Try as she might, J.J. had to finally accept the futility of thinking she was going back to sleep any time soon. It had always been that way with her. Under normal circumstances, she rarely had trouble getting to sleep and staying that way, but once she was awake, no matter what time it was when she woke or why; she was up.
If she were at home and didn’t have that device on her ankle that was holding it in place, she could have gotten up and found something else to do until she was tired again. But there at the hospital, although she did have the books her mother had brought down to her that she could have read, she didn’t want to turn the light back on to do it. Jazz, her private nurse, not really knowing how she operated, would see the light and be fussing at her about being up in the wee hours of the morning, not trying to go back to sleep.
At home, if she happened to wake in the night, and her mother saw the light peeking out from under the bedroom door, she would come in and check to see if she was okay. Sometimes, since she knew how it was with her and going back to sleep, she would stay to talk. Other times when she came in, they’d read to each other until the listener fell off to sleep. The Duchess was usually the listener in those scenarios, and so she was normally the one who ended up dozing off. That is until Jonathan Hart came looking for his wife to make her come back to bed with him.
Earlier that year there had been a couple of bizarre incidents to happen that woke her and brought her mother in to her in the wee hours of the morning. Those times she had been able to go back to sleep, but only because she had been wrapped up in her mother’s arms, who in her own quiet way, insisted upon her doing it.
But of course, she was much too mature for that sort of thing these days.
Thinking of the two of them, her parents; together they were so funny and so sweet at the same time. They couldn’t do without each other, and she couldn’t do without them. Not at that point in her life, anyway. The time was coming, but most of the time she was willing wait for it to get there.
Personally, she’d have let her father, or any guy, have it with both barrels for waking her up once she’d gone to sleep. Everybody said that she was hard to wake back up once she’d dozed off. Maybe that was why it was so hard to get back to sleep afterward. She knew for fact that she turned into a witch, and would remain one all day, when somebody woke her before the clock had a chance to go off. Maybe one day, she thought, with the right guy, she wouldn’t want to go back to sleep right away. Her mother never fussed about it when her father woke her up from resting in one perfectly good bed; only to have her get up and go back to bed with him in another. There must be some benefit to it.
Then, there he was again. That Teddy Baxter and his entourage of butterflies.
Placing the flat of both hands on her tummy, she pressed down on it, trying to still them.
It was the perfect time and place to think about him: somewhere suspended between night and day, and essentially on her own. Closing her eyes, she pretended to herself that she was in the bedroom of her own apartment- no mother, no father- just her alone to make her own decisions, all by herself. If she chose to have company, she could. If she chose not to, she didn’t have to. If she wanted to call him up and ask him to come over, even if it was the middle of the night like it was, she could do that. Smiling to herself, she wondered if he really would come over if she called him on the spur of the moment like that. She bet herself that he would.
It would be fun to have him sitting there with her, spending time with her like he had when she first hurt her ankle at Gresham Hall. He had come over to see her there more than once. He had carried her in his arms to get her to the Dean’s presentation in the auditorium. They had dinner together downstairs in the common room, where she had fallen to sleep on him. The girls said that they all brought her back up to the room and that Teddy had lifted her from the wheelchair to put her over into the bed. She didn’t let on, but that bit of information had been quite titillating, even if she hadn’t been awake to know about it. His being able to carry her meant that he was strong. Dee said that he kissed her on the cheek before they put him out of the room to keep from getting caught. Even though he had sneaked in that kiss, it was an awfully cute thing to do.
When they were together at the reunion, his conversation had been witty and entertaining, and she liked his nerve and his daring. He always found a way to get where he wanted to be. She noticed that even Miss Smythe, the housemother couldn’t resist him. His laughing brown eyes and his curly, soft brown hair were instantly endearing. He also had considerate and gentlemanly ways. Thinking about all of that in contrast to that dark, tall, muscular frame and macho carriage whipped those butterflies in her stomach to a whirling frenzy, and she pressed her hands down on it even harder.
She liked that he hadn’t been nervous with her mother like a lot of guys tended to be when they first met her. It didn’t seem like her father put much fear into him either, even though he tried to do it, just like he did with any boy who came around acting as if he might be interested in her. Self-assurance was another recent addition to the ‘desirable qualities in a guy’ list.
Bringing her hands up from her abdomen to rub both temples with the tips of her fingers, she thought to herself, “You’ve got it bad, J.”
The butterflies were still fluttering madly. Tempted to ring him again to see if he answered, she rolled over and picked up her cell phone from the bed. But then she put it back down. After all, he wasn’t Tommy. Him, she could call at any hour. She didn’t know how receptive Teddy would be to a before-day-in-the-morning phone call from her, seeing as how she didn’t really know him that well or for that long.
She figured it was a very good thing that she was only sixteen and had been stuck in that hospital by her father, rather than eighteen, away at college, and living on her own for real. There was no telling where things might have ended up last weekend. Jennifer Hart said that she needed to take her time, and that she was too young and inexperienced to be intimately involved with anyone, and she knew that she was right. Honestly speaking, she wasn’t even looking for that kind of thing from anyone. Everything her mother said that night had registered with her brain, but she wondered who was going to convince her heart and her hormones of it?
As she lie there thinking, it gradually dawned on her that things had been lining up and falling into place mighty mysteriously. It was as if someone were looking out for her, keeping her out of trouble and attempting to keep her mother at Briarwood. It was almost as if it were being done by design.
In the beginning, she had been irritated and upset about having to be at the weekend reunion with her mother at stuffy Gresham Hall. She and Marnie had been relegated to a suite with strangers, rather than going on to the Gresham Inn as they first thought they were. But just when things were looking most bleak, her attention had been diverted from her own situation to Dee, to a troubled girl who was alone, not doing well in her classes, and needed her help. Through meeting and getting to know Dee, she and Marnie went on to meet a whole new crew of friends and wound up having one of the best times of their lives.
She met Teddy at Gresham Hall after he and some of his friends sneaked up to their room in Waverly House, the all-girls’ residence to which she and Marnie had been assigned for their visit. The two of them had clicked right away. Teddy was from the Brookfield Academy, the boys’ school down the road, but in the summer, he groomed the horses kept at Gresham. His sneaking in, and his love of horses were right up her alley. But disaster struck on their very first trip out alone, a stolen early morning ride on the horses away from the campus out to Lookout Pointe. Walking around with Teddy at the base of the Point, she’d taken a misstep, fallen, and badly twisted her ankle. Consequently, she had been confined to a wheelchair and Waverly House. That kept the two of them from wandering off alone and acting on their obvious attraction to each other. For the most part, it insured that they would be under the watchful eye of Miss Smythe and the other adults responsible for her well-being.
Even when they did manage to get a moment alone together and ending up sharing a single first kiss, somehow, someway, her mother had been put in the exact right place at just the precise moment to witness it happen with her own eyes. Late that night, when Jennifer Hart buzzed her cell phone to let her know she had seen what they were doing and to read her about acting out her “little carnal impulses” in, that was when she began to question the coincidence of it all. It didn’t stop her from trying things, the odds had never, ever been in her favor when it came to getting away with things with her mother, but her luck had never been quite that bad. There were definitely some other forces at work that weekend.
But, after the last couple of days, things were really looking very peculiar to her.
She wanted so much to learn about her grandmother, and being at Briarwood made that longing grow even more strongly. But every time it seemed she was getting close, something happened to get in the way of it. According to both her parents’ philosophies, things in life happened when they were supposed to happen to whom they were supposed to happen. For sure, her father had seen to something happening with her. He was on to her and he had definitely slowed her roll, so to speak.
To keep her from going back into that secret passage where she had done further injury to her ankle on the night before, he had stashed her away in the hospital on the pretense of having her to rest and recover. She had not been fooled. If anybody suspected that she was going to try going down in the passageway again, it would be him. She knew that he had seen the same things that she did in her grandfather’s secret office: the guns, the certificates, the medals, all the things covered up by those cloths, and that portrait of her grandmother which her grandfather had shown her. As he was helping her from the floor, she could see that her father’s eyes were darting around, taking in everything. He had probably gone to bed and lain awake, putting it together that she intended to go back as soon as she got the chance to further investigate what all those things actually were. After all, she had been the one to tell him how much she wanted to know about her maternal grandmother, and he had been the one to tell her to be careful about who and what she asked about her. Going back down there could cut out that middleman that he was teaching her to sidestep when she could. If the things kept down there were what she suspected they were, she could perhaps find it out for herself. By moving her completely away from the situation and putting her in the hospital, her father called himself saving her from herself.
As far as she was concerned, all he was doing was putting if off. She was resting up, getting better and stronger. She’d do what she needed to do to get back on her feet. And then, she was going back down there, no matter what, before they went home to Los Angeles.
But then, maybe it was out of all of their hands anyway. It seemed like somebody else was actually calling the shots. The whole trip to Briarwood came about when she got hurt and then Pa came to Gresham Hall to surprise her mother and his friend, the Dean whom he was moving onto the grounds of his home. Originally the plan had been to attend the reunion and go back home to California. When he showed up, the trip got extended. Pa wanted her mother to oversee the work on the guest house to get it ready for the Dean and her sister to move in. Then he got sick, she got hurt, and the entire family ended up at Briarwood for various reasons. Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat even found their new home on that trip. Now nothing stood in the way of their getting married.
Somebody on the outside looking in on them was manipulating things, making them all come together for some reason. If that were so, she had no doubt that it was her grandmother who was doing it. She was dead, but she had been making her presence known to her for a while. She had been coming to her off and on through the years, and even more so all this year to help her through different difficulties as they had come up. J.J. was content in the knowledge that she no longer feared her doing that. In fact, she was strangely comforted by it, but it was their secret; she’d never mentioned it to anyone.
In that last dream she had, the one that had her lying there wide awake and thinking so hard, she had just about made it back to snoop through her grandfather’s things. Right before she could, her mother appeared, barring her way just as she would have in real life. She’d taught her better than that. The look on her face had frightened her to her very soul and when she turned around to run away from it, there stood her grandmother, looking as if she wanted to tell her something. In the dream she had been so ready to stop and hear what she had to say, even though she knew that her mother was right behind her.
