As the last of her guests pulled off down the driveway, J.J. stood waving at the fading tailights.
It had been an awesome night, and she was so wonderfully tired. With her friends gone and with the party over, she all of a sudden felt a little lonely without her mother and father there, inside the house, waiting for her to come in. It was the first time that one of her parties ended without them being there. She guessed that this was what it was going to be like in not too many years to come when she would be on her own at school.
Good things would happen and they wouldn’t be there to share them with her. Oh well, she couldn’t stay in the cocoon forever.
Slowly, she meandered up the driveway, going around to the back of the house thinking about them and wondering if they were enjoying her surprise. There was nothing they enjoyed more than each other. Time alone together in a romantic setting was all she could think of to give to them as a present; they had everything else. They were always so into her that they didn’t take very much time to be with just themselves.
She could picture them standing at the rail, him holding her in his arms and both of them looking off into the night sky. It made her feel warm all over to know that her parents loved each other that way. She got teased a lot by her friends about them, and she would act offended when it happened. But the reality of it was that she admired her parents and their long-lasting love affair.
As she walked, the thought came to her, as it often did lately, that what they had was probably a once in a million years thing. It was highly unlikely to happen like that again to any other two people in that way. Wesley Singleton crossed her mind.
He was nice looking, smart, and usually a lot of fun. But he wanted too much from her. Her heart wasn’t something she could give to him or to any boy. It really didn’t feel like she would ever get to that place. Getting involved with people too deeply, especially boys, was risky business and she didn’t want to expose that much of herself to anyone.
Right after that last dance they shared, Wesley left the party. He was so bent out of shape with her that he left Juan, Beau, and Ollie to hitch rides with other people back to his house when they said they weren’t ready to leave with him at the time. Marnie tried to say that she was glad to see him go: she was still mad at him about his digs against Tommy, but J.J. cut her off from commenting on it; she didn’t want to hear it. Even though she didn’t want Wesley to continue his pursuit of her, she harbored no ill feelings toward him.
She felt badly about his leaving in that way, but what could she do? She told him how she felt, and he kept acting like he wasn’t hearing what she was saying. She had been taught all her life that the word no meant just that, and she stood her ground just as she had been taught to do. How else could she have handled it any better?
“Mi nieta, what are you thinking about so hard?”
When she rounded the corner of the house and entered the rear grounds, Tommy’s grandmother Josephina, or Ms. Fee, as J.J. called her, was outside seated at an umbrella table under a gas light. “I was hoping that you would come back this way.”
“Nothing really, Ms. Fee.” J.J. answered as she approached the table where the woman sat by herself with a drink in front of her. “What are you doing out here? I know that you aren’t out here just waiting for me.”
The only other people in the yard were the workers who were breaking the equipment down, the extra grounds staff her parents had put on who were beginning to clean up, and the pool man who was cleaning out the cups and other assorted foreign matter that floated in the water. Andre and his crew were on the soundstage taking apart the audio equipment for transport.
“Yes, I was.” Ms. Fee patted the chair next to her. “Sit with me for a minute.”
J.J. sat down and Ms. Fee took the shawl which was draped around her own shoulders and placed it around her bare back and arms. Until that moment, J.J. hadn’t realized how cool the night air had become. She smiled her appreciation as she pulled it tight and looked to the woman next to her.
Ms. Fee was a large woman, and very handsome. She had exquisite dark features, almost like one might find in a painting. Her thick black, silver-streaked hair was braided into a crown on top of her head. When J.J. sat down, Ms. Fee placed her bejeweled hand on top of hers.
“I had a very nice time, but before I left for the night,” She said. “I just wanted to talk to you, Justine.”
Leaning in toward her, J.J. said, “Yes Ma’am.”
Ms. Fee patted her cheek. “I first want you to know how much I have come to love you and to respect you. You have good family embracing you, many friends, and a good foundation. You are a very smart girl and you are going to be a beauty, just like your mother. You must take care that your inside is as beautiful as your outside. I’m sure that your mother has said that to you, but sometimes it does not hurt to hear a thing from more than one person.”
