Close to the Hart: Part Five

Please Note: This story may contain scenes or references which may not be suitable for all readers. If you are underage or offended by material of a sexually explicit nature, please do not proceed.

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 Part Five

J.J. Hart stared out of the window of the waiting room, down to the courtyard below. As her eyes took in the people milling about down there, her mind replayed the events of her recent days. The situation and all that came with it, despite its rocky, frightening beginning, was turning out all right. It had been less than a week, but so much had gone down in that short span of time that it felt a whole lot longer.

It was Friday, the Friday after that terrible Saturday when her father fell seriously ill while co-piloting for her. They were returning from their ranch in Colorado, on their way home to Los Angeles, when he became short of breath and began complaining of severe chest pains. Believing that he was having a heart attack, she radioed in a medical emergency, and was allowed to land at the airport in Las Vegas where the medical technicians met them, and they were transported to a nearby hospital.

That next day, Sunday, after arguing with- actually, more like confronting- her mother in that same waiting room, she took off in anger on her own. She returned to the villa where she and her mother were staying, went online and booked a flight. After absconding from the villa in a taxi, leaving behind a note for her mother to let her know where she was, she flew to her Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill, who just happened to have been spending some time at Uncle Bill’s spread in Reno.

On the following Tuesday, somewhat remorseful after mentally sorting things out and getting the silent treatment from her mother, she requested to return to Vegas to make amends. Aunt Pat agreed to allow her to go back only if she accompanied her, which was what they did. It turned out that Uncle Bill had stolen off to Vegas earlier that same morning, so it wound up being all of them there. Getting back with her mother hadn’t been easy. It took a long night of explaining, venting, crying, and talking to finally work things out. But in the end, thankfully, they had worked out.

It wasn’t until late Wednesday morning that she saw her father again. He was still in the hospital, but he appeared so much better than when she last saw him. Even though they had spoken by phone during their time apart, she hadn’t seen him in the flesh since that first Saturday when she went around to see him in Intensive Care after being told that she couldn’t.

Despite everything, she remained steadfast on her position on that subject. Nobody kept her from her father. Or her mother, should that be the case. No-bo-dy.

Since then, his improvement allowed his doctors to move him into a private room, a more natural and comfortable setting in which to visit him. It wasn’t until that morning in the room with him again that she realized just how much she loved and missed him. Actually laying eyes on him and being able to touch him meant a whole lot more than speaking to him by phone. Being stuck in the hospital five days, he had missed a couple of haircuts. His hair grew fast, and normally it was cut twice a week. Before coming to the hospital, they had been at the ranch for a few days, so it didn’t get cut then either. He also hadn’t had a proper shave. Her mother told him that he looked scruffy, but they disagreed. He said he felt comfortable like that. She thought her father’s rugged, shaggy look was very cute on him.

He tried to go off on her about what she’d done, the running away thing, but too much time had lapsed. He wasn’t angry enough about it any more, if he had ever really been mad about it all, so his fussing kind of fizzled out before he could get started with it. Him, she hadn’t been too worried over in terms of being in trouble. He understood a lot more than he let on about, and most of his fussing, when he did it, was more for the benefit of her mother than it was out of genuine anger on his part. In the end, he asked for a kiss, told her not to do that again, and that was it.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it when her mother mouthed the word, “Putty” at him. Whatever.

And then there was the mystery behind Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill’s conversation about Dr. Philips being Daddy’s son. Having sort of unintentionally eavesdropped to find out about it, she got stuck with a story, the details of which she couldn’t go to anyone for clarification without giving herself up. But that had since been cleared up for her, too. What a tale that had been.

More and more, she was finding out that the Harts certainly lived an eventful life before they had a kid of their own to take care of. Her mother said that she had been the one to cut back on the chances of them getting caught up in those “things”, as she called them, once they had a child. She thought it would be irresponsible to expose a kid to the type of drama they used to get into. Little did she know that the kid she so wanted to protect from too much adversity would come fully equipped with drama and “things” of her own.

At that thought, J.J. had to stop and snicker to herself.

She said I wasn’t quite what she expected … I’ll bet I’m not….

…to her, I must be a first-class trip… Daddy in a dress… sometimes… when she makes me wear one….

What wouldn’t she give to have been there to see the look on her father’s face the night that little boy showed up claiming to be Jonathan Hart, Jr.?  Her mother’s face, too, as far as that went.  Daddy said he knew all the time that the boy wasn’t his.

Yeah, right.

There had to have been a moment, a second, an instant, right up front, where he wasn’t all that sure.  The pictures in the albums didn’t lie. As cute as Daddy was when he was younger, he had to have been out there, sowing some… spreading it around… fulfilling fantasies…

Cute, smart, and had money, too? The women had to have been all over him like bees on honey. She could just see the faces flipping through his mind at that moment like playing cards shuffling through his nimble, skilled fingers.

… if I could have been a fly on that staircase wall that night…

…talk about your Kodak moment….

Her own mischievous grin reflected back to her in the window glass, amusing her even more.

The last time she was relegated to that waiting room by hospital personnel, it angered and upset her. This time she didn’t mind being made to wait. When her mother and father finished talking with Dr. Samuels, they would all be finished with that hospital. That knowledge made patience a little easier to come by on this go around.

Because of her father’s tendency toward hardheadedness, her mother said the three of them would not be going home to Los Angeles as a family unit right away. Once they were back in California, she was being sent home, where Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill awaited her at Willow Pond. Her mother’s plan called for Daddy recuperating with her somewhere else. Where, she didn’t say, and for once, being left out didn’t bother her. As long as her father was going to be all right, and she and her mother were no longer at odds, she didn’t care where they went. School resumed on Wednesday of the next week, and she wanted to spend some leisure time at home with her friends before that.

Marnie and the car got early parole off their recent lockdown. According to the numerous phone calls received, delicious plans were already in the works for the upcoming weekend. No way did she want to miss any of that. Aunt Pat could be tough, but unlike Jennifer Hart, she could be worn down. Plus, with Uncle Bill there, some of her focus would be directed to him and off of her, Marnie, and the car. Things were truly shaping up.

Life moving back to normal was like hitting the showers after running a particularly trying track meet or a tennis match played on a hot, humid day. It was refreshing and revitalizing to have it all over and done with. Everything was out in the open. Her mother now knew that she could fly planes, and that her father had been teaching her to do it most of her life. Rather than heart disease or a heart attack, Daddy’s illness turned out to be an unusual, but treatable virus, even though she suspected that he still had heart trouble of another kind.

The matter of her having read her mother’s journal had also been revealed and discussed. Daddy and Pa, her grandfather, always said that whatever got done in the dark had a way of coming to light, and in that case, it did. As it turned out, it hadn’t even been done in the dark. Her mother knew all along, but just hadn’t said. Even though she’d done it several years back, it still shamed her when she thought about having done it. Four years into it herself, she now fully understood the very private act of journaling.

It was confounding. Somehow, some way, the Duchess always knew when her daughter did wrong things. But she said the wrong things didn’t change that she still loved and wanted her child, and she always would. So profound….

And that was a good thing, too.

With two more years at home to go, there were probably a few more wrong things to come for which that unconditional love and acceptance might be needed. It was reassuring to know she could count on it.

“Hi, J.J.”

She turned around to greet the owner of the voice.

“I was hoping you’d come with your mother this morning. I took a chance and drove over here to see. The nurses at the station told me you were down here.”

Her mother and father told her the story about him, but she hadn’t seen him since running into him on the past Sunday in the hospital lobby. Mornings and afternoons, the times when she was there, weren’t his shift. This wasn’t either, but there he was in the doorway, Dr. Philips, the man who had almost been her big brother, saying that he was looking for her.

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Dr. Samuels took his time before swiveling away from the data-filled computer screen and the open medical record before him. Clipboard in hand, he came face to face with the waiting couple.

Jonathan Hart lie on the bed, casually propped up by pillows. Except for shoes, he was fully dressed in street clothes. One hand rested atop the knee of a bent leg, the fingers of the other, entwined with his wife’s. Jennifer Hart, as unavoidably attractive and vigilant as ever, occupied her customary spot, the big chair right next to him.

“Mr. Hart, I’m going to go ahead and okay you for discharge this morning, but I really wish I could talk you into staying on another twenty-four hours. I’d be more comfortable with you having just one more day of guaranteed quiet bed rest here in the hospital. You’re doing fine, but it’s imperative that you ease, not jump, back into your regular routine. I could better monitor that if you were here.”

With his free hand, Hart brushed back hair from his forehead. Then he smiled, but the look in his eyes spoke before he did, preparing Dr. Samuels for what was coming.

“Thanks, but no thanks, Doctor. If I stay another day in this sensory deprivation chamber of a room, I’ll lose my mind. For me, this complete bed rest thing, alone in a twin bed, is a lot more stressful. No, I think I’d be more comfortable away from here, with my family and on my own home turf. I appreciate your concern and all that you’ve done for me, but if you say I’m at a place health-wise where I can leave here relatively safely, then that’s just what I’m going to do.”

“I’m afraid you won’t be able to fly yourself home, though, Mr. Hart. I’m grounding you for three months, pending a re-evaluation.”

As Hart sprang upright, Dr. Samuels’ own body involuntarily leaned in the opposite direction and didn’t stop until his back pressed against the edge of the counter, and it could go no farther. Mrs. Hart’s focus abruptly switched from him to her husband.

“I thought you told me that I didn’t have heart trouble,” Hart said. “I know FAA policy like the back of my hand. What I have isn’t chronic, is it? Why am I being grounded? I’ve never been grounded.”

“Darling,” Mrs. Hart said, placing her hand to his chest, “Please, hear the doctor out.”

At her touch, Hart relaxed somewhat, and allowed his body to fall back into the pillows, but the fire remained in his eyes.

“Mr. Hart, we have to be sure there was no further damage done to those valves. We also have to be as certain as we can that what happened isn’t likely to reoccur.”

“But is it chronic? Do I have heart disease? You told me it wasn’t, and I didn’t.”

“It wasn’t, and you don’t. In my opinion, it isn’t likely to, but we have to be sure what happened to you won’t happen again. You were fortunate this time. Your daughter was with you, and she was at the controls. The two of you might not have come out of this so well had it been the other way around. She’s a very bright and capable girl.”

Hart briefly looked to his wife, as if he were checking her reaction to what was said, before turning back to ask, “So what now? More pills? More food that tastes like cardboard? I can’t take any more water if you’re worrying about me resting. My legs are tired from running to the bathroom. Do I have to look forward to more sitting around like I’m ninety and decrepit?”

“Just the antibiotics, Mr. Hart. Until the prescription is exhausted. Just follow the instructions.”

Samuels stood and walked over to Mrs. Hart. Sticking some papers from the clipboard inside a pamphlet, he handed that and a brown bottle of pills down to her.

“I am also suggesting you lower the sodium in your diet and maybe a limit a few other things to keep a handle on that cholesterol. Mrs. Hart, those are my recommendations and some suggestions you might want to pass on to your cook. The antibiotic should be taken about thirty minutes before eating.”

He returned to the stool, conscious of the rather strange look she gave to her husband, and that Hart was still honed in on him, waiting, less than patiently, for further instructions. After he was seated, he went on with what he started before getting up.

“I see no need for any further medication at this time. I just want to be sure that the infection is completely cleared up. Leonard will see you in LA a week to check the status of the infection, if there still is any in your system. In the meantime, you don’t have to sit around like you’re ninety, although I have to say what with better medical care and greater focus on preventative medicine, that there are some pretty spry elderly people running around these days. I do strongly suggest that until you see your doctor in LA for clearance, you stay out of the office, take it easy, and give your body- and your wife- some rest.”

At the mention of his wife resting, Hart completely softened. He again reached for her hand, which he had released upon sitting up that first time.

“Aside from this setback, you’re in very good general physical condition, Mr. Hart. If you take your time, in time, you should be able to resume all of your normal activities without restriction. If all is in order on the re-eval, the temporary grounding won’t be reflected on your flight record.”

“All of them?” Hart inquired, indicating that his mind had moved past the flying issue. “All of my normal activities without restriction?”

Mrs. Hart lowered her captivating eyes to the papers in her lap.

Dr. Samuels wanted to laugh, at least to smile, but his professionalism prevented it. His many years of experience with many types of male cardiac patients and their dispositions told him that despite his age, Hart was still pretty virile. Continuing to consciously avert his eyes from Mrs. Hart’s toned, shapely legs and the fetching split in her skirt, he didn’t blame the man one bit for being concerned about that aspect of his life and checking on it.

“Yes,” was all he said. It was all he needed to say.

Priorities established, Hart then reaffirmed, “Three months, no flying?”

“If all goes well with the tests at that time.”

“And if so, nothing on my flight record.”

“Nothing.”

Hart turned to his wife. “Did you have any questions, darling?”

She shook her head. “No, I think it’s all been covered to your satisfaction.”

Hart sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed, his feet feeling for his shoes.

“Then let me sign whatever you have there, Doc, so we can get our kid and get the hell out of here like I wanted to do in the first place. Thanks for everything.”

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“My father told me you might come down to see me, Dr. Philips.” J.J. said to the man sitting in the chair next to hers after shaking his hand. “I was hoping that you would.”

“You were?” the doctor smiled. “But call me, John. You actually wanted to meet me?”

“Okay, John, it is. Of course, I wanted to meet you. After my parents told me about you, I had to. That had to really be something.”

“What? My being fooled into thinking I was your father’s son?”

“Not that part of it. I’m talking about how you met my parents way before I did. You actually met Max, and spent time with him and talked to him. You got to meet and spend time with the original Freeway. See, Max and Freeway died before I was born. I grew up with Freeway’s son, Junior, and his grandson. Now we only have the grandson. I call him Third. I’m talking about how you were in the original house, before it burned down. Daddy had the house rebuilt before I was born, so I’m living in the reasonable facsimile thereof.

I know it was awful how that happened to you, but Daddy told me all about you showing up, and how you got kidnapped from them and everything. He told me about the ransom, and how he had to come get you from that warehouse. Even though that was kind of tragic how it went down, being done by your real father and all, that was so cool how they found you and got you back, and then how your mother came back to you. I love stuff like that. I talk a lot, too, when I’m excited, as you can see.”

Amused, Dr. Philips sat back to take a good look at her. She was straightforward and blunt, almost painfully so, but her curiosity and concern came through as genuine. After spending some time with them on the preceding evenings, after they’d sent her home to eat so they could spend some quality time by themselves, he determined right off that both senior Harts were well represented in their daughter. For him, it was fascinating. She looked like her mother. Her facial expressions and her voice reminded him of Mrs. Hart, as well, but something in how she used her eyes and her overall manner was exactly like her father.

“You think all that’s exciting?” he said.

“Yeah! You came to them before me. You know so many things that I don’t know. I wish you’d tell me about them.”

“Like what?”

