Jonathan’s Hart: Part Two

Part Two

She wobbled uncertainly on chubby legs and bare feet, holding tightly to the coffee table for support, her eager blue eyes focused on the bright red ball in his hands. She wanted it, but he had it and he was over in the chair. To get it, she would have to let the table go and somehow cross that unsupported chasm between him and her.

She turned and looked, as if seeking advice, to her mother seated on the couch behind her. Taking strength from that protective gaze, for a moment she let go of the table to stand alone and then to look back at him. But that movement of her head shifted her center of balance as well as her confidence. Quickly she caught onto her mother’s leg to steady herself.

…watching her.. she was watching the ball… it was hers, and she wanted it.

… that baby… a physical part of him… a direct extension of himself, of his own life.

… finally, another someone in the world with whom he literally shared flesh and blood… born from that first real love… flesh of their  flesh… a marvelous miracle of a tiny human…

“Ball, Da-da?” …her fingers gesturing for him to roll it to her.

Holding it out to her… “Come here to Daddy and get it.”

… two tentative steps, still holding on to the table but moving toward what she wanted, eyes never leaving the ball…it was hers… Da-da had it, and she wanted it.

“Gif.” … not even a year old… “Da-da, gif.”

“Come and get it.” …holding it out even farther to her … “You can do it.”

… she tured to look back to her mother…

… that mellow-like-good cognac voice,”You can do it, sweetie. Go to Daddy.”

… baby blue eyes focus again on that ball… at the end of the table now, eyeing it… she wanted it, he had it.

She let go.

… shakily, but boldly, tipping across the new horizon on ten dainty baby toes… five ceremonious steps straight to the object of her desire, the ball… grabbing it with both  tiny hands…

“That’s my girl!” …

… giggly, baby laughter from way up high in Da-da’s arms… little body hugged tightly to Da-da’s chest…

… smells so good, her mother dresses her so prettily… two days short of being eleven months old…

… good luck held out one more time… just happened to be home at the right time, in the right spot to witness her take her first independent steps… she had taken them to come to him….

 

…”Give Daddy your hand, baby.”

“No.”

The little terribly two-year-old hand goes behind her back out of his reach. “I walk by myself.”

“J.J., give Daddy your hand. There are too many people. You might get lost.”

“No hand.” She twists away from his reaching fingers. “I walk by myself, I say.”

Reaching down, he grabs her up by the waist, and in one swift movement, swings her onto his shoulders where she rides high above all the other heads in the bustling airport.

“She just uses you, Jonathan.”

… love that voice…

“You’re like Silly Putty in her hands. That’s what she wanted all the time. You should see that face, grinning like the Cheshire Cat up there. I bet you she wouldn’t tell me ‘no’ like that. I wouldn’t let her.”

… even when she’s fussing… in love with that voice…

It doesn’t matter… keep her safe… make her happy… she’s Daddy’s girl….

 

… higher, Daddy! Push me harder so I can go higher!… I want to fly, Daddy! Push me harder so I can fly like you….
… Marie worried and talking fast… rushed home from work…. baby missing… Jennifer sobbing and hysterical…

“I looked everywhere … I couldn’t find her….”

…crying… frightened… crying…

 

… thin ivory legs finishing in Cat in the Hat sneakers high up in the tree.

“Daddy, here I am!”

… thin arms tightly hugging his neck.. finally reached her after climbing the ladder to get her down.

“I wasn’t scared, Daddy. I just couldn’t come back down because I’m stuck.”

Tiny red shorts securely snagged to the tree limb… little leg painfully scratched by the sharp wood… sat up there waiting all afternoon for Daddy to come home and get her down… pants wedged too tightly to safely try to get her loose… forget it, leave the damned things up there…

“I knew you would get me down, Daddy. I wasn’t scared. Mommy couldn’t do it, but I knew you could, so I waited for you…

“… is Mommy mad?

… at least my panties are clean…”

…so I waited for you…”

For Daddy….

 

… angry, angry tears… rare tears….

“I beat his ass, Daddy. That’s what happened.”

…got the call, had to go and get her…

…she beat the snot out of that little jerk who dared try to insult her mother… defended her mother with all she had… proud.. loyal… all Hart… a contender all the way… …ten years old …so proud of her… nobody’s wimp….

… didn’t know that she could cuss like that… and don’t care, either.

“I beat his ass, Daddy.”

…so proud of her…

Keep kicking ass, baby….

 

…If my mother knew you were letting me fly this plane, she’d have a fit wouldn’t she, Daddy?….

She would, but she’ll come to understand….

 

…so hard to breathe… hurt so badly to breathe… to think…

She was gone. She and Tommy were gone.

The call came…. always knew it could possibly come, but hoped it never would. J.J. and Tommy gone, taken from in front of the school… call Jennifer. Can’t panic her, … what to say so that she won’t panic?

… God, please don’t let anything happen to my child… don’t let anybody hurt her… them… either of them… her…. my only….

God… please…. oh, please….

please….

…”C’est Justine, Papa”

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you ever so much for hearing me…

“Use the chip. You guys can find me with the chip”

… so, so smart… his progeny… his girl….

…”C’est, Justine, Papa”… her Papa.

She called her Papa to come find her…. thank you, thank you so very much…

… flying red hair, rag of a dress, her mother’s face… so, so beautiful and so, so smart… tough as pig iron… his baby….

… in his arms again… never wanting to let her go… will have to let her go… one day… too soon….

“… when I saw you were pulling to the inside straight, Daddy, I let you go ahead and take it. You had it under control. All I had to do was follow your lead. We cleaned them out didn’t we? That’ll teach ’em about trying to play us, won’t it. We’re all Hart, aren’t we, Daddy? Yeah….”

…looking just like her mother… even more like her grandmother…

… Suzanne… Sabrina… Jennifer… Justine Jennifer….

…but eyes of blue… like mine… nobody’s but mine…

like her Daddy’s eyes…     … J.J. Hart….

 

“Wesley keeps calling me and emailing me. Nothing bad, Daddy, but I don’t think I should answer him. I think if I answer him, he’ll take it as me being interested in him in that way, but I’m not. Not at all. I want him to leave me alone, but when I try to tell him, he doesn’t listen. At the club, he gets mad if other boys talk to me. That isn’t fair. I’m not his girlfriend. I don’t like that he does that. So now I’m not talking to him at all, but he seems more persistent than ever. I don’t know what to do any more, so now I’m telling you.”

… so innocent and so pretty…

… him and his nonsense… complicating her life….

“I just don’t want there to be any problems on the weekend Teddy comes to visit me. He’s been telling lies about him and me to his friends up at school. He’s been telling them I’m his girl, but you know that isn’t true. Wesley knows Teddy from school, and I know  if he sees me with him, he’s going to be a problem.”

… no problem, not a problem at all… he’s going to leave you alone, count on it… delegate it to Daddy…

… Daddy is here… right here…

… Wesley’s going to leave you alone… this weekend… and forever… nobody… not as long as Daddy is here to prevent it… delegate it to Daddy….

… and that Teddy…

…attractive, confident, unexpectedly likable Teddy…

… out of the car in swim trunks and white undershirt… little demons and red hot pitchforks….

… I’m home!….

… long legs … long wet hair … wet tee shirt… no shoes…. no pants….

… growing up so fast… too fast….

… so pretty.. so sweet… boys… all kinds, from all over…  pitchforks… all of it complicating his life….

“Jonathan.”

That voice… love it. …love her… love having her call my name, especially in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning…

…so soft and so hot… all woman… my woman…

“Darling.”

Her whisper gently drew him from his sleep, easing him into the start of his day. A hand brushed across the hair of his bare chest. Citrus scented hair tickled his nose as lips pressed themselves warm and inviting against his cheek.

“Jonathan, wake up.”

“Hmmmm?”

“Wake up, darling.”

“What time is it?”

“It’s time to get up. What are you dreaming? You’ve been so restless.”

“Sweet things.”

He spoke without opening his eyes, continuing to enjoy the feel of her body on his and the mellow sound of her voice.

Warm and moist grazed the skin on his neck, trailing their way down until they stopped to gently pull at a nipple while nimble fingers sensuously caressed the most sensitive part of his lower belly, making him tremble.

She could still make him tremble. She knew all the ways to make him tremble.

“How sweet, Jonathan?”

Rising, he easily lifted her from his chest, moving her to the satin-encased pillows, and onto her back. Then he rolled over,  straddling her body to position himself over her. Smiling down into that face, the one that brought so much joy and fulfillment into his life, he answered her, “Nothing as sweet as you. Good morning.”

He owed those good dreams he’d just left and so much else to her.

With both hands he cupped that beloved face beneath him and kissed her. With her and through her, his youthful dreams of a family of his own had become a wonderful reality. He had a wife and child he loved, and who loved him in return.

His Jennifer, there wasn’t anyone like her. His wife, his partner, mother of his child, his life. He owed her, and that was a debt he knew he’d never be able to repay, but it was a debt upon which he would never tire of trying to make good. It wasn’t his normal way of taking care of his obligations, but with her, he greatly preferred the installment plan. The continuously accruing interest on that particular account was of no concern to him whatsoever. In fact, he reveled in it.
____________________________________________________________

Although he knew miracles didn’t really happen, just the same, he had been hoping for one.

It didn’t come for him that morning.

Just like every morning since the fight, Wesley Singleton was sorely disappointed when he looked into the mirror upon getting up. Again, he was almost frightened by his own appearance. It was as if someone else were looking back at him.

He wished it were someone else. The nose was still bruised and swollen, and the dark, purplish rings, although they had faded somewhat, still remained under the eyes.

It didn’t help at all that his skin was so fair. He stared glumly, wondering  when, or even if, his face would ever look the same again.

There was no way that he would be able to show that face at the country club that night. There was no way that he could show that face to her in the daylight at all. She would think him weak for having gotten beaten up like that, and weakness was definitely not her thing. He wasn’t weak; he’d just been caught off guard. No way could Ollie have done that to him if he hadn’t sucker punched him in the way that he had.

William Jr. could kiss his ass. It was not his fault that the fight happened. It didn’t matter what his brother said, he wasn’t going to leave it alone, and he didn’t need anybody’s help. Just like William, he had a right to do what he wanted. He had the right to go anywhere he wanted, and if where he was going just happened to be in the same direction as J.J. happened to have been going, who could prove that it wasn’t coincidence?

Only Ollie could. And so could William, Jr.

But neither of them was going to say anything. Well, Ollie might if it didn’t mean selling J.J. out at the same time.

William, Jr. had too much to lose to go blabbing to anyone about it.

Damn Ollie. He really had it coming.

And so did Teddy. Teddy should have stayed on the east coast where he belonged.

Jonathan Hart had called that morning. He said that he’d heard about the fight, and that he was to checking to see how he was coming along. He’d never called for him before. Was that really what that call had been about, or was it something else?

What else could it be? Hart had a reputation for being shrewd, but what could he get out of calling him? Maybe it had been genuine concern after all.

No matter. J.J. Hart was going to be still and hear what he had to say, whether she wanted to or not.

____________________________________________________________

J.J. woke, let the dog out of the room, used the bathroom, and then crawled back into the bed. She knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep, but she just wanted to lie there for a while. She wouldn’t be able to stay there long. There was Saturday stuff to do, and unfortunately, there would be no flying with Daddy after that because they all had to get ready for the dance. Too bad the flying thing was such a secret; she would have loved to have been able to tell Teddy about that and to show him the plane. But then again, maybe not.

For once, she was actually looking forward to getting all dressed up and going to that kind of dance. Her outfit hung on the dress form on the other side of the room. Everything else was laid out over there, also. Being methodical about those kinds of things, her mother had come in and done that on the night before.

What a trip Jennifer Hart was. There was just no getting a handle on her.

All the night before, while she had been out with her friends, she hadn’t been able to completely let go and have fun for being worried about the interrogation her mother promised would be waiting for her when she got back home. Then to get home and essentially get ambushed, only to not have her say a word about any of what she threatened she would be asking? There was no figuring her out at all.

What could have happened to change her mind? Or worse, what could she have found out in the meantime that made her break off from her pursuit of the total story? Jennifer Hart had the soul of an investigative reporter. It wasn’t like her to drop a project before she had all the details. It was murder not knowing what she knew. She did that all the time, harboring information, and it kept her daughter walking -not quite on but somewhere near- the straight and narrow most of the time. Maybe that was how it was supposed to go. Marnie said that the Duchess did things by design to keep her in check. If that was so, it certainly was working.

Perhaps it was something Daddy said to her. He had a way of making his wife see things from other perspectives. He knew a lot about what had happened on that previous weekend, a lot more than she had suspected before he revealed to her he knew. It seemed he had been conducting an investigation of his own. Maybe he had broken it down to her in terms that she could deal with. After all, they had both been in their bedroom when she got in…

Sex, she thought, must be a mighty good thing if it could make her mother relax and not follow through with he daughter on a promised grilling.

It must be good; she does it all the time.

Then pulling the covers over her mouth, she grinned devilishly into them.

… and how dead would Jennifer Hart kill her daughter if she knew that J.J. Hart had just had that ‘impudent’ thought about her? …that, once again, she’d stuck her speculative nose into what went on in their bedroom?

Thoroughly tickled with herself, J.J. rolled over onto her stomach.

How could she not know what they did over there across the hall? It was written all over them. Not to mention the things she’d witnessed, or almost witnessed, for herself. If they only knew. They ought not be so freaky and hot. They were totally embarrassing with it.

The near miss with her mother on the night before aside, everything else had been wonderful. The night had also been enlightening.

It had been a long time since she’d stopped to consciously consider how her life might appear to someone else who didn’t really know. After years of being exposed to it, all of her friends seemed to have taken it in stride. But then, they saw her all the time, had known her for years, or they lived similar lives themselves, and they were used to it. Teddy  seemed very impressed, but she wondered how he really felt about it all. Had he been overwhelmed? Did he think she was spoiled and had too much? Did he think she was bragging? She hoped he didn’t; she tried to be low-key about things, but she was proud of her father’s accomplishments. As hard as she tried, it was hard to be real modest about everything.

One thing that came out of it with which she had been pleased was Teddy appeared to like and respect her father, and Daddy seemed to like him. That was a good thing. It meant a lot to her that they had gotten along in their first real meeting. It was funny, the guys who were closest to her were guys who seemed to have ways like her father. Chase was nervy, adventurous, and a fighter, Teddy was inquisitive, charming, and personable, and Tommy was close mouthed, sensitive, level-headed, and hard-working. How weird was that?

Tommy.

As of the night before, she still hadn’t heard from him. It had been almost a month since she last saw him and a little over two weeks that he had been gone. As technology-dependent as Tommy was, surely he had a computer set up somewhere in all that time. Maybe he’d gone deep into his immersion program and had just decided to cut all ties. It was hard to believe that he would do that with her, but what else could it be? Miss Fee, his grandmother, wasn’t back yet from where she had gone with him to Barcelona, so she couldn’t be asked what the deal was. Mrs. Steele, Tommy’s mother, worked at Hart, but she wasn’t all that approachable at times. She wasn’t unfriendly or unpleasant when they had opportunity to be in the same place, but she gave off vibes like she wanted to keep her distance. That impression had gotten even stronger since the incident with her and Tommy being kidnapped earlier that year. It was almost as if she didn’t want, or she was uncomfortable with, her and Tommy being friends.

But in light of what she’d seen the night before down in the atrium at Hart, maybe that was the answer. It looked like Mrs. Steele and Uncle Marcus were involved, and they were trying to keep it low. There had been no indication of anything going on between them prior to her seeing the two of them holding hands. If there was anything to it, she could see Mrs. Steele being nervous around her, but she didn’t have to be. If it was a secret, like she suspected it was, it was safe with J.J. Hart. That was strictly their business, and nobody would know of it through her.

But what would Tommy make of it when he found out?

Tommy and Uncle Marcus were close. They both were quiet individualists, and they were both software fanatics. Tommy had been working with Uncle Marcus for years, studying, trying out new programs, flying with him to business meetings, trade shows, and conventions. Would things be different between them if his mother and Uncle Marcus were to hook up?

Tommy’s mother was still fairly young, just thirty-five, and had never been married. Uncle Marcus was older than her, but he’d never been married either, and he had no children. He had devoted his entire adult life to Hart Industries. What a nice thing that he’d finally found someone special. Tommy had better not be acting crazy when he did find out. His mother had devoted her entire adult life to raising him. She deserved to be happy. She was still young enough to get married and have another child or two if she wanted, and then Uncle Marcus would have a kid or kids of his own. Then she could be a cousin- of sorts.  But would that make Tommy’s mother her sort-of-aunt? And Tommy her sort-of-cousin?

The thought of what Tommy’s reaction to all of that might be had her laughing to herself as she snuggled down into the covers.

In their conversation right before he left, Tommy said he didn’t want a stepfather. Could it be  he already knew about them, and that was what he had been speaking of when he mentioned giving his mother some room to get a life? Could that have been the real reason why he went away? If they did get together, would Tommy not come back?

        Whatever. Whatever. Whatever. 

Uncle Marcus and Mrs. Steele, one story Tommy Steele would not be getting from J.J. Hart. If he didn’t already know about it, somebody else, hopefully his mother, would be telling him.

She rolled onto her back to watch the ceiling fan as it slowly turned above her, mimicking what was going on inside her head.

        Teddy. Sweet, sweet Teddy.

He was so nice, so much fun, so cute, and such a gentleman.

Twice, he wanted to seriously kiss her, once on the boat and in the car once he got her home, but she wouldn’t let him. Couldn’t let him. He had been too close, been too much fun, had been looking too good, and they had too much more time to spend together. Last night, it had been far too early in the game to let him advance on her like that.

        “If it makes you uncomfortable, J.J., leave it alone.”

Very sound advice even if it didn’t quite hit the mark.

It wasn’t a matter of being uncomfortable. Actually, with Teddy, it was too natural and too comfortable.

He had been woven right into the group. It was Teddy who persuaded Marnie to let her brother stay with them, rather than taking him back home as she’d planned. Kyle and Teddy hit it off and for a large part of the night, the younger boy stayed by Teddy’s side. That cut down on the amount of private time she had been able to get with him, but that might not have been such a bad thing. Several times during the night, she’d caught Teddy looking at her. She thought at first it was because she was in her swimsuit, and it was his first time seeing her in one. But after the second time she caught him doing it, it almost seemed like it was more than that. It wasn’t a look like he was just checking her out. It was as if he was trying to tell her something. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes from his for trying to figure out the message he had been trying to convey.

Other guys stares sometimes made her uneasy, but Teddy’s hadn’t. With him, she was pretty sure if things had gotten started, it would have been so easy for them, in that state of undress, to slide right on to the next level, and she wasn’t ready to go there. Was she? Seventeen or a senior in high school, wasn’t that the plan?

At the thought of his eyes, his smile, his laugh, of him in those wet swim trunks, his well defined back, ab, and thigh muscles flexing as he helped maneuver the boat; she shuddered and rolled herself up tightly in the covers.

“Jeeeez- ussss, please,”  she prayed behind closed eyes, “have mercy.”

The phone rang. Poking her head out, she checked the display, then she rolled completely out.

To take that call, she definitely did not need to be in that bed.

____________________________________________________________

“Daddy, you know why I like flying an airplane so much?”

“Why, Sweetie?”

“Because it’s like having your own magic carpet, like in stories, only it’s better. This is real, and up here, I get to call the shots. I love it way up here in the sky. There’s no such thing as that flying carpet kind  magic, but there is this kind, isn’t there, Daddy?”

“Yes, I guess there is, J.J.”

“And it’s special because you taught it to me. Thank you for teaching me about this kind of magic.”

“No, sweetheart, thank, you.”

She had been a joy to teach to fly. She had been his joy, and she had taken his heart to heights he never would have imagined. Raising her was his pleasure.

Jonathan had left the golf course at the country club and was on his way to keeping his appointment with the tailor to pick up his suit. As he drove, he reflected upon his morning and then his daughter.

After being awakened by Jennifer and spending a little time with her, getting their day started in their favorite way, he had left for the club. There, he took breakfast with Dr. Ollie Jackson and their friend, Brent Phillips, who was also Ollie, Sr’s attorney. After talking back and forth all week, they had agreed to meet at that time because there were points to be referenced, viewpoints to be discussed, and loose ends to be checked upon before the Country Club dance.

After breakfast, Ollie had to leave to make morning rounds at the hospital, so he and Brent drove over to the golf course where they met with another group of men, one of them being Chuck Barnett, father of J.J.’s twin friends, Chase and Chance. They’d played nine holes and talked things over. Despite being slightly distracted by the necessary conversation between he and Chuck, he’d done rather well.

When he left home that morning, J.J. had still been in her room. That wasn’t unusual. Unless she had track practice or some other scheduled activity, she wasn’t one to surface early on Saturdays. But for some reason, that morning, he noticed her absence. Saturdays were normally theirs to spend together once she and her mother finished with what J.J. called their “Saturday Stuff”. But that day, because of the dance later that night, he wouldn’t be able to take her flying or to any of the places they liked to go. (They were due a trip to the racetrack; it had been a while.) Instead, J.J. would probably be with her mother, getting ready. With Teddy there in Los Angeles, and with him slated to be her escort that night, that process was highly likely to turn into an all-day affair. Jennifer loved to dress and she loved to dress her child- when her child would allow her the rare opportunity to do so.

He was satisfied that everything that could be done to insure there would be no problems for J.J. and Teddy, had been done. He had even personally turned up the heat under the offending party, that one loose end. The boy had to be wondering what that call had been all about. Chuck Barnett had sent the younger faction of their posse out that morning to brief the newcomer. Everything seemed to be in place for J.J. to have a safe and uninterrupted first real date. No matter how uneasy he felt about it as a father, as her father, he wanted it to be a night she would pleasantly remember. He wanted to continue helping to make her life a magic carpet ride.

Pulling onto Beverly Boulevard, he spotted J.J.’s best friend, Marnie. She was placing a clothing bag into the trunk of her shiny new car where there were already several shopping bags that she had to move to make room for her latest acquistion. It looked as if she had been busy that morning.  He tapped his horn to get her attention as he pulled up alongside her.

“Hey, Mr. H.!”

“Marnie. Still hiding out the car?”

She shut down the hood and came to the open window on his passenger side. “You know it. It’s getting hard, though. When I’m out shopping like this, I’m always looking over my shoulder, scared I’m going to run up on Mrs. H.  I just hope I’m walking or something if I do. Then I can play it off, you know, just don’t go to the car or anything until I know for sure she’s gone for real, and she isn’t going to be doubling back and spying on me. She’d do that if she felt like I was trying to put one over on her, and she probably would pick up on me trying to do that if I ran into her. I get all nervous when I’m trying to get past her. You know, it’s funny how it doesn’t bother me at all to pull a fast one on anybody else. It’s just her that breaks me down like that. Why is that?”

He laughed. Everything she said was true. “I don’t know, Marnie, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. You need somebody like that. We all do. She keeps you in line.”

“Tell me about it,” Marnie agreed. “And half-way honest.”

“Will I see you tonight at the club? I wasn’t sure if you were coming since you moved to your father’s. Since you’ve been keeping your head down, you haven’t been out to the house. I miss you.”

“Awwww, for real?”

“For real. You’ve been a regular at my house all these years. You get me used to having you there with me, and then you let a new car come between us.”

Teased into rare redness, for a moment, Marnie seemed to not know what to say. When she did speak, she answered his question.

“I’ll be there tonight. Just because I moved, doesn’t mean I renounce my membership to the club or to your household, if you’ll have me. My father paid my club dues when my mother started acting all silly about me moving out on her, saying that I couldn’t be a member any more. He’s a member still, even though he doesn’t go that often. He can’t, not with my stepmother, you know, with her problem. Chance is bringing me.”

Jonathan noticed how casually Marnie alluded to her stepmother’s growing alcoholism. She had always been matter-of-fact about the turbulence in her life; her parents’ divorces and remarriages, her volatile fights with her flighty mother, and on and on. The problem with her current stepmother was no secret, but still, he thought it was sad that Marnie’s life had to be touched by yet another bit of seediness. At the same time, however, he was happy for Jennifer’s strong influence on her. Things had a way of balancing themselves out.

Marnie had all the ingredients that should have made her a troubled brat. She was over-indulged, mischievous, bold, and very outspoken, a wealthy girl with a lot of material things and unsupervised time at her disposal. But so far, aside from being a little spendthrift clotheshorse, she was for the most part, just a regular kid. Strangely enough, it was her respect for and fear of Jennifer, rather than her own parents, that kept her from getting too far out there. From a very little girl, Marnie had always sought and thrived upon Jennifer’s approval.

“Are you going to be a modern lady and pick your date up in your new car?” he asked, testing the waters.

“Heck no,” she replied with a frown. “These Texas roots go deep in me. My grandmothers both say that a lady never picks up the check or a guy for a date in her own car. They say if a boy wants the pleasure of my company, then he has to pay my way. I tend to agree. That’s in my blood. Feminism only goes so far.” She grinned her dimpled grin and wrinkled her perky nose. “Sorry.”

He shook his head in amusement, and some satisfaction. He tended to agree with Marnie’s grandmothers, too. As far as he was concerned, just as boys back in his day were expected to do, modern day guys needed to step up to the plate and be the men they wanted credit for being when it came to the young women in their lives.

“No, my dear, I’m afraid it’s Chance who might be sorry,” he teased, “but that’s his load to carry. You go ahead, and I’ll see you tonight. Drive carefuly, Marnie.”

She blew him a kiss. “I will. Mr. H. You, do the same.”

He chuckled to himself as he continued on his way. Jennifer already knew about that car, and J.J. was aware that her mother knew about it. Apparently, she hadn’t shared that information with her friend, and he wouldn’t be letting on, either. That was a matter to be hammered out between Marnie, J.J. and Jennifer.

Coming out of the tailor shop with his suit, he almost ran smack into the posse, Chase, Chance, Ollie, and the newcomer, Teddy. The first three had suit bags slung over their shoulders, and the latter dug his finger along his collar as if in some discomfort. Jonathan figured out right away what his problem was; Teddy’s hair was noticeably shorter than it had been on the day before,althought it was still full and still boyishly, endearingly curly.

“Hey Mr. Hart!.” They all greeted him, taking turns shaking his hand, but it was Chase who fronted the group.

“So, like, did you take all their money this morning out on the course?”

“Who said we bet?” Jonathan answered in challenge.

He liked that Chase. The boy was truly forward, but always respectful, in a casual sort of young hustler to his revered elder way.

“Come on,” Chase answered, moving in to stand shoulder to shoulder with him and gesturing with his hand. “This is me and you, here. If you and my father were playing, somebody lost some money. I’ve seen you play. In fact, I’ve lost money to you- not at golf- but I know you. A game’s not worth playing unless there’s a stake. And I sympathize.”

“No comment,” Jonathan said, finally smiled. “You’ll have Teddy here thinking bad things about me.”

“I don’t think so, Mr. Hart.” Teddy assured him. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about you. And I sort of feel the same way.”

“These guys showing you around Los Angeles?” Jonathan asked.

“They’re going to.” Teddy answered. “My father made me get a haircut. So they took me to do that first. Then they had to pick up their suits. We’re going to eat, and then they’re going to take me to Hollywood and stuff.”

“He wants to visit tourist traps.” Chance complained.

Chase offered slyly, “I told him there were some better places we could take him. Like Venice Beach, Griffith Park, the alley behind the Chinese food place.”

Jonathan was popping the back of Teddy’s collar in an attempt to free some of the prickly hairs that were worrying the boy’s neck.

“Stick to the tourist traps.” He advised Teddy. “Especially with these two. And don’t let them take you anywhere near the alley behind the Chinese food place.” He looked over and eyed the twins while still wiping at Teddy’s collar and shoulders. “You go back there with them, and you’ll either get rolled or wiped out or hauled in. J.J. is expecting you to take her out tonight. You can’t do that if your father is down getting you out of the slammer. And I’m telling you, all of you, my daughter doesn’t date or hang out with cons.”

They all laughed. Jonathan took the moment to put a reassuring arm around Ollie’s shoulders. “You feeling all right these days?”

“I’m fine.” Ollie quietly answered. “Just fine, Sir. Thanks for your help with everything.”

Jonathan briefly patted his back. “No problem. I’m just glad you’re feeling okay. You have to do what you have to do sometimes, and I’m just proud that you took a stand. Keep hanging with these guys. I tease them a lot, but they really are good people.”

Ollie smiled shyly and nodded.

“We filled Teddy, here, in, like you and Pop told us.” Chance said. “We got it covered for tonight.”

“I really don’t think anything’s going to happen.” Ollie offered. “I just don’t want to let my guard down. For J.J.’s sake, I just don’t think any of us should. I know he’s got to be mad about everything.”

“He’s been keeping a pretty low profile all week,” Chase said. “But being mad about getting his can kicked, and with his judgment impaired like it might be, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for anybody to get comfortable. We don’t know if anybody’s told him about Teddy being here, but it’s a pretty good bet that somebody has filled him in.”

“He was plenty pissed before I left home,” Teddy agreed, and then caught himself. “Excuse the language, Mr. Hart, but he was pretty mad with me over J.J. But, all of a sudden, he’s stopped sending me messages. Before this, I was getting several a day, ever since right after J.J. and I met at the reunion. Since I’ve been here in Los Angeles, I haven’t had a single one on my cell. That’s not a good sign. I bet he knows I’m here.”

“Well, you guys know what we’ve told you.” Jonathan concluded. “Just have fun tonight, but keep your eyes open.”

“We will.” They called out as they walked off from him to continue up the avenue, looking in shop windows, laughing and talking. He breathed a little easier. It appeared that all his bases had been covered.

As he watched them go, he wondered if they realized that they were experiencing some of the best, most carefree moments of their lives. But he knew that they didn’t. No kid did until it was over, and they could look back on it. He wondered which one, if any one, of them would manage to find true happiness and fulfillment as a man. He had just gotten lucky in achieving that in his own life, of that he was sure.

But that Chase and Chance had so quickly taken to Teddy said a lot to him about his daughter’s new friend. Chuck Barnett wasn’t raising fools. The twins were just boys, but they were shaping up to be a quite a twosome.

And Ollie was shaping up to be quite a man himself.

Life was a funny thing, he marveled. He and Jennifer had been childless for all those years. Living with Max during that time, having had so many adventures together; their lives had been exciting and fun. When Max became so ill, they knew that things were changing for all of them. Right before he finally left, Max said that they were about to embark upon another journey, and that they should keep to the exciting business of life. Standing there, watching those boys, he realized that along with J.J., his own last-minute child; he had gained a whole group of children. And Jennifer, although she still tended to remain on the outside of all that, had picked up at least one more daughter- whether she wanted her or not. Life was indeed different now, but it was still an exciting, rewarding journey.

______________________________________________________________

“Boo!”

Startled, J.J. dropped her magazine into her lap, and involuntarily leaned away from the voice at her neck. The back and driver’s side doors of the car snatched open, and bodies piled in all around her. The kiss laughingly pressed to her check told herit was Teddy who had crept up on her at the window as Chase slid in behind the steering wheel while Ollie and Chance crawled into the back seat.

“You genie!” she cried, squeezing the arm with which Teddy hugged her. “Still turning up any where you feel like it!” Then she turned around and popped Chase in the arm. “My mother is going to kill you if she finds you behind the wheel of her car.”

“No, she won’t.” Chase said, reaching out to lightly pinch the back of her hand. “Pretty ladies love me. That’s why you can’t stand me.”

It took just a second for the insult to register, and when it did, she popped him again.

“Ow, J., that’s domestic violence.”

“We are not related, nor do we have any kind of familial or intimate relationship, so it’s just plain, old violence, and you pinched me, so I owed you. Where are you guys coming from anyway?”

“Doing stuff and hanging out,” Chance answered, leaning forward from the back to speak right next to her head. “We saw Marnie on Melrose. She was all nervous and in a hurry, trying to duck your mother. She said you and your mother were out shopping, and she didn’t want to be running into your mother while she was out with the car.”

“She needs to give that up and come clean.” J.J. said. “That is simply too much looking over the shoulder and skulking around. Too much negative energy she’s expending on a doomed cause.”

She opened the door and scooted over to allow Teddy to share that seat with her.

“You got your hair cut,” She observed as he got settled. “Why’d you do that?”

“My father made me,” he answered, running his hands through the shortened curls. “He said I looked like a woolly lamb about the head.”

She laughed. “You did,  but I thought it was cute. You still look nice, though.”

Teddy smiled and squeezed the hand he held. “So do you.”

“Hey! Hey!” Chase cried. “No courting. You two have all night to be hooking up.”

“Hooking up?” J.J. asked, sounding offended by his choice of words.

Chase winked at her in response.

“You don’t have exactly al-l-l-ll night.” Chance grinned devilishly. “Not unless old Teddy here wants to catch a case. You don’t get her home on time, and you can bet Hart will be hunting you down like a dog, Teddy. The man smiles and seems pretty nice most of the time on the surface, but I wouldn’t trust him to not take you completely out over J. That’s his baby girl. That’s why I’m going with the Marnster. No old man to deal with, not much anyway. Her father barks, but you know there’s no bite. Got no teeth. Can’t say the same for J.J.’s old man, though.”

“Father,” J.J. immediately corrected him, “with a full set of teeth.”

Teddy leaned around J.J. to Chance. “I already saw the gun the under his arm.”

“See?” Chance said, pointing to him for emphasis. “What did I just say? Effing lethal when it comes to his girl.”

“Daddy will take your head off about Marnie, too.” J.J. advised Chance. “Make no mistake about it. She’s his just like I am. I’d advise you to not leave any marks on her, even if she says it’s okay. Daddy knows where you live and the places where you hang out.”

Realizing she hadn’t spoken to him, J.J. turned around and personallygreeted Ollie. Then she turned back to Chase. “You’re just mad because you don’t have a date for tonight.”

“So?” Chase retorted. “And neither would you if Teddy hadn’t come all the way from Boston to support his favorite charity. We would have both shown up stag, and you know it.”

She dismissed Chase’s comment with the flat of her hand to his face, followed by her patent, “Whatever.”, reinforced by rolling blue eyes and a snaking neck.

“Hey J.” Chance said, pulling at her shoulder. “Ask your mother if you can go with us. We’re taking Teddy to see the studios and things. He wants to see the stars on the sidewalk and all that sightseer crap. Tell her we won’t be long. We all have to be back to get ready for tonight anyway.”

J.J. shook her head, negating the suggestion. “She won’t let me.”

“How come?” Chase asked. “She knows all of us.”

“It isn’t that she doesn’t know you. There’s just too many of you. She’ll be talking about how it doesn’t look nice for me to be the only girl in a car full of boys. Besides, even if she didn’t mind, Daddy would have a fit about it.”

“We just saw Daddy Hart,” Chance said, “up on Beverly coming from the tailor. He likes us. He’d let you go with us.”

“He doesn’t like any of you that much. And besides, I have too much else to do. See, it takes us girls longer to get ready. We have a bit more to do than to just pull up a pair of pants over some filthy underwear, step into some shoes- probably without socks, button up a shirt- hopefully after putting on some deodorant, and slip a jacket on over it all to be dressed.”

“There’s more?” Teddy teased.

“You’ll see,” She promised with a wink.

______________________________________________________________

“This really isn’t  the one I wanted.”

Jennifer stood in the mirror with a colorful shawl draped about her, trying to make up her mind.

“But I guess I’d better take it. It’s pretty close to what I wanted, and I know J.J. is out there in that car being her usual impatient self. In a minute, she’ll be in here wanting to know what’s taking me so long, acting as if she’s my mother and I’m making her wait, and then you know where she and I go from there. Since she isn’t going off with Jonathan this afternoon as usual, it’ll wind up being an all day attitudinal thing with us. With all I have to get done today, I can’t take one of her moods, and Lord knows that she doesn’t want to deal with one of mine. She’s been dodging bullets for a while now.”

Unwrapping the shawl from around her, she handed it to the boutique owner, who was assisting her. As she did, she sighed, “Who would have thought, Connie, a female child of mine wouldn’t like to shop?”

Connie chuckled over Jennifer’s comments about the personable individual to whom Jennifer referred. She carefully folded the shawl while Jennifer gathered up her sunglasses and purse.

“She’ll get better as she gets older, Jennifer, I’m sure of it. She has her own definite sense of style. It’s just different from yours, but, I must say, she does seem to love pretty lingerie, just like her mother.”

“I find that disturbing in itself,” Jennifer said, digging down in her purse for her wallet as she and Connie headed for the counter. “She spends an inordinate amount of time perusing Victoria’s Secret catalogs. What does that say?”

“That she is a girl at heart, Jennifer.”

“Well, she’s sixteen now, and in all this time, if she hasn’t developed more of an interest in outer clothing than she has, I doubt that she ever will. When I was her age, you couldn’t keep me out of a store, a fashion magazine, or a fashion show. If it doesn’t deal with music, sports, numbers, or some computer chips or electrical circuits; that child has very little use for it.”

It was while she was at the counter paying for her purchase that Georgette Singleton entered the shop. She made a beeline for the counter, calling out, “Good morning, Jennifer. You’re out early this Saturday morning.”

Jennifer returned the greeting with her usual graciousness. “Good morning, Georgette. I had a lot to do, so J.J. and I got an early start.”

“I just saw her out front,” Georgette said, her eyes ever so briefly flitting toward the front window. She lowered her voice considerably to ask, “That wasn’t Teddy Baxter’s boy out there in your car with her along with all those other boys, was it? I didn’t know that he was here in Los Angeles. With whom did he come? Did he come specifically to see J.J.? I didn’t know that they were an item.”

Jennifer turned her attention back to the counter to complete her transaction.

Georgette remained standing there. As if compelled to fill the void when Jennifer offered nothing more, talking. “It’s such a shameWesley isn’t feeling better, and he won’t be there tonight. He’ll be so sorry that again he missed seeing her. If he was feeling better, I’m sure he would have asked to accompany her.”

The crackling of tissue seemed deafening in the ensuing silent gap. The salesgirl carefully packed the shawl in a box, which she handed to the girl standing next to her. The box was then placed in a shopping bag and handed to Jennifer after she signed for it.

“I’m sure we’ll be seeing you tonight.” Was all that Jennifer finally said to Georgette before taking her package and her leave.

When she was gone, and Georgette was in the rear of the shop out of earshot; the first salesgirl leaned in to whisper to the second, “Did you see that? Now tell me if I’m wrong, but did Mrs. Hart just torpedo Mrs. Singleton?”

“Broadside,” the second girl snickered. “I thought it was just me. Mrs. Hart is always so pleasant, and she didn’t look upset or anything. I thought that was what I was seeing, but she was so smooth with it, I wasn’t sure.”

