Promises: Part Seven

Part Seven

Early Wednesday morning…

“Where is that girl? It should not be taking this long for her to get a shower and get in here.”

Rubbing Eli’s ears one final time, Jennifer moved the cat to the bed and got up. When she did, he jumped down and followed her.

In the light of day, the area outside the bedroom was a bit more pleasant than it had been earlier. Then, the tall arched windows overlooking the staircase had been dark, reflecting the walls and vaulted ceiling, both eerily uplit by those lights behind the baseboards, casting long, unsettling shadows as Eli led her through the hall to Pat.

Taking the same route, she turned the corner and right away noticed that those massive doors before her, which had been closed on her first trip to that bedroom, were now open. As she drew closer, she could see someone in uniform inside making up the bed. The woman looked up from her work when she arrived in the doorway,

“Good morning, Mrs. Hart.”

At first surprised that the woman wasn’t startled by a stranger being there, and that she knew her name, Jennifer quickly concluded that her presence in the house would most certainly have been made known to its staff.

“Good morning. I was looking for Ms. Hamilton.”

Slipping a pillow into the fresh case pinned under her chin, the woman returned it to the bed, plumped it, and then turned to directly address her. “I’m sorry. Ms. Hamilton wasn’t in here when I came to straighten up.”

Her irritation with Pat and her anxiety over her once again beginning to simmer, Jennifer mumbled her thanks, left the door, and went back in the direction from which she had come. Re-entering the main hall, in the distance she could see Eli sitting at the head of the grand staircase. As he watched her coming toward him, the expression on his wide face clearly communicated his sentiments.

“I guess I should have been paying attention and following your lead, huh boy? You haven’t steered me wrong yet.”

After Eli voiced his affirmation and started down the stairs, she followed him.

__________________________________________________________

“Uncle Bill, where is this? I mean, I know it’s Oyster Bay; I saw the road signs, but where is it that we’re going?”

“To Pat.”

“I figured that much, but where exactly is she?”

“At her place.”

“I didn’t know she had a place here.”

“Not many people do. I was only let in on it myself a couple of years ago.”

“Is it an apartment?”

“No. It’s an estate.”

From the corner of his eye, Bill could see the tension creeping into Marnie’s face, and he could sympathize. It matched what was building in his own heart. He had never been where they were headed. It had been a major and positive turning point in their relationship when Pat finally let him in on the existence of her very private residence and her reasons for holding on to it.

“Maybe she won’t like it that you’ve brought me with you. I’ve been with her all this time; she’s taken me lots of places in New York, even here on Long Island, but she’s never mentioned to me about having a home here. Maybe she doesn’t want me to know.”

Marnie’s misgivings on the matter were clearly sounding themselves to his ears, but they had come too far to get cold feet and turn back even if he had been having second thoughts, which he wasn’t.

“Chickening out?”

“Not really. I do want to go to her. I just hope you know what you’re doing with this. She can be a trip.”

“Yeah, well, so can I. You just keep navigating.”

She sighed. “All right. Two more intersections, then you turn left.”

__________________________________________________________

The morning was cold and the breeze brisk as Stephen Edwards bid his two friends goodbye and began to make his way from the guest house back to main house. Momentarily tucking his walking stick under his arm as he pulled on his gloves and started down the path, he thought he could smell the promise of snow on the air.

Having Agnes and her sister, Belinda, living on the grounds had certainly been very good for his spiritual, as well as his personal, health. He had been doing a lot more walking since their arrival late in the summer before. As part of a series of renovations and alterations being done on the estate, two more rooms had been recently added to the guest house to better accommodate their needs. One, a library and study for Agnes and her extensive collection of books, and the other to be used as a common room.

Agnes Marchand, the former dean of Gresham Hall School Preparatory School for girls and Jennifer’s former headmistress, was recently retired, but old habits, it was proving, died hard. Now an esteemed consultant for other eastern seaboard private boarding schools, she continued to travel several times a month to meetings and conferences. She occasionally entertained educational dignitaries, at which times, for larger groups, he allowed her use of the main house. Belinda, Agnes’ half sister and former house mother for Waverly House, where Jennifer and Pat once resided while in attendance at Gresham Hall, continued her work with children. She used that new common room in the guest house to tutor local students in reading and math, and was becoming quite popular with parents and educators in the area.

With the arrival of those two, Briarwood had gained a new hub of activity, which was also intellectually stimulating for him. In addition to the health benefits derived from his near-daily strolls to and from the guest house, there were also extra opportunities for lively conversation and social interaction. He hadn’t felt so good or so energized in years.

His step was made even more lively that morning by the knowledge that his family would soon be joining him. Agnes and Belinda were aware of his reasons for not staying that morning; they, too, were looking forward to seeing Jennifer and Patricia again, as well as Justine and her friend, Marnie, the latter two they had met the previous summer at the reunion to celebrate Agnes’ retirement. They would all be having Thanksgiving dinner together, and then there were the upcoming weekend nuptials.

Patricia was finally getting married. This time it was to a good man, one who loved her and would take care of her. More importantly, he believed that this time it was a man for whom Patricia deeply cared. That first marriage of hers had been one of convenience, not love. She had gotten into the family way with a self-centered, spoiled fop of a would-be man, but had wisely extricated herself from him once she miscarried the child. Although she had gone on to make a success of her professional life, for him her personal fulfillment continued to be a worry. Although he had only fathered one child, he carried Patricia in his heart almost as much as he did his natural daughter. Patricia had essentially been his child since she and Jennifer were thirteen. At sixteen, she became so officially. For a brief period of time during their teenage years, Patricia had been more receptive of him than Jennifer. But by the time the girls graduated high school, he definitely had two children, not one, and in ways, although she appeared stronger and even more self-sufficient than Jennifer on the surface, he worried more over “his Patricia”.

That was especially true once Jennifer met and married Jonathan. With him, that one of his girls had become complete, whole. Jonathan and Jennifer were a solid, true unit unto themselves. Although they always included him in their family circle, where he clearly retained his position as Jennifer’s father, it was Jonathan who sustained her, not her father. No doubt at all about that. From the first time she brought him to Briarwood, her glow in the presence of that boy impressed and touched his reluctant heart. Impressing him even more was Jonathan’s glow when he was with her. The initial doubts he might have had before their arrival over their snap decision to marry were quickly erased as he observed them together.

His shoulders involuntarily twitched with the inadvertent memory flash.

While on one of his late night insomnia-driven walks through the house, making his way to his study and his bar, he nearly missed catching them together in a situation that he really did not want to observe. For the remainder of that visit from them, at night he kept to his own rooms on the second floor.

I knew the separate rooms was only for my benefit.

Should have shot him in his randy, young backside, but then she would have been upset with me for doing so.

Then he smiled to himself.

Young love. There was nothing like it. No stopping it when it happened.

Old love, too. When it is true, it persists through everything. Lasts through all of time.

After their many years together and with a child between them, it was still that way with his daughter and her beau. In recent days, as Jonathan dropped in on him while staying over at the former Farrell’s Horse Farm, since transformed into Hamilton-McDowell Farms, that same gratified warmth appeared in Jonathan’s eyes whenever Jennifer came up in conversation.

Or their Justine.

Jonathan now had an only child, too. But as had happened with him, it seemed the son-in-law had another creeping up on him, too- little Marnie, Justine’s friend. Marnie had long been a character in their scenarios, but lately it seemed she’d been meshed into the family structure. Jonathan and Jennifer had been harboring and nurturing her for years, but now Patricia- and by default Bill- had recently taken over the child’s physical and personal well-being, with very positive results, so he had been told. But then, why wouldn’t that be the case? Patricia usually put whatever it took into getting the results she wanted, and those desired results usually became her accomplishments.

Patricia had always been a hard worker. Under the fortunate financial circumstances her grandmother and then her father had set up for her, it wasn’t something she had to be. But that was who she was and what she expected from others. The first part of her existence had been spent making a success of her professional life. Now it appeared she was finally getting what had been her true lifelong desire, a family of her own, and her Pa was happy for her. He had seen the house and the grounds that Patricia and her aviator fiancé had been remodeling for themselves. The transformation had been astounding. It was a place in which she and Bill should be happy together.

Patricia had spoken with him of her feelings for Bill, of her hopes for their union, and of her happiness at becoming a part of Bill’s family. It was rare for her to be so candid about a matter so personal. When she chose to disclose it to him, he hadn’t been entirely surprised by the news of her affair with and subsequent engagement to William McDowell, Jonathan’s friend and Justine’s godfather. Men had come and gone in Patricia’s life, nearly all of them passing fancies. That for years she had been maintaining one steady relationship that she hadn’t shared with anyone, not even with Jennifer, wasn’t shocking. Patricia would guard something like that until she was sure of it. Whether that tendency was a natural facet of her personality or a self-preservation strategy brought on by her shaky growing-up situation, that was how she was. If there was something with which she was wrestling, nobody would really know about it. At least not until she wanted someone to know about it. She had always been that way.

When, over a week after the horrific events of  9/11, they finally let him in on how close Patricia had come to losing her life….

For nearly two days he kept to his room, mostly his bed, finding it hard to even breathe normally. The terrorist attack itself had been hard on his nerves, but to learn that he almost lost one of his girls to it….

Patricia had given him no indication of it, and neither had anyone else, but why, he wondered, did he have the nagging feeling that there was something going on with her, some undercurrent of trouble just beneath her surface? A kind of a father’s intuition that whispered to him of her reticence….

That feeling began with their first phone conversation upon her return from Los Angeles back in September. It was very apparent when she came to see him soon after. She was in Maryland, checking on work being done to the main house on their recently acquired estate. At first, he attributed what he sensed in her to being a reaction to her own close call and to what she faced when she returned to New York. But now he wasn’t so sure that was all there was to it. She was getting married on the weekend, but he recently learned that Patricia hadn’t been in Maryland for over two weeks. Between the lines, when talking with an unsuccessfully cagey Jonathan and Bill in the past few days, he also heard that Patricia was finding reasons for Bill not to come to New York.

Whatever could that be about?

He hoped it was some pre-marital abstinence game she was playing.

Speaking of abstinence….

Justine’s little camp-follower from Boston was due to arrive in Maryland on Friday. She met him in Massachusetts at her mother’s class reunion the previous summer. Right after the reunion, she came to Maryland with her parents and landed herself in the hospital with an injured ankle. That young fellow had turned up at her bedside, of all places. She initially sustained her injury at the reunion while off on an unauthorized excursion with the same boy. Shortly after that, he wandered his way to Los Angeles, purportedly with his father on business, but he conveniently wound up escorting Justine to a country club dance. Now, months later, his apparent ardor still strong; the boy was beating a path to her grandfather’s door to be with her. It didn’t help any to learn that his father and Patricia had been an item all through high school, the boy she was up in the loft with the time Jennifer almost burned down the stable while smoking a cigarette and playing lookout for them.

… the same young man who escorted Patricia to her senior prom, and, he suspected, ushered her to womanhood that night, as well.

While he could understand and sympathize with young Theodore’s attraction to Justine, after all she was Suzanne Roussel’s grandchild, there would be no serious courting. Not if Justine’s grandfather had anything to say about it, and he would. At least not at this stage of her life. At least not on that particular weekend in her life, Jennifer and Jonathan and their avant-gard west coast thinking notwithstanding. That girl had a life in front of her; boys and all of that could wait.

I understand I met you when you were sixteen, Suzanne, but she is not you.

Yes darling, she is very much like you, which, as I think about it, really does not bolster your argument. These are new days and times. Society is far more liberal now, and that is not always a good thing. Our Justine has other things to do with her life than to get caught up with a pinhead boy right now.

He had never stopped agonizing over Suzanne’s short life and the fact that she had become a full- time wife and mother so soon in it. But their love wouldn’t have had it any other way, and he did not regret the time he had with her. Although they met when she was sixteen and began seeing each other exclusively almost right away, he hadn’t touched her until after she was eighteen and they were married. Back then, people and society placed more restraints on that sort of thing.

As a young woman, traveling with her writing and working all over the world, Jennifer dated extensively, but she wisely waited to marry. Her education, her career, and finishing herself came first, which was what her father prayed mightily she would do.

But Justine was a different sort of girl than her mother, and in many ways, since she wasn’t with him very often there had been times when he felt he didn’t really know her. But from what he could see, especially in what he witnessed in her during her last stay with him, she was shaping up to be more the type of girl her grandmother had been; in her looks, her independent, free-thinking disposition, and from what Jennifer was telling him, her respect for all things family. At sixteen, Justine, like Suzanne had been, was an old spirit, and, in a way that unnerved him. Whether it be this boy or one way down the line, once Justine made up her mind he was the one, there would be no talking her out of whatever she decided to do with him. That was how it had been her grandmother. Suzanne’s father hadn’t been entirely on board with his sixteen-year-old daughter seeing a man five years her senior and getting married so soon. But that was what Suzanne wanted, and Henri soon realized to what that one of his daughters put her mind, that was what would be. Thus he had no choice but to consent to her man and to her marriage.

Stephen smiled to himself again and shook his head as he recalled his first meeting with Suzanne’s serious, stern French father. Henri hadn’t come at it the right way.

It was from that experience he had learned it would have to be the young man who needed to understand that he would have to wait. By the time Jennifer brought Jonathan home, she had made up her mind, but there had been no need to try to talk him out of what they had decided to do. Jennifer had brought to her father a fine, well-established gentleman who, despite his lack of lineage, loved her and promised to take good care of her. And he had.

Now her Pa could hardly wait to meet the boy who was coming to see their Justine.

Still on the path, but nearing the house, the more level expanse of front lawn allowed him to see all the way out to the main road in the far distance. A car was passing, but then it slowed and made the turn into the head of the driveway, disappearing behind the hedges that lined the road to the house.

The walking stick rendering him aid, Stephen quickened his step.

__________________________________________________________

Even from the main road, which was the better part of a mile away, J.J. could see the prominent white pillars of her grandfather’s house.

Briarwood.

Leaned against the padded window frame, she closed her eyes again for the ride up the long driveway.

There had been a time in her life that even the name of the place brought on an immediate dark funk. So different from home or even Aunt Pat’s, it almost angered her to have to come to Maryland every year for Thanksgiving or for any other occasion. The air there had been different… …kind of… kind of… odorless, cold… definitely not kid-friendly.

Briarwood was a serious, quiet, formal place where a little barefoot girl who had her own strong opinions and didn’t like dresses, who played in dirt, ran all the time, picked the flowers, and couldn’t resist ducking fully-dressed under the lawn sprinklers once felt stifled and confined. The man who lived there, her grandfather, although he had never, ever been mean or nasty to her, had simply been her mother’s father, an old, mostly-bald man who didn’t smile very much. A familiar, but distant and occasional figure in her life, he was someone to mostly be avoided. Walter, his gentleman’s gentleman had been seen much the same way through her young eyes. The only one who had been of any interest to her had been Rosa, Walter’s wife, who often secretly and quickly got her out of the messes into which her adventures often landed her. And who always had a cookie or two and some cold milk for the temporarily banished or incarcerated.