But it seemed like she was going to tell it to her in her own time, and she would just have to wait for it to come. Things happened when they were supposed to happen to whom they were supposed to happen. It seemed like the message that dream was conveying was that sneaking and snooping were not the way to go.
Yawning, and snuggling down into the pillows, J.J. hoped it wouldn’t take her grandmother too long to get to the point, no disrespect intended.
Still in the passageway, Jonathan and Jennifer had gone back around to the staircase outside of J.J.’s room to renew their search for a way out. It was Jonathan’s gut feeling that it had to located somewhere near that particular room.
Starting there and working their way around from that area, they were back to that first staircase, the one that appeared to go down to the next level.
“It’s got to be here.” He determined. “This is the most likely place. It’s far enough away from that room, with enough diversions in between to throw somebody off. But it would have been close enough for somebody who knew what they were doing to get here in a hurry.”
A few steps ahead of him, Jennifer had gone on down the stairs intrigued by the door at the bottom .
As they had been walking, then feeling their way back to this place, the entire time, “Always follow your first mind, Jenny.” had been echoing in her head.
It was long-ago advice that her mother had frequently given her when she felt indecisive about something. It was advice that she had continued to follow even though until that moment, she had long since forgotten its origin.
Once she reached the door, she opened it to reveal the brick wall that faced them. He was still on the stairs, shining the light and closely examining the walls from top to bottom on either side of him as he slowly descended.
“If it’s here,” She said, shining the beam from her flashlight all over that brick wall inside the door. “I certainly don’t see it.”
She began carefully running her hand along the wooden frame of the door, mindful that she could pick up a splinter from the dry wood and trying to avoid doing so. She was feeling around for anything out of the ordinary.
“Jenny, in life you must always reach up for what seems to be over your head. You might not reach the stars, but you will surely end up somewhere beyond where you were.”
The words resounding in her head made her feel dizzy, but she’d heard them clearly. Reaching above her head and pushing her fingers all the way into the door frame above her head, she could feel that there was a recessed area behind it. Continuing to feel around, her fingers became hung up on something. Examining it unseen, using only her sense of touch, she concluded that it was a loop, sort of like an eye screw, and that the hole of the loop was large enough for her to hook her index finger into it.
“Jonathan.” She called out.
The tone of her voice immediately gaining his complete attention, he could see her down below, stretching to reach something over the door.
He rushed down the stairs. “You got something?” He asked when he got to her.
Just as he reached her, she pulled down hard on that metal loop hidden inside the overhang. A very low hum resulted and almost silently, the brick wall before them began to rise, recessing itself into the rest of the wall over their heads. A dim light on the other side flickered on and they could see more stairs that appeared to continue down.
Without hesitating, Jonathan took her by the shoulder and guided her inside, saying “After you.” He followed right behind her. “I wonder how Stephen thought you were going to find this so easily last night on your own.”
“I would have.” She answered without further explanation to him, but sure that she would have found it the first time if she had come all the way down there, especially in light of the mission she had been on at the time. That same set of instructions that helped her find the the switch then, would, without a doubt, have been issued in that case.
They stepped through, and when Jennifer was on the third step, the wall rolled back down behind them, nearly clipping him.
“Your mother wasn’t playing around.” He observed, looking back with some trepidation. “She would have had to be carrying you in her arms or have sent you in first. One thing’s for sure, either you knew what you were doing down here, or you ran the risk of getting crushed to death. You saw what that wooden wall did to that crutch in J.J.’s closet. I shudder to think what that solid brick would do to a human body if one weren’t moving fast enough.”
They stopped for a second to stare back in amazement. The wall was back in place, and from that side, with no door there, like there had been on the other side, it appeared as if the stairs led right up to a stationary, solid brick wall.
Jennifer looked to Jonathan. “My mother seems a little treacherous, doesn’t she?”
He looked her in the eye. “When it comes to protecting the cub, I don’t think the apple fell too far from the tree. She meant business. Like mother, like daughter.”
Before she had a chance to react to what he’d said, he took her by the hand and went past her on the stairs, pulling her with him. “Let’s keep going. It’s going on five in the morning, and we’re no closer to home.”
When that set of stairs ended, they were again on a level walkway. Judging from the level from which they had come and the length of the staircase they had just come down, they were somewhere below the first floor, but not quite in the basement. He wanted to proceed, but she stopped and pulled back on his hand.
“Wait.” She said, taking a seat on the bottom step, tugging his hand to indicate that she wanted him to sit with her.
He followed her lead and sat down next to her, asking. “What is it?”
“Aren’t you the least bit afraid?” She asked, searching his face in the light provided by the dim bulb over their heads. “Aren’t you the least bit nervous about where this thing might be taking us?”
He shook his head. “I figure if your mother designed it to keep you safe, it’s going to take us someplace safe.”
“Yes.” She said, still watching his face. “But how can you be so sure that wherever that safe place was, it still exists? It’s been nearly sixty years. Things could have changed or fallen apart in all that time. But it occurs to me that those are details that you would have considered. Jonathan, you know where this thing goes, don’t you? That’s why you’ve been so determined to come this way, to go down rather than back up, isn’t it.? It stands to reason that those closets probably have that same mechanism hidden above the doorframes to get a person back in. Now if I’ve thought of that, I know that you did right off. I know you. That mind of yours would have picked right up on that, and we would have gone back to check that out. You do know, don’t you?”
He looked away from her to keep her from seeing the guilt in his face, thinking that he never could put anything over on her. She reached over and took him by the chin to pull his face back around to hers. “Answer me, Jonathan.”
He sighed heavily and nodded. “Your father told me the night that I came looking for you the first time. He thought that you would make your way there, and that’s where he told me that I could find you.”
“And where is that?”
“He said the attic of the guest house.”
“The guest house? The attic?”
“That’s what he told me.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to go all the way out there.” She turned her head in that way that she would when she was growing impatient with a situation. “I want to go back upstairs. Now. We’ll be walking forever trying to get out there. I’m tired, and I need to go bed.”
He noticed that her face had gone ashen, and that she looked completely drained. It was unlike her to quit in the middle of a mystery, but he could tell that she was dead-set on not going on.
“Have you ever been in the attic out there?” He asked while he felt the door was still open to the question, at least.
“Not to remember. It was always locked, and I never had need to go up there anyway. I don’t ever remember it being used. Jonathan, I’m not up for any added drama or surprises. Please, can we just try to get back in up there? The workers will be here in a couple of hours to get started, and we haven’t had any sleep.”
He got up telling her, “You sit here. Let me take a look.”
He went up and shined the light around for a few moments, then he called down to her. “Bring me your hand, Darling”
She came up, and he pointed to a small almost unnoticeable gap between two bricks in the very left side of the wall. “Your hands are thin. See if you can feel anything in there.”
Stretching up on her toes, she slid her fingers inside the narrow vertical opening and felt around as much as she could. The tips her two middle fingers touched upon what she thought felt like a button. Maneuvering so that she could press it, her guess was confirmed when that low hum began within the walls once again. They stood back and watched as the brick wall moved up to admit them. Once they were back on the other side, she closed it back and they walked in silence back to their room.
Just as she surmised, and he had figured as well, the mechanism to reopen the closet wall was hidden within the overhead frame. It had apparently been designed specifically for Suzanne Edwards. It would have taken someone of at least Jennifer’s height to reach it, with slender hands like hers to operate it. Someone like Jennifer or J.J., any one of the three look-alike generations of Roussel/Edwards/Hart women. In the entire passageway, all of Stephen’s things were confined to that one area. It was no wonder he didn’t frequent the other areas and why he had forgotten about the other closets. They hadn’t been designed for him or for any other normal sized man to maneuver. It was designed to accommodate the women and keep them safe.
Disappointed and frustrated that once again the journey had been cut short, when the wall opened, he ushered Jennifer back into the closet and closed it back behind them.
Pat was fussing as she got into the car while Marnie got in on the other side, throwing her backpack onto the back seat.
“This is Jonathan’s job.”
Marnie closed her door and immediately pulled down the sun visor to check her face in the lighted vanity mirror.
“Him and Mrs. H. didn’t make it down to breakfast. Uncle Bill had to see to the workers at the guest house, so I had to get you to do it.”
“Yeah well, you rushed me through breakfast. Now I’ll probably have indigestion all day as a result. I don’t know why in the hell you have to be bugging me to get you there so early. You know J.J. can’t do anything except sit around. What are you going to do there with her all day that you have to be there at the crack of dawn?”
“It’s not the crack of dawn, and are you kidding? J.J. Hart is at that hospital hanging out with all those boys all by herself. Well, the heck if that’s so. She doesn’t care about boys all that much, but I do, and it’s been too long. I’m beginning to go through withdrawal. No offense, but Mr. Edwards, Mr. H., Uncle Bill, and Walter do nothing for me. I need to see some boys, and they need to see me. Might make them feel better. Forget about what ails ’em.”
“I think you have a serious testosterone addiction.” Pat observed as she turned the car around so that she could drive out. “And somebody probably needs to seek help for you, but I do know one other thing for sure. You had better not come back here with so much as an extra pimple anywhere on you. If you do, there will be no helping you. I will be checking, and don’t try hiding anything. You saw what we did to J.J., and that was just for being hard-headed. You know Jennifer and I are not afraid to conduct a strip search on you if we have to.”
“Look, would you guys rather that I was looking at girls, Aunt Pat? Have some of them giving me hickeys? You know that’s an in thing now. There are some girls think it’s hip to be gay.”
Cutting her eyes over to Marnie, Pat remarked, “I really don’t think we have to worry along those lines with you.” They approached the front gate of Briarwood. She checked the main road for oncoming traffic before pulling out. “And you heard what I said about the strip search.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to touch anybody or even let them touch me this time. But I would like the opportunity to window shop even if the stuff inside is damaged goods. You saw all those boys come out of J.J.’s room when we got there last night. Why should she be the only one happy?”
“They were just kids, Marnie. They didn’t even look like your type. The oldest one couldn’t have been any more than fifteen or sixteen. I thought you liked them older than you.”
“Generally speaking, I do, but when you’re in the desert, you’ll drink whatever is wet.”