Wondering where she was going with this line of conversation, J.J. simply nodded, said, “Thank you.” and continued to listen.
“I wonder about something, though. I had been concerned about some things, and I spoke with your mother about them. She tells me that you don’t date boys yet. She told me that she doesn’t restrict you from it, and that she would even allow it if you wanted to. You are so pretty and seem so popular. I just wondered why? May I ask you that?”
J.J. cringed mentally. There it was again, that same old, tired question. It was purely out of respect alone that she answered it.
“I choose not to right now, that’s all.”
What concerns could Ms. Fee have that she had taken them to her mother? Her mother hadn’t said anything about having talked to Ms. Fee about any ‘concerns’.
To her mild surprise and inner relief, Ms. Fee smiled at her approvingly. “That is good.” She said. “You continue to do things when you choose to do them. Do them when you are ready and not when it is fashionable with your friends. You let no boys talk you into anything, do you hear me? That includes my Thomas.”
J.J. was taken aback. “But Tommy doesn’t try to push me into anything. We’re just friends, that’s all.”
Squeezing the smaller hand that still rested underneath her own, Ms. Fee persisted, “Did you hear what I said to you? That includes Thomas. I see things, Justine. I see things that others cannot. I know things that others cannot know. You hear what I’m telling you. And you keep listening to your mother. She is a very wise woman.”
“Yes, ma’am.” J.J. agreed. She was a little spooked, but at the same time a lot intrigued.
Was Tommy’s grandmother saying that she was clairvoyant or something? Of course, she wouldn’t have to be a seer to know that about Jennifer Hart being wise. Anyone who held the briefest conversation with her could tell that about her mother.
Ms. Fee lifted the glass in front of her and sipped slowly from it. “That is all I wanted to ask and to say to you. You go on in now. It gets chilly out here and you are too naked for this night air; thin shirt, no shoes. You don’t want your poor mama returning to find you ill.”
“What about you, Ms. Fee? Aren’t you coming in too?”
“Not just this minute. I like the night air and I have on more clothes than you. This good cognac from your father’s bar warms my insides. You go up to bed. It is late. Tell my daughter-in-law that I am out here if she is ready to go.”
J.J. stood, taking the shawl from her shoulders and placing it back around Ms. Fee. Then she bent to kiss her cheek. “Good night.” She whispered in her ear.
Tommy was so very fortunate to have found his abuelita after so many years of not having any family except his mother, J.J. thought. Before that neither of them had a grandmother. Now it seemed they both did.
Ms. Fee watched J.J. walk across the yard to the house. She moved gracefully, so long, and lean; she looked strong, healthy, and well-cared for. Such a beautiful girl, she thought to herself, just like her mama.
All of her life, she had been able to sense things that hadn’t actually happened to her. What she sensed when she looked at that young girl was that one day she would bear her bloodline. It wouldn’t be soon, but it would be.
For nearly seventeen years, she hadn’t known of her grandson’s existence, but she had silently sensed a presence in the universe that was connected to her. Once they met those few months ago, it was as if they had known each other a lifetime. She left her estate in Florida to be with him and his mother, who turned out to be a lovely woman. With them came that wonderful girl and her family. Justine’s parents, she knew, would be away from home for the next three days. That left her at home alone with her godparents who were busy having a clandestine affair of their own, and would probably not be paying much attention to what was going on around them.
Young Thomas would definitely be kept close and very busy at his mother’s home and at her condo for the next three days, or until Jonathan and Jennifer Hart returned home to properly oversee the activities of her grandson with their daughter.
Sipping from her glass, she mused once again that she had been right in withholding from Thomas the knowledge of his father’s sizeable bequest to him. There were those rare moments that she wasn’t so sure that she was doing the right thing. It was important to her that he not be corrupted by sudden wealth. He would come into his inheritance when he was twenty-four. By that time, if she and Jonathan Hart had anything to do with it, he would be a man. And if what she sensed for them was really coming to pass, he would be enough of a man to stand next to the woman Justine Hart was going to be.
“J.J., are you awake and decent, Squirt?” Came Pat’s voice over the intercom.