But in the last few years, all of that had been slowly changing. The rolling green expanses of her grandfather’s estate had begun to arouse in her an odd measure of comfort, as did the sight of those pillars. In her head, she could smell the paddock, the stables: straw, manure, the horses, sweat. She could taste the sweet blade of lake grass clamped between her teeth as she lazed on the banks of the Edwards Lake or as she sat at the end of her grandfather’s dock. All of it was strangely welcoming. Briarwood had been slowly growing on her since the year she was fourteen, and she found herself delivered into her grandfather’s hands for a few days after pushing her mother’s “B” button one time too many. The gradual change in her perspective accelerated during her last visit there, the time when Marnie discovered the door to the secret passage inside the closet. As it turned out, that passage led to the discovery of so many things.

Then her grandfather’s eyes twinkled in her mind, gazing directly down into her soul. She had only recently begun to understand his true person, his dry, sly wit, keen intelligence, and his interesting secret past. With all of that came her realization of her own deep respect and love for him. For her, Stephen Edwards had been what her mother termed, “an acquired taste”, the kind of appreciation that came with age and maturity. One of those things that once it began to agree with her palate, she found she craved it, and couldn’t do without for very long.

The crunch of gravel and the rougher ride gave way to smooth quiet on the paved part of the drive closer to the house. When she sat up and opened her eyes, it surprised her to see her grandfather waving at them from the side path. By the time the car pulled to a stop, he was waiting for them on the front walkway. In black leather jacket and gloves, a matching slouch hat pulled low over his brow, he leaned with both hands resting on the carved head of this ebony walking stick. She might have thought him dashing had he not been her grandfather and thus, too old and dignified for such a designation, but she couldn’t help but comment on his appearance.

“Pa looks so good, Daddy.”

Then it hit her that her grandfather would be expecting at least four people to be in that car, not just her and her father, and that three of the four he would be expecting were missing. “I feel bad for him that my mother isn’t here. What should we say? I don’t want him to worry.”

“We’ll just play it by ear, J.J.”

Indeed, they would have to.

By the time the car came to a stop in front of the house, Pa was right there waiting for them. He held out his arms to her, inviting her to him once her father helped her from the car. “Justine! It’s so good to have you home again.”

Home. It was good to be there. It was his home, but in a strange sort of way, it was feeling more and more like her home, too. Just as she thought they would, she detected Pa’s eyes darting past her, checking in vain to see who else was getting out of the car.

“But where’s Jennifer? And Patricia and Marnie? I thought they were coming with you.”

“My mother and Aunt Pat had some last minute business that couldn’t wait. Marnie stayed back with them. They’ll be along later.” Then she flashed her grandfather that smile she knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. “I came on ahead to be with you. What? Am I not enough for right now, Pa?”

His look of concern disappeared and was replaced by one of apology as her grandfather hugged her a second time. “Well, of course you are, darling.”

As she peeked over Stephen’s shoulder, J.J. could see her father watching her from where he was still over by the car. When she winked at him, he winked back and sent her a discreet, close-to-the-vest thumbs up.

__________________________________________________________

The thick drapes were still drawn against the morning light and the door was partially closed, rendering the room with its towering shelves of books, suitably dark. The desk, once the centerpiece of the room was conspicuous to her in its absence, leaving the same kind of void in the room as its former occupant had left in her heart. Time had only dulled the longing, not eradicated it.

The desk was now her refuge at the apartment in Manhattan. This library was her sancutary in that home. It was where she brought her troubles and where she did her best thinking when it came to planning and devising strategies to get her out of any difficulties at hand. But she wasn’t so sure about how to get out of this one, or if she even could.

With Marnie in her care, it had been impossible to get away to do the necessary regrouping. It was never a sure thing as to how long it would take to work her way through the process, and Marnie had been left on her own enough in her young life. When it had been just the two of them, she had done all she could to hold on. But once Jennifer arrived, it was as if her system knew that it could shut down. There was someone there to attend to Marnie’s well-being while worked on regaining control of her own.

But had that been fair? To Jennifer or to Marnie?

Might not have been fair, but it was what had to be done at the time.

Marnie didn’t trust easily, and she didn’t trust just anyone. In fact, the girl didn’t even trust her own mother. As much as she had been trying to get Marnie to reconcile with Maureen, she couldn’t help but be secretly gratified that there was at least one sure person to whom Marnie turned in confidence. A young girl should have at least one someone in her life to serve in that capacity.

But should that person be her? Was that something about which she should feel good? Should she be trying harder to put things right between Marnie and Maureen? Was that something she really wanted to happen? Was it really better that Marnie be allowed to make that choice on her own? Could anybody really do anything about the choices Marnie made?

Just as the psychologist and the attorneys had explained to all of them, Marnie’s mind seemed to be made up. No matter what the law would eventually dictate she had to do in the event that Carl shouldn’t make it, or even if he should, Marnie Elaine Benson was going to do whatever and reside with whomever it was she wanted and with whomever would allow her to do so. According to everything Marnie was saying and doing, that person was not going to be her mother.

According to the quiet voice in her own heart, Marnie Elaine could stay with her Aunt Pat as long as she liked. There was a certain measure of control in that, and the thing Marnie was quietly seeking was such a measure of control.

But even if that seemed to be the best thing for her, was it? Shouldn’t a girl be with her natural mother?

Maybe not. I never was….

In light of what seemed to be happening, was it fair to feel so strongly about that girl?

In light of what seemed to be going down, was she being fair to anyone?

Marnie… Kyle… Jennifer… 

…Bill….

Oh, Bill. I so wish….

Seated in one of the ancient wing back chairs situated way back in a corner, Pat pulled up her legs, tucking her bare feet underneath her body. Slicking back her damp hair, she lay her head on her arm and closed her eyes.

That crooked smile. Those wise, heavy-hooded eyes. His quiet counsel. That voice of reason. His strength of character. His gentle nature. Bill had grown on her, slowly she’d always thought. But when she really considered it, he had begun making his place in her heart on that first night they spent together. Over the years, he had been a friend- more than a friend and more than a lover. The man had for years been carrying his own key to her place, which was definitely symbolic, even to her, of the role he played in her life.

Why now?

Why when everything she cared about seemed to finally be coming together? In July, everything had been fine and dandy. Then in October…

… why only a little over a month before everything….

Why, why, why now?

“Dammit! What the-”

Striking out with one hand at the warm softness startling her as it against the back of her head, then sitting up, she heard him behind her, seemingly taunting her from somewhere above her head. “Me-owww”

“I know you did not lick me on my damned neck!”

She could hear the cat jump down from the back of the chair and hit the floor running. “I wish I had a shoe. Damn you, Eli! Carmichael! You’d better get your goddamned cat before he finds himself an integral part of match play at Wimbledon!”

“I’ve told you about abusing that cat. He is merely on his job.”

Jennifer’s shadow crossed the room, and Pat blinked, momentarily blinded by the light flooding in as the curtains slid open.

“Damn, Jen. You could have warned me.”

“I am warning you. You will not run any more, Patricia. I am not having it. And you have a filthy mouth.”

No makeup, her hair pulled up and away from her face in a tight twist, there was no avoiding the flames in Jennifer’s eyes as they found her and locked themselves upon her. “Here and now, Patricia. Let’s have it.”

When she didn’t, couldn’t say anything right away. Jennifer came to stand over her, planting her hands on her hips, her eyes gone slate gray. “Well?”

“Jen, I- I’m-”

Mrs. Carmichael appeared in the doorway, diverting her attention from Jennifer. “Ms. Hamilton, excuse me. I’m very sorry about Eli. I’ll put him away. And I’m sorry to disturb you, but there is someone here who insists upon seeing you.”

Pat sat all the way up. “Insists? Upon seeing me? I’m not expecting anyone. Here? Who in the world is it?”

First peeking around her, Marnie tentatively stepped out from behind Mrs. Carmichael, her nervousness evident in both her demeanor and on her face. “Hi. I- I- I brought you some things.”

Marnie came all the way into the room carrying with her a garment and cosmetic bag that Pat recognized as her own. She stopped next to Jennifer. “I- I didn’t know where you were or anything. I had Cordelia to put this together for you, just in case you needed a change.”

Marnie looked up to Jennifer who had taken a subtle step back and assumed a somewhat less threatening posture with the arrival of the child. “Good morning, Mrs. H.”

Astounded by her presence, Pat reached out with the intention of taking the things from Marnie. “How in the world- How did you know- You are plenty resourceful, but however did you get here?”

“I brought her with me.”

Standing directly behind Mrs. Carmichael, Bill seemed to fill the entire doorway.

Incongruous with the welcome sight, and despite her desire to hold on with Marnie right there in front of her, Pat felt her feeble grip on the present give way as she began to slide, against her will, down that long, dark tunnel.

_______________________________________________________

In the foyer of her grandfather’s home, J.J. immediately noticed the change in atmosphere as she was greeted by a huge spray of fresh cut flowers artfully arranged in a vase on the small table in front of the mirror. The house itself was enormous, the kitchen way in the back, but a faint smell of Thanksgiving in the making was on the air, wafting its way out to greet them.

And there was art on the walls. Judging from the style and material of the frames, it didn’t appear to be new or modern. She sensed that they were not recent acquisitions; they felt oddly familiar even though she couldn’t recall having seen them before. She certainly hadn’t seen them hanging where they were. Then in those first few moments, she realized that it was the largely unadorned walls that had formerly given the house such an antiseptic feel.

“Pa, what have you done to the place?”

Stephen smiled as he removed his hat and gloves. “What? You are only just coming in the door. Whatever do you mean?”

J.J. detected a hint of mystery along with an uncharacteristic mischief behind her grandfather’s words.

“It’s changed in here, Pa. I can feel it. You’ve done some decorating.”

“Just a little,” Stephen said with a casual shrug. “We have a few more guests in and out now than we have had in the past. I thought it would be nice to spruce up the place a little. You know, bring up some of the old pieces from storage and put them where they could be seen again.”

Indeed, in the foyer alone, aside from the paintings, there were other random, fine items displayed that were new to her. As she started for the living room, she could feel her father’s and her grandfather’s eyes on her.

Daddy had been in Maryland for a few days; surely, he had to have visited Pa in that time, so he had to have known about the portrait over the mantle that was drawing her from the foyer into the living room.

“Oh, Pa. You brought it down.”

It was the oil painting of her mother and her grandmother which had been discovered that past summer. Intended as a gift from her grandmother to her grandfather, her untimely death had kept it from being personally given to him. It wasn’t until after she was gone that he found it where she had hidden it in a pantry for safekeeping. It was also because he’d so suddenly lost her that her grandfather had put that portrait, as well as many other things, away from him. He had taken it up the guest house attic, which turned out to have been her grandmother’s private space, her garret. Rediscovered a few months before, the room was now a treasure trove of memories, left behind for her daughter and granddaughter.

“It’s so beautiful, Pa. Even more lovely than when I first saw it upstairs in the guest house. It’s perfect there.”

“That is where it should always have been, Justine. It is in its rightful place.”

With the fire in the hearth and the winter sun shining in from the front windows, flooding the painting with natural light, J.J. was even more dumbstruck than the first time she saw it by the similarities in that rendering to the one of herself and her own mother hanging in the great room at home. The strange thing was that at the time that her mother commissioned theirs, she said that she couldn’t remember much about her mother or her childhood, consequently, she didn’t recall having sat for that portrait. But, in setting up their session with the artist all those years later, she had practically duplicated that painting- the poses, the color and style of their dresses, everything. And in both of them, even though the paintings were done decades apart, she and her daughter had been about the same age at the time they were done.

“Amazing,” J.J. whispered in two-fold wonder.

“Yes, they are.” It was her father’s voice that spoke to her. “You come from quite a line of amazing and beautiful women.”

She didn’t realize that he and her grandfather had followed her into the room and were now flanking her.

“That you do, darling,” her grandfather mused as he gazed at his wife and daughter. “‘Truly, you do.”

Walter and a younger man, both of them dressed in white serving jackets, entered from one of the side doors. Walter greeted her and then shook hands with her father. After that he and the other man went into the foyer to collect her bags to take them upstairs.

J.J. waited until they were gone to ask. “Who’s the other gentleman, Pa?”

“We have put on extra staff for the holiday. Walter and Rosa are getting on in years, and this place can be a bit much under even normal circumstances. They don’t like for me to bring that up, but I was not going to tax them in that way. I made them take on some help for the next few days. Thanksgiving is a very big deal for this family, and this time, it is even bigger. Rosa is in the kitchen, supervising the cooking this year rather than trying to do it all herself. Why don’t you go on upstairs and get settled. It will soon be time for lunch.”

She didn’t argue; she did want to put her things away, get settled, and then find Rosa to get some tea and maybe a lozenge for her scratchy throat. The timing of this cold wasn’t good. There was too much on tap for the weekend. Like Marie and Cordelia, Rosa always had something to fix what ailed a person.

But first, there were other places in that house that she wanted to explore before she and her father set about taking care of the things that they needed to get done.

_______________________________________________________

Before Marnie knew what was happening, Pat’s bags were taken from her and she was being whisked from her spot in front of Pat and handed off to the old housekeeper, who pulled the library door closed behind them, shutting her off from what was going on inside.

“You come with me, Miss Marnie,” the woman said as she firmly guided her by the shoulders down the front hall and through a door underneath the staircase. It took a moment for it to register with Marnie that the woman had called her by name even though they hadn’t been introduced and hadn’t said anything more than “hello” to each other at the door. Her knowing Uncle Bill was understandable, but-

“Where are you taking me? What’s going on?”

“I’m taking you to get some hot chocolate,” the woman answered. “It will do you good.”

Because she was in Pat’s house, and because the woman was obviously someone who reported back to Pat, Marnie didn’t protest or try to resist when all she really wanted to do was snatch away and run back to those doors to find out what happened. Pat’s eyes rolled and it looked as if she’d passed out. Then, like magic, Bill was right there to catch her before she could slide out of the chair. In the meantime, Mrs. H. had grabbed her and moved her to the door, and then she’d been shut out.

Definitely grounds for somebody getting cussed out… treating me like a child.

But then it had been Mrs. H. who sent her packing. And to go off on the old lady would only result in Pat or the Duchess going off on her. Maybe both of them once…

… if….

What the hell is going on?

God, please let her be all right. Look, I don’t bother you much, praying every night for stuff that I can do for myself. I try to stay out of your way and leave you alone so you can deal with other people’s more important issues, but please, please, please, I’m asking you this one time, please let Pat be all right.

She found herself in the kitchen where food was being prepared by another woman.

“Adelaide, this is Miss Marnie Benson. She is going to be in here with us for a short while. Would you please put some hot chocolate on for her. She has had a long ride in.”