“Okay, like, what were my parents like? And Max? Do you remember? I know you were little, but you must remember something.”

Indeed he did remember. When they talked about her, Jonathan warned that if he chose to meet with her, she would be all over him with questions. He said it was okay to answer her truthfully. It took two days of working up his nerve to do so. Knowing that her father was being discharged that day, and that this would be his last chance, he made himself leave the apartment to come there. But being with her was proving a lot more comfortable than he imagined. In contrast to their previous brief encounters, this time she was relaxed, natural, and spontaneous, as if her father had done a good job of prepping her for meeting him, as well. He was more than ready to share his memories with her, in fact, he was happy to finally talk about it with someone who cared to hear and who might understand how he felt.

“All right. Where do you want me to start?”

She sat leaned in his direction. “At the beginning of course.”

“You know about how I came to think your father was my father. He told me that he explained that to you.”

“Yes.” she said. “You can go past that part.”

“Okay.” He sat back and folded his arms. “First we, my mother and I, all of a sudden moved from Chicago to California. She told me it was because she got a new job. We stayed with a friend of hers at first, and then moved to this apartment she got for us. I knew that California was where she told me my father lived, and when I asked her if I was going to finally meet him, she told me that I would. One night, she got me up and dropped me off at what she told me was my father’s home. There were these gates. They were huge, iron, and had a big “H” on them. It was in script.”

“Yep. It’s still like that.”

“I hadn’t ever been anyplace like that before. I remember wondering where the house was, and why I couldn’t see it. It was dark out, and I was a little nervous. I couldn’t figure out why she was taking me there in the middle of the night like that, but my mother told me that I was finally going to meet my father, and that was all I really cared about. You know, you sort of blindly do what your folks tell you when you’re young like that.

When we could see headlights coming, my mother kissed me real quick, put a paper in my hand to give to my father, and told me goodbye. She got in her car and drove away before the other car could get there. I thought it was strange that she didn’t stay to say anything to whoever was coming for me, but what could I do? She was gone, it was dark, and those gates were opening by themselves. It was almost like I was in a horror movie.”

J.J. laughed at that, making him laugh with her. When they recovered, he continued.

“This old guy gets out of the car, a yellow station wagon. He had on a bathrobe, and his hair was all over his head. He had kind of wild hair, red with white mixed in it, and he had a face like somebody you wouldn’t want to mess around with, like an old time Chicago or New York gangster or something, maybe. I was an only child then, with a working mother, so I spent a lot of time by myself or with sitters, watching TV.”

“Old black and white movies?” J.J. grinned.

“Yeah.” he answered. “They’re the best.”

“We have that in common.” She said. “Go ahead.”

“Like I said, it was the middle of the night, but he gets out, smoking this big, fat cigar that he doesn’t take out of his mouth when he talks to me.

He goes, “You the kid ringing the bell? I go, “Yes, are you Jonathan Hart?” He goes, “No, I’m Max. Is Jonathan Hart who you’re here to see?” I go, “Yes.” He asks me, “Where’re your folks?” I say to him, “I don’t know.”, because I don’t.

Then he put me in the car. It took such a long time to get up to the house that at first I was scared I was being kidnapped or something. I mean, the old guy looked so rough, and he had that voice.”

He noticed that she was leaned in even farther, practically over the arm of her chair. “What voice?”

“It was all gravely, like he drank hard liquor and smoked a whole lot in his life.”

“Good description.” she said, smiling. “I’ve heard tapes with him on it. His voice did sound like that. He lived in Brooklyn before he came to California. He had that kind of accent. In pictures, he did look kind of tough. ”

“But that was all deceiving. He was really a nice guy, J.J. He was very good to me while I was there with him. He was my “Uncle Max”.”

“I’m told he was good people. He and  Daddy went way back to when Daddy was a teenager. My parents loved him a lot. It’s one of those kinds of things I wish I could have done in my life. Met him, I mean. Tell me about meeting Daddy for the first time.”

“Well, we got to the house. On the outside, it looked like a library or something to me because it was so huge. I couldn’t believe that one person could own a house so big. I’d only ever lived in apartments, and a whole apartment building didn’t seem as big as that house.

Max gets me and my one plastic bag of stuff out of the car and takes me in. This lady in white was coming down this huge staircase, followed by this guy. She was very pretty, had red hair too, like yours, but a lot shorter and curlier. She kind of reminded me of a fairy or something.”

When J.J. snickered, he turned red. “I told you I was just a kid.”

“I see.” She laughed. “A fairy. Please. How old were you?”

“Anyway,” he smirked in embarrassment. “The guy, your father, was behind her. Before that moment, it never occurred to me that he might have a wife or a girlfriend. That kind of caught me off guard. She spoke to me first. She said, “Hi.” I said, “Hi”.”

While he was talking, J.J. sat back and folded her own arms. It was such an abrupt movement on her part, and the look on her face so introspective, that he stopped what he was saying.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” she answered, finger to chin. “That’s just such a revelation. While you’re telling me, I’m imagining myself in your shoes. It never occurred to me either that you weren’t expecting my mother. That had to be hard on you. To know that he had another woman in his life other than your mother.”

“Not hard. I just wasn’t expecting her, that’s all. I was a kid, just nine years old. I can’t say it was that big a deal, really. I hadn’t had enough time to process it or anything. And right off, she was really pretty and really nice; I was a boy, so I noticed that more. And, to tell the truth about it, I was really more focused on him.”

“Was he what you expected?’

“And more. Like bigger than life. He came down the stairs from behind her, and he shook my hand, just like I was a man, like him.”

“What did he look like?”

“A lot like he does now. Handsome, thinner maybe, younger, of course. His hair was longer and darker. Same eyes, though. Same smile. Same good man that he is now.”

“Did he look shocked when you told him who you were?”

“Actually, he introduced himself to me first. That’s when I told him who I was. He looked somewhat surprised, but I wouldn’t say shocked. In retrospect, I think he was more concerned about what your mother made of it. I remember, he looked back at her. She seemed more taken aback than he was, but even she sort of played it off. She said she was going to make coffee.

They took me to the kitchen, and gave me milk and cookies, chocolate chip- I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ve ever had any so good since then as the ones I had that night. I showed them the note my mother gave me. Your mother took it from me, and she read it out loud to your father. He just sat back and listened. Then he asked me about my mother, and where she was. I told him I didn’t know where she was, which I didn’t. I didn’t know our new apartment address or exactly where it was, and I didn’t know if that was where she went back to.

Then your mother suggested Max take me up to bed because it was so late, like two in the morning. I was tired, but I was so glad to finally meet this man who was my father, well, who I thought was my father. I wanted a father so badly. I hugged and kissed him, and went on upstairs with Max.”

“Which room?”

“If I’m remembering correctly, you go up the stairs, and it’s the first one on the right. Across, but not quite across, the hall from their room, the master bedroom. It’s a little farther back from that, on the other side.”

“My room.” she smiled. “When I was born, they made that the nursery, and since then, it’s always been my room.”

“I wondered about that.” he said. “I had the thought that it might be.”

“I know you probably don’t want to talk about the stuff that happened with your father when he took you Let’s talk about what happened after that. How much longer did you stay? What did you do while you were there?”

“Well, after the incident with Vince, while my mother was too scared to come back for me, I stayed with your parents. They were waiting for her to get in touch with them, but like I said, she was too scared. Vince had convinced her that your father’s lawyers would prosecute her for using me as a pawn and for abandoning me afterward. He said that the judges would give me to your father, based upon him being able to give me so much more than she could in terms of material things. And since lied and said that I was his child, that your father would sue her to keep me if she made an issue of it, especially since he was out the $20,000 ransom, which Vince stole from her, and that she couldn’t pay your father back. ”

“Daddy isn’t like that.”

“She didn’t know that at the time. I was there with your folks, I think a couple of days, maybe three, four. That part is kind of hard to remember. You know how when you’re little, time seems to go by a lot slower than it really does. You don’t really have an actual concept of it.”

“Yeah.”

“After I was kidnapped, and your father got me back, I spent most of the rest of that time with your father and Max. Your parents, of course, didn’t have children then, so there wasn’t a lot for a kid to do at the house, except play with the dog and goof around. Your dad took me to his building on one of the days, and he showed me all around. They took me back to the zoo, but not the same one as the first time. It was one in San Francisco. Your mother knew all about the animals, and as we walked around, she told me about them. One morning, toward the end of my stay, I got up and had breakfast with just her. We went out back afterward, and your father and Max were out there trying to build me a swing set.”

He stopped and chuckled to himself.

“What?” J.J. asked.

“It was all messed up.” he laughed. “They didn’t know what they were doing. It was obvious that they didn’t have much experience with kids’ stuff. I told them to make a swing, all they needed was a flat piece of wood and some rope.”

“And a good tree.” J.J. grinned. “Daddy isn’t real handy when it comes to stuff like that. My mother, believe it or not, is the fixit person. She’s all feminine and everything, but she knows hardware, plumbing, landscaping, and decorating, and stuff like that. She can put things together and fix things around the house when she has to. She made me a swing, like the one you just said about, when I was little, and she hung it from the tree outside the great room window, so she could see me when she was in the house, and I was outside.

Daddy just says, “the heck with it”, and pays somebody else to do it. He says that’s why he goes to work every day. He must have really liked you to give putting together a whole swing set a shot. By the time I came along, he was heavily into “pay somebody” mode when it came to things like that for me. My stuff got put together at the store before it even came home. Were you alone a lot during the day with my mother?”

“Not by myself. If I wasn’t with your father, I was with Max. I spent a lot of time during the day with Max. Your mother was nice, very funny, but she was kind of quiet. She didn’t talk a whole lot when your father wasn’t there. Most of the time, she was busy, writing. I remember your father telling me that she was a writer. She worked up front during the day, in the big room with the fireplace. She had a desk in there. I tried not to bother her much. She was usually reading or writing or typing, so Max and I hung out when your father wasn’t there.”

“Why didn’t you stay, John? Daddy told me that he asked you to, and what you said, but you tell me, unless I’m being too nosy.”

They had come to the hard part, but it was time for him to let go of it once and for all. Sighing heavily, he told her.

“I don’t think it’s nosy of you, J.J. From your perspective, I can see you wondering why I chose to go back to where I’d come from as opposed to staying in that situation.

You see, at the time that he asked me, that was when I was beginning to have doubts about him being my real father. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I have blonde hair and facial features like my mother, but after being stuck in that warehouse with him all that day, I could see that I looked a lot like Vince. I didn’t look like your father at all, and he has pretty strong features. I mean, look at you. You’re a girl and you look like your mother, but you definitely have his eyes and I can tell that you’re his kid. Vince and my mother were both blondes. My mother’s eyes are blue and so are your father’s, but my eyes are brown, unfortunately, like Vince’s.

Then, even though I was a kid, I could see that the whole picture she painted for me didn’t make sense. For example, why was it that it wasn’t until I got with your wealthy father, as soon as I got with your father, Vince came along and snatched me from the zoo out of all the kids who were there? Why hadn’t he done that before? Why me and not somebody else? Why was my mother involved? You see, she showed up at the warehouse where Vince was holding me. She brought the briefcase with the money in it. What was the money thing about? How did Vince know my mother, and why would he try to beat her up like that, and take the money from her? Why did she go with him after he pulled the gun on your father? I know he snatched her, but how did he know her? I felt like she knew him. Those were the things I was saying to myself and trying to answer for myself.

It was kind of like when you realize that no matter how much you try to make it make sense, or how much you want to believe that your parents didn’t make it up, you come to the conclusion that there really can’t be a Santa Claus or a Tooth Fairy. There are just too many things that don’t add up, too many holes in the story, and in reality, none of it makes sense. At that point, that’s how that was for me and all of that.”

J.J. was once again leaned over the arm of her chair, intently focused in on him. Her father said that it was all right to tell her, so he went on.

“When your father asked me to stay, I really wanted to say that I would, in fact I did say it, but that would have left my mother all by herself. No matter how much I might have wanted it, the truth of it was there wasn’t ever going to be the three of us. Your father had a wife whom he loved. I loved my mother. Your mother couldn’t be my mother; I already had one. So,  told him that I would miss my mother too much if I stayed. Your mother was standing right there when I said it.

I didn’t know where my mother was working in LA, but your mother knew that she was a nurse. She went out the next day, and found her. She arranged for my mother to meet us at the zoo, the same zoo where Vince took me from the first time. My mother came and met us, but Vince showed up and tried the same stuff again in an effort to extort some more money from your father. You see, he originally wanted $200,000, but your father only paid a tenth of that the first time.”

“That’s what an agent gets paid.” J.J. said. “I know that from my mother. She has an agent. It’s a go-between who gets a percentage of the whole fee.”

“Yeah. He thought my mother was in on it the first time. The second time, though, your father was ready for him. He beat the crap out Vince, just like I was really his son, and some stranger was trying to harm me. But I knew I wasn’t his son.

When we got back to the house, he started to tell me the truth about it, but I beat him to it. I told him that I knew that he wasn’t my father. Your mother confirmed it for sure when she asked me how I knew that. I told her what I felt in my heart; that if I had been his, he never would have left me hanging out there like that. J.J., if I had been your father’s child, regardless of if he married my mother or not, I would have been in his life long before I was nine years old. We would have been together all of my life. A man like him doesn’t make a kid, then drop the mother and ignore the child, does he?”

In answer, engrossed in the story, she whispered, “No, definitely not.”

He went on.

“When I got older, and I knew more about people, relationships, and things,” he went on. “It was worse because I realized how much trouble that could have been for your father with your mother. They had only been married a few years, maybe just a couple, when I dropped that bombshell on them. There they were, happily married, childless, and then all of a sudden, out of no where comes this illegitimate kid for both of them to deal with. Although she was very gracious and good to me, I’m not all that sure your mother wanted me to stay there. She worked real hard to put me back with my mother.”

“I don’t think it was so much that she didn’t want you there, John. I think she did that for you.”

Expecting that she would take up for her mother on the matter, he asked, “How do you figure, J.J?”, mostly out of curiosity; to see what she would make of it.

Not having researched Mrs. Hart the way that he had J.J. and her father, he was surprised by her answer.

“You said that she was there when you told Daddy you would stay, but that you would miss your mother. She heard you. See, she knows what it’s like to miss your mother; hers died when she was twelve, just three years older than you were at the time. She doesn’t talk about it a lot, but I know it affected her deeply. Like you, one minute her mother was there, and the next, she was gone. But your mother wasn’t gone for good like hers. You can trust me when I tell that’s the main reason why she went to such great lengths to find your mother for you.

If you hadn’t said that about missing your mother, she probably wouldn’t have gone looking for her. In fact, she was probably pissed with your mother for up and leaving you like she did. I know her. She doesn’t play around with stuff like that. You might have ended up staying if you hadn’t said anything about missing your mother, and because Daddy loved you, she would have, too.”