Turning off the blow dryer, J.J. pressed the button and answered. “Yes, I’m still up and I can get decent. Do you want me?”
“Can you come down? Someone says that you told them not to leave until they said goodnight to you.”
Smiling to herself, J.J. wrapped herself in her robe and slipped into her house slippers to go down and say goodnight to Russell. On her way out of the room, she stopped to smell the yellow roses on the night table next to her bed and got tickled once more at that picture of her mother that lay next to the vase.
Russell waited in the great room with Pat and Bill. The ambiance of the house was moving back to its customary tranquil state. Almost imperceptibly, the cleaning service worked in the background going about the business of putting things back in order. He sat on one sofa as J.J.’s godparents sat together facing him on the other.
“Well, we made it.” Sighed Bill. “It all went off as planned without any glitches. I know that Valentine was floored. He thinks he’s on top of everything. I don’t think he had a clue. How’d it go with you?” He asked Russell.
“Everything went well, Mr. McDowell.”
“Bill. All the cameras functioned properly. We had them positioned in the best places. I think my guys got some great still shots of the party and some good video footage as well. Overall, I’m pretty pleased. I hope the Harts will be too. We’ll send the film to processing in the morning and get the proofs and prints back to Mrs. Hart in a couple of days. Will you please let her know that if you talk with her tomorrow?”
At that point, J.J. walked into the room, and once again Russell felt his breath catch. She wore a floor length white satin robe. It was fitted and it tied with a broad sash at the waist. The skirt of it was full and floated around her. She wore satin slippers on her feet. Her hair was down and had been simply brushed straight back from her face. Since she almost always wore it up, he didn’t know that there was so much of it, but there it was framing her face, cascading over her shoulders, and down her back in thick, lush waves. It was the first time that he had ever seen it completely loose like that. She was completely different from the J.J. of the earlier part of the evening; much softer, and much more feminine.
As she came in, she had her hands in the pockets of the robe and she smiled at him. He stood to greet her noting that she wore that obviously very expensive satin robe as naturally as most little girls wore plain cotton or terry cloth.
“I see you remembered.” She said as she came to stand directly before him, holding her hand out graciously.
As he took it, he could smell her freshly showered scent. In the muted overhead lighting he could see those fetching freckles on her lovely face as she looked up at him.
“I just would hate to have to deal with you if I had forgotten.” Was his attempt to keep it lighthearted. “Did you have fun at your party tonight?”
“Oh yesssss!” She crooned as she dropped down onto the couch where he had been sitting prior to her arrival. “It was the best night of my life so far. But, I do intend to have even better ones as time goes by, you know. I believe in stepping it up a notch every time you do it. I’ve got some serious east coast parties lined up for my college years.”
“I bet you will and you do, J.J.” Russell laughed.
He tried not to stare at her, but there was no way make himself stop. She was like a magnet to his eyes. The only thing to do was to leave.
“Well, it’s getting late and I need to go. Good night Bill, Pat. Good night, J.J.”
J.J. stood, hugged him to her quickly and looked up to him speaking sincerely, “Thanks for being here for me, Russell. I appreciate you coming yourself. I know that you could have spent your Saturday night in a much more interesting place that a silly kids’ Sweet Sixteen party. You coming yourself, that meant a lot to me.”
“No sweat, J.J. You’re my good luck charm.”
She smiled that smile and stuck her hands back in her pockets.
She had no idea how much it meant to him to be there with her. And how much it hurt.
Wesley ended up leaving the guys in the guest house once they returned from the party, opting instead to spend the night in his own room in the main house. He needed to be alone in his frustration and misery. Beau was out there in a playful mood, fully aware of his having struck out with J.J. The ribbing from he and Ollie was going to lead to a major argument, or worse, if he stayed out there with them. Juan Carlos had been waxing poetic about that Spanish girl, Philly, since the moment they came in, and he didn’t want to hear about that either.
After taking his shower, he lay across the bed in his boxers trying not to think about that girl. But it was hopeless. He couldn’t get her off his mind no matter how many times he told himself to forget her.