Connie, arrived at the counter toward the end of the exchange, had only caught the tail end of what the girls were saying. But she had caught enought of the exchange between her two wealthy customers.

“Smooth as silk.” She said in a low tone. “Classily shot that nosy, pushy, snitching-on-my-girl-J.J., bitch’s nose right off her face. Now you two stop gossiping and get on back to work.”

______________________________________________________________

Stopped at the light Marnie spotted the black Mercedes waiting to cross the intersection and  slid down in the seat until she was just barely able to peek out over the steering wheel.

She had spent the entire week on high alert, avoiding Bel Air completely. Living with her father in Brentwood, she was missing being able to just go down to J.J.’s whenever she wanted the way she could when she lived with her mother in Bel Air. Strangely enough, even though Mrs. Hart kept her edgy and could be scary at times, she was finding that she missed her, too. But to go to Willow Pond, she would have to drive, and to drive there would mean letting J.J.’s mother know that they had a car at their disposal. Hiding out the car was working out to not be as easy or as much fun as they thought. With J.J. working with her trainer on strengthening her ankle and having to do her mother’s bidding, J.J. hadn’t been able to get away during the week so that they could meet. And there was no way that she could be seen inside Bel Air picking J.J. up without the Duchess finding out.

As traffic advanced and the Mercedes passed her, she could see J.J. on the side closest to her, and she saw it when J.J. turned her head in that direction. It was evident from the sudden widening of her eyes that she had seen her and the car. J.J. quickly turned back to face forward, hanging her hand out of the door to wave at her down below the line of the window.

Still slumped down in the seat, Marnie wiped her damp forehead with the back of her hand, resolving to herself, “This is getting old. It’s getting to be too-damned much drama even for me.”

________________________________________________________________

“J.J., who’s going to fix your hair when you go to college?” Jennifer asked as she stood behind J.J. loosely twisting and then pinning a section of hair into place. “If you think I’m going to be getting on a plane to come wherever you are, whenever you want, just to be doing your hair, you can forget it.”

At her daughter’s insistence, she had put off getting dressed herself to come to J.J.’s bedroom to style her hair for the dance that evening.

“I will.” J.J. answered, watching herself and her mother in the mirror she faced, admiring her mother’s handiwork. “I can do a ponytail in a heartbeat. It’s a multi-purpose hairstyle, you know.”

After securing the last section that was being pulled and pinned up and back from J.J.’s face, taking the brush in hand, Jennifer fluffed out the hair that she had left loose to hang down her daughter’s back.

“What about when you want to go out? What about for very formal occasions? A ponytail won’t do for those.”

“Hopefully they’ll be fewer of those in my life once I’m on my own.” J.J. answered. “They’re not really my thing. But if I have to, there’s always a French braid. I can do that pretty well on my own. I can also put it up in a bun fairly easily. I can always go to a stylist, but they never do exactly what I want, the way that you do. So, I guess if things get too complicated, there’s always the option of cutting it. It’ll be easier to deal with if I do that. And since I’ll be eighteen and out of your house, the hair will be all mine to do with what I wish, won’t it?”

Jennifer sighed and looked down at the lush red hair upon which she was working, wishing that J.J. appreciated it more, and refusing to meet the blue eyes that were challenging hers in the mirror.

Not getting the expected rise from her mother, J.J. checked her own face, and decided that there wasn’t enough blusher on her cheeks. She picked up the brush to apply more, but before she could get it to her face, the brush was removed from her hand and placed back on the dresser.

“Mo- ommm!”

“You know, for a tomboy, you sure can get heavy handed with the makeup when you decide to wear it.”

J.J. tried to twist around, but was manually turned back to face the mirror, where she was forced to use her reflection to defend herself.

“I am not a tomboy!” She declared. “I just don’t like a whole lot of girly-lace and pomp and circumstance. All I was trying to do was to make sure that my makeup was balanced. It doesn’t look balanced to me.”

“It’s balanced enough. You don’t need that much of it anyway. You’re young and you attract enough attention without it. This morning, you didn’t have on a drop of makeup when I got back to my car to find it running over with boys, completely surrounding my one daughter.”

“Chase, Chance, and Ollie? Them? Those weren’t boys, Mom. They don’t count. They’re just my friends.”

“I notice that you omitted one. What was that I found huddled up on the same seat with you? A Martian?”

J.J. reddened and avoided her mother’s eyes in the mirror.

“A Bostonian.” She answered. “Whose middle name is Martin, not Martian. And his being on that seat with me was just coincidence. Teddy was already on that side of the car. It was the only place left for him to sit. It would have been rude for me to leave him standing on the sidewalk.”

“Um-hmmm. And being the polite, accommodating person you are, you just naturally slid over and made room on your seat in the car for him.”

Shrugging, J.J. answered, “That’s pretty much the way it happened.”

Jennifer continued brushing out J.J.’s hair.

“J.J., last night I asked you if he’d kissed you. You told me that he kissed you on the cheek; that you didn’t want him to do more. You specifically said “Just yet.” You emphasized that. What was that supposed to mean?”

It was J.J.’s turn to sigh.

“You don’t miss anything, do you, Mom? When it comes to me, you’re like the hard drive on a computer, and I’m like some kind of pc novice. I’ll be thinking that just because I’ve said something and sent it to my own recycle bin that it’s gone- done with. But it’s not. It’s still there, somewhere on a chip inside your head, waiting for just the right moment to be retrieved so you can use it against me.”

Jennifer, finished with the hair, sat down next to J.J. on the bench and faced her.

“Just answer me, girl.” She ordered, trying not to laugh at her child’s technology-driven simile. “You knew I was going to ask.”

Trying not to smile herself, J.J. answered, “I just meant that I wasn’t ready for him to do more than kiss me on the cheek last night. We went out on the boat, and we’d been swimming. We were all wet and stuff. I think it was that signal thing you talk about. I didn’t want to be sending out signals. I knew that we would be together tonight, too, and I didn’t want things to go too fast. If I had kissed him last night the way that I think he wanted me to, the way that I really wanted to, well…”

“What about the “just yet” part?”

“Well, at the time that you asked me that, tonight was too far away to say what might happen. I can’t say what will or won’t happen tonight.”

“At least you’re honest about it.”

“I’ve learned that I might as well be. You’ll get it out of me eventually.”

“You really like him, J.J.?”

“I think so,” J.J. squirmed, made a little uncomfortable by her mother’s gaze and her probing questions. But she wanted to talk.

“I mean I must. For once, I care about what I look like- for a boy. But I don’t want to. And I really don’t want him to know that I do. I like him, but I still don’t want a boyfriend. If he finds out how much I like him, things would get too complicated.”

She raised her eyes to her mother’s face. “Mom, how come things have to be so difficult? Was it ever all mixed up like this for you? How did you get it sorted out, if it was? And tell me this. How come Tommy hasn’t written me or called me? When a person is in one of those cultural immersion programs, aren’t they at least allowed to write? Have you spoken with his grandmother? Do you think he’s caught up, having a good time and that he’s forgotten about me already? Maybe he didn’t see our friendship like I do. He’s a guy. Maybe it’s not as important to him as it is to me. You think?”

“There you go, machine-gunning those questions at me again.” Jennifer chuckled. “Where do you want me to start?”

“Tommy.” J.J. answered. “And Ms. Fee.”

“All right. I’m assuming that Fee is still in Barcelona with Tommy. She hasn’t contacted me, either, since they left, and I think she would have phoned if she were back at home. I don’t know about Tommy’s particular program and what it entails, but I’m sure that he’ll be getting into contact with you soon. It’s only been two weeks, J.J. I’m fairly sure that the friendship is as important to him as it is to you. He’s gone out of his way for you, and to get to you, too many times in the past for him to forget you. So, I don’t think you need to worry about his not valuing the friendship.”

“Well, now that’s something else I don’t understand. How come I care so much about that? He’s just a friend, right?”

“That’s what you’ve been telling me all this time.”

“Then why do I miss him so much? I don’t know why I do, but I do. I’m almost like a dope fiend with it, checking my computer all the time, my email, my Instant Messenger Service, my voice mail on the phone. I find myself waiting for and going through the mail. I hate that it’s like that, but it is. It’s like I can’t help myself. I don’t really understand any of it.

And then there’s Teddy. He’s so nice, and so much fun. He’s interesting to talk with, and he’s undeniably cute. Isn’t he?”

“Undeniably.”

“In short, I like Teddy, I like how he makes me feel, but I know that I’m not supposed to go with all my feelings. My body might want to, but then my mind doesn’t want to. I want to know what it feels like to just go with my feelings, but then I understand that it’s too soon to be doing stuff like that. I honestly don’t really want to do stuff like that yet, but it is fun to think about it. I don’t want to belong to anybody, nor do I want to lay claim to anybody. But I’m telling you, I think if some girl asks him to dance tonight, I just might deck her. Now I know you’ll probably say that I did stuff like that for years- dance with other people’s dates and not care how they felt about it- and that turnabout is fair play, but I don’t want to play fair at this.

You know sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I wish I could have just stayed a little girl. I didn’t worry about stuff like this when I was little. I didn’t worry about any of the things then that I do now. I like being older and being able to do more on my own, but it’s so hard sometimes, Mom. It’s so hard to know what the right thing is to do. It’s confusing, and it’s a little-”

She stopped speaking and slumped over to lay her head on her mother’s shoulder.

“Frightening? Daunting?” Jennifer finished her sentence, bringing her arm up to put it around her daughter to hug her close.

J.J. nodded into her mother’s embrace. It was all right if Mom said it, but she wasn’t ever going to be admitting to fear and uncertainty aloud on her own. That would be claiming it.

“Just stay within your comfort zone, Justine.” Jennifer gently reminded her. “And it will sort itself out.”

“But see, that’s part of the problem, too.” J.J. explained. “What if things get too comfortable? What if what’s happening doesn’t make me uncomfortable? What if it actually makes me feel good? What then?”

“Then you remember that you still live under my roof.”

“Speaking from the heart, Mom, that’s no good. That only works on paper. In practice, it’s not all that useful. I can remember that all I want, but from what I can tell so far, if stuff gets started, it won’t matter about that until it’s all over.”

Jennifer eased J.J. off of her shoulder so that they could see into each other’s face.

“Then if that’s the case, J.J. Hart, let me put it to you like this. You know how since the fabric of that skirt you’re wearing tonight is thin you can still feel your underwear through it?”

“Yeah?” J.J. answered, looking on questioningly, curious as to where her mother was headed.

“Well, for starters, you watch what you do, and you keep that thin skirt down- all the way down. Then if it starts to feel like things might be heating up, you reach and you feel for the waistband of your panties.”

“Aw, Mom, no!” J.J. cried placing her hands over her ears.

Jennifer pulled her hands away and held them.

“You hear me and let me finish.” She said. “Right through the fabric of that dress that you’re making sure the hem of it stays down around your ankles, you take firm hold of that waistband, and you keep your hand there. Then you tell Mr. Baxter, Jr. that it’s time for him to bring you home. You get to the front door of 3100 Willow Pond Road, Bel Air, and you leave him in the car. Then you bring your little self right into this house to me.”

“How in the world do you come up with this stuff?” J.J. asked, pulling her hands free of her mother’s to lean in to her, laughing softly into her chest. “It must be the writer in you. To look at you, nobody in the world would know that you say crude stuff like that. They wouldn’t even suspect that you would have that in you. If I tried to tell anybody other than maybe Marnie or Aunt Pat, I wouldn’t be able to get anybody to believe it, no matter how hard I tried to convince them that you do, not even Daddy, probably. It’s not from personal experience, is it? You are one straight-up mess, Mom.”

“And so are you.” Jennifer smiled, kissing the top of J.J.’s head. “And you don’t worry about my personal experience, you just make sure that you take care of that bank you’re building of your own. Like I’ve told you, you are my mess for right now, and I love you. That’s why I tell you the things that I do in the manner that I do. I know my child. J.J. Hart needs visuals and graphic examples in order for something to make sense to her. Now, you just remember what I said. Hold on to the waistband of those underpants- tightly- and don’t let go of it until you’re back with me.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” J.J. answered. “I will.”

______________________________________________________________

Jonathan hadn’t gotten dressed yet either. He was sitting on the side of the bed with the phone to his ear when Jennifer returned to their bedroom. He looked up when the door opened and by the time she made it over to the bed, he had terminated the call.

“You’re spending a lot of time on the phone these days, Jonathan.” She said, looking down from where she stood by his side taking off her robe to reveal the lacy bra and panties underneath. “You’re making me nervous.”

He looked up, appreciatively taking in the sight of her. “I’m making you nervous?”

“Jonathan, be serious.”

“Lamb from security.” He grinned in explanation, slowly sliding a hand down the inner thigh of the leg closest to him. “Just finalizing things.”

“This isn’t going to be an overkill situation, is it?” She asked, one hand on her hip and a look of concern on her face. “I know you, and I know how you do things. I want her safe, too, but I don’t want her embarrassed.”

He reached up to take that one hand in his and pulled her down to sit on his lap.

“Nothing is overkill when it comes to keeping either one of you safe from harm.”  He told her. “Especially when I know for sure that harm might be out there. If things go like they should tonight, she’ll never know anything about any of it, no matter what happens.”

Jennifer closed her eyes and slowly shook her head.

“Jonathan, why do things like this have to happen? I thought this kind of foolishness was over. She’s so young, and she’s already been through too much. We’ve tried to be so careful with her. It’s frustrating to realize that no matter how hard you try, some things just can’t be anticipated. Why is it that some guys just won’t take no for an answer? Why don’t they just stop and understand that feelings can’t be forced? Is it going to be like this for her all of her life?”

Jonathan had been watching his wife. There it was again, that something she was holding inside that troubled her so much when it came to J.J. He had long sensed that whatever it was, it terrified her, and once again, he wanted to ask her about it, but he didn’t. It was hers, and like she said, things couldn’t be forced. She would relinquish it when she was ready. But he silently vowed that whenever it did come out, it better turn out that whomever it was who hurt her was dead. If he wasn’t, he’d wish that he was.

Instead he put both arms around her and slowly ran his hands over the bare skin of her back to relax her as he spoke to her.

“Jennifer, with this boy, it’s ego, it’s immaturity, and a bit more. He’s arrogant by nature and upbringing, and he’s been lead to believe certain things about himself, about females, and about people in general. I’ve told you what my other suspicions are. His behavior is being driven by that, as well. If my hunches are right, then this is nothing to play around with.”

“I know.” She murmured.

“We still don’t know exactly what he did to J.J. and Chase last weekend that sparked that fight with him and Ollie,” He continued. “But she assured me that whatever it was, he didn’t get anywhere near her. That’s a good thing. But despite that, I know it had to do with something Wesley did or was trying to do to J.J. I’m thinking he was trying to get to her, to hurt her, or in following her and Chase, something happened to endanger her or both of them. The kids aren’t telling what they know because they think they can handle it, but they just don’t know. I’m telling you, Jennifer, if he did manage to get to get close to her, if he puts so much as one finger on her, I guarantee you that you’ll be visiting me in the pen because I’m going to kill him. Myself.”

It wasn’t until he felt her stiffen that he heard the angry growl into which his voice had deteriorated. He meant what he said, but still he took her hand in his as a gesture of reassurance.

“But it won’t come to that, darling. I have everything covered. Hopefully, I’m all wrong, and he won’t try anything. But if he does, I think I have all my bases covered. If I don’t, though…”

“He’s a child, too, Jonathan.” She reminded him. “I’m not at all excusing his behavior, in fact I abhor it, but he is essentially just a boy whose been led by his mother.”

“He’s nineteen, and that makes him a man in my book and in the eyes in the law, Jennifer. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is. He’s messing with my child, and I care a whole lot more about my daughter than I do about him and his relative youth.”

He kissed her cheek, then her lips, and then, reluctantly, he lifted her from him.

“Come on, let’s get dressed.” He urged, standing to adjust himself inside his boxers. “I need to be downstairs when Teddy gets here. If I stay in this condition much longer, I won’t be fit for anything but lying down- with you.”

“Why do you need to be downstairs so badly when Teddy gets here?” She asked before entering her dressing room, looking back at him with eyes that sassily danced with mischief and challenge. “So he can work you over again?”

________________________________________________________

“Do you mind?” Teddy asked, getting up from the couch to walk over to the piano.

Jonathan watched him go, and he continued to watch as Teddy perused the photographs kept on top of it.

“J.J. was a really cute baby,” Teddy quietly observed. “She looks a lot like her mother.”

“Yes, she was, and yes, she does,” Jonathan replied, marveling at the boy’s continued apparent ease while alone in his presence as they waited for J.J. and Jennifer to come down.

He concluded the day before had obviously not been a performance; Teddy’s lack of apprehension was genuine.

Aside from Chase and Tommy, that wasn’t usually the case, especially not with one so new to the scene. His presence and his power normally brought out deference, fear, and/or occasionally even groveling in younger men, at least until he put them at ease. That evening, Teddy had come right in, shaking his hand after being met by him at the door. He squatted down to return Third’s enthusiastic greeting, speaking to him, petting him, and scratching his ears. Then, turning down Marie’s offer of a soda, he had taken a seat on the couch where he proceeded to make small talk about the outcome of the afternoon’s baseball game, the end of which they had both managed to catch while getting dressed. In all of that, Teddy hadn’t shown the least sign of nervousness.

Teddy continued to look over the pictures. After a few minutes, he slid his hands into his trouser pockets and focused his gaze on the bay window behind the baby grand.  Once again, Jonathan noticed the boy’s good looks as he sat studying his strong, young profile. That seventeen-year-old, he noted to himself, wore his custom designed tux almost as well as he was wearing his own. Someone had been working very closely with him on poise and style.

“She’s a very lucky girl,” Teddy said, his eyes still trained on the scene outside. “Very lucky.”

Not knowing what to say to that, Jonathan continued to stare, attempting to make final assurance the reading he had been getting was accurate. It was odd, but Teddy’s casual and direct manner actually seemed to be putting him at ease. Rounding the bend, though, that reality was making him uneasy all over again. It took a couple of confused seconds before it registered that Teddy had turned back around and was studying him.

“Why do you say that?” Jonathan heard himself ask, immediately feeling a little silly for having asked it. Wasn’t it obvious what he meant by that?

He wasn’t prepared for the answer he received.

“I say that she’s lucky because her parents love each other, and they’re still together.” Teddy answered, picking up the photo of he and Jennifer facing each other, taken just as they had been about to share a kiss aboard the jet. Max had taken that picture without their knowledge and had given it them as a second anniversary gift.

It was the special shot that Jennifer had cried so hard over losing when the house had burned down. It was the one that she’d cried over again when she found that Max had been prudently storing all the negatives and scrapbooks downstairs in the vault where what had been stored inside were the only things left untouched by the flames.

“I think that’s great.” Teddy said as he reverently placed the picture back into the spot from where he had taken it.

He walked over to return to his seat on the couch across from Jonathan to continue his explanation.

“I think she’s fortunate, too, because she comes from somebody who knows what it is to be absolutely his own person, and not a continuation of somebody else.”

Jonathan was stunned by the observation. The kid had evidently done his homework, just as he said he had. Even he hadn’t ever looked at himself like that. He almost didn’t hear it when Teddy went on.

“I admire all that you’ve managed to do with your life, Mr. Hart. Nothing was handed down or passed on to you. And I just don’t mean the material things. I like your style. I like how you’ve kept things real in your life despite the fact that you have all of this, and that you’ve achieved all that you have. I appreciate your treatment of me. You put me at ease when you really didn’t have to. I think that’s what’s really important in life: treating people right and just knowing and being who you are. J.J. is a lot like you. She’s real, too. One would expect her to be really spoiled, aloof, and self-centered, but she doesn’t seem to be at all.”

“Her mother won’t let me spoil her.” Jonathan kidded to lighten the moment.

He was not quite comfortable with Teddy’s astute observations or his praise. It was as if that boy had taken complete control of their situation.

Teddy had shifted his attention from him to the photograph which sat on the end table right by his arm. Actually, it was a montage of photos of he, Jennifer, and J.J. on their sailboat.

“You know,” He said while still looking at the pictures. “I hope if I ever get married, that it lasts. It often doesn’t, and I think that’s so sad. It almost makes me think it’s not worth taking the risk. Mr. Hart, how is it that two people start out loving each other so much that they’re willing to commit to living the rest of their lives together, and then they end up almost hating each other and breaking the promises they’ve made?”

Then Teddy looked up at him.

“Now why am I asking you that?” He sheepishly smiled. “You probably don’t know the answer to something like that, do you?  You’re lucky that you don’t.”

For the second time in that boy’s presence, Jonathan found himself completely without words. Teddy oblivious to the effect he’d had on the older man across from him, clasped his hands over his crossed knees and sat back, his eyes taking in the room around him. All Jonathan could do was continue to study the child seated on his other couch and wonder from what planet he’d landed.

“What do you want to do with your own life, Teddy?” He finally asked when he was able. “I know that you’re only seventeen, but do you have any ideas or plans?”

“Be happy.” Teddy answered without hesitation. “I want to be free to be just me, whoever that happens to turn out to be, and just be happy with him.”

“From what I can see.” Jonathan said. “I’m pretty sure that you know him fairly well already.”

He sat back and thought about the night of the Mission Street Ball when he had been sitting across from Wesley Singleton in that same room, under those same circumstances. As a potential suitor for his daughter, even if he had been of a mind to consider it at the time, before the recent turn of events, he’d been unimpressed with Wesley’s overall person. Although he still wasn’t ready for J.J. to have serious suitors, in comparison to the young man seated across from him, Wesley was practically a non-entity.

He’d be one for real if he tried anything else to further disrupt his daughter’s happiness, her freedom, or her life.

Or Teddy’s while he was in town with her. And with him. That boy was different.

The Daddy in him wouldn’t quite yet allow him to designate Teddy as special.

_________________________________________________________

After slipping her feet into the new sandals she would be wearing that night, J.J. took a few minutes to walk around the room in them. She had tried them earlier, but she wanted to be sure that the mid heels wouldn’t be putting too much strain on that ankle she had injured a few weeks back. It was pretty much fully recovered; she was jogging on it once again, but Elias, her personal trainer, said that she should avoid unnecessarily overtaxing it for another couple of weeks.

She stopped before the three-way dressing mirror to check herself out, starting with her hair and finishing at her feet. Pleased with what she saw, she smiled. Jennifer Hart had outdone herself with the outfit and the elegant- almost old fashioned- hairdo, and for once, J.J. Hart felt a bit pampered and spoiled by it. She liked the feeling and was grateful to have a mother with so much style and such good taste.

The gauzy, two piece orange, green, and ivory jungle print top and skirt outfit brought out the subtle gold highlights in her dark red hair, and it enhanced the blue of her eyes. The beaded silver sandals that she picked out on her own were perfect with it. Her beloved diamonds twinkled like tiny stars at her ears, neck, wrist, and at the one ankle that showed when the long skirt split with certain movements. Reaching up, she pulled down a bit on the spaghetti-strapped top to allow her delicate cleavage, of which she was so proud, to show even more. It was all absolutely perfect.

At the dressing table, she checked her face one more time, applying a bit more blush to one cheek, another swipe of lipstick to her already polished lips, and fluffed back her loose hair, pushing it off her shoulders so that it was all down her back and out of her way.

She was ready.

Apparently, the butterflies were ready as well. At the thought of Teddy being downstairs, waiting for her; they had gone crazy in the home they had made in the pit of her tummy. Rubbing it to calm them, she almost laughed when she felt the waistband of her satin panties through the thin fabric of her skirt.

As she gathered her purse and her wrap from the bed, in passing, she caught herself in the mirror one more time, and was struck by how much she really did resemble her mother. She was reminded of the pictures she had seen of her grandmother while she had been at her grandfather’s that last time. That was who she really looked like. Everyone said she did, even Aunt Pat, and she could definitely see it for herself. All three of them looked a lot alike. Her grandfather said that she had ways like her grandmother. It must be true. He would be the one to know and to remember something like that. He would be the one best able to objectively make that observation.

She stood staring at herself and wondering if her grandmother had felt the things that she was feeling. Her grandparents had met when her grandmother was sixteen, just as she was at that moment. Did her grandfather make her grandmother’s heart race and her stomach dance like Teddy did with her? He must have; she married him. Had her father made her mother feel like that? He must have. He probably still did.

Then Wesley floated into the picture, and along with him wafted in thoughts of his calling out her name while he was being intimate with Issy Hawthorne. Her eyes squeezed shut in response to the wave of nauseating disgust that washed over her, as well as recollections of his arrogant, pushy ways. He was out. Out of the circle. Out of her life. Where it seemed they once had so much in common, he had started doing things that she didn’t do, and thinking of her in ways that he had no right to think of her. The line of thinking that he was entertaining was probably the result of the new activities into which he was dabbling. He had also begun moving with a crowd with which she didn’t want to be associated.

The changes in him were no mystery, but she wanted none of that, and she wanted nothing more to do with him. When her father asked her about it, she hadn’t told him all of what she knew about Wesley. Even though she no longer cared for him on any level, she wouldn’t rat him all the way out. As long as Wesley understood that he had to leave her alone, he could do what he wanted with his own life.

All day long, he had been lurking in and out of her thoughts. She’d tried hard to push them away, but they kept coming back. Los Angeles was a big city, but hot news traveled fast. It had to have gotten back to Wesley that Teddy was in town, and that he was taking her to the country club dance. Teddy had alluded to there being some sort of trouble between them. He didn’t exactly tell her of it, but she could gather it from the little he almost let on before he’d caught himself. Wesley had already acted inappropriately toward some of the regular boys who spent time with her at the club. Surely he would try to do something totally embarrassing when she showed up with Teddy.

God, she hoped he didn’t.

Her foot involuntarily tapping with a fleeting bout of anxiety, she prayed a quick prayer. Embarrassment wasn’t something she handled well at all. It wasn’t one of those things she could just play off when it came her way.

Perhaps she should have told Daddy all of her concerns, after all. But if she did, if he knew the whole story, Daddy would be acting like Daddy, like Mufasa. The Lion King would be growling and prowling, warning off intruders, protectively circling the perimeter of his pride. Then there would be no getting out of his sight until the perceived danger, Wesley, was either dealt with or was no longer a threat in his estimation. There wasn’t enough time left to risk that happening.

Teddy would be leaving the next day. Being put on lockdown, literally, figuratively, protectively, or otherwise, before that that time was out of the question.

But then again, she thought, maybe she was worrying for nothing. Wesley probably wouldn’t be there anyway. As fair as he was, he had to still be pretty banged up from the fight. Word on the street was that he got it good. As vain as he was, he wouldn’t want to be seen out by anybody in that condition. He would probably just stay home. Yes, she assured herself, it was a needless worry. Most likely Wesley didn’t even know about Teddy being in Los Angeles. Surely he’d find out about it after the dance, but by then it wouldn’t matter.

But there was the matter of Mrs. Singleton to consider, as well as the fact that he had stopped phoning and emailing altogether.

Wesley’s mother had gone into the same shop that her own mother had that morning, and with the car door open, she had to have seen Teddy seated in there with her when she passed them without speaking before entering the shop. No doubt she would be carrying that news back to Wesley. The woman wasn’t known for keeping things to herself. She was a first class snoop and gossip.

Maybe, she thought, she should have mentioned something about that to her mother when she came out of the shop to the car, clearing the boys out with just her presence. She had appeared on the driver’s side, the side Chase had been on, before he could get all the way out, and the look she had given him had been priceless. All Chase could do was apologize, and bow and scrape while holding the door open for her. They’d all be laughing about that one for a while.

But during the ride home, when her mother didn’t mention anything about having seen Mrs. Singleton, she thought it best to not bring up having seen her. Sitting out in public, the lone female in a car full of boys, especially having allowed Mrs. Singleton to witness it, was probably ‘common’ in her mother’s book, so the ice had been pretty thin in that spot. She couldn’t chance safely crossing it, so she hadn’t made the attempt.

Sighing, she resolved that she’d worry about whatever might happen when the time came, if it came.

Leaving her room, she headed for the master bedroom to get final approval and the obligatory final instructions.

And perhaps, some tranquilizer darts for those butterflies.

______________________________________________________________

When his mother left from his bedroom, telling him she had seen J.J. with Teddy while she had been out shopping, he fell onto the bed, his stomach cramping and his windpipe collapsing as if the wind had been sucker punched out of him once again. She said they had been sitting together on the same seat of her mother’s car, and Teddy had his arm around her. She said Ollie was with them, along with the twins, and they all seemed to be having such a good time.

The dance was that night. His mother said J.J. was listed as an attendee, and Teddy was listed as her escort.

In relating those details to him, he heard his mother’s disappointent with him. Again.

But how could he take J.J. anywhere if she wouldn’t answer his calls, and wouldn’t listen when he tried to talk to her face-to face? And with his face in its current condition, how could he even get out to try and meet with her?

He hated letting his mother down, but what could he do about it?

It had started with William, Jr.’s problems with his wife. Then there was Warren, the middle brother, and his trouble. There was some kind of tension between his mother and father. That last plane trip he and his father made to the Eastman’s hadn’t felt right. Mr. Eastman hadn’t been there and Cara Eastman seemed on edge about his father being there visiting with her mother. He had been so anxious to get back to Los Angeles that he couldn’t focus on what had been going on there. But in retrospect, it did feel funny.

William, Jr. was getting divorced, and Warren had been drinking too much of late. He’d had a DUI which their father had managed to have buried, but after that, Warren stayed away, and his staying away upset their mother. What upset her upset him. With the other two sons having disappointed her, she had turned her controlling attentions solely to him. She said that he was all she had left.

But she couldn’t see the problem in that. She couldn’t see that worrying about pleasing her made his grades slip that last term. She couldn’t see that her nagging and meddling made him not want to be there with her. It made him not want to be anywhere she was. She’d bought him that car, not because he earned it, but because she wanted him to look good. With her, appearances were everything. She wanted them all to look good even though things weren’t good.

They, the entire family, seemed to be having problems of their own, and the mess that their lives were becoming was making him want to escape from it. It was becoming tacky and tawdry, and that wasn’t him. Wesley Walker Singleton took pride in his personal appearance, and in how his life appeared. In an effort to keep it together, he had moved away from them physically, associating himself with a more sophisticated, upscale crowd. He was moving in another direction from his parents and from his normal crowd, whom he didn’t want to know that he was in trouble. His pain was his secret, and he had found a way to escape it.

But it never lasted. It always came back. Sometimes with a vengeance.

Having a girl like J.J. would make it better. She was without blemish. Her reputation and her social status were practically impeccable. Her parents were pillars of the community, and J.J., herself, was highly regarded by those who mattered. Being with her would bring some respectability back into the picture- at least into his picture, anyway. His mother would certainly be pleased, and he’d like that himself. Having J.J. for his girl would fix everything; after all, J.J. was sensitive to injured animals, and she would know how to make it all better. If he had her in his life…

She had some ways that needed changing, but she was still young. That could be handled over time if maturity didn’t take care of it first.

But, he thought, choking with depression once again; it couldn’t be handled. Her father wouldn’t let her see him, and obedient daughter that she was, she had moved on. She had moved on without him, just like the rest of the world seemed to be doing. He didn’t remember having gotten off of it, but he had, and he wasn’t being let back on.

He hadn’t cried in a very long time, but it certainly felt like it was about to happen. It couldn’t happen. That would be yet another indicator of how weak he really was.

He got up and went to his desk. Pulling the middle drawer almost all the way out, he reached around to the back of it and felt around to where he’d taped the small envelope of pills.

____________________________________________________________

“Jonathan! What in the world?”

They had been gone all day, and upon hearing the front door open, she had gone to meet them.

Jonathan had taken J.J. out for a father/daughter Sunday. Just like always, he had spent the previous Saturday with J.J., but taking her out that Sunday afternoon had been his way of giving her mother an extra break.

The week before, she had struggled to finish an article while at the same time keeping up with their very active and extremely precocious four-year-old. He wanted her to use the entire weekend to concentrate without interruption, so he and J.J. had gone out for the day.

Because he took J.J. to such nice places, she had dressed her in the delicate white lace dress with the pink satin sash and the white patent leather Baby Jane shoes Sabrina had sent from Paris.

But now they both stood before her in the foyer, a soggy, wrinkled mess.

J.J., wrapped in a car blanket, rode her father’s hip. The pink ribbon decorating her curly ponytail when she’d left, now was as wet and limp as the ponytail itself. The soiled dress, her socks and the Baby Janes were in Jonathan’s other hand.  From the top of his head down to his feet, he was damp and wrinkled, drying out from where he had obviously been recently soaked.

Shamefaced, he simply offered, “Sorry.”

“I felled off the boat,” J.J. explained from inside the blanket. “Daddy camed in the water and got me.”

Still in shock at the sight of them, and then further stunned into silence by J.J.’s admission, she looked back to Jonathan.

“I took her out to the lake,” he said. “Just for a little canoe ride.”

“I sawed the fish,” J.J. cut in. “They were swimming really, really fast. They  looked  so pretty. I just wanted to look at them good, but I felled.  Daddy camed in the water and got me and put me back in the boat. That’s how we got all wet. We’re sorry our clothes are messy. But I touched me a fish, Mommy.”

She nodded her delight as she spoke that last sentence, and then she grinned.

J.J. Hart and her daddy. It was always something with one or both of them.

“Daddy camed in the water and got me and put me back in the boat. But I touched me a fish, Mommy.”

That last thing had probably been worth it for both of them. They were both adventurous, reckless, and fearless. It was in them, and no amount of fussing on her part could change that, but neither of them understood how much the idea of losing either of them terrified her.

“That’s how we got all wet. We’re sorry. But I touched me a fish, Mommy.”

Jennifer smiled to herself at the memory of that little face as she fixed her own hair in the mirror in her dressing room. From the very beginning, it was obvious those two were made for each other.

He had been the right there to see her come into the world, and from that very first moment, Jonathan had fallen completely in love with that baby. He had never been able to tell the difference between loving her and spoiling her, nor did he care to know. He didn’t completely let her rule him; J.J. knew how far to take a thing, but he had never been as firm with her as he probably needed to be. For all of J.J.’s life, she and her father had been like two peas in a very unique pod. It had taken a lot of years for her to reach the understanding the reason J.J. and Jonathan were so close wasn’t just because he doted upon her and indulged her so much; it was more because they really were so very much alike in nature.

J.J. might have inherited her mother’s looks, but she was clearly her father’s child in every other way; in her outlook, spirit, disposition, attitudes, and her basic personality she was modeled on her daddy. Also like Jonathan, J.J. was naturally athletic, competitive, observant, surprisingly sensitive, and innately charming. She had his ability to get others to see things her way and to get things done. And both of them tended to reserve their deeper, more intimate feelings for only a select few. They liked a lot of people, but their love was very selectively distributed.

Both Jonathan and J.J. closed down when they were troubled and they found it difficult to open up or to ask for help with their problems. Then, to finally be let inside by either of them was truly an honor because neither of them trusted easily. Before J.J., she believed that Jonathan had become that way by youthful circumstance. But J.J. had been born that way, which then made her wonder if it was actually a natural trait in Jonathan, and was yet one more thing J.J. had inherited from him. The two of them played it close to the chest, and they both referred to that tendency in themselves in that same way. J.J. Hart, although she was a girl, could easily have been Jonathan Hart, Jr.

It had also taken several years to figure out that she didn’t need to feel hurt or be threatened by J.J.’s closeness to her father. As a little girl, it had been her tendency to seek Jonathan out first when she wanted something or she needed to talk over her problems. Over time, she realized that when J.J. was a little girl, the things that needed fixing were things that Daddy could repair. They still kept secrets between them, but as she began getting older, more of the things that were broken or in need of shoring up, were things that Mama knew about, and that was where J.J. began to come. That was a positive move, because J.J. was shaping up to be very attractive to the opposite sex and very well attuned to her own blossoming sexuality.

And like her father- and her mother- J.J. wasn’t afraid to own up to it; but as a girl, she would have to be smart about it. For that she would definitely need her mother. It had taken a while, but J.J. had to be made to come to terms with the fact that she was female and in matters of love and sex, there was a distinct difference to be made in that.

She was also finding that as J.J. was getting older, she appreciated her a lot more. She had always loved her daughter, but as J.J. was becoming a young woman, she was a lot more than just the mischievous, precocious cutie she had been. Now she was interesting and amusing. It was fun to spend time with her and to talk with her. She was intelligent, irreverent, curious, talented, and complex. She remained endearingly mischievous and daring, and still a bit Bohemian, but at the same time, still so very innocent. J.J. Hart was truly evolving into a very fascinating person.

And she had somehow been granted the supreme privilege of being her mother. It wasn’t perfect, but what they had between them was so strong and so good. J.J. came to her for answers and trusted in her for the truth. That trust was gratifying as there weren’t many people to whom she gave that. J.J. was Jonathan’s child, and that fact had always made loving her easy. But more importantly, also like Jonathan, J.J. gave back that love, absolutely and unconditionally.

She stared into the mirror, examining her face. In it, she could see her own late mother, Suzanne Roussel Edwards. Not the mother she could finally recall from her childhood, but the one who had lately been permeating her dreams and infiltrating her waking thoughts. Ever since that last visit to Briarwood, her childhood home, when so much about her had been revealed, her mother had been on her mind. This mother was older and more serene. She said very little. In fact, most of the time it appeared as if she were there watching something or someone. There were moments when, even though she might not see her at the time, her presence was so strongly felt, that it momentarily stopped her in her tracks. In life, Suzanne Edwards had been a very astute woman. For sure, she was currently in an even better position to see things that they could not.

Georgette Singleton and her son came briefly to mind. Both of them needed to steer clear of anyone bearing the last name, Hart.

“Watch over your children, Mama” Jennifer whispered into the mirror. “Especially the baby. Jonathan says he has it all covered, I can handle myself and my part in this, but an assist from you tonight would be most welcomed.”

When the knock came, she went to the bedroom door.

“Well,” she nearly whistled in admiration, standing back to allow J.J. to pass, “aren’t you something?”

The two-piece ensemble she commissioned for J.J. was as stunning on her as she thought it would be when she went over the design with Miss Nadine.

“Thank you,” J.J. answered, turning around to allow her mother to see her in all her glory. “For picking it out and for the compliment. So, I guess I look okay in this?”

“Just fine,” Jennifer answered as she walked over to her, and immediately pulled up on J.J.’s top. With the scalloped neckline, it was drawing enough attention to her bosom on its own. “You don’t have to show him everything, you know,” she advised as she made the adjustments.

J.J., pouting slightly, took in her mother’s daringly low-cut dress.

“You’re showing yours,” she bravely ventured, “you always do. I have good ones, too, now. How come you get to show yours all the time, but I can’t ever show mine?”

