The Main Event
Unnerved by his strong, unexpected, entirely unprecedented reaction to that sixteen-year-old child behind him, Russell Thomas allowed the Hart’s housekeeper to lead him into the other room to meet with Jonathan Hart. When the man turned from the monitor he was watching to greet him, he was unnerved once more. His daughter’s eyes were the same blue as his, and just as penetrating. He wondered if Mr. Hart would be able to see through him to the roiling turmoil he felt inside. Russell struggled to get his racing thoughts under control to face the girl’s father and to see what was needed of him. Praying that he didn’t look as confused and anxious as he felt, he extended his hand to his benefactor.
Jonathan Hart smiled, greeted him, and then stood to shake his hand. He introduced him to his friend, the large man who stood beside him, Bill McDowell. Jonathan called for the attention of the other men in the room and he introduced Russell to them as the man in charge of the video surveillance, and gave them the instruction that they were to direct any technical issues to him for that night. These were Hart private security and some of the men in the room were old enough to be his father. Certainly most of them were older than he, but he could see that Jonathan Hart’s evident confidence in him was transferred to the men to whom he was speaking. In whom Jonathan put his trust, they followed suit. They all nodded in compliance, and one gentleman took the opportunity to call him over to look at something with his machine. Russell was grateful for the diversion. It would give him the opportunity to get his mind on something else other than what had just transpired out there in the hall.
J.J.’s godmother stuck her head in the door at that point to call for Jonathan and Bill to come out and see J.J. off. Just before they headed out of the room, she made sure to look over at him and catch his eyes with her own. He thought that he could see concern and, strangely enough, compassion there.
J.J.’s intro song, “Escapade”, was ending and the dance line she had been leading around the pool was clapping and cheering wildly. Just as Wesley thought that he was going to get his opportunity to get close to her, Andre called out to J.J. from the soundstage over the microphone to inquire, “Keep it going, J.?”
“Yeah!” She yelled back. “The next cut is my personal favorite!”
He let it play, and the ground vibrated beneath all their feet as the first beats of “I Miss You Much”, also by Janet Jackson, blared through the speakers. J.J. closed her eyes to feel it and let her body move with the music. She absolutely loved and enjoyed music.
Filtering through her reverie, she heard her girlfriend, Philly’s voice, “J., let’s do this.”
She opened her eyes to find that four of her girlfriends, Philly, Pilar, Brittany, and Charmaine with the Dreadlocks were positioned on either _side of her. On Philly’s cue all five girls began to move in a synchronized dance routine which they had put together earlier in the year and often performed at school dances, and sometimes in the locker room upon request. J.J. and her ponytail were dead center and she and the girls always brought down the house. Everyone gathered around to watch them.
He didn’t know how it happened; it certainly wasn’t planned, but Wesley found himself in the crowd standing right next to Tommy Steele who was clapping to the beat and watching the girls with apparent great appreciation.
“I didn’t know that she could do that.” Wesley said almost sullenly, but loud enough for Tommy to hear. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to keep up with her if he asked her to dance on a fast tune. This was the west coast. They didn’t dance like that up at his school. J.J. could work it just like those ethnic kids she was with out there. Tommy probably could do that too.
Tommy looked over to Wesley’s seemingly disapproving face with an amused interest.
“J.J. likes to dance, and you can see she’s good.” He said. “I thought you knew that.” He genially held out his hand. “How’s it going, man?”
“I’m great.” Wesley answered as he shook hands with Tommy. “All they’ve been playing since I’ve been here is pop and R and B. Doesn’t she like metal or jazz?”
Tommy scratched his chin. “Now that you mention it, I don’t think she cares too much for metal. I never hear her listening to it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her mention metal, and she talks music all the time. Can’t really dance to it, I guess. I know she likes jazz. She and her parents are into that. In fact J.J. likes most everything else, even some country and western. We’ll probably be line dancing at least once tonight.”
The thought that only J.J. Hart could make that happen at a party for teenagers in west Los Angeles made them both laugh despite their discomfort at being in each other’s presence.
The DJ called through the music over the mike, “Tommy, wherever you are, the girls want you front and center.”
“Excuse me.” Tommy said to Wesley. “I’m being summoned.”
Wesley watched as Tommy moved forward in the crowd toward the pool’s edge where J.J. and her friends continued to perform. The music smoothly segued into a romantic ballad and Andre announced, “The birthday girl is sharing her first dance of the night with Mr. Tommy Steele. The rest of you guys eat your hearts out and all of you all, stand back give ’em room.”
Wesley’s heart tightened as J.J. excitedly hugged Tommy in greeting and he kissed her cheek, mouthing “Happy birthday” to her and stood back to obviously comment on her outfit. It was the first time that they’d spoken that night and they seemed happy to see each other, too happy to suit him.
For the first few minutes the two of them danced alone. The cameras flashed from every direction.
Those pictures would probably make the society section of the papers, Wesley thought to himself. He sorely wished that it was he who was dancing with her at that moment. That color was so pretty on her and those pants were smoking. With her eyes being so blue, he thought that she must look striking up close.
Finally Andre spoke into the mike again, “Okay, the rest of you can come on and join in now.” and J.J. and Tommy were joined by several other dancing couples. With that, the party officially started.
Wesley stood musing on how everyone here seemed to know Tommy. Security knew him when he got there. Mr. Hart treated him like family. He and J.J. had many of the same friends. The DJ even seemed awfully familiar with him. As he and J.J. danced, laughing and talking with each other, they appeared very comfortable out there. He knew all about what music she liked and disliked. What else did he know about her? There were so many guys present who had money and came from Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Burbank, etc. but she asked Tommy to dance with her on the first dance. What in the world did she see in, at best, lower middle-class Thomas Steele?
He had definitely been gone away to school too long, and the Harts were letting J.J. spend too much time out of proper society.
“Looks like ol’ Tommy’s beatin’ your time out there, Wes.” Beau drawled in his ear, cutting into his thoughts. “Better stake out some other claim, guy, before everybody is all partnered up with the pretty ones.”
Wesley turned his head to find his friend standing behind him, smiling, with his arm around J.J.’s friend, Marnie. She was looking up at him with a subtly smug look on her pixie face.
“How are you, Wesley?” She inquired, her cute dimples flashing as she smiled. “Have you had a chance to speak to J.J. yet? She asked about you when she saw that Beau was here.”
“I’m fine, Marnie. It’s good to see you.”
Marnie always made him nervous. As petite and cute as she was, her appearance was deceptive. She looked like a doll, but both she and J.J. were sharp and as tough as nails in their own ways. And that Marnie could curse like a grown man; she would at the drop of a hat. They were both extremely close and very protective of one another. She was also good friends with Tommy. With the way that she was looking at him now with her misleadingly innocent big brown eyes, he could tell that he would have to watch himself around Marnie.
“No, I haven’t had the chance to speak with her yet.” He answered.
But he would before too much time went by tonight.
Just as her mother would do at a social event that she was hosting, J.J. was circulating among her many guests. She had just come from getting something to drink in the food tent, which was full of people she had to greet, so she had been held up in there a lot longer than she had planned to be. While there and looking at all that was being served, she wondered how her father was going to meet his junk food quota this year since he wasn’t to be outside.
Her mother, she knew, was not allowing any of it to be served in the house. There was an entirely different, more sophisticated, bill-of-fare being offered inside, and knowing him he was turning his nose up at all of it. He would probably wind up sending somebody from security out to smuggle something in to him. Her daddy never could resist a good chili dog. He had an in with everybody, even Ernesto, the head caterer for the party. Being the good guy that he was, he was on everybody’s A list. Somebody would hook him up.
The party was jumping. Everybody from school was there. The cool people from the Country Club, from around the city, from out of town, and everywhere had shown up. Somebody with an in with one of the local printers must have made copies of the invitations, because there were several people present whom she realized she had forgotten to invite, but who had gotten in just the same. And just like her mother said, ‘the more the merrier’ as far as she was concerned.
She had been talking and dancing most of the early evening, and now she was walking with Wesley, who seemed to be trying to talk her into dating him steadily, just as Marnie said that he would.
Marnie had pulled her to the side earlier and let her know that Wesley had been giving Tommy the fish eye as he danced with her on the first dance. Now he was making her oddly uncomfortable with his physical closeness. She really wished that he would back off some, but she didn’t want to be rude or to hurt his feelings, at least not right out of the gate.
“So, are you seeing anybody, J.J.?” He asked after they greeted each other. Her insides winced as he took her by the elbow, trying to move her off the path onto the grass to a spot where she guessed he was hoping they could be alone.
She had to stop herself from jerking away in annoyance before answering, “I don’t date exclusively, Wesley. I’ve told you that so many times.” As graciously as she could, she removed her arm from his hand and returned to the pavement.
“I just thought things might have changed by now. Come on, J. You’re sixteen. Who are you holding out for, Prince Charming?”
That made her angry and the fine hair prickled on her neck. She had never been anybody’s dreamy little girl; Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny had never been real for her at any point in her life, but she really didn’t want to argue with him. This was her night and she would not let his silly, insulting comments ruin things for her. He only said what he said because he just didn’t understand her at all. But just the same, he had to be set straight. Stopping in her tracks, she turned to face him, giving him her most direct stare.
“Wesley, was my switch supposed to flip or something this morning just because I turned sixteen? I’m still the same person I was yesterday with the same feelings and attitudes, and I’m still not ready for that. There’s no magic number as to when I will be ready for that. It’s not a matter of waiting for anything or anyone. It’s my choice.”
He realized that he was pushing her too hard, and that she was feeling pressured. Even though her back was up at this point, she was so pretty. He had been right about that blue outfit and her eyes. As much as he wanted her to be his girl, pushing for it was not going to work. J.J. would just dig in, close up, and possibly shut him out. So he downshifted to soft-pedal his pitch.
“I’m just saying, I would think that a girl as attractive as you would have had all kinds of boy friends, and at least one steady by now.”
She shook her head, exasperated by his linear thinking, and resumed walking slowly. He followed and then fell into step next to her.
“I have, Wesley.” She said. “I have had and do have a lot of them. I know all kinds of boys and they are all my steady friends. You’re included in that number, and that’s quite enough for me right now. You’re just going to have to accept that.”
“But, look, I-”
A male voice called from an umbrella table off in a corner by the side the pool, “Hey J.J.! Deuces are wild over here! You in? First hand’s already staked for the birthday girl!”
A card game! Yes! A free hand too? All bets were on. One hand was all she needed to get a foothold on running the table.
“Excuse me, Wesley.” She said breathlessly, instantly relegating him to the back burner and heading for the table. She took the empty seat being moved out for her.
“Just one hand, and then I gotta go back to my guests.” Wesley heard her say as she left him standing there.
“Aw girl, who you trying to kid? One of the other players loudly laughed. “You know you can’t play anybody’s one hand. Just relax. It’s your birthday. Nobody’s going to be sweating you tonight.”
“Stanley, what is it with this thing? We’ve been fooling around with this guy for a week now, and we have yet to get him to commit or to even keep a scheduled meeting with us.” Jonathan said into the phone where he had taken his call upstairs in the back hall. He was trying hard to keep his voice down. “You know that’s not how we do things. Do we really want to get involved with somebody who’s this flaky before we even get to the table?”
He didn’t want to be overheard talking business on J.J.’s night, but he was becoming very uneasy. What was it about this deal that Marcus kept bothering with it? Now it seemed that he even had Stanley Frieson, his top financial man involved in it. In the past when negotiations got sloppy like this, Marcus would simply inform the other party that Hart Industries wasn’t interested and either the other end would come through or they would drop out altogether. For some reason, this deal wasn’t going down like that. What was all the intrigue behind this one? Wild horses were not going to drag him into getting involved in this tonight…he hoped.
“Look,” He directed. “Talk to this character and tell him that I said either come through in a professional manner tonight or he can kiss my ass in the morning. Then hang up the phone and you and Marcus get over here to play some cards and eat. Jennifer has asked about both of you twice already.”
Jennifer and Pat took a platter of food and some drinks in to the security men in the dining room. The guys looked up gratefully from their work .
“See anything interesting?” Jennifer asked, looking over the shoulder of the man closest to her to his monitor as she put the tray down on the sideboard. She could see two lone figures walking together.
“Been tracking these two.” The man said pointing. “They’ve wandered off from the party. They’re way out on the back end. A girl and a boy.”
Pat immediately hurried over to see, praying that it wasn’t her girl what with her mother standing there to witness it.
Jennifer looked carefully at the shadowy figures moving on the screen, the male was tall and muscular, the female was petite and shapely, and they were holding hands.
“Marnie.” She concluded aloud to nobody in particular. “Do you have a man out in that area?” She then asked the man at the monitor.
“Yes, Mrs. Hart. Should I radio him now? I was going to in a minute anyway to have them sent back to the party.”
“Yes. Send the boy back to the party, but have that little female package picked up and delivered straight to my bedroom to me personally.”