Then he noticed her sit back behind that, as if she were processing something in her own mind. She didn’t say anything else behind it, and for a few moments, neither of them spoke. Then it was his turn to ask a question.

“So what’s it like, J.J. Hart, being his real kid?”

“I’m sure it’s the same as it is being your mother’s child.” she answered. “He’s just my dad. I love him dearly. I know he’s a great, successful guy, but as far as being his kid goes, what can I say? Jonathan Hart, to me, is just my father.”

“I know.” he said. “But you have to admit, he’s no ordinary man. He is Jonathan Hart. But then, you’re no ordinary girl, yourself. You can fly planes. You’re a talented athlete in several areas. You’re a national scholar. You’ve traveled all over. You get to meet all kinds of people. A lot of that is because of who your father is.”

“You’re a doctor.” she rallied back. “A surgeon. You go inside people, fix things, and save lives. That means that you have to be a scholar, too. Daddy told me that you played football in school, and you were good- All-City. He said that now you hike and mountain climb. You’ve climbed several ranges. I do meet people, like you said, but so do you, I’m sure. I just happen to meet people that other people happen to know because of what they do or what they have; but they’re still just people. That’s no big deal.

I’ve traveled because of who my parents are, and because I had to go where they went, not because it was where I wanted to go. You did, too, I’m sure. According to what you’ve just told me and from what I can gather from what I’ve been told about you, you’ve done some traveling, too, with your mom. You’ve done more than that, what with school and all. When you get through with your medical training, and you’re into your own practice, I’m sure you’ll be taking off for other parts of the world on your own, and not with your parents, like me. I can’t wait to be able to travel all over on my own.

And you can learn to fly, too, if you want. Now that part of it, I have to admit; I did luck up on with Daddy. It is very convenient to have your flight instructor as your father. Daddy says that you have a brother and a sister.”

“I do. I have a brother, named Michael. He’s 20, and he goes to the University of Michigan. He wants to be a pediatrician. My sister, Ingrid, is a year younger than you. She’s fifteen, and in high school in Oak Brook, Illinois where my mother lives.”

“I’ll bet it’s fun to have siblings.” She said.

“I wish the gap wasn’t so wide between us. It’s like my mother had two families. I feel more like their father than their big brother sometimes. Did you want brothers and sisters?”

He watched her face, highly interested in her answer.

“To be honest, John.” Then she giggled a bit at how that came out, and he had to smile with her. “I’ve come to like being an only child. When I did wish I had a sibling, a long time ago, I used to want an older brother. But that was mostly so that I could sic him on other people when I thought I needed to have someone bigger than me taken care of after they made me mad. You know, sort of like to play the enforcer for me. But after a while, I learned to handle myself, and not necessarily by using my fists, although I can do that if I have to. I learned how to use my head with people. I learned to hold my own.”

“I know you got that from your dad.”

She nodded. “Yep. Some from my mother, too. She looks soft, but she can be pretty tough, too, if pushed.” and then she asked, “So, how is your mother? Is she still married to your last stepfather.”

“No, they’re divorced. Have been for some time, but she’s fine. I think she’s at a place now in her life where she’s at peace with herself.”

“Were you mad at her a long time? For lying to you about who your father was?”

“To be an honest John,” he began, and they both laughed again. “I think I still am at times, but I do understand why she did what she did. It was probably the best she could do at the time, considering who and what my real dad was. She went for the top when making up a father for me, and she wasn’t expecting for things to turn out like they did. Although I don’t know what she planned to tell me after I got older and started demanding to meet Jonathan Hart, Sr., or trying to seek him out on my own. But I’m grateful that I had him to model myself on at the beginning, rather than my real one.”

“I think it’s called imprinting. Ducks do it when they’re first born. They take on the characteristics of the first adult they see or hang out with, whether it’s their mother, another duck or not a duck at all. Kids probably do too, to some extent.”

“Something like that.” He agreed, greatly amused. “You are pretty smart.”

Coloring a little, she waved a hand at him in dismissal of the compliment.

“Whatever. Daddy told me you changed your name to what it is now not long after you found out the truth about you and him.”

“I wasn’t his junior. I didn’t think it was right to carry his name.”

“So, if you have a son one day, will you name him Jonathan?”

He turned all the way around to look at her. “How did you know that?”

“Lucky guess.” she winked. “It stood to reason. He’d be Jonathan Hart Philips, named for Daddy and for you.”

All he could do was shake his head at her in wonder.

“Was Daddy a lot of trouble for you guys here in the hospital? I know how he can be. He had a major attitude when I snuck to see him that night in Intensive Care when I almost ran into you. He told me he didn’t want to be here.”

“Not really. Aside from wanting to do things his way and not wanting to admit to being down, he was fairly easy, for me anyway. I think he gave Samuels and the folks on days more trouble. At night, unless he was in pain, he was pretty quiet. Besides, I was too nervous around him to really have a lot to do with him before he came to me and made me deal with him.”

“Was he mad at first about you snooping around in his business?”

“He didn’t seem angry. He mostly just wanted to know why I was doing it. It was embarrassing to know that I had been found out like that. I just wanted to know more about him, and about you. When I explained that to him, he said that he understood. I believe he did.”

“Me, too. Boy, I’ll bet you wanted to have a heart attack yourself, though, when he showed up at your door that night.”

“I did, but I’m glad he came. I never would have had the nerve to go to him. I knew who he was. I wanted to talk to him, but at the same time, I didn’t want to talk to him. I didn’t know how to talk to him. I didn’t know what he’d think of me, and I wanted to be farther along in my career when we talked again. Then all of a sudden, there he was. It was good he came when he did because I believe his security guy wasn’t going to wait too much longer before he confronted me about my research.”

“Mr. Lamb?”

“Yeah, him. Your father has some kind of security force all around him and his family. Real high tech and diligent. Kind of like Big Brother. ”

“Mr. Lamb might just have come for you.” J.J. said. “He’s very protective of Daddy, and he’s not scared of anything or anybody. They go way back, and technology is our business. We pride ourselves on being cutting edge. I heard you’re getting married.”

“So does that mean you’ll be following your father into the technology business, J.J.?”

“I haven’t made any decisions about that.” she answered. “That’s too far ahead, too far down the line right now. But I heard you’re getting married.

“Next year.”

“Is she smart? I’ll bet she’s pretty, if you had an eye for pretty at nine years old.”

“Both”

“Blonde and blue-eyed, like you? Like your mom?”

“Nope, brunette, but she is blue-eyed. Her name is Sheila. Here’s her picture.”

He took out his wallet and showed her.

“She is pretty. Pretty name, too. What does she do for a living?”

“She’s a stewardess. She travels, and she writes. She wants to be a travel writer.”

“She sounds like somebody I’d like. Will you invite us to the wedding?”

“How could I not?” He smiled. “You’re practically family, another little sister.”

“Daddy says that he knew who you were all along, too, but that he didn’t want to talk to you either. I think both of you are some sorry chickens and in need of help. Imagine. Scared of each other. You guys probably would have gone the whole time acting as if you didn’t know who each other was if it hadn’t been for Mr. Lamb.”

She shook her head at him. “Just plain sorry.”

“You’re a mess, J.J. Hart.” he laughed.

“So I’ve been told, my big brother, John. On many, many occasions, by many, many people who love me.”

That made him smile inside and out. Again, he wondered at the evidence of both her parents in her, and that despite her outward appearance, there was an awful lot of her father.

She reached across and took his hand. “May I tell you something?”

A little surprised by the gesture, but pleased that she felt comfortable enough with him to do it, he answered, “Sure.”

“I just want to tell you how sorry I am that it happened for you like that. When Daddy and my mother were telling me, I sensed how badly Daddy felt for you. I think he was reminded of his own situation. I think a lot about him, how he grew up with no parents at all, and I wonder how he made it through like he did. It hurts me to think about it sometimes because I know how much I’ve leaned on both my parents all my life.

Ever since the other day when they told me about you, who you really were, and what happened; you’ve been on my mind, too. They don’t normally include me on stuff like this. I don’t know why they chose to this time, but I’m glad they did, and that they let us meet each other. It’s helped me to understand and to put things into perspective. We all need other people in our lives to do that for us, whether they know they’re doing that for us or not. I want to thank you.”

“Thank me? For what?”

“For taking the time to meet me and talk to me, and for helping to shape my perspectives. I tend to take a lot of things for granted, but now, once again, I can see how blessed I actually am. I’ve done some not so nice things in the past few days, things I’m not so proud of. I know I was wrong, and some of it was outside of my immediate control, but now I can see just how wrong  it was.”

“I’m not sure that I know what all you mean, J.J., I mean, about what you did, but that’s for you to know and work with. I’ve got some of that to deal with myself. I do understand, however, what you mean about perspectives. Even though he wasn’t really my father, that’s what your father has been doing for me all of my life. He didn’t know that he was doing it, but he’s what kept me on track.”

“There are all kinds of fathers, John.” She squeezed the hand she held. “They aren’t necessarily the ones who physically make you. Ask Daddy about that one day if you don’t believe me. I hope you won’t keep yourself a stranger to him, or to us, any more. Thanks for sharing your story with me.”

“Thank you for sharing your father with me, J.J.” he said. “And for helping me with my own perspectives, as well.”

No spoiled brat, self-centered, arrogant princess there, he noted to himself. Just Jonathan Hart’s real life kid.

__________________________________________________________

On the flight back to Los Angeles, Jonathan exchanged several nervous glances with J.J. Jennifer had been completely silent for the entire hour long trip.

All that morning, from the time she arrived to pick him up, he noticed an increasing lack of communication on her part, but he chalked that up to weariness finally coming down on her with everything drawing to a close as it was. In a crisis, she threw herself wholeheartedly into resolving it, and it wouldn’t be until it was over that she realized how tired she was. Between him and J.J., she had been put through an awful lot in less than a week’s time. But once the car delivered them to their plane, the “baby” jet, the one he and J.J. flew into Vegas on that previous Saturday, not another word passed her pursed lips.

Jack and Frank, his personal pilots had been dispatched from Hart to fly them and the plane home. They were already on board, waiting for them when they arrived. Allowing Jennifer to go ahead of them, his first visual exchange with J.J. expressed between them what they both knew: if Jennifer suspected that they were flying before she actually found out for sure that they were, she probably figured them for flying the prop. It was likely a bit much for her to take that J.J. had been at the controls of a jet, even a small one like that one, while her father was next to her, too sick to assist. J.J. shouldn’t have been flying that particular plane.

To the world, J.J.’s being at the controls of that jet had been justified by the emergency brought about by his illness and glorified by her skillful handling of the plane and the situation. But the truth of the matter was, they had been doing something they shouldn’t have in order for J.J. to learn and grow. She wanted to be a jet pilot, just like her dad. Her dad knew all along that she could do it, so he was teaching her. She was proving to be a damned good student and a damned good pilot.

None of that amounted to a hill of beans with Jennifer Edwards Hart. He knew he was done.

There was that, on top of other things….

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, as the plane taxied into its designated slot, he noticed that there were two Hart limos waiting on the tarmac. He looked over to Jennifer, who was perusing a magazine.

“Why two cars?” he asked.

“One is for J.J.” she answered, without taking her eyes from the magazine. “The other is for us.”

He waited for her to explain, but she didn’t. He looked over to J.J. to find her sneaking glances at the two of them while pretending to read a book. Upon making eye contact with her, she immediately raised her eyebrows and turned her face away from him.

Something was up, and it was obvious that he was being left in the dark about whatever it was. A little tired after doing more walking and moving around than he had in days, he didn’t feel like playing games.

“Jennifer, why are we traveling in two different cars to go home?”

Without looking up from her reading material, she answered.

“Because J.J.’s going home. You and I are not.”

He felt J.J.’s eyes on him again from where she lie on the couch across from where he and Jennifer sat at the table. He turned back to her in an effort to garner from her what she knew, but J.J. shrugged and went back to her own book.

He turned his attention back to Jennifer.

“What’s going on? What am I being left out of? How is she going home without us?”

The engines shut down, and they were given notification from the cabin that they could make ready to deplane. Jennifer closed her magazine, and took her time sliding it down into her bag. He watched her and waited for her to answer him. Finally she sat up and turned to him.

“Pat and Bill are waiting at home for her.” Her gaze swept over him for the first time since they boarded in Vegas, radiating a definite chill. “You like doing things your way, and you’ve had it like that for a while. Now I think it only fair that you go along with me for a bit.”

Unfastening her seat belt, she stood and started for the door, which Frank was opening for them, leaving him seated at the table.

“Your turn.” J.J. mouthed to him once her mother’s back was to her, and she had his attention again.

__________________________________________________________

While their luggage was being loaded into the two cars, Jennifer issued her final instructions to J.J., reminding her of her expectations for her while they were away. Exchanging a hug and a kiss with her, she walked off to the other car. That left J.J. and Jonathan alone outside the car J.J. would be traveling in to go home. They both watched her leave.

“She raked me over them already.” J.J. whispered when her mother was safely out of earshot. “Hard. And the coals were red hot. Down one side, flipped me, and did me on the other. I didn’t get a chance to tell you about it, but I lost my mind temporarily, and thought I was going to try to get smart with her and walk away at one point during the inquisition, and-”

She held up her hand, making an open pinching motion with her thumb and index finger.

“- I came this close to getting physically jumped on. I am not lying or exaggerating this time; she held me down and had me pinned to the mat- literally. I’m telling you, Daddy, it was intense up in that bedroom with her that night. You aren’t that sick any more, so now it’s on you. That we were on the jet when it happened didn’t help any, I think. Did you see her face when the car pulled up to it? I take it you didn’t mention that little detail to her.”

“I thought you would have taken care of that by now,” he whispered back to her out of the corner of his mouth.

“She didn’t ask. I didn’t tell. I had enough problems of my own. I’m the one who ran away. Flew to Reno without permission, remember?”

J.J. stopped and nodded her head as she continued to watch her mother’s back.

“Oh yeah, look at her shoulders. She’s as mad as hell with you, I can tell. Sorry f’ ya, Daddy. I love you, but I’m going home to Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill, where it’s safe.”

“What have I told you about saying ‘hell’ like that?” he said, keeping his eyes on Jennifer until she disappeared into the rear seat of the other car.

J.J. gestured in her mother’s direction. “You have a better description for that kind of mad? All I can say to you is, ‘good luck’.”

“I probably am going to need it,” he muttered before kissing her on the forehead and ushering her into the car.

Leaning inside, he told her, “Be good. Don’t forget to call your mother when you make it home.”

“I will. So I take that to mean she still has your cell.”

He made a face at her and started to back out of the car, but she caught him by the arm.

“Wait, I have something to give you.”

Reaching inside her shirt, she pulled his chain with the ring still attached to it from her neck. She slipped it over his head and kissed his cheek.

“Thanks,” he said, fingering the chain and smiling at her. “For everything.”

“You’re welcomed.”

“You know you’re my number one girl.”