Then the old woman turned back around to her. She gestured for the coat Marnie didn’t remember she had on until that moment. Then she pulled out a chair from the table, saying, “Please sit down.”

Marnie sat, but continued to check out the two women, especially that older one as she carefully folded her coat across another one of the chairs. There was something about her that seemed familiar, but she was certain that she’d never met her before.

“How do you know my name?”

The woman laughed a quiet, self-conscious laugh. “Forgive my rudeness, Miss Marnie. I should have introduced myself. I am Mrs. Carmichael. I am the head housekeeper here at McMurray-Hamilton house.”

Marnie quickly processed that bit of information, putting it together with something she’d heard on the night before. “McMurray? Rose McMurray? This is Aunt Pat’s grandmother’s home?”

“It’s Ms. Patricia’s home now. Her grandmother left it and the estate to her.”

“How did you know who I was? Did Aunt Pat tell you about me?”

The woman pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. “Please pardon my forwardness in sitting with you, but it bothers me to stand in one place for very long. These legs aren’t what they used to be.”

A small twinge of discomfort pinched at Marnie’s psyche at having the older, frailer woman defer to her in that way. The households in which she normally resided were not quite so formal or, like at her grandmother’s house in Texas, the help was so far removed from the interpersonal workings of the family that one almost didn’t notice them, much less have any real interaction with them.

“Do you know what’s going on with Aunt Pat?”

“You asked me how I knew your name. I was still on that question.”

Marnie blushed. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little anxious.”

Mrs. Carmichael smiled in a way that Marnie interpreted as the woman’s understanding of her anxiety. That smile allowed her to relax- a little bit.

“Ms. Patricia was not the one who told me about you. My sister did. It seems she’s very taken with you.”

“Your sister knows me? I know your sister?”

“Yes, you do.”

“How? From where?”

“I’m told that you often read to her.”

Marnie thought on it a moment. “Mrs. Benedict! Yes, now that you say that, you do look kind of like her. But how c-” She caught the question that suddenly registered with her as impolite before it could completely pass her lips.

Mrs. Carmichael, however, had already heard and processed it. “My sister married extremely well,” she explained. “Actually, she married the son of her employer. When he passed on, she inherited. I married Mr. Carmichael, who was in service to the McMurray’s at the time. I joined him here, and here I remain.”

“Oh,” Marnie said in reply as her mind took off, spinning all kinds of scenarios between the two sisters and their very disparate lifestyles. “Small world.”

During their visits together, Mrs. Benedict had spoken to her of a great many things, but not once had she mentioned having a sister, especially not a sister who was in service to a woman she obviously held in some sort of contempt. She talked a lot about the places she had been, the people she had met in her lifetime, and she often mentioned her late husband, but she had never said anything about once being a domestic herself. Not that it mattered, but the omission was saying a lot about her.

Was it defensiveness that had her disliking Aunt Pat? Was it because Aunt Pat knew her business and might let on to the ‘right’ people? Maybe that explained why she stayed so holed up in that apartment; maybe it was more than her being blind that kept her there. Perhaps people already knew her business. New York society, she was finding, was kind of different from LA. Bloodlines, pedigrees, and social background could mean even more than financial portfolios in New York. Even a very well-off person had better have come by their fortune in the ‘right’ way. A blind former domestic without her wealthy, entitled husband to otherwise buffer her from scrutiny and snubs probably didn’t stand much of a chance out in the open and on her own.

Whatever.

Tense, worried over Pat, and growing increasing irritable and edgy, teetering on the edge of overload, the tears began to well. But in the presence of essential strangers, they and her emotions weren’t something Marnie wanted to share should she not be able to hold them back. The old lady seemed nice enough, but the thought of her fawning over her or trying to comfort her, or of her reporting back to Pat later the meltdown she’d had was just too much. Pat- and Bill- had enough of their own to deal with. Nobody needed to be concerned over her.

“Mrs. Carmichael, may I please use the powder room?”

With the door closed, taking deep breaths to regain her composure, Marnie waited in the pretty room with the old fashioned fixtures until she was sure she had it together. Then she checked her makeup and her entire appearance for any outward signs of her inner turmoil. When she was satisfied with her deportment, however fake it might be, she checked her makeup, fluffed her hair and returned to the kitchen. Mrs. Carmichael and her coat were gone, but a cup of hot chocolate and a small tray with several butter cookies waited on the table for her.

It was as if someone knew; butter cookies were her favorite. Mrs. Benedict always had some hot chocolate and butter cookies brought in to her when….

Okay, I guess this makes sense. Carmichael knew me when I got here. They obviously do at least talk… but how would she know to have them here and now? Coincidence?

… so weird…. all of it….

She was seated at the table again when she felt something wasn’t quite right, as if she weren’t quite alone  at the table and the other presence might be close by. She looked around herself. Mrs. Carmichael had obviously left the room altogether. The other housekeeper was still there, but she was way over on the other side, going about her duties. Something made her peek underneath the table where two glowing green eyes met hers, mildly startling her for a moment. A cat was lying in the chair across from her. It didn’t attempt to come to her, instead, unmoving and expressionless, it merely stared across at her.

“Hey there. You scared me. What’s your name?”

Oh yeah, I’m losing it. Like you’re going to answer me.

You know, you are one big-assed cat.

As if he heard her, the cat blinked and did a little roll of its head, much like she would do when someone said something to her that she didn’t like, but at the time, she wasn’t in position to respond with what was on her mind. Despite her gloomy mood, the feline’s snotty reaction brought a tickled grin to her lips. She kept her voice at a whisper. “Oh, you can read minds, can you?”

The cat turned its head away, its unmistakable haughtiness radiating under the table and over to her.

“Yeah well, screw you, too, Garfield. I’m not in the mood either.”

“His name is Eli.”

Shocked by the voice and mortified that she’d been overheard, Marnie sat straight up narrowly missing hitting her head on the edge of the table, only to be faced by Jennifer, who had silently entered the kitchen and come up behind her. “I see two months hasn’t done a thing for that nasty tongue of yours.”

Marnie went right on the defensive. “He had snubbed me.”

“So you cuss at him? He’s a cat, Marnie. It’s what cats do.”

“I didn’t really cuss at him”

“You got close enough.”

“I’m sorry. It was reflex.”

“Yes, I know. That’s the part of it that concerns me most. Listen, as soon as I get dressed, you and I are going to drive back to Manhattan, get our things, and then fly on to Maryland.”

“What about Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill?”

She noticed an odd expression momentarily cross Jennifer’s face before she answered the question. “They’ll come later.”

From her look and tone, Marnie inferred that it wasn’t a good time to press for any more information on that situation, but the kitchen and that cat weren’t giving her what she needed at that moment. “Mrs. H., do you think I could come upstairs with you while you get ready?”

“What about your snack there?”

“The cat can have it. I’m not really all that hungry, and I guess I do owe him one for what I said to him.”

Pushing the cup and the saucer with the cookies over to the other side of the table, she went with Jennifer up the back staircase to the second floor.

_______________________________________________________

After putting her things away and changing into jeans and a sweatshirt, J.J. left her room and went out into the hall again. She peeked around to make sure that she was alone, It wouldn’t do to get walked up on by her grandfather or her father. That last one could be anywhere, and normally he’d be a great one to have along with her on an adventure, but for this one, she really wanted to be alone. She headed off to the right, in the direction of her grandfather’s suite of rooms.

The desire had been building since the moment she stepped through the front door. Now it was compelling her, almost pulling her past her grandfather’s doors, on down the main hall, toward that blind corner which would put her in that short, bare hall where the stained glass window at the end of it served as the only decor or source of color.

For some reason, she had to be there. The urge was strong to press her palms and lean her cheek against that wall. Then she had the thought that maybe, given what he had done downstairs, her grandfather had finally hung a painting or two on it in memory of what was hidden behind it.

Instead, when she turned the corner, where she was expecting a bare wall, she found the length of it broken by a wide door frame with prominent molding all around.

He took the wall down?

Double doors bearing those same uniquely carved brier rose borders that repeated throughout the house. Burnished brass handles. None of it had been there on her last visit- or ever before.

She stopped, frozen with wonder, in her own tracks, reassuring herself that what she was seeing was real.

Oh my God, he had the wall taken down.

_______________________________________________________

Once they were upstairs, she found that the outfit from the night before was back, hung neatly pressed on the valet, ready for her to step into it. That had been somewhat expected. But the two pieces of her personal luggage on the bed had been a surprise.

“J. sent the bags to you, Mrs. H. She thought you’d like a change of clothes and the rest of your things. When Uncle Bill said at breakfast that he was going to find Aunt Pat, J. knew you were with her, so she went and got all of that ready for you.”

Leave it to that girl. Always trying to be the mother.

As she was getting dressed, Marnie filled her in on what went on back in Manhattan that morning. Marnie told her that J.J. and Jonathan had gone on to Maryland while she and Bill made the drive to Long Island.

That Bill allowed Marnie to come with him, said a lot about what he understood of the developing dynamics between Marnie and Pat.

And maybe about those developing between himself and Marnie.

She hadn’t stopped to phone Jonathan or J.J., and most likely out of a sense of staying out of the way when they didn’t know what might be happening, neither of them had phoned her. It was odd that all of them had done that, but it was just as well. Jonathan and J.J. could read her like a good book, and even over the phone, either of them would be able to pick up on how conflicted she was feeling.

Pat had fainted, but she had only been out for a moment or two. By the time Marnie had been removed from of the room and she made it back over to where Pat and Bill were, Pat was weakly arguing with him and trying to get up on her own. When it turned out that she was unsteady on her feet, as if she were a doll or a small child, Bill swept Pat up in his arms and carried her out of the room. Mrs. Carmichael met them all in the hallway, appearing from a door under the stairs.

Holding onto Pat with one arm, Bill reached with the other hand into his pocket, pulling out his keys, which he stuffed into her hand.

“Go back to New York, Jennifer. Take Marnie with you.”  Then returning his attention and his full hold to Pat, he followed Mrs.Carmichael up the stairs.

Left standing at the bottom of the stairs, she had been unsure whether to go up with them or whether she should try to find Marnie and make sure that she was all right. Apparently shut out of Pat’s world for that moment, she opted for the latter.

While she and Marnie were upstairs in the bedroom, making ready to go, Bill had come to find her.

“Listen, I didn’t mean to be so abrupt, but I really do want you to head back. Go ahead and do what you’d planned to do. I already have a plane waiting to take you on to Maryland. Cordelia knows what to do to alert my pilots when you’re packed and ready to go to the airport.”

He peeked past her to Marnie sitting on the side of the bed. “Go back with Mrs. H. for now, okay?”, and Marnie, her wide eyes brimming, silently nodded to him in answer.

Still confused, she’d asked him, “But Bill, what about Pat?”

“I’ve got Pat.”

The way he said it and the expression on his face negated any further argument or debate on her part. Uncharacteristically and for the second time, Bill McDowell had shut her down and out.

Highly insulted, she’d practically closed the door in his face, forgetting that an already nervous Marnie was sitting there watching the entire exchange. The ugly scene would most certainly be fodder for later conversation between that one and her posing and prancing partner in fur-crime.

“… Santa, baby, stick a sable under tree, for me….”

Indeed. Good voice used for all the wrong things….

Little harlots. They had it coming. But that was another subject for another time. When things calmed down.

…and those two least expected it.

How dare Bill insert himself in this. How dare he show up unannounced and bringing that child into it. This was more than one of Pat’s black moods, and if she wasn’t yet sure what it was, how in the world could he hope to get to the bottom of things? Pat was frightened and possibly, according to that letter in that top drawer of the desk in her study, with good reason. Once she opened those curtains in that library, she had been shocked, then oddly angered to see Pat like that before Eli kissed her out of it, Curled up in that chair, Pat was still running, and she needed to be stopped; even the cat could see it.

Then Pat’s passing out. That was definitely not like her. This was most assuredly more than one of her black moods. How would things ever get rectified now that Bill had wedged himself between them?

Twice, they had been so close only to be cut off by someone showing up unannounced.

While getting dressed, she replayed all of it in her head. By the time she was packed and she and Marnie were ready to leave, the intense, flames of her initial outrage had burned down some, enabling her to see through the thinning swirls of smoke to the slowly emerging other side of the argument.

For so long it had been just the two of them, trusting in each other only, relying on, confiding in, and looking out for one another always. Then Jonathan entered their lives, accepting the established relationship for what it was, not interfering in it or protesting against it, instead making a place for himself somewhere inside of it. But even in that, it had still been mostly her and Pat on that end of things.

But this time, she had to gradually conclude, it should have been Bill in the role she had been attempting to play. The dynamics had changed and were swinging in a direction they hadn’t ever swung before. She and Pat, she slowly realized, had both been wrong in excluding him from the equation, from the dilemma, from what should have been his and Pat’s to share.

Humbled by the surge of shame in the face of what she suddenly grasped might have been poor judgment on her part, Jennifer glanced for a moment to Marnie seated beside her as she drove, thinking that moving on to her would divert her thoughts from Pat for a time. But Marnie’s eyes were closed, and it appeared she was dozing; she had been silent ever since they got into the car. They needed to talk about what thoughts Marnie might have been entertaining about what went on that morning and about her living arrangements down the line. But not wanting to wake the girl, she went back to focusing on the road and her own ruminations.

Had Jonathan ever felt cut out of things? If he had, surely she would have known, wouldn’t she? Surely he would have said something, or she would have been able to read it from him if he had, wouldn’t she? Was he feeling that way now? They hadn’t spoken in hours. What must be going through his mind? She hadn’t even told him to where she was headed when they last talked. As much as she got after him about sharing his feelings, about leaving her on the outside….

My God, how wrapped up in a situation can a person get? How ever do you know when it’s too much on one end and not enough on the other?

She glanced one more time at Marnie who still appeared to be sleeping.

Bill had it right about you, too. You’re where you need to be for the moment, even if it’s not quite where you want to be. I can hold onto you until things are back to normal, and she comes looking for you, like I know she will….

Finally resolved that Pat was not only in safe, but also the proper hands for the time being, Jennifer found herself feeling somewhat relieved of a burden, the heavy weight of which she hadn’t felt until it was easing itself from her.

The sense of reprieve and the renewed burst of energy had her consciously tempering the pressure she applied to the gas pedal. Overly exceeding the speed limit and drawing the wrong kind of attention, would delay her from reuniting with her own branch of the family unit. She did manage to get Cordelia on the phone to let her know that they were coming and what she needed her to do to put things into place to get them get to Maryland.

So much to do and to look forward to….

…a wedding for which the final arrangements had to made; that was the least she could still do for Pat in her absence… her father, who she was sure was anxiously waiting for her to get there, as anxious as she was to get to him… J.J. who was no doubt “busting a gut” over not knowing what was going on….

… and there was Jonathan, who she truly hoped she hadn’t offended…

…whose loving attentions she sorely needed… it had been a while…. it seemed like forever.