Pat swallowed hard to keep the laughter from bubbling up and out. Marnie, oblivious to it, continued.
“Do you know what that girl told me to bring her yesterday when she called me? Now check this out: she’s the only girl up there on that ward, and she’s so pretty. Does she want her makeup, her cute robe and gown? Her powder or perfume? No, she calls me up and tells me to bring her some cards, some dice, and some money. Small bills and change, she said. Braves are playing, she said, and she had get some bets put down before the game. How much do you want to bet that when we get there she’s going to be sitting on that bed wearing one of those football jerseys her father bought her, her hair up in that ponytail, with all those boys we saw, and some more probably, playing cards or shooting craps up against the door of the room. J.’s my girl, but I declare she makes me so mad! And you know, the bad part about it is, the guys still love her. The more of a guy she is, the more they like her. They just flock to her, but she doesn’t even care outside of how much she can take them for!”
Marnie took out her phone, flipped it open, hit speed dial, and put it to her ear.
Pat didn’t even try to hold the laughter back that time. It spilled out, filling the car and gaining an appreciative grin from Marnie.
Everything Marnie said was delightfully true. J.J. didn’t care. If she had her equipment with her, she was gambling. She loved big, loose athletic gear and wearing her hair up and out of the way, and the boys were crazy about her regardless. Marnie got plenty of attention too, but she went at it from the perspective of getting a return on her investment. Looking over to Marnie out of the corner of her eye Pat assessed the girl’s impeccable appearance as she sat greeting her younger brother, Kyle on the phone. Marnie had gone to great pains to select just the right tangerine orange summer outfit: sleeveless top and matching Capri pants to show off her petite, toned arms and calves. The morning sun was glinting off her straight, bobbed hair as if it were polished mahogany, and she wore just enough makeup to highlight her deceptively innocent, doll-like features. Shaking her head at the sight, Pat thought her just too cute.
Clicking off the phone and sticking it forcefully down into her purse, Marnie turned to Pat. “I need your advice and your help if you can.” She said quickly.
Glancing over, Pat detected an unusual vulnerability in the girl’s imploring eyes. “Go ahead. I’ve been waiting for you to tell me what’s going on.”
“You’ll have to promise me that you’ll listen and that you’ll at least consider what I’m going to put on the table.”
“Hold on.” Pat said, slowing the car and pulling onto the shoulder of the road. She stopped and turned off the engine. Turning around to Marnie to give her full attention, she said, “Go ahead.”
Marnie sat back and brushed her bangs back from her forehead. When she spoke, she looked straight ahead at the highway before them.
“If you had a son,” She asked. “Would let him go to boarding school? I mean, is it such a bad thing?”
“If I were lucky enough to have a son, or any kid, Marnie, I’d keep him or her with me and do the raising myself. But that’s just me. It’s a matter of choice. What exactly are we talking about here? Talk to me, not all around me.”
Still faced forward, Marnie answered, “Kyle. And me, I guess. I’ve decided that when we get back home, Aunt Pat, I’m going to move in with my father. He’s been trying to get me to do it for a while now. I thought at first that he just wanted to get out of paying my mother child support, so I stayed put. But just before we left home last week he asked me again. I think he really wants me there. I was just now talking to my brother. He says our stepmother was drunk yesterday, and she hit Mikey for making a mess with his food at lunch. Kyle told our Dad what she did, and he got on her about it. As soon as my father left, she cornered Kyle about telling on her. She called him “a little motherless bastard” and told him that she was sick of him. What kind of thing is that for a grown woman to say to a kid? I wish that bitch would have said something like that to me, but people like her know how to pick the people they mess with. Kyle tried to make out to me that she was just drunk and didn’t know what she was saying, trying to take up for her and make excuses for her sorry butt. Kyle needs out of that situation. All my brothers do, but Kyle doesn’t belong there at all. I’ve been telling him about Brookfield. The kid actually wants to go there. He brought it up to me himself. When I get home, I’m going to talk to my father about sending him in the fall. I liked the feel of that whole atmosphere in Gresham. I think it would be good for him. What do you think?”
“Wait, Marnie. You’re feeding me too much too fast. First, how is your mother going to feel about your moving out? You’re a girl. Don’t you think you need to be with her rather than your father? And I know you don’t get along with your stepmother. What you just said let’s me know that there’s going to be some turmoil between the two of you. What about that?”
“What difference does it make about my mother if she’s never there? We’ve been gone over a week. Do you know how many times she’s called me? Twice. I call her every day, but she’s either too busy to talk or she’s off doing something dumb. I’m sick of that. I’m on my own most of the time anyway. I’ll be okay. If I’m not, Mrs. H. will put me in my place. She’s the one who does it most of the time anyway. I know I’m fast, and that I do stuff I shouldn’t, but I honestly do know how far to go. I’m smarter and more in control of myself than I appear, believe me. I can get around my stepmother. She’s scared of me anyway. All I want is to make sure that my brothers get looked after properly.”
“But you’re only sixteen, Marnie. How do you propose to look after two little boys? What about school? Your father’s in Burbank now, isn’t he? Are you going to go back to private school out there, or what?”
“Hel- heck no. I’m not changing schools. I’m going to finish up right where I started. Me and J. are graduating together, just like you and Mrs. H. I won’t be first like J, but I’ll be somewhere up there close to her. My father will take me and pick me up. He is good for something if I make him be. I rag on him a lot, and he does do some shady things sometimes, but he is pretty good to me when I get in his face about it. Being a girl, an only girl and his oldest child, does have its advantages. If push comes to shove, he’ll get me a car to go back and forth to school, which will be the bomb for me and J. I’ve had driver’s ed. already and I have my permit, but my mother won’t let me get my license until I’m seventeen because J.J.’s mother isn’t letting her drive until she’s seventeen. My mother thinks the world of Mrs. Hart. Whatever J.J. can’t do, I can’t either. My father isn’t as in tune with what goes on at the Harts’ house, so I can get around that kind of thing with him. The kids will still have their nanny, but I’ll be the somebody they can come to, just like they do now. The nanny likes me, I think she’s okay, so we can work together. I’ll just be in the next room instead of on the phone.”
“Okay, take me back to Kyle. Why way out east like this? I know that you said that you liked the atmosphere in Gresham, but isn’t that a mighty long distance for a little boy to be away from his family?”
“You and Mrs. H. did it. You were away from your families and you turned out okay. Sometimes just sharing the same blood isn’t enough to make a family. Kyle’s smart; he’s already figured that out. He also knows what a bastard really is. He started crying on the phone. He never cries, just like me. If we cry, everybody needs to look out. If he’s here, out east, I’ll come to see him as often as I can; my father will let me. I imagine that will force him to pay more attention to him too. And besides-”
Marnie turned her head to look back at Pat.
“Besides?” Pat urged.
“You’re here. Massachusetts is right next door to New York. You would only have to check on him every now and then, when you get time. I know you’re getting married and everything, but there’ll be times that you’ll be busy, and Uncle Bill will be out in the country all alone. He’s raised boys. He’ll be on that big horse farm by himself sometimes. Maybe he’d like the company every now and then. Kyle would love that. He writes stories too, he loves plays and shows and museums, all the things you like. I’m not asking you to adopt him or anything. You wouldn’t even have to do much. Just keep in touch with him every now and then so that he doesn’t feel like he’s all alone. Probably just until he gets used to being there by himself like that. He’ll make friends and then he’ll be okay. I know I’m just a kid, but I think this is the best way. Kyle is just a kid, too. He’s getting to be a nervous wreck trying to hold it all together like he’s been trying to do. All my brothers deserve better. The help isn’t supposed to be raising my brothers. They have two parents at home, but they don’t give a rat’s ass. People think because the parents have money and give their kids lots of stuff, that a kid can’t be neglected or abused. That’s shit, Pat. Why do people bother to have kids that they don’t want to take care of? They’re supposed to love you, but all they do is dress you up and trot you out for company, and then when the company is gone, they go back to messing over you. Well, I’ve got news for everybody. Nobody is messing over me or my brothers any more!”
When Marnie stopped talking after her lengthy explanation, and then suddenly crossed her arms and doubled over as if she were in pain; Pat was dumbfounded. Before she knew it, she was on the other side of the car, releasing Marnie’s seat belt so that she could slide in next to her to hold her as her small body was wracked by the sobs she had evidently been holding inside for a good while. Rocking her, Pat lay her cheek atop of Marnie’s head and wanted to cry with her. She too, as a lonely, neglected child had often wondered why people bothered to have children that they didn’t want to care for themselves. She had been just as swift and had worn just as hard and shiny a shell as Marnie, but inside her was the same delicate, sweet and soft cherry center as that little girl in her arms.
“Hush.” She whispered to her. “We’ll work this out. I found out that when blood family lets you down, you find yourself a good friend. Jennifer and I have been friends ever since we found each other forty-four years ago. She’s my sister. Her family is my family. We share history. You and J.J. share history, too. You have a whole family of good friends. You and your father get Kyle to Brookfield, and he’ll have a family of them too. Hush now.”
When she had her settled once again, she called Bill to tell him that she and Marnie were going to spend the day together instead of going to see J.J. right away. They needed some time to talk and would be off-line, she told him: no phones and no interruptions. Then, when she got back to him, the two of them would have to talk as well.
“Thanks for letting me get up for a while.” J.J. said to Jazz as she wheeled her through the sunny corridor on their way back to her hospital room. Passing the nurses’ station, J.J. waved to the personnel gathered there, and they waved back.
“You’re pretty popular,” Jazz observed.
“It’s not me they’re waving at,” J.J. answered. “It’s to who they think I am.”
The previous evening and earlier that morning, several different nurses and a couple of doctors made it their business to come by her room on the pretense of performing their duties. But being perceptive, she figured out after not too long that they all knew who her parents were, and as it sometimes happened, they had been anxious to meet the daughter of the millionaire industrialist and his internationally acclaimed journalist wife. It was still a little disturbing, but the older she was getting, the more often it was beginning to happen and the more accustomed she was becoming to it even though she still didn’t appreciate the excessively attentive aka fake behavior. Since it was inevitable that her life was always going to be lived in a fishbowl of sorts, it had become important to her to convey herself as her father did when it came to his public persona- even though he didn’t care for publicity, when it came his way, he was always himself, down-to-earth, personable, pleasant. She liked that about him, and if it had to be that way, then that was how she wanted to be perceived as well. He said it was easier and more comfortable for him to do it that way. So far, it seemed to be the best way to go for herself too, although she still preferred that people keep their distance until she got to know them better.
