You are sure, Stephen, she is fine? It has been three days you are telling me she has been there. I worry.
“I am sure. Jonathan says she is there reading and learning. I have come to know I can trust him implicitly with her. If she were in any trouble, he would be all over it. This is what she needs to do, Sabrina. I have waited much too long. I should have done this a long time ago, but I could not work up the nerve to broach the subject with her. She is my child, has been for the longest, but still she manages to unnerve me at times. Sometimes even I tread lightly around her.”
That is because the two of you are so much alike. She tell me she feel the same way about you. You both, how do you say- scare, no-intimidate people. You are so much alike you cannot see yourselves in each other. She look like her mother, but she is her father. She shows one face to the world, but she keep so much of her inside.
“Sabrina, I know we are still catching up, but tell me. When Jennifer would visit you as a girl, would she speak of her mother? Has she ever?”
No. Not very much. But I did not press. I was not going to make her. She never really say.
“I thought it was just me. She’s been silent on the subject for years. She doesn’t talk about her mother to me. Jonathan says that she doesn’t really talk about her to him, not even to Justine.”
What brings all this on, Etienne? After all these years?
“I want to make things right by her before I leave this world. There isn’t much time left. My shadow grows shorter by the day.”
I hate you talking like that, Etienne. You say it as if you are certain that soon you will go.
“I just know I am old, and I am not well. I harbor no fanciful illusions about living much longer. As it is, my heart has been beating on borrowed time for the past four years.”
Please, do not say these things to me. I have wasted so much time in shame and anger. I am not ready to lose you again.
“What I say is truth, Sabrina. We must face it. Be assured that when it is my time, it will be well with my soul now that I have attempted to take care of this last unfinished business. My life has been long and eventful, and my only unresolved regret lie in what I did to my child. I was certain my time had come last weekend, and I was distraught with knowing I hadn’t done all I could to fix it personally.
“I hated leaving Jennifer with just a letter telling her of it, but I had made arrangements to have that room sealed from my friends who are coming to live in the house. I couldn’t risk Jennifer not making it up there. She had to go. There has been no end to this for her. Trying to spare her, and myself, from daily reminders of the one who was lost to us, I took everything of her mother’s away from her. My daughter has been bravely going through her life holding on to that loose end. She had to go up there or else it would never be finished for her. What I didn’t count upon was my granddaughter’s spirit of adventure assisting me in this. But it is now done. I can rest.”
What is this place where Justine gets lost? Is it cellar? Does my Jennifer ever go there as a child?
“No, it’s just a tunnel of sorts, a hidden corridor. Suzanne would use it to go to her room in the guest house. She could do that without having to go outside. It was more convenient for her to get there that way. Jennifer never knew of it as a child. Suzanne didn’t want her playing down there.”
Leave it to that busy Justine to find such things. She is never still. If the body is not moving, you can be sure that mind is in motion. It is good about the ring. I am glad you keep that for Jennifer. My sister would want her to have that; she need no ring in heaven. She now wears a whole crown of diamonds.
She was good, so good. Better than you know, Etienne. Even when I do the bad things, when I mess up my life, she help me. Still she love me and try to help me. Papa say she was a rock. She was my rock. You say you regret what you did to Jennifer. I know you will not listen to me, but you must believe. You did nothing to Jennifer except to make her the fine woman she has become. She would be much different kind of woman had Suzanne finished raising her. She was good mother to Jennifer, but I tell her and tell her, she keep Jennifer too close, want her to be so different from her that Jennifer would have been too weak for this world. She is too pretty to be weak, I say to her. Pretty girls must also be smart and strong. Jennifer’s anger with you make her sharp and tough, make her develop her talents. Make her, how do you say- independent. It make her work with her bad temper and her stubbornness so that they become good part of her. That is what you do for her.
Losing her mother also make her a better mother for Justine. She remember the good, she know what it is like to lose mama. She know what she need to give, and what she want Justine to have from her. I miss my sister so much, still. I know you miss your wife. Jennifer miss her mother, but it was God’s plan for us. We all have our lives change by her leaving us. Some good change, some not so good, but it was supposed to be.
How is Justine? She is wanting Jennifer. She love her mother very much.
“She is like her mother in that; didn’t say to me if she misses her, but I know that she does. It is true that Justine dearly loves Jennifer. She has been rather quiet since she’s been home, and I know that’s why. She and her friend have kept largely to themselves all day.”
Ah, little Marnie. Our Jennifer and Justine speak often of her. I have not seen her since my last visit to California. Still cute?
“Very. And bold.”
Nothing wrong with cute and bold as long as she is smart, too. Patricia is also there. That is some comfort to Justine.
“For the time being. Justine is impatient and assertive, though. She is not above taking matters into her own hands. I expect that if she could walk farther without causing herself injury, she would have already gone in search of her mother.”
Maybe it won’t be much longer.
“I hope not.”
Well, Stephen, I am tired. I will say good night now. I speak with you in the morning. Hopefully it will be done by then.
He hung up from Sabrina and reclined in the wheezy-spring antique wooden chair, thinking how good it was to have her back in his life. He realized he had sorely missed her during their silent years, but he was also grateful for the time they hadn’t communicated. Not only did it make rekindling the friendship so satisfying, but it kept the two of them from seeking consolation in each other after Suzanne’s untimely passing. Reaching down next to him, he flipped back the canvas and picked up a framed photograph of the sisters, taken shortly after he married Suzanne. Examining them closely under the glare of the desk lamp, the only light down in that part of the passageway at the time, he reflected upon how his life had been so affected by those two French teens.
No other woman before or after, had ever appealed to him in the way Suzanne had. Although she was younger, her intellect, daring, spirit and strength of character had been immeasurable. He couldn’t help but constantly compare other women to her, and after meeting and marrying her, none had ever measured up. It was what kept him faithful to her during those times he was so long away from her during their marriage. It was what sealed his solitary fate once she was gone. He understood all too well that with Sabrina, it would have been very easy indulge his longing for Suzanne.
Sabrina had been vulnerable, herself, on several levels at that time. If he had taken her that fateful night, it would have been using her, and despite that she might not have cared; she didn’t deserve to have that happen. Once her sister was gone, she pulled away from him completely. But now that they were both so much older emotionally and physically, it seemed they were better equipped to be just friends.
He had been working in London when Suzanne’s urgent call had been put through. She phoned to say that Sabrina was in serious trouble, and that he needed to go to her. It wasn’t the first time that one or the other of them had to go to Sabrina’s rescue, but this time Suzanne had been uncharacteristically frantic. He’d left immediately for Paris, where he found Sabrina hospitalized after having been viciously beaten and assaulted by someone sent to do in one of her gentlemen friends. Without her knowledge, her latest lover had run up a huge gambling debt which hadn’t been repaid. Subsequently, unable to come up with the money, he had gone underground to avoid retribution, leaving Sabrina exposed and defenseless, an unwitting pawn in his deception. Finding her alone, and unable to tell him where her friend was, the assailant took it out on her, using her body to send the message to the offending party.
Shocked and outraged at what had been done to her, he stayed in Paris with her until she could be released from the hospital. Arrangements were made to pay off the debt, and to see to Sabrina getting all the private care she needed while she began recuperating at the apartment she kept in Paris.
Suzanne, in the meantime, after being given the details of her sister’s misfortune, arranged with Constantine Wainwright, the director of their division of Intelligence, for the dispatch of a covert team to root out Sabrina’s errant boyfriend and the people responsible for hurting her. It was a highly unusual, very personal request, but Connie evidently had no problem with taking care of it for her.
Connie had always been fond of Suzanne, admiring her intelligence, her coolly detached working demeanor, and how she so deftly integrated herself into their operations despite her youth at the beginning. The entire horse farm operation had been her cover, and the stable hands she employed were actually agents who assisted her and kept watch over Jennifer. Even when Jennifer went off to Gresham Hall, the stable went with her, along with rotating stable hand/agents to look after her security. That had been Connie’s idea. It was what he felt Suzanne would have wanted in her absence, and keeping Jennifer safe was the least he could do for her once she was gone. Suzanne had been the mastermind behind all that went on at Briarwood, a major liaison in America, and Constantine Wainwright had an enormous respect for her.
Connie also had a soft spot for Suzanne’s gregarious twin, whom he had met one time when they were all together in France on holiday, but had always been too shy to approach on his own. Once Suzanne formally introduced them at a more intimate dinner party she hosted during one of Sabrina’s stateside visits, it turned out that Sabrina took an instant fancy to him. Although Sabrina had never been one to settle on any one man, nor Connie on any one woman, he joined her inner circle, and they had remained very close friends until his death several years back.
Suzanne never directly mentioned to him having made the arrangement with Connie, but via the network, he learned that she had ordered something done. He never knew or wanted to know the details. There were some questions that didn’t get asked, and some discussions that never had to take place in their line of work, as long as the troublesome matter at hand was effectively dispatched. In their time together, he discovered that his wife had a very cold and deliberate side to her nature, that she was extremely protective of her family, and that it did not pay for anyone to get between her and one of hers. She wasn’t afraid to fight if she had to, and she could handle any type of weapon. She was a basically a good, decent, gentle woman, but an eye for an eye was a set-in-stone rule by which she lived.
The details and the end result of Suzanne’s transaction hadn’t mattered to him, as long as the outcome was satisfactory to her. All he knew for sure was that the same money he had paid out to settle that debt was returned to him by courier one afternoon in the same envelope in which he had sent it. With Sabrina out of danger, Suzanne no longer had to worry about her sister or that particular situation. From the start, Suzanne’s peace of mind had been his basic concern in the matter.
Once she was back on her feet, he found that Sabrina had been too badly injured emotionally to leave her in Paris alone. Physically, she was still too battered to send her to her sister in the States. Jennifer adored her Aunt Sabrina, and there would have been too many questions which Suzanne was not prepared to answer. She had gone to great lengths to keep Jennifer’s childhood secure, carefree, and happy. She made it her mission to keep trouble away from her child. Even her sister came second to that. They arranged for Sabrina to travel to London to stay with him while she healed.
He had been gone from home for a month at the start of all that trouble, and although he spoke with Suzanne and Jennifer almost daily, he missed them terribly. He enjoyed his work, but he had become increasingly frustrated with the endless tasks to which he was being assigned. He would finish one job, get home with his family, and then would be called away again to start another. It seemed Jennifer had grown up overnight on him. Every time he came home, she was taller, smarter, and into some new activity or another. Suzanne, who never complained of his absences, said that his being called into service so often was a compliment for being good at what he did. He would later conclude that it was a compliment he could have done without.
In the aftermath of her ordeal, as an effort to escape the emotional pain, Sabrina began to drink heavily when she was alone during the day while he was out working. When he came home one evening to find her passed out in her room, he began to work closely with her to check it and to help her deal more effectively with what had happened to her. She refused professional help, so he sent for her trusted personal maid, Chloe, in Perpignan to come and stay with them to help look after her during the day.
His nights were spent sitting up with her, encouraging her to talk through it rather than drowning herself in it. Aside from Suzanne, he had never been one for intimate chats and felt it improper to casually share one’s innermost feelings. But he allowed Sabrina to open up to him in an effort to purge the demons that were eating at her. It was during those late night talks that he got to really know her. He realized that, despite her outward exuberance and zest for life, at her core Sabrina was basically an insecure individual who needed constant validation of her worth.
Although she had always been the darling of her family and lived in the limelight of society, surprisingly she still secretly felt insignificant in her quieter, more grounded sister’s shadow. Where Suzanne lovingly considered Sabrina her charge, Suzanne was secretly Sabrina’s hero. She expressed to him that she had always admired Suzanne, but had also always been jealous of her. She envied her ability to effortlessly garner the respect of others, especially their father. She was jealous of her ability to make solid decisions and stick with them. She envied Suzanne’s stability and her deep capacity to love and be loved in return.
It wasn’t really clear to him just when things began to change, but for certain he knew that it had come about out of his loneliness for Suzanne. He had always been aware of Sabrina’s infatuation with him, and up to that point her flirtations had only been a source of flattering amusement for him. In his eyes, she had always been a flighty, coquettish lightweight in comparison to her more serious, cerebral sister, and as such, he merely humored her. Although they were exactly the same age and probably equally intelligent, Sabrina had always seemed much less mature- like a true baby sister, and up until then, that was how he had viewed her.
But as she began to return to herself, it was apparent that she had grown some from her terrible ordeal. She was quieter, more introspective, more vulnerable, and a bit less animated than before. She had been so much like Suzanne in appearance. Tall, pleasingly slim, with that fabulous bosom he knew was being held captive by her fine undergarments. Those eyes, that hair. So intelligent and entertaining. That smile.
And so very available and attainable.
That fateful night, he could see her approaching as she crossed the room, and knew the look in her eyes, but he had been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to avoid her. He allowed her to take his face in her hands and when she kissed him- she said it was to thank him for helping her- he could feel her body as she pressed it against him. He knew that it was wrong to let it go so far, that she had only wanted to validate her sexuality once more with someone she trusted to not hurt her. But with his eyes closed as they were, her long arms around him as they were, her scent intoxicating him as it was, and an ocean away as they both were…
It had to have been divine intervention that made that phone ring. It could only have been God who put Suzanne on that line at that moment with the news that she was carrying another child for him. She wasn’t supposed to ever be able to have another baby. She said that she had kept the secret from him until she was sure, but that it had been confirmed that afternoon. He would never know what made her call right then to tell him that, but he did know why it had happened in that way.
Hanging up from her, he immediately contacted Connie to inform him in no uncertain terms that he was tired, and he was going home to be with his wife. He would be unavailable for any assignments for the next year, and he did not want to be contacted during that time. He had never gone in before, so Connie, who knew that Sabrina was with him, understood that he was serious and immediately agreed.
He had almost compromised the integrity of his marriage- with his wife’s twin sister, no less. It was past time for him to go home.
Early in the marriage, Suzanne had warned him of the consequences of straying. She knew that temptations would come his way while he was out there and she was grounded in Maryland, raising their child. Despite being surrounded by the males working at Briarwood, she had pledged her faithfulness to him and in return had given him fair warning. Should he betray her trust, there would be no forgiveness on her part. There would be no opportunities offered to redeem himself, and no compromises would be made to get her overlook the transgression. It would just be over for them. She vowed that she would go back home to France to the house her parents had left to her and Sabrina, AND she would be taking Jennifer with her. He knew that Suzanne was not a woman to make idle threats; she meant every word she said.
Without mentioning the new baby to her, he told Sabrina that he would be leaving to return to the States. He told her that he missed his family, and that it was time for him to go home to them. He had been away too long.
He had been away for Jennifer’s difficult birth, and he had no intention of risking being caught away again, leaving Suzanne to go it alone a second time. The new child, his son, would be born in a hospital with a doctor and nurses in attendance, and Suzanne would be still and let someone else care for her until her body was ready for her to move about. His hope was that once he got there and got settled, headquarters would forget about him, and he could just remain in Maryland forever, being a proper husband to his wife, and a full-time father to his two children.
Sabrina declined his offer of the continued use of the London flat for as long as she liked, saying that it was also time for her to leave. Thanks to him, she was ready to return to France and to get back into her life. They parted as friends, but not quite the easy friends they had once been. He worried that they would always have that inappropriate moment between them, and that they would always be uncomfortable with the memory of it and with each other.
A few days later, he arrived at Briarwood, spending the evening in the company of his delightful daughter. That night had been spent making reluctant, but wondrous love with the only woman he had ever wanted; the one who had been the foundation of his lust for the other. He had been mindful of her condition, but she had been mindful of their love for each other and that it came before all else. All the while that they were together that night, he desperately hoped that she couldn’t sense or feel the apology laced in his heartfelt attentions to her. He prayed that his enormous guilt would be atonement enough for his sin.
But as it happened, apologies and guilt had not been enough. The gods were not appeased. They knew what he had done, and they were not satisfied with his meager offering. The next morning, just as she promised she would be, Suzanne was gone forever. Just as she said she would, she returned to France where she was laid to rest. But ever gracious and generous, in her departure, she did leave him a part of herself. But it was the part with which he had no idea what he would do. She left her child, their daughter, Jennifer, who for a time, wanted no part of him.
With Suzanne’s death, he had also lost his unborn child and his chance for a son. But in life with Jennifer, he gained a new respect for his daughter by birth, and he gained another by proxy, Patricia, that motherless hellion out of old money New York. Brilliant, aggressive, undisciplined, fearless, headstrong and angry; she had been the perfect partner for his own quiet, brilliant, calculating, stubborn, defiantly angry daughter. Together, they brought out the best, and the worst, in each other.
The first four years with them had been the most difficult. Within the first month of Jennifer’s arrival, the calls began coming from Gresham Hall with increasing regularity, sometimes two or three a week. The two little girls confounded the faculty, the staff, and him by earning top academic scores and honors; but doing whatever they pleased otherwise. Chastising Jennifer on the phone had been the same as talking to no one; he was sure she wasn’t listening to anything he said, and she had little to say to him in response other than an insincere, “Yes, Papa.”.
His letters to her went completely unanswered. If it hadn’t been for Agnes Marchand, then their Headmistress, keeping him posted, he might never have known of the strong, but unholy alliance that was forming between the two girls, turning his once picture-perfect, sweet child into the Bad Seed, his demon daughter.
After bringing her over from Wales, he had arranged for Agnes’ younger sister, Belinda Smythe to be conveniently installed as housemother in their residence, and it was she who finally put him in touch with Rick Hamilton, Patricia’s father. As it turned out, Rick didn’t give a damn what Patricia did, as long as she did it away from him. Eventually, realizing that in order to reign in one, he would have to harness both, he began to discipline Patricia right along with Jennifer, and surprisingly, Patricia took it from him, even better than his own flesh and blood child.
Right after Patricia turned sixteen, her father contacted him in London to ask if they could meet when he arrived in the States. He was scheduled to leave for winter conferences at Gresham Hall in a few days where he had taken to checking up on both girls once he learned that Patricia’s father had stopped coming to see about her altogether. Rick said that he wanted to discuss some business.
They met over drinks at the home Rick maintained in Long Island The business, as it turned out, was Patricia. Rick first thanked him for making a positive change in his daughter’s life. He laughed as he told of how Patricia had recently cursed him out for never being there for her. She told him that she didn’t need him and to stay away. He wasn’t offended; he knew that he had done a poor job of parenting her, and he was proud of the backbone it seemed she had developed. But it was too late for him to make amends for neglecting her at that at that point. He was dying of lung cancer, a detail he had, up to that moment, kept to himself.
Even though he hadn’t visited her directly, he admitted to keeping tabs on Patricia through Belinda Smythe. He had learned of the strong bond she had formed with one Jennifer Edwards, and he said that he had also been informed of Patricia’s willingness to accept and conform to discipline issued from Jennifer’s father. Knowing that he didn’t have long to live, and that there were no other close relatives to whom he could entrust her welfare, Rick was seeking to sign over his parental rights to him. The papers had already been drawn up and sat on that table before them awaiting his signature.
Rick Hamilton said that until she went to Gresham Hall and met Jennifer, his daughter had always been largely alone on their estates. She had never established any real friendships, or formed any real attachments to anyone with the exception of a grandmother, his recently deceased mother.
Thus, he signed on and became Patricia Hamilton’s legal guardian that day in 1960, and upon her father’s death a year later, the conservator of her considerable estate until she turned twenty-two.
At the funeral, he noted that even though her father’s death left her virtually alone in the world, Patricia hadn’t shed one tear. It was almost a repeat of Jennifer’s behavior at both memorials for her mother. He could recall stealing glances at both those closed young faces that day, wondering what was going through their minds and what secrets they would share once they were back in their room at school.
Patricia’s father might not have been a very nurturing parent, but he had certainly been financially responsible. He left his daughter set for several lifetimes. Jennifer’s mother had also left all of her sizable estate to her daughter, with the stipulation that he oversee it for her until she was twenty-one. With two lively teenage heiresses and two huge trusts to manage, as well as his own affairs, his hands had been full. But, it was around the time of Rick Hamilton’s death that Jennifer began to slowly let him back in.
It started with a very cursory letter reporting on some trouble into which she had gotten herself, which Headmistress-turned-Dean Marchand required her to relate to him in her own words. That letter had been more than he’d had in years. Then, shortly after the letter arrived, there had been an out-of-the-blue phone call from her to ask after his well-being, of all things.
That summer, the three of them made that excellent research trip together to Cairo. Patricia worked with the archivists, faithfully and accurately helping to catalog and record the digging team’s finds. She had only been sixteen, but even then her strong organizational skills and her emerging leadership potential were evident. Jennifer worked right by his side, digging, discovering, journaling their days, showing him the mettle of which she was made despite her delicate, feminine appearance. That had been his first glimpse of himself in his child, and it was a graphic, but welcome reminder of the partner he had lost.
He and Jennifer had been on the mend ever since, father and daughter against the world; but still, even after all that time, there was a silent something standing between them, keeping them from coming all the way back to each other. They had only come so far in their healing, and then they seemed to stop, unable to proceed any farther.
Suzanne and Sabrina stared up at him from that photograph he had placed on the desktop. From the shelf above, Jennifer and Patricia gazed down from a heart-shaped double frame. If only Suzanne had lived, she would know what to do to reach her. But, if she had lived, that wouldn’t be necessary. Until her mother’s death, Jennifer had been her mother’s child. They had an alliance of which he had not been a part. None of what currently was, would be if she hadn’t left them. He would not be sitting down there alone in that passage, Patricia would probably be aimlessly adrift out in the world, and just as Sabrina had recently said on the phone, Jennifer would not be the person she had become. And just as Suzanne had told him in their room on that recent afternoon visit when she forgave him, he and his daughter would not have gotten to know each other as they had.
She wouldn’t be Jennifer Hart, happily married, and mother to his grandchild. In fact, as self-sufficient as she had been, she might never have married at all if she hadn’t met that one particular man. She certainly wouldn’t have had any children if she hadn’t met with Jonathan Hart. She wouldn’t have allowed any other man to put her in that position.
It was a difficult thought, but her life might not have turned out so well had her mother lived. She might have gotten tangled up with one of those moneyed twits with no personality who favored her, or one of those daredevil adventurers or thrill-seekers she seemed to favor. She might not have developed the independence that saved her from giving in to either. Had she married any one of them, of which he had been aware, she would have ended up divorced. She was like her mother in that. If she couldn’t see a situation working out, she didn’t waste time on it. She simply walked away from it.
He was aware of her having done that more than once, beginning with the boy who took her to her upper school senior prom. The boy had been crazy about her, and although she properly made her curfew that night, he knew they had been intimate. But she turned her back on young Armbrister with a coldness that could only have been inherited from her mother.
He blamed himself for that one. He had kept her too close, and as soon as he turned her loose, she did exactly what he had been trying to keep her from doing, and she’d been very disappointed with her experience. She had been far too young. Naive and uninformed, she had gone into it for all the wrong reasons. It was yet another one of those things for which a girl needed her mother. From that time on, he let her go her own way. She began turning to her aunt for guidance, but still he maintained his long distance, clandestine surveillance of her activities.
