You might not have gotten to see me at all if Daddy hadn’t shown up right when he did. But the last thing she told me was that she’d be waiting for me tonight when I get home. Some stuff went down last Saturday that I’m going to have to tell her about, and I really don’t want to.”

Teddy pulled his chair around so that he was sitting next to her. She held her breath as he did; one of the butterflies had taken that moment to fly up into her throat, cutting off her wind for a moment.

“Right before I came here, I talked to Ollie, J.J.” Teddy said. “He told me what happened.”

“He told you-”

“He told me all of it. I know all about your close call, and I know why it happened, too. I know about him and Wesley and the fight. I also know that I’m supposed to keep quiet about it- and why. Ollie wanted to put me on the alert in case there were any further problems. He said that even though he hasn’t spoken with Wesley, he isn’t sure that it’s over.”

“How did Ollie even know that you were coming? I didn’t talk with Ollie about you.”

“There’s a helluva a network all around you here, J. You have a lot of good friends looking out for you. Be grateful for it and for them and don’t ask a lot of questions. I’m here, your friends are here, and we’re going to have a good time this weekend. I’m looking forward to tonight, the dance tomorrow, and I’m counting on your parents letting me take you to breakfast on Sunday morning. I’ll even go to church if I have to. By that time, I’m hoping you’ve had such a good weekend you won’t mind whatever your mother decides should be your fate for riding on that motorcycle with your friend, Chase, and almost getting creamed.”

Caught off guard, she had to laugh.

“You do know everything about it, don’t you? I know it wasn’t anybody but that big-mouthed Marnie who put Ollie on alert to call you and brief you. Wesley has gone too far this time. I’m through with him. Teddy, if my mother finds out about what happened, and that I was on that bike- I should say when she finds out about it because she is going to go at me until she breaks me down- she’s going to send me straight to Jesus, neatly packaged in a designer body bag.”

Laughter burst up from Teddy’s gut. “J.J., you are crazy!”

“I’m not lying, Teddy! She is going to kil-l-l-l-l-l-l me. I gotta try to figure out a way to keep from telling her that part. I’m usually pretty good at weaseling my way out stuff like this, but I just fall all apart when it’s her grilling me. I don’t know how she does it. She knows that something happened with me, and she’s going to keep poking at me and poking at me until I pop. She probably already knows. I could kind of hear it in what she was saying to me earlier today during the speech, and then again when she had me up in that room. You can’t ever tell with my mother. She holds back, I think, to see what story I’m going to tell, and then after she gets me to sing like Tweetie-Bird, the canary, she let’s it out that she knew all along. It’s why I’ve never been much of a liar. After she breaks me down and I tell her- when she’s done killing me- the funeral will have to be put off until the corpse comes off the lockdown that she’s going to put it on.”

“Whatever happens, I doubt that your mother is going to put you on punishment tomorrow night for the dance,” Teddy continued to laugh. “So we’ll be together then, at least. So far, we have tonight and tomorrow.”

J.J. broke down and snickered, conspiratorially nudging Teddy with her shoulder. With two fingers she lightly tapped him on forehead, then she did the same to herself. Pointing back and forth between them as she spoke, she told him,

“You and me, we think alike, too. I said the same thing about her putting me on punishment. I figure if she breaks me down tonight after I get back home, I’ll at least get out tomorrow night. She’s already bought my dress and stuff, and she won’t want me to let you down. She believes in keeping to commitments. I was just hoping to hold her off locking me down tonight. Now if you ask her about the breakfast thing on Sunday, she might say it’s okay. But I’ll tell you what.”

“What?”

“I’m thinking like you. Let’s just have such a good time tonight and tomorrow night that even if she does say I can’t go with you on Sunday, it won’t matter so much.”

Teddy leaned in to her.

“You know what your father asked me, J.?”

“Knowing him, Teddy, I don’t even want to imagine.”

“He asked me, point blank, if I was planning to kiss you.”

J.J. gasped. “No, he didn’t! What did you say?”

“You told me to be myself, so I told the truth. I told him that I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t.”

She gasped again, and he quickly pressed his lips softly to her cheek.

“I’m a lot of things.” He said. “But I’m no liar.”

She opened her eyes and smiled, trying not to release the giggle that was madly tickling at her insides. “I like people with nerve, and for you to tell Mufasa that and walk away in one piece, Teddy Baxter, you have to have a whole lot of it.”

“I like to think it was just my overpowering boyish charm that got to him.” He grinned. “And the phenomenal good luck it seems I was born with that kept him from taking me out with that gun he had hidden under his vest.”

___________________________________________________________

“Well, there she goes.” Jonathan heard Jennifer say as they stood in the front door watching J.J. and Teddy pull off in Teddy’s rented Mustang.

She patted his forearm. “Are you all right? You’ve been mighty quiet. All through dinner, you hardly said anything to me.”

“I’ve just been thinking how time goes by so fast.” He answered, still sounding as if he were somewhere lost in thought. “Teddy seems like a pretty nice guy, but wasn’t it just yesterday that I was pulling up out here after a day at work, and she’d be toddling out to meet me? Now there she is in a car with another man, driving away from me.”

“He’s just a boy, Jonathan, and I don’t think you have anything to worry about. J.J. isn’t looking for anything more than friendship right now. Besides, you’ll always be the first man in her life. Nobody protects her and looks out for her like you. I told you before. You are her muse and she is right at your elbow, watching and learning. Nobody in this world could be a better teacher and partner in crime for her than you.”

He looked uncomfortably off into the distance, sure that the time had come.  He’d heard it when she’d mentioned earlier about them talking that evening. For some reason, her saying that at that time had raised the tiny hairs on his neck. At that moment with her in the door, watching J.J. leave, he understood why.

“I sense a discussion.” He said.

“Oh, you can count on it.” She asnwered, confirming his perceptions. “I’ve just been biding my time, building my case. We can start with that little red BMW that I saw at Ted and Judy Landers that night when we first pulled up. The same red car that wasn’t out there when I came back outside to you. That same new red car that Marnie was leaned up against in the picture on Pat’s desk. I thought it was odd that you never came to the back of the house with me that night. I thought it even stranger that neither of those girls was at that illegal gathering with the rest of their gang. One being absent, I might buy, but not both of them. One of them would have had to go to keep the minutes for the other. Marnie was there, wasn’t she? She’s got a new car, doesn’t she? That’s why I haven’t seen her, isn’t it? And you’ve known all along, haven’t you? That’s why you’ve been lobbying for J.J. to get a driver’s license so soon, isn’t it?”

“Can I just plead the fifth on all of that?” He asked.

“No.” She definitively answered, her tone leaving no room for debate on his part. “I allowed your daughter to plead it last Saturday night when I first sensed that something was amiss, but now, since I’ve put a few of the pieces together, little Lucy’s got some ‘splainin’ to do when she gets back home. But you, you’ve got some to do right now. All is not right in J.J.’s world, and I think you have the inside track. I don’t know why you two continue to think that you can hide things from me. After all these years of attempting and failing, it should be evident to both of you that you cannot.”

For the past sixteen years, he reflected, it seemed, he had been finding himself backed up to the hot seat, attempting to keep J.J. Hart’s little behind out of it.

He had been so looking forward to the rare quiet, cozy night at home in front of the fireplace with his wife, perhaps toasting a few marshmallows, talking, and maybe a little more than that while they waited for J.J. to come home. Now it seemed that he was instead heading for a night of hell with nothing getting toasted except, perhaps, his own ass.