___________________________________________________________

Standing before the highly polished panels with her eyes closed and her imagination running wild, J.J. brushed her fingertips over the raised borders, blindly tracing the intricate cuts that formed rose petals and brier branches. Sliding her hands down to the huge brass handles, she relished the cool smoothness against her palms. She hesitated, fighting the impulse to push upward on them. Instead, still holding on, she leaned all the way in, resting her forehead against the wood and the small division between each door wondering if anything on the other side had changed.

But, as much as she wanted to know, she couldn’t bring herself to try and open them. It would have been too much to make the attempt and then find they were locked against her.

“Besides,” she decided, whispering aloud to herself as she released the handles and stood upright again. “It’s not my place to go where I haven’t been invited; I wouldn’t want that done to me. I need to leave this alone.”

Brushing a reverent hand over the carvings one more time, J.J. slowly started back up the hall, still talking to herself. “I guess I’ll go find Rosa and get something to put out this fire in my throat.”

With her arms tightly wound around herself, she turned the corner wondering if her father knew, and if so, what he thought about it. More importantly, she wondered what her mother would make of this new development once she arrived and discovered it.

_____________________________________________________________

Summoned by Walter, Stephen excused himself to attend to something in another part of the house. Left on his own, Jonathan slowly wandered back through the foyer, fascinated by the difference made by the few additions he’d noticed. On his first courtesy call to Stephen upon arriving in Maryland that past weekend, just as J.J. had, as soon as he stepped over the threshold he immediately sensed the change in atmosphere. And it wasn’t just the house; he’d noticed the change in Stephen himself. The man hadn’t looked so good or moved that spryly since before his heart started giving him trouble some years back.

Housed at Bill’s since he arrived, he hadn’t made it past the first floor of this house to see what else Stephen might have done. He did have opportunity to walk out the guest house to speak with Stephen’s friends, the Dean and her sister, and to see the additions made to their home. The two ladies seemed quite content and happy with their living arrangements, as did Stephen with having them there.

His slow stroll to the other wing landed him in Stephen’s study, a room he had always admired. It was actually quite large, the way he liked his spaces to be, but filled to capacity with his father-in-law’s belongings, the study had an intimate, close, very personal feel. Books, photographs, and assorted artifacts from Stephen’s lifetime of travel lined the floor-to-ceiling shelves on two walls. The desk, where he could usually be found sitting, was busy with newspapers, his correspondence, and a couple of books. A huge, ancient affair, it was the kind of desk with a hutch containing small cabinets with doors on each side, shelves, and numerous small drawers. On those shelves were baby and school photos of Jennifer and J.J., Jennifer on the top shelf and J.J. right underneath. The arrangement made for an interesting exercise in comparing and contrasting.

Directly across from the desk was a small, flagstone fireplace that obviously still saw regular use; the distinctive, but not unpleasant scent of burnt wood mixed with cigar was as much a part of the scenario as the other fixtures. All the furnishings in the room were dated, but well-maintained classics, reflective of the gentleman to whom they belonged.

Definitely a man’s room.

Showcased in the large corner curio was a collection of awards, including Jennifer and Pat’s high school diplomas and their Phi Beta Kappa keys. J.J.’s two National Merit trophies and copies of the accompanying certificates were more recent additions to that group. As he peered through the glass, Jonathan noted that Stephen had a lot to be proud of, both in himself and with his girls.

Taking a seat in one of the chairs by the window, but facing back into the room, his eyes went to the large portrait over the mantelpiece, the oil reproduction of the official photograph taken on his and Jennifer’s wedding day. Stephen commissioned the painting back in the late seventies, shortly after the wedding while he was working with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. At the time, he maintained his principal residence in London, which was where that work first hung. It wasn’t until he decided to return to the States to reopen Briarwood that he and Jennifer became aware of his having had it done. As he stared up at it, even after all the years it had been there and having seen it so many times, Jonathan was still impressed by how accurately the artist had replicated not only Jennifer’s features, but also at how her fiery spirit had been captured on that canvas; the color in her cheeks, the warmth of her smile, that joy mixed with a hint of naughty lust in her eyes, it was all right there.

How had the artist managed all of that with only a photograph for a model? And what kind of faith must Stephen have had in the artist’s abilities to trust such an undertaking to him? Jennifer had been her father’s everything, his precious only child and all he had left of his wife. That day Stephen had to have been proud of what an accomplished and beautiful woman their daughter had become. The man holding her arm in that portrait had certainly been proud to have become her husband.

Gazing upward at the brush-stroked figures on the canvas, her hand squeezed his arm as it rested on the arm of the chair. In his ears, the long train of her dress rustled as Pat and the girls arranged it around her feet for the photo shoot. Wafting down to his nose, the scent of those orchids in her bouquet regenerated that surge of contentment he’d felt, that joy, that sense of finally, finally being complete.

Reflected in that painting over the fireplace was the finest moment of his life. Closing his eyes, smiling to himself, he lay his head back against the chair as that one special, secret night floated back to his mind. That night, right there in that room….

In London, they had been together since the afternoon that he proposed and she accepted. When she phoned her father to tell him, he demanded that she bring “the impertinent boy” to Maryland. Despite the fact that she was a grown woman on her own, her father had been upset that she was getting married to someone to whom he hadn’t been “properly- or in any other manner- introduced”. They had flown in and were staying at Briarwood with Stephen for a week.

Up in that bedroom, all by himself, knowing that she was sleeping down the hall, it had been all he could do to stay where he was and not sneak across to her. They had only known each other a short time, but already he couldn’t do without her.

By the third night, temptation and the need to have her close got the best of him. When he eased open her bedroom door; however, she wasn’t there. In the dark of night, he crept downstairs to look for her, or failing finding her, to locate some of Stephen’s rum. She was in her father’s study, looking through the books.

… beige peignoir edged in delicate lace, bare feet, and all that hair she wore in a French roll during the day loose, wavy and tousled from her own restless night. She stiffened, initially startled when he slipped his arms around her and his lips grazed the soft, fragrant skin of her elegant neck.

“Jonathan! You scared me! I thought you were sleeping.”

“How can I be expected to sleep without you next to me? You get me hooked, and then you cut me off to go cold turkey.”

“I know, darling. It’s hard for me too. But we agreed, for Pa’s sake, separate rooms for this visit. It’s only fitting and proper.”

“Fitting and proper, hell.”

He was hungry and she tasted divine. “You think he doesn’t know? He’s your father, but he’s still a man. We’ve been in London together for a week. We love each other and we’re here because we’re getting married. He has to know that we’ve made love; that we make love.”

“I really don’t want to think about that, about him knowing.” She squirmed in his arms as she turned to face him, those warm whiskey-colored eyes not quite saying the same things her lips were. “Darling, please be good. It’s just a few more days.”

He could feel her softening in his arms as he breathed in her ear. “Oh, I’m going to be good.”

The kiss melted her resolve completely. And any he might have had that he hadn’t been aware of before he came down those stairs.

“Behave, baby,” he heard her whisper as his lips, teeth, and tongue greedily consumed an exposed nipple while his hands hiked the soft, slippery fabric up her smooth legs to gather it over her supple, naked hips.

“No chance, sweetheart. I just can’t behave when you’re anywhere around. You’ll just have to forgive me this transgression.”

“Oh, Jonathan…”

“I know, Jennifer, I know…”

Of the other women he had been with, no one of them ever made him feel that “Oh, Jonathan” the way that she could. Nobody had ever been such a perfect fit in so many ways, in every way. She was everything….

…against the bookshelf until he realized  the thin material of the peignoir might not be enough protection for the delicate skin of her back… then over the very chair in which he was now seated…

…both of them weak-kneed with passion and desire, sliding from there to the floor where he covered her and took her again … and she let him, urged him…

…on her father’s antique Persian rug… in her father’s study….

Some hidden young male psychology behind that?

Jeez, how he loved her.

… the attraction was immediate, effortless, natural; no game-playing- well, except her changing her name to get to him and his having her hauled in by the cops to slow her down and to give him some time to plead his case with her. No flirting or teasing…

… he had fallen so fast, so hard, so deeply; that hadn’t been like him at all. Typically, he took his time getting to know a woman. With everything else going on in his life at that time, women and really getting to know them had not been priority. His standards had been high and his heart had been guarded. He had nearly given up on making that one real connection.

But then she sat down next to him… smelling and looking so delightfully attractive, so lovely… so much like someone he needed to get to know….

… he had fallen for Jennifer Edwards completely… fallen fast and fallen hard….

… couldn’t get enough of her that night in the study… or any night…

Twenty-six years later those steamy stolen minutes were still deliciously seared into his mind. And hers; she blushed whenever he brought that night up to her just as brightly as she had the next morning at breakfast with her father.

The Carlyle… a sable… my crazy, thoughtful, huge-hearted, oh, so sexy wife….

“What’s funny, Daddy?”

He opened his eyes to find J.J. standing in the doorway, and this time he was the one to blush. “Nothing, sweetie.”

She came into the room carrying a teacup and saucer to stand over him. “Rosa sent me to get you. She says that lunch will be served in ten minutes and that you should be on your way in. Boy, you must be really tired if you’re dozing during the day like that. You were napping on the plane, too. Say, you’re kinda flushed. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine. Just resting my eyes, that’s all.” Looking up at her, he could tell from that too familiar look on her face that she had something more than summoning him for lunch on her mind. “What’s going on with you?”

J.J. sat down on the arm of his chair and took a swallow of what he could smell was some sort of mentholated tea. Then she leaned in close to say in a hushed voice, “Pa took the wall down.”

“What wall?”

“The wall that was in front of the doors to my grandmother’s bedroom. It’s gone. The doors are there again. All polished and shiny as if they’d never been covered up. What’s up with that? Did you know about it? Did he tell you that he did it?”

What was with that? In their talks when he visited him, Stephen hadn’t mentioned doing that. But then was that something he would have brought up with him?

His mind awhirl, Jonathan had to concentrate to answer J.J. and to keep her from seeing how stunned he was by her news. “I didn’t know. He hasn’t said anything to me about it in the time that I’ve been here. He told me he added on to the guest house, and took me out there to show that to me. I could see that he’d made some changes here in the house, but he didn’t say anything to me about doing anything as extensive as that. What about the room inside?”

“Daddy, please. I didn’t go in there.”

“Why not?”

She raised that one eyebrow to him in challenge, or maybe because the question was one to which he should have already known the answer. “Would you have?”

For a long moment father and daughter stared each other down. Then Jonathan conceded, “Of course you didn’t, and I do understand.”

In J.J.’s place, had he been upstairs in that hall, he wouldn’t have gone in either. His formative years had been spent in an atmosphere that was more communal than individual. He didn’t know if that was the reason for his healthy respect for personal space and for boundaries, but after J.J. came into his life, it became more than apparent to him that it might be inherent. His daughter’s sense of adventure and rampant curiosity, patterned very much on his own, also only went so far- most of the time.

As she sat next to him, he could read the same sentiment on J.J.’s face that was snaking its way through his mind.

As if Jennifer didn’t have enough to deal with….

Diplomat that she could be, J.J. deftly changed that worrying subject to one more neutral. “Are we still going into the city after lunch?”

When instead of a verbal answer, he reached to feel her forehead and neck, J.J. tried to get up and pull away, but he wrapped an arm around her waist and held her in place. Unable to move, as she had to use both hands to keep hold of the tea and not spill it, she began to fuss.

“Aw, Daddy.”

“Aw, Daddy, nothing. You’re still kind of warm. Whenever your mother gets here, she’s not going to be coming after me because I had you out in the elements, running around the city when I knew you left here with a temp. I’m going out; you’re staying here. I can do what still needs to be done on my own.”

“But I really want to go with you. I’m all right. This is just a little cold. I’ll put my hoodie on underneath my jacket and I’ll even wear the hood, I promise. You know that I get one of these every year; it’s no big deal. ”

“And we’re going to keep it that way.”

He stood, bringing her up with him. Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her around and began to move her toward the door again. “You need to get a hold on it before the weekend. Today and tomorrow, you’re resting- inside- and I don’t want any arguments.”

“Daddy, this is so unfair.”

“Life is often unfair, J.J. Hart. Get over it.”

As his aggravated child sashayed and twitched her irritation in front of him, his mind momentarily flitted back to that daydream he was having when she came in. Then it bounced in the other direction, smashing head-on into Teddy, due to show up on Friday to be with J.J.

As he passed them, he happened to glance at those pictures on the shelves of Stephen’s desk, and he shuddered.

Young male psychology? You betcha.

I’m a firm believer in what goes around, comes around. Now here I am, the father with the pretty, spirited daughter that some guy may have designs on… talk about your Karma….

…but hell, I’m not having it. Mine is only sixteen and in high school, not sixteen and betrothed, or twenty-something and engaged to be married….

Little girl, I know that your mother says that you’re not all that interested, but that doesn’t mean he…

…and the women that came before you didn’t- don’t make it any…

… aw Jeez, heaven help me….

He hadn’t felt it so much before then, but that Jennifer was still missing from their midst, and that he and J.J. were about to sit down to lunch with Stephen without her or Pat present at the table began jangling around inside his head, pinging against his stretched-taut nerves.

Jennifer, where are you and what’s going on? Why haven’t you phoned? I know Bill and Marnie have to be there by now.

The only reassuring detail in it all was the fact that Bill had gone to where they were. Pat and Bill needed each other. That was the way that he would have handled it had the shoe been on the other foot. Nothing in the world could keep him from Jennifer if he thought something troubling was going on with her. She couldn’t go fast enough if he felt she was running from him to hide a problem she was having. But, since the time they met, he and Jennifer had always had each other to lean on.

But Pat was different. For so long Pat had only had Pat, and usually that was all she needed, but Jennifer was always there in the wings, ready to provide backup if called upon. Jennifer was solidly written into Pat’s business plan as well as her will in the event of her incapacity or demise. The two of them were a habit.

However, from what he had seen for himself of Pat and Bill’s relationship, even though it had been going on for a long time, and it was clear that she loved him, Pat still hadn’t come to the place where she felt she could completely count on the man who would be her husband. In her book, to admit being vulnerable amounted to weakness. That defense mechanism on her part was getting in the way of her allowing Bill to come all the way in and assume his rightful role in her life. It was time for Jennifer to remove herself from the situation. She needed to gather up Marnie, bring both of them to Maryland, and leave Bill and Pat to sort things out for themselves.

Actually, as he thought on it, it was really kind of convenient that Jennifer wasn’t there with them at the moment; he did have errands to run and a couple of details to finalize that didn’t include her. After lunch, he’d get those things wrapped up. In light of what J.J. had just told him about that room upstairs, he probably needed to hurry back to be there for her when she arrived. There had been a lot of changes at Briarwood, which on the surface appeared to be for the better. Whether or not that was a valid conclusion wouldn’t be confirmed until Jennifer got there.

