Close to the Hart: Part Three

PLEASE NOTE:  This story contains scenes which may not be suitable for all readers. If you are offended by material of a sexually explicit nature, please do not proceed

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Part Three

With Jennifer gone for the night, the desolate loneliness accompanied by that subtle, insomnia-producing threat of panic, returned in full. Removed from the Intensive Care Unit and placed in a private room in a less public section of the cardiac unit did nothing much to alleviate those feelings. He still hated the hospital and being held away from his family. It also didn’t help that he still wasn’t allowed a television, phone, or reading material.

“How in the hell do they expect me to rest when all I can do is lie here and dwell on what’s wrong?”

Willing himself to breathe evenly, pushing away the stifling anxiety from his conscious mind, Jonathan did what he had been training himself to do since his admission- adjusted his focus to other things.

Those few days in the hospital had; however, allowed him to configure his strategy for playing the game. He quickly figured it out that being openly resistant only made the powers in place more attentive and supplicating. If he went along with things, the doctors, nurses, and techs tended to come, do what they had to do, and then leave him to “rest”.

His erratic sleep patterns had been noted on his chart, so when that young, too-smiley nurse came in earlier that evening with the sleeping tablets, he pleasantly accepted the two tiny pills, put them in his mouth, and chased them with a swallow of water. Then he complacently lie back and waited for her to leave before digging them out from that dry place under his tongue where he learned to put the aspirins and Tylenol Jennifer sometimes forced upon him for his colds. Believing them to be crutches, he detested taking pills and other medications. In his estimation, the human body was designed to take care of itself most of the time. Medicine and other such artificial aids made the system dependent upon them, thereby weakening that natural ability. If he was tired, his body would put him to sleep when it was ready. Since he hadn’t been able to get to sleep, he deduced he simply must not be tired enough.

Taking the recorder from under his pillow, he slipped the pills inside the tiny pocket of the leather case it was in, the place where the cord would have fit if Jennifer had sent it. Then he pressed the button again to play back her voice. He put the machine back under the pillow so he could hear her, hoping the batteries didn’t play out too soon. Satisfied, he smiled to himself and folded his arms behind his head.

All he needed was an opportune moment. Being a patient man, sure of exactly what he needed to do and how to go about it, he had no problem biding his time.

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Jennifer jerked to attention, realizing she had dozed off in the bathtub.

“My goodness. I must really have been  tired.”

The thick mounds of suds that earlier warmly embraced her had since melted down to a thin patchy froth floating on now tepid water.

Chilled, she frowned at her shriveled fingers.

“I’ve been in here forever.”

Sponging off, she climbed out and, quickly wrapped herself in a towel.

She tried to ignore it, but the emptiness of that king bed dominating the bedroom outside the bathroom door instantly commanded her attention. Then she noticed her cell phone blinking on the night table next to it.

She sat down on the side of the bed. The clock confirmed her long bathroom visit. Where it had been late night when she got in, it was now early morning.

It had to be J.J. calling. That girl never cared what time it was when she had something to say to somebody. As many times as she had been chastised over the years for her indiscreet nocturnal phone habits, and as many times as her phone privileges had been confiscated over it, if she was of a mind to do it, it would be completely lost on J.J. Hart that she shouldn’t be calling her mother at one in the morning.

But it wasn’t J.J. whose call she had missed. When she clicked in to check, she found the number in the display was from a familiar California exchange.

“I’ll bet I’m the only woman in the world with a Mother Superior for a ‘mother-in-law’.

Preoccupied with tending to Jonathan, and then coming down off her long day, she had neglected to deliver the obligatory daily update. She finished drying off and got dressed for bed. Then, once again seated on the side of the bed, she pressed “send”, certain Anastasia would still be up, waiting to hear from her.

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Relieved, the old woman hung up from Jennifer, crossed herself, and immediately slid down onto her knees at the side of her bed.

It was a funny thing. At her age, most physical movements took a bit more time. But getting down and coming up from that one position still came relatively easily. Not sure if what she had done warranted asking forgiveness, she felt compelled to supplement her earlier entreaties by offering up one more prayer along those lines.

The agreement had been that she was not to speak of the details of his early years. He was to be allowed his memories, which were out of anyone’s control, but she was not to fortify them or to share what she knew of him. Had she had breached that agreement in giving that information to Jennifer and by speaking with Jonathan’s doctor? She also wrestled with whether she had done those things out of concern for Jonathan or out of personal selfishness. When it came to that boy, it had always been so hard to distinguish between the two.

But it wasn’t as if the Lord didn’t already know the answer, even if she wasn’t quite sure of it herself. Another prayer before finally turning in couldn’t hurt. The Lord would apply it to the correct account.

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The Head Nurse, walking up fast to the ward desk, demanded, “Has anyone seen Mr. Hart?” She had just come from the hall where that patient’s private room was located. “He is not in his bed, and he is not supposed to be up on his feet without supervision.”

It was three-thirty in the morning. The man should have been asleep.

“I was down there a few minutes ago,” one of the younger floor nurses answered. “I was going to check his temp, but he wasn’t in his bed. The light was on in his bathroom and the door was closed. I assumed he was in there. I could hear water running. I knocked, but I thought he just hadn’t heard me. I was kind of surprised that he would be in the bathroom at this time of the morning. I saw he was given his meds last night, and I went in there thinking he would be asleep. I was hating the idea of having to wake him up. I was going to go back in there just as soon as I finished checking on Mr. Sheridan and Mr. Taylor.”

“You should have waited for him if you thought he was in the restroom. Turns out he’s not in that room at all,” the older woman fussed as she reached over the counter to snatch up the phone receiver. “Had the water running in the sink to throw off somebody who wouldn’t know any better. Did I not tell you all he’s the type of patient we would have to keep an eye on? He should not be out of that bed, wandering about. We should have left him on this side where we could keep an eye on him. I tried to tell Dr. Samuels that. Where’s Dr. Philips? He is going to have a fit about this.”

“How could he get past everyone without being seen?” somebody asked, adding, “As cute an older guy as he is,” which wasn’t uttered quite as far under her breath as she probably meant it to be.

The Head Nurse looked up, skewering that person with her eyes, shaking her head in frustrated disapproval before speaking into the phone.

A few minutes later, a tall man in a dark suit stepped off the elevator up the hall. He was accompanied by a uniformed hospital security officer. They both headed toward the desk.

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It was going on four a.m., so Pat was surprised to find Bill sitting up in the bed, reading a book when she returned to the bedroom.

“Bill, you didn’t have to wait up for me.”

“Couldn’t sleep without you,” he said, looking up at her over his reading glasses. “Once I felt you get up, I was awake. You didn’t make it back right away. I take it you found her in the pool?”

“Yep.” Pat sighed as she removed her robe and stepped out of her slippers. She climbed over him to get back into bed. “When she wasn’t in the room, I went down and there she was, treading water as if competing in the Olympics. She didn’t even know I was there until she exhausted herself and came up for air.”

“Was Duke out there with her?”

“Of course he was. He’s crazy about that child.”

Bill pulled his glasses from his nose and closed his book. “Well then, she was in good company out there with him watching over her. He wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.”

Pat rolled onto her side and propped herself on one arm. “Bill, I’m getting a little worried. I don’t think she’s been sleeping all that well since she’s been here.”

He put the items in his hands on the nightstand and turned back around to draw her into his arms. She lay her head on his shoulder. “That’s likely the case. I noticed she didn’t eat very much at dinner. Kind of quiet in general, too, for her. She sat downstairs, playing piano for an awfully long time this evening. Pat, she’s good. I really did not know she could play like that.”

“When you and I stayed with J.J. for her birthday while Jonathan and Jennifer were away, I took her to school one morning, and she insisted upon my coming in to meet her journalism teacher. Then she took me to the music room to meet with Ben Washington, her music teacher. He pulled me to the side and told me he thinks she’s some sort of untapped prodigy. He said he’s never met a kid with an ear for music and with fingers like she has; he asked if I could talk Jonathan and Jennifer into sending her to Julliard to further her music education. He says she kind of goes inside of herself when she’s into her music; shuts out everything. I’ve seen her do that extended playing thing when she has a lot on her mind. Jen used to be that way about her writing. If she was upset about something, she’d write for hours. I believe music is J.J.’s muse.”

Pat stopped and sighed again. “I had to make her cry.”

Bill leaned forward to look into her face. “Why’d you do that? The kid already seems pretty depressed as it is.”

“J. holds things in, like Jonathan does. Doing that too long will make her sick if she doesn’t let go of it, and I won’t have her sick. I’d just as soon hurt her feelings and make her release it. She usually won’t cry, but I can get to her. As you saw earlier, she’ll cry with me and with you. She’s comfortable enough with us to do that, but she wouldn’t normally do that in public or with another audience.”

“I guess I should feel good about that then,” Bill said, sitting back again. “She’s upset about all that’s happened, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that, Pat. Be careful with her.”

“Well, whatever it is, it’s better out of her than it is on the inside, festering and bringing her down. She tries to keep to that stiff upper lip role. It’s the English in her. But, she’s gotten herself into big-time trouble with Jennifer, and she knows it. All I had to do for that was rub Jennifer up against J.J.’s conscience, and she was a goner. She’s tough, but she loves her mother like nobody’s business. She’s her daddy’s girl, but it’s her mother who has her by the heart. And J.J. has Jen by hers. I’m sure J.J. has hurt her mother deeply. That’s one reason why Jen isn’t asking to speak with her when she calls here.”

“That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“How she and Jennifer are about each other. You’d think it would be the other way around. I mean, think about it. Jonathan lets J.J. pretty much do her own thing. He spoils her silly, allows her to try anything. Did J.J. tell you that her father let her bungee jump for the first time, that last time they were in Vegas together? I don’t think Jennifer knows about that.”

“No, J.J. didn’t tell me, and I’m certain Jen doesn’t know about that.”

“And he supports- hell, he fosters- her vices,” Bill said. “On the other hand, Jennifer has always ridden that girl like she’s breaking in a young, wild one-never lets up on her. Puts her demands out there and fully expects that they be met, and J.J., for the most part, complies without complaint. And Jennifer, for all of that, is crazy about that kid. I can tell. She values J.J. as a person, not just as her daughter.”

“Jennifer’s a very good mother, Bill. From day one, she always been able to be objective about J. And despite her youth and this setback, J.J. is smart enough to recognize that. Jennifer is specifically the kind of mother a kid like J.J. needs, somebody who isn’t boastful or a stage mother. One who won’t be charmed by her child, stuck on how cute she is, or be overly impressed by how smart she is. She keeps J.J. in check- always. Kids like her, maybe even most kids, I guess, actually crave discipline.”

Bill nodded. “Yeah, they do. They try to buck it, but they do.”

Pat continued, “Jonathan’s the kind of father every little girl should have. J.J. is blessed in so many ways. She’s highly intelligent, but she’s still very much a child right now. Sometimes she has to be made to see things. There are things that she needs to understand so that she doesn’t put her feet into the wrong places or make unwise moves that burn her bridges. She also needed to understand that her mother is human. I think she tends to forget that at times.”

“Don’t push her too hard, Pat. Like you’ve said, she is just a kid, and she’s going through some pretty rough stuff.”

“Yes, I do know that, Bill. I also know that I can be somewhat abrasive, at times, but a girl today will be a woman tomorrow. Jen wants J.J. to be smart and strong. I need for her to be a bit less self-centered, a little more compassionate.”

“She’s a teenager, Pat. Teenagers are naturally narcissistic. It’s the nature of the beast.”

“I understand that, but as I just told you, she’s going to be a woman very soon, and it’s time she started growing out of some of those narcissisms. That can be kind of difficult for a kid who has access to as much as she does in terms of material things and who gets the kind of constant, positive attention that is paid to her. Jonathan’s somewhat to blame for how she is.”