“All the- Because you’re sixteen, and I’m-”

“What?” J.J. asked, and after a significant pause, she smirked, “I’m waiting.”

Jennifer looked her daughter in the eye while she continued to silently work on J.J.’s top and then smooth her hair.

“Grown,” she declared, “and because I say so. I’m married to the man with whom I’ll be tonight.”

“But he isn’t the only who’ll be looking.” J.J. thought, lightly clamping down with her teeth on the tip of her tongue to keep the thought inside her head. “And you know it.”

“What’s the good in my having cleavage if nobody ever gets to see it, Mom? I might as well be flat-chested.”

“You probably need to be,”  Jennifer answered. “You showed enough of it, I’m sure, last night when you were out there with him in that swimsuit you had hidden under your clothes. That was enough for one visit. You have an entire lifetime ahead of you to show all of it off to him or to whomever you want, if you want, after-”

“I know, I know. After I’m eighteen and out of your house.”

“That’s right. And besides, you don’t want to give your father a heart attack, do you? You know as well as I do how he is about you.”

“No.” J.J. giggled at the thought of her father’s face as he watched Teddy watching her. “I guess I don’t want to give him a coronary. Something like emergency medical showing up might keep me from getting out tonight.”

Jennifer backed up slightly and looked J.J. over. She didn’t think it proper to directly tell her, but the child was getting to be simply gorgeous. J.J. made her father nervous, but her good looks, backed up by her intelligence, that aura of confidence, and the Hart charm, made her a girl of whom her mother was becoming extremely proud.

It seemed like such a short time ago that J.J. had been that little bedraggled wet mouse, grinning about having fallen off a boat and so excited about having touched a live, swimming fish. She had safely come back home that day securely held in the Big Cheese’s equally wet arms. That was his girl. He would have gone to the bottom of that lake to retrieve that child, and if he hadn’t come back up with her, neither of them would have come up. He hadn’t let any harm come to her that day, and he still wasn’t having it.

Of all of his countless endearing qualities, it was Jonathan Hart’s boundless love for his child that made him even more special in the eyes of his wife. But his instinctive alpha male protectiveness also made her extremely anxious.

________________________________________________________________

Upon hearing footsteps descending the front staircase, Jonathan and Teddy respectfully stood. When Jennifer and J.J. appeared at the doorway to the great room, Jonathan didn’t know where to look first; to his ever-beautiful wife, to his daughter who had once again been transformed from typical cute teenager into a very attractive young lady, or to Teddy who had gone around the couch, on his way to greet her.

“You were right.” He was saying to J.J., his appreciation of her appearance sounding in his voice and showing in his eyes. “It does take way more for girls.”

“I told you,” J.J. smiled. Then with that one eyebrow raised, she asked, “Socks?”

Teddy reached down and slightly tugged at his pant legs, raising them to show her the socks he was wearing.

“Clean underwear?” She continued to probe.

He grinned and confidently nodded, “Deodorant, too.”

“A bow tie and a jacket over all of it. ” She laughed. “You even tried to take a whip and chair to that hair, but I see the curls are winning out. You did good, though, Teddy. I’ll say it again, you sure clean up well.”

“And you look like an absolute ten, J.” He said, looking her up and down and shaking his head in admiration, as he extended to her the wrist corsage he’d brought with him.

Then he looked to Jennifer who had been standing behind J.J., watching the youthful exchange  in amusement. As if he were seeing her for the first time, and recognizing that he had been impolite, he finally acknowledged her. “I’m so sorry. Good evening, Mrs. Hart.”

Jennifer nodded her forgiveness of the breach in etiquette and then, looking to him with that same raised eyebrow expression as J.J. had given him, she asked, “If she’s a ten, then what does that make me, Mr. Baxter?”

Without missing a beat, Teddy answered, “Why, infinity, of course.”

“You smooth rascal.” Jonathan silently assessed from his same spot by the couch. “I couldn’t have pulled that off better myself.”

Reluctantly, he finally had to admit to himself that Teddy Baxter, Jr. was indeed special. And that special someone would be out and about with his equally special daughter that evening. There was that fact to deal with as well as everything else he had put into motion.

He hoped his heart held out.

________________________________________________________________

“What was with the clean underwear question?” Jonathan asked Jennifer as they stood in the front door watching Teddy and J.J. drive away.

“I’m sure it was just some inside joke.” She answered.

“Yeah, well, I should have checked his damned neck for prick marks while I had him in there with me. Probably looks like a pincushion back behind his left ear.”

“Oh, Jonathan, really.” She softly laughed, dismissing his comments and turning away to go back into the house.

He followed, watching her as she moved through the foyer and into the great room. The sleeveless gown she wore showed off her toned arms, and draped from the front of her shoulders in dramatic folds, leaving her lean back exposed almost all the way down to her narrow waist. The attractive, almost casually upswept hairdo exposed her graceful neck, and a single long auburn curl which had been left hanging loose formed a relaxed, but intriguing “S” against her freckled skin. The pointed tip of that sensuous tendril seemed to be beckoning for him to come lie down with it.

The entire sight of her made him warm, especially the swing of her slim hips.

“That really is one infinitely beautiful woman.” He was thinking. “And she’s my wife. How good does it get?”

“Don’t you think you’re going to get chilly in just that?” He asked aloud, his mind having downloaded, of its own accord, a slideshow of creative, somewhat unorthodox scenarios for keeping her warm.

“I don’t think so. I’m going to take this to put around me.”

She turned around, holding in her hands the shawl she had purchased earlier that day.

He frowned. “I’m not so crazy about that.”

Walking up to her, still looking at the cloth she held, he assessed, “It doesn’t do enough for that pretty dress or for the pretty lady in it.”

“No?” She replied in mild disappointment as he took it from her.

He knew she had to be stunned. He rarely voiced disapproval of anything she selected to wear. She prided herself on being tastefully chic.

Shaking his head in reinforcement of the opinion he’d offered, he went to the fireplace where he took down a white box from the mantelpiece. He brought it to her and placed it in her hands.

“What’s this?” She asked.

“A surprise. Open it.”

She sat down with the box on her lap. When she raised the top and folded back the tissue, he was instantly pleased by the gasp, signaling to him her delight with the contents.

“Jonathan, how did you know? It’s the very one I wanted. I second guessed myself the other day at the boutique, and I didn’t get it. When I went back for it this morning, Connie told me that she had just sold it. She didn’t tell me that she sold it to you!”

She stood back up, loosely wrapping it around her back and draping it over both arms. With its multiple colors far bolder than the first shawl and the long gold silk fringes as an extra feature, it was the perfect compliment for the form-fitting gold dress she was wearing.

“You always know just the right thing to do.” She beamed at him. “How ever did you know that I had my eye on this one?”

“I also have excellent taste.” He smugly answered with, his hands clasped behind his back and rocking on his heels. “When it comes to you. I know what looks good, especially when it’s going to be on you.”

Mindful of not getting her makeup on his lapel or his collar, she leaned in and lightly kissed him. “Thank you, Darling. You do have excellent taste.”

“In women, too.” He smiled.

Not caring one whit about the makeup, with one hand he brought her to him to return the kiss. With the fingertips of the other, he lightly traced a line from her chin, down her chest, and into the valley between her breasts. Trailing kisses to her ears and around her neck, he ran the tip of his tongue underneath her thin diamond choker into the hollow of her collarbone, on down to where his lips replaced his fingers at that V.

“Don’t.” She weakly whispered, her body beginning to quiver. “If we start, we won’t be able to stop.”

“Then why did you put your hair up like that?” He murmured as he continued his hot attentions to her  flesh. “You know that just makes me want to take it down. It always has.”

“I know-w-ww,” She crooned, concentrating on keeping her knees from buckling as she felt his hand easing aside the bodice of the dress to expose more of what he wanted. “But we can’t right now, Jonathan. We have to go. You always do this to me.”

“A quickie.” He suggested without letting up. “I do love doing it to you. One for the road. You look and smell sooooo good.”

“Jonathan. You know that you don’t know how to do that.” She insisted, reluctantly trying to move him back and away from her. “You say quickie, I say okay, and the next thing you know, we’re waking up and starting on the second time. You always make us late.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He said when she finally managed to make him stop. “Half the time I don’t want to be where we’re trying to go anyway.”

Feeling a slight tingling immediately after disconnecting herself from him, she looked down at her chest as she rearranged her dress. Her fair skin was red in the spot where his mouth had been.

“Jonathan Hart!” She cried in dismay as she rubbed and then covered the mark with fabric. “You had better hope this fades by the time we get where we’re going!”

“I don’t care who sees it.” He shrugged, proudly leering at his handiwork. “They’ll just be jealous.”

“You’ll care if J.J. sees it.” She continued to fuss. “Here I am trying to get your daughter to keep hers down inside her clothes while she’s out this evening, and her father’s marking mine. You need to keep in mind that she tends to follow my graphic examples far better than she does the spoken directions.”

Slammed hard with that reality, his smug, lusty grin abruptly faded.

“Aw, jeez,” He moaned. “When you had her upstairs, did you tell her to go straight from here to the Country Club?”

Jennifer rallied right back. “When you had Teddy down here, did you tell him to take her straight from here to the Country Club?”

Snatching up her purse from the back of the couch, giving it to her, and then grabbing her by the hand, he nearly dragged her to the front door.

“Come on, Darling,” He urged as he brought her along. “We need to be there already.”

________________________________________________________________

He felt much better, much stronger. Practically invincible.

Aside from the help, he was alone in the house. Essentially done with their chores for the evening, the old couple would be back in the kitchen. He had already eaten, so he had no need to go in that direction, and being back there, probably eating themselves; they had no reason to come his way.

His parents were at the Country Club attending the dance. So were the most of his friends. So was that nosy, meddlesome Jonathan  Hart. And so was Teddy- with J.J.

He had been out with J.J. in the past himself, so he was familiar with her habits. She rarely went straight to where she was supposed to go when she was out, and if she did, she rarely stayed there. When she got the chance, she almost always slipped off to somewhere else she’d rather be. She’d have fun in that spot for a while, and then she would double back to where she was supposed to be. Surely she would be following that same pattern with Teddy. He was just like her, always taking off from school to be with the lower forms of life rather than sticking to his own kind. It had been sort of fun when he had been doing things like that with her, but he had never really approved of J.J.’s eclectic choice of friends.

But this time her wandering might work to his advantage. It would give him time to get set up, to get a line on her movements. He knew the places she frequented. It would be dark in not too long a time, and then he would be better able to move about without being noticed.

Donning a cap and a pair of dark shades to hide his injured face, he reached into the pocket of his cargo jeans for his car keys. To get to the keys, however, he had to shift the vial, as well as the pistol, out of the way.

________________________________________________________________

“J.J., where are you taking us? I know this can’t be the way to the Country Club. I did a Mapquest before I left the hotel so that I would know where I was going. The Country Club is the other way. I know Mapquest isn’t always completely accurate, but-”

“Nobody said we had to go straight there, Teddy.” J.J. cut in. “When I’m not with my parents, you can bet I’m setting my own agenda. Just trust me. Keep straight for now.”

Continuing to follow her directions, Teddy drove until she instructed him to go through a set of gates to turn into a long driveway that horseshoed in front of a large yellow house. Several cars were already parked out front, one of which he recognized as the Corvette belonging to the Barnett twins.

“Whose house?” He asked.

“Marnie’s mother’s.” She answered. “Her mother is on the committee, so she’s been pretty much hemmed up at the club all day. Since she knew her mother was already gone and wasn’t coming back, Marnie decided to come here to get dressed so she and Chance wouldn’t have to deal with her father and curfews and junk. We all decided to meet up here.”

“So, you’re saying we’re all home alone?” He asked.

“Essentially. Marnie has an in with her mother’s housekeepers. They like her a lot and let her do pretty much what she wants, within reason. We figured on hanging out here for a bit until everybody gets here. Then we’re going on down to Philly’s father’s boat. He’s giving a wrap party for his sound crew. They just finished working on a major music video. It should be the bomb. If we didn’t have to go to this lame Country Club thing, we could have hung out there instead.”

“Hey, I love a party no matter where it happens. I’m good as long as I’m with you. Say, J., didn’t you guys just do something like this at Tiff and Britt’s last week? And didn’t you get caught?”

“They did it.” She corrected him. “And they got caught. If you’ll recall what Ollie told you, I was on the back of a motorcycle at the time with Chase, getting chased, and almost getting wiped out.”

He finished parking the car, shut it down and turned to face her.

“So, have you heard from Wesley since all that happened? Has he at least called to apologize to you?”

She rolled her eyes which emphasized the exasperation that clouded her face, then she sighed.

“Look, even if he had called, Teddy, I wouldn’t have accepted his apology. I told you, he and I are through. Completely. That’s how it is with me when somebody takes a thing too far. Chase was looking out for me when he went through that intersection, but Wesley’s foolishness could have gotten us both killed. I’m sure he was trying to get to me, but Chase would have gotten taken out as well, trying to keep me away from him. For tonight, let’s just leave Wesley out of our mix. It’s for sure that he’s out of my mix forever.”

After studying her for a few moments, Teddy had no doubt that she meant everything that she’d said.

He took her hand and quietly remarked, “J.J. Hart, you really are something.”

“What?” She asked, slightly tilting her head. “Why do you say that?”

“Because you are so sure of yourself. You always seem to know and to do just what you want, and you never seem scared or nervous about anything.”

She laughed softly.

“It’s just a facade, Teddy. I’m just as unsure and nervous about stuff as the next person. You just don’t know. I guess I play if off real well, that’s all. And then as far as the doing what I want thing goes, I always figure, I do it, and I get away with it- fine. If I get caught at it and get punished or something, at least I’ve already had the pleasure of doing it.”

“Well, whatever the case may be, you do a good job of playing it confident. And then, look at you. Nobody could even guess where you were and what you were doing last weekend. To look at you right now, nobody would guess that you can ride motorcycles, sail boats, ski on land and on water, ride horses, skate, dive and swim in the ocean. I think you can be and do anything. Now look at you. I’ve never seen you like this. You look so beautiful. I love that outfit. I love your hair. I just plain love how you look.”

“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it.” She reddened. “At midnight, I turn right back into J.J.”

“I don’t care. I think she’s beautiful, too. At midnight, I’ll revert back to my normal grungy self.”

“Then that’ll be okay.” She said. “That’s how we both were when we met.”

Just as he had made up his mind to kiss her, and she had decided to let him, the front door of the house was flung open.

“Oh, heck no!” Someone was loudly yelling. “None of that!”

It was Chase and Chance who rushed the car and swung open the doors.

“Don’t even try it!” Chase cried. “This is not that kind of party. There will be no necking unless you two brought enough hot to share with everybody, which come to think of it, you probably did.”

The twins were dressed in matching tuxedos, but the suits were being worn very differently. Chance, as always, was put together from head to toe. Chase, however had his collar undone, and his hair was mussed. The bowtie around his neck was untied, and his black satin cummerbund was in his hand.

“Sorry, Teddy, old man, but I need J. right now” He said, taking J.J. by the arm and helping her from the car. “She knows her job.”

“Chase Barnett!” She cried, snatching her arm from his hand once she was standing alongside him on the driveway. “When are you going to learn to do this stuff for yourself? Marnie was in there. She could have done it. Why didn’t you ask her?”

“Are you kidding?” Chance laughed. “She cussed him out. And then she told him that she wasn’t his mother or you.”

“Then why didn’t you do it for him, Chance?” She asked. “He’s your twin.”

“Because after all this time, he should know how. I do. Why doesn’t he? He’s the oldest.”

It was Teddy who replied to that. “If you’re like me, Chase, it’s probably because it isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. My father had to do me this time. I don’t care about that kind of stuff either. I only do it when I have to. Most of the time my mother does it, if I’m home in Virginia. At school, my friend Maddy, does it. She fusses, too, but she does it.”

“So that’s why I had to wait for you, J.” Chase pretended to pout. “Please? You do it so good.”

J.J. shot him a look. “Watch it, Chase. That last bit could easily be misinterpreted by the less informed. You know that I know you, and I know how nasty you think.”

Chase smirked mischievously as he dropped his eyes to the ground to avoid her accusing stare.

“Look,” J.J. declared, marching toward the door of the house with Teddy, Chase, and Chance following closely behind. “This is the last time.”

When Ollie met her at the door, she spoke, looked him up and down and then barreled past him, still fussing over her shoulder to Chase. “Come on, and hurry up before I change my mind. I don’t know what you’re going to do when not all here in the same place any more.”

“Quit going to this kind of monkey-suit-required B.S., for starters.” Chase muttered, earning a wink of agreement from Teddy and then a cohesive high five from the others in the posse as they entered the house right behind their girl, J.J.

_________________________________________________________________

They had been at the Country Club for over an hour, mingling among their many friends, strolling the grounds, and then finally taking their seats in the dining room. The entire time, Jonathan had been occasionally scanning the growing crowd, looking for J.J. and Teddy. The last formal event to which she had come escorted had been the Mission Street Ball with Wesley, and that time, too, although she had left home before them, she didn’t arrive until some time after they had gotten there. It was irritating, but he understood her doing that. The tendency to slip off, and be on her own had always been strong in her. He figured that it was most likely in her genetic makeup.

As a child, he had done the same himself. Many were the times that Sister Anastasia had to send someone to look for him after he either didn’t show up where he was supposed to be, or he didn’t return to the orphanage at the appointed time. How many times had he gotten into trouble with her for playing hooky from school? From the very class she taught? How many times had he taken off during the night only to have one of the priests she’d dispatched run up on him as was engaged in some illicit gambling activity on the streets of San Francisco? Father Franco had been his favorite pursuer. When he showed up, neither of them went back until the game was over and both of them were richer for having made the trip.

Jennifer was talking with the others at the table and largely quiet himself, he delighted in watching her. She was so lovely and so gracious. He admired how easily she always seemed to handle people and social situations. Despite the fact that he often found himself in situations where he had to be charming and entertaining, he was still secretly a bit uneasy in large gatherings. He preferred quieter, more intimate settings. But no matter the function, he was always proud to be the man escorting Jennifer Edwards Hart.

They were seated with the Landers, the Jacksons, and the Barnetts. Maureen Tolbert and her young escort for the evening had recently joined them. Maureen had immediately turned to Jennifer to complain about the problems she was having with her daughter.

“Jennifer, I don’t know what’s gotten into that girl. I haven’t set eyes on Marnie since she returned from Maryland with you.”

“Have you spoken with her?” Jennifer asked.

“Sure. We talk, and then we almost always end up arguing. She’s angry with me for going to Texas without her and for not being home when she got back. I’m angry with her for moving out on me like she did before I could get back. She refuses to come see me. I don’t understand that. She can at least come to see me.”

Watching her, Jonathan could tell that Jennifer was struggling with being patient with Maureen. He knew that his wife had her own take on the situation, and that she tended to favor Marnie’s side of it over her mother’s. Over the years, once he recognized the pattern, he had been able to take Maureen’s flightiness in stride, figuring that some mother was better than no mother at all. But Jennifer had a much harder time with it. Even though they hadn’t talked about it, he thought he understood why. As a result of being forced to occasionally step in where Marnie’s discipline was concerned, Jennifer had established a very unique rapport with her, one far deeper than any she had  with any of the other children in J.J.’s circle. She had become protective of Marnie, almost to the extent that he could see it as maternal.

“Have you tried going to see her, Maureen?” Jennifer was asking. “I find it hard to believe that she would just turn her back on you, even if she’s angry. It’s been almost two weeks. I know that Marnie can be argumentative and sassy, but I can’t see her not wanting to at least see you in all this time.”

Jennifer briefly looked to him, sending him a clear message. It had to be the car.

In that brief moment, she had concluded, and he had concurred, that Marnie hadn’t gone to see her mother because she didn’t want her mother to know that she had that car. Maureen apparently didn’t know about it. Marnie’s natural parents weren’t the best communicators in the world, especially when it came to each other, and both of them tended to try and outdo the other when it came to providing Marnie with material things. It would be just like that girl to keep the fact that she had that car from her mother, just as she thought she was keeping it from Jennifer by not showing up at Willow Pond either.

Maureen made herself shudder, “I wouldn’t be caught dead at that man’s house. Not with that woman there. I’ve never been there and I’m not about to start. Not even for Marnie. Marnie will just have to make up her mind and come to me. I didn’t renew her membership, but I see her father did. Her name is listed, so I’m taking it that she’ll be here this evening. I’ll see her then, I guess.”

“Try not to make a scene when you do, Maureen.” Carolyn Barnett advised.

Dr. Jackson offered, “She’s been spending time with Ollie lately. She seems just fine, if that’s any comfort to you.”

“When you do see her, just act as if everything is as it should be.” Jennifer said. “Marnie likes to fight with you. She knows how to get you upset, and she delights in it. If you’re defensive, she’ll feed right into it, and that will be one big mess. You’ve gone to great lengths to make this a nice affair. It would be a shame to let something like that interfere with it.”

Still looking at Jennifer, Jonathan saw it when her eyes briefly flitted to the young man who sat next to Maureen. He seemed a boy in comparison to the woman with whom he had come. Maureen was relatively young herself, but she seemed to be playing musical chairs with increasingly younger men. This one appeared youthful enough to be a little too old for Marnie.

“She has her reasons, I’m sure, for staying away.” Jennifer dryly added.

Although Jonathan was fairly certain that only he could hear the disapproval in her tone, under the table, he lightly tapped her hip with his hand. As sweet as Jennifer normally was, she had her own discreet, nearly imperceptible ways of being vicious, and he could see the claws coming out.

Jennifer had never quite forgiven Maureen for how she’d so slowly handled the precarious situation where her ex-husband had terrorized Marnie. Maureen hadn’t believed Marnie when she tried to tell her of the disgusting things he had been doing and saying to her, and it had nearly escalated into something that would have been truly devastating to that child. As it was, although she seemed okay, in Jennifer’s opinion, Marnie hadn’t completely recovered from it. It hadn’t helped matters any when she later discovered that the only reason Maureen finally divorced the man after putting him out of her house was because Marnie’s father had threatened to name her as an unfit parent and sue her for custody, which would have cut off his child support payments to her. Since that unfortunate time he’d noticed Jennifer’s growing attention to and affection for that girl.

“Good evening, everyone.”

The men at the table stood.  Approaching the table was Dina Magyar, a prominent  television actress and a member of the club. She was on the arm of Teddy Baxter, Sr.

He had met him at Jennifer’s reunion the month before, but for the first time, Jonathan really checked Teddy Sr. out. He could see that the son was a slimmer, younger version of the original. Teddy, Jr. had evidently inherited his father’s aristocratic features and sophisticated carriage. Dina, he noticed was looking and playing the ultimate star, even if her career was in a bit of a slump at the time. Her long-running TV series had been cancelled a couple of seasons back, and she had only recently secured a small part in one of the daytime soaps. But together, Teddy Sr. and Dina Magyar made an impressive-looking couple.

“Jonathan!” She cried upon seeing him, dramatically reaching out, forcing him to take her hand. “Jennifer! So nice to see both of you again. It’s been far too long. Jennifer, Teddy’s been telling me that you and he were school chums. I didn’t know that you two knew each other. Here you and I have known each other for so long, and we didn’t even know we had this mutual friend.”

“Yes.” Jennifer smiled. “Teddy and I do go back a bit. Hello, Teddy. It’s nice to finally get to see you on this trip.”

Teddy, Sr. left Dina’s side to come around the table and gallantly kiss Jennifer’s cheek.

“Good to see you, too, girl.” He said to her. “How’s your father these days? You are a stunner tonight, just like always.”

“Pa’s fine.” Jennifer answered, affectionately squeezing the hand that held hers. “Thank you for asking and for the nice compliment.”

Noticing that Dina didn’t look any too pleased with her date’s friendly attentions to his wife, Jonathan smiled to himself in satisfaction, “Not to worry, Dina, the stunner came with me and she leaves with me, just like always.”

After Jennifer introduced everyone at the table, they all sat down. Teddy, looking around, asked, “Well, where’s the kids? Out by the pool with the other youngsters I saw as I was coming in? This should be a huge surprise to Master Teddy Baxter, Jr. Can’t wait to see his face. He has no idea that his old man is in the house.”

J.J. and Teddy stood together at the rail of the packed, partying boat. Below them, live music was loudly playing, people were dancing, eating, drinking; and a good time was being had by all in attendance.

“Philly and Hector’s father must be the man.” Teddy was saying. “He seems to know everybody. There’s all kinds of stars down there. Mr. Diaz sure is impressed with you. So am I. I didn’t know you were into sound like that, J. I knew you loved music, but I wasn’t aware that you actually played jazz piano like he says you can. I also didn’t know that you could dee-jay. You’re just full of surprises. Mr. Diaz says that you’re an ‘ear’. Is that like people who are in perfume are noses?”

“Something like that, I guess.” J.J. answered. “I just love music. I like putting things together. I love putting sound and music together. And people.” She dropped her head and chuckled self-consciously. “Now I’m not making sense.”

“I get the picture. J.J. You have some truly fascinating friends and a great life here. I’m so sorry to be going home tomorrow. I’m having a ball.”

“I’m glad you’re having a nice time, Teddy. I know we haven’t been able to do that much. I wish you were staying longer, too. There’s so much else I’d like to show you.”

The two of them had been the last to arrive at Marnie’s mother’s house. After socializing with the other teenagers gathered there for Marnie’s pre-dinner ‘cocktail party’, partaking of sodas, iced tea, lemonade and assorted snacks, served up by her mother’s housekeepers; the entire group set out for the marina.

Ollie had driven over with Chase, Tiffany and Brittany in his car. Chance and Marnie followed in the Corvette. Teddy and J.J. completed the caravan in Teddy’s rented Mustang. They had been met at the dock by Philly and Hector whose musician/ media-mogul father was giving the staff party on his huge pleasure boat. The festivities had spilled onto the dock proper and over to the two boats on either side which were also owned by other members of the Diaz family. Deon, Charmaine, and several other invited teenagers were also there. That included their friend, Sidney, who was dressed to the nines. He and Marnie were fashion confidants, and upon seeing her approaching, he hurried to greet her.

“Marnie! Darling, it’s been too long. Almost the whole summer. Don’t you just look delish. I hate you. You always know just how to put it together. What is that? Chanel? Only you could pull that off, as little as you are and all of sixteen. You look just like a little Country Club cutie.” He pivoted slowly on one heel, his hands to his lapels. “Think I could hang if I showed up at the dance with the hoi polloi?”

Hugging him quickly, Marnie stood back and sized him up. He was a tall, but slightly built boy with short, very meticulously spiked ash blonde hair, flawless skin, and sparkling white teeth. As usual, he was impeccably dressed himself.

“You’re looking good, too, Sid, but then I don’t have to tell you that. You wouldn’t have it any other way.” She nodded, a finger to her chin. “Armani, I see. You could definitely hang. You probably have a lot more class than some of the so-called hoi polloi, I’ll tell you.”

“You know it,” He agreed. “And you don’t have to tell me I’m looking good. I wouldn’t have left home if I wasn’t sure of it. And I don’t worry about not being posh enough to go to that snotty country club dance. It’s their little loss. I know who I am.”

Teddy being the newcomer to the group, hadn’t quite known what to make of Sidney. He stood in frozen fascination until he realized that Sidney had noticed him, and had begun staring at him, asking, “And who, pray tell, might this gorgeous specimen be?”

Unsure if Sidney meant him, and if he did, not quite sure if he wanted him to, Teddy questioningly pointed to himself. Then he desperately looked around to see if it could possibly be anybody else.

The guys in the group, familiar and more at ease with Sidney, snickered at Teddy’s noticeable confusion and resulting discomfort, all of them earning a hard look from J.J., who stepped forward to promptly straighten Sidney out.

“The specimen’s with me, Sid, and there’s definitely no dibs on him, so hang up the phone. Teddy Baxter, meet Sidney- no last name in the summertime- just Sid.”

“I’ve got it like that.” Sidney confidently interjected. “No last name needed.”

J.J. continued the introduction. “Teddy is my friend, Sid. He’s visiting me from Boston. So now you mind your manners.”

Sidney extended his long, manicured hand. Teddy quickly shook it and let go, still looking a little bewildered, and a bit apprehensive.

Sidney smiled at him. “Relax sweetie, I don’t bite. At least not friends of my friends, and J.J. Hart is definitely my girl. It’s nice to meet you, Teddy. I hope you enjoy LA. You must really be something if Miss J. here is looking at you twice.”

Then, taking Teddy by the hand, J.J. had pulled him away. They had gone onboard to the upper deck where it wasn’t so crowded and noisy.

_________________________________________________________________

“They haven’t arrived yet.” Jonathan said in answer to Teddy, Sr.’s question.

The other man’s brow immediately lined with folds of concern. “Not here yet? How long ago did they leave your house?”

“It’s been quite a while.” Jonathan answered. “I’m looking for them myself, expecting them to walk through that door at any minute. I’ve been trying not to pull out this cell phone.”

Ted Landers, who had begun looking around, noted, “You know, now that you mention it, my girls, Tiffany and Brittany aren’t here either. They were dressed when we left. They said that they were getting rides. Your twins aren’t here either, Chuck.”

“Chase and Ollie were together.” Midge Jackson said. “Brittany and Tiffany were supposed to ride in with them.”

“Marnie is on the roster as coming with Chance.” Maureen added. “Of course, she hasn’t so much as mentioned that to me herself.”

“Um-hmm. None of that group is here.” Ted concluded. He looked to his wife. “That’s not a good sign. Something stinks. ”

“I alerted the security patrol this afternoon.” Judy Landers said. “I told them that we’d be out for the evening. I don’t think they’d try that two weekends in a row, Ted. Tiff and Britt usually space their impromptu parties out farther than that. Nobody’s called to report them yet, so I doubt that they’re at our house.”

Teddy, seated next to Jonathan, nudged him, “Did you specifically tell that boy of mine to come straight here with that girl of yours when you talked with him this evening?”

“No.” Jonathan admitted. And he immediately recalled his two one-on-one meetings with young Teddy.

He hadn’t said much of anything to that boy about J.J., but that boy had said a whole lot to him about himself. There was a unique something about that kid. Where in the hell was he with J.J.? Where in the hell had J.J. and that crew of hers taken him?

“This is why I never had children.” Dina sniffed. “A woman can’t have a career and children. They’re just one more complication in life. They have to watched all the time, and they never stay where you put them. Almost everyone I know who has them has their lives wrapped up in them and in where they are. I barely know where I am from one minute to the next. Good help is so hard to find, too, these days. You can’t trust anybody. I didn’t think I could be bothered with trying to keep up with anyone else, so babies were out for me.”

Jonathan shifted his eyes to his wife, but got no reading. Jennifer had once felt that having a child would complicate their lives. He wondered how Dina’s carelessly spoken words were registering with her at that moment. Was she offended or could she somewhat sympathize? Of one thing, he was sure, she might have felt that way at one time, but Jennifer would never have said as much at a table full of people with children, children who hadn’t made it to where they were supposed to be. He did notice Teddy give Dina a very brief, but rather strange look.

Teddy, Sr. pulled his cell phone from his breast pocket. “Leave out one comma in the directions, and my kid is going to use it to his full advantage.”

“That sounds just like someone with whom I’m intimately acquainted.” Jennifer said, poking Jonathan from his other side. “I think I’ve even said as much about that person.”

“Your girl, Jennifer?” Teddy asked. “Is she a wanderer, too?”

“If someone allows her to be.” Jennifer answered, pointedly shifting her eyes back to Jonathan. “She started walking at ten months. By the time she was a year old, she could run-fast- and she hasn’t stopped running since then.”

Teddy turned to Jonathan. “Where’s that phone of yours?”

Jonathan pulled his from his pocket.

“Come on, then.” Teddy said, getting up. “I know what to do for this. Cell phones are a parent’s best friend. I told you, I have grown girls. Been down this road three times. This last trip, the one with this boy, is easier. I know what to do for him. Excuse us, everyone. We have some father business to which we need to attend.”

“I think we’ll come with you.” Ted Landers said as he, Dr. Jackson, and Chuck Barnett rose from their seats as well. “We’ll take lessons. With those two little party animals I have living with me, I’m up for anything else I can get to put into the old parental arsenal. Those last two of mine will be in college at the same time for the most part.”

“So Sidney’s really gay?” Teddy asked.

“No Teddy, he just pretends to be so that he can be the butt of ridicule and bad jokes.” J.J. answered, the tone of her voice dripping with the sarcasm it was her intent to convey. “I saw how you acted. Please don’t tell me that you’re a homophobe like most guys. Of course he’s gay. And he’s okay with it. So are we.”

“I could see that. I guess I’ve never really had occasion to consider whether or not I’m homophobic. You have to understand that it’s kind of a natural guy thing for something like that to make you nervous, J.J.. I hope I didn’t offend him or you, but he just sort of kinda caught me off guard. I’ve never met a gay guy who claims gay. Most of the time, straight guys start suspecting that somebody’s gay; they give the person the blues so bad about it that if he is gay, the guy would never admit to it. At least not while he’s in that setting with those guys anyway. I’ve never before met a flat-out gay, especially a guy who didn’t care who knew it. You’ll have to forgive me, but it’s blowing my mind.”

“Sid’s always known he was gay. I met him in junior high, and he knew it as early as then. He’s always been okay with it. That’s just how he is. He’s around us so much, that he’s just one of our crew, or “The Wild Bunch”, as my mother refers to us.”

“Your friend, Tommy, does he know Sidney?”

“Borderline homophobic. They’re cordial, but not cozy. Tommy’s polite to Sidney, I think mostly for my sake, but he keeps his distance. Sid can sense Tommy’s ambivalence, so he gives Tommy his space. Tommy said what you said when I called him on it once, that it’s a guy thing.”

“Sid’s been to your house?”

“Lots of times.”

“What does your father think of him?”

“He hasn’t really said too much about it, but I know Sid makes him a little uneasy. He takes issue with some of the things that Sid chooses to wear, at times. I think that’s because Daddy is from the old school when it comes to things like that. You know, men should be men and women should be women. No gray area. He’s pretty macho. He’s a graduate of the School of Real Life. Then he was in the Navy, too. Basically, as a man, Daddy’s pretty alpha.”

Teddy grinned, “My old man would probably flip his wig. He’s a homophobe of the highest order. Talk about your alpha male. I think that’s why I don’t really go there with him on the acting thing.”

J.J. leaned back against the rail, enjoying the breeze, the conversation, and finally being able to be alone with him and in that setting. Teddy moved closer, leaning forward on the rail next to her.

“People should get past all that.” She said with a sigh. “You miss out on a lot, putting people into categories and then dismissing them. Sid’s a lot of fun and he’s so talented. He’s an artist, an illustrator to be exact, and he’s studying marketing. He wants to be a fashion designer. He and Marnie have put on some fantastic fashion shows through the Marketing and Commerce program at our school. He designed the sets, some of the outfits that got worn, the flyers. He’s truly gifted.” She stopped and giggled a little. “Last fall, Sid ran for Homecoming queen and won.”

Teddy sputtered with laughter. “You are kidding! Administration let him get away with running?”

“We go to Gifted and Talented. Things are a lot more loose there. The teachers and the administrators tend to be a bit more liberal in their thinking, and as a result, we get to express who we are a lot more. You see some pretty outlandish things there, well outlandish by most school standards, anyway. Going to prep school like you do, the lack of uniformity would probably blow your mind for real.”

“I’d get used to it real quick, I think. I’m always in trouble for not wearing my uniform properly, going without socks, tie, or something. Seems like small potatoes in comparison, but I got demerits up the wazoo last term for things like that. I don’t care much for sticking to how things should be. I don’t want to be a peg able to fit into just certain holes. I’d like to be able to adjust to whatever. Tell me more about Homecoming.”

“Well, Marnie ran Sid’s campaign. It was so funny when he won out over the girls who ran. But the really funny thing was that he actually really did have more poise and personality than the others. Was better looking than some of them, too. He also had the most community service points. That’s also part of the competition at our school. It figures heavily into the total score. Sid is very involved in the community.”

“Did you run?” Teddy asked.

“No.” She answered, grimacing slightly. “I don’t really like that kind of thing.”

“Why? I should think that as pretty as you are and as popular as you seem to be, you’d have been a shoe-in for queen.”

“Thanks, but I don’t really like to be out front like that, Teddy. There’s enough about me that makes me stand out. Just being me draws too much attention sometimes, and that’s not always a positive thing. I’m a lot more comfortable outside the limelight, at least the artificial kind like that anyway.”

“You do kind of cast your own light, J.J.”

Not sure how to respond to that, and feeling a little self-conscious about repeatedly thanking him for his compliments, she turned around and looked out over the water.

“What are you thinking about, J.J. Hart?” She heard him ask after a few minutes. At the same time she felt his arm sliding around her waist.

“About how nice it is to have you here, Teddy, how much I like talking with you, and how much I wish you really could stay a little longer. I’m going to miss you when you go back.”

She wound her arm around him, and slowly their bodies eased toward each other. At the moment their hips touched, however, they both felt the sudden, jarring vibration, and startled by that abrupt, faintly electric sensation; they jumped apart.

“It’s my phone.” Teddy explained when after a couple of shocked moments, he realized what was actually happening. He reached into his pocket for it.

“Whew! That’s good.” J.J. exhaled with relief. “I mean, I’ve heard about the earth moving and all of that, but my goodness.”

Her own cell phone began chiming from inside her purse. She popped open the bag and pulled it out just as Teddy was checking his display.

“J., this is your father calling me!”

J.J. checked hers.

“Well unless you have another phone somewhere from which you’re calling me, I’m assuming that this Theodore M. Baxter isn’t you. Why would your father be phoning me, Teddy?”

Still staring at the scrolling words, “JONATHAN HART”, flashing at him as they masterfully sauntered across the tiny screen , Teddy woefully moaned, “Any other time I wouldn’t have the phone. I’m always leaving it, but the one time I made it a point to remember it-” He looked to J.J. “Should we pick up?”

“If they’re calling us up like this, I can assure you, it’ll be worse- surely for you anyway- if we don’t.” She answered. “There’s no way we could plausibly explain both of us not hearing the rings- not without having to answer a whole bunch of questions. Say Teddy, was your father going to the dance? They have to be together calling us, don’t they? This isn’t a coincidence, is it?.”

Teddy couldn’t answer her because he was already on the phone.

A few minutes later, after all the phones had rung and had been answered, and after a quick summit then a scramble back to the cars, the caravan was pulling out of the marina’s parking lot, headed straight back to Bel Air.