What was Stephen playing at? Or was he playing at anything? Perhaps he just wanted to spruce the place up some. Or could the renovations and his renewed vitality have something to do with the Dean and her sister having moved into the guest house and consequently, his life? After all, Stephen had been back at Briarwood for almost twenty years, living alone for the most part, leaving that bedroom next to his sealed off, and only doing what needed to be done to maintain the property. All of the recent changes had come in the last few months. It all couldn’t be attributed to the presence of those two women, especially the part about the room. Could it?

Or was Stephen getting things ready for something, or perhaps someone else?

Jonathan kept his eyes on J.J. as she left the study and stepped out into the hall. She was still just a kid, but she was rapidly growing up. Because he and Jennifer tried so hard to keep her grounded and to ensure that her teenage years be as carefree and typical as possible, they had asked Stephen not to tell her of his plans. The girl had no idea, and that was how they wanted it.

Closing the door to the study behind them, he determined that if he hadn’t heard from Jennifer by the time he returned from the city, and if she still hadn’t arrived, he would be ringing her phone, interruption or not. He needed to find out her status. His hope was that she wouldn’t get there before he could make it back. He really wanted to be there when she arrived at her father’s home.

_______________________________________________________

Arrangements had been made for the plane; it turned out that they wouldn’t have to wait as long for a slot as she initially thought they might. Cordelia had taken care of having her bags and Marnie’s sent down to the car. After conducting a final check in the bedroom and bathroom to make sure that she had everything, Jennifer dropped off her carry-on and her portfolio by the elevator doors before going to collect Marnie.

At a point where she was high enough on the stairs to be able to see onto the second floor, she spotted Marnie, dressed to leave and carrying her tote, but closing the door to Pat’s suite as if she had just come from inside. She thought it odd that Marnie would be in there, especially since Pat wasn’t at home. The girl had been very quiet for the entire ride back from Long Island and as they ate the brunch that Cordelia had waiting for them upon their arrival. Refraining from questioning her, she called out to let Marnie know that she was there, and also to let her know that she had seen her. “Are you ready?”

Marnie jumped, startled into stopping in her tracks. But true to form, she quickly recovered and tried to play it calm. “Yes, ma’am. I think I have everything.”

Jennifer took note of her paleness and that she appeared tired. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Mrs. H. I’m okay,” she answered, casually tossing her scarf over one shoulder and shaking out her hair. “Really.”

Jennifer came all the way up. Checking Marnie out up close, she briefly lay a hand on her  shoulder. “Give me a second, sweetie. I need to leave something for Pat.”

Opening the door that Marnie had just closed, she passed through the small sitting room and entered Pat’s bedroom where she pulled an envelope from her pocket. Checking the contents one last time, she then crossed over to the bed.

Propped against the pillows, where she had planned to leave her envelope, was a Hello Kitty stuffed doll, holding in its lap a small ivory envelope embossed with a prominent red “M “.

Smiling to herself, she slid her envelope right up under Kitty’s paws and that other piece of stationery.

Now Patricia, there is no way for you to lie and say that you missed seeing this.

Returning to the hall, she found Marnie again fussing with her scarf. Some of the color appeared to have returned to her cheeks, but it was a second or two before she realized the girl was blushing, and that it was from embarrassment. Her heart melting, she slid a reassuring arm around Marnie’s shoulders and drew her close to hold her there for a moment. If it weren’t for the fact that she knew that Pat had her own problems, she would have been angry with her for putting Marnie through yet another set of trying circumstances over someone she loved.

“Don’t worry, Marnie. Pat’s going to be all right. If there’s nothing else that I can tell you about her, I can tell you that she’s a fighter, and at times, a dirty one. She knows all the right methods and tricks to hold onto her own.”

Against her chest, she felt Marnie nod her head as she returned the hug. “Thanks, Mrs. H. I needed to hear that.”

Easing Marnie around in front of her, Jennifer started toward the front stairs. “Come on. Bill will take care of her. You and I need to get to Maryland.”

_______________________________________________________

Afternoon….

Lunch had hit just the right spot. The meal, that tea, and the throat lozenges Rosa had given her provided some relief from her symptoms. Her throat wasn’t as scratchy as it had been, but her head and nose were still stuffy, making her feel sluggish and not quite like her usual self. It was obvious that her father and Rosa had put their heads together and come to a consensus about what should be done with her. Daddy had locked her down, and Rosa was backing him up on it, sending her to her room to rest after lunch. But lying down was out of the question. To do that would be giving in to something over which she insisted upon having some control.

With her father gone- despite her best efforts, he hadn’t caved about not allowing her to accompany him- J.J. sat in the bedroom window, looking down to the grounds below. The gardens, which in spring, summer, or even early fall would be ablaze with color, were now just large, bare patches dotted by the stumps of naked pruned rosebushes, the vacant walkways lined by spiky, leafless hedgerows and cold stone benches.

… dismal compared with home….

She wondered how anyone could stand it, the grass like straw and everything else so gray, and depressing. Even six inches of  snow would be better than looking out on that. There were flurries on a the air. Maybe they’d get an inch or two to kind of brighten things up some.

Being stuck inside the house as she was, there wasn’t much to do. Her mother and Marnie weren’t back. That probably meant that Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill weren’t either. She wanted to see what her godparents had done with Farrell’s place, but that wasn’t likely to happen any time soon. To her knowledge, none of them had phoned. It seemed odd that Marnie hadn’t called to fill her in on what happened once Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat hooked up. Surely something had gone down in all that time. Not knowing what was happening on that end, she didn’t dare try to get in touch with Marnie.

Had Uncle Bill been upset with Aunt Pat? Had they argued? Was Aunt Pat upset about Uncle Bill coming to look for her? Was she mad that he brought Marnie with him? Had Uncle Bill gone off on Aunt Pat for keeping him in the dark and about taking off? If so, had her mother gotten into it?

No, that didn’t sound like her. She didn’t “insert herself” into other people’s affairs. Even though it was Aunt Pat, her mother’s best friend who was “like a sister”, she doubted that the Duchess would put herself between Aunt Pat and her man. Aunt Pat certainly wouldn’t do it between the Duchess and her’s.

Sacred territory. No man’s land. No man except for the two people whose territory it happened to be.

But the Duchess would certainly remove Marnie from all of it. She also didn’t believe in children being a part of adult matters.

What in the world was going on with Aunt Pat that was causing so much drama? The woman was getting married in three days. She really needed to get her act together. Good thing she was the master organizer that she was. Other brides-to-be would be running around like headless chickens, trying to finish up all the last minute details. Not Aunt Pat; she didn’t have to do that kind of thing herself. She knew how to plan and how to line things up. She had a rep for getting things done. When she set a plan in motion, she got the right people to execute it, or else. And those right people did what she told them to do in the manner that she told them to do it. No worries for her there. All she and her wedding party had to on Saturday was show up.

Hope there’s no drama with that part of it, like her trying to back out at the last minute.

She better not be running, not after how she got all over me about that last summer. There will be drama if that’s the case; I’m calling her all the way out. When I do, I’ll get locked down forever, but I’m saying what I have to say if that turns out to be what’s going on.

And speaking of drama. What in the world was going on between Pa and Dean Marchand? Was she the reason for the lighter atmosphere in a place that had been so stiff and formal as recently as that past summer? Was the Dean’s living on the grounds now the reason that Pa looked so much better? Could there be something more going on between them than just being good friends? What was up with that taken-down wall and that bedroom? Did Dean Marchand’s being there have anything to do with that?

Was she reading too much into it?

They’re in their eighties, J. How much could be going on? And Pa’s not crazy; he wouldn’t do something like that in there with her.

Ms. Smythe, the Dean’s sister, wasn’t a concern; she had proven herself to be all right. At the Gresham Hall reunion, Ms. Smythe had been the house mother for the residence hall where she and Marnie stayed. When she hurt her ankle up on the bluff with Teddy, it was Ms. Smythe who wound up taking principal care of her, so they were already fairly well-acquainted. Dean Agnes Marchand; however, was another story.

She had only had one real encounter with her at the reunion. That was the time that Teddy, against school rules of course, had made his way up to her bedroom to bring her some wildflowers after her accident. He wanted to see how she was doing and to talk with her. Actually, that had been his third clandestine visit to that bedroom, but who was counting? Nothing that could even remotely be considered low or immoral had happened. On that last occasion, she and Teddy merely talked while he ate the lunch that had been brought up to her. Then he hid out in the bathroom when Dean Marchand unexpectedly paid her a personal call, knocking on the door, scaring the hell out of both of them. The visit itself had been brief, but what she remembered the most about it was how intently the woman had studied her. It was as if the Dean had been looking for something or maybe seeing something she didn’t expect to see.

At the time, she had been so nervous about almost getting caught with a boy in her room, and about Teddy being stuck in that bathroom less than four feet away from the head honcho of the all-girls’ school, that she hadn’t been able to see all of that going on with Dean Marchand. It wasn’t until much later that she was able to focus on and process just how strange that encounter had been. On top of that, she wasn’t quite sure that she and Teddy had gotten away with their little ruse. Dean Marchand noticed the out-of-place, fresh flowers, and she made an awfully sharp point of commenting on them and putting them in that leftover glass of water for her. But according to Teddy, there hadn’t been any repercussions for him; he didn’t get called in or anything, so they must have pulled it off.

That afternoon, the Dean and Ms. Smythe had driven down and joined them for lunch. At the table, it was the adults who did most of the talking. Her throat was still giving her trouble, so for the most part, she sat and listened, checking out the newcomers and her grandfather’s interactions with them. The Dean and Ms. Smythe, like most people- well, most women anyway- seemed very taken with her father who was his usual charming self. Pa was more lively and animated than she had ever seen him, especially considering that her mother and Aunt Pat weren’t where they should be.

A couple of times she caught the Dean snatching odd glances at her. It was that same kind of look she had given her up in that school bedroom. The same thing happening, each incident months apart, meant there was something to it. Those looks weren’t imagined. And strangely, she noticed her grandfather doing it, too. But his stolen peeks could perhaps be attributed to his just being happy to have his granddaughter there.

Maybe.

When the meal was over, she had excused herself and come upstairs leaving the grownups talking at the table. A short while later, her father stuck his head in to say he was leaving and to tell her to “take it easy, and be good”.

As if she was going to be allowed to do anything else. As if there was anything else she could be in that setting with nobody around to get into anything with….

Ever since she arrived the question, “What’s up with that?” had been looping in her head like a defective audio track. It was all so strange, even stranger than the last time she was there, when Marnie discovered that her closet wall opened to reveal secret passages in the house.

And yet another oddity: the lever that opened the wall in her closet was gone. Removed and completely smoothed over. Were all of them gone from the closets now? What other changes had her grandfather made in the house?  In his life? And why?

… wonder if real old people like him and the Dean do it….

The abrupt surge of image-induced nausea had her clamping a hand tightly to her mouth. When the wave passed, she got up from window seat having decided that she needed to find something, anything to do to keep her inquiring mind from spiraling any farther out-of-control.

_______________________________________________________

Jonathan used the down-time in the taxi to make several non-urgent business calls. Even though he was officially “off the clock” as far as Hart Industries was concerned, there was always something that needed checking on or out. When he finished those calls, he phoned ahead to put people on alert that he was on his way. He didn’t want to have to spend any more time in the city than necessary; he needed to get back. J.J. had that developing cold, but left to her own devices, she couldn’t be counted on to do the right things for it. If she wanted to, she could slip past everyone, and by the time he got back she would be long gone, ponytail in the wind, on one of the horses. There was; however, one thing working in his favor- the frigid Maryland weather. Unless she was skiing or participating in some other vigorous outdoor activity, J.J. really didn’t like being out too long in the cold.

More importantly, though, he really wanted to be there for Jennifer when she arrived. Her last visit to Briarwood had been a deeply emotional trial for her, to say the least about it. J.J.’s news about that bedroom… well, it just wasn’t something he wanted her facing on her own, without him somewhere close by if she needed him.

With his wife on his mind, it dawned on him there was one other person he hadn’t considered consulting. She might be able to shed some light on the current status of affairs.

“Hamilton Residence. Hello, Mr. Hart”

Caller ID, a relatively recent and most helpful innovation, but it definitely had its disadvantages, one of them being eliminating of the element of surprise. However, her dry, mildly defensive tone didn’t faze him in the least.

“Cordelia. How are things?”

“Just fine, sir.” Then silence.

Like her employer, Cordelia didn’t do small talk, and actually, he was grateful for that. That business-like tendency in her allowed him to bypass the pleasantries and cut right to the chase, which was definitely his style in important negotiations.

“You know why I’m phoning.”

“I can guess why you are.”

“So?”

“I could guess, sir, but I prefer not to do so.”

Just like that damned Pat. She had been well-trained in the art of subterfuge, the game of duck and dodge.

“All right. I can accept that. Look, I know that you aren’t going to tell me anything about Pat, even if you know something, so I’m not going to ask. But you can tell me if you’ve heard from my wife, can’t you?”

“Mrs. Hart and Miss Marnie returned from Long Island to collect their things late this morning. They left for the airport a while ago. The pilots were able to secure a 3;30 slot for them.”

There was a slight pause before she added in a tone a shade warmer and less constrained than it had been:

“I could tell from how she wasn’t wasting any time that she is anxious to get to Briarwood. You and Mr. Edwards should have her and Miss Marnie with you by dinnertime.”

Cordelia was efficient, organized, and extremely devoted to Pat, but her polished and professional veneer didn’t quite hide how human and personable she could be. He admired her style. She wouldn’t tell him much about Pat, or at this point, Bill if the matter had anything to do with Pat, and that was as it should be. But he was touched by how well she understood the dynamics between him and Jennifer. And evidently those between him and Marnie, too.

“When she gets to you, have a little talk with Miss Marnie, Mr. Hart. She needs some Daddy-love right about now. You are one of the best at that.”

For sure. That was why fate put Marnie where she was for the time being. With him and Jennifer, or with Bill and Pat, the girl was fully covered until Carl could physically resume his rightful place in his daughter’s life. All of them had their arms around her.

Okay, so Jennifer and Marnie were on their way, but what did that signify about Bill and Pat? He hadn’t wasted the breath on broaching that subject with Cordelia, but that did nothing to erase the question from his mind. Or the quietly nagging worry. Bill wasn’t a man to mince words either, and Pat was pushing his buttons. He had flown to New York in the middle of the night to get to her, only to find her gone from where he thought she would be. Where she ended up was a place she didn’t share with others. What was going to happen when those two faced off?

Settling back into his seat, consciously relaxing his tense body in preparation for the rest of the ride, he concluded that the details of that part of it would have to wait until he and Jennifer were together again. Perhaps she could shed some light on it. But then, did it really matter? Whatever Pat’s problem turned out to be, presumably she was with Bill, and with her, Bill was where he was most needed.