___________________________________________________________

“Geez, J. You didn’t tell me your father’s building took up an entire block.” Teddy exclaimed as he attempted to peer all the way up to the top, his hand shielding his eyes from what was left of the evening sun. “I thought my father’s building was something.”

“It’s all relative, Teddy.”

“But this is unbelievable. My father was born into money. Your father built all of this from nothing. You have to be so proud to be his kid.”

“Immensely.”

“And I understand that the Jonathan Hart Towers here in LA is only his headquarters.”

“There are other companies within the corporation.” J.J. confirmed.

“All over the world, I understand. And you’ve been everywhere.”

J.J. didn’t take it any farther. Instead, she asked. “Would you like to see inside, Teddy? The building’s officially closed, but I can get us in.”

“Sure, J. If it’s not going to be too much trouble. I don’t know when I’ll ever get another opportunity like this. I like to seize the moment when I can.”

“Okay.” She said, digging down in her pocket. “I thought you might feel that way, so I came prepared. But look, we can’t be too long. We’re supposed to be at the pier. They’ll be waiting for us.”

She pulled out an oddly shaped, small key. “To the kingdom.” She said as she walked ahead of him approaching the entrance.

Teddy noticed that the stainless steel door handles of the huge glass doors had been formed to make a large “H” when the doors were closed and the handles came together.

She used that key to unlock a small panel on an inner wall of the door frame, which she slid open to reveal a keypad. With lightning quick speed, her index finger moving in a blur across the buttons, she punched in an intricate-looking code and just as quickly, she slid the panel back in place. Seconds later, a uniformed guard appeared at the doors to admit them.

“Good evening, Miss Hart.” The man said after unlocking the electronic doors from the inside. “Your father called and said that you and a friend might be stopping by.”

“Good evening, Mr. Lucas.” J.J. answered, bringing Teddy around in front of her. “Mr. Lucas, I would like for you to meet my friend, Teddy Baxter, who’s visiting me from Boston. Teddy, this is Mr. Lucas. He heads up the evening security team here at Hart.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Teddy said, shaking the man’s hand. “I hope it’s not too much of a bother, us coming by like this.”

“No bother.” Mr. Lucas said as he gestured for them to come past him.

“Your father said that you might like to take your guest up to see his office, Miss Hart. I’ve put the code in to unlock the elevator for you.”

J.J. looked to him. “You didn’t need to do that.”

Teddy was standing in the middle of the immense lobby, mesmerized by the opulent stainless steel and chrome fixtures, the fine furnishings, and the marble walls that went from the floor to the art deco ceiling high above. “Geeeez.” Was all he could manage to wheeze in awe.

She took him by the arm and pulled him to walk with her. “We’re heading straight for the top.” She told him. “We’ll take a peek, and then we’re out. We have stuff to do.”

When she pressed the button for the general elevator, Mr. Lucas, who had been walking away, turned back to ask, “I thought you were going to take the direct shaft?”

She shook her head. “No, that’s okay. You can secure that again. I want to show it all to him from the outside in.”

Teddy was her friend, she felt she could trust him, but she wasn’t about to put all of her father’s cards on the table like that. That other elevator was his private way in. Teddy didn’t need to know about that. She was surprised that Mr. Lucas thought she would do that while she had someone else with her, but then he wasn’t Mr. Lamb. Most of her dealings were with the chief of security, so it probably stood to reason that Mr. Lucas, the second in command, just didn’t know her as well.

“Whatever you say, Miss Hart.” Mr. Lucas agreed as he headed in the direction of that other elevator.

___________________________________________________________

“So just how much do you know about all of this, Jonathan Hart?”

“It depends.”

“On what?”

“On how much you know.”

He watched as Jennifer narrowed her eyes in response.

She sat on the other couch, facing him, her legs and her arms crossed tightly. It was going to be tricky going, he could tell. She knew about the car; that much, she had made clear. She also knew about the fight between Wesley and Ollie because he’d told her. But before he lay his cards down about what more he knew, he needed to get a line on exactly what all she had in her hand. He didn’t know everything about it, but he did know where, with whom, and riding on what J.J. had been that night; but he wasn’t giving her up if her didn’t have to. He didn’t too much care for her riding on motorcycles with boys either, but he understood her wanting to do so. That need in her for excitement of that kind was what made her who she was, and that part of her was very unlike her mother. It was what their child had taken from him.

He also took solace in the fact that J.J. would only ride with someone she trusted, and not too many people fit that bill.

“I know enough to know that once again you and your daughter have been keeping things from me.” She accused. “I had to go all the way to New York to find out that Marnie had a car that she’s been deliberately keeping under wraps, specifically from “The Duchess.”

“The Duchess?”

“It seems I’ve been given a title.”

“I thought that only happened in the old country.”

“Don’t be cute.” She said. “Marnie faxed Pat a picture of her and the car with a note that she was to not tell me about it. I just happened to see the picture on Pat’s desk while I was there. I had just about broken the crust on that child of yours when I had her up there in that room, then you came up and broke my rhythm.”

“Is that why she was looking so distressed when she came past me?”

“She was just about to tell me where she was that night. Now you can tell me. Was she up there with Marnie, and you helped them escape?”

“Marnie was up there, but it was Chance she was with. I admit that I saw them. They ran up on me as they were on their way out to the front while you all were headed to the back. She was afraid that if you found her up there, and with the car, you’d crack the whip on her and make her check the car in, so she left before you could come back.”

“I take it that you aided and abetted her in that.”

“I saw her leave, that’s all I’m admitting.”

“Where was your child?”

“She wasn’t up there.”

“Then where was she?”

“She was somewhere else.”

“She was at the Dairy Queen getting ready to fight Isabella Hawthorne, Jonathan. That’s where she was, and you know it. Stop trying to cover up for her. Rochelle Clairbourne was there that night, and she told her mother all about it. When I saw Clarice Clairbourne coming out of a shop on Wilshire last Wednesday, we stopped to talk, and she was asking me about it. Of course, I had to play it off, seeing as how I was in the dark about it because that’s where I had been left by the two of you, as usual.”

He sprung forward from where he had been reclined, a surprised look on his face. “Getting ready to fight? I didn’t know anything about that, honestly. She didn’t mention that to me.”

“Just what did she mention?”

“Were any blows passed?”

“To my understanding, it was a war of words. What did J.J. tell you?”

“Did Rochelle happen to mention who won?” His eyes twinkled with excitement. “If it was words, then I know for sure J.J. did. That’s my girl. She can knock a person out cold with the well-placed verbal jab, just like her mother.”

“Jonathan!” She cried, unfolding her arms and legs to sit forward herself. “I don’t believe you! Are you so competitive that you’d condone your daughter fighting in the street like that?”

“In the street? I thought you said it was at the ice cream place.”

“It was in the parking lot, as if that’s any better.”

He sat back and crossed his own legs.

“Look, I don’t want her fighting either, but you have to do what you have to do sometimes, Jennifer. You know that as well as I do. She’s our kid, and we are all contenders. That girl is nobody’s wimp. If she has to fight, physically or verbally, you know that my money’s always on the sure thing, and the sure thing in that situation is J.J. Hart.”

He nonchalantly shrugged and began to pick idly at his fingernails. “Sue me.”

She hopped up and marched over to sit on the couch with him, but took a spot way over on the opposite end. Even with the distance between them, he could feel the angry steam hotly roiling off her body, heading directly for him. She had been holding things in for a while, he could tell, and had most likely been waiting until she had all her facts lined up. Jennifer was known for being a copious researcher and for not speaking on a matter before she had done all of her homework and had checked, and then rechecked, her facts.