________________________________________________________________

He had gotten the word that Marnie was no longer living at her mother’s, so there had been no point in looking there for J.J. and Teddy. He doubted that they would have gone all the way out to Brentwood to Marnie’s father’s house, not with the Country Club being right there in Bel Air. And what was there to say that J.J. and Marnie would even be together that night?  With Teddy in town, J.J. could have gone anywhere with him, alone, before heading to the Country Club.

That idea depressed, enraged, and then depressed him again.

After driving around Bel Air in search of what he realized was likely a rental car  that he wouldn’t recognize if he came up on it, he had gone down to the marina where the Barnett twins’ parents kept their boats. But there had been no sign of anyone hanging around down there. The twins, he knew, were slated to go to the dance, but he also knew that J.J. hung out down there on the boat with them a lot of the time. Teddy was big on sailing and spent a lot of his time on the water at home in Massachusetts. He thought that she might have taken Teddy back there to hang out before going to the club.

Finally, grasping at straws, he drove through the Dairy Queen’s parking lot, just in case they had stopped in for a sundae. J.J. and Teddy would do something like that despite the fact that they were dressed for a formal affair. Neither of them cared the least bit about convention.

As a last resort, he had returned home, switched the Viper for his mother’s Cadillac, and headed for the Country Club to secure a spot where he could see without being seen. He would just have to wait them out.

His head had begun to hurt like it did when it was coming down on him again, and he needed to be still and quiet for a while.

He would take care of his head and then sit and rest. Sooner or later, they would have to surface if they were already there, or they would have to eventually show up if they weren’t. When she was at one of the club affairs, J.J. liked to take off on her own, come outside for air, see what was going on with the help, anything to just be by herself for a time. That would be his opportunity. To get to her, he would have to catch her alone. Getting her by herself had been very difficult, in fact impossible, to do for months. So until then, he would be right there, watching and biding his time. When that time did come, he was going to make her listen. And if they knew what was good for them, Teddy, Ollie, Chase, Chance- and Jonathan Hart- too, had better stay out the way.
_________________________________________________________________

The men still had not returned after leaving together, presumably to summon their errant offspring. Maureen’s escort had gone to get a drink, at her bidding, and he hadn’t returned either. The women left behind at the table had been casually chatting together when Georgette Singleton made her way over to their table.

“Good evening, ladies.” She greeted them, continuing to stand at the table’s side despite the several empty seats. “It’s good to see all of you. We so seldom get together in one place anymore. Jennifer, was that Theodore Baxter I happened to see come in a little while ago? I knew that Teddy, Jr. was here, but I didn’t know that Teddy, Sr. had come as well.”

Before Jennifer could even form a response, Dina Magyar icily answered, “He came with me as my invited guest. We came in together. I’m sure you saw that as well when you were making your astute observations.”

It was one of those moments where the others at the table wouldn’t dare even look at each other.

“Isn’t it a small world?” Georgette replied, as if she hadn’t felt a bit of the arctic blast that had been sent her way. “Jennifer and I went to school with him. Isn’t his son escorting J.J. tonight, Jennifer? By the way, where is she and Master Teddy? I didn’t see her out by the pool with the others. Shouldn’t they be here by now? It won’t be long before dinner is served. I’m sure you want them here to eat.”

“If we’re going to be taking attendance,” Carolyn Barnett replied. “I didn’t happen to see Wesley out there either when I went to see if my twins had gotten here.”

Georgette ignored Carolyn and instead delivered a hard stare to Midge Jackson. “I suppose your Ollie is here, Midge. I guess that he hasn’t been kept in after all that’s happened.”

Midge, a small, quiet, and rather shy woman by nature, turned red and didn’t respond right away. When she didn’t, Judy Landers spoke up.

“He’s escorting my daughter, Tiffany, tonight. It seems they’ve become rather taken with each other these last few days. Maureen, I think Marnie’s been playing matchmaker between them.”

Judy looked slyly back up to Georgette who was standing between her and Carolyn. “And who might I ask is Wesley seeing these days? And for that matter, William Jr., since he isn’t seeing his wife.”

Without saying another word, Georgette turned and walked away.

“I don’t know about her other one, but according to what I’ve heard, Wesley’s seeing the damned eye doctor.” Maureen muttered. “That’s probably the only somebody he can see these days thanks to Ollie, Jr.”

A discreet snicker went around the table.

Carolyn Barnett laughed. “Putting it to her like that sure got her the hell away from here, though, didn’t it?”

“You two are awful.” Midge tittered.

“But funny.” Dina laughed. “Some people really do need to worry about their own houses while they’ve got their noses stuck in other people business. Her business is everywhere. I’ve been tied up for a while, but it was all over my phone when I got time to sit down and see to what’s been going on.

Maureen leaned in to whisper, “I haven’t been home that much, and I stay way busy. But I’m around enough to get some of the gossip even with Marnie being gone. You know, before she moved in with her father, that was where I used to be able to get the dirt. I don’t know how she does it, but that little girl has her finger on the pulse of the nation. But I guess if you live on the phone like Marnie does… Anyway, Georgette’s husband and that oldest son of hers need to be put on shorter leads. I’ve heard some of the stories.”

“I don’t like to talk about people.” said Midge, “But I think Georgette just tries too hard. She tries to force things too much. She was that way in school, and after all this time, she hasn’t changed very much in that aspect. The difference now is she’s kind of developed tunnel vision with it. She pushed and pushed until she got those other two boys married, and look how that’s turned out. She was always kind of bossy. Some things can’t be forced.”

“Well, she’s no saint herself in the being off-the-lead department.” Carolyn offered. “And having said it, I’m not going any farther than that with that. But I’ll tell you one thing, she seems awfully gung-ho on trying to pair my J.J. up with that youngest son of hers. I know that he’s liked her for a while, and that I can see. But all she talks about is what a good couple they would make. I find that a bit unnatural. They’re both too young for anybody to be thinking along those lines about them, especially J.J. She’s got a bigger future in front of her than jumping right into marriage. Right Jennifer?”

Jennifer smiled, but she didn’t offer a verbal opinion.

“I was there at the reunion when she said that thing about her wanting J.J. to marry Wesley.” Midge offered. “She said it right in front of everybody with J.J. standing right there. I thought J.J. was going to die, she was so embarrassed. I thought for sure that Pat was going to curse Georgette out. Jennifer you were so patient to have not said anything to her.”

Nodding once, Jennifer acknowledged the compliment.

Carolyn picked back up the conversational thread.

“There’s something wrong with Wesley lately. I can’t get the twins to give me the complete low down on him, but I know something isn’t right with that picture. Those kids of ours are a pretty tightly knit little group, but lately all of them seem to have come away from Wesley. Chase can’t stand him any more, and they used to at least be cordial. My Chance is a little more discerning, but Chase likes just about everybody. When he voices opposition to someone, everyone needs to take notice. Then Ollie goes and beats the hell out of him last weekend.”

“It seems Ollie’s had some reservations himself about Wesley for some time.” said Midge. “I overheard him talking to someone on the phone not too long ago. He was saying that he didn’t want J.J. anywhere near him. I didn’t want him to think that I was eavesdropping on his conversations, so I really didn’t ask him what that was all about.”

“Well,” Carolyn resumed. “It’s my understanding that J.J. isn’t speaking to him at all these days, either, and she hasn’t been for some time. She’s another one who would be an indicator. When she puts somebody away from her’ everybody needs to pay attention. From what I’ve overhead myself, I’m awfully afraid that Jonathan and the big boys out there are apt to kill Wesley over his not leaving J.J. alone. Jennifer, you’ve been mighty quiet. What’s your take on all of this?”

“I going to reserve comment.” Jennifer graciously smiled.

Carolyn waved an impatient hand at her.

“You can ‘no comment’ me all you want, Jennifer Hart, but you know full well that everything we’ve said is true. I know how you are with J., and I really admire the bond you and that girl have. I just love her. J.’s that daughter I didn’t have. Rambunctious, but such a good baby.  I can’t blame Georgette for her choice. If I was into setting my boys up with anyone, J.J. would be the one I’d want for Chase.”

Then she stopped, and moving her hand back and forth in the air in front of her as if she were erasing words from a chalkboard, she laughed, “On second thought, scratch that. That combination might be too much to put in one basket, wouldn’t it? Those two are too much alike. Jennifer, come clean now. J.J. hasn’t told you anything about Wesley, and what he’s into?”

Judy, not Jennifer, answered the question. “Tiffany and Britt tell that me he goes to those rave parties. You know those all night party things that kids have in the dark where they take drugs and do God only knows what else with each other?”

“Do you think he’s taking drugs?” Midge asked, her voice full of concern. “My Ollie talked at length with his father not too long ago about something concerning Wesley. Ollie seemed very disturbed afterward about what our boy had told him; but neither of them would tell me anything. He and Jonathan have been talking back and forth all week. Wesley and Ollie have been friends all their lives. I was so shocked about what happened last Saturday night. But at the police station, and even with the lawyers, neither would say what led to the fight. It was so out of character for Ollie, Jr. to initiate something like that, especially with Wesley. I didn’t want to believe it, but he admitted to me and to his father that he lost it and passed the first punch.”

Dina sat forward and haughtily asserted, “If you ask me. I think they should all be drug tested periodically. These kids are so wild these days. On the set, the erratic behavior and drug-taking among the young people is just completely out of hand. I mean, come on, how can a kid growing up in this world not be on something? Weed. Pills. Shots. Booze. It’s all out there for them. They can get the stuff anywhere. And glue? Aerosol cans? White-out? They’re so creative with it. If I had a kid, I wouldn’t hesitate to haul his or her butt in every six months for testing. It’s all out of control, if you ask me, even among the best of them. After that outburst, maybe you should have your son checked out, Midge. All of you probably should for safe measure. You never know.”

“Excuse me.” Jennifer quietly moved her chair back and stood.

Pushing her chair in and taking up her purse, she walked away from the table.

“Nothing I said, I hope.” Dina said as she watched Jennifer leaving them.

“That girl is wearing the hell out of that dress, though.” Carolyn observed.

Watching her go, Dina felt a strong pang of envy. Jennifer’s graceful lines were perfect for that dazzling dress. She was reluctantly thinking that not many women their age could pull off a backless number like that. There wasn’t a fold or a roll to be seen in that tight and smooth freckled skin. Then it struck her like a lightning bolt. Jennifer might just be on her way outside to talk with her old friend, Teddy.

He had, after all, paid far too much attention to her when he had been at the table, and as much as she might hate to admit it, truth told, Jennifer Hart was every bit the stunner he’d said to her that she was. Jonathan Hart was a true hunk, himself, but he was a no-go in every sense of the word. Charming man, handsome man, an extremely good catch; but he’d taken himself out of the running a long time ago. That hadn’t stopped some folk from hoping and trying, but she wasn’t one to work that hard. He’d said no to her once, and at the time, she could tell that he meant it.

And anyway, she was used to it being the other way around.

She had yet to meet Teddy’s son. It was too bad that he’d brought the boy with him. She had planned for him to stay with her at her house while he was in LA, but he refused, saying that he wouldn’t do that with his son in his company. According to him, the kid had come to spend time with J.J. Hart.

It had been a while since she’d seen the Harts’ girl in the flesh, but from what she’d heard, J.J. was becoming quite attractive and very much like her mother in appearance. It must be true. She had been a cute little girl, so it stood to reason that she was growing up lovely. And Teddy, Sr. had been totally preoccupied by what Teddy, Jr. might be into with the little Miss. His diligence was an unfortunate thing for her. She’d had big plans when she invited him to Los Angeles for that weekend. She had never intended for it to be mostly business. The matter of Teddy, Jr. was taking up far too much of Teddy, Sr.’s time and his attention. His focusing on keeping up with his son was preventing him from picking up on the messages she had been trying so hard to transmit to him. He had been clear about not wanting a wife. With his kids, she didn’t necessarily want him for a husband. But with his money, his charm, and his connections; he’d make a good exclusive companion and ‘sponsor’.

She had been so into her own thoughts that it was a few moments before she noticed that the other women at the table were looking at her, and that the looks she was getting were far from friendly.

“I think I’ll go powder my nose.” She said as she rose from the table to make her own exit and to check her traps.

In the lobby, Jennifer stopped to speak with her many acquaintances on her way to the front door and hopefully to her husband. Some of what had been said at the table had really been quite amusing, but she disliked group gossip sessions. In her estimation, engaging in them or being associated with them was messy and unhealthy.

She was also uncomfortable with Dina’s attitude, although she was unclear as to the exact reason why she’d had that sudden jolt of what felt like guilty déjà vu. And then there was Georgette Singleton. Old associations aside, the relationship had long played itself out.

Over the years, she had learned to control her once fiery temper and her innately quick tongue, but the things Georgette had been trying to perpetrate, thinking she was being so undercover with them, were grating on her nerves. The attempt on Jonathan, she wasn’t really that concerned about. Jonathan was his own man, and the mutual trust they shared was beyond breaching on either end. But the thing with J.J. was another matter entirely. It wouldn’t be long before she told Georgette all that was on her mind. She had come close to it that morning in the boutique. When the time did come, she really didn’t need for there to be an audience. It would not be her purpose to embarrass her, but it would be her mission to let her know in no uncertain terms how she felt about her and the things she had been trying to do.

Through the glass doors, she could see the men standing together in the parking lot. They were talking, but even from that distance, she could see Jonathan’s eyes surreptitiously scanning his surroundings. That was how he was when he was onto something. He could be engaged in a full conversation, but still he would be keeping up his vigilance on whatever it was that had his real attention. The thing that made her nervous was she couldn’t be sure what one thing he was focused upon. He had several irons, of which she was aware, in the fire, and he didn’t always let her in on things right away.

________________________________________________________________

Chase had gotten into the car with J.J. and Teddy for the ride back, and he was the first to see the paternal coalition clustered in the parking lot.

“Aw, hell.” He said leaning forward from the back seat to tap J.J. on the shoulder. “Look, J. It’s all of them. Teddy, is that your old man? It has to be. You look just like him.”

“What in the world is he doing here?” Teddy muttered, ducking his head under the visor to look in the direction to which Chase and J.J. were peering as if he needed to see for himself his father’s tuxedoed figure in the group of men.

“Just be calm about everything when you get out.” J.J. advised. “Act like nothing’s out of the ordinary. Act like their hitting us up on the cells was not a big deal.”

“I cannot believe my father is here.” Teddy said as he drove into an empty space. “He didn’t say word one to me about being here. I wonder who he’s with? Must be his client.”

“Who’s his client?” Chase asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask. I didn’t care. I was just trying to get a trip to LA to see J.J. Why wouldn’t he tell me he was coming here tonight?”

J.J. was checking her hair and face in the visor. Then she pulled up on her top, turning to Teddy to answer his question.

“Because that’s how they do us, Teddy. Keeping us off balance is how they call themselves holding onto the winning hand. That’s why your father called me and my father called you, and not the other way around like it should have been. Them doing it that way was meant to shake us up. See how they didn’t really fuss or anything when they had us on the phone? How they were all polite and didn’t ask any questions about where we were? Talking about they were wondering how long we’d be, and that they thought it was time for us “to head that way”, when the whole time what they really meant was “get your missing-in-action behind here this instant.”

“Um-hmmm” Chase agreed. “Only the truant behind thing was actually a bit closer to what my old man said, but he didn’t quite use the word ‘behind’. J., your father doesn’t care who he does, does he? He called Chance, too. Poor Chance got done twice. By our father and then yours.”

J.J. twisted around in the seat to Chase.

“Daddy took Marnie’s father’s place. Chance and Marnie thought they were getting around the father thing by hanging out at Marnie’s mother when her mother wasn’t at home. Didn’t I tell Chance this morning that my Daddy was going to get on him about Marnie, too? Chance was joking with Teddy about Daddy getting after him about me. Marnie is my Daddy’s girl, too. Know that.”

Shutting the motor down, Teddy took a deep breath. “I really didn’t want to make your father mad at me.”

“Daddy’s probably not mad.” J.J assured him. “He just doesn’t want you to forget that he’s got his eye on you. I do stuff like this all the time. He was probably sort of expecting me to not show up right away. The one to worry about is the one who won’t be gunning for you. But that’s my problem. I’ll be walking that plank when I get inside to her.”

Chase got out of the car and opened J.J.’s door for her as Teddy came around from the other side. The others came toward them from their vehicles, and they briefly gathered in a tight knot to conference.

“You know we’re through.” Marnie was saying. “I thought I had gotten off, but all of us got calls, even me. Your father must have called my father, J. My father hit me up on the cell on the way over here, and he let me have it good about not letting him know what I was doing. It seems he was expecting me to get dressed at home, and that I would still be there when he got in from playing golf. But Chance had already picked me up by the time my father got back. He said he saw my car there, so he thought I was still there. He finally went up to check on me, and that’s when he found out I wasn’t, talking about he knew I got out of Dodge so that he couldn’t get Chance. Nobody there knew I was gone except Kyle, and my father said he had to just about hem the kid up to get him to tell that I was at my mother’s. That Kyle’s my boy. I know he held out as long as he could. I’ll have to buy the boy something. He tried. Good thing my father’s not big on putting folks on lockdown. My ass would be in the house until school starts back.”

“What about when you do get home?” Tiffany asked. “Won’t he be all on you?”

“I wouldn’t be able to have any fun if I knew for sure I had it coming when I got home.” Britt added, on the same wave length as her big sister. “It’s one thing to sneak and do something and get caught after, but to know you have it coming up front?”

Marnie waved her hand, dismissing the thought. “He’ll be fussing and everything when I get home, but I’ll make myself cry, and he’ll just feel all bad, thinking he made me; then he’ll leave me alone.”

“I told you; you girls have it made.” Chase said. “Just cry at will and get your way. What kind of stuff is that?”

“You work with what you have.” Was Marnie’s response. “The tears are merely a tool. See, the key to any of it is you have to know how to work the system that’s in place. It just takes guys longer to figure that out, that’s all. Look at them all over there waiting for us. So you all know how we handle this, right?”

“Just play it off.” They all quietly chorused.

“If that doesn’t work,” Chase sarcastically offered, “then you girls get to crying.”

Squeezing Teddy’s hand, J.J. winked, “We do it like the time at the hospital when Daddy walked up on us.”

Teddy nodded his understanding, completely tickled and comforted by their unity and their acceptance of him. He fell right into confident step with them, still holding J.J.’s hand, casually placing the other into his pocket for effect.

There were so many cars on the Country Club lot that night, that he felt he would be able to actually park and remain in the car without being noticed at all. The spot he had selected seemed perfect for being able to see who was coming and going without being observed himself.

Just as he had suspected would happen, J.J. and the crew had apparently gone elsewhere before coming to the dance. The maroon sedan pulling through the gates caught his eye first, and then the black Corvette that immediately followed it confirmed to him that they had arrived. Behind the Corvette, a white Mustang drove in. He didn’t recognize the car, but he knew before he saw them who was in it. He focused the bulk of his attention on the Mustang.

The three cars parked. Chase Barnett emerged from the Mustang first, going to the door on the passenger’s side and opening it. There she was, and she was splendid in her brightly colored outfit with most of her long hair down, for once. She almost never wore her hair completely loose, he couldn’t remember a time when she had. But then, there was so much of it, she probably couldn’t.

From the distance he was from her, J.J. Hart was a thinner, less mature version of her mother. She stood like Jennifer Hart and she made gestures like her. It was funny, but when she was dressed up, J.J. seemed to change completely. Her movements were slower, she was much less animated and a lot more feminine; she became quieter and more dignified. She seemed a bit older than he knew her to be, just the way he would like for her to be.

She stood there on that side of the car, talking to Chase. The driver’s door opened and Teddy Baxter rose up into his view from that side of the car. Teddy went around to the other side and all the others out there walked over to join him, J.J. and Chase. He could see Ollie with them. Ollie had also been with them the previous night when they were at the marina.

He and Ollie had always kind of operated on the fringes of that group, but now they seemed to have completely taken Ollie into their fold. Earlier that week, his mother had come in saying that she’d seen Ollie and Marnie together, shopping on Melrose. Ollie and Marnie? Since when? Up until this recent turn of events, Ollie had been a little wary of that petite, foul-mouthed dynamo. As quiet as he’d kept it, he was, too.

As he continued to look on, he noticed that Ollie and Tiffany were actually holding hands. Just the week before, Ollie had been too afraid to even talk to Tiffany. Now they were holding hands?

The group talked together for a moment, and then they all seemed to turn in unison, heading toward the clubhouse. Teddy and J.J. walked a few steps behind everyone else. He had clearly seen it when Teddy reached for her hand and she gave it to him. They continued to hold hands as they walked away.

What the hell else was she giving him? What, of his, was Teddy intending to take?

Before the night was out and things got too much more bizarre, he fully intended to find out.

________________________________________________________________

J.J. you have to hold Daddy’s hand.

How come I have to? I can walk by myself.

Because you’re just a little girl.

I am not little. Look, I’m walking all by myself right now. I don’t need nobody’s hands to hold me when I walk. Not your hand. Not Mommy’s hand. Just me.

J.J., give Daddy your hand. I don’t want anything to happen to you. There are so many people out here. The world is so big. You might get lost.

I know my way. I can find my way home. If I can’t find my way, I can ask a policeman. He’ll bring me home.

What if you can’t find a policeman?

Then you’ll find me. You’re my Daddy. You always find me when I’m lost.

But there are bad people out here who sometimes take little girls. If somebody bad takes you and hides you, how will I find you?

(Silence, but the hand stays behind the back.)

Do you know what will happen to me if something happens to take you away from me?

(Silence)

Do you, J.J.?

Will you be sad for a long time?

Yes, baby. I will, forever.

Will it break your heart, Daddy?

Yes.

Will Mommy cry?

Yes. For a long, long time.

Then I guess I’ll hold your hand. I don’t want you to be sad, and I don’t want Mommy to cry. I’ll hold your hand, but just for a little while. Then I’m going to walk by myself again, okay?

Jonathan had seen the cars in the distance as they came through the gates of the country club, and he was gratified that wherever they had been, they must have all stayed together. He and the other father had made their calls, and it seemed the kids had all gotten the same message at the same time.

Their staying together had been part of the plan for the evening, and he knew that he could count on those young fellows with his daughter to keep up their end. Because of that, J.J.’s exact whereabouts hadn’t been all that important to him; he knew they’d turn up sooner or later. J.J. might sometimes veer off the prescribed path, but she knew better than to hang it out there too long and risk her mother’s wrath. Jennifer didn’t like it when J.J. took off on her own like she was more frequently doing. He didn’t know what his wife was going to do once J.J. left home for good.

There was safety in numbers. That group their daughter currently ran with might not always do what they were supposed to do, but whatever they did, they were unified in it. They were good friends who looked out for each other, and that made him happy. It was, however, comforting to have them all back within his sights judging by what he had already observed for himself while out there in the lot.

“So, Teddy,” Dr. Jackson said as he patted the other man on the back. “Dina Magyar. Should I be getting a tux pressed?”

Teddy shook his head. “No way. I’ve been down the aisle twice. I won’t be going again. Just friendships from here on out. Friendships and family, and I have plenty of both.”

“That’s some son you have.” Jonathan said. “And that’s something for me to say, I have to tell you. He didn’t make any excuses. Didn’t try to give me any lip. Just “yes sirred” me when I had him on the phone.”

“Thanks, Jonathan. He really is a good boy, so far. Not because he’s mine, but because he is. He’s been through a lot in his young life, and most of it has been the fault of me and his mother. But where he and his sisters are concerned, we’ve pretty much managed to bury that hatchet. I have to honestly say that Teddy makes me proud- most of the time. He has his moments, of course. He can be a scamp at times. Doesn’t always give his all to his studies unless his uncle Phil or I put a foot where the sun doesn’t shine, but I guess that’s a boy for you. You’ve got quite a girl there yourself. Was such a lady on the phone, although I think it shocked her to have me on the other end. Teddy’s never shown much interest in any one girl until he met J.J. He couldn’t say enough good things about J.J. when he got in last night.”

Jonathan smiled. “Well, she’s- what can I say. She’s her Daddy’s girl.”

“All Hart?” Teddy chuckled.

“All Hart.” Jonathan affirmed. “My Hart.”

“You’re a lucky man, Jonathan. But I guess you know that. You and Jennifer. Jennifer’s good people. She always was. The two of you have done well. I’m not for the kids getting too serious yet, but I have to tell you, my boy couldn’t have made a better choice. I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

“No offense taken.” Jonathan said. “I think my girl did a pretty good job herself. Up until she met your son, she hadn’t shown much interest in any particular boy. Teddy’s the first one to come along that I can’t find a whole lot of fault with, and believe me, I was all set up to try. Here they come.”

He and Teddy took the few steps back to rejoin Ollie, Sr. who had gone back to stand with the others.

____________________________________________________________
Jennifer had been just about to step outside the glass front doors to join the men when she could see the familiar cluster of young people leisurely coming through the lot. Out of that group, she immediately honed in on two, her two; the little chatterbox in the bright red Chanel and matching red, strapped sandals, and the grinning redhead holding Teddy’s hand and loosely flanked on all sides by the other males in that group. She knew her girls and how they operated. Despite how cool they were trying to appear, underneath that facade, they’d be nervous about having been summoned in the way she suspected that they had. And when those two were nervous, their little bodies went to work against them, especially J.J. Hart’s. Most certainly they would be making a pit stop before entering the dining room.

And when they did make that stop, the Duchess would be waiting for them.

_________________________________________________________________

Georgette Singleton had gone out into the lobby to speak with some friends she had seen come in. They had been talking together for a few minutes when the large party coming through the front doors got her attention. In that group she could see Jonathan Hart, Teddy Baxter and Dina Magyar, along with the other men who had earlier been seated at their table. They were shepherding in several children, including J.J. Hart and Teddy Baxter, Jr. Even if she hadn’t already known who he was from having come into contact with him at Wesley’s school, she would have been able to guess whose son he was. Teddy, Jr. was so much like his father had been at his age: tall with thick curly hair, dark features, and an engaging smile.

Once they were all inside, J.J. and Teddy stepped away from the group as the men started toward the dining room, and the group of teens took the side hallway that led to the patio and pool area where most of the other young people were gathered for the evening’s affair.

J.J. and Teddy remained behind in the lobby. They talked for a moment, then she left him, walking in the direction of the powder room. Teddy took a seat in one of the lobby chairs, Georgette presumed, to wait for her. As he settled into the high backed chair, getting comfortable, crossing his legs; she took note of the cut of his handsome attire and of how well it looked on him. She thought of her own son, injured and depressed, stuck in his room at home by himself; and she decided, “This will never do.”

Making her excuses to the small group with whom she had been talking, Georgette headed for the powder room.

________________________________________________________________

Jennifer had gone to the back and closed herself inside one of the water closets. She climbed up on a commode to be better able to see over the other closets as well as the wall dividing that area from the dressing area up front. From that vantage point, she could also see the door, and she could monitor who came and went.

She had just gotten situated when she heard the door open. Rising just enough to be able to peek out, she could see that her hunch had paid off. It was J.J., but she was by herself, which was an even better state of affairs than she had anticipated. Ducking back down to avoid being detected, she maintained her position on top of the commode to keep J.J. from seeing her feet under the door and perhaps recognizing her shoes. She needed to give her time enough to take care of her personal needs before making her presence known and starting an interrogation of any kind.

After all, she had paid far too much for that ensemble and those shoes for J.J. to be having a accident in and on them.

While J.J. was doing what she had come to do, the outside door swished open again. Slowly easing herself up, she could see Georgette come in and go directly to the vanity counter where she sat down and immediately turned her chair all the way around so that she was facing into the room, her back to the mirrors.

Lowering herself again, Jennifer silently congratulated herself for having made the decision to wait J.J. out.

There was a flush, the sound of water running, a door opening and then a soft bump as that door swung back closed.

Jennifer looked out again and watched as Georgette quickly spun back around and pretended to be fluffing her hair as J.J. walked toward the outer area.

Squatting back down, Jennifer focused on hearing what was being said.

“Hello, Mrs. Singleton. I thought I heard someone come in.”

“Oh, hello J.J. And here I thought I was all alone. Just needed to fix my face a little. My, it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen each other, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I understand that you’ve been away most of the summer. First France, then I did see you at the reunion in Massachusetts. I understand that your grandfather fell ill, and you went on to Maryland from there. How is your grandfather these days?”

“He’s much better, Mrs. Singleton.”

“You look very pretty tonight, J.J. Of course, Jennifer always dresses you in such nice things.”

“Thank you.”

“I saw the young man you were with. Don’t I know him from somewhere?”

“You probably know him from Brookfield. He went to school with Wesley.”

“I thought so. What’s his name?”

There was a hesitation before J.J. answered.

“Baxter.”

“Is that his first name, J.J.?”

There was no answer.

“Are the two of you serious?”

Again, there was no answer.

“I should think if he came all this way to see you and to be your escort tonight, it must be pretty serious.”

There was still no response from J.J., but Georgette wouldn’t let it go.

“I had hoped that something would come of you and Wesley. Tell me something, J.J. What happened between you and Wesley?”

“I don’t think I know what you mean, Mrs. Singleton. I haven’t seen Wesley since I’ve been back home.”

“I know that you haven’t, J.J. That’s why I brought it up. I asked him about you and why he hadn’t brought you around to see me. He told me that you hadn’t answered his calls or his emails. I notice that here at the club, you two don’t seem to talk very much any more. You used to be such good friends.”

“Things just change sometimes, that’s all. And besides, I’ve been pretty busy lately.”

“Has he done something to offend you? Did the two of you argue over something?”

J.J. fell silent again.

“Well, did you?”

“I have to go Mrs. Singleton. Someone is waiting for me.”

There was a slight pause. And then Georgette spoke again, her voice taking on an offended, perhaps angry, but clearly inappropriate tone.

“You’re leaving just like that? Aren’t you going to answer me?”

“I told you, Mrs. Singleton, I have someone waiting for me.”

“That young man knows where you are, and he’ll be waiting right there until you get back. I cannot believe how rude you’re being, J.J. This isn’t like you. I’ve asked you a question, and you’ve disrespectfully chosen to not answer me. I don’t think your mother would approve of your being so impolite to an adult. I would hate to have to tell her that you were.”

“Her mother is right here, Georgette.”

Startled, J.J. and Georgette both jumped and then Georgette whipped around to where Jennifer now stood in the doorway that led from the dressing room to the back. Walking over to them, taking J.J. by the shoulders; she moved her out of the spot in which she had been standing near the counter and Georgette. Replacing J.J. in that vacated space, Jennifer first put her purse down. Then she took a few moments to check her hair and face in the mirror. Turning turned back around to face Georgette, bending slightly at the waist to ensure that they were in a more face-to-face, eye-to-eye position, she addressed her intended target:

“You had something to tell me?”

Georgette laughed nervously and stammered, “I- I- I was just asking J.J. what happened between her and Wesley”

“And I take it you thought it rude of her to not address your prying into her affairs?”

“J- J- Jennifer, I wasn’t trying to pr-”

“Yes you were. I heard every word of what you said to her. You weren’t doing anything except prying. None of what you asked her was any of your business, and she didn’t answer you because she didn’t have to.”

“I just- ”

Georgette, this is not a stupid child. She’s only sixteen, but she’s extremely bright and almost too observant; she sees all through you, as do I. She knows full well that you know exactly with whom she’s here tonight. She also has her reasons for choosing not deal with your son.”

“Well, that was all I was trying to find out. I just wanted to know what happened so that maybe I could-”

“You couldn’t. You see, that’s the problem; you try to force everything. I once admired that quality in you. I thought it represented strength. But that was a long time ago. I’m no longer a naive, sheltered child, seeing only the surface of things. Life has taught me to look deeply and to see things and people for what they really are, and I see you for all that you are. J.J.’s silence with Wesley should have been his cue to leave her be. Her silence in here with you should have been yours. Yet both of you refuse to recognize the signals that have been sent your way. I’ve taught my daughter to be polite. I’ve taught her to respect her elders. Now I see that I might have done her an injustice. I haven’t taught her what to do with those adults who don’t treat her with that same respect she’s been taught to give or those who abuse their authority over her. But you see, my dear, that’s why she has a mother.”

“Jennifer, I promise you, I only- I nev- ”

“You, Georgette Walker Singleton, are a snake. A loathsome, belly crawling snake. You came in here with the intention of browbeating this child. That was a mistake, because that one is my child. You and I have known each other since we were children, and I thought we were friends; but I saw you. I know what your intentions were. I also know what you’ve done, and I know what you tried to do.”

“I’ve done?”

“You had to know that I’d find out. I’m known for finding things out. You’ve tried to force things in your own home, and it’s glaringly apparent to all who are looking that it hasn’t worked out so well for you or for your family. But that’s your business. I’m not here to cast stones. I am here, however, to tell you in no uncertain terms to leave mine alone. You will not force your son- or yourself for that matter- on anyone in my family.”

“Jennifer!”

“It stops right here, right now, at this moment. Is that clearly understood?”

Force myself? I’m sure I don’t know-”

“Shhh! Just stop because I don’t want to hear it. Don’t sit there and act like you don’t understand what I’m saying. Keep at it, and you’ll make me spell it out for you right in front of this child. She knows me, and she knows I don’t bite my tongue. And if you think back on it, you know that, too. Georgette, I warn you, please don’t play me for a fool. I may be a great many things, not all of them good or positive, but stupid and blind I have never been. I know you, and I know how you can be. A leopard can’t change its spots, Georgette. A weasel can’t help being what it is.”

“Jennifer, I cannot believe that you are accusing me and confronting me in this manner. You are always such a lady. It’s so out of charac-”

“Oh, I am a lady, Georgette. I pride myself on being a lady and on maintaining my dignity in most situations, but when I’m pushed to it, I can and I will turn into a first class bitch. You and your son are out of line with my daughter, and I’m here to tell you, that’s the best way to push that bitch button in me. You think you’re being mortified in front of J.J. now? Keep playing me for stupid, and I’m going to really embarrass you.”

“Jennif-”

“Hush! Don’t say anything else. I want you to just listen for once. Now make sure that you listen carefully because I’m only going to say this once.”

Georgette stared into Jennifer’s face in a way that left no doubt as to her compliance with the directive she had been given.

“Tell your son to stay the hell away from my daughter. Away, do you hear me?. He is not to call her. He is not to email her. He is not to try and contact her in any way. In fact, he is not to be anywhere near her. And you stay away from my family as well.”

Jennifer leaned further down, to get even closer. “Do we have an understanding?”

Georgette, wide-eyed and leaned all the way back, was in full retreat. She was almost fully reclined in that swivel chair.

“Y-y-y-yes.” She hoarsely whispered .

“Yes, who?”

“Yes, Jennifer.”

Her eyes still on Georgette’s face, Jennifer slowly rose to stand erect once again. Turning to the mirror with the intention of checking her own appearance, before she saw herself, she saw J.J. reflected in the glass.

She had retreated from them until she couldn’t go any farther. Standing almost on tiptoe, her back was pressed tightly against the wall, and her blue eyes mirrored her shock. The small silver purse she carried was clutched tightly in both her hands.

Seeing her in that state, Jennifer wasn’t quite sure if she had done the right thing in allowing her daughter to be witness to her anger and to the subsequent exchange between her and Georgette.

She turned around to face her and extended her hand, saying,  “Come on, here.”

J.J. seemed to have to peel herself from the wall and tentatively, as if she weren’t sure that she should, she crossed the distance between them, still on tiptoe. As soon as she was close enough, Jennifer put the outstretched arm around her and drew her in.

“It’s okay.” She whispered.

Turning her back completely on Georgette, she began to escort J.J. from the powder room.

It didn’t take J.J. very long to recover. As they were approaching the door, she leaned in to verify the one detail Jennifer was sure she would have registered with her daughter.

“Mrs. Singleton was trying to push up on Daddy?”

Jennifer sighed, “Never you mind about that.”

“Because if she was,” J.J. persisted. “I think you let her off way too easy. I mean, she was supposed to be your friend. She was begging to have her eye dotted for something like that, Mom.”

Still talking as she pulled open the door, J.J. said,  “She got off real lucky. If that had been me, and she had tried some cra-”

“J.J.”

“I’m just saying…”

Jennifer knew that Georgette could hear all of what J.J. had said, but for once she did little to hush that sassy, retaliatory tongue as she eased J.J. ahead of her and out into the hall.

She didn’t tell it to J.J., but the woman they were leaving behind really had gotten off lucky.

They were in the hall, headed back out front. Just before they reached the main lobby, however, J.J. abruptly stopped in her tracks, taking her mother by the arm to make her stop as well.

Looking to her to see what was wrong and/or what she wanted, Jennifer found J.J. giving her a very strange look.

“What?” She asked her.

“It just occurred to me.” J.J. said, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I didn’t see you when I was back there using the bathroom. You were closed up, lying in wait for me in one of the stalls, weren’t you? You had your feet up on the toilet and you were ducked down so I couldn’t see you, weren’t you?”

Having forgotten all about her original reason for being in the powder room, an amused chuckle escaped Jennifer’s lips before she could suppress it.

“Um-hmmm, I thought so.” J.J. smiled as she nodded her head. “You were going to ambush me about being gone, weren’t you? As it was, you just about scared the living daylights out of me when you showed up out of nowhere like that. It’s a good thing I had already gone. ”

“That was by design. I let you go first. I paid too much for that dress and those shoes to not have let you go first. So, now that you’ve refreshed my memory, let’s do get back to that original business. Just where did you and Teddy and the rest of the Wild Bunch go?”

“No place, really. Just hanging out a little. Showing Teddy some stuff. We knew what time dinner was being served. We weren’t going to be long.”

Then J.J. leaned in and kissed her cheek. Recoiling in surprise, Jennifer waggled her finger.

“Oh no, no, no. You cannot buy me off with a kiss, Miss Hart. You know that I’m still going to fuss. You know full well that you’re not supposed to detour like that. Nobody told you not to, and you just took that as license to do what you wanted to do. I bet you and that merry band of teenage pirates you run with only came back when you did because your father called you.”

“Daddy did call me, well, he didn’t quite call me, but- I’ll tell you how that went down later. Listen, for real, that kiss wasn’t to buy you off.”

“Then just what was it for?”

“It was to thank you for letting me stay and see that side of you. I’ve gotta hand it to you, Mom, you are something else when your back is up. I want to thank you because for once you didn’t act like I needed to be protected from the things you consider to be negative about you. You’re never negative; you’re always you, no matter what’s going on. I know you have a bad temper. That’s where I get it from. You try to hide it from me, but I knew it was in you. I want to thank you, too, for getting my back in there with Mrs. Singleton. I liked what you told her, and I liked how you told her. She was making me mad, and I really didn’t know what to do or say to her without just going ahead and letting her have it. I know I’m a kid, and she’s an adult; and I really didn’t want to have do that, but she was leaving me no choice.”