Most importantly on his end, Jennifer was on her way back to him, and to J.J. and to her father, where they all wanted her, and where Marnie needed to be.

Arranging the remainder of the day in his head, he decided that once he finished with the details that involved him and J.J., he, or hopefully he and Jennifer, could proceed to take over for Bill and Pat. That included meeting Peter and his family when they arrived later that evening and all of them overseeing whatever remained to be done for the wedding until the principal two made it back to Maryland.

Whenever that might be.

Using the display on the phone, he checked the time, gauging how long it would take to get finished with what he needed to do and to make it back to Hillhaven. He was just  sliding the cell back into his pocket when it buzzed in his hand. Glancing at the incoming number, he couldn’t click over fast enough.  “Hello, darling. I was wondering when I was going to hear from you. Where have you been? What in the world is-  all right, all right, I’m sorry, I’m so-r-r-ry. Okay, I’m listening.”

_______________________________________________________

Thinking it safer than using the back stairs which were more hidden, but where it was more likely that she might run into Rosa or Walter, both of whom would surely send her back up to her room, J.J. took the front stairs down to the first floor. In that part of the house and at time of day, there would only be her grandfather to dodge if he was down there, and he would be in his study. Her greater hope was that he was already up in his room, doing his afternoon lie-down, which would conveniently put him on the second floor and on the other side of the house, away from that set of stairs.

Arriving on the first floor, she gave the immediate area a quick visual once-over. Satisfied that she was alone for the moment, she ventured into the foyer, noticing a few things there that she hadn’t ever seen before. The set of tall brass candle holders on either side of that vase in front of the mirror caught her eye. Earlier, as she came through the door, her focus had been on the floral arrangement. The thick spray of baby’s breath had probably been what kept her from noticing them at that time.

Up close, examining them thoroughly, she realized that the candle holders were gold not brass, and from the weight, solid.

Antiques. Probably very expensive. Some of Pa’s art collection that he finally decided to display?

With the very tip of her finger, she lightly traced the intricate design circling the wide base of one of the holders. She noticed that the leaves formed a small crest, inside of which were the raised initials “HRS”.

No “E”? HRS?

Studying on it for a moment, it clicked: her maternal great-grandparents.

Henri and Simone Roussel. These must have been my grandmother’s.

As she thought on it more, she recalled another pair of gold candlesticks in her Aunt Sabrina’s library in France. They weren’t quite like these in her grandfather’s foyer, but they bore the same initials in that same font, arranged in that same manner . Those initials not immediately registering with her was surprising, but in that current setting, in the Edwards home, she concluded the letters seemed out of place to her at first when really and truly they were not.

Actually, it felt good to see them there. Polished and elegant, they were on duty, standing to attention, ready to greet whoever crossed the threshold.

Lovely. Really, really nice touch.

But desirous of getting out of sight before someone found her and assigned an upstairs destination to her, she moved on, deciding to go where she knew she could relax and where nobody would dare make her leave when they found out she was there.

With everyone otherwise occupied that morning, nobody bothered to open the drapes in that seldom used room, so that was the first thing she did. From those windows, she could see out to the paddock. Being that it was winter, and a pretty cold day at that, everything out there was still. The horses were likely inside the stable. Any other time of the year, she could work in the music room and enjoy watching the activity outside.

Standing there, she wondered how much the scenery had changed since the time her grandmother gazed out of those windows. With her storied love of animals, especially the horses, surely she had purposely chosen that room for the placement of her piano to accommodate that view.

The day being overcast and gray, even with the curtains open, it was still a bit dim in there, so she went over and pressed the switch for the overhead lights.

Her breath caught at the sight.

From the back wall, her grandmother stared down at her as she and her Arabian stallion, Aladdin crested one of the Briarwood’s hills. As if drawn by some  magnifying force, J.J. slowly moved toward her, stopping in the middle of the room, the best vantage point at which to clearly see.

Although she was very young in the portrait, an art lamp warming her features, Suzanne Edwards appeared as spirited, strong, and confident as her handsome mount. As had been the case with the painting in the living room, the added natural light of day seemed to breathe life into the subjects, much more so than when she had first seen them after they’d been discovered in their shadowy hiding places only months before.

Her grandfather had shown her that painting where he had it stored in the passage outside his bedroom. Then he asked her if she wanted it put back in the house, and where she wanted it hung. Now, there it was; he had done as she asked. It was in the music room, where she told him she thought it belonged. Gazing up at her, more than ever, J.J. sorely wished she could have known her.

“Your grandmother was very beautiful. Even more so in person.”

Caught off guard, and consequently a little irritated at herself for having allowed someone to walk up on her in that manner, J.J. spun around to face the speaker. Dean Marchand stood in the open doorway.

“May I join you, Justine?”

Even though she really didn’t feel like company, she could hardly turn down Pa’s friend’s request.

“Please,” she heard herself say in way of invitation.

Instinctively, she went back to the door to escort the woman in. The Dean carried a cane, but J.J. noticed that she didn’t really lean on it much when she walked. She figured it had to be more for balance than assistance.

The woman was short, only came to her shoulder, but she had probably been a bit taller when she was younger; her body had that shrinking into itself kind of look that she noticed about some older women. But then, too, Dean Marchand was over eighty, so like a lot of elderly women, the loss of calcium over the years had probably collapsed her spine some. Size and appearance; however, didn’t mean a whole lot when it came to some people. From the first time she saw her out on the quad at Gresham Hall, J.J. had not been fooled by the small stature, refined deportment, and soft, dignified, manner of speaking. Those things might have someone else underestimating that little old lady, but not J.J. Hart.

All of her life, her father had been training her to ‘read’ people, to go past what she could see on the surface and to use all the details known to her to construct a quick mental profile. The way she figured it, Dean Agnes Marchand had not risen to and held her position at that prestigious institution of learning for so many years by being inept, feeble, or mentally slow. People weren’t still calling upon her expertise simply out of respect or just to be polite. That was one sharp lady whose elbow she currently held. Most likely, the only thing eighty-something years had done to the Dean was make her someone who bore close watching.

After guiding her to the set of conversational chairs next to the smaller side windows, J.J. took her own seat. That was when the Dean’s comment registered.

“You met my grandmother, Dean Marchand?”

The Dean had propped her cane against the arm of the chair, and her blue veined, spotted hands were smoothing her skirt. She crossed her thin legs properly and tightly at the ankle and sat back. Watching her, J.J. wondered how anyone wore dresses or skirts on a regular basis during winter in Maryland, or anywhere out east for that matter.

“I only met your grandmother once.” the woman finally answered. “It was a very long time ago on the mall in Washington, DC. She was there with your grandfather on a visit to the capital. Stephen introduced us. I must say, they made a very handsome couple.”

Intrigued, but not quite sure how she felt about discussing her grandmother with this person, an essential stranger, J.J. first glanced up to the portrait before addressing her question to the other woman. “Did the two of you talk?”

She was slightly disappointed when the Dean shook her head. “No, Justine, it was a chance encounter, and in it, your grandfather and I did most of the talking. You see, he and I were once schoolmates in Neath, back in Wales. For the first years of our education, we studied together. But we parted ways after upper school. We kept in touch for a short while, but oftentimes young people tend to drift apart when they begin pursuing their own lives. When I happened upon them that day, Stephen and I had not seen each other in years, so in those few minutes we did a little catching up. I had heard that he was married, and that Suzanne, his wife, was French. At the time, I thought maybe she didn’t say anything beyond greeting me because she didn’t speak English. However, I later learned that she spoke several languages, including English. In retrospect, I think what she was doing was allowing two old friends to have their moment. And then too, she was carrying your mother at the time, so her quiet might have been because she was tired.”

What was offered was interesting, especially that very last, very human detail, but from what J.J. heard her say, the Dean didn’t have a lot to offer beyond what she already knew of her grandmother.

But what had her grandmother been thinking at that moment? The possibilities were so numerous. What made her be the kind of quiet that all those years later the Dean remembered the “chance encounter”? Was it her grandmother’s silence or her pregnancy that made such a lasting impression? Had her grandmother been a shy woman? No, she didn’t appear to be. Was she jealous? Or suspicious? Or feeling insecure about being pregnant, seeing as how that was back in the day, and those kinds of things were kept more under wraps?  Probably not, if one were using that picture on the back wall as a measure, with her really good cleavage on full, unashamed display. Even the artist knew….

You go, Grandmama. I keep trying to tell your daughter, if you’ve got it…

… she knows it, and she does it with hers, but she keeps holding me and mine back….

Just wait.

Perhaps, as the Dean intimated, her grandmother was simply being polite that day, allowing her husband and his friend to have their time together, and there really wasn’t anything else to read into it at all.

That sounded more like their style. She could certainly see her mother doing that with her father and an old friend of his that she didn’t know. Aunt Sabrina might have walked away from them to do her own thing while they were busy talking; in fact, she probably would have been the one to run into someone she knew, leaving her man standing there and quiet.

For herself, in that type of situation she would probably stay off to the side as well. But in her case, it would be more to take advantage of the opportunity to check the other person out than a mere courtesy to her boyfriend-husband-whoever and his little female friend.

Once again, her eyes darted up to that painting.

Sa-y-y-y-y, maybe….

At any rate, she concluded, a secure women wouldn’t be upset or nervous about something like her man having a conversation with an old female friend.  ….as long as it was tastefully done….

The Dean’s voice brought her back to the moment. “I am told that you study piano.”

J.J. braced herself, slowly lifting one leg to cross it over the other. She didn’t really like talking about herself. She really didn’t care for doing it with someone she really didn’t know, but who obviously had a line on her. Her answer was crafted to address the statement, without giving up more than she had to. “I just enjoy playing. It’s not quite studying for me.”

But the Dean, as it turned out, was not deterred by her calculated brevity. “I understand you are first piano at your school.”

There was only one way the woman could know that. The thought had the elastic band on her ponytail slowly tightening at her the back of her head. “I see my grandfather has been talking about me.”

“He is very proud of you, Justine, of your academics as well as all of your other accomplishments. You work hard, and you do well. It should make you feel good that you can make your grandfather happy in that way.”

It did, but the Dean’s comments weren’t something for which she had a ready response. She hadn’t ever considered that Pa was so proud of her that he spoke of her to other people. That he spoke of her to that person.

“How is your cold?”

It popped right into her mind: Who said to you that I had one?

Of course, she would never be so rude as to voice that thought, but she did entertain it while she wondered what it was about Dean Marchand that had her running so hard to the defensive side of things.

“I can hear it,” the Dean said, as if she had picked up on her unspoken impertinence, as well as her distrust, and felt the need to alleviate them while explaining herself. “You were very quiet at lunch. You see, I have been around young ladies a long time. I know when one is not feeling well, as I could when I came calling on you last summer, when you were left all alone in your room with that injured ankle while all the others were enjoying themselves outside.”

The Dean stopped there, but she gave her a quick knowing look that immediately shot hot red up into J.J.’s cheeks and dropped her embarrassed eyes into her lap.

I knew, I knew, I knew Teddy and I hadn’t gotten away with it.

Thankfully, the Dean then switched tracks to one that took them away from the route that was so close, personal, and uncomfortable.

“I assume you came in here to play the piano?”

Her mortified heart racing with relief, J.J. gratefully answered. “Yes, I did. It was a pretty busy morning for me with the flight, getting unpacked, and all. After lunch, I needed to wind down some.”

As she was answering her, J.J. noticed the Dean began silently surveying the room, taking in even the decorative pattern in the ceiling plaster. It was if she hadn’t ever been in there before. Then it occurred to J.J. that perhaps the Dean hadn’t; what reason would she have had to come in there?

The woman’s eyes momentarily flitted over to that painting on the back wall before they finally returned to her. “This is such a lovely room, Justine. So well appointed. I am sure that it is very relaxing for you to be here, among your grandmother’s things, playing  her piano. That certainly is a beautiful instrument. Imported from Germany, I’m told.”

Afraid that the Dean was attempting to segue back into talking about her grandmother, J.J. spoke right up, keeping them in the place where they were. “The acoustics in this room are excellent. My grandfather told me it was specifically altered to facilitate the piano, the sound, I mean. It’s- I love- I need pure, true sound when I play. Yes, this is a wonderful atmosphere in which to enjoy what I’m doing.”

Dean Marchand reached across to briefly touch her spider-like fingers to the back of her hand as it rested on the arm of her chair. To not reflexively recoil or snatch her hand back took a conscious effort on J.J.’s part.

“You have quite a vocabulary for such a young girl, and you are well-spoken. Jennifer and, I assume, Patricia have done well by you.”

And my Daddy. Don’t try leaving him out.

She wasn’t sure if that was what she was hearing, but that was how it initially registered. Dean Marchand had grown up in a time and within a culture that ingrained class-consciousness into its people. So had her grandfather, and every now and then he still had his moments. How they felt and thought wasn’t a thing they could help; it was who they were. She understood that tendency to exclude in them and where it came from, but that didn’t mean she had to buy into it.

“Thank you. For all of us,” she replied, clearly seeing her father in her mind as she said it.

The Dean smiled as she sat up a bit, inclining her body in her direction. “Listen, it was not my intention to put you off doing what you came to do. But I wonder- I wonder if I may ask something of you?”

J.J. tipped her head to one side, waiting for the request. Dreading it.

“Would you mind very much if  I stayed and listened? I love the piano, too. I once played, but that was a very long time ago. My life took another turn, and I left that part of me behind. I have forgotten all that I ever knew of notes, and scales, and such, at least as it applies to playing. These fingers have grown too stiff to be any good at it now anyway. But I do still love to listen.”

Surprised by what was asked, J.J. was also relieved by it. She didn’t mind accommodating her in that; she was accustomed to having people around when she played and actually enjoyed an audience in most cases. But she thought it only fair that she issue warning because she had no intention of switching up for her guest.  After all, she was at home and comfortable; it was the Dean who was visiting, and the Duchess was no where around to make her do otherwise.

“I mostly play jazz and R&B, old school pop, or some mild country, even some gospel, but I don’t do classical. I mean, I can play it, but I don’t as a rule when I’m playing for myself.”

Dean Marchand shrugged her shoulders. “Well, that is a very good thing. You see, I cannot say that I am very knowledgeable about rhythm and blues. I do enjoy some popular music. Country, mild or wild, is not to my taste, but I do definitely prefer jazz to classical.”

Then the old woman winked at her in a way that caught her off guard and made her smile. As she got up to move to the piano bench, J.J. could feel the top layer of frost on the wall of defensiveness she’d built begin to melt some.

As old as she is, if she knows what ‘R&B’ and ‘pop’ stands for, and she likes jazz for real, maybe she isn’t all that bad….

_______________________________________________________

Pat woke to a bulky, dark, blurred figure directly in front of her. It took a moment for it all to come back. Jennifer, the cat, Marnie, Mrs. Carmichael, the room spinning, herself in his arms being carried up the stairs.