She had been flirtatious, and had any number of suitors all over the globe, but she didn’t deeply involve herself with many of them. When she did, and the affair ended; it was she who terminated the relationships. Nobody was allowed to get too close or too cling too tightly to her. Trying to tie her down with talk of marriage and commitments, or attempting to curtail her constant traveling, were sure to send her packing and running in the opposite direction. She tried to walk away from that possessive fellow in Australia, but that time she paid a heavy price for asserting her independence. Eventually, she had come back stronger for having gone through it, and she had stood her ground, but it changed her, just as Sabrina’s bad time had altered her. Both became more mature, closed, and cautious.
He had never mentioned it to anyone outside of the particulars who assisted him. He had never let on to anyone that he had an inkling of it, but he knew of Jennifer’s bad time in Australia. She had been going back and forth working on a writing assignment for about a year, and she had become involved with a prominent, young businessman there. He owned a game preserve as part of his extensive holdings, which was where he spent most of his time. For Jennifer, who had inherited her mother’s deep love for animals, that last thing had been a major source of her attraction to him. When it was three days past the time she said that she would be returning to New York from that last trip over, and she hadn’t phoned him to check in, he contacted Patricia to find out what was going on.
At first, Patricia attempted to dodge his questions, which was customary for the two of them when one was covering for the other. But after he persisted in being told and threatened to pay her a personal visit, she finally broke down. Crying and becoming nearly hysterical, which was way out of character for her, she said that Jennifer had returned from Sydney two days late. She hadn’t seen her in the flesh, but that was because she wouldn’t see anyone. She wouldn’t answer her phone either, not even for her. The only reason she was sure that Jennifer was back was because she had paid the doorman in Jennifer’s building to notify her when she returned.
Immediately, he started packing to leave London to go to her. In the meantime, he dispatched his “feelers” to take a look into the situation. Jennifer could never know of his ability to keep tabs on her wherever she had been in the world. It was the only way that he could allow her to move about in the way that she liked without worrying incessantly about her. He didn’t always exercise the option, but he did when his instincts told him it might be necessary or wise to do so. That time he had missed the cues.
The news he received nearly killed him, but it made him put off going to New York. He couldn’t go to her without letting her know how he knew, but to not be able to comfort her without disclosing himself almost drove him crazy. Legal charges were warranted, but couldn’t be pressed without drawing her back into it, and that was something he would not do to her. He could recall being frustrated to distraction, pacing his flat, choosing his guns, loading and unloading them; picking up the phone to call her, and putting it back in the cradle. She was a proud girl, and she would have died of shame. That was the one time in all those silent years that he broke down and sent a direct request to Sabrina, wiring her to say that he needed her to come to the States. Jennifer was in trouble, and Sabrina was the closest to her mother as she was going to get. In that situation, Sabrina might have been even closer.
Knowing that Sabrina was there, staying in the apartment with her and seeing to her, had been his main consolation.
In the end, he and Connie had taken care of the rest of it. He had personally gone along to make sure that it was clearly understood that a grievous error had been made in hurting his daughter. It hadn’t been legal, it hadn’t been moral or ethical; it hadn’t been right, but it was done just the same. She was his child. He was her father. It was his duty to even the score, and he had been summarily dispatched to take care of it.
For the rest of his life, every time that character looked in the mirror, he would remember that near-fatal error. He had been proud to learn that Jennifer had gotten her share in, as well. It had probably been for the best that Suzanne had been dead at the time. If she had been living, and had been the one directly seeing to it, a severe head wound and an altered physical appearance would have been the least of the man’s problems.
He sat back and reflected, reaching way back.
Even though Jennifer was his only child, and he had been her only parent for most of her life, she had never turned to him with her troubles, opting instead to struggle through things largely on her own. That element of their relationship was one of the things which still stood between them, and made him have doubts. He felt she had never come to trust him enough for that.
Jennifer had an air of vulnerability to her persona. It was a quality not found in her mother or in her daughter, but oddly, it was present in Sabrina. It was an attractive element, but it was so pervasive in them that it made men want to protect them. That protectiveness often evolved into macho possessiveness over time. Their femininity and pleasant, gracious demeanor made them appear easy to manipulate. But, in actuality, both were really quite strong physically and mentally, extremely self-sufficient, assertive, and very stubborn. He had felt and experienced all of it in his dealings with them, and had come to understand it about them. Sabrina had always used that deceptive air to her advantage, surrounding herself with willing supplicants who catered to her every need. But she had never committed to any one man. She would not be ruled. Several of Jennifer’s suitors, prior to Jonathan, had fallen by the wayside for misreading and trying to change her. She was quieter with it, but she too had proven to not be a woman easily subjugated.
As he stared at the picture he kept on the desktop of his daughter and son-in-law, he reminisced that from the start Jonathan had given the impression that he could take care of Jennifer without needing to own or change her. That was the main feature to him that allowed him to pass muster. Even though he and Jennifer had only known each other an obscenely short amount of time, Jonathan seemed to genuinely accept and love her for the person she was. Over the years, it was apparent that initial supposition had been correct. She had been married to that same man for years, she had borne his child, but she never stopped doing what she had always done as far as her work and her career went. Jonathan had seen to that, going so far as facilitating it. He admired his son-in-law. Jonathan Hart was a hell of a man, and he married quite a girl- her Papa’s dear girl.
His mind drifted back to that poor boy that he had never been able to get out of his head, even though he never met him. That Ford Beebe character had lost his life because he couldn’t see it. Poor soul. He had carried a torch for Jennifer for all those years- ever since their prep school days when she had been a pretty debutante and he an overweight misfit. Beebe had worked for years on making himself presentable for her in preparation for seeing her again at their 1982 Gresham Hall/ Brookfield joint reunion. Even though she was married and had come with her husband, he thought he could make her want him. He had waited until that reunion to try to get her back, but he had failed miserably in the attempt. It was a doomed aspiration from the start. Jennifer made her own decisions when it came to that part of her life. That relationship she and Jonathan had established by that time was one that would not be broken by any outside force.
How well he knew about that.
Ford Beebe should have asked someone. When one stopped to consider that it seemed to be a match which had been made in heaven…
Stephen sat up, slid open the top drawer and drew out that article he had saved from all those years ago. Of all the articles written about Jennifer that he had collected over the years, that one had been the most troubling and the most meaningful for him. In all the time that had passed since it occurred, neither Jonathan nor Jennifer had ever mentioned to him that having happened to them. He only learned of the incident through Agnes, who let it slip during one of their phone conversations. She thought he knew. Since he hadn’t been speaking to Sabrina during all those years, there hadn’t been anyone else with whom he spoke of his personal relationship with Jennifer. Agnes had no way of knowing that Jennifer wouldn’t have shared that with him. He asked her to send him the article, and when she did, he had no doubt of who sent Beebe over that cliff after he tried to make off with Jennifer, making Jonathan have to pursue him.
Ford had been tussling with Jonathan, but it was an unseen female hand who dealt that final push that sent him to his death.
Nobody came between her and them… nobody. An eye for an eye.
“If it offend you, get rid of it, I tell you. It need not be. Life is too short to be bothered. Those are not my words. It is written, Stephen. Look it up. It is in Matthew.”
He slid open the upper right hand drawer of his desk and fingered the pile of envelopes there, all addressed in that familiar script, all letters from his only child, which he had kept over the years. At one time that drawer had been empty. Now he had to press down on the contents to open the drawer and to close it back; it was almost full to overflowing with her correspondence, but that was where they would stay. He pressed down and pushed the drawer in as far as it would go, and then he sat back again.
His daughter said that she loved him… She acted like she genuinely cared… Suzanne said that she had forgiven him…
Suzanne, Jennifer, and now, Justine. Thrice blessed in one lifetime. Who could ask for more?
…if only he could be sure about Jennifer, one way or the other, he could be totally at peace.
He thought he heard footsteps coming toward him, and he rocked forward in the chair. Training his ears, he detected they were too heavy to be Jennifer’s or Justine’s. Turning toward the sound, he could see the moving glow of a lantern, and presently, his son-in-law’s form behind the light.
“Jonathan!” He called out in surprise.
Standing, as the face came into focus and he could see that furrowed brow, he knew right off that something was wrong. Jennifer wasn’t with him, and he had no reason to be maneuvering that space without her unless it was she for whom he was looking. If that one had come all the way from the guest house, he was an even better sleuth than he knew him to be, or else he had some extraordinary help on his side, which wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for him. He was the kind of real man that Suzanne would have hand-picked for her daughter. Those two would have been great friends.
“Stephen.” Jonathan sounded out of breath, as if he had been running or at least moving fast to get there. “Where’s that other room?”
Caught off guard, still coming off that other line of thought, and not quite comprehending what was being asked of him, Stephen responded with, “What other room?”
“Stephen, I know there’s another room!” Jonathan declared impatiently. “Suzanne’s room. Where is it? How do we get in from down here?”
“Are you thinking that Jennifer is there?” Stephen’s eyes grew wide with disbelief. “How? It’s closed off.”
“She found the plans. She’s gone from the attic, and she’s not down here. I know she’s not outside. Please, Stephen, my head is killing me, so I know she’s in trouble. Take me there. Please, show me the way.”
He could see Jonathan’s eyes darting around, looking, getting his bearings. Then, when he began heading, presumably, in the direction of where he thought the entrance to that room might be from the passage, Stephen grabbed him by the arm to pull him back.
“Wait.” He urged. “It will be quicker if we go this way.”
Then he led them toward the stairs that would take them back up to his room.
J.J. was lying across her bed, looking at a magazine, when her cell rang.
“J.! Go to your door! Something’s up. They told me to stay in here. I was leaving out to get some water, but Pat pushed me back up in here, and told me not to open the door. She toldme that, but she didn’t tell you. Go! Peek and see! Call me back.”
“Yeah, okay. Good looking out. I’ll hit you right back. Thanks.”
Phone in hand, J.J. clicked off and hopped down from the bed, forgetting about her foot, but was instantly reminded of it. Undeterred, she limped for the door, turned off the overhead light, and cracked it just enough to be able to peer through the slight opening, out into the hall. She could hear muffled voices coming from the direction of her grandfather’s wing. Not wanting to give her position away, she fought the urge to step out into the hall and willed herself into being patient. She waited, frozen in place. Marnie’s door was on the other side of the hall, and she knew that Marnie was on the other side of it with her eye glued to the old-fashioned keyhole.
She could hear her grandfather’s voice.
And Pat’s comment.
“Jen is really out. Do you think we should call a doctor?”
At those words, her heart pushed its way up into her throat, and she eased the door open a little farther to stick her head out to see down the hall. There were four of them coming her way, Aunt Pat, her grandfather, and Uncle Bill followed by her father who had a very concerned look on his face as he watched something behind her Uncle’s back. It was a moment before she realized that Uncle Bill was carefully carrying a limp someone over his shoulder, one arm clamped around the legs and the other bracing the back, as he slowly came up the hall.
“No!” She heard herself scream, as her body propelled itself toward them. Warning pains shot up her calf, but she ignored them. “What happened to her?”
She saw her father step out from behind her uncle, and start toward her.
“Go back, J.J.!” He called out, as he passed Bill to reach for her.
She feinted to the other direction, successfully dodging his hands to get to Uncle Bill and her mother.
“Uncle Bill, what’s wrong? Aunt Pat, tell me!” She demanded, but Bill kept silently walking.
“J.J.” She heard Pat say to her.
“Go back.” She heard her father order again, but she couldn’t see anyone except her Uncle carrying her lifeless-looking mother.
“No!” She screamed in answer. “You told me she was all right. She is not all right!”
Her mother’s body was completely limp, and with her arms and hair hanging down as they were, she couldn’t see her face. The entire time that she was trying to get in closer so that she could touch her, or see her face; she was ducking and fighting off the hands that kept trying to restrain her.
“Mom!” She cried. “Mom! Answer me! Talk to me. Say something, please.”
Finally, that one voice drew her attention. “Justine. Stop it.”
And she did not fight off that arm when it assertively took her about the waist and pulled her back. “Your mother will be all right. She’s just exhausted herself. You come with Pa.”
She stood there with her grandfather holding her closer to him than she could ever remember him holding her, and she watched through her tears as the others continued on and disappeared into her parents’ room.
“It’s all right. Pick up your phone from the floor, Justine.” He said, letting her go. “Get your crutch, and then come with me. It’s time we talked, you and I. I’ll see to Marnie. I know she’s peeking.”
J.J. went and did as he asked, and when she emerged from her room again, he was crossing the hall on his way back from Marnie’s door. Together, they slowly walked back down the hall and into his room.
When Bill and Pat left the room, Jonathan carefully slipped Jennifer out of the blouse and slacks she wore and pulled the bed covers over her. As he had been removing her clothing, she stirred and murmured, but did not fully wake. Her fair face was pallid to the point of translucency, and looking closely at her, he could see the tiny blue veins in her skin snaking across her forehead and making patterns on her cheeks. She was deeply asleep, and he intended to leave her that way. When she hadn’t awakened at the sound of J.J.’s cries out in that hallway, he knew that she was totally exhausted.
Once they were up from the passageway, Stephen had led him into that cedar closet on the other side of his bedroom, and activated the machinery to open that back wall. The element of mystery that under normal circumstances would have been intriguing and inviting to him, was suddenly forbidding. Tentatively, he entered, feeling as though he were defiling some sacred feminine sanctuary with his coarse male presence, and he wondered why there was light radiating from the floor on the other side of the four poster bed. In order to get into the room from where he was, he had to go around the bed. The sight of Jennifer prone on the floor of her dead mother’s long lost bedroom, looking as if she, too, had drawn her last breath, had frightened him worse than anything he could recall in recent memory.
All of that, combined with those fine, but dated, dusty furnishings that evidently hadn’t been touched since the morning her mother last occupied the room, ran chills through a body that wasn’t accustomed to that sensation. The ominous aura of loneliness and abandonment permeating the old, stale air he was taking in, kept him from opening his mouth to call for Jennifer. Then, at the foot of the bed was his beloved wife, lying in a death-like sleep before that blackened, gaping hole of a fireplace. It all stoked those desolate memories and emotions within him that he thought he had long put behind him. Dropping to his knees next to her, he found himself powerless to do anything other than whispering her name in her ear, and it further terrified him when she didn’t move and she didn’t answer.
So overwhelmed by it all, he didn’t notice that Stephen never stepped foot into the room. It wasn’t until Bill arrived that he was able to act upon getting Jennifer up from that hearthrug. They lifted her into position to both carry her, but then Bill, larger and with the better back, took it upon himself to hoist her completely upon his shoulder, and he carried her from the room, never once questioning anything he had seen. Stephen, pacing and his face noticeably perspiring with nervousness, had been waiting for them in his room. Pat met them in the hall, racing over from Marnie’s door. And then J.J., the one person he prayed wouldn’t appear, came running from her room.
It had been a hell of a time, those last couple of weeks. Sitting in the chair next to her, watching Jennifer sleep, he rubbed fitfully at his brow. He too, was tired, but they had a kid he had to check on. He knew that J.J. was angry with him, and even though her resentment was unreasonable, he understood it. Being a child, some things were still pretty much black and white for her. Earlier, when she asked, he had assured her that her mother was fine, and that she shouldn’t worry. But what J.J. saw in the hall told her that her mother was not fine, and he knew that she was indeed going to continue to worry and perhaps act upon that worry. It hurt some that she wouldn’t allow him to comfort her, and that she had ignored and dodged him, but not her grandfather. He knew that it hadn’t been a deliberate affront, but because it had been so spontaneous, it was all the more meaningful to him. What would they do should something happen to that woman on the bed?
But at that moment, he was tired, too tired even to get up and deal with J.J. Moving his chair closer to the bed and to Jennifer, he leaned his head forward and rested it in his hands.
So much had happened. And so much remained unsaid. So many questions swirled through his head that he wanted to ask, but he didn’t know how, to whom, or even if he should ask them.
How much longer would it all go on? How long would it be before he could take his family back home?
“Tell me, please, Suzanne.” He mouthed.
“Ayez la patience, mon fils.” The words drifted softly, soothingly into his head. He rubbed his temples to massage them in more thoroughly.
“I’m trying to be patient, Mrs. E. Really I am.”
“I know. But my child must go again to her task after she rests. You know this, yes?”
He nodded wearily into his hands.
A familiar touch brushed against his cheek and then slender fingers moved up to whisper past his ear and comb through his hair. Lying his head down on the side of the bed next to her, he took comfort in that involuntary caress, and knew that he would just have to continue to wait it all out.
Taking the seat offered her in one of the two chairs in front of the windows, J.J. propped her crutch against the arm of her chair. In the meantime, her grandfather sat down in the other which was positioned directly across from her. They were separated by the small, round table at which he sometimes took his afternoon tea. She looked around the large room, noting to herself that it was the first time in her life that she could ever remember being in there long enough to sit down.
It was a very orderly room, its furnishings reflective of her grandfather’s outer persona: masculine, tasteful, obviously expensive, and reminiscent of another more refined, staid era. The chairs in which they sat were stately high backs with those old fashioned curved legs and ball feet, covered in dark brown leather and fitted to the frames with no-nonsense brass nail heads. The brick, fully equipped fireplace was much too clean to have seen much use in recent times. The picture of her grandmother that she knew he kept there, still sat on the table next to his bed, and at that moment, it struck her as odd that there was no picture of her mother anywhere to be seen in that room. In fact, that lone photograph of her grandmother was the only thing in that room that said anything about him as a person. That bedroom, just like most of that house lacked identity. His room was just a room, albeit a large, handsome room. The house was equally anonymous; it was a large, handsome mansion, but aside from his study, the music room, the solarium and the kitchen, most of the other public areas lacked warmth and character- that personal touch.
When she turned back to him, she found her grandfather watching her again in that odd way he had of looking at her at times, and she felt uneasy under that direct gaze which he didn’t break even though she was sure that he could see her discomfort. She wondered if he was angry with her for having that moment in the hall. He had never really ever had to chastise her for much, but she got the feeling that he disapproved of extreme displays of emotion. Her grandfather was of the “stiff upper lip” school of thought.
If he was upset, she decided, she didn’t care. And if he wasn’t quick about whatever it was he wanted to say to her, or if he had just called her in there to fuss about anything, he could just forget it. There would be no discussion. She wouldn’t be staying for that; to heck with respecting her elders. That was her mother who had been hanging over Uncle Bill’s shoulder, and all of them were treating her like a baby who couldn’t handle the truth. She didn’t know what it was that was holding her in that chair, but if Stephen Harrison Edwards didn’t come correctly, it wouldn’t be holding her in it much longer.
As if he could sense her impatience, still eyeing her, he calmly began, “You love your mother very much, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, Pa.”
Still irritated at how he was looking at her, she was tempted to add a comment about what a silly question that was for him to ask. But she knew better, and she bit her tongue. Jennifer Hart wouldn’t be out cold forever, and when she did come to, if she got wind of her having said something like that to him … And then he was her father, and she probably got hers from him…
Instead, J.J. checked her temper and her tone to ask, “What’s wrong with her, Pa? What’s wrong with her that you guys seem to think I’m too much of a child to handle?”
“It’s not that anyone thinks you immature or that you can’t handle it, Justine. There is just simply nothing you can do right for her right now. Your father says that your mother has probably only had about six hours sleep over a three or four day period, and not all of those six hours have been at the same time. Prior to that, he says that she wasn’t sleeping soundly.”
“Pa, tell me what’s going on. What’s happening?”
“Your mother has been involved in some personal research that has simply drained her. Trust me, all that is wrong with Jennifer at this point is that she is just physically and emotionally spent.”
“All of it is about her mother, isn’t it? Is that why you said that she would need Daddy to be with her?”
“Yes, Justine, it is. And since you’ve bring him up, tell me something. What about your father? Do you love your father like you love your mother?”
Now that was an interesting question. She had never really thought about that. She loved them both, in different ways, for different reasons, but she had never stopped to consider which one she might love more or of her love for one in comparison to the other.
“I’ve never thought about it.” She responded truthfully.
“No.” He said. “I guess you haven’t had occasion to do that. Answer me this. If something. God forbid, were to happen to your mother, do you think you and your father would be able to make it together?”
Uncomfortable with the suggestion and wondering where he was headed, she didn’t answer right away.
“Well.” He urged.
“I guess we would be okay. I mean we would have to go on. We would have to hold each other up. We’d need each other for that because normally we depend on her. She’s like- she’s our glue, I guess.”
He grandfather nodded and smiled. “That was what I hoped you realized.”
And they were quiet for a while. J.J. watched him as he stared out of the window onto the grounds, wondering what he was seeing that she couldn’t see. After a time, he turned back to her.
“Do you ever pretend, Justine?”
“I’m not good at make-believe stuff, Pa.”
“Can you role play? Can you pretend to be someone else?”
“Oh yes, I can do that. If it’s reality, something that could really be, then I can do that.”
“Good. I’m going to want you to assume a role in a moment. Question. Does your mother still take you to school every morning?”
“Most of the time. Every now and then, Daddy or Marie might if she’s busy or something, but most of the time it’s her.”
“What do you say to her when you get out of the car to go into the school building?”
More puzzled and intrigued than ever about the line of conversation, she answered, “I don’t know. I guess I say “bye” or “I’ll see you later”, something like that.”
“And she picks you up in the evening?”
“Most of the time. Just like in the morning, occasionally Daddy will or Marie, if she can’t come for some reason, but mostly she does it.”
“Is she ever late? Does she ever forget to come for you?”
“Almost never on both. She does what she says she’s going to do. I can count on her to be there when she’s supposed to be.”
He nodded, appearing satisfied with her answers.
“That is how it was with your mother and your grandmother. Your grandmother took your mother to school and picked her up every day without fail. They spent a great deal of their time alone together since I was away so much with my work. They were very close. With you and your parents it is different, you have your father in your life every day. I was not here for your mother.”
“I know you were away a lot with your work.”
“Do you know about my work?”
“I know that you weren’t just an art dealer.”
“Who told you about that?”
“My father. He told me about both you and my grandmother and the work you used to do. He told me the real deal on the passage, too. I’m very impressed.”
“Thank you. It is good that Jonathan told you; he is quite thorough, so I know that you know everything. I don’t have to spend time filling you in. We can go past that. Now, this is where I want you to pretend.”
“You are a little girl. Twelve. You get up just like any other school day. You get dressed, have breakfast, and your mother takes you to school, just like every day. You arrive at school, you get out of the car, and you say to her-”
“I’ll see you later.”
“But you don’t.”
She looked to him, waiting.
“Don’t what?” She finally asked when he didn’t continue.
“See her later. She doesn’t come back- ever. She takes you to school, she drops you off, and that’s it. You never see her, touch her, talk to her- ever again. She leaves you at nine in the morning, and at lunch time it is your father who walks into the cafeteria. He has come for you to tell you that your mother is gone from your life.”
J.J. closed her eyes as the images and the emotions his scenario evoked began to overwhelm her. She could feel her chest folding into itself, squeezing the air from her lungs, choking her. Tears welled up, pushing their way through her tightly closed eyelids, and she could feel them sliding down her cheeks before she could reach up to stop them.