Jennifer left the room to wait upstairs for her invited guest as the man relayed the message over his two-way. Pat remained in the room, feeling sorry for poor Marnie. She was in for it. In talking to J.J., she knew that Jennifer had a thing about girls getting themselves into tight spots alone with boys.
“Where’s J.J.?” She asked aloud.
Somebody had to have her in their sights. Might as well check on her girl while her mother was gone. At least she could get word to her to straighten up if she happened to be out of line which, was a distinct possibility given the situation and the red-headed party in question.
“Right here.” Answered another man who sat grinning at his monitor on the other side of the room. “She’s busy cleaning clocks. This is her third hand.”
Pat went over to his monitor. J.J. was standing, straddling a chair with her back to the camera at a well-lit patio table near the pool. Suddenly, she could be seen slamming a suit of cards onto the table and throwing up her hands as if in victory. The other players dejectedly lay down their cards. A couple of seconds later, J.J. was collecting paper money from the others at the table. She then stuck the folded wad of money down her bosom.
After all, she didn’t have pockets and she had enough up top to conceal and hold it there. Pat shook her head. That girl was so damned cute. Her goddaughter looked every bit her mother at sixteen, and that evolved-into-elegant Jennifer Edwards Hart would kill her for sure if she could see her.
“Send word to her to come in here to me for a minute.” She said to the man.
Entering by the side door, J.J. got momentarily sidetracked by the adults’ card game going on just inside. Her Uncle Bill was seated at the table. She instantly checked out the other hands she could see in passing and then stood over him a minute studying his hand. He looked up and smiled, “What’re you doing inside, Beautiful?”
“Somebody said Aunt Pat wanted me.” She answered, sliding her arm around his neck and squeezing his shoulder just a touch. He caught the signal immediately. After all, he was the one who taught it to her.
“Fold.” He said throwing his cards on the table just as Pat came into the room from the kitchen and gestured for J.J. to come to her.
J.J. then followed Pat into the kitchen where her father sat at the table hunched over a chili dog, hurriedly wolfing it down. Third sat at his feet, hungrily eyeing him in a fruitless attempt at gaining a morsel for himself. Poor Third. There would be no crumbs.
“Daddy, you’re going to be sick.” She said to him.
Talking with his mouth full, he answered. “But it’ll be worth it, baby. These are so good. Nobody caters them like Pink’s.”
Just then Marnie was escorted inside via the back door by one of the security men. The two girls’ eyes met briefly, but nothing was said as Marnie was taken through the kitchen and then the door to the great room. J.J. looked questioningly to Pat who informed her, “You’ll find out soon enough. What are you out there doing?”
“Nothing.” J.J. answered. Pat noticed that she immediately dropped her eyes and began poking at the grout in the tiled floor with a bare toe. “Just entertaining my guests, that’s all.”
Little truth-skirting scamp. Pat wanted to laugh.
“Look, I just wanted to remind you to not be out there doing anything that Jennifer is going to lower the boom on you for doing if she could see you. This is your night to howl, I know, but keep it clean. You don’t want to end up on punishment or anything as the result of something that happened at your own party.”
J.J. narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What are you talking about?” She asked.
“This is strictly a warning shot. I just know you, Squirt. Your train sometimes jumps the track.”
J.J. looked skeptically at Pat and then over to her father who was picking the last of the chili dog from the paper holder with his fingers. From over on the other side of the kitchen, she caught sight of Marie holding up four fingers to her and nodding toward her father. He was going to be sick for real when it was all said and done. Her mother wouldn’t get any rest this evening when this over and he was up walking the floor; she’d be up all night with him.
“I’m being a lady.” She finally pouted to Pat. “I haven’t done anything that shameful yet. In fact, I’ve done a couple of things that might make some people kinda proud.” She shifted her eyes to her father who was now at the trash can getting rid of the evidence, and she quickly pulled at her top, adjusting her bra and all of its contents.
Edge of one of those bills must have been cutting into her meat or something, Pat wryly noted as she watched her.
J.J. still had her eye on her father, who was now opening cabinet doors. “There’s some mints in that one over there, Daddy.”
“Thanks.” He said, going over to get them.
“Why are you bringing me up here?” Marnie implored. “Who wants me? What did I do?”
Panicked, she had an idea, but that couldn’t be what it was. How could she possibly know?
“Mrs. Hart said for you to meet her up here.” The man in the suit answered as they went up the massive front staircase with Marnie dressed in a two piece red swimsuit, her hips covered by a gauzy, brightly colored scarf.
Talk about being dead meat.
He walked her as far as the landing. From there Marnie could see Jennifer Hart standing in the door of the master bedroom. She was leaned against the frame with her arms and one leg crossed. Dread flooded her heart. It had been a while since she’d been called to task by The Duchess for an indiscretion.
“Damn.” She thought. “My ass is grass and there’s the freaking John Deere up there waiting for me dressed in that sharp Versacci. Shit!”
Steeling herself, she turned with the stairs to walk the last mile to meet Mrs. Hart only to have the door shut behind them once she was inside the room with her.
J.J., back outside, had stopped next to the pool to linger for a minute with Philly, Charmaine, and Sidney. Nobody seemed to know what the story was on Marnie and why she got called into the house.
Sidney was complimenting J.J. on her outfit. “Girl, those are some mighty snazzy pants you’re wearing tonight. I know you didn’t get those from around anywhere here unless you went up on Rodeo to one of those boutiques with your mother. As classy as she is, she would never have let you buy that junior-hooker-slash-wrangler outfit if she was with you at the time.”
“Forget you Sid.” J.J. answered, unable to hold back a giggle at what Sidney said about her pants and her mother. “They were made in New York. My godmother had them done up and brought them to me as a birthday gift.”
“Speaking of which…” Said Philly as she pulled a shirt bag from under her chair. “Me and my brother, Hector, we brought you this. We saw it and Hector said that it was you. Happy birthday.”
Opening the bag, J.J. extracted a black tee shirt. She held it up. The front of it read, “I Have Issues” in white letters. Each letter ‘e’ was printed backward.
She laughed out loud, “Yes, this is me all the way. We need to all get them and then all wear them on the same day. Bet that would make the teachers nervous.” She leaned down and hugged Philly. “I’ll catch Hector later and thank him. You know what I’m going to have on come Monday morning.”
All the while, she had been watching the doors for Marnie’s return. Finally, she emerged from the house and J.J. could see her standing and scanning the crowd. Knowing that she was looking for her, J.J. waved and caught her attention.
“So what happened with you?” She asked when Marnie returned to the fold.
Everyone else sat forward to hear. Marnie Benson could weave/curse a story better than anyone, especially if she was the subject and there was trouble, which she usually could talk her way out of.
But the usually unflappable Marnie didn’t answer right away. In fact, she looked rattled as she eased herself down on the end of the chaise lounge in which Charmaine was seated. She exhaled and wiped her brow with the cool damp napkin she took from under Charmaine’s drink. When she answered, her tone was hushed and subdued.
“Got called to the throne room, J.J. The Duchess somehow busted me going to the back end with Beau.”
Looking up at J.J. who stood over her with her hands on her hips, she continued, “J., something weird is happening. How the hell did she know where I was? She called me up there and reamed my ass out about being down by the well with Beau. We were actually on our way to the gazebo, but the guard caught us at the well before we could get to the gazebo. If she’s all the way in the damned house how could she see me and who I was with way down there? You know I was too scared to ask her at the time. Her eyes had turned light brown and stuff. It was like she was really freaked about me being out there with him by myself or something. And then she doesn’t yell or anything. That makes it worse.”
J.J. could see that Marnie was actually beginning to perspire. Tiny droplets had formed across the bridge of her perky nose, and she was now fanning herself with the napkin.
“It felt like she held me up and pressed my ass against the cross, J.J., like I was you or somebody. She stopped short of getting the nails out of the nightstand and hammering me the hell up on it.”
Everybody around her snickered at her depiction of the events.
“I told you to slow your roll.” J.J. reminded her. “She gets real nervous about things like that, and she probably was having a J.J. moment knowing you were out there with that nineteen-year-old boy. You just turned sixteen. You know that she thinks it isn’t safe to be out there like that. Beau is so much older than you, and you know what a tease you can be. You could have gotten yourself jammed up and there wouldn’t have been anybody to help you get out of it. And yeah, I agree something is definitely up with how she knew.”
“That’s exactly what your mother was up there saying about me being with Beau.” Marnie ran her hand nervously through her shiny, bobbed hair . “She even called me a little tease, J. When I said I wasn’t teasing him, then she flat-out wanted to know if I intended to go all the way. She asked me that out loud and expected an answer from me! I was so mortified. If I was going to do that would I tell her I was?”
J.J. held back on a snicker. Her mother did not bite her tongue and was not nervous about asking anything along those lines, unlike Marnie’s mother who rarely spoke on those matters at all. Most of what Marnie knew and learned came from Jennifer Hart directly or indirectly through her.
“So, what did you tell her?” J.J. asked.
“Of course I told her no! You know I don’t do that! I almost told her, “hell no”, but I caught myself in time.” Marnie exclaimed, almost shouting with hysteria. “Then she said that I was leading him on going out there with him if I didn’t intend to follow through all the way; talking about that’s what ‘teases’ do and how they get hurt. Did she really think I was going out there to do it with him?”
Sidney smacked his lips skeptically.
“Marnie, did you just tell Mrs. Hart that to throw her off the scent or did you really intend to give it up when you got out there with him, like I think you did.” He chided her from his seat on the end of the chaise lounge next to her. His expertly arched eyebrows were raised and there was a smirk on his glossy lips. “That Beau’s certainly some hunk. I mean, I know what my intentions would have been if it had been me.”
Marnie eyed him hard, and gave him the hand, dismissing him. “That’s you, Sid. I’m not the cheap skank that you are. You know perfectly well that I’m not like that. But I’ll be happy to let Beau know that you’re interested in him, even though I don’t think you’re his type and it’ll probably spook him to no end.”
“Then why were you going out there with him all by yourself and dressed like that?” Sidney asked, gesturing toward her, rocking his head. “You must be a little teasing tramp, just like Mrs. Hart said you were.”
Marnie lunged forward, her hands on their way to Sidney’s throat. He backed up, out of her reach, giving off a high-pitched terrified scream, and holding up his own hands in mock horror.
“Just stay on this end of the grounds, Marnie.” J.J. said calmly, holding Marnie back by the shoulders and easing her back onto the chair before she and Sidney could get into one of their vicious verbal cat fights. “Leave her alone, Sid.”
She stood upright after holding Marnie down until she regained her composure, Then she tapped her own chin with her finger thoughtfully.
“And yeah, something is up. There’s got to be cameras out here everywhere. I got called in by Aunt Pat. I think she must have seen me playing cards over by the pool. That’s why I was in the kitchen when you came in with the guard. I don’t know why I didn’t figure that out. I should have known that Daddy had something up his sleeve when he agreed to stay in the house. That’s probably what’s going on in the dining room. We’re all on video in there. The bad part is I can’t even try to locate them all because they’ll be able to see me looking.”
“J.J.” Charmaine, the voice of reason in the group, finally said. “There’s no need for all that espionage. We’re just here having a good time tonight. Why sweat it? Nobody’s doing anything wrong and the cameras are here for our protection. Just forget about them. Anybody who gets in trouble, probably needs to be called on it.” She looked pointedly at Marnie who hung her head- just a little.
J.J. nodded slowly in agreement. Charmaine was right. Maybe it wasn’t worth the trouble of wasting time on that. Her daddy always told her that she should choose her battles. She quickly chose to not fight this one. At least he was keeping his end of the bargain so far and was keeping his body in the house.
She felt someone take her by the arm. It was Juan Carlos, her friend from Argentina. She hadn’t had the time to greet him personally. Until that moment, they had somehow always been on opposite sides of the pool. He hugged her briefly and as he did, Philly gestured to her behind his back to be introduced to him.
J.J. released him and introduced him to everyone, pointedly leaving Philly for last.
“I have been wondering who this lovely lady was all evening, J.J.” He smiled at Philly who was wearing a beautiful one- piece green bathing suit under a filmy white cover-up. the combination was wonderful on her olive skin with her long black hair. ” Would you like to dance, Phylicia?” He asked.
Readily consenting, Philly went off to the pool’s side with Juan Carlos, tapping J.J. a dainty fingertip high five as she left their circle.
Wesley happily observed that exchange from his seat on the other side of the pool.
Well, that was one out of his way.
Pat met Jennifer as she came back down the stairs from speaking with Marnie.
“Everything okay?” She asked.
“I think I made my point.” Jennifer answered. “She’s like her friend; was squirming the whole time and then had to pee the minute I got finished her. That Marnie is such a little flirt. It’s most likely genetic. Her mother is petite, cute, and coquettish like that. She’s been married and divorced three times and I don’t think she’s much past forty if she is actually forty yet.”