“Jonathan? He loves that girl, and puts up with a lot more from her than Jennifer, but he’s not all fun and games, Pat. I’ve seen him discipline J.J. when she gets too far out of line. You have, too.”

“I understand that he loves her, and he does check her when she needs it, but he also greatly empowers her. She’s naturally confident and aggressive, but he gives her reasons and the means to be even more so. The teaching her to fly, feeding her fearlessness like with the bungee jumping and what-have-you, making sure her every need is met so she’s always secure and sure of herself, i.e. the American Express card she so boldly came here on- all those things give her an even stronger sense of “I will because I can”. I get what he’s doing with her, and she’ll need all of that, if he’s successful with it. But for right now, J.J. is going to have to learn to temper it, and he’s going to have to start letting Jennifer know what he’s doing with her so she can make sure that she counterbalances it.”

“It’s easy for us to sit here and armchair quarterback, Pat. But essentially, she’s their kid.”

“If something happens to them, she’s ours. You might want to keep that in mind.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Bill scratched thoughtfully at his chin. “So, where’s the little princess now?

“In the bed. I liquored her up so she could sleep.”

“You didn’t!” he snickered. “What’d you give her? She drink it? ”

“Rum and Coke, and hell yes, she drank it. You know damn well in all this time, she’s probably sipped off more than one somebody’s glass when she thought they weren’t looking. Anybody who can mix a drink like she can has surely tasted the fruit of her labors. I purposely made that one pretty strong, but she knocked it back like it was ice water. I figure she ought to be out like a light by now.”

“And you say Jonathan spoils her. What about you, Aunt Pat?”

“Aunt Pat just keeps things in perspective. A stiffner never hurt anybody, especially at those times when one is getting on one’s own nerves. She doesn’t have anywhere to be tomorrow. She can sleep it off.”

Bill moved Pat from his shoulder and eased her back to lie on the pillows. Rolling onto his side, he propped himself on one elbow so that he was leaned over her, slyly grinning.

“Speaking of ‘stiffners’. You’re up. I’m up.”

“Um-hum,” she nodded. “I can certainly feel that you are.”

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Sitting in the dark, not quite asleep, J.J. mulled over all that had happened and what had been said to her.

Aunt Pat had come up with her to the room and stayed with her until she showered and was back into her nightgown. Then she insisted upon drying and braiding her hair before making her get into the bed.

“In this air conditioning, you don’t need to be going to bed with wet hair. Keep the cover pulled up on you. Bill keeps this place like an ice box at night. It’s bad enough that you’re a snotty, incorrigible little fugitive. I won’t have you sick and snotty for real.”

It was good being Aunt Pat’s “baby” that night, but it didn’t require all the blubbering she had done. She hated having done that. But a good cry and that drink had taken some of the edge off, allowing her thoughts to flow more smoothly and freely.

Aunt Pat would have made an excellent mother to that baby she lost. That girl would have been super smart and super strong, just like her mother. She would now be thirty-one and working right with Aunt Pat. In fact, she’d probably be running Hamilton House, and her mother could be kicking back, taking it easy, traveling or hanging out with Uncle Bill all she wanted. Having a big cousin to turn to, especially in all of this, would have been great.

Perhaps, if she had lived, Uncle Bill and Aunt Pat would have hooked up sooner. But then again, maybe not if Aunt Pat was still married to the girl’s father. Thinking more on that situation, she could see that in telling her about Aunt Pat losing the baby and the subsequent operation that kept her from having any other children, the Duchess hadn’t told the whole story about that other part of it. What happened to the husband? Who was he? Where was he now?

There were definitely some gaps when it came to Aunt Pat’s mysterious ex, and the gaps had a shady feel to them. It was one of those in and out too fast kind of stories where grownups skimmed past specific names and dates, and anything else that might allow a person to do the math, to make the details add up and the equation make sense.

But the Duchess and Daddy said all things happened for a reason. As sad as it seemed, whatever happened with that girl, happened the way that it was supposed to happen.

Aunt Pat called her strong. So had Clara. Aunt Pat said her parents made her strong enough for them to lean on her sometimes. So how come she didn’t feel like she was in this scenario? Clara accused her of leaving her mother alone with her worry. Aunt Pat essentially said the same thing. Aunt Pat said everyone important in her mother’s life had left her alone at times when she most needed them.

That thought triggered eminent tears stinging at her eyes like red hot peppers, but she refused to let them fall. Then she wondered for a moment what Pat meant when she said that she had done it, too. When had she done something like that? Under what circumstances? That sounded like yet another one of those stories that hadn’t been told in full.

In leaving Las Vegas, she told herself she was easing her mother’s burden, that she was getting out of her way to allow her to take care of her father. It hadn’t occurred to her at the time that it could be otherwise.

All alone, by herself, was her mother more scared than angry? She had to be angry with her, but was it because of her leaving without permission, or was it because she had done to her what everyone else had done? It was supposed to be better between the two of them than that. It usually was. Daddy was gone from her, too, but he was the only one who hadn’t really left her. He couldn’t be put into that category with the rest of them. His not being there wasn’t his fault. He would never leave her on purpose.

If, God forbid, there had been an accident with the plane, who would the Duchess have blamed? Daddy, no doubt, but that wouldn’t have been his fault either. It would have been hers. It was she who begged her father to teach her to fly and to not tell her mother that he had.

She hated getting the silent treatment. Getting fussed at until she was ready to scream, “WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP!”, although she knew way better than to follow through on the urge, beat the getting the silent treatment any day  The silent treatment made her angry because it was so very effective, and her mother played that card so well. It was Jennifer Hart’s trump. She didn’t play it often, but when she did….

The woman was hard enough to read when she was her normal self, but when she went silent, it was impossible to tell where she would be coming from next. For her daughter, that precarious, ominous condition didn’t make for a real comfortable existence.

Her mother’s silence might make her mad, but because it was usually the result of something serious she had done to upset her, it also made her want to crawl in a hole and die. She hated it.

Aunt Pat said it was she who was being selfish, not the Duchess. She said her anger was actually about having her secure world and her nice life interfered with. Was that true? If it was, how selfish was she in feeling that way?

In the darkness of the room, embarrassment fired her cheeks.

Did her mother and father see her in that light? Could they see that self-centeredness in her? It was not what she wanted them to see. If that was what they saw in her, how did she go about making it right by them? How was a person to know the right thing to do? It was all so confusing.

But Aunt Pat was correct about her cushy world. She did have the kind of parents who tried to provide the best possible environment and experiences for her. Even if she wasn’t always entirely appreciative of their sometimes extreme protectiveness, she understood their reasons for sheltering and shielding her. And lately, to be honest about it, it wasn’t all that extreme.

When the cell buzzed on the table next to her, she jumped. The surprise in it was being so abruptly snatched back from her thoughts, not that the call was coming in at three- almost four-something in the morning. The timing wasn’t out of the ordinary. If she was awake enough to hear the ring tone or feel the vibration if the tone was turned off; she picked up. She, herself, could wake up at four a.m., think of something she needed to tell somebody, and hit up their cell. Since cell phone calls didn’t go through house lines, sleeping parents weren’t “rudely” awakened by a ringing phone and thereby brought into the picture. Unless they actually got up and came into the room to snoop and check, like Jennifer Hart wasn’t above doing from time to time, who knew who was on the phone?

She reached over for the cell. The number in the display didn’t immediately register. Then, it slammed her between the eyes; it was the main house number at Willow Pond, her own home.

Marie? But why would she be calling at that hour?

“This is J.J., Marie.”

Hey, baby. It’s Daddy, not Marie.

“Daddy! What in the world- It’s four-

I knew you’d pick up no matter what time it was. Look, I need you to pay attention and just listen.

“But Da-“

Shhh! Listen, I said. This time I’m the one on the lam. They’re probably already looking for me, so don’t slow me up by asking a whole lot of questions; I don’t have a lot of time. I just wanted to hear your voice. You okay?

“I’m fine, but-“

Are you sleeping okay? I see you’re still up. You don’t sound asleep. Have you been running, getting your exercise? Are you eating all right?

“Yes, but-“

Good. Keep doing all of that. The running is good for you. Make sure you get it in at least once every day, twice if you’re up to it. Get some riding in, too.

“All right, I am, Daddy. But-“

J.J., you know I owe you one. You know better than to pull all this stuff you’ve pulled. We’re going to have a long talk- you and me- when this is over.

“Okay. but Da-“

Have you spoken with your mother yet?

“No. I called her, though. I guess she just hasn’t had time to get back to me. Daddy, how are you? Why are you up at this hour? I thought you didn’t have a phone in your room. Don’t they cut-“

I don’t have a phone. I just told you, I’m not legit. You’ve got my cell. I’m on a pay phone in the hall. I didn’t have any money, so I had to call the operator, have it billed to the house, and forwarded to you. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

“Are you supposed to be up like that? How come you aren’t asleep? You sound a little short of breath.”

I’m okay. I just wanted to check on you. Now stop asking questions. I told you-

“Daddy, I don’t think you should be running around like this.”

Let me worry about that J.J., you keep trying to get in touch with your mother. She’s angry with both of us, and rightfully so. You were wrong to do what you did, and to do it the way you did it. You were dead wrong to leave your mother, but I’m glad you had sense enough to go to Pat and Bill. And you were way out of line speaking to your mother as she told me you did. I am not having that, and you know it.

“Is she mad at you, too? Did she jump on you yet about letting me fly?”

I told you to let me worry about that. I can handle my end; you just keep trying to get through to her. I don’t care what it takes, you fix your part of this ASAP, do you hear me?

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, really sorry, about everything. I’ll keep trying to get through to her until I do. I promise.”

Good girl.

She could hear other voices in his background. They were muffled, but it definitely sounded like fussing.

Gotta, go, sweetie. Looks like I’ve been busted big-time.

“Daddy, I love you so much. Do what they tell you, please. Stay in the bed, if that’s where you’re supposed to be.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. This was more important to me. I love you, too, baby.

He clicked off, leaving her staring at the silent cell in her hand.

He was supposed to be in the bed, but still he was thinking about and putting himself at risk for her and her mother.

For a moment, it flickered in her mind she knew where Aunt Pat put her purse and things after taking them from her to keep her from taking off on her own again. She could easily sneak in, retrieve them, order up another ticket and a taxi, and get back to Vegas to try to patch things up with her mother.

But then there would be Aunt Pat to deal with. Irate, fuming Aunt Pat. Hop-a-helicopter-in-a-heartbeat-Aunt Pat, swooping down on Vegas, on the hunt for her like a hawk on a baby hare. In her mind, she pictured her godmother’s face, the dark shark-like eyes underneath those dramatic eyebrows, that stark white streak in her hair making her look a lot like the lovely, but sinister, Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians-

the Glen Close version, not the cartoon one.

“It’s got to be that drink.”

Her eyelids had become as heavy as cast iron pot lids. There was a lot more to consider, but her father being at least back to himself enough to be able to get up and sneak around, smoothed some of the rougher surfaces of her stress. The alcohol coursing through her insisted in no uncertain terms that, for the time being, the issue be tabled.

Concluding her judgment seriously compromised, she thought it best to just lie down and let nature take her course. After retrieving her father’s chain with the ring still attached to it from under her pillow, slipping it over her head, and tucking it down inside her nightgown, lie down is exactly what she did.

______________________________________________________________

With most of the patients asleep, it was quiet on the floor, so Dr. Philips had gone around to his room to spend a few minutes with his notes.