Jazz, for her part was impressed. So far, she found her patient to be an interesting, exceptionally well-behaved teenager rather than the stubborn, self-absorbed little girl she hoped her father’s description wasn’t masking. She could sense the stubbornness and impulsiveness he mentioned, but so far they hadn’t surfaced to any disruptive degree.
“That whirlpool felt so good on my ankle,” J.J. continued. “I thought breakfast would be the high point of my day. That’s pretty sad isn’t it? I hope I never have to be in a hospital again.”
“I hope you don’t either,” Jazz answered. “Well, not for an injury or illness, at least. That ankle was looking so much better when I came back in to check on you before breakfast this morning. Putting it over into the whirlpool helped the circulation. One thing about you kids; if we can keep you still for a minute, you tend to heal up pretty quickly. It won’t be long before you’re back on your two feet again. Just be more careful about taking your time with it when you are.”
J.J. held up one hand. “Trust me. I’ll be like some little old lady on a walker when I can get up. I don’t ever want to have to be this still again.”
They were coming up on the recreation room, and the sounds of a television and youthful voices beckoned.
“Want to stop in and let the guys know you’re back?” Jazz asked.
After breakfast, several of the boys had been hanging around J.J.’s door right before they left it for her therapy session, trying to come in to see her, only to be turned away more than once by Jazz.
“Just for a minute.” J.J. said. “I don’t want to get in here and start liking it, knowing full well I can’t stay.”
It was Saturday, and she knew there would be sports all over that wide screen television. If she had to be confined, she wished she could be propped before that TV, playing cards all afternoon. However, she was determined to do as she was told so she could get out of that hospital and back to Briarwood.
“Hey J.J.!”came the greetings as Jazz wheeled her through the door into the room full of incapacitated boys.
A tennis match played on the television- Venus Williams unmercifully whipping her unfortunate opponent.
“Hey,” J.J. quietly returned, waving almost shyly, but with her eyes riveted to television screen.
“See you’re a Raiders’ fan, J.J.!” one of the boys called out in reference to the jersey she wore as he looked away from the video game he and another boy were playing.
“You say that like there’s another team,” was her response.
“Oh no!” another boy cried. “West coast on the east coast talking junk?”
“Not talking junk,” she calmly countered. “Just stating fact.”
“I wouldn’t mess with her, if I were you,” Alan advised the others from his spot in front of the other video game monitors. “She cut me to the quick yesterday when I asked her the wrong question. I think the lady knows her sports. Hey J.J., you gonna come watch the Orioles with us this afternoon?”
J.J. shook her head. “Braves are playing. I’m going to be in my room watching a real team play. They’re east coast too, but they are a real team.”
“Oh no, she didn’t!” The cries went out. “No she didn’t say that!”
“Feel free to join me,” she offered. “Jake, are we still on? You know, about me playing your hand?”
Jake gulped, completely taken by the older, very pretty and seemingly fairly tough, blue-eyed girl. “Yeah,” he managed to squeak.
The others, watching him, laughed at his nervousness, his voice cracking, and his resulting red face.
“Great.” She took his hand and squeezed it. “You know where to find me when it’s time to play. I’m not going anywhere until tomorrow afternoon.”
She looked up to Jazz, “I’m ready.” Then she waved to the boys. “I can’t stay. Nurse Jones here is making me go home. I hope to see you guys later.”
When Jazz had J.J. back in her room, over on the bed with her ankle stabilized once again, she came to the head of the bed and smiled as she fluffed and arranged the pillows for J.J. to comfortably sit up. “You are something else, girl.”
“You just are, that’s all. A real mess.”
“That’s three times somebody has said that about me in recent memory,” J.J. said with a grin. “There must be some truth to it. Everybody can’t be making it up.”
Her cell phone flashed from where she had left it on the tray table. Checking it, she found that her mother and father had both called, and that there had been another call from Farrell’s. She pressed the redial button, spoke to Mr. Farrell and found Marnie wasn’t there. None of them were, according to Mr. Farrell, and hadn’t been all morning. She thanked him and tried Marnie’s cell, but there was no answer, which was strange. Marnie always had her phone with her, and in fact, was usually was on it, putting someone else on hold while she took the call. Where was Marnie and who was it that kept calling from Farrell’s?
She tried her mother’s number, but there was no answer there either. That wasn’t so unusual. If she was writing or into something else serious, she didn’t pick up until she was ready to talk. There was no answer from her father’s cell either.
No mystery there- not if neither one of them was answering.
But in the middle of the morning for goodness’ sake? At Pa’s? Jeez. Just absolutely no shame…
She tried the house phone at Briarwood. Just as Walter picked up, a knock sounded on her room door.
Looking up at the sound, she said into the phone, “It’s me, Walter. I wanted my grandfather, but that’s okay. I’ll call back.”
And she hung up without waiting for him to respond.
“That was Miss Justine, Mr. Edwards.” Walter reported from the door of the study. “She said she wanted to speak with you, but that she would call you right back.”
Stephen raised his eyes from his book. “She hung up? She didn’t say what she wanted?”
“No sir. She just said she would call you back. It sounded to me as if she had to do something else at the moment. It seemed as if something immediate came up.”
“Maybe a treatment or something of that nature,” Stephen surmised. “Has my daughter come down yet?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir. Rosa is still holding her breakfast.”
“It will soon be lunchtime. Alright, thank you, Walter.”
Walter departed and Stephen closed his book and turned in his chair to see out of the window to the side garden. His son-in-law was out there, slowly strolling among the flowers and privet shrubs, his head low and his hands in his pockets, the man was out there alone, and he appeared to be deep in thought. That was telling. Jennifer, as far as he knew, was still upstairs, presumably sleeping.
The two of them, Jennifer and Jonathan, were seldom apart when they visited him together, especially if one of them had reason to be somewhere in a prone position. It struck him as even more odd that Jennifer could be sleeping so late- and doing it alone. Bill had taken her place at the guest house that morning, and Pat and Marnie had left earlier to go see Justine. Justine was hospitalized, but neither of her parents had made any attempt that morning to go and see to their only child. He wondered if either of them had even called the girl. Jonathan had come down, skipped breakfast opting instead for a cup of coffee which he had taken directly to the garden after popping his head in to say good morning.
How did a father fix a forty year old mistake? As he continued to watch Jonathan through the window, Stephen sat, as he found himself doing a lot more lately, pondering all that had gone wrong.
Jennifer’s condition upon emerging from that passage with her husband that early morning said, leaving no room for doubt, all there was to say about how wrong he had been to try to remove the physical memories of her mother from her life. In his attempt to spare her pain, he had unintentionally caused more for her. When they had that last argument, Sabrina tried to tell him that he was in error. She told him that he was doing the wrong thing in having the house in Maryland cleaned out while they were gone, but he hadn’t listened to her. He didn’t want the daily reminders of Suzanne, and he thought it best for Jennifer as well. But he had been wrong. He had discounted Sabrina’s judgment, and it cost both he and Jennifer dearly. In retrospect, he was glad that he had at least listened to her about allowing Jennifer to attend the graveside ceremony in Perpignan.
From that time on, he always allowed Jennifer to continue her annual two week summertime visits with her aunt despite the fact that he and Sabrina hadn’t seen or talked to each other throughout all those years. Although he had long regretted the rift, both of them had been too stubborn to extend the olive branch until she called him during his recent illness after being notified of it by Justine. Sabrina always did have a good heart despite her hot temper and unorthodox ways.
And his granddaughter was a godsend.
When Jonathan brought Jennifer up from the passage that early morning, after they knocked on his closet wall to get back in, she’d walked right past him without even acknowledging his presence. It wasn’t until later that it dawned on him that she hadn’t seen him at all. The next afternoon that supposition was confirmed when she’d asked him about the passage, but not about the painting which he knew she had to have seen right before coming up. Could it be that she’d blocked it out? Was that what had her so unsettled when they had both emerged from down there?
His intention had been to allow Jennifer to put her mother’s death behind her and to get on with her life. At the time, he didn’t understand a child’s need to grieve or the proper way to help her get through it. He hadn’t understood that children operated differently from adults. Along the way, Jennifer, in her own way, had taught him many things, and the lessons she she’d given had taken. But by that time, the damage had been done. All he ever wanted was for her was to be strong, to keep that proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’, but she had only been a child; a sensitive, injured, angry little girl.
But with Suzanne’s untimely passing, he had become determined that his daughter’s life be one of learning, life, and travel. He did not want her wrapping her life around boys and men, marrying early, having some man’s children and getting bogged down, or doing any of those things before she’d had time to live and to learn about herself. Life was too short. For some girls it could be even shorter when they let boys and domesticity overwhelm their lives. Her mother had proven that to him. Jennifer had done it just right, and he was satisfied with how that part of her life, at least, had turned out. By the time marriage, and then motherhood caught up to her, she was a well-rounded, fully accomplished, fine woman.
Focusing again on Jonathan, he wondered if there was some problem developing between he and Jennifer. Jonathan said that there weren’t any troubles, and perhaps on his end there weren’t. But it was Jennifer who had him worried. All the previous evening, she appeared both drained and tired. At dinner she hadn’t eaten much, and at the hospital with Justine, she was quiet and distant, even from her child. Both Jonathan and Jennifer had been absent from breakfast that morning, and it bothered him that there hadn’t been one meal taken since their arrival that all of them had been together. He had initially been happy to have all of his family with him, his actual and his extended family, but it seemed as if things were happening to splinter them, to scatter them in different directions.