Maybe it was as Ollie said, she was just too young yet. But other girls her age found him attractive. At school, he practically had to beat girls of all ages off just to get some peace. Why couldn’t the one girl he wanted cooperate? It had to be her age. Their backgrounds had too many common factors for it to be anything else. His parents were crazy about her, and in the summer when they were frequently partners in mixed doubles on the tennis courts at the Country Club, people frequently commented on how good they looked together. J.J. seemed to enjoy her life in Bel Air immensely. But why then did she seem just as comfortable, if not more, with Tommy and the people from his world?
There was simply no way that Tommy Steele could win out with J.J. over him. No way.
J.J. was top of the line. Tommy was middle of the road at best. J.J. was champagne. He was domestic beer. She deserved caviar, but a Big Mac was the best Tommy could provide for her. There was no way that she could possibly prefer Tommy to him, was there? How could she?
The goodnight kiss he’d hoped for hadn’t happened. He wondered if Tommy had gotten one from her.
There was just no way….
Tommy rolled over in his bed, wrapping himself in the covers. The night had turned out alright, except for that one moment where he thought he was going to have to put Wesley out of his misery. Good thing Marnie stepped in when she did.
He laughed to himself. That Marnie was a pip. She stood barely five feet tall, but she wasn’t scared of too much of anything or anybody, except like everybody else, J.J.’s mother. Whatever was on Marnie’s mind, that’s what she usually said without a moment’s hesitation. Her mouth was the cause of her getting put out of classes fairly regularly, consequently, she had VIP status in the detention center, but it was cool. She and the detention teacher were best buds. The funniest thing about Marnie was that when she spoke, people listened. As little as she was, she had a humongous personality and wielded a very big stick.
Lying back staring at the ceiling, it seemed he could still taste J.J.’s sweetness on his lips from that stolen kiss in the pantry. That was the only way he had ever been able to kiss her. She didn’t give them up on her own. It surprised him to no end that she didn’t try to take his head off like he thought she might.
It was strange. He had done that to her three times that he could remember, and at no time did she protest. But she once knocked another guy clear across the room in the eighth grade for just trying it. Any other guy coming at her even acting like he wanted to get close to her like that got met with that icy blue stare that seized up the poor joker’s heart. Just like that last look he saw her give Wesley when they were dancing that last dance right before he stormed off. Wesley must have gotten on her nerves one time too many with that begging and pleading thing.
J.J. looked so pretty at the party and she seemed to have so much fun with everybody. She was the only girl he knew like her, a total original. Other girls had their individual distinguishing qualities, but when it was all said and done, they could all be lumped into one category: girls. Not J.J. She stood apart from the rest and was herself; a very unique person who was very much in touch with who she was and what she stood for. Her confidence and fearlessness were what made her so attractive. He had always been drawn to her, but he also had enough sense to keep those feelings pretty much to himself. J.J. wasn’t looking for a boyfriend of any kind, and he was perfectly content to remain her good friend.
He had planned on calling her to see if she wanted to play a few sets on the court tomorrow afternoon. It would be Sunday and he had the day off from his part time job. But his grandmother had flagged him down right before he left the party to say that she wanted him to come by and move some things around in her condo for her tomorrow. He hoped she didn’t have too much for him to do and that it wouldn’t take too long.
Reaching under the bed, he pulled out the portfolio. After unfastening it, he went straight for the Justine Etchings, pulling out the last one, the one from the day at school when she read aloud to him. He had outdone himself on that one. J.J. didn’t know it, but he was entering that one in the scholarship competition. He had already lined up the guy to professionally mat and frame it for him.
Suddenly he remembered that Mrs. Hart was gone for the night and would be gone for the next three days and nights.
Reaching for the handset, he punched in J.J.’s number.
“Hey, girl?” He said into it when she picked up. “So, you’re pretty much home alone, huh? What’s up?”
“You, me, and whoever else we can get on this phone line with us.” She replied. “No Duchess tonight. It’s on for the phone, Tommy, all night until we get tired of talking. She is out on the Pacific somewhere not giving me a moment’s thought.”