Having searched so extensively for information about her father, he had learned in the course of it that her full name was Justine Jennifer Hart. Until only recently, he hadn’t been all that interested in her. She had been a side note, irrelevant to the larger picture. In fact, he had pointedly avoided trying to find out more about her. But having finally seen her for himself, there was no more avoiding the fact of the importance of her existence.

Anemic.

That seemed to be the only negative, and that was being effectively managed, as was the rest of her life. She was probably everything a father would want in a child, at least that a father like him, her father, would want.

She looked a lot like her mother but she had those blue eyes, like his. That alone had to endear her all the more to him. Tall and  slim, with all that dark red hair, she had a more athletic, casual air to her person than her mother. That last thing was probably due to her relative youth, and would likely change as she got older. She had the potential to be just as aristocratic, and attention-getting in appearance as her mother. In her own way, she already was.

She flew planes. Her father had to have taught her to do that. With her parents being who they were, she had probably been everywhere and met everybody. It turned out that she actually was an accomplished athlete on top of being a scholar. Putting her full name into the search engines had resulted in the discovery that she had won National Merit awards for her mathematics achievements two years running, in the eighth and the ninth grades. She had also gotten local ink for her endeavors in track, tennis, and swimming.

It was through the sports articles that he discovered the name of the specialized school she attended in LA. It surprised him quite a bit that she wasn’t enrolled in some private, ultra-exclusive academy, but that, too, seemed par for her more laid-back father. That school website revealed that she was an editor for the school paper, an officer in the National Honor Society, she’d lettered in track and tennis, and had finished first in the sophomore class. In short, she seemed to be an extraordinary girl.

But what else could be expected of Jonathan Hart’s child? Anybody who was lucky enough to have him for a father was bound to turn out all right.

So would anybody who-

“Doctor Philips.”

Startled by the intercom, instinctively, he snapped closed the folder before him and slid it into the open desk drawer at his waist. Closing and locking it inside right away, he answered the page.

“Dr., you need to come see to Mr. Hart. He somehow got out of his room. We alerted security when we found him missing. They located him around by the phones. Security is on their way back with him, but reportedly he’s in some distress.”

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When Jonathan opened his eyes again, the room was bright with new daylight, causing the throbbing in his head to immediately intensify. As his vision cleared and he could better focus, he saw that August Lamb was there, watching him from where he was seated on the window sill.

He tried to sit up, but his head weighed a ton, making moving into an upright position take too much effort.

“How long have you been here?” He asked, lying back with the disturbing realization that he seemed to feel more tired than the day he first arrived.

“Not long.” August answered. “I just came over to check on things, but decided to stay once I got the real story of what went on this morning. It wasn’t until I got here that they let me in on your being AWOL. What are you trying to do, Jonathan, kill yourself?”

Jonathan moved his arm to rest it over his eyes. “What time is it?”

“Early. Just after six.”

“They usually have me up, worrying the stew out of me, by now.”

“I heard them say they were letting you sleep a little longer this morning. How are you feeling now?”

“I’m okay. That thing earlier, it was nothing. I just needed to take care of something, and I overdid it, I guess.”

Then, moving his arm, Jonathan managed to sit up enough to catch August’s eyes with his own.

“Nobody told Jennifer about that, did they? They didn’t tell you about it right away. Did they say if they called her?”

“I asked about that.” August answered. “I was told after they got you back in here and stabilized again, the doctor didn’t think it necessary to break her rest since she had been here with you all day yesterday. She wasn’t called. You’d better be glad they didn’t. She’d let you have it for sure.”

“Don’t I know it.” Relieved, Jonathan lay his head back down.

“Does she know J.J. flew that twin engine into here and not the Piper?”

“We haven’t touched on any of last Saturday yet. The Piper, the baby jet, the flying- period, none of it.”

“Well you might want to keep your act cleaner than you’re keeping it,” August advised. “Try not to add any more fuel to her fire.”

Jonathan sighed and looked away. “So how come you’re here now?”

“After I heard what happened, I wanted to make sure you were really okay. What did happen last night? Did you take that medication prescribed for you?”

For a moment, the two men locked eyes. Then Jonathan broke the stand-off. “I took it,” he murmured.

“But did you swallow it?” August continued to probe. He looked off, out of the window behind him. “Save it, boss. I know you didn’t, and I’m okay with that.”

Jonathan shifted his gaze back to him. “Why?”

“Why what? Why do I say I know you didn’t take it, or why am I okay with it?”

“The last thing.”

August smiled a small smile. “Do you trust me, Jonathan?”

“With my life.”

“Then just trust me on this one, too.”

Replacing his arm across his eyes to block the possibility of any more light reaching them, Jonathan tried to relax. It was so amazing that one little orphaned boy could be so lucky in the things that mattered. The right people somehow always made their way into his life at all the right times.

It seemed he and August had always operated on the same level of awareness. Like August, aside from his physical situation, he wasn’t quite certain there wasn’t something else to be concerned about.

______________________________________________________________

The morning was getting late, but Pat was still in the bedroom, on the phone with her secretary, when the tone sounded in her ear letting her know someone else was trying to get in touch with her. Checking the console, she could see it was Jennifer’s number flashing in the display. Making her apologies to Dora, she clicked over.

“Hey, Jen.”

Good morning. I was just calling to see what was going on there.

“Nothing much, I guess. It’s pretty quiet. I haven’t been out of the room yet, but then, nobody’s tried to get in here to me either. Clara’s going to have a fit. She hates when I make her wait my breakfast. I asked her not to do that when I sleep in, but she always does. Bill must be out on one of his hikes. He was gone, and his side was cold when I finally came to. He left me a note saying that he might not be back until this evening, so I guess that leaves the Squirt and me on our own.”

Until this evening? That’s some hike, Pat.

“He does that sometimes. It does him good to get away, and I don’t need for him to be all over me all the time. We’re not like that.”

As opposed to Jonathan and me?

“You and I have never been alike when it comes to that, Jen. You and Jonathan are unique. There’s nobody like you two. So, what’s up with you, specifically old girl? What is it you really want to know?”

You always could read me. I need for you to do me a favor, Pat.

“Sure. What do you need me to do?”

Would you send J.J. to me?

“Nope. I’ll bring her to you, but I won’t send her by herself.”

I’d appreciate that, Pat. That’s what I really wanted; I just didn’t want to put you out. I know you’re about to end your vacation, and I didn’t want to interfere with your time with Bill. As it is, I’m sorry she’s imposed herself on you like she has.

“It’s no imposition, and it’s not a problem. I’ve decided to stay on a few more days. I was just talking with Dora about it when you clicked in. There’s not much going on there in New York that the board can’t handle, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with you and the Squirt. I didn’t want to take her all the way to New York. That was too far away from you and Jonathan, and I didn’t want to leave her here with just Bill. Not that he couldn’t have handled her; she would have been fine with him, but I think she’s been left alone enough this week.

Is that some sort of indictment?

“Would you get your drawers out of the knot, Jennifer. It’s a statement of fact. That’s all that it was intended to be.”

I’m sorry. Pat, are you angry with me over this?

“No. I understand you, and I know how J.J. can be. I don’t always agree with your methods when it comes to her, but I truly understand why you do the things that you do.”

Thank you. Look, I don’t want you to tell her that I sent for her.

“Why not?”

I don’t want her to know. Just tell her you’re taking her back.

“What if she fights me on it?”

Then don’t bring her. I don’t want you to force her. Just call me, and let me know.

“Will you come to her if that turns out to be the case?”

Absolutely. And right away.

“Then yes, I’ll do it your way. I’ll tell her I’m taking her back, and if she balks, I’ll definitely call you.”

I love you, old girl.

“Me, too, Jen. Absolutely. How’s Jonathan?”

I haven’t seen him yet today. He still doesn’t have a phone in his room, so I can’t get to him directly. I was tired, and I overslept some, so I’m late getting up. After I eat, I have a couple of calls I have to return. Then I’ll go down to see him.

“Give him my love when you do, Jen. He’s probably being a jackass about having to be pinned down like that. Tell him I said to behave. With any luck, I’ll see you later on today.”

Luck has nothing to do with it. You’ll see me later on today, regardless.

After getting up and getting dressed, Pat left the room to go down to face Clara and to eat the breakfast the delightfully outspoken housekeeper was undoubtedly keeping warm for her. But, when she rounded the corner, she found J.J. sitting on the top step of the staircase which led down to the next level of the multilevel home. Duke sat pressed up against her, getting his ears scratched. As she approached them, they both turned to look up at her.

“Good morning, Aunt Pat. I was waiting for you.”

“You were? How’s your head?”

“My head? Oh, that! I’m fine. I don’t get hangovers- not that I drink on a regular basis or anything, mind you. I just heard Daddy say once that he doesn’t get them, so I figure I probably won’t either when I’m old enough to drink for real and on a regular basis. Besides, it wasn’t all that much.”

Pat walked down a couple of steps to not be standing so high over her. “Why were you waiting for me?”

“I was wondering,” J.J. almost shyly began, “do you think it would be okay if I went back to my mother today?”

Pat smiled and smoothed her hand across J.J.’s hair, which was still kind of wavy from having been so tightly braided the night before.

“Sure, Squirt. But you’ll have to let me go with you. I don’t want you going back by yourself.”

J.J. nodded her agreement. “That’s fine. My mother’s probably still pretty mad. I tried to call her this morning again, but she didn’t pick up that time either. No doubt I’ll need plenty of backup when I get there. This is the longest silent treatment I’ve ever gotten.”

Reaching out for J.J.’s hand, Pat pulled her up from the stairs, causing Duke to rise as well.

“Come on here, girl,” she said. “I’ll give you my card. Since you’ve clearly proven you know the procedure, you go order the flight tickets while I deal with Clara in the kitchen. Book one for around noon, one o’clock.”

“Lay-about,” J.J. teased as they went down the stairs together. “You’d better take Duke with you to the kitchen for some backup of your own. You’re in for it. When I was down there awhile ago, she was fussing that she had been holding your breakfast for an hour.”

Pat heard her, but she was busy considering how great minds, that young one and the two older ones, really did think so much alike. Before Jennifer’s call, her decision to fly J.J. back to Vegas that afternoon had already been made, which was part of why she put off going back to New York. She was not going to allow that child and her mother to be apart any longer, but there was no way she was letting them get back together without a fairly unbiased and loving referee stationed ringside.

While at lunch on the day before, she spotted Jonathan’s chain around J.J.’s neck. She laughed to herself as it occurred to her again that Jennifer was struggling with a young girl over her man. She bet herself her best friend never thought that a younger rival for her husband’s affections and attentions might be her own daughter.

______________________________________________________________

Jennifer got showered and dressed after hanging up from Pat. Jonathan was probably anxiously wondering where she was and when she was coming down to the hospital. More than likely, he was irritable and being uncooperative again. He’d never get better like that, but things had been put into motion that warranted her not having to hurry to get to him. She would have a late breakfast, make a couple of business phone calls, and then go to him. By that time, it should have happened. He’d probably be upset, but that was something to deal with then.

At the door of the dining room she stopped, shocked at who was seated at the table with the paper, Mathilda pouring coffee for him.

“Bill!”

“Morning, Beautiful.” He said, winking at her, giving her that Bill McDowell smile. “Come on and sit down.”

Mathilda nodded to her in greeting. “I’ll bring your breakfast right out, Mrs. Hart.”

Bill stood and pulled out the chair next to his where a place setting awaited her on the table.

She took the seat and he sat back down.

“I know you’re surprised to see me.” he said.

“I certainly am. What are you doing here? I just got off the phone with Pat. She thinks you’re out exploring or something.”

Then Jennifer stopped, narrowing her eyes at him. “You didn’t let that goddaughter of yours talk you into coming to speak to me on her behalf, did you?”