“No, actually I’m Number Two. Number One is waiting for you, fiery mad, in that car back there. Hit me up on a house phone if you need backup. That’ll give me your location, and I can send LAPD or somebody to help you out. That’s if you can get to a phone in time.”

“Gee, thanks.” He started to back out, but popped back in. “You really have no idea where I’m going?”

“Nope.”

She pulled her headphones from her bag and plugged them into the car’s console.

“She told me you two weren’t going home with me, but she didn’t tell me anything more than that. I didn’t ask, and she didn’t ask me why I didn’t ask. That’s how far up the creek without a paddle you are. I’m telling you, she was already fired up, but I think seeing that jet and putting it together that was what I was flying took her al-l-l-l the way over. I hope you got plenty of rest in that hospital. I think you’re about to go a few rounds.”

“I can handle myself in that ring.”

“Whatever.”

Then, she hummed, “Um, um, um”, while shaking her head as she slipped in a CD.

“An undisclosed location. Daddy, you are totally through. Like I said, I love you. Always remember that.”

He rolled his eyes at her and closed the door. Then he stood watching the car leave, wondering if he wouldn’t have been better off taking Samuels up on his request to remain at that hospital another twenty-four hours.

At the very least, with that, he would have been buying himself some time.

__________________________________________________________

Through the windshield, she could see him, half in and half out of that car, talking to J.J., and she could only imagine the anxious exchange going on between the two of them. He would be feeling J.J. out, and J.J. would be telling him, “Good luck, Daddy.”

Walking away from them a few minutes before, she felt those two sets of anxious eyes honed in on her.

That man knew he had some things coming, and J.J. always could smell trouble a mile away. As much as she loved and took up for her Daddy, this was one of those times that J.J. Hart would be telling Jonathan Hart he was on his own. In her head, Jennifer could hear her daughter’s voice.

“She’s your wife, Daddy. You’ve known her longer than I have. She did me already. Knowing that she’s put it together that I was flying that jet, and you let me, I probably shouldn’t even be seen talking to you.”

She’d be waving him away from her.

“Handle it.”

When told that she was being sent home, and that they were going elsewhere, J.J. not once asked where they were headed without her. It was a no-brainer that the child didn’t care where they went as long as she didn’t have to be a part of whatever was going to happen after they got there. It was on purpose that J.J. hadn’t been told; without a doubt, if she had, she would have found a way to tip off her partner in crime. Divide and conquer. That was the only way to handle that duo.

She watched as he backed out, waving to J.J. and remained there, watching until the car was out of his sight. In the meantime, he took the chain from around his neck, worked with it a moment, and then slipped it back on. He put something on his finger. She knew it was his signet ring which J.J. had strung onto that chain she had been holding for him.

As he approached their car, it crossed her mind that it was just a day short of a week that she had been in San Diego praying for him to hang on until she could get there to him. It was hard to believe that the tall, vital-looking man walking toward her had been so sick just a few days before.

Still so handsome and so sweet. So suave and debonaire.

And so damned hard-headed and stubborn.

It was going to be difficult maintaining the silent treatment with this one…with him so close… their having been away from each other so long. Especially in the place to which she was taking him.

__________________________________________________________

“Hello, Sister Anastasia, it’s me, Justine.”

Well now. Isn’t this a surprise. It’s so good to hear from you.

“Thank you.”

Are you at home yet? Your mother told me your father was being discharged today, and that you all were returning.

“No, Ma’am. I’m in the car on my way home, though. I just wanted to call you and thank you for praying for Daddy. He came out of it all right, and I know it’s because of your- well, I know you had a hand in it.”

And what about you, Justine? How did you come out of it?

“A bit wiser, I think. More grateful for things.”

More truthful? You should have shared with your mother about learning to fly. I’m sure you and Jonathan frightened her.

“Yes, Sister. I probably should have. We probably should have. But still, he’s a great guy and my mother’s a wise woman, a very good mother.”

And despite everything, Justine. You’re a very good girl. You really are. I know I don’t say those kinds of things to you very often. You’re so much like- I’m proud of you, Justine. You did well.

“Thank you, Sister. Well, like I said. I just called to thank you.”

J.J. clicked off and set the receiver back in its cradle on the center console. Then she put her headphones back on and lay her head back.

…finally got a compliment out of her. I don’t believe it.

So much had happened in such a short amount of time.

… didn’t want to go overboard with her on the praying thing. She’d just start all that stuff about how I if I went to church more regularly, I could pray better myself. I did pray. I know how when I want to or need to. I also know who to get to pray when I need them to…

She wondered who it was she was so much like. Her father? Or was it somebody else? Why had Sister cut herself off? She did that a lot. She’d start talking and then all of a sudden stop. Unless she was fussing about something or running somebody down for not being perfect. At those times, she could go on and on, never stopping once.

Truthful?

It wasn’t a matter of truth; some things just didn’t need to be told. Sister had a whole lot of nerve saying that to anybody. After all, she should know about holding back. Sister Mary Anastasia knew a whole lot  herself that she wasn’t saying.

Daddy probably was going to catch it, and it was over something more than the flying thing. He had done something else. His wife’s back had been awfully straight and stiff while she was over there by them talking, and when she was walking away to that other car. She hated it when her parents fought. Maybe it would be one of those things that would just kind of flare up and blow over. That’s how it usually was with them. But it must be something out of the ordinary if the Duchess was taking him away to let him have it.

Whatever.

Those were mysteries and thoughts for another time. For the time being, the grown people could have all of that; she was giving it over to them to handle. Her mother accused her of thinking she was grown, and had fussed at her for nosing about in grown people’s affairs. She said that being a child wouldn’t last forever, and that childhood should be enjoyed while it lasted. It was time to take her up on that. Moving her sunglasses from the top of her head, she dropped them back down low across the bridge of her nose.

Sandals off, legs propped up, head bobbing in time to a thumping hip-hop beat, and a Coke from the cooler in hand, she took in the passing landscape as the car cruised down the highway. J.J. Hart, only child of Jonathan and Jennifer Hart was on her way home to Willow Pond where she could be sweet sixteen in the summertime once again.

__________________________________________________________

They had been riding in silence for some time. Twice he started to ask her exactly where they were headed, but turning to look at her, the set of her jaw in profile put him off the idea. She had given him back all of his belongings except his wedding ring and cell phone. That action on her part had been deliberate, and he hadn’t asked her about that either. As good as he felt about being outdoors again, and as much as he wanted to be close to her and to reunite with her, something about Jennifer’s aura said that would have to wait.

Whatever her problem was, he concluded it wasn’t just that she was tired. Weariness might be part of it, but Jennifer definitely had something on her mind, and it had to do with him and something, or things, he’d done. He could only imagine what all of it might be. Of two, maybe three, transgressions, he was certain: the flying with J.J., J.J. being at the controls of the jet, and those pills he hadn’t taken.

After choosing to not ask her anything that second time, he sat back, relaxed, and decided to leave it alone. Like she said, it was her time now. The ball was in her court, and at the moment he didn’t have the energy to return her serve, should she send it. Despite the strong front he was putting up, in all honesty, he still wasn’t back to full speed. It was tough for him to admit as much, but it couldn’t be denied. He closed his eyes to rest them.

Based on the route they were taking, he thought he had an idea; but wherever they were going, he hoped it was somewhere quiet and remote. A place where they could be all alone, and one where he could immediately be comfortable. He wanted his life, his wife, and his wedding ring back, but she could hold onto that cell phone a while longer, if she so desired.

__________________________________________________________

Anytime they were there, the sound of the surf pounding down below their Malibu beach house kept her awake for the first one or two nights. She enjoyed the open windows and the natural breezes, but getting accustomed to the noise always took her a little time. While Jennifer lie there wide awake, Jonathan was soundly sleeping. The sound never bothered him or kept him awake. For him, the effect was just the opposite.

He had grown up with the Pacific Ocean outside his open window. On many nights, as a boy, he climbed out of that window to be part of whatever was happening on the other side of that frame. For him, the window hadn’t been a boundary; instead, it was his point of entry to endless adventure.

In contrast, she had come up cloistered, sheltered from the elements and from the world outside of the privileged one into which she was born. Winter was real out east, and windows stayed closed for the better part of the year. Where life and all that it encompassed had always been a natural part of Jonathan’s existence, as a young girl, she had been made to wait, stuck behind closed windows, doors, and established convention until she was of age to venture out, experience things on her own, and discover for herself the things she’d only read about.

In the car, on their way there, she could see him out of the corner of her eye, analyzing their surroundings, trying to get a fix on where they were headed. As he gradually became aware of their probable destination, he relaxed. He loved that house and being there. It was isolated and quiet. They rarely entertained there any more, and the community was gated, so it was guaranteed that they would be left alone. This time, even J.J. wasn’t with them. By the time they pulled into the driveway, he had fallen asleep and had to be wakened to go into the house.

To his delight, Bill’s housekeeper, Clara was there, waiting for them. Upon being told that was where they were heading after Jonathan’s release, Pat arranged for Clara to be flown in from Bill’s place in Reno to ready the house and to cook for them while they were there. Aside from Bill, Jonathan was one of Clara’s favorite people, and she was one of his. They bantered back as forth as she teased him about not being infallible and began bossing him about what he would eat and how much he should rest. In trying to decide which housekeeper would go where, she and Marie had come to the agreement that it would be best if Marie stayed in LA to assist in keeping J.J., and most likely, Marnie, as close to expected routine as possible. They both knew how skillfully J.J. and Marnie could wear Pat down in an effort to alter the established rules more to their liking, and Bill could be as easy with them as Jonathan.

Jonathan’s falling asleep in the car told her that he was still not himself, even if he hadn’t said as much and was putting on a brave face. Because of that, she refrained from bringing up the things with him that she wanted to discuss; it wasn’t the time. Tired, he would be that much more resistant, which would defeat the entire cause of their being there. He refused Clara’s help with putting his things away; doing it himself, but then he had gone out onto the deck by himself to sit in the sun until time for dinner.

She let him. Cooped up in that hospital for nearly a week, the walls, even in a house so large and palatial, had to have been closing in on him. She went out to him briefly and watched him take his pills, noticing that they were a different color from the ones she discovered in the recorder case. Perhaps he had been taking at least those, which explained his getting better.

After going over with Clara the doctor’s recommendations for Jonathan’s diet and setting the menus for the next few days, she went in to shower and change. Afterward, she returned a few phone calls, and completed some long overdue journaling. Then it was time to eat. The meal had been a relatively quiet, strained one for them.

They took it out on the portico. In his eyes, she detected lingering weariness, and she continued to hold her tongue. She took a second call from J.J., who, that time, was checking on them under the guise of saying she just was missing them. When she let Jonathan speak with her, she thought she detected some coded message he delivered to her, but she dismissed it. That would never change with the two of them, and there was no point in making a fuss over it. There were other, more pressing matters to go over with him when the proper time presented itself.

They spoke of things in general, matters at Hart of which she was aware, how pretty the scenery was out there where they were, and the curious matter of Jonathan, Jr.’s return to their lives. After dinner, she left him behind to go for a much needed jog on the beach to clear her head and exercise her body, something she’d been neglecting since the onset of the crisis. By the time she made it back, he had gone to bed.

They were back together in the same place, but not quite in sync. As J.J. would say, “Stuff was in the way.” Until that “stuff’ got moved, they couldn’t really get back together, just as she and J.J. hadn’t been able to connect again until they removed the barriers to understanding each other.

It was night, but like that morning with J.J., the light coming in through the open windows enabled her to see his face turned toward her. J.J. greatly resembled her, but somehow, even with his eyes closed, she could see their daughter there in Jonathan. His sleep-mussed hair way too long and badly in need of cutting. It fell endearingly down into his eyes, and he had his hand tucked snugly under his chin, the sight of which made her smile to herself.

J.J. did that, too, when she slept.

Playing it close, even in sleep, both of them. Keeping that ‘hand’ they held to themselves; a personal secret, only revealed when they were ready to play the cards they had been dealt, in their own way, to their best advantage. Like father, like daughter.

No where near falling asleep, and tense from trying to keep still, she got up and pulled on her robe. There was no point in lying there, risking waking him from his much needed slumber. God- and she- knew that he hadn’t allowed himself to get very much of that while he was in that hospital. Even in there and sick, he managed to get caught up in yet another of those ‘things’ that always seemed to come along and tap only him on the shoulder. It worked out, however, that this one had been much more than a “thing” for both of them at the time it initially went down. Although she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was, coming into contact with again, and acknowledging young Jonathan seemed to settle a measure of the inner agitation she had been sensing in her Jonathan.

__________________________________________________________

Standing on the deck outside the bedroom, he could see Jennifer below. She was slowly strolling the beach with the baby riding her hip. The year before, at roughly that same time of the year, he had watched her from that same place, only then, the child had been inside of her. Looking down on both of them, he was struck by the wonder, the miracle of life.

Jennifer stopped and put J.J. down. She immediately took off on her mother, tipping across the sand as fast as her little legs could carry her. Jennifer followed protectively behind her, letting her have her way. Then, just as she reached the water’s edge, she caught her and swept her back into her arms. From where he stood, he could see J.J.’s legs kicking and Jennifer kissing her as she waded into the surf. Dangling J.J. by her hands, she dipped the wiggling little girl into the water.

During the pregnancy, Jennifer had put on nearly forty pounds. But down there on the beach, she was as toned and slender as she had always been. Keeping up with that little girl of theirs couldn’t help but have facilitated that. J.J. walked very early, at ten months, and at a little over a year, she was precociously agile and quick, but very tiny. It was so amusing watching her and trying to keep up with her without running her over. She appeared too little to be walking, let alone running.

So quick and smart, and so funny….

 

She met him in the loft after dinner where he had gone to do some paperwork. He watched as she pulled the chair close to his desk and then climbed up into it. The look on her face said that she had something heavy on her mind. All that evening, he could tell that she had something she wanted to say to him, but that she didn’t want to say it with her mother around.

“Daddy. Marnie has a new brother.”

“Really?”

“Yes. But at her daddy’s new house, not at Marnie’s house. Marnie says Kyle is her half-brother, and that’s he’s going to live with her father and her step-mother.”

“That’s right. Marnie and her brother don’t have the same mother, so that would make them half brother and sister.”

“If I had a brother or a sister, that would make us wholes, right? Since you and Mommy aren’t divorced?”

He flinched. She was only six, but already she knew the term, what it meant, and, apparently, its ramifications.

“Yes, J.J. What are you trying to ask Daddy?”

“How come I don’t have no brothers or sisters? Is Mommy broken?”

The question caught him off guard, and it was all he could do to not laugh at how she put it to him. In fact, for a few moments, he had to look down to his papers to gather himself. She was totally serious, and he didn’t want to offend her.

“What do you mean?” he asked when he could finally get himself together.