“You are absolutely impossible, Jonathan Hart.” She fumed. “You foster these things in her. J.J. has that wild, spiteful edge, and if we’re not careful, she could grow up and become some kind of high-toned hoodlum. Fighting in public like that, making a spectacle of herself. Hiding things from me. A whole car. What else is she hiding? What’s next? Running off? Hanging out all night? Stealing cars? Mugging people? Holding up liquor stores? She’s already a bookie. We know that.”

“The bookie thing is in her blood; we can’t do anything about that. But that other stuff, she would contract out for that kind of thing. She wouldn’t- she wouldn’t get her own hands dirty.”

Shocked, Jennifer’s mouth fell open, and her eyes abruptly changed color. At the sight, Jonathan braced himself. It seemed they were on the cusp of another of their non-productive arguments in that area, and he decided to cut it off before it got a chance to start. They needed to talk far more than they needed to fight, so he couldn’t allow her to get the first foothold.

“Jonathan, I’m warning you-”

“Jennifer, get a grip.” He said it firmly, but calmly, and the look on his face must have clearly communicated to her his feelings.

She sat back in silence, but he could see that she was still seething.

Making sure to keep his tone, low and controlled, he reasoned, “You know good and well that if J.J. was going toe-to-toe with Issy, Issy did something to her. J.J. doesn’t start fights, but she will end one, and I, for one, am not upset with her about that. You know yourself that if someone confronted you, you wouldn’t take it lying down. I wouldn’t either. J.J.’s our daughter, so why do you expect that she would or should? You also know that she’s not going to grow up to be anybody’s hoodlum, high class or low. We’re raising a good, solid kid. A real smart lady. But she is still a kid right now. She’s going to do some things. She’s going to try some stuff. That’s what kids do. We all did it. That’s how they learn. It’s how we learned. You’re not going to sit there and try to tell me that you were some kind of all-day angel. You were privileged and you were talented and smart, but you forget, I know some of the stories.”

She huffed and folded her arms again, but he could see her softening somewhat.

“Now what was the fight between J.J. and Issy about?” He asked. “Did Rochelle say?”

Although Jennifer was still visibly miffed at being so uncharacteristically shut down by him, he noticed that he hadn’t gotten the verbal resistance he’d been expecting. It wasn’t often that he felt the need to do that to her; they usually went at an issue as partners. But when it came to J.J. standing up for herself and being able to hold her own in the face of adversity, nobody was going to take that from her. In his eyes, there was nothing that little girl did wrong in that department. Her outer toughness along with her inner strength stood to make her a hell of a woman in time.

Jennifer was a class act, a lady all the way. He considered himself a gentleman. They had both essentially grown up on their own, and had learned by trial and error to fend for themselves. Consequently, they were both strong and sharp individuals. J.J. was growing up to be a class act, too, but  in a different sort of way from her mother. But he realized that sometimes even class acts had to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty when the situation called for it. One day, J.J. would be on her own in the world, with nobody but herself to rely upon.

Decorum and propriety be damned. J.J. had no use for them when her back was up and there was a point to be made, and neither did he.

“It had something to do with Wesley, I think.” She answered. “Rochelle seemed to think that Issy was confronting J.J. about Wesley liking her. Him liking J.J. and not Issy, I mean.”

“Does Issy like Wesley?”

“At one time, I think all the girls probably liked Wesley on one level or another. It doesn’t quite seem that way lately, though. Have you noticed? He seems to have become somewhat of a loner.”

“I have noticed that when I’ve seen him, he’s been alone.”

By himself, lurking outside the Hart Towers, Jonathan thought to himself. But he didn’t tell her that part of it.

There were several parts of it that he wasn’t quite sure she needed to know, if it turned out that she didn’t already know. There was no being sure with her. But if she didn’t know, he didn’t want to alarm her. The matter was already being handled.

“Georgette was trying to speak with me about it,” Jennifer went on. “But it was at a time that I was busy with committee business, and I really couldn’t go into it with her right then. I don’t have a son, so I really don’t think I could have been of much help to her anyway, even if I had been of a mind to do so. And I wasn’t. She’s so clueless.”

She stopped, slowly shaking her head with the thought.

Again, he wondered how much she knew, but this time his thought was of how much she knew about her friend, Georgette. Jennifer was so perceptive. How could she not know? But if she did, what did she make of it?

Jennifer continued. “At the club, when he’s there, I pretty much only see him with Ollie, and he looks miserable, as if someone was forcing him to be there or he’s bored to tears. Since the fight, I guess he doesn’t even have Ollie any more.”

“I don’t think so either.” He said. “When I spoke with Ollie Sr. and Brent Phillips, his attorney, they told me that young Ollie has pretty much had it with Wesley. It’s been coming on for a while now. And then, when Georgette started making noise about pressing charges, that was it. You, Ollie, Midge, and Georgette, have been knowing each other since prep school, and you’ve remained friends all this time. You’d think that she would have tried to work it out with the Jacksons. Instead, she started right in, making threats. Ollie felt so betrayed. He said that after she carried on so much, he gave his son the okay to completely sever ties, and I think that’s what’s going to happen- with both families.”

Jennifer sighed. “It’s probably for the best. J.J. told me some time back that Wesley’s been hanging around with a faster, more elitist crowd. That was the one of the first things that caused her to begin to back away from him, even before he started pressing her so hard personally. She said that Wesley prefers that crowd to the kids here, the ones he’s grown up with all his life. She says Wesley’s crowd engages in other types of activities and that they frequent clubs geared to the eighteen to twenty-one crowd. They consider the things she and the others like to do beneath them.

She didn’t elaborate with me on what exactly Wesley was into, and I didn’t ask, but I could tell that she didn’t approve of whatever it was. His parents gave him that Viper for a graduation gift, and that car seems to have changed him some. I know that people have a right to do what they like with their children, but that was a bit much for graduating high school, in my estimation. A child is supposed to finish high school, isn’t he?. When did we get into rewarding kids so lavishly for doing what they’re supposed to do?”

“That was a “keeping-up-with-the-Jonses” move on Georgette’s part. William told me that he didn’t want to get that car for Wesley. Toward the end of that last term, Wesley’s grades kind of fell off, and he didn’t think Wesley had earned it, but Georgette wanted him to have it because so many of the other kids he runs with have expensive sports cars.”

“Jonathan, promise me that we won’t get caught up in that.”

“We never have.” He said. “Why start now? I can wait until J.J.’s seventeen to get her a car. She’s a scholar, but like you said, she’s doing what she’s supposed to do. The car she gets won’t be a reward. It’ll be what she’ll need and what she’s supposed to have at that age.”

She nodded in agreement.

“Lately, Wesley’s looks have changed some, too. I noticed it at the club the last time he was there. He’s more aloof, a little thinner, looks a little tired in the eyes.”

Jonathan took all of what she said in, scratching a little at the fine evening stubble he could feel coming in on his chin. He thought he had noticed a slight change in Wesley’s looks and demeanor too, but he had attributed it to him getting older, looking more mature, his innate arrogance, and to him thinking himself above the others who should have been his peers. After all Wesley was nineteen and had been away at school for a good bit of the past four years. But in light of what Ollie, Sr. had told him about his suspicions, he was beginning to see things from quite another perspective.

“Jonathan?”

“Hmm?”