Jennifer stepped down from the last step where she had been standing. She continued. “They just don’t realize how dangerous going off on their own like that can be. They’re just children trying to be so grown so fast. And she’s so small physically going off with that great big boy.” She shook her head slowly at the thought. ” Even grown women can get in trouble with that. It just makes me so mad when they don’t think and put themselves in harm’s way.” For a moment she seemed to drift away, and then just as quickly, she returned. “Have you checked on our child lately?”
Pat had been watching the concern in Jennifer’s face the entire time that she had been speaking. That going off alone anxiety of hers started with the Elliot Manning incident and all these years later it seemed to continue to bother her at times, especially as J.J. was getting older. Jennifer never volunteered the details of that incident, and in waiting for her to tell, she had never asked her what happened. After a time, Pat realized that Jennifer wasn’t going to be forthcoming about it and she left her alone with whatever it was. It hurt too badly to speculate on what she suspected might have happened to her.
In their conversations, what her mother would say to her about watching out for herself would come out in things that J.J. would relate to her. Jennifer’s fears could be heard in what J.J. would say, although the girl didn’t seem unduly fearful herself. But it was clear that her mother’s words made a deep impression on her, and that she was listening. Pat wondered if J.J. ever sensed something troubling in Jennifer as well. She had always been a very intuitive child, particularly when it came to her mother.
“She’s fine, Jen. She came in for a minute and spoke to me. She said that she was being a lady and having a very nice time.”
Jennifer looked doubtful. “Can she do both at the same time? I know my child. Where’s Jonathan?”
“Where do you think he is? He knows his child too.”
Jennifer headed for the dining room while Pat went to the great room to join Bill at the card table.
Well into the third winning hand of Bid Whist since they had come from the dining room and replaced a losing team at the card table in the great room, Jonathan and Jennifer were lining up another Boston. This time they were running over Bill and Pat, to the amusement of the lookers-on, when the lyrics of a song playing out back suddenly invaded Jennifer’s ears and her concentration.
“Jonathan.” She called casually across the table to her husband who was studying the cards in his hand. “Do you still have that two-way on you?”
“Yeah, I do.” He answered without looking up.
“Have J.J. sent inside to me.”
Jonathan spoke briefly into the radio requesting that “the birthday girl” be notified that she needed to come inside to see her mother.
They continued to play cards until a few minutes later, J.J. came in through the side door. She came directly to her mother’s side. “Yes Mom, you wanted me?”
“Just a moment.” Jennifer answered.
As J.J. watched in delight, she and Jonathan mowed down their opponents in seconds, and then Jennifer temporarily allowed Captain Gray to take her place until she returned.
“Come with me.” She said to J.J., taking her forearm to walk her into the kitchen.
As soon as the door was shut and they were face to face, she asked, “What did I tell you about the music that was to be played out there?”
J.J. answered, “You said we couldn’t have music with cuss words. What’s wrong? We faded them all out.”
“I think we also discussed inappropriate lyrics. Now you tell me, just what is meant by “back that thang up”? I assume we’re not speaking of a truck or a car here.”
Suppressing a a sudden impulse to smirk and risk getting caught at it, J.J. took the opportunity to go over to the sink for a glass of water.
“Mom, nobody listens to the words. The song just has a real good beat. It’s a good dance cut and everybody likes it because of the beat.”
“J.J., I can hear the lyrics and they are very explicit. You kids hear them too, you just don’t know that you hear them. It’s subliminal. I’ve told you time and time again about how that stuff works on your mind. Tell Andre that song is not to be played again.”
Standing at the sink with her back to her mother, J.J. rolled her eyes and then asked slyly, “Okay, well what about “You’re Making Me High? Can we play that one?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Jennifer began, standing with her hands on her hips with her eyes on her flippant child’s back.
“But isn’t that the one where the girl is singing about imagining someone touching her private parts, the very thought of him makes her want to get undressed and touch herself. She wants him there inside her doing it again and again and again; and the bridges from one verse to the next are ooh, ah, ooh ah?”
J.J. remained at the sink with her back to her mother and rolled her eyes again as she continued.
“You are speaking of that song from the CD that I took from you earlier this year after you tried to play it in my car while I was in it? The same one where I also took the replacement you bought after I caught you singing along to it when you had the headphones on while you were doing you homework and you thought you were whispering. J.J. Hart, what in the world do you think my answer is going to be to that? I know you are not standing over there trying to test me!”
J.J. could feel her frustration rising. Her mother had it covered from all angles. How come Jennifer Hart, in all her polished, cultured dignity, knew all the key words to the song? She must be listening to the CD herself. Probably with Daddy for inspiration when they were closed up in that room of theirs doing freaky things to each other again, and again, and again. It was so weird how her mother could commit things so quickly to memory. Especially the things that related to her, and most specifically, the negative things.
Before she could catch herself, the words slipped from her mouth.
“You know Mom, it’s awfully funny how you can hear, recognize, and remember all the lyrics to those kinds of songs, and how you know which ones to shut down right off the bat. Most parents don’t hear them or get them even when they do hear it. All my friends can play the stuff they like and nobody says anything to them. I’m the only one who can’t. You never let me do anything I like to do without a fight of some kind. You treat me just like a baby sometimes.”
She still stood at the sink with her back to her mother and immediately she cringed after uttering the last word, waiting for a response. Once again her quick tongue had taken off on its own.
The silence from behind her told her that a button had been pushed and she might very well be in for it.
Well, whatever. Que sera, sera. Jennifer Hart was working her last good nerve.
She realized that she was getting close to the line, if indeed she hadn’t crossed it. But, at times, The Duchess could be a real stiff stick in the mud about that tiresome word, ‘propriety’, and it grated on her nerves that she was so like that. What did it matter about a stupid song as long as nobody got hurt? Everything didn’t have to be done so properly all the time, did it? It was just a song, for Pete’s sake.
Footsteps slowly crossed the tiled floor. They kept coming until her mother was so close in behind her that she could feel the heat from her body and smell her perfume even though she wasn’t actually touching her. When she spoke again, she leaned in so that she was right at her ear speaking in that eerily quiet, deliberately calm, but definitely threatening tone.
J.J. couldn’t see her, but she could certainly hear her words as she spoke.
“I can see it now,” She began.
The hand came from behind, its long, graceful fingers sporting that huge, glittering wedding ring, gesturing to help her envision the mental portrait being painted for her.
“A grand sweet sixteen party going on out back devoid of the guest of honor. Everyone asking among themselves, “What happened to J.J.?” What if, Justine Jennifer Hart, just what if I said, right here and right now, that the party was over for you? Yes, what if I said that you need to take your sassy tail up to your room for the rest of the night? Then what? You and I both know that’s not outside the realm of possibility for me, is it, my little love?”
No it was not. When she was seven, she got sent to her room by her mother during her own birthday party because she told the clown that his act stank and his jokes were corny. No matter now much she apologized, her mother wouldn’t back down and all she could do after that was watch from her window as her friends continued to play and have fun without her; all except Marnie who cried for the rest of the party until her mother came for her.
Her Daddy did come up later to sneak her some cake and ice cream. He agreed with her that the clown was lame, but he said that she shouldn’t have said it to him like that; that she didn’t have to say everything that crossed her mind. But he made her feel much better about everything when he said that he was proud of her because she took her punishment like a champ without crying about it or anything.
Fully realizing what could be, J.J. whipped around to face her mother and began to plead in earnest, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it! You know how things get away from me and I talk before I think!”
She grabbed her mother’s hand and began to wiggle to emphasize the sincerity of her entreaty. “Pleeeeease, I reeeeeally, really am sorry, Mom. I’ll tell Andre to cool it. I’ll be good. I won’t say anything else sassy, I promise!” Then she contritely lay her head on her mother’s shoulder.
Jennifer pulled her hand loose and pushed J.J. back from her in exasperation and mild, annoyed amusement.
“I’ll excuse you this time and chalk it up to you feeling your oats tonight, which I would advise you to put into check at this point, my darling. Go back out there now, and do as I say.”
Jennifer watched J.J. race from her and out of the back door, thinking to herself, “Imp.”
Pa had to have caught hell doing it on his own. She had been an imp too, a much worse one. Payback really was something.
Jonathan had returned to the dining room after going through two more sets of opponents and then getting whipped on the sixth hand. He walked around the room, checking the monitors and the security team. Keeping his promise to J.J. was almost physically painful. Being restrained from doing what he wanted to do was always difficult for him. He had become very used to calling his own shots and to know that he was allowing a sixteen year old child to bind his hands was almost unbelievable even though he had consented to it. Only J.J. could pull that off with him, and of course her mother could too, but with Jennifer that was something different altogether. Different altogether indeed…Where was she, anyway?
Just as he was about to leave to go and find her again, she entered the dining room looking for him. He was on his way over to her when he stopped as his eye caught J.J. moving on one of the monitors.
She and Beau were demonstrating how to do a country line dance. A group stood around them mimicking their moves. The tune, “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, could be heard in the house as it was being played for the crowd out back. The kids appeared to be having a good time with it. It was one of J.J.’s favorites to line dance on.
As Jennifer came up to him to see what he was looking at on the screen, he slid his arm about her waist drawing her close to him.
Remember when we taught her to do that?” He asked, noticing her smiling with amusement at their very versatile child. “She said that she didn’t think she’d ever get to use it anywhere but at the ranch. Now look at her.”
“I like to watch the two of you dance together.” She answered. “You’re both so cute and so good at it.”
She noticed that Wesley was dancing with another girl, but that he was right behind J.J. watching her every move. As the camera panned, Tommy could be seen standing off to the side, and it was obvious that even though he was talking to with group of several other kids, he was watching J.J. also. Looking from the monitor to Jonathan’s eyes, she could tell that the only thing he could see was J.J. with Beau’s arm about her waist as they cavorted at poolside. Her rascal of a daughter certainly had her share of admirers.
“It’s almost time, darling.” She finally said to him. “they’re going to be bringing the cake out in fifteen minutes or so. We’d better go up and get ready.”
“Okay. I really can’t wait to see her face when she sees her Sweet Sixteen birthday surprise.”
Russell had been keeping his distance, allowing the others in his employ tonight to take most of the shots. There were also some photographers present from the local press, so he knew that J.J.’s party was being well captured on film. He stayed inside for a while on the pretense of keeping up with the video surveillance and monitoring the front of the house as kids came and went. After a time, when he felt that he had sufficiently regained his composure, he went outside and stayed in the front where he wound up spending a great deal of time with Mr. Lamb, the security chief as he patrolled the driveway.
Lamb was an interesting man who had been in service with Jonathan Hart Industries since its inception over thirty years ago. He seemed to enjoy filling him in on Hart history; the background of Hart Industries and on how Mr. Hart had put it all together from nothing. In Jonathan Hart, Russell knew from the start that he had been dealing with a phenomenal individual, but he had no idea of the scope of the man’s genius and ingenuity. It was really interesting to get it from the point of view of a man who had been with him so long in such a personal capacity as his safety. Mr. Lamb went on to elaborate some on Mr. Hart’s family and his admiration for his wife and daughter. It seemed that all three of them were unique.
Mrs. Hart, he said was a gifted, award-winning writer, as well as a wonderful, gracious, generous woman. She sponsored many charitable organizations in the community and around the world. She was heavily into conservation, was an avid animal lover, and sponsored a game preserve in Kenya.
According to Mr. Lamb, the girl, their daughter was most likely an electronics genius, who would probably take over for her father one day. He acknowledged that he, the security personnel, and the Hart engineers were constantly amazed by the child’s grasp of electronics and its associated technology. She was doing quite well in school, winning numerous academic and athletic awards each year. She was quite popular and beloved around the Hart Towers. Of that, Russell was already aware. Everyone, it seemed, knew her and looked out for her. In talking with people in relation to her father, J.J.’s name frequently came up .
When Mr. Lamb stopped talking about J.J., he was disappointed. Not wanting to appear unduly interested in her, he couldn’t ask all that he wanted to, but he couldn’t seem to hear enough about her. She was simply fascinating to him. That had been the case from the time that he first met her in that room at school to get her pictures taken. But that time hadn’t been anything like this one. On that occasion, she had just been a cute, enterprising kid with a lot of nerve. What had changed since that time, he wasn’t quite sure, didn’t want to think about it, but it made him very uncomfortable just the same.
What kind of woman would she be? What kind of female was she already that she elicited such a strong response from him, a grown man. He had never felt a surge that powerful before for any female, and especially not for a child. That was the part of it that had him feeling so much guilt, and feeling so uncomfortable with the idea of being anywhere near her. J.J. Hart was just sixteen as of today. He had always preferred women who were his age or maybe even a little older in some cases. But that little girl, what was it that made her so special in his eyes? Truly she was pretty. There was no denying that, but it was more than just that. What was it?
Afraid to even look at her again, he resolved to stay out front for the remainder of the evening.