Bill shook his head as he folded the paper closed. “Nobody knows I’m here. I got up early this morning and left while they were still asleep.”

“Then what brings you here, Bill? I told you that you didn’t need to come for Jonathan’s sake. He’s doing much better.”

“Jennifer, I came on my own to see you. It’s you and I who need to talk.”

______________________________________________________________

Because of his earlier unauthorized excursion, Jonathan had been relegated to the bed for the morning. He had been allowed to get up to take care of his personal needs, but then he had been put right back into it. Antibiotics were  finally prescribed after his persistent low-grade temperature spiked dangerously high earlier that morning when he was around by the phones, causing him brief, but severe, dizziness, requiring that he be assisted in getting back to his room.

Right after breakfast, that Head Nurse, the older one who wouldn’t be charmed at all, no matter how thickly he laid it on, doggedly remained with him to make sure that he actually swallowed the medication down. It seemed that she and her immediate underlings, the veteran nurses, had been assigned to see to him rather than the younger ones from the days before. Like J.J. would term it, he could see that he had been put on some “serious lockdown”.

It was going on lunchtime, and still Jennifer hadn’t come. Several times, he chastised himself for being childish in wanting her to spend all of her time there with him. She had to be tired physically and drained emotionally. Dr. Samuels told him that she had called to check on him. He also confirmed the presence of a virus in his system which was working on his cardiac system. That infection, combined with the narrowed, inflamed arteries, were contributing to his dizziness and lack of energy. The doctor said that the germ had probably been lying dormant in his system until something triggered it into activity; it was likely that he had been walking around with it a while before it finally took him all the way down while he was in the plane with J.J.

But what could have triggered it?

He wondered what J.J. had done since their talk to try to patch things up with Jennifer. He was sure that she had taken some action in all that time. J.J. did not disobey him when he gave her a direct order, and she really wouldn’t disregard any instructions he gave her about Jennifer. His only concern was if Jennifer had been receptive to her attempts. J.J. had never negatively asserted herself with her mother to this extent. This time she had demonstrated to both of them just how powerful her will actually was, and just how unafraid she was to follow her mind. Even though he believed he understood her motivation, she shouldn’t have done that to Jennifer, not given the circumstances under which they were all operating. It painfully slowed his breathing to think again of Jennifer being left completely on her own to deal with everything.

Maybe that was why he wanted Jennifer there with him so badly, so that she wouldn’t be by herself. If he could get up and out of there, he could save her the trip because he would certainly be going to her.

That wasn’t it. That wasn’t why he wanted her there.

“Stop fooling yourself. You want her here because you’re not as sca-, you feel better when she’s with you.”

But it was selfish to expect her to keep running down there to sit with him, a grown man. How could he have come so far, achieved so much, but still be so insec- so unsure in this situation?

Dealing with the younger doctor earlier that morning put things into clearer focus. It was their second encounter of that nature, and he was bothered by it. If he couldn’t walk around to the phones without nearly passing out, what in the world could he do? When this problem was cleared up, would there be any lingering after-effects? Would there be things he would no longer be able to do? After all, he was getting older. Was age finally catching up to him?

When security finally found him and got him back to his room, the doctor met him there, staying with him until it passed, telling him he would have to take it easy and stay put. He let the doctor talk without making comment. In fact, he pretended to be more out of it than he had been, just to get him to leave. But because of that, and because the doctor might have told him, he hadn’t asked about where all of this might be taking him. Trying to block those thoughts out now was proving to be almost impossible. Until a few days ago, life had been so good.

That tomorrow wasn’t promised had never before rung so true.

Where could she be? She knew how it was with him. As much as he didn’t want to bother her, it wasn’t like Jennifer to not be there.

“Stop being a baby. What would you be doing if she wasn’t in your life?”

To kill some time, he tried to sleep, but found he couldn’t. It was too tough to do so there in that hospital, and it was way too tough sleeping without her. When he did manage to doze off, staying asleep was impossible with those pictures dancing in his mind. Not being able to rest well, it was becoming harder and harder to fight them off or block them out. No matter how hard he tried to control them, they just wouldn’t behave. He would close the door on them, only to have them crack it right back open, just wide enough for him to be able to see them peeking in on him.

Then there was August, hanging around, obviously on the scent. But more complications were the last thing anybody needed. They were definitely the last thing he needed. Or Jennifer. She didn’t need anything else to fret over, and he wasn’t going to have her worried with anything else. He refused to believe there was anything else over which anyone needed to be concerned.

Not having a phone was maddening. He couldn’t get out to anyone, and nobody could get in to him. Aside from Jennifer, August, and medical personnel, he wasn’t allowed visitors. Actually, he didn’t want any; all he wanted was out. For the past few days, he had been cut off from most of the world, and the isolation was getting to him. August wouldn’t say exactly what was troubling him, which left him yet another something over which to speculate in that vacuum they had him existing in.

At the sound of two sets of footsteps stopping at his door and then August’s voice, he opened his eyes.

“Mr. Hart, there’s someone here who would like to speak with you for a few minutes.”

Into the room walked the explanation for Jennifer’s unusual absence. Only she would have nerve enough to arrange for it to happen without telling him what she had done.

“Good to see you, Mr. Hart,” Bob Chase said, extending his hand to him as he approached the bed while August backed out of the doorway.

Shaking the man’s hand, Jonathan was thinking to himself, “She is so good.”

Springing it on him in that manner didn’t give him time to negatively react, and that had been her specific purpose in doing it that way. Although he wasn’t sure what to make of the situation or how he felt about it, he reached out to shake hands with the psychologist who for years had worked with Hart Industries’ top executives on managing stress.

“I thought we could talk,” Dr. Chase said, gesturing to the chair. “May I?”

“Please, and it’s Jonathan. But you know I don’t subscribe to this kind of thing for myself.”

Dr. Chase acknowledged his candor with a small nod. “That’s all right. I heard you were unwell, and I came to see for myself how you are. Understanding your personal position on the science of psychology, I chiefly came to talk with you and to say some things to you. You can take them for what they’re worth or disregard them if you so choose.”

“Well,” Jonathan sighed, lying back but using the button to raise the head of his bed. “I do appreciate your coming all this way to see me. I guess I can’t argue against you talking to me. It’s not like I have anything more pressing to do than to listen. It won’t hurt to listen.”

Dr. Chase smiled his slow smile. “Actually, that might be the other way around, Jonathan. Stress kills. I know that you know and believe, that. But it’s not just something that happens to other people. No matter how strong you think you might have become over the years, it can happen to you, too.”

______________________________________________________________

“Bill, how do you know all of this?” Jennifer asked.

Bill McDowell had always been a very intelligent man in her eyes, but this other side of him was one she hadn’t seen before, nor had she anticipated as being a part of his makeup. Bill was a man’s man, the epitome of macho. In observing him in his still occasionally rocky dealings with Peter, his more sensitive son, she hadn’t ever considered Bill as being unusually sensitive himself as it applied to people in general and their feelings. But there he sat next to her, talking about anxiety and fight or flight reactions, and beginning to help her make a whole lot of sense out of a situation that had been nothing short of baffling and draining to her.

“From being a fighter pilot in battle, from having to work with other fighter pilots at war, and just from life itself.” he answered. “I know what things like this can do to the best of us. Your daughter is a pilot. It’s in her blood. I didn’t even know about her flying yet, Jonathan hasn’t said a word to me about it, but I wasn’t in any way surprised. I’ve known since she was little, when she was playing with toy helicopters and airplanes, not dolls, that one day she would. You did, too, didn’t you?”

Rolling her eyes and sighing, “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I knew it.” she answered. “How could I not know? I know the two of them.”

Bill nodded in agreement. “It’s in her, just like it’s in me, like it’s in Jonathan, and like it was in my T.J. It’s just that her being a girl makes this whole thing even more interesting and a bit more complicated.”

And she noticed that he reddened a bit at that last observation.

“Why do you say that? About her being a girl making it more complicated?”

“Well,” he began. “She’s smart, and being Valentine’s kid, without a doubt, she’s as capable as any male, if not more. But it’s documented that some females, once a month, you know with hormone fluctuations, naturally experience elevated stress levels. Flying can be stressful on it’s own, no matter how much you love it. But a female would have the added tension, even if she doesn’t consciously recognize it.”

“Bill, isn’t that kind of sexist?”

“I said “some” females, and I didn’t make that up. Like I told you, it’s documented. I actually read about it somewhere that time that J.J. got sick on that museum field trip she took with her class. Pat told me that you found out that she was anemic. She also told me about how J.J.’s mood sometimes drastically changes at that time of the month. I always thought that was some old wives’ tale- just guys imagining things or that it was our made-up excuse for keeping women in their place. But after Pat said that about J.J., I did the research on my own, and found out that there really is a biological reason for the changes in mood and disposition.”

Impressed that he would go to such lengths to learn about his godchild, Jennifer smiled, “I’ll bet you never thought you’d have cause to be looking into something like that, did you?”

“No,” he chuckled through his blushing. “Never. But my girl can’t be going through something that her Uncle Bill doesn’t have the low-down on what it is. I didn’t want to know, but I needed to understand should she ever come at me.”

Amused at the thought of J.J. taking on her big Uncle Bill, Jennifer could only shake her head at the mental picture. If it was bad enough for her, and he did something to push her to it, she was sure that J.J. would do him, too. When those hormones were raging, her sweet girl could turn into a rattlesnake .

“Have you talked with her, Bill?”

“Some. But mostly about what happened and about flying, not about how she was feeling about any of it- or about that- girl, feminine stuff.”

“Do go on.” she laughed at his now beet red face.

“Well, I got to thinking. With all that happened with J. last Saturday, her being so young and female, and it being her father and all; Jen, she was bound to drop into fight or flight mode. Doing one or the other is a natural reaction to anxiety. She did both. She fought until she had her father down on the ground, and until you two were back together. Then she fled the situation altogether because she had given it, symbolically and literally, over to you. I was thinking, if it’s her time, that might explain why she went to such an extreme. She might have done that regardless because she was scared, Jennifer, and that fear manifested itself in anger toward you. ”

“But, why me?”

“Now I don’t know about that part of it, why she chose you to vent on, but trauma will bring out strange reactions in a person. They either fight it or they flee from it. Usually, like I said, they choose one or the other. Our girl did both. I have to hand it to you women. You have to overcome the internal, physical stuff as well as what ever else might be going on in your lives. J.J.’s a champ. I just wanted you to understand how much she might have been dealing with whether or not the physical was a factor in any of this.”

While she listened, highly intrigued by what Bill was saying, the depth of its content, and impressed that he had come all that way to say it to her in person, Jennifer was running a mental calendar in her head. The dates certainly lined up with J.J.’s out-of-character behavior. She did become testy around that time. That compounded with the previous Saturday, and everything else that she had been through in recent times, was an awful lot for a young girl, especially a private youngster like J.J., to carry around all by herself… not to mention her very private, wannabe action-hero father. They had both been through a lot that she felt they hadn’t really gotten over.

“Do you think Jonathan’s in fight or flight mode, too, Bill?”

“He’s in fight, Jen. He doesn’t know how to flee, not even when that’s probably the better move.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinking.” she said. “It’s reassuring to get your take on it. I did something that I’m not so sure he’s going to like, but since it’s not heart disease that’s the cause of his problems,  I thought that was the next best avenue to explore. He’s not been himself for a while. Not since this last thing with J.J.”

“The thing with Singleton’s kid? That Wesley character?”

She nodded. “He’s been quieter. It’s subtle; he’s Jonathan, but I can tell there’s a difference and that something’s on his mind.”

“Jonathan loves that girl of his. He wanted to kill that boy over her, Jennifer. I was mighty afraid that he would.”