“Well, Mommy says that babies are made from sex. She said that when a man and a lady sleep together they have sex sometimes. You sleep with Mommy all the time, but I don’t have no brothers or sisters- not older than me or younger than me. How come? Can’t Mommy have babies?”

Jennifer was so up front with J.J., that at times, it scared him. The kid knew entirely too much to be so young. Put the ball back in Jennifer’s court….

“Why don’t you ask Mommy?”

“I did. But when I asked her if she was broken, and that’s why I didn’t have no brothers or sisters, she just hugged me and told me I should ask you when you got home.”

She did that nodding thing, while adding, “But I think she was really laughing.”

A set up.

Game, set, match, and he hadn’t even been out on the court.

A definite set up.

He motioned with his hand for J.J. to come to him. She slid down from her chair and came around the desk, where he lifted her onto his lap.

“J.J., when we got you, you were everything we wanted. You were absolutely perfect, and you were all we needed. Your Mommy and I decided that with you our family was complete, and that we wouldn’t have any more children. Now, tell Daddy, is this really about you wanting a brother or sister, or is it because Marnie has a brother now?”

She didn’t say anything for a moment, and then she looked up to him and grinned.

” ‘Cause Marnie got a brother. I just wanted to know why I didn’t have one, but I don’t really want one for real, ‘specially if it’s a baby brother or sister. It would be a pest and do my nerves. Marnie said she’s glad her brother lives at her father’s. She said he cries a lot and that he throws up, poops, and pees on himself. And he stinks.”

He hugged her to him in the effort to not to let her see the tears of laughter welling in his eyes. She was all the kid he needed. All his heart could take….

 

… the last meet of the year, the big one….

… the 440 and the 880 were her favorite events. This was an 880. Jennifer had come to dislike J.J. running this event because she thought it over taxed her system. J.J. favored it because for her, it was an opportunity to push and prove herself to herself.

… nobody’s sissy-Mary… not my girl…

… the pack pounded into the last turn, their arms and legs pumping like pistons. J.J., hanging back, running an inside lane, took the curve with the lead group. Studying her as she came into that final straightaway, he saw her make the shift and knew right then she had it won….

Ponytail flying, those long legs gracefully stretching, striding, clearing even more ground with each step than before, it was almost magical how swiftly she pulled away from the others.

The home stands roared, and down on the ground where he stood, he heard voices rhythmically chanting in unison, “Go. J.J., go J.J., GO!”, and his heart swelled with pride.

She was across the line and into the tape well before the next winded girl behind her.

Exhausted, she slowed to a shaky trot, heading blindly toward him on the sideline where she knew he would be, where he always was. Bent at the waist, cramping and sweating profusely, she coughed and puked up fluids, and then undeterred by that, looked up at him in triumph.

“We did it, Daddy.”

Then she collapsed into his arms. He wrapped her in the towel he had ready for her, wiped her face, and held her until she had it back together, took a sip of water, and could run her victory lap.

Jennifer was up in the stands, and he looked to her. She was smiling a proud, but strained, concerned smile. He knew it was all she could do to stay up there, and not come down to check and make over her child. But J.J. wouldn’t have wanted that. Not for this kind of thing. She wanted no fawning or scolding about taking things easy. For this, she wanted only her dad.

No pain, no gain. She was a runner.

She knew what she was doing, where she was going, and how to get there….

A winner….

No need to worry, Jennifer. She’s been- being- taught real well. She knows what she’s doing….

When he reached out to hold her and reassure her of what he was thinking, wanting to say as much to her, his hand came up empty. Her absence woke him,  and he sat up in the dark. Jennifer’s side of the bed was indeed empty.

It occurred to him when he went to bed earlier that evening, she hadn’t been there. She had gone running alone. He checked the clock. It was now the middle of the night.

Where could she be? Was she so angry about things she was sleeping away from him? He was home- well, as close to home as he could be. A week ago, he was wondering if he would ever see anything like home again. They were supposed to be in this place, getting better, together, but still they were apart. Even when she was “fiery mad”, Jennifer never slept away from him. If anything, she would have stayed to make his life a temporary, and celibate, living hell.

As he got up and reached for his robe, his only thought was, “Enough.”

__________________________________________________________

For her, it was the finest feature of that house; the hot tub located outside, but underneath the white marble portico in the rear, just before and a few steps above the pool, facing out to the beach below.

It wasn’t until the old house burned, and they rented the beach house that they realized how nice an item it was and how much they enjoyed it. They had talked about installing one somewhere outside at Willow Pond, but they waited too long to come to that decision. J.J. entered their lives, and the best they could do was to install one inside the pool house at the time that the house at Willow Pond was rebuilt. It had to placed somewhere inside, out of range of those curious blue eyes. That girl noticed everything they did from wherever she might happen to be. Put to bed didn’t always mean in the bed and asleep.

It was enough that the child had more than an inkling of what went on behind the closed doors of their bedroom.

“… would it be okay if I stayed in here with you tonight… since this isn’t your bed at home…”

J.J.’s reason for not coming into that master bedroom at home wasn’t only because she knew it was off limits to her. She had come to her own conclusion that she didn’t want to be in there because she knew what went on in there.

The little nosy fart….

Couldn’t blame her, though. It had always been her policy to be truthful and direct with J.J. in those matters. It had to be evident to anyone looking on that she and Jonathan deeply loved one another. J.J. was with them more than anybody, and that one didn’t miss anything along those lines. What kid wanted to know or acknowledge that her parents had sex, much less linger in the place they most likely had it?

For herself, she still couldn’t see Pa having intimate relations with her mother. Or anyone else for that matter. Didn’t want to see it. At the mere thought of it, she felt her cheeks reddening.

Soon she and Jonathan would be the ones keeping an eye on what went on in that pool house at home They might even find they were sorry that they decided to put a hot tub in there, out of immediate sight. How would she deal with spying from the window that white nightgown slipping off into the night with some vaguely familiar, large dusky form, headed hand-in-hand for the pool house? How many genuine heart attacks would Jonathan have, walking up on his child in that pool house with some unfortunate young male?

Sweetie, please be eighteen, out of our house, and over in your own hot tub- for your parents’ sakes, yours, and Pete’s, Teddy’s, Tommy’s- or whatever the hell his name ends up being.

The jets on high, the water massaged and gently rocked her body, warming and relaxing it against the night air while soothing her mind and restless spirit. The overhead lights were off, and the only illumination was that provided by the partial moon. The Pacific continued to roar, but more peaceably now; rolling in, azure, dark purple, cream and white, foaming toward her, adding to the repertoire of sensations working together to calm and lull her.

She lay back her head, closed her eyes, set her mind to idle, and let the water’s currents do their work.

When his lips brushed the skin of her neck and his hand removed the clip from her hair, it seemed, at first, a natural part of all the rest of it. Until she realized.

“Jonathan!”

“Shhhh.”

He was behind her, down on all fours, nuzzling along her ear, sliding his hands onto her shoulders to keep her from rising up or turning around.

“Jonathan, what in the world-”

“Shhhh.”

Before she realized it, his robe was shed, and he was in the water with her. His fingers tangled in her hair as he brought his lips to hers, his tongue immediately seeking out its dance partner. For the next few moments, she was helpless in his arms as he continued to kiss and caress her. Through the haze, a thread of thought rippled softly in her mind, like the graceful pastel whirl of a dancer’s ribbon: this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Isn’t he supposed to be sick?

It wasn’t how she’d planned it; they needed to talk first. So much needed to be said, but  independent of her will, her body strongly responded to her husband’s sudden, unexpected presence. Unable to even breathe until his mouth left hers, overwhelmed by the electric sensations generated by his touch, a loud hiss escaped her lips as the resulting light-headedness made inhaling an immediate necessity.

His pent-up hunger was evident as he kissed, suckled and caressed her breasts, finally pressing them together so that he could enjoy both nipples at once. Astounded by the level of her own  intense need, barely able to speak, she held his head in place even as part of her brain forced her mouth to stubbornly attempt to reason with him.

“Jonathan, should you be- should we-”

“I don’t care about should.” he murmured, without letting up. “I miss you. I want you.”

Breathless with abandon, she talk through it. “But we need to tal- I have some things-”

“That can wait;”  he cut her off. “We can’t. We’ve been apart too long, and I want my wife back. You might be upset with me about some things, but you want me, too, and you know it.”

He released her breasts and left them to nip, lick and taste his way back up the valley to her chest, along her collarbone, neck, and her ears before taking her mouth again. His hand slid between her thighs, cupping her. Dipping inside, he nimbly alternated the number of fingers he used to tease and to please her.

“Say you don’t.” he whispered into her ear while he continued his carnal probing, priming and readying her core, insisting, “Tell me you don’t.”

Caving, pretty much accepting that she was a lost cause, her stubborn spirit and concern for his well being still weren’t quite ready to succumb without putting up one last verbal protest.

“Jonathan, I’m not so sure you sh-”

“I am.” he asserted. And he pressed himself against her belly to emphasize what he was saying. “Let me be the one to worry this time. If I hurt, it’ll damn sure be worth it.”

But as he spoke, she was already pulling at the boxers he wore, freeing just enough of him before wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. With her back pressed against the side of the tub, his hands gripping the marble edge for leverage, in one urgent thrust, he plunged himself so smoothly and deeply inside, they both cried out in exquisite ecstasy.

__________________________________________________________

Bill peered out through the slats of the blinds at the front windows of the Harts’ guest house. He had been up and down for fifteen minutes, going to that window, watching the driveway.

“What time did you tell those girls to be home, Pat?” he asked without turning around. “It’s after midnight.”

“I didn’t.” Pat answered. “I told them to use their own judgment.”

Bill turned away from the window to look back at her. “I can tell you’ve never raised teenagers. Use their own judgment? What damned judgment? What kind of thing is that to tell two sixteen year olds on a Friday night in LA.? We won’t see them again until some time Sunday night, Monday morning.”

“I know what I’m doing.” Pat said without taking her eyes off the crime scene investigation program she was watching. “You’ll see.”

Just as he turned back to the window, the red BMW he had been looking for all that time passed by, the horn blowing once as it headed in the direction of the main house. The top was down and he could see the two familiar heads, particularly the one distinct ponytail. Bass tones from the music playing in the car vibrated inside the room.

“Wha’d I tell you.” he heard Pat say as the tail lights rounded the bend, disappeared for a moment, and then the car itself, lit up by the porch lights, pulled in front of the house.

He came and sat on the arm of the couch. “How were you so sure they’d come in?” he asked. “You threaten them or something?”

“Nah, I just know them.” she said. “What you have there with J.J. and Marnie is a classic case of deja vu. See, back when it was us, I was the wild one, and Jen was the voice of reason. In that latter day version, Marnie is the wild one. J.J. is Jen. Marnie probably wanted to hang it out there since I’d given them carte blanche, but J.J., smelling a set up, insisted that they come home at a fairly reasonable hour. She would be the one saying how they need to be seen as responsible, so that they don’t end up locked down. They’ll be home at a reasonable hour every time I let them out this weekend. Just like I know them, they know me. With Jen, it’s black or it’s white. They don’t know where I’m coming from, so they- well, J.J. at least, is going to play it close.”

“You’re pretty confident for a lady who never raised kids.”

Pat finally looked away from the television to him and smiled. “I just know how we were, therefore, I know my girls.”

She pushed at his hip. “Now go back and look out that window, and make sure nobody’s getting out of the trunk of that car, sneaking up into that house.”

__________________________________________________________

“You are amazing.”

As she lie in his arms, her back to him, his head resting on her shoulder, Jennifer marveled at her husband’s undiminished sexual prowess and his continued ability to finesse her into seeing things his way. It would be what she wanted to see, but his way.

… that nap must have done him a world of good….

“You drive me crazy, but you are absolutely amazing. But I don’t think you should be doing this so soon.”

Behind her in the bed, holding her close to him, he smiled, reassured by her compliment, ignoring her concern, and at peace with himself. He was fighting afterglow sleep, but at that point he owed it to her to stay awake.

After coming in from the hot tub, they had gone in to take a shower, where they made love a second time. The pain absent from his chest, so much had been gained in the effort, including getting back with the woman he now held so closely to his heart. He was ready for whatever she wanted to dish out.

Whatever.

He kissed the top of her head.

“I have a great, an amazing partner,” he answered. “I know I drive her crazy, and I’m sorry about that- a little bit. But she still loves me, and lets me love her. That’s all that really matters to me. I’m glad I can still love her. I worried a lot about that.”

“I know you did. Of all the other things that could have been wrong with you, I figured that was foremost in your mind.”

“Oh, so now I’m just a dirty old man, huh?”

“Any man who can do what you do so soon after coming off being so ill, is hardly old. Dirty maybe, but then I kind of like that in a guy.”

He squeezed her, intimately aware of the truth in it.

“I understood it wasn’t just the sex, itself, Jonathan. You worried about me, about us, the relationship, our marriage and that’s what makes me love you. It wasn’t just about you not being able to get the pleasure. You worried you wouldn’t be able to give it. That’s the kind of person you are. But with me, you didn’t have to worry about that. I’ve told you before, I love the man, the whole man, not just his, you know what I’m talking about.”

He squeezed her to him again. Jennifer was uninhibited in her private actions, but there was only so far she was going to go in the things she said- in a regular conversation, anyway.

“You’re generous and considerate,” she continued. “Even in the maddening things you do with J.J. and with yourself, I know you don’t do them to tick me off, you do them to appease her and because that’s who you are. And even in the things with J.J., it’s not so much to appease her, but you can see that allowing her to do certain things, grows and strengthens her and her spirit.”

He moved her away from him and sat up to look at her. In turn, she did the same.

“Jennifer, look,” he said. “I’m really sorry we didn’t tell you about the flying.”

“A jet, Jonathan? She’s sixteen. She’s not supposed to do that. You got away with it because the jet is yours, but-”

“But she can fly it. And it was just a little one. Okay, I know she probably shouldn’t be, but the fact of the matter is, she can. Jennifer, that is the toughest kid I’ve ever met. I just love her. Not just because she’s mine, but because she has so much heart, so much potential- I’m, I’m just overwhelmed sometimes that she’s mine to teach, and that I have the resources at hand to do it right.

“You know I’m not all that religious, but sometimes I feel like she got sent to us by some kind of special Divine order. She’s our only one, and she’s so smart and so game, and you and I are lucky enough to be able to provide her with the kinds of experiences a kid like her needs to grow. Not all kids come here so fortunate. You say I spoil her. Maybe I do, but I want her to be exposed to all kinds of things, and situations, and all kinds of people. I don’t want her scared to reach out and live. I want her to have the skills at her disposal that will allow her to spread those strong wings of hers when she’s off, soaring on her own.”

She smiled and shook her head at him.

“I’m not angry about the flying, itself. I was at first, but your child made me see the light. And Bill did, too. He said there was no way a child of yours, who once she told you she wanted to fly, was not going to learn how from you. I always suspected that was what you two were up to.”