“You did all the right things.” Jennifer assured her. “I was listening, and I was very proud of you. You were respectful and you kept your dignity. The rest of it is why you have a mother. The rest of it was for me to do.”

“You really should have left her with something to think about when she smiles in the mirror.” J.J. said, nodding again, holding up her balled fist for emphasis. “One right to the mouth. She knows better than that. That’s my daddy.”

Jennifer, fighting to remain the mother, but really wanting to laugh, said instead, “I’m sure I left her with enough to consider.”

“You know,” J.J. beamed mischievously. “You might be my mother, but you are definitely shaping up to be my kind of girl. If you were my age, I’d let you run with me and my “merry band of pirates” any day.”

“Let me?” Jennifer squeezed her hand.

J.J. raised that eyebrow. “Be appreciative. Not everybody gets in, you know. You have to have what it takes to hang with us.”

Jennifer was forced to chuckle at those words and at that face. The girl and that attitude, she was every bit Jonathan Hart, Jr.

“I guess I’ll take that as a compliment then.” She conceded.

Taking a moment to pull up on J.J.’s top, an action for which she received an annoyed huff and a full rolling of two blue eyes, then fluffing the long hair one more time, Jennifer took J.J. by the chin.

“I don’t have to tell you where this incident stays, do I?”

“Between us.” J.J. nodded. “I know.”

“Good, girl.” Jennifer smiled. “Now off with you. Teddy looks like he’s getting a little lonely over there.”

As J.J. left to rejoin her escort, Jennifer recalled that feeling she’d had when she left the table behind Dina Magyar’s short-sighted words. There had been a time when she couldn’t envision having a child of her own in her life. She had once felt sorry for people tied down with children and couldn’t really empathize with their discussions of them and their problems. She hadn’t been able to see sharing her personal relationship with Jonathan with anyone, not even his child. Up until the day J.J. was born, she had worried that having that child would change their lives too much.

Despite her mother’s reluctance to accept the situation and her apprehensions about motherhood, that girl had come, healthy and whole, right on into the world anyway. She had indeed changed their lives, but those changes had turned out to be an adventure her mother wouldn’t have done without. It was almost as if she had been specially designed for a woman not accustomed to dealing with a small, needy child. From the beginning J.J. had been special, a charming, extremely self-sufficient, and precocious little pill.

On her way to young womanhood, J.J. was becoming increasingly interesting and intelligent, and despite her somewhat unorthodox ways and views, she was also becoming increasingly admirable. She handled herself well, and she wasn’t afraid to take a stand when she felt she should. For the moment, J.J. was hers and not a subject open for discussion with the girls. Only Aunt Pat was so privileged. Most certainly, J.J. Hart was not a commodity for trade in anybody’s marriage market. Her mother, her father, and her grandfather weren’t having it.

Jonathan had been fulfilled by that child. And so had her own father. That bigger picture was one she hadn’t considered when she had been so personally panicked about that late-in-life pregnancy. J.J. was the apple of her grandfather’s eye, and she was father’s heart.

Her mother’s too.

Jennifer remained in that spot, watching until J.J. and Teddy were out of sight, on their way to the patio. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jonathan crossing the lobby, coming toward her. ________________________________________________________________

There were flames burning brightly in her cheeks, and her neck and chest appeared to have been airbrushed a mellow coral.

“Why are you so flushed?” He asked when he was close enough to her for her to hear him without also drawing the attention of everyone else in the part of the lobby. “You feeling all right?”

She touched her fingers to her cheek as if she would be able to feel what he was talking about.

“Am I?” She asked. “I feel fine.”

Coyly, she looked up at him as he took her by the hand to see if it was warm. It was his way of casually taking her temperature. Strangely, her hands always got hot first when she was getting sick or running a temperature.

“Perhaps it’s because I saw you coming.” She said. “You do that to me, you know.”

“Do what to you, Jennifer?” He asked, his eyes searching her face for signs of whatever it was that was really stimulating that color in her.

The amorous look he found dancing in her brown eyes was beyond amusing and downright inviting.

“Make me all warm and flushed.” She answered seductively. “Red all over.”

His thoughts flashed back to those last few minutes they’d spent at home, and he wished they were back there or at least not out in the open as they were. He pointedly leered down the front of her dress, grinning, “I do know.”

It took only a second for her to catch his meaning, at which point she abruptly snatched her hand from his to once again adjust the bodice of her dress.

“I had almost forgotten about that.” She fussed. “I owe you big for that, Jonathan. I mean it. You know better than to do that to me.”

“I’ll graciously accept my payback in kind, thank you, Mrs. Hart.” He said with a quick, but gallantly humble bow. “And you can put it anywhere you want on me. I know when I’ve been wrong, and I’m fully prepared to pay for my sins.”

She reluctantly laughed that laugh he loved, and allowed,” You are so silly.”

Georgette Singleton entered the lobby from the hall that led back to the Ladies’ powder room. Seeing her approaching, Jonathan stiffened, fully expecting that she would stop and torment him with some of her endless prattle. With all that had happened between the kids on the weekend before, he wasn’t sure how polite he was going to be able to be.

But, surprisingly, she went right on by, actually averting her eyes from them as she did.

Ever observant, he noticed that she too was flushed, but she looked as if she had been crying. Doing the math quickly in his head, he put the two things together and looked back to his wife.

Jennifer was intently watching Georgette as she passed, with a much too-satisfied look on her pretty face.

His suspicions highly aroused, he asked, “Jennifer, exactly what  did you come out here for anyway?”

She answered, “Why, to powder my nose, of course.”

_________________________________________________________________

As soon as he could politely do so without drawing a lot of attention, Teddy excused himself from the table where he had been sitting outside on the patio with J.J. and some of her friends. He made a beeline for Chase, who on the other side of the patio, was for once by himself and not in the center of a group of girls.

“Chase,” He whispered as soon as he was close enough. “Who’s that girl over there near that table? The one in the white.”

Discreetly shifting his eyes in the direction Teddy was subtly trying to point out, Chase could see only one girl dressed in white. She was standing at a table near the pool, talking with some other members of the club. As he was scoping her out, he could see the girl sneaking peeks at Teddy while she talked. When she saw Chase looking at her, she quickly looked away.

“That’s Isabella Hawthorne.” Chase answered. “Why?”

When Teddy didn’t say anything right away, Chase looked back around to him. He appeared to be uncomfortable about something.

“What’s up, Teddy?”

“I already knew her name,” Teddy whispered. “But who exactly is she?”

“That’s Issy. Remember? The girl me and Ollie were telling you almost got into the fight with J.J. last Saturday at the DQ. Why?”

“Damn.” Teddy sighed, a hand to his forehead. “I thought so. When I was inside in the lobby waiting for J.J., that girl came up to me. She introduced herself. I introduced myself, and then she wanted to know who I came with. Like an idiot, I told her J.J. Then she got this look.”

“What kind of look?”

“I was hoping I was wrong, but it was like she was trying to come on to me. I’ve been sitting over there all this time hoping that Isabella wasn’t short for Issy, but I should have known that the good luck I’ve been having all summer wouldn’t last.  She’s been slipping me the eye ever since we’ve been out here. I don’t want J.J. to think I’m flirting with her or something. Chase, I don’t want to mess up with J.J. What’s with that Issy girl? J.J. let her off once. I just don’t want J. to think it’s me.”

Chase leaned in. “I think Issy likes playing with fire. You know how some people have that death wish? That chick knew who you before she came up to you in the lobby. She’s got some beef with J.J. that J.J. didn’t have with her before she confronted her in that parking lot. I wouldn’t worry about J. thinking you’re flirting; she’s not that insecure. And she can handle herself and her business pretty well. Just chill out and let nature take its course. You stick over there by J., and just continue having a nice time. Forget about Issy. She’ll keep trying it, but it’s coming for her.”

“If you say so.” Teddy sighed again. “First, my father is here-by surprise- with a movie star lady I get the strong feeling doesn’t like me. Now this.”

“Look. The heck with Issy and Dina Magyar.” Chase said. “Like I said, Issy needs to watch her back, and that Dina Magyar, she thinks she’s some kind of super diva. It probably isn’t personal. She tries to treat everybody like carpeting. And then you know how women can be. She probably figures you’re in the way of her getting to your father. But look, your father is your father. He seems like a pretty straight-up guy. Maybe if she takes it too far when it comes to you, he’ll put her in the wind. She’s for the moment, but you’ll always be his son. You told me you came to LA to have fun and to be with J.J., and so far, haven’t you done that?”

“Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun.”

“Then if I were you, I’d put all that other stuff to the side and concentrate on J.J. I know she likes you.”

Teddy beamed and Chase leaned in even further. “Keep that under your hat. She’d kill me for sure if she knew I told you that. You two only have tonight left. Besides, you have to stay focused. Remember?”

Teddy nodded, and Chase patted him on the back, saying, “We made a promise, and we’re keeping it.”

Marnie rejoined the others at the outside table after a brief absence.

“Took you long enough.” Chance immediately said to her. “I thought maybe you’d drowned yourself in the powder room or something.”

“Not now, Chance.” Marnie warned him as she got settled. “Or I’ll take it out on you.”

Detecting strong agitation on her friend’s part, J.J. asked, “What happened to you?”

“I stopped in the dining room first to speak to my mother.” Marnie answered. “That was a mistake. She’s here with some guy who looks young enough to be my brother. She is so embarrassing. Then, when I got pissed and walked away as she was trying to introduce me to junior, she gets up and follows me. Then she thinks she’s going to try and hem me up in the bathroom about my embarrassing her. She makes me sick. I let her have it with both barrels. She needs to grow the hell up.”

“That’s too bad.” Tiffany offered. “I know you said you hadn’t seen her in a while and that you were looking forward to it. Then when you do, you two end up getting into it.”

“It’s always like that with me and her.” Marnie said. “Sometimes I don’t know which one of us is the kid. It’s for sure she’s not mature enough to be the mother. I go off on her, and she goes right with me. And she wonders why I don’t respect her.”

“Wonder why it is,” J.J. mused aloud. “That nobody says anything when an older man shows up with some young girl on his arm, but it’s all wrong when a woman does it? I mean, don’t get me wrong, Marn. I’m not saying you’re wrong for feeling the way you do about it. I’m not so sure that I don’t feel exactly like you do about it. It just doesn’t seem quite right, does it? Looks kinda funny when you see that. I wonder what the difference is?”

“Double standards.” Ollie said. “They’re rampant in our society. But I guess if it’s okay for some men, it should be okay for some women.”

“I don’t know about some women.” Marnie replied. “I’m just talking about my mother. She just has a real problem with getting older; that’s why she does it, and that’s why it makes me so mad. I think being with young guys makes her feel like she’s younger or something. I wish she would just accept who and what she is. It would make more sense to me that she’d get with some older guy. Older guys have more. They could do more for her. If it was me, that’s what I would do. I’d get with somebody who could do something for me, not just sit there and look good. Hell, I can do that by myself. What can that boy possibly do for her other than just sit there and look good?”

The table suddenly went completely silent.

After a moment, J.J. offered, “Well, there is that.”

“BESIDES that.” Marnie almost screamed.

“Maybe that’s all she wants.” Chance ventured with a casual shrug of his shoulders. “I mean, maybe it isn’t about money and material things for her. After all, she’s already loaded. She can buy her own stuff and pay her own way… And his.”

Marnie turned and gave him a scornful look.

“Shut the hell up.” She told him. “You aren’t helping.”

“You love me anyway.” Chance crooned, making a kissy face upon which Marnie completely turned her back.

Brittany came back to the table, sliding into the empty seat next to J.J. “Where’s Teddy?” She asked. “Is he not back yet?”

“I saw him over by the wall talking to Chase on my way back out here.” Marnie answered.

“Issy’s been giving him the eye.” Brittany reported. “Carmen says she saw her talking to him in the lobby. I saw her giving the old “come hither” myself earlier. I think she’s trying to make a move, J. What’s the plan?”

As everyone looked to her, J.J.’s calm expression didn’t change.

“Plan?” She asked with a slight tilt of her head. “Issy has two eyes. Teddy’s a handsome guy. She can look if she likes. I can’t stop her from seeing. She has a mouth. I can’t stop her from talking.”

“Oh, I know you are not about to take this lying down, J.” Marnie challenged from across the table. “She talked to him, for Pete’s sake! That is against all the rules. She knew he was with you. I know you are not going to let that girl punk you again.”

J.J. took a sip of water before answering.

“I’m not worried about that. Teddy’s not here as my boyfriend. And even if he was, he can speak to whomever he pleases. People don’t have locks on other people’s mouths and their free will. And a person can only punk you if you feel like you’ve been punked by them. I don’t feel like I have by Issy.”

“You’re a better woman than I am, J.J. Hart.” Tiffany declared. “I’d have to have a word with Miss Hawthorne, if it was me. You know what a tramp she is. The next thing you know, she’ll be trying to get him into the back seat of a car.”

“And it would be his choice if he went.”

J.J. looked at her watch. “We should probably start in. It’ll be time for them to serve dinner soon, and we’ve managed to skate across thin ice once with our folks. It probably won’t hold us if we try it another time.”

As they were getting up, Chase and Teddy rejoined them. Teddy immediately took J.J.’s arm and together they started in the direction of the door.

As they approached the group that included Issy Hawthorne, J.J. made it a point to appear to turn her eyes away from Issy while actually still being able to see her. Issy turned her head and tried to make eye contact with Teddy; then she looked to her friends again.

Issy’s back was to J.J. as she and Teddy passed her by. Down low, with the pointed end of her rectangular purse, J.J. quickly jabbed Issy in the rear end and immediately dropped the purse back to her side, never missing a step in her movement with Teddy toward the dining room door.

Issy’s instant reaction was to jump forward, away from the poke. Already at the edge of the pool and unable catch on to anything in time, she lost her balance and fell face first into the water. The resulting huge splash drenched the rest of her party and spattered those still unfortunate enough to be seated at tables in that vicinity.

When Teddy, startled by the noise and the subsequent screams, tried to stop and look to see what happened, he got the hint right away when J.J. tugged gently at his arm and kept going- just like everyone else in their party.

_________________________________________________________________

Russell Thomas and his date had finally arrived, completing the table. After Russell introduced the young lady to him and to Jennifer, Jonathan introduced his Visual Imaging director and new member to the club, to the others seated there. He had just finished and Russell was helping the lady into her chair when the splash, then the screams and loud commotion could be heard coming from outside. Russell immediately went to the open patio doors.

Seated right beside the doors, Jonathan only had to turn to see outside. All of the kids on the patio seemed to be rushing toward the pool. Russell continued outside.

“I wonder what’s going on.” Jennifer said as she leaned across Jonathan to see past him while all the others seated with them and at tables close by, turned around or stood to see through the large windows that looked out onto the pool area.

“It sounded like somebody might have fallen into the water.” Teddy, Sr. ventured. “I hope not. Poor kid. If it was, whomever it was, has to be embarrassed, not to mention having had his or her clothes ruined.”

They could see several kids hastily emerging from inside the crowd. They were pulling at the wet clothing that was sticking to their skin and obviously angrily complaining about it. Russell, by that time, had completely disappeared in the confusion, evidently making his way to the pool’s edge.

Smiling, laughing, and talking as if they hadn’t noticed anything at all going on behind them, the “Wild Bunch” entered through those patio doors. They were the only young people from out there who were actually attempting to come in. Everyone else on the patio seemed to have their attention focused upon whatever had occurred with the water. Teddy and J.J. were the last of the group to enter. As she passed him on her way to her table, Jonathan noticed that his daughter was sporting that same too-satisfied look that his wife had earlier worn when a flushed and teary Georgette went by them in the lobby.

Jennifer, too, was watching that passing group of teenagers. Leaning in to her, He whispered out of the side of his mouth into her ear, “How much do you want to bet it’s Issy Hawthorne who’s out there taking a swim?”

As she sat back in her chair, looking down into her lap, he couldn’t help but notice the small dimple caused by the private smile his wife was trying to suppress.

________________________________________________________________

Sitting behind the wheel of his mother’s car, watching the clubhouse from several rows back, he wondered why it was that with all the boys who normally surrounded her in Los Angeles from whom she could choose, J.J. had to go all the way to Gresham, Mass. to find one she liked. And why did that person have to be someone with whom he was acquainted? Why was it that she had to meet Teddy during that summer, the one last summer that he would be at home? Nothing had gone according to plan.

He had hoped that after her bad experience that past spring, she would be looking for a knight in shining armor to keep her safe. Instead she had gotten back up on her own, dusted herself off, and had gone on with her life just like nothing at all had happened to her. She had gone to the mountains, then she had traveled to France like always. After that, she had just kept going, moving around the country with her mother, and then her mother and father.

Her damned father. He was always somewhere around, looking, watching, trying to throw a scare into somebody. To hell with him.

Why was it that she always had to be so different and so difficult to get next to? Why couldn’t she just be like the rest of them and be happy when a boy, especially one of his caliber, paid her some attention? Most younger girls liked it when an older boy paid them some attention, but not that J.J.

Why did he care so much about that girl when she didn’t seem to care at all about him anymore?  Why couldn’t he just let it go?

His headache had eased some, but it hurt to open his eyes. With them closed, he was ready to swear that he could actually feel and hear  his eyeballs rolling around in the fluids inside each eye socket. When they had been open, even with the sunglasses, the late evening sun only made the sensitivity worse, so he put his head back and kept them shut.

That was a part of it. He knew it would pass. It always did after a while.

But with his eyes closed, he couldn’t see, and that bothered him a little. He couldn’t risk having her and Teddy come out and leave without him seeing them. It was dinnertime, so they were probably inside eating. After dinner there would be the actual dance, and it would be like the two of them to skip out on something like that. Where would they go instead?

Her folks weren’t at home. Maybe they’d go there.

No. That wouldn’t be like J.J. She could be a little sneak at times, but she wasn’t that kind of sneak. She wouldn’t do anything to disrespect her parents like that. She was one of those good girls with morals and values. That kind of stuff was nice, and it was admirable in her, but it got in the way at times. Who in the world had that kind of morals and values at sixteen? Nobody but J.J. Hart.

Always different, that J.J. Couldn’t count on her to do anything by the damned book, not even the low-life stuff. Even when she did the expected, she’d throw an unexpected monkey wrench in, just to make her trail more difficult to follow.

Maybe they’d go out to the point. It was nice out there, and it was a place she loved. Maybe she’d take him to see her father’s boat. It seemed like somewhere she would take a boy she liked and wanted to alone be with.

        Be alone with. Be with.

        J.J.

In what way? J.J. was still a virgin, wasn’t she? She was too young to be anything else, wasn’t she?

No she wasn’t too young. She was sixteen now. He had been with girls that young. Hell, younger. Maybe Teddy had already been there, and that was why she liked him so much.

But she wouldn’t let him do anything like that to her, would she? She hadn’t known Teddy that long. She hadn’t known him long enough to let him screw her, had she?

Nahhh. She might kiss him, but she wouldn’t let him do it to her.

Would she?

She’d better not. Teddy had better not touch her. If he so much as lay one finger on her. She wasn’t that kind of girl. She wasn’t the kind that just anybody should be doing. If he found out that Teddy had done it with her…

He had seen Teddy holding her hand. That had better be as far as that had gone.

Why did she have to be so difficult to figure out? Why couldn’t she just be the little girl she was, and just go along and see things his way? It would be so much easier. If she would, his heart could stop hurting and he could get on with his life. She was damned stubborn. As long as she resisted him, he would have to keep trying. He didn’t want to; he couldn’t help trying. Nothing else mattered except getting her to be with him.

He leaned over and ran his hand down his leg and felt the gun in the pocket.

If he couldn’t get her to see things his way….

There was time. Taking his hand from the gun, he reclined the seat and lay his head back. His eyes were still closed, but he knew that sleep wasn’t going to come. It didn’t come very much at all lately. When it did, he would wake feeling as if he’d slept for days only to find out it hadn’t even been a full hour. The dreams he could recall would be all garbled and frightening. They didn’t make sense, but they upset him. Almost always, he woke from them disoriented, bathed in a pool of sweat with his heart racing like crazy.

He really needed to quit, but he couldn’t. It hurt too bad, he felt too bad when he tried.

Dinner would be over soon. The dance would start. He could get out of the car and look through the reflective ballroom windows without being seen by the people inside. He would be able to see her- them- and where she was.

And then, if J.J. and Teddy did happen to skip out, it would be dark, and he would be able to open his eyes. He would be able to easily see them and see where they were going.

But it would be so much better if he could catch J.J. out there, walking, on her own…

A wave of crippling nausea washed over him. He hadn’t really eaten, so that made it worse.

“Must be nerves.” He lied to himself.

That antsy feeling was creeping up on him and the Cadillac’s interior began slowly closing in.

Disabling the overhead light, he opened the door in an effort to get more air and to give himself a bit more room. Then, not wanting the open door to draw any undue attention, he got out all the way, closed it and sat down on the ground leaning with his back against the car.

Down there, close to the ground; he was smaller. Nobody would see him. Soon it would be dark and he could move from there. He wouldn’t be seen in the dark.

Lately, it seemed to him like he was being watched by unseen eyes all the time, even when he was sure that he was all alone.

________________________________________________________________

Magic,

It must be magic

The way I hold you, and the night just seems to fly.

Easy

For you to take me to the stars.

Heaven is that moment when I look into your eyes.

And oh, I just fall in love again,

Just one touch and then it happens every time.

And there I go

I just fall in love again

And when I do,

Can’t help myself,

I fall in love with you….

Lyrics from “I Just Fall in Love Again”,“Yesterday Once More, The Carpenters Greatest Hits 1969-1983”

“J., is your mother singing to your father?” J.J. heard Teddy ask as they danced together.

She had gone so deeply into the live music, singing in her own head the words of that song with which she was so familiar, that she almost hadn’t heard him. Opening her eyes to peek over his shoulder, indeed she could see her parents. They were dancing. While her father held her mother close to him, he was smiling and she did appear to be singing, or at least, saying something in his ear. By the twinkle in his eyes, she could tell that whatever Jennifer Hart was doing, it was something that Jonathan Hart was enjoying having done.

“Probably.” She answered. “They’re embarrassingly romantic. She loves the Carpenters, and that’s one of the songs she really likes. It was probably a special request of the musicians from her. My parents do stuff like that all the time. Their wedding song was a Carpenters’ cut. They were before our time, but I love their music, too. Don’t tell anybody I said that.”

Teddy smiled. She saw it when he did, and the butterflies in her stomach responded in a crescendo of madly fluttering wings which caused her to pull back from him just a little.

“What’s wrong, J.?” He asked at the sudden movement on her part.

“Nothing.” She answered. “It’s just me.”

He eased her back in close, like she had been. “I like having you nearer to me. You don’t have to be scared. I told you, I won’t hurt you. You’re a very good dancer, and so am I.”

“That’s why I backed up.” She said. “We’re too good together.”

Gently squeezing the hand he was holding, he said, “J.J., stop worrying. I’m not here to press you for anything heavy. Let’s just have fun tonight and enjoy each other’s company like we did last night. You don’t ever have to be nervous with me.”

“All right.” She sighed, relaxing once again in his arms, hoping that she wasn’t letting her guard down too much or that she wasn’t sending out any of those signals she didn’t intend to send.

The musicians had just finished the first set, and J.J. and Teddy, who had danced most of the tunes together, returned to the table with the others to rest. After sitting out a slower recorded selection in between, an exchange of partners ensued when a faster cut was played. Tiffany coaxed Ollie into returning to the dance floor with Brittany, and Teddy went to dance with Tiffany. Chase had come and gotten Chance for something. They had both left the ballroom, and neither of them had returned. That left Marnie and J.J. alone at the table.

“Sorry I said that to you earlier about letting Issy punk you.” Marnie apologized as soon as everyone was gone. “I should have known that you had it covered.”

“Yes.” J.J. nodded. “You should have. She thought she had gotten away with it when she pushed my ‘b’ button last week. She just got a somewhat delayed reaction.”

Although Marnie had been walking ahead of her at the time, and couldn’t possibly have seen what she had done to send Issy into the pool, J.J. didn’t even try to deny her culpability. They were best friends and knew each other very well. Marnie didn’t have to be given the details. She already knew.

“Issy should have been watching her back.” Marnie snickered, “She had to know that you weren’t going to let her get away with calling you that, AND with trying to flirt with Teddy to boot. She’s lucky you didn’t do more. That’s twice you kicked her ass without getting physical. You are getting to have so much class, J. One day you’ll be a Duchess, too, if you aren’t careful. Good looking out.”

“Thank you.” J.J. proudly smirked in return. “Been taking lessons from the master.”

Gesturing to the dance floor, Marnie asked, “So what do you think about Tiff and Ollie? Isn’t that something?”

“I think it’s really nice.” J.J. answered. “Who knew he could look that good? Clothes really do make the man. I hadn’t ever noticed what nice eyes he had as long as he was wearing those dorky glasses. Good move on your part to suggest contacts, Marn.”

“Thanks, J. I’ve always liked Ollie. He’s quiet, but he really is good people. Tiffany had her eye on Wesley, but I told her a long time ago that Ollie was the one she should have been aiming for. People tend to not notice Ollie because he doesn’t say much and he dressed like a geek. After Wes turned out to be such a jackass, Tiff started paying attention to how nice Ollie actually is.

She said that they ran into each other a couple of times downtown earlier this summer while we were gone out of town, and they started to talk. At first, she said, he was so shy that she almost thought he wasn’t worth the effort. But after the fight, after he kicked the shit out of Wesley, we saw him in a new light; I, personally, didn’t know he had it in him. I called him up the next day to tell him that, and we ended up talking. He told me that he’s kind of liked Tiff for a while, and wanted to know if I could hook him up. I told him he was overdue for a Marnie Elaine makeover. I thought it might get him in better with Tiff- you know, build up his confidence. I mean, how much of it could he have had, dressing like his father? He went for it. My plan seems to have worked.”

“That definitely had to have helped his case.” J.J. nodded. “It couldn’t have hurt. He is really nice, but I never would have figured those two for hooking up. I thought I saw her giving him a look when we were at the DQ last week when Wes and Ollie pulled up behind us and blocked us in. I think she might have had her sights set on him even before the makeover. When you think about it, though, they’re probably pretty well suited for each other. She can bring him out, and he maybe can calm her down some. I don’t know how Ollie’s going to handle one of her sneak parties when it jumps off, though. He’s pretty straight-laced.”

Marnie turned around to watch the dancers on the ballroom floor.

“They’ll meet in the middle somewhere.” She said. “You know, J.J., that Teddy can really dance, too. He’s almost as good as your boy, Tommy- almost.”

“Yes, he is a very good dancer.” J.J. answered, praying that Marnie wasn’t getting started.

When Marnie turned back around to face her and leaned forward on her elbows, J.J. realized that her prayer must not have gotten to its destination in time.

“Come off it, J.J. Hart, you know you wanted to die. I saw you with him on the first slow tune. Your eyes were all rolled up in your head. You know you were in heaven, dancing in that fine, sexy boy’s arms. You always try to play it like nobody gets you hot, but I know Teddy Baxter bakes your muffins. How can he not, as cute as he is? And as nice?”

She reached out and poked J.J. in the arm with her index finger. ” Don’t even try it. I’m your girl; I know you better than anybody, so you might as well tell me the truth.”

J.J., determined to keep her dignity despite her friend’s dead-on insinuations, quietly replied, “He dances very well and he smells really good.” That was as much as she intended to give up.

She had no intention of addressing the Tommy comment at all.

“Oh, the hell with how he dances and how he smells. J! You know damned well that’s not what I really want to know. What did he feel like up close and personal?”

Faking a shocked gasp, J.J covered her mouth, “You brazen hussy! I know how you are, but I know that you are not asking me if I- ”

Marnie leaned in closer to whisper, “With you as close to him as you were to him in that little slinky-fabric outfit you have on, you know you made him go there. All those jungle colors making you look all exotic and everything. I know you had to feel it when he did, so just go ahead and tell me. I’ve already checked out his hands and his feet- decent size- so that’s got to be impressive, too. On a scale of six to twelve, J.? How long would you say it-”

Two slim hands suddenly slid in and rested themselves on Marnie’s shoulders where they began to perform an almost uncomfortable massage.

“Good evening, Miss Benson. Long time, no see. I’ve missed you.”

At the unexpected touch, Marnie’s body immediately stiffened with surprise; at the sound of that voice, she froze completely. The large diamond ring on the left hand, sparkling next to her left eye, announced the arrival of, then positively identified its owner. As she cringed, her neck retracting down between her shoulder blades, the two hands became one arm that cozily snaked itself around her shoulders as Jennifer Hart gracefully eased into the empty chair next to her.

“So, you’ve moved to your father’s, and put us down?” The woman asked, leaning casually in and over her, leaving that one arm resting on the back of her chair.

“Um, no.” Marnie answered, not daring to meet the challenge in those eyes.

“Your mother tells me that you haven’t been down to see her either.”

“Um, no, I guess I haven’t. I guess I just haven’t had time.”

“Haven’t had time? We’ve been back from Maryland for nearly two weeks. You mean to tell me that in all that time, you haven’t come see either of us? I might understand your not coming to see me. After all we’ve spent quite a bit of time together this summer. But your own mother?”

Marnie fidgeted uncomfortably under that arm and that unrelentingly steady gaze.

“You know how it is with us, Mrs. Hart. We always end up getting  into it when we see each other. Even on the phone we get into it. You know how it is.”

“I do know how you are. I watched you earlier at the table, when you couldn’t even speak to me because you were too busy performing for her and her friend. Maureen also told me that once the two of you were in the powder room alone, you continued that little ugly scene you started with her at the table. You were quite rude, you know. Haven’t we talked about your staying in a child’s place before, and respecting your mother because she is your mother?”

“But what about how she doesn’t act like the moth-”

The look Marnie got stopped her attempt at rebuttal. Instead she shifted into, “That’s a very lovely dress you’re wearing, Mrs. Hart. House of Nadine? It looks real good on you.”

“Thank you, Marnie. It is a Nadine original. Now, since you have such good taste, perhaps you can help me. Would you deem this dress suitable for, say… a duchess?”

Marnie ducked her head even further. J.J., seated on her other side, grimaced, shuddered slightly, and looked away.

Jennifer continued, speaking in the same conversationally congenial tone.

“That’s a cute number you’re wearing yourself. It matches your face right now- and your new car- perfectly. When are you going to take me for a ride in that little red BMW convertible of yours? It’s an awfully sharp vehicle. When I was in New York recently, I happened to see the picture you sent to Pat. You didn’t send me a picture of it. Why is that, Marnie? I feel so slighted.”

At that point, J.J. stood up. “You know,” she said. “I think I’ll just go and let you two handle your business.”

Jennifer looked up at her, winked, and nodded while continuing to hover over Marnie. “Yes, you do that, sweetie. The two of us will be just fine right here.”

Winding her way through the tables and the people seated or standing on the sidelines of the ballroom floor, J.J. headed for the lobby. Marnie was obviously going to be hemmed up for a few minutes, and the others were dancing and enjoying themselves. She figured it was probably a very good time to go outside, get some night air, and to think. Approaching the front doors, she could see Chance and Chase standing together on the walkway. Desirous of being by herself, she decided to go out of the side door that led to the more isolated side garden.

Hiding in the bushes, he could see the twins standing on the sidewalk leading up to the clubhouse. Why didn’t they go back inside? As long as they were out there, he had to stay put. He couldn’t even go back to the car.

First Issy and a couple of other girls had come out. That was right before dinner. Issy had been wrapped in a blanket or maybe a large towel, and her hair was flat to her head and hanging, like it was wet. From the distance he was from them, it appeared that she had been crying or was maybe very angry. He could only imagine what could have happened to her.

It still embarrassed him to think about what he had done with her. Not only had he called out another girl’s name, it was J.J.’s name that he had called, and now Issy knew his mind. He hated that. He hated that he had done that. He didn’t like thinking about J.J. like that. Until that moment, at least, he hadn’t thought that he did. And Issy wasn’t the most discreet person. There was no telling who else she had told about it.

She and those girls had gotten into a car and left. He figured he must have nodded off for a bit down there on the ground next to the car. Watching the girls leave, dusk had been just falling. The next thing he knew; it was night, and he didn’t remember that having happened. He had since seen those first two girls return, but Issy had not. He had been on his way to look through the ballroom windows when he had been relegated to those bushes by Chase Barnett exiting the building with another man, a man older than Chase, but not an old man by any means. They had talked for a moment, and then the man had gone back in, leaving Chase there by himself.

Chase Barnett wasn’t one to be discounted. He was in J.J. and Teddy’s league; a relative loner and a watcher. Part of the big picture, but moving independently of the larger group. He came off as being so easy-going and carefree, when all the while, he was noticing everything that went on around him. Chase, like Jonathan Hart, made him edgy but angered him just the same. They were unpredictable, and they were in the way. Out there alone, Chase had been a straight shot, an easy mark. He would never have known what hit him. But he was standing in front of the club. People were still coming and going. The location and the timing were all wrong.

His head was pounding again. It was a good thing that he hadn’t left home empty handed. It wouldn’t be necessary to go all the way back there to refuel. What the hell, he couldn’t move anyway as long as the twins were out there. It would make the waiting easier.

“Jonathan, do you mind if I dance with your lady?”

“If the lady doesn’t mind,” Jonathan turned and warmly smiled at his wife who had only a few moments before rejoined him at their table. “She’s my wife, but it’s her call.”

“Well?” Teddy extended his hand to Jennifer.

“I’d be delighted.” She said as she took it.

The two of them left the table.

For Jonathan, it was an opportune moment.

“Please excuse me.” He said to the others at the table as he got up. “I just need to check on something.”

He was in the lobby before he realized that the look on Dina Magyar’s face had been one of disappointment. But he wasn’t sure- and it occurred to him that he didn’t really care- why she might have been. He had more pressing matters to which he needed to attend.

________________________________________________________________

“If you were mine, Edwards.” Teddy smiled down at his dance partner. “I wouldn’t let you out of my eyesight, much less let you go off dancing with an old reprobate like me.”

“That’s why we never could have gotten together, Bear.” Jennifer replied as she followed her able partner’s smooth moves on the dance floor. “You know I never could stand to be held too tightly by a man.”

He laughed. “Nobody’s called me that name in years, and no, you never could stand to have anybody breathing down your neck. At least not until Jonathan came along, and I’m guessing he knows the right way to do it.”

“Oh, yes.” She readily answered. “He certainly does.”

“I can’t get over you, girl. I may not see you for years, but every time I do; you’ve just gotten better. What kind of miracle drug are you taking?”

“You’re no slouch, yourself, Mr. Baxter. But thank you for the nice compliment. No miracles here. No drugs, probably just a good gene pool. I come from a line of women who age well, and then I still work very hard at staying fit. I’m always busy with my work, and my daughter keeps me running.”

“Still dancing? The effects of all those years I know you put in are still evident.”

“More like still going through the motions these days. But then, I can’t discount the benefit of being in love with the right man for years either. That keeps me feeling good even when I’m not so sure that I’m looking that way.”

“Feeling good  must be the answer then, Edwards. I’ve never seen you looking bad. Nobody else in this room could pull off wearing that dress so well, not even some of these young girls.”

Then he laughed, “You know, I can still see you, your hair all cut off in that flipped page-boy cut you had me sneak you off campus to get, that uniform, those bobby socks and penny loafers; the absolute picture of prep school perfection, leaned up against the back of that stable, sneaking that cigarette and blowing those perfect donut rings you could blow. Aside from the hair, that girl of yours looks just like that mental picture I have of you at that age. She smoke, too?”

“I have my suspicions. There is absolutely no telling with that child. More than likely, she’s at least tried it. If a thing is in any way connected to some vice…” Recalling J.J.’s face as she adamantly delivered her advice about handling Georgette, she had to stop and snicker, “My daughter is something else at times.”

“Like mother, like daughter. You were something else, yourself, Jennifer Edwards Hart. I can still see your old man that time he traveled all the way from London to come after me about being in that loft with Pat. We didn’t even get to really do anything before you set the stable on fire. I thought Edwards was going to shoot me. You would have thought Pat was you.”

“Same difference. And you thought he was going to shoot you? How do you think I felt? I was his kid, and he had license to do that to me. It was all yours and Pat’s fault anyway. I was just standing there, enjoying my last lovely cig, thinking about how I was going to get another pack, trying to relieve some tension before typing the final copy of my research paper, and you two come along needing a lookout so you could go make out in the loft. Both of you should have been somewhere writing your own papers. We all had finals due. My God, if I had a dollar for every time I got caught up in things with the two of you.”

“I missed the boat on that one, for sure.” He said wistfully. “Pat was my girl, the one that got away from me.”

When Jennifer didn’t respond, he looked down into her face.

“I understand she’s getting married to Jonathan’s friend, the guy she was at the reunion with.”

Jennifer nodded.

“She happy with him, Jen?”

“Very, Teddy. She loves him. He loves her. It’s right between them.”

Teddy sighed. “It must be. She would never have said yes to him if it weren’t. And you never were one to lie. Who would know more about it than you? I’m happy for her, even if I am a little sad for me. I’d always hoped that maybe one day…”

“What about Dina?”

“Just friends, I’m afraid. I’ve always had a weakness for actresses or women somehow related to the fine arts and literature. Maybe it’s my theatre roots, I don’t know. My first wife, as you know, was in theatre. Her career didn’t work out, and neither did we. I met my second wife at a book signing. That didn’t work out either. I think Dina’s also panning out to not be for me. I came here to LA mostly to handle some business I had with her, and then of course, for Teddy. Dina’s a major stock holder in one of my investment interests. We wound up getting personally involved as a result of that. But lately, I’m beginning to think that  Dina wants more than I’m willing to give. Also, she has no understanding of or patience for the part of me that is a father. Since I’m no longer married, my kids come first in my life, and I don’t think she cares too much for that notion. I have worked hard at letting my kids know that they can come to their old man, and nobody gets in the way of that.”

“Have you told Dina that? Sometimes, Teddy, when people don’t have children of their own, when they haven’t had any real experience with children on a personal level; they can’t empathize with that perspective. The two of you might benefit from having that explained to her. I noticed that she seemed a little curt when you were introducing her to your son, and I’m sure he felt it. Maybe she’s just uncomfortable around children. She probably doesn’t even realize how cool she was coming off. Perhaps if you sat down with her and gently told her.”

“I don’t think I care enough, Jen. It’s not that important to me. Dina’s used to having things her way, and I believe that’s how she likes it. Besides, she’s shown me some things about herself in this short span of time that I’ve spent with her that are a little- I guess, disturbing to me. I think I’m just going to quietly move on. Listen, I understand that you and Jonathan do a little community theatre here in Los Angeles.”