Jennifer slowed her rubbing of Jonathan’s back as she could feel him easing into sleep. He was as sick as a dog, and she was thoroughly disgusted with him. Every year he did this and she ended up having to nurse him through these self-induced health crises. Most of their romantic first evening had been spent feeding him bicarbonate and sitting on his back massaging trying to move the gas pockets that formed from those chili dogs he had Ernesto smuggle in to him by God only knew who. Although she had him asked several times, he never would break down and admit to her just how many he had actually consumed.
Men. Who needed them?
Who was she kidding? Despite his incorrigible tendencies, that one she was sitting on was needed for sure. She leaned forward, rubbed his shoulders and kissed the back of his neck. Then she rolled off him onto her side of the bed where she lay looking out of the open porthole to the starry horizon.
There was no changing that handsome leopard’s spots. It would be twenty-six years in September that they had been together and still he played the ponies fervently, gambled at cards like a demon, played the crap table and roulette wheel whenever he got the chance, and ate every bit of junk food he could get down while she wasn’t looking. And his daughter was just like him in every one of those aspects. He taught her everything she knew along those lines, and unfortunately she was a quick study as well as an eager student.
The clock on the night table said that it was 2:30 a.m. She could just see that J.J. in that room of hers lying across the bed, deep into three-four-maybe five way conversation and Pat there without a clue. That is if Pat was still in the house, even. More than likely by this time she had made her way out to that guest house and she was doing with Bill what she should have been doing for the second or third time with the chili dog king snoring softly next to her.
J.J. Hart, their daughter, their child, her sweet girl. She was growing up to be a fascinating person. A very beautiful girl inside and out, a beautiful mind, a beautiful soul; she secretly made her mother proud every day of her life.
But that wasn’t something she could let J.J. know just yet. They weren’t at that place in their relationship. J.J. had to have at least one person in her life whom she felt she couldn’t run past under any circumstances. That person was her, even though there were a lot of times that she just wanted to laugh at the stunts that girl tried to pull, and the situations in which she managed to find herself.
Most of the world was J.J.’s oyster and she had the ability to charm people into doing her bidding. Thank God J.J. was just as clueless as she had been at her age about her power over men. And thank God doubly that J.J. had so many people in her life to assist her, to protect her, and to help her understand her femininity, unlike in her own early life.
Russell’s reaction earlier this evening drove it home. J.J. was just sixteen, but he could see the emerging woman in her already. Even though it was her daughter he was reacting to, Jennifer couldn’t help but feel some understanding of his situation. Russell was a good, solid young man, one she felt would never hurt J.J. He had been ashamed and embarrassed by what happened, she knew, but just the same it was something he needed keep in check. J.J. was hers for now, and was the one thing in life that she knew she could hurt someone over. Having kept a motherly vigil after that, she noticed that he hadn’t gone anywhere near J.J until that time that they were all together in the yard and he took their pictures.
Pat hadn’t said anything about it, but she knew that it hadn’t gone unnoticed with her either. J.J. was the child that Pat never had and she was very much in tune to her and the things that went on around her. At one point during the evening, she noticed Pat slipping out of the front door when she thought nobody was looking. It was right before the cake had been brought around. Jennifer suspected she was on her way to have a word with Russell. Even though he hadn’t stepped foot into the rear before that, it was Russell who ended up taking the pictures for the cake’s unveiling, which happened right after Pat went out front to where he had stationed himself.
Tommy’s grandmother, Fee was aware of J.J.’s drawing power too, only her concern was for both Tommy and J.J.
It was apparent that Fee was something beyond perceptive. They had been meeting and talking over lunches without anyone’s knowledge during the day as she helped Fee become acquainted with the Los Angeles area. During their talks, Fee had been able to tell her some things about herself that she had never revealed to anyone. She also told her that Tommy and J.J. were headed for something serious and that there wasn’t anything to be done about it except to keep a close watch on it and to keep the lines of communication wide open. That bit of information was not surprising. She had seen that relationship developing for herself although J.J. adamantly maintained that they were and would be just friends. Fee didn’t want Tommy to jeopardize his positive relationship with Jonathan over J.J., and she didn’t want Tommy and J.J. doing anything that might put J.J.’s bright future in peril.