Her eyes widened at Bill’s spoken confirmation of her own thoughts on the matter. “Did he tell you that?”

“Not in so many words, but I know him. You and J.J. are his world, and he’s not going to let anything or anybody interfere with that world. He didn’t talk a lot to me about it, not in specifics. He mentioned a few things, wanted to get the adolescent-boy perspective since I had raised boys, but he said enough to let me know that Wesley had crossed the line with him. The kid didn’t have sense enough to realize how close he was coming. Has Jonathan said anything about to you about it since it happened? You said you did something. What did you do?”

“He wouldn’t talk to me about it, but in all fairness to him, I really didn’t ask. He didn’t seem to be open to any discussion on the matter. The night that he and Teddy, Sr. caught up to Wesley, Jonathan came home in a very strange state, and he hasn’t said anything to me directly about it since then. But I was with them at a time when J.J. brought it up with us. She was concerned about Wesley’s physical state but Bill, he was so cold in his response to her. It was so unlike him to not care about a child being ill. Granted, Wesley had been a huge problem to J.J. and to us, but still.”

“Everybody has their limits, Jen. With Jonathan, it’s you and J.J. Probably even more when it comes to J.J. He considers her less able to defend herself.”

“I knew that either he wasn’t finished with it, or that the matter wasn’t finished with him. The doctors ruled out heart disease. Jonathan isn’t ever sick like this. Something is making my husband’s heart hurt. I’ve called in a psychologist to talk with him this afternoon. He doesn’t know it, though.”

“Damn, Jennifer.” Bill sat back in his chair as if her admission had hands that punched him hard in his chest. “Bring out the big gun, why don’t you? Does Valentine at least know the guy?”

“Yes. Jonathan employs him to work with his executives. Dr. Chase specializes in stress management. Do you think he’ll be very angry? I mean, I don’t really care about him being angry with me, I just don’t want him to be so angry that he’s uncooperative. You know how he can get, Bill.”

“Well, If he works with Hart people, that means Jonathan at least trusts him.” Bill surmised. “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about any of it. You couldn’t do anything that would make him truly angry. If nothing else, he knows that you wouldn’t do anything to him that you didn’t think was in his best interest.”

She reached over to place her hand on top of Bill’s hand.

“I hope you’re right, Bill. I appreciate your taking care of J.J. and your coming to see me like this. We’ve really put you and Pat out these last few days. Are you going to stay long enough to go see Jonathan with me?”

“You know I am.” he answered. “Just in case I’m wrong, and he requires decking to get him to see reason.”

“And,” he was thinking to himself. “There’s still that matter August called about that needs closer examination.”

______________________________________________________________

Pat looked to J.J. seated next to her and found her lightly pinching at her cheeks.

“What in the world are you doing, J.?”

“I know that I’m looking kinda pale.” J.J. answered, continuing her efforts. “As it is, I’m coming back to her unannounced, just like I left. She’ll be even more bent out of shape than she already is if I don’t look well to her. My mother can tell right off when I haven’t been sleeping or eating good. I’m puffy, too. Look. My hands. My feet. She notices stuff like that about me right away. I don’t want her to be worried any more than I’ve already worried her. You think I should take my hair down? You think that might make it better?”

Amused by J.J.’s uncharacteristic nervous agitation, Pat turned away from her to hide the smile it generated. Thinking of her friend, she watched as the barren desert below gradually began to speckle, indicating their approach to the city of Las Vegas. The weight she carried in her heart told her that Jennifer was agonizing over all that was going on around her. Because of that feeling, and despite Bill’s warning, she wasn’t about to let her godchild off the hook.

“Pale or tanned, puffy or not, J.,” She said, without turning from the window. “Your ass got penciled in on the docket for a good kicking as soon as it left out of Vegas last Saturday without permission. A pale face, some bloating, and loose hair aren’t going to make one iota of difference to Jen when she gets hold of you.”

J.J. turned in her seat, and Pat could feel those blue eyes on the back of her head.

“Gee thanks, Aunt Cruella.” She heard J.J. say. “You’re so very encouraging.”

“My pleasure, my darling. It’s the least Ms. DeVil can do for the one little sorry Dalmatian she and her best friend have to share between them.”

“Doberman,” J.J. corrected her. “I beg your pardon.”

And Pat was tickled that despite her predicament, her goddaughter hadn’t completely lost her spirit. The girl had steel in her spine, and she liked that about her.

Still looking out over the city, she answered her.

“Whatever, Squirt.”

______________________________________________________________

As Simon drove her and Bill over to the hospital, Jennifer recalled that earlier conversation with Pat.

She and Bill had talked a while more before leaving the villa, and in that time, she had shifted Pat and J.J. to the back of her mind. But in the quiet of the car, they had pushed themselves back to the forefront. She hadn’t heard back from Pat, so that had to mean that J.J. hadn’t given her any grief on the idea of returning to Las Vegas. If so, Pat would have called right back to let her know that she had made the necessary arrangements to get her to the ranch in Reno, what she needed to do, and when. That was how Pat operated. If she needed a person to be somewhere, all a body had to do was show up in the designated places; Pat handled all of the travel details.

For that, she was relieved. If they were indeed coming, it was good to know that J.J. had freely chosen to come back and that Pat was with her to see that it happened safely. She really didn’t want to have to force herself on J.J., but she was willing to go that route if that was what it was going to take to clear the air. The strain  of ignoring her was becoming unbearable. Also, Jonathan had to realize that things weren’t what they should be between them. He had stopped asking after J.J., which was an indicator that he was on to them. Bearing that knowledge and/or worry while he was laid up in the hospital with his own problems, would do nothing to help him get well.

Closing her eyes, resting her head on the headrest, she could see her own mother as she moved about that little bedroom in the guest house, putting things away, straightening, but not saying a word. From her own place on the bed, she watched her mother’s grim face, her jaw set; she was angry about catching her skinny-dipping, unsupervised, in the lake.

“Mama?”

She had to have heard her, but she didn’t answer.

“Mama, I’m sorry.”

Still not a word.

“I won’t do it again, Mama.”

Her mother finished what she was doing and without a word, she left her. She closed the door, leaving her only child and her silence behind.

Not many years after that, her mother was gone, forever silenced. Until very recently, she hadn’t been able to recall such things. Although the memory summoned up with it the angst experienced during that tense childhood moment, it felt good to be able to so easily envision it.

But, she had never skinny-dipped alone in that lake again, not even when she was grown. Not even when she was accompanied by that one man with whom she would have loved to have done it. There had been other lakes, streams, rivers- oceans even; but never again had she done it in that lake.

Later, there was another naughty little redhead, and this time, she was the silent mother as that other one sat in a tub of sudsy water, staring up at her with imploring blue eyes.

“Mommy, I’m sorry about the tree. I won’t go up there again.

“Don’t you hear me talking to you, Mommy?

“I know you can hear me. I think it’s mean that you won’t talk back to me. But that’s okay, my daddy will talk to me. He’s not mean to me like that, not talking to me when he can I’m talking to him….”

J.J. had never been a passive child. That one could be counted upon to speak her mind, and just as she said, her father would talk to her, no matter what she had done.

As a child, she would never have reproached her own mother for her stubborn silence, which had been an effective behavior management tool. Pa hadn’t been there for her to run to him, and even if he had been, he wasn’t that kind of father. Jonathan was that kind. No matter what, J.J. would always have that particular ally. That girl couldn’t possibly see how blessed she was in that; she was too close to see it. J.J. also didn’t quite realize that certain actions on her part garnered like reactions. Silence bred silence.

J.J. and Jonathan… Jonathan and J.J… from the very start….

If she were her grandmother was alive, J.J. would probably have run to her in this situation. By this time, there would be French hell to pay in Maryland if Suzanne hadn’t already flown to Las Vegas, her “wronged” grandchild in tow, to confront her own daughter and to pet and love up her ill son-in-law.

So spoiled… both of them…

… and so maddeningly loveable….

“What’re you thinking about, Beautiful?” Bill’s question cut into her reverie.

Without opening her eyes, her tone sounding wistful even to her own ears, she answered,

“Family, Bill. Just my family.”

______________________________________________________________

After delivering Dr. Chase to his destination, August returned, via the door inside what appeared to be a hall supply closet, to the small room that adjoined Jonathan’s. It was the room usually assigned to a private duty nurse for the patient in that outer private room. Since Jonathan, despite his illness, had proven himself to be as resourceful as always, he and Dr. Michaels, Jonathan’s private physician in LA, agreed that it might be a good thing if he installed himself close by to keep an eye and a lid on things for the duration.

Although he thought Jennifer was taking a chance in sending Dr. Chase into the Lion’s den like that, but he wasn’t too worried. Jonathan was a man who strongly believed in self-help and self-healing; one of those dust-yourself- off-get-back-in-the-saddle-and-ride kind of guys, but he was too polite and well-mannered to just throw the doctor straight out on his ear. And Dr. Chase, for all of his quiet, self-effacing ways, could be surprisingly forceful in getting his point across. Having had the benefit of the good doctor’s practice on a couple of occasions himself, August was sure that Dr. Chase could effectively manage staying in the ring and going a couple of rounds with Jonathan Hart.

Back in the room, he unlocked the briefcase and extracted the folder which was full of copies of documents that Arnold had been faxing and emailing to him since the start of all of this. He took it to the chair, where he sat with it folded open across his thighs. Right on top was a bust shot of Dr. John Philips. It was the same picture used for his official hospital I.D.

Dark blonde, clean-cut, and nice-looking, there was nothing overtly threatening about the young doctor’s appearance. But then, appearances had never meant anything to August Lamb. Back in his boxing days, he’d almost had his head knocked off a couple times by guys who didn’t appear to have the physical ability to take on their grandmothers. In his security experience, he had come to understand that danger lacked a face, and it usually didn’t come courteously knocking before inviting itself in. So, flipping past that photograph, he once again delved into the pile of data pulled up on the doctor.

Arnold Zale, still delving back at Hart Headquarters, stepped up the pace once he got word that the focus had switched to J.J. Her being the source of unauthorized research sent up all kinds of red flags and flares for all concerned. Everyone could offer some justification for why Dr. Philips might be so interested in Jonathan, or perhaps, even Jennifer; both of them were public figures of some relative celebrity, but it wasn’t Jennifer that Philips was studying. It was only Jonathan and now J.J.

Although her parents were more than well-connected and J.J. was acquainted with many of the off-spring of well-known people, it had been carefully worked out that her immediate circle of friends did not include children of celebrities or public figures, although many of her friends were from homes as affluent as her own. J.J. had always led a rather insulated life for a child from her background. She had been as sheltered as possible from undue negative influence, media glare, and she had been carefully protected from those who might want to get to her parents by harming her.

However, in being a fairly normal kid, not everything about her could be kept from public record. Her name and school-related information about her were readily available all over her school’s website. Being a gifted athlete had also led to even more public exposure for her. Zale said that when he put her name into some search engines, although there didn’t seem to be any readily available images of her out there in cyberspace, he was surprised by the amount of print data available about her.

That internet thing could be a powerful tool, but it wasn’t all good. There were simply not enough controls. Any psycho, pedophile, or would-be stalker could get enough to get started.

That girl had deliberately been kept out of the limelight. The pictures released to the press from her recent 16th birthday party had been a first as far as purely public exposure for her went. Even though he had consented to the photographers being present at the party, Jonathan still sweated some over those pictures when they were released. It turned out that he had good reason to be concerned. Not long after that, some older nut job started negatively pursuing J.J., confirming her father’s fears for her, and his. They also confirmed for him the fact that Mrs. Hart could be as deadly as her husband when it came to that child, if not more so.