Stanley Frieson and Marcus Borland sat across from each other in the boardroom of the Jonathan Hart Towers. The telephone was in the middle of the table between them. It was getting late.
“I called him the last time.” Said Stanley. “It’s your turn.”
“Look, I’ve been talking to him all week, and it gets scarier each time. I keep waiting for him to lose it. I thought sure that it was over this morning when I got him out of bed for nothing. You call him.”
“It’s your job to be his right hand. I just handle the finances.” Stanley pushed the phone toward Marcus. “You make the call.”
Marcus pushed the phone back toward Stanley.
“You got us talked into this. I knew that it was risky business from the start. Jonathan does not like to be pulled from his family. He is really not going to like it that we’re having to call him in on a Saturday night, the Saturday night of his daughter’s Sweet Sixteen. I’ve been talking to him about this the whole time. Maybe he won’t be so mad about it if he hears a different voice.”
“It won’t be mine again.” Stanley asserted, pushing the phone back across the table, standing to make sure that this time it was right at the edge and touching Marcus’ hand. “Talking to Mr. Hart about business deals is your job and you know it. Get to it.”
Marcus got up and went over to the bar where he began fixing himself a drink.
“To steady my nerves.” He explained.
Marnie approached Tommy and tugged at his arm to get his attention. He was standing with Deon, Hector, and a few of the other jocks from their school, holding conversation on the patio. She had long ago taken note that Tommy was distancing himself from Wesley this evening even when it meant distancing himself from the rest of their crew and J.J. It was a situation that needed rectifying. He looked down at her when he felt her pull at him.
“What’s up, Marnie?”
“I just put a special request in with the DJ. I want you to dance with J.J. when he plays the next cut.”
Tommy could see the mischief in Marnie’s eyes. He knew how she just loved to keep things going.
“What’s with that?” He asked her. “I know you have something up your sleeve.”
She held out her arms and looked up at him innocently. “I don’t even have sleeves tonight, Tommy. How can you even say that? It’s just a really pretty song, and she doesn’t do ballroom with just anyone like she does it with you. I like to see you guys do that. You two look so good when you dance like that together. Be a pal. Go ahead, give a show for the prep school stiffs.”
“Alright.” He reluctantly agreed.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do what she asked. He could dance with J.J. in his arms all night if she would let him, and he really liked ballroom dancing, especially with her. She was a good partner. He only wondered what Marnie was up to.
The fast song that was playing ended, and the DJ announced, “I have a special request from Marnie, and it goes out to J.J. and Tommy”
J.J., sitting poolside talking with Wesley, and a few kids from her school, looked up upon hearing her name, asking “What?”
Although she hadn’t noticed her leave, Marnie’s seat was empty. Just a few moments ago, she had been sitting and talking with them.
The first strains of a tune she liked began to play just as Tommy abruptly entered into their circle and reached for her. He was a big, imposing presence and folks were inclined to move to get out of his way even though they really didn’t have to.
“Excuse me,” He said. “May I have this dance, Miss Hart?”
Without waiting for an answer, he pulled her up from her chair and took her out, stepping right into the beat with her holding on to him breathlessly squealing, “Tommy!”
Although Tommy stood well over six feet and was nearing two hundred pounds of solid weight, he was amazingly light on his feet as he and J.J. swept elegantly across the poolside area to the strains of “I Belong to You” by a singer called Toni Braxton, the same singer whose CD her mother had confiscated twice from her.
They were enjoying themselves immensely. The fringes on J.J.’s light blue pants, her swinging red ponytail and her agile movements paired with Tommy’s all black outfit, his long black hair and those steel-toed riding boots made them an all the more free-spirited, exciting, and enjoyable sight. Those who were familiar with them as dance partners looked forward to watching the two of them dance together.
The kids standing at poolside clapped and swayed to the beat of the music as they swept across the tiles.
Although she was having an extremely good time, the lyrics of Marnie’s special request did not escape J.J.’s attention:
“I wouldn’t change
A single thing about you, baby
You shower my world with your love
You got a way
About’ cha baby
That let’s me know that there’s no other man
Who takes care of home
I was lost until I found you
Refuse to live without you
I belong to you.
You belong to me.
The love we share comes naturally.”
It was crystal clear to her what Marnie was doing. Wesley had made one too many cracks about all the motorcycles he spotted on on the driveway when he pulled up, and he wondered aloud to everyone in earshot if the riders were all wearing those heavy riding boots poolside like ‘some people’ might do. Then, for good measure, she guessed, he had the nerve to use the word, “Greasers”, but in a much lower tone. What he said grated on her nerves, and she wanted to address it, but it was only one night and remembering what Tommy said about him on the phone the night before, she decided to just let it go in one ear and out the other- for the moment.
In her mind, she concluded Wesley must feel intimidated by Tommy and that was the reason for he put downs. According to Tommy- and Daddy- that was a sign of Wesley feeling inferior on some level, and because of that she let him slide- for now.
Marnie, it turned out, was not as forgiving. The song, for the most part, was appropriate. There wasn’t a thing that she would change about Tommy. He never seemed to want to change her either. They did have a natural, mutually affectionate relationship, but nobody belonged to anybody- period. No pressure. That was how she liked and wanted it.
The last conclusion she reached had her smiling to herself.
“What’s funny?” She heard Tommy ask.
She hadn’t noticed him looking down at her.
“Nothing. I’m just having so much fun.”
She looked up to see his face and found him intently watching her. He was smiling too. He always did have a very nice smile…and nice eyes…and he could really dance… was so very talented, and was always so nice and a lot of fun…but.. nobody belonged to anybody… period.
Marnie returned to the group and sat down next to Beau at the table making sure to lean forward to coyly catch Wesley’s eye for just the briefest moment as she did so. Deon, noticing her actions, lightly tapped her sandaled foot under the table to get her attention once she was seated. He then leaned in close to whisper in her ear, “You know you ain’t right.”
“Whatever.” she responded flippantly, unable to completely hide the sly smile playing at her lips. Wesley wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all her.
He was jealous. He certainly had a perfect right to like whomever he wanted, but he was not going to get to where he wanted to go by cutting Tommy down in front of her and J.J. Even though she liked both boys, it was Tommy who had the inside track with her.
From having known J.J. most of her life, she realized that her friend preferred and probably needed a more rugged type, like Tommy. She was also aware that it was beginning to bother Tommy that J.J. was so wealthy and he wasn’t, but forget that. It was immaterial for right now. A preppy like Wesley was just too rigid in his thinking and soft in his ways. J.J. would eat him alive if they ever got together. And she didn’t like his trying to act superior in that roundabout way. J.J. didn’t tolerate that and she had come to feel the same way after living in J.J.’s world for so long.
If she had anything to do with it, Tommy would get the inside track with J.J. too. She had the feeling that he already had it with J.J. whether she wanted to admit it or not.
Pat went out of the front door and down the driveway to where she knew Russell was hiding out. After what she witnessed with him on the stairs, she’d kept a surreptitious eye on him from the windows, noticing that he kept his distance from her godchild after that point. Not one moment had he spent at the party, even though he had earlier asserted that he was going to be her photographer for the evening. His voluntary distancing of himself from her told her all that she needed to know about him as a man.
She walked up to where he stood leaned against a car with Jonathan’s security chief and tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned, she merely gestured to him to follow her. They walked off a few steps, far enough to not be easily overheard.
She could tell that the young fellow was nervous being in her presence.
“Look.” She said. “They’re about to bring J.J.’s cake around to the party. Her parents always surprise her with her cake. There’s always some special feature to it. I want you taking the pictures for that. I think only you can capture the moment. It’s bound to be a classic.”
He eyed Pat nervously. She never took her eyes off his. It was as if she could see down into his soul. If she could, didn’t she realize that he couldn’t do that?
“What makes you think that I need to be the one to take the pictures?” He asked. “I have plenty of capable people out there on the job. They’ve been out there working all evening.”
“Yes, you do, and yes they have.” She answered. “But if that’s how it was supposed to go, what made you come here tonight personally? Why didn’t you just delegate it, and then go have your own Saturday evening?” She tapped him lightly on the chest with her index finger. “You came here because you wanted to see to the job being done personally, so why don’t you do that?” She was nodding slowly as she spoke to him. “Don’t be afraid of her Russell. Just keep remembering that she’s a child right now. Hold to that reality, and I know that you will because of what I’ve seen you do this evening when you recognized that what you felt might be out of order. I’m a pretty good judge of character. You don’t have to fear what you feel. I can tell that you’re a man of integrity, and that you wouldn’t hurt her. J.J. is powerful in a lot of ways, and the dangerous part is that she doesn’t know it. Because of that, she’s going to need people, people who love and respect her, to look out for her until she figures it all out. You know what I’m saying?”
He nodded and exhaled.
What a lady. She knew, but was not condemning him. He had only just met this woman, but it was like she knew him and what he was going through. He was grateful for the outline that she had drawn for him in those few moments. It somehow helped him to understand himself. J.J. was surrounded by phenomenal people. It was no wonder that she was turning out to be so phenomenal herself. As much as he could, he would try be one of those people in her life who looked out for her until she had it worked out. And until he had it worked out himself.
“I’m going to go over to the pool house and get my best night equipment.” He said. “I’ll be out there to take those pictures.” He took Pat’s hands in his. “Thanks.” He sighed with relief.
He and Pat squeezed hands. Pat returned to the house and Russell headed for the pool house.
Mr. Lamb watched him go and laughed inside. That poor boy was in a difficult place, and he would have to remain there for a few more years. He hadn’t been in security for the Harts all this time to not be able to figure things out in a hurry. He could hardly blame him. That J.J. Hart was some girl, and just like her mother, she was going to be some woman, maybe even more so. She was going to stir a lot of hearts in her lifetime.
The huge tented cart was rolled out from the catering truck and brought around from the front of the house to the party. J.J. could see it being wheeled past her by several of the caterer’s assistants and being taken poolside. It was her birthday cake. Every year her parents would come up with something unique with which to surprise her. She was excited to see what they had come up with for this year.
All the adults in the house were coming outside, and her guests were gathering around. Her godparents came out and stood with her by the cart which remained covered. She was flanked by all of her best friends who waited excitedly with her to see what the Harts had come up with this year.
“Where’s Daddy and my mother?” J.J. asked Pat who stood with her arm around her.
“I don’t know.” Pat answered. “The last time I saw them, they were in the din- up front in the house.”
“Did anybody tell them it was time?”
“Jennifer told me what time to come out here for this.” Answered Bill. “So I know that they’re aware that they should be out here.”
Just as was finishing what he was saying, a great commotion came from the side door as two figures emerged from the house talking loudly. J.J. heard Bill begin to snicker and then stifle it.
A woman’s voice with a decidedly fake southern accent could be heard saying, “Vern, I told you to hurry up. Looky here, everybody’s out here ‘cept’n us.”
“Well, Edna. I had to find my shoe, now didn’t I, honey? You ain’t want me comin’ out here barefoot. Doggone dog had made off with it and I had to go after him to get it back! Had the nerve to growl at me and try to fight me over it. My own shoe!”
J.J. stared wide-eyed as a woman wearing a low-cut cheesy black dress complete with a black and white feather boa and a long, cheap platinum blonde wig, accompanied by a man in a curly dark wig with a fake moustache and a loud plaid jacket and red pants pushed their way through the crowd calling, “Where’s our baby? Where’s our birthday girl?” And upon seeing her frozen there, hollered, “Hey Honey! Uncle Vern and Aunt Edna are shore glad to see you! Happy Sweet Sixteen, baby!”
“My God, no!” Thought J.J. in a sudden panic as she realized what was happening. She quickly looked around to her friends who appeared to be in shock at the arrival of this bizarre, boisterous, out-of-place couple. She wanted to faint dead away with embarrassment.
Upon noticing who they really were, Marnie, equally flabbergasted, leaned into J.J’s ear, and whispered, “I’ll be damned, J. Your parents are totally insane. There is some merit to having an inattentive parent, after all.”
“Uncle Vern” and “Aunt Edna” gathered a dumbfounded, speechless J.J., now literally scandalized stiff, into their arms, hugging her her tightly, and showering her with kisses. Edna’s fire-engine red lipstick leaving bow shaped prints all over her flushed cheeks.
Her parents had done some things in their time, but this beat all. And in front of all her friends. And on her birthday. They both had it coming. They really did.
“Ain’t you got nothin’ to say, honey?” Edna finally asked once J.J. was released from their grasp. She stood before her with her hands on her hips.
J.J. took her in from head to toe and just shook her head. The words would not come. There weren’t any. Where did she get those sleazy platform stilettos?
“Looky here, Vern.” Edna said, punching him in the shoulder. “Cat finally got this child’s restless tongue. She had plenty to say earlier this evenin’.”
J.J.’s godparents and then her parents, no longer able to hold it in, broke down completely, holding on to each other with laughter, watching their usually feisty child standing there thoroughly stunned.