“What are you over there thinking? Do you know something else that you aren’t telling me? You haven’t yet told me what J.J. said to you about that night.”

“I was just sitting here thinking how LA hoodlums girls don’t normally go on dates with prep school boys from Boston. Our girl must really be special, huh?”

He was gratified when she was forced to finally relax and laugh. “You are utterly hopeless.”

When she recovered, she moved closer to him, easing the tense gap that she had created when she first sat down. She ran her finger along his arm.

“But, Jonathan, I know that you know something more, and I wish you would share it with me. She’s my child too. I understand that both of you think alike and that you both like to protect me, but if something’s going on with her, I need to know what it is.”

He reached for her, bringing her to him. When she was comfortably leaned against him, her head on his shoulder, tucked beneath his chin, he spoke.

“Jennifer, promise me that when you talk to her tonight that you’ll try to understand that part of her. I know that we’ve set down some rules for her, but maybe we should take a look at some of those rules. Are they designed to keep her safe or are they designed more to keep you from worrying about her? I don’t want you worried, but I don’t want her wings clipped either. I know she’s a little ‘unrestrained’ sometimes for your tastes, but Darling, keep in mind, she isn’t you. She looks like you, she aspires to carry herself like you, even to be somewhat like you; but the reality is, she’s never going to be that much like you at her core. She doesn’t have your temperament or your concern for appearances and etiquette. She just doesn’t, and I doubt that she ever will. Whatever is, just is with J.J. For the most part, she calls them like she sees them. I agree with your assessment that she needs holding back at times, but sometimes we can hold too tightly and too much. That’s just who she is.

In a second, I’m going to tell you where she was when we were up at the Landers last weekend. I’m going to tell you what she was doing, and what her rationale was in doing it. I’d appreciate it if when you do talk with her, if you wouldn’t tell her that I told you. I’m letting you in on it because you’re right. I have been holding out in an effort to protect you and to protect her from you. J.J.’s still holding out something from both of us, it seems, in an effort to protect us and herself. Something happened last weekend that she isn’t telling. She hasn’t even told me what it is. It’s the something that sparked that fight between Wesley and Ollie. There’s more to that story than Ollie just getting sick of Wesley or Ollie just wanting his car back. There’s a lot she isn’t saying because she doesn’t feel that she can. I don’t think either of us want her feeling that she can’t come to us.”

“What about that slick Marnie and that car? I know that it’s hers, and that her her father bought it. It was his right to do that for her. But what about them not telling us- specifically me- about it?”

“She’ll break down. Because of that car, she hasn’t been able to come here in days. You know that’s got to be crippling her. Act like you don’t know anything about. Just sit back and watch and see if she doesn’t end up coming to you.”

“I haven’t forgotten about your part in the cover up.”

“You can punish me about that all you want later, twice if you promise to do it to me like you did it the last time I was bad. I can take my medicine when it comes to me in dosages like that. But right now, let’s deal with the matter at hand.”

___________________________________________________________

J.J. and Teddy exited the elevator on the top floor. They were in a short corridor, and directly in front of them were the double glass doors with the same type door handles as the ones on the entry doors to the building.

“Daddy’s office is there.” J.J. said. “But let’s go down here first.

She took him down another hall that branched off to the right of the elevator. They stopped at a set of huge mahogany doors. Using the key pad, she punched in a code to open them.

“This is the board room.” She said, ushering Teddy in.

It was a vast room with floor to ceiling windows lining one side that looked out over Los Angeles and beyond. The long, lacquered mahogany table was lined with high backed black leather chairs. Dominating one end of the room was an imposing portrait of Jonathan Hart, casually seated on the end of a desk.

“Mufasa.” Teddy wryly observed, appreciating the unconventional pose Mr. Hart had assumed. He was younger in that painting, but those very direct blue eyes said that it was definitely the same man with whom he had been speaking earlier. “He’s some guy to have done all this on his own in one lifetime. And that is some view.”

He walked over to the windows and looked out. Then he turned back to J.J.

“Will this be you, J.J.?” He asked. “Will you be taking over for your father one day as CEO of Hart Industries? You’re smart enough and confident enough.”

“Come on.” She said, beckoning for him. “Let me show you his office.”

___________________________________________________________

Stepping into the room, the first thing Teddy noticed was the huge, professional photographic enlargement of J.J., seated on the back of a palomino, gracing the wall of her father’s office.

“That’s one nice picture, J.”

“Thank you.”

Great horse, too.” He said. “Is he yours?”

“Yep. That’s Sam. We’ve been together almost all of my life. We hooked up when I was six months, and he was just a pony himself. He’s boarded up in the mountains where we have a cabin.”

“When did you start riding?” He asked.

“When I was six months.” She answered.

Teddy continued to slowly walk the office. All around were pictures of the Harts mixed in with other photos and paintings. There was another enlarged and custom framed photograph, this one of Mrs. Hart bottle feeding what appeared to be a some sort of feline cub.

That picture, he approached, asking. “Where was this taken? Is that a real tiger?” As he stood before it.

“In Kenya and yes, that’s a tiger cub. My mother has this amazing way with animals. They always take to her. Animals know when somebody has a good heart.”

“So they take to you, too, I guess.” He smiled, turning back to her. “Have you been to Africa?”

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

“A few times. My folks have a compound there. It’s a reserve that my mother sponsors for animal conservation and the education of the children in the area. She’s big on animals and education.”

“J.J., how in the world can you be a part of all of this and not act like you think you’re all that?”

“What do you mean, Teddy?”

“Well, most girls I know who have affluent parents, but not nearly as much as your parents do, act like first- class snots. But not you. Nobody would know what you come from, that you’re a part of all of this, not just to look at you. No offense, but to be with you away from your house or all of this you seem so regular, so normal. I don’t mean to say that you’re not normal, but- aw, J. You know what I mean.”

“Thank you.” She giggled. “Don’t worry. I consider “normal” the ultimate compliment. It’s what I strive for. I want to be taken at face value and to be judged on my own merit. I’ve worked all my life at that. I just want to be me.”

“Well you’ve achieved that, I’m here to tell you. I knew all along that your parents were wealthy, but I didn’t think it was anything like this. You’re so down to earth, and I love it. It’s why I go into the city a lot to hang around. I don’t like a lot of pretense. Maybe that’s why I like acting so much. On stage and in movies, you know that people are putting on an act, and that at some point they’re going to come back to being themselves. Unless, of course, they get too caught up in the hype. When I’m acting or writing, I get to be who I want without losing Teddy. I can go back to me when I’m ready. But up at school, in ‘polite society’, it’s like people just don’t know how to turn it off and be themselves. It’s like they don’t really know who they are. They just know who they think they’re supposed to be, or unfortunately, who they think they’re supposed to be better than or look down upon.”

“It’s like that all over, Teddy. It doesn’t have to just be wealthy or famous people. People just have to know who they are, not what they have or who people think they are. And you just have to learn to read people. You have to pick your people, and you accept them for who they are, or sometimes, for who they aren’t. You just don’t let everybody get up on you, that’s all. Some folks you have to keep at a distance. You’re friendly to them, but you just don’t let them up on you.”

“Where’d you learn that, J.?”