Carried up the stairs by a man… another first in over a half century of living. Despite everything, life kept serving up new firsts.

Rubbing her eyes to clear them as well as her head, a dozing Bill came into clear view. With his head resting in his hand, that elbow propped by the arm of the chair, he continued to softly snore as she attempted to ease herself into a sitting position while trying not to rouse him. Her efforts; however, proved unsuccessful as he jerked to sudden wakefulness. He had always been an extremely light sleeper; he said it came from being a single parent for so long. She felt sorry for him, his back, and his neck, sitting all hunched over in that chair as he was.

“For Pete’s sake, why didn’t you get over into the bed if you were so tired?”

He shook his head as he yawned. “Not my bed.” Raising his arms, he stretched them out, all the way down to the fingers. “Plus I didn’t think that was where you wanted me.”

Raising herself up on one elbow, it registered; they weren’t in her bedroom in Manhattan. He was not supposed to be there. “I didn’t invite you to this house, but I see you came here just the same.”

“Yeah, I did. You’ve been avoiding me. I came to find out for myself why that is.”

“You could have phoned me for that. You didn’t have to track me down.”

“I’m grown. I make my own decisions, and tracking you down is what I decided to do.”

“Why? What for? What did you hope to accomplish?”

“Well, I didn’t come here to fight with you, that’s for sure. But I gotta tell you, Pat Hamilton, you and that nasty, ungrateful attitude of yours are pissing me off right now.”

Not waiting for her to respond to that, he got up from the chair so abruptly that it rocked, almost tipping over. He went around it and through the door to the dressing room.

She assumed he was angry and to get away from her for the moment, had chosen use the bathroom, which was on the other end of the dressing room. Bill was nosy and not above taking the liberty of giving a strange place an unauthorized once-over to get his bearings. She figured in the time that she had been asleep and unaware, he had been all through that suite and made himself familiar with its logistics, thus his knowledge of the location of the facilities. But he returned to the bedroom too quickly to have done what she suspected. Instead, he carried the garment and cosmetic bags that she recalled seeing downstairs.

“Where is Marnie?”

He didn’t answer. From the head of the bed, she watched as at the foot of it, he silently unzipped the bag, and pulled out an outfit carefully packed inside. When the bag was empty, he draped it across the footboard. He looked back up, and the expression on his face was serious, definitely conveying to her that he was not in the mood for nonsense.

But then, neither was she.

“I want you to get dressed, Pat.”

“For what?”

“Just do it.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. Where’s Jen? Where’s Marnie, I asked you.”

“I said, get dressed.”

She folded her arms and lifted her chin. Nobody, not even Bill McDowell ordered her about. And how had he known where to come find her? She hadn’t ever brought him there.

“Who told you where I was? That damned Cordelia? I swear, I will have her head for this.”

“No, you won’t.” He trained his eyes right down into hers. “Why didn’t you want me to know where you were, Pat? Why are you hiding from me?”

“I wasn’t aware that I was.”

“You’re a liar.”

“Kiss my ass.”

It almost stopped her heart when instead of continuing the escalating argument, Bill instead hung his head. His shoulders slumped and he sighed.

William McDowell was not a man given to sighing or to conceding defeat. She hadn’t seen that resigned face on him since those weeks after T.J. died. Had she taken it too far?

“Me, of all people.” he said in a voice just above a whisper. “Why, Pat? I thought we had something here. Tell me. You owe me at least that much.”

She knew the answer. It was right there, and she wanted to give it to him, but the words stuck in her throat. All she could manage to choke past them was a feeble, “Bill?”

He sighed again, picking up her blouse to clumsily work at the buttons. “Pat, look, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. Just get dressed.”

“But why? For what? Where are we going?”

His dejected, sad expression gave way to one of annoyance- or maybe anger- she couldn’t tell. In her position in life, it was a look that wasn’t often directed to her, at least not by a man- and never by the only one she cared about. But she wasn’t a woman to be bossed by a man, or to be emotionally blackmailed into doing what a man wanted, and she would be damned if-

“Do you still love me, Patricia? Just bottom line, tell me that. Do you trust me at all?”

The words were leaving her mouth even before her brain could send the signal. “Yes. Of course, I do. You know full well that I do.”

He threw the blouse back down to the bed in a manner that startled her into drawing up her legs. “Then act like it, goddamit. Get up and get dressed.”

When he reached his hand out to her, she grasped it. Holding on as he pulled her up, she wondered why the hell she hadn’t had the confidence or the good sense to do that before.

_______________________________________________________

They were dropping off the last of the materials, when one of the extra staff came to inform Walter that there was an important call for him. Stephen thanked Walter for his assistance, and urged him to go and see who was phoning him. Left alone in the solarium, taking a visual inventory of everything, Stephen wondered if he was pushing too hard or moving too quickly. But then, there wasn’t a whole lot of time left for messing about or any remaining reason for leaving things the way that they were. Tomorrow wasn’t promised to anyone, an adage he had been living by for decades. In his book, it was best to take care of tomorrow today.

As he stood in the middle of the glass-walled room, noting the changes made there in the last year or so, hazy images from another time slowly formed in his mind.

A radiant redhead, she stood before those French doors watching as that smaller, more animated version of herself frolicked out on the lawn with the dogs and a stick.

“Suzanne, where are her shoes?”

Her back was to him, and she didn’t turn around to answer. “She does not need shoes when she plays there.”

“Don’t you worry about her feet? She is a girl. Her feet, her skin will become rough without shoes.”

“The earth is good to her, Stephen. Shoes are the invention of man to defy nature and confine the soul. She is but a baby now; she has so much time to worry about soft skin. That is something for men to love of her later. Look, she dances, my little cygnet now, but a  graceful swan one day. Her heart is so, so happy when her Papa is home.”

She would often tell him that about Jennifer, but he always believed that she said it to ease any guilt he felt over being away so much.

“I am but a novelty to her, darling. Simply a passing fancy. You are the constant in her life. You are who she needs.”

But she insisted, and in hindsight her words proved almost eerily prophetic, as if she had received some sign of how it would too soon be.

“Do not delude yourself, my love. A girl needs her mother, yes. But she really needs her father to help her become a woman for herself, not simply a woman for a man. You teach her by example, by your strong character. She learns so much from you; you just don’t know. It is you who will make her strong and smart about people and the world. It is of no matter that you are not always with her in body; your spirit dwells within her. It is you, Stephen.”

… extremely intelligent and terribly creative, her mind constantly spun plans, ideas, stories and anecdotes that she freely shared… clever. courageous, and wise, so wise, way beyond her years and experiences….

… physically stronger than she appeared; she managed horses, her business, her staff, and her home with an efficiency that she made seem effortless…

… all that hair, so thick and long he would get lost in it… her slim, firm body … holding her close as they stood together in front of those French doors watching the child out on the lawn… their child….

I should have been home more often with her… with them…

… how I wish…..

The years had passed, and there would be no going back. Time had taught that all one could do was press on.

A lot of water had flowed under the assortment of bridges they encountered, but left on their own, he and Jennifer had crossed them together. In the beginning, it took pulling her to get her to come with him. Then for a while, he found himself chasing her to keep hold of her. But the walls of silence and censure had completely come down, and at this leg of the journey they were in synch, father and daughter, and the family they had assembled.

For a long moment, he stood there reflecting on the circle of life, how no matter what happened or what changes occurred in the interim, things really did have a way of coming all the way back around.

Satisfied that all that would be needed for the job was there in the room, he started back into the main part of the house.

Mindful of Dean Marchand’s eyes on her, J.J. began by running scales. First major, then switching to minor, moving from those to a chronological, rapidly ascending then descending, and back up again. Becoming enveloped in sound and the feel of the ivories beneath her fingertips, the woman behind her slowly faded farther and farther away from her immediate consciousness.

Allowing her mind to speak directly with her fingers, she smoothly segued from that last set of scales into a tune she had come to love….

Stephen passed through the kitchen, asking that a pot of hot tea be delivered to his study where he planned to read for a while after he came back down from checking on Justine. She hadn’t said anything about it, and neither had Jonathan, but when she hugged him upon getting out of the car that morning, her cheeks were too warm and despite the cold air, too red for the short time she was outside. At lunch, she had been unusually subdued. He thought at first that it might be due to the presence of Agnes and her sister, Belinda. Being a respectful, well-mannered girl, it was her nature and in her training to defer to the adults in whose presence she might find herself. But then he noticed Rosa, as she was placing the food on the table, slip to her what appeared to be some throat lozenges and Jonathan silently thanking her for doing so.

Justine’s predisposition for catching colds in late fall, early winter went all the way back to her infancy. It seemed to be something she inherited from her father, who for as long as he’d been in the family, caught at least one bad cold every year. They rarely happened to Jennifer, although, since that time she had to be hospitalized for pneumonia, she sometimes suffered from trouble with her sinuses.

Being stricken in that manner had been a fluke for her. In general, Jennifer was rarely ill. Anemia had been a problem for her back when she was a teenager, but it somehow righted itself in her young adulthood. Now Justine was showing signs of having inherited it, although thanks to further research and modern medicine, hers was better managed. That was something passed down to them from Suzanne.

Funny, all the things that went into a child’s make-up, the traits and quirks acquired from both branches of the lineage. However, one needed to have the whole picture in order to know with what the body was working.

He hadn’t ever spoken on it; it wasn’t directly his business, but it secretly worried him that Justine only had knowledge of the maternal side of her family. At one time, the absence of Jonathan’s known ancestry bothered him only because as his father-in-law, he didn’t know enough about him and couldn’t find out, no matter how hard he had tried or how deeply he attempted to dig. But with Justine’s birth, that concern had since changed from mere curiosity to more real concerns, such as her medical history. Health issues left a trail that could help direct those who came along the path later. Justine’s assigned path wasn’t quite complete.

And what of that of her children? He wondered if her parents ever considered that future part of it.

Well, it wasn’t as if anyone could do anything about it. The boy’s records were sealed- tightly so. Early in the marriage Jonathan and Max, his childhood guardian, made it very clear to him and to Jennifer, and later on Jonathan reiterated it to Justine that he was not interested in breaking that seal.

But was that fair to Justine?

But then, he figured, he could only do what he- her only grandparent- could do for her.

Rounding the corner that would take him to the elevator, faint strains of piano music met his ear, and he smiled to himself. That rascal should have been upstairs, resting, but evidently she had crept down to the music room where she had to have seen it. If she was in there, playing the piano as she often did when she was visiting, she must be all right with it.

I wonder if she went around that corner when she was upstairs.

She did. She is my grandchild.

Perhaps that was the reason for her quiet at lunch- on top not feeling well. That one was inquisitive and daring; she wouldn’t hesitate to conduct an investigation of her own, if the opportunity to do so presented itself. And she wouldn’t speak on her findings to just anyone. If she had gone around that corner and seen what had been done, she was likely still processing it. And she was probably waiting for her mother to get there.

With the need to go upstairs removed, he detoured from the elevator and started for the front. Belinda Smythe, Agnes’ sister, called out from somewhere behind him.

“Mr. Edwards.”

She always called him “Mr. Edwards” even though he had repeatedly given her permission to call him by his first name. After all, she was residing on the grounds of his estate, was in and out of his house almost daily, and she was no longer just the woman who once managed his daughter’s daily activities at school. They were now friends.

He turned around, waiting for her catch up to him.

“Still skinny and plain,” he assessed in his head as he watched her approach. “but as nice as she can be. Getting her to the States was the best thing that could have happened to her.”

Decades before, she had still been in Wales. Seventeen at the time, she was entangled in a brief, but extremely abusive, forced marriage to a much older man. At the time, he had reconnected with Agnes, having enrolled Jennifer at Gresham Hall where Agnes was the lower school’s headmistress. Upon learning from a friend of the family of her paternal half-sister’s plight, Agnes sent a plea to him at his flat in London where he had since set up permanent residence, begging him to check on her.

It still made his stomach turn. Pitiful. How anyone, any man could do that to a young girl….

Using his influence to get the proper papers in order, he and his men went to the village and set up surveillance, lying in wait for the opportune moment. When the husband left for work, thinking he was locking her in, they made their move, making quick work of the crudely erected barriers. They found Belinda bruised, browbeaten, and mentally defeated to the point that she was trembling, almost too terrified to speak. Especially so once they broke in. But upon hearing Agnes’ name, she left with them without question, without even packing a bag.

Taking her first to London to clean her up and to purchase a few things to allow her to properly travel, he dispatched her straight to Massachusetts and Gresham Hall where she remained with Agnes’ until the previous summer when they moved onto Briarwood. Belinda hadn’t had the benefit of his and Agnes’ more elite formal and higher levels of education, but she had proven to be innately brilliant, an excellent leader and teacher who had a natural way with children. She doted on her older sister, whose professional affairs and personal well-being she had made her own personal life mission.

“Have you seen Agnes? I was in the kitchen with Rosa; she was showing me how she makes those rum balls. When we finished, I went to look for Agnes to take her back home, thinking she was waiting in the parlor with you, but she was not. I thought perhaps she was elsewhere in the house with you.”

“Not with me,” Stephen answered. “I haven’t seen her since lunch. But I may have an idea where she might have gone, and with whom she might be at the moment.”

____________________________________________________________

Not wishing to arrive completely unannounced, Jennifer called ahead. She clicked off from her party just as the limo turned onto County Road.

Not a lot had changed over the years in rural Hillhaven. It was still a quiet place, its rustic charm enhanced by the soft sloping of low, rolling hills, the feature for which the area was named. It was rare to see people out and about, but one might glimpse the occasional chimney or the roof tiles of a house set closer to the road than most. Since it was horse country, it was more common to see a few of them idly grazing behind the uniform white wooden road fences.

Transience, a thing more common in upscale Los Angeles and maybe even Manhattan was largely absent in affluent Hillhaven. Most of the widely scattered estates were owned by the same families who originated them, which included her father’s home, Briarwood. Because of that, everyone in the area knew of each other, but in general, people tended to keep to themselves, conducting their own affairs and going about their own lives, coming together as neighbors only by invitation or when circumstances called for it. When the older ones passed on or decided to scale back and move to less expansive habitats, in most cases the younger ones took over, either moving in entirely or using the place as a part-time home.

Gazing through the limousine window, she was comforted by the familiar, tranquil countryside. After the storm of her morning, it was the kind of calm she needed.

A cancellation allowed the pilots to get their slot moved up, landing them at Dulles sooner than originally scheduled. For that she was happy. When traveling, she was always anxious to get to her destination and into the nature of her trip. She was sure that the girls were just as keen to get back with each other; there was a lot those two needed to share. The one in the car with her had all morning to process and catalog the details of her adventures. At that point, she was likely close to splitting wide open from holding it all in. The one at the house, waiting for them to get there so that she could find out what was going on, was probably running to the windows every five minutes, looking for the car.

For herself, she just wanted to get there; she wanted her father. She was tired and needed his fortifying presence.