“What exactly did J.J. say to you about it when you asked her that could possibly have made you stop being upset with us?”

“She said she didn’t want me to know because I wouldn’t have let her do it, and she was right. And just like she said, I wasn’t told, and now she knows how. She told me her flying a plane wasn’t any more dangerous than me getting into my car. She said I don’t get in thinking about something happening or what could go wrong. I just get in, and drive to where I intend to go, and that something bad happening is just a chance I take. She said that’s how it is for her with flying. Now is that something you taught her?”

“No, those have to be the wise words of Miss J.J. Hart. She put that comparison together herself.”

“But Jonathan, what did bother me was how scared she was afterward. She told me it wasn’t until later that night that she fell apart, and that was why she ended up running off to Pat and Bill. She tried hard not to tell me she was afraid. She tried to beat around the bush, make up all these other excuses for her behavior, but I broke her down and made her tell me, made her see for herself what was going on. She hates to admit to being afraid, but after all, she’s still, for these purposes, a little girl.”

At that, he sort of hung his head, his voice more subdued.

“I know. I realize that. I sort of figured it for coming down on her like that. When you told me what she’d done, I kind of thought that was what was happening with her. It’s a natural reaction, but I didn’t think she’d go to that extreme. As frightening as that might have been for her, though, the good thing is now she’s been through it. It’s one of those things you learn from when it’s all over. If she ever has to go through something like that again, she’ll be stronger for it. I hope to the bottom of my heart she never does, but it helps to know she’ll be more ready for it, if so.”

Then he looked up at her, that twinkle back in his eye. “She got me down okay, though, didn’t she? You should have seen her. She did everything absolutely perfectly. Then she picked me clean, just like I taught her. She stripped me of anything of value and of anything that said who I was. In the ambulance, she didn’t let them do anything to me that she didn’t question. They were trying to ask her questions about me and her, but if it wasn’t related to what was going on with me, she wasn’t giving up a thing. She was downright nasty and to the point. I was so proud.”

Jennifer could only look at him and marvel. Jonathan and his J.J.

And be glad she had already released the anger she initially harbored over that part of the whole thing. It would have been useless to hold onto that negative emotion. Jonathan Hart had actually taught his child to expertly roll and pickpocket somebody. He taught her to conceal his identity and hers. From what he said, she could actually hear J.J. being brusque and to the point, something she did quite easily if allowed to go unchecked, with the adult technicians in that truck, and  all her father could see was that she had done- successfully- what she had to do.

Outside of leaving her in the dark, it was obvious he harbored no other regrets over any aspect of teaching J.J. to fly that jet, and neither did J.J. Both of them saw what happened that past Saturday as merely an unfortunate occurrence, one they had all come through on the high side. As far as those two were concerned, their phenomenal good luck had once again held up. It worked out in the end.

But she decided to go ahead take the shots she still had coming.

Crossing over to him, she lay her head on his chest, while he put his arms around her again.

“Jonathan, why did you give J.J. your proxy code?”

She felt it when his breathing stopped, just for a quick second, while he hesitated before answering.

“I just felt she was old enough to have it,” he finally replied.

“Tell me the truth, darling. She told me you gave her that code right before the two of you left home for the ranch. You were feeling sick when you left Los Angeles, weren’t you? Before you went to the ranch with J.J., you had been sick a while, hadn’t you?”

“I was a little tired,” he admitted.

“Jonathan.”

“Okay, I didn’t feel all that well, but I wasn’t expecting something like that would happen. I had the thought she was old enough and responsible enough to have it should something happen to me while she was with me. She and I are together a lot. I anticipate we’ll be doing a lot more traveling together as she gets older. Maybe on some subconscious level, that’s why I did it, but I really wasn’t thinking I was that sick.”

She accepted that. It was feasible it hadn’t been a deliberate thing on his part. J.J. was sixteen, and she was very responsible when it came to handling her father’s business affairs when charged with them. Little by little, she could see him doing that more and more with her. Even she could see J.J. was showing a lot more interest in things that went on down at Hart.

She left that topic, and moved on. Running her fingers through the hair on his chest, she posed her next question.

“So now, Jonathan Hart, let’s discuss the matter of what I found in that little pocket.”

“What little pocket?” He peered down to her upturned face, assuming his most innocent expression.

She poked him in the arm. “You know full well what I’m talking about. Spill it.”

“They were sleeping pills and a couple of muscle relaxers,” he admitted. “You know I wasn’t taking anything like that.”

“But you did take the antibiotics.”

“Those I had to take. They fought the germ, or whatever that was they said I had. Them, I could see taking. I didn’t need help sleeping or relaxing- not like that. I hate pills, and I definitely don’t take that kind of junk. At night, after dinner and visiting hours, that’s the first thing they want to give you. I figured I could sleep or relax on my own.”

“So you just pretended to take them, and hid them once the nurses were gone.”

“How was I to know you would find them? In a recorder case? My luck is usually better than that.”

“Not when it comes to putting something past me. You and J.J. are hopeless. I cannot believe you just sat there and pretended to take them.”

“It was easier that way. I told you Nurse Ratched and her cronies had me staked out as her mark. I didn’t want her all over me, so I acted like I was doing things her way, you know, cooperating, to get her to leave me alone. She was on during the day when they gave me the antibiotics. Whether I wanted to take those or not, I had to down those with her in there with me. The rest of her team, the night shift, they weren’t as diligent with watching me take the other stuff.”

“And tell me that you didn’t get your jollies from fooling them all,” she said. “It was a power thing for you. Like not eating, wasn’t it?”

He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. They both knew the answer. Jonathan Hart did what he wanted to do, his way. He bent only when he wanted to bend, to those to whom he chose to bend. Like Clara. Even without all the usual spices, dinner had been delicious, and he had eaten his fill when she urged him to do so, fussing at him about looking as “skinny as rail”, whatever that meant.

“Did you call Anastasia?” he asked. “I would have, but I didn’t have my phone.”

“Don’t even try it. You could have used the house phone. You were just afraid she was going to ask you the same things I have about J.J. and that plane.”

“I’m not afraid of Anastasia,” he muttered, sounding a lot like his daughter sounded when called on something. “I would have phoned her. I was too tired, and I just fell asleep before I could, that’s all.”

“Yeah, right,” she said, grateful for the segue into the next thing. “Jonathan?”

“Hmmm?”

“What’s going on with you?”

She felt him bend his head down again to look at the top of hers, and she didn’t give him time to offer the knee-jerk stall question she was sure he was going to utter.

“You haven’t told me what’s been on your mind about a lot of things. I asked you at the hospital when you told me things were eating at you, but you didn’t answer me. I haven’t forgotten. You wouldn’t say if Dr. Chase was of any help to you. Stop shutting me out, Jonathan. If you can’t talk to me, who can you talk to? I won’t have you making yourself sick again.”

“Who said I made myself sick?”

“I did. Jonathan, I love you, and I know that’s what you did.”

She sat up and stared down into his face.

“Please talk to me. That’s why I brought us here. I didn’t want there to be any outside reason for you to feel you couldn’t tell me. It’s just us here, Jonathan. Trust me. Tell me.”

For a while, he lie there, his face turned from her, that crease deeply splitting his left eyebrow. Finally, she reached for his chin and turned his face back toward her.

“Tell me, baby,” she urged. “Let go of it.”

After searching her soulful, pleading eyes, he murmured, “I hate him.”

“Who, Jonathan?”

Again, he hesitated before answering her.

His voice and the look on his face, uncharacteristically desperate, he finally replied. “Jennifer, I’m not shutting you out. I really don’t know who it is.”

__________________________________________________________

“I’m turning in, J. Tonight was the bomb. I had a real good time and I’m so glad you’re home. I’m tired as hell. See you in the morning.”

“Okay, Marn. But we’re up early, remember. We have to meet the twins at the marina.”

“Just wake me up in the morning when you get up.”

“I will. Good night.”

J.J. returned the receiver of the house phone back to its cradle and went back to brushing then braiding her hair.

Since Marnie planned on staying for a few days and packed accordingly, she had moved into one of the guest bedrooms. It was the one she considered to be her room, since it was where she spent her lockdown time when she got shut down and sentenced by the Duchess.

She was tired, too, but it was good to be home. Showered and ready for bed, it was still not quite one o’clock in the morning. Aunt Pat hadn’t given them a curfew. She said anybody who had enough sense to fly a plane and when to bring it down in an emergency situation without losing her head, ought to have enough sense to know when to come home from hanging out.

Now that was the way it should be. To her, that made perfect sense.

She and Marnie hadn’t stayed out that much past midnight, but it was a lot more comfortable knowing they didn’t have to leave somewhere in order to make it across the threshold by twelve on the nose. Marnie was all set to take advantage and stay out a lot later, but the reality was things started breaking up shortly after midnight anyway.

Besides, she thought she could sense a setup on Aunt Pat’s part, and she wasn’t going to be caught slipping. This was just the first night. There were a few more nights ahead that they might want to get out. Aunt Pat wasn’t nearly as rigid as her best friend, but she was a lot less predictable.

Her real hope was once Jennifer Hart got home, if she continued to be responsible, Aunt Pat would talk her into lightening up some on the curfew.

Before getting over into the bed, she decided to check her email, which she hadn’t done since earlier that afternoon, when she sent Tommy a message to let him know that she was back at home and that her father had been released from the hospital. Opening her mailbox, there were two more messages from Teddy in response to the one she sent him to let him know that she was back at home. They talked back and forth by phone and email every day, sometimes more than once or twice, but it was always delightful to hear from him. Reading even farther down the list, she stopped, surprised and delighted at the message from Tommy. His even had an attachment.

Sending that message to print, and his attachment to download, she flipped through her other messages while waiting. As she read the most important one directly from the screen, she had to smile.

Good evening,

I trust you’re behaving.

Tell your little girlfriend  I said to keep herself in check, as well.She doesn’t want to have to deal with me. Aunt Pat isn’t me, but you two fully understand what I expect of you.

J.J., take your vitamins; please don’t “forget”. Drink lots of water, and lay off so much Coke. You’re going to drink it, but do it in moderation. Also, keep in mind too many chocolate chip cookies and too much junk food gives you pimples, and I’ll be able to tell what you’ve been doing by the condition of your face. Speaking of that, don’t forget your sunscreen when you go out on that boat, you’re at the pool, or you’re out on the beach.

I’m nagging, but I don’t care. I’m your mother, and that gives me the right.

Plus I love you, and I want what’s best for you.

Sweet dreams, my sweet Justine

“Sweet dreams to you, too, Mom.”

She clicked over to check out what she downloaded. It was a picture of Tommy and three other guys, taken on a beach. From the background, she could tell that it was taken in or near Barcelona. There was a castle-fortress-like structure behind them that she vaguely recognized.

After sticking a sheet of photo paper in, she printed out the picture as well. Retrieving both items from the printer tray, she took them and got over into the bedto read what he had written.

Hi, J.

Look, it’s me in Sitges, a small resort town near my Uncle’s place. Have you ever come here to visit? These are two of my cousins, and my tutor. On my left is Julio. On the right is Luis and Domenec. Julio and Luis are brothers, but not twins even though they look so much alike.   Domenec, I told you before, is my tutor, but he’s also my friend. Carlo, my other cousin, who of course isn’t in it with us, took the picture. They’re all great guys.

Thanks for keeping me posted about your father. I’m glad he’s out of the hospital, and that you’re back home. I told you he would be all right. He’s nobody’s wimp, and you can’t keep a good man like him down. I’m glad your mother took him away, though. She knew what to do. If he was anywhere near Hart Industries, he would be trying to go back to work. He does need to take it easy for a minute.

My cousins have friends here in Sitges who own a yacht. We took that picture when we got here this morning. We’ll be taking off in a bit, and we’ll be gone the rest of the weekend until Sunday night. We work so much most of the time that we don’t get to lay around like this a lot. Uncle Josef told us to go and rest. It’s fun to just be able to chill and have a good time for once. My command of the language is coming along. I won’t starve now, and I can ask directions pretty well.

My grandmother is back home in LA. When you get a chance, would you check on her for me? Every now and then, give her a call? I’d appreciate that.

It’s so nice here. I’d like to be sharing this with you. We could walk around, do the shops, visit the galleries. The architecture here in Spain, and everywhere else I’ve been here in Europe so far, just blows me away. The history behind it is amazing, but then they’ve had a head start on us in the States terms of how long they’ve had to get it together. Then, too, I think they have more appreciation for historic architecture than we do. What would get torn down to make a parking lot in the States, would be restored and preserved over here.

J.J., I love it. I know why your parents come here so much. It’s like since I’m constantly surrounded by beautiful things, buildings, artwork, culture all the time, it’s feeding my brain or something. You should see the sketches I’ve done. There’s so much to learn, and I’m learning so much. I know I haven’t been here that long, but it feels like I should have been here all my life. But then, if I had, I wouldn’t have met you, would I?

I miss you, J. I miss everybody, but I miss talking to you the most. I don’t type well enough to say all I have to say.

Well, I’d better go. I’m on Carlo’s laptop and he needs it back to download the pictures from the camera. I’ll write again when I’m back in Barcelona.

Love you, girl.

Tommy

She brought back to the top the picture she printed out to more closely look at it.

Yes, she had been to Sitges. Her mother had taken her there a couple of times after coming to Perpignan to pick her up from Aunt Sabrina’s. Most of the time, they didn’t come straight home when they left their aunt’s. Her mother liked to stop and spend a couple of days in different places in France, most of the time Paris, or every now and then, Spain to shop and or to visit friends.

It fascinated her how much Tommy resembled his cousins. They looked like brothers, all of them with the same features, including their size, the hair, and those same deep dimples. Once again she was intrigued by the part genetics played in people’s lives. Heredity was such a powerful thing. Tommy never once met his father, but according to the pictures she’d seen of him, Mr. Steele was all over Tommy. Tommy and his grandmother, his father’s mother, looked more like mother and son than Tommy and his natural mother.

Continuing to study the photo, she noted that all of them in that picture were quite handsome. Tommy was way younger than the others, but he, too, was getting to be very much so. Maybe, she thought, he had always been, and she just hadn’t noticed it before because they were always together. If she were in the room with her, Marnie would be drooling over the cousins. It wouldn’t matter to her that they were way too old for her. And then Marnie would be picking at her about letting Tommy go off to Spain, thereby allowing him to off the hook.

Tommy went to Spain of his own accord, and he was never on any hook of hers. She didn’t carry hooks.

Obviously nobody was on Tommy about his hair. He had always preferred it long, but now it was down to his shoulders. Evidently he was spending a lot of time in the sun; he was more tanned than ever. Honing in on just him, it occurred to her that she was looking at one of those photographs where even the person viewing it could tell how happy and content the subject was.

The thought hit hard enough to make her stomach momentarily ache: Tommy was at home in Spain.

… He might not ever come back here to stay….