“From both my parents, I guess, but mostly from Daddy. That’s how he is. My father knows all kinds of people, everywhere. He grew up poor and he’s risen from that, but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. In fact, he still sits on the board of the orphanage where he grew up. He and my mother have made Mission Street their personal mission. He’s still best friends with the nun who raised him, Sister Anastasia. Sister has always given me the blues because she says I’m too much like Daddy used to be, and she had to break him down so she thinks it’s her obligation to do me. She’s not that high on my list, but she’s his girl just the same. My father knows all kinds of nuns, priests, criminals, cops, business people, bookies and card sharks, doctors, lawyers, actors and actresses, everybody. But out of all those people, there’s only a few that he lets get right up on him. Come on. I want to see if somebody is still here who I want you to meet. He probably is; he has no life- he practically lives here- but he’s one of those people my father keeps close to him. Daddy trusts him implicitly, and as a result, so do I.”

They left the office and went back into the outer office, taking a short hall off to the right of it. J.J. knocked at a closed door with the name plate, “Marcus Borland, Jr. Chairman of the Board”. There was no answer.

J.J looked at her watch. “That’s odd. Uncle Marcus usually stays late on Fridays. Oh, well.”

“Uncle? Your mother’s brother? I know you said that your father was an orphan. But I guess he could have had siblings. His brother?”

J.J. laughed and patted Teddy on the back. “I like I guy who thinks fast and can do the math in his head. No. My parents don’t have any siblings. They’re both only children, as far as we know.”

She took him by the hand, leading him back to the double glass doors and going through them.

“See, when my father started Hart Technologies, his first business, Marcus Borland, Sr. went in with him as his Chief Operating Officer.

Marcus, Sr. and my father were in the Navy together. Marcus, Sr. was my father’s commanding officer in the Navy, so he was older than Daddy. When he got out and started the business, Daddy asked Marcus, Sr. to come on board with him, and he did since he was close to retiring from the Navy anyway. They taught Marcus, Jr., who’s a bit younger than Daddy and had just graduated from college, the ropes. When his father retired, Marcus, Jr. took over for him. Now he’s Board Chairman. Right up under Daddy, he runs this place and all the rest. He’s why Daddy doesn’t always have to be here, and that’s why he’s my uncle. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?”

“Not really.” Teddy answered. “I followed you. My father has much the same set-up in his firm, but they really are his brother and his cousins. He says that in order to be successful, you have to have people in place to count on. People you can trust to do the job. He says that part of doing a job well is knowing that you can’t do it alone and putting the right people in the right place.”

The elevator arrived and they stepped inside. “Where to?” He asked.

“Press “M” for Mezzanine. I just want to show you the atrium before we go. It’s really pretty.”

When the car stopped at the designated floor, they got out and J.J. set it to wait for them. “We’ll only be a minute.”

She took him to the railing, and they looked over and down.

Huge tropical plants grew from Peruvian clay pots strategically placed in the garden that had been designed in the center of the circular terra cotta floor. Their broad green leaves stretched to reach the light streaming in from the leaded glass dome high above that protectively covered the atrium below. It was after hours, so the somber quiet below was a distinct difference to the hustle and bustle that had been going on down there when she had looked out onto that level earlier. With the the subdued lighting being generated by the amber house lights combined with the impending dusk, the scene underneath them was peaceful and serene. Most of the employees were probably at home having dinner, however, way over, by the windows to their right, they could see a lone couple seated at a table.

Focusing in, J.J. could readily see that the man was her Uncle Marcus. It was the woman to whom she paid the bulk of her attention. She was a small woman and appeared to be younger than her Uncle Marcus, and she was blonde. Trying to be sure that the woman was who she thought she was, it was a couple of moments before J.J. actually realized that the people down there were holding hands across the table.

“Looks as if they know each other pretty well.” Teddy whispered in observation from his spot next to her at the railing. “Anybody you know?”

Abruptly taking him by the hand and pulling him away, J.J. said, “Come on. We have some other places I want you to see, and the group will be waiting for us out at the pier. It’s getting late.”

___________________________________________________________

“Wesley.”

“What, Issy?”

“You don’t have to sound so nasty.”

“Issy, I really don’t feel like talking.”

“Well, I won’t be long. Guess who just showed up for ice cream at the Dairy Queen with her new, out-of-town boyfriend?”

“Isabella, what do I care about some girl-gossip like that? I told you, I don’t feel like talking. I really don’t feel like dishing it with you.”

“Oh, you’ll care all right, Wesley Singleton. Whether it gets dished to you by me or by somebody else, you’ll care.”

“Okay, who Issy? Who was at the Dairy Queen?”

“J.J. Hart.”

(Silence)

“What’s wrong, Wes? Cat got your tongue? Or has it sunk its teeth in some other part of you?”

(Continued silence)

“Well, you can fantasize and drool about her all you want, but she’s obviously not giving a rat’s ass about you, you sorry, selfish bastard. His name is Teddy and he’s way cuter than you. He doesn’t look like he has to do things to perform, either.”

“Did you talk directly to her? To him? Or are you just giving me some second hand crap you heard from somebody?”

“I saw her and him for myself, and I heard her introducing him to somebody else. I don’t talk to her if I can help it. I’m not fond of J.J. at all, in fact I can’t stand the bitch, but I sure am glad she’s hurting you. Now maybe you’ll know how it feels.

“How what feels? Nothing happened that you didn’t want to happen.”

“Maybe not. But for what it was worth, I should have stayed at the party. It was a waste of my time. For all your outside efforts, you still sucked. You might have made a fool out of me, Wes, but that’s all right, I’ll get over thatt. I’m just so glad your dream girl is doing you- with somebody else. I bet he doesn’t suck, not at doing it, anyway. I am happy, happy, so-damned-happy that you’re getting yours- again. Later, Jackass.”

___________________________________________________________

As Teddy followed J.J.’s navigational directions once they entered the marina’s busy parking lot, he tried not to be distracted by the boats and the gently foaming ocean beckoning to him in the near distance. It was panning out to be a calm, easy night and he breathed deeply, filling his lungs with its distinctive smell. It was a different smell than the Atlantic, with which he was so familiar. The fullness of his lungs went along with his heart which was full from being in the presence of the girl he had traveled so far to see. She had been playing tour guide ever since they’d had left her father’s building, and he had enjoyed every minute of it, but what lie before him was what he really wanted to experience- with her.

Before starting for the marina, they had driven to several places that she wanted him to see that were in relatively close proximity to her father’s place of business. The first stop was the Mission Street Residence Hall and Convent, where she took him to see the garden that she, some of her friends at school, and the children who resided at Mission Street had built and that they maintained. There, they had run into Sister Anastasia, her father’s old guardian and friend. She had been taking her evening stroll after coming from vespers. J.J. had described her, using the word “relic”, just before they encountered her, and “relic” was his immediate thought when he’d first set eyes on her.

Sister Anastasia was a Dominican nun of the old order. She still wore the long, heavy habit with the uncomfortable-looking starched headgear and veil. A black and silver Rosary with a large crucifix hung from the sash about her waist. He had been fascinated by the reverent change in J.J.’s usually casual, sassy demeanor. She had quickly removed her baseball cap, and she didn’t roll her eyes once as the old woman read aloud the message on her tee shirt, and “tsk, tsk”ed her while slowly shaking her head in disapproval.

He had been equally mesmerized by the dancing, very direct blue eyes deeply set in that wizened, time-worn face. The merriment he could see in them seemed to belie the old woman’s crotchety exterior. With much delight, he thought he detected a very good act, and that beneath that hard shell, the lady actually liked J.J., maybe even loved her, but that J.J. couldn’t appreciate it because she didn’t know it. The Sister didn’t want her to know it. J.J. was humbled in her presence, and the Sister seemed to like it that way.