As he sorted through the papers, August could see that Zale and his team had handled it with their customary thoroughness. Given an assignment, Arnold would dig and probe until he reached bedrock. Given that the subject of concern was J.J. this time, he had probably gone to some boring tool to get through the bedrock. The doctor had been traced all the way back to his childhood.

His parents had  never been wed, his late father a real piece of work, a loser of the highest order. His mother appeared to be one of those women who pulled herself up out of the muck by her own bootstraps only to have yet another couple of losers try to pull her back into it. She’d had two more children after the doctor, but they were considerably younger than he. The boy was in his second year of college. The girl was still in high school.

According to what he could see, there was nothing negative or threatening to be found in those papers. As a boy, after the trouble in Los Angeles, the doctor had gone back to Chicago where he remained until he was grown. He excelled academically all the way through high school, and graduated with a full academic scholarship. After undergrad, he entered the med school of his first choice, where he did quite well, specializing in cardiac medicine. Now engaged to be married, he was finishing up his residency in cardiovascular surgical procedures.

A bright boy with an apparently sterling personal background, despite some measure of domestic adversity, and a promising future ahead of him, he seemed to have a stand-up character. Aside from the name change, which could be clearly understood given his somewhat unsavory contact with the Harts years before, August could find no real reason for that nervous suspicion he was experiencing.

It was an odd coincidence that they should come into contact again in that manner. It made him nervous that the boy had that kind of power over Jonathan’s physical well-being. Who knew what was actually going on in his head after having his parents put him through what they had in those first years of his life. Who could guess how he really felt about Jonathan Hart? But more importantly, why was he so into J.J. Hart all of a sudden?

With the intention of checking up on J.J., he’d called Reno and gotten in touch with Bill. Once he shared with him his concerns about the doctor, Bill told him that he would come down to take a look at things for himself. Bill assured him that J.J. would not be accompanying him. That was good. As long as she was still in Reno with her godmother, the concern at that point was only with ‘why’, and not ‘what’.

______________________________________________________________

Once they had gotten past the obligatory small talk about what happened, his symptoms, the doctors’ findings, and how he was currently feeling, there was a brief lull and Jonathan settled back in anticipation of Dr. Chase’s segue into his real reason for being there.

His hope was that he would be able to maintain his politely charming persona through whatever lie ahead. As much as he liked and admired Bob Chase, he had no intention of giving up any of himself to an outside party, especially not in this situation. He was already feeling too boxed in, and that particular doctor’s presence wasn’t helping.

“How’s J.J. behind all of this?” Dr. Chase asked. “I understand that she was with you when you became ill.”

Unprepared for being “attacked” from that angle, before the reply completely formed in his head, Jonathan heard himself answering the question.

“I guess she’s as well as could be expected. It was probably quite a bit for her to deal with, but she can handle herself.”

Dr. Chase nodded. “I was concerned for her. Jennifer’s spoken with me in the recent past about some panic reactions J.J. was having after some of her difficulties.”

With interest, Jonathan absorbed that piece of information. He hadn’t known about Jennifer’s contacting him about J.J., but he wasn’t surprised by it. If she thought she needed to, Jennifer wouldn’t hesitate to seek ways to help her child stay strong, just as she had done in this situation with him. She had her own mind, and that was what he loved about her, even if he did find it aggravating that she used it in this way in this situation.

“Has she been allowed to see you since then? I know they keep visiting rather restricted in this area. Her being a youngster-”

“She came that first night that I was admitted. I spoke to her early this morn-”

He stopped, and Dr. Chase’s eyes almost imperceptibly flitted to the table next to the bed and thereabouts. There was no phone in the room. Being a doctor, he would know that cell phones weren’t allowed on the cardiac unit.  Jonathan observed the doctor surreptitiously checking things out, but he left his unfinished sentence hanging in the air. If somebody hadn’t already filled Chase in on what happened with the phone that morning…

Jonathan lie back on the pillows, thinking, “Let him figure it out.”

“It can’t be sitting too well with her, not being able to get up here to you,” the doctor said.

Jonathan left that supposition alone. It wasn’t anyone’s business what his daughter wanted, where she was. Or why.

Dr. Chase kept talking.

“I’ve watched her when I’ve had the chance to be in the places where she is. I’ve seen her in action down at Hart headquarters. I’ve always gotten the impression she’s modeling her person upon you, Jonathan. She’s an interesting child.”

“Always has been,” Jonathan said, guessing there was no harm in admitting to that truth.

“As you are an interesting man,” Dr. Chase continued. “She couldn’t have a better role model than her father in terms of character and people skills.”

“Thank you.”

“I imagine a lot of people have modeled themselves on you over the years, Jonathan. You’ve done such a phenomenal job of building a life for yourself. You probably aren’t even aware of the number of people whose lives you’ve impacted, and who have taken their cue from you.”

“Bob, you’re going to have me blushing here in a minute.”

Dr. Chase smiled. “You’re deserving of it. You are very good with people; it’s probably one of the chief reasons for your success. You are an executive and a professional on a highly elevated level, yet somehow you manage to maintain your human perspective and your compassion. When you called my firm in to work with your people all those years ago, when you told me you wanted to implement a stress management program, I was impressed with your being proactive on the matter. Most of the time, we get called in after some crisis has occurred.”

“Actually, Bob, it was some work my wife was doing on the topic at that time that really made me conscious of the need to put some things into place at Hart. It was her research that brought things into focus for me, so it’s really Jennifer who deserves that credit, not me.”

“Yes, but you had to buy into it. You had the concern for your employees, and it was you who saw to the program being implemented and utilized to the extent it is at Hart. With your own personal feelings about the science of psychology, you didn’t have to.”

“It’s been a good thing,” Jonathan admitted without hesitation.

Even if he didn’t buy into it for himself, he considered Dr. Chase and his team to be the best at what they did. The feedback from the executive staff had been overwhelmingly positive, and he could proudly say he never had any hesitation about stepping away from the office whenever he had to or whenever he liked. The people he left in charge were more than capable, completely at ease with their positions of responsibility. They all worked well as a team. Aside from missing what he wasn’t being made a part of by not being there, he wasn’t all that concerned about Hart Industries while he was laid up in that hospital bed.

“Which is another indicator of your leadership abilities,” Dr. Chase went on, as if he had been listening in on his thoughts.  “I sense your J.J. is a leader, too.”

“If she wants to be,” Jonathan said, playing it close, wondering why Chase kept tap dancing around J.J. “She doesn’t always chose to be.”

“Did you?” Dr. Chase asked.

Faced with that question, Jonathan thought on it. He hadn’t chosen; it just sort of always fell his way.

As a kid, he had been the toughest, the strongest, and eventually one of the oldest. Even when he hadn’t been the oldest, he always felt older and more responsible than the others. Other boys, younger and older, tended to turn to him for advice, help, and/or protection. The Sisters, especially Anastasia, depended on him to look out for the smaller, younger ones, and they impressed upon him the need set good examples. But that responsibility, the orphanage, and the loneliness grew tiresome after time.

Despite the Sisters’ attempts to keep him inside the orphanage’s gates, he eventually stole his way out and took delight in mingling with the more colorful, but seedier element to be found on the other side. By the time he was ten, shooting craps was as familiar to him as shooting marbles was with other boys his age, and since it paid off in cash, a whole lot more fun. As a teenager, he spent even more time away from the orphanage, skipping school, and slipping away at night to frequent the pool halls and gambling dens to which he had become so attracted. The pit bosses were quickly taken by his charm and savvy; they could see his cunning potential. Because the guys that hung around those places liked him, they allowed him to hang around, too, staking him, letting him get into their games. The bosses gave him “jobs” to do that required nerve, a level head, and street smarts, all of which he had in abundance.

It was Max who finally roped him in, talking Anastasia into letting him leave the orphanage, and not so gently forcing him to the understanding that he should channel those innate abilities into something more positive.

With Max in his life, he managed to finish high school and from there, joined the military. It was in the Navy that things began to come together. With his intelligence, charm, and his natural ability to lead, he rapidly rose in rank. When that time was over for him, he was focused and driven and pretty well-connected. Spending a couple of years in college, he quickly outgrew that scene and was well was on his way to being the man Max always said he could be.

Sitting there with Bob Chase, he had never before taken the time to so closely consider it, but he’d always been one to take a stand when one needed to be taken, and he had never been afraid to take initiative. Being a leader wasn’t something he’d chosen for himself, it was just who he was.

“Kind of fell that way at times,” was all that he said just about a mutter in response. “I wasn’t pressured to be.” He turned his head to look at the doctor. “Bob, where are you headed with this?”

“Nowhere in particular, Jonathan. I’m just thinking about the enormous pressure you’re under most of the time, and how well you cope with it. I’m sure you’re accustomed to carrying that kind of load.”

There was a silent, seemingly eternal pause.

Then, out of the blue, Dr. Chase quietly offered, “J.J.’s been through quite a bit this year.”

The abrupt switch caused Jonathan to turn his head farther around to take in the other man even closer. He remained silent, waiting to see what else the doctor might say. The wait wasn’t long.

“With the kidnapping, that stalking incident, turning sixteen, all of this….”

Jonathan could feel his disposition curdling and the start of that tight, burning sensation in his chest.

“Your point being?”

Dr. Chase continued talking, his characteristic monotone unchanged. “Jennifer mentioned to me there was another incident recently. She was concerned about its effect on J.J., considering all she had gone through before that. She told me, some time back, that J.J. doesn’t believe in counseling either, but that she does come to her with her problems. Jennifer was seeking advice on how to deal with whatever reactions J.J. might have from this last boy pursuing her so strongly.”

Jonathan returned to lying flat on his back, his face pointed to the ceiling. He closed his eyes, earnestly hoping Chase couldn’t see the trembling in his body as the constriction in his chest intensified.

“It was a good thing you were there for her, Jonathan. There’s no telling what might have happened… that boy high on those drugs and carrying a gun and all… who can say what his actual intentions were?”

Biting his lip, keeping his eyes squeezed so tightly shut white light flashed and streaked inside his head, Jonathan braced himself for what was coming. Through all of it, however, he felt it when Dr. Chase gripped his arm.

“Breathe, Jonathan, get control of it. Breathe.”

______________________________________________________________

After leaving Dr. Chase with Jonathan, August went down to the lobby. He needed to check on his people who were working with hospital security in sniffing out any press and on making sure that Jennifer, J.J., or any other recognizable person coming to see Jonathan Hart were able to do so without being accosted or bothered in any way.

He felt badly about not being able to meet with Dr. Chase at his hotel that morning as was their prior arrangement. After overhearing Jennifer’s conversation while they were in the car together on the day before, making arrangements with doctor for him to visit with her husband, his initial desire had been to brief Dr. Chase on Jonathan’s changeable disposition before letting him walk into that room unaware. It had also been his intention to use that opportunity, away from the hospital, to get Dr. Chase’s educated take on the actions of Dr. Philips. His thinking was that the psychologist might be able to offer another angle on what the young man’s motives might be outside of the purely negative ones his own naturally skeptical mind could conjure up.

But after coming over to the hospital, and then getting the real story of what transpired in those early morning hours, he decided to remain there to personally insure that Jonathan stayed in that room. He left word at the hotel for the doctor to meet him there, which negated the chance of them talking privately about that other matter.

Now seated in the lobby, his staff solidly in place, he could only hope that Chase had been able to hold his own up there with Jonathan Hart. He figured that the doctor might make out okay if he right away let Jonathan in on the fact that it was Jennifer who was responsible for his being there. Knowing that she did it might make Jonathan a little less defensive.

The doctor had been up there for some time; he hadn’t come slinking back down with his tail between his legs, as he very well could have, considering who it was he was there to see. Maybe that not happening meant he was doing some good after all.