“Occasionally.” She said. “Jonathan a lot less than me. He hates being out in front like that. He’d prefers to just send a check, sit out in the audience, and support me and my efforts from there. Every now and then, I can get him to actually play a small part.”

“What about J.J.?”

“No way. She’s worse than her father about that. J.J. is strictly technical support- definitely behind the scenes. At her school, she’ll gladly work on sound and lighting issues for the drama department’s productions, but unless it’s a concert for one of her musical groups, you won’t find her on a stage.”

“Concerts? Does she sing? Does she have a voice like yours? I don’t know why you didn’t pursue that.”

“I wasn’t interested. I only do it in private now, for certain people.”

“I saw you.” Teddy smiled. “Does he know how fortunate he is?”

“I don’t know, but feel free to tell him that when you see him again.” She laughed.

“Tell me about your J.J. The singing. The music.”

“Well, she does have a voice, but she’s sings pretty much for herself, mostly to accompany her music. She plays piano and keyboard, but she loves all music. I originally signed for her to be in Orchestra. When she started taking over, changing the maestro’s arrangements, upping his tempos, and doing other little things to try to make things go the way she thought they should, the music Department Head called me and informed me that my child was better suited to the jazz band and that he was switching her to keep the maestro from quitting. She’s now the lead pianist for the A jazz band.”

“So she’s good?”

“She enjoys it. I think that’s what makes her good at it. She’s good with anything that has to do with sound. And electronics. On our last community theatre project, she helped out with some of the special effects for the sets. She has her father’s technological savvy, and also like her father; she prefers to keep a low profile. Unless, of course, it’s a party. That’s an altogether different story. At a party, you might find her shaking it anywhere.”

“With that face and that last name, keeping a low profile isn’t going to be very easy for her. The spotlight is going to be on her once it finds her. You still writing plays, Edwards? You used to be so good. Remember The Ladies of White Chapel? That was so much fun. A lady Jack the Ripper. Only you would have come up with that angle.”

“That was fun.” She recalled. “I hadn’t thought about that in ages. No, I don’t do much of that kind of writing on my own any more, but I have assisted some other writers with their work. I do more with non-fiction, although right now Pat and I are collaborating on a series of fiction stories that we’re revising and editing for someone very dear to me. When I think back on it, you were very good in our high school productions. You were very convincing in the role of the inspector in The Ladies. That semester I spent at NYU working on Ladies was one of my best college memories. It put me back in touch with you for a while. You were so deeply into theatre in college, I thought perhaps you would have pursued an acting career afterward. You loved it so much.”

Teddy sighed, “I had obligations. I was the oldest, and my father was depending upon me to continue his work with the business, so that’s what I did.”

“Will Teddy, Jr. continue for you in the family business?”

“I doubt it. I thought for a while that he would. Like all my kids, he has a head for figures, but he has an even greater love for writing and performing. He’s very talented in both areas, sometimes a bit too talented. That’s why he ended up in summer school: performing when he shouldn’t have been. But, still, I’d like to see him pursue that, if that’s what he chooses to do. He has quite a voice, Jen. He can sing- no brag, just fact- he is very good. He surprised even me the last time that I attended a Brookfield production.”

“So could you, Bear, if my memory serves me correctly, and it usually does. You had a lot of talent in that area. I think the performing arts world missed out, but from what I can see and hear, the financial world got a pretty talented guy, too. You’ve taken your father’s accounting practice to places he probably never dreamed it would go.”

“I did my best, Jen.” He said, his appreciation of her compliment showing in his smile. “My oldest, girl, Valerie will probably wind up taking over the business. She’s earned her MBA and she’s on Wall Street, working for the firm now. She’s also Teddy’s biggest ally and supporter. It does my heart good that my oldest and youngest are so close. They’re only half-siblings, but she’s always kept up with him just the same. The two of them look more like me, and love each other so much that the half thing is non-existent. Nobody would know unless they were told. That’s one thing I can take pride in having done right. Despite the fact that they’re from two marriages, my kids all get along as if they were reared in the same house all their lives, especially those two I just mentioned. Being younger, even though she’s not with him as much as I am, Valerie’s more up on Teddy, Jr. and what he’s into than I am sometimes. He told her about J.J., and can you believe, she called me, grilling me about her. Speaking of J.J., what about her? I understand that she’s extremely bright. Does she write like you? Or will she be carrying on for her father?”

Jennifer smiled. “I really don’t know. We don’t push her in any one direction. She has such a wide range of interests, and there are so many things from which she could choose. We just want her to be happy.”

“Who would have thought? Your kid and mine. Jen, are you okay with this thing with her and Teddy? I don’t want him imposing.”

“Bear, J.J. does her own choosing. That’s the kind of person she is. So far, I haven’t had to get too involved in that aspect of it with her. She’s fairly responsible about that part of her life and she usually makes good choices. She comes to me when she’s unsure or has questions, and I’m happy for that. Your Teddy is the only choice she’s really made, and I have to say, I think she did pretty well. To answer you, he’s not imposing, not on her, not on us. She’s always been such a tomboy; I’m almost glad to see her doing something typically expected of a girl for once.”

He skeptically looked to her. “The only choice? You’re kidding. A girl that pretty? I should think they’d be coming out of the woodworks.”

“I said that he’s the only choice she’s made. I didn’t say that they weren’t hanging around. She has plenty of male friends. J.J. is the kind of girl that boys like to be around. She’s into sports, she’s very physical, very outgoing; she loves adventure and things like that. Boys have always liked her, and she’s always liked being in their company, but Teddy is the first to whom she’s taken a personal liking. So far, she seems to be taking her time. It says a lot about him to me that she likes him. Jonathan likes him, too, and that says even more. Teddy seems like a fine boy. What happened to your running for political office? You said that you were thinking about it when I saw you at the reunion.”

“I decided to put if off. I need to keep my eye on that fine boy you just mentioned. He needs a full time dad, at least unless until he graduates next year. Maybe then I’ll consider it again after that.”

They continued to dance in contented silence until the end of the song.  As they slowly walked from the dance floor, Teddy took those last few moments of their private time together to remark, “Jonathan’s a lucky man, Edwards, and he’s a pretty smart guy. When he met the right one, he knew it, and he knew what to do to hold on to that right one once he found her.”

“Actually,” She answered. “I’m the lucky one, Bear. Somehow, in my life, I’ve always managed to run into the right people at just the right times. They were people who entered my life at the times when I needed them most, and they made whatever was going on at the time better. I’ve learned and am still learning from what they leave and have left with me. Some of those people, I may not see all the time any more, but when I do, it’s as if we were never apart.”

Then she took his hand. “She’s still out there, Teddy. Don’t you worry, you’ll find her.”

“If she is.” He said, lacing his fingers in hers. “She’ll have to find me because I’m done looking. I’m just going to kick back and have a good time from here on out. For how ever many days I have left, I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may. And if it happens that they don’t ever fall, I will still have my children and my good friends.”

He escorted her back to her seat. A couple of the chairs at the table were empty, including Jonathan’s, but Dina was still there, and she had a sour look on her face. He had originally wanted to talk with Jennifer about the situation with Wesley, but the time hadn’t seemed right out on the dance floor. The topic was unpleasant, and the conversation had been in direct contrast to that. Jennifer’s presence tended to evoke the positive. With the others within hearing, it really wasn’t the right time to speak with Jennifer about his concerns over Wesley and Teddy. And with Dina sitting there looking the way that she was looking, he was sure that they weren’t destined for much more than saying good night when the evening was over. He was almost grateful for it.

With most everyone in the ballroom at the dance or out socializing on the patio, J.J. was pretty much alone in the side garden. It was a smaller, more contained area of the Country Club grounds, and it had always been one of her favorite places. Frequently, being out there evoked within her that very early, warmly fond memory.

She had been little, maybe three or so. Against her will, she had been left in the play nursery by her mother, who after shutting down the temper tantrum she had been working up on before she could even get it started, admonished her to “Be a good girl, or else” until she came back for her.

Just as soon as she could, she had slipped away from her caretakers and escaped the nursery. It was one of the first times that she could remember having been totally on her own. She could still recall that exhilarating feeling of freedom and independence. She had wandered about the country club’s main building, looking and exploring, hiding out when she saw an adult who might think her out of place and tell on her, and then once the person was gone, continuing on her adventure. Finally making her way to a door and then outside, she found herself in that same garden.

Being so small at the time, the shrubbery lining the walkways was way over her head. It was like a maze out there to her, and she soon found herself hopelessly lost. She could see the building looming in the distance, but she couldn’t find her way back to it. Determined that she wasn’t going to be scared or cry, she continued to walk until she was so tired that her eyes began to droop. Doggedly pushing on, moving even though her eyes were just about closed and her little legs were like rubber, she ran smack into someone’s else’s legs, bouncing off of them, falling backward onto the ground.

Stunned for a moment, she could hear a familiar lady’s voice. “I do not believe this!” And she felt two familiar strong arms gather her up and lift her into an embrace.

She had run into her own parents, clinched up on the far end of that garden. Even being that little, she knew they had been out there sharing a kiss.

Her mother had been shocked and upset.

“J.J., how on earth did you get all the way out here?”

“I walked.”

“All by yourself?”

“Yep. All by myself.  See, I told you I’m big.”

“Why aren’t you in the nursery where I left you?”

“I ranned away from them. I told you, I didn’ want to be there with those babies.”

“And I told you that you don’t tell me, little girl. You’re just a baby yourself.”

“No, I’m not.”

“What did Mommy tell you to do before she left?”

“To be good, or else. But I wasn’ bad.”

“J.J., you ran away! They’re probably looking everywhere for you. You didn’t stay where Mommy told you to stay. How can you say that you weren’t bad?”

“You said be good in the nursery. I wasn’ bad in the nursery ’cause I wasn’ in the nursery.”

Her mother huffed and rolled her eyes. Her daddy had laughed his big laugh, the corners of his blue eyes crinkling in that way that she loved. He had hugged her so tightly to him that day that she thought she could still feel it.

Then he had broken it down for his wife.

“She wasn’t bad in the nursery ’cause she wasn’t in the nursery. She ranned away to find her Daddy.” At which point Jennifer Hart folded her arms and turned her back on both of them.

Laughing to herself, she could recall kissing and hugging her father and then being so tired and sleepy in his arms. In her mind she could smell the aftershave he used on his neck as he carried her back to the building to report her whereabouts to the frantic nursery attendants.

All the way back, Jennifer Hart had fussed and called them both incorrigible. Then she had gone into one of her speeches about him spoiling and “nurturing the wandering little rogue” in their “hard-headed, naughty daughter”.

But nobody was paying her any attention. There had been no more nursery that day. Daddy said so. Daddy was the man.

He had always been. He wasn’t always as easy as her mother made him out to be, but he had always understood his daughter’s need to be who and what she was. Her mother had come to that understanding, too, but it had just taken her a little longer. And Jennifer Hart had never been easy.

Walking slowly, her arms crossed over her chest, hugging herself, J.J. smiled as she recalled the nerve she’d had at that point in her life with her mother. She had gotten away with running off that time, but it hadn’t worked like that since that day. Being absent without leave was the highest form of sacrilege on the Jennifer Hart list of sins, sure to result in the most severe penalties. The woman had a serious hang-up about that sort of thing.

But just the same, the urge to be free was growing stronger with each passing day. She loved her life. She loved her parents, but lately it seemed the shackles of childhood were holding her more tightly than ever. The reasons for checking in and verifying her whereabouts were crystal clear to her, but still it chafed at her to have to do it. Sometimes, she left home with her friends with no real clue about where she was going to end up, and it was nerve wrecking to not be able to make a move while out without phoning in to report where she was going. But, if something happened, and she hadn’t said that she was moving; there would be hell to pay when she got caught being out of place. When she did operate in that manner, as she was more often doing, there was always that nagging thought that something could go wrong. It would hang over her head like some small dark storm cloud the entire time.

It was good to have conscientious parents, but it was also a bit confining.

She wanted to be alone with Teddy, just for a little while, just to see what it felt like. They had been alone before, but not really.

When they first met at Gresham Hall, they had been by themselves in her room a couple of times, but they hadn’t known each other very well then, and the situation had been too precarious to really be able to enjoy. The other times that they were together at the reunion, there had always been either someone else present, or they had been in some public area.

In Maryland, when he tracked her down at the hospital, there was always her private nurse, Jazz, or the threat of Jazz’s presence, hovering in the background. The entire time that Teddy had been there in LA, there had always been someone else around; her parents, her friends, security, other people, but always someone. Aside from traveling together alone in the car, they had mostly been together in public places. Her mother said that was the best thing to do when she was with a boy to whom she was attracted. But for once, she wanted to know how it felt to be in a private place with a boy- with Teddy- and not be in a rush to get out of it. The feelings she had experienced when dancing with him had made her nervous, but it had been a good nervous, a kind of let’s-see-where-this-goes nervous. He was so handsome and so much fun. So interesting and charming. Strong and yes, like Marnie said, sexy… and hot….

She thought she heard the bushes ahead of her rustle, and the sound stopped her in her tracks. They were the thickest brace of taller shrubs behind a short concrete border that faced out to the parking lot, designed to keep people in the lot from seeing into the garden that was supposed to be more private. They appeared to be slightly trembling, which was odd since there was no real wind. Bushes didn’t move on their own.

It could have been some sort of animal, a squirrel maybe, but she doubted it. There was too much movement for it to be something that small. Internal alarms were going off in her brain and the nerve endings rippled beneath the surface of her skin. Something wasn’t right, and she was acutely aware of being out there all alone. It was night, but it wasn’t absolutely dark in the garden. The lighting out there  had been designed to foster a more romantic, isolating mood, which went counter to what she needed to feel at that moment.

Instinctively rising to her toes, making ready to step out of her sandals and run, all the bells and whistles sounding in her head; she began backing off from that threatening greenery. Then, with an overwhelmingly disturbing certainty, she sensed the presence of someone behind her.

Before she could decide what to do, a pair of hands wrapped themselves around her upper arms.

________________________________________________________________

Jonathan found the twins out front.

“What’s going on?” He asked as he approached them. “Problem?”

Chase shook his head. “I’m not sure. I just have this feeling I can’t shake. I was out here earlier with some girls, and I saw Mr. and Mrs. Singleton leave right after dinner. But I could swear that’s Mrs. Singleton’s Cadillac way over there. See?” He tipped his head to indicate the direction in which he had seen the car. “I’ve been trying not look too hard in case it’s Wes trying to throw us off by coming here in his mother’s car. If it is, and he’s in there, I don’t want him to know that we’re on to him.”

“I saw that car, too.” Jonathan said, purposefully not looking in the direction Chase had surreptitiously indicated. “I was here when the Singletons arrived. They came together in his car, not hers. When we came back out here to wait for you guys to get here after we called all of you, that’s when I first noticed it. I wasn’t sure that it was hers, and like you, I didn’t want to go over there and check it out and tip my hand.”

“Mrs. Singleton was kind of upset during dinner.” Chance said. “I noticed it when I got up to go to the bathroom. I had to pass their table, Mrs. Singleton was all red, and Mr. Singleton was sort of fussing at her about making a scene. Like you said, they left right after dinner. It has to be Wes in that car, Mr. Hart. Why else would it be here?”

“Well, we’re not sure it’s hers, and even if it is, I’m not too worried.” Jonathan sighed, garnering confused looks from the twins.

“How come?” Chase ventured. “If he’s here, he’s probably here to stalk J. You know we aren’t dealing with that, Mr. Hart. I’m sick of him and his stuff. J. keeps her business on the low, but we know what’s been going on.”

“That isn’t healthy, Mr. Hart.” said Chance. “And he isn’t either.”

“Come on in, guys.” Jonathan said, placing his hands on the boys’ backs to guide them. “Let’s see what’s going on inside.”

Walking behind the two young men, Jonathan looked over his shoulder one more time, wondering if he should have let J.J. in on everything after all.

“I wonder where J. and Marnie went.” Teddy was saying as he escorted Brittany back to the table where the two girls had been sitting, but was empty as they approached it.

“They’re both gone.” Ollie observed. “Maybe they went to the bathroom. You know how girls can’t ever seem to do that alone.”

“Forget you.” Tiffany said. “I’m not supposed to divulge the secret, but the real reason we go together is so we can talk about you guys.”

“I had that much figured out.” Ollie smiled.

They had been seated only a few seconds when Teddy stood back up.

Tiffany looked up at him. “Where are you going?”

“I’m just going to stand in the lobby to see if I see them coming back. Maybe J.J. and I will go for a walk or something.”

“Or something.” Brittany insinuated.

Ollie had been watching him, and had picked up on his line of thought, but before he could get up to join Teddy, Marnie came back to the table from the other side of the ballroom.

Teddy, a bit surprised to see her, having convinced himself that she and J.J. were together, asked, “Where’s J.?”

“I don’t know.” Marnie answered. “Isn’t she back?”

Back from where?” Teddy asked.

“I don’t really know.” Marnie answered. “Mrs. H. came over here and jammed me up about being rude to my mother and her little date. By the way, she knows about my car, and now my mother knows, too; but that’s another argument for another day.”

“What about J.J.?” Teddy pressed.

“I don’t know.” Marnie replied. “She got up as soon as her mother mentioned about the car, saying that she was giving us some space, but I know she was just getting her own ass out of Dodge before her mother could go there with her, too. I may not know where J. is right now, but I do know one thing; she’s got it coming for leaving me hanging like that.

You know, I think she knew all the time that her mother was on to me about the car, but she just didn’t say anything to me about. If it turns out that she did, she’s really got one coming. Anyway, afterward, when Mrs. H. was through with me, she made me go over and apologize to my mother while she went off dancing with your father. By the way, Teddy, I wasn’t checking him out or anything, but for an older guy your father is way fine- but I digress. That’s where I was just coming from just now: lying to my mother, making out like I was sorry. I thought J. would be back by now, and I could be cursing her out. Maybe she’s in the powder room, or she’s out in the hall talking or something. Why? What’s up?”

Without another word, Ollie got up and followed Teddy who had already started from the ballroom, leaving the girls staring in question behind them.

Backing into a body a lot larger than her own, J.J.’s reflex reaction was to struggle to get away from it and to try to pull her arms free from the grasp that held her there.

“Hey! Wait, J.J.! Hold on, it’s me.”

At the sound of the voice, J.J. immediately relaxed and allowed herself to be turned around.

“You scared the hell out of me, Russell.” She whispered in relief, forgetting that he was an adult. She leaned her head into his chest, fighting to stave off the panic attack she could feel starting to constrict her chest as it began trying to overtake her. “What are you doing sneaking up on me like that?”

“I’m sorry.” He sincerely apologized, briefly hugging her trembling body to him and then quickly moving her back and away.

His eyes searched her face. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I came out for some air, saw you out here by yourself, and I just wanted to make sure that you were okay. I thought you could hear me walking up behind you.”

“No, I didn’t hear you.” She answered. “I thought I-”

She put her hand to her chest and concentrated on regulating her breathing. To have one of those bad attacks in front of Russell would embarrass her to no end. But the thought of being embarrassed was making it worse.

“Think and relax.” She was desperately telling herself. “Relax.”

The panic episodes still happened on the rare occasion that she was very abruptly startled or upset enough for it to happen, but she was getting better about thinking herself through them before they could become so severe.

As she attempted to gather herself, she briefly checked over her shoulder, back toward those bushes which were now completely still and not nearly as threatening. With Russell there they seemed just bushes, and she felt foolish about letting her imagination run away with her. It wasn’t at all like her to do that. It really wasn’t like her to scare herself.

“You thought what?” Russell asked.

Unable to verbally answer at that moment, she could only shake her head in answer.

“Are you okay, J.? You were looking like you had seen something when you backed into me. That was why I reached for you. I really am sorry about scaring you like that. You’re shaking. Please tell me. Are you okay?”

“Fine.” She managed to gasp.

When it was obvious that he had already noticed her discomfort, and that it was disturbing to him, J.J. gave in to it. Russell knew her, and she decided to trust that he wouldn’t think any less of her if she went ahead and admitted to that weakness.

“I just … get …like this… when… I get startled. It… goes… right away. I… just need a… minute.”

He took her by the arm and led her to one of the stone benches where he had her to sit down while he stood protective watch over her.

“What were you doing out here by yourself, anyway, J.J.?”

“I just wanted… to get… some air, Russell… that’s all… Like you said… you did. I had only… been out here… a few minutes.”

“What spooked you, J.J.? Besides me.”

She looked again at those bushes at the end of the path and then up at him. She really felt silly. Evidently he had seen her looking like she was scared of some shrubbery.

“Nothing, Russell.” She answered, looking to the ground to hide her shame. “I was just thinking about some stuff… and I guess I had zoned out. Then when I backed into you, I wasn’t prepared for it, that’s all.”

When she felt she had her blushing and her breathing under control, she looked back up at him and grinned mischievously.

“So who’s your lady friend, Russell? She’s awfully pretty.”

Russell rolled his eyes at the unexpected change of subject.

“She’s just a friend, J.J. Hart. Her name is Janella Hargroves, and don’t get happy. There is nothing at all between us. She’s just the daughter of somebody I know from business, and she agreed to accompany me tonight so that I wouldn’t be looking so forlorn coming to a dance all by myself.”

“Would her father happen to be J. Thomas Hargroves? Film distributing?”

“Do you know everybody in Los Angeles?”

“I’m Jonathan and Jennifer Hart’s daughter. In that capacity, I have crossed paths with a lot of different people. So, is she nice? Does she stand a ghost of a chance with you?”

“J.J. you are so nosy! I keep telling you, I don’t have time for anybody special in my life right now. As it is, I’m leaving next week to be in Italy for a month, so as you can see, I don’t have time to get involved with anyone right now. I’m on the move all the time, and a special lady would want some of that time set aside for her. I don’t have it to give right now. It just wouldn’t work out.”

“Whatever.” J.J. said with a wave of her hand as, back to normal, she got up from the bench and smoothed her skirt and top. “One day, you’re going to look around, you’re going to be old, and nobody good is going to want you. Then you’ll be wishing you had taken the time.”

“J.J., your father told me that he was well into his thirties when he met your mother. Before that, he had been busy building up his business, he had traveled; he had done all the things he thought wanted to do as a bachelor. And then, when the right girl, your mother, finally did come along, he was ready for her. The time was right. See how good they turned out? How much better could that situation be? And see what a good kid they got out of it? I’m just twenty-eight. I figure I’ve still got a little time and a smidgen of hope left.”

“Maybe a little of each.” She said. “As long as it took them to get me, my folks got lucky with me. They could have gotten anything, a hellion, a handicapped child, maybe even a boy. Then where would they have been? At their age, they wouldn’t have had the energy for that kind of drama. See, I know they’re old, so I try to cut them some slack.”

Russell laughed out loud. “Girl, you are crazy and absolutely irreverent! I’m going to tell your father what you said.”

“No you won’t. And that’s the second time in less than two days that I’ve been called irreverent. There must be some truth in it. And getting back to the subject at hand, there’s reasons why young people have most of the babies.”

“You are so old yourself to be only sixteen, do you know that? You think like an old person.”

Winding her arm around his, J.J. began slowly walking them back toward the building, patting the back of his hand as she spoke.

“Again, I say, Russell Thomas, whatever. I was an old egg, so that’s probably why I think old. Anyway, about my daddy; he just got lucky all the way around, but then  he’s Jonathan Hart. He’s got it like that. Everybody isn’t so fortunate, you know. You might want to start living a little.”

“Look who’s giving me advice. Whatever yourself, J.J. Hart. Now let me ask you. Who’s the fellow you’re with tonight? I haven’t seen him around before. I thought it was you and Chase or you and Tommy.”

“Chase? Tommy? Get real.”

“You were on the bike with Chase last Saturday, looking mighty cozy. And Tommy’s always been your boy.”

“I was just riding with Chase, who’s just a friend, trying out his new bike. And as far as Tommy goes, he is just that- my boy. Besides, he’s gone for a year to Barcelona.”

“So, I’ve heard. Well, that clears the way for the new guy I guess.”

“Clears the way? What’s that sup-”

“Are you going to tell me about him or what?”

“Oh come on, I know that you know all about him, Russell. You don’t fool anybody. You’ve been at that table with Daddy all this time, and I also know that with your eye for detail, you can see the resemblance between him and that gentleman at your table. I know you’re nosy and that you asked, so, spill it. Tell me what you know, and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll fill in any gaps there might still be.”

Once again completely taken with her immense personality, Russell laughed and then ran down to her the facts that he had managed to glean.

“His name is Teddy. That’s his father, Teddy, Sr. at my table. His father went to school with your mother. You met Teddy, Jr. at your mother’s class reunion last month in Massachusetts. He came here with his father who had business with Dina Magyar. But it was very convenient for young Teddy because he wanted to come and see you.”

She silently nodded.

After waiting a few quiet moments for her to elaborate or to contribute to his database of facts, he impatiently asked, “Well?

“Well, what?”

“You’re not going to add anything?”

“Nope.”

“J.J., I know you’re not going to hold out on me.”

She smiled mysteriously. “You know all there is to know,”

“You are not going to tell me about the two of you, are you?”

“Nope.”

“Now how fair is that, J.J. Hart? You ask me all my business, but then you don’t tell me any of yours. That’s not right, and you know it.”

“Russell, can I help it if you’re so easy for me to work?”

All he could do was shake his head at that. He was putty in her hands, and she had been working him since the very first moment he met her.

Peeking back behind them, Russell took one last look at those suspect bushes that he had seen moving earlier even though there was no wind. As he glanced at it, the line of greenery was completely still,  but he continued to move J.J., away from it and back toward the building, glad that he had followed his mind to come out there with her.

He had just managed to catch a glimpse of her leaving alone by that side door as he was returning to the ballroom from outside in the front where he had spoken briefly with her friend, Chase. At the moment that door closed behind her, a  feeling raced through him, alarming him, setting his nerves on edge like a sudden freak bolt of lightning in an otherwise calm sky. The eerie feeling it left behind had been so strong that he had been compelled to follow her out into that garden despite the fact that being close to her made him so uncomfortable. From what he had witnessed of her behavior before she was aware of his presence, he knew that he had done the right thing.

That girl on his arm hadn’t been backing up for nothing. J.J. Hart, like her father, had excellent instincts. She had seen or sensed something, and whatever it was, it had been real.

He had good instincts, too, and he would keep backing up as well… away from that little girl.

But for the moment, he wouldn’t be letting her out of his eyesight until he had her back inside with her escort and nearer to her father.

________________________________________________________________

Following the twins back through the glass doors and into the lobby, Jonathan could see past them to where Teddy and Ollie stood together. J.J. wasn’t with Teddy, and from their body language, he thought he sensed discomfort on both boys’ parts.

He was almost close enough to them to ask where J.J. was when he saw her and Russell Thomas as they entered the lobby from the short hall that led to the garden door. He breathed a heavy sigh of relief, one that he didn’t even realize he needed to take until he set eyes on her. Despite everything, the idea of Wesley possibly being anywhere near J.J. made him tense, but he wasn’t really conscious of the degree to which it did until he actually saw her face, and he relaxed.

Dropping back, he watched Chase and Chance as they hurried their steps and joined the others. Without any deliberate orchestration on anyone’s part, in moments the guys had all protectively encircled J.J. Standing in the center of all that young male attention, she was talking and laughing; perfectly at ease, and being utterly charming. She was his child, his baby, and right before his eyes, she was growing up so fast. She was just like her mother. Every bit her mother in appearance, and that part of it made him nervous.

For a moment, he wondered if it had been like that with Jennifer. Had the prep school boys surrounded her like that at parties?  Did she like it if they did? How had she handled it if she didn’t?

As a debutante, had she been as poised and charismatic as their maverick daughter, the anti-debutante? It always amazed him how smoothly J.J. could switch up personas in the way that she could. Multi-faceted, he thought. His diamond.

Jennifer had intimated, in one of her rare revelations about her youth, that it wasn’t until she was in her early twenties that she actually felt comfortable in the company of men. Her father hadn’t allowed her to date while she was in high school, and she said that although boys had been attracted to her, she had been fairly shy when it came to them. It was hard for him to picture his outgoing wife as the timid child she said that she had been. That made him wonder once again what it would have been like if they had met as very young people. Would she have been bashful and unsure with him if they had met when she had been a teenager? Would he have liked her as much if she had been?

If they had met as children, he wondered, would they have had that same magic then that they’d had when they met as adults? For a moment, he thought not. When she was sixteen, he would have been too old for her, and if she was a shy girl, that factor would have been intimidating to her in itself. And he had been far too poor. But would poor have mattered to her if he could have gotten to know her?

Somehow, he didn’t think so, especially not when they were younger. Then, thinking on it more, knowing Jennifer as he did, he concluded that she might have been shy, but she would have been up for the adventure in it. She would have been intrigued by the age gap and by the difference in their backgrounds. Both things would have been a way for her to defy her father, and it seemed she had been into that back then.

Then once they had a chance to slip off alone….

“Yeah, she would have.” He smiled to himself.

Without the money, they might not have married down the line; he wouldn’t have been the kind of man who could live off her dollar, but in his heart he believed they still would have remained lovers. Their souls were too much in tune to have been otherwise. And that female child at the center of that group of males over by that staircase was meant to be theirs. Justine Jennifer would have come to them anyway. That was how that was supposed to be. He was meant to be her daddy, and Jennifer was supposed to be her mother.

He noticed that Russell had moved himself out of the circle and, standing back with his hands in his pockets, he was casually watching the very animated group of teenagers with an amused, look on his face. Russell was a young enough man to remember what that time of life had been like, but old enough, free enough, and well-off enough to not really miss it.

There was something about Russell, outside of his energy and intelligence, that he very much liked and admired. In fact, there was a whole lot about him that had his attention. It was sort of that same something that he liked in Chase, and that he loved in Tommy.

Tommy. He missed that boy, but he wished him well. At seventeen, Tommy was getting to do what he could only have dreamed of doing at that age. It had taken a lot of talking on his part to get Tommy to leave his mother and go to Spain to be with his other family, his late father’s people. It had taken all of his powers of persuasion to get Tommy to see the opportunity in it.

Tommy had been beginning to exhibit signs that he was harboring some bitterness toward his father. The fear was that it wasn’t going to be long before he transferred some of that to his mother, who had kept the knowledge of his father from him. Hopefully, the year with his paternal family would help him to gain some perspective. As he tried to explain to Tommy in one of their last conversations, a dead father was better than not ever having had a father at all, And he would be the one to know.

In the end, the boy would be better for it. Tommy’s father might not have taken the opportunity to know his son in life, but in death, Jordan Steele had taken very good care of his only child who it seemed shared the family’s talent and interest. Tommy wasn’t aware of all of that yet, but in time he would be. The year in Spain was only the beginning. He had to be made ready to take on what was his, even if he didn’t know the plan.

For the briefest moment, Russell looked over to him, and the look he sent said that it wasn’t coincidence that he had come in with J.J. from that garden. Something had gone on out there, but Russell had been up on whatever it was and J.J. was all right because of his vigilance. Again, he breathed easy.

As he stood there considering it all, it dawned on him that all three of them, Russell, Chase, and Tommy, reminded him of himself in different ways, at various stages of his life.

And there was something about that Teddy, too, that spoke to him, although with him, he wasn’t quite sure yet what it was.

Wesley. The little idiot. Jennifer said that he was just a boy, but he was a boy playing a man’s game. It wasn’t going to be long.

When he emerged from his reverie, Russell was gone, but the other girls had come out and joined the group.

With J.J. safely inside and in good company, he left the lobby to return to the ballroom and his wife.

Out of breath, but once again in the parking lot and inside the car, he slammed his frustrated fist against the steering wheel. She had been so close, actually coming right to him, on her own and all alone. Then that damned cell phone vibrated in his pocket, startling him. He had been crouched, deathly still, ready to pounce when the buzzing started. It almost stopped his already tense heart, and the small jump he was forced into at the shock had most certainly alerted her to something being not quite right.

Even with that, he had recovered speedily enough to have been able to rush and subdue her, but then that guy had come out of no where. Thinking at first that the man might have been attacking her, he had reached for the gun. But it quickly became apparent to him that it was someone she knew. The man had hugged her, and she let him. Nobody got that close to J.J. Hart unless she knew them- well, and she allowed them get that close to her.

His nerves, at that point, were so frayed and his senses so wired, that he wanted to scream to the heavens. There was always someone in the way. No matter what, it seemed there was always somebody standing between her and him, keeping them apart. It was his own father who had been on the phone when it rang, but he hadn’t answered it. The man had called back several times since then, but still he hadn’t picked up. He had seen his parents when they left the club, and knew that his mother had to have discovered her car missing. His father had gotten after him about taking her car without permission the night before, and had wanted to know the reason why he hadn’t taken his own. It wasn’t his business, and he told him that.

His mother would get her car back when he brought it back, and it wasn’t any of his father’s business where he was in it. Screw him. He needed to take care of his own affairs. Or better yet, stop having them altogether.

Breathing more easily but still shaky and nervous after his quick scuttle back to the car from his hiding place, he lay his head back on the headrest to wait for the next opportunity to present itself.

The adult table grew silent as one by one, they noticed the entire crew toward them from the other side of the ballroom.

“I wonder what this is all about.” Carolyn Barnett wondered aloud as the group of handsomely dressed teenagers approached. “Just looking at them, nobody would ever know, would they? Brace yourselves.”

They surrounded the table, arranging themselves so that they were standing near their respective parents, Marnie on the side of her mother that was away from her mother’s escort.

“Daddy.” J.J. began, conveniently standing on the side between her father and Teddy’s. “We want to know if it would be okay to leave now.”

“Leave?” Jonathan asked, speaking to J.J., but looking up at Teddy as was Teddy’s own father. “Where were you all planning to go?”

“It’s Teddy’s last night here in California, and we wanted all wanted to hang out a little. Maybe go down to the beach or something. Philly’s father invited us out to his boat. We’ll probably go there for a bit.”

“All of you?” Ted Landers asked. “To the boat.”

“Yes, Daddy.” Tiffany replied. “To the boat, not to our house. Don’t worry. Me and Britt have learned our lesson. Haven’t we, Britt?”

“Um-hmm” Brittany nodded from where she stood between both her parents, her arm around her father’s neck.

“For the rest of this month anyway.” Ted grumbled not quite under his breath.

Jennifer leaned around Jonathan to J.J. and asked, “If we say that you can go, what time are you planning to be home?”

J.J. looked questioningly to her father.

“Twe-” He started to say, and then he could see those eyes so much like his own pleading with him.

“One.” He finally said, and right away he felt Jennifer’s bare toes underneath the table rubbing along his ankle.

She didn’t have to tell him; he knew he what he was. He had always been- with both of them.

J.J. smiled happily and bent down to kiss his cheek. “Thank you, Daddy.”

“Does that go for everybody?” Marnie asked from her spot at the other side. “Can all of us stay out till one?”

Chance, standing behind Marnie looked to Marnie’s mother who was warily eyeing him. Then she looked back to Marnie.

“I don’t know why you’re asking me.” Maureen mumbled. “You put me down for your father.  I shouldn’t be letting you go anywhere after the way you-”

“Let me?” Marnie bristled. “Hey, I’m trying to be nice. I apologized once. You might not want to go there wi-”

“Marnie.” Jennifer said in quiet warning.

Marnie backed down somewhat and held up one hand in surrender. “Okay. Okay, I’ll be good. Even though she start-”

Jennifer spoke again. “Three things, Marnie. Phone call. BMW. House arrest.”

“Okay, Mrs. H.” Marnie grumbled. “All right. Is one o’clock okay, Mom, or not?”

Maureen grudgingly agreed. “Make sure that you call your father and let him know that I said so. I do not want him calling me, looking for you.”

“One works for us.” Ted Landers said. “But not a minute later.”

“You heard the man.” Dr. Jackson said to Ollie. “Have Tiffany home on time without fail.”

“And no funny stuff or excuses.” Chuck Barnett said to his twins and to Marnie. “I got all three of your cell numbers. Don’t think I won’t be calling, and I will expect somebody to be on the other end when I do.”

With all the parents agreed to the time, Jonathan reached behind J.J. to tap Teddy, Sr. on the shoulder.

“A word.” He said to him.

Both men got up.

“And you, too, Junior.” Jonathan said, taking Teddy by the arm,

Together, the three of them moved away from the larger group for a sidebar near the windows. They talked for a few minutes, Teddy nodding between the two men. Then, leaving the Baxter men to themselves, Jonathan returned to the table to take J.J. by the hand.

“One dance with Daddy before you go.” He said, leading her onto the ballroom floor just as the musicians were starting a new selection.

________________________________________________________________

Sitting with his forehead pressed against the steering wheel pad, he was so tired. But he couldn’t go home. Not yet. He hadn’t finished what he had come to do. All he could think about was her and how close he had come. All he could do was think about her. He had to get her to talk to him.

So peachy, freckled, pretty, and smart. Such a lady despite the fact that she didn’t acknowledge or respect her elevated social position. No skeletons, no baggage, no rumors. Just a good, clean, decent girl. She was the kind he needed to have the public life he wanted. With her out front, he could still lead the private life he preferred.

Why didn’t she like him any more? What had he done to offend her? Why wouldn’t she even try to hear what he wanted to say to her?

She was so damned stubborn. She had always been like that.

As a little kid, she would come around demanding to play mixed doubles in tennis with him and his older friends. He would try to send her packing when she showed up, but she wouldn’t go.  She was too strong to play kids her own age, and he wasn’t going to be shown up by some snot-nosed little girl. It had been hard to admit that despite the fact that he was older and bigger, she had been the better player, and she knew it.

She would hang around and put up a hell of fight, telling him how she felt about him and his attitudes. Sometimes she would even end up playing. The other older kids would let her when they were coming up short and they needed an advantage. Despite the fact that she was a little girl at the time, there had been no denying how good she was. Eventually, she began playing across age and gender divisions in all but tournament play. J.J. was still a huge challenge on the court to males as well a females. She had gotten to be so good that most of the girls at the club in her division would no longer play her.

But that was all back when they had been friends. That was back when he had been too short-sighted to see her for what she could actually be to him.

If she would just answer the phone, open her email, or let him talk to her when they were by themselves without anyone else around. The things he wanted to say to her, he could say only to her. But there was always somebody there. He could make her listen if there wasn’t always someone in the way, stopping him from stopping her long enough to pay attention.

J.J. Hart had never taken no for an answer, but she certainly expected other people to take it from her when she said it.

Again, he slammed his hand into the steering wheel. She was all over what was left of his nerves, making his head hurt, making his heart hurt. Why with Teddy, of all people? With Teddy’s money, his style, and especially his personality; even if he were at his best, it would have been hard for him to beat out Teddy with J.J.