They didn’t even get to say goodbye to each other.
“Is that how it happened for her, Pa?” She asked with her eyes still closed, not wanting to look at him, to see him as he watched her cry, or to witness whatever expression his face might have borne in speaking of that morning. She knew the outline of the story, but somehow, coming from him, a major character in the terrible drama; it was suddenly very, very real.
“Yes, darling. That is how it happened when your mother was twelve years old. I will never forget the look on her face when she looked up and saw me approaching that table. She knew.”
“My God, Pa.” J.J. exhaled with the pain.
“My God, indeed, darling.” He sighed. “Your grandmother was killed on April 2, 1957 in a head-on collision with a drunk driver who passed out at the wheel, crossed the median, and struck her. She was on her way back from taking your mother to school. I had been away for a little less than two months, and had just gotten home on the evening before. I was supposed to take your mother to school that morning; she wanted me to meet her teachers. I had been away a lot that school year, and she hadn’t had the opportunity to introduce me to them. But I was tired, and your grandmother let me sleep. She came in here, she kissed me on the cheek as I lie there on that bed, and she told me to sleep, assuring me that it would be all right if I picked Jennifer up that afternoon, and met her teachers then. She said that she would be right back. Well, as it turned out, I did pick Jennifer up that afternoon, and I did meet her teachers. But your grandmother never came back.”
He went silent for a moment, and then as if he had to summon the strength from somewhere within, exhaled heavily himself, then he spoke again, his voice much softer, weaker, “I saw her once more, even though I didn’t want to, and wish to this day that I hadn’t. We had to use her picture at the funeral, so Jennifer never again saw her mother in the flesh after that last morning.”
The tears flowed shamelessly at that point, and she stopped trying to stem the tide as she continued to exist in her mother’s penny loafers. “How awful, Pa. For you and for her. What happened to the man? The one who caused the accident?”
“He was also killed.”
“An eye for an eye.” She whispered loud enough for him to hear while nodding thoughtfully. “I’m all right with that.”
And she saw it when her grandfather, upon hearing what she said, abruptly focused his eyes on her again with that same strange look on his face. It was identical to the look her mother had given her in the bedroom on that morning when she went to apologize to her parents after having gone down in the passageway on the night before, making her mother have to come looking for her.
But this time, she stared back at her grandfather, using her own eyes to communicate to him that she meant exactly what she said. Adults were always preaching that it wasn’t the attitude to take, but for her, that was a basic, instinctive belief. It was a rule of survival. It was even written in the New Testament, in Matthew, and who knew better than God?
She had gotten into big trouble a few years back in Catechism class with Sister Anastasia for debating the issue with her. The text clearly said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. Disregarding the next verse, she had focused her attentions on just that one part, despite Sister’s trying to tie it in and to get her to change her interpretation. But she would not be swayed; that turn the other cheek thing hadn’t been written for J.J. Hart.
She told Sister that anybody stupid enough to get hit, and just stand there, turning their other cheek, ran the risk of getting slapped even harder in other one. And furthermore, if not turning her cheek was a sin, then God might as well just go ahead and chalk one up for her because there would be no cheek-turning if someone hit her. Somebody other than her would be going home, crying to their mother with a black eye, and/or a bloody nose. Sister had been appalled while the other students in the class howled with laughter and high-fived each other in agreement.
Needless to say, when Jennifer Hart arrived to pick her up, she found her standing in the corner where Sister made her spend the rest of the class session. Then Sister ratted her out for ruining the lesson and stirring up the other students. In the car, she tried to explain to her mother that she was just giving her opinion, and that it wasn’t her fault if the other kids thought like she did. Her mother, who didn’t want to hear it, told her to hush.
Once they got home, and the three of them were assembled as a family in the great room, Jennifer Hart fussed at her long and hard for being “common” and “impertinent”, and for being a clown, reminding her in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t raising a hoodlum.
Her father, on the other hand, had just sat there, not saying one single word. He didn’t have to. She read his body language, and she could see the message in his eyes, reminding her of something he’d told her more than once: “Some things don’t have to said out loud, J.J.”
If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee. Daddy knew it.
Jennifer Hart knew it, too. She was just too much of a lady to admit to something like that out loud. She just went ahead and did it. Most of the time people didn’t even know they had been done by her until way down the line, long after she was finished with them.
Sticking up for herself and her family was something J.J. Hart believed in, to the bottom of her heart, and it was important to her that her grandfather know that about her. If somebody started it up, she would certainly be putting an end to it. No doubt.
“All right, stop crying.” Her grandfather finally said, breaking his stare and handing her a handkerchief from the box at his side. “I didn’t put you in that role and tell you this story to upset you. I just wanted you to understand how it was for her, and how strong she had to be through that, and through other trials that came her way. History can only be avoided so long. It can be put away, but eventually it will come back and make its existence known to the present. I know that you worry about her, but your mother is a very strong person.”
“Yes, I’ve always known that about her, and I knew the basic story of how my grandmother died. Aunt Pat told me about my mother not seeing her mother again after that morning, but you’re right, I understand even better now. I don’t think I would have made it so well, Pa. I love her so much. Thinking about it hurts so bad. I cannot even begin to imagine. Even pretending it, makes my heart want to stop beating.”
“You would make it, Justine. You are stronger even than your mother; you have just been fortunate enough to not to have had reason to test it yet. It was very difficult for us after your grandmother left us because of the circumstances of her sudden departure and because I wasn’t a very smart father- nothing like your father at all. Tell me, have you ever visited your grandmother’s grave in Perpignan when you visit your Aunt Sabrina in the summer?”
“Yes. Aunt Sabrina and I visit the gravesite every summer when I go to her. It’s one of the things we do. We clean up around her headstone and around Great-Grandpapa Henri and Great- Grandmama Simone’s graves, too.”
“Why haven’t you ever spoken to me of having done that with Sabrina?”
“No disrespect, Pa, but why haven’t you ever told me yourself that my grandmother was there? It was Aunt Sabrina who told me, and took me there. We take flowers to the graves, and we leave them, but you know what? Even then, Aunt Sabrina doesn’t say much about her sister either. She never does. None of you do. How come you haven’t asked me about going before now? You didn’t bring it up, so neither did I. Just like I do with my mother.”
“Touche, my dear. I guess I deserve that.” He admitted, sitting back in his chair once again. “When your mother comes to fetch you at the end of your visits, does she ever go to the cemetery?”
“Not to my knowledge, unless she goes by herself. Now that I think of it, every time she comes, she does leave and go off walking on her own, but I don’t ever ask where she goes. I never thought that might be where she heads off to. She walks at home for exercise, so I always thought she just liked the walk for that. It’s really pretty and peaceful at Aunt Sabrina’s. It’s pleasant to be outside.”
“She doesn’t say much of anything to you about her mother, does she?”
“No, Pa. Not about her mother, or being a kid, or any of that. Do you know why?”
“I think so. I think it is because she doesn’t remember enough to talk about it. I think she put it away in her mind, and it hurt too badly to bring it back out. You see, she did not really know me. I did not know her, and I did not know a lot about children in general. With us, your grandmother and I, it wasn’t like with you and your parents. Both of them share equally in raising you. Your mother, on the other hand, was reared almost solely by her mother until her mother died. It probably sounds strange to you, but I found out that even though I was her father, and she was my daughter, I was essentially a stranger to her once her mother was gone. We no longer had the glue to hold us together. But I knew that we had to carry on. We were both still alive, and she still had to grow up, and I was the only one left to see to her doing it. In her first twelve years, your mother had lost both sets of grandparents, but that didn’t seem to affect her that much. I did not take into account that they were abroad, and although she knew them very well and had spent a good deal of time with them, they were not an every day part of her life. I don’t know why, but I thought with her being so young, she could put her mother behind her in the same way if we just moved on. So, when we took your grandmother to France to bury her, I had all of her things removed from the rooms in the house. I hid them away so that Jennifer wouldn’t be so reminded of her once we got back.”
“That wasn’t a good thing to do, Pa.” J.J. sat forward to cut in. “A person needs to grieve, especially a kid. I would just be a complete basket case if my mother suddenly was gone, and I came home without her, and her desk and her chair and her books weren’t in the great room like they’ve been all my life. I’d be as mad as he- heck at my father.”
“And there you have the gist of my story, Justine. It was my biggest mistake, and that is where your mother and I have been for years. She was already angry and confused at having lost her mother so suddenly. And she has been angry with me for further taking her mother away as I did, only she was raised to not speak her mind to me as you did in the hall with your father a short time ago. She would never have done what you did. She would have held her tongue and her thoughts and internalized that anger. Your grandmother raised her in that manner, and then I turned around and did that to her. As a grown man, I didn’t have the understanding and wisdom that you seem to already possess at sixteen- that people need to say what they need to say sometimes, and to deal with things, even children.”
“Pa, please understand. My mother wouldn’t have liked what I did. She hasn’t raised me much differently than you say her mother did with her. She would be very angry with me if she saw how I behaved in the hall. I just have a bad temper sometimes, and I get beside myself. I was shocked and not myself, but still I was rude to my father, and I know it. My mother doesn’t allow that. I don’t want you thinking that she does. She lets me tell her what’s on my mind, but not like that. I will have to apologize to him. I know that Daddy couldn’t have known that something was wrong with her when he told me that she was okay. I was just so angry that he wouldn’t let me see her, and was telling me to go back like that. He doesn’t lie to me, but essentially I called him a liar out there. I will have to make that right between us. I love my father too much to deliberately hurt or disrespect him. Despite the fact that she says I’m incorrigible sometimes, my mother has managed to teach me a thing or two about manners and decorum. I hate that word- decorum, Pa.”
“You are such a maverick.” He chuckled. “And you’re a good girl. I am so proud of the person you are becoming. Your grandmother would have been so taken with you. You are the one, Justine.”
“You are the one who will carry on for us once we are all gone from here. We are a small family, and you are the last of us. But you will be the rock upon which our future will be built. I think you will represent us well. But, there are things you and your mother must know before I, too, leave here.”
He held up his hand. “You tell me that you deal in reality, Justine. Well, that is a reality. I am eighty, I have a bad heart, and the truth is, I am getting pretty tired. I do not fear death. In fact, I view it as the next ascending level of my life. And besides, there is a very pretty girl with the same red hair and that same pretty smile as yours and mother’s waiting for me to have a brandy with her on the other side.”
They both smiled at that, even though J.J. still wiped at the tears which continued to stream freely down her cheeks.
“Justine, there are things you must know. I don’t know how much your mother will share with you once her work is done, but you must know your roots. I don’t know if or how much you will ever learn about your father’s people, but you have definite history on this side. It starts here, and in doing something very wrong, I think I might have done something right. I have something to show you, a place that I want you to see. One day you will understand my full reason for showing you. For right now, it will explain some of what your mother has been doing, and why she is so engrossed and overwhelmed. I am going to show you, and then if you want to continue to talk, we can.”
He handed her another handkerchief, taking the first one from her. “Wipe your eyes properly and stop crying, darling. You are as red as a hot house tomato.”
She did as he instructed, while he stood and held his hand out to her. “Come with me. Leave that crutch. You can lean on Pa.”
“Will my mother be okay, you think?” She asked as, arm-in-arm, they slowly crossed his room. “She was really out of it.”
“She will be fine, Justine. Our Jennifer is a trooper- always has been one. She just needs to rest a while.”
“I like how when you talk about us, you make us belong to each other, Pa. I like how you say, “our so-and-so”. Aunt Sabrina does that too. It’s nice.”
When they reached a door on the other side, he opened it and took her into a cedar closet that, before that moment, she never knew was there.
Jennifer found herself in the main hall on the second floor of her father’s home. It was dark out there, but as she passed, she could see that all the doors to the other bedrooms were closed. She made her way to that end that turned right and dead-ended at a large stained glass window. This time, however, the comforting scent and crackling sound of logs burning in a fireplace rushed to meet her. Flickering light bounced off the wall opposite the open door that she had long forgotten was once there.
Reaching the door, she stood in wonder, hungrily taking in that place she had put away from her. The room was as it had been: large, elegant, and warm; flush with burgundy, teal, ivory, gold. It was regal; a woman’s room with full, ruffled ivory princess curtains at the large windows that looked out over the side gardens, tied back with heavy silk tasseled ropes. The ivory carpeting, the fresh, fragrant flowers, and the large four poster bed draped in plush purple and gold… The comforter was turned back and the ivory satin sheets and numerous satin encased pillows invited her to come lie on them. There was no other light save that which came from the fire, the dancing shadows it created on the walls and furniture making it all the more cozy.
That room had been her favorite place to be in the entire house when it had been just the two of them. The high backed chair by the fireplace, rocked slowly back and forth, and the ivory dressing gown that flowed down to the floor, finishing in a pair of slender manicured bare feet, spoke softly to her. The scene couldn’t have been any more complete.
“Mama?” She called from the doorway.
Without turning around, that voice answered, “Jenny? Why are you not sleeping as I told you I wanted you to do? You must get your rest.”
“I woke, and I wanted to see you.” She answered.
“Come to me then, Jennifer.” A hand beckoned for her. “Since you are here, I have something for you.”
Always one to delight in surprises, Jennifer hurried to her. “What is it, Mama?
Arriving at her side, she could see that her mother was holding what appeared to be a baby, but its face was covered by a white blanket edged in pink ribbon with tassels on each corner. When she looked questioningly to her mother, she realized that standing next to her chair, she was looking down at her rather than directly at her like she once did in that room. She was no longer a little girl and the silver streaks running through her mother’s hair and the fine lines at the corners of her hazel eyes said that Suzanne Edwards was no longer the young woman who had once occupied that room.
Putting her finger to her lips, Suzanne looked up to her. “Shhhh. You will wake her. She must be allowed to wake in her own time.”
Almost afraid to do so, Jennifer whispered, “Whose child is that?”
Suzanne answered quietly, looking down to the bundle she was so gently cradling, “She is yours.”
Reaching down into her mother’s arms, Jennifer pulled the blanket back from the sleeping child’s face. It had wispy, curly red hair, the Roussel forehead, hairline, and nose, but no mouth whatsoever.
Frightened at the sight, she quickly snatched the blanket back over the child’s face, declaring, “That’s not my baby.”
Suzanne nodded slowly. “Yes she is. I know that she is yours because I give her to you. Because I give her to you, Jennifer, you must take her.”
“Jonathan might not want another child.”
“He is happy with whatever you give him. What is yours is his. The child that is yours, he will accept with his whole heart.”
“Mama, I don’t want that baby. She has no mouth.”
“Since when is your heart cold to one who is so unfortunate?” Suzanne asked, looking into her daughter’s eyes with that one eyebrow distinctively raised.
Shamed by her mother’s reproach, Jennifer was silent even though she still did not want to take on that handicapped baby.
Suzanne continued, “You must give her what she needs, Jenny. She will be what you want her to be in the end because she is now yours to do with what you will. Once she was mine, but now she is yours.” Holding the child up to Jennifer, she urged, “Take her, Cherie. I must go back, and I cannot take her with me. She belongs here with you.”
When Jennifer’s arms remained at her sides, Suzanne stopped rocking, and resolutely stood. Her hazel eyes flashing in the firelight, she angrily stomped her foot into the carpet.
“Take her.” She demanded. “Do you hear what I say to you? You are not so big that you can defy me.”
Jennifer took a slight step backward. Where once her mother seemed so tall and strong over her, she could see that they were now eye to eye, both of them women- similar features, the same height, the same build- more like sisters in appearance than mother and daughter.
Suzanne stepped toward her, and once again thrust the baby at her. “Take her, I say.”
“She’s unfinished.” Jennifer pensively, but stubbornly declared, her hands easing away from her sides. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a baby who hasn’t a mouth. How will she eat? How will she speak? She can’t even smile. I hardly knew what to do with a baby who was whole. As it was, that one came to me late. This is something I cannot do at this place in my life.”
“You try to lie to me and to yourself, Jennifer Justine, but you cannot.” Suzanne declared in return. “You knew exactly what to do with that baby. It is in you. This I know. I also know that you have many gifts and talents, my Jenny. Much more than your mama. Take her. This thing you will do, and you will see that her life is better served with you than it was with me. It is of no matter the place you are in your life.”
Reluctantly Jennifer reached out and allowed her mother to put the baby in her outstretched arms. Her mother’s hands gently pushed against her arms, moving the baby toward her, and when their bodies made contact she could feel the child inside the blanket turn to her and relax against her, as if she knew that was with whom she would be remaining.
“I should have stayed in my room.” Jennifer muttered, although she was surprised and touched at how naturally the child fit into the crook of her arm.
“Then I would have come to you with her.” Suzanne asserted. “She is yours, Jenny. A gift from Mama. You cannot return a gift to the giver. That would be rude, and I have taught you better.” Then taking Jennifer by the elbow, she commanded quietly, “Come.”
Jennifer allowed herself to be escorted over to the bed and when to directed to, she lie down on it. While her mother pulled up the covers, she turned on her side and lay the baby on the bed, moving her into the curve of her body.
“Sleep, my sweet, Jenny.”
She felt it when her mother bent to kiss her cheek, and she heard it when she whispered in her ear, “I am leaving you, but I am not gone. When you look at her, and when you hear her voice, you will know that I have been within you always, and I always will be.”
Drifting back off into the warm ebony liquid of deep sleep, she realized the child she held so closely to her body hadn’t fretted, or even awakened, throughout the entire exchange.
… but nagging fitfully at the back of her her mind was that other child, her child, who was probably lying awake somewhere wondering where in the world her mother was and what she was doing.
“J.J., sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to stay?”
“No, Aunt Pat. I’m okay. I’ll go back to sleep in a little bit. You know I can never go back right away once I wake up like this. You go on back to bed. Maybe, I’ll read for a little while. That usually does it for me.”
Pat stood with her hands on her hips, looking down on her godchild, who should have been long asleep. She had gotten up to check on both girls, and seeing the light under J.J.’s closed door, she knocked and went in where she found her wide awake, sitting up in her bed.
“You’re sure there’s nothing you need? Water? A snack? Just to talk?”
“Absolutely, nothing. I’m fine. Really I am.”
“All right, then.” Pat said, reluctantly moving toward the door. “Good night.”
As she closed the door behind her, she knew there was only one person in that house who could provide what it was J.J. needed.
Back in her won room, she tried to get back into the bed without waking Bill, but as soon as she was settled, he rolled over to her and threw his arm over her, pulling her to him.
“Girls okay?” He murmured.
“Marnie is fast asleep.” She answered. “Do you know that girl actually sleeps with her phone? You think she answers it if it goes off in the night?”
“Of course. Why else would she be sleeping with it? What about Beautiful Jr.?”
“She was up. I asked her if she wanted me to stay, but she said that she’d be okay. She isn’t going to be okay, though, until she sees Jennifer. She’s been acting spacey all day. She got really quiet after that episode in the hall. Even Marnie was worried about her. Marnie told me that Stephen came in and spoke to her to let her know that everything was all right, and that he took J.J. up the hall with him. Then that little busybody tried to break me down to get the whole story, but I couldn’t tell Marnie everything that’s happened. Poor, Stephen. All those years, knowing that on the other side of the walls… Can you imagine?”
“It’s a hard thing losing a wife. I know.” Bill remarked. “But this place is like something you come across in one of those horror flicks we to go to the movies to see as kids. Secret passages, hidden rooms. I couldn’t believe my eyes when Stephen came to get me and took me in that closet. A whole room, just sealed off from the world like that. I would never have suspected. And all her stuff still inside of it just like she left it. Nobody would have ever known. You think Jennifer blocked it out, and that’s why-”
Pat nodded. “I think so, Bill. I think she’s done that with a lot of what happened to her. She was so young, and it’s been so long. She hasn’t lived in this house in decades. It’s a strange situation, all right. But I can understand all of what Stephen did.”
“Well, I’m glad you can, but then you’re good at that kind of stuff, what with you working with books and stories and things. You’ve got more of an imagination than me. It was hard when Ilene died, but her sisters came and took care of all that, and me and the boys moved on.”
“Stephen was an only child. His parents and Suzanne’s parents were dead. Sabrina wouldn’t step foot in here if somebody was holding a gun to her head. Jen says that she didn’t even come here for the Stateside service. She stayed in France until Stephen brought the body to her. She couldn’t stand Stephen for years. Jennifer was a just baby when it happened. He didn’t have any help or any support in moving her things. Seems like he just walked away once he had Jennifer safely housed at Gresham Hall. You know, at one time this whole house was shut down for a very long time. He only came back here for good after he officially retired from the art business.”
“Or whatever.” Bill said dryly. “Now that was a revelation that I can see. Jennifer’s old man is cut out of the right kind of tweed for that kind of action. I never completely bought the art dealer thing, but I wouldn’t have imagined what Jonathan told us about him and Walter. Jennifer’s mother must have really been something. Holding this place down by herself like that, and not complaining about him being gone all time. Most women would moan and bit-”
Pat cut him off with a look, while she pointed her finger at him. “Watch it.” She warned.
Then she turned back around. “She’s a mystery to me. I’m hoping that Jennifer will share a little of her with me once this is all said and done. I hope this all ends soon. I don’t think she can take much more. She looked awful when you guys brought her out of there.”
Bill sighed. “Well, all I want is for Jennifer to get past all of this all right. When you get the rest of it figured out, you tell me about it. I’m not trying to make heads or tails of it. It makes my head hurt to deal with puzzles and mysteries, and stuff like this. I don’t even like mystery movies. I don’t want to be guessing and playing games. I still say Jonathan should have called a doctor for Jennifer. She’s been out ever since. He’s pretty out of it, too. I think it scared the shit out of him when he found her in there on the floor. I could tell. He couldn’t even start to get her up until I got there.”
“His back is bad, Bill. He couldn’t have lifted her alone in that condition. She was going to be dead weight.”
“Pat, she was so white and so still. She looked like she was dead in that room, and he was shaking like a leaf. I’ve never seen him like that. Took me out a little at first, too, to see her like that. Nothing much rattles that guy, but he was rattled for sure today. More even than that time J.J. and her friend got taken from school.”
“He loves Jennifer passionately. If you think about it, she really is all he has. He has J.J., too, but he got J.J. through Jennifer. They were ten years together without her, so they had all that time when it was just them. Jennifer is his girl, his heart. Jonathan would be just like Jennifer’s father. He’d never get over her, just as Stephen never got over Mrs. Edwards. If something happened to her, and J.J. was still a kid, Jonathan would go ahead and finish raising her to the best of his ability. Hell, the Squirt would probably be the one to raise the both of them, but I don’t think there would ever be anyone else in Jonathan’s life- not seriously anyway. Besides, J.J. wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s already tipped her hand to me on that.”
Bill snickered. “That sounds just like her. What’d she say?”
“Gold diggers beware, and a stepmother should be afraid- ver-r-ry afraid.”
“And she means every word of it.” Bill chuckled. “I could just see her. It wouldn’t matter who it was or how nice she tried to be; for J.J., it wouldn’t be personal. It just wouldn’t be. That girl does have a little ruthless edge to her. She keeps it under wraps most of the time, but her Uncle Bill has always known it’s there.”
“So has her Aunt Pat. But she got it honestly, from both sides. Jennifer really has it made with those two. It must be nice to be loved so completely like that.”
Bill drew her closer to him and planted several soft kisses on her neck and shoulder. “You know very well how that feels. I wish you would believe. You’ve got that too. I love you. Completely. I don’t know if I want to wait as long as you’ve asked me to. I keep worrying that you might change your mind and run out on me. Chicken out and run back to that New York you love so much.”
She twisted around to face him. “Look, you know I love you, and you’ve had full benefits for years. Even if I ran, you’d come after me, just like you always do, and I’d break down and come back with you, just like I always do. You don’t know how many times I tried to swear off you, but like some weak, spineless junkie I go right back to that drug that is you. Even if I did chicken out and went back to New York, I’d still be yours.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have the benefit of introducing you to the world as my wife. That’s what I want. I want to marry you.”
“Then,” She touched her lips to his. “You know how it goes. Good things come to those who wait. If it’s real, and we know it is, then it will be. I just want everything to be right because I know that we are. I wanted to do it while we were all here, but it’s not the right time with all that’s going on. It’ll be better if we wait. Everyone will be where they are supposed to be if we do it later.”
“You hope. No telling with this group.” Bill answered resignedly. “So Patricia, are you telling me that I have to wait for all my good things? Am I going to keep my full benefits in the meantime?”
She could see his lusty grin in the dimness as his hand pressed at the small of her back, emphasizing the point he was strongly making against her thigh.
“All of them.” She smiled back as she wrapped her arms around him and melted into his large, hot body.
Waiting and listening closely until she could hear the muffled sound of Pat’s door closing down the hall, J.J. reached over and switched off her lamp to lie back down once again. That light drew too much attention. She was sure that was what made Pat come in there to check on her. She knew that she wasn’t going back to sleep, but she wanted to be alone with her thoughts. It was a little warmer in the room than normal, even with the air conditioning going. She took her ponytail and wrapped it up on top of her head to get it off her neck.
Never in her sixteen years had she experienced anything so fascinating, so remarkable, and so alarming at the same time. It was no wonder that her mother was out cold. It had almost had the same effect on her, especially when Pa switched on those lights.
There were six of them around the room. The old brass lamps were affixed to the wall topped with unique yellow bulbs shaped like torch flames. How it was that they were still working was yet another mystery. Her grandmother’s bedroom. An entire, separate room that she had never known ever existed. Never would she have imagined something like that- couldn’t have imagined something like that. And it had been sealed off from the rest of the house, preserved just as she had left it.
Her grandmother had her own room, a room apart from Pa’s and so different from Pa’s. Her clothes, her shoes, her belongings, that wedding painting of her and Pa over the bed, the little uniform skirt on the bed; it had been like visiting a museum, a sort of morbid, secret museum dedicated to the memory of Suzanne Roussel Edwards. She wanted to ask Pa so badly why he had done that, closed off that room in that way, but she found that she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Even if she had tried, the words probably wouldn’t have come. She hadn’t even been able to bring herself to touch anything. Just stood in the middle of the floor turning in a slow circle, at first, marveling at it all and feeling her grandmother all around her in a way that she had never experienced before. Her tarnished silver hair brush was still on the dressing table with dusty strands of her hair still entwined in the bristles. Her old-fashioned stockings were still lying on the bench like she was going to come back and put them on. Her clothes. Her shoes.
For some reason, Pa hadn’t stepped foot in there. He walked her as far as the closet door, and then her attention had been more focused on what was inside the room. That room just reached out and snatched her in, and it was a while before she noticed that he wasn’t there any more. When she did finally emerge, he was sitting there in his chair, waiting for her, but there just hadn’t been anything to say. Maybe it would have been different if they had gone in there together.
It made her wonder about him. Why had he done that? Just why didn’t he come in there with her? Did he go in there, ever? Nothing in that room appeared to have been disturbed in decades. If he did go in from time to time, did he just go in stand like she had, touching nothing, but feeling her there? How could he sleep in his room, knowing what was on the other side of his walls? Could he still feel her presence anywhere? Everywhere?
And what about them?
It dawned on her that she had never thought about her grandparents as a couple. In her mind they had always just been two people: Pa and her dead grandmother, not a living, breathing Mr. and Mrs. Edwards. What had that been like? It was still difficult for her to see her grandfather with any woman, even with the woman who had been her grandmother. Did they get along? Did they argue? What kind of wife had she been? What kind of mother had she been- really?
And how come her grandmother had her own room? Weren’t husbands and wives supposed to share bedrooms, like her parents did? Well, they had to have slept together at least once. They made a baby, and that took at least one hook-up. When they did get together, who went where? Did she go to him or did he go to her? Her room seemed too feminine for Pa, and his room too austere to get anybody in the mood.
Her grandmother’s bedroom had been so different from her grandfather’s. At one time it had been lovely, tasteful, and cozy- a real lady’s room. Maybe Pa’s room had been different in her grandmother’s lifetime. Maybe it had become the way it was over the time that she had been gone.
She closed her eyes and imagined how that room must have been in its time- when it hadn’t been a secret room. Her grandmother, Suzanne Simone, in there… in her own space, with the fire lit, sitting in front of the fireplace… rocking in that chair with one of those good books on all those shelves.
That was a one heck of a library. Some of those had to be first editions like the ones Pa had in his study, but she had been too overwhelmed by it all to check it out for herself. If her grandmother read all of those titles, the lady had to have been deep.
Maybe Grandmama Suzanne got sick of Pa sometimes and just needed her own space, and that was why she had her own room.
Now that was a notion to which she could relate. At home, she sometimes felt the need to close up in her room, or to go out on the grounds to be alone. Sometimes those periods of needing to be by herself stretched into hours, and her parents would become concerned and start checking on her. She would have to struggle to not appear as annoyed as it made her. They didn’t understand that about her. There wouldn’t be anything wrong. She just didn’t need to be with other people all the time. The publicity generated earlier that year when she had been kidnapped with Tommy those couple of days, and then when that man had been stalking her had been horrible. If it hadn’t been for her mother’s clout with the media, and her getting them to back off, it would have been unbearable to have her business put out there like that. Working with her on the article about the stalking incident had been rough, but at least it was with her. For herself, she just didn’t like all that attention. She didn’t need it or want it.
Maybe her grandmother felt that way too, and that was why she had her own room. Maybe she required her own space, too, for her peace of mind.
It must be tiresome to have somebody on you all the time, calling for you, talking to you, wanting to go places with you, wanting you, feeling you up all the time… even though Jennifer Hart didn’t seem to mind those last couple of things too much. Those two were up on each other all the time.
Just plain embarrassing and sickening. Too old to be all hot like that. … but so sweet and nice, just the same.
Different strokes for different folks, she guessed. At least she still had the same set of parents she started out with, which was more than could be said for most of her friends. All that togetherness must work for the Harts.
Her grandparents met when her grandmother was sixteen, just like her. Her grandfather had been twenty-one. How could he be attracted to somebody so young? How could she think that at sixteen her father would let her date a grown man? Her grandmother must have been a lot more mature than her granddaughter. Even though Pa said the times were different back in those days, how come Grandmama Suzanne wasn’t nervous about a twenty-one year old man being attracted to her? What did Great-Grandmama Simone think of it. Did she have a say?
If it was her, she sure would be nervous about it. Wesley Singleton’s attentions were making her terribly nervous, and he was only nineteen.
For certain, even if she was attracted to somebody that old, twenty-one, she wouldn’t even bother to ask about seeing the guy. Jonathan Hart had issues with guys his daughter’s own age taking her out. There was no telling how he would react to a grown man being interested in her, but she was sure that the reaction wouldn’t be a positive one.
What had it been about Stephen Edwards that made Grandpapa Henri allow them to see each other despite the gap in their ages? Didn’t he worry about them doing it? He must have trusted him. But even so, Pa had technically been a man, and her grandmother had been legally, just a girl. It probably would have been easy for him to convince her to give in, if he had tried. Maybe that was why they married when she so young- because they wanted to do it, but they knew they had to be married.
Rolling over on her side, she was glad that times and people’s ideas had loosened up over the years. No way was she waiting until she got married to have sex. What if a person waited and then ended up married to somebody who wasn’t any good? It wasn’t like a person could go back and get an exchange or a refund on it. Since she really wasn’t planning on getting married, waiting could pose a real problem. She wasn’t planning on having sex any time in the near future, but it definitely wouldn’t be a thing she would be putting off until somebody put a ring on her finger. No way. If she did decide to get married, she wouldn’t be doing it without a test drive.
At least she didn’t think so. She was pretty sure so. But whenever she did choose to do it, it would be her choice, not because somebody like Wesley was sweating her for it. She was getting more and more sure that was the main reason why Wesley was so attracted to her. Why else would he be so interested in who she was seeing and what she did when she was out with someone else?
Teddy floated into her mind and so did those butterflies that always seemed to invite themselves in with him. He had phoned and left a message to say hello while she had been otherwise occupied. But, once she discovered his call, she had been too wound up and confused to call him back. It was probably best. Kissing him was a little too pleasant. If he was just kissing her lips, why could she feel it all the way down to her toes?
But he was so, so nice… so handsome…
But everything else was so, so, so weird…
Please God, let…
There’s so much I…
Come back… to me…
…I need to…
Where the passageway split in three directions, Jennifer knew to go straight ahead. Jonathan had shown her the way when they had been down there before. In the distance ahead of her, she could hear voices, the sound of children playing. How could kids be down there?
As the lights flashed on with her movement, she could see small shadows down by the large cabinets. Even though they weren’t close enough to clearly see them, she could tell that there were at least two little boys running around down there, seemingly chasing each other and laughing.
“Hello!” She called out as she continued toward them. “Where did you two come from?”
The boys continued to play as if they hadn’t heard her or couldn’t see the beam from the flashlight she was using to better see them.
“Hello!” She called out again. “Say, how did you little ones get down here?”
By this time she was just about there, and they ran toward her, darting right past, still laughing and playing, going so fast that she couldn’t make out their facial features. They were small boys, about four or five years of age. They ran around her and went back in the direction from which they had come. That was when she saw the two little legs wearing lace-edged anklet socks and pink lace-up tennis shoes peeking out past the open doors of the cabinet.
Shining the flashlight down as she went to take a closer look, she found a little girl, a girl with a curly red ponytail, playing with the dollhouse. She was about two, maybe three years old, and she was quietly and carefully arranging the furniture in the house, seemingly oblivious to the boys’ raucous roughhousing. On the floor next to her, lie the worn rag doll, the one that had been her own favorite as a child.
She bent to pick it up for the child, but just as she did, a woman’s voice called out.
“Let’s go, you guys. It’s time to go back!”
The quality of the voice, oddly familiar on more than one level.
The girl snatched up the doll just before her own hand could take hold of it. She jumped up and started off in the direction of the voice. The boys sped back past. One of them caught hold of the little girl’s hand to drag her along with them, and they all headed for the figure of a young woman approaching from the other direction. The children joyfully ran up to her, and when they reached her, she bent down to kiss both the boys. Then she scooped the little girl up into her arms to kiss her as well.
Her hair was still long, and pulled up into that ponytail, and she was still wearing jeans on those long legs.
She cried out to her. “J.J.!”
Nobody else in the world had a smile and that casually, self-assured way about them like her child.
“J.J.! What are you doing here? Whose children are those?”
But the young woman turned and began walking away, talking to the children, affectionately patting the boys’ heads and backs to move them along in the other direction.
“J.J., I’m calling you! Don’t you hear me?”
But she never looked back. She and the children kept going until she could hardly see them. She thought her heart would break. J.J. hadn’t recognized her. And she never did get to see the features of the children’s faces.
She tried calling to her one last time. “Justine Jennifer Hart, do you hear me talking to you?”
It didn’t do any good. J.J. didn’t even know she was alive.
“Darling. Wake up What is it?”
Drenched in perspiration, frightened, and shaking, she came to looking directly into Jonathan’s face through eyes blurred by tears, unsure where she was or what had happened.
There was only one thing of which she was certain. “J.J.?”
“She’s asleep in her room, darling,” he said. “Are you all right?”
Her watery eyes darting in her effort to get her bearings and to make sense of things, she slowly came to the realization she was back in their room in the main house. As her eyes focused, she spotted the clothes she recalled wearing earlier were now over on the couch.
“How-” and then it came to her. “You found me in there, didn’t you? You saw it.”
“Yes, I did. I did see it. Are you all right? Tell me, Jennifer.”
His hands continued to hold her down to the bed, and she could see reflected in his worried eyes that she must have been having a nightmare of some kind. More calm at that point, but still trembling, she brought her hands up to take his and moved them from her shoulders. Then she wrapped her arms around him to bring him to her.
“I’ve put you through so much.” She whispered next to his ear, sincerely regretting the stress she had been inflicting upon him.
“I can handle anything.” He answered. “If you would just tell me that you’re all right.”
“I’m fine, Jonathan. Really I am. It was just a silly dream.” He rose to look into her face, and she weakly smiled in an effort to further assure him, but really just wanting to get up. “It’s so hot in here, and I’m a mess. I need to take a shower and wash my hair.”
“At this time of the morning?”
“What time is it?”
“About three A.M.”
She was shocked. The last she knew, it had been late afternoon.
“Well, I won’t be able to sleep any more. Not like this, that’s for sure. I’m all sweaty. I feel so sticky. A shower will refresh me and help me rest. There’s so much I want to tell you, so much I want to say to you.”
“Get your shower, if you want, if you think it will relax you. But we can talk tomorrow. I want you to sleep tonight.”
She got up, stiff and sore from having been in one position while lying prone so long on that bed. A shower would take care of that, but she wasn’t going to rest any more until she saw that one particular face, and she didn’t care what time of the morning it was. She wasn’t going back to bed until she lay eyes upon it.
Those yellow torch-flame-bulbs made that room, and being in it again, even more surreal. J.J. slowly turned, looking at everything, afraid to touch anything, feeling as if she were lost in some freakishly captivating time warp or one of those old black and white movies she loved so much. It had been a very pretty and comfortable room once, rich with deep, bold, warm colors; plush tones, the colors of royalty. Had she lived, she felt her grandmother would have been a queen, the matriarch of their family. Even in death, she seemed a power with which to be reckoned. She had them all at Briarwood, doing exactly what she wanted them to do. She even managed to get her daughter and her granddaughter into her old room, a room that nobody other than Pa had been able to get into for over forty years.
Where was Pa? The closet door was closed back. Where it had been open to admit her, it was now just a wall. He had let her in and shut her up in there.
She looked to the windows. Strange… From where she stood, she couldn’t see anything through them. Wait! On the outside of the house, there weren’t any windows in that place! She moved closer to try to see out.
The windows had been completely bricked over, and confused, she turned away to check out the rest of the room.
She could see that there were large double doors on the other side, but she knew that there weren’t any doors in that short hall on the other side. Running across the room, she grabbed the handle of one, and twisted. It opened to raw sheetrock and mortar. Those double doors had been left in place, but they had been sealed over so that nobody on the outside could know they were there.
Her mother had never mentioned that room, but certainly she had to know it was there. Certainly, she had to have known… hadn’t she?
Beginning to become very uneasy with the entire situation, she could feel the fine hairs on her neck, bristling, pricking at her, urging her to get the hell out of there.
“Don’t freak.” She told herself, trying to remain calm. “There’s nothing to be nervous about.”
She started to go back into the dressing room, but stopped short at the door. For some reason, those clothes hanging there, the old stockings on the bench, the long tiers of shoes, her scattered toiletries, all of it suddenly made that place too personal, too intimate. Feeling like she was intruding into her grandmother’s- and somehow her mother’s- personal space; she backed up once again into the main room.
“Nosy, girl.” Resonated in her head. “NOSY, girl. NOSY, GIRL!”
In her mind, the blackened horseshoe-shaped fireplace behind her took on the features of a toothless, weathered face, groaning in agony, threatening to swallow her whole. The eyes of her great-grandparents, Simone and Henri, hanging over the mantle inside that old oval frame seemed to be looking directly at her, and she closed her eyes to escape their intense stare.
Where was Pa? Why had he left her in there all alone? Why did he close the wall like that after letting her in, leaving her there by herself? He said he brought her in there to see. See what exactly? Just the room or was there something else that she was supposed to see? What really made him close off that room in the first place? What had Jennifer Edwards gone through in there that had taken her out like it had? She had been out cold when Uncle Bill brought her down that hall. Had she seen that uniform skirt on the bed, the one with the torn hem that her mother was apparently going to fix for her, but didn’t get around to?
What in the world was all of it all about? It needed to just be over. It just plain needed to be over.
Where was her mother? There were so many questions she wanted to ask that only she could answer. They hadn’t talked. They hadn’t seen each other. She was there in the house, but she wasn’t there. Where in the world was she? Was she ever coming back?
It needed to just be over. Was she ever, ever coming back?
She woke, sitting straight up in the bed, clutching at her chest and fighting to breathe. Hyperventilating in the way she was sometimes prone to do when she was highly upset and fighting it, she struggled to get it under control using the techniques Dr. Kendall had shown her. She detested having bad dreams. They didn’t happen often, but when they did, they were frustrating as well as startling. Whenever she woke behind one, she could barely recall the details, and the harder she tried to recall them, the farther away they seemed to get; but they almost always caused that strong physical reaction. On top of that, they left her feeling mentally weak and vulnerable, and that was definitely an unacceptable state of being for J.J. Hart.
“To hell with this.” She whispered to herself, her chest heaving from where she couldn’t make herself relax enough to take in an adequate amount of air.
She snatched up her robe and tugged it on, while getting out of the bed, thinking to herself through her near-panic. “I don’t care what they might be in there doing. They’re just going to have to stop it tonight.”
But she forgot about the ankle and the flash of pain that shot through the side of her lower calf, caught her off guard, buckling that leg. She was propelled forward when she tried to shift her weight from it and fell to the floor in the dark. As she lie there, attempting to gather herself while still struggling to breathe, she was startled to see the door push open and gratified when those two slender, manicured bare feet stepped in.
Her aching chest began to ease as soon as that voice called for her, “J.J.?” Then, came an alarmed, “What happened?” As she came toward her.
But, still choking, she couldn’t answer.
When her mother knelt down to get her arms around her to help her up, she grabbed her sleeve, pulling her down to the floor.
She wanted to let her know that she was angry with her for leaving and not getting in touch to say that she was okay. After all, how many times had she been chewed out by Jennifer Hart for that very thing? She wanted to ask her where in the world she had been, and what in the world she had been doing.
She wanted to tell her how much she missed her and that she needed to talk to her.
Actually all she really wanted was to ask her was how she was and if everything was all right now, but she couldn’t just then. The words wouldn’t come out. Instead, still struggling with the dream and the effects of the resulting anxiety attack, she lay her head in her mother’s lap and gave in to all of it. With her mother, she didn’t have to be J.J. Hart. With her she was simply Justine, and she wasn’t ashamed to go ahead and let the tears do their thing.
“Breathe, baby. We have got to get you past these things.” She heard that worried voice say as the hand rubbed her back. “Breathe, J.J. I’m here. I’m right here.”
Still gasping for air, the question in J.J.’s mind was clear.
…how in the world did she ever get through losing her mother at twelve…. forever?
Who rubbed her back and helped her breathe?
With her mother lying next to her as she sat up in the bed, J.J. sniffed, “I’m sorry I was such a little wimp, Mom.” While wiping her eyes and her nose with the tissue her mother had given her. “I hate crying, but I’ve been a little wound up lately.”
“It’s okay.” Jennifer answered as she watched her daughter while fighting back her own tears, which had been threatening from the moment she found J.J. having that attack on the floor. “How’s that ankle?”
“A lot better.” J.J. answered, pulling up the hem of her gown so that her mother could see it. So much so that I forget that it isn’t one hundred percent. If I step wrong, I still really feel it. That’s how I fell just now. I got up too quickly”
“Where exactly were you headed?”
Jennifer closed her eyes for a moment and sighed, “I see. You said you’ve been wound up, J.J. Wound up about what?”
When she opened her eyes again, she could see it. The light from the lamp shone directly on her, and with her hair up like it was, so casually wound at the top of her head, and somewhat disheveled from having been in the bed, she really could see her mother in that child. J.J. had light-colored eyes and that same head of wondrously thick auburn hair. She recalled how people would pay her mother compliments about her hair, just as they currently did with J.J. But in both their cases, they viewed it as more of a nuisance to be kept pinned up and out of their way than a blessing.
Then she wondered at remembering that personal detail about her mother.
J.J. was sitting there next to her, facing her, looking far too much like that young woman on the horse up in the attic and down in the passageway. Finally, unable to take it any longer, she reached across, behind J.J.’s head, and pulled her hair loose from where she had the ponytail pinned up. Then, still unable to shake the image, she pulled the band from it altogether, allowing it to fall. That upswept hairdo had been more than she could take at that moment in time.
“A bunch of stuff.” J.J. answered, still trying to get it together herself.
She was still angry with her mother, but at the same time she was wrestling with realizing just how glad she actually was to finally have her back. It was a feeling akin to not being able to find that one last piece to a puzzle that had been very difficult to put together. Then, after searching high and low for it and happily finally finding it in some odd place, it is fitted into that waiting empty space, thereby satisfactorily completing the picture.
Jennifer settled into the pillows, matter-of-factly asking, “Specifically?”
“Just stuff, Mom. No big deal.”
“No.” Jennifer firmly declared. “No, you don’t. Not this time. I know you, J.J. Hart and it’s not just ‘stuff’. You don’t cry a river over ‘stuff’. If you’re crying, whatever it is that’s bothering you is a big deal. Tell me what’s on you mind.”
Hesitating a moment, J.J. decided to go ahead and take the shot. Hoping that she didn’t sound too disrespectful, she spoke her mind.
“You.” She said accusingly. “Stuff about you. I was worried about you. I can’t believe you don’t know that.”
Jennifer shifted her eyes to J.J., who was intently, but warily watching her for her reaction. She knew it.
Crooking her finger to her, ignoring her daughter’s borderline nasty tone, she said quietly , “Come here to me.”
Then holding her arm out to her, she wrapped it around J.J. when she lie down and put her head on her shoulder.
“You just aren’t ever going to let me be the mother in this relationship, are you?”
“You are the mother. But you tell me that you want me to do stuff a certain way, then you don’t do the same for me. You just went off and stayed without saying anything. Without checking in. You didn’t even call. You know I worry about you. You tell me not to send messages to you by other people, that I’m not supposed to ever be too busy to pick up the phone to call you, but that’s what you did. You sent messages. I hadn’t heard from you. That’s why I worried so much this time.”
“I’m sorry.” Jennifer conceded.
There was no sense trying to explain that as the adult, she didn’t have to check in with her. J.J. would never see it that way, and that would be opening up a whole new can of worms. J.J. Hart would take that as a means by which she could change the rules set down for her. It would be yet another opportunity for the student to try to teach the teacher.
“It’s okay now.” J.J. allowed. “Everybody told me that you were all right, but I still got kind of nervous. You don’t normally leave me out there like that. I guess there’s a first time for everything.”
“Nervous? Or was it scared?”
Jennifer could feel it when J.J. quickly nodded, as if trying to admit it in a hurry and get past it. She smiled to herself. J.J. Hart was not going to admit to that word out loud, not even to her mother. She understood her fear, even if it had been unfounded.
“It’s all right to be scared, J.J., especially if it’s over something important to you.”
“I don’t know how you did it, Mom.” J.J. whispered, and Jennifer could feel her moving in closer to her. fitting quite naturally into her side. “I swear I don’t. I mean, I knew where you were and everything. Daddy told me. Aunt Pat told me. Pa, did too. I knew you were coming back eventually. It was only a few days, but it was like- Every day it just got- I just don’t know how you made it through like you did.”
Jennifer held her tighter, to support both of them.
“You do what you have to do, baby. Life goes on. It hurts. You think you’re going to stop breathing, just plain die, but you don’t. So, you rely on what’s left of your family. Your friends. And then, you find that inside you, you have coping skills that you didn’t even know you had until you’re forced to use them. Some of them, those coping skills, are good and some are not so good, but they are there. They’re built into your person to help you get through.”
J.J. nodded against her shoulder again, letting her know that she understood.
“J.J., what did your father tell you?”
“He said that you were in the attic of the guest house learning about your family. You were gone so long. Is that where you were all that time? What all did you find out? You had to have found out a lot.”
“I found out- things. I’ve been reading, looking around, and learning. Is that all he told you?”
“No. He told me about Pa. About his not really being an art dealer.”
“What did he tell you about that specifically?”
“Specifically, he told me what the real deal was. But, I don’t really want to talk about that, though, Mom. I don’t think I want to know a whole lot about that. Just know that I know.”
“Okay, we can go past that for now. So, tell me, do I have to worry about you going back down in that passageway?”
“Under normal circumstances, you might. Speaking honestly, I probably would be trying to get back down there, but I promised Aunt Pat I wouldn’t. She was thinking ahead of me, and she beat me to the punch. Before I could even get home from the hospital, she hemmed me up and made me promise that I wouldn’t try to go back once I got home. She wanted me to leave things alone, and to leave you to what you were doing. I really didn’t want to- agree to not go back into the passage, I mean- but I keep my promises, no matter how bad they taste when I make them.”
Jennifer had to chuckle at J.J.’s skillful use of descriptive language. There was definitely the spirit of a narrative writer lurking in that girl.
“My friend, Pat does have a way of making people do the right things even when you don’t really want to do them.”
“I’ll say. You know that I didn’t want to. That’s for sure.”
They lie there for a few moments, not saying anything. Then J.J. pulled herself up to sit over her mother.
“Mom,” She said, looking down at her. “Can we talk? Really talk?”
“Yes. We may talk.”
“May. About that coping thing. Is that why you didn’t remember anything?”
Raising up, propping herself up on one elbow and turning toward J.J., Jennifer looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“I just figured that’s what’s been going on. I’ve been thinking a lot about things lately. I came to the conclusion that you just didn’t really remember much. You tell me all the other important things you think I should know, so I know you would have told me about my grandmother if you remembered. You wouldn’t have deliberately held out on me. You would have wanted me to know about her, just like I’ll want my kids to one day know about you. Pa told me how he thinks he messed up with you. He told me how he put my grandmother’s stuff away so that you wouldn’t be reminded of her. Were you mad at him for doing that? I would have been. I told him so. Are you still mad at him for doing that?”
“I see everyone’s been doing a lot of communicating in my absence. I hope you weren’t rude to your grandfather. I know how tart-tongued you can be at times.”
“It made me angry at first when he told me that he did that to you, but I wasn’t rude. At least I don’t think he thought so. He would have told me if he did, I’m sure. He explained to me what he had been trying to do. And what you just said about people talking to me, they were just trying to help me understand and to make me be still. But I want you to tell me. I love and respect all of them, but I want you to fill me in. Only you really know the things I want to know.” Then she quickly added. “- if I’m not being too nosy or rude, that is.”
Sighing, Jennifer rolled onto her back and placed her hands on her abdomen, lacing her fingers together.
“I’m not angry any more, J.J., but, just like you, I was in the beginning. It happened so suddenly, and then she was just gone- completely, totally gone. I was only twelve, and she was all I thought I had. I really, really loved her. Since Pa traveled so much, it was usually just she and I here most of the time. Most nights, when we stayed in this house, I would come to her, and I would fall asleep in her-”
J.J. saw the tear slide down the side of her mother’s face when she closed her eyes and stopped speaking.
“- her room.” She finished the sentence for her. “I know about it, Mom. Pa took me there.”
When her mother raised her hands to her eyes, J.J. made the decision for both of them.
“Look, it’s too late, or too early, or whatever, for this. It can wait. We can do it tomorrow or whenever. You can tell me later, or you don’t have to ever. I’ll understand.”
Without waiting for a rebuttal, she reached across her mother’s body and switched off the lamp. Then she got under the covers, pulling them up over both of them, kissing her mother’s cheek. She really, really loved her mother too, and she definitely couldn’t bear to see her cry.
“You sleep now.” She said, rolling over putting her back to her mother so that she couldn’t possibly see her wiping at her own eyes.
They didn’t talk any more together; it was too soon. But, she was grateful that her mother didn’t get up and leave right away.
When she was sure that J.J. was asleep, Jennifer slowly pulled her own face up from the pillow in which she had buried it to keep the girl lying next to her from knowing her continuing heartache. Just as J.J. had said in her very teenage, but wise, way; it wasn’t time to talk about it yet. It was still too close to her surface, and J.J. was too sensitive to her mother’s emotions for either of them to handle that discussion at that moment. It would come, but in its own time.
Very slowly and carefully, trying not to disturb her if she wasn’t all the way under, she rolled over to take a good look at her daughter, as good a look as the partial moonlight would allow. Hair had fallen into and covered most of her face. Sitting all the way up, after a few moments maneuvering, she had gathered most of it in her hands to loosely braid it. J.J. never moved, and Jennifer smiled to herself as her fingers nimbly worked on the thick locks. That girl always could sleep through anything once she was gone.
The horror stories she had been fed about infants not sleeping through the night and weary parents being made to walk the floor with them, had been just that when it came to J.J. After the first couple of weeks, they would feed her, make sure she was dry, and for the most part, she hadn’t been a moment’s trouble, pretty much sticking to the schedule. As she looked to the back of that sleeping head, it seemed like just yesterday J.J. had been a baby and her mother was creeping into the nursery to check on her. Then in what felt like the blink of an eye, there she lie, almost a woman- less than two years away from leaving home for good. Forever.
J.J. wouldn’t be an in-and-outer, like the children of some of their friends who moved out and came back from time to time when funds got low, or the going got too rough. She had the feeling that J.J. Hart would be just like she had been, eager and ready to see the world when her time came. Even her summers would be spent away. J.J. would be leaving with no intention of coming back home to stay, and the thought tugged at her heart once again.
Tucking the long, heavy, finished braid under the covers that she had pulled over its owner, she leaned over her and kissed her cheek.
“You are something else, little girl. I love you.” She whispered next to her ear. “I’ll see you later, I promise you. Good night, sweetie.”
When J.J. heard the second hum, signaling the closet wall closing back, she rolled over into the warm place that still comfortingly smelled of her mother.
“I love you, too, and I’m holding you to your promise. Good night.”
Pulling the braid over her shoulder and scrunching that pillow under her head, she finally drifted off completely.
J.J.’s room was closest to that staircase that would take her down to the next level, and Jennifer was about halfway there when she realized that she didn’t have a lantern to assist her on that dark staircase leading up to the attic. Rejecting the idea of going back to her bedroom to get one of the ones that she and Jonathan had been using on their trips back and forth, she decided to push on. She feared waking him and risking having him try to talk her out of going back, and perhaps succumbing to his request. She knew what to do to get back into the attic, and she hoped to be able to rely on her sense of touch to open the fireplace. As she approached the doorway leading to that first staircase, she stopped short. There on the floor sat a freshly-filled lantern.
“Jonathan.” She concluded with a smile.
That wannabe “Thin Man” was the only one who would have left that there for her. Pa could have gotten down there with it, left it for her, and gone back to his room; but he wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have anticipated or supported her being there. Only Jonathan would be so sure that she would be coming that way. Only he knew how to get down there and get back out on his own. She recalled seeing that out-of-place screwdriver on the table by the window. Show him something one time, and it was his to do with whatever he wanted from that point on. He could maneuver that passage that hadn’t been designed for him, and leaving that lantern was a hallmark of his support and constant thoughtfulness.
“You think you know me so well.” She laughed to herself.
Jonathan Hart was, and remained, quite a man.
Grabbing the lantern by its handle, she kept on down the stairs and through the door/wall which slid snugly closed behind her once she was on the other side.
J.J. made seeking out her father her first order of business the next morning. She got up early, hoping to catch him before he left his room. Moving around as quickly as she could, she got washed and dressed, tidied things up, and then using the crutch to assist her, she went out into the hall to make her way down to her parents’ door.
She found it open, and there was no one inside.
“Shoot!” She fussed, turning back into the hall. “Missed him.”
At the elevator, she continued to fret under her breath when it seemed to take forever to get there.
Praying that she wouldn’t run into anyone on the first floor who might delay her with small talk, to avoid being seen, she took the cut-through hall that went down to the mudroom and used that door to go outside. If her father wasn’t in his room, he was most likely either on the paddock or he had already left for the guest house. Since she could smell that breakfast was still being cooked in the kitchen, she didn’t think he would have gone to the guest house yet.
She could see him leaned against the paddock rail, and it was a familiar and welcome sight. Under ordinary circumstances, when he visited Briarwood, her father spent most mornings out there, and once again, her hunches had been right. That felt good.
He had to have been a million miles away in thought because she was able to get right next to him before he noticed her.
“Hey Daddy.” She quietly greeted him when she was by his side.
He appeared a little startled by her presence, then he put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her. “Good morning. What are you doing up so early?”
“I was looking for you. I was hoping you’d be down here.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s up?”
“Just wanted to talk.”
“That’s good. I wanted to talk to you, too. You want to ride with me this morning?”
She looked up eagerly at him. “You’re going to let me ride?”
“Um-hum. With me on your grandfather’s horse.”
“Aw, Daddy. I can ride by myself on my own horse.”
“It’s too soon for you to ride by yourself. I know you. You ride too hard. I’ll look around, and you’ll be racing. It’s ride with me, or it’s you and the crutch. Take it or leave it.”
Mike was approaching, leading over to them, Legs, her grandfather’s handsome personal horse.
“I guess I’m taking it.” She grumbled. “This has been a real gyp of a vacation in terms of not being able to do anything. I just want you to know that.”
“You did it to yourself.” He reminded her as they walked around the fence to the inside of the paddock. “I believe it happened when you slipped off on your own, without permission, to ride a horse with Teddy.”
“Rosa’s going to be mad if we’re not here for breakfast, Daddy.” She quickly said, effectively changing the subject.
“We’re not going far. I’ve got a breakfast delivery to make, so I have to be back. Your mother won’t eat if I don’t take it to her.”
J.J. smiled. Jonathan Hart knew certainly his wife, and he took good care of her. It made her think again of her grandparents. What had they been like when they were together? Pa must have loved her very much, considering….
Her father took her crutch from her, leaned it against the rail, and helped her up on the horse’s back, making sure that she was using her good foot to raise her body. Then he got on behind her. She took the reins.
“Where to?” She asked.
“The lake.” He answered.
Jennifer closed the book and her eyes, allowing her body to slump slowly sideways until it finally came to rest against the pillows propped on the arm of the couch. Having spent the pre-dawn hours coming full circle, finishing those last two journals, ending up back at the point in time where it all started, the morning her mother’s life ended; she had never been so exhausted and drained in her entire life. The workmen were back. She could hear them down below, their muffled voices, the sounds of their busy movements. She had closed the door to the attic, but had stuck an edge of a dust cover in it to keep it from locking to allow Jonathan to be able to get in should he come that way. Through the door or through the passageway, it was inevitable that he was going to show up.
Finishing the reading, coming to her mother’s last words felt strangely like losing her all over again. Her story, just like her life, ended abruptly, leaving her daughter hanging and wanting more.
Only, unlike any other unfinished story, she knew how that one finished up. It didn’t. It just stopped there. There was nothing more to be said. But there were so many questions she wished she could ask.
Her body felt so heavy as she lie there once again reliving that level of intense grief that she thought had played itself out long ago, but which had been plaguing her since the first day of this ordeal. This time, however, the darkness in her heart was even more profound because this time she knew exactly what had been lost. It wasn’t just her mother’s life that had been cut off. It was history. It was ideas and attitudes. It was laughter, hope, joy, and inspiration. It was love on so many levels. She had never really known her mother, the person. Her mother didn’t live to know the woman, the person, her daughter had become. Jonathan had never known his mother-in-law. J.J. had never known her grandmother. Suzanne Roussel Edwards had never known the two of them. A love affair between two special people had been cut short.
The realization of how much one person could so impact the workings of an entire family was overwhelming. Every day, all of them went about their lives, interacting with one another, never paying attention to how each word spoken, each gesture made, each breath taken; no matter how insignificant, really did matter in the grand scheme of things. Things that were never given a second thought in life, became so weighty and meaningful in death.
As child, when they were in the garden, her mother never let her handle the roses until she had removed the thorns. They stayed in the guest house rather than the main house because it forced them to be closer and to interact. Her mother allowed her in that room because that was their place. She had not gone into that other bedroom, the one that was now her father’s room because that place belonged to them. They were together in that room. That was how her entire early childhood had been, clearly defined, compartmentalized, insulated, and sheltered. Her mother had been right there, removing the thorns as they came up, before they had a chance to get to her and harm her. She kept her safe, close, and she made it her business to heal the hurts that managed to get by her. She had always been right there. Her written words said that had been her main purpose once she had a child: to raise her sensitive, shy only daughter to be an assertive, intelligent, refined, polished woman.
Surely Aunt Sabrina missed her sister. She had to have been lost in the beginning. Her sister had removed the thorns in her life as well. Aunt Sabrina. Nobody would ever have known.
Vaguely, she could recall having gone to France with her mother when Aunt Sabrina had been very sick. They went to Paris to Aunt Sabrina’s apartment instead of Perpignan to her grandparents’ where they normally started any trip to France. Papa Henri had passed on earlier that year, and they had gone for his funeral, so that had been their second journey to France that year. Grandmama Simone was there in the apartment, too. It was so long ago, but she could remember that they had all been very secretive and sad. The twins spent a lot of time together, and she spent most of her time with her grandmother who took her all around the city, showing her things, keeping her occupied. That must have been what that was all about.
Then, later there was that other terrible thing. How did Sabrina come through it all as unscathed and unaffected by all that had happened to her as she seemed to have done? Looking at her, being in her delightful, self-assured company, nobody would ever know. It was no wonder that she was able to be such a help to her niece in her times of trouble. She had seen and done it all, even more than ever suspected, and she had done it in times that weren’t so accepting of such ‘shortcomings’ in a woman. Sabrina Simone had been to the wall, she had made it through the fire; and she had survived and been better for it. And Suzanne. She had been right there for her, being her sister’s rock, no matter what. Her death must have been what finally made her younger sister grow up.
Thinking on it, she didn’t know if she could have been so trusting, not even with her sister. As much as she loved Pat, she certainly wouldn’t have put Jonathan in that position with her if she thought Pat had designs on him. Her mother had certainly been asking for it, seeing as how Sabrina was her identical twin. Even though she had warned him about slipping up, she must have had a lot of faith in her husband’s fidelity. But then, didn’t she trust Jonathan enough to put that same faith in him? Surely he had to have been tempted to stray over the years. She had been witness to women flirting with him, throwing themselves at him, but he had never let her down. He had been witness to men being seriously attracted to her- had even been made to be a part of the solution to it more than once. But she had never let him down, nor had he tried to censure her sexuality because other men had been attracted to her.
Wasn’t that what mature love was all about?
Suzanne Edwards had taken care of her family in France, she had supported her husband all by herself in the States, and she had put her young life on hold to raise her child with the thought that there would be enough of it left on the other end to go back to it once that was done. But there had been other plans in place for her, and that was not to be. She reflected that her mother never got to see the fruits of her sacrifice, although in her heart she was pretty well satisfied that her mother would have been proud of the job she had begun; she really had worked hard to make her mother proud, even if it had been done subconsciously.
Life with Pa had been so different. He hadn’t protected and sheltered her in that way, and he did not stop his life for her. Instead, Pa put her out there, and told her to hold on for the ride. He let her fall off sometimes, but he made her get up, run to catch up and get back on by herself. He allowed her to make mistakes, and he didn’t immediately come to her aid. He told her what to do, and he expected that the directions he gave be followed, and the task at hand be completed. He had been strict, sometimes unreasonably so. When she balked or faltered, he made it her choice to keep going, while at the same time somehow making it clear that she had to choose to keep going.
She had missed her mother’s personal, nurturing touch. It made her angry that her father was so physically detached, so seemingly cold. She thought it meant that he didn’t care; but despite her irritation with him, she kept tagging along because he was not going to be rid of her that easily. Pa made demands in black and white, and he expected that she follow them. She did what he wanted because he was her father and she had been taught to be obedient- and because she loved him even though he had been such a hard taskmaster, and so unlike her mother in his ways- and because she didn’t want him to cast her aside like Pat’s father had done with her. But she continued to do what she wanted outside of meeting his demands because she was her mother’s daughter, and her mother had always told her that she was her own person. And as her own person; she knew what she did and did not want to do. Her father need not have worried in the way that he had- in the way that she kept trying to assure Jonathan that he didn’t have to worry.
But had all of that been so bad? Was she not as refined and polished as her mother wanted her to be? Was she not intelligent? Pa was the epitome of refined, polished, and intelligent. So, had her mother been. She had also been patient, compassionate, funny, extremely sexy, and very insightful. When she thought about it, Pa had been all those things as well.
Like father, like mother, like daughter. Both her parents had performed their parts admirably. Her mother had been nurturing a child who looked like her but who was more like her husband in her ways. She had been protecting, cultivating and fortifying his seed. That part was so clear now. History was simply repeating itself.
Reading her mother’s journals had been like having a long conversation with her about personal things. Strangely there was absolutely no mention of her work in Intelligence operations. The books had just been about her- her life with her family. It had been like sitting in front of the fireplace in her room, listening as she wove one of her stories, only this story had been a history lesson, their history. When she told those stories to her before that fireplace, she had been teaching her. Ever since she entered that attic, she had been teaching her.
“History is like a ladder, my Jennifer. You use it to climb to the present. If parts of the ladder are missing, can you climb properly?”
“No, Mama. You might fall.”
Those stories before the fireplace… in her room… that room…. Poor Pa.
So much had been revealed. So many memories had been brought back to the front. Things were falling back into place, and having that happen, using those things as rungs to climb back to the present, wasn’t all that comfortable. For the better part of her life, there were so much that she hadn’t known, or that she conveniently hadn’t remembered. It continued to defy her understanding how she could have forgotten so much. But then, she had been just a child, and it had been over forty years.
But now there was no more ignorance and no more denial. She had discovered. She had been told. She had seen for herself. She knew, she remembered, and she was no longer a child. She was a woman, and not a young woman any more. It was time to face what was real about her entire life and to take down the ragged fences that should never have been erected in the first place. It was all becoming clearer and clearer.
Her mother wrote in that last journal that she worried about her daughter coming of age. She worried that the gynecological problems that plagued her own mother, her, and her sister would be passed down to that next generation. Her entries never named the problem as the anemia, but she assumed that was what it had been. It had been at the heart of Sabrina’s greatest loss, it had been her own experience, and was J.J.’s only chronic physical struggle at present.
Suzanne Edwards had planned on seeking expert medical care for her daughter so that one day she would have lots of grandchildren in place of the babies she couldn’t have herself. Well, Mama missed the boat on that. She died before it mattered. Those third generation menstrual periods had been just as irregular. Because Pa was in charge, and he didn’t really know, and she didn’t really tell anyone, that expert medical care turned out to be just routine. As it turned out, that daughter hadn’t wanted a houseful of children anyway.
She had managed to have just one, and that one had been quite enough. She crept up on her mother, showing up late and offering no apologies or explanations for having done so. J.J. Hart was active, mischievous, sassy, and smart enough to make up for three or four children. Maybe that fourth generation girl would have a better attitude about and be more inclined to procreation. Despite the hereditary medical condition, her cycle was at least a lot more regular.
Now that young woman was coming into her own, and apparently she wanted to know. Justine Jennifer was asking, and her grandmother seemed to be insisting that she be told.
But at that moment, Jennifer Justine was so tired and her spirit so worn down. There was still the matter of Pa in front of her, but all she wanted to do was lie there with her eyes closed, holding onto her mother’s last early morning as detailed in that book pressed to her breast.
Pat woke, rolled over and found herself in bed alone. She wasn’t surprised. Bill was a very early riser and when he was out in the country like they were, he liked to go out walking by himself first thing. He loved being outdoors, roaming and exploring over the hills. She did, too, when she was with him, just not that early in the morning.
Pulling his pillows into her arms, she burrowed face-down into them, wishing they were him.
In her entire life, she had never told any man, including her own father, that she loved him. Bill McDowell had been the first. It had taken fifty-five years for her to fall completely and totally in love and to commit to it. Jennifer kept saying that it would happen for her one day, but until perhaps a year or so ago, she had pretty much given up on it herself, going so far as to continue to deny it even when she began feeling Bill moving in for the kill on her heart.
At twenty-nine and after several personal and romantic disappointments, she and Jennifer had both decided that they had been too negatively affected by their pasts and too focused on their careers to let anyone in completely. They made a pact with each other that those three dreaded words would never be uttered to any man by either of them. Then that long distance call had come from Jennifer that early summer morning in 1975.
Jen! Where the hell are you? I thought you were coming home the day before yesterday? Great job on the story, by the way. I knew we sent the right one, but why aren’t you home?
I called and left a message at your desk to let you know I was all right.
I got that, but I never could catch up to you. Where the hell have you been? I lied through my teeth to your father all day yesterday.
I called Pa at the museum. He was out, but I left a message for him that I was fine.
But you didn’t say where you were, and he wanted to know. He must have rung me up five times yesterday. He knew that I was covering for you. I’ve phoned your damned hotel so many times that-”
Hush, will you. I have something important to tell you.
Why are you whispering?
Because he’s in the bathroom, and I don’t want him to hear me.
Who’s in the bathroom. He? Why, you little undercover slut! Whose in the goddamn bathroom, Jen? Where in the Sam hell are you?
I’m getting married, Pat.
Married!? Shit! To whom?
Pat, never in my whole, entire life have I been so happy.
What are you talking about? Married to whom, I asked you?
Look, I’m still in London. I’m in the penthouse suite of the Ritz, and I’m in love, Pat. Completely, totally, utterly in love.
Dammit, if you keep stringing me along and don’t hurry up and tell me who it is, Jennifer Justine Edwards, I swear to you, I’m going to come through the holes on this damned receiver and kick your ass. Who is it?
Haven’t you figured it out yet? I gave you good clues. You’re slipping, Patricia. That’s not like you. It’s Jonathan Hart. We’re in love, and we’re getting married.
Oh, my God! You screwed the story, Jen? You? Professional, strictly business, I don’t date clients, don’t-even- think-about-kissing-me-on-the-first-date, and I do not come cheap, Jennifer Edwards. Damn girl, you just met the man and you’re going to marry him! Was it that good? I think you’ve been hanging around me and Marcia too long. We must be rubbing off.
I made love with the man, not the story, and for your information, he is that good and that nice. I love him, Pat, and I have no shame about anything I’ve done. He asked me to marry him, and I said I would. I know we just met, but it’s as if we’ve known each other a lifetime. We fit so well together.
Just how good is that fit, Jen? Must be mighty good if you’re going to marry it.
It’s a perfect fit in every sense of the word. You know me and how I am. It’s completely right. You, of all people, know I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t feel in my heart that it’s right.
What happened to “the hell with men, marriage, and relationships”?
I was wrong. I just hadn’t met Jonathan yet.
You told him that you loved him? I mean, you told it to him at a time that you weren’t underneath him screaming in ecstasy or coming and out of your mind? You said it to him when you were out of the bed, not in his bedroom, and you both had all your clothes on?
Yes, you nasty-minded, foul-mouthed girl.
What’s your father going to say? The hell with that, I know what he’s going to say, he’s going to blow his top. You remember how he was when I got married that time?
Your circumstances were different, and he understood why you did what you did. I’ve spoken directly to him, and he’s fit to be tied. He’s already ordered us to meet him in Maryland. But I don’t care what Pa says; someone loves me, I love him, and we are getting married. He is so wonderful, Pat. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I can’t wait for you to meet him.
I believe you, Jen. He has to be a mighty fine guy if you’re this gone over him.
Thanks, Pat. I knew you would understand.
It’s not me you have to convince, anyway. Your father won’t be so easy. I remember how Stephen was with Evan and me. I shudder to think what he’s going to be over you and a guy you’ve only known a few days. Damn, Jen, You’re asking for it.
I’ll worry about Pa when the times comes. I’m sure Jonathan will be able to handle him. I know I can. Break the news gently to Marcia, will you?
Yeah, right. Soooo, he’s nice, huh? I’ve seen pictures. He sure is pretty. He looks like he can make a girl downright happy and satisfied between the sheets, too. Come to think of it, you’re sounding pretty satisfied, my friend.
Yes, he is nice looking, and that’s as much as I’m going to say about that. Oh, uh, look, I have to hang up now, Patricia. Someone wants me, and I… certainly want him. Do me a favor , will you. Would you please go over to my place and start arranging to have my things packed for me, sweetie? I’m moving to Los Angeles. I’ll call you from Pa’s, and we can start making the wedding arrangements. Bye.
Marcia, their college buddy who had gone to work with them at the Times in the early days and had entered into the publishing business with them, had been livid. She had campaigned relentlessly for that assignment, but before sending anyone, the homework had been done.
Although Hart was young, successful, and wealthy, and had a reputation for squiring pretty, famous, wealthy women around the world; he was reportedly a discreet man, a gentleman who preferred keeping a low profile. At that time he had just ended an exclusive relationship with a Greek heiress, and word was that he was pretty much concentrating his efforts on expanding his business interests, which was supposedly why he was in London. Although Marcia volunteered to go, she had dispatched Jennifer instead to find out specifically what it was that Hart was trying to get into in London that was such a guarded secret. The information she sought was for an article in one of their business publications on up and coming young American entrepreneurs.
Jennifer was still healing and needed to get back into the loop after that thing in Australia. She had been down for months behind that, turning out very little in the way of writing. With Mr. Edwards having pretty much lived in London for years, and Jennifer having spent so much time there with him, she knew that city and its people like the back of her hand. She was also the consummate professional.
If Marcia had been sent, that one would never have gotten close to Jonathan. And if she had managed to get past Max to Jonathan, all she would have gotten was, perhaps, screwed. Of medium height and sort of plain compared to she and Jennifer, Marcia hadn’t been his type at all, but she wouldn’t have cared about that. For her, it would have been to hell with the story, just to be able to say to them that she’d slept with Jonathan Hart. Those bedroom blue eyes, that charm, and that smile would have had Marcia snatching off her own underwear and leaping on the man within the first few moments of the supposed interview. Of the three of them, Marcia had decidedly been the least inhibited. She didn’t mind sampling and giving a full review afterward.
It was no wonder she was now the queen of “erotic literature”, as Jennifer so genteelly referred to that series of books Marcia still wrote under that pseudonym to separate that from her more serious work. That x-rated shit Marcia penned was just plain old, low down filth- albeit excellent, must-read filth. Nobody did it better. Marcia Griffiths Lane Niles had spent a lot of years and had worn out a couple of husbands conducting her extensive hands-on research. She had been so aggravated at missing out on what Jennifer came home with on that London trip, that she didn’t speak to either of them for a month. Not long after that incident, she left Hamilton House and moved to San Francisco where she established her own successful career as a writer and a literary agent to others. Despite that slight crack in the threesome, they had fixed it and they all remained good friends over the years. Jennifer still frequently worked with her. That Marcia definitely wrote sleaze from personal experience, and she turned out to be a much better agent, editor, and novelist than reporter.
With clients, especially male ones, Jennifer could be an ice princess. She stuck to business, and got the job done, never letting anyone sweet talk her out of the details or her panties. She had an extraordinary ability to get people to trust her and to open up to her. For her, the story always came first.
Pat rolled over, laughing to herself, still hugging Bill’s pillows. Jen might have gotten talked out of her panties and into a marriage that time, but she still managed to first secure that story she was sent to get. She got that one, and the one that developed around it, with poor Brooks, her contact in London, getting murdered and Charles Thompson acquiring a prison sentence for conspiracy to murder rather than that knighthood he so coveted.
There was a lot of history between the two of them. They had done and seen some things in their time. A lot had been accomplished. A lot of rough terrain had been covered.
Jennifer and her father had seen her through that disaster of a quickie marriage at twenty-four, the result of an unexpected pregnancy. She had married Evan Patton mostly to keep from disappointing Mr. Edwards. It definitely hadn’t been for love. Jennifer knew of the pregnancy from the beginning, and although she never offered an opinion one way or the other, her strong disapproval of marrying because if it had been easy to sense. Jennifer appeared pretty conventional, but when it came to personal matters, she didn’t hesitate to act outside the box if that was where she chose to go.
Mr. Edwards hadn’t been so silent. In fact, he had been quite vocal with them and with Evan. He didn’t like and didn’t trust Evan, couldn’t stand his family, and disapproved of the marriage, but never once did he say that he was disappointed in her for getting pregnant. It was 1968 and people still got married when the woman got pregnant, at least people from good, upstanding east coast families like theirs did. Abortion was not an option. Roe versus Wade was five years off, and although they ‘knew’ people, even if she didn’t want the father, she truly wanted that baby. She didn’t know what else to do about the situation, except what she thought was expected of her.
They married in a very small ceremony at the home her father left her in Long Island, and right away Evan started making noise like he was going to be in charge. His family was well-off, but not as well-off as she, so they were glad for the union. She had come into her trust, but at that time, she was still allowing Jennifer’s father to manage her financial affairs. Evan resented that, but she had no intention of changing that situation, especially since she had no intention of remaining in the marriage. Her plan had been to have the baby and immediately file for divorce. Jennifer was the only person made privy to that, and she had been in complete agreement with it.
But she lost that baby at five, nearly six months. She and Evan happened to have been in Manhattan, staying in her apartment that weekend. They were supposed to have gone out with friends that evening, but she hadn’t been feeling well. He went without her, insisting that it would be rude to not honor the reservations that had been made for them. She suspected that he was still seeing an old girlfriend, and that had been his principal reason for leaving her that night, but she didn’t care about that. More power to him. But when the cramping and bleeding started, she had been all alone. She managed to get to the phone and call Jennifer before being sick on the bed and losing consciousness.
When she woke again, it was the wee hours of the morning, she was in the hospital, and the baby was gone. Jennifer hadn’t been able to find Evan, so it was her face that loomed above hers once she came to, and it was she who had given her that horrible news. The little girl had been too small to survive, and there would never be another. Jennifer had been the only one to see the baby.
Upon waking, when given the opportunity to see the baby herself, she flatly refused. What would have been the point?
Later that morning, Evan finally surfaced, but he didn’t have much to say. He paced nervously, and he didn’t stay very long. Jennifer remained constantly by her side. A couple of days later, Stephen Edwards arrived from where he had been working in Italy. He entered the room, his hat in one hand, a large vase of flowers in the other, looking larger than life as he hesitated in the doorway. The genuine concern on his face made her want to cry for him. It couldn’t have been more sincere if he had really been her father.
Quickly surveying the room, seeing only the two of them sitting there, the first things out of his mouth had been, “Where is your husband? Weren’t you ever able to contact the pinhead, Jennifer?”
Jennifer nodded. “He was here, but her left, Pa.”
His next question was delivered as he sat at her side, holding her hand.
“Do you want to remain married to this man, Patricia? Please know that you do not have to do so if you don’t want it. You can get out now. You no longer have a reason to wait.”
She and Jennifer thought it had been their secret, but it seemed Stephen had been on the same wave length as they. When she admitted that she had never wanted to be married, that she had done it only to save face, it was he who got the ball rolling. In retrospect, it seemed he might have been holding the ball and was just waiting for the signal from her to put it into play.
Within two days, Evan was served with his papers, and his things were removed from the Long Island house. It didn’t take long for the divorce to be final, she hadn’t had to give up a dime, and neither Evan nor his family made a peep about any of it. He completely disappeared from her life from the day that Stephen Edwards stepped back into the States, and she hadn’t missed him a moment. Stephen had handled all of that, and she and Jennifer never asked what he said, what he did; they didn’t want to know anything. They let him take over completely while they lay low. It was uncharacteristic of him to get so deeply involved in either of their personal affairs, but he had been on a mission, almost as if he was driven to take care of that for her.
The depression that followed had been crushing, but Jennifer stayed right by her side. While she recuperated, Stephen also stayed on. Once she was released from the hospital, the three of them resided together in Jennifer’s huge apartment for about a month. One night, not long before he terminated his stay, Stephen called the two of them in to him to talk. She fixed his brandy. Jennifer lit his pipe, and they both sat at his feet while he spoke to them.
“You are both my daughters. You have done very well thus far. Everyone makes mistakes in life, and Patricia, I applaud you for trying to make the best of the situation.
Jennifer, I am proud of how you have stood by your friend, your sister. But, God has seen fit, Patricia, to not let you have that baby, and for some reason He has decided you will not have another. I don’t know the reason, but I do know you are hurt by the knowledge; however, I don’t want you thinking you are being punished for anything. He doesn’t work in that way. That was just something that was not meant to be. You have to look at it as there being some other purpose for your life. One that would not be facilitated by motherhood. It is up to you to find out what that is.
What I do know that is meant to be, is the two of you are supposed to do great things. You have invested far too much into yourselves to let men get in your way. This was a lesson for both of you. You are young, talented, beautiful, fortunate girls. I am telling you as your father to put yourselves first. Do what is right for you. Do the things you want to do. Do not allow yourselves to get put into this position again. Women have the babies. The men can, and as you have seen, often will walk away. We go on with our lives, continue to do what we want to do, pursue our livelihoods, maintain our friendships, leaving the women to the all-encompassing business of tending the children. It is your lives that will be forever changed, and perhaps shortchanged, in that situation.
Until you meet a man who is willing to allow you to be you; one who understands that you are a person unto yourself, then you are better off single. You can be unhappy alone. At least you won’t be trapped as well. You are free, living, breathing, thinking individuals. You do not need keepers. I am your father, and even I have not kept you. It has been set up for both of you that you can keep yourselves. If a man is not willing to be your partner, you do not need him as a fixture in your life. Put yourselves and your well being first in all that you do.
We have sent that fop packing. Now we, the three of us, start over from here. Do you understand what I have said to both of you?”
They both nodded.
That was the first conversation he had ever had with them along those lines. As far as they knew, up until that unfortunate turn of events, he didn’t even know they had periods, kissed men, (well, at least not Jennifer) or God forbid, had sex. Those things had been left up to the Health teachers, Ms. Smythe, the school physician, good old Aunt Sabrina, and Jennifer’s copious research on whatever the subject at hand. That girl hadn’t been afraid to check anything out of the library. If she wanted to know something for sure, she looked it up.
Stephen had been right about there being another purpose for her life. Shortly after that, she went into the publishing business, establishing Hamilton House with Jennifer’s and Marcia’s first books. Whether she had divorced Evan or not, she and Jennifer would not have been able to accomplish the things they had if the baby had lived. If that child had lived, she would have had a real, full-time mother, and Jennifer would have been readily available to help with her.
Jennifer would not have been able to accomplish the things she had if J.J. had come to her any sooner, or if she had a different kind of man for a husband. Since J.J., she had adjusted more than she had slowed down, but still she’d had to change things in her life. Jonathan had always gone out of his way to help her continue to do the things she had always done, even when she was pregnant with J.J. Jennifer, who said she never wanted children, tried to whine about having that baby. But in light of how things had turned out for all of them, and looking at how long it took for that one baby, another little girl, to show up, it had to have been in the cards for them. Jennifer had never been pregnant by anyone before that, and it wasn’t for lack of opportunity. She had been married to Jonathan ten years before she got pregnant that first time. Why did it take so long, and how did it turn out to be a kid so special and so perfectly matched to all of them?
It was through that child’s birth, that Bill McDowell had come into her life. Although it took sixteen years for them to get there, they had finally arrived at the same place together. He was retired, and she was getting closer and closer to hanging it up. He wanted to marry her, but he didn’t want to change her. He was willing to move to the other side of the country to be with her. As a compromise, she had agreed to a place in the country, which he preferred to the city. They had come to Maryland by chance, and had found the perfect place to live as husband and wife. It was their time to be together. Things seemed to happen how and when they were supposed to happen. Not before, not after-just when.
Somebody was, and had always been, looking out for all of them.
She had always wondered if Stephen had been referring to himself and his wife that night in the apartment when he said that to them about babies stopping a young woman’s life. Mrs. Edwards had been a very young woman when she married, and when she had Jennifer. She had raised that child largely on her own.
Jennifer said that she was used to not having her father around when she was growing up. He had always traveled away from home when she was little, before she came to Gresham Hall- often for months at a time. That meant that as a child, Jennifer had been reared at home with her mother. If that was the case, it was no wonder that her mother’s death hit her so very hard, and why she didn’t talk very much about her. She had to have been devastated by that kind of loss at such a precarious age.
Lying there, she tried to picture J.J. in that situation when she had been twelve. If something were to have happened to take Jennifer away during that point in J.J.’s life, there would have been hell to pay. Between twelve and fifteen, the girl had been a mess with her mother. When those little hormones started kicking in, she had really taken Jennifer through some serious changes. Combine that with Jennifer not being there to monitor her and keep her in line, poor Jonathan would have been left living with Lucifer.
Looking at it through J.J.’s eyes was the only frame of reference she could come up with to form that kind of scenario. It didn’t apply to her own life since she hadn’t formed much of an attachment to either one of her aloof parents. Her analyst told her that was the reason that she related to men in the detached way that she did. Until Bill, she wanted the sex, but not the men, and hadn’t felt any remorse or shame in the situation. Dr. Hale said it was a defense mechanism; she didn’t allow herself to get emotionally attached to anyone in that way to keep from getting rejected by anybody. That made sense. The doctor, whom she had sought out on her own in the curious effort to understand why she wasn’t as messed up as she thought she should be, assured her that she was actually pretty well adjusted for a woman, who as a kid, had been brought up in the impersonal way that she had been by her parents. Dr. Hale allowed that she had been able to form the relationship that she had with Jennifer’s father because he had somehow let her know that she stood no chance of being turned out by him.
She certainly hoped not.
Jennifer’s mother had been sixteen when she met Stephen Edwards. The same age as J.J. How had Suzanne managed to pull that one off?
She couldn’t begin to imagine Jonathan allowing J.J. to see a twenty-one year old man. He hadn’t mentioned it, but she knew that he had to have been shocked at seeing his baby kiss that seventeen-year old at the hospital that night. When he got back to that room with J.J. and Marnie in tow, he had been as white as a sheet. At the time, she thought it was because Marnie had sneaked off to party with the boys in the recreation room. It wasn’t until later that J.J. told her what had actually happened.
How dead would Russell Thomas be if Jonathan had any inkling that a man twelve years his daughter’s senior was attracted to her? Even she and Jennifer hadn’t discussed that one, but she was certain that Jennifer had witnessed Russell’s strong reaction to J.J. on the night of her birthday party- she had been standing right there next to her on the steps- and how he pointedly avoided J.J. for the rest of that night.
Strangely, instead of being appalled, she felt sorry for Russell. She understood his attraction to her. For him, it was something outside of her youth and her appearance. It was not a young girl/ older man attraction. That much she could sense, but he would never be able to convince anyone outside of Jennifer and herself of that. Jonathan would NEVER understand. Being Jonathan’s employee, Russell was walking a tightrope on that one. J.J. didn’t have the first clue how he felt, and she genuinely thought of him as her friend. He had to hope that he could keep some distance between him and J.J. until J.J. left for college. That wouldn’t be real easy since J.J. had the run of Hart Industries Towers, and Russell was frequently in and out of there; but Jennifer was good at that sort of thing. She kept her eye on that girl, could read her like a book. She would be discreetly running interference on that without a doubt.
Jennifer’s family was her family. They had completely taken her in, and made her one of them. She was pretty sure that her dealings with Stephen Edwards and his daughter had a lot to do with her relative normalcy. Rick Hamilton, her own father, indirectly, had a hand in that, too. He had been shit for a parent, but in his hands-off treatment of her, he inadvertently taught her that the only person she could count upon was herself.
Then Mr. Edwards came along and let her know that she was just fine as she was, but that when the going got too rough, she could lean on him if she wanted to. He was the best, mean as hell at times, but the absolute best.
She recalled Jennifer laughing at her.
“You must be the only person in New York who sees an analyst to find out why she doesn’t have problems.”
And her having to explain to Jennifer that she sometimes needed reassuring. It was the reassurance that kept her sane. It was like performing routine maintenance on a vehicle. When flying on autopilot, like she often felt she did, it helped to know the instruments she counted upon were working properly.
That poor, poor man. Stephen had closed off that bedroom and just left it. Poor Jennifer. How could she have blocked something like that out? But it seemed she did. It seemed that Jennifer had cut herself off from a lot of things from her past as they related to her mother. That scene she made when they were in high school and getting ready to graduate, when the yearbook biographer was trying to get her to talk about her mother for her biography, had been frightening, even for her.
She had never seen Jennifer look at anybody like that. Her eyes changed color and her voice had been blood-chillingly cold as she stood up over that girl to say to her, “How many times do I have to tell you that I do not want that included? I have told you all that I plan to say. This is over.”
Then she walked out, leaving the entire staff sitting there, frozen in place and staring at each other. Only she hadn’t been surprised. She had warned them about going there with Jennifer, but they kept insisting that it would be nice to have her mother mentioned. Her reaction had thrown everyone else off. She was normally so pleasant and easy-going, almost never raising her voice or speaking harshly to or about anyone. But Jennifer Edwards did not talk about her mother very much. Period. To anyone. Then or now.
She hoped that when she got up, Jennifer would be better for having rested. She tended to push herself too hard at times, and she looked terrible on the day before when they brought her out of that room. Jonathan was sure that she was just exhausted. He said that she didn’t appear to have fallen or to have hurt herself. He thought she was just emotionally spent. That could be true. If that attic where she had been hanging out for the past few days was anything like that bedroom, it was no wonder she was out cold. Poor thing. It would be good when all of this was over.
Sitting up, she pushed Bill’s pillows back to his side and stretched. She was glad that they decided to move back the wedding. They had first thought to do it while they were all there. Just call in a preacher, and have a small ceremony one evening, and do it. But with all that was going on, they thought it best to wait. It was just as well. They would have more time to get Farrell’s like they wanted it, Bill’s son, Peter, and his family could arrange to be there; and by Thanksgiving, when they were all there again, she and Bill could move right in and spend their honeymoon there in the new home.
The door opened and Bill came in, closing it behind himself. Smiling at her, he came to the bed and sat down by her side, leaning in to kiss her.
“Good morning, babe. You getting up? Rosa almost has breakfast ready.”
“I guess so. She’ll have a fit if I’m not down there. Her nose is already out of joint about Jennifer going missing.”
“Well, it’ll be back out of joint. She’s gone again.”
“Gone.” He gestured with his thumb. “Back up to the attic.”
“Oh, Bill. She was so tired. When did she go?”
Bill took her by the hand as she ran the other through her hair, exasperated with her determined friend.
“Jonathan says that she woke up during the night, took a shower and came back to bed with him. When she thought he was asleep, she got up and left. He peeked out behind her and saw her go into J.J.’s room, but she never came back to bed. This morning, he checked in on J.J. before he went down. J.J. was there sleeping but Jennifer wasn’t. She wasn’t outside either. So, it stands to reason…”
“Damn. I sure will be glad when she gets through all of this. I don’t know how much more she can take. I wish I could help in some way. That’s my girl. I hate when she hurts.”
“Babe, there’s some things people have to do on their own. You know that. Jennifer must have to do whatever this is. She keeps plugging at it. She doesn’t normally put Jonathan or J.J. aside for anything. But, in the meantime, you and I need to eat. Get up and get dressed. I saw J.J. and Jonathan take off on Legs earlier. I guess they’ll be back for breakfast. Maybe we can take the girls out somewhere this afternoon.”
She pushed the covers back and got up. As she was crossing the room, he asked, “Hey, did you leave your car keys in the car?”
She stopped, and turned around to look at him. “My keys? Why would I leave my keys in the car? I live in New York. Force of habit would never allow me to leave keys in a car, even way out here.”
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys which he held out for her to see. They were hers.
“I was going to take a drive out to the place, just to have another look, but I couldn’t find the keys. Something told me to check the car. I got out there, and there’s a pillow in the driver’s seat. I found the keys on the floor.”
Pat folded her arms and sat back. “A pillow, huh? Only one somebody in this house would need a pillow to see over the wheel when she’s attempting to drive her crippled partner in crime somewhere. Thelma and Louise are at it again. I cannot believe they had the nerve to clip my car.”
“They didn’t go anywhere.” Bill said confidently as he threw the keys up and caught them. “I checked the mileage and the position of the car yesterday before Jonathan and I left. It’s a little something you learn to do when there’s a kid with a Learner’s Permit in the vicinity.”
“Well, I know I didn’t go anywhere yesterday, and there’s only one reason why they could have had those keys out there in that car. They must have been thinking about clipping it, so I’m still kicking their asses when I see them.”
Jonathan helped J.J. down from Legs’ back and then tied him off. Together, they walked out to sit on the bench on the pier.
After a few quiet minutes, he commented, “Pretty out here, isn’t it?”
“Um-hum.” She answered, still looking across the water. “And peaceful.”
“So, did your mother come see you this morning?”
J.J. turned to look at him, but said nothing.
“Well?” He urged after a couple of moments, gesturing with his hand.
“Are you asking me because you want to know if she did?” J.J. asked cagily.
“That’s what I think I asked you.” He insisted.
She continued to look at him, but raised one eyebrow to him, “Or are you asking me because you already know she did, and you’re feeling around for something else?”
He rolled his eyes. “I just want to know. Why are you so suspicious about everything?”
She smiled softly. “I just have to check. You’re always testing me. I wasn’t going to be giving up any information unless I was sure it wasn’t some kind of test.”
“No test.” He smiled back. “But to put it in your terms, “good looking out”. You’re right. You don’t give up anything unless you know the intent of the person asking the questions. But really, I know she went into your room early this morning. My question is, specifically, did you get to talk with her?”
“A little bit.”
“What did she say, if you don’t mind sharing it with me?”
“She wasn’t in any shape to talk, Daddy. It wasn’t time yet.” She turned her head away from him to look back across the water again. “Too soon.”
Jonathan watched her, impressed by her insight into her mother, and curious as to what made her come to that conclusion.
“I tried to ask her what was going on with her, but she wasn’t ready to answer me.”
“What do you mean she wasn’t ready to answer you. What happened?”
“She just wasn’t. So then I just went on and told her that I could wait, and that she didn’t ever have to tell me if she didn’t want to. I meant it. Even though I want to know so badly, I don’t want to know if it’s going to hurt her to tell me.”
“How long did she stay?”
“How do you know she’s not still in my room, asleep maybe?”
He shook his head in amused exasperation while still looking at that thick ponytail that faced him while she continued to look out on the water.
“I know in the same way that I know she came in there with you. I checked. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Good looking out, Daddy.” She turned back to him, smiling slyly. “She stayed long enough for her to think I was sleeping, but I wasn’t. She promised me that she would see me later, then she left through the closet. That was way early this morning.”
Then J.J. leaned into him, putting her head on his shoulder. “Speaking of hurting someone. I want to apologize to you for yesterday.”
“For what?” He asked, mildly surprised.
“For not listening to you when you told me to go back. When you guys were bringing my mother out of Pa’s room. I yelled at you and accused you of not telling me the truth. I didn’t come to you when you wanted me to. I didn’t mean it. I would never do anything to hurt your feelings. I was just kind of- kind of- Well, you know.”
“Whatever.” He grinned, squeezing her to him with the arm he had around her. “I understand. I know you.”
“I’m glad. I felt real bad about what I did. I’m going to have to work on my temper.”
“You’re a redhead- a natural hot-head. It’s to be expected.”
“Oh, no you didn’t! That’s a stereotype, Daddy, and you know it. I bet I could get you in real hot water with somebody if I were to tell her what you just said.”
“But you’re no blabbermouth, and you wouldn’t tell that. I told you; I know you.”
“No, you’re just lucky. But I am sorry for doing what I did. I do mean that.”
“I know you do. Apology accepted.
“Daddy?” She said as she looked up into his face. “Why do you think Pa did that to my grandmother’s room?”
“You know about that?”
“After you guys went into your room with my mother, he took me to his room to talk to me. Then he showed me the room. Well, I shouldn’t say he showed it to me. He let me go into it. He didn’t come with me.”
“You said that he talked with you. What did he tell you about it?”
“He didn’t talk to me about the room. He talked to me before he showed me the room. He told me about the day my grandmother died. I guess he was trying to get me to see what it was like for my mother when my grandmother was living and how hard it was for her after she died. He told me what it was like the morning she died. He said that history could only be avoided for so long, but that eventually it will come back and make the present know it was there. I think he was trying to explain to me what my mother was doing without coming right out and saying it. He told me that he and my mother had a hard time once my grandmother was gone because they didn’t really know each other. See, Pa didn’t raise my mother when she was little; my grandmother did, and once she was gone, they didn’t have anything or anybody to hold them together any more. He said it took a while before they were able to get it together. Daddy, I can’t imagine my mother not liking or getting along with her father. She loves Pa. He loves her. I can’t imagine not liking or getting along with my father, no matter what.”
“That’s because you and I are so irresistible, even to each other.” He winked.
“I’m serious, Daddy.”
He lightly pinched her cheek. “I know you are. Go on with the story.”
“Well, Pa said he put all my grandmother’s things in storage- well, what he actually said was that he took them out of the house- because he didn’t want my mother to be constantly reminded of her mother. Do you think that’s why he sealed off that room? To keep her from going in there?”
“Why didn’t you ask him?”
“I’ll tell you. The whole thing just blew my mind so bad that I couldn’t even talk when I came out of there. And you know that it must have been something if it left me speechless. My head was so full of stuff- I, I swear to you, I just couldn’t even talk. I stayed in there for a little while, and then it kinda got creepy-like being there by myself, so I came back out. Like I told you, Pa didn’t come in there with me. When I came back out of that cedar closet, he was just sitting there in his room, in his chair, holding that purple pillow in his lap. It was like he didn’t even see me. I went right on past him and went straight to my room. I have never experienced anything like that. I even dreamt about it last night. Why would she have her own room like that? I thought that when people got married, they slept in the same room.”
“In some more upper class homes, probably more so in Europe, a married couple might have separate rooms.”
“What’s the point in that if you’re married?”
He looked down at her and could only shrug his shoulders in answer.
No way was he touching that one. He didn’t know exactly what she was alluding to, and he wasn’t about to try and figure it out. That was Jennifer’s department. Whenever she turned up again, she could field that question for her daughter After all, it was her mother and father with that out-of-the-ordinary set-up. Now, if it had been the two of them, he and Jennifer, one of those rooms wouldn’t have seen much use. Or, perhaps, a more likely scenario would have been that both of them would. The real deal would have been that there would have only been one bedroom, just like it was at home. Like J.J. said, what would have been the point? He decided to tackle her first question instead.
“I think he was in so much pain, J.J., that he couldn’t bear to move her things out of that room himself, and he didn’t want anybody else in there doing it, so he just closed it off. But, just like he said to you, history has a way of making itself known. For years, it probably didn’t matter, but I think now he can see the need for you, and perhaps your mother, to know your ancestry. He’s not getting any younger. None of us are. History is one of those things that is meant to be shared. You said that you wanted to know, and I believe that you need to know about your family and from where you come. Well, there it was, laid out for you in living color.”
“Living? It’s all so weird. Like a story somebody’s telling. It definitely couldn’t have been more graphically laid out for me. Did my mother say anything to you about that room once she woke up?”
“We didn’t talk much either. She slept until right before she came to your room. She woke up, took a shower, and went looking for you.”
“She stayed for a little bit, and then she headed right back to where she’s been. Do you think she’ll ever tell me what she’s been doing?”
“I think that’s what this is all about, J.J. I think she’s getting herself ready to be able to talk about her mother. But you’ll have to let her do that in her own time. She’s been carrying a lot around inside of her, and it’s going to be hard for her to process it all, and then let it out. She got hit with that room yesterday just like you did, and going in there took a lot out of her. All of this has. The result of it was what you saw when Uncle Bill was bringing her from your grandfather’s room. That’s where we found her.”
“She was out for real. She’s not sick is she? She was really pale and fragile-looking when she was in the room with me last night. You need to try to get her to come out here. She could do with some sun even though she’ll fuss about it. And she needs to eat. She looked thin in the face.”
“I think she’s okay, but I know she’s tired. I know that she needs to eat.”
“Well, whatever happens, I won’t press her. I promise. What do you think will happen to that room? Do you think it will always be sealed up like that?”
“I really don’t know, sweetheart. I think time will have to tell on that one. It may have to wait until your grandfather is gone on. After all, he’s the one who closed it off.”
“All of her stuff, Daddy. The only thing missing in there was her.”
Jonathan held her closer and leaned his head down so that it rested on top of hers. She was only sixteen. It was too soon to tell her that she would most likely be the one to make the call on what happened to that room and its contents- that entire estate and its contents.
“I know one thing I’ve gotten out of all of this.” J.J. said.
“You and I are really lucky to have had Jennifer Edwards Hart for as long as we have. She keeps you and me regulated, doesn’t she? How far out on the wild would we be without her?”
Jonathan could only laugh. Without Jennifer, he would be somewhere being an aimless basket case. In the meantime, J.J. Hart would be leaving tire tracks up his front and down his back as she tooled around town with no driver’s license in his Rolls Royce, kissing every boy in town, and doing whatever the hell else she wanted to do. He could sometimes wave her in, but it was Jennifer who applied the brakes when J.J. needed to be stopped.
J.J. continued to lean on him. “She and Pa must have really had it rough. If my grandmother was anything like her… If they loved my grandmother the way we love her…”
Once again, Jonathan was struck by the truth of his child’s words as well as her level of sensitivity. Justine Hart was really something else, and so was her mother. So was her great-aunt. And so was her grandmother.
“Yeah, we’re lucky, J.J.” He hugged her again and lifted his head from hers. “We definitely are. Now, as your father let me ask something of you, Miss Hart.”
She looked up at him. “Yes?”
“You hear from Wesley any more?”
“He was on my display twice after I told you about it yesterday. I didn’t call him back, but I saved it, just like you told me.”
He nodded. Then, looking her in the eye, he said, “And we never did talk about your evening with Mr. Theodore Baxter. Aren’t you going to tell me about that?”
Once again, J.J. turned her head away to look out onto the water. But that time it was so that her father couldn’t see the shade of crimson her face had immediately become.
Walter had called up to let her know that breakfast was ready to be served. Marnie took a last look at her room, making sure that everything was in place before closing the door behind her. Briarwood used a housekeeping service, but Mrs. Hart insisted that she and J.J. look after their own personal space wherever they happened to be. That was a far cry from what she was used to in her own home, where she dropped everything and left it to the help. But once again, it was one of those things that was worth it if it meant being able to spend time with the Harts.
She stepped out into the hall and stopped short when she saw Pat. She was seated on the deacon’s bench across from the stairs with her arms extended across its back, her legs crossed, talking on her cell, but staring in her direction as if she had been waiting for her. Even from across the hall, Marnie recognized the car keys dangling from her fingers and the decorator pillow resting next to her on the seat of the bench.
“Oh, hell.” She thought to herself.
“I know you’re over there thinking “Oh, hell.” Pat took her phone from her ear and flicked it closed with one hand. “Aren’t you?”
Marnie remained in place, silently watching her.
“Bring it right over here, little girl.” Pat commanded, tapping the seat of the bench with the nail of her index finger.
Silently, Marnie crossed the hall. She had to move the pillow in order to sit down next to Pat, and as she did, it seemed to be taunting her, sticking its tongue out at her. She wanted to kick it clear over the railing and down the stairs.
Pat leaned in to face her, dangling the keys between the two of them. “So, do you have something to tell me?”
“What?” Marnie asked, trying to look innocent.
“Don’t play crazy, Marnie. You know that I know.”
“Know what, Aunt Pat?”
Pat leaned in closer. “Marnie, don’t make me kill you. Better yet, don’t make me tell Jennifer.”
“Tell her what?” Marnie bluffed.
“Oh, all right.” Pat said, standing and putting the keys in the pocket of her pants. “I see how this is going to play out. Well, that’s okay. Jen likes mysteries. I’ll just mention to her in passing how my keys happened to be found on the floor of my car even though I didn’t drive the car at all yesterday, and how a pillow just happened to be in the driver’s seat of my car even though nobody in this house with the exception of yourself is short enough to need a pillow to drive. We’ll just go ahead and let her connect the dots. Her nerves are pretty much frayed. I’m sure she’ll be very rational about it once she’s put it all together.”
Marnie was mentally kicking herself. She had been so anxious to get out of that car, she had left all the evidence behind. Just like J.J. said, marks got missed when nervousness entered the picture. But now Pat was threatening to bring in the big gun- The Duchess. She was only able to hold out until Pat made it down to the third step before she jumped up from the bench to run to the top of the staircase.
“Okay! Okay! Wait!”
Pat stopped. “Oh, so you do have something to tell me, after all.” She surmised without turning around.
“Okay. You got me. I did it.” Marnie whispered desperately. “Don’t tell. If you tell, she’ll take my permit away!”
Pat turned her head to look up at the little face appealing to her from above. “What makes you think I won’t take it?”
“Because, you know what it’s like to be a good girlfriend. You told me that. You know that you do what you have to do for your best friend.”
Pat came back up. Gripping Marnie’s forearm, she pulled her back to the bench, where she first sat her down, then she sat back down next to her.
“Spill it, and spill it fast.”
“J. wanted her mother. She wanted to go to the guest house, but she couldn’t walk that far. You told her not to go back in that passageway, and even if she had, she still wouldn’t have been able to walk it. So she asked me to drive her over there.”
“You didn’t though?”
“No. We almost got caught by Jazz when she came to do J’s therapy. We bailed, and came back in the house.”
“So, if Jazz hadn’t come, you two would have stolen the car?”
“Yes, well no. See, we weren’t stealing it. We were just borrowing it. I was going to take her out there, leave her, and I was going to bring the car right back. Honest.”
“Marnie, how in the hell can you use the word “honest” in that explanation? You two were going to clip my car, plain and simple. There’s nothing honest in that.”
“Because that’s honestly what happened. We weren’t going to joyride or anything. J. just wanted her to see her mother. It was the only way.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“Would you have let us? Would you have taken her if she asked you?”
“Well, no, but-”
“When you guys were our age, if you had found out that you could drive Mrs. H. to heaven to see her mother, wouldn’t you have borrowed somebody’s car to take her? Wouldn’t you have even ripped off Mr. Edwards’ car to do it if she asked you to? You’d do it now if you could take her there, wouldn’t you?”
Pat, caught at a rare loss for words, stared Marnie down, checking out her face closely. There was no deception in her eyes. No playing around. She was serious, as serious as she had been about her brother. There, shining before her was yet another gleaming facet to the girl- she was loyal- just as loyal Jennifer had been, as J.J. was, as she knew she was.
Finally, unable to come up with any words at all to chastise her, all she could finally say was, “You make me sick.”
Marnie, relieved at Pat’s obvious concession, sat back and exhaled. “Whew! Thanks. I knew you would understand if you gave me the chance to explain. I was just scared you weren’t going to give me the chance. I thought you’d just string me up, no questions asked.”
“I shouldn’t have bothered to ask.” Pat grumbled, getting up and pulling Marnie up by the hand behind her. “I should have just kicked the crap out of you like I started to.”
She moved Marnie around in front of her to go down the stairs, gently running her hand across the top of the shiny, bobbed head as she passed.
“I have to respect your reasoning, but don’t try to pull that crap on me again. You’ll want that license when the time comes, so don’t jeopardize your driving privileges like that either.”
“I won’t.” Marnie said aloud, her fingers crossed on the hand by her side, while thinking to herself, “Unless something else like this comes up again.”
She had been reluctant to go along with it, but she would do it again if the occasion arose. J.J. would do it for her in a heartbeat. It was two for one, always.
“Hey.” Came the welcome mellow whisper in her ear, summoning her back. “Wake up, sleepyhead. I brought you something to eat.”
Before she could open her eyes, she could feel the warmth of his handsome face close to her own, and his familiar soft male scent drew her even closer to wakefulness. His lips pressed softly, but insistently, down upon hers, and she smiled into his kiss. There was absolutely no better way to be greeted the first thing, even more so because she hadn’t been aware of having fallen asleep.
“What are you doing back up here?” He asked.
His eyes were inches away, looking directly into hers when she finally opened her own, and there was deep concern in all that blue.
“I had to.” She answered. “There’s so much left to do. I needed to get finished.”
“I missed you. You weren’t there with me when I woke up.”
“You knew I would be gone. That’s why you left that lantern for me.”
He just smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners in the way that she had always loved.
“I’m sorry for leaving you alone. But that’s really why I came back up here. I can’t stop until I’m done, and I want to be done so that we can get back to our lives.”
“Are you any closer?”
“I don’t know. Every time I think I’ve closed one door, another opens, revealing something else that I have to look into.”
She moved to sit up and it wasn’t until she felt him reaching for it, that she realized the journal had still been resting under her hand. He caught it, helped her into a sitting position and then handed the book back to her.
“I finally finished them all.” She said.
Slowly shaking her head as she took it from him, she involuntarily whispered, “So much. Too much.” as she placed it face down on the arm of the chair on top of the old white sweater.
“Come on.” He urged, turning toward the table and the tray he had brought up for her. “Your daughter said that I need to make you eat.”
“Oh, she did, did she?”
“Yep. I think her exact words were that you looked, “Thin in the face.” He poured the coffee, feeling her eyes boring into the back of his head.
“And just what else did she say about me?”
“Well, she also said that you were pale and fragile looking-”
He heard the small gasp behind him, and that reaction made him smile as he continued, “Then she said that both of us, she and I, were really lucky to have you in our lives. I agreed with her.”
“You agreed with her about what?” She asked, sounding a little defensive. “That I’m thin in the face, and that I’m pale and fragile looking?”
“Yes.” He answered, turning around to hand her the coffee. And when she gasped again, he quickly leaned back and kissed her cheek to add, “But mostly I agreed about how lucky we are to have you. Eat and get dressed. I brought you something to wear, too. J.J. also said that you needed some sunlight. I agree with her on that as well.”
Her face twisted in an expression of protest. “No. I’ll eat, I’ll get dressed, but I can’t stop. I need to get to that desk. I want to be finished with this. You’ve been put through enough, and so have I. I want it over.”
“Forget about me. I told you, as long as I know you’re fine, I will be, too.”
When it looked like she was going to dig her heels in, he held his hand up to stop her, gaining her attention.
“Darling, what is it that you do you do when you write? You go into yourself, you write a while, then you stop to refresh yourself. When you feel strong again, and relaxed again, you go back to it. This thing, whatever it all is, has become a project for you, similar to when you write, only this is a lot more intense and personal. You have to stop and get refreshed. You’re burning yourself out trying to barrel through it without really, effectively dealing with any of it. I know you don’t want to, but I’m willing to bet that if you come away from it, mulled over what you know so far, then it would sharpen your perspective when you come back to it. Look, Bill and Pat are taking the girls and your father out for the afternoon as soon as Jazz has finished working with J.J. She was just pulling up when I was pulling out to drive over here. You’ve got all that noise going on underneath you with the workmen and all. Come on down and spend some time in the real world. If you want, I’ll even leave you alone. Then, when the guys are gone and it’s quiet out here again, I’ll drive you back out here myself. You’ll be better able to tackle that desk.
Jennifer, you really scared me yesterday when I found you in that room. I worried about you until you woke up this morning.”
She eyed him skeptically, sipping from the steaming cup. He sat, waiting patiently, watching her as she watched him.
Finally, she observed dryly, “You missed your calling.”
He was both confused and amused. “What?”
“I said that you missed your calling. Instead of going into business, you should have gone into politics.”
“Politics? How do you figure that?”
“You’re so full of it, but you articulate it so well. You are a very convincing man, and I’m not an easy woman to convince or coerce, but somehow you manage to do it to me every time. I’ll go downstairs for a little bit. I have a couple of things to take care of down there anyway.”
And she caught it when his body immediately relaxed at her words. He was over there smugly congratulating himself on yet another Jonathan Hart victory over her otherwise iron will. She knew that she was putty in his expert hands, had always been, although she would never, ever admit that to him aloud.
“I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of doing it to you all the time if it weren’t so worth the effort.” He grinned, naughtily raising his eyebrows twice. “Eat.”
Marnie noticed right off J.J.’s face looked gray as she came up the hall from the direction of her parents’ bedroom. At first, she had her cell to her ear, but then snatched it away, switching it off after snapping, “I don’t want to hear it!”, at her party through clenched teeth.
Then she stuffed the phone down into the pocket of her shorts with such force she had to pull back up on the elastic waistband afterward.
Standing there with her purse, waiting for J.J. so they could leave with Bill and Pat but keeping some distance between them, Marnie ventured, “What’s up, J? What’s wrong?
“It’s Tommy.” J.J. said with a look on her face Marnie had never seen before, and therefore couldn’t read. From where she stood, she could tell J.J. was beyond upset, but there was something more to it.
“What about him? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. But, he won’t be there when we get home.”
“Why? Where’s he going?”
“To Barcelona. Marnie, he’s going to Barcelona.”
“Barcelona? Spain? For what? Wait. It must have something to do with his grandmother.”
J.J. slumped against the stair railing and folded her arms. “Yes, it does. He’s going to meet his father’s family. His grandmother is sending him.”
“So, what’s wrong with that? I should think you’d be happy he’s getting to travel. If it weren’t for her, he’d never get to do anything like that. He’s not going to be there the rest of his life, is he?”
J.J. looked up at her from where she had been staring at the floor. “Might as well be. He’s going there to take part in a Spanish immersion program. He’ll be gone a year.”
Marnie stepped back in astonishment. “A year? A whole year? When the hell did he find out he was going? He’s not going to be in school with us next term? We’ve been in school together ever since junior high.”
“Tell me about it. Ever since the sixth grade. He’s known he was going to Spain ever since the end of May.”
“Why didn’t he tell you before now? Why are we just finding out?”
J.J. tightened her arms and slid her eyes toward the stained glass window overlooking the staircase.
“He says he didn’t tell me because he couldn’t at first. He didn’t want it hanging over us all summer. Then when you and I went to my mother’s reunion, he said he was going to tell us when we got back, but we ended up coming here. He said he thought we would have been back by now. Now it’s down to the wire, and he had to call and tell me because he’ll be gone before we get back home.”
“Down to the wire? When is he leaving? Damn, if we were home, J., can you imagine the party we could have thrown for him if we knew?”
“He’s leaving tomorrow, Marnie. Him and his grandmother. Ms. Fee is taking him and staying for a while to help him get acclimated, but then she’s coming back, leaving him there with her brother and his family. She wants him to know his Spanish family, learn to speak the language, get to know the culture, and develop his talents learning the family business. And he is having a party. Philly, Hector, and the twins are throwing it for him at the marina. It’s going to be on Philly and Hector’s father’s boat tonight.”
“Oh, Philly and Hector knew, but we didn’t,” Marnie observed, planting her hand on her hip. “What kind of shit is that? I just talked to Philly last night. She didn’t say anything to me about Tommy or any party. I bet your father knew, too.”
“Daddy probably did know. Tommy’s his boy. I can’t imagine he didn’t, but Tommy said he told everybody not to tell us. He probably told Daddy not to say anything to me about it, either. He was trying to tell me just now that he was hoping we would get back in time for him to tell us himself, talking about he didn’t know how to tell me. I told him I didn’t appreciate being giving news like that at the last minute. He should have just gone on and told me, Marnie. I thought we were friends. He kept trying to explain, but I told him I didn’t want to hear it. It’s too late for that. I’m here, and he’s there. I- we can’t even say goodbye decently. He makes me sick. I would never do him like that. No wonder he kept saying all that stuff to me about-.”
“About what? All what stuff, J.?”
“Nothing,” J.J. answered, abruptly pushing up from the railing. “Look, tell Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill I’m not going. I don’t feel like anybody right now.”
“You sure? Maybe you do need to get out of here for a while.”
“I don’t feel like it. Everything is all crazy and wrong, and then Tommy calls me up on the phone to tell me he’s going away for a year. What the hell else can happen?”
Throwing up her hands, J.J. turned away, declaring, “I just can’t handle all of this, Marnie. I’m sorry. You go ahead.”
With that said, limping slightly on that one foot, she crossed the hall to her room, slamming the door as hard as she could behind her.
Marnie didn’t try to follow. J.J. didn’t like for anybody to see her cry.
Instead, she went on down the stairs where she found Pat and Bill standing at the bottom, and Mr. Edwards heading out of his study, trying to pull on a cardigan; all of them apparently drawn by the sound of the slamming door and looking to her with questioning expressions on their faces.
“Trouble?” Bill asked.
“Lots,” Marnie answered, glancing up the stairs behind her. “It’s pretty grim.”
“Patricia,” Mr. Edwards began, “perhaps you should go up and see to her.”
Marnie shook her head. “Don’t do that. It’s not fixable right now. Not by any one of us anyway. She said we should just go and leave her be.”
Pat stopped from where she had started up the stairs. “What? And just leave her here by herself?”
“Walter and Rosa are here,” Marnie answered, raising her eyes to Pat, “Her mother and father are here someplace, too. For real, Aunt Pat, J. just needs to be by herself right now. She’s got a lot on her. Believe me, I would be the one to know.”
Pat hesitated a moment, first looking up the stairs and then turning back around. She came back down, placing her hand on Marnie’s shoulder to move her on back down as well.
“I guess you would,.” Pat conceded
At the bottom again, Pat hooked her arm in Mr. Edwards’ and winked at him in reassurance. Not quite convinced, Stephen glanced up the stairs and then at Bill who shrugged his shoulders. Then he allowed Pat to lead him to the front door.
Upstairs, from her bedroom window, J.J. watched the car as it backed out and went up the drive to the main road. She hadn’t expected her grandfather to go with them, but she was glad he did. As far as she was concerned, he spent too much time anchored to Briarwood. A man as active as he had once been had to feel claustrophobic, at times, by the level of confinement he was made to endure because of his heart. He was in good hands with Aunt Pat. She would look after him and make sure he didn’t over do it, but she wouldn’t hover over him like her mother tended to do when he was recovering from a setback. Aunt Pat didn’t hover. She tended to let people do their own thing- within reason.
She was glad it was Marnie who Aunt Pat hemmed up about the car, and not her. After all, even though it had been her idea, it was Marnie’s fault they got found out; freaking out and leaving the evidence behind like she had. Marnie was better equipped to handle being chewed out by Aunt Pat; she lacked that guilt lingering factor in her personality that Aunt Pat tended to aim for. Marnie rarely felt guilty about anything she did. Most of the time, the only regret or remorse that girl felt was in getting caught. She could do anything, and if she got away with it, life was smooth sailing. She went right on about her business without looking back. That was one of the main reasons hanging out with her so much fun.
On the other hand, as tough as she tried to be, it was easy for her to get her feelings hurt. Aunt Pat was one of the few people who knew it, and she used it to her advantage with her. She might have been reduced to tears if Aunt Pat had jumped on her about that car, and that would have been a disaster.
Or about her slamming that door.
When the Lincoln was out of sight, she threw herself down across the bed to continue thinking things over. She had the strangest feeling things in her life were beginning to change, and the changes would be permanent. It had all been so comfortable and predictable up until they left for that trip to Gresham Hall. People were where they were supposed to be, and things pretty much happened how they were so supposed to. When problems did come up, if she couldn’t handle them herself, there was always that one someone she could call for help. Until she left LA to go on that trip, boys had pretty much just been nice to look at, but otherwise, they only served as sources for her amusement.
Before that trip, her grandmother had mostly been an abstract concept.
But in just a matter of what amounted to a few days, things seemed to be spinning out of control. Teddy Baxter had her stomach twisted in knots. Once they got home, Marnie was going to be moving in with her father, and her relationship with Wesley Singleton was probably irreparably damaged.
She finally told her father about Wesley’s incessant attempts to contact her. His constant ringing of her cell, and the word that she was getting from friends at home about him questioning her whereabouts and trying to get the number to Briarwood had driven her to it. Now there was the uneasiness of wondering how Jonathan Hart was going to handle that. Hadn’t he asked her about it again that morning? That meant that it was on his mind. Daddy was stewing in it, and as soon as his feet touched LA soil, Wesley was toast. Whatever came of it, things wouldn’t be the same between them. Wesley had once been her good friend. Why did things have to change so much?
Her mother, always so cool and collected, seemed to be flaking out over issues of her own, and now Tommy- constant and reliable Tommy- was going away, and she wasn’t even going to get to say goodbye to him properly. How could he have done that? How could he have waited until the last minute like that? Didn’t he know how much he meant to her?
Just how much did he mean? He was just a boy. Hadn’t she been saying that for years? But if so, why did the idea of his going away seem to frighten her? She was J.J. Hart, and she wasn’t afraid of anything.
“Can’t fool yourself, J.” She whispered into the arms in which she had buried her face. “Can fool other people, but not yourself.”
With that ankle, she couldn’t even run. Her head felt as if it were filled with sawdust, and someone had turned the fan all the way up to high. Thoughts were just flying everywhere and she couldn’t get a grip on anything. If she could just go outside and run, and run, … and run…
The whole world was spinning too fast and she wanted off, if only to to catch her breath.
Walter met them at the car when they pulled up to the rear of the house, and he helped Jonathan lift the trunk from the attic out of the trunk of the car. They took it into the house.
As they carried it up the back staircase, Walter asked, “How did you manage to get this down from there?”
“Got boards from the construction crew and slid it down.” Jonathan puffed in answer.
“I remember when it went up there.” Walter remarked.
“You do?” Jennifer asked in surprise.
“I took it up when it arrived from France right after that guest house was completed. Miss Roussel sent it.”
“You took it up by yourself?” Jonathan asked. “This is quite a handful for one person.”
Jonathan noticed that Walter looked a little uncomfortable, and that he hesitated before answering.
“No. I had help.” He finally responded. “Mrs. Edwards.”
“My mother?” Jennifer asked, realizing for the first time in a long time that Walter had indeed been with them when she was a girl, although he mostly accompanied her father on his trips abroad.
Thinking on it, he had been at Briarwood as far back as she could recall. She felt an odd surge of shame at not having remembered that detail.
“Yes. I helped her furnish that room shortly after you were born, Mrs. Hart.”
They got the trunk to the bedroom and set it at the foot of the bed. Both men stood, getting their breath back as Jennifer took a seat on the bed.
“Walter, tell me something if you can or if you will.” Jonathan said.
“How long have you been with Mr. Edwards?”
“All my life, Mr. Hart. My parents were in service to his parents when I was a boy.”
Jennifer looked up in surprise. She had never known that. But then, it had never occurred to her to ask.
“He was a little older than I was, but he and I grew up as friends on his parents’ estate. He left home for a bit after he finished upper school, and then he went to the war. By the time his tour of duty was over, I had finished upper school. He came home, and when he left again, he took me with him. I wanted to travel, and that was all he ever wanted to do, so we left together.”
“And you worked with him?” Jonathan summed up.
“Yes sir. We traveled under the guise of gentleman and valet, but in actuality, I was working, too. Being a black man and a valet, I could hear things and see things that he couldn’t. Without attracting very much attention, I could go in and out of places where people like me, who were in a position to observe things and hear things, tended to talk about those things. In polite company, people tend to say and do anything in front of the furniture. We were like furniture. It’s sad to say, but the role served its purpose. When needed, I could be here with Mrs. Edwards and Miss Jennifer without raising any eyebrows. I could travel with Mr. Edwards and by just listening and watching, I could gather inside information that he would never have gotten. People just saw me as some benign, silent entity- Mr. Edwards vassal. With Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, I have seen and done some things and have gone some places that I might never have experienced during those more restrictive, segregated times. We all helped each other and served our own purposes as well as that of the cause. Over the years, we’ve remained together because we’ve settled into these roles, but still we are friends.”
Jonathan nodded in appreciation of Walter’s honesty and the artful, beneficial use of the insensitive conventions of the times in which he and Edwards had operated.
Jennifer sat quietly listening and coming to terms with that odd feeling that she first felt on the stairs. She was also guilty of seeing Walter as that benign entity he mentioned. She never knew that Walter had grown up with her father, that they were personal friends, or that he had assisted her mother with putting her attic room together. Although she knew that he did, she had never really considered the capacity in which he knew her mother. She never knew that he was there at times to protect them while her father was away. Walter had known her all of her life. He probably knew things about her that she didn’t even know. He had always just been there, just like he said, like the furniture- silently watching and listening. But she had never bothered to find out about him. It shamed her that she had never really questioned Walter’s existence as a person outside of what he did for and with her father.
“Walter.” She called quietly.
“Yes, Mrs. Hart.”
“Were you there at the beginning? When my father met my mother?”
“Yes, Ma’am. He met her in Paris. Couldn’t stop talking about her.”
“What was she like?”
“She was a fine woman. Very smart. Nice big laugh and not afraid of anything. She didn’t mind working hard, getting dirty, and could ride a horse like nobody’s business. She sure loved you a lot, Mrs. Hart. She was an absolutely fine lady in every sense of the word, the best thing that ever happened to Mr. Edwards and to me- other than Rosa, of course. If I may say so, Miss J.J. reminds me very much of her grandmother.”
Then, as if he might have said too much, he nervously wiped his hands on his cotton serving jacket while moving toward the door. “I’d better get back downstairs. Rosa will be looking for me. Excuse me.”
Jonathan saw him to the door of the bedroom.
“Thank you, Walter.” He said before turning back to Jennifer who was looking at a paper she had unfolded from a book on her lap. The woman Walter described sounded just like the woman he’d met in his dreams.
“What’s that?” He asked, crossing the room to sit down next to her.
“A note from J.J.” She answered. “Look.” She folded up the front cover of the open book so that he could see what it was.
It was a copy of the book she had written shortly after meeting Jonathan, “21 Reasons for Living”. She had started the notes for that book right after the incident in Australia as a sort of self-help therapy. She hadn’t been able to actually sit down to write it until after she met and married him. Once she did complete it, the book had been a best-seller.
“Listen to this.” She said.
If you’re reading this, I know you’re back down here with us. I hope you feel better. Rosa has the bomb homemade chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. Grab a few and take a walk in the sun. Or, maybe you should go for a ride on the horses with Daddy down to the lake or something. He’ll be glad to go with you if you tell him you’ll share some of those cookies with him.
Jazz, my physical therapist (you remember her) brought this book over. She found it in a bookstore when she was looking for something for her mother to read. Her mother has MS, and Jazz bought it for her to encourage and inspire her. Jazz says that her mother really likes it; she reads it all the time, and that it’s helped her come to terms with her situation. When she realized that Jazz was working with me, and that my mother was the author, she asked Jazz if she could get you to sign it. I told her that you wouldn’t mind.
It’s funny. I’ve seen this book on the shelf at home all of my life, but I’ve never read it. I guess it’s true what they say about a person not always seeing those things that are right up close. I skimmed it after Jazz left. You did a wonderful job. There’s some really great stuff in it. You’ve probably helped a lot of people get through some really tough things with your work here. You’re very smart and very talented. I’m proud of you.
P.S. If I don’t see you first, you can just leave the book on my bed after you sign it. I’ll give it back to Jazz.
“You know, I never know how to take her.” She said, holding the note in her hand and looking to him. “What exactly does she mean by share some of those cookies with him?”
“Two things come to mind.” He answered. “One- remember when you called me ‘debauched’ the other night? I think the debauched side of your brain might be working overtime here. Two- I really will follow you anywhere for some of those cookies. You know how much I love homemade cookies.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “If there is some double entendre going on in this note, Jonathan Hart, that explains in spades from where this one got her ability to use it.”
“You’re the writer.” He accused. “You taught her how and what to write- all about figurative language, symbolism, and what have you.”
“And you are incorrigible.” She countered. “That says it all about what you’ve taught her.”
“That’s my girl.” But the grin he sported at the thought of her faded just a little as he recalled their conversation of that morning.
J.J. Hart was going to be a whole lot like her mother in the ways that would matter to men. Her grandmother must have had that same magic. She had Stephen roped in at sixteen and married by the time she was eighteen. He could only hope that J.J. held off on turning it loose on the world for a few more years.
As she reached into the nightstand drawer for a pen, he got up from the bed.
“I think I will check out those cookies.” He said. Then he stopped to clarify it. “The ones in the kitchen.”
She looked up to roll her eyes at him, and then began to write. He left her sitting there.
It would be a while before he saw her again.
Jennifer finished signing the book, then looked down to that chest sitting on the floor at the end of the bed.
“Step Two.” She said to herself, resignedly. “I’ve accomplished a couple of things I said I was going to do. Now if I could just get the rest of it sorted out.”
As she stared at it, she thought about its contents. Once again unfolding that note from J.J., she reread to herself the part that had been most touching.
“You’re very smart and very talented. I’m proud of you.”
Bits and pieces of those dreams she’d been having had been floating in and out of her head since they began back in Gresham. Upon waking, she wouldn’t remember them immediately, but as things happened they made their way back into her conscious mind. They came sometimes as whispers or soft images, and at other times like blows or sudden, blinding camera flashes. Looking down at that note, that French accented voice spoke to her, saying almost the same thing:
“…you have many gifts and talents, my Jenny. Much more than your mama. … oh, my Jenny, you make your mama so proud…
Past, present, and future; that was what the three of them represented. Just her luck, the present had the heaviest tasks to complete: do the bidding of the past in order to buttress the future.
Also inside that trunk was that Christening gown from the past that might one day be called forth in the future. The cedar lining had preserved it all for just such an occasion. It was the responsibility of the present to make sure that the future knew it was there. When the time came, whether she was still there to tell her of it or not, that trunk would be there, unlocked, waiting for J.J. to go into it and see what was inside.
So much. Too much.
A little girl sleeping… wrapped in that white and pink Christening blanket… a pretty, rosy baby.. no mouth, just a smooth place where her mouth should have been.
A shudder of shock and revulsion traveled through her body at that image-
“…since when is your heart cold to one who is so unfortunate?”
-followed by a strong, nauseating wave of remorse at being called to task on it again.
“You must give her what she needs, Jenny. She will be what you want her to be in the end because she is now yours to do with what you will. Once she was mine, but now she is yours.”
“I refuse to think about this any more.” She declared in frustration as she stood up from the bed.
Then realizing that she was talking aloud to herself, she decided, “I’ve been alone too long. I need to be with people.”
Standing up from the bed, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was mildly surprised at her drained, tired appearance. She had been so preoccupied in those past few days that it was only then that she realized she hadn’t seen herself.
“My goodness, I am pale and fragile-looking.” She stepped up to take a closer look. “A little thin in the face, too. This will never do.”
She took a few minutes to make up her face and brush out her hair, and assessed herself once more.
“I guess this is as good as it gets.”
Picking up the book from the nightstand, she left out, headed for J.J.’s room where she would leave the book on her bed as instructed. From there, she would go and find Jonathan, and perhaps take J.J. up on one of her suggestions, including the one about the cookies, however that little minx meant it.
At the sound of the door opening, J.J. jumped up in surprise from where she had been lying face down on her bed. Jennifer, surprised at finding J.J. there in her room, stopped short and took a startled step back, out into the hall.
Her hand to her breast, Jennifer declared, “You scared me!”
“You scared me!” J.J. countered. “I didn’t expect to see you so soon. I thought you were gone again.”
“I came down to get some air. I thought you left with Pat and Bill.”
J.J. sat all the way up. “I didn’t feel like going.” She answered. “So I stayed behind.”
Jennifer crossed the room to hand J.J. the book. “I just was coming to leave this for you. Are you all right? You’re not feeling ill are you?”
“No, I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind.”
Looking into her face, Jennifer could clearly see that J.J. had been crying and was trying to hide it. Her usually tearless child seemed to have been doing a lot of that in recent times.
“Care to share it?”
“Care to hear it?” J.J. asked, with eyes that were pleading for a listener. “I know you have a lot on your mind, too.”
Jennifer sat down in the chair next to the bed. “Maybe we can help each other.” She said. “You think?”
J.J. lie back down on her stomach, facing her mother. “It’s worth a shot.”
“I don’t even know where to start, Mom. It’s just so much.”
“Start with the most important thing then, J.J.”
“Why do things have to change so much? Okay, I know that’s a pretty immature question. I know things can’t stay the same all the time, but I guess what I’m saying is I hate how it feels. You get used to things being a certain way, and then all of a sudden somebody pulls the rug out from under you.”
“When that rug comes out, J.J., you do fall, and you might hurt yourself in the fall, but when you get back up you’re stronger and smarter. After that first time, you know that it’s possible for that rug to get snatched out, and you’re a little better prepared for it happening the next time. Now tell me, what specifically brought on this bout of melancholy in you?”
“He finally told you?”
“You knew, too!”
“I’ve known all along. His grandmother told me, but she said that Tommy wanted to tell you himself.”
J.J. sat up again. “Mom, I cannot believe that you didn’t say anything! Tommy is going away for a whole year and you didn’t tell me?”
“I don’t betray confidences. He wanted to tell you himself, and that was where I left it. Isn’t that what you would have done if he told you not to tell anyone?”
Grudgingly, J.J. admitted, “I guess so. But I hate it so much. He won’t be there with us for the whole junior year! We’ve been together since junior high. What if he’s not the same when he comes back?”
“He won’t be the same, J.J. Neither will you. In a year, you’ll both be in radically different places than you are right now. Every day you’re growing and changing. We all are. Life dictates that. I want you to shift and look at it another way.”
“You’re complaining about Tommy being away from you, but have you considered that Tommy is leaving everything and everybody he knows? Your crew will just be lacking Tommy, but Tommy will be away from all of his friends, his home, his school, and his mother: the only family he’s had most of his life. Tommy’s a wrestling champ. He’s putting that down to go. For a year, Tommy will be in a new environment where he’ll have to learn to speak the language, fit into the culture, learn to exist in midst of family he’ll just be getting to know. I think he has a lot more on him than you do.”
Jennifer could see by the look on her face that J.J. was processing what she had said.
“J.J., when Tommy told you, what did you say to him?”
Shamefaced, J.J. looked up at her. “I went off on him.” She whispered. “I got mad and I wouldn’t talk to him. I hung up on him.”
Leaning forward in the chair, holding J.J.’s eyes with hers she asked in a voice loaded with meaning, “So, should, God forbid, something happen and he never came back, you would want that to be your last conversation with him?”
With wide, fearful eyes, J.J. shook her head in answer.
“Before you go to bed tonight, you fix that. Do you hear me?”
“You’re going to have to work on that nasty, hot temper of yours.” Jennifer admonished her while handing her a tissue from the nightstand. “You let it rule you at times. Stop and think a thing out before you allow yourself to get so angry about it.”
Wiping her eyes, J.J. answered, “Yes, Ma’am.”
“J.J., Tommy has to do this. I don’t know if he’s told you this story, but knowing him, he hasn’t; so just listen. All of his life, Tommy didn’t know where his father was and thought that he didn’t want him. He didn’t know that he had any other family except his mother. Then, earlier this year he found out that he has an aunt-”
“She’s psycho and the law says she can’t come near him.”
“- and a grandmother who loves him dearly. He also has a family in Spain. Tommy’s grandfather met his grandmother when she came here from Spain to go to school. When the Steele family found out that he, a wealthy white boy, had fallen in love with this Spanish girl, they tried to get him to break if off with her even though her family was very wealthy, too. When he wouldn’t, they cut him off completely. They stopped supporting him and they stopped communicating with him completely.”
“Just because she was Spanish?”
“Yes. Ms. Fee’s family took him into their fold. They supported the relationship, and they got him started in their family business, which was construction. That is how Steele Construction came to be. Tommy’s grandmother was studying architecture so that she could go back home and work in the family business, which was very unusual for a girl in those times. Instead, she married Tommy’s grandfather and stayed here in the States, in Florida. Her family staked them, and they started the company. When it became so successful, they bought out her family’s interest and became independent. Tommy, as you know, has inherited that talent and that interest. His grandmother loves him and is proud of him. They’re just getting to know each other, but he seems to care very much for her, too. He must want to do this, J.J.. Fee made it his choice, and he consented to go. He missed knowing his father, but he has a chance to know the rest of his family. Don’t you want him to have that chance, and the opportunities that await him there?”
“Yes, I guess so.” Then, her face brightening, J.J. concluded, “And come to think of it, Barcelona is only two hours by car from Perpignan. When I go see Aunt Sabrina, maybe we could visit each other.”
Jennifer closely watched her daughter, sure that the wheels were turning in that pony-tailed red head.
…that pretty little thing- just this side of hot, in the south of France- in the summer- with that big, dark handsome boy- her so-called good friend… No way.
“He’ll be back home by then, J.J.” She quickly advised her daughter.
“Shoot! I should have figured Ms. Fee would have thought that far ahead. She’s always thinking we have the hots for each other or something. But anyway, since Tommy’s part Spanish, you’re right. He should know his heritage, especially since that’s the end of his family that has been the most supportive.”
J.J. looked up and noticed her mother looking at her in that strange way that she and Pa shared. Once again she was uncomfortable with it, but she was unable to stop watching her mother watching her.
“And so should you.” Her mother finally said, sounding as if she had come to some concrete conclusion in her mind. “Can you walk on that ankle now?”
“Yes. But Jazz said I should use the crutch if I know I’m going to be on it a while, just to keep from putting too much on it and over taxing it.”
“Grab it, and put your shoes on. I’ll be right back.”
J.J. got up, slid her feet into her sandals and took the crutch from where it leaned against the end of the bed. She stood there, waiting. A few minutes later, her mother reappeared, carrying a filled lantern. She stopped and looked her up and down.
“What?” J.J. asked, confused by the look she was getting.
“Can those shorts be any shorter or that top any tighter? I don’t recall purchasing that outfit. Must be one of your mall acquisitions.”
J.J. rolled her eyes. “The shorts aren’t that short, Mom. My legs are just really long. And I can’t help it if I have good boobs. I get it honestly. I just got more.”
Jennifer assessed the outfit skeptically. “I can tell I’ve not been on my job. As soon as I’m not looking, things just go straight to-. Let’s go. J.J.”
“Where are we going?” J.J. asked as her mother proceeded to walk right past her.
“To meet your grandmother,” Jennifer answered as she lead the way into the closet, “in that get-up.”
J.J., a bit stunned at the seeming suddenness of her mother’s decision, tentatively followed, “Are you sure, Mom?”
“Yes. We agreed we could help each other, and you know that I don’t do things that I’m not sure of, J.J.,” Jennifer answered as she opened that back wall, “especially as they concern you.”