There was only one direction that he wanted his daughter to take; the one that led to the guest house attic. It was the main reason he had given her that project to complete. He had only been up there that one time, but he knew that up there she find that lost part of herself, and since Justine had gone to her father with her own questions, she could help their daughter find the answers and the enlightenment she sought. Only Jennifer could help Justine with that. He could provide the framework, Suzanne had been his wife. It was Jennifer alone who could really tell Justine about her grandmother. But in order to do that, Jennifer would have to first fully remember her and get to know the person she had been.
Fixing his attention back to the garden, he was happy to see Jennifer finally join her husband. They embraced and shared a sweet late morning kiss. The pastoral setting seemed to mirror the beauty of the enduring love they shared between them. Jonathan, he felt, was a lucky man indeed to have had the woman he loved be a part of his life for such a long time, twice the time that he’d had Suzanne in his.
With a father’s appreciative eye, he could see that his late wife had left her mark all over that tall, slender girl out there in the yard. Suzanne Edwards had also touched that other, younger one lying in the hospital. On that last girl, she’d lavished even more of herself; most of her looks and all of her confident attitude. He wondered if his beloved wife had arranged it that way to comfort him.
That thought made him smile.
When Jazz answered the knock at the room door, J.J. had pressed her grandfather’s number into her phone, and Walter was picking up. Although she couldn’t see the person at the door, she could hear the voice:
“Good morning. I was told that this is J.J. Hart’s room? Is she in? May I possibly see her?”
She couldn’t hang up fast enough from Walter.
Jazz was caught completely off guard as J.J. squealed, “Teddy!” from inside the room, and the young man at the door raced past her.
He set the flowers on the vanity next to J.J.’s bed, and reached down to take the girl on the bed by her uplifted, outstretched hands. Then without a word exchanged between them, he bent to take her in his arms.
They embraced each other tightly as he told her, “I didn’t think I was going to get to see you. I couldn’t get in touch with you.”
Quickly recovering from her shock, Jazz cried, “Wait! Wait! J.J., what is this? Who is this?”
Neither of them answered her. Instead, he kissed J.J.’s cheek as they continued hugging.
Jazz moved in and gently pulled them apart, fussing, “You two can’t be doing this! J.J. Hart, who in the world is this?”
Up to that point, her patient had seemed to her just an everyday tomboy athlete, albeit a wealthy and pretty one. The sudden, startling turn of events had taken her completely by surprise. In light of this new facet to her personality, J.J. seemed transformed; softer, a lot more feminine. Before the young man’s arrival, she hadn’t noticed what shapely long legs J.J. had, and how well the sleek muscles in her thighs were being accented by those black spandex bicycle shorts she wore underneath the black and white jersey which had cinched up around her tiny waist.
The young man stood back to introduce himself to her. He smiled and genially extended his hand. “I’m sorry. I’m just so glad to see her. My name is Theodore Martin Baxter, Jr. I’m a friend of Miss Hart’s.”
“I can see that.” Jazz declared, one hand on her hip, the other shaking Teddy’s. “I’m Nurse Jones, and you two are trying to get me fired. What’s up with all this? J.J.? You didn’t tell me about any ‘gentlemen callers’. Is that what you call them in polite society?”
Smiling from ear to ear, the butterflies nearly lifting her from the mattress, J.J. answered, “I didn’t know he was coming or I would have told you. Teddy’s my good friend, Jazz. Despite what you just saw, he is a gentleman, and he’s been my knight in shining armor. Right now he’s my ray of sunshine. What in the world are you doing here, Teddy? I see you’re still playing the genie role; just popping up like magic wherever you feel like it. Why didn’t you call me and let me know so that I could have put on something decent?”
She was tugging at her jersey to straighten it, and then she reached up to smooth her hair.
“And thank you for the flowers.” She said, leaning over to smell them. “They’re really pretty.”
“You look really pretty.” He smiled back. “Just like you always look. Nice jersey by the way. Oakland’s a great team. although I like Tampa Bay myself. Every time I see wildflowers now, I think about you and that day the Dean almost caught me up in your room.”
“In her room?” Jazz cried. “Her bedroom?”
J.J. waved her hand. “It was completely innocent. I was visiting my mother’s old school. That’s where I hurt my ankle. When I hurt it the first time, I was with Teddy. After that, I couldn’t get outside, so he came in to see me. He would sneak into the residence and come up to my suite. It was great. One time, he was up there, and that just happened to be the time when the Dean decided to come up and see me personally. She knocked, and he had to sneak back out through the bathroom. The whole time she was up there, I was sweating bullets. I just knew we were going to get caught, he was going to get expelled from his school, and my mother was going to kill me. We never would have been able to explain that nothing was going on; that we were just talking. But the Dean did see those flowers you brought me. She was hinting all around and stuff, but I just played it off.”
“You were sweating?” Teddy cried. “I was so scared, I almost had to use your bathroom while I was in there. I would have but I was afraid she’d hear the flush. Hey, I tried to call you to let you know I was here, but you never picked up. I thought you said that you always kept your phone with you.”
“I didn’t have it with me when you first called. Yesterday morning, I thought I was just going for a doctor’s appointment, get examined, and be going right back to my grandfather’s, so I left it. I didn’t know I was staying here. How did you get here? How did you even find out I was here?”
Jazz watched as Teddy pulled the chair over close to the bed and sat down facing J.J. She could tell that they had gone into their own world and had shut her out for the time being.
“Didn’t Marnie tell you?” He asked.
“Tell me what? She knew you were here?”
“I’ve been at Farrell’s with my father. We got there yesterday afternoon. My father is Mr. Farrell’s accountant. I ran into Marnie yesterday at Farrell’s. She was with your Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat. I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see them come through the door. I think your aunt was pretty shocked to see my father, but they all talked a long time and seemed to get along. Your Uncle is a great guy. He and I went out to the paddock and the stables, and he was asking me to show him stuff. He said that your grandfather’s place was wasn’t too far. But Marnie had already told me that you were at the doctor with your father. She said that you had hurt your ankle again. I called your cell a couple of times. Then when I couldn’t reach you, I called her back. She told me that you got put in the hospital. I told her to tell you I was coming today.”
“I’m gonna wring that Marnie’s neck when I see her. I know she didn’t tell me about you being here on purpose to get back at me for some stuff I said to her yesterday. I wouldn’t be still at home, so my father had me locked me up in here. But it was for my own good. He wanted me to rest off of it, and it’s better already. See, it’s almost back to normal. Hey, I thought your father was an investment banker. Why is he doing accounting work for Mr. Farrell?”
“He is a banker, well, actually he owns the investment firm. But when he was younger, he was an accountant for several of the horse farms on the upper east coast. As a personal favor for helping him get started in business, he still handles the accounting for a few of his oldest clients because they don’t trust anybody else. Farrell is one of them. J.J., I had no idea Triple J was your horse! I’ve taken care of him. He’s a beautiful animal, and a winner. A real champion. I’ve worked at Farrell’s some the past two summers. I even went with Mike to take him to one of his races last spring when he won that big purse. I know Mike, his handler, too. Why didn’t you tell me any of that?”
“It didn’t come up. How is he? Daddy didn’t have him delivered to my grandfather’s this time, I guess, because I was hurt. I haven’t seen him at all on this trip.”
“He’s great. Just wonderful. But come on, how could you not mention a horse like that?”
If you remember, we didn’t talk about my personal horses, Farrell’s, any of that. What a small world! So that was you calling me from Farrell’s? I wondered who it could be. That must have been you who called me early this morning. I wish the phone had woke me up.”
“I was thinking about you and I couldn’t sleep. I was hoping that you had your phone nearby and would pick up.”
“Why didn’t you call me on your cell? I would have recognized that number and called you back. Nurse Jones picked it up because I was asleep and didn’t feel it vibrating. She told me that my display said “James Farrell”, but I couldn’t imagine who could be calling me from there. I thought it was Marnie. My Aunt Pat and my Uncle Bill bought Farrell out.”
“I know they did. I think it’s great. Your uncle is so excited. He’s been out there off and on, checking things out. He didn’t come this morning, though. And about the phone, it’s like I told you before, J.J., I’m always leaving it somewhere. Seems like I never have it when I need it. This time I left it at home when I decided to come with my father at the last minute. I tried calling you before I left Boston to see if you were still here in Maryland. I wasn’t going to come if you weren’t still here. But when I couldn’t get through to you, I just took a chance and came on. I figured if you were still here, I could get an opportunity to see you, and if you weren’t, I could pick up a few bucks working Farrell’s horses while my Dad conducted his business up at the house. I’m so glad I took the chance. I hate that you’re in the hospital, but I sure am glad I found you.”
“I’m glad, too. Jazz, do you think it would be okay if Teddy took me out on the patio? I promise I won’t move my ankle. I promise I won’t mess up.”
Jazz, who’d been tidying up the room while keeping an eye on the them, turned around with a skeptical look on her face.. They were just a bit too cozy for her comfort. He was awfully handsome, and she was very pretty, and they were both very young. Puppy love was smeared all over both their eager faces, and not once had they let go of each other’s hands.
“I don’t know, J.J. Your father wants you to be still. He said flat on your back.”
“Doctor Rogers let you take me to the whirlpool. I wasn’t flat on my back for that. I did exactly what you said. Please, Jazz. You said I’ve been good.”
“What would your mother say?”
“I think it would be okay with her, but you want I should call her and ask?”
“Go ahead. If she okays it, I’ll go along with it. You have been really good.”
Snatching up the phone, J.J. pressed speed dial, praying that her mother would pick up this time, and be in a better mood than when she’d last seen her.
“Hi, Mom. How are you today?”
I’m fine. How are you?
“I’m doing good.”
You’re doing ‘well’. Have you been doing what you’re told? Did you eat all of your breakfast without complaining? I know hospital food isn’t what you’re accustomed to, but I hope you weren’t rude.
“I’m doing well. I’ve been being very good. I ate my breakfast, all of it, even though it was truly nasty. I wasn’t rude about it- until just now. I miss you a lot, and I need a favor.”
Do you miss me because you miss me, or do you miss me because you need a favor?
“I miss you because I really miss you, and I still need a favor.”
What is it, J.J.?
“Teddy is here to see me. May I go out onto the patio with him? Jazz said that I had to clear it with you. Is it okay?”
There was a hesitation before she said anything, and J.J. held her breath. Finally, her mother spoke, but in a considerably lower tone.
