A simple sleepover at Willow Pond with J.J. and a few girlfriends doesn’t quite stick to the plan
J.J. tentatively approached the desk and took a deep breath before posing her question.
“Mom, do you think it would be okay if I have a sleepover tonight?”
Jennifer Hart’s hands froze in place on the keyboard. The word ‘sleepover’ was close to an expletive when uttered from her teenaged daughter’s lips. She slowly raised her eyes from the monitor screen to the girl standing before her.
“Tonight, J.J.? Why?”
“Well, some movies are coming on satellite tonight, and I wanted to invite a few of my girlfriends over to watch them with me.”
“What movies?” Jennifer swiveled in her chair to face J.J. “If they’re those slasher movies that keep you all screaming all night, the answer is no. Why you girls purposely watch something that scares you to death, I do not understand.”
J.J. rolled her eyes. “No, Mother-r-r-r,” she drawled in exasperation. “They’re showing ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte’, and “Die, Die, My Darling” all in one night. How often does that happen, I ask you? They’re classics.”
Jennifer removed her reading glasses and shook her head. “Sweetie, what is it about those movies that fascinates you girls so much? They are as old as the hills, a couple of them are even black and whites, and even in their day they weren’t all that good.”
J.J. perched herself on the side of her mother’s desk and leaned in to explain, “See, they’re old, but the old movies are the best. In ‘Die, Die’, that snotty Patricia gets slapped around good by that Mrs. Trefoil. She knows the old lady is crazy and has her all hemmed up, but instead of going along with the program and keeping her mouth shut until she can figure out how to get out of there, she keeps egging the Mrs. Trefoil on. And you can’t beat Tallulah Bankhead for being dramatic and scary. In that movie, she cracks me up when she backslides from being all holy and everything and goes for the lipstick and the liquor hidden in that trunk in her closet. And then, well, you know, Bette Davis is my girl in anything she plays in. I’m telling you, Mom, those old movies are the bomb, especially the black and whites. We love watching ’em!”
Jennifer listened in wonder to her delightfully unconventional child’s explanation.
“You all have to be the oldest teenagers I have ever met. And the most morbid. Most of the actresses in those movies were dead or near death by the time you were born… except for that lovely girl in ‘Die, Die’. She’s still around, I believe. I loved her in that old TV show, ‘Double Twist’, when I could slow down enough to catch it on occasion. That guy who played her husband was very handsome. I believe she’s doing stage performances these days, and he- What girls are you talking about inviting, J.J.?”
“Just Philly and Charmaine.”
“What? Not Marnie?”
“Aw, Mom, Marnie goes without saying,” J.J. answered with a wave of her hand. “That’s like asking if I’m going to be there.”
Initially smiling at that remark, Jennifer’s face abruptly morphed into an expression of skepticism. “J.J., I don’t know. Your sleepovers have a way of somehow escalating and evolving into something else. We start with four and somehow we end up with six, eight, fifteen people at the breakfast table. The last time there were even two boys at the table.” Leaning in to J.J. who was still leaned in toward her, “Why is that, sweetheart?” she asked.
Faced with the truth about her past sleepovers, J.J. shrugged and averted her eyes from her mother’s face. Indeed, her sleepovers almost never went as planned.
“I don’t know, Mom. Stuff kinda happens. Word leaks out, and people just come by.” She turned back to face her mother, and continued, “That last time, Tommy and Deon were here because they had to come for Charmaine, and they knew that if they showed up at breakfast time, Marie would feed them, especially Tommy. Like stray puppies or tomcats or something. But, this time it won’t be like that.”
J.J. leaned in closer, assuming her most sincere face, almost touching her mother’s nose with her own. “We didn’t tell anybody else about it. We swore each other to absolute secrecy. It’s just us four, and all we’re going to do is watch the movies, maybe go for a swim, and Charmaine is going to twist my hair. Please, Mom. I’ve been in France for two weeks, and we haven’t had a chance to get together since I’ve been back.”
“You’ve only been back for two days, J.J.,” Jennifer countered. “Yesterday you opted to spend the day with Chase and nearly missed your curfew again. I haven’t forgotten about that. Can’t you girls get together at Marnie’s or at the mall?”
“Mom, come on. You always say there isn’t enough adult supervision at Marnie’s at night. You are not going to let me stay down there with a bunch of people overnight for a sleepover. And hanging out at the mall isn’t the same as a sleepover. We want to watch the movies, too. And I didn’t miss my curfew last night. I made it with three, four, probably even six seconds to spare.”
“What about Charmaine’s?”
“Are you kidding? Her grandmother would be reading scriptures to us all night. She wouldn’t let us watch the movies we want to watch. We’d end up watching the Disney Channel or one of those religious programs or something. It would be just like being with Mrs. Trefoil in ‘Die, Die’. And with my mouth, I’d end up like Patricia; up in the attic getting slapped around for being disrespectful and insolent. But-” J.J. stopped and held her finger up for emphasis, “she wouldn’t catch me slipping on that being a virgin thing like Mrs. Trefoil did with Patricia. I’m legit, myself- for now. But I wouldn’t have said either way. It wasn’t her business.”
Unable to catch it before it got out, Jennifer sputtered with laughter. “You are beyond incorrigible, little girl!”
“So what do you say,” J.J. asked, gratified by her mother’s reaction and sure that she had loosened her up sufficiently, “is it yes or no? I have to let the girls know either way.”
“Just four girls? You’re sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Just us four.”
“What time will they come?”
“Around seven o’clock tonight.”
“Overnight for movies, a swim, and hair?”
“Yes Mom. Just overnight to watch the movies, maybe swim, and to do my hair.”
As she spoke, J.J. tightly crossed the fingers of the hand hanging down at her side. She hoped things would be what she said they would be, but one never knew what might actually end up happening at one of her gatherings, no matter how sincere and genuine original intentions might have been.
“I guess it will be all right,” Jennifer finally sighed, sitting back in her chair. Your father and I don’t have any plans for this evening. We’ll be at home.”
Reaching past her mother, J.J. reached for the house phone, pushed the button for her personal line, and then spoke into it. “My mother says it’s cool.”
Squeals of delight resonated from the reciever, letting Jennifer know her daughter and her friends had the multiple line thing going.
“Seven o’clock,” J.J. continued, continuing to lean across the desk and her mother’s work. “The first movie starts at eight. Don’t forget to bring the stuff for my hair, Charmaine. Let’s keep this on the down low, girls. It’s just us this time. Okay, I’ll see you all at eight.”
She hung up and taking her mother’s face in her hands, gave her a quick kiss on both cheeks. “You are the best, Mom.” she squealed before hopping off the desk and running back upstairs.
When J.J. was gone, Jennifer picked up the phone and pressed a speed dial button with the eraser end of her pencil.
“Well hello, sailor,” she purred when the other party picked up. “Busy?”
“Never too busy to talk to you, my darling,” that distinctive male voice answered. “What’s going on there at home?”
“Nothing yet.” She said, smiling as if he could see her, “but I can’t guarantee what things will be like after seven tonight.”
“Ummmm, you put it like that, I’ll be there by a quarter to. With bells on. Sounds like big fun.”
“Yes, darling, but not the kind I’m sure you’re thinking of.”
When the boss went to the back to check the ovens, Deon Williams seized his opportunity. He grabbed the phone, and punched in a number.
“Tommy,”he whispered when the other party picked up, “guess who just placed an order for three large pizzas with everything for eight o’clock tonight?”
“3100 Willow Pond Road. Delivery to a Miss J.J. Hart. It was Marie, their housekeeper. What does that sound like to you?”
“Sleepovvvvverrrr!!!” Tommy crooned. They had talked on the telephone, but Tommy hadn’t seen J.J. in person since her return from France.
“Sounds like one to me too, my brother,” Deon said, grinning mischievously while his eyes kept a furtive lookout of the boss. “I heard Charmaine in her room whispering in the phone before I left this morning. She saw me and quit talking. I knew right then that something was up!”
“What are you doing at work so early? I thought you were on the late shift today.”
“I was, Tommy, but another guy needed to switch so I came in early for him. He’ll work late for me tonight. Conveniently got the whole night off. So, who all do you think J. invited?”
Tommy gave it a minute before he answered, “Well J.J. just got back from her trip, so she’ll want her regular crew over. if it’s J.J., you know Marnie will be there. That’s a party by itself with those two. But you said you heard Charmaine whispering, so she’ll probably be there and that means Philly will be too.”
“Oh, man! So, are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I don’t know what’s on your mind,” Tommy said, “but I’m thinking you should order up a couple more pizzas and a couple liters of Coke to go. We don’t want to be sponging off the girls when we get there, giving them a reason to kick us out, now do we? What time are you off from there?”
“Five for me. I started this summer internship at Hart today. Had to show the engineers here what I knew how to do, but I’m nearly done. You know, Deon, Hector probably doesn’t know about this either. Philly wouldn’t have told her brother anything about a sleepover at J.J.’s because then she would tell us.”
“Then I better give the boy a call. He’d be upset if he found out that we left him out. Besides, he’s got the truck.” Deon’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Guido’s coming back!” He said quickly and softly into the phone. “Gotta go, Tommy! I’ll call you when I get off and meet you at your place!”
Tommy clicked off his cell and went back to the computer at which he had been working just as Jonathan Hart himself walked into the lab.
“How’s it going, Tommy?” The man asked heartily as he came to stand over him.
“Just fine, Mr. Hart. I’m just inputting this information, and then I’m going to organize it all into separate folders. That’ll make it more manageable when someone goes to work with the component parts’ data.”
“Sounds good. I’m going to be getting out of here a little early tonight. Mrs. Hart says she’ll be needing me at home. I just came down to see Dr. Westlake, and I thought I’d check on you while I was here. He tells me you do good work. He says he’s going to be glad to have you in the intern program.
“Thanks, Mr. Hart.” Tommy smiled and shook hands with his mentor. He almost felt guilty… almost.
“I’ll see you later, Tommy.” Jonathan said, walking out of the lab, quite sure that before the night was out, he probably would.
J.J. eased, one tentative step at a time, down the spiral staircase to where her mother still sat working at her computer. Throughout her slow descent to the first floor, she was steeling her nerve. Finally reaching the bottom, she resolved to go just ahead and get it over with.
“Mom,” She called softly. “Excuse me for bothering you. I know you’re probably going to fuss, but I please believe me, this is it.”
Jennifer sighed, stopped typing, took off her glasses once again, and turned slowly to face her. “What is ‘it’, Justine? I knew this was a bad idea.”
“No!” J.J. quickly countered. “It’s just that Charmaine’s grandmother came home and brought another cousin home to spend the night, not knowing that Charmaine was going to ask her if she could come here. Her grandmother is going to let her come to the sleepover, but Charmaine doesn’t want to leave her cousin there by herself. So we want to know if the cousin can come too. I told them that I would ask you if it would be okay.”
“Didn’t I tell you that your parties have a way of escalating? It’s started already.”
“No. No, it’s just one girl, that’s all. Just one girl.”
“How old is she, J.J.?’
Sighing, knowing that before the night was out she would most likely be regretting agreeing to any of this, Jennifer reluctantly granted her permission.
“Just this one girl, J.J. Hart. If there are any more add-ons, I am shutting this thing down. Do you hear me?”
Grinning broadly, J.J. affirmed, “I hear you. There won’t be any more!”
“And you girls are going to have to be responsible for her. She may be eleven, but she’s going to need monitoring just the same, and I am not baby-sitting!”
“Okay, Mom. And she’s it. There won’t be anybody else.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, she raced back up to get to her phone with the news.
“Yes there will be.” Jennifer thought to herself as she picked up her glasses and resumed her work.
“I ordered three large pizzas and some sodas.” Marie informed J.J. as she sat snacking at the kitchen table. “Is that going to be enough or do I need to send for more to feed the multitudes?”
“Marie, there will only be five of us. Three large pizzas will probably be way too much as it is, but Daddy will be here, and you know he’ll be wanting some of it. We’ll probably end up eating the rest for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“Not if your mother is at home, you won’t. What about your other guests?” Marie asked, coming to the table with the pitcher to top off J.J.’s glass of iced tea. “Have you anticipated them?”
“What other guests? I only invited three other people and Charmaine is bringing her little cousin. She probably won’t eat very much.”
Marie gave J.J. her most doubtful look. “Sweetie, I’ve been knowing you all your life- ALL of your life. There is no way that you are going to even have the same four people here atnine that you start with at seven. You know full well that somebody else is going to show up.”