It made her wonder exactly what Fee saw down the line for those two. She didn’t elaborate, and afraid to dig too deeply, Jennifer resisted asking. She was, however, grateful that J.J. had one more person in her life who had her best interests at heart. A girl couldn’t have too many people caring after her.
Rolling back over to get close to him, Jennifer hoped that Jonathan never got wind of Russell’s whatever for J.J. As crazy as he was about Russell, he would never be as understanding or forgiving as she had been. It was probably the same for Tommy, or any male who called himself having designs on Jonathan’s ‘baby’.
In his sleep, his stomach was still growling and rumbling.
She sighed. Maybe in the morning.
Her curiosity had gotten the best of her.
After getting off the phone, her ear a little sore, J.J. crept down the front stairs and went directly to the dining room. Just as she suspected, there were monitors everywhere. With Daddy gone, she guessed that nobody really knew what he wanted done with them, so they had been left in place. He left thinking that he was coming back, only he hadn’t. It was a loose end as far as keeping things undercover went, but it wasn’t her loose end. All her i’s had been dotted and her t’s had been crossed in her successful covert operation.
Even though she mildly resented having had her party under video surveillance, the technology involved was, of course, fascinating to her. She walked around the table checking each one to see what areas had been monitored. There was the well area out back where Marnie had gotten busted. Yep, Marnie would have been cold busted. Whoever was watching had a nice clear shot of her sneaking out there with Beau. She had warned her to slow her roll on that, but Marnie wouldn’t listen and ended up having to go upstairs to get raked over the coals.
Circling the table, J.J. realized that a camera had been set to monitor the gazebo. It had to be up in a tree. Good thing Marnie got caught at the well. If she had made it to the gazebo…
There was movement on the monitor at the end of the table. It was the front of the house, the driveway specifically. Peering closely J.J. could see two figures. It was Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat. They were going to the guest house! They were holding hands!
The two figures stopped and kissed, then they held hands again and proceeded on their destination. They disappeared from the screen.
J.J. stood back in shock. She immediately wondered if her mother had her cell with her so she could call her and tell her. Did she know about this? Oh man, this was way too much be holding on to without telling it to somebody. She knew something was up with them! They were way too chummy on this visit. Come to think of it, they were always sort of overly chummy for two people who lived in opposite parts of the country. Maybe she hadn’t noticed it so much before because she was younger.
Well sir… It couldn’t have happened to two nicer people, she guessed.
How in the world was she going to look them in the eye in the morning knowing what she now knew about them? She’d be up all night now listening to see what time Aunt Pat crept back in the house trying to make it look like she had been up there in the guest room the whole night.
Damn. Being nosy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was really hard work and a lot of responsibility.
Where was Jennifer Hart when she needed her? This was all her fault for being gone.
If she had been home, her mother would have busted her coming down the stairs just now. She never would have made it to the dining room, and this never would have happened. No, she would have busted her for being on the phone when she started out cutting up two hours ago, and she’d be sleep and totally clueless by now.
Oh well, she was sixteen years old and maybe it was time to take charge of and deal with some things on her own. Loose lips had been known to sink ships. She resolved that she saw and knew nothing. About anything.
Closing the doors to the dining room, she proceeded to the kitchen where she fixed herself a glass of milk.
As she did, she wondered if her parents had time to change out of their Vern and Edna outfits before they left. If not, was her father fulfilling his fantasies with that cheap blonde.
Jennifer Hart would not be turned on by Vern, no way. Not in those red pants and that tacky plaid jacket.
Her parents were so weird. She shuddered. Just plain old weird, sick- and disgusting- and she needed something else to think about.
Leaving the kitchen, she climbed the front stairs to return to her room. Passing their bedroom with its doors open and the lights out, she had a moment of feeling very alone.
She put herself to bed, hugging her dog, Third, and thinking about all the dynamics of that marvelous sixteenth birthday, and of all the people who helped make up her wonderful life.