With his face in the condition that it was, how could he fight Teddy for her? In the shape that he was, why would she even want him?

Behind his own closed eyes, he could see hers. Ice blue, expressionless and cold, and they were staring him down. She had never been timid. Even when she was little she hadn’t been afraid of anybody. J.J. had a way of looking at people in a manner that was exactly like her father: right in the eye, and she didn’t let up. Her gaze could warm and inviting if she wanted it to be, but sometimes the look was so flat and unreadable that the onlooker almost felt as if there was nothing on the other side. It was like looking into a mirror. The only thing to see was exactly what had been presented to it- no interpretation and no comment.

In his head, he could see disdain and disappointment reflecting off those blue eyes staring back at him.

_________________________________________________________________

J.J. had never felt nervous dancing with her father before.

Well… there had been that one time at the Mission Street Ball when he had taken her out onto that same floor on the pretense of their sharing a dance. His real intention that night had been to privately chastise her after catching her in a gambling situation for the second time. That incident had been a bit prickly.

This time, however, it was different. This time she could tell that he was nervous, too.

“J.J.” He said after they had been dancing a few minutes.

“Yes.”

“Do you know how much you mean to me?”

“A lot. I love you, too.”

“J.J., it’s not just that. Not only do I love you, I’m proud of you. You’re a good girl, and a smart girl, but there’s more to it than that.”

Not sure where he was headed, but appreciative of his words, all she could think of to say was, “Thank you.”

It was a few minutes before he spoke again.

“J.J., do you realize that in the whole world, you are my only known relative? It’s just you. Your mother is my wife, and you know that she is my heart, but you, you are my only blood relation, you are a Hart. That makes you plenty special in my book.”

“I’ve thought about the only relative part.” She said. “That makes me feel good that I am that to you, but I never thought about you thinking me special because of it. I just always knew that you loved me.”

“You are a part of me, J.J., and I am a part of you. We share that unique bond. You are precious to me. But bottom line, you are your own person. I want you to always remember that.”

“I do, and I will.”

“Sweetheart, I want to say something more to you. I’ve been wanting to say it for a while, ever since this Teddy thing started back when we were in Maryland. I know that you normally talk to your mother about these things, but now I want you to talk to me, and I want to talk to you.”

The unfamiliar hint of anxiety that she could detect in his voice was making her even more uneasy, but she answered. “Okay.”

“J.J., tell me how you really feel about Teddy? What is it that you feel?”

She closed her eyes. So that was what he wanted, and indeed, it was not an area in which they had done a lot of exploring. Up until then, there hadn’t been any real need to do so. Talk about personal female things, boys, feelings and such were her mother’s area of expertise. Even when she finally had to go to her father with her concerns about Wesley, she had been extremely uncomfortable telling him about it. She knew it was the right thing to do, and that it didn’t have anything to do with her having any feelings for Wesley, but for some reason, it had made her uncomfortable to have to have that conversation with him.

After a few moments, when she couldn’t find the words right away, she felt him release her hand and then place his fingers under her chin, lifting her face. She opened her eyes to meet his.

“Tell me, baby.” He urged. “You can, you know.”

“I like him.” Was her immediate response.

He wasn’t accepting that. She knew when she gave it that he wouldn’t, so she wasn’t surprised to hear him say, “Tell me the truth.”

“I like him a lot, Daddy.” She slowly answered. “I think he’s handsome. I think he’s nice, and he’s fun to be with. It seems like we clicked with each other right away. He’s very caring, sensitive, talented, really witty, and he treats me very well.”

“You really do care for him?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. I saw you kiss him. You do know that.”

“I know.”

“And I know that you’re sixteen, and that you’re growing up. I understand that you’re going to feel things for boys. I’m sure that your mother has told you that it’s normal and natural to feel these things. But I want you to know that from me, too.”

“Okay.”

“What concerns me, J.J. is that you and I are alike. We don’t love a lot, but when we do, we love deeply.”

She nodded. That was very true, and it was what worried her somewhat, underneath it all.

“What I wanted to tell you is to take your time, sweetheart. I like Teddy, too. So far, I think he’s a fine young man. He has a good father who cares about him just like I care about you. But still, he’s a boy and sometimes boys are ruled by their hormones. Believe me, I know.”

“Daddy.” J.J. nervously giggled. “Please.”

But he didn’t so much as smile.

“I’m very serious, J.J. I do know. It might be hard for you to believe or to picture, but I was seventeen once, too. As nice a boy as Teddy may be, if the chance presents itself, he will go for it. I was a very nice guy too, but if the chance came up, I went for it. I don’t feel all that good about it now as a man and as father to my own pretty girl, but I can’t deny that I did that. I didn’t set out to hurt anybody, but looking back on it, I’m sure that I might have. I don’t want you to get hurt like that.

As the girl in the situation, as my daughter, the important thing is for you to stay in charge of you. A boy will only regard you as highly as you regard yourself. Make him respect you tonight by respecting yourself first. I know that you already do have an enormous amount of self-respect, but sometimes, in male/female situations, feelings can overtake good sense, and things happen that wouldn’t normally happen. When things don’t work out, it’s usually the girl who ends up getting hurt. Guys tend to move on.

I don’t want such important things in your life “just happening” to you. If you have feelings for Teddy, then wait and see where things go so that you can be sure that it’s right and that it’s genuine. Even though he’s returning home tomorrow, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t let that dictate your night tonight. Take your time, and you two get to know one another.”

Again she nodded.

“I guess what I’m trying to say, J.J., is I can’t be everywhere with you. But I know you because I know myself; I know who and how you are. Your mother says that we push the envelope in life, but that’s just us. I think, though, that I’ve taught you when and how to push, and I’ve also taught you when to apply the brakes. I can’t hold your hand like I used to or put you up on my shoulders to keep you safe and out of harm’s way. It is your time to walk by yourself. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

While he had been speaking and she had been listening, an overwhelming feeling of them having played out that scene before had been settling over her.

In the hospital in Maryland, she had dreamed that she was dancing with her father. In the middle of the dance, he let go of her and began to fade away. He said that he had to let her go so that she could grow. He told her that he was stepping back, but he wouldn’t be leaving all the way; he would always be there if she needed him. That dream had remained with her. At that moment, it seemed to have been a precursor of what they were sharing between them.

She felt him bend his head down and kiss her forehead.

“I love you, too, Daddy. Thank you.”

It had been nice riding up on his shoulders as a little girl. It felt good sometimes to have her hand safely held inside his. But it felt even better that he trusted her enough to finally let go. She lay her head on his chest and put her arms around him. Holding on, she followed his lead as he followed the music. He was such a good dancer. The absolute best. When she was little, and he was teaching her to dance, he would put her feet on top of his. He didn’t have to do that any more. Because of him, she knew where her feet were supposed to go.

Coming from her father, some of what he said had been hard to hear, but he was right. She was like him in a lot of her ways. She was also nice, but like he said he did, she was apt to do as much as she was allowed to get away with within the parameters set down for her and those she set for herself. That was how he was, and she was his daughter. She had his blood.

The thought made her proud. She was his only one. They were the only ones. She and him. Harts.

She would always be Justine J. Hart.

But no way was she ready for Daddy to be fading out of her life, not even for a little while. Even though he might be letting go, it was comforting to know that his hand would still be there for her if she needed to reach out and grab hold of it.

_________________________________________________________________

Jonathan had J.J. out on the dance floor and Teddy, Sr. had walked Teddy, Jr. out to the lobby. While the few others who remained at the table talked, Jennifer quietly watched her husband and their daughter. She could see that Jonathan was saying something to J.J. and that J.J. was listening. She wondered what he was telling her that had them both looking so serious. Normally when they were together, it was mostly fun and games.

“I wonder how long Teddy is going to be occupied with his son.” Dina wondered, leaning in her direction to say it loud enough for only her to hear it. “He’s been distracted by that boy all evening. I thought that he and J.J. were leaving.”

Jennifer, mildly irritated at having her private moment intruded upon by something so petty and unnecessarily rude, shrugged her shoulders slightly and kept her eyes trained on the dancers.

Dina continued to complain.

“We could be dancing right now if he weren’t paying so much attention to his son. Before you know it, the night will be over, and he’ll be racing back to his hotel to make sure that his son has made it in. I thought he was coming to be with me. He could always just call the hotel to check on the boy, but no, he has to go as if he’s still a baby or something.”

Having finally heard enough, Jennifer turned to Dina. She leaned in and spoke in a discreetly low voice that only the two of them could hear.

“Frankly, if I were you, I’d be more concerned if he weren’t paying attention to his son. If a man can’t love and responsibly see to his child, his own flesh and blood, why would you want him? The flip side of that is Teddy must have a caring, loving soul if he’s that nurturing to his son, wouldn’t you think? I don’t usually give unsolicited advice, Dina, but in this case I will. Teddy, Jr. is not his only child. There are three more ahead of that one, and he is this way about all of his children. You need to make a decision. Either you can accept Teddy as he is, or you can’t and you move on because he is not about to change his feelings for or how he deals with his children for you or any woman.”

Speechless, Dina blanched and sat back.

Jennifer looked up just in time to see Jonathan kiss J.J. on the forehead, and J.J. put her arms around her father. She hoped that the photographers had captured that moment. The two of them. It was always something.

Jonathan Hart was a very good man, too. There was so much she had learned from him over the years about living, loving, and sharing that love. Smiling to herself over it and him, she would be willing to bet anyone anything that he didn’t have the first clue of the rich lessons that he had been teaching all that time.

When the music ended, J.J. parted from her father to return to her table and her friends who were back on the other side of the room. Teddy, Sr. had come back into the ballroom from the lobby, and he and Jonathan returned to the table. As soon as he was seated, Jonathan reached for her hand, lacing his fingers in hers like someone in need of reassurance or support.

________________________________________________________________

The cell phone buzzed again, and this time he turned it off completely. Whoever it was would really have to wait. The group he had been waiting for all evening had finally come out, and they were getting into the cars.

He was quite a distance back from them, and it was dark. But in all the time that he had been sitting there biding his time, he had pinpointed that white Mustang. He knew exactly where it was in the lot.

When the Mustang’s headlights blinked on, and it backed out with the rest of the cars; he switched on the engine of the Cadillac, but left his headlights off.

The time had come.

________________________________________________________________

“You do know that we’re not going to the boat with them.” J.J. informed Teddy as he drove off, heading down the drive.

Teddy briefly took his eyes from the road to look over at her.

“I don’t know about that, J. You know I’m usually game for any diversion, but your parents, especially your father, have put an awful lot of faith in me.”

“It’ll be okay.” She said. “Trust me on this one.”

“All right. So, if we’re not going with them, then just where are we going?”

“A real pretty place that I know. It’s very nice at night, and I want you to see it while you’re here. This is the only chance we’ll have to go.”

“Are you sure about this, J? Are you sure it’s going to be all right? I told you, I don’t want to mess up. It’s important that I don’t.”

“I’m absolutely sure, Teddy. Turn right at the next corner.”

Following her direction, Teddy made the turn at the next corner.

________________________________________________________________

To his dismay, the white Mustang stayed with the group and it appeared that they were all headed for the pier. That made sense, though. Their parents had boats there and they could be fairly comfortable hanging out there until their curfews.

The bad thing about that location was there were so many other people, and they themselves were likely to stay together. How would he get to her? The guys would be all around her. Teddy would surely be by her side most of the time.

But he did have that little equalizer.

Again, he mentally kicked himself for having missed the opportunity when she was in the garden outside the Country Club. If he could have gotten to her then, he would have had her where he wanted her by that time, and nobody would have been the wiser. If he could have gotten to her then, they probably wouldn’t have missed her until the two of them were long gone. She would have kicked and made a fuss, but he was bigger and he had a way of knocking her down and keeping her quiet without having to hurt her. But he had to get to her first.

Riding several cars back, he worried about being caught by a traffic light and losing them. Or more importantly, getting caught by a light and having J.J. and Teddy decide to break off from the larger group to go off in another direction by themselves. He switched lanes and moved up a couple of cars, dropping back into the lane in which he had been where he could better see them, but where he wasn’t close enough to them to be overly obvious.

He kept his eyes trained on that Mustang. It had ceased to be a car. To him it had become almost like game, a wild horse which he was running down and trying to capture. It was only a matter of time before it got tired, and he could move in for the-

When without signaling, the Mustang made a quick right while the other cars ahead of it kept straight, he could not believe his good fortune.

“There is a God.” He laughed aloud.

_________________________________________________________________

“If we go this way,” J.J. was saying as Teddy navigated a narrow, unpaved opening that was almost hidden between some heavy foliage and some large trees. “We won’t have to stop at the main gate.”

Teddy realized that he would have easily driven past the road without noticing it if she hadn’t pointed it out.

“J.J. please tell me what this is.”

“It’s a back way to our beach house.” She answered. “This is the way to the actual beach below it. The house is up on the bluff, but we’re not going up there. There’s a little place where I go to be by myself  when I come here that I want you to see.”

Teddy drove on, mindful of the brush scraping against the car’s finish as he did. “You’d better be glad that I have this genie thing going. The average guy might be a little-”

“What? Scared?” She challenged.

“Nervous.” He answered.

The small, unlit winding road, which was actually a wide gravel and brush path, was made even darker by the heavy canopy of trees blocking out any light the stars and the moonlight might have afforded it.

“How do you even know about this road?” He asked. “If your house is up on the bluff?”

“When we come here, I ride my bike all over. I know this whole area. I almost never stick to the main roads when I go to new places. I take the back roads and turn-offs. You see more interesting stuff that way. They put the stuff you’re meant to see on the main drag. I prefer to see the things that are hidden away.”

“You’re a trip, J. I guess that’s why I like you so much. Tell me something.”

“What?”

“Why’d you send Issy to take that bath?”

“Who said I had anything to do with it, Teddy?”

“I saw your face. You did it. I don’t know how you did it, but I know you did. I also know that you and her almost got into it last week. You did it, and you know it.”

“People have such big mouths.”

“So you admit it.”

“I didn’t admit anything. So now you tell me. How come you were giving her the eye?”

“Oh, no you don’t. You didn’t see me giving her the eye. Don’t even try it. People do have big mouths. She was giving it to me, probably just trying to make you mad. I told you, I came here to see you. Only you. No way would I be giving some other girl the so much as the time of day, especially not one who’s on the outs with you. Is that why you went ahead and pushed her? Because you were jealous?”

“I don’t get jealous over boys, and I didn’t push her.” J.J. haughtily sniffed. “To push her would have been just plain common. I might have just sort of grazed her or something as I was going by, but she fell into the pool all by herself. Now I will say that she needed to learn respect, and some people just have to learn things the hard way. But that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

“You are a real trip, J.”

“Yeah, I might be, but you’re having a good time while you’re traveling with me, aren’t you?.”

They reached the end of that road and wound up driving out onto a small, makeshift grass and gravel parking area. In the distance, the Pacific Ocean was rolling in as if it were greeting them and welcoming them to spend some time with it. The starry indigo night served as its backdrop and its reflection sparkled like scattered diamonds on the rolling waves.

Teddy pulled the car in so that when he switched off the engine, they were facing out toward all of it.

“It really is beautiful out here, J.” He said, peering through the windshield in wonder.

J.J. turned to appreciate his handsome face.

“I know.” She said “But you haven’t seen anything yet.”

________________________________________________________________

Along the coast road, higher up in the hills and getting closer to the more exclusive, private area, the traffic began to thin considerably. That bothered him some. He was having to hang way back to avoid being seen by them, and in doing that he risked having them get away from him. But to get too close would be to ruin everything.

The tiny orange orbs glowing from the rear of that car in the distance ahead helped him to keep track of the object of his desire. Every hair on the back of his neck stood on end. The ones on his arms and legs were like thousands of individual exposed nerve endings. There was a dull pounding in his temple, and it took a moment for him to realize that it was the sound and feel of his own blood pulsing through the arteries there.

They had to be heading for the Harts’ beach house. A few years back he had gone there once with his own parents for a barbecue. What he remembered most about the house was that it was predominantly white. White walls, high white vaulted ceilings, white furnishings, and a white marble portico complete with Jacuzzi that looked from high above, out to the ocean. A long, winding set of white wooden stairs, with a series of small decks serving as landings, traversed the two levels one passed to get from the house, down to the beach.

… J.J. and Teddy together in that house.,, alone… in that Jacuzzi… together.

The image enraged him, and he had to catch himself as the car began to speed up.

He didn’t want to have to hurt Teddy, but he would if he tried to get in the way. In his mind, he began staging the scenario.

… Teddy’s brains splattered across the white tiles, against the white walls, his body floating in the ruby red water, the jets bobbing his lifeless form like some hideously macabre water toy.

Afterward, J.J. would be terrified. She would need calming and comforting. It would just be the two of them left at that point. She would have no choice but to turn to him. It would just be them alone in that big white house on that deserted, private bluff, high above the beach.

Once again, the tail lights of the Mustang were getting larger, and once again he slowed down and dropped back. Then he saw that it wasn’t so much his speeding up that was closing the gap; it was them slowing down.

The headlights of his car were off again as they had been since the traffic had thinned. He hoped that they hadn’t noticed the car. It didn’t appear as if they had. Patting the brake, he slowly backed off.

That was when the Mustang turned all of a sudden, disappearing from his view.

Hand in hand, J.J. and Teddy walked along the edge of the water. He had removed his shoes and socks and had rolled his tuxedo pants almost to his knees. She held the tail of her dress in her free hand to keep the surf, which playfully lapped at their calves and bare feet, from getting it wet.

“I’m glad you got this opportunity to come visit.” She was saying. “But I wish you could stay longer.”

“Me, too. I like being here with you and your friends. I like how all of you look out for each other. You guys seem like a really good bunch.”

“Pretty much, it’s like that most of the time. We rarely fall out with each other. When we do, it usually blows over right away. We don’t let anybody stay mad too long. We can’t have fun if one of us is mad at the other, so we tend to squash stuff right away when it comes up. Sometimes, though, I get tired of it all, and I want to stay to myself for a bit. They understand that about me, and they don’t question me too much when it happens. That’s why I like it when we come here to the beach. It’s private. My parents don’t even entertain guests out here very much any more. Daddy kind of uses it as a retreat for him and my mother. They stay busy so much that they like to get off to be by themselves sometimes, too.”

She stopped and pointed down the coast line in the direction opposite of where they were heading.

“My parents have a sailboat that they keep down there near where the house is. Sometimes we come out here and go sailing.”

“Is it a big one?”

“Pretty big.” She casually admitted, resuming the walk. “My father was in the Navy. He loves to sail. Our boat is called “Romance Continued”. It’s actually their second sailboat. The first one was just called “Romance”. They got the one they have now a few years after they had me. It’s bigger than the first one, and believe me, the romance definitely continues.”

He laughed. “Embarrassing?”

“Totally, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

“I was watching your parents tonight. They’re wonderful together, J.”

She blushed. “They’re sickening.”

“Don’t knock it, J. I’d give anything for that. Your parents really love each other. I can see it in the way they look at each other. They make a very nice couple. Your mother is really pretty. She seems very nice, and your father, he really loves you.”

She smiled a quiet smile. “You say I am, but my mother is the real trip. I love her, though. And yeah, Daddy’s the best. He’s quite a guy. I lucked up on him.”

“I lucked up on you, J. You’re the best. You look so pretty tonight.”

“We lucked up on each other, Teddy.”

“Say, J.J.”

“Yes.”

“I know you said that you didn’t want to talk about him, and this probably isn’t the best time to bring this up, but I need to know. What about this Wesley thing? Does it make you nervous at all to be out here?”

“Not much. My Daddy is on top of it, as I’m sure you can see. He won’t let anything happen to me along those lines. But honestly, Teddy, unless you’re worried about it, I really don’t want to talk about him or that. When I’m through with somebody, I’m through. He is definitely through as far as I’m concerned. You and I don’t have a whole lot of time left together, and I don’t want to waste a moment of it on that dead issue. Let’s just have fun.”

“I’m not worried about it. I just didn’t want you to be.”

Still holding hands, they continued down the beach until the sand gradually became more grassy and rocky. Climbing over a couple of small hills, they came to a cozy, partially enclosed area of flat, water-smoothed mossy stones. The little place recessed back into the bluff itself, and the rocks and greenery overhead served as a natural canopy. There were several elevated stones inside of it, ledges actually, that were high enough to serve as places to sit. The surf, being rather gentle that night was being kept out for the most part by the larger stones at the mouth of that little cove. Just enough of it managed to trickle in to tickle the toes, and, at times, to cover the feet.

“Welcome to my place.” She said after Teddy helped her down from the last stone they had to climb over to get in. “This is my quiet spot out here. This is where I wanted to show you.”

From inside, Teddy looked out onto the water, his senses inundated by the sight, the smell, the sound of it all.

“You were right about it.” He said. “It’s beautiful here. Like paradise.”

She was looking out to the ocean as well, but she felt it when he turned to look to her. His arm eased around her waist, and she returned the gesture.

“I could stay here forever, J., if you would stay with me.”

She didn’t say anything to that, but letting her skirt go so that the hem was down to her ankles once again, she pressed her other hand across her tummy to calm the fluttering and to check for that waistband her mother had earlier mentioned. Under the circumstances, she didn’t think Jennifer Hart would be too upset about a wet hem.

Never before had she felt anything like she was feeling for that boy by her side. She didn’t want to stay in that cove with him, but what she wouldn’t have given at that moment to be at a place in her life where it would have been all right to just take off with him and visit coves in other places- to just fly away and be free to travel and explore- with him. The whole world could be their paradise.

Seconds later, he turned to face her. Taking his time, he presented her with that kiss she had been putting off, and finally she allowed herself to completely dissolve into it. When it ended, his trembling hands cradling her flushed face, he looked deeply into her eyes and she into his.

“I think it’s time, J.” He said.

She answered, “I know.”

________________________________________________________________

Panicked, afraid that he would lose them, he had sped up and taken that same road that he had seen those tail lights turn onto. Unfamiliar with the general area, he didn’t know the road was there or to where it led. He hoped that there wasn’t some smaller side road onto which they could have gone after turning in off the main road. It would be like J.J. to know something like that. She always knew back ways to get into and out of places. Teddy would be right with her in it. He, too, had a huge reputation for knowing or quickly learning his way around.

He remained on that road until he came out of it into a small open area, a clearing of sorts, just under the head of the bluff, and his heart leapt into his chest when he saw  that white Mustang parked in the distance. The moon that night was the only light out there, but it didn’t offer enough of it for him to be able to see anyone through the smoked windows. However, he didn’t think he had been that far behind them for them to have gotten out and to have already been able to move out the area.

He shut down the car, opened the door, and stood up on the door frame to better see. There was nobody in sight, and he couldn’t see any obvious access down to the beach or up to the bluff just over his head.

They had to still be in that car.

He had driven in with his lights off. If they were in that car, they were probably so wrapped up in each other that they didn’t even hear his engine.

In a car?

No way was that going to happen to her. Not with Teddy. Not with anybody. J.J. Hart was not the kind of girl to be taking into the back seat, or the front for that matter. She wasn’t some on-the-side tramp or a girl for the moment. J.J. was like her mother and his mother, the kind of girl who was meant to be the main lady, the front lady, a wife.

He and J.J. had known each other all of J.J.’s life. She was meant to be his, and she wouldn’t be anybody’s but his. Everyone was trying to keep her from him, but she was his. Didn’t they understand that. His mother did. Why couldn’t everyone else? Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t J.J. see that?

He’d make her see it.

Picturing her in that car, the windows steamed over, her pristine body writhing underneath Teddy’s as he defiled it; he wanted to scream. His left temple throbbed painfully, the pulsing resounding like thunder in his head and radiating down his neck and into that arm. His chest felt as if it were going to explode and it was suddenly hard to breathe. Totally infuriated by that mental picture, he reached down into that pocket on his pant leg, pulled out the gun, and removed the safety. Without bothering to close the door on his own car, pistol drawn, he charged the Mustang.

About halfway there, out of no where, a large, dark figure hurtled toward him from up above his head. He heard, “Where you goin’, boy?” as he was hit broadside. With the impact, his body was knocked in one direction, and the gun went flying from his hand in another. Gravel and rough grass tore at his clothing and skin as he slid across it. Arms, hands, and feet converged upon him, grabbing at him, holding him down, pressing his head to the ground. Hushed, but gruff voices issued warnings to him.

“Be still. Don’t fight. We don’t want to hurt you. Don’t fight.”

Pinned by a knee in the small of his back, his arms twisted behind him; dazed and dizzy, he had no choice but to comply. Momentarily blinded by the shock, his  pain, and then the sudden glare of a flashlight beam being shined on his face, he felt himself being yanked to his feet. Then flanked on all sides by several dark bulky figures, he was dragged over to that white car he had been so desperate to reach. A few paces from it, the dragging stopped, and he was propped up to stand at attention.

The driver’s side door opened, but it wasn’t Teddy who got out. The flashlight beam isolated Jonathan Hart who slowly rose, and seemingly kept rising, from inside. Those menacingly cold eyes bore into him like stainless steel daggers. On the other side of the car, he could see Theodore Baxter, Sr. get out and start around to the driver’s side. Then finally, from the dark group of men surrounding him, his own father, William Singleton, Sr., emerged and stood before him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, son?” He asked. “What were you thinking?”

Bewildered, shamed, and overwhelmed by a weird, almost crippling, physical pain, he stood mute, acutely aware of all eyes being on him. At the sight of his father, a strange sort of numbness began overtaking him. None of it was how it was supposed to have been. His father did not belong there. Nothing had gone right. Everything was so confusing and so wrong. How could it have all gone so wrong?

A familiar voice spoke from behind, but right at his ear. The tone was almost sorrowful.

“Why, Wes? Didn’t I tell you to leave it alone? I can’t help you any more. You’ve gone too far this time. They have to know. You have to get some help.”

As Wesley struggled to breathe, he struggled to think. He felt both sweaty and clammy. His mind was growing sluggish. The world around him was fading back and away, the entire thing becoming strangely dreamlike. It was a couple of moments before it even registered with him that it was his oldest brother, William Singleton, Jr. who had spoken those last words to him, and it was he who was firmly holding his arms in that twist behind his back.

It was over. Everybody knew. They were all in the way. Or maybe he was. He was once again forced to admit that he was too small and too weak to do anything about it. Too small and not enough for J.J. Hart. Maybe it was all dream. Maybe he would wake up, and none of it would have happened.

Looking past his father, who continued to stand before him, he could see Jonathan Hart.

Damn him. He was always in the way, keeping her….

Suddenly, his body began violently and uncontrollably shaking. He couldn’t breathe. Voices in the distance were yelling for him as he slipped away from himself into the blackness…

In her robe and slippers, pacing nervously out to the foyer from the great room for what seemed like the millionth time, Jennifer’s curiosity and anxiety had peaked to levels that were almost unbearable. It was into the wee hours of the next morning, and far too much time had gone by since Jonathan and Teddy, Sr. had left with the Wild Bunch from the dance. He hadn’t phoned her to tell her what was going on, and not knowing exactly what he might be into or the position he might be in, she couldn’t phone him. She had been waiting for some kind of word since Teddy, Jr. and J.J. had dropped her off at the house before supposedly heading for the pier to join the others.

The plan had been precarious from the start, and she had said as much to him, but Jonathan was determined to draw Wesley out and to make him actually go with his impulses. He wanted Wesley to be caught in the act, hopefully, while he was holding and high on the goods. Jonathan was leaving no possibility of anyone misreading Wesley’s motives, nor was he leaving any room for doubt on anyone’s part as to how serious the situation had become. He had called in all of his resources, and he had insisted upon using himself as the bait. That meant that, once again, he was putting himself on the front line, and Teddy, Sr. for his own child’s sake, had gone with him to ride shotgun. Only Jonathan Hart could get away with setting up a sting, and telling the police what to do.

Before leaving with Jonathan, Teddy had arranged for a car to pick up Dina Magyar, who had been none to pleased with being “abandoned” in that manner. Judging from her attitude when her driver arrived to collect her, it was a pretty safe bet that the two of them would be parting ways as far as being a couple went.

That was probably for the best. Teddy deserved better, even though she never would have suggested as much to him.

She and Jonathan had always been partners, but this time, for this venture, he had left her behind as well. When she tried to protest his doing so, he had cut her off, telling her that he needed to know that she would be there to see to J.J.  She hadn’t been able to argue against that.

All that evening, during her restless, seemingly endless term of waiting, she had been trying to push back that thought- that hope- that he hadn’t meant that she might have to do so permanently. He had left not really knowing into what he might be walking, but they both knew that meant that he was putting himself in serious jeopardy. Jonathan was a man who feared very little, and when he was angry, he feared even less that that. He had been extremely tense when last she saw him. If Wesley had tried anything, and surely he had if things had panned out the way Jonathan planned them, then Jonathan Hart was out there operating on irate. That man wasn’t hesitant about confronting danger, even if it came in the form of a hyped-up, possibly volatile, and much younger adversary. His philosophy was that experience outweighed youth in the battle of wits. Wesley desperately wanted to get to J.J. He had been trying for some time. But he would be coming through her father to do so that night.

Her own terrifying firsthand experience with that type of situation told her that Wesley would not be stopping his pursuit of J.J. just because someone merely said, “stop”. In his current state, if the rumors were correct, he would not be easily deterred by things and people that might get in his way. That made her worry even more about her husband.

Jonathan Hart.

She could not believe him trusting a Rolls Royce to two teenagers out on a casual date. But that was exactly what he had done to insure his daughter’s safety and her happiness. As far as he was concerned the Rolls was just a car, and it was properly insured. His daughter and her well-being were priceless, and he was the administrator over that particular policy.

Pulling back the curtains at the window that looked out onto the driveway, she was again disappointed. Third must have sensed her frustration. He whimpered and stood up, tapping his front paws against her leg as if he were trying to comfort her.

“Poor, baby.” She cooed as she petted his head and then bent to pick him up, nuzzling her cheek against his furry little face. “Am I worrying you? Do you wish I would just go bed, so that you can get some sleep?”

He whimpered again in answer to her questions.

“I will. As soon as Daddy comes home.”

Stationed at her feet while she was seated on the couch, the dog had faithfully gotten up and trotted right along with her every time she made the worried trip to the foyer.

She was headed back to the great room with him in her arms when his ears pricked up, and twisting back around toward the door, he gave a warning yip. The console light was blinking, indicating that someone with the code had entered the front gate. It had to be Jonathan.

Closing  her eyes, she prayed, “Thank you.”

________________________________________________________________

Jonathan and Teddy, their ties loose, collars open, looking tired and drained came through the front door.

“Think she’s still up?” Teddy ventured.

Jonathan pointed with his thumb toward the lighted great room and nodded. “Without a doubt.”

Surely enough, she was there. Seated on the couch with Third in her lap, Jennifer looked up when they came into the room. Both men sat down, Jonathan, on the couch across from her and Teddy in the side chair. Jonathan pulled the bowtie all the way from his neck, tossed it onto the coffee table, and slumped back into the cushions, running both hands distractedly through his hair.

It was Teddy who finally sighed and spoke.

“How come you aren’t in bed, Jen?”

“Please. You know I wasn’t going to go to sleep until I heard from you two.”

“Well,” Teddy sat back and sighed. “It’s done. I think it’s over, for now at least.”

Jennifer continued to assess her husband’s unusual body language. Almost afraid to do so, she had to ask.

“Jonathan, what happened? Did it go according to plan?”

“Too well.” Jonathan said, staring ahead, his voice unnaturally flat. “It was over pretty quickly once it got started. We’ve been at the hospital most of this time.”

“The hospital!” She leaned forward. “Jonathan, tell me you didn’t-”

Teddy held out his hand to ease her back from her surprised, concerned position.

“It wasn’t Jonathan, Jen. On the contrary, it was because of your husband’s foresight and planning that things weren’t a whole lot worse.”

Her eyes were still on her husband, but she slowly sat back, saying, “Please, tell me what happened.”

She had been speaking to Jonathan, but he was staring off, looking at something that neither she nor Teddy could see. When it was apparent that he wasn’t going to say anything, Teddy continued the story.

“Wesley followed Teddy’s car just like we thought he would. When we got him to the place where we wanted him, we stayed in the car and waited to see what he would do. We weren’t sure if we had pulled it off, but when he got out and rushed the car, we knew that he thought J.J. and Teddy were inside. The security guys stopped him before he could get to it. That boy nearly had a heart attack when he saw it was us in the car. I mean that literally, Jen. He’s in the hospital on the cardiac unit. He was full of that Ecstasy drug the kids are taking now. The doctor said that he must have been popping that stuff all evening. The levels in his system were almost toxic. It accelerates the heart rate, and he had ingested so much until his heart was practically beating its way right out of his chest.”

“My, God.” She whispered. “His heart. He’s not even twenty years old. Is he going to be all right?”

“He’s got a way to go.” Teddy said. “Even when he’s back up on his feet physically, they say that there may be some residual damage to his heart. Time will have to tell on that. He’s going to need to spend some time in rehab and to have some extensive counseling. There’s also the trouble he’s in with law. He’s a pretty messed up boy right now. His father and his brother were with us when it all went down. Georgette came to the hospital when she got the word.”

“How did they take it?”

“The brother pretty much knew what Wesley had been up to. He knew a lot more than he had been letting on to anybody, but he had his own problems that he was dealing with. William, Sr. is just sick over it. He said that he knew that Wesley was overly taken with J.J., but he didn’t know that it had gotten so bad or about the drugs. He had been talking to him about it, but I guess Wesley wasn’t paying his father any attention. And then Georgette, it seems, had been hiding things from him. William, Sr. and Georgette have their problems, too, though. That’s a pretty messed up bunch of folk, so busy trying to keep up appearances. They could probably all probably benefit from some family counseling.”

Jennifer looked back to Jonathan. He was still sitting in that slumped state, his face bearing an expression she didn’t recognize.

“Jonathan?” She called to him.

He didn’t move. He didn’t look up.

She looked back to Teddy. He made a small gesture to her to go to him, and putting Third down, she crossed over, mildly surprised that she hadn’t done that before on her own. She sat down next to him.

“Jonathan?” She said again, placing her hand on his.

Without changing position or expression, he turned his hand over and closed his fingers over hers.

“He was high, Jennifer.” He whispered. “Out of his mind. And he had gone there with a gun. He had the gun in his hand when he was coming toward that car that he thought they were in. I had mine, too. Never in my life have I been so angry. I had my hand on my gun, and I almost let him ha- If we hadn’t done what we did. If his father and brother hadn’t been there. If  Lamb, security, those police officers Gray sent-  Jennifer, there’s just no telling what I might have done. I was so damned angry.”

She placed her finger on his lips. “Hush, darling. It’s all if’s. Please, don’t think like that. Don’t feel like that. It worked out the way that it was supposed to. You did what you did because you always know what to do when it comes to keeping J.J. safe. Wesley will get the help he needs because you did things the way that you did them. J.J. and Teddy are safe because of you two.”

Despite her assurances, Jonathan continued in the same flat tone. “William, Jr. told us what happened last weekend that J.J. wouldn’t tell us.”

She knew that it had to be bad; J.J. had been covering it up too long. If she hadn’t shared it with her father when he asked her, it had to be serious.

Her curiosity getting the best of her, but her own voice hushed by the dread boiling up within her, she asked in a reluctant whisper, “What was it?”

“J.J. and Chase were almost killed last Saturday night.” Jonathan answered. “They were on Chase’s bike. Chase must have seen Ollie’s car behind them, following them. Apparently, he was trying to get J.J. away from Wesley, and he went through an intersection on a yellow, I guess,  so that the red light would catch the car and he and J.J. would be able to put some distance between them and the car. But another car, coming from the other direction, jumped the light, just narrowly missing them.”

Jennifer closed her eyes and sank back, leaning into Jonathan, whispering, “Give me strength.”

His grip tightening on her hand, Jonathan kept going.

“That’s why Ollie beat Wesley the way that he did. He had been trying to get Wesley to break off the pursuit, and then when he saw J.J. and Chase almost get hit, he lost it. Then, it turns out that it was William, Jr. who almost hit the bike. He was in a hurry to get home that night, and he didn’t stop after almost hitting them because he had someone with him in the car. It was the woman, a secretary at his father’s law firm, with whom he’s been having an affair. William Jr. said that he saw that the last person on the bike was a girl with long hair, but he didn’t put it together that it was J.J. until after the fight between Ollie and Wesley. Then he didn’t come forward because he was afraid that all of it would have come out. But, he said that once his father called him this evening and told him that Wesley had pretty much stolen his mother’s car twice in the last two days, and that he suspected that Wesley was doing something wrong with it, William, Jr. knew exactly what his brother was doing. He called me at the club to warn me. I had already seen the car. That call just confirmed what I suspected.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me that you knew he was there the whole time, Jonathan?”

“Jennifer, I didn’t want you to worry, and I didn’t want J.J. to have to worry. I already had my people in place, watching the lot, and once I knew for sure that he was there; I had them watching him. He was so focused on Teddy’s car, and so high on that stuff, that he didn’t even notice that he was being watched and followed himself.”

For a few minutes they were all quiet.

“Jen, where’s our kids?” Teddy finally asked to break the uncomfortable silence. “Did my son get them in on time?”

Jennifer softly smiled at the introduction of that more pleasant topic.

“They’re in the den, Bear, watching videos. They got in around eleven forty-five, or so.”

“Before midnight?” Jonathan cried, the spark coming back into his eyes. “She practically begged me to be allowed to stay out longer.”

“I was surprised, too.” Jennifer said. “But you know how she is. With her, it was probably more a matter of knowing that she could stay out if she wanted to than her really wanting to. Oh, by the way I had to give Teddy a pair of your sweat pants to wear, Jonathan. His dress pants got a little wet, and I think he wanted out of that tuxedo anyway. The sweats were kind of big on him, but he somehow rolled that waistband and made them fit with that undershirt he had on. J.J., of course, put that hair back up and got back into her own regular gear. They’re both quite comfortable now; barefoot, grungy teenagers once again.”

Teddy, Sr. turned to her.

“Wet? How’d he get his pants wet? What did he do? That boy is always getting into something. His mother is going to wring his neck about that suit, and mine. She says I spoil him, and that’s why he does the things that he does. But who was it that went out and got him that suit? Not me. I just got stuck with the bill.”

“He didn’t do anything.” She laughed at Teddy’s exasperated face and at Jonathan’s “Doesn’t that story sound familiar” expression. “They said that they went for a walk on the beach, and the surf caught them a couple of times. Her skirt was all wet at the bottom and even though he had his pants rolled up, they still got wet.”