It was the height of visiting hours. Crossing one leg over the other, August Lamb settled back in the chair with his newspaper, blending in with the all the other people waiting and coming and going.

______________________________________________________________

Bill got out and walked around the car to open the door for Jennifer. Over his shoulder, he could feel the heads turning in their direction. The attention being drawn by the huge car and the striking, flame-haired woman getting out of it wasn’t only coming from curious onlookers. His instincts told said out of those turned heads, at least a couple, three, or four of those were Jonathan’s people.

Taking her arm to escort her into the building, his trained eye picked out cautious, discreet surveillance, trained on her, and others furtively scanning the crowd, on the lookout for any reason to propel protective bodies in her direction. He was impressed. Before she brought that plane and her father down out of the sky, J.J. had put that safety measure into motion with her call to Marcus Borland. Her father taught her well. The kid was going to be something else when her time came.

In the lobby, Jennifer proceeded to the visitor’s desk. Out of habit, Bill hung back some, scanning their surroundings. Spotting a familiar figure over in the corner, one that was watching him, their eyes met and simultaneous, nearly imperceptible, nods were exchanged.

“Here you go,” Jennifer said as she returned to him, handing him a visitor’s pass.

“You go on ahead,” Bill told her, taking the pass from her. “I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you alone for a minute. I’ll be up in a few, when I’m sure he’s finished properly greeting you and that I won’t be embarrassed into next week.”

“Bill, you are awful,” She said, smacking him playfully on the arm with her pass. “But suit yourself.”

“Hey!” He called behind her as she started to walk away. “Remember his ticker. Take it easy on the old fellow.”

She was wearing a skirt, and Jonathan had a thing for her great legs. She waved her hand at him in dismissal.

When she was around the corner, out of sight, Bill joined August Lamb where he satin that corner of the lobby .

______________________________________________________________

When Jennifer stepped off the elevator, the first thing she noticed was the look the nurse at the desk gave her. It was one that caused her breath to catch.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Hart.” the young woman said as she came from around the desk, starting toward her, which was unusual. She didn’t normally get such a singularly personal greeting upon arrival.

“How is Mr. Hart this afternoon?” she asked the nurse, who was still coming in her direction. “I phoned earlier. I was told he was resting.”

“I think you should wait here for a moment, Mrs. Hart.”

“Why?”

Jennifer took a step back from the woman, making ready to step around her if she had to do so.

“The doctor is in with Mr. Hart. I’m sure he won’t be long.”

“What’s happened? Is something wrong?”

“I’m sure Dr. Samuels will want to speak with you when he’s finished.”

Jennifer took another step back to keep enough clearance between them for the flight she was about to make to get  to Jonathan’s room. At that moment, however, over the shoulder of the woman in front of her, Dr. Chase came into her line of vision. It was clear he saw her, too.

“It’s all right.” Dr. Chase said, drawing the nurse’s attention.

When she turned to see who was speaking to her, Jennifer took the opportunity to brush past her to get to Dr. Chase, who took her by the arm.

“It’s fine,” he told the nurse. “I want to speak with Mrs. Hart.”

But instead of taking her back in the direction of Jonathan’s room, Dr. Chase began walking her in the other direction, toward the lounge on the other end of the hall.

“Bob, what’s happened?” she asked as Dr. Chase kept his hold on her arm, moving her along with him.

He was typically a mild mannered, gentle man, but the grip he had on her was so insistent it made her reconsider fighting him on the idea of not going to her husband.

“He’s asleep, Jennifer,” Dr. Chase answered. “He hasn’t been doing that very well since he’s been here. I think we should allow him to continue undisturbed.”

In the doorway of the lounge, she stopped, causing Dr. Chase to stop walking as well and to face her.

“Did they have to make him go?” she asked, the thought of Jonathan’s face twisting with one of those pains, and then someone forcing a shot of something into him to get him through it, making her sick to her stomach from the resulting surge of anxiety.

Dr. Chase slowly shook his head and gave her his benevolent, calming smile.

“No, Jennifer. That wasn’t necessary. He did suffer another of those chest pains, but then the fever finally broke, and was able to rest on his own.”

Looking into his eyes, she saw he must have sensed her threatening panic. As he spoke, he kept firm hold of both her arms to support her. She could also see was telling her the truth.

He guided her over to one of the large armchairs into which she wilted, exhausted with relief.

______________________________________________________________

“J.J., I’m ready,” Pat announced at the door of J.J.’s room at the villa. “What about you?”

They had come there straight from the airport with the intention of grabbing a bite to eat and freshening up. While J.J. went to her room after their late lunch, Pat made arrangements with Simon to take them down to the hospital.

J.J. had her back to her. She was unpacking her suitcase, and she didn’t turn around when she answered.

“I’m not going, Aunt Pat. But you go ahead. I’ll be okay here.”

Pat went in. Walking up to J.J., she peeked around her to see her face. To her relief, J.J. didn’t appear to be upset, but when she didn’t elaborate on why it was she was opting out of going to see her father, Pat tossed her purse onto the bed and reached for J.J.’s hands to stop her from what she was doing. She pulled the girl around to face her.

“Why aren’t you going, J.? What did we come all this way for if you aren’t going to see your father?”

Casting her eyes away as she did so, J.J. answered, “I didn’t come to see Daddy. I came back to make up with my mother.”

“What about him? You don’t think he wants to see you?”

“He knows I’m okay. He only wants me to get back with my mother. He told me to.”

Abruptly dropping J.J.’s hands, Pat took a step back from her.

“What do you mean he told you to? When did you talk with him?”

“Last night, or I should say early this morning,” J.J. answered, pulling her emptied suitcase from the bed and then sitting down in the place where it had been. “It was after you left me to go back to bed. He snuck out of his room and called me. He kind of let me have it for what I had done, and then he told me to fix the stuff with my mother. He said for me to do it ASAP.”

Pat could feel the steam starting to rise, rushing up from her feet as if trying to find an escape valve somewhere in the top of her head.

“So you mean to tell me the only reason you wanted to come back here was because your father told you to? He’s supposed to be somewhere lying flat on his ass, but instead he’s up skulking around the hospital in the middle of the night, making himself worse to get to you? You take his call, and then you don’t tell anybody about it until hours- nearly a whole day- later. You and your damned Daddy. Justine Jennifer Hart, I’m telling you, I don’t know how your mother has managed to hang in there with the two of you for this long! Are you saying to me you wouldn’t have come back if he hadn’t demanded that you do so?”

“It wasn’t like that, Aunt Pat.” J.J. said, the resigned tone of her voice tamping down her godmother’s ire. “He didn’t tell me to come back at all.”

Sensing maybe there was a whole lot more going on than what she thought she was seeing, Pat heard Bill inside her head.

“Don’t push her too hard, Pat. She is just a kid, and she’s going through some pretty rough stuff.”

She sat down on the bed, too.

“Then what is it like, J.J.? Talk to me.”

“It’s like I told you, Aunt Pat, I’ve been trying to call her, but she won’t answer me back. I tried again this morning, but no luck that time either. I didn’t leave any messages, but she can see my name and number. Under normal circumstances, if I call my mother and happen to miss her, she hits me right back, sometimes almost before I can hang up. The only time she ignores me is when she’s upset with me. I thought about sending her an email apology, but that seemed too impersonal and, still, she probably wouldn’t have answered me. And then, too, I don’t know if I want her to write a reply to me. I think I’d rather hear her fuss at me than to have to read it.”

J.J. shuddered, and Pat understood the sentiment. With written words, Jennifer was- could be-

She, of all people, understood J.J. not wanting to have to deal with that.

“What about a regular letter, J.? You young people act like that’s not done any more. Surely she would have phoned you back then.”

“I thought about it, I honestly did, and I do write fairly well. In fact, I think I’m a better writer than I am a speaker. I could have written her a letter to say what I wanted to say and then had it Fed-Ex’d to her so she would have gotten it pretty quickly. But, even before Daddy called me, I think I had already concluded I was going to ask you to let me come back. You see, I left the wrong way, Aunt Pat, but this is the right way to come back. It was just her and me when I turned my back on her. Now I have to face her, and that first time I do, I want it to be just us, her and me.”

J.J.’s voice had deteriorated to a trembling whisper. Pat noticed her twisting her emerald ring around her finger.

“So, I’m going to wait here for her. I’ll see Daddy tomorrow or whenever, provided I’m still drawing breath after she finishes with me. She has to be pissed. To be so quiet with me for this long, she has to be beyond pissed. Whatever happens, I just have to face up to it- on my own.”

“Pissed? When did you start using language like that?”

“Pissed. It’s means angry to the -nth power. You know pissed, Aunt Pat. You’ve been there before.”

“I know what pissed is, J. I go there all the time. I just didn’t know that you knew what it meant.”

J.J. screwed up her face and looked with disdain to her godmother as if to say, “Please.”

“I know a lot more than that. That’s tame compared to some of the other ones I know. I’m my Daddy’s girl, my mother’s child, my Aunt Sabrina’s niece, and you and Uncle Bill’s godchild. Between all of you, I know dirty, but effective, words in at least five different languages. Add Pa to the mix, and I even know some archaic ones.”

Pat laughed, hugging her to her with one arm. “You are one crazy child, Squirt. A total, complete mess.”

“I hear that all the time,” J.J. sheepishly grinned. “Considering the predicament I’m currently in, I’m beginning to believe it.”

“Well, you seem to have it worked out, J.” Pat gave her another one-armed squeeze for reassurance before getting up. “I guess I’ll just leave you to yourself, then.”

She went out of the room, reflecting to herself once again how much steel that girl really did have in her spine, and how she  loved her for it. Absolutely.

______________________________________________________________

“Ooooooh Daddy, look. Mommy’s going to be so mad. She doesn’t like when I get my dresses dirty. This one is all wet a-a-a-n-n-nd dirty. And my hair and my shoes and my socks. And you, too, Daddy. I’m sorry I felled in the water.”

He had put her back in the boat and not wanting to tip it by trying to get back into it himself, he swam, pushing it and her back to shore. Even when he had her back in the car, his heart was still painfully thumping inside his chest. Never before in his life could he recall feeling so rattled. One minute she had been there in the canoe with him, and the next, she was gone- over the side, completely under the water.

He couldn’t even remember going in after her. It had been purely a reflex action. The next thing he knew, he had her. She was inside his arm, and he was pushing upward, rushing to get her to air. When they broke the surface, and he could see her face, she had her eyes shut tight and her lips puckered where, as little as she was, she knew to hold her breath. She exhaled, blowing the air from her lungs, then she hugged him tightly about the neck and kissed him.

“I touched one of those fishes. Daddy. It was all slimy and stuff.”… just grinning.

So tiny. She didn’t have a clue that she should have been scared. The only thing she feared was disappointing her mother over yet another ruined outfit.

He tried to will them still, but his hands visibly trembled as he peeled the wet things from her little body, the dress, her socks and shoes, right down to her skivvies. Those he left on her, and then he wrapped her in the car blanket and strapped her in. Before they could get out of the park, she was asleep. He was still a wreck.

…she was his….

Jennifer was going to have a fit…  She was really going to let him have it over this one….

…after all, she was hers, too….

For several nights after that, he had trouble sleeping. Recalling the splash and the moment that girl disappeared under that water, sent his pulse racing.

… seems like its always something with J.J. and me …. me and J.J. ….

From the bay window, he could see J.J. out back with her friends. She was sitting poolside in one of the chaise lounges, talking and laughing. Such a well-adjusted, happy girl, and getting to be so pretty. It made him happy just to look at her. She was their crowning joy.

But she was his. Every father should have such a great kid to come home to.