What’s wrong with him visiting with you in your room? His unauthorized visits to your bedroom haven’t been a problem for the two of you in the past. What seems to be wrong with him being in there now?
“Mo-om! I just want to go out and get some sun.”
And get out of Jazz’s eyesight. I am not fooled, little girl.
Well… just for a little while. Stay in that wheelchair, and keep your lips to yourself. Do you hear me?
“The whole time?”
The entire time.
I’m trusting you. You understand that.
“I know, and you understand you can. But how come you’re not surprised that he’s here?”
Pat told me yesterday that he was.
“Then why didn’t you tell me last night when you came to see me? How come Marnie didn’t tell me? Or Aunt Pat?”
I can’t speak for the others. I figured you’d find out sooner or later. As far as I was concerned, it was sure thing he was going to find his way to you.
“I love you, Mom.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
“No. Really. I do, so much. You really don’t understand how much.”
I love you too, J.J., and you don’t either. I’ll see you in a little bit. Is there anything I should bring you?
“No. I’m fine.”
I’ll just bet you are right now. You remember what I said, and what we talked about the other night.
“I will. Can you speak to Jazz, and let her know it’s alright?”
Handing the phone to Jazz, J.J. nodded to Teddy who immediately got up and went across the room for the wheelchair, unfolding it and starting to get it set up for her.
Gesturing to Jazz to hand her the phone back before hanging up from her mother, J.J. took it and placed her hand over it to whisper:
“Just one, if he leaves before you get here? For goodbye?”
Just one. One, do you hear what I’m saying, Justine Hart? Not a long one either. Lips only. Keep it chaste and make it quick. You are sixteen, not twenty-six, and you still live at home with me. I mean it.
“Thank you. You’re the best, Mom. For real.”
You are too. For real. Remember that when you’re with him.
“That was your daughter.” Jennifer said as she came back to the bench, slipping her phone back into her pocket before sitting back down next to her husband.
She and Jonathan were still in the side garden. They had been seated on one of the concrete benches, but she had gotten up shortly after the start of the call and walked off a short distance from him, an action which hadn’t escaped his attention.
“It seems she has company. A Mr. Teddy Baxter from Boston, Massachusetts.”
Jonathan slowly shook his head. “I told you that boy wasn’t through with her. He’s gone. I told you last weekend that he was gone. Made his way from Massachusetts all the way here to Maryland to get back with her, and it’s only been a week. Did you tell her to tell him to go home?”
Pursing her lips for a moment and taking a deep breath, she answered him.
“I’m going to preface my answer with this, Jonathan: She’s growing up. She’s not a baby any more, and it’s not a one-way attraction. She respected us enough to call and ask if she could go out onto the patio with him.”
“And I take it you said she could. I put her there to rest, not entertain her male acquaintances.”
“I told her that she could go as long as she kept that ankle still and stayed seated in that wheelchair.”
“Don’t tell me you’re condoning this, Jennifer. I wish you had spoken with me first.”
“Why?” She asked, taken aback by his tone. “I can’t make a decision when it comes to her? You didn’t ask me when you put her in there. You just said it yourself, “You” put her there.”
“I thought it was best at the time.”
“And I thought it was fine that he take her out on the patio. She’s in the hospital, and by now, with all the time she’s had to think about it, she’s figured out all the reasons why you have her there. What in the world do you think can happen in a hospital? What in the world would she let happen in a hospital?”
“I know teenaged guys. I know what’s on their minds.”
“And I know my daughter.” She said, standing up from the bench. “And I trust her to handle herself. She’s not some helpless, gullible airhead. You really need to lighten up, Jonathan. I thought you were coming around, but I can see we’re right back at square one on this.”
He stood up too. “Look at what happened to Marnie! As soon as your back was turned, she was off necking with some boy and came back with a hickey. There’s no telling how far that went.”
“You’re blaming me for that?”
“No, I’m not blaming you. I’m just saying-”
“First of all, Jonathan Hart, Marnie Benson is not my child. Secondly, even if she were my child, that might have happened anyway. J.J. and Marnie are two very different types of girls. And despite what you think and say, there is a way to tell how far it went. I asked her, and she told me, and then we talked about it. That’s what you do with children when you want them to talk to you, and you want them to listen to what you’re saying. Despite her swift ways, even Marnie knows how far to take a thing. She’s no dope either, and you know that about her. The only problem with her is getting her to understand that she might be allowing herself to get into something she can’t stop when she wants it to. I’m working on getting her to that understanding. J.J. Hart, on the other hand, does know. But evidently her father doesn’t give her any credit for having half a brain or a will of her own in that area. Girls are not by nature gullible, stupid little creatures that need to be protected and held captive. They become that way when we hold them too tightly in an effort to keep them from everything. And furthermore, they wouldn’t need all of that protection if men were teaching the boys right from wrong in the same way that we teach girls, and if someone was reinforcing it with boys that no really does mean no!”
She walked off from him, and he knew from the set of her shoulders that she was extremely angry. But she had come down to the garden that morning with an edge to her that he detected right away. He thought at first that it was from a lack of adequate sleep, and then from her sleeping later than usual thereby throwing her system off. But there was something more to it, and evidently he had struck the right/wrong nerve in her with that line of conversation. He didn’t think J.J. was stupid, gullible, or any of those things, but he could never seem to adequately articulate just what it was that motivated his protectiveness of her before Jennifer became so fiercely defensive about it. Even though he couldn’t put it into words, in his gut he felt it was something within Jennifer, more so than it was the situation with J.J., that triggered both things: the protectiveness in him and the defensiveness in her.
“Wait!” He cried, starting in her direction. “Where are you going?”
“To the guest house.” She answered without looking back as she continued moving away from him. “I have things to do.”
He tried to follow, quickening his steps to catch up. “I’ll come with you. We need to finish this.”
She stopped and turned around, and the look on her face stopped him in his tracks. Her voice was cold.
“Don’t bother. As far as I’m concerned, it is finished. I’ll send Bill back to keep you company. I think we’ve said all that we need to say to each other for right now.”
She turned and kept walking.
He let her go.
It was an impasse to which they had come on several occasions, in fact more times than either of them was comfortable admitting.
From his same spot in the window, Stephen could not believe how quickly things had turned around.
As Jennifer marched angrily away from her husband, and Jonathan attempted to rejoin her, he wanted to race to the window, lift it and scream to both of them to fix whatever had gone wrong between them. He saw Jennifer stop and turn around, freezing Jonathan in his own footsteps, and he felt badly for him. That repelling look had been turned on him too many times in his tenure as her father, and he knew how it cut right into the heart. Jennifer’s mother and her aunt, Sabrina, had that same ability, and he suspected it had been passed down to Justine, although he hadn’t had occasion to see her use it.
His attention was riveted to both of them out there. He couldn’t hear what was being said, but their body language was speaking volumes. He wished desperately to go to them, to tell them that life was too short for arguing and fighting, but he knew that he couldn’t. He could not interfere. As much as it pained him to admit it, their disagreement at that time, like everything else in life, was meant to be. It was a passage on to some greater understanding to come between them, like all arguments were between two people who loved each other.
Like everything eventually did, like all of what was happening, it would work itself out in its own time and in its own way. Reclining in his chair, he turned from the window and closed his eyes concentrating on slowing his heart rate and riding out the resulting nausea and dizziness. All the while he lie thinking how it was the waiting for things to play themselves out that what made one grow old.
Down at the guest house, Bill had become engrossed in the all the work going on around him. Like ants swarming over an ant hill, men were everywhere down there, busily going about their assigned tasks inside and outside the guest house.
He was there in Jennifer’s place at Jonathan’s request. Jonathan said that she’d had a rough night and he wanted to let her sleep in. He said that he wanted to stay up at the main house with her in case she needed him, or in case he got a call and had to leave to see to J.J. He told him that all that really needed to be done at the guest house was to let the workers in to get started, and to sign off on the landscaping work that had been started that morning. Since Pat had left to take Marnie over to the hospital to be with J.J., he wound up remaining down there afterward to watch the work and to talk with the foremen.
The roofers were making steady progress, almost three quarters of the way to being finished putting on the new one. On the inside, the kitchen was now a yawning cavern, and was being prepped for installation of the new cabinets, fixtures and appliances. The bathrooms would be the next rooms to be stripped down and redone. Down away from the house, closer to the lake, the landscapers had begun taking out the younger trees and saplings that had grown in over the years, clearing the view and the cobbled path from the rear patio out to the lake. They were starting farther away and would work their way back toward the house, finishing with the garden as soon as the roof and exterior work on the house were finished.
A pilot by profession, and a manufacturer of aviation parts and light planes by trade, he had always been fascinated by the grunt work that went into a finished product. There was nothing he liked better than flying a plane that his company had planned, developed, and built up from the ground. It was the same with everything for him. He liked seeing a job done from the beginning to the end, when something resulted from nothing. Already he could see the work coming together on that little house. He likened it to his relationship with Pat.
They had begun as nothing more than two people who appealed to each other sexually. Both of them were people who didn’t necessarily need an emotional commitment to be intimate with someone to whom they found themselves attracted. It was that very feature of Pat’s personality that first attracted him to her. He had never met a woman as independent as she was. With her, there was no need to play games, pay her empty compliments, feed her self-esteem, or kiss her ass. Patricia Hamilton knew who she was, what she was all about, what she wanted, and she didn’t need validation of any of it from anyone.
She was also a woman who could keep her business to herself. As close as she and Jennifer were, it wasn’t until just before J.J.’s sixteenth birthday that year that Jennifer had given any indication that she knew anything of what was happening between them, even though it had been going on for most of J.J.’s life. When it came out that she knew, she had found it out on her own, spying them from her bedroom window as they were slipping off to spend the night in the guest house on the Hart estate.