“Gotcha!” they all called as the cake was uncovered to reveal “Vern” and “Edna” complete with feather boa, plaid jacket, wigs, and stilettos, standing proud and tall on top of her birthday cake. A replica of a shocked J.J. dressed in jeans, boots, and ponytail with her hands to her cheeks and her mouth hanging open, stood between them surrounded by sixteen candles which the caterer was now lighting.
“Ta-da!” The four of them sang to her as they held their hands out toward the cake before chorusing, “Happy birthday!”
Jonathan and Jennifer had frequently called upon “Vern and Edna” back in their sleuthing days when they wanted to go undercover with what they were investigating. Jennifer still pulled Edna out on occasion when she was working on her writing and she needed to assume another personality to get some needed information. This was J.J.’s first encounter with the duo.
As it gradually became apparent who the newcomers actually were to the rest of kids in the crowd, and at the unveiling of the cake, everyone joined in the laughter at the senior Harts’ birthday surprise for their daughter. The fact that the normally talkative and quick-witted J.J. Hart was actually caught without a comeback of any kind made the situation even more hilarious. Even J.J. had to finally crack up as her mother took a napkin from the table and wiped at the lipstick on her cheeks. Tears of merriment ran down Jennifer’s face streaking it with the heavy mascara she was wearing, breaking J.J. up completely. She looked like a clown, and that was totally incongruous with the mother she knew.
“Did we get you, Cherie?” Jennifer laughed as she swabbed her daughter’s face.
“Good one, Mom.” J.J. was forced to admit. Her father yanked her ponytail playfully and grinned his Cheshire cat grin that she so loved.
J.J. checked out her mother’s cleavage in that tasteless dress.
“And I had the nerve to worry about if you would think my top was cut too low. Daddy, you talk about my skirts. You let her out like this? Mom, where did you find that hideous thing?”
“Only because she was with me.” Her father grinned.
She could see him checking her mother out from the corner of his eye, and thought it was sick. He probably liked that on her. Just plain sick. That get-up would probably come in handy for later. Ooh, how sick. She shuddered at the thought.
“And I found this dress hidden in your closet.” Her mother said, modeling it for her, throwing the boa dramatically over her shoulder.
“Oh no, you didn’t” asserted J.J., turning up her nose. “Even my taste for dresses doesn’t run to anything that seedy. Jeez, Mom! I cannot believe you!”
There was a final bright camera flash right near them, and when it cleared, Russell stepped out of the darkness.
“Happy birthday, J.J.” he said. “Let me get a good picture of Vern, Edna, and their kid. Say cheese, everybody!”
Inside the house, the phone was ringing.
As the cake was being served, a slide show presentation began. It was projected onto a large screen behind Andre’s booth on the sound stage. The kids began seating themselves around the pool and on the lawn.
J.J. was delighted that the first image was a video message from her grandfather wishing her a happy birthday from Maryland. He was getting up there in age and a heart condition kept him from traveling very much. He apologized for not being there with her in person, but sent her his love just the same. He was speaking to her from the paddock of his estate, standing with her race horse, Triple J. which he boarded for her. Mike, the horse’s handler waved to her when the camera panned over to him. Triple J. now competed in Maryland and Virginia, and had won several rather large purses which her mother insisted be directly deposited into her college fund. Although J.J. thought this was not quite a fair deal for her, preferring that it some of it go to her future car fund, she dared not argue. Triple J and the circumstances surrounding her father giving him to her were still a touchy area with her mother.
If only she knew the whole story… with the bet…the win… and all…
J.J. and her father stole furtive, under-eyed glances at each other. He winked. She tried not to smile.
Jennifer caught them both out of the corner of her eye. They fooled no one.
There was an audio message from her Great-Aunt Sabrina all the way from France. She wished her a wonderful evening and told her to be sure to get a kiss from someone special tonight because that was as it should be. She then admonished her father to stop playing warden for a minute and let her have that one kiss. All pretty girls should be kissed, she said, and her Justine was “une jeune fille très jolie”.
J.J. turned red and looked back to her mother, who looked toward her husband who wouldn’t look at either one of them.
The next few were messages from her homeroom, her track team, the boys on the football and basketball teams, the girls’ basketball team, the Honor Society; with each group’s message, whoops and cheers went up from the respective parties in the seated crowd. J.J. was elated. There was a message from Ms. Grimsley, her counselor as well as one from Ms. Latimer, her junior high school math teacher under whom she had won the National Merit Award for her mathematical achievements two years running. There was a series of pictures from her growing up years, including one of a lone faded red cloth hanging from a tree branch. J.J. hung her head with embarrassment, and Marnie sputtered with laughter.
“What’s that?” Someone asked.
“J.’s shorts.” Marnie loudly answered. “Her father had to tear them off her when she got stuck in the big tree when she was five. She climbed up there and got her shorts stuck on that branch and she couldn’t get her little behind back down. He had to get a ladder and climb up there to get her, but her pants are still up there.”
“Ow, J.J.!” She complained when she received a hard shove from J.J. for trumpeting her personal business. “You know it’s true. Damn!”
“Marnie.” Came the warning voice of J.J.’s mother. At the same time, she felt herself being thumped in the back of the head. Upon turning she saw that it was J.J.’s godmother who was assaulting her.
“Sorry, Mrs. Hart, Ms. Hamilton.”
She was already on the hot seat with J.J.’s mother, and J.J.’s godmother had her number down pat. Humility was probably in order at this point, even if it was feigned humility.
Next was a message from Marnie’s mother who was somewhere out on the town for the evening, and then one from Tommy’s mother who was present somewhere in the crowd.
Then there was a very special one from Tommy’s Abuelita Josefina, his wealthy Spanish grandmother. Having recently moved to Los Angeles from Florida, she was someone whom J.J. had really come to like and to respect. “Ms. Fee” delivered her entire message to her in Spanish. In it she reminded her that she needed to remain a good, smart, self-respecting girl who made her parents proud of her every day She called her a beloved grandchild.
J.J. felt her eyes mist just a little, but she held it in. Such nice words from such a nice lady. She took her hat off and held it in her lap. As she did, a gentle, but firm hand stroked her hair. She reached for it and squeezed it. Ms. Fee had come to the party with Tommy’s mother and had spent the evening at the poker table cleaning out her Uncle Bill. Her Daddy wouldn’t play her. From watching her play Bill, he knew he would just be a mark and that the odds would be against him with her. Jonathan Hart knew when to fold them. She was vicious.
There were a series of messages from her circle of friends; Marnie, Philly and Hector, Deon and Charmaine; Wesley, Ollie, Beau, and Juan Carlos; and one from Sidney dressed to the nines in a spangled tuxedo and full makeup chastising whoever might be watching, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”
J.J. had to laugh. That Sidney was a character. Somebody had gone to a lot of work to gather all these different pieces from all these different people and places to put them together to make this one show. She appreciated it immensely. She made immediate plans to duplicate it and put one copy in storage for posterity.
Then came Tommy. He was working on the Harley in his driveway as he talked to the camera.
“We’ve been through some stuff this year, J. But if a person has to go through hard times, it’s the best thing to have you there to help them get through it. You’re real good people, J.J. Happy Sweet Sixteen. I hope we know each other when it’s Sweet Sixty.” And he smiled his smile.
Marnie leaned over to whisper, “When did Tommy get buff like that? He’s looking real good in that tank top. You’ve been holding back on the insider information”
“Put your tongue back and wipe your chin.” J.J. whispered back. “You’ve already been in trouble once for acting hot tonight. And I assure you that I haven’t been inside anything to be holding out on you- or vice versa for that matter.”
Her godparents were on the next segment and she took note of their body language. They were very chummy, much chummier than people who supposedly only saw each other on occasion. At one point they even held hands. What was up with that?
She started to turn and cast a suspicious eye back to them, but her father appearing on the screen next captured her attention instead.
He was seated on the edge of his desk in his office at Hart Industries. He wished her a happy sweet sixteen and told her how much he enjoyed having her in his life; he said she made things even more fun and exciting, even though she had kept him in hot water a lot with her mother from the day that she was born.
That was his doing. Was it her fault that her Daddy was putty in her hands most of the time?
Lastly was her mother. J.J. braced herself. Even though Jennifer Hart made her so very mad at times being so hard-nosed about things, she loved that lady and deep down really did understand and appreciate the things that she tried to impart to her. She knew that anything her mother said to her was going to make her lose it.
Her segment was done in her bedroom while she was seated at her desk next to the window. Her father had to have filmed this one. Almost nobody, except the two of them, went into their inner sanctuary like that, unless like Marnie, one was summoned by royal decree. Her mother at first simply looked up from what she was doing, wished her a happy birthday and told her that she loved her. Then she put her pen down to say to say that having her was the best thing she had ever done behind marrying her father.
“I am so proud of you, Justine. No matter how old we get to be, you will always be my sweet girl.”
Following her words came a series of pictures of the two of them together. J.J. could tell that they had been carefully and lovingly selected. They began with a photograph of her in her mother’s arms as she was bringing her home for the first time from the hospital. Another of her and her mother riding a horse together when she was very young and her mother wouldn’t let her ride alone yet. She was surprised to see that the photograph that she slipped around and took with the cigar, the one that she thought her mother was going to kill her over when she accidentally discovered it, got included in the montage.
The very last image in that segment was the picture that Russell had taken of the two of them at the Mission Street Ball. It was the same one that she kept in her wallet; the one where her mother was hugging her for having initiated the raising of five thousand dollars to support Mission Street, the orphanage in which her father had been raised. There was a voice-over for that picture. It was her mother repeating, “You will always be my sweet girl.”
That did it. As insufferable as she had sometimes been in her sixteen years, in front of all of her friends, her mother told her that she was proud of her. She thought about their recent interaction in the kitchen and how ugly she had acted and how impatient with her she had felt. She thought of how her mother never lost it with her no matter how hard or how far she tried to push her. No matter what she did, she was always her mother’s sweet girl. It was all just too much. Tears slid down her cheeks and she quickly ducked her head to wipe them away with her hands before anyone could see them.
So involved with watching the presentations, and then rhapsodizing to those around her when the guys from Nigeria took to the stage to sing Happy Birthday to her a cappella in their wonderful harmonic tones, J.J. hadn’t noticed it when her father was slipped a note via Mr. Lamb. She wasn’t aware that her parents and godparents were no longer part of the crowd.
Jonathan was livid. Jennifer had never seen him so angry or sound so frustrated. Once again it was a case where he had been keeping the seriousness of what was going on from her, and now it was coming to the light. She had followed him inside when the note was given to him by Lamb on security. The look that formed on his face as he was reading it outside instantly told her that whatever was happening, she was going to be needed by his side. Pat and Bill followed her in, certain that something serious was going down.
Now the three of them listened with trepidation from the great room as he ranted into the telephone in the kitchen using language he infrequently used, but had been being drawn out of him more and more all week. They sat together in the waiting for him to rejoin them. Everyone else who had been in the house was still outside watching the presentation. Pat reached for Jennifer’s hand.
“Go in there and tell him to go on over there, and you go with him.” She said. “It evidently needs to be handled and he isn’t going to rest until it is. He’s conflicted. He wants to be here with you and J.J., but his business sense is telling him that he needs to be there. If Marcus and Stanley are backing this, it must be a pretty viable proposition for Jonathan. They wouldn’t lead him down the garden path. Put his mind at ease and tell him that you’ll go with him. Bill and I are here. There’s not that much time left to this party anyway. We’ll hold it down while you’re gone.”
Bill seconded Pat. “He’s mad as hell about being between a rock and a hard place. He wants to be here, but he can’t. I know how that feels. You guys know that J.J. is ours too. We’ll look out for her and her buddies until you get back. Hell, she’s having so much fun out there that she probably won’t even know that you’re gone. A lot of those kids’ parents will be coming for them. A bunch of them are already here. There’s plenty of security, so there’s really no reason for the two of you to worry about anything here.”
Jonathan could still be heard yelling in the kitchen. Marie was behind the bar making herself busy, not having wanted to remain in the kitchen with all the commotion. She had been with the Harts long enough to know what interference with his family time did to Jonathan Hart’s normally affable personality.
Bill took Jennifer’s hand from Pat’s and pulled her up from the couch. “Go on in there now, Beautiful. Tell him to stop all that cussing and just go upstairs and get dressed. If you’re going to be with him, and he knows we’re here with J.J. it might make him feel somewhat better.”
Marcus Borland gingerly pressed the button on the phone to terminate the connection. He looked across the table to Stanley who sat looking shell shocked behind his thick glasses. The phone had been on speaker throughout Marcus’ conversation with Jonathan Hart. Although, it really hadn’t been a conversation. It usually took two people talking to have a conversation.
“He is going to kill us dead when he gets here.” Marcus stated with finality. “Let’s have everything set up so that we can get right to it. That way it’s on the table before he has a moment’s chance to get his hands around our throats.”
Sitting on the side of the bed buttoning his shirt, Jonathan watched as Jennifer emerged from the dressing room. He shook his head in amazement. That woman was really something. There she was, back to her beautiful self after having gone in there a ridiculously short time ago fully dressed in Edna’s trashy get-up. As she bent over to brush her hair from underneath, and then stood upright to shake it effortlessly down into place, he had the urge to get up, go to her, and wrap her in his arms. A few well-placed kisses, the strategic touch or two and those pants and that blouse would be on the floor and she would be… damn!
His aggravation returned at having to leave home at ten-thirty on a Saturday night to go take care of whatever this was. And this particular Saturday night at that. What the hell could be this important?
When Jennifer interrupted his ranting on the kitchen phone to say that she would accompany him, it took some, but not all, of the edge off. Something about her nature could always bring him back to himself at those irate moments. She quietly told him to hang up and go get dressed, that she would go too, and looking into those honey-brown eyes was all it took. He told Marcus he’d be right there and hung up the phone.
How had he lived before her? He already had his bid in with the Good Lord or whoever was in charge of that to either be taken before her, or for them to go together. Without her in his life, he would be as good as dead anyway. He was glad for Bill and Pat’s presence in the house with J.J. while they would be gone. He was grateful for them, and for his wife, his anchor, on this night.
“You are such a beautiful woman.” He said to her. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Do what?” She asked looking over to him, blushing a little.
It felt good when he called her beautiful. It only mattered if he thought so, and only he could say it and make her feel it in that way with just the sound of his voice.
“Go from Edna back to my Jennifer in no time. You are always so lovely. ” He stepped into his shoes and looked up at her, scratching his chin with a naughty glint in his eyes. “Although, I must say, I was kind of looking forward to maybe slipping in an intimate little session with Edna later on.”
“Cheating on me after all these years?” She reproached him playfully. “With a cheap blonde at that?”
“Only if she has red roots, and your eyes, your long legs, and your sweet, warm p-”
Shocked, she exclaimed, “Jonathan!” And held up her hand to stop him.
Feigning innocence, he asked, “What? I was just going to say ‘and your sweet, warm personality’.”
“You are awful.” She laughed. “You are where J.J. gets her foolishness from.” Then she smiled suggestively. “Maybe, just maybe, if you’re very good, and we’re not gone too long, Edna might make it back for a little visit.”
He gave her a thumbs up and nodded.
“Are you feeling any better about this now?” She asked.
“No,” He answered. “I know that I’m letting my natural curiosity get the best of me, and for some reason that makes me madder than anything. It’s like I don’t have any control over it. It’s killing me to go out of here like this on what might turn out to be just another wild goose chase.”
Jennifer went to her desk, saying. “That reminds me.”
She picked up a pen and began to jot something down on a writing pad. “I need to leave a note for my wild goose just in case we do get hung up and are gone longer than we’re anticipating. She will completely take over if I don’t leave some crystal clear instructions.”
Behind her back, Jonathan shook his head. Jennifer never let up on J.J.
“Don’t you think she’s going to be too tired to do anything out of the way once she finally comes in?” He asked.
Despite what he said, she continued to write.
“I leave nothing to chance with that girl. Jonathan, once she realizes that she’s here with just Bill and Pat, the phone will be fair game all night. She’ll be all over the house doing whatever she feels like doing until she sees the headlights of your car come back up the driveway. I know her method of operation.”
Picking up her blazer from the bed, he went over and took her by the arm, pulling her away from writing at the desk in mid-word.
“Don’t worry about leaving anything for J.J. We aren’t going to be gone that long.” He declared with conviction. “Hopefully she won’t even know that we’ve left and come back. Whoever this is had better grab my attention in the first five minutes, or you and I are out of there, and Marcus, Stanley and I will be having a serious conversation about future employment opportunities come Monday morning.”
He waited for her to pull on the jacket and get her purse, before taking her by the elbow to escort her through the bedroom door. Just as she reached it, he stopped her short and pulled her around to face him. she was so irresistible.
“Have I told you how much I love you today?”
“Not in so many words today.” She answered, rubbing his nose with hers. “Let’s get this over with. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can get back, and you can show me how much you love me, just like you did last night.”
He released her, took her by the elbow, hustled her through the door and down the stairs.
Outside, J.J. was up on the soundstage behind the sound board. She had taken up Andre’s duties while he took a break. She was deeply in her element, playing the music, expertly adjusting the equalizers to her liking. Russell watched her work from his spot behind a bank of trees.
She was wearing a set of headphones that cut her off from whatever else was going on around her. All she could hear was the music coming through them, and it was evident that she was doing something she loved. Her eyes were closed, and her lithe, slender body moved sensuously with the sexy beat of the tune that was playing, the lyrics of which ironically repeated “Come on over here”. He could hear her skillfully adjusting and readjusting tones in the music as she stood working the board. She was in her own world up there. As she bounced her head, snaking her neck with the beat, that long ponytail swung in rhythm underneath that snazzy cowboy hat. She was so cute and evidently musically talented.
“She rewired the outside speakers herself. Music and sound systems are her thing.” It was Tommy Steele.
Russell hadn’t heard him walk up. They shook hands. “J.J. told me that you were here,” Tommy continued, “But I didn’t see you until just after the movie thing when you took her picture.”
The two of them had met on that day that he had come to the school to take those infamous pictures of J.J. They had gotten better acquainted since that time from running into each other on occasion downtown at the Hart Towers.
“Yeah,” Russell answered. “I was out front talking to Mr. Lamb for a while at the start of the party. I had my camera and video crew working back here, so I wasn’t needed back here that much. I’m just kind of overseeing things tonight.”
J.J. switched up and changed the music to an old hustle tune she liked and played at the school dances she hosted, “Let’s do it!” She announced into mike. “It’s ‘Chaka Kahn and “I Want”. Let’s Hustle!”
As she called out the steps and bounced to the beat herself while she adjusted the tones at the board, the kids on the ground moved as a group to her commands. Russell had to laugh watching her. She was having so much fun and knew exactly what she was doing as she expertly operated that electronic equipment.
“Let’s go out there, man.” Tommy said to him as he dragged him out onto the dance floor to join the others dancing to J.J.’s calls.
It felt good to be able to keep up with all those young folks. Being able to still hang out at the dance clubs on occasion was paying off tonight. Mr. Hart encouraged him to have a night life even if he was an executive now by day.
They could see Andre climbing the stairs to the stage to resume his post. He stood looking on in amusement at J.J. as she swayed to the beat playing in her ears and her head, totally unaware of his presence at first. It took him tapping her on the shoulder twice to finally get her attention and for her to reluctantly hand him back the headphones.
Watching them up there, Tommy laughed, “I know she doesn’t want to give that up. She’d pay Andre to let her do that all night. I can see her now, up at college supposed to be in the engineering lab, but instead talking the professor into letting her hire out to be the DJ at people’s parties and hooking up sound systems for her lab credits.”
“I can see that, too.” Russell agreed, the mention of her going to college reinforcing just how young she was in comparison to him. “I can see her doing any number of things. She’s so smart.”
“Yep.” Tommy nodded. “That she is. I’m going see if I can get one more dance before it’s over. Maybe with J.J. She does that real good too.”
Coming out of the dance area winded, Russell knew that nothing in life would make him want to be sixteen again, but what wouldn’t he give to have J.J. Hart be least twenty-one this night? That way he wouldn’t feel like such a lecher if he were to talk with her or ask for a dance with her.
At that point, he decided that his mind had wandered far enough and that with his work done out back, it would be better for him to return to the front.
“What’s the story on you and J.J.?”
Tommy turned to the voice that he assumed was speaking to him. Wesley was leaned against a tree with his arms folded. He hadn’t noticed him as he had walked past on his way to ask one of the girls from school who was seated at the tables to dance with him.
He stopped and turned, but did not approach Wesley, who for the moment remained leaned against the tree.
“I just want to know what’s up with you and J.J. Hart.” Wesley finally pushed away from the tree trunk with this shoulders and walked over, his arms still crossed, to where Tommy stood on the sidewalk.
“Did you ask J.J.?” Was Tommy’s response. “I saw you talking with her earlier. If you asked her, I’m sure that she told you, in which case I don’t know why you would be asking me about it.” Then he asked coolly. “Or were you afraid that she’d take your head off like you know she would have for getting into her personal life?”
Wesley was a little taken aback by Tommy’s unexpected hard demeanor as well as his size. He had always spoken quietly, but he was taller and bigger than when he saw him last. This was his first encounter with this tougher, more defensive side of him. Normally Tommy didn’t have much to say in his presence, almost seeming to fade humbly into the background which Wesley had taken for meekness. Asking him about J.J. seemed to have brought out another, more intimidating side of him.
What Tommy said about J.J.’s reaction to questioning her personal life was true, she probably would have done that if he had been afforded the opportunity to finish his question before she ran off to play cards earlier. But he was determined to get a fix on Tommy’s status with her, and to find out exactly where he stood himself before this night ended. He thought that going through Tommy was a way he might to get to the bottom of it. Asking J.J. directly would get him no where. Tommy didn’t seem to be any more forthcoming.
“I’m asking you.” He persisted.
“Then the answer is no comment.” Tommy replied simply, shrugging and starting to walk off from him.
Instantly insulted at being dismissed in that manner, Wesley reached out and held Tommy by the arm to restrain him from leaving. Tommy turned and was ready to swing on him when he felt himself being grabbed. They were both stopped from going to blows by a small body suddenly interjecting itself between them.
“Not here, dammit! Take that mess outside of the gates!”
Marnie stood with her arms out between them. “This is J.J.’s night” She hissed, glaring at both of them, trying not to draw any undue attention. “And you two aren’t going to ruin it with this crap. She likes you both and it would hurt her to no end to have her two good friends fighting at her party. You can beat the shit out of each other if you want. Just not here on these grounds. Now I suggest that if you’re staying, you take your asses to separate corners and chill out.”
She looked up at both of them in a manner that let them know she meant business.
Eyeing each other from head to foot one final time, Wesley and Tommy heeded her words and walked off in opposite directions. Marnie, who had witnessed the entire thing from the beginning from a spot on the grass behind them, watched Wesley’s back as he headed for Ollie’s table.
“I should have let Tommy whip your very superior ass.” She thought to herself. “Or filled J.J. in on what you’re trying to do and let her handle it.”
Bill was in the dining room looking over the shoulders of the men when he caught the exchange between J.J.’s friend, Tommy and Singleton’s boy, Wesley, on a monitor. They appeared to be talking and when he saw Wesley grab Tommy’s arm, he stopped completely to watch that monitor and those boys.
“Aw, hell.” He thought to himself, suddenly tensing, sure that those two strapping young fellows out there were about to get into a major scrap.
Something like this would happen as soon as Jonathan and Jennifer were gone.
The man assigned to the monitor had also detected the negative movements and had picked up his two-way. Just as he was about to speak into it, a small figure appeared on screen, stepping between the two larger ones. It was a girl and she was apparently fussing at both of them. Bill could see that it was Marnie, with her little self, and since it was her, he knew that they were catching hell. The two boys slowly walked off from each other, leaving her alone on the monitor. Facing Wesley’s back, she very quickly gave him the finger down low by her side.
As he heard Pat’s laugh right behind him ,Bill turned suddenly to find her standing there. He had been watching the kids on the screen so intently that he hadn’t heard her slip into the room to peek over his shoulder.
“Did you see that?” He grinned. “She’s really something, isn’t she? Were you there long enough to see her break those two big rascals up just before that?”
“Yeah, I saw her. She’s a definite mess. Jennifer had to call her in here and chew her out earlier for attempted lascivious behavior with a young southern gentleman earlier tonight. I think Jennifer is the only somebody she doesn’t give any lip service to.”
Pat took Bill’s hand and they began walking from the dining room back out into the foyer as she continued to fill him in on the Jennifer, J.J., Marnie triangle.
“J.J. and Marnie can both be a handful and nothing scares them too much, especially if they’re together. But they both give Jennifer plenty of room. One would think that a person would be asking for trouble bringing two those two rambunctious teenage girls to a dreary writer’s conference in New York City. Not Jen. They sat like soldiers at that table when she was on the podium speaking. The whole trip they followed whatever instructions she gave them to the letter. She’s the only one who can light that kind of fire under the two of them. They ran me ragged that day she left me alone with them in the apartment.”
Laughing as he pictured the girls and Pat in his mind, Bill affirmed, “Jennifer’s quite a lady.”
“So, what seemed to be the problem between Wesley and Tommy that almost brought them to blows?”
“There’s no sound on those things,” He answered, still highly amused by Pat’s correct assessment of Jennifer’s powerful affect on those kids. “So I don’t know what was said, but my wild guess is territorial rights over a girl. Considering which two were out there going at it, I’d say that they were probably at each other’s throats over our godchild. Pat, I’m so glad my parenting days are over. And I’m glad I didn’t have girls. ”
Pat nodded. “Well, Jen and I put our order in for a girl when she finally got around to telling me that she was pregnant. We sent our specs and got just what we asked for and then some. If that’s the case with them, they can forget about that. J.J. belongs to no one at this point. She’d take them both on herself if she knew that either one of them was trying to lay claim to her.”
“You think J.J.’s noticed that Jonathan and Jennifer aren’t here?” Bill asked. “Think we should let her know that they’ve left?”
“Oh, leave her be.” Pat answered with a wave of her hand. “She won’t care. She’s too busy out there having fun with her friends. Besides, they’ll get all get taken care of, I’m sure, and she’ll find out about it in the morning any way it goes.”
Bill stopped her at the staircase, before they could get back into the great room with the other adult guests. He looked at her meaningfully. “I haven’t had a real moment alone with you all evening.” He squeezed her hand. “Tonight?”
“You place or mine?” Her look was just as meaningful.
“Mine. Two too many little prying blue eyes at your place.”
“Meet you there as soon as this shindig is over and I put the baby to bed.” She smiled.
“It’s just as well that you come out there.” Bill started back walking into the great room with her on his arm. “Your girlfriend, Jennifer, sent you a little present. It’s waiting for you out there.”
Pat was confused. “Why would she send something for me out there? I’m going to be staying where I always stay: upstairs in the guest room”
“Because she knows about us. I’m sure of it. And Beautiful Jr. is on the scent.”
“Jonathan, you will try to be civil, won’t you?” Jennifer asked anxiously as they got off the elevator on the top floor of the Hart Headquarters. “Promise me that you’ll watch your language even if things don’t go so well. You have been playing pretty fast and loose with it lately. You sound like that Marnie.”
“Where do you think I learned the words? I promise you that I’ll be on my best behavior for the first five minutes.” He assured her as he strode briskly, looking straight ahead down the carpeted hall, sweeping her along with him by holding her at the elbow. “After that all bets are off and I’m letting it fly. Marcus knows better than this.”
They walked to the main conference room where Marcus informed him that the meeting would take place. Arriving at the closed doors, she reached for his arm, gripped it firmly and stopped him just before going in. Looking into his eyes, she implored, “Darling, I know how much you don’t want to be here, and that it goes against everything that you practice, but be patient with whoever this is. You know that Marcus must believe in this if he’s on the bandwagon for it and pushing for it like this.”
“I’ll try.” He said, kissing her forehead. “But I can’t make any guarantees. That’s the best I can do. J.J. is only going to be sixteen once, and that is where we are supposed to be right now. This had better be damned good.”
“Just getting it out of the way, darling.”
Taking her by the arm, he turned her and led her through the door as he pushed it open from behind her. He could feel the acid building in his chest. If the stress of this thing didn’t kill him here, Jennifer would later when he was keeping her up as he walked the floor behind eating those four delicious chili dogs that were already acting up.
J.J. was perched on the low garden wall in the midst of several members of the boys’ basketball team. They were discussing the NBA playoffs and point spreads, which of course was right up her alley. She was so deeply engrossed in what was being said that she was unaware that she was being observed from across the walkway by two other sets of male eyes.
“Why does she always have to be in the middle of a bunch of guys?” Wesley wanted to know. “Every time I want to talk to her she’s either with a group of guys or headed toward one.”
Ollie leaned back against the tree with his arms folded. He could see J.J. over on the wall where she was sitting flanked by two big boys. Three more sat at her feet on the walkway, and two stood moving back and forth among all of them throughout the animated conversation. He had known J.J. all of her life and since she was younger, he had always felt somewhat protective of her. She had always been an amusing good friend even though she was usually moving too fast or was into too many things for him to keep up with her.
What he was noticing most as he watched her talking and laughing in among all those boys was that even though she was certainly becoming quite alluring, and even though they were all in rather close proximity, there seemed to be something about her that kept anyone from physically touching her. She would reach out to them as they were over there talking, but it didn’t seem to work the other way around. It was interesting, and probably characteristic of her She was young, but she definitely gave the impression that it was she who called the shots within her space, even in casual situations. J.J.’s mother gave that same impression, those same vibes; the ones that said “this is as far as you come”. Seeing as how J.J. was getting to be so attractive, it would probably serve her well, especially once she left for college.
“She’s cute and she’s fun.” He answered after a minute, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “You like her. Why shouldn’t other people find her attractive and interesting? Besides she’s a guys’ girl. She takes classes with mostly guys, the things that she’s interested in are pretty atypical for a girl, and guys just plain like her. They always have.”
Wesley continued to complain while his eyes still keyed in on her. “But it’s like she doesn’t even know any girls. All night she’s danced with a different guy on each song or she’s talking to some guy or she’s sitting with some guy. Even when I got the chance to sit with her at the table earlier, that whole crew from her school came over there with us. Then that Marnie showed up and it was really over then.”
Ollie switched his gaze from J.J. to Wesley, who he knew had it bad.
“You need to get a grip.” He advised. “J.J. has been our friend all our lives. For the longest she was just that little tomboy who always wanted to play ball with us. You kept telling her to beat it and you wouldn’t let her play even though she was good. She was so much younger than us that you didn’t want to be bothered with her. Now that she’s grown up and filled out, you want to be all over her. She has plenty of female friends, she’s just got enough male friends that she doesn’t have to resort to dancing with girls. You, my friend, need to keep in mind that even though she looks like that now, she’s still a lot younger than us.”
“Not that much.” Wesley grumbled.
“You’re talking about a girl who was fifteen yesterday, Wes.” Ollie leaned in toward Wesley for emphasis. “Let me put this into clear perspective for you, guy. She’s jailbait. You’re eighteen going on nineteen. She’s definitely underage, and she has a daddy who will kill you and then take what’s left when he’s done with you to the cops. I went skeet shooting with him and my dad last fall. Hart’s no joke. If he can shoot three, four clay pigeons out of the air at one time, think of what he can do with your one butt at close range.”
“Forget Hart. Besides, I don’t want anything other than her company.”
Ollie laughed out loud. “You must be trying to fool yourself, Wes, because you certainly aren’t doing it with me. I don’t think of her as anything other than something like a little sister, and even I can look at her and see that there would be more on a guy’s mind than just her company. Especially a guy who’s as preoccupied with her as you. As far as I’m concerned, J.J. is doing it like she’s supposed to. She’s too young to be too heavily involved with one dude. She’s just out there having fun and that’s how it should be for her until she’s ready for more. You need to wait on her, Wes. Give her some time. You might find that you’ve changed your mind about her too after a while.”
Wesley heard what Ollie was saying, and it was true that there was no forcing the issue. Maybe he should just back off again and give her some room. They were both planning to attend the same college. He would be two years ahead of her, but at the very least, she would be of age then. It seemed like an eternity until she would be ready for college. And he didn’t think that his mind was going to change about J.J. Hart.
Still watching her, and considering his friend’s words as well as his position, he saw Tommy approach J.J. with a long white box tied with a huge red ribbon. As he stepped into the circle of boys around her, the other guys seemed to step aside as if it was accepted that he when he showed up, he automatically got her ear. Tommy handed her the box, which she accepted with seeming surprise. She untied the ribbon and opened it. Her pretty face reflected her appreciation of the contents. From it, she extracted one long stemmed yellow rose which she held to her lips and handed back to Tommy. Then getting up from her seat on the wall, and stretching up on her toes, she kissed Tommy’s cheek while the other guys around them cheered and clapped him on the back. Wesley felt sick.
Ollie, having also observed the scene across from them, patted Wesley on the shoulder.” Just give her some time and some space, Wes. If it’s to be it will be.”
As they entered the conference room, Jennifer was praying that the boys had it together. When Jonathan kissed her just before they came in, she could feel the controlled frustration and rage boiling just below his surface. Upon entering the large room, to her dismay, only Stanley and Marcus were present. Standing next to Jonathan, she could feel his body literally tensing as he spoke.
“Good evening, Gentlemen.”
He pulled a chair out for her, and then took his place at the head of the conference table. “I see that once again it’s just us.”
Marcus addressed him, nervously pulling at his collar. “Our client wanted you to have this video presentation-”
Jonathan abruptly stood, slamming his palms down onto the table in anger causing Jennifer to flinch, as he roared. “I did not come here to watch a god-”
“You said five minutes, Jonathan.” Her voice quietly reminded him.
Nodding fast to each other, Marcus quickly hit the remote for the lights and Stanley flipped the switches for the projector and the screen.
The words, “A JJH Production” scripted inside a heart shape flashed across the screen as it rolled from the ceiling, followed by an image of J.J. seated and smiling broadly at her father’s desk in his office. She was dressed in the blue jean outfit that she had been wearing earlier in the day.
The camera closed in on her face and she winked at him. “Gotcha Daddy! I’m your elusive, mystery client.”
Jonathan dropped silently back down into his chair and reached for Jennifer’s hand, as she sat staring open-mouthed at the screen. J.J.’s image spoke to them. “It was a set up.” He said in awe.
“You see, we had to divert your attention in order to get everything set up without you knowing it. I know how much you like a good business mystery, so I knew that if I put the carrot out there, you’d go for it. I knew my mother would go along with you on it because that’s how she is. She stands by her man. I bet she’s right there next to you, isn’t she? I can read you two like a pinochle deck.”
The camera backed off a bit and she leaned back in her daddy’s chair to prop her boots up on his desk, crossing her legs, she casually pulled an unlit cigar from her jacket pocket and held it aloft between two fingers as she continued.
“You guys always do nice things for me on my birthdays, and this year I wanted to do something special for the two of you to celebrate your being my parents for sixteen years. It started out with just me. I thought about having you hijacked by Philly and Hector’s gangster-looking cousins and taken to the Hart corporate suite for a surprise three days alone. But when I told Aunt Pat what I wanted to do and to get her advice on some things, she talked me out of having you ‘jacked. No, I’m just kidding about the having you ‘jacked part. But for real, I did call her about helping me do something special for you.
She started making her calls and told me some things to do. She contacted Uncle Marcus and Mr. Frieson. They told everybody at Hart what I wanted to do. Marnie knew, so of course that meant that all our friends got in on it. Some of them told their parents, and it kinda took off from there. After that, everybody wanted to help surprise their favorite couple.
So, to make a long story short, there’s a limousine waiting downstairs for you to take you both out to the pier. Uncle Bill’s friend, Mr. Carson has graciously extended to you the use of his yacht and his crew. Some of the area restaurants you frequent have helped stock the larder, and Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill have taken care of packing for you. Everything will be on board and will be set for you to take a leisurely three day cruise along the Pacific coast, just the two of you. A few special things have been arranged for you while you are traveling. Now don’t you worry about me and the party. Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat, Marie, Captain Gray, your poker buddies, Tommy’s mother, and Ms. Fee have it all covered. Hart Security is in on it too and they’ll be here until the last person leaves. I know how much you love each other, and how much you enjoy each other’s company. I like that about you. It makes me feel good.”
As J.J. had been speaking, the camera panned wider to include Bill and Pat standing on either side of her. Stanley and Marcus were seated in the chairs in front of the desk. His secretaries and executive staff were there. Marnie was perched on top of the desk. Tommy, his mother and his grandmother were there also and everyone was smiling and waving. The camera came back in to focus on J.J. who still brandished the cigar in her hand.
“I just want to tell you that I am so glad that the powers that be sent me to you guys. I know that I’m a trip sometimes, but you know that I don’t mean any harm. Things just happen sometimes, and for some reason I get dragged up into them. Thank you for being such good parents for my sixteen sweet years. I really got sent to the right set of people. Happy Sweet Sixteen to both of you and I’ll see you when you get back.”
With that said, she leaned back in the chair once more, bit off the end of the cigar, spit it into the wastebasket and flicked the Bic that she pulled from her jacket pocket. She put the cigar to her lips and just as she was about to light it, a hand reached out from off camera and snatched it from her.
It was Pat’s voice that exclaimed, “What are you doing!? Jennifer, don’t worry. I’m in your shoes with this child until you get back. She is incorrigible! J.J., who taught you to smoke damned cigars? Where’d you get it from? Bill, did you give that to her!”
“It was supposed to be a prop, Pat!” They could hear Bill pleading in the background. “You didn’t tell me you were going to light the thing on camera, J.J.! You told me it was just going to be a prop!”
Jennifer noted that Bill was sounding a lot like Jonathan when J.J. had gotten him into a jam.
“As you can see,” J.J. continued, gesturing toward her off-camera godparents. “I’m in real good hands here with these two. Au revoir, mes chéris!” She blew them a kiss. “Thank you for my good life, and I love you both so much! Have fun. Hey Mom, just so you know, I had them put bicarbonate on the yacht for you know who. There’s box in the galley and another one in your stateroom.”
With her most mischievous grin, J.J. waved goodbye to her parents, and the film faded to black. Marcus pressed the button for the lights.
He and Stanley looked sheepishly to their boss and his wife.
“I don’t understand.” Said Jonathan. “What happened to the deal with Watenabe? I know that was legitimate. I thought that was who we were dealing with. I was there. I saw the paperwork, read the proposals, and I was watching for the transaction reports on the database of reports. I didn’t see where it had gone through. I was as thorough as always. How did that get past me?”
“That deal was legitimate and it went through successfully. We didn’t need to call you in on that.” Said Marcus. “It was finalized yesterday afternoon without a hitch, but we suppressed the details of the transaction so that we could finish carrying this out for J.J. It won’t be sent up for processing until Monday. I knew that you would be reading behind me, so nothing has been put in the database yet. Liz and Deanne tried to raise a stink about delaying the posting of it, but J.J. hushed them up too.”
“So you mean to tell me that I got out of bed on a Saturday morning to come down here for nothing.”
“J.J. made us do it this way, Mr. Hart.” Stanley explained. “She arranged every one of the distress calls we made to you and everything. Even this morning’s call, Sir.”
Jonathan could still hear J.J. speaking to him on the intercom, “Is he being a pain or what?” The night that he almost missed making love to Jennifer for having to answer the phone played in his mind. He could see that scamp smiling, knowing how aggravated he would be behind getting them. This film of hers had to have been done earlier that morning after she and Bill picked Pat up from the airport. That girl was a real piece of work.
“We still got jobs, Boss?” Marcus wanted to know. He was a man who believed in cutting to the chase.
Jonathan shook his head wearily as he sat rubbing his temples with his fingers. Once again, he was floored by his daughter’s ability to line the right people up to get what she wanted to do done. She and her antics had left him speechless in the past on more than one occasion. This time was certainly no different. Apparently her mother was flabbergasted as well. Jennifer hadn’t uttered one word either. This was a good one. Probably her best planned caper yet.
Finally Jonathan slowly spoke. “Because I know the young lady and her powers of persuasion quite well, I understand your dilemma in dealing with her. “No” is not a word she understands or responds to real well. I know first hand how she lines up her ducks. You may report to work on Monday, but only if you get out of here right now and go by the house to wish her a happy birthday and get something to eat. I know you’ve both got to be nervous wrecks behind this.”
After shaking his hand, both men bolted for the door, calling out, “Good night, Mrs. Hart! Mr. Hart! Bon voyage!”
Left to themselves, the Harts looked to each other.
“Well.” He exhaled, turning to face Jennifer and noticing with surprise that her beautiful brown eyes were brimming with tears. Immediately concerned, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She smiled, wiping away a tear before it could fall. “I just love happy endings. I’m so relieved that things worked out for you. Your daughter is really something; so sweet and so naughty and a such little clown.”
She sat upright and held up a finger as if she were remembering something. “You know, this is the second time with her and a cigar, and I’m no fool. She’s too comfortable with them. Prop, my foot. I know she’s smoking those things on the sly. And smoking those cheap Black and Milds to boot! Just plain common. She and I will be talking when I get back. And how are we leaving Bill with her for three days? He’ll have tire tracks up his front and down his back by the time we get back, and I’ll be three weeks getting her back in check after he and Pat finish spoiling her. Pat will have her swearing to beat the band. I told you I should have left a note.”
“Bill will be there loving every minute of being run over by her, just like I do when she does it to me.” Jonathan smiled as he rose from his chair. “And if running around with Marnie all these years hasn’t got her swearing, a few days with Pat won’t affect her. And you, for all your fussing, you wouldn’t have her any other way, and you know it. She kind of looked like you, Jennifer, holding that cigar. You think she’s seen y-”
“If she has, that only means that she’s been eavesdropping and spying on me again, and that’s even further cause for her being put on “lockdown” as she calls it.”
“She loves and admires you, Darling. That’s why she’s always watching you. She always has, even when she was very little.”
Jennifer had to smile at the recollection. It was true that J.J. had always watched everything that she did. It took a while for her to realize what she was doing and why. It was gratifying, and a little daunting at the same time to know that her every action was being so closely scrutinized by that little mimic. Those party pants made her wonder about the things Pat shared with her…
“She looked kind of natural sitting there in the CEO’s chair too, didn’t she? Maybe she’s doing a little modeling after her father as well. I know that she has the clowning part down pat.”
Jonathan held out his hand inviting her to take it. “That she did and she certainly does. Well Mrs. Hart, your daughter says that your chariot awaits. Even though I’m not too keen on leaving my house with all those raging young hormones in my backyard, I can’t wait to get you out on that ocean for three whole days all alone, just you and me.”
She got up and laced her fingers through his.
“Let’s get out of here.” He said, turning off the light and walking her over to usher her out of the door.
Just before they went out, she pulled him to a stop and looked up at him. “You don’t think she’s just getting rid of us so that she can pull something, do you?” She asked suspiciously.
He tugged her the rest of the way out of the door. “Would you just come on and leave that girl alone. Whatever she’s up to, if she’s up to anything, it will keep until we get back.”
J.J. Hart had been theirs for sixteen sweet years, and thanks to her they would be out on the ocean loving each other under the stars tonight. And for the next three days, whatever she got into would be the concern of Bill and Pat and the Los Angeles Police Department.
J.J. was dancing with Wesley who seemed to be trying to hold her closer than she cared to be held by him. She had put him off from slow dancing with her all night, and now that the party was nearing its end, she thought that it might be rude of her not to dance with him at least once seeing as how she had danced with Tommy any number of times on slow tunes and she knew that he had been watching. Wesley wouldn’t understand that she didn’t slow dance with anyone other than her very closest male friends, and that her father would not like her dancing too much with him like that at all. Looking over his shoulder, she checked her watch and smiled to herself. Her parents should be on board by now.
Wesley caught the fleeting happy gleam that formed in her eye. “What’re you thinking about?” He asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just about what a nice night it’s been.” She backed up from his attempts to move in closer. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yes, I did. I would have had a better time if you had spent more time with me. But I understand about you having to circulate among your guests tonight. I leave to go back to school tomorrow night. Think I can come by tomorrow morning and take you to breakfast maybe?”
She felt that twist in the pit of her stomach that she got at those moments where she was feeling hemmed in. “Wes, I probably won’t even be conscious until noon. Even then, I’ll be busy helping to put things back together from this party. Maybe the next time you’re home we can do that.”
There was no sense in starting something that she had no intention of continuing. She could eat breakfast at home where there were no strings attached to it. But, she couldn’t help but notice the look of disappointment on his face and feel just a tad bit bad about it.
“Wesley, it isn’t personal. I’m just not there yet- with anybody. I’m content with my life as it is right now. I’m busy with school, track, my friends, and my family. For right now, that’s enough. I’m not ready for more. Can you understand that?”
“I understand it. I don’t like it, but I do understand.” But still he was unable to leave the subject alone. He had to ask her. “So, do you tell Tommy the same thing when he asks you to be with him?
She stiffened in his arms, bristling at his persistence in attempting to invade her privacy, but she answered him.
“Not that it’s any of your concern, but if he ever came at me in that way, then yes I would.”
Unable to resist sending him the direct hit he had been begging for all night, with her next words she took aim.
“But Tommy knows me well enough and respects my feelings enough that he doesn’t press me like that- ever”
If she had been there to hear, her mother would have been all over her for once again exercising that “acid tongue”. But she wasn’t there and she couldn’t hear her. Jennifer Hart was most likely happy in her own world right about now, which left Justine Hart to her wage her own offense in her own way, and all was fair in her wars.
They finished their dance in silence.
“What’s up, Russell. You’ve been missing in action all night. What are you taking pictures of out here?”
Russell turned around to find J.J. coming up behind him down the front driveway. She was barefoot still and he hadn’t heard her walking up. She came and stood next to him but, for once, she didn’t look too happy.
“I was just out here.” He answered. “I don’t just take pictures, you know. A better question is why aren’t you back there at your party?”
“I was just kidding you about the pictures. I know you have a life. I wish that some people would stop trying to map mine out for me. It makes me so mad when people try to fit me into a mold they call themselves making for me.”
Russell noticed that she was wringing her hands and twirling her ring around her finger as if she were trying to get a handle on something inside before it got out of control.
“What are you talking about J.J.? Who’s made you mad?”
She shook her head quickly as if doing that would erase her troubles. “It’s nothing. Just some person keeps- it’s nothing, Russell. I just needed to come out here and get some air.”
“They’re serving the same air out back, so I know it’s more than that. Come on, tell me what’s going on. Maybe I can help.”
Talking to her in the capacity of confidant and protector, a role which he’d played once before for her, she was once again that little girl he remembered; the little girl that he promised to look out for until she could do it for herself on her own.
She sighed heavily. “I know I’m sixteen, Russell. And I know that lots of girls date and stuff at my age, but I don’t want to right now. I don’t think I’m ready for all that goes with it, you know, being committed, being held to somebody else’s standards, holding somebody else to mine; I don’t want it. But sometimes people try to make me feel like I’m slow or immature or something because I feel that way.”
She sighed again. “I guess I’m just letting people get into my head and I’m just making my own self feel bad.”
Russell wanted to put his arm around her, but he didn’t dare. Instead he reached for her chin and made her look up at him as he spoke.
“One thing I know about you, J.J., is that in general you don’t do anything you don’t want to do. You’re not easily buffaloed. You need to hold to that in your personal life as well. That’s the only way you’re going to be happy. Don’t let anybody sweat you, especially not a guy.”
“Did I say it was a guy, Russell?” She asked, still looking up at him but raising an eyebrow to do it.
“No, but as mad as you were a moment ago, there’s nothing a girl could say to you to take you there. You deal above most girls your age. You would have dismissed a comment from a girl.”
“So, you think you know me, huh?” She smiled her mother’s smile.
“I know that you can hold your own. You just remember what I told you. Now go on back around to your party and have fun. You don’t have that much longer.”
She reached up and pinched his cheek playfully. “Thanks, I needed to hear somebody I trust say that to me. Don’t leave tonight without saying goodbye to me, okay.” And she ran back up the driveway that led to the rear.
Russell watched her go wondering how long it would take that Wesley to realize that J.J. might never be his girl. The last time that he was with all of them, it was evident that he was very fond of her But even though Wesley had been her escort that night, he noticed that there was a subtle distance she maintained from him.
As they were all sitting and talking in her living room, she happened to fall asleep and when she did, she did so on the couch where he and Tommy were seated, leaving Wesley by himself on the other sofa. It seemed to him that she was closer to Tommy and he to her, but they saw each other every day at school, so that would make sense. Wesley’s pain was understandable; she was indeed some girl, but she didn’t seem like the one for him. At least not at this point. From the way she sounded, she probably wouldn’t be the one for anybody for some time to come.
They brought the flowers into the house.
Her mother kept a beautiful cut crystal vase in the pantry off the kitchen. It would be perfect for the roses, which she wanted to get into acidic water. They were so pretty and she wanted them to last as long as possible. Yellow roses were her favorites, and it tickled her that Tommy would remember a small detail like that. When she returned to the party after being mad out front, she realized that she had left them lying in their box on a table. Tommy insisted upon coming in with her to help with them when she brought them in.
“I think it’s in here, Tommy.” She remarked as she entered the unlit pantry. But really, you didn’t have to come in the house with me. I think Vivian’s going to be mad at me now. She wanted you to dance with her on that last cut. She has been staring at you from across the pool for the longest and you wouldn’t even look her way. Then when you got up and came with me just now, I saw her shoot me a dirty look. You get me in more trouble with the girls.”
“She should have come over and said something. I would have danced with her.” Was Tommy’s reply. “You girls always think we guys can read your minds.”
“Don’t generalize. I don’t think you can read my mind at all. I don’t think any guy can.” She felt along the shelves for the vase. “Well, since you’re here, would you turn the light on so I can see.”
Instead of the light coming on, she felt his hands grab her shoulders to turn her around and then his lips quickly and firmly press against hers. Before she had the chance to reach up and slap the living daylight out of him, he released her and backed up from her to turn on the light. When she could finally see him, he was standing there grinning at her, of course flashing those dimples to do so.
“Now nobody can say you’re sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” He laughed. “Your aunt was right. A pretty girl should be kissed by someone special. Since I was the first one to ever kiss you, that makes me special. I don’t think a kiss when you’re twelve and you don’t really know what you’re doing counts, though. It was the bomb this time, J. You’ve got good lips for kissing. Go ahead. You can slap me now.”
And he stepped forward, turning his cheek to her as a sacrificial offering. But instead of hitting him, she turned her back to him and reached up on the shelf for the vase behind her.
“You make me sick.” Was all she said. She took her time, giving herself time to recover in the hope that he wouldn’t see how flushed her face felt like it had become.
She couldn’t see that he had turned beet red himself as he stood behind her beaming, secure in the knowledge that this time, unlike the time when they were twelve, her mother was no where around.