Teddy was sitting on the end of her chair. Tommy was standing behind and over her, looking down on the two of them. Teddy said something to her, and she looked to him and smiled.

… the mirror image of her mother’s smile….

All of her boys were out there with her: Tommy, Teddy, Chase, Chance, Deon, Hector, Juan Carlos, Emil, even that Sidney character- they were all out there with her. (Regardless of how he saw himself, in his book, Sidney was included in the male category). Seemed funny that they would all be in his backyard at the same time, boys from the area, the other side of the country, from around the world; but they were, and they were all out there to see his daughter. No girls, just those boys.

… why did she have to grow up so fast… why couldn’t she just stay a little girl and be safe… with Daddy….

Suddenly, they all stopped talking, and they turned around in the same direction, looking at something.

From his angle in the window, he couldn’t see what it was that they were seeing.  J.J. abruptly stood up from the chair, and  without her weight to balance out Teddy’s, the chair shifted, and Teddy had to jump up to keep from having it collapse.

J.J. tried to step forward in the direction of whatever was out there. From the set of her shoulders and chin, it appeared that her attitude had turned confrontational, but Tommy reached out, and rather roughly pulled J.J. back, then stepping into the place she had occupied. Caught off guard by that move, J.J. fell into Teddy, who also moved her behind him and went to stand next to Tommy.

All the boys had come from where they had been in the yard and in the pool to stand with them, forming a protective circle around J.J. so dense that he could no longer see her from that window. It was apparent that they had formed a united front against whatever was coming their way, but no matter how hard he strained, he still couldn’t see what it was that they saw.

Teddy stepped forward, saying something. He wanted whatever or whoever it was to stop. Tommy, standing directly behind him, folded his arms and planted his feet, drawing himself up to his full height.

“I’d better get out there. Something’s wrong.”

He headed for the side door and stepped outside just as a gunshot sounded. The sun suddenly flared, white hot, momentarily blinding his eyes.

… then she was on the floor, lying at his feet. Her eyes stared up at him, and her lips were moving, the voice a raspy, whisper. She spoke to him in French….

“Jonathan, go. Run ! Jonathan, run!”

But he couldn’t go. Not without her. Without her, he couldn’t go. He was supposed to take care of her, not leave her. If she couldn’t go with him, he couldn’t go either. He couldn’t leave her.

“Jonathan, mon coeur.”

…her heart….

There was nothing else to do. He lie down next to her, tucking himself snugly into the comfort of her still warm body. If she couldn’t run, he wouldn’t either….

…all of his life, he’d had to be strong… had to be…. had to….

…they were his to keep safe…

… Jennifer and J.J… she was his…. she was theirs… all….

______________________________________________________________

“So I was right.” Jennifer surmised, accepting the glass of ice water Dr. Chase had drawn for her from the guest facilities. “It is stress.”

“I didn’t say that.” Dr. Chase answered.

“But you’ll agree that’s a big factor.”

“With a man like Jonathan, Jennifer, it’s very difficult to tell for sure. He didn’t share very much with me. I’m not even sure if he was really listening.”

“Oh, he heard you. That’s what he does. He sits there, and he takes it in, but he isn’t going to say very much to you.”

“I’m curious. You know him, and I know him. Just why did you have me come to see him if you knew that he wasn’t going to talk to me?”

“Because, Bob, I remembered what you said when you talked with me when I was going through my rough time. You told me that sometimes the people who care for the victim can suffer even more than the victim. If it applied to me, then surely, it makes even more sense for him. He’s her father. She’s his only everything. She’s been through so much, and I wonder sometimes about her. She seems fine, but she’s so much like him, I can’t really be sure what’s going on with her all the time. She will come to me, however, maybe not right away, but when it’s too much for her she eventually let’s some of it out with me. Not Jonathan, not unless I just wear him down, and even then… I guess I just wanted him to listen to whatever you told him, and then he could do with it whatever he wanted. Usually he seems to get through these things, but this time, he hasn’t. I just don’t know the right things to say.”

“You underestimate yourself, Jennifer. You’re quite the psychologist yourself. I think you understand your husband and your daughter a whole lot better than you realize.”

At his words, Jennifer blinked hard in surprise. “Me? I barely understand myself most of the time.”

Dr. Chase patted her hand. “Jennifer, there was a reason why Jonathan was single for so long before he married you, and it wasn’t only because he was too busy to get married. There is a reason why he’s stayed married to the same woman for so long in a society where rotating spouses seems to the norm, and that reason goes beyond his just loving you. Your husband is innately distrustful of people and their motives, which would have made him unable to readily commit to just anyone before he met you. He needed you, the person. He continues to need that person, but even more than needing you, he trusts you.

There’s a reason why J.J. is the solid, down-to-earth person she is when  with all she has at her disposal, she could be anything but that. That grounded element to her character has less to do with her father than it has to do with you. Jonathan loves her because she’s his daughter. You love her because she is who she is. You have the ability to be objective about both of them, and both of them are better for having you in their lives. I was happy to come, but you really didn’t need me.”

“You said that his fever broke. It didn’t do that until you got here.”

“They put him on antibiotics this morning. Until this morning, they weren’t sure the cause of the fever, and they were reluctant to start the meds before then. They’ve ruled everything else out at this point, so now they’re treating his immune system. It was just coincidence that the fever broke while I was with him.”

“You said that he’s sleeping now. You said that he hasn’t been doing that very well until now. Jonathan almost never sleeps during the day, even when he opts to lie down, even when he’s not at his best.”

“I’m told he slept the night that you spent with him. I’m told that his symptoms ease when you’re by his side.”

“You’re not going to let me win this one, are you, Bob?”

“It’s not a win/lose situation for you, Jennifer. You already had the upper hand on it, just as you’ve always had with him. You just need to see what it is you’re were holding. It’s time for you to exercise your options. I’ve watched the two of you over the years. You have such amazing dynamics, you two. He has an enormous need to feel in control of his situations. You have the wisdom and an immense capacity to allow him to feel that he is without losing your own measure of control or your identity in sustaining him. You’re just so good at it, that I don’t think you realize any of it.”

She sat, contemplating what he was saying, while at the same time recalling something similar that J.J.’s school counselor, Ms. Grimsley said to her about J.J. It was when she went in to see her, concerned about changes they were seeing in J.J.’s behavior and wondering if it could be somehow school-related. It was before they knew that she was being stalked that first time. J.J. hadn’t said anything to anyone about her troubles. Ms. Grimsley told her that J.J.’s silence on personal matters and her reluctance to seek help for her problems were her ways of keeping control, her way of manipulating the system to work the way that she wanted or needed for it to work. J.J. Hart was just like her father.

J.J. and Jonathan… Jonathan and J.J…. the two of them… like two peas….

“Tell me something, Jennifer. How much, if anything, does Jonathan know about his parents or the circumstances that led to his becoming an orphan?”

“To my knowledge, nothing, Bob. He’s told me that he doesn’t remember anything, and he rarely speaks of that time in his life beyond saying how lonely it was for him. I don’t ask anymore. He has always preferred to live in the present. When he does speak of it, I mean things in specifics, he rarely goes back past when Max came into his life.”

Dr. Chase sat back and scratched at his chin. Jennifer watched him.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“Nothing, really. It’s just that- He was a healthy, blue-eyed white child, a boy, and from what he’s told me, he was pretty young when he was orphaned. It seems a little strange to me that-.”

He cut himself off and shrugged. “But, who knows? We’re all made up of what we were. Even when we’re all grown up, who we are goes all the way back to those very first moments of life. Even those things we don’t readily recall remain a part of us. Who knows?”

Jennifer sat back, thinking right away of that one impenetrable barrier. Somebody did know, but either she wasn’t telling it, or more likely, she couldn’t.

______________________________________________________________

It was wrong, and he knew it was wrong, but he had to see for himself. It was a serious breach of patient confidentiality and a supreme risk to all that he had accomplished, but it was a risk he had to take. After once again being so close to him, seeing him through his most recent distress, and wondering like always why things couldn’t have worked out differently; it had been all he could do to get out of that expensive private room and away from him.

But he had to see it. Maybe seeing would help him better feel it.

J.J. Hart, by pure luck of birth, had it all. For her it was real. Her experiences had been wide ranging and varied. She had horses, flew airplanes, skied, and sailed. She was smart, accomplished, and well traveled. He could only imagine what else she had been able to do in her sixteen years that he hadn’t gotten around to in his thirty. And on top of all of that, she had two excellent parents.

What he would have given for one…. for that one.

With the address in hand to where they were staying, which her mother had provided the hospital, and a map detailing how to get there, he left the apartment, headed for his truck. He was grateful that it wasn’t very far away from the hospital and his apartment.

______________________________________________________________

Bill was instantly alarmed. “J.J.? I don’t want to begin to think why a grown man might be interested in her.”

“Me neither.” August agreed. “My mind goes from he’s jealous of her to- well, you know.”

They had gone up a back way to return to that little room that August had temporarily taken for his own in the hospital.

Bill considered the papers inside the folder spread before him.

“I never did like how computers could open up someone’s life like this to prying eyes. She’s just a kid. The jealousy thing would make sense, but the- you know thing- makes a whole lot of sense, too. None of it sits well with me.”

“Well, Bill, we both know that it was a scam, but I can’t help but wonder what he might have made of it. I’m sure that over the years, he’s thought about how his life would have been different had things panned out.”

Bill was still flipping through pages as he spoke. “Before all of that happened, women had tried snagging Jonathan in different ways, but this was the first swindle attempt to take it to that extreme. Even so, I think Jonathan ended up feeling sorry for him, his being a kid and the pawn in it all. He’s always had a soft spot for children, especially ones in adverse situations.”

“He did feel sorry for him.” August said. “I know that for a while, he kept track of him. I don’t think he had any personal contact with him, though, after the original incident. Every now and then Jonathan would bring him up in conversation, wondering how he was doing. Then J.J. was born, and he had his own kid to see to. I think he let the matter with the boy go after that.”

“What happened to his old man?” asked Bill. “I see he’s deceased.”

August reached in and pulled out one of the pages, placing it on top of the ones in front of Bill.

“Killed in a fight while he was in prison for some other mess he had gotten himself into.” August answered, gesturing to the document to which Bill was looking. “That was after he was released from being sent up for what he tried to do to Jonathan. He was in and out of the joint, then he got knifed that last time. He and the kid’s mother never got back together, but she married another couple of losers after that.”

“The doc had it rough as a kid, I see.” said Bill

“Compared to what could have been.”

“Compared to what J.J. ended up with.” Bill continued going through the folder. “But he seems to have turned out all right, in spite of it all. Kind of like Jonathan did as a kid.”

“There aren’t a whole lot of Jonathan Harts in this world,” August said, his skepticism still strongly raging. “The genuinely nice guys. It might just be me, but I can’t help wondering if there’s something else going on here.”

Bill looked up from the papers to August. “There is one good thing in all of this.”

“What’s that?”

“If there really is some harm to be found in any of this, J.J.’s out of it’s way at my place up in Reno.”

______________________________________________________________

Bob Smith sat in the nondescript sedan hidden behind some brush in a spot that kept the front and one whole side of the Beckett place in full view. The large main house was so far back that it looked quite small from where he was, but he had good sight of the main road that passed in front of it, the driveway that led up to it, as well as the road that ran along the other side of the estate. He could also see the  pool, the small paddock, and the stable.

All afternoon, he had been kicking himself for being on the other end when that taxi pulled in. By the time he got back around to his surveillance spot, it was pulling out again, and whoever had gotten out of it had gone into the house. Lamb had given orders that they were not to approach or disturb the occupants of the house. Beckett’s security said that whoever it was had coded themselves in, so it had to be someone who belonged there. They resented