A widower for almost twenty years, he’d raised his two boys largely on his own. The elder boy, T.J., had been killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-four, an event which had nearly killed him as well. They had both been so much alike and so close. He’d taught T.J. to fly, and he loved it. They had also shared a love of all things outdoors. T.J.’s death left him with Peter, the more introverted, but intellectually gifted of the two boys. After a difficult transition, and with Jonathan’s help, Peter had become his right arm in running McDowell Aviation, taking it into the new century with his considerable knowledge of advanced technology. None of that interested him at all. None of that involved nuts and bolts or grit. Lately it was Peter who was actually running things with him occasionally consulting, which was just as he wanted it. It gave him more time to pursue the things that really interested him: his horses, the land, and principally, Patricia.
Any doubts he might have had about his true feelings for Pat and marrying her were completely erased when on the day before, he’d come face-to-face with an old high school flame of hers, Theodore Baxter, who was visiting at Farrell’s while they were there. It was unreasonable, he knew, but he had actually been jealous of the man. One night, as he and Pat lay together sharing past experiences, she’d told him the name of the first boy she’d ever slept with, not thinking that their two paths would ever cross. But there he was at Farrell’s with his son, who according to Marnie, had a crush on J.J., and she on him.
To get away from the man and to keep Pat from picking up on the inner turmoil he was experiencing, he’d asked the boy to take him out to the stables on the pretense of showing him around. As soon as it was feasible, he got Pat and Marnie the hell out of there.
Now they were set to marry. The date had been selected, and he was eagerly looking forward to it, the move, and the exciting changes that faced both of them. Even Peter was happy for them, although it meant that he would be moving away from him and his family. Peter, his wife, and his kids were all crazy about Pat. It was to be an unconventional marriage for the time being, just as their relationship had been. But the way that things were panning out, they would both be busy most of the time, having to make time to be together. They were used to that and enjoyed their ‘dates’ as they called them. The day-to-day running of McDowell Aviation would be completely turned over to Peter, and he would become a gentleman horse farmer in Maryland rather than a part-time one in Nevada.
As he slowly strolled down toward the lake, thinking about what life would be like once he and Pat took over Farrell’s place, he thought about Pat’s phone call. She said that she and Marnie were going to spend the day together. Although Pat didn’t come out and say it, he knew there was some crisis with Marnie; he could read it in what Pat had said and the sound of her voice. That was something else that they were able to do. One of them could say a thing, but the other would be reading all between the lines of the actual words that had been spoken. Pat was really good at it, and through her, he was becoming so. Pat said that after she finished talking with Marnie, they would need to talk. he could feel that Marnie was working up to something that would involve Pat, and if it involved Pat, it would involve him. Pat was quite taken with Marnie, and Marnie had latched onto Pat. He was game for whatever they wanted to do, but he wished he knew what it was. Mysteries were not his thing. He liked for things to be put right out on the table in front of him so that he could look at it, make sense of it, and do what he had to do with it. He was perfectly content to leave the guessing and speculation to the people who liked that sort of thing, people like Jonathan and Jennifer and apparently, their daughter.
That passageway was an interesting feature of the main house, and he wondered what it was all about, but he had no desire to check it out for himself. He would wait and see what the Harts had to say, if they said anything at all, which to date, they hadn’t. Pat speculated that it had something to do with Jennifer’s mother and father, and that there was something down there that Jennifer found disturbing, but beyond that they knew nothing. Pat was curious, but for himself; he really didn’t care to know.
Edwards mentioned that there was something in the attic of the guest house as well. He wondered if Jennifer had seen it yet.
When he was inside the guest house earlier, he’d checked the door that he thought lead up to it, but found it locked. Whatever it all was, he just hoped it got sorted out so that Jennifer could go back to being herself. She had been unnaturally quiet and somewhat distracted ever since that night she went looking for J.J. It was unusual for her to sleep so late. Pat had mentioned the changes in her to him first, and then he began seeing it for himself when she’d been so quiet at the hospital while they were all there to see J.J. Pat was bothered by it, and said that she wanted to ask her what was going on. But Jennifer, she said, had a darker side that didn’t surface often; she hadn’t seen it in years, but when it did show itself, she had to work through it herself. Pat said this time she thought Jennifer’s problem had something to do with her deceased mother, that passageway, and that guest house; and if that were the case, it was a private matter. She didn’t share that part of her life.
Looking across the estate, he could see Jennifer coming up the path, her hands stuffed down in her pants pockets, her head erect. But, even from that distance, he could tell that something was wrong with her. He turned and started back toward the house to meet her. When he got closer, he could see the strained look on her face.
“Well good morning, Gorgeous.” He said as he reached out to her. “You alright this morning?”
“I’m fine, Bill.” She answered, trying to smile as she pulled her hands from her pockets to take his. “Just overslept is all. Thank you for coming down here for me.”
“It was my pleasure.”
Noticing that she was avoiding his eyes, he made an obvious effort to catch hers and make her look at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She answered, shaking her head to emphasize her response. “I, I guess I’m still a little tired. But I needed to come down here and see how things were going.”
“Everything’s fine, Jennifer. If you’re tired, go back and rest. I can handle this. There’s nothing to do except to watch, if one really has to do that. These guys have it covered.”
“No, no. That’s alright. I can handle it from here.”
He felt her stiffen, saw her forehead pucker and her eyes cloud, and gathered right away that she and Jonathan had gotten into it over something.
“He’s back at the house.” She answered curtly, releasing his hands. “I think he’s waiting for you. I’ll be okay. I’ll finish up out here and see you later. Thank you again, Bill.”
She left him standing there wondering what the real reason was behind them all being at Briarwood. Even when he and Jonathan had flown home that night, something happened to bring them right back as if this was where they were meant to be for that period in time. But now that they were all there, it seemed that they were being dispersed in different directions. Stephen mentioned it again at breakfast that morning, when Jonathan, Jennifer, and J.J. were missing; that they hadn’t sat down to one meal as a complete unit in the whole that they’d been there.
He hated mysteries. Just put the cards on the damned table, and let the chips fall where they may.
Taking the path that lead to the main house, he headed back hoping that whatever it was that brought them there, but was now keeping them all apart, was also planning on bringing them back together again sometime soon.
“So wha’d you do to piss off your wife ?”
Bill’s characteristically straightforward question sliced cleanly through Jonathan’s thoughts.
“I just saw her down at the guest house, and quite frankly, I don’t know if I should even be caught talking to you.”
Jonathan dropped his foot from where he had it propped up on the wooden fence of the paddock as he leaned against it to watch Mike work Legs, Jennifer’s father’s horse. He turned around with a sheepish grin to greet his friend who was coming down the path.
“You’re probably not too far off the mark with that supposition.” He sighed. It’s the only argument we ever seem to have these days: J.J. and her vast assortment of male friends, particularly the ones who are a little more interested in her than the others. I can’t get comfortable with it, and Jennifer’s too relaxed with it for me. She’s gotten so that she doesn’t even really talk to me about it anymore. Sometimes I feel like she’s cutting me out of that part of J.J.’s life.”
Bill came to stand next to him, leaning with his back against the fence. “Well, I know one thing. You’re going to have to get somewhat comfortable with it, because she has every bit of her mother’s good looks and her own magnetism. What makes you think these young boys are going to be any less taken with her than you were with her mother?”
Jonathan said nothing to that. He couldn’t. Bill kept driving home his point.
“If I can tell how nervous the whole thing makes you, and I’m not with you all the time, I know Jennifer probably feels like she can’t talk to you about it. Maybe it’s easier for her to handle it and to leave you out of it.”
“Why? That’s not how she and I operate. We can talk about everything else. Why can’t we come to some mutual understanding on this?”
“I told you once before, you’re coming at it from two very different perspectives. Remember how Jennifer did you when you met her? That girl knocked you clean off your feet, and had you proposing in less than forty-eight hours. I think about the women you dated, and- Nikki? I thought sure she was it. She had it all, I thought. I remember how excited you were when you called me to tell me about Jennifer. She had you in a place I’d never seen you before over any woman, and you’d had some real knockouts in your time. I was as jealous as hell over some of them you pulled in. When I met her, I could see that Jennifer was the absolute best of anyone you’d been with. Jonathan, your J.J.’s just like her mother. I know you can see that, and it makes you nervous, but you’ve gotta face it. Your daughter is going to attract the same attention. She’s sixteen, man, not six. It’s going to happen. Hell, it’s been happening. I was at the birthday party, watching her work that yard. She doesn’t even know that she does it, and what’s more, I don’t think she cares.”
Jonathan leaned back too, crossing his arms. “I know that, but I guess I’m just not ready to let her out there into all of that just yet, but Jennifer seems perfectly all right with it. To make matters worse, it appears J.J. likes this last one, you know, the guy she met at Gresham Hall. The boy you said was at Farrell’s yesterday, this Teddy. That’s really a first for me. I’m used to boys liking her and her being indifferent about it. There’s already that one character at home that I’m going to have to have a word with when we get back home over his not being able to take no for an answer.”
“Yeah, him. Just a nut, man. Keeps calling and calling. Her voice message box gets full, he starts calling the house to question Marie about where J.J. is. Can you imagine the nerve of this kid?”
“That kind of thing, you do have to deal with before it goes too far. Now that is a daddy’s job, but the other you can’t stop. It’s human nature, Valentine. Your baby is growing up.”
“I know. I hate it, but I know. I had her with me yesterday, and I got one of those kind of off-hand looks at her. It nearly stopped my heart. She’s grown up so much so quickly, it seems, this year. The thing I can’t understand, though, is why Jennifer is so easy-going with it. She rides herd on J.J. about everything. If J.J.’s curfew is 11:00 and J.J. shows up at 11:01, she’s giving her hell. The counselor at school calls and says J.J. was tardy to a class, she doesn’t even wait to get J.J.’s side of the story; she just lets her have it for being irresponsible. If J.J. gets a 98 on an assignment that Jennifer thinks she could have done better on, she’s all over her. She’s constantly monitoring and guiding her, grooming her, challenging and teaching her, but when it comes to J.J. and boys, it’s as if she’s satisfied to take a practically hands-off approach to that. Her level of concern in that area just isn’t high enough to suit me, and she won’t let me touch it all.”
“Listen to what you just said, Jonathan. You just told me that Jennifer has a handle on J.J. According to you, she’s watching her and working with her all the time. Maybe, just maybe, the woman has been getting the girl ready for this point in her life all along. Maybe Jennifer doesn’t need to be heavy handed with her in that area. Has J.J. ever given you any trouble with boys?”