Shaking off the sick, refusing to entertain any more bad feelings, she reached beneath her pillow and pulled out her journal. After folding the email message, she placed it between the pages of the book along with his previous email to her, the one she got in Reno. The picture, she slid into the top drawer of her night table to be moved to a more suitable place in the morning.

Her writing pen was stuck in the journal at the place where she left off writing on the night before. The journal and pen had traveled with her every step during her recent ordeal; LA to Colorado, Colorado to Las Vegas, Vegas to Reno, Reno to Vegas; and Vegas to home. There was still so much more she had to say.

She settled in and began  to write, ignoring her shaking hand.

When my mother finally does come home, I’ll definitely have to see her about getting another book. I want one to match this one, so that it can be Vol.II or something. She gave me this one when I turned sixteen last May. It’s only August, but I’m already running out of pages. Either I’m going to have to learn to write less, or so much stuff needs to stop happening to me.

Since neither one of those things is likely to happen, I guess it might be wise to maybe go ahead and put in a request for two books to finish this year out, just in case.

I had Chase put $20. on Lightfoot for me and another $20. for Daddy through his hookup at Santa Anita while we were gone. Chase wasn’t so sure about my pick, but I told him it was a sure thing. I had done my homework. We cleaned up.

He had my harvest for me when he met Marnie and me at the DQ tonight, plus he gave me a cut of his for tipping him off. I told Daddy I puthis envelope in his desk for him when I talked to him on the phone this evening. I’ll be so glad when Chase and I can cut out the middle man. It’ll be straight profit, then.

I hope to God the Duchess doesn’t find out about this….

__________________________________________________________

After admitting to her that one confusing detail, Jonathan lifted Jennifer from his chest and got up from the bed. Surprised by the move, she watched as he picked up their robes from the bench at the bed’s foot and tossed hers up to her before putting on his own.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“I just can’t be inside,” he answered as he tied the belt around his waist.

His words confirmed what she already suspected about him. “When I’m awake, I want to be where there aren’t any walls.” He looked up to the head of the bed where she still lie watching him. “And I want to be out there with you. Thank you for bringing me here.”

He left her to go into the smaller adjoining room in their suite, and as she watched him go, she was struck by how smoothly he had once again turned things around on her. Shaking her head in amusement, she got up and pulled on her robe. A few minutes later, he came back into the bedroom with a folded blanket held tightly under one arm.

With his free hand, he took hers. “Come on.”

They left through the door that led to their private deck and took the winding staircase down to the portico. Crossing the second deck, the wooden stairs would take them down to the beach.

“Jonathan, we haven’t done anything like this in ages. It’s the middle of the night. If Clara catches sight of us, she’ll be appalled at your being up and outside in the air like this.”

“Actually, it’s the best part of the morning,” he said. “And if Clara would mind her business as well as she tries to mind mine, she wouldn’t have that problem. I don’t know why it is I attract such bossy women in my life; Anastasia, Rosie, Clara, Pat Hamilton, Nurse Ratched and the girls, occasionally, J.J. Hart- ”

“Am I not included in that group?”

“Yours comes with a trade-off,” he grinned down at her. “It’s not quite bossing when you like it. What I wouldn’t give to have Max back. Nothing you and I did appalled him.”

“No,” she agreed, smiling at the quick flashes of recollections of times past. “I don’t think anything we did shocked him after being with us so long. He became quite jaded.”

Barefoot, they stepped out into the sand. When they were close enough to be able to appreciate the surf, but far enough back to be completely out of its reach, he stopped and set down the blanket, carefully folding it open. Inside were two bottles of cold water and a box of Goldfish crackers, which he handed up to her. “Hold these for a minute.”

Standing again, he spread the blanket out on the sand. They both sat down and he took from her one of the bottles of water.

“It’s not wine, but I’m trying to play by the rules,” he said.

“For once.” She smiled. “A bottle of water, a box of crackers, and thou. I can live with that.”

For a few minutes, they sat in silence.

Turning to the ocean which in keeping her awake had put her back where she wanted to be, she inhaled deeply, relishing the solitude and the cool predawn breeze. For his part, he studied her, grateful to still be there with her while continuing to privately celebrate that he could still be there for her. Sleeping pills and muscle relaxers, he could definitely do without. All he needed was to kill that poison in his chest, and then he would be fine.

When she turned back to him, her eyes reached in and touched something way down deep inside of him, just as they had the very first time he looked into them.

“Jonathan.”

“I know,” he answered. “I need to clarify. I just couldn’t do it up there. I felt I could think better out here. Maybe I can explain myself better.”

Holding out her arms, she invited him to come to her. He rolled onto this back and put his head in her lap.

“You really must get a proper haircut,” She said as she used her fingers to comb it back from where it had fallen across his forehead.

He ran his own fingers through it, mostly just to come into contact with hers.

“My daughter likes it like this.”

“Your daughter,is a Bohemian of the highest order. And if I’d let you, you wouldn’t be too far behind her. Thank you for shaving.”

She patted his check. “Now talk to me.”

He closed his eyes and folded his hands across his midsection, but didn’t say anything right away.

“It isn’t like you to hate, Jonathan. To hate takes negative energy, and you aren’t one to waste time expending negative energy. Your soul is too gentle and compassionate for hate.”

His answer came strained, in a near whisper.

“I didn’t know I did. It took me a long while to recognize it for what it was. But I realize now it’s not something over which I have any control because I don’t know the exact source of it. I just know it’s in me. It’s a part of me. It’s been there all the time, but I’m only now, after all this time, seeing it for what it is.”

“What do you think is the cause of your finally seeing it?”

“I don’t really know that for sure either. I think it’s got to do with J.J. I keep dreaming about her; her with you, her with her friends, her with me. In the dreams she’s a baby sometimes, or a little girl. Sometimes it’s in the present. All the while I was in the hospital, when I was able to sleep, that was mostly what I dreamt.”

“You love her. You probably missed her. You didn’t get to see very much of her while you were there.”

“It was more than that.”

He couldn’t tell her about the empty eyes staring up at him from the floor. That detail couldn’t be pushed far enough up from inside of him to get it to his tongue. Her hands forced his apart and closed themselves around each of his.

“Do you think- could it have- have something to do with the thing that happened with Wesley?” she asked.

His eyes squeezed together even more tightly at the sound of the boy’s name.

“Maybe. Sort of… I- I- I really wanted to kill him, Jennifer. I went up there with the intention of putting him out of his misery.”

“No, you didn’t. You were angry, but you didn’t intend to kill him.”

“Yes, darling, believe me, I did. I’ve rolled it over and over in my mind, and that’s exactly what I was going to do. There’s no denying it. Wesley and what he was doing to J.J., trying to force himself on her, I think dredged up some old, pent-up, beaten back stuff within me. See, I’ve always been ultra-protective toward women.

“Jennifer, you know how little boys and girls go through that stage where they can’t stand the opposite sex?”

“Yes.”

“The worst thing a guy could do around me, even as a little kid, was to hurt a female.”

“But Jonathan, that’s because you’re a natural gentleman. It’s also because you are unusually sensitive for a man.”

He shook his head. “I think it’s more than that.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I realize I’m saying that I don’t know a lot, but I really don’t know for sure. It’s just a feeling I get down in my gut. When I was in the Service, we’d be out on the water for long periods of time, just us guys. Then, we’d get shore leave, and some people would go out into the city or wherever acting like hungry animals in search of prey. Some ugly things happened at times. I’d get sick to my stomach with anger when they did. Every now and then, things got physical over it. I hated, I hate that.”

“I still say-”

“You’re not hearing me, Jennifer. Something happened to me, I think, to make me like that. It happened back before I can remember anything.”

He kept his eyes closed to avoid the look in hers. Jennifer’s emotions played out in her eyes, and he didn’t want to be witness to what she might be feeling, although her hands on his were transmitting quite a message of their own.

There was a hesitation before she cautiously asked, “To your mother, maybe?”

He turned his face away from her completely.

“I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t want to know. Ever since we were at Briarwood that last time, and you were working through getting back with your mother, I’ve been having dreams and what seem like flashbacks. J.J. is always prominently featured in them, but I think she’s only representative.”

“Representative of what?”

“I have no idea.”

She bent down to press her lips to his cheek. He turned his head, so that he was again facing upward, but kept his eyes closed. With one hand, she reached inside his robe to gently massage his chest while she continued to hold his hand with the other.

“Jonathan, when did you first start feeling sick? Tell me how it came on you.”

A powerful sigh built in his abdomen and pushed its way up through his system, taking its time in making its loud exit. When it was done with him, it relaxed him enough to reply.

“I can’t say exactly when it started. Maybe it was when J.J. got kidnapped. Maybe it was when she was being bothered by Baker. I don’t know, but I’ve been on high alert since then. She’s getting to be so tall, so pretty, so…. She’s so popular. Guys can’t help but notice her. She’s got an attractive quality that’s a lot like you. Like Sabrina. I dislike even thinking about it terms of my child. In fact, she’s going to have it to an even greater extent than you two, and the hard part is, she doesn’t know it or care about it. I’ve seen grown men looking at her, some of them friends and acquaintances of mine.”

He was stopped by another heavy sigh. Her hand on his chest felt good. When she started to pull away, he indicated with his free hand that she shouldn’t. As she resumed her massage, he continued his story.

“It was gradual, like nothing much at first. I thought I was tired. Hell, I’m sixty. I figured I was bound to feel a twinge or something every now and then, and that’s all it was at the start. Then the thing started with Wesley. When first Marie, and then finally J.J. brought it to me, I knew Wesley had stepped it up to a questionable level. J.J. never would have brought me into it if she wasn’t bothered by it. She told me she’d already mentioned it to you, and that she asked you to keep it to yourself. For her to come to me meant he was acting crazy, crazier than she was comfortable with. J.J., she’s tough. She tries to take care of her own problems. If she felt it was beyond her, it was serious.

“Then after that night on the bluff with him, once I got home; I thought it was over. Down the line, I found out that it wasn’t. Not for me, anyway. I was so deep, down angry with that boy. He was following her, endangering her, showing up in places to bother her, even downtown at the Towers. I could not believe the depth of… hate… I felt for him that night. I don’t generally dislike kids, but there isn’t another word for what I felt for him that night.

“Jennifer, he brought a gun up on that bluff where he thought J.J. and Teddy were. In my head, it’s been going around and around. What was he planning to do to them if we hadn’t been there? Then he turned that gun on me.”

“He was high, Jonathan. Out of his head.”

“I don’t give a damn. That doesn’t change the fact he brought a gun up there in pursuit of my daughter. In fact, that makes it even worse. He had that date rape shit in his pocket. What was he planning to do? Shoot Teddy and then drug and rape J.J.? If we hadn’t been there that night, and he had gotten to them, I’d have hunted him down and done him by now.”

By this time, his breathing came heavy and rapid, his skin felt hot and sticky despite the coolness of the air. Underneath the softness of her hand and up in his head he could feel and hear his heart pounding, practically hammering in his chest. She bent down, close to him again.

“Darling, for the sake of your health, you are going to have to let that go.”

“I’ve been trying to, Jennifer, but things keep coming back to me, making it stay in my head.”

“What things?”

“Guys like Wesley don’t quit. They keep coming back and coming back, stalking and hanging around. Georgette and William can get him all the rehab they want. They might cure him of the drug thing, but I doubt they can cure him of his behavior toward girls. I’ve seen it before. I’ve read up on it. I know in my heart that he’ll be back for her, and if so, it might not be at a time or a place where I can protect her.”

When Jennifer didn’t say anything and he felt her body stiffen, he opened his eyes. Her head was turned, and she was looking out toward the water again. She brought a quick hand to her eye, wiping at it.

Seeing that, he sat up and put an arm around her. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

In answer, she lay her head back against his shoulder. Her tears, he realized, had nothing directly to do with him or what he said. It was the nature of his discourse. Jennifer, he surmised once again, had been there. He didn’t ask; she wasn’t going to tell him. He had tried so many times. Putting both arms around her, he held her close.

“She’s very strong,” she said to him, “and very smart. She has a lot of common sense, and she’s mean. I don’t think she’d tolerate a lot of nonsense on his part were he to start up again. We can’t protect her from everything. She’ll soon be grown up, and there will only be so much she’ll allow us to do, even if we’d like to. All we can do is continue to reinforce the things we’ve been teaching her about valuing herself and taking care of herself.”

“I guess,” he said, “but that’s of little consolation to me. I’m her father.”

“Jonathan, do you think something happened to your mother and that you might be trying to remember it? Do you think Wesley could be representative of something or someone as well?”

“I don’t know. If that’s so, I don’t want to remember it. I don’t want to have to deal with that if there is something to deal with.

“Jennifer, you and J.J. probably can’t understand. Your experiences along those lines have been very different from mine. The only reason I would want to find anything like that out would be for J.J., not for me. I’m done with that. Knowing something like that can’t help me now. My life has turned out just fine despite not knowing. I have all I need and want. If something happened to my mother, it would only bother me to know it.”

“It won’t go away, Jonathan, just because you choose to not deal with it. If it’s in there, and it’s trying to get out, it will.”

“Then, that’s when I’ll deal with it.  Maybe something did happen to my mother, and it is bothering me now, but this level of it, I can handle. All I want to do now is make sure that my family is happy and safe. J.J. doesn’t talk to me about not knowing about my parents any more, but I’m sure that doesn’t mean she’s let go of it. I’ve decided that if she wants to know, I won’t stop her from finding out. I won’t help her, but I won’t get in her way. I have to concentrate my efforts on the present.”

“Can you leave it, just like that, Jonathan?”

“Yes, I can, darling. I have to. I really thought I was a goner in that hospital those first couple of days I was there. I’ve never had anything in my life knock me down like that. But I think I got knocked down for a reason. Samuels had me flat on my back with nothing to do, with nothing to distract me, so all I could do was go over things in my head. I discovered there’s a hate in me for someone. I don’t know who. It’s not exactly Wesley, but he was definitely a catalyst for stirring it up in me.

“In that hospital, I dealt with that. It knew it was making me sick, and bottom line all I really wanted to do was get back to myself, out of there, and back with you, so I dealt with it.

“Every time I have one of those moments where I’m questioning the reason for my existence, and acting like I’m not grateful for my good fortune, somebody pushes something in my face to make me see it. This time it came in the form of another little boy who started out with very little, but worked hard to make something out of what he had. He told me he used me to do it, and that was great. I’ve thought about him from time to time since he left us to go back with his mother. I’ve thought of him less since I had my own kid, but he was still thinking about me. If that hadn’t happened to me, and I hadn’t landed in that particular hospital, I might never have found out about that.

“But I reaffirmed something else while I was there. You, Jennifer Hart, are what’s most important in my life. None of the other would matter one whit, if it weren’t for you. When you weren’t there with me in that hospital, I wasn’t right. I felt lost and alone. Scared.