Of course, he would be full of questions about Pat, for which she would have very few answers, even less than what she actually knew. On that topic, Pa would have to be handled with care. It would require pulling out her best poker face and evasiveness tactics because he could spot a bad cover-up from a mile away. According to Walter, the 911 close call with Pat had almost put him back into the hospital. It would not do to get him upset over something that as far as she knew, was still up in the air. Nothing definite had been established. She hadn’t heard from Pat or Bill. The ball was in their court; they would all have to wait for them to serve.

But once she was finished with her father, she would be looking for that other fortifying presence, the one with the strong arms that promised to be waiting for her when she arrived.

____________________________________________________________

Jonathan was pleased with himself as he was headed back to Hillhaven. All the errands had been accomplished with an efficiency more impressive than usual, even for him. Organization, planning, and execution had always been his strong suits, but this time it paid off in spades. Everything was done, all the details coordinated, and it was done in enough time for him to arrive at the house before Jennifer. Since he was way ahead of schedule, he had arranged for the taxi to take him to Pat and Bill’s first to pick up his belongings. That would be cleaning up the last of his to-do list completely.

Well, other than checking on his daughter.

She had given it her best, pleading, fussing, then pouting to get him to give in and let her go with him. Denying her was hard, but leaving her behind was the best thing for her. She needed to rest and not let that cold get a good grip on her if she wanted to get the most out of her weekend. Playing the heavy with J.J. had never been easy for him, even though he didn’t hesitate to do so when the rare situation called for it. Over the years, Jennifer had solidly established her position as the head disciplinarian in their home.

While running around the city, he had been checking his phone, assuring himself that he hadn’t missed a vibration, and thereby possibly allowed a call from Bill to get by. Pulling it out one more time, he saw that Bill still hadn’t called. He wondered if Jennifer had heard anything from Pat. The time on the display indicated that she and Marnie were probably boarding the plane and if so, her  phone would be turned off.

No sense trying her now. She’ll be here soon enough. Maybe by then she will have heard something.

He had heard from Peter, Bill’s son. He and his family were in route and would be arriving that evening. Peter mentioned having had a somewhat terse conversation with his father earlier that morning, and that Bill said that he wasn’t sure if he and Pat would be there to meet them, but that they should make themselves at home regardless.

“There’s nothing wrong, is there, Uncle Jonathan?”

“Nobody’s said anything definitive to me about there being anything wrong. What makes you ask?”

“Pop sounded kind of funny, like he couldn’t really talk at the time. I tried Pat’s phone after I spoke with him, but she didn’t pick up.”

“Well then, maybe they were busy. Otherwise engaged, so to speak.”

“Aw Jeez, Uncle Jonathan. Don’t go there. That’s my Pop. And Pat. And, aw jeez…”

“You’re awfully squeamish for a guy with four kids. Look, all I know for sure is that the two of them are together.”

“Then I guess I don’t need to be concerned for them. They’re okay. I’ll see you later on?”

For sure, he would be there to meet Peter, Lisa, and the boys. Someone needed to be there. That strong, nagging hunch of his said that Peter’s father and stepmother would not.

Like Jennifer’s father, Bill and Pat had put on extra staff for the holiday, and even more were slated to come in for the weekend. Everything was ready to accommodate Bill’s son and his family. Their physical comfort would not be a concern. Answering any questions they might have should their absent hosts not show up in a timely manner could prove a little more tricky.

Cross that bridge when you come to it, Jonathan. You’ve always been good at winging it. If Jennifer is with you, it’ll work out.

The thought of Jennifer, her innate charm, and her ability to put others at ease made him smile. He missed her. Hearing her voice earlier had somewhat quieted that hum of longing in his heart, but not quite silenced it. That wouldn’t happen until she was in his arms again.

County Road. At the sign, the taxi diverted from the main highway.

Even though it had been given that public-sounding name, it might as well have been a private drive. The only cars that used it were usually those headed to one of the estates down that way. Once a thoroughfare, it was now a sort of bypass or service road since the highway had come through several years back. From the direction he was traveling, he would be passing right by Briarwood to reach that little cut-through road that was a straighter shot to Bill and Pat’s place than coming in to it from the highway. Taking in the countryside, he longed for some of the green of California. Hillhaven was always quiet and picturesque, but in November, it was cold. With the foliage asleep for the winter, all that was left were austere, monotonous expanses of  brown and greenish-gray. As if to complete his perceptions, feathery flakes whirled like confetti on the other side of his window.

Ahead, in the distance, he noticed a car, a limo. With nothing else to distract him, he focused on it, idly wondering into which drive it would turn. Apparently, his taxi was traveling at a slightly faster speed than the other car because they were closing in on it. When the limo slowed and made a graceful turn into the driveway to Briarwood, he checked his watch again, murmuring to himself, “No way.”

But the escalating vibrato of ‘Hart’-hum was telling him something different. He leaned forward to insure that the driver heard him. “Ah, turn in there.”

“But that’s the Edwards’ place, sir.”

“Yeah, I know. Change in plans. Turn in right behind that car.”

___________________________________________________________

Belinda slowed to almost a stop. “Who is playing, Mr. Edwards?”

Stephen was amused. Of course the sound would surprise her; although she knew it was there, she hadn’t ever heard the piano being played before.

“That would be my granddaughter.”

“I thought she went upstairs to rest after lunch. She seemed tired.”

“Playing is her way of relaxing.”

The melodious tones grew clearer as Stephen and Belinda walked the length of the center hall. As he listened, trying to make out the vaguely familiar tune, he inwardly smiled in appreciation. That Justine had inherited her grandmother’s hands was a fact that went far deeper than appearance.

Unlike most of her other possessions, he had not removed Suzanne’s piano from the main part of the house after her death, despite the fact that he didn’t play, and Jennifer no longer resided there. For years, even after his return to set up residence at Briarwood, the music room remained closed. Climate-controls and heavy dust covers preserved the precious instrument inside. For some reason, he felt compelled to keep up its maintenance. He had no idea that another would be coming along who would appreciate the baby grand and play it the way it was meant to be played, making his efforts completely worthwhile,

As a girl, Suzanne had studied music with the thought of perhaps becoming a concert pianist, an aspiration later tabled in favor of marriage, motherhood, and other interests. She remained an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, and as such, she had been raising Jennifer to be just as well-rounded and cultivated as she had been.

From the time Jennifer was very young, along with her equestrian pursuits, school, and studying ballet, she had also taken instruction in piano. Of course she had done well with it; Jennifer usually succeeded at the things she seriously undertook, but for her, music had simply been one more thing she was learning. For her mother; however, it had been a gift, a natural part of who she was. Apparently it was the same with Justine. Like her grandmother, when Justine played, it was apparent that it came more from her heart than from the scripted notes. Most of the time, she eschewed sheet music. In fact,  he had many times observed her playing with her eyes closed, appearing temporarily lost in a sort of rapture… just as her grandmother used to do.

Approaching the end of the front hall, he noticed Walter crossing the foyer, going toward the front door.

“Do we have guests?”

Hearing his voice, Walter stopped and turned to him as he and Belinda approached. “Not quite guests, sir, but someone is at the door.

Stephen waved his hand. “Well then, go on, go on. Don’t let me stop you.”

The sensors embedded in the front gate posts signaled the house, specifically alerting Walter’s phone, of arrivals to Briarwood. He expected it was Jonathan, returned from whatever pressing business he had in the city. That boy almost always had business somewhere; Jonathan, like Patricia, had connections everywhere it seemed.

Patricia. He had been trying to put her and his worry over her away until he actually saw her, or he saw Jennifer, if they both didn’t turn up at the same time.

Leaving Walter to his duties, Stephen escorted Belinda past the front door to the other side of the house where the music room was located. By that time, he had put a name to the tune Justine was playing. It was a very old one that, over time, he had heard sung in various ways by many different artists, but the basic tune and its message had remained a constant. It only mildly surprised him that she would be playing that song; he fully accepted his granddaughter’s old soul, but it did cause him to wonder some.

Is she perhaps daydreaming about that boy who is coming to see her?

No, darling, he has not ‘at last come along’.

Reaching their destination, he and Belinda slowed at the door, taking in the sight.

Justine was still playing, but she couldn’t see them watching her do so. Her eyes were closed as her fingers sauntered across the ivories and her toes regulated the tones. For the moment, she was lost to the rest of the world.

Seated farther inside the room, her hands folded across her midsection, her head bowed, Agnes had been lulled into a post-luncheon nap.

______________________________________________________________

With Pat on her mind and what she was going to say to her father about her, the limo was almost at the house before Jennifer noticed the taxi coming up the drive behind her. However, the tinted rear window of her car kept her from being able to make out who was in it. Logic said it couldn’t be, but for a moment she wondered if- she closed her eyes and wished that Pat and Bill had somehow made it to Maryland.

Who else could be arriving to her father’s house in a taxi? Anyone, she concluded before turning back around. Pa knew so many people; it was anybody’s guess who might be visiting him.

As the limo rolled to a stop, Marnie’s eyes flickered open from where she had been dozing on the ride in from the airport.  She was still clutching the handle of the tote she had been keeping next to her ever since she left New York.

As if, little girl….

“You probably need to get a proper nap before dinner,” she advised the yawning teenager. “You’ve been catnapping all day.”

Marnie sat all the way up, rolling her upper torso and shoulders to stretch them out. “I am kind of tired, Mrs. H. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to sleep for a while. I need to unpack, and I want to take a shower and change clothes. I’ve been in this same outfit all day.”

Not to mention that her partner wouldn’t be letting her go to sleep. There was too much J.J. Hart would want to know, and Marnie Benson wouldn’t be getting any rest at all until she divulged every single detail of her experiences during their time apart.

Walter was already standing outside the door, waiting for them. She could see him focusing on their car as if he wasn’t really concerned about the one coming in behind them. Of course, it stood to reason that he would be anticipating whoever that was. Nobody coming past those posts at the end of the drive got past Walter’s notice.

Their driver got out and was coming to open her door as Walter approached Marnie’s side.

She was reaching for her own purse and her carry-on bag when her door opened. Expecting the driver to be standing on the other side, holding it for her, she was surprised when before she could get a leg out, a hand reached down for hers. The gold signet ring on the pinkie flashed, igniting that spark in her heart.  “Jonathan!”

His smile immediately lightened her pensive mood as he took her hand to help her out.

“What a surprise! I wasn’t expecting you to be here.”

“I’m everywhere you are,” he breathed into her neck. “You know that,”

Wrapping her arms around him, she melted into his kiss, accepting the deep affection and realizing through the resultant haze just how tired she was. To be able to stay as they were, or to go into the house and head right up the stairs to lie down for a while together and talk would have been excellent.

But Marnie was surely watching, and Pa was inside, without a doubt waiting.

Coats were shed, hugs and greetings went around, and the bags were taken right up to the respective bedrooms. After remaining in the foyer with the adults for a respectable amount of time, the girls excused themselves and headed up the stairs together on the pretense of “putting Marnie’s things away”.

_____________________________________________________________

They were in Marnie’s bedroom with the door shut before either of them actually said a word to each other.

Marnie immediately headed for the bed, She spun around and flopped backward onto it, kicking off her shoes. “Da-a-a-amn, J. I thought I’d never get here in one piece. You just don’t know.”

Instantly intrigued by the implications she could hear, J.J. plopped down beside her. “What? What don’t I know? Tell me.”

“Gir-r-r-rl.” Marnie half sat up to reach into the tote bag she had slung onto the bed before following it with her body. She pushed the camera into J.J.’s hands. “I got it back. Your mother had it, but I got it back from her.”

J.J.’s eyes widened, and as if the camera had turned into a hot coal and was searing into her flesh, she tossed it away from her, onto the bed. “You stole it?! She had it, and you stole it back? You have lost your mind!”

“It was an impulse, J.,” Marnie said as she dropped back down to the bed. “And I didn’t steal it. It was mine in the first place. I can’t steal what’s mine.”

“Whatever. We have had this discussion before when you were stealing your mother’s car, claiming that you were just borrowing it. You justify this camera thing in your mind however you want. She’s gonna kill you regardless.”

Marnie twisted away from J.J. and lay back down, crossing an arm over her forehead. “Look, I saw it sitting there, and- and I couldn’t help it. I took it. I put down it in my purse while she was in the bathroom getting her clothes on. All the way back from Long Island, while we were back at Aunt Pat’s getting our stuff, all the way to the airport, on the plane, and all the way here I was so-o-o-o-o scared she was going to hem me up about it. I was with her, all by myself; I was so scared. I kept pretending to be asleep so she wouldn’t bring it up and make me have to lie.”

“She would have known good and well that you were lying.”

“I know. That’s what I was so worried about.”

“She didn’t say anything about it to you at all?”

“No. I guess with everything else that had happened, that camera was the farthest thing from her mind. I don’t think she even remembered about it.”

Marnie sat up again to pull her sweater off over her head, after which she tossed it onto the bed. “Did you see the way she looked at your grandfather and Dean Marchand when he came out of the music room with her on his arm?”

J.J. picked up the sweater and neatly folded it, but she didn’t answer the question.

“Dang, I have to pee,” By that time Marnie was wiggling.. “I haven’t been since we got back to Manhattan. At the airport and on the plane, I was too petrified that she would look in the bag and see the camera while I was in the restroom.”

“So, why didn’t you just take the bag with you to the restroom?”

“I didn’t think of it,” Marnie got up and tight-leg-twisted her way toward the door to the bathroom. “I- I just couldn’t think of anything except playing asleep and keeping her off me.”

She didn’t bother to close the door, and she continued to talk through what she was doing. “I just hope to God that the Duchess doesn’t remember about it.”

J.J. was convinced that the Duchess hadn’t forgotten.

Even with everything else going on that night, J.J. figured if her mother had the presence of mind to pick the camera up and take it with her, she must have suspected them of doing something with it that she needed to check out. In all the time that she had that camera to herself, she would have done just that. Pat might have had issues, and she might have gone to Pat to see what was wrong with her, but there was one thing that Jennifer Hart could be counted upon to do no matter what else might be going on: keep check on her daughter.

Turning the camera upside down, J.J. slid open the proper compartment and at the sight, her eyes squeezed shut as she wheezed aloud, “Aw, naw. Jee-e-e-eez.”

“What?” Marnie said from the other room. “What’s the matter?”

She took it.”

Water ran and a couple of seconds later, Marnie returned to the room and the bed. “Took what, J.?”

With a shaky finger, J.J. slid the cover back into place. “The memory card,” she said as she handed the camera back to Marnie. ” She’s got the memory card.”

 

Continue on to “Promises: Part Eight”

One Response to Promises: Part Seven

  1. Louise says:

    I love the stories, but does it have to take so long to get to the point. I have been reading about 3 chapters, and still haven’t gotten to what is wrong with Pat. Please next stories. Get to the point quicker. I am about to give up on this story…..

    Like

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