“No, but she’s never been interested before.”
“How do you know that?”
Struck by the question, Jonathan had to think on it a moment. “She just hasn’t seemed to be, I guess.” He shrugged.
“You only know what she’s shown you, Daddy.” Bill said with a sly smile. “If you make too big a deal of it, you’ll never know because that one is smart enough to not let you know. Don’t mess up, and have J.J. shut you out.”
At those words, Jonathan had to lean back on the fence and scratch his chin in contemplation.
“You’re also discounting your own influence on her too.” Bill continued. “She’s seen how you treat her mother. All of her life J.J. has had an excellent example of how a woman should be treated by a man- of how two people who love each other should act toward each other. She has no need to look to boys, like some girls do, for the things she should get from her father. J.J. Hart has it all, right straight from you. That girl is solid, and you need to relax. I know that probably sounds funny coming from me, a guy who’s only raised boys, but I’m telling you. Your girl is solid. She has two excellent parents, and you have an excellent wife who’s teaching your daughter to be a stand-up woman. I’d trust Jennifer’s judgment, if were you. She has J.J.’s ear. Stop fighting a fight you can’t win, Jonathan. Be J.J.’s daddy when you need to be, like with that Wesley thing, or if you see other things getting out of hand. But you can’t stop nature, my friend. That girl is every bit the stunner her mother is. On top of her looks, she’s charming, she’s smart, she’s a lot of fun, and the guys are just plain going to like her. In turn, she’s going to like some of them. Find a way to fit into it. Before you know it, she’s going to be moving out of the house, going away to college. What’re you going to do then when she’s completely out of your eyesight?”
Bill stopped and clapped his hand on Jonathan’s shoulder to get his attention. Then he leaned in and spoke in lowered tones.
“Look, I’m going to let you in on something. I don’t know if you know this, or if you’re even supposed to know it or not. But if it turns out that what I’m about to tell you is news to you, then it’s got to be strictly FYI.”
“Did you know that at one time Jennifer couldn’t stand her father?”
Jonathan turned to face Bill. “You know, Stephen told me something to that effect, but I found it hard to believe. I thought he was exaggerating, so I blew it off. Jennifer doesn’t hate anybody. She’s always been crazy about her father.”
“She is now, but Pat told me that from the time they first met when they were about twelve, up until Jennifer was about J.J.’s age, she couldn’t stand the sight of him. Wouldn’t half speak to him, wanted as little as possible to do with him. She told me that he was always pretty strict with her and kept her on a short tether. She couldn’t even date until after high school. According to Pat, after Mrs. Edwards died, those two didn’t really get along until Jennifer was almost grown.”
Jonathan was stunned, intrigued by that peek into his wife’s quiet past.. “I knew about the dating thing. She told me about that on another time that she was going off on me about J.J. She’s alluded to him being kind of stern with her as a kid, and I can see that happening- the kind of guy he is and all. But she doesn’t talk much about that time in her life. She never told me anything like that herself about her and her father.”
“Well Pat would be the one to know. She was there, and I can’t see her making that up. So maybe, just maybe, Jennifer’s attitude in that area has something to do with how she was brought up. Maybe she knows something you don’t about what not to do. Look, Jonathan. This has to be just between us. Pat would kill me for letting on. You can’t let Jennifer know that I talked to you about it. Pat told it to me in passing when she was telling me about how she and Jennifer first met. I just told you because I thought it might give you some insight to help you figure things out. I know you love her and how much she loves you. Just file it and keep it in mind the next time this thing comes up between the two of you.”
“Yeah, I will. Thanks.” Jonathan stood up from leaning on the fence feeling somewhat distracted by the random speculations that were forming in his mind. He dug down in his pocket.
“You got anything to do right now?” He asked, coming out with the keys to the car they’d rented.
Bill stood up from the fence too. “Nothing, I don’t guess, until Pat gets back with Marnie.”
“Then let’s get out of here and go get a drink, me and you. Then I need to pick up some flowers for my daughter. I can’t let that rascal over at that hospital beat my time. I know he brought her some. If I know him, that Tommy’s probably wired her some too. They’re both going to have to come some to do as much as her daddy does for her.”
“Damn, Tommy too? Although I don’t know why that should surprise me; they’re together all the time. But I thought he and J.J. were just buddies. I thought he was your boy.”
“They are buddies for now, and he’s still my boy. I love him like a son, but let’s face it, J.J.’s not his sister, and don’t think he views her like that either. That boy is all guy- one hundred percent guy. He doesn’t fool me for a minute. I’m watching him just like all the others. I’ve had my eye on him for a while. His grandmother and his mother are watching him as well. We all have his number.”
Bill followed Jonathan who was heading to the front of the house.
“Well, just continue to keep your eyes open, Dad. Jennifer knows what she’s doing. Trust her. Say, aren’t the Orioles playing a double header today? I thought we passed a sports bar not too far from here on our way in. I really do feel like a cold one and a game. Hope they have a wide screen.”
“A brew, a burger, and the game sound real good right about now. I’ll call Rosa from the car to let her know we won’t be here for lunch. That’ll also give me some time to figure out how I’m going to get back in my wife’s good graces.”
Bill laughed slyly. “You know how to do that.”
“You’ve skipped a step or two, buddy.” Jonathan answered. “Before I have a snowball’s chance in hell at doing that, I have to first figure out how I’m going to get close to her.”
Standing in front of the guest house to watch the men on the roof, Jennifer was grateful to see that they were making such swift progress. It appeared as if they would be finished by the end of the day, which would be right on schedule since the painters were due to begin the prep work on the exterior on Monday morning. The next day was Sunday, and everyone would be resting on Sunday. She hoped the weather continued to cooperate so that it all could be completed soon, and she and her family could get back home. From the time they left Los Angeles for the Gresham Hall reunion up to that blow-up in the side garden with Jonathan, it seemed she’d taken one hit to her nerves after another, and she wasn’t sure how much more of it she could withstand.
Slowly she walked around to the rear of the house, inspecting the roof work and then shifting her attention to the landscapers toiling in the distance. They were in the process of taking down one of the largest of the younger trees. Several of the smaller ones had been removed by that time, and the view to the lake was already improved. When all the work was finished, it would be as lovely out there as she remembered it being when J.J. had played out there as a little one.
Turning back to view the house and the roof, her eyes settled upon an octagonal window, under the highest peak of the eaves. It was one of the attic windows, and the sight of it caused her thoughts to drift back to the early hours of that morning when she and Jonathan had been in that passageway.
He said that Pa told him that the passageway led up to that attic. Why the attic? If the passage was meant to be an escape route, why would it end up there? Why didn’t it just lead to the outside or perhaps down at the lake?
It didn’t make sense, and she was tired from trying to make everything do that. The nagging thought that remained, the one that made her continue to try to figure it all out was that one day all of Briarwood would belong to J.J., and she would need to know the ins and outs of her home. If there was something to that attic, her daughter would need to know that too.
And no matter how hard she tried to tell herself that it didn’t matter, that she no longer cared; there was no denying that J.J.’s mother also wanted to know.
“Jenny, in life you must always reach up for what seems to be over your head. You might not reach the stars, but you will surely end up somewhere beyond where you were.”
“Mother.” She heard herself whisper. “You told me that it was time for me to wake up and I did. I don’t know what else it is you want from me.”
When they had been down in that passage, she recalled that Jonathan had said, “Like mother, like daughter.”
Was she really anything like her mother had been in personality? Suzanne Edwards had evidently been very protective of child. After all, she had that passageway constructed to insure her child’s safety. That same passageway had carried her daughter and her grandchild to her. Was there something more to it?
She didn’t want it to be, but looking up to that small window, it certainly felt like there was something more to it.
“When it comes to protecting the cub…”
They were definitely alike in that.
As much as she loved him and would never do anything to hurt him, she felt like she could have taken Jonathan’s head off back there over his attitude toward J.J. and her interactions with the young men who might be attracted to her. It wasn’t the first time she’d had that reaction toward him when it came to that subject. She knew that he couldn’t understand her anger or her methods. It wasn’t something she felt she could explain to him without revealing things she’d rather not discuss with him or with anyone. But nobody, not even J.J.’s father was going to have that girl questioning herself, her femininity, or have her stumbling around in the dark in the way that she had. And if she had a say in it, no man was ever going to be able to hurt her daughter in the ways that she had been hurt.
That was a promise she’d made to that baby girl on the day she was born as she kissed her little lips for the very first time. It was one she fully intended to keep.
J.J. was growing up smart and emotionally strong despite suffering through some recent extreme experiences. She had grown from them, and with her, maturation was so far a natural, normal process; a great joy for her mother to watch. She was a good girl, and growing up was happening the way that it should: in her own time, on her own terms, and with her mother watching over her, helping her to get there.
When she found herself moving in the direction of the open patio doors of the guest house, it felt to her as if she were being gently pushed, like something outside of her own will was guiding her feet. She recalled being a shy child and her mother standing behind her, gently pushing her, speaking in her ear, urging her to do things.
“You can do this, my Jenny.” She would say. “In life you must try. You cannot be afraid to try. This you must do, Chéri.”
With her mother’s help, she had overcome the timidity. She danced well and made her mother smile. She rode well and made her mother proud. She had learned to be unafraid, and she kept trying, sampling everything on life’s table, just as her mother said that she should.
The work in the kitchen was still going on, and the men inside greeted her as she entered, excusing herself for interrupting them. Continuing on into the hall with the empty bedrooms on either side, she could see the attic door at the end of it. Even though she knew that door was locked, she took the knob in hand once she got there.
Slowly, she tried it again.
At first it resisted her attempts to turn it, and for some reason, she was glad of it. Just as she was about to release it, having decided that if she was going ever to get in there, she would have to ask her father about the key; the workings clicked and the knob turned all the way around in her hand.
“How in the world…” She whispered to herself.
When the bolt was fully released from the jamb, the door itself creaked slightly open toward her, as if it were beckoning to her to enter through it.
Peering around to the inside, she could see the start of dusty wooden stairs leading up to that place that was over her head and beyond where she was.