J.J. shook her head. “No way. This time I didn’t tell anybody anything, and I swore everybody else to secrecy. This time it’s just a sleepover.”
“You’ve been gone for two weeks, J.J. Your friends have been calling here like crazy looking for you ever since you’ve been back on American soil. You have far too many friends for this to stay quiet.”
“But I only told my girls. They know not to talk. This time it’s just us. You’ll see.”
“I hope so.” Marie sighed, placing the pitcher in the refrigerator and hanging up her apron. “But when Tommy does show up, tell him I said to finish up that open carton of milk, not to open the new one, and that’s a new package of cookies in that jar and I expect that there will be some left there in the morning.
“Tommy wasn’t invited, Marie.”
“When has he ever needed an invitation, J.J.?”
J.J.’s guests had arrived early and they had all been in the den for nearly an hour giggling and talking. Jonathan was on his way to the kitchen from the foyer when he encountered a small, thin, black girl with long corn-rowed braids wandering through the great room. So engaged in looking around, going from object to object, she didn’t see him and stopped short, completely startled, just before bumping into him.
“Hello.” He smiled down at her. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Annika, sir. They call me Nikki. I’m Charmaine’s cousin. And might you be J.J.’s daddy?”
“Yep, that I am.” He nodded as she continued to look around the room. “Nice to meet you, Nikki.
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Mr. Hart. This sure is a huge house. I’ve never been in a house this big before. It’s like the public library or the Civic Center or something. You guys rich?”
“Just lucky.” He answered, still smiling as he watched her walk from one item to another, gazing in amazement, her hands stiffly at her sides as if she’d been warned against touching anything.
“Some luck. I mean, it’s just like a library or a museum in here. Nobody told me J.J. was rich. She don’t look rich or act rich when she comes to our house.” Nikki remarked. When she got over by Jennifer’s desk and eyed the tall shelves with all her books, she looked from the floor to the ceiling in awe. “I love books.” She said. “I love to read, just like my cousin, Charmaine. She’s going to be a writer when she grows up. Who reads all of these, Mr. Hart?”
“Mostly Mrs. Hart and J.J., but I do a little of it myself.” Jonathan answered, highly amused. He adored little girls and he loved watching children in discovery mode. Her bright eyes fascinated him. “Mrs. Hart is a writer, too.”
Nikki turned to face him. “Where’s the bathroom? That’s what I came out here looking for at first. I really have to go, but I don’t have a clue about where to look. I asked them, but they were all talking and ignoring me and stuff, and I had to go.”
Jonathan ushered her to the powder room off the kitchen. “Think you can find your way back?” He asked her as she went inside, once again looking all around herself.
“I don’t know.” She answered. “I’ll tell you what. You can wait for me and then you can show me the way just in case. A person could get lost in your house and nobody would ever find them.”
She closed the door and he went to the table to get himself a slice of pizza. Just as he was removing it from the microwave where he’d placed it to heat it up, and he was putting it to his lips, he heard the voice behind him.
“Oh no, no, no, buddy. Put that down. I am not going to be nursing you and that indigestion from that tomato sauce and those spices all night. We have five girls to look after and I need you to be on your game.”
“Ohhhhh, Jennifer!” He whined. “Just one slice. I promise, I’ll eat just this one and that’s it.”
She had to smile as she continued to approach him. He was as bad as his daughter when it came to whining and pouting to get what he wanted. The daughter, she could resist and stand firm against. Jonathan Hart was another story entirely.
“One.” She allowed, standing close behind him. “And know that I’m going to have my eye on you all night.”
He turned from the microwave and wrapped her in his arms. “And if my eyes are glued to you all night, then who’s going to be watching the girls?”
“Charmaine told me about you two.” Came a small voice behind both of them. “She said yah’ll be all over each other all the time. I see she wasn’t lying. Don’t worry, I can find my way back, Mr. Hart. You just keep on doing what you’re doing. Hey again, Mrs. Hart.”
They watched as the little girl nonchalantly walked past them into the great room on her way back to the den. Then they looked to each other.
“Have you noticed,” Jennifer queried. “that all of J.J.’s closest friends and acquaintances seem to have such big personalities?”
“Like attracts like.” Jonathan smiled before he kissed her while reaching behind himself for his pizza.
J.J. was seated on the floor leaning back as Charmaine parted and gelled the last of her long red hair into a neat row and twisted it tightly to her scalp, leaving it loose and flowing on the ends to be pulled up into her customary ponytail. It wasn’t quite time for their movies. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman was on the television. J.J.’s eyes were locked on Dr. Quinn’s husband, Sully, a rugged pioneer man and one of her favorite television characters. Marnie was curled up in the big chair talking on her cell, and Philly was stretched out on the floor looking at a magazine.
“J., telephone.” Marnie said suddenly, holding the phone out to J.J.
“It’s your phone, and you called whoever that it is. J.J. observed, while reaching out to take it. “How can it be for me?”
“Telephone.” Marnie repeated handing it off to her.
“J.J. Hart….” She announced, then suddenly she broke into a huge smile to squeal “Chance! Where are you?… At the gate???”
“What happened to keeping it low?” She mouthed to Marnie as she held the receiver to her shoulder to keep from being heard by the caller. She balled her fist and held it up threateningly. “I am going to kill you.”
“You said low, not silent.” Marnie retorted, dismissing her friend’s threat with an unconcerned wave of her hand. “And anyway, it’s just the twins.”
J.J. spoke back into the phone.
“Which one? Okay, listen up. This is what you do. Go to the front gate and ring the buzzer. Act casual when someone answers, and make like you haven’t talked to us. Just play it off. Is Chase with you?… Okay, yeah, let him do it. He’s smoother than you with that kind of thing.”
Handing the phone back to Marnie, J.J. fussed, “Marnie, I just got back home two days ago. Before I left we were both on lockdown for a week. I don’t know about you, but I’ve served all the time I’m going to do for this summer. Now here you are trying to get me sent up the river again. Chase almost got me sent there last night when he insisted on that second hot dog special at the pier last night even though he knew I was cutting it close.”
“You got us put on lockdown that last time, J.” Marnie reminded her. “You and your loophole theory. Come to think of it, you owe me a lockdown.”
Philly looked up. “Is this that cute Chance with the twin brother named Chase who was at your party?”
“Yeah.” J.J. answered, still scowling at Marnie.
“Serve ’em up with gravy then.” Charmaine asserted as she fastened the band to secure J.J.’s thick ponytail. “They were cuties, and they seemed like fun guys. You’re done, J.” She patted and inspected her unique hair artistry with pride. “You’re looking good, girl. Folks are going to be jealous.”
J.J. ran her hand over it. “I just want to be able to swim without it all coming loose and getting in my face.
Nikki wandered back into the room to casually report , “I saw your Mama and Daddy kissing in the kitchen, J.J.”
“So what else is new?” Marnie offered from her spot on the chair. “Hang around here long enough, you get used to it, kid. They always have the hots for each other.” She eyed J.J. who had gone back to studying the man on the television screen. “It’s like soft porn around here.”
J.J.’s head snapped up. The intercom buzzed at just that moment, and J.J. got up to answer it, flipping Marnie the bird as she did.
“Yes?” She said into the speaker.
It was Marie. “J.J., you have guests coming up from the gate, and your mother wants to see you in the kitchen- immediately.”
“Thank you, Marie, I’ll be right there.” J.J. switched off and spun around to Marnie, pointing her finger. “I swear to you, if the Duchess starts in on me, I’m selling you out. You’re going right down with me, Marnie Elaine Benson, I promise you.”
Marnie grinned from her spot in the big chair. “No you won’t. Ratting somebody out; that’s not even your style, J. Go see what the Duchess wants. It can’t be too bad. She’s letting them come up, isn’t she?”
Just before the gates closed behind the black Corvette convertible carrying Chase and Chance Barnett onto the Hart estate, three other boys stealthily slipped in after hopping out of the SUV parked at the curb on Willow Pond Road.
“Justine Jennifer Hart,” Jennifer hissed, her hands on her hips, as her daughter stood squirming before her. “Did I not warn you about this thing escalating? You told me that you were going to be watching movies with the girls in that room. It’s not even eight o’clock yet and the crowd is already gathering! You told me that the girls in that room were it.”
“As far as I was concerned, they were!” J.J. earnestly explained. “Honest, Mom! I was on the up and up about that.”
“Then why are Chase and Chance on their way up from the gate as we speak?”
“I didn’t have anything to do with the twins coming here, Mom.” J.J. pleaded. “I didn’t tell them to come over.”
She stopped and smoothed her hand over the tight, twisted rows leading from her face back to her ponytail. “You like my hair?”
Jennifer’s eyes rose to the top of J.J.’s head taking in the unique style that was currently popular with teenagers. “Don’t you try changing the subject on me, Justine. It’s different to say the least. Now if you didn’t invite those boys here, then who-”
Before she could complete her question, they were both distracted by Jonathan walking much too quickly into the kitchen with them, removing his personal pool cue from it’s bag. Noticing what he was doing and the familiar glint in his eye, Jennifer turned from J.J. to him, asking “And where are you going with that?”
He held the stick up closely, running his fingers over it, examining it carefully as he answered her. “The Cincinnati Kid is on his way up from the gate. You heard him. He started right in on me over the intercom. He got me for twenty bucks at the club the last time. Since he’s up for a rematch, I fully intend to recoup my losses.”
J.J. smiled to herself; that Chase Barnett was one smooth character. He could sell snow in Siberia.
Jennifer was shocked. “Jonathan, I know that you aren’t planning on gambling with children!”
J.J. watched her father, trying to keep the grin she felt from showing up on her face. His entering the kitchen at the precise moment that he did prevented her mother from asking that key question, and judging from the look of things, the night was really shaping up. The tips of her fingers were tingling, the way they did when there was wagering to be done.
“Jennifer.” Jonathan began calmly while gently massaging the end of the stick with his index finger. “The boy turned eighteen this month, which makes him legal. Besides, he’s been taking grown people’s money since he was fifteen. That’s how he keeps that car of his detailed and gassed up. I’m getting a piece of Chase Barnett before he leaves here tonight. He thinks he got me the last time. I had that head cold and was off my game, and he really thinks he got me. I consider it my adult responsibility to teach him some manners; you know, let him know that he needs to respect his elders.”
He winked at J.J., and said with a nod of his head, “Go rack ’em up for Daddy, baby.”
Jennifer looked from Jonathan back to J.J., who seized the opportunity to quickly move away from her to go to the billiard room to gladly do as her father instructed.
Jennifer, flabbergasted at the turn of events, looked back to her husband to find him crossing the kitchen, approaching her with his blue eyes twinkling impishly. “You wouldn’t want me to shirk my responsibilities would you?” He asked, his voice seductively playful.
She knew that she had lost that battle, and that the irredeemable end of the family had overrun her. She surrendered graciously, “Jonathan, I’ve decided. I’m going upstairs, I’m taking a bath, and I’m putting this thing completely in your hands.”
She tried, weakly and unsuccessfully, to push away from him as he wrapped an arm tightly around her waist to kiss and nuzzle her neck.
“I lovvvve when you put things in my hands.” He breathed in her ear. “It’s soooooo good when you make it easy for me.”
Jennifer succeeded in removing herself, however reluctantly, from his grasp. “You’re pushing the envelope again, Big Fella. You and your daughter.” She said heading for the kitchen door which lead to the front stairs. “If you need me, I’ll be upstairs with a book and a brandy. You have fun down here with the Wild Bunch. I have a feeling you’re going to need it.”
He watched her as she walked away from him.
That was one hell of a woman. And she had such a beautiful, tempting backside. Just as soon as he finished teaching that young boy at the door who the master of the house was, he’d put him and his brother out, and then he’d go upstairs and let her demonstrate to him who really ran things at 3100 Willow Pond Road and how well she knew how to do it.
“You are good.” Chance Barnett smiled at his twin brother who was hopping back into the passenger seat after gaining admission to the Hart estate from Jonathan Hart himself. “J.J. said to let you do the talking.”
Chase grinned. “That was the only way Hart was going to let us up in his house this late in the day with all those girls in there. You know he can’t pass up a bet, and neither can I. He’s been trying to get a rematch ever since I beat him that time at the Club. I know I got lucky, with him being sick and all, but it sure felt good to take his money like that. It’ll be worth it to lose a little of mine tonight. We just want to get into the house.” He reached into the back seat and grabbed the handles of the case containing his pool cue. “Good thing I never leave home without “Sweetness” here.”
“Good thing Marnie never leaves home without her cell.” remarked Chance. “That’s my girl! Never a dull moment.”