As he watched the two of them closely, the Sister’s voice had been stern, but the severity of her manner was not reflected in her eyes.

“You are too irreverent, Justine.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“You must claim the gifts the Lord has given you, not make mockery of them.”

“I’m not making mockery. It’s just a tee sh-”

(Warning look from the nun)

“Yes, Ma’am.”

After being prayed over and sent on their way, they went by J.J.’s school, and then on to the coffee house across the street from it to meet her friend, Tina, who was a waitress there. They didn’t take Tina up on her offer of a snack, but just before they left, Tina had excused herself and had pulled J.J. off to the side to tell her something. J.J., silent, and a little red in the face afterward, wouldn’t elaborate on it once they were back in the car, and he inquired as to what Tina had said to her.

Then they’d stopped by the Dairy Queen, which was bustling with Friday night traffic. There, J.J. had introduced him to some of her friends who were hanging out on the rear patio. They purchased two ice cream cones and then started for the marina.

J.J. sat next to him, polishing off her double-dip chocolate. Swallowing down the last of the waffle cone, she wiped her mouth with the napkin.

“That was so good. Dang, you just inhaled yours, Teddy.”

“I eat real fast,” he said. “My folks get on me about that all the time. My father swears that I’m going to develop indigestion one day. It probably would be to my benefit to slow down some and let things digest, especially with my stomach issues, but actually, we may have to go back to the DQ on the way home. I’m a growing boy, and that one cone wasn’t enough. I think I might want some for later.”

“Just call down to room service when you get back to the hotel.” J.J. advised. “The DQ is their vendor.”

“J., how do you know stuff like that?”

“My mother sets up my father’s business lunches and stuff a lot. She does things all the time at home where she needs caterers and junk. Then there’s my parties. I always have to help her, you know, make calls, place orders, check things out. You get so you know all that kind of thing when you have to do it so much.”

“You are an amazing, girl.” He said in wonder. “Are those your friends over there?”

A fairly large crowd of teenagers were milling about. Some were lounging half in or out of their parked vehicles, or were seated on the hoods, bumpers, or rear ends. Some were just standing around. All of them were talking and laughing. Many were dressed in swim suits with towels around their necks or draped about their waists as if they were either anticipating going into the water or had already been. Music was playing. He recognized Ollie right off. He was playing around with another boy, and they were skillfully putting a soccer ball through its practice paces.

“Soccer.” Teddy smiled appreciatively. “I’m home. I see old Ollie. He’s The Man at that game. Who’s the other guy? He’s got good feet, too.”

J.J. smiled back, happy to see that Ollie had finally come out of seclusion to be with them. It was also good to see him moving around and having fun. Usually, he was so quiet that one hardly even knew that he was there.

“That’s Chase who Ollie’s playing with. You know, the one I told you about? The one with the twin brother?”

“The one you almost got flattened with last Saturday?”

“The one and same.”

Teddy pulled into a nearby empty space, and the group took notice of their arrival, first peering over to see who was in the unfamiliar car and then waving and calling to J.J. when they saw it was her waving to them. Ollie headed, in a trot, toward the car right off.

“Yep.” J.J. answered, looking past him with a huge smile, taking attendance with her eyes. “The gang’s all here.”

He shut down the car, and went to reach for his gym bag in the back seat. She caught him by the hand, and he turned to her.

“I’m so glad you’re here in LA, Teddy.” She said. “I was so nervous at first about you being here. That’s why it might have seemed like I was acting a little funny earlier, but it’s okay now. I think I’m over it. I hope you like my friends, and that you have a good time this weekend. I know they’re going to be crazy about you.”

“If they’re your friends, J., I know I’m going to like them. But that wouldn’t matter anyway. I didn’t come to see them. I came here to spend time with you. I like you, J.J. Come on, let’s get this party started. Isn’t that your line?”

“My line.” She said, wrinkling her nose and squeezing his hand. “And my theme song. Let’s go.”

When he got out on his side, Teddy was greeted by Ollie and the soccer ball which he expertly blocked with his own quick feet and sent back to its owner before giving Ollie a handshake and then a hearty guy-hug.

Chase, the ball under his arm, joined them, and J.J., who had come around the car introduced Teddy to Chase.

“You didn’t know she had a brother, did you?” Chase playfully challenged, hugging J.J. to him with one arm.

“She didn’t mention a brother, but she did mention a riding buddy.” Teddy countered.

“I think Ollie let the cat out of that bag.” J.J. corrected him, Pushing away from Chase and giving Ollie the fish eye.

Ollie stared her down with eyes that J.J. realized she hadn’t ever really seen before.

“I don’t care what you say about it, J.J. Hart,” He decreed. “I saw it happen for myself. I nearly had a heart attack. We almost lost you two last weekend, and I’ve been sitting on that little detail ever since. Teddy knows exactly how Wesley is and what he’s been up to, just like we know. He just needed to be aware of what he might be walking into. We have his back- and we have yours.”

“Hart came out here and tried to hem me up earlier this week.” Chase grinned. “I couldn’t believe it when he just walked up on me out of the blue. Then he tried to work me over about what happened. I didn’t crack, though. He tried, but he couldn’t break me. So, J., who’s the man,?”

J.J. had been staring curiously into Ollie’s face the entire time.

“Daddy’s still the man, Chase, and I’d advise you to not let your guard down, thinking you got over on him. He just filed you under “C” for “Come back to later”.

Finally it dawned on her. “Do you have contacts now, Ollie? Is that the real color of your eyes?”

“Oh, yeah.” Ollie answered uncomfortably, turning red with the realization that it was the first time he’d seen her in a week, and that she didn’t know. “My glasses got broken in the fight. Marnie suggested I go to contacts, and then she took me to get them so I couldn’t chicken out and change my mind.”

“Doesn’t he have nice eyes, J.?” Marnie asked as she walked up to join them. “Those are clear contacts, so yes, that’s the real color of his eyes. We couldn’t see that he had such pretty peepers and all those long eyelashes behind those geeky glasses he had been wearing. I took him shopping afterward, too, and we put his father’s credit card to work getting the whole hookup. Ollie got a Marnie makeover. I bet you Oprah’s people couldn’t have done better. You’ll see tomorrow night.”

She had been pulling a young boy along with her when as she joined them, and she yanked him around in front of her to push him toward Teddy.

“Owww, Marnie!” The little boy cried. “You’re older than me, but I’m as big as you. You can’t be yanking on me all hard like that. I’d hate to have to fight you, but I will.”

“I do what I want, Kyle, especially with you. And you lift one hand to me, and see if I don’t pick up a rock or a stick. I know how to even a playing field, little boy. Teddy, it’s good to see you again. This is Kyle, my little brother. Kyle this is Teddy, your big brother. He’s going to be keeping an eye on you when you start at Brookfield. Kick his ass if you have to, Teddy. You have my permission. I don’t normally travel with bratty, snotty little kids, but I trotted him out so he could meet you.”

“Trotted me out?” Kyle protested. “You need to be glad I agreed to be seen with you.”

Teddy extended his hand to Kyle. Kyle took it and shook to return the greeting, but he looked back to continue to challenge Marnie.

“And how are you going to be telling somebody they can just kick my ass like that, Marnie? He doesn’t even know me yet, and you’re giving him permission to do me in.”

“I know him, and I like him.” Marnie declared with her hands planted on her hips. “And I trust him to keep your little tail in line when I’m not there in Massachusetts.”