“Why did he have her on the beach?” Teddy asked. “I thought they said they were going to the pier with the other kids.”

“You have to listen to J.J. when she says things. What she said was that Philly’s father invited them to the boat, and that they might go to the boat with the others. But if you remember, the first thing she mentioned was the beach. She doesn’t lie. She just makes sure that the truth fits her purposes in case she gets called on it. What it was, Teddy, was that they just wanted to spend some time together, alone, away from the others. They’re young, they like each other, she’s pretty private about that sort of thing, and I sense that he is too. They were operating within a very limited time frame. Since they knew that I was here, they said they decided to come back here. It’s a big enough place for them to be alone, while still being somewhat supervised, which is one of the rules we’ve set down for J.J.. Of course, Miss Hart tried to make sure that I had my instructions.

They came in and changed. Then they took Third out for his evening walk. They came back and played pool for a while in the billiard room. After that, they fixed themselves some milk and cookies and went into the den to watch television, they said, until you two got back with little Teddy’s car. You should have seen them. They were so sweet and so cute. Just two very good kids, enjoying each other’s company. You’ve raised a fine boy. I could have taken him back to the hotel for you, but I don’t think he minded waiting. ”

Teddy smirked. “I’m sure he didn’t.”

But that deep furrow had returned to Jonathan’s brow. “What beach were they on, Jennifer?”

With slight alarm, she took quick note of the change in his expression.

“J.J. said they were right below our beach house.” She answered. “She said that she wanted to show Teddy some special place she discovered down there on our stretch.”

When Jonathan and Teddy suddenly looked to each other with the same look of concern, she became even more anxious.

“Why?”

“Damn.” Teddy exclaimed, still staring at Jonathan. “They had to have been there.”

“What?” asked  Jennifer. “Where? Had to have been where?”

Jonathan rubbed at his forehead. He had been raised on the adage that God moved in mysterious ways, but not being an overly religious person, he had always preferred relying on himself,  playing and depending upon his hunches, which were rarely wrong. He had always been lucky in following his instincts, and once again it appeared that the luck had held out. He knew that somebody greater had always been going to bat for him. J.J. Hart apparently had an in with that somebody, too. Somehow, just like her old man, she always managed to land on her feet.

That she had, “dodged the bullet”, came to his mind, but at that moment that reality was far too raw for him to handle.

“We were right above where they were.” He said, finally addressing Jennifer. “We led Wesley out there to the level just under the bluff, with the thought that we were taking him out of her way, but to a place where I was sure he couldn’t easily get away if he tried something. We thought she and Teddy would be at the pier with the others on the Diaz’s boat. I should have known that girl was going to do something else. I missed that cue completely. As it turns out we led him almost right to her.”

Still clinging to Jennifer’s hand, he continued to rub his forehead with the other.

Suddenly he sat forward, bringing her with him.

“I have to see my kid.” he declared as he stood and then helped her up, too.

Teddy rose from his chair.

“I guess I’d better get mine.” He said. “It’s late, or maybe I should say early. Whatever the case, we should be heading back to the hotel.”

He followed Jonathan and Jennifer to the den where they were stopped in the doorway by the scene inside.

J.J. and Teddy had apparently been looking at photo albums and playing Monopoly on the floor. Several large books were stacked up on the grate. The game and the assorted items that went with it were still spread out on the carpet. Cloudy drinking glasses and a crumb-filled tray were on the coffee table. The television was still on, but snow was all that played on the screen since the videotape they had been watching had run out. Both the teenagers were asleep on the floor. J.J. was lying on her stomach, her head resting on her crossed arms. Teddy was lying next to her on his back with his arms casually folded behind his head.

Jonathan sighed and dropped his head at the sight. His daughter had always been able to fall asleep just about anywhere, and apparently, with anybody.

“Well,” He said. “After all that’s happened, after all that could have happened, even I have to admit that I can’t think of a better picture than the two of them together and okay. Even if your son does happen to be sleeping with my daughter. I never thought I’d hear something like that come out of my mouth about that girl while I wasn’t holding a pistol on somebody. Jennifer, can’t you do something with your daughter? This is the second time she’s done this to me.”

Jennifer snickered. “That is your girl. Isn’t that what you tell me all the time?”

Teddy, Sr. stepped past them into the room and shook his son awake. “Come on boy, get up. Didn’t I tell you not to sleep with her?”

Teddy, Jr., sat up, wiping his eyes. He looked down at J.J. and then up to his father, asking in innocent, sleepy confusion, “What? Sleep with who? J.J.? I didn’t hardly touch her. We must have just fell asleep. Honest.”

Jonathan heard and repeated, “Hardly?”

The boy had driven his car, was wearing his clothes, and was waking up next to his daughter. And still, somehow, the curly-headed rascal had managed to work his way under his skin and was trying to make his way into his heart.

“Car drives like a dream, Mr. Hart.” Teddy stretched and yawned. “Thanks for the memories.”

And then, right there in front of all of them, he leaned over and gave J.J. a quick kiss to the cheek.

“G’night, J.” He said in her ear.

Afterward, he got up, and went straight to the table where he started gathering the dishes. All the while, hitching up the too-large sweat pants he wore.

“Don’t worry about this.” Jonathan said to him, trying not to laugh at him, as he came into the room. “I’ll take care of it later. He took the tray with the glasses stacked on it from Teddy and put them back down on the table. Then he reached for Teddy’s hand.

“Thanks, for taking care of J.J. so well for me tonight. You’re all right in my book.”

Teddy smiled and returned the handshake.

“It was my pleasure, Mr. Hart. Because you let me, I got to spend a special evening with a very special girl. We had a real nice time at the dance and then just hanging out and keeping each other company. AND I got to drive a Rolls Royce. I think I owe you.” Then he looked to his father. “Where’s your date, Dad?”

Teddy, Sr.’s heart was full. He had been admiring the ease with which his only son was interacting with such a powerful man as Jonathan Hart, especially after having been found asleep next to the man’s only daughter and then kissing her to boot. The kid had charm and nerve. J.J. did too. Evidently, he figured, both those kids were innately unconventional and unpredictable and, so far, unaffected by their enormous privilege.

With the pressure he had been under that evening, Teddy, Jr. hadn’t shown any signs of being plagued by that old problem from which he had once suffered. Perhaps that was over for him, after all. At one time, he said that taking a special girl out made him too nervous. Apparently, J.J. Hart was an exception. She must have had a calming effect on him.

Or perhaps she generated a species of butterflies in the boy’s gut that he could handle.

Whatever the case, it would be interesting- and maybe a little nerve wrecking- to see what developed between them. It was a very good thing that they would be returning to the opposite coast in less that twenty-four hours. They might heat up the phone lines, but at least there would be less risk of them heating up each other.

Teddy, Sr. answered his son’s question. “I’m pretty sure she’s out of the picture, son.”

“Sorry about that, Dad.”

“I’m not, son.”

J.J., still lying on the floor, hadn’t moved a muscle. Jennifer had taken the throw from the couch and was using it to cover her up.

“You’re just going to leave her there, Jen?” Teddy, Sr. asked as he watched her move J.J.’s arms and tuck the pillow from the chair under J.J.’s head.

“She’s hard to wake.” Jennifer explained as she pulled the ponytail around to the back of J.J.’s head, out from where it had been pinned under the front of one shoulder. Then she covered  her up to the neck with the throw.

“If I were to wake her now to go to bed, she would have a very hard time getting back to sleep. If this girl doesn’t get her proper rest, she turns into a real little witch, and I am not being bothered with that out of her all day tomorrow. Until she wakes on her own, she’ll be right here. She’s done it before.”

Jonathan had been observing all of them. He looked from Teddy, Sr. to Teddy, Jr., who was taking a last look at J.J. as she continued to sleep. Then he focused on Jennifer who was rising from her loving efforts with their daughter,  He thought again of what might have been, twice in as many weekends. He thought of how all of them in that room would have lost so much had things gone any differently. And although he had been trying to put it out of his mind, he wondered  what Wesley had really planned to do with that GHB he had in that vial. That particular drug hadn’t shown up in his system after the tests had been run. In whose system had he planned to use it?

He had been battling an inner rage that had been plaguing him since the start of it all, but he was having more trouble beating back the unmanly fears that had been threatening all week, ever since the previous weekend. Jennifer had called them, “if’s”, and she had told him not to let them worry him. He could tell that was going to be easier said than done. “If” could be a mighty powerful word if one dwelled on it long enough, and his “ifs” were big ones.

Wesley, like Teddy, was just a boy. That had been profoundly apparent as he watched him,  pale, limp and helpless, his face still bearing the evidence of the beating he had taken the previous weekend, being loaded onto that ambulance stretcher. He had always had a strong compassion for children, and was usually the first one to understand and forgive their youthful transgressions. But this time it was different.

Teddy, Jr. had been a boy standing in a man’s shoes that night. He had admirably handled himself and the responsibilities with which he had been charged, and for that Teddy had gained his respect.

That other boy had been playing a man’s game, and for that he had come very close to being dealt with like any man foolish enough to pose a threat to Jonathan Hart’s daughter’s life.

If J.J. and Teddy had….  If Wesley had been able to….  If he and Teddy, Sr. had not…  If the security team hadn’t been able to….

If….

He was grateful that Lamb and the Hart security team had been able to subdue Wesley in time. A few more steps, and…

It was good that it hadn’t come to that, but if it had, of one thing he was sure. There wouldn’t have been any regrets on his part.

Not one.

That was the part of it all that had been, and was, so frightening to him. It was the part of himself that he tried to keep suppressed. He understood it to be a reaction to the loneliness and sense of isolation felt in his own childhood, and to protecting the family that had been so long coming to him. But still the speed and strength with which it could involuntarily surge within him was unnerving.

At one time, he had felt that strongly defensive about Hart Industries. Until Jennifer came into his life, the business had been his baby. It was the bountiful fruit of his labors; it was his life. In business dealings as in his personal affairs, he had built a solidly favorable reputation based upon his natural charm. But with those who had reason to know, he also had a reputation for being smart, shrewd, and borderline ruthless when necessary. When Jennifer came along, that energy had been directed toward her, making her happy and maintaining her safety and well-being. Then along came J.J.

That little girl on that floor was now his only baby. She was the fruit of his loins, the result of the love he shared with that one very capable woman, the woman with whom he had achieved an inner peace and a level of satisfaction in life that had evaded him before she entered it. J.J. was their love’s legacy. Jennifer was her mother, but he was J.J. Hart’s father. It was his responsibility to take care of both of the them and to protect their child from harm. And whether she was holding his hand or not, as long as he had any say in it, he would continue to look out for her- by whatever means necessary.

________________________________________________________________

It was the middle of the night. Jennifer was asleep on her side of the bed. She slept deeply these days. Having and caring for a young baby, having her life so profoundly and unexpectedly changed, took a lot out of her. Despite all of that, she still refused outside help with J.J.

She had recently let go the secretary he hired for her, saying that the young woman only got in her way. She could handle things herself, she said, and so, he had let her. Marie handled the household matters, and he tried to do everything he could to assist Jennifer with the baby. That included letting her sleep at night while he got up to check on their little girl.

He crossed the hall and opened the door. There she was, sitting up in her crib, working hard at pulling off a sock. The glow of the night light illuminated the bright , four-toothed smile that sprouted on her little face as soon as she caught sight of him. Quickly pulling herself up, using the bars and then the top rail of her bed to stand, she held on with one hand, and gestured with her little fingers for him to come to her. She was so young and tiny, but so quick, strong, and so smart.

When he lifted her from the crib, immediately she clung to him, excitedly bouncing and squealing in his arms. She loved it when he came to her in the night. Frequently, when he checked on her like that, she would be awake, but unless she had soiled herself in the worst way, she didn’t make a fuss. She would just be there, cooing, playing with her toes and fingers, perhaps pulling at what was left of the mobile over her bed, just somehow amusing herself until someone made an appearance.

She was wet. He got a bottle from the cooler, put it in the warmer and then changed her diaper. After retrieving them from her bed, he put the socks back on that she had removed and would probably take off again as soon as she got the chance. He got the bottle from the warmer and took her to the rocking chair. Holding her in his arms as she drank the milk, hefting the bottle on her own, he stroked her fine, curly, baby hair which was red like her mother’s. She was looking up at him, watching his face like she always did when they were alone like that.

Her eyes were fascinating to him. He was the only person in their family with blue eyes. Jennifer and her father had brown eyes. Jennifer’s aunt, Sabrina and her twin sister, Jennifer’s late mother, had hazel eyes. None of Jennifer’s grandparents, on both sides, had blue eyes. J.J. had gotten those blue eyes from her daddy, and that made him proud.

“What are you looking at little girl?”

She grinned around the nipple of the bottle and holding it with one hand, she reached for his lips with the other.

“No, you can’t have my mouth. I can’t talk to you if you’re holding my mouth.”

She wrapped her hand around his fingers when he moved it from his face.

“You look like your mommy, do you know that? You’re going to be pretty just like her one day. I think you’re going to be smart like her, too.”

When she finished the bottle, she simply let go of it. Being empty, she had no more use for it. She and it were done. Before it hit the floor, he caught it  and put it on the table.

“We don’t just throw things on the floor when we get finished with them, young lady. Everything in its proper place.”

She made a face that forced that faint dimple in her cheek. That face and that dimple tickled him. Both were carbon copies of the original when she didn’t want to hear what was being said to her. That baby was so little, and maybe it was his overactive imagination, or perhaps even paternal pride, but it seemed like she understood everything he said to her.

He held her up to him so that her head was on his shoulder.

“Do you know how much your daddy loves you?”

Her sweet, warm breath was on his neck and her baby sounds were music to his ear as he patted her back to make her burp. When she did, he could hear and feel her spit up, and he was glad that he remembered to put the towel on his shoulder. She didn’t catch him that time.

Bringing her back down to rock her, he held her in the crook of his arm, close to his chest until she finally fell back asleep. After she did, he continued to hold her for a while longer, marveling at her existence.

So precious….

“Don’t grow up too fast on me, sweetie.” He whispered to her as he kissed her dewy forehead. “Take your time and enjoy being Daddy’s little girl for as long as you can. I promise you, I’ll always take care of you, and I’ll never let anybody hurt you.”

As he placed the baby back in her bed, the comforting smell of a burning cigar and the familiar scent Old Spice cologne suddenly filled his nostrils…

 

Jennifer rolled away from him, and the disconnection of her body from his woke him. She slept on the side of the bed closest to the windows, and the light filtering in through the slats on the shutters outlined her body and the wavy ends of her hair as she got settled again under the covers. He was tempted to wake her by getting things started again; she was always up for a middle of the night session, but he decided against it, opting instead to let her continue to sleep.

He wondered if J.J. was still on the floor of the den, and he decided to go down and check on her.

She was still in that room, but she was off the floor and awake on the couch. She had wrapped herself and Third in the throw, and they were watching an old black and white movie on the television.

“J.J., it’s four o’clock in the morning! Why aren’t you in bed?”

When she looked to him, he had to smile. Her face was so much like that first one with which he had fallen in love.

“This is such a good movie, Daddy. They only put the good stuff on real late like this, And besides, you know I can’t go back to sleep right away once I wake up.”

“Yeah, I do know that.” He said as he sat down in the recliner.

She was still looking to him. Finally she said, “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, what happened with Wesley?” She asked, somewhat impatiently, confirming what he suspected she had really been sitting there thinking about. “And please don’t sugar coat it. I knew it had gotten serious when you gave me and Teddy your car, and you and Mr. Baxter took his.”

“Don’t sugar coat it? Why didn’t you tell me that Wesley almost got you killed last weekend?”

She screwed up her face and looked away. He got up from the chair and went to sit down next to her on the couch.

“Not this time, J.J. Tell me.”

“I knew you would try to kill him if you knew.” She whispered. “I didn’t want you to hurt him. I wanted him to leave me alone, but he had his own issues, and I didn’t want you to hurt him or to hurt yourself. You get fighting mad about stuff like that.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that he was on drugs? You knew it, didn’t you?”

“I had heard that he was. I suspected it, but I didn’t know it for myself. I mean, I never saw him do it. I hadn’t spoken with him, I hadn’t been hanging around with him, and I didn’t let anybody talk to me about him, so to tell you the truth, I didn’t know it for myself. It was just hearsay, so I kept my mouth shut about it. I don’t tell things that I don’t know to be true firsthand for myself.”

“J.J., even as hearsay, you didn’t think that was an important enough detail to let me in on? That altered everything.”

She turned to face him. “I know it did, but, like I said, I didn’t know it to be the truth. In retrospect I’m thinking maybe I should have mentioned it to you so that you could know that he might not be rational when you ran into him, but I honestly wasn’t expecting it to come to all of this. What happened?”

“He’s really sick, J.J. He followed us, thinking it was you and Teddy.”

“He was at the club? Stalking me? He was sick.”

Jonathan nodded. “I had security watching for him, though. I saw him. They saw him hiding out, and they followed him when he followed us. But I don’t just mean he was sick for doing that.”

He noticed that while he had been talking she had paled as if she were picturing something in her mind. He recalled that look that Russell had given him.

“He’s in the hospital, J.J.” He answered while processing his thoughts. ” He almost had a heart attack. He took too much of that stuff. It was Ecstasy, I’m told. He’s in trouble with the law for stalking you- I gave the police and his parents copies of his phone messages and emails to you- for the drugs, and for some other things. I don’t think he’ll be bothering you any more. He has his own problems at this point.”

Looking down, avoiding his eyes, J.J.’s distress was manifesting itself in her anxious rubbing of the dog’s ears. Third, his eyes half-closed in rapture, didn’t seem to mind at all being used in that manner.

“God, I hate that for him, Daddy.” She said. “He messed up all the way around, and I really hate what he’s done to himself. Look, I didn’t know what I should tell you or not tell you. I wanted you to help me, and even though he was on my nerves, I didn’t actually want you to hurt Wesley. He can never get back in good with me, but I thought that if you knew all of that, about the drugs and the almost-accident and everything, you would go after him and really take him out. Not to mention that I thought my mother would get all nervous like she does, and lock me down because of it.

But I was more worried about you. I knew that if you ended up taking him out, that would have hurt you, too. I get mad about things just like you do, so I know how it is. It happens way down deep on the inside, and it scares me sometimes. When people do things to me or to people I love, I feel like I could really hurt somebody. I get so very, very mad; I have to fight with myself not to react right away. You’re like that, too. I can tell. I can see it in you sometimes.”

“Is that why Issy took that unexpected swim at the club tonight?” He asked once he got past the initial shock of the admission she had made about herself, and the accuracy of her report of what she had observed in him.

She tried not to show it, but he could see that she was a bit taken aback by the question he’d put to her.

Then she tried to stall.

“Issy?”

“Issy, J.J. You know good and well what I’m talking about. I know about the fight you had with her last weekend when you were at the Dairy Queen. Don’t try to snowball me.”

Losing her battle with trying not to impishly smile, she asked, “Is there anything that doesn’t get by you?”

“If it gets by me.” He answered. “Trust me, your mother manages to catch it. Now answer me.”

“Daddy, she called me a bitch, and she tried to fight me for no good reason. But, I bet you she backed off me when she saw that I wasn’t scared of her. We ended up not fist fighting, but there was no way in the world that I was going to let her off the hook for calling me that. For no good reason, she came up to me and tried to embarrass me in front of the world, so I did her when I got the chance to get her back. She’ll think twice about coming at me like that again.”

She raised her chin. “An eye for an eye.” She declared. “You know that’s how it is.”  Lowering the chin, but raising that Roussel eyebrow, “Sue me.” She said.

Faced with that real good look at himself, he eyed her back. At that precise moment, Gloria Swanson’s face filled the screen behind J.J.’s head.

Still staring each other down, he finally said, “Well, if she had the nerve to call you a bitch to your face, then I guess she deserved whatever she got.”

J.J. nodded her head one time in the way that her mother did when she was in agreement with an idea put before her. “You know it.”

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” Sounded from the television.

Still looking at each other, seeing themselves in the other, they both lost it and burst out laughing. She fell over into his arms, and he held her close, wishing he could keep her right there, safe and with him, forever.

________________________________________________________________

Finale

“So like, J., what did you and Teddy end up doing last night? Marnie asked as she got settled at the Hart’s patio table with J.J. and Teddy late the next morning. “You guys never did come to the pier with us. You wouldn’t tell us where you were when we called you. So, where did you go?”

Teddy and J.J. turned to look at each other. J.J. winked, and then Teddy answered.

“We drove out to where the Hart’s have their beach house to hang out. We walked around on the beach. Then we came back here.”

“And we slept together.” J.J. smugly added.

“You lie!” Marnie gasped. “You did not, and you know it. I know that the Duchess was here. No way did you two sleep together with her here. She’s pretty open-minded about talking about sex, but she isn’t that damned open-minded. She put me on lockdown over one hickey.”

“I’m telling you,” J.J. insisted. “We really did sleep together.”

Teddy put his arm around J.J.’s shoulders and drew her to him. “It was fantastic.” He grinned, rolling his eyes to the heavens.

Marnie huffed, folded her arms and sat back.” Bullshit. I don’t know why you two want to play with me like this.”

The patio door opened. The twins, Brittany, Tiffany, and Ollie, Jr. joined the threesome already present. J.J. had been allowed to invite all of them to the send-ff brunch her mother was serving for Teddy and his father. Marnie had been personally invited by the Duchess, who wanted to see her, and her car, up close and personal. J.J. and Teddy had been a little disappointed that they weren’t going to be able to go out and have breakfast alone as they had planned, but it was good to have the group together again to see Teddy off.

“So where did you guys go?” Chase immediately asked J.J. and Teddy. “We waited for you. We were worried about you after you didn’t show, and then you wouldn’t say where you were when I called. We figured that you went somewhere to be by yourselves, but Teddy, you know that we were supposed to stay together.”

“We had more important things to do.” Teddy smiled. “And besides, I had it covered.”

“They say they came back here and that they slept together.” Marnie informed the others, her arms still folded and glaring at J.J. and Teddy as they sat cozily leaned together. “I don’t believe them, though.”

Chance waved his hand at the three of them in dismissal. “Don’t be stupid, Marn. I can read all between the lines of that. You’re letting your filthy little mind block out your good sense. They might have fallen asleep together maybe, but no way did Teddy sleep with J. last night, and Hart didn’t blow his head off afterward. Not in the mood he must have been in when he got home last night. Did you guys hear? They say Wes is all messed up.”

“I tried so hard to tell him it would be like that.” Ollie offered. “I explained to him what the physical effects of dropping that stuff, as often as he was, might be, but he wouldn’t listen. He just kept doing what his new club friends were doing, telling me that he could handle it. He kept telling me that he could quit whenever he wanted. I told him the problem was, he wouldn’t want to.”

“Ollie, the future doctor.” J.J. smiled. “Keep studying, guy.”

Ollie reddened. “I just hope he comes out of it okay. I hope he learned his lesson.”

“As long as he leaves J. alone, I don’t care.” Chase declared. “He’s a jerk, pure and simple. He got off lucky, going the way he did. We ain’t having it. Nobody bird dogs our girl.”

“Come to think of it, I owe you one, J.” Marnie said. “You knew that the Duchess already was on to me about the car. For two weeks, I was ducking and dodging. I couldn’t even come to see my mother for worrying about your mother. And she knew all the time. Why didn’t you tell me.”

“I just forgot.” J.J. answered. “I had things on my mind.”

“Nothing but that damned Teddy.” Marnie fussed. “It’s funny how the important stuff slipped your mind when he got on it.”

“Why do I have to be “damned Teddy”?” Teddy asked.

“Whatever.” J.J. said to Marnie.

“Guess what?” Tiffany piped up. “Issy called me last night. Hit me up on the cell wanting to know if I knew who the cute guy was who helped her out of the pool.”

Marnie snickered, “Can you believe that cow? She gets almost drowned, and she’s still checking out guys.”

“That was so funny, J.” Britt crowed. “You pulled that off so slick. I didn’t see anything, but as soon as I heard somebody scream and then I heard that splash, I knew exactly what had happened. We were on the boat crying about it last night when we were telling Charmaine and Philly what happened.”

“Believe it or not,” J.J. said. “She called me, too, a little while ago. She acted like nothing ever happened between the two of us. I guess she figured the score was even, and we could start from square one. I mean, it’s okay by me. I wasn’t ever really mad at her or anything. I just owed her one. I didn’t know where she was coming from confronting me like she did. but talking to her, she didn’t even try to accuse me of anything. I figure she must have just accepted that I owed her, and she had gotten it. But I still didn’t tell her anything about Russell. She didn’t need to know all of that. He is way too old for her and way too nice. I acted like I didn’t know who she was talking about. After all, I didn’t see him get her out, so how could I be sure?”

“It was too funny listening to her play Issy off.” Teddy said, grinning broadly as he squeezed J.J.’s hand under the table. “You guys are something else. Despite the thing with Wesley, I have had the time of my life in this one weekend. I hate that it’s coming to a close so quickly. Thanks for letting me a part of your world, and for making me feel so welcome.”

J.J. squeezed his hand back. “Any time.” She said. “I mean that.”

________________________________________________________________

Once their guests were gone, J.J. had gone off on her own, leaving Jonathan and Jennifer to themselves while Marie, who had returned that morning from her sister’s, supervised the extra staff they had put on for brunch as they cleaned up.

They had taken the rare opportunity to go for an afternoon swim and then indulged in a leisurely stroll on the rear grounds together. Hand in hand, towels about their waists, they slowly walked toward the back end.

“Well, Mrs. H., It looks like we’ve made it through another summer.”

“A very eventful one, I might say, Mr. H. Very meaningful in so many ways.”

“So what did you think of young Master Teddy?”

She chuckled, running her free hand through her wet hair to get it off her neck. “There you go. You are the master of combining a statement and a question. Just admit that you like the boy.”

“I like and respect his father. He’s a good man. A good father.”

“And he’s raised a good boy whom you can’t help but like and respect as well. Admit it, Jonathan. There’s no sin in it.”

“You know sin doesn’t scare me.” He answered. “And I’m not admitting to any such thing.”

“Hmph.” She snorted. “Not out loud anyway. Bear always was good people despite his having the raging hots for Pat and getting me caught up in their mess. He was her first love. Even after high school, through college, and between marriages, they continued to see each other. Eventually she got past him, but I don’t think he ever got all the way over her. Pat told me at the reunion that Bill’s been the only man in her life for some years now. That’s saying something for her. When I was dancing with him, Bear said that Pat was the one that got away.”

“Well, he’ll have to just accept that loss because she’s not throwing over my buddy for him. Bill is crazy about her.”

“Ahhh, first loves.” She smiled dreamily. “Who was your first love, Jonathan? And before you say it, Janet doesn’t count. I know about her. That was in the third grade.”

“And when she realized that she and I could never be, that was when she decided to become a nun.”

“Jonathan, you are totally blasphemous. You know full well what happens to people like you.”

“And what happens to the people who hang around people like me? Hand in hand, baby. Hand in hand.”

“Be serious.” She said as she pulled on the arm around which she had coiled her own. “Tell me. Who was it, really?”

“All right. I guess I’d have to say that I thought my first real love was Nikki Stephanos.”

She nodded, not surprised at that answer. His affair with the Greek heiress had been widely publicized and romanticized in society columns around the world. She had read of it in passing, long before she ever had a thought of meeting him, much less falling in love with him or marrying him.

“What happened to you two, if I’m not being too nosy. You were together for quite a while. I remember reading an article about the two of you, sailing off one of her father’s islands or something.”

He looked a little uncomfortable, and for a moment she almost regretted having asked that question which had popped into her mind at various times during their years together, but that she hadn’t put to him before.

“It was me.” He finally admitted. “We had been together, seriously, for a couple of years. Her father liked me, and I admired him a lot; he taught me so many things about business and how to handle myself professionally and internationally. I’m sure that he wanted us to marry, but I came to realize that I didn’t love her enough to marry her. She wanted a man who could just drop everything and devote all of his time to her, you know, the idle rich thing.

I enjoyed my work and my life. I wanted her to develop one of her own, but she was content to just exist at my side. That was how she had been raised. At that time in my life, I wasn’t sure what kind of woman would really suit me, but more than that, I didn’t think I’d ever find a woman I wanted to commit my life to. To tell you the truth, I thought something was wrong with me. I thought maybe not having a family of my own when I was growing up had kind of messed me up or something. I just couldn’t get that close, or let anybody else in that close.

I’d talk to Max about it, and he kept telling me to just live my life. He told me that if the right woman was going to happen for me, she would, just like everything else had. He said not to push it. He was afraid that I had been so lucky in everything else, the odds had to be against me in love if I were to push it, and he didn’t want me getting hurt. Anastasia, for her part, was afraid that some woman was going to let me get her pregnant to box me into marrying her. My very public success made her scared for me. What neither of them understood was that I was really very selective about my women. I dated a lot. It might have appeared like I was bagging lots of panties-”

“Jonathan!”

“Sleeping around a lot. But actually, I was too busy. I mean, I got my share, but it wasn’t nearly what everyone thought it was. But then you came along, and somehow, I knew that first time I held you in my arms to dance with me, that you were the one. The fit was absolutely perfect. I liked that you had your own agenda, and that you were content to let me have mine. It was like, okay, you can rest now, enjoy what you do, and be happy with a woman you love with all of your heart. We could be two separate people, man and wife, and lovers at the same time. I haven’t been restless like I once was since that day you told me that you would marry me. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“What a nice story.” She sighed.

“Now, your turn. What about you, Jennifer? Who was your first love?”

He was expecting a hesitation. She didn’t talk a lot about her past outside of what might have come up in the course of a conversation or something over the years. But, to his surprise, she answered his question right away.

“You.”

“Come, on. Don’t cop out. I told you who mine was. For real. Who was yours?”

“Honestly, Jonathan. It was you. I had never been in love, nor thought I was in love, until I met you. Before you, I had fun. I went through the motions. I enjoyed guys’ company, their personalities. I traveled and had good times. I made good friends, had a few affairs, but I never loved. I never said those words to anyone, except you. Like you, I always thought I was too scared to open up and really love anybody. Mine was probably because… you know… because of losing my mother and all of that. I was almost thirty, and I had never been in love. I had pretty much accepted that was how my life was going to be. Then something happened to reinforce those fee-”

She hesitated, and he waited for her, biting his tongue to keep from pressing her to go on.

“Something happened,” She said in a near whisper. “And afterward I was sure that I was going to be alone the rest of my life. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to let anyone close enough to me again to love me or for me to love them. And then, all of a sudden, there you were. I had agreed to come to London to work, but really I was there to find myself again, and along with me, I found you. There you were right next to me, and there I was, whole once again.

Laughing a small laugh, she looked up at him. “You almost missed me, though. You did everything you could to not let  this chain-smoking, love-starved matron peep through the keyhole to see you.”

A sheepish look crossed his face. “You promised you wouldn’t bring that up any more. How was I supposed to know that the name “Jennifer Edwards” was attached to somebody with such enticingly beautiful eyes and a set of legs that wouldn’t quit. And how you could just sit there without comment, letting me say that about you-”

“I forgave you. And eventually I let you peep through my keyhole, didn’t I?”

“Yessssss.” He grinned at the memory. “Yes, you certainly did.”

They walked on a bit farther, quietly enjoying their “backyard” and being in each other’s company. Finally he worked up the nerve to ask her what he hadn’t before.

“Jennifer, you’ve alluded to it. But you haven’t ever really said. What is it that happened to you right before we met? Who hurt you? What did he do to you?”

She released him, and slowly folded her arms tightly to herself, murmuring, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. You just started to say something about it when we were talking before. Won’t you tell me about it? It might be old news, but you haven’t forgotten about it.”

Still holding herself, she continued to walk next to him, although her step had slowed considerably.

“Jennifer, this thing with Wesley bothered you on a much deeper level than just what it was doing to J.J. I know you. I know when you hurt. When J.J. got kidnapped last spring, even more so than that, when she had that other stalking incident, it brought something back to you. You weren’t only scared for J.J. You were scared for you, weren’t you?”

She shook her head.

“I thought we didn’t have secrets, Jennifer.”

“It’s not a secret, Jonathan. It’s just that it’s never been the time. For a long time, when it was just you and I, it didn’t matter. It was behind me, and you were my present. It didn’t matter until J.J. came to me.” She stopped talking, and wouldn’t meet his concerned eyes.

“I won’t have her hurt.” She declared. “I use the things I had to learn the hard way to make sure that my daughter is smarter than I was at her age, and she is. It’s not a secret, but trust me, Jonathan. Now is not the time. Not for you, anyway. Please.”

When he could see that she was stressed almost to the point of tears, he took her in his arms. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just wanted to help. I only want to understand. But if you can’t tell me-”

“I will, one day but not now. Not coming off what you’ve been going through lately. Another time.”

“Just tell me this, do I know him?”

She didn’t say anything, and he held her closer in an effort to suppress the twinge of rage that threatened. Her silence definitely answered his question. He knew with whom she had been shortly before they met, and it had to be him. If he had done anything to- Even though it had been over twenty-five years since that time- Above her head, where she couldn’t see them, his eyes squeezed shut to cut off the image of that bearded face.

“I thought I heard somebody talking.”

They both turned in the direction of the unexpected third voice.

J.J. was peeking out around the corner of the gazebo. “What are you guys doing all the way out here?”

Jennifer quickly composed herself, taking a half step back from him. “What are you doing out here?” She asked J.J. “Third was up at the house at the pool with us when we left. I thought you were taking a nap or something in the house.”

They went to the gazebo and joined J.J. where she had evidently been out there journaling. Her book with the pen stuck inside were on the bench.

“I just needed some down time.” She answered as they all seated themselves. “I’m all over the place in my head. There are so many things up there that I had to think about. I haven’t had a lot of time lately to sort them out, so I thought I’d write them down. That kinda helped. Did you guys hear any more about Wesley? Do you think he’ll be all right?”

“After what he put you through,” Jonathan said. “I can’t understand why you care so much about what happens to him.”

He felt it, and J.J. noticed it when Jennifer sent him that signal to desist by placing her hand to his thigh.

“Because, I guess, even though he’s a jerk, I care what happens to him as a person.” J.J. answered. “He’s the first person I know to get messed up like that. I mean, I know people who smoke a little weed or sneak some beer or some wine every now and then, but nothing like this. He’s the first to take it this far. It’s never been this close to me before.”

“Who is it that smokes weed and drinks, J.J.?” Jennifer wanted to know.

“Come on, Mom. You’ve been a reporter. You know I can’t name names. The important thing for you to understand is that even though I know these people, but I don’t do what they do. People do all kinds of stuff around me. You can’t really get away from it altogether, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to be stupid enough to do it with them. When things start getting too hot, I know when to get out of Dodge. People know I don’t indulge, so they just do their thing, and leave me to do mine. We can still be cool.”

“What else in on your mind?” Jonathan asked.

It seemed to him that J.J. had the other things under control. She was right. There wasn’t any way to escape the negatives in the world. She just had to know how to handle herself in the face of them, and it appeared to him that so far, she did.

“Just stuff.” J.J. answered. “I’ve had a pretty full summer, heck, as far as that goes a pretty full year so far. I’ve learned so much. I met some nice people. Tommy’s gone, and I still haven’t heard from him. That bothers me, and I miss him so much.  Teddy’s- well, Teddy’s just- Anyway, I was really out here just thinking mostly about how you can go into things never really thinking about or knowing how you’re going to come out of them. Like I went to Gresham Hall to my mother’s reunion, and it seems like ever since, my life has been changing, kind of like getting bigger and more real. Things are speeding up, moving sort of fast, even for me. I needed to slow up for a minute and catch my breath. But since you’re both here and we’re all together, I do want to say something to you.”

As if she were gathering her thoughts, she sat tapping her fingers on the journal she had placed on her lap. Then she looked up.

“I need to say thank you. You two are the best. I had a moment last night at the beach with Teddy, a moment that I won’t go into the details of. But when I had that moment, all I could think of were the things that both of you have told me and taught me all my life. I thought about what you said to me, Mom, when we were upstairs and when we were at lunch the other day. I remembered what you said to me, Daddy, when we were dancing. It was when I was having that moment that I realized that I really am J.J. Hart, and that’s really something and somebody to be. When you think about it, the stuff you do, the choices you make, they aren’t just about you when you do them or make them. It’s- It’s- It’s just really something to think about, to consider. The outcomes, I mean.”

She stopped and suddenly put her hands to her face. When she took them down, she was blushing mightily. Then she grinned.

“I know I’m not making sense. My head is so full right now. But I just want you to know that you two are the best parents a kid like me could have. I know I’m a trip a lot of the time, but you guys don’t trip with me. You stay you, and you let me be me. You’re the parents. I’m the kid. You both do things with me in your own way, and you’re good at what you do. It all works, and I’m grateful for all of it. We have a lot, I know, but it’s not the lifestyle, it’s not the things we have, the places you take me; it’s just you two. How you are. How you treat me and my friends. How you do other people, and how other people like and respect you. It’s how you are to each other. To me. You’re just the best.”

Then, impulsively, she jumped up and quickly kissed both her parents on the cheek. Standing over her mother, she stopped to look down at her, boldly placing an index finger to that red spot on the inside of her left breast which was visible just above the V of the bodice of her swimsuit.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” She said, waggling that finger. “You know, Aunt Sabrina says you should get those in secret places. I’m awfully afraid that isn’t secret enough, Jennifer. And just so you know, you could still get lockdown for something like that if Pa saw it. You might be past eighteen, but you aren’t too grown for him to do it, you know.”

Jennifer, at first stunned, then embarrassed, was on her way up.

“Why you little-”

J.J. feinted away from her reaching hands, backed up, and then stuck out her tongue.

Jonathan, catching Jennifer by the waist, pulled her back. J.J. took that opportunity to escape, laughing and yelling, “Gotcha!” as she ran from the gazebo.

“She can’t help it, darling.” He said once he had Jennifer on his lap. “The incorrigible little clown is in her blood. I learned most of my vocabulary words having had to write them hundred times on the board for Anastasia after one of our encounters over me giving a floor show in the back of the room while she was trying to teach. I’m just glad our daughter opted to come back here last night after her “moment” on the beach instead of hanging it out there and getting one of those of her own.”

Jennifer, struggling to free herself from his hold, began to fuss. “You didn’t have any business doing that to me, Jonathan. I told you when you did it that, if she saw it, she would-”

But when his mouth covered hers, cutting off her protests, in seconds she was eased from stiff and defiant into willing and pliant. Their continuing magic almost had him smiling inside her mouth. It would always be good between them.

Once again, J.J.’s daddy had gotten her out of the line of fire, and like always, it was his supreme pleasure to do so. She was her daddy’s girl; his one and his only.

His Hart.

End

Continue to next story

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s