“Before you came into my life, I had good experiences, friends. I had material success, material wealth, but somehow, I wasn’t complete. I thought because of the being an orphan thing, I never would be. I didn’t have a family, not the kind I wanted anyway, and despite everything else I had, that was the one thing I wanted more than anything.

“Then I met you, and it all came together. Before you, there was always that hole in me. It was bigger before Max came into my life. He patched up some of it, but you filled it in completely. Life and living took on a whole new meaning with you. I love J.J., but the bottom line is, I wouldn’t have that girl in my life if it weren’t for you. Not knowing my parents means nothing to me now. As crazy and as much of a cop-out as it might sound to you, I really don’t care about that any more. Before J.J., you and Max were all the family I needed. With J.J., it’s been heaven. She’s my girl, but you are my partner, my heart.

“Plain and simple, I was absolutely terrified all of that was being threatened. Jennifer I can handle anything as long as I know you’re going to be with me in it. So yes, to answer your question, and end a long story, I can leave it just like that.”

She leaned back to kiss him.

Then she asked, “What about Wesley? You said you fear he’ll be back. He goes to college in Massachusetts. MIT wants J.J., and I think she’s leaning in that direction. It’s a little down the line, but it’s coming. What then? How will you handle that happening? He’ll finish before her, but there may be at least a year that he’s still in the state with her.”

He shook his head.

“Wesley won’t be there. Our lawyers are busy right now making sure of that. I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to mess up his life, but I won’t have my daughter’s future crippled either. Since he’s the problem, he can alter his future. I’m doing everything I possibly can to insure J.J. will be safe, and that he can get on with his life once he’s better. But that’s the best I can do. If he comes near her again with that bull, all bets are off. That’s not a threat. It’s a promise.”

She nodded against him and said, “Okay.”

He was a little surprised when she didn’t protest against his last statement, but he thought he understood her acquiescence to it. Whatever it was, he wished he could have been there for her. The best he could do for her was to clean up his own mess.

“Jennifer, when we were in the car earlier today, I know you were angry with me. J.J. and I were selfish in doing what we did. We didn’t intend to be, but in teaching her to fly, I’m thinking. ‘Well, I’ll be up here with her.’ I figured if something happened, I’d be with her then, too. I know that’s crossed your mind. Neither of us considered that in that scenario, we would be leaving you alone. Both of us kind of have that tunnel vision thing. ”

“It’s all right. I understand that about both of you. You didn’t mean any harm. You call yourselves sparing someone, but you underestimate your worth to others, both of you. You love, but you fail to see just how much you’re loved and cherished in return. It’s an odd element of selflessness that both of you have as part of your nature.”

“I’m sorry for all I’ve done to make you angry. I would never purposely do anything to hurt you. I wish I could take all of this away, all of what happened, but-”

“But then, it wouldn’t be you, would it? Just like you say I am to you, you are my partner and my heart. I’m in it for the long haul, and I’m in it all the way. You are who you are, and that’s the man I fell in love with, warts and all.”

“Warts?”

She laughed. “Warts, Jonathan Hart. Warts.”

Taking hold of her chin, he turned her face around to his.

“I’ll give you warts,” he murmured. He kissed her while at the same time, sliding his hand inside her robe.

A few skillful maneuvers ended up with her seated, facing him, straddling his lap.

“Ooh,” she crooned into his neck, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Three times in one night? I cannot believe you. You should have heart trouble more often.”

“Mmmm,” he hummed as he moved with her to facilitate their bodies being intimately joined one more time. “I was pent up. If this is the cure, I expect I’ll be having heart trouble the rest of my life. Stay close to mine, Jennifer.”

“You just try closing me out or chasing me away,” she challenged. “You’ll find yourself having heart trouble for real.”

Closing her eyes, she rocked against him, taking pleasure in his strength, his style and his endurance.

Isn’t he supposed to be sick?

Her husband was quite a guy. And she had been kind to him, as instructed.

It had not been as down and dirty an effort as she initially thought it might turn out to be, at least not in the sense she thought it would be. As usual, Jonathan Hart had done things his way. Events had taken a different course than she anticipated; he opened up to her as much as was possible for him to do. Whether or not he was finished with it or it was finished with him remained to be seen. Since they landed in the same place and together, she considered the mission successfully accomplished.

“Welcome home,” she whispered to him as he buried his face between her breasts, and she kissed the top of his head. “I love you.”

She had, and would always be putty in his hands, but he didn’t need to know that. It wouldn’t do to admit as much to him.

__________________________________________________________

When dawn made its first peek over the horizon, Jonathan smiled to the awakening heavens. It was his favorite time of day. He lie admiring it just a little longer before shaking awake his wife who was snuggled so close she was practically underneath him.

“Come on, let’s go in,” he whispered to her. “Leave the stuff. I’ll come out for it later.”

Leaving the blanket and the other things behind, they returned to the house. Dog- tired after putting Jennifer to bed, his last act for the next several hours was to call down to Clara to tell her to skip breakfast and lunch for them. He could still hear her fussing as he lay down the receiver and rolled over to take Jennifer in his arms.

__________________________________________________________

Finale

It was Monday, mid afternoon, when the car pulled up the gates of 3100 Willow Pond Road. Waiting in the drive to be admitted was a delivery truck from Guido’s. Behind the truck, seated on his motorcycle was Chase Barnett, who upon noticing the car drive up behind him, waved, and at the same time pulled out his cell phone.

“I guess the inmates have taken over the asylum,” Jonathan remarked as he activated his remote to open the gates and then turned to his wife. “Pizza truck. Not a good sign.”

“You see Chase up there on that cell of his, probably putting in the warning call to the others,” she said. “I can only imagine what we’ll encounter. Pat and Bill are probably tied up in the guest house.”

Then they both snickered over her choice of words.

“Knowing Bill and Pat, they probably are,” he said, grinning and rakishy lifting his eyebrows.

He turned back to the window. Rounding the curve, a colorful, animated tableau came into his line of vision. “When did you say school goes back?”

“Wednesday. The Wild Bunch all go back on Wednesday.”

“Then we probably should have stayed in Malibu until Tuesday night.”

The picnic/party was at the water’s edge, blankets and teenagers spread out on the grass, music playing. Their two canoes and somebody’s kayak were in the water, full of kids and bobbing precariously as a beach ball was being swatted and bounced back and forth between them. Cars and trucks lined the curb. Chase swerved his motorcycle to the right to park it with the other vehicles. Jonathan ordered their car be pulled to the curb adjacent, directly behind where the pizza truck had stopped.

Through the closed windows of the car, they heard squeals and calls of, “Daddy! Mr. H.! Welcome home!”

“Like music to my ears,” He said, smiling and air kissing Jennifer before opening the car door and stepping out to greet his adoring young fans.

She stayed behind, allowing her husband his moment, looking on as he was surrounded then swallowed up by the throng of kids eager and happy to see him back on his feet and at home again.

“The Pied Piper,” she thought with a smile and huge measure of gratitude.

Children had always taken to Jonathan, trusted him, loved him, and looked up to him. It was no wonder, Jonathan, Jr. hadn’t been able to let go of the image of him as his father. Jonathan Hart, Sr. was a fine man, and kids had a way of telling when someone cared and was being genuine with them. Whoever Jonathan’s parents were, they had certainly missed out on a fine child themselves. Anastasia always saw it in him, but it wasn’t in her nature to come out and say. Max said he always knew it, and he had been proud of the man the boy became. It took a special person to raise a child who could easily have taken the wrong path into such a fine adult.

A hand reached inside the car, immediately followed by that fresh, freckle-nosed face.

“Hi, Mom. Aren’t you getting out?”

Jennifer took the offered hand, but pulled J.J. into the car, onto the seat with her.

“I guess you’re wondering,” J.J. said, gesturing to the open car door, “about all this.”

“It has crossed my mind, Justine.”

“Daddy looks great. You must have taken good care of him.”

Their eyes met for a moment, J.J. grimaced as if to say, “Oops!” when Jennifer gave her ‘the look’.

“Tell me about the party, J.J.”

J.J. went right into explaining, talking fast, attempting to cover the topic at hand as well as her tracks.

“See, me and Marnie have been very good. Aunt Pat said we could have a few people over because we’ve been behaving so well. We even made you a disc to use when you have the thank you cards printed for Daddy’s flowers and cards. You should see it, the house looks like a florists’ shop. I’ve been collecting all the addresses, putting them into a database, which I’ve saved to the disc. That way you won’t have to go through your master list, picking through to whom you had to respond or adding anybody who wasn’t there. This one is just for the flowers and cards he got this time. I called and the printer says all you have to do is bring the disc when you come in to place your order, and they’ll put the addresses and our return address right on the envelopes and save you, well, probably me, from having to write all that.

“We’ve done everything like Aunt Pat said, so she let us have a few people over for a back-to-school picnic today.”

By the time she finished, J.J. was out of breath and flushed.

Jennifer, close to laughter, smiled and patted her cheek.

“Calm down, baby. It’s okay. Thank you for that doing that. I appreciate it.”

J.J. exhaled with relief and then hugged her. “I’m glad you’re home, Mom. Look, no zits. And I took my vitamins every day.”

Then Marnie stuck her head inside.

“Hey, Mrs. H. I missed you.” She stretched out her neck. “No hickeys or anything, see.”

“Finally learned to get them in hidden places, have you?” Jennifer asked, cocking the eyebrow at Marnie while J.J. looked on, smirking behind her hand.

It took Marnie a couple of seconds to realize she was being teased.

“Aw, Mrs. H.,” she whined as J.J. and her mother sputtered with laughter. “Why do you want to play me like that? I didn’t even go on any dates. I was with J. or the girls the whole time.”

Reaching around J.J. for Marnie, Jennifer hugged both girls to her. “I’m glad you didn’t worry Pat and Bill. It’s good to be home with you both.”

“We were real responsible with the car,” Marnie insisted. “Came home in a timely manner and everything.”

“Yep,” J.J. nodded. “You can ask Aunt Pat.”

They were laying it on thick, and sensing a setup of some sort, Jennifer ushered them out of the car, and got out herself. Jonathan was up on the bridge with Pat and Bill. While the girls ran back off to their friends, she walked up the bridge to join the others.

“I see you got suckered,” she said to Pat. “They told you a “few” kids, didn’t they? How many are out there now? Fifteen, twenty, thirty-five? You have to make them define the word “few”, Patricia. You should this by now.”

Pat, standing with her hands on her hips, waiting for her, declared, “I don’t care. Those girls were perfect angels. Not a moment’s trouble. They can have whatever they want from Aunt Pat.”

The two old friends hugged each other.

“Thanks,” Jennifer whispered in Pat’s ear.

“No problem,” Pat whispered back. “Everything okay?”

“Wonderful. What is it they want from me?”

“Their curfew extended, but we’ll talk about that later.”

“Yeah, they can have anything they want,” Bill loudly declared. “As long as old Uncle Bill is footing the tab.”

As Bill pulled his wallet from his back pocket for the approaching pizza guy, Jonathan patted him on the back.

“That’s what Godfather’s are for; to step in when the real daddy is away.”

Bill waved him off. “Hell, if I didn’t know before, I do now. I know why I didn’t have any girls. Swimsuits, boys, shorts, mini skirts, phones ringing, boys, shopping, nails and hair, boys, cars, boys. I’m going back to Reno where it’s quiet and there’s only grandsons to contend with.”

While Bill took care of the tab, Jonathan looked out over the railing to the children frolicking below. It felt good to know the kids liked him and to feel they could come to him. In spite of the noise and the occasional mess, he was happy to be able to provide a haven where kids could feel comfortable and have fun. In the early days it had been his and Jennifer’s sanctuary. Over the past sixteen years, it had become one for their child and that eclectic crew of hers.

He honed in for a moment on that one pony-tailed redhead, the one wearing the sun visor over her eyes and a basketball jersey over her swimsuit as she expertly shuffled and then dealt cards to a group seated with her on a blanket in the grass. She hadn’t said very much to him. Just kissed him and then run off to go find her mother. That was okay. A girl needed her mother. She and he would get together later, when they were alone. They had to compare notes, and then, too, there was that package she had waiting for him in his desk, as well as her latest picks that they still needed to go over. That girl and her buddy, Chase were good, as good as he had been at sixteen and seventeen.

If Jennifer ever got the whole story behind that

And he still had some serious things of his own to talk over with J.J. She probably had a lot more to tell him.

His eyes took in the leafy, velvet green vistas all around him as the water glistened and splashed with youthful activity underneath him. For a little orphan boy, he had done all right. A short time before, a little more than a week, he was stuck in a hospital, scared and wondering if he’d ever make it back there. Lady luck, and Jennifer had flown in under him and held him up one more time. Not to mention, Anastasia, who had always come through in the clutch.

Always the ladies….

Now he was home again. It might have started out bleakly, but his life had turned out just fine. A boy who had chosen him as his father, who had grown up to be a surgeon. Another boy, who was his in spirit, across the water, learning and growing. And that girl sent special delivery to him and Jennifer who held a world of possibility in the palm of her hand. Who needed to know more than that? Not him, he didn’t think. The past didn’t matter. The “issue” for him would be effectively dealing with the stress in his present.

Three months without flying on his own. That was going to be a tough pill to take. But if it meant keeping a clean record and being able to fly with J.J. afterward, he guessed he would have to swallow that one down. Jack could work with her in the meantime.

J.J. Hart- take lots of deep breaths.

An arm draped itself about his shoulders, and a kiss was planted on his cheek. Those lips and that arm, he’d recognize the touch of them anywhere. If he didn’t know them before, in the past few days, he and all of her had been intimately reacquainted. Life was so good.

“It’s been a long journey, Mrs. Hart,” he said. “Seems like we’ve been gone forever.”

“Yes, but you know that, any trip that ends up here- with us alive, and well, and in the same place-”

“Is a good one,” he finished, returning her kiss.

“I have something for you, Jonathan.” Taking his hand, she slipped his wedding ring back onto his finger.

“I wondered when you or if you were going to give that back. I was afraid to ask. What about my phone?”

“In due time,” she answered with a mischievous smile. “You earned the ring. Now, what are you going to give me for the phone?”

“Same thing I gave you for the ring,” he winked. “Just more of it.”

“Oooh,” she grinned, biting her lip and wrinkling her nose. “Is that a threat, Mr. Hart?”

“Jennifer, it’s a promise,.”

“Stop talking filth,” Pat interjected over Jennifer’s shoulder. “Come on, Marie’s waiting lunch for us up at the house.”

“What?” Jonathan asked, holding out his hands, an expression of confusion and disappointment on his face. “We’re not having any pizza?”

Exasperated, Jennifer cut her eyes to him and then snatched him by the hand was gesturing down toward the kids on the grass who were happily distributing pizza slices among them.

“Come on, you! You are absolutely hopeless.”

They, Bill and Pat walked back down the bridge, got into the car, and continued on up to the main house on Willow Pond.

To home.

End

“Close to the Hart”, the video by T. Flowers

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