“Oh yeah? Well, who’s going to be keeping yours in line, here in LA, when I’m gone away to school?” Kyle demanded to know. “That’s okay, as soon as I get back home, I’m making a ‘nonymous phone call to Mrs. H., and I’m telling her you got a car. That’s who’ll keep you in line. You better not let me get close to your cell phone. I’ll do it tonight from here.”

And then he snaked out his tongue at his big sister.

“KYLE!!” Marnie screamed. “You’d better not! If she finds out, I’ll know who told, and there’ll be hell to pay for you!”

J.J. wanted to tell her that she’d told on herself. She decided to wait until they were alone.

Laughing at both of them, Teddy released Kyle’s hand and put his arm around the little boy’s shoulders.

“Come here a minute.” He said quietly to him. “Let’s talk.” And then he walked off with Kyle alone.

J.J. watched the two of them go, instantly admiring Teddy’s “big brother” gentleness with Marnie’s little brother. She could see the others coming toward them, and that they were also watching Teddy.

“We’ve all been dying to meet this dude.” Chase observed. “Once you let us in on him coming, at the last minute, I might add, he’s been the talk of the town. J.J. Hart with a man. Well…. He seems nice enough.”

“He’s not my man.” J.J. said. “He’s just a friend.”

“Real nice butt, though.” Marnie offered. “Can’t wait to see him in his trunks. Hope it’s a Speedo so I can get a clear view of all the important details.”

J.J. reached out and pushed her. “Slut.”

“Whatever. But, I’m not blind.”

“He’s a very nice guy.” Ollie said. “I’m glad you ran into somebody like him, J.J. That’s one out of my friends I can vouch for.”

J.J. stood watching, sure that it was going to be a good weekend. Everyone was there, most probably because they wanted to see Teddy for themselves. Nosy, nosy, nosy- all of them. But it was okay. He was there in LA and she was glad of it.

The only one missing from the group all around her was Tommy. She still hadn’t heard from him, but she filed that away. That, and everything connected to that, she’d deal with later.

___________________________________________________________

So there he was. Teddy. There he was in the flesh.

It must be serious. A lot more serious than he ever would have suspected. It was true. Teddy had come all the way from the east coast, and there he was down there with her and all of her friends.

And Ollie.

Ollie was down there being happy with them. He was actually laughing and having a good time. He was talking and mingling in. On his own, without him. Life was going on for Ollie while his was falling apart. Nothing was making sense. It was all spinning out of his control.

She was down there with Teddy. And Chase. And Ollie. And all the others. The blacks, the Chicanos, that Asian, and the assorted other riff-raff who insisted upon mixing in with them. All of those who didn’t know that they shouldn’t. What the hell was the world coming to? What happened to the lines and boundaries that were supposed to keep things so organized? How could people exist with each other if they didn’t know where and how they were supposed to fit in?

Or that they weren’t supposed to fit in at all.

Moving to better see her, he caught his own reflection in the rear view mirror and was instantly further depressed. His face was still too bruised to show it anywhere in public.

And everybody knew. It was all so humiliating.

Vanity and pride had him stuck behind walls, doors, tinted windows, and sunglasses. There would be no country club dance for him, even if he had been planning on legitimately attending. He couldn’t go anywhere else either, not with that face. Appearance was just about everything.

Damn Ollie.

Damn Teddy. Damn Ollie Sr. Damn Jonathan Hart.

Damn William Robert Singleton, Sr. A father was supposed to support his kid, wasn’t he?

J.J. Hart.

She had her nerve. It was her strong suit, but she was getting to be too strong with it. She’d learn. They would all learn.

Having confirmed the story for himself, he shifted his mother’s car into gear and backed out to return home.

___________________________________________________________

It was Jonathan who stood, hands in his robe pockets, watching from the window above when the white Mustang pulled in front of the house at ten minutes to midnight. The lights were off in the bedroom behind him, so he wasn’t really worried about being seen by the two young people below. It was a couple of minutes before Teddy got out on his side and came around to the passenger’s side.

When the boy opened that door, he was surprised when a long ivory leg emerged. Since she had been dressed in black jeans when she left home, he wasn’t expecting to be able to see anything like that in the darkness from that distance.

“She’s not wearing any pants, Jennifer.” He remarked without turning around. “She had on jeans when she left here.”

The lump of covers on the bed moved, and Jennifer suddenly sat up in the midst of them, pushing tousled hair back from her eyes with one hand and holding the covers to her bare breasts with the other.

“No pants?”

He shook his head, still watching.

“Nope. Just that tee shirt. She’s all the way out now. Standing up, I guess it covers everything important. They must have gone swimming. He has on shorts and an undershirt. He left here in jeans and a tee shirt, too.”

He didn’t see or hear it when she left, but Jennifer was already out of the bed behind him and headed into the bathroom as he had been speaking to her.

“Wonder where they changed?” He mused aloud, for his wife’s benefit- to get her moving- but the water starting back there in the shower told him that she was already on the case.

He continued to watch as Teddy and J.J. talked for a moment in front of the house and then shook hands. J.J. turned and disappeared from his view, presumably walking to the front door as Teddy returned, waving, to the car. Jonathan continued to stand in the same place at the window until he heard the front door close downstairs and the tail lights of the car disappeared around the bend in the driveway.

Going to the door, he cracked it a bit, just enough to be able to see J.J. as she was heading the top of the stairs and passed by their door, calling out, “I’m home!” As she started down the hall toward her own bedroom door.

The hair that he had paid to have done earlier that day was still in the ponytail, but it was wet, slicked to her head and hanging limply down her back, some of it sticking to her damp, clingy shirt. She carried her running shoes and a small duffel bag over her shoulder. On her feet were a pair of athletic footies, her diamond ankle chain sparkling just above the rim of one, and peeking out from underneath the tee shirt, he could see the bottom of one of her swim suits. If he was right, he could tell from the pattern that it was one of the more skimpy ones.

He had been trying to stave it off, to tell himself that it wasn’t necessary, but at the sight of her, the paternal angst began to overcome him again. His daughter was the quintessential California girl.

Easing closed the door, and forcing himself to breathe, he found himself whispering in earnest, “Lord, give me strength. I know she’s a good girl.”

J.J. had legs like her mother’s. She had everything like her mother. In some places, she had a bit more.

It flashed in his mind that if he and Jennifer had met as teenagers, he never would have made it to adulthood, much less to being her husband down the line. With the strong feelings she had always stimulated in him and the enormous amount of chemistry between them, Stephen would have to have shot him dead to keep him away from her. Then he would have had Jennifer locked up in a convent in the Swiss Alps until she turned twenty-one.

J.J. Hart was growing up too damned fast for her Daddy.

“Oh, God.” He continued to whisper in prayer, hand to his chest as he leaned against the door with his back. “A duffel bag and no pants. Hurry up, Jennifer. Get in there and see what all that little Bohemian of yours and Sabrina’s has been up to.”

___________________________________________________________

J.J. opened the bathroom door to let the steam out and true to her word, there her mother sat in the big chair. Third was lying contentedly in her lap as she ran a comb through her wet hair.

“Mo-om!” She cried, hugging her robe around her. “One of these days, you’re going to bust up in here without knocking, and I’m going to be doing something indecent. Then where will we be?”

“You’ll be the only one embarrassed.” Jennifer nonchalantly answered. “I doubt very seriously that you can do anything that I haven’t seen or heard of being done before.”