As they crossed the bridge over the pond, the brothers high-fived each other, happy to be on their way to the house which held J.J. Hart and Company completely unaware that they weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
J.J. stuck her head in the door of the den where her guests were still sitting.
“They got in!” She whispered. “Marnie, the stars must be lined up in your favor tonight. Daddy managed to cut the Duchess off just before I gave you up.”
“The gods are always looking out for me; I’m a particular favorite of theirs.” Marnie smiled confidently. In anticipation of the boys’ arrival, she stood to straighten her shorts and adjust the attractive, colorful swimsuit she wore underneath them while balancing the cell phone upon which she was speaking between her shoulder and her ear. “I knew that when I made the call.” She said, still speaking to J.J. “How’d the guys pull it off?”
“Chase challenged my Daddy to a game of pool. They have a bet, so you girls know where I’ll be. Somebody has to hold the money. Look, my mother has gone upstairs, Marie is in her room, there’s plenty of food in the fridge, and you know you can get to the pool right through that door. Feel free to make yourselves at home. I may be back soon, but then again…”
She winked and ducked back out.
“When can we go swimming?” Nikki impatiently asked her cousin, Charmaine.
“When I tell you we can.” Charmaine answered, dismissing her as she peeked at the reflection of her face and her hair in her hand mirror.
“Can I go look at some of the books in that big room?” Nikki continued.
Charmaine put the mirror down and eyed her cousin with obvious annoyance. “Those are Mrs. Hart’s books, Nikki. She’s an important writer and she wouldn’t want you touching her things. Just sit here and be quiet before you make me sorry that I brought you with me.”
Nikki sighed. This was going to be a long night. She could tell that Charmaine, who was normally patient and entertaining, was going to be coming out of her superior bag since she was around her friends. She would just have to try as hard as she could to go along with the program, but there was just so much to see in that house…
“This is just freakin’ unreal, the amount of land that comes with J.J.’s house.” Deon whispered as he, Tommy, and Hector crouched down in the bushes near the gate as the tail lights of the Corvette disappeared in the distance. He surveyed the vast expanse of the Hart estate which was getting dark down where they were, but was lit by amber gas lamps way beyond where they were standing. “How far do you figure the walk is up to the house, Tommy?”
“We got a way to go.” Tommy whispered back. “It’s almost a quarter of a mile after you cross the bridge over the pond. We have to get to the pond first”
“We just gotta hike it up there that’s all. We’ve made it this far.” Deon surmised. “And it’s not like we can just change our minds and got back out. We’re locked in until somebody lets us out.”
“The pizza will be cold!” Hector whined upon hearing about the distance to the house. “I’m not waiting.” He stopped, flipped open one of the pizza boxes he carried and grabbed a slice which he expertly folded and stuffed in his mouth.
“Somebody tell me why we’re whispering if we got almost a mile to walk up to the house?” Deon asked, watching Hector in amazement as he seemingly inhaled the large slice of pizza. “Let’s do this. And save some of that for us, Hector.”
“We can get a ride back with twins.” Tommy concluded. “Chase got to Mr. Hart the right way to get them in, but J.J.’s old man will be throwing them out on their butts just the same when he gets ready to go to bed. By that time, if all goes well, the guys will know we’re there, and they can give us a lift back to the truck.”
“I think you’ve missed mentioning a step, Tommy. Any ideas on how we’re going to get in, ourselves?” Hector asked, swallowing a huge mouthful of the two-liter Coke he carried, washing down the pizza.
“What else?” Deon smiled, and answered as he and Tommy led the way. “We just call Marnie on the cell when we get close, and let her work out the last minute details. That’s her area of expertise.”
“And hope we don’t run into Jennifer Hart before then.” Tommy added, his happiness at so skillfully getting onto the grounds tempered by the small amount of nagging dread generated by the mention of J.J.’s mother’s name.
Nobody struck fear in his heart like that lady did. Over the years, he and J.J. had been caught wrong by her too many times.
Jennifer made it to the second floor, to the area of the wide hall before the master bedroom overlooking the foyer, as J.J. was admitting Chase and Chance Barnett through the front door. Positioning herself just far enough back from the railing to not be immediately noticed by her daughter and her daughter’s guests, but close enough to be able to hear what was being said, Jennifer stood still and listened.
That little minx down there, she knew, had great difficulty sticking to a set plan when there was any type of party to be had, even a simple sleepover, and that innocent act in the kitchen hadn’t fooled her a bit. She watched as J.J. greeted the boys who yelled, “What’s up, J.!!” to her when she opened the door.
“Hey!” She cried, first hugging Chance and then Chase who carried a cue case slung over one shoulder.
With the latter young man, J.J. lingered long enough to say in a lowered tone near his ear, “Good looking out on that.” as she tugged gently at the leather bag on his shoulder. “I knew you had it in you.”
She continued in a normal tone. “Daddy’s fired up and ready. I hope you brought your wallet. He doesn’t take Visa, Master Card or American Express. It’s strictly table stakes.”
Chance clapped his brother jovially on the back, as Chase kissed J.J.’s cheek and grinned to whisper to her, “You know I have the gift of this silver tongue, girl. I told you that last night when you were all worried about being late getting home. All you had to do was leave it to me to get you out of trouble- and us in here tonight.” Raising his voice, he stated with youthful bravado, “And yeah, I’m ready for your father. Tell him I said to bring it on!”
Suddenly altering his posture so that he was standing very upright while pushing out his chest and tugging at his collar, Chance lowered his heavily-lashed dark eyes seductively and claimed, “But now if that had been your mother on the mike tonight when we rang the house, then I would have had to be the man to turn on the old Barnett charm. My brother’s the hustler. Me, I’m the lover.”
Jennifer, still listening upstairs, shook her head in disbelief.
Down below, J.J. chuckled, “I don’t know, you guys. I think we just ought to be glad that it was Daddy who answered the buzzer, and leave it at that.”
“Touche’, Cherie.” Jennifer thought to herself as she continued to watch her daughter down in the foyer. “Be glad that it was your Daddy. You know it would take a lot more than that junior highwayman or his would-be Don Juan brother to get by me.”
“Where’s Marnie?” She heard Chance ask, indicating that he had somehow been let in on J.J.’s other house guests. Jennifer could see him looking past J.J. into the house.
J.J. had said that she wasn’t personally responsible for the situation, and she didn’t normally lie to her, but she had been known to skirt the truth on occasion. Jennifer quickly surmised that it must have been Marnie who let the cat out of the bag. That cell phone of hers had been attached to her ear since she arrived.
“Right through here.” J.J. answered, genially taking Chance’s arm to lead him into the great room. “Chase,” She called back over her shoulder. “Go ahead. You know where to find Daddy. I’ll be right there.”
“I know you’ll try to be.” Jennifer thought to herself as she moved from her spot in the hall into the bedroom. “If there are any bets are on that table, I’m sure that you’ll making your way around there.”
There were too many young people, one of them being Marnie Elaine, in too many places on that first floor. As long as Jonathan could see J.J., who would be right there with him, egging him on and helping to count his winnings as long as the bet was on, his attentions would be more focused on the action on that billiard table than on the action anywhere else in the house. The two of them, her husband and his daughter, weren’t worth two dead flies when there was gaming to be done.
That bath, her brandy, and that book she came upstairs to enjoy on her own would have to wait.
Pulling her silk sweater over her head, Jennifer began considering what would be most comfortable and functional for the evening that threatened: a jogging suit or body armor.
Marnie, Philly, and Chance were in the den talking, watching a movie, and waiting for Charmaine and Nikki to come back from getting what they needed to go out to the pool. Marie had been in to check on them, and upon finding that J.J. had abandoned her company, went to find her.
J.J. was perched in the bay window of the billiard room watching her father run the table. Chase stood by her side looking on as well. Dismayed by Jonathan Hart’s considerable skills and the inevitable loss of his twenty dollars on the one hand, on the other, he was more than willing to forfeit the game and the money to be in J.J.’s company. She had gone sailing with him the day before and they had a blast. Having sailed with her father all her life, she knew all about boats and water sports. He found always found J.J. to be such an interesting girl, and she was a lot of fun.
Marie appeared in the door, gesturing for J.J. to come to her.
Just as she did, J.J. could feel her cell phone vibrate in her back pocket. She moved from the window to go to Marie, answering the phone as she did so.
“This is J.J. Hart… Welllll, I don’t know… you know I just got back from my trip and maybe it would be bet-….Alright, then…Hold on, let me see what my father says…”
She waited for her father to sink another stripe before saying, “Daddy, this is Wesley. He wants to know if he and Ollie can stop by for a minute.”
“For a minute.” Jonathan answered without looking up. “It’s getting late.”
Looking a little disappointed with his response, J.J. put the phone back to her ear. “He said you can come, but only for a minute because it’s late… Okay, in a sec, then.” She clicked off.
Marie took her by the arm, saying just above a whisper, “Come here with me, ” and eased her out of the room.
Upstairs, Jennifer stood brushing her hair before the bedroom windows that faced out to the front of the house. She had changed into a plain jogging suit with the idea that she might have to go outside at some point, what with the girls planning to swim and those two boys hanging around as spectators.
Just as she was about to turn away, three figures bolted from the center lawn, scuttling across the driveway going toward the other side near the guest house. She immediately recognized Tommy and was fairly certain the other two were Charmaine’s cousin, Deon; and Hector, Philly’s older brother. That completed the roster of regulars within J.J.’s immediate circle, the Wild Bunch.
Jennifer put the brush down, checked herself a final time in the mirror, and then headed out of the room and down the stairs. It was only 8:15.
Wesley ended the signal on the cell phone and handed it to his friend, Ollie, who sat in the passenger seat next to him.
He hadn’t spoken to or heard from J.J. since the night of her birthday party in early May. She hadn’t returned his emails or his calls in all that time. He had heard about her difficulty with their neighbor who had been stalking her the previous month or so ago, and in her distress, she hadn’t been reaching out to anyone.
When he finally arrived back at home for the summer from school in Massachusetts, his father informed him the Harts had gone to the mountains for a getaway, and almost immediately afte that J.J. left for her annual trip to France to see her aunt. It wasn’t until his mother happened to mention it at dinner earlier that evening that he realized she was back in the States.
It took a supreme effort to not jump up, run from the table, hop in the car, and jet over to see her. Instead, he maintained his cool in front of his parents, and finished his meal. THEN, he took the stairs three at a time to call Ollie and let him know that J.J. was back in Los Angeles. He had been mildly annoyed when Ollie asked to come with him, but since the three of them were all lifelong friends, he reluctantly agreed to it.
“Wha’d she say?” Ollie asked, although he could tell from the look on Wesley’s face that the answer on the other end of the telephone had been a positive one.
“She says her father is letting us come up, but just for a minute or so because it’s late.” Wesley beamed. “That’s all I’ll need.”
“Take it easy.” Ollie warned. “She’s told you how she feels about that. You know she’s been through a lot with all that junk that happened to her. Give her some room, Wes. She’s still kinda young for you, and she means what she says.”
Wesley let Ollie’s words go in one ear and out of the other. He had an entire summer before him to get J.J. Hart to see things his way. Tonight would just be the start of his campaign. As hard as he tried to get past it, there was no other girl that appealed to him the way that she did, no matter how much she shot him down. Sooner or later, she had to let him in. Why wouldn’t she?
They pulled up to the Hart estate, and Wesley pressed the button to announce their arrival.
Just as they could hear the hum of the motor activating the gates, a black SUV whipped into the driveway behind them. Wesley and Ollie automatically turned to see who it was.
Squealing girls were hanging out of every window of the truck. The driver was Tiffany Landers, one of their mutual friends. Her younger sister, Brittany was in J.J.’s grade and they attended the same high school in the city. Tiffany made no secret of the fact that she was enamored of Wesley.
“Wesley! Ollie!” She cried, waving from the truck. “What’s up! We were just coming to see if our girls, J.J. and Marnie wanted to ride out to Baskin-Robbins with us for some ice cream!”
“Your timing was just right!” Ollie called back to them, delighted at the sight of all those female faces.
This was turning out better for him than planned. He had not been looking forward to being the sole witness to J.J. Hart torpedoing Wesley for the umpteenth time. Why his best friend was so set on winning that girl’s affections was beyond his understanding. He knew, however, that J.J. had been being polite. The stage was set for her to go completely off on Wesley for trying to pressure her. If the truth were told, he was sick of Wesley trying to pressure her.
Wesley, frustrated at the prospect of having someone else other than Ollie to divert J.J.’s attentions, wanted to turn the car around and just leave. But the girls were behind them, blocking his exit, so instead, he pulled the car through the gates with the truck following them in.
Although she was greatly enjoying her company outside at the pool, J.J. was anxious to get back inside to the billiard room and the game. Marie had shamed her somewhat about neglecting her guests, and she had gone back to them. But it appeared that the girls didn’t need her. Little Nikki had gone to the pool house to watch television and play video game, and the rest of them, especially Marnie, were being thoroughly charmed by Chance and his rock hard abs as he showed them off along with his diverse diving skills.
To all of their delight he had stripped down to the trunks he wore under his clothes by the side of the pool and he had done it right in front of them as if he were a male dancer while Marnie provided the raunchy music to accompany him. J.J. had alternated between watching him undress and scanning the windows and the doors for her mother’s disapproving presence as he did so. Chance did have a nice frame, but he was a little thin for her tastes. His brother, Chase, on the other hand, was a little taller and heavier and more to her liking, but he was otherwise engaged inside the house where she sorely wanted to be.
Just as she was feeling that she had put enough polite time in, and had made up her mind that she was going back in to watch the game, the door from the kitchen opened and Tiffany, Britt, and a three more of their friends emerged running toward her, their arms outstretched in greeting, followed by a beaming Ollie. The newcomers acted surprised and delighted to see those who were already present in the yard. J.J. could see past them to the kitchen windows where her mother stood gesturing for her to come to her in one, and to Marie who was giving her the I-told-you-so eye from another.
Lockdown loomed ominously on the horizon. It would be an unjust one if it landed; she was innocent in this. But who would believe that she had nothing to do with a happy coincidence like this one? Well, a good time should be had while it could be had, she thought to herself reaching for the remote that would activate the house speakers and the music. With this many people, it was party time.
She got up from her spot on the chaise lounge to accept the welcome home hugs from her friends as her newly adopted theme song, “Get This Party Started” by the artist, Pink began to play. She tried to remember if she had faded out the part about “burning rubber and kissing my ass”.
Sure that she was already doomed, no matter what happened with the lyrics of the song, she continued on to the house totally resigned to her fate.
Wesley, Ollie, and the girls had been met at the front door by Jonathan Hart wielding a pool cue. He greeted the boys, seemed surprised by the presence of the girls, and sent them all through the kitchen door by the stairs out to the pool. All that is except Wesley, who he recalled also played a decent game of pool. Him, he challenged.
Although he was anxious to get outside to J.J., Wesley was unable to ignore the dare and detoured to the billiard room for a quick game. Ollie had no interest in J.J. outside of friendship, so Wesley figured that he didn’t have to be worried about anyone outside beating his time while he played.
“I know that you’re not going to believe me,” J.J. began to plead as soon as she entered the kitchen and could see her mother leaning against the counter with her arms folded waiting for her. “But I didn’t have anything to do with any of them being here. Wesley and Ollie did call. They called me, and Daddy said they could come up. The girls, as far as I know, came out of no where to see if I could go to the ice cream place with them. They came in the gate with Wes and Ollie. It just worked out like this, I swear it, Mom. I did not arrange this.”
Marie was over talking on the wall phone.
“J.J., I told you this was how it was going to happen. I believe you didn’t call these kids yourself, but they’re here nonetheless. You told me it would just be four girls, and now look what it’s come to. And tell me, what one movie have you watched this evening?”
J.J. hung her head and poked at the tiled floor with a bare toe. “What can I say?” She asked quietly. “We haven’t really had time to watch much TV. People keep coming, so we just put a tape in. But it’s just like that sometimes, Mom. Can I help it if people like me, and they missed me while I was away?”
Jennifer remained unmoved by the stellar performance being given on her behalf. The face that hidden from her view by its owner’s downcast demeanor likely sported vestiges of an impish grin much like Jonathan’s at those times he employed feigned humility and remorse in the effort to get past her. Those two were magnets when it came to attracting people to them. Both of them, fun and personable, naturally drew others into their circles like moths to flame. Under the right circumstances, just being close to them insured a good time.
It was only the first part of July, and the rest of J.J.’s summer lay before them. The thought of things to come caused an involuntary shiver to run through Jennifer’s entire body. She closed her eyes for a moment.
There had been a time in her life when there hadn’t been even the most remote thought of any child in her life, much less, this child, her daughter, standing before her. Now there she was with her father’s eyes and that thick, damp ponytail, her long, thin fingers wound securely around her mother’s heart. It was so hard to be angry with her. At least she was finally developing some sense of propriety. She had donned a cover-up after emerging from the pool and coming into the house, which was something that she had just recently begun to do.
J.J. was developing a body that screamed for attention when she was in a bathing suit, and her father became a nervous wreck when there were boys around her at the pool. However, of late, J.J. seemed to be becoming more aware of her sexuality, and she was a little more conscious of its effect on males. While Jennifer wanted her to be more modest than she had been in the past, she had her eye this new behavior. While she didn’t want J.J. flaunting herself to get attention, at the same time, she didn’t want her daughter to be uncomfortable or self-conscious about her body. It was going to be a tricky course for them both to maneuver.
And evidently either Tommy and his band of merry men hadn’t surfaced yet, or J.J. just wasn’t telling that part of the story. Omission happened to be one of J.J.’s trademark strategies: don’t ask, don’t tell. There had been no mention on J.J.’s part of the three boys seen skulking around out front earlier. If she knew he was there, it would be just like her to not give Tommy up until forced to do so. That relationship, J.J. and Tommy Steele….
But in the meantime there was the situation at hand.
“Let me tell you one thing, little girl,” Jennifer warned, resolute in her own decision to stand firm even though she knew all along that this was how the night was going to play out. “This is the last sleepover this summer for you, do you hear me?”
“And there had better not be another soul darkening my doorstep this evening. Is that understood?”
“Everybody except those original four girls are to be out of here by eleven. Is that clear?”
“That music out there had better not increase by another decibel, and there had better not be one dirty lyric or curse word riding the airwaves out there. Do you hear what I’m saying to you?”
“What do you have to say for yourself, Justine Hart?”
J.J. looked up at her mother for the first time in the conversation, catching the flashing brown eyes with her own most soulfully pitiful blue ones. “I love you, …Mommy?”
Jennifer narrowed her eyes at her and in amused annoyance took her by the shoulders, turned her, and gently pushed her toward the door, telling her, “Get out of here.” while wondering by what means J.J. would eventually try to explain the presence of Tommy, Deon, and Hector to her when they finally surfaced.
The girl wouldn’t lie or try to hide them. She just wouldn’t bring them up until he had to. Besides, Jennifer realized too late, the rule she laid down had been that not another soul was to darken the doorstep. If the boys remained in the yard, J.J. would use that as her loophole to get out of it. J.J. always went for the loophole.
Jennifer shifted to plan B: take them by storm.
Marie hung up the phone on the other side of the kitchen just as J.J. went out. She had been placing orders for more food and soda at Mrs. Hart’s request.
Marnie and Chance were dancing poolside when her cell phone sounded. She reached on the table for it to answer it without breaking her steps.
“Tell whatever joker that is that you’ve got company.” Chance said playfully. “I want your undivided attention on this dance. He’ll have to wait his turn.”
Marnie waved him off and answered. “This is Marnie. Look, talk fast, I’m busy… Deon!?!”
Charmaine’s head popped up, at the mention of her cousin’s name, from where she was bobbing in and out of the water at the edge of the pool.
“What does he want?” She asked. “Don’t tell him I’m here.”
“He must already know.” Marnie advised. “He’s here on the grounds. And so are Hector and Tommy. They’re out front in the bushes. They’re trying to get to us.”
“As soon as you get off that phone, Marnie, hand it to me. I’m calling my grandmother to tell. I know she doesn’t have a clue that Deon has sneaked over here. He’s supposed to be at work.”
Marnie went back to talking into the phone. “You switched shifts?”
Upon hearing that, Charmaine threw up her hands in frustration .
Marnie continued, “Just come on around the house to the back.” she said. “I got the feeling it won’t matter at this point. J.J.’s mother has already flagged her in…yeah…Probably to give her holy hell about all these people showing up. You saw the others drive in? Yeah, well… you guys won’t even be noticed. Okay, we’re at the pool. See you in a minute!”
Switching off, she turned back to Chance. “Pretty slick sleepover this is turning out to be, wouldn’t you say?”
“Only if the sleepover part is coed.” Chance raised his eyebrows suggestively and high-fived Ollie who was dancing with Philly next to them.
Holding up their hands, Marnie and Philly dismissed both of them, as well as the innuendo.
Forgoing her longing to detour to the billiard room, and in light of that last exchange between her and her mother, J.J. decided to return to the pool. She’d go for a few minutes anyway, just to make a polite appearance and to check on her outdoor guests, then she’d be on her way.
As she stepped off the patio, however, she found herself grabbed by the wrist and yanked around the corner into the shadows. Startled and ready to fight, she whipped around, fist in the air, to come face-to-face with a grinning Tommy. Instead of slugging him, she happily hugged him before pushing him away to anxiously ask, “Boy, what in the world are you doing here?”
“After all this time is that all you can say to me, girl?” Tommy said, grinning devilishly, flashing his trademark dimples. “I just wanted to say “Welcome home” to you in person. Am I wrong for that?”
As Tommy spoke, J.J. noticed for the first time Deon and Hector standing right behind him looking like cats who had just swallowed canaries. They greeted her and welcomed her home as well.
“Looks like you guys came ready,” She said, grinning with delight despite her dismay at their presence and her mother’s dire warning reverberating in her ears. She noticed constantly hungry Hector carrying pizza boxes under one arm while devouring a slice he held in the hand of the other.
“We brung our own,” Hector said around the food in his mouth,”so you couldn’t call us out for freeloadin’ or anything.”
“You guys are going to get me killed,” she informed the newly arrived group, hands on her hips, her voice hushed and conspiratory. “The Duchess has already fired a warning shot over my head. How ever did you get in here?”
Deon and Hector walked around J.J. and Tommy toward the music and happy voices leaving Tommy behind to explain it to her. The late-arriving girls ran out to meet them and grabbed a pizza box from Hector.
“I told your father those gates close too slow,” Tommy said. “We came in behind Chase and Chance’s car. The truck is outside the gates, on the front road.” He stopped talking for a moment to take her in from head to toe. “I love your hair. Did Charmaine do that? It’s real good to have you home, J. I missed you a lot.”
“I missed you too, Tommy,” J.J. said, gazing up into Tommy’s face, very happy to see him despite the complications his presence might cause. “I love France, but there’s no place like home. And yeah, Charmaine did my hair. I’m glad you like it.”
With him there, she was completely done, toasted on both sides. Her mother would never believe she hadn’t personally summoned him.
“Jeez, Tommy, all I wanted to do was have a simple sleepover tonight,” she said, shaking her head at the turn of events. “Just a sleepover, with four girls. I’m going on lockdown; I just know it. Our whole crowd is here and then some. As sure as my name is Justine Jennifer Hart, as soon as all this is said and done, Jennifer Justine Hart is going to have my behind on lockdown.”
Tommy handed her one of the two Cokes he carried, and put his arm around her shoulders to walk her into the yard. “Don’t worry, J., your old man knows how much you like a good party. You’ve been gone for two weeks and you deserve an extraordinary homecoming. He likes to party himself. He’ll smooth the wrinkles out of your mother if she needs ironing. The man knows all the right words and moves to get her to see things his way and to get you off the hot seat.”
“Good evening, Thomas.”
Both teenagers jumped. Tommy practically pushed J.J. away from him in his effort to get his arm from around her.
Jennifer Hart stood right there on the patio, right at that corner J.J. had been snatched around, leaned against the lattice post with her hands in the pockets of her jogging pants, one leg crossed over the other as if lying in wait for them to come past her. Tommy realized with sudden horror that she had to have heard every word he said. He and J.J. froze in place, their eyes locked on J.J.’s mother like two fawn helplessly caught in the headlights of an oncoming, speeding car.
Jennifer extended a hand to Tommy. “Why don’t you come in, Thomas,” She waved him past her toward the door into the house. “And you can explain once again to Mr. Hart that his front gates close too slowly. In fact, you can be the evidence to support your claim.”
Then she turned back to J.J. whose eyes were still glued to her. “You and I will speak later, my little love. I would advise you, though, to enjoy the night. There are no words or moves that anyone could use on me that will ‘iron me out’ or help you out of this one.”
As Tommy followed her mother through the door, J.J. unscrewed the top to the Coke he handed her and knocked back a long, hard swig straight from the bottle.
Jonathan stood along the wall, observing as Wesley and Chase played each other. They were both good, but Chase most definitely had the upper hand. Having lost his money to his elder, Chase was decisively making an inroad on using Wesley’s wallet to get even. Jonathan was content to know that both those young men were no where near his daughter. He had spent the evening before wearing out the rug in the bedroom waiting for her to come home from the pier with Chase. And Wesley had long been smitten with her.
Acutely aware of their individual affinity for her, and with her out there somewhere in a bathing suit, J.J.’s Daddy was more than happy to have the two of them there in the billiard room with him for the time being.
J.J., he noticed, had been gone from the room for some time, and he knew that meant that Jennifer must have her under observation. That could be the only explanation for his daughter’s extended absence. If anybody was betting on anything, J.J. would be right in the middle of the action, either in the game herself or holding the money for the players, minus her ten percent off the top, of course. Standing there, he could faintly hear music playing in the distance, and he surmised that the others must be outside.
His cell went off. Unhooking it from his belt, he answered it.
“Jonathan Hart. …Yeah, Barnett, your boys are down here. I just finished teaching the oldest one some manners, and Chance is out back, somewhere too close to my daughter and her friends, I’m sure…The boy challenged me, Chuck! What was I supposed to do? The kid’s young. He has to learn….Well, if you think that’s going to help him, you do what you have to do. I’ll be waiting right here for you.”
He switched the phone off, waited for Chase to sink his shot, and then reported. “That was your father, kid. He’s on his way down.”
Chase stood up and brushed back a shock of dark hair that had fallen into his eyes. “Good. It’s on then.” He smiled and nodded. “We’ll play doubles and see who the masters of the table really are.”
Jonathan, always up for a challenge, quickly sized Wesley up and gave him a skeptical look. That one wasn’t going to cut it as his partner. Not enough skill or heart. That dead-eye shot J.J. would be ideal to take his place, but her mother would have a fit for sure if he called her in for that. Most likely she was already working up a head of steam over this. Scratching his head, he surely wished-
Jennifer appeared in the door followed by a nervous-looking Tommy Steele.
“Tommy?!” Jonathan cried, rushing over and reaching behind Jennifer to pull him into the room. “Just the one I needed to see! Get in here, son. I need you to get your stick warmed up.”
Then realizing that he was shutting him out, he turned to Wesley. “No offense,” he apologized. “But I have to hedge my bets with this young hustler and his father. I need the best man for the job.”
“No offense taken, Mr. Hart,” Wesley answered with relief.
If Chase, Mr. Hart, and that Tommy were all occupied with playing pool, that left him a straight, unencumbered path to J.J. This was one time that he was more than happy to be upstaged by Tommy Steele. He couldn’t wait to lose his money to Chase and get out of there.
Jennifer stood watching in tongue-tied astonishment as Tommy was yanked past her, clapped heartily on the back by his rogue of a mentor, and was sent to the wall to secure his regular cue from the rack. Chase looked on happily, shaking hands with Tommy when he approached the table after selecting his stick.
The male bonding in that room was beyond her belief. Not once had Jonathan stopped to ask her from where Tommy appeared or how he had come to be there. J.J.’s simple sleepover evidently had taken on a life of its own. Throwing up her hands in silent surrender, she walked away.
With yet another a commercial on, Nikki took the down time to check out her surroundings.
The Harts’ pool house was nearly as large as a couple of her friends’ apartments where they lived with their entire families. The guest house out front that she and Charmaine had passed as they were being driven onto the estate by their grandmother was larger than their grandmother’s regular house. When they got to the main house, she had been floored. It was huge. She found it hard to believe that Charmaine’s friend, J.J., an only child, lived in such a humongous place with so many buildings and so much land, and that her mother and father owned it all.
As she considered it all, it dawned on her she had been presented a rare opportunity. That movie could be seen any time. Shoot, it could even be rented if it didn’t come around in reruns soon enough, and she didn’t feel like playing any more of the games on the system. Nikki decided that even though Charmaine had seen to her eating, and having a TV to watch, it was obvious she was too occupied to pay her much attention.
Quickly concluding that she would have to find her own entertainment since the girls and all of their friends were busy dancing and swimming and excluding her, Nikki decided to go exploring in this place where there was so much to see. She switched off the television and left the pool house.
When J.J. returned to the pool’s side, most everyone was either dancing or playing volleyball in the pool. The girls who started out allegedly going to the ice cream parlor, had stayed and proceeded to make themselves at home. A couple of them were in the pool. Where did the swimsuits come from if they were only going out for ice cream?
Chance, Ollie, and Hector were in heaven having found themselves in the minority among all the girls present. Charmaine and Deon were off to the side engaged in a heated discussion, with her threatening to call their grandmother to tell on him for sneaking onto the estate, and him pleading with her not to do that. J.J. stopped to greet Deon and to break up their argument, telling them to “squash it and just go have fun”.
Marnie, who was loading the CD player with the next tunes to be played, looked up when J.J. joined her.
“So,” She began. “What’s up, J.? I see Hector and Deon made it in. What happened to Tommy?”
“You don’t seem too surprised that they’re here.” J.J. eyed her friend. “The Duchess intercepted Tommy. She took him in to Daddy after she overheard him bragging to me about how they got in and about how my Daddy could talk her out of being mad about it.”
J.J. tipped the two liter up one more time, taking another long drag.
Marnie took note of J.J.’s nervous agitation. She knew, like J.J. knew, that Jennifer Hart made Tommy enormously uneasy. He did everything he could to stay out of her way, so to be closed up with her by force like that had to have him sweating bullets in there.
“Go easy on that Coke, J.,” she advised. “It gives you zits, remember? Why don’t you go in and see what happened to him?”
J.J., all sense of decorum lost behind getting caught by her mother looking as if she were sneaking Tommy in once again, the third time in recent memory, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“I don’t dare go in there, Marn.” She slowly shook her head with the thought. “Nah, Tommy got in here on his own. He’ll just have to get himself out of there on his own. She’s already let me know I’m finished. She had just got done hemming me up in the kitchen about all these people showing up like this, and then, bam! Tommy and his crew show up. I just wanted to have a sleepover, Marnie, that’s all.” She stopped and gestured to all the young people frolicking about her. “Not this. Mind you, I’m not complaining or anything, but I my mother going to nail my hide to the nearest tree when she gets the chance, and I didn’t even do anything. I am truly a victim of circumstance this time.”
Marnie finished loading the player and then placed a reassuring hand on her friend’s shoulder. “The hell with it, J. If you’re already through, then why not just go for it? If you’re going on lockdown, you might at least have some fun on your last night out. Your sleepover is a party now, girl. There’s nothing you can do about it. Look, here comes that cute guy from Luigi’s Instant Catering.”
Several boxes, food containers, as well as sodas and eating utensils were being brought out onto the patio. The table was being set up with everything they would need. Marnie tipped her head in that direction, “If the Duchess was that mad, J., do you think she’d be feeding us like this? Loosen up. We have our friends, good music, food… You go have a dance or a swim. Then go look for Tommy, and get him and Chase out here.”
J.J. cut her eyes over to Marnie. “What about Wesley? I notice you didn’t mention Wesley. And I notice you didn’t volunteer to go in there to look for the guys yourself.”
“Yeah well, I noticed you haven’t asked after Wesley either,” Marnie retorted. “When Ollie got here, you didn’t even ask him where Wesley was. Do you even know if he’s here or not? Do you care?”
Both girls smiled and high-fived each other.
“And it’s for sure I’m not going anywhere near your mother,” Marnie continued as she pulled her shorts off and threw them on the chair. “She’s probably not that far off from putting my ass on punishment over this, and I’m not even her kid. It’s not like she hasn’t done that before. Look, I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not like you, J. If she asks me, I’m going to lie like a Persian rug, and if you’re around, you had better not be looking like you have the first inkling I’m lying about having called the twins and the girls.”
J.J.’s eyes grew wide. “AND the girls?”
At that moment, Chance ran up, grabbed Marnie’s hand, and pulled her off toward the pool with him.
A second later, J.J., having come to terms with Marnie’s involvement in her ultimate fate, partially unzipped the cover-up she had on and snatched it over her head. Tossing it aside, she ran to make a flying leap into the pool. Like Marnie said, if she was going to be on lockdown in the morning, she had nothing to lose by having big fun that night.
Nikki wandered first down the walkway that led away from the pool area, completely mesmerized by the grounds she could see, her head full of wonder about that she couldn’t. The Hart’s place was like being at the municipal park not far from her house. They even had the same kind of soft overhead lighting. In the distance she could hear running water and she headed in that direction.
Marie came in from getting things set up on the patio just as Jennifer reentered the kitchen. Tommy was no longer with her. When the two of them had come in just a short time earlier, passing her on their way to the front, she nearly laughed out loud at her prediction to J.J. coming true so soon after making it.
She was aware of Tommy’s wariness of Jennifer Hart despite his standing almost a head taller than she and outweighing her by sixty pounds at conservative guess She was also tickled that her prediction of J.J. not ending up with the same people she started out with proving entirely correct. Having been with the Harts since the year J.J. was born, she had learned in that time that some things were certainties. J.J’s enormous popularity and Tommy’s presence ranking chief among those certainties.
As he followed Mrs. Hart through the kitchen, Tommy managed to catch her eye, and she had blown him a good luck kiss. That was her boy. Anybody who looked out for J.J. and cared for her the way that boy did was naturally high on her A-list. Tommy was big, he looked tough, and he rode a motorcycle, but underneath all that macho Marie understood his good heart.
It constantly amazed her how easily J.J. appeared to handle the males in her life. Her father adored and shamelessly indulged her, and boys were falling all over themselves around her these days, with good very reason. But J.J. kept the boys at a distance. She’d go out with a few of them, but never the same one, and never for too long once night fell. She seemed almost grateful that her parents, mostly her mother, set strict curfews and limits for her, and even though she cut it close at times, she always stayed within those boundaries.
Except with Tommy. J.J. would push it harder with Tommy, just as she had that evening. The good thing about that situation was usually it was Tommy who kept J.J. from going to far. He respected her, and somehow she got the feeling Tommy conducted himself when he was with her in a way that bolstered J.J.’s respect for herself. There was something very special about those two, and she sensed Mrs. Hart could see it as well. Two kids from two quite different worlds; she admired the way the Harts didn’t try to regulate J.J.’s associations the way she had seen some other parents do with their children. J.J. was even richer for her parents and their handling of her.
Marie went into the pantry to retrieve her book from her desk. The she returned to the kitchen counter to record the receipts from the catering service.
After reentering the kitchen, Jennifer sat down at the table, propped her chin in her hand, and sighed heavily. Marie looked up from what she was doing, and then went to her.
“Tired?” she asked.
“Frustrated,” was Jennifer’s answer. “I let them completely run over me tonight. Jonathan is in there running a pool hall, and J.J. is outside playing Gidget goes to Willow Pond. There are kids coming out of the woodwork, and they just keep coming, Marie. This sleepover is like a communicable disease that keeps spreading and spreading. Marnie has been glued to that cell phone all night. I know she’s probably the one who’s mainly responsible for this, and J.J. doesn’t have much of a problem with any of it outside of what I might do to her afterward.”
“Well, the regulars are all here now, Mrs. Hart. Maybe this is it,” Marie said, trying to sound reassuring. “Just last week you were saying how much you missed her. Now she’s home.”
“With her whole band of merry teenagers. And then I just break down and feed them after they’ve weaseled and sneaked their ways in here.” Jennifer continued to complain. “I call J.J. to task, let her slide, and then seconds later, I find her out there wrapped up with Tommy who’s sneaked in with two others. I take him to Jonathan and he just lets him get away with it. Tommy’s in there now being Jonathan’s foil at the billiards table instead of being chastised for trespassing. He didn’t even bother to ask where Tommy came from! I declare, Marie, he’s molding that boy to be his own bigger and badder image. This was supposed to be a girls’ sleepover. I knew this was going to happen, and now it’s all completely out of control!”
The music was playing outside, and Jennifer could tell that even though she hadn’t increased the sound itself, J.J had added more bass which increased the rumble effect, the element she liked the most. In her head, not wanting to actually look and witness it first hand, she could see J.J. gyrating at the pool’s side. That girl could not keep still if the music was danceable, which the selection that was currently playing definitely was. Youthful screams, squeals, and splashing water could be heard through the open windows mixed in with the music.
Jennifer shook her head and sighed again. The gate buzzer sounded and she got up to answer it.
“Jennifer! How are you, Sweetheart! Look, this is Chuck Barnett and I’ve got Wild Will Singleton out here with me. Tell that husband of yours to just put all the money in his wallet and his pockets on the table and get ready to be cleaned out!”
As she buzzed the two newcomers in, Jennifer turned to Marie. “And so it continues.”
Marie, her book in hand, went to the phone to order sandwiches for the billiard room. It was only 9:30.
After losing to Chase, Wesley left the billiard room and went first to his car to grab the pair of emergency swim trunks he kept there. Then he headed for the back of the house as if he’d been shot from a cannon. He couldn’t wait to get with the others.
Just as he turned the corner of the house, and headed for the pool, he could see J.J., with her back to him. She was pulling her cover-up over her head to reveal her tall, shapely body clad in a two-piece fire-engine red bathing suit, that familiar pony tail hanging down her back. Like a magnetic force, it all drew him in her direction, but just as he started toward her, she began running and like a sleek javelin, she propelled herself into the water and disappeared. Seconds later, she broke the surface laughing merrily in the middle of her friends delighting in having interrupted the volley ball game in progress. Ollie hit her with the beach ball and she slapped it playfully back at him. Wesley was slightly annoyed that J.J. seemed to always be in the midst of a group of people. It was very difficult to catch her off to herself.
He went to the pool house to change and to bide his time.
The running water Nikki heard turned out to be a small waterfall running down a short stack of stones into a pond, complete with willows, lily pads, and she hoped, not frogs. The water cascaded down over the assortment of smooth rocks. She was further delighted to be joined by J.J.’s small dog, Third, who ran up out of no where after a few moments. She bent to pet his head and scratch his ears. As she did, she noticed there were actually goldfish in the water. The ground lights around the water’s edge and the amber lights overhead glinted off the gold scales of the darting, dancing fish, fascinating her with their performance.
Charmaine’s friend, J.J., lived in such a wonderful place. On her walk to the pond, Nikki recalled passing a real stone well with a bucket, just like the wishing wells in stories she had read. There were all kinds of flowers and trees. Out where she was, she had traveled some distance away from the main buildings, but was so peaceful. In the city, one didn’t dare venture out to walk alone at night, not even to go out to the car to get something forgotten. Where she was at that moment, she didn’t feel the least bit fearful.
On their way in, they had crossed a bridge over an even bigger pond, like a lake, maybe. To her, it might as well have been a lake, but Charmaine assured her it was a pond. Charmaine said there were fish in that water as well.
And if she remembered correctly, she had seen a couple of canoes out there too…
Tommy and Chase, although they both wanted to be outside with the others, were gratified to be invited into the company of their older male counterparts in the billiard room. To be accepted for their skills by the powerful business men with whom they would be playing, and whom they both admired, meant a great deal to them.
Tommy, always happy to be with Jonathan Hart, was doubly grateful for his presence that evening as he had been marched into the room by J.J.’s formidable mother. Before Mrs. Hart could get the words out to tell on him, Mr. Hart had snatched him into the room and put him to work. The man didn’t even seem to care why he was there or that he was there on the same night as his daughter’s sleepover. But then again, why should he? Everybody else was there.
He had been a little dismayed to find Wesley present in the room. He had expected him to be outside trying to get next to J.J. But he was glad that Chase was still there. J.J. had introduced him to Chase and Chance a while back, and they were as down to earth and as much fun as J.J., especially Chase who was less into the girls than his brother. At the point that Wesley had bolted from the room after losing the last game and paying off his debt, both remaining boys had exchanged knowing glances from opposite sides of the table. Both of them knew that Wesley was on a mission, and they also knew what the outcome of that mission would be.
Their eye contact did not escape Jonathan’s notice, but he too knew what the outcome of Wesley’s quest would be. J.J. wasn’t his type, but the poor boy couldn’t see that for himself. Although he felt that she was still too young for Wesley to be so interested in her, he was becoming more comfortable with the situation. J.J. seldom mentioned Wesley in conversation even though she often talked about her other closer friends, female as well as male. J.J. wasn’t the least bit interested in Wesley outside of friendship, and the more he persisted with her, an increasingly distant friendship it was becoming. Jennifer had mentioned as much to him, but he had seen it for himself for the first time just the other day.
On her first day back from France, after the jet touched down, he had gotten a call and had to stop at his office before taking her home. As he spoke on the phone, she checked her email at the computer on his desk. He discreetly watched as J.J. wordlessly deleted the ten messages from Wesley without even opening them. The coldly disinterested, almost irritated look on her face as she did so told him all that he needed to know. Wesley didn’t bear watching, unlike Chase and perhaps even Tommy, who would be right there playing pool with him for as long as he could hold them there. Those two were her type, and characteristic of his child, they were her type for very diverse reasons. They may have gotten into his house on false pretenses, but he would be controlling their movements on Willow Pond that evening.
Jennifer came into the room escorting Chuck Barnett and William Singleton, Chase and Wesley’s fathers. Both men were carrying their pool cues. Jonathan greeted them and announced to Tommy, “Rack ’em, son. Let’s do this.”
Then, taking Jennifer by the arm, he called over his shoulder, “I’ll go get Wesley back in here, William.”
He walked Jennifer, who to his trained eye was unusually formal and rigid in her speech and her carriage, into the hall. Then he turned her around to face him, asking, “You mad at me?”
“You bet I am, Buddy.” She whispered. “Jonathan, this is a fiasco! A sleepover has turned into a den of iniquity, and you’re encouraging and condoning it.”
Pulling her close, he whispered naughtily, “Iniquity? Jennifer, you must have known that I was into iniquity when you picked me up all those years ago.”
“When I picked you up!? I don’t think so, Jonathan Hart. I think you have your details confused, Buster. You picked me up, if I’m recalling the situation correctly.”
“Whatever happened,” He grinned as he looked into her eyes, pulling her lower body in at the waist so that it was even tighter to his. “You came with me and you stayed, so what does that say about you and the iniquity?”
He could feel her softening in his arms, and he stole the opportunity to kiss her before continuing. “And then I came with you, and you had my baby, thereby continuing my dubious legacy. She’s just like her Daddy, you know, and I think you like it like that,… Louise.”
Before Jennifer could say anything in rebuttal, which he could clearly see that she was puffing up to do, he stopped her by quickly, masterfully taking her delicious mouth one more time.
She, in turn, through the haze, mentally cursed him and his marvelous abilities as she reluctantly succumbed to his charms.
Damn him and that iron of his.
Third jumped into the canoe first, and Nikki pushed it gently from the shore to let the water take it. Then she hopped in leaving her sandals behind on the grass to keep them from getting wet. She had been canoeing at day camp before, but never at someone’s actual, every-day house. The moon was shining brightly on the calm water and the lights from the main house were warm and comforting. Soothing night sounds were all around her, and she could just barely hear the music from out back. Hugging Third to her, Nikki felt like she had never experienced anything so beautiful. That J.J. got to live there every day of her life with her mother and her father.
Lying back on the pillow that was in the canoe. Nikki thought about how Charmaine, and Deon had come to live there in the States with their grandmother so that they could go to that special school they went to while their parents and siblings stayed behind in the Virgin Islands. She knew that even though they both loved their grandmother, they missed their own families a lot. She thought about her own mother, who worked hard to take care of her and her brother and how much her father tried to make things normal and right for them since the divorce two years ago. It was hard to be between two houses and her parents like that, but she didn’t complain. That was just how it was. Her grandmother spent a lot of time with her too. Nikki loved all of them even if they were kind of spread out like they were.
She thought about Mr. and Mrs. Hart in the kitchen a while ago, and she wondered if J.J. knew how much she had it made. There were stars in the sky that night. One didn’t often see stars over the city. She felt like if she stood up she could touch them.
Ollie had seen Wesley approaching the pool from the main house just as J.J. made her flying leap into the water and into the middle of their game. He watched as Wesley started in their direction, and then veered off the path to the pool house. After the water settled, Ollie reached for J.J.’s hand and pulled her to the opposite end of pool away from the others, telling her, “I need to talk to you.”
When they reached the quiet side, away from the game, they both pulled themselves out of the water to sit on the tiles.
“What’s up, Ollie?” She asked wiping water from her eyes and then taking her ponytail in hand to wring it out.
“I just need to give you a heads up. You can do what you want with this, J.J. I know that you’ve been through a lot lately, with that stuff with Junior and all-”
He stopped speaking for a moment when she looked away. A look of pain had quickly crossed her face, and he could see her cheek as it turned red.
He had wrestled with whether or not to bring the topic up. It hadn’t been that long ago that their much older neighbor Allen Baker or Junior as he was known had scandalized the area by stalking J.J. and otherwise harming other young girls, friends of theirs. Ollie was also very aware that J.J. didn’t talk much about her personal affairs, and he knew that the subject had to be painful for her. It had to have been a supreme invasion of her privacy to go through that with Junior, then rehash it with the police and all afterward. Then she had to come to terms with it on her own. But they were friends, and he had always looked out for her. When he heard about what happened to her, he immediately wanted to come to her to offer his support, but she was in France by the time the news got to him. This time he was here, and he didn’t want her going through anything like that again if he could help it.
“I’m sorry, J.” He continued. “I know you don’t want to talk about it. Neither do I. I just want to let you know that first of all I’m sorry that it happened to you. You’re such a lady and you didn’t deserve that. I wish I could make it better or even take it away. But what I mainly want you to know is that Wesley still likes you- too much, I think. I don’t want him bothering you. I know you can handle yourself, but I just thought you should know it from me.”
She turned back to him, took his hand and smiled quietly, put at ease by his compliment and his touching concern for her.
“Thanks Ollie.” She said. “I know I can always count on you to get my back. I’m aware that Wesley likes me, but that’s his problem. One good thing that came out of all of that stuff with Junior is that I know for sure now that I control of that part of my life. He can like me all he wants. I can’t control who likes me, Ollie. I’m only in control of how I feel, and I don’t feel like him.”
“I understand that, J. I’ve always respected you for that, your being in control of yourself. You’ve always been like that. I just think you need to watch him. He’s-, like I said, I think he likes you too much.”
“Why? Why does he like me so much, Ollie? He’s way older than me, and I know that a lot of other older, more experienced girls like him. Tiffany is more his age and she likes him. Why is he so stuck on me?”
“I don’t know J. I think he sees you as the one. You’re pretty, you’re smart, you’ve been everywhere, your folks have money, you can handle yourself in any situation. You’re the kind of girl he likes. I think it’s because you have it all in one package. He doesn’t know you, though. What I really want to tell you, J.J., is I think you should mention this to your mother.”
“Trust me. I just think you should. I think she should be aware of it.”
J.J. studied Ollie’s face. He was serious, and that was all that he was going to tell her about it. Wesley was his best friend, and Ollie wouldn’t be telling her that unless he knew something. She wasn’t going there again, at least not on her own like she tried to do the last time.
“Thank you, Ollie.” She leaned in and pressed her cheek against his cheek. “I appreciate your looking out for me. I’ll let her know and I’ll keep my eye on the situation.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Wesley emerging from the pool house. She immediately slipped off the side and back into the water, pulling Ollie down by the hand to come with her. “Let’s get back to the others.” She said to him.
J.J. released Ollie who returned to the group. She, on the other hand, swam through, where she climbed out of the pool on the opposite end. Grabbing her cover-up from the chair, she slipped it on over her head as she headed for the house. She didn’t see it when Tiffany headed Wesley off.
Hector, Britt, and Deon sat playing cards at the big table on the patio. After snatching a piece of fruit from the side table were Marie had set everything up, J.J. met up with her father at the kitchen door. He was in search of Wesley. She pointed him in the direction of the pool and continued inside on her way to the billiard room
Keeping an eye out, she made it safely around to the front hall. However, just as she turned the corner, she came face-to-face with her mother who immediately pointed her finger in the opposite direction.
Abruptly turning on her heel, J.J. hurried back outside to her guests- the ones at the card table.
Charmaine ran up to the patio.
“J.J., Deon, have either of you seen Nikki?” She asked anxiously.
“I thought she was in the pool house.” J.J. answered without looking up from her cards. “She was playing the game when I checked on her. Had gotten to a really high level and said she couldn’t talk to me at the time, but that was a while back.”
“She probably fell asleep in there on the couch.” Deon advised. “Did you go all the way in, or did you just call for her?”
“She’s not in there!” Charmaine cried. “I did go all the way in.”
Britt looked up. “She didn’t come through here. I’ve been sitting here for a while. I ate, got full, and then I never got back up.”
“Maybe she’s in the house watching television.” J.J. offered. “I’ll go check.”
Marie was working in the kitchen, and. J.J. felt a small pang of guilt at the sight. She knew that Marie was only still up at this time of the evening because she was waiting for all the people to leave. Marie hated a mess anywhere, and she wouldn’t go to bed until everything was clean. J.J. resolved that she would stay up to help her get things in order. That would help Marie out, and perhaps slightly cool the hot seat she was on with her mother.
Nikki was not in the den. She poked her head in all the rooms downstairs, including the billiard room where she wanted to stay after having caught Tommy and Chase’s eyes. They were having a good time, she could tell. Both of them loved the game and were good players, and anywhere her father was, people had a good time. And if they were betting against him, usually came away with lighter pockets. She winked at the boys and left.
She decided to check upstairs. Nikki was nervy, nosy, and fearless enough to have gone up there on her own. Tipping around to avoid her mother, who she assumed was in her room; the door was open and the light was on, she quietly checked each room- no Nikki. She went around into her father’s library in the dark loft to check and then to take the back stairs down to the first floor.
In the kitchen again, she asked Marie if she had seen her.
“Nobody’s been inside from out there, J.J.” She answered. “I’ve been kind of relieved that I haven’t had to step over your buddies this evening, that is all except for those boys your father has in there. Look at that cookie jar.”
Where it had been full earlier, the jar was now half-empty.
“Tommy AND Chase.” Marie explained simply. “And your father just brought that Wesley back through here. Did you look upstairs for the little girl?”
“Yes, all over up there except for my parents’ room. My mother was in there and I’m already dog meat with her over this runaway sleepover. After the guys came Nikki didn’t want to go to the pool, so we left her in the pool house playing Playstation and watching TV, but she’s not there now. She could be anywhere if she’s outside, and it’s dark out there. My mother is going to kill me, Marie. Please don’t say anything to her yet.”
Without waiting for an answer, J.J. ran back out of the door.
Watching through the window, Marie could see J.J. rallying the troops in the backyard.
Waiting their turn and watching Chase’s father and Wesley play each other, Tommy and Chase stood together along the wall. Jonathan Hart, Wesley’s father, and Dr. Jackson, Ollie’s father who had since shown up, were playing a boisterous game of darts for a dollar a point.
“Still got the bike?” Chase asked Tommy.
“Yeah,” Tommy answered. “Just put new chrome fenders on it.”
“That’s a really sweet machine, man.”
Even though Tommy was from the other side of the tracks, Chase admired and could identify somewhat with his unconventional persona. He respected Tommy’s ability to integrate himself into their world to the extent that he did. What he really liked was that it didn’t seem to matter to Tommy whether he fit in or not. One sort of had to take him as he was. He was also intrigued by the fact that J.J. and Jonathan liked him so much. To him, that meant there must really be something to that big guy who spent so much time with them. Neither of them wasted much time with people, things, or situations that didn’t interest them.
“Thanks.” Tommy replied.
“Hey,” Chase whispered out of the side of his mouth. “You think we’re getting hustled here?”
“I’m sure of it, man.” Tommy whispered back. “You don’t see Ollie, Chance, or my boys, Deon and Hector in here with us. Just you, Wesley, and me. Those of us who he thinks get the closest to J.J.”
“Hart really did it to us, didn’t he?”
“Think he knew that we knew ahead of time about the sleepover?”
“I’m pretty sure of it now.” Tommy declared. “The man is razor sharp. Nothing gets past him. And he’s smooth with it, Chase. I should have known better than to try it.”
J.J. stuck her head in the door at that moment, and they smiled at the sight of her. She winked at them, wrinkled her nose, and went back out.
Chase leaned back into the wall with a heavy heart. “Well man, I guess it could have been worse. He could have just kicked me and my brother out at the door, and you could have gotten roasted good by Mrs. Hart. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in your shoes with her. Where’d she catch up with you at?”
“On the side of the house. With my arm around J.J. while I was talking junk about her, no less. I thought I was a goner for sure, man. Pretty lady, but she’s scary as hell.”
Chase laughed. Jennifer Hart was pretty hard to read, especially when it came to her daughter.
At least we did win some money tonight,” He sighed. “Even if we didn’t get to go the party.”
“Some of us won some money.” Tommy whispered with a grin as they saw Wesley miss a shot and have to go into his pocket again. “And he didn’t get to dance either.”
Both boys cracked up.
Jonathan cast a fleeting glance at all three of them. His eyes danced with merriment at their plight. They should have known better than to try him.
Not tonight, guys. Not on my watch. Close, but no cigar…
Jennifer watched the little girl as she lie reading on the fainting couch in her bedroom. Nikki was curled up with Third and that first edition copy of Little Women from the downstairs library that her Pa had found and given to her years ago. She had helped Nikki get cleaned up, and had seen to her getting her into her pajamas. Getting her some milk and cookies, and the book, she had brought her up to the bedroom to be with her.
It had almost stopped her heart when Nikki and Third appeared at the front door, both of them soaking wet and dirty from having tipped the canoe on the pond and after swimming back to shore. Nikki had come to the front door looking for her rather than going around to the back because she was afraid to let Charmaine and the girls know what what she had done. She thought they would be angry with her for ruining their fun.
Her heart still racing from what might have been, Jennifer stood before the windows gazing out on the pond. Nobody except she and Nikki were aware of what had transpired.
After getting Nikki settled, she called the girl’s grandmother to let her know what had happened and that she was alright. Then she had been on her way to blast J.J. and the older girls for ignoring Nikki and allowing her to get away from them like that. She stopped when she spied J.J. in the hall stealthily creeping from room to room, peeking in each one, bypassing the master bedroom.
Jennifer realized her daughter and the rest of the Wild Bunch had finally discovered Nikki was missing and now they were probably all down there frantically looking for her.
She decided to let them stew in it.
The party itself had pretty much broken up although J.J. kept the music playing for camouflage. Gathering everyone at the pool, she filled the assembled in on the missing girl.
“She’s not in the house,” She reported. “The only place I didn’t check was the wine cellar and the rooms down there. I doubt that she would have gone down there on her own. I don’t even go down there too much, and I live here.”
“Can she get off the grounds, J.J.?” Charmaine asked, her voice cracking.
“I’m pretty certain that she couldn’t.” J.J. answered. “That would be real hard for a kid. She would have to really know what she was doing. And if she did manage to get out, the patrol service is thick out there and they would have seen her and brought her back.”
“Well that’s something.” Deon answered. “I know it’s hard to get in here, so it’s likely nobody’s come in here and taken her or anything. Besides, why would she just get up and leave like that?”
J.J. looked to Charmaine, Philly, and Marnie. “Because we weren’t paying any attention to her. She was supposed to be with us.”
Deon and Charmaine stood with their arms about each other. They were all first cousins, and their grandmother would have their heads if any harm came to that little girl. To Mrs. DeJean, education and family were everything and her grandchildren were all precious to her. Both of them were feeling badly about not keeping an eye on her.
They all were.
J.J. stood scratching lightly at the twisted rows of hair on her head. “She has to be here.” She determined.
Marnie, of course, was talking on her cell.
“Tell them anything…” She was saying into it. “I don’t give a damn. We need your asses out here. …YES, it’s an emergency!….Do what you have to do, just get the hell out here!”
She clicked off. “That was Chase.” She reported. “They’re coming out to help look for her.”
J.J. nodded. “Good looking out, Marn. We’ll need all the eyes we can get.”
“We need to start down on the back end and work our way back up here.” Philly offered. “That’ll take somebody who can go the distance real quick. Me and Hector can start out there.”
Both of them ran track at school, so they were best suited for that task. Brother and sister took off running without waiting for confirmation.
J.J.’s mind shifted into her emergency mode, and she began methodically lining up all the places a twelve year old might find attractive and interesting on the grounds of her home. “The fish pond.” She said aloud. “The well, the gazebo, my old tree house, the tennis and basketball courts…”
With each suggestion from J.J., teenagers broke for that direction until she was left there by the pool alone.
Her mind still generating ideas, it suddenly rushed over her:
With her heart pushing up into her throat, she ran like the wind for the front.
“Hey Dad, Mr. Hart, Mr. Singleton, Dr. Jackson, I think we’re going to head on out of here.” Chase announced, trying to sound casual after clicking off his phone and sticking it back in his pocket. “It’s getting late.”
Tommy and Wesley looked up at him questioningly. Chase eyed them back. “Me and you, Tommy, we haven’t really had a chance to speak to J.J. I don’t know about you, Wes, but you couldn’t have had very much time with her either. You weren’t out there that long. It would be rude of us to have been here all this time and not have spoken to her.”
He began edging backward toward the door. Tommy, realizing that Chase had taken a call just before coming to that sudden conclusion, put it together and hung his pool cue up in the rack behind him without taking his eyes off Chase. Something was wrong. He too began moving toward the door.
“I’m getting kind of tired myself.” He said, yawning and stretching. “Goodnight, Mr. Hart, Dr. Jackson, Mr. Singleton, Mr. Barnett.” He said, talking fast. “Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.” He then moved past Chase, headed straight to the front door and as soon as he had it open, ran out of it.
Wesley silently handed the cue he had been using to his father, and followed the other two boys.
“What was that about?” William Singleton asked looking from the stick his son had given him to the other two men.
“Call of the Wild.” Jonathan answered, deftly sending his dart to the board, knocking Chuck Barnett’s marker to floor. “That’s twenty you owe me, Chuck, and they have ten minutes to do whatever they got called out there to do.”
Just as Tommy bolted through the door and onto the front driveway followed by Chase and then Wesley, J.J. came sprinting from the right side of the house, along the end of the drive that led around to the rear of the house.
“What’s up, J.J.?” He called to her, moving between two of the cars parked in the driveway at front door.
“We can’t find Charmaine and Deon’s little cousin, Nikki!” She called out, but not breaking her stride as she continued around the horseshoe that formed the driveway. “I’m going down to the bridge to see if she might have gone onto the pond! Everybody else is looking out back!”
Chase hopped in behind the wheel of his car while Wesley jumped into the passenger’s seat, and Tommy slid onto and rode the extended rear fender. Making a U-turn, they took off behind J.J. and slowed just enough along the way to allow Tommy to pull her onto the fender with him instructing her to hold tightly to his tee shirt while he held her about the waist. They continued on down the drive. At the foot of the bridge, she and Tommy slid off the car, at inertia’s insistence when Chance slammed on the brakes, and when they picked themselves up from where they had fallen, they ran down to shore. J.J.’s breath caught at the sight.
Out on the water, the curved bottom of an overturned canoe bobbed slowly in the lamplight.
One hand over her mouth, she cried, “Oh my God, Tommy! Look!” while pointing to the capsized boat with her other. “Do you think-?”
Tommy was speechless.
Running down the hill from a slightly different angle, Wesley was the first to come upon the sandals. He bent to pick them up and carried them to J.J. and Tommy. “J., are these hers?” He asked, holding them out.
“Somebody better go get Daddy.” J.J. called as she pushed the other boat off and started to get in. “Hurry!”
Chase pushed his keys into Tommy’s hand and climbed over into the canoe with J.J. He took the oar from her and skillfully began rowing them out onto the water. Wesley, at first left standing there holding Nikki’s shoes watching in dismay as Chase pushed off with J.J., had to run to catch up with Tommy to ride up to the house.
During all of that, he had the conscious thought that he still had not exchanged one word with J.J.
Jennifer had been standing and watching the flurry of youthful activity going on beneath her bedroom window, including witnessing her daughter allowing herself to be pulled onto the hood of a moving Corvette to ride wildly off down the driveway. At first she held her breath watching it happen, but once J.J. was securely on top of the car, she dropped her head in frustration as they disappeared around the bend. The girl was just plain wild. No matter how hard she tried with her, J.J. retained that tendency, and the guys loved her all the more for it.
A few minutes later that same car came rocketing back up the drive and screeched to a halt in front of the house. It was immediately surrounded by the rest of the motley band of teenagers who had invaded her home that evening. They came running from both sides of the house onto the drive. Jennifer decided it was time to go down and put them all out of their misery.
Pulling the blanket up on the now sleeping Nikki, she left the bedroom to go meet them.
The entire group sat before Jennifer, huddled on the front staircase. They were in no condition to grace the furniture in the great room. Most of them were wet, wrapped in towels, and trying not to let her see them shivering. J.J. sat sandwiched between Tommy and Chase, who was drenched and wrapped in a blanket. The remaining were disheveled and/or windblown from their fevered, frenzied activity of the scary minutes before. All of their wide, frightened eyes were focused on her as she dressed them all down about the events of the evening.
She read them the complete riot act, from the phone calls, the scheming, the sneaking, the changing of the plans, all the way to their neglect of Nikki and her dangerous accident, which she clearly let them know they had allowed to happen. She impressed upon them what could have occurred out there on the pond without anyone’s knowledge because of their desire to have a good time.
When she said that Nikki could very well have been floating under that boat when J.J. and Chase righted it, most of them looked sick. J.J., who up to that point had been afraid to avert her eyes, sure that she was in for it, truly hung her head thinking with horror of how it would have been to find Nikki floating there when Chase jumped out and went under to lift the canoe. It went all through her to imagine Chase bumping her lifeless body with his. She could feel one of the boys slide his arm around her. She knew it had to have been Tommy. Only he would know how she felt, would know that she needed that done for her, and would have the nerve to do it at that moment despite the presence of her angry mother.
Jonathan, William, Chuck, and Ollie Sr. stood behind Jennifer as adult backup, but somehow it sounded as if she were including them in her speech. All four men avoided looking at each other.
Finally, the children who weren’t staying, as well as their fathers, were dismissed to their homes. The overnighters and J.J. cleaned up out back. Then J.J. and Marnie stayed downstairs, sending Philly and Charmaine up ahead of them to get ready for bed. They cleaned up the kitchen for Marie who they talked into turning in after promising her that they would do a thorough job. When they were just about finished, J.J. sent Marnie upstairs to get a head start on getting out of her way in the bathroom.
As she passed through the great room on her way up to J.J.’s room, Marnie came upon Jennifer as she sat on the couch looking at a magazine. Marnie was sure she was waiting for J.J. to get finished so that she could talk to her. Although she was scared of her at that moment, Marnie stopped and stood next to the couch where the woman was sitting.
Jennifer looked up at her. “Yes, Marnie.”
“I just wanted you to know that it wasn’t J.’s fault. I did it. ”
“Did what, Marnie?” Jennifer asked, closing the magazine and placing it on the coffee table.
Marnie took a deep breath. “I made the calls, Mrs. H. I called Chase and Chance. I called the girls too. J.J. didn’t know anything about it until it was too late.”
Thinking about it, she quickly added, “Now, Tommy and the rest of them-” She held up her hands to emphasize her point. “They came on their own. I didn’t have anything to do with them; they just showed up. Deon switched shifts with another guy and he took the pizza order at his job. That’s how he found out, and he told Tommy and Hector. Wesley and Ollie got the word that J.J. was back from France, and they were just stopping by to see her. They didn’t know about the rest of it until they got here.”
The words had been spilling from her mouth and she had to stop to catch her breath before admitting, “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Hart. I don’t know what else to say. Just please, don’t get all over J. She really didn’t do it this time. People just like her so much, and she’s so much fun. Everybody just wants to be with her. I’m sorry.”
Jennifer had been watching Marnie’s face the entire time. Marnie didn’t apologize often for anything that she did, at least not this sincerely. She could tell that the girl was being truthful: not one curse word had even so much as tried to pass her lips. Marnie reminded her so much of her friend, Pat. Pat and Marnie were stamped from the same sheet of brass. Jennifer reached up and patted her on the back.
“Go to bed, Marnie.” She said. “Luckily things worked out. Just remember this, and try not to let it happen again.”
“I won’t, Mrs. Hart.”
Marnie walked off through the room and into the foyer. Jennifer could hear her going up the stairs.
That apology would only last until the next opportunity rolled around, and then all bets would be off. That’s how it had been with Pat when they were sixteen and had gotten into trouble. Pat would tell Pa how sorry she was, and that she would never do whatever it was again. And then she couldn’t wait to do it again, taking her right along with her for the ride- a ride she didn’t ever mind being on.
J.J. hung the towel up after wiping down the counters a last time and giving the kitchen a final inspection. It seemed like everything was in its place. Turning off the light, she went into the great room where she knew that her mother was waiting for her. Stopping at the door to steel herself, she went in. Jennifer was lying on her back with her arm over her eyes, but J.J. knew that she wasn’t sleeping. She silently took a seat on the floor next to her head and crossed her legs. Neither of them said anything at first.
Finally, Jennifer acknowledged her presence, “Justine.”
The floodgates opened, “I’m sorry, Mom. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Honestly it wasn’t. It just took off on me.”
“But you liked it when it took off, didn’t you, J.J.?” Jennifer asked without opening her eyes.
“I can’t hear you, Justine.”
“Yes ma’am. I guess in a way I did. But…”
She wanted to explain to her mother that she really hadn’t planned it that way- that her friends had just taken over. But that wouldn’t wash with her mother. It didn’t even wash with her. J.J. Hart was in control of her life and what happened in her home, not her friends. There would be no getting out from under it. She determined that she would just take the rap and suffer the consequences.
“But?” Jennifer asked, urging her to continue.
“You allowed things get away from you, didn’t you?”
“I thought I had it under control, Mom. But I guess I didn’t. You did.”
“What is it that I always tell you, J.J.? What is it that I tell you to do with things like this that involve other people?”
“Stick to the plan.” J.J. answered her. “You say I should stay with what I say.”
Neither of them said anything for a while, and then J.J. quietly observed, “We were lucky, weren’t we? She could have drowned. Nobody would even have even known. We would have been partying and having a good time and she would have just been out there.”
“We were all very lucky, J.J. Maybe she wouldn’t have gone out there if she knew that she couldn’t swim. But then again, maybe she would have. There’s no telling with children. They’re impulsive and someone has to be watching them all the time.”
J.J. raised her eyes to look at her mother whose eyes were still closed. She heard something in what she was saying.
Bristling just a little, she asked. “Are you talking about me? Impulsive and needing to be watched all the time?”
She had been trying so hard to grow up and be responsible in her mother’s eyes, and there she was treating her like an irresponsible kid again. She was sorry about Nikki and wished it had never happened. The thought of what might have been was indeed frightening, but that incident wasn’t entirely her fault. Nikki wasn’t left in her care alone, and her mother was sounding like she was trying to blame her for it. No way.
But then again, she was the one who asked her if Nikki could come…
Not being able to fully express herself about all of it was getting on her nerves. She was tired; that kind of tired that a person gets after a big scare and she was in no mood to be the human sacrifice she was beginning to feel like.
As if she knew that J.J.’s attempts at responsibility needed validating, Jennifer informed her, “You’re not as impulsive as you were, but you still have your moments, J.J. I know you’re trying, but you still have a way to go. And yes, I’m still watching you.”
Jennifer opened her eyes and turned her head to look at her daughter who was looking directly into her her face, her eyes, reading her. “But I do realize I don’t have to do it so much as I used to.”
J.J. relaxed. That, she could accept, and she nodded her head in truce.
But then she had to ask; she had to know; the suspense was killing her. “Are you going to punish me for this? I mean, it’s okay if you do. I just want to be able to sleep. I won’t be able to with the possibility hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles all night.”
Jennifer smiled and closed her eyes to lay back on the pillows once again. The girl was so intelligent. And too well-read.
“Go in peace, my child,” she told her. “Everything turned out pretty much all right. Somebody up there must like us an awful lot.”
Rising to her knees, J.J. leaned in and kissed her mother’s cheek. “You’re the best, Mom. Somebody down here likes you an awful lot too.”
She got up and went upstairs.
Jennifer continued to lie there placing her arm back over her eyes. The image of her daughter being pulled onto that moving car by one teenager, while another even more reckless young boy manned the wheel, played out one more time behind her closed eyelids.
J.J. had thought nothing of it- neither the danger nor the risk involved- while it was happening or afterward. She and Chase were still in the pond righting the other boat and searching for the girl when Jonathan got there to let them know Nikki was safe at the house.
That girl was so much like her father.
Marnie said people just liked J.J. and wanted to be with her because she was fun.
She had so much heart. It was difficult to stay angry with her.
…so much like her father…
She heard his voice first, “Darling”, and then felt his touch on the arm that covered her eyes. “Aren’t you coming to bed?”
Moving her arm and opening her eyes, she found Jonathan standing over her, smiling that infectious smile, and she felt that irritation she had been feeling over his behavior that evening dissipating at just the sight of him.
“Uhmmm,” She hummed as she stretched and then eased herself up to a sitting position. “I was waiting for the girls to get settled before I turned in. I must have fallen asleep. I want to talk to you, too, Jonathan.”
She noticed the fireplace had been lit, despite it being July.
“It’s been a hell of a night,” He said, holding out his hand to her. “Come on to bed. ”
Taking his hand and allowing him to pull her up, Jennifer started around the couch toward the foyer and the stairs very much aware that he hadn’t addressed her saying that she wanted to speak with him. She felt his hands slide onto her shoulders from behind. He turned her around to guide her to the other end of the couch where an air mattress, several pillows, and some blankets had been cozily arranged on the floor in front of the fire. Her robe and her slippers were also there, waiting for her.
“What’s this?” She asked. He had gone to the wall and was adjusting the thermostat.
“We’re going to have our own sleepover.”
“What about the kids?” He came back to her and wordlessly reached to pull her shirt off over her head.
“They’re asleep.” He finally said in answer. “I checked before I came down. Nikki’s even in the same sleeping bag as Charmaine. I offered them the use of one of the other guest rooms too, but they’re spread out all over J.J.’s room- on the floor, the bed, the chair. They had a bad scare. I don’t think they’re going to be letting anybody out of the others’ eyesights for a while.”
While explaining about the girls, he reached around behind her, unhooked her bra, and had began rubbing her back smoothing the marks in her skin made by the elastic. It was a purely sexual movement on his part.
“What if one of them comes down here? They’ll see us!”
He shook his head and nuzzled her neck to speak into her ear. “I don’t think so. They’re out like lights. Even the dog is up there, and he’s out cold too. They were scared and exhausted. I turned the air conditioner up, too. The cold air will really keep them under.”
Pulling at the draw string on her pants to loosen them, he slid them down her legs and off over her ankles.
She looked down to the items on the floor, observing “You brought everything except a nightgown.”
Jonathan took her by the hand and led her to the mattress. “I said sleepover.” He whispered it in that seductive, convincing tone they both knew would melt any lingering resentment she might still be harboring, “The kind we have…” as he pulled her to him to kiss her. “… Jennifer.”
Marnie rolled over in the dark to where J.J. lay sleeping next to her in the bed.
“J.J.!” she whispered, nudging her in the shoulder.
Irritated at being disturbed, J.J. turned her head. “Hmmmmm???”
“Wake the hell up. It’s as cold as rip in here!”
“Awww, get a blanket out of the closet, Marn,” J.J. moaned, rolling back over. “Then shut up and go back to sleep. You’re here all the time. It’s not like you don’t know what’s up with the thermostat or what to do about it. Why’d you wake me up for that?”
Rolling out and going to the closet, Marnie emerged with several blankets. “Get up and help me. J.,” she ordered as she began spreading one over Charmaine and Nikki. “They don’t know and they’ll be Popsicles in the morning. And I would hate to be trying to explain to them why it’s 19 degrees in here while it’s 80 outside. Nobody outside of you and me would understand your folks.”
J.J. dragged herself up and put a blanket over Philly who was asleep in the chair. Third, who had been lying on the bed between J.J. and Marnie, jumped down to allow them to spread the last blanket out on top of the covers already on the bed. He hopped back up when J.J. got back in, curling up behind her once again.
“Is the lock on the door, J.? We don’t want the kid wandering off again and seeing things. It’s bad enough Charmaine’s grandmother knows about the episode with the boat .”
“She’s asleeeeep, Marnie” J.J. whined. “She’s not going anywhere. Shut uuuuuup. I mean it. Go to sleep.”
“Your mother and father ought to be ashamed,” Marnie fussed in a whisper as she got back in. “They’re too old for that shit… Freezing everybody else in the house out just so they can get busy in front of a fire.”
She snatched the covers up over her and tucked them tightly around her body, securing them with her chin. “They’re down there all toasty and warm, and we’re up here freezing…Just plain hot and nasty, that’s what the hell they are…and inconsiderate to boot. Damn, I’m cold!”
Tuning Marnie’s fussing out, J.J. closed her eyes again and began drifting off.
“Whatever…,” she whispered.
Drifting back to sleep, her mind drifted to Ollie, what he told her, and she made a mental note to herself. In the morning, after everyone left, she would tell her mother about what Ollie said about Wesley- just to be on the safe side…
Her father leaning over the pool table, taking aim…
…. her mother fussing at her in the kitchen…
….go in peace, my child…
… simply the best….