Secrets: Part One

She is only sixteen, but J.J. finds herself dealing with a very adult problem that she tries to handle herself with nearly disastrous results.

“Mr. Washington,” the secretary’s voice called over the music room intercom. “Please ask J.J. Hart to come to the office when the bell rings.”

Mr. Washington nodded to J.J. who, at the piano, hadn’t heard anything other than the music coming through the headphones on her ears. She was busy listening to the piano parts of the song being played on the CD, extracting them from the rest of the music, lining them up in her head, and transferring it all to her fingers. She would listen, stop the CD, hit the record button on the tape recorder that sat on top of the piano, play a few minutes herself, listen to what she recorded, and then go back to the CD. She was a wonder, a true model of concentration and ingenuity. Even though she had sheet music before her, she mostly played by ear, and she had stopped trying to hide it.

Amused at how deeply engrossed that particular student became in her work, he turned and said to the voice. “”I’ll let her know when she returns to earth.”

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As she drove through late afternoon Los Angeles traffic, Jennifer Hart could only cast fleeting glances at her daughter as she sat silently next to her on the ride home from school. After getting into the car, and kissing her cheek in greeting, J.J. hadn’t said one word, not even a “Hello, mother”. She sat staring straight ahead, seemingly lost in thought.

Disturbed by the normally loquacious child’s unusual quiet, as they approached the gates to the estate they called home, she was finally forced to ask, “Sweetie, are you alright?”

On most days, by the time they reached home, J.J. would ordinarily be into her third or fourth account of the events of her day.

“I’m okay, Mom.” Was the expected, but less than convincing, soft spoken answer.

Knowing that she wasn’t going any farther with her response than that, Jennifer left J.J. to herself for the rest of the ride up to the house. She wouldn’t be forthcoming with whatever it was until she was ready, and not a moment before.

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After dinner later that evening, J.J. sat her desk in her bedroom, attempting to do her homework. She finally had to push the papers and the book aside. She couldn’t concentrate. The events of the past two weeks, which started out intriguing, were now beginning to becoming disturbing.

She didn’t know what to make of the things that were happening. This was the third time she had been called to the office to pick up a present that on the outer envelope, which the secretaries could see, indicated was from her father. But, upon opening it found the inner personal note card blank.

Each time, even before opening the envelopes, she knew that the things were not from her father. Presents delivered to school were not his style. There had only been one instance of him sending her a surprise to school.

That time it was a balloon of the grinning Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, to which she often compared his smile. But that was more of a peace offering than a present. He sent it after she stopped speaking to him for three days when he refused to allow her to attend a rap concert one night with some friends once he found out that they were weren’t going to be accompanied by an adult, but were instead just getting dropped off. He didn’t put his foot down often with her, but he did it that time and it had thrown her for a loop. The balloon was meant to make her smile again, and it did although by the time he sent it, she had gotten kind of tired of being mad at him anyway.

She hadn’t mentioned anything to him about the things she’d been receiving, instead deciding to wait and see if he might bring anything up on his own, just in case her hunch was wrong. But so far he had given no indication of having any knowledge of any of them: no comments, no sly glances, nothing. Daddy was definitely not the one who was doing this.

The first time she got called to the office, there was a teddy bear waiting for her with a small balloon attached to its paw. The balloon had “Thinking of You” drawn on it and the plain white envelope said, “Love, Daddy” which had been typed in block letters. The note inside was completely blank.

The second time it was six red roses, and although the envelope said, “Love, Daddy”, she immediately knew that they weren’t from him. Her father was very aware of the fact that she preferred yellow roses, and he always catered to her preferences when giving her presents. With that in mind, she didn’t even bother to look at the inside card before dumping the flowers in the large trash can in the hall. She kept the unopened card and stuck it in her locker along with the teddy bear and the first card.

What she found when she got to the office today was a sterling silver chain link bracelet with a single charm, a heart with “J.J.” engraved on it. The simple white box that it came in had also been labeled “Love, Daddy”.

The office secretaries good-naturedly ribbed her about getting so much attention from her father who they assumed was still sending her presents to celebrate her recent sixteenth birthday. He had an enormous reputation for indulging her.

The strange notes, anonymous phone calls, and the gifts started the week after her sweet sixteen party. In an attempt to associate the event with something, thinking back, all she could remember was that everything started the day after the pictures taken at her party began being published in the society sections of the local papers. She had spent that weekend in Chicago with her father, who had business there, and had arrived at school that Monday morning to find several of her friends at the lockers excitedly sharing the pictures with each other.

Although she was thrilled that the party had been considered noteworthy enough to make the papers, she was a little uncomfortable with her life being exposed in that manner. Her parents tended to shield her from a lot of publicity and this was the first time that she had been the center of attention in such a public manner. The next day she was called to the office to pick up the teddy bear and it all began.
The four typed notes that had been slipped through the vents in her locker door in the last week and a half weren’t threatening or anything; mostly they just ominously mentioned how nice and how pretty the sender thought she was, and the last one simply stated, “Thinking of you”.

With the phone equipped with caller ID, she never picked up the few “Anonymous” calls that came in, but during this same period of time, there had been a deluge of them, and she assumed that it was connected to the rest of these strange things.

Maybe it was nothing: probably just somebody trying to be funny. If she didn’t respond, they’d most likely get tired after a while and go away.

She went back to her homework, resolving to just wait and watch.

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Downstairs, Jonathan walked slowly into the great room from the kitchen to where his wife sat on the couch. She was lying with her back against an armrest, her book face down on her legs. Her arms were folded across her chest, and a contemplative expression graced her beautiful face. He almost hated having to disturb her, she looked so peaceful, but J.J. hadn’t said one word at dinner. His daughter seemed to him to be very preoccupied by something, and if anyone had been let in on what it was, it would be her mother.

He sat down raising her legs to place her feet in his lap.

“Jennifer, did J.J. seem unusually quiet to you during dinner tonight?” He asked as he absently began to slowly massage one slender foot with his fingers.

“Yes, she did.” She answered thoughtfully, running a hand through her hair, pulling it back from her face. “She was like that in the car when I picked her up after school; didn’t say one to me word all the way home. In fact, she hasn’t said anything to me since she’s been home. She went up to her room and didn’t come back down until I called her to dinner.”

“Do you have any idea what it could be? It’s not like her to be so serious and silent like that.”

Jennifer mulled it over for a moment before answering. “She’s seemed a little out of sorts to me for a couple of days now. She’s been on such a high ever since her party, that I at first thought this quiet was just in comparison, but now I’m not so sure. She’s been a little tense about her finals, but I doubt that would affect her like this. She gets uptight and serious at midterm and finals times, but she always aces them, and she comes right back out of it. Most of her core finals are over and still she’s distant. This is something very different.”

Jonathan, continuing his ministrations on her feet, was working his way up her ankles to her calves, fully aware of her body relaxing under his touch. At the same time that she was speaking, he was watching her eyes intently. He had learned over the years to read what she might not come out and say in her eyes, and what he saw there this evening before she closed them to lay her head back on the arm of the couch was that her concern ran deeply, more deeply than her words conveyed. Jennifer was completely in tune with that girl and had probably noticed the changes in her long before he did. It was like her to not speak on everything that she observed right away, especially when it came to J.J.

“Did you try to ask her about it” He asked. “Could you get her to tell you anything?”

“I asked her, but of course she said that she was okay. Jonathan, you know how she is. She isn’t going to say anything until she’s ready. It was useless to pursue it beyond that point. She wasn’t ready to tell me.”

“Any ideas as to what it might be?”

“Not one.” She answered. “I’ve been sitting here trying to think back, but I don’t know of anything out of the ordinary that might have happened. Unless there’s something going on at school that we wouldn’t know about, I have no idea.”
“I hate that she’s like that.” He said quietly, looking off in frustration, that crease forming in his brow. “She really needs to do better with that. J.J.’s got to learn to trust that people can help her when she’s got trouble.”

Jennifer opened her eyes, and leaned forward to place her hand on her husband’s shoulder, regaining his attention.

When he turned to look at her, she spoke. “She will in time. Just as you had to do.”

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That night as J.J. got ready for bed, her house phone rang. Immediately going over to answer it, her instincts suddenly stopped her and made her consciously check the caller ID before picking up. Once again, it announced that “Anonymous” was phoning. Hesitating for a moment, she made the decision to go against practice and answer it.

“Hello.” She said, instead of confidently announcing herself by name as she normally did.

“Is this J.J. Hart?” Came the muffled inquiry.

“Who wants to know?” She asked, hoping to get the caller to speak long enough to get a line on the voice.

“It is you.” She could make the voice out to say.

“Who are you?” She asked again.

Instead of answering her question, the voice asked, “Did you get the presents I sent to you at school? Did you get my notes?”

“Who is this?” She demanded, frustrated and a little unnerved at not being able to gain control over the conversation.

“I think you are so pretty, J.J. I’d like to take you out, to get to know you.”

She hung up. The voice was unclear, but she was sure that it was a man’s voice.

Feeling very uncomfortable, she dropped down onto her bed in bewilderment. Who was doing this? Why? What was going on?

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Jonathan sat in the stands at the start of Saturday track practice. He watched as the girls warmed up out on the grass. Saturdays were his and J.J.’s bonding time. Leaving Jennifer at home to sleep in, they spent most Saturdays together flying, golfing, or during track season either at her meets or at her practices. School was almost over for the year and this was an end-of-the-year conditioning session. The team would continue to practice over the summer months to keep the girls in shape for the fall track season. Although she would be traveling quite a bit, he and J.J. would continue to attend the sessions for which she would be in town.

He enjoyed working with the team, and normally he would be down on the ground with the runners assisting Coach Rogers with them. But today he wanted to observe his daughter from a distance. It had been nearly a week since the evening he and Jennifer had spoken of the differences they were seeing in her behavior. She had become increasingly quiet and withdrawn with each day that had passed. Now she seemed almost edgy. As she stretched through her warm-up, he noticed that this morning she stood apart from the other girls and seemed to be taking anxious, surreptitious glances around herself.

What could it be?

She wasn’t a nervous or scary type. Very few things rattled her even when he felt like they should. She took on challenges with a confidence that sometimes surprised even him. What could be causing her so much concern? He had turned it over and over in his mind since he first noticed the changes in her, but he couldn’t come up with anything that would bring about the kind of reaction that he and Jennifer were seeing of late. They had both been watching her, but had stopped short of going into her room looking around in search of clues to what might be going on with her.

Jonathan watched as Coach Rogers walked out to J.J. and said something to her. As he spoke, she was nodding,  indicating that she was listening. Before walking off, the coach patted her on the back. Jonathan figured that he had probably seen something in her too. J.J. was the team’s star runner, the pacesetter. The others needed her to be on her game as she set the tone for the rest of them, even at practice sessions. She was in line to be made team captain for the next school year, and the coach had been grooming her all year for that leadership position.

As her father Jonathan wanted J.J. at her best also, but more for her own sake than anything. She didn’t need anything else on her plate along with whatever this was that was on her mind. Not running well would be like dealing with cauliflower for her. J.J. detested cauliflower in any form, and the sight of it on her plate disgusted and upset her. At her best she was a winner, and at her worst a strong competitor, all the way.

The girls trotted out to the track and got down into the blocks to run a practice 220. At the coach’s signal, they took off and J.J. quickly pulled way out front, her long legs and graceful stride giving her a distinct advantage over the others. Only her friend, Philly was anywhere near as fast, and J.J. left her in her dust. Jonathan watched closely. He knew J.J.’s style intimately and just what maneuvers she would use and when. From what he could observe, although she easily maintained her lead, she was off. Her timing was poor, making her slow in making her shifts. She seemed distracted and unfocused, which was highly unusual for her.

He got up from his spot at the top of the bleachers and stepped down the benches to meet her at the finish. He got there just as she crossed the line first, high-fiving him in their usual fashion as she passed. Waiting on the side until she slowed into cool-down, he walked out to her when she finally stopped and stood on the track bent slightly at the waist, bringing her breathing and heart rate back to normal.

He put his arm around her and slowly walked her off. “I want to talk to you.” He said to her.

“Alright.” She answered, still breathing heavily. “Did you see something that needs checking?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact, I’ve been seeing it for a while.” He pulled her close as they walked. “Look, I know you try to handle things on your own, but what’s going on with you?”

They took seats on the bottom bleacher. She looked over at him as she took the towel he offered. “What do you mean, Daddy?” She asked as she wiped her forehead first then her neck and her chest.

“I mean, J.J., you’re all distracted, and it’s not just here at practice; it’s everywhere lately. It’s as if something’s bothering you, and you aren’t saying. Sweetheart, if something’s wrong, please let me know.”

Looking at her, it seemed to him as if she wanted to tell him something. Her eyes seemed to be trying to speak to him, but he was disappointed when all that came out was, “Nothing’s wrong, Daddy. I’m okay. If I didn’t run well, I’ll do better on the 880. I promise. That’s my event.”

He wanted to shake her.

She was so stubborn and thought she had a handle on everything. But as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t chastise her too much for holding out on him. Like he had done at her age, she tried to take care of her own problems, and there was nothing to do but to take her at her word for the time being and hope that there really wasn’t anything that much amiss. It took Max’s patience and support to begin to ease him out of that years ago. Even now, so many years later and with so much love in his life, Jennifer still had to occasionally remind him to let her in to help when she could see that he needed it.

Deferring to her comments about her running, he offered, “Just focus, J.J. You seemed like your head was somewhere else and it was affecting your timing some.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She said, handing him back the towel and getting up. “I’ll try harder on the next one. You’ll see.”

Jonathan watched her as she jogged off to rejoin the others on the track.

His back was to the fence behind the bleachers, so he wasn’t aware of the man who stood on the other side watching his daughter intently.

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From his position behind the Visitor’s bleachers on the other side of the field, Tommy Steele could see the figure of a man underneath the Home bleachers.

He had stopped by the field on his way to work to catch the girls’ practice for a minute. He enjoyed visiting the girls when they were working and he loved watching as J.J. stretched it out down the track, outpacing everyone else. She could run like the wind and she got so much personal pleasure from it that watching her run was a joy to behold.

When he pulled up on the bike, he stopped and remained seated on it next to the fence. He first caught sight of Mr. Hart way up on top, and then noticed the lone figure standing underneath him. Everywhere, it seemed, that J.J. moved, both men’s heads appeared to follow her. Her father’s attentions, he could understand, but the other man made Tommy nervous. Who was he?

The girls had reached the finish line and Mr. Hart had gotten up to make his way down to the ground to meet J.J. Tommy decided that the other man, the one behind the fence, needed checking out. Restarting the bike, he roared off headed for the other side of the field.

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The sound of the engine got J.J.’s attention, and she looked up to see the familiar figure racing way over on the other side of the field. She got that pleasant, comfortable feeling she got when she knew that Tommy was nearby and dropped down into the blocks getting ready to run the next heat. She liked when he came out to her practices, but right now she needed to focus. Hopefully he would have made it to her side and would be there for her to say hello to him by the time the heat was over.

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Jonathan had also heard the bike. Looking up to see Tommy riding on the other side, he shook his head with reluctant amusement. That boy and J.J. were becoming inseparable and it made him wonder about them. Almost every Saturday meet or practice, he would stop by on his way to his part-time job to catch her. She was getting to be just as bad, asking him or Jennifer to come late for her when Tommy had after-school wrestling practices and matches. The two of them supported each other totally in their athletic endeavors. J.J. knew as much about his wrestling as Tommy did about her running, which was good because if he ever made wrong move on her, she had better be ready to use some of his moves back on him, or he had better be ready to run like hell from her father.

It was true that he loved Tommy like a son, but J.J. was his baby girl. Tommy, he knew, was sexually active. J.J., he was fairly certain, was not, and he wasn’t having it. Jennifer’s attitude was a lot more liberal than his own when it came to that with J.J., but still he was not having it- at all-not at the moment. She was sixteen, and too young to even be dating as far as he was concerned. He was so glad that J.J. ran with a crowd who did things in groups. None of them seemed too interested in pairing off just yet, well all except for that Marnie, but Jennifer was working on that.

He was keeping his eyes on this situation no matter what Jennifer had to say about how platonic their relationship was. It might be that way on J.J.’s part, but he wasn’t so sure about Tommy. J.J. was looking too much like her mother in too many ways for any guy to think that he was going to be platonic with her for long in any way, shape, form, or fashion, and he ought to know; he had dealt with the original. Jennifer wasn’t that type of female, and he had been under her spell since the first time he lay eyes on her. A platonic relationship with her was not what was on his mind then, or now, and her daughter was shaping up to be an even worse case of heartache. Neither one of them had any real idea of what just their smiles alone brought out in a guy.

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Tommy rode around the perimeter of the field to the other side, but once he arrived behind the Home bleachers he found that the man was gone. Peering between the benches, he could see Mr. Hart waving him around to the front. He parked the bike behind the fence and in two quick moves, hopped over it to go to him.

“G’ morning, Mr. Hart.” He said in greeting as the girls whizzed past them on the track, J.J. of course, leading the pack.

“Good Morning, Tommy.” Jonathan replied, checking his watch. “How come you aren’t at work? Not going to be late are you?”

“No Sir.” Tommy answered.  “I’ve got a few. I just wanted to watch the girls run for a minute before I went in.”

Jonathan studied the tall, handsome young man. Tommy now stood shoulder to shoulder with him. He probably still had a little way to go in height, and was already nearly as heavy. It seemed just yesterday that he was a scrawny little boy, always underfoot, not a whole lot to say, but somehow managing over a very short time to worm his way into his heart. Tommy was talking to him but his eyes were focused on the female action on the track. Jonathan couldn’t help but feel some empathy for him.

“A boy after my own heart.” He thought to himself. “All guy. No sugar in that tank.”

At age seventeen that’s exactly how he would have been spending his Saturday morning if he knew that there were long-legged girls in shorts running around anywhere.

“As long as he maintains his respectful distance from that Hart.” Jonathan’s thoughts continued. “I would hate to have to kill him.”

“I don’t want you being late for work, Tommy.” He said aloud. “Don’t cut your time too close. You never know what you could run into that might hold you up and make you late at the last minute. Did you give the people your notice in writing like I told you to do?”

“Yes Sir, I did.” Tommy answered. “I gave my boss the letter last Friday. They said that they hated to lose me, but he said that he knew that my internship in the CAD lab at Hart Industries would benefit me more than selling athletic shoes at the mall.”

Jonathan smiled and nodded in agreement. The boy had no idea of the plans that were already being put in place for his future. He reminded him so much of himself; just a good kid in need of a break or two, and that right someone to believe in him, and to help keep him on track. Max had done that for him. Through Tommy, he was being given the chance to give some of that back.

Tommy wrestled with the thought of mentioning the strange man he had seen to J.J.’s father, but he hesitated, thinking that maybe he would wait and talk to J.J. first. After all, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure that the man had his eye on her, was he?

As if he could hear his thoughts, Mr. Hart asked, “Tommy are you aware of anything going on with J.J. that would be bothering her?”

Caught off guard, but knowing that he better not hedge on an answer, he replied, “No. Not really. She’s been a little quiet lately, but I don’t know why. She keeps stuff to herself a lot.”

That was the truth and the best he could do at the moment. He didn’t want to get Mr. Hart’s investigative antenna up. It didn’t take much to get him going. But, she had been acting a little weird lately and he really didn’t know what it was that was bugging her. He didn’t want to set her off by having her father overreacting to what might turn out to be nothing. If Mr. Hart had the least idea that J.J. might be in harm’s way, he would be bringing out all the big guns and locking her down until the problem was taken care of to his satisfaction. J.J. was not one to take being confined easily, even if it was for her own good. She would be livid about that, and although he could take every bit of what she could dish out and give it back well- she was so pretty when she was fired up- he still didn’t want to upset her unnecessarily.

He decided that he had better go on to work; he didn’t want J.J.’s father asking him too many more questions. Maybe, too, he could catch sight of the guy on his way out of the lot

“Mr. Hart., I’m going to be on my way so that I’m not late. Traffic won’t be too bad with it being Saturday. They don’t make a big deal about it if I am late, but I still don’t like to be. Would you tell J.J. that I stopped by and that I’ll call her later?”

“I’m sure she’s seen you, and that she knows that you’re here.” Jonathan answered, certain that his daughter had heard that engine just as he had and that she was very aware of the boy’s presence. “But I’ll tell her what you said just the same.”

They shook hands and Tommy walked off, hopping the fence again to get back to his bike. Jonathan turned away from him to watch J.J. Once again she was way out in front striding hard and fast for the finish line.

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The arrival of the motorcycle on the other side of the field had distracted his attention from the girl. Unsure as to whether or not the person on the bike could see him, and not wanting her father to catch sight of him since Hart had gotten up and come down from the top where he had been sitting most of the morning, the man decided that it was time for him to leave.

Sitting behind the wheel of his car, he pulled the carefully preserved newspaper clipping out of his wallet. There was the girl’s picture, and a brief article detailing her recent birthday party. Although he had known of her practically all her life, it was the first time that he had seen a picture of her published in the papers and/or dressed like that. At the club she wore those cute tennis outfits when she played, and swimsuits at the pool, but that birthday outfit was so much more sophisticated.

He had never paid much attention to her when she was younger; her parents tended to shield her from too much publicity and pretty much kept her out of the limelight even in private situations. But she was older now and venturing out more from under her parents’ direct supervision. He had occasion to speak with her on a few occasions in recent times, and she was interesting for such a little thing. She was also beginning to look very much like her mother these days; she had a smile that was just as mesmerizing. That outfit in the picture, the one she wore at her party revealed that she was shaping up to be quite tempting. She was dressed in a tank top and a pair of leather pants that hugged every inch of her. The mother was beautiful, and even though he knew she was out of his league, he had daydreamed of what it might be like to be intimate with her. There was no hope of getting with Jennifer Hart at all; she was just one of those women that a man who wasn’t her husband could only think about.

But it was the girl who now had his attention. She was very pretty and very young, just turned sixteen, and she was attainable. As he was getting older, he was finding that he was preferring them even younger.

Young girls were easier to manipulate, and they didn’t talk about it or make demands if one knew what to do and say to keep them silent. They did what they were told. Then there were the delicious added bonuses of winning them over. Having studied her, he knew just how go about keeping this one in line. Two birds with one stone; Hart missing his mark for the main course, and the lovely little Jennifer Jr. for dessert.

It would be taking a chance, a huge chance, but he had done it before and had gotten away with it. Her personal information had been easy enough to access, her parents being as prominent as they were, so putting things in motion hadn’t been hard at all.

He raised the clipping to his lips. Her name was Justine, but she was called J.J, and she was growing in all the right places into such a lovely, lovely girl. So pretty, so socially and physically desirable. What a challenge.

But, if Hart ever found out…

That one thought made him just a bit anxious about his plan; Jonathan Hart was nobody to play around with, especially not with that particular female at stake, but even that wasn’t enough of a threat to make him want to leave her alone. She would be worth the challenge… and the monumental risk.

Hearing the distant roar of a motorcycle engine, he started the Porsche and pulled out of the space.

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She was fully awake when they left. Jennifer waited until J.J. and Jonathan had been gone long enough for them not to double back for something that J.J. might have forgotten, before she got out of the bed. The entire time that she had been lying there, then while taking her shower, getting dressed, and making up the bed, she had been debating with herself as to whether or not she should go into J.J.’s room. Betraying her daughter’s trust was something she had never done before, but then what she and Jonathan were seeing in her was altogether unfamiliar, and it was worsening.

J.J. was increasingly keeping to herself, saying very little to either of them, and she almost always seemed to be distracted and lost in thought. Her phone was silent at night, which in itself was an enigma. The entire thing was puzzling and worrying, and her patience with it was wearing thin. She had been trying to wait for J.J. to bring what ever it was to her, but so far she had not been forthcoming. What was a mother to do?

Crossing the hall, she reluctantly pushed open the door and went into the room. Although it was spacious and neatly kept, it was full of J.J.’s things. Jennifer shook her head as she gazed upon the organized clutter. J.J. had always maintained her own space. From the time she was very small, Jennifer insisted upon that being her daughter’s responsibility. Marie fussed about it, but Jennifer held her ground. Marie was to care for the house proper, but J.J. alone was required to maintain these rooms.

As a young girl, Jennifer had known so many girls from her same affluent background who upon leaving home to go away to school, couldn’t do anything for themselves. Before her mother died, she had been raised to know how to care for herself despite the fact that there had been housekeeper, a cook, and her mother’s personal maid, as well as Walter, her father’s gentleman’s gentleman. Pa had complained bitterly that it wasn’t proper for her to clean and scrub, but her mother insisted on her doing things for herself. Suzanne Edwards’ wise upbringing served to make her daughter, Jennifer, self-sufficient once she was no longer with her.

With J.J.’s birth, the memories of being left so suddenly alone after own mother’s death rushed back to her mind. From the beginning, she had been raising J.J. to be just as self-sufficient as she had been taught to be. Should fate step in and part them, her daughter would never need another mother to look after her, just as she never had. Jonathan Hart might remarry in the event of her demise, but J.J. Hart would only have need of one mother in her lifetime: her own.

There was stuff everywhere from everywhere in that room. J.J. had so many things that she just held on to that Jonathan finally wound up having to have architects design another door to be cut into the opposite wall of her bathroom so that she could have access to the third guest bedroom. That room was now her sitting room. It too held many of her belongings.

Jennifer started with the desk, scanning the items on top and then gingerly sliding open the top drawer. But unable to bring herself to touch anything inside, she closed it right back. Sitting down in the desk chair, she slid the mouse across the pad to open the computer. Entering the proper commands, she found that there was no password needed to get into J.J.’s personal email account. But then, why would she need one? It was just them in the house, and they all trusted each other completely. She entered the mailbox, but then closed it before even reading the list of senders. It felt too wrong. Getting up, she pushed the chair back into the same position in which it had been before she sat down. She made sure to place the mouse back in its same position also.

The item that she really wanted, the one that she purposely came into the room for, she knew was on the bed. Forcing her feet, she walked over, stood for a moment and then made herself reach under the pillow to pull out the journal. It was the new one, the one that she had given J.J. for her sixteenth birthday. Jennifer sat down on the side of the bed, clasping the book between the palms her hands.

What to do? Surely there were answers to this mystery inside. J.J. wrote in her journal religiously, sometimes several entries a day. She had seen her huddled over it, deep in concentration, scribbling furiously. Since the age of twelve, J.J. had been keeping her thoughts in these books, one for every year, but never had she read any of J.J.’s writings.

Like her own journals, she trusted that J.J. and Jonathan would never, ever breach her privacy. Would she forgive them for doing so if they thought she was in trouble and they felt that was their only way to find the answers to help her? Would that make going into her journals right?

Jennifer gripped the book tightly as her thoughts tumbled one over the other. Finally, unsure of the answers to her own questions, she lifted the pillow and slipped the book back in the exact position in which she had found it.

“Don’t wait too long to come to me, my sweet girl.” She whispered as she got up, carefully smoothing the pillow and the covers back to their original appearance.

She went out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her.

________________________________________________

Downstairs at her desk, Jennifer decided to put her one last ace into play. She picked up the phone and punched in the number.

“Hello.” A sleepy sounding voice whispered upon picking up.

“Marnie Benson,” Jennifer fussed. “Are you still in that bed? It’s after ten o’clock in the morning. Get up from there!”

“You called me, dammit, I didn’t call you.” The voice reproached her drowsily. ” If I had known you would be messing with me at the crack of dawn like this, I would have made sure to have been up being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed just waiting to hear from your ass. J., you know full well I don’t do perky on Saturdays or on Mondays. You really know not to call me before noon on a Saturday if we don’t have plans. What the hell do you want messing with me like this? I was just dreaming about Rick out on the court with those thighs and that tight little-”

“Young lady, would you put that nasty tongue and mind of yours in check. This is Jennifer Hart, and I’m going to assume you had no idea to whom you were speaking. What in the world are doing letting that grown man even so much as cross your mind?”

Jennifer alternated between being amused at how embarrassed Marnie had to be while at the same time wanting to wring that sassy, tart-tongued, hot-tailed girl’s neck.

On the other end, Marnie was indeed cringing and blushing as J.J.’s mother continued,

“I mean it. Get up. You should be out of that bed by now and up doing something useful. Wake all the way up, Marnie Benson. I need to ask you a few things and I want you lucid when you answer me.”

Jennifer could almost hear Marnie turning red, as she sat up in the bed, straightening her back, before she began to plead her case, “I am soooo sorry, Mrs. Hart. I thought sure you were J.J.”

Jennifer listened. Marnie’s mouth was a lost cause. She had been like that since she came into their lives at age five.

“Okay, Mrs. Hart, I’m up. I’m awake. What did you want to talk to me about?”

“I want to ask you something and I need for you to be straight with me. I need to know if you know what’s going on with J.J.”

“Going on like what?”

Closing her eyes and counting to ten, Jennifer pushed back her escalating frustration and impatience. She quickly surmised she should have known going in it would be like this. Getting anything out of one girl about the other was like pulling teeth. Those two looked out for each other no matter how precarious the situation.

As children, she and her best friend, Pat had been the same way at school. Remembering how they protected each other was the only thing that kept her from losing it with J.J. and Marnie when they were covering for each other.

“Marnie, I know that you are fully aware that something is going on with her. Relax, I don’t need details just yet. I just need you to tell me if you have any idea what, if anything, is wrong.”

There was a brief hesitation, and then she heard Marnie sigh before she answered.

“Look Mrs. Hart, please don’t tell her you talked to me. She would kill me for even letting on this little bit.  I don’t know what the problem is, but I do know that something is definitely wrong. She’s all grumpy and irritable all the time. That’s why I didn’t go to track practice with her and Mr. H. this morning like I normally do. Mrs. H., if I didn’t know her better I’d say that it’s almost like she’s paranoid about something. But when I tried to ask her about it, she nearly bit my head off. Something is very wrong, but I really don’t know what. Maybe she’s in some trouble with the school. When I asked around, people in her classes say she’s been getting called to the office a lot. From what I can gather it’s been about four times in the last two weeks.”

“To the office? Why?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Hart. That was what she went off on me about. I asked her why they were calling her there so much, and she told me I needed mind my own business and stay out of hers. That would have hurt my feelings if I had any, but it takes a lot more than that to get to me. I love J.J. like a sister. I know she wouldn’t have said that to me unless her back was up against the wall about something.”

Faced with another dead end, Jennifer placed her forehead in her hand and closed her eyes. One of those serious headaches threatened. What could be going on that even Marnie didn’t have a clue about it?

“Marnie, answer me honestly now. Would you tell me if you knew what it was?”

“Mrs. Hart, this time, I would speak up,” Marnie vowed with a conviction that Jennifer could clearly hear. “I have the feeling that whatever this is, it’s deep. If she hasn’t told me about it, it’s something that she probably needs you to be in her corner for, even if she’s making out like she doesn’t. She likes for people to think she’s got it all under control all the time. It’s for sure she’s not going to let anybody in except you, and it’s my gut feeling that she probably needs some help with this.”

Thanking Marnie, Jennifer hung up. Well, that was at least a little something, and it was more than she thought she was going to get.

But, why hadn’t she gotten a call about it if J.J. was in some sort of trouble at school? That was odd news. J.J. hadn’t been assigned to detention even once this entire school year, which was a miracle in itself. She and Marnie used to both share front row center in the Detention Hall. Now it was Marnie alone who usually got assigned to it for her mouth and/or her tendency to adhere to her own schedule for arriving to and attending classes.

On Monday morning she would check with the guidance counselor to find out the reason behind J.J. getting called to the office so often.

________________________________________________

Marnie, fully awake at this point and truly ashamed at having gotten caught cursing and acting “hot in the tail” by Jennifer Hart once again, pushed the covers off her body and got up. What must Mrs. Hart think of her by now?

J.J. and her mother sounded so much alike these days, it was getting harder to tell them apart on the phone if she wasn’t paying attention. And how often did she get a call from Jennifer Hart? She was really going to have to be more careful about what she said on the phone- at least until she was absolutely sure of the caller. The last thing she wanted to do was to be added onto Mrs. Hart’s “Shit-List”.

Marnie admired and adored J.J.’s mother, and she had seen first-hand how Mrs. Hart could cut somebody cold when they managed to move themselves into position with her to get included on that roster. The woman did it with so much class. Subtlety was one of the chief things she was secretly studying under her, and trying very hard to learn from her example, although she feared she would never be able to master it with her finesse. Being low-key was not Marnie’s strong suit.

Usually it was some man who fell victim to the Jennifer Hart ice ray after he tried to go there with her.  Mrs. Hart did not reciprocate in any way when a man tried to get fresh or familiar with her, which some still foolishly tried to do in social situations. She had witnessed that for herself.

There were a few ladies, too, at the Country Club who, although they might not actually be aware of it, had definitely been cast adrift as far as Mrs. Hart was concerned. Mr. Hart was friendly and charming with everyone, sometimes too much so for his own good. Occasionally one of the ladies interpreted his polite attentions in the wrong way, went too far, and ended up on Mrs. Hart’s wrong side. She was never mean or spiteful toward the offending party, and one could only notice the change in her demeanor if one knew her, but the name got added to the list just the same. Marnie and J.J. knew her well. When it happened at a time or in a place for them to witness it, they would both exchange the briefest glance and then later would share the best laughs over it when they were alone.

J.J.’s mother was definitely “The Duchess”. She commanded respect without uttering one word. Marnie liked that about her.

Marnie was also noticing, even more so lately, that J.J., who could be as charming and engaging as her father, was developing that same ability as her mother to silently command respect. And she had always carried that same kind of list to which she occasionally added a name or two. However, with J.J., once a person maneuvered themselves into position to get added to it, they almost never came off. Where her mother simply dismissed people and got done with them, J.J. held grudges and sometimes plotted revenge.

Marnie went to her dresser and slid open the bottom drawer of her jewelry box. She extracted a piece of paper folded into a tiny square. It was a note that fell from J.J.’s pocket the day before. She had picked it up from the floor where it had fallen after J.J. slammed her locker door and swung away from her in anger to go to her mother’s car after telling her to mind her own business. J.J.’s reaction to her questioning her well-being confused her at the time, but the note even more so:

“J.J., did you know I know where your mother is all the time?”

Holding it in her hands, she rolled the words over and over in her mind just as she had all yesterday evening. Several things besides the message itself disturbed her.

First of all it was typed in all caps. Secondly, it had not been signed, but that wasn’t so strange considering the nature of the message.  And then lastly, J.J. was acting so out of character lately. To Marnie she seemed unusually edgy, almost fearful.

J.J., fearful? Since when?

When she asked J.J. what was wrong with her, that was when she lit into her. The note implied something out of the way was going on, but J.J. hadn’t said one word about anything. Everybody could see and were talking about the changes in her. J.J. had never been that generous with sharing her most intimate thoughts, but this wasn’t the type of thing that they normally held out on each other over. It sounded like the writer was threatening Mrs. Hart is some sort of way. The scary element to all this was J.J. would do anything anybody asked of her if it would protect her mother. The girl had some extremely powerful feelings for her mother. Only the people who really knew her or spent a lot of out of school time with her were aware of it, but those who were, knew to tread lightly when it came to that subject with J.J. Hart.

Marnie held the note in her hand wondering if she should let her own mother in on it, at least. She could be flighty, but if nothing else, she was a grownup . Perhaps she could shed some light on what to do. But if she told her, she was sure to want to tell the Harts. Mrs. Hart tended to be a little overprotective when it came to J.J.’s being exposed to the public and to negativity. Something like this, on top of whatever else was going, on might spook her totally. Then there would be hell to pay from J.J. once her mother locked her down to keep her out of harm’s way.

Marnie refolded the note and put it back in her jewelry box. She’d get with J.J. later, when she thought she was back from track practice, and then she would MAKE her talk, dammit.

Going over to the intercom, she buzzed the kitchen.

“Good morning, Miss Marnie.”

“Good morning. Is my mother down there?”

“No Miss. She left some time ago. Said she wouldn’t be back until late this afternoon.”

“Gone already, huh? Well look, in about an hour and a half I’m going to need a ride over to the Harts’. Can somebody down there be ready to take me? I don’t care who does it, just so I get there. It’s just a couple of miles down the road, so it’ll only take a few minutes. I just need to get there. I appreciate it.”

She switched off without waiting for an answer, mumbling to herself as she went into her bathroom to get showered and dressed, “I’ll be glad when I get my damned license. Then I won’t have to depend or count on anybody. I won’t look back and I won’t have to ask anybody for shit.”

________________________________________________

The note the office messenger brought to her teacher yesterday during last period told her to pick up the envelope from Ms. Grimsley’s secretary in the Counseling Center. When she had gotten there after class, everyone in the Center was gone, and the office was already locked. But just before walking away, she caught sight of an envelope in Ms. Grimsley’s In-box by her door. It was a large envelope with “Ms. J. Hart” typed on it. There was no return address or notation of sender. With feelings of dread, she took it from the box and went into the nearby restroom.

Locking herself in a stall, she nervously opened it, certain that the drama was continuing. Surely enough, inside were several black and white 8×10 pictures of her mother going about her day. She could tell from what she was wearing that they had been taken on different days within the past week, and from the way they looked that she had no idea that she was being watched. Someone was following her and had access to her at different times and in all kinds of situations. J.J. was immediately frightened by that fact, and she didn’t know what to do. She checked the envelope further to find that there was a typed note which simply read,

“J.J., did you know I know where your mother is all the time?”

She put the pictures back in the envelope, and yanked some tissue from the roll to wipe at the tiny beads of perspiration peppering her forehead. She wanted to cry, tears started to form, but of course, she didn’t let them fall, instead wiping at her eyes with the tissue which she then flushed down the commode. She stood frozen in place wondering what in the world it was all about. She knew that she needed to tell someone, but tell them what? So far nothing had happened except for some presents, and a few notes. But now there were these pictures and this more sinister sounding note. What did it all mean? She looked at the piece of paper one more time and then hastily stuffed it into the pocket of the sweatshirt she wore.

When it sounded as if she were alone in the restroom, she left the stall. She splashed cold water quickly onto her face, checked her eyes for redness, and pulled herself together for the ride home. Her mother was waiting outside in the car for her, and she would be watching her like she did a lot lately. She always did that when she knew something was up with her. J.J. wished at that moment that she could tell her without scaring her.

Now, sitting on the side of her bed after returning from track practice with her father, she was really worried. She couldn’t find the note anywhere. The pictures were still in her lingerie drawer under her things, but the note wasn’t in there. It wasn’t in the pocket of that sweatshirt she had been wearing. In fact, she didn’t remember seeing it all after stuffing it in there. It wasn’t like her to just lose things. This whole affair had her thrown for a loop and had her missing her marks.

Her hope was that it hadn’t fallen out in her mother’s car, and that she now had it. If so, Jennifer and Jonathan Hart would be conducting the Grand Inquisition all night with her in the Great Room if she didn’t say something to them on her own and real soon. Then she would be on indefinite lockdown until they got to the bottom of things. What a downer with summer vacation coming. She’d be locked in the house like Rapunzel in the tower, only her long hair wouldn’t reach all the way to the ground, and nobody she knew had nerve enough to try to come to her rescue once her parents told her to stay put. Not even Tommy who usually wasn’t scared of anything- except her mother.

It would be just like her mother to have found that note and not be saying anything about it right away. The Duchess would be sitting back watching, waiting for her to come to her. That was how she did things. she rarely played her hand first.

When they got back from practice this afternoon, her mother had already left the house. Her father had gotten a call while they were still in the car, and had to go right back out himself after dropping her off. There was nobody at home with her except Marie, and she wouldn’t be coming up to the second floor. Marie rarely came upstairs unless it was to dust or straighten, and she didn’t do that on Saturdays. On Saturdays around this time, she and Third went out back to do her gardening and to cut the fresh flowers that she and her mother kept in the great room, the foyer, and the master bedroom.

That left her to her own thoughts for a while.

Deciding that she couldn’t stand the stickiness a moment longer, J.J. started to pull her shirt over her head to get a shower when the intercom’s sudden buzzing startled her, making her body jump and her heart race wildly.

“Get a grip.” She admonished herself quietly as she checked to see which button was lit. It was the gate buzzer.

“Hart Residence.”

“This is Allen Baker, is Jonathan Hart in?”

J.J. relaxed. Mr. Baker was an old acquaintance of their family. Her father did business with him, and both their families belonged to the same Country Club. She had known him all of her life and he was a running joke between she and Marnie. They knew that Mr. Baker was ranked high on Jennifer Hart’s Sh– List because he was always trying to flirt with her on the sly which irritated her to no end.

“Hi, Mr. Baker. My father isn’t available right now, but may I give him a message for you?”

“Well, he and I are working on a project together and he needed for me to fax some paperwork to him. I was coming this way, so I thought that I would just drop them off.”

J.J. buzzed the gates to open them. “Bring them up. I’ll make sure that he gets them.”

Getting ready to go to the door, she readjusted her shirt and pulled back on the running shorts she had just taken off. Stepping into her house slippers, she went out of the room to go down to meet Mr. Baker. She would get the papers from him at the front door and send him on his way so that she could get back to her own concerns.

________________________________________________

Making his way down the narrow, cobbled path, Jonathan could see Jennifer seated on a bench a short distance ahead. When she phoned him in the car just as he was pulling through the gates with J.J., she told him just where to meet her in the park saying she needed to talk. She wanted to do it where they would be alone and wouldn’t be overheard by inquisitive, prying little ears.

He slowed his steps to engage in his greatest pleasure: to be able to take her in before she became aware of his presence. She was still so beautiful that sometimes when they were out, she could catch his eye before he recognized he was looking at his own wife. The afternoon sunlight danced in her auburn waves as she looked out at whatever was going on across from where she sat. He was happy that his hints about preferring her hair longer than she had begun having it cut had not gone unnoticed. Her hair was her own, and he tended to not offer opinions about what she chose to do with it, but that mane was her the crowning glory of his wife as well as his daughter. Both of them had been blessed with thick, lush hair, J.J. even more so than Jennifer. The more of it, the better as far as he was concerned.

As always, when he was close enough to her, she sensed he was there and turned to him.

“Hello, Darling,” she smiled up at him. “I hope I’m not keeping you from your daughter. I realize it’s a little early for you two to be finished with each other on a nice Saturday like this.”

“Noooo,” He crooned as he eased down onto the bench, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. “She was pretty much finished with me right after practice. She didn’t have much to say to me today. She ran pretty well, but not like herself.”

Jennifer didn’t say anything to that right away, and he watched her face. There was something on her mind beyond J.J.’s troubles. Her eyes said so.

Finally he wound up asking, “What did you want to talk to me about?”

Her response came slowly, thoughtfully. “I spoke with Marnie this morning. She confirmed that J.J. has been acting funny in school too. She said she’s been irritable and short with her. She also told me J.J.’s been getting called to the office a lot lately.”

Jonathan looked puzzled.

Noticing his change of expression, she asked, “What’s the matter?”

“First of all, I can’t believe you actually got Marnie to give J.J. up like that. I always knew you were good at getting people to open up, but this thing must really be serious if you got Marnie to talk. Why is J.J. getting called to the office?”

Jennifer shrugged her shoulders. “Marnie didn’t know. She said when she asked J.J. about it, J.J. told her off. Told her to mind her own business. Marnie even went on to tell me that if she knew what was going on, she would tell me this time because she thinks it must be pretty serious.”

She turned on the bench to face him and took hold of his hand. “Jonathan, what I wanted to tell you is that this thing with J.J. reminds me of something that happened a long time ago, before I met you, with a friend on mine. J.J.’s behavior now reminds me of how my friend acted then.

Keeping his eyes on her eyes, he asked, “What was going on with this friend of yours?” while trying to keep the skepticism he was feeling out of his voice.

“She was being stalked. She didn’t know what to do about it. It wasn’t called stalking back in those days, but that’s what it was just the same. It was a guy that she knew, and she couldn’t get him to leave her alone. She was a nervous wreck most of the time; wouldn’t talk about it, couldn’t talk about it. She didn’t think that anyone could help her; that if she spoke of it, it would just get worse. She was scared and on edge all the time, and just like J.J., this wasn’t a girl who frightened easily either. She just kept hoping that it would go away. But being caught up in that situation was extremely frightening for her. She wouldn’t let anybody in to help her either, Jonathan, and she was much older than J.J. If that’s what’s going on with J.J., if someone’s bothering her, that would explain these changes in her behavior, and why she isn’t talking to us.”

Jonathan heard what she was saying, but he was too caught up in envisioning the scenario she had drawn to respond. Right off, he sensed she was speaking from personal experience. It was one of those things from her past that dealing with J.J. was pushing once again to the forefront in her. He had been noticing quite a bit of that in his wife as their daughter was getting older.

If it was her, how had the situation resolved itself? What all had happened to her? Who in the world hurt her and why? They talked about everything. Why would she keep something like that from him for so long?

“Jonathan?”

Her voice brought him back.

“I, I don’t know, Darling.” He stammered, trying to quickly gather his thoughts about what she’d said. “All I know is that something is bothering her and it has to be big if it’s bringing about all of these changes in her. Tommy came to the field this morning and said basically the same thing as Marnie when I asked him about her. But Tommy was a little less forthcoming with me than Marnie was with you. The minute I asked him about her, he was suddenly ready to leave a field full of half naked girls, one of them being J.J., to go to work. Now, he’s not going to give her up until he has to. One thing about Tommy, though, he’s going to keep his eye on this thing and on J.J. until he figures it out. That much, I do know.”

She nodded in agreement. Tommy had proven in the past that he could be counted upon to look out for J.J., and she for him.

“Well, I’ve decided that I’m going to the school on Monday to find out what’s going on.” She asserted. “If she’s in trouble at school, I would think that they would have called me by now.”

“But what else would she be getting called in for that many times if it isn’t trouble?” He asked.

“I don’t know.” She answered. I can’t imagine, but I’ll go in to see her counselor about it once I’m sure that J.J.’s situated in class.”

“Jennifer, you aren’t going to tell her what you’re doing? Won’t she be upset with you if you do that behind her back?”

“She’s not talking to us.” Jennifer responded defensively. “Why should I have to show her what’s in my hand when she’s hiding hers from me? If she’s in trouble, we need to know what’s going on. If someone’s after her- oh God, Jonathan.” Her voice trailed off and she leaned into him, dropping her forehead onto his shoulder. “She thinks she can take on anything but she can’t handle something like that. She’s just a baby.”

“But a very attractive, very wealthy baby”, He thought to himself. “with us for parents and with the same strong drawing power as you, Jennifer. She doesn’t have a clue about what she brings out in the males of the species, but I certainly do, first hand.”

Jonathan put his arm around Jennifer and held her close. As he did, he began to put together a list of likely suspects in his head. He hoped that being stalked by someone wasn’t the problem, for his daughter’s sake………… as well as the alleged perpetrator’s. There would be holy hell to pay, if so.

Just to see what she would say, he asked, “Jennifer, how did your friend turn out? What happened with her situation?”

He felt her shrug, but she didn’t answer, just as he thought she wouldn’t.

________________________________________________

When Marie entered the foyer with the flowers she had cut out back, she was a little startled to see J.J. standing in the open door with her back to her talking to a man. From where she stood by the stairs in the doorway leading from the kitchen, Marie could see the man but he could not see her at all, and it was apparent J.J. was not aware that she had come in from outside either. She stopped short to hear what was being said as she watched the man whom she could not make out clearly. J.J. stood before him dressed in a short sleeved, cropped sweatshirt and her track shorts.

That girl had no idea how attractive she was to the male eye, Marie noted to herself, or of how well developed she was for a girl her age. The fact made Marie apprehensive for her at times. It was good that the Harts so tightly regulated her movements in the community.

“I thought I had the papers, J.J.,” She could hear the man explaining. “But I got all the way up here to the house, reached in my briefcase, and found that I had the wrong ones.”

Marie could hear that he was sounding a little too cheerful and friendly, as if he were forcing it, trying to ingratiate himself to the girl at the door.

J.J. was as genial, but socially reserved in her response as her mother had been teaching her to be.
“That’s too bad, Mr. Baker. I’m sorry you made the trip all the way out here for nothing.”

Marie noticed with some satisfaction that even though she was half dressed, J.J.’s overall body language seemed to be sending the message that she had no intention of permitting him past the door. The Harts had put a lot of time into teaching her to be smart and to look out for herself. She could see that it was paying off.

The man persisted.
“Is your father on the grounds, J.J.? Can you get him down here for a minute? What about your mother or Marie? Maybe I can leave the information with them.”

“You can leave it with me if you like, Mr. Baker. I handle my father’s business all the time. He trusts me to do that for him. I assure you that you can too.”

Having said that, J.J subtly shifted position so that her back was straight, her manner a bit more assertive. Marie continued to watch her protectively and to listen.

“Well, it would save me a trip back if I could just call from here and have my office fax the papers right here to your father like I should have done in the first place. Do you think that I could come in and use the phone?”

At that point, his focus appeared to drop briefly to J.J.’s bare midriff and then down to her long legs, and Marie, catching that, immediately stepped forward. Based on what she had observed for herself on the other infrequent visits he’d made to the house on social occasions, and things she’d heard whispered about him, Marie wanted him away far from J.J., and right away. Just then, Third ran past her out of the kitchen to jump up on J.J. to get her attention. Baker stepped back at the sight of the dog and J.J. reached down to scoop the small dog up in her arms.

“Don’t be scared.” She smiled, standing upright again. “He’s just a pet.”

Marie took that moment to walk out to the doorway and approach them calling more loudly than was actually necessary, “J.J., is someone at the door?”

Turning from the man in front of her, J.J. answered, “Yes Marie. It’s Mr. Baker. He came here to see my Daddy, but he’s brought the wrong papers, so he doesn’t have what he came here to give him. He’d like to use a phone to have the right papers faxed over.”

Marie stepped into the doorway and stood beside J.J., opening the door fully allowing Allen Baker inside. “You can use Mrs. Hart’s phone on her desk.” She offered, ushering him in with her free hand. “I’ll be happy to show you where it is.”

“Well, you’re in good hands, Mr. Baker.” J.J. said as she headed back up the stairs with the dog still tucked under one arm while waving goodbye to him with her other hand. “I hope you get things taken care of. I’ll see you later.”

Marie directed the man to the phone in the great room, wondering if disappointment was the immediate change she detected on his face after she came to the door interrupting his conversation with J.J. As he stood upright after keying in his number on the phone pad to make his call, he inadvertently placed his other hand on his hip, pulling back his suit jacket in the process. An active cell phone was clipped to his belt.

The red flag went up and waved itself furiously before Marie’s eyes.

________________________________________________

The girls sat together silently dangling their legs into the water of the pool. They had been like that ever since Marnie arrived and joined J.J. in the rear of the Hart estate almost twenty minutes before.

Finally, Marnie’s patience ran out. “What the hell is up with you, J.? And don’t tell me to mind my own business again. You are my business.”

“I don’t know what you mean.” J.J. answered quietly, making circles in the water with her legs. “Are you going with us to the Club tomorrow for brunch? I have that match after.”

“Look, don’t try to change the subject.” Marnie declared, sliding down into the water but hanging on the side to float, bobbing close beside her girlfriend. “Yeah I’m still going, and I know that you’re playing that Angelique girl. You’ll kick ass. But to the point, J.J., you and me have never had a physical fight between us in our lives, but right now I am just about ready to just start kicking your ass. You’re bigger than me, but right now I’m madder than you and anger makes you stronger. Would you just trust me, J. and tell me what’s going on with you. I know something is wrong. I have your damned note. It fell out of your pocket yesterday. I read it and I know something is wrong. You know I won’t let on if you don’t want me to.”

She looked up from the water at J.J. who looked down at her, assessing her with those crystal blue eyes. Marnie repeated sincerely, “J., I won’t let on. I promise you.”

“Okay,” J.J. finally sighed. “I sure am glad you have it. I looked everywhere and I thought sure The Duchess had it. I was dreading having her looking at me like she knows something. She never would have just come out and told me. She would have just kept sitting there looking at me until she had me completely worn down.”

She stood up and began drying her legs with a towel.

“Look, I’m going to let you in on it, but if you say anything to anybody, Marnie, I swear to God, I’ll never speak to you again.” J.J. looked away and held back the tears that threatened.

She reached down and gave Marnie an assist up out of the water and then handed her the towel.

“Come on up to my room and I’ll tell you everything.”

________________________________________________

Marnie sat with the Harts watching from the stands as J.J. massacred her opponent out on the court. There were very few girls left at their Country Club who would play J.J. Hart one-on-one even for fun any more. She was considered too aggressive a player by most of the girls in their division which left J.J. usually just playing for fun against the boys. She often played in doubles matches with her mother or her father, who were also considered lethal. Most of the ladies declined to play doubles against J.J. when she played doubles with her mother.

At the moment, Marnie was more focused on Rick Slater, the tennis pro, than she was on her friend wiping up the court with Angelique Baker, the club’s second seed in their division. Rick was standing on the sidelines with his back to them watching the action. He had a slamming butt and good thighs, but he was suspect too.

Ever since J.J. let her in on what was going on with her, Marnie had been trying to think of who would be sending her presents and pictures like that. Her first thought was Wesley Singleton, J.J.’s overly aggressive admirer of a friend. The two of them had parted on a rather sour note after J.J. refused his advances at her birthday party a few weeks ago. But Wesley was still away in Massachusetts in school. He wouldn’t be home for the summer for another week or so. There was no way that he could have taken those pictures of Mrs. Hart and had the presents delivered unless he hired someone to do it. As much as he liked J.J. and as persistent as he had been, she really didn’t think he was that far gone.

Rick, she knew, spent an inordinate amount of unnecessary time trying to coach J.J. He worked at the Country Club, gave private lessons at people’s homes, and he was an occasional assistant coach at some of the the local schools, including theirs. He and the head coach at school were doubles partners in some of the local tournaments. Every time J.J. took to the court here at the club, he seemed to appear out of no where to stand around and watch her, offering tips, making suggestions, commenting, trying to be funny, whatever, to get her attention. J.J. was a natural; she beat almost everybody she played, but she wasn’t interested in bettering her game. Tennis was just a fun activity for her. She was a natural athlete and performed well in most physical activities, but it was running that was her real passion. Track was the only area  in which she accepted coaching, and Coach Rogers at school was the only man for that outside of, of course, her father.

Marnie and J.J. figured that Rick’s interest most likely went beyond J.J.’s tennis game, but like her mother, J.J. did not acknowledge or encourage advances. Rick was way too old to be personally interested in her anyway. Up until her recent birthday, Marnie had always taken J.J.’s lack of interest in the male attention that was directed her way as cluelessness. But now it seemed that there really was a method to her reactions. Even though J.J. tended to see herself as more like her father, Marnie was beginning to see a lot of her best friend’s mother emerging in her.

They both knew from their talks with Jennifer Hart that their looks, their youth, and their parents’ wealth could attract some unlikely people. J.J., who normally went her own way on most things, listened closely to her mother about matters of the heart. Marnie could easily see that although J.J. tended to chafe at times against her mother’s high expectations for her, she still modeled herself after her mother in her most personal conduct. J.J. would be a ‘Duchess’ one day too, whether she liked it or not.

Could Rick out there be one of those unlikely people? He certainly did his share of flirting, and rumor had it that he did his share of scoring too, and not just on the courts. Right now he seemed too fixed on J.J. as she delivered the first serve of the second set. Marnie looked up in time to see Mr. Hart wince as J.J. powerfully, masterfully smashed the ball over the net at her opponent who it tuned out wasn’t up to the challenge. Then he smiled proudly.

That made Marnie smile. J.J. was so lucky to have that man for her dad, she reflected. He wouldn’t let any harm come to her, no matter what. He was always in her corner. Marnie went back to watching J.J., hoping that she would tell her father about everything and soon.

________________________________________________

Jennifer, seated on the opposite side of Jonathan from Marnie in the stands was watching J.J., as well.

She was proud of her. Despite whatever else was going on with her, she played like a champ. Being able to compartmentalize was an important coping skill, and she should know. It was one that she had fully mastered in her lifetime.

J.J. was good and she and Jonathan wanted her to compete in the regionals this spring. But she had stated unequivocally when they approached her with it, that she wasn’t interested, so they didn’t push her on it. She was already regional in track, which was where she concentrated her energies.

Rick Slater was courtside, and while she knew that he was interested in all the good players, Jennifer couldn’t help but speculate about his interest in her daughter.  She had overhead Marnie and J.J. giggling about how much attention he tried to pay to J.J even though she had explained to him that his efforts would be better spent on someone more receptive. Looking at the whole thing objectively, she realized that J.J.’s height and build might make her seem older than she was. From personal experience, she knew that those attributes might bring some things her way that she wasn’t mature enough yet mentally and emotionally to handle, including the attentions of a young tennis pro looking to advance himself socially while reaping the ‘fringe benefits’ in the meantime.

Not with her daughter; that young man bore watching.

“Well hello, Jennifer. Jonathan. That’s some player you have out there.”

Jennifer grimaced inwardly as Allen Baker slid onto the bench next to her. She hadn’t seen that one coming.

________________________________________________

At the sound of his voice, Marnie looked over to see Mr. Baker take a seat next to Mrs. Hart. Her immediate thought upon seeing him there was that stout, dowdy Mr. Baker ought to know that he couldn’t do anything with Jennifer Hart except piss her off. She shot him down every time he came at her like that. Why did he keep going there? Maybe he liked it like that.

She switched her attention from J.J.’s game and Rick’s behind in those tennis whites to Jennifer Hart. The sideshow was sure to be more educational and just as entertaining.

________________________________________________

As he watched J.J. play, Jonathan was thinking about the call he got from Marcus Borland, his front man, late last Friday. The bids were in and it was looking as if the Hart Financial Division was going to get the nod on the development project. That made him happy. He enjoyed having Hart Industries involved in civic improvements, and he felt good when his good fortune could benefit others. The development project would contribute to the beautification of the downtown area and provide jobs in several areas for many people for quite some time. Marcus said that there were some things that he needed his input on in order for the proposal to go forward, and that the paperwork would be on his desk on Monday morning. He wondered what Marcus wanted him to look at that he didn’t feel comfortable about making the decision on himself.

J.J. delivered the first serve of the second set. Damn, she was strong. Angelique practically jumped out of her shoes when that ball came at her like a whizzing torpedo, and that made him nearly laugh out loud. He didn’t, though. Jennifer would consider that poor sportsmanship and get all over him about it. Later, when they were alone, he’d bring it up and he and J.J. could laugh like hell about it. He knew that it was wrong to get J.J. going like that, but just like him, she was naturally competitive and knew she was good, but she never let it go to her head. She was just out there having fun. What the heck, that was his girl and she was good with a racket; there was no doubt about that. Whatever it was that was going on with her, she had been able to set it aside for this match, and he was glad of that.

It annoyed him that the tennis pro was watching her so closely. He was paying no attention to Angelique, who was obviously struggling, and whose father was paying him dearly for lessons. J.J. had never needed lessons from Slater. She had taken her tennis instruction from her Daddy and could now outplay him; her back lasted longer. What did that Slater really want? Was he just interested in watching a good player, or was it more than that? More than likely, it was the latter. J.J.’s increasing good looks were becoming a chief source of angst for her Daddy.

Jonathan had locked his eyes on the tennis pro, and was busy assessing him and his behavior when that grating voice cut into his thoughts.

“Hello Jennifer! Jonathan. That’s some player you two have out there!”

He could feel Jennifer’s body tense next to him as Allen Baker sat down next to her holding on to the expensive camera swinging from the cord that was around his neck with his pudgy fingers. It annoyed him to no end that Baker had such a need to be seen. The camera was an example of that. The club photographer was down on the ground taking the best shots, certainly better than anything that could be taken from up there in the stands, but there he was sporting that cumbersome thing for show. Seeing as how their two companies were in such fierce competition at the time, Baker’s congeniality was off-putting. Marnie could be seen out of the corner of his eye leaning forward to see who was speaking. He thought he detected a quick, sly smile briefly cross her pixie face.

Some people never gave up. J.J. was making a public spectacle of Baker’s daughter, the daughter Baker had practically forced into playing J.J. Jennifer was sure to make mincemeat of him as soon as he said something out of the way to her, which would be to Marnie’s absolute delight and entertainment. And the Hart Financial Division had Baker Financial by the balls on that development project. Baker’s boy was no match for the young blood in Hart Industries financial division.

In a minute, he would make that call on his cell and have Baker paged to take a fictitious phone call which would get him away from Jennifer. He didn’t blame him for being attracted to her, but he got on her nerves and that was unacceptable. What would it take for this guy to get the message that Hart was a name that he should avoid? Some people were gluttons for punishment.

Jonathan half-listened to what was being said as Baker rattled on and on in Jennifer’s ear and she leaned more and more into him to get away from the prattle. J.J. delivered the final lethal volley to end the set in her favor, and he suppressed a belly laugh as Marnie whispered, “Way to kick that ass, J.” to herself.

As he pulled out his cell phone, he thought to himself that if he had been lucky enough to have been blessed with two, that tiny, tough-talking  girl next to him could easily have been his kid too.

________________________________________________

Ms. Grimsley punched in the number of the extension to the main office as J.J. Hart’s mother sat across the desk from her in her office in the Guidance Counseling Center. It was amazing how much that girl looked like her striking mother, although the family’s wealth was more clearly reflected in Mrs. Hart’s dress and her cultivated manner, than in her daughter who tended to consciously downplay that element of her life.

“I really have no idea why she’s been being called there, Mrs. Hart.” She explained while waiting for the line to connect and for someone to pick up. “I had no idea that anything was going on. Actually, I’ve been knocking on wood. She hasn’t been into anything that I know of this year, and the year’s almost over. At least she didn’t get caught at anything anyway”

Jennifer smiled. It could very well be that J.J. was getting slicker about things. After all, she’d had years of practice at perfecting her mischief making. She listened as Ms. Grimsley spoke to someone and saw a look cross her face. She couldn’t tell if it was confusion or concern. Perhaps it was both.

When the woman hung up, she reported, “The head secretary says that J.J. has been getting called to the office to pick up presents sent from her father. The log they keep down there reflects that she’s had three deliveries in the past two weeks. There’s no notation kept of who made the deliveries or the florist from which the flowers came.”

“Her father? Flowers?” Jennifer asked, greatly puzzled. J.J. hadn’t come home with any flowers. Surely she would have seen them. “My husband didn’t mention to me that he’d sent anything to her. I don’t think he would distract her from her studies with surprises during the school day .”

Ms. Grimsley sat back in her chair. “Come to think of it, Mrs. Hart. An envelope showed up down here last Friday for J.J. It hadn’t been mailed, and there was no return address or sender information.  It had been placed in my secretary’s In-Basket, so we had J.J. notified to come down here and pick it up. It was near the end of the day, and we all had meetings, so I just left it for her. It was gone when I got out of the meeting, so I’m assuming that she picked it up. I know that she’s been getting mail dropped off to her these last few weeks from some of the local universities. They’re beginning to scout our top students in the Gifted curriculum who are going to be juniors next school year, which of course you know she heads that list. I guess I thought one of them had left something for her.”

Perplexed and her mind racing, Jennifer mused aloud, “She didn’t mention any of that to us. When she gets that college information, she always brings it to me, even if she isn’t interested in the particular college. She didn’t say one word to me about getting that envelope or anything else when I picked her up. She hasn’t been saying very much of anything lately.”

Trying to keep her hands from shaking, Jennifer gripped her purse and keys tightly. Thank goodness there were only two more days of school. After that, J.J. could be kept closer until they could find out what was really going on with her.

“Mrs. Hart, would you like for me to have J.J. paged? She doesn’t ever talk to me about personal matters. She’s let me know in no uncertain terms on more than one occasion that she wouldn’t share that part of herself with me. Maybe with you here, she’ll open up..”

Jennifer shook her head. “No she won’t. She’ll just close all the way down then. She’ll resent my having come here. I didn’t tell her that I was. Then I would be putting her on the spot with you. I’ve come to accept that J.J. has to deal with things in her own way and in her own time. She won’t be forced. I’ve been  concerned about these changes in her behavior. And now, there’s the things you’ve shared with me. Something is wrong. I’m certain that her father didn’t send anything to her. I don’t know who did, but it was not her father, I’m sure of that.”

Ms. Grimsley was getting increasingly nervous. The Harts were powerful people, and J.J. was their only child. Perhaps they would think that not enough was being done to protect the girl. After all, the school was responsible for delivering the things directly to her even though they had no way of knowing that something other than what it appeared to be was going on. Mrs. Hart was a writer with strong connections to the media. Outside of being their child,  J.J. Hart herself was special. She was smart, personable, and Ms. Grimsley had a great affection for her. Should something happen to that child as a result of this, it would be disastrous all the way around. She was very aware of J.J.’s tendency to want to handle her own business, but she wasn’t always sure that J.J. was as capable as she thought she was. This could be a powder keg all the way around waiting for that one spark to ignite it.

“Mrs. Hart, if anything else suspect shows up here for her, we’ll call you or your husband directly.” She affirmed. “J.J. is very mature about trying to handle her own affairs and she likes to keep things private, but I think this is a case for going past that privacy thing somewhat. Will you try to ask her about what’s going on again? If you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. Hart. J.J. is very bright and sweet, but she can be manipulative as well and she’s good at it. She’s the best kid I’ve ever met for getting people to do what she wants them to do. Don’t let her manipulate you.”

“I’ll give it a shot, but I don’t think that will help anything.” Jennifer answered, letting the counselors last words soak in. “But now I know better about how to watch for things. I would very much appreciate your  keeping us informed, Ms. Grimsley and I thank you for your time.”

With that said, Jennifer stood, shook the other woman’s hand and took her leave.

As she exited the suite that made up the Guidance Center and stepped into the hall, she quite abruptly came face-to-face with Marnie leaving the nearby restroom. Neither of them said a word as they looked each other in the eye, but Marnie read the crystal clear message from Jennifer Hart’s face straightaway. Turning on her heel, she re-entered the restroom.

Marnie had seen no one. Nothing had been said, so she heard nothing; that being the case, she definitely wouldn’t  be saying anything to anybody about their mother coming out of the Guidance Center, even though it was good to know that she was on the scent. J.J. was in trouble, and as much as that girl didn’t want to admit it, the whole thing was beyond her.

As she took a seat on the window sill and unwrapped the stick of gum she took from her purse, Marnie breathed a sigh of relief as she awaited the next bell.

________________________________________________

It wasn’t until Jennifer got all the way down to the parking lot and heard the bell ring signaling class change that she realized Marnie should have been in a class at the time that she saw her in the hall. Why would she go back into the restroom when she saw her? And why did she have all of her books with her if it was just a restroom break that she was on?

Oh yes, a phone conversation would be held later that evening and that little class-skipping hussy had better not be cursing this time when she picked up to answer.

________________________________________________

Because of the way that it was shaped, J.J. knew that there was a greeting card of some type in the envelope. But it felt heavy, like there was something more inside than just a card. Whenever these things happened now, her heart would begin to beat hard and she would have trouble breathing. She had asked in the office about the delivery people, but the secretaries said that it was never the same individual who brought the presents. Again they reminded her how lucky she was to have such a thoughtful father.

If only they knew what her father would do if he really knew about any of this.

She took a moment to lean against the wall outside the office to pull herself together before resuming her walk to her next class. Stuffing the sealed envelope inside her history book, she tried to focus. She had her last test coming up in history, and she didn’t want to be distracted over something unpleasant.

Marnie had requested that pass last period, and J.J. was glad that she did. The call for her to come to the office had come right after Marnie left to take that break to the restroom, from which she didn’t return, so she was unaware that the saga was continuing. Marnie was the only girl she knew who could regularly leave class early or skip entirely, get away with it and still make decent grades. If she tried that, the teachers and her counselor would be all over her, calling her parents and everything. It didn’t seem fair, but that was how it had always been. Some people had all the luck.

Although she was not real happy about Marnie knowing what was going on with her, it was sort of comforting to know that someone else was in on it. She could count on Marnie keeping it between them, but she didn’t like Marnie worrying about her, which she knew she would do until this thing got sorted out. The thought crossed her mind that if she cursed people out and let people know just what, the way that Marnie did, she might not have to be bothered like this. Jennifer Hart said Marnie’s aggressiveness was a defense mechanism that she learned to use because she was so small in stature. She called it a “Napoleon Complex”.

Maybe if she weren’t expected to be so much of a lady all the time, and felt free to say all the things that she really wanted to sometimes say; people would back up from her too, but that wasn’t her style. Maybe none of this would be happening if she were a different sort of girl, but she pretty much was who she was, she guessed. Her mother said that leopards couldn’t change their spots.

That was probably true as far as leopards went; she just that wished some people didn’t like leopards so much.

________________________________________________

Tommy saw J.J. exiting the main office and he started to try to catch up with her, but she suddenly stopped and it seemed that she sort of fell into the wall like she was tired. He stopped and stepped to the side of the hall to watch her. She carried her books in the crook of one arm while she held something in her other hand; it appeared to be a white envelope. She looked at it, closed her eyes for moment and then she stuck it in her book and went on her way. He hadn’t seen her open whatever it was.

They hadn’t really talked in about a week, which wasn’t like them at all. She had stopped sneaking to call him late at night, and when he called her she didn’t pick up. Their lockers were on either side of Marnie’s, so they saw each other often, but she had little to say to anybody. In fact, all of their crowd had lockers in the same area and everybody was talking about how quiet and on edge she seemed to be lately.

“Hey J!” He called down the hall to her.

She stopped and turned He hurried through the crowd to get to her. People moved out of his way as he did so. Tommy Steele wasn’t someone that anybody wanted to get run over by, and it was understood that if he was headed for J.J. Hart, one stood a very good chance of getting steamrolled. Those two had a weird bond that nobody really understood. Even though they weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, it was a friendship that everybody who knew them acknowledged and respected.

Once he made it over to her, she resumed walking without saying anything. After a few steps, he took her by the arm to stop her and she gave him a mildly annoyed look which he chose to ignore. Guiding her over to a corner, he used his body to box her in once he got her there.

“What’s going with you, J.?” He whispered.

She attempted to push past him, but he placed his hand on her shoulder to hold her there, which made her really mad.

“Tommy,” She hissed. “I have my last final this period. Would you move?”

When he didn’t immediately get out of her way, incensed, she attempted to push past him again and again he held her in place, pressing her gently but firmly by the shoulder against the wall. He leaned down into her face, disregarding her red-faced anger totally.

“J.J. Hart, one day you’re going to let your stubbornness get you hurt.” He said quietly speaking right into her eyes. “I know something is wrong. I know about you getting called to the office so much. I also know about the gifts, and you and I both know that your father isn’t sending them. I know some more stuff about it that even you don’t know.”

“What do you know about my business, Tommy? What? So now you got people out spying on me?”

“I got sources and resources, girl, that’s all I’m going to say about that. I use them when I have to, and I don’t give a rip how mad that makes you. But you need to let somebody who can help you know what’s up. Don’t try to tell me it’s nothing and make out like I can’t see what’s right in front of my face. If you don’t want to let me in on it, I don’t care. But J.J., please tell somebody. If you get hurt or something happens to you because you’re too pigheaded to get help, you’re going to be hurting a lot of people who care about you.”

She continued to glare at him, her eyes frosty blue and her body trembling under his hand with what he took to be rage. When she didn’t say anything, he continued. “But my guess is that you haven’t considered that aspect of it”

Angry himself at this point, he added coldly, “or maybe it’s just that you don’t give a damn.”

Tommy held her there a few seconds more, his eyes challenging hers, but when it looked as if she wanted to cry, knowing how she was about that, he let her go. He reached down, laced the fingers of her free hand quickly with his, squeezed, and then walked off to keep from embarrassing her further by seeing her cry. Fighting with himself, he didn’t look back to see what she was doing.

When he reached the stairwell with the large window that looked out onto the parking lot, he thought for sure that he saw J.J.’s mother getting into a car out there. The front plate was obscured by the car in front of it. Risking not making the bell, he waited for it to back out. When he could make out the faint ‘2Harts’ plate on the front of the Mercedes, he breathed a sigh of relief and continued on to class.

If anybody could get to the bottom of what was bugging J.J. Hart, Jennifer Hart was going to be the one to bring it out, one way or another.

________________________________________________

“Mr. Hart, your approving the financing for the additional insurance was what did it!” Stanley Frieson crowed from his place at the table in Jonathan’s office. “Baker couldn’t do it for them, and the planners didn’t think the Chicago developers had enough coverage and they were going to pull out. With that added financing, and the added protection, they went with us. I think they were more comfortable with the Hart name as well.”

Jonathan and Marcus Borland, his chief of operations were sitting at the desk, Jonathan in his seat and Marcus in the chair in front of him. Marcus looked satisfied with himself. He was always pleased when he could pull a deal off that brought a smile to the boss’s face. Last Friday, everything had been on the brink. Baker had put his son in charge of running things over at Baker Financial in an effort to match the smart young blood Jonathan kept recruiting for Hart. The young man was a financial genius, and his father hoped putting him in charge would give some direction to his seemingly aimless life. But Baker Jr. and his crew  had proven to be no match for Jonathan Hart. When Jonathan stepped in, as usual the scales balanced in Hart Industries’ favor. They had gotten the confirmation of acceptance that afternoon on their proposal.

Although Marcus knew that Jonathan was pleased about the outcome of the deal, he now sat before him with his chin in his hand looking a bit distracted. He had been that way most of the morning and afternoon.

“Jonathan, is something wrong?” He asked. “Are we boring you with all this?”

He noticed that Jonathan appeared a little preoccupied and distant as he answered, “No, Marcus. I’m fine. I’m really pleased about everything. I’ve just got some things on my mind.”

His phone rang. It was his direct line, the one to which only Jennifer or J.J. had access.

Marcus watched as Jonathan took the call, apparently from his wife, and noticed that crease form in that left eyebrow. There was trouble. Jennifer was doing most of the talking, and when he hung up from her, Jonathan immediately grabbed his suit jacket and his car keys.

“I have to go.” He said as he headed for the door. “Get in touch with Arnold and tell him to give me a call on my cell. I have some work for him. Call Lamb in security also. Give him the same message.”

Stanley and Marcus were left looking at each other in confusion. Finally Marcus picked up the phone and said, “I got Zayle. You get Lamb. Something serious is on the burner if he’s calling in Legal and Security.”

________________________________________________

There were eight “Anonymous” notations on her caller I.D. when J.J. came up to her room from dinner later that evening. She hadn’t been able to eat and when she asked to be excused, she could see her mother’s worried expression and father’s face turning crimson, but neither of them had said one word. Most likely her father had been talked into keeping silent by her mother. They were on the scent, she knew, and as much as wanted to, she just couldn’t tell them anything.

Tell them what? That her mother might be being followed? That she might be being stalked herself? How could she tell her parents something like that without freaking them out totally? What if it turned out to be nothing; just a joke somebody was playing; then she’d look like a fool. But what if it was real and something did happen to her mother as a result of it?

What if? What if…

One thing was for sure. If she told her father something like that, valid or not, he would have the entire Los Angeles Police Department on alert and Hart Security stationed at her bedroom door once he locked her in there. And then, even though he might want to do it, her mother wouldn’t tolerate being locked down even if she were in danger. She could tell him to leave her be, and he’d have to do it, at least as far as she would know about it. Being that she was just his daughter, she didn’t have that kind of power that her mother had over him.  Or he could insist on locking her mother down and then there would be this great big huge fight. Any way she looked at it, things were going to be a mess.

And that Tommy. He had his nerve coming at her like that. Who did he think he was getting into her business like that?

A friend. That’s what he was.

He cared and she had practically spit in his face when all he was trying to do was help.  The thought of how she had acted toward him in the hall at school made her feel terrible. She thought about how he took her hand after she had been so nasty to him. Why he continued to be her friend, she couldn’t understand. All of this was changing her personality and she didn’t like it. Not one little bit did she like it. She sat wishing that she could just lie down, go to sleep, and wake up again with all of it being just a bad dream.

As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t call Tommy just yet to tell him how sorry she was for treating him like that. He would want to know everything, and he was good at breaking her down. He had almost done it when they were in the hall at school. Tommy could be just as bad as Daddy sometimes when it came to being overly protective of her. He might even tell her father seeing as how they were so tight. Tommy couldn’t be counted upon for the quality of blind loyalty that Marnie was capable of delivering. But he could be counted upon to look out for her and to try to keep her safe.

Marnie had been calling every night, really late, to check on her after she knew that Jennifer Hart was likely to be asleep. They wouldn’t speak on the phone of it, not wanting to risk being overheard, but Marnie knew just what to say to make her feel better and to help her get to sleep. From the way that they were watching her, she knew that all of her close friends at school were concerned about her, even if they didn’t say anything. They all knew how she was, so they kept their distance and their tongues, but she could feel their eyes on her. The thought of all the good people in her life made her smile for a moment.

The history book was still on the desk.. The envelope still stuck inside it gapped the pages slightly and from her seat on the bed, it seemed to be beckoning to her. Taking a deep breath, she went over to the desk, got the book, and went back to the bed to sit down on its side. It took her a few minutes to open the book, and another few seconds get up the nerve to pull the still-sealed envelope out from between the pages.

Telling herself to stop being a wimp, she quickly, almost savagely, ripped it open. There was a card inside. It was one of those comical cards, brightly colored and wildly drawn. On the outside, it depicted a man dressed in a trench coat  with a thought bubble above his head that said, “Thinking of you”.

She opened it. There was another envelope inside with something in it. She took that envelope out completely to read the inside of the card. It read “But the questions is, what am I thinking?!” The same man on the front of the card was inside, smiling mysteriously. It had been left unsigned.

Her heart was racing and she had to tell herself to breathe as she tore open the second envelope. To her horror, there were five pictures of her apparently taken at the club on the past Sunday when she had that match. But they had been taken as she was changing her clothes after the tennis match! She had been alone, or so she thought, in the dressing room. Who could have done this? How? In each shot, the camera seemed focused to capture her most intimate parts.

None of them depicted her totally undressed, but someone had been spying on her and had seen her in her underwear. They could easily have seen her naked if she had chosen to shower there at the club instead of waiting until she got home so that she could wash her hair properly. Thank God her mother had been so anxious to leave after the match.

Someone had been peeking at her, and she had no idea who or why. Oh God…

A slip of paper fell from between the last two pictures. It was another typed note which read, “You are so pretty. You have a beautiful body. I bet your skin is soft. I want us to be together. I’ll let you know where to meet me and when. Find a way. Remember that I always know where she is and how to get to her.”

J.J. fell back on the bed, feeling absolutely violated and boxed in. She was terrified and panicked to the point of tears. Her body began to tremble and she couldn’t make it stop no matter how hard she tried to be still and calm down. Her chest hurt where it was once again becoming difficult to breathe.

There was a knock at the door which startled her back to reality. Grabbing everything, she hastily stuffed it all under a pillow and wiped at her eyes before she answered.

“Yes?”

“It’s me, J.J. May I come in?”

It was her mother.

“Um, I’m really tired, Mom.” She answered, continuing to wipe her face, trying to get it together. “I was just getting into the bed.”

“J.J., I’d really like to talk with you. Tonight.”

“Can it wait until morning, Mom. Please?” She was begging and she knew that it sounded in her voice, but there was no way she wanted her in there right then. Things were too out of control.

“I promise, Mom, we can talk the first thing in the morning. Please, I’m so tired.”

When her mother didn’t open the door to peek in, it surprised her. Instead she continued to speak to her from the other side, letting her know, “I’ll be here first thing, Justine. I want no excuses at that time, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Maybe in the morning she would have a better handle on herself as well as on dealing with the situation, whatever it was. Yes, she would get it together and tell both of them at breakfast. She’d tell them everything.

The argumentative sounding baritone voice, followed by the equally argumentative tone of her mother’s voice behind the door told her that her father had been with her mother at the time, which explained her mother not coming in. That was a very good thing. There was no way that she could have shown him the things that were under the pillow without dying of shame.

“Why me?” She whispered to herself, getting up to shut the blinds and draw the curtains on all the windows. “Please God,” She began to pray, “Tell me. Why me? I try to be a lady. I try to be good. Why her? Please don’t let anybody hurt my mother again.”

________________________________________________

He put the pictures in the top drawer of his desk in the study after looking at them for the hundredth time, it seemed. He couldn’t get enough of her. She was so lovely, so young and fit and quite well developed for such a young thing. Unlike the others before her, she was even interesting.

He had talked with her a couple of times at the club when he found her, oddly enough, working on her math homework while the other girls were using the facilities or having brunch. She was rumored to be a math prodigy and that was his strong point as well. But he first really noticed her in Chicago. She had flown in with her father who came to finalize the proposals for the development project. It was at the supper club where Hart had taken her for dinner that she caught his eye. It happened that he was there as well with his date for the evening, and she was on the floor dancing with her father. He noticed that she had the poise of a woman, but the youthful innocence of a child. That was such a stimulating combination. Then there were those newspaper pictures which served to reinforce that image in his mind.

He skimmed through his personal stack of photos again. There was nothing like a pinhole lens for that kind of job. If it weren’t for that handy little device it wouldn’t have been possible to get film to download stills from like those and the others that he had. The 35mm shots of Jennifer Hart had been worth the money too. Too bad hers weren’t like the girl’s. He’d like to see what she looked like stripped down to her skivvies. She looked real good fully dressed for a lady her age, especially in pants, shorts, or a tennis skirt. She rarely swam at the club. When she did, she stayed pretty much tastefully wrapped up. It seemed only that universally lucky Jonathan Hart got a good look at that.

School would be out after tomorrow and the girl would be more free to roam the city with her friends making her easier to access without risking drawing any undue attention. The time had come for a meeting. He was sure that he had her at the place where she was ripe for the picking. After the day that he had, with people all over him, he needed some stress relief. Nothing else was going his way.

Selecting one of her better pictures out of the pile before he locked the others in the desk drawer, he went into the bathroom to have some privacy.

________________________________________________

The sudden screaming and the dog’s barking had Jennifer up and frantically crawling over Jonathan’s sleeping form to get to the bedroom door. She frightened him awake, and then his daughter’s cries had him on her heels crossing the bedroom.

Jennifer tore open the door and raced across the hall, bursting through J.J.’s door just as Marie was turning the corner headed for the room from the back hall.

Third was just inside the door barking for them, and once they came in, he hopped up on the bed, barking and bouncing excitedly around the still screaming girl. J.J. was sitting up in the dark screaming, “Mama!” over and over hysterically.

Reaching her first, attempting to get hold of her, Jennifer was knocked away by J.J. as she flailed her arms wildly, yelling, “Get away from her! I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you if you hurt her!”

Jonathan, right behind his wife, caught her as she fell backward into him. Righting her quickly, he moved her aside to slide onto the bed and wrap his arms firmly around their daughter to hold her down as she thrashed violently against him, continuing to scream threats at the unseen attacker.

“J.J.!” He called to her. “It’s Daddy, Sweetheart. Wake up. Wake up!”

Marie turned on the bedside lamp and they could all see that in her sleep, she was fitfully crying as she persisted in her struggle against her father’s body. “Don’t hurt her!” She pleaded, still yelling through her tears. “I’ll do whatever you want, just please don’t hurt my mother. If you hurt her, I swear to God, you’ll pay for it! I’ll kill you!”

Jennifer having gone around to the other side of the bed, was now on seated the bed next to them. She pushed the excitedly frantic Third back and then reached in to firmly place her hand on her daughter’s forehead.

“I’m here, Sweetie.” She said using the tone that she used with J.J. when she wanted her to listen closely to what was being said. “He’s not going to hurt me. I’m right here, and I’m fine. Wake up.”

She left her hand pressed to J.J.’s skin and the girl began to relax in Jonathan’s arms. He maintained his hold while whispering next to her ear, “Wake up, baby. You were just dreaming.”

Opening her eyes, seeing both of her parents and Marie there in her room, J.J. was first confused and then, realizing what happened, she was suddenly overwhelmingly embarrassed. Reaching for her mother’s hand on her face, she took it and held tightly to it. The dam broke and she cried. It felt as if her heart were going to break. Although her father’s arms were still about her, she felt it when her mother embraced her also. She knew that she was crying with her. After a time, she heard her mother demand quietly through her own tears, “Tell us about it right now, J.J. I won’t wait another second.”

She tried, but unable to breathe enough to get the words to come, knowing that she was making her mother cry and her father worry, J.J. burst into another round of heartrending, choking tears, causing her parents to hold her even closer.

Marie who had been standing near them at the side of the bed, feeling helpless, reached behind Jonathan for something that she could see had been dislodged from under the pillows in the scuffle. Turning away from them to examine it, she found that the envelope contained pictures of J.J., very disturbing pictures. Filled with dread, she closed the flap down and slid it into the pocket of her robe. That girl was growing up just too pretty. She was a baby just yesterday, it seemed. Marie shuddered.

“I’m going to fix her some chamomile, Mrs. Hart.” She said.

Then, lightly tapping Jonathan’s shoulder before she turned to leave, she gestured for him to come with her when he looked up.

When they were together in the hall, she handed him the envelope.

“This was under her pillows.” She informed him. “It may be a clue to some of what’s been going on with her lately. I’m so sorry about this, Mr. Hart.”

As Marie went down the stairs, Jonathan turned on the hall lamp to check out the contents of the envelope. Once he did, he went directly into the master bedroom leaving J.J. in her mother’s capable hands. Those pictures weren’t something that Jennifer needed to see at the moment. She had obviously been on the money with her speculations that day in the park, and he recalled that just the thought of it had frightened her terribly.

At that moment, it was doing the same to him.

That call from Jennifer that afternoon after her visit with the counselor, got him started lining things up and the right people were poised and ready. Now it was time to put the wheels into motion. Nobody threatened his family, especially not like this. It was the dead of night, but he got on the phone anyway.

________________________________________________

Following her mother’s command to be told everything, J.J. slowly got up and went to her closet. Emerging with a box, she brought it to the bed where her mother sat waiting for her.

Earlier that previous afternoon, when she completed her end-of-the-year locker clean-out, she had brought the things home hidden in her backpack. At first she wanted to just throw them away, but something told her not to do that, so she stuck them in the boot box and put it all in the back of the closet instead.

Once she had delivered the box to her mother’s hands, she started to get the pictures out of the lingerie drawer to show her, too. But then, looking at her mother over on the bed looking stressed as she examined the gifts, and opened and read the notes, she thought better of it. If anything was to be done with those, she would give them to her father to handle. Her mother didn’t need to see those and wind up feeling as exposed as she was feeling. A picture could say a thousand words, she had been told, but that statement had never had as much meaning for her as it had in the last few days.

As her mother went through the items in the box, J.J. sat next to her watching her while slowly, stealthily, sliding her hand under the pillow to feel for the envelope that she had put there earlier. Not being able to immediately locate it, she had to conclude that either it was still firmly in place, but higher up, or her father had it. The last thought was beyond humiliating. When she felt for it further, and still couldn’t find it, she knew for sure where it had gone and why he hadn’t come back. Was he mad about it? Was he ashamed of her?

The tears began to flow again. She couldn’t stem them by willing them back like she normally could, and in hanging her head in shame and despair, a large droplet splashed onto the sheet near her mother’s hand.

J.J. closed her eyes, and she could feel herself pulling away from the situation. It was all too painful and degrading.

Then a pair of gentle hands took her by the shoulders and eased her down onto the pillows. The band was pulled from her ponytail and then the covers were pulled securely around her. She was kissed on both cheeks. Before the light could be turned off, J.J. heard her own voice meekly ask, “Will you stay with me for a while? Don’t go. Please.”

Even though she was feeling sort of out of body, the idea of being alone and in the dark was more than she could take, even in that distanced state of mind. The last thing that she wanted was for her mother to leave her. The hell with trying to be so grown and independent.

As she felt her mother sliding under the covers, J.J. could feel herself coming back to the present. She relaxed completely when those arms drew her close and that voice said, “I’ll be right here, Sweetie.” and it was her hand that wiped away the tears.

From here on out, things were going to be okay. Lockdown was surely coming, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all, given the circumstances of this ugly, ugly situation.

________________________________________________

When Marie brought the tea up, J.J. was peacefully asleep in Jennifer’s arms. She stood watching them from the door for a few moments before entering the room. Mrs. Hart loved that little girl and her daughter loved her right back. They were quite a pair. J.J. had been that finishing touch for Jennifer as far as Marie was concerned. Just as Max, their friend, had figured years ago, she was an excellent mother to her child. Marie was certain that Max was still watching over them and was somewhere with his chest stuck, still harvesting his wins over having been so right on that bet. He always did like to come out a winner when he had a good hunch, and he really hit the jackpot on that one from the very beginning. She continued into the room and offered the tea, which Jennifer accepted.

When Marie left them, Jennifer eased her sleeping child off her chest, onto the pillows and sat up to drink it while watching her sleep. Third lay on the bed next to J.J. with his hairy head draped across her legs, looking up at her from under his shaggy eyebrows as if he were challenging her to tell him to get down. Jennifer let him have his way for once. She hadn’t been able to get this third generation Freeway to unquestioningly mind her like she had his father and grandfather. He was as incorrigible as his sleeping true mistress.

She tried to make sense of what was going on. Who in their midst was this sick? Was it someone they knew? Whoever it was knew where and how to get to J.J. The girl was frightened for her. Why?

She knew that Jonathan was probably across the hall loading the clips into his guns. The likelihood of him doing that was quite strong given the contents of that box from J.J.’s closet that she asked Marie to carry in to him.

________________________________________________

Time was running out. School would be out for the year, and there wouldn’t be any more opportunities to get the messages to her. She didn’t pick up the phone calls, emails could be too easily traced by the Hart team of computer engineers, and there was no real way to get to her at home. As long as the contacts were away from home, the chances were better of things going his way. She wouldn’t say anything to anyone about it, if nobody knew to ask her. At first the hope had been to distract her father, but now that the deal was done, he could focus on her. He wanted to meet with her alone, to talk with her alone, to get her to see things his way. He really could be quite charming one-on-one when he wanted to be.

This would have to be it.

Continue to Secrets: Part Two

2 Responses to Secrets: Part One

  1. Louise says:

    not one usually for correcting mistakes, but I just thought a good use of spell check and grammar check will work. Eg (one to me word) (should be one word to me.)

    Like

    • Marie says:

      I don’t mind criticism in the least, but that’s all you have done so far. I am the first to admit that many of the earlier stories were written when I first went back to writing, and are in need of a going-over in terms of proofreading, which is a project for the future when I have more time. Tell me this, though, do you like the stories or not? If you don’t, then why bother to keep reading and sending negative comments? If you do like them, and that’s why you continue reading, then it would be more helpful to me if your critical feedback was balanced by the inclusion of something positive or encouraging.

      Like

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