“Or experienced yourself first-hand?” J.J. thought to herself, careful to feign a yawn while she thought it, to be sure that she didn’t actually say it.

“I gotta dry my hair.” She said aloud, stepping back behind the door to take off the robe. She slipped the nightgown hanging on the hook over her head, and put the robe on again.

“Bring the dryer here.” Jennifer directed. “I’ll do it. I need to do mine, too. I can do yours faster than you can by yourself, and then you can do mine.”

J.J. brought out the hairdryer and plugged it in. Jennifer ordered the small dog from her lap and he immediately hopped down and went under the bed. Taking the Third’s departure as a sign, J.J. handed the appliance to her mother, sat down on the hassock, and steadied herself in preparation for the confession she was going to have to make and the resultant fallout. Her mother began to dry her hair. It took a while, and in all that time, J.J. anxiously waited for her to ask the questions she had been dreading.

“Don’t cut any more of your hair off, J.J.” Jennifer quietly directed. “It’s a good cut, but no shorter, do you hear me?”

“Yes.”

Nothing else was said.

When she finished, Jennifer brushed it all to the back and loosely braided it for the night.

She patted J.J. on the back to let her know that she was finished. Then J.J. stood up and blew her mother’s hair dry. It didn’t take as long to do hers since she didn’t have as much of it, but still Jennifer remained silent. She wanted to, but J.J. didn’t dare ask. She was nervous with the silence, but she didn’t dare open the door to the other side of it. The story of Pandora’s box came to mind. When her mother’s hair was dry, J.J. unplugged the hair dryer and took it back to the bathroom.

Jennifer was silently turning back the covers on the bed when she came back into the room. She didn’t look up. She didn’t appear to be the least bit upset. Unable to stand it any more, J.J. came around the bed and stood before her.

“I thought you wanted to talk to me, Mom.”

“How was your night?” Jennifer asked as she reached to help her out of her robe. “Your first real date.”

“It wasn’t a date. We just hung out.” J.J. guardedly answered, unsure of what was happening between them. “But we had fun.”

“Where did you take him? Did he get to see very much of Los Angeles?”

“Not much. We didn’t have a whole lot of time, so I just showed him around some of my personal favorite spots.  I took him to Daddy’s office, to my school, and to meet Tina at the coffeehouse since she was working tonight. I took him to meet Sister Anastasia, too.”

“You? Took him to meet Sister Anastasia?”

“Well, I didn’t actually take him to meet her. I took him to see the academy, the residence hall, and the garden; and we just kinda ran into her, but I introduced him just the same. She was rude to me as usual, but I didn’t let her have it or anything. I knew she would rat me out if I wasn’t polite, so I just took nun-guff off her and didn’t say anything back.”

“I’m glad of that.”

“Anyway. Then we went to the marina because we were supposed to meet up with everybody else out there. Mr. Barnett had pizzas delivered for us, and he let us take the boat out by ourselves. We couldn’t go real far from shore, though. He said it was too late in the evening for us to go too far. Teddy, Chance, and Chase manned the boat. The rest of us just kind of chilled out. Teddy’s an excellent sailor. I wanted to help, but they wouldn’t let me. We swam some, too. In case you’re wondering, I wore my suit under my clothes. Teddy had a pair of his trunks in his bag and he changed in the twins’ cabin on the boat. And no, I didn’t go down and watch.”

When she noticed her mother trying not to smile, J.J. relaxed some and she was able to slow down. She sat down on the side of the bed while her mother remained standing over her.

“Teddy had never swam off the California coast. He said that it was different from swimming in the Atlantic off the East Coast. He said that it was warmer and the water seemed softer. I’ve never paid attention to that, myself. I’ll have to check that out the next time we go east. Then we came home so I wouldn’t be late. You said that you would be waiting for me. I didn’t want to be late and make you mad.”

The entire time she had been checking her mother out, but no matter what she said, she didn’t seem to be getting any kind of definitive reaction from her.

“Did he kiss you goodnight?” Jennifer asked, gesturing for J.J. to lie down and then pulling the covers up on her when she did.

“On the cheek, in the car.” J.J. answered, continuing to warily watch her mother’s face. “That’s all. I didn’t want him to do more than that. Just yet. We were half-dressed. I figured it probably wouldn’t have been healthy to do more right in front of my parent’s house. You never can tell who’s watching from the window with the light off so you can’t see them.”

Again, J.J. thought her mother was trying not to smile. What in the world was wrong with her? She should have been deep into the second stage of a Grand Inquisition in all the time that they had been together in that room.

“I’m glad you had a good time, sweetie. I’m happy that Teddy enjoyed himself. I hope you two have a nice time tomorrow night at the dance.”

“That’s all you’re going to say?” J.J. abruptly sat up to ask in frustration. “I sweated all night for this?”

Jennifer finally chuckled aloud, then she reached down, and patted J.J.’s cheek.

“Good night, J.J. Despite being the imp that you sometimes are, you’re still my sweet girl.”

J.J. watched her go. Third came from under the bed, jumped up, and joined her, curling up next to her legs. J.J. continued to watch the door for a few moments even after she sure that her mother was gone. She sat, and scratched the little dog’s ears, trying to make sense of what had just transpired. Apparently she had been carrying that nagging worry in the back of her mind all night for nothing.

“There’s just no figuring that woman out at all.” She finally said to the dog. “I think she gets off on keeping me on edge.”

Turning off the light, rolling over onto her side, and getting settled in, her thoughts drifted back to what she had seen down in the atrium at Hart.

And then to Teddy at the mast of that sailboat….

… to her unpredictable mother… to Mufasa….

…and then to thoughts of the night still to come….

___________________________________________________________

Jonathan was hanging up the phone just as Jennifer returned to him.

“Everything all right?” She asked, removing her robe and getting back into bed. “That was an awfully late call.”

“All under control.” He answered, opening his arms so that she could come inside of them and rest her head on his chest. “That was just big Teddy wanting to know if little Teddy had made curfew with your daughter.” He answered. “Teddy was coming in the door while we were on the phone. Real nice father, he is. And J.J.?”

“Just fine.” She answered, snuggling down into his arms. “Real nice kid. She has it all under control, too.”

He waited.

“Is that it?” He finally asked the top of her head after she didn’t elaborate. “Is that all you’re going to tell me?”

She nodded. “That’s all there is to tell.”

“But you were loaded for bear earlier.”

“You helped me realize that I wasn’t hunting bear. There’s a lot of things that I did at sixteen that my father still doesn’t know anything about. I shudder to think of what you were doing that Anastasia, and then Max got left in the dark about. We both turned out okay.”

“Max wasn’t all that in the dark about it. He was a hard one to get over on. I think he had done most of the things that I thought I was coming up with on my own. He stayed on me and was always one step ahead of me. That’s probably more the reason why I turned out like I did.”

He ran his hand through the red waves brushing his cheek. A while ago, she had been gunning for J.J.; couldn’t wait for her to get back home so she could further interrogate her. She’d given J.J. time to get in and get settled before leaving their bedroom, but she hadn’t been gone from their room a long enough time to get from her what she said she wanted. As good as Jennifer was, J.J. wouldn’t have cracked and broken down that fast.

He concluded that J.J. had simply been let off the hook. The evening’s activities before J.J.’s arrival let him know that he had been let off as well.

There was just no figuring out Jennifer Edwards Hart. But that was what made life with her so interesting.

“Well, one night down,” He thought, “Another to go…”

He switched off the lights.

 

Continue on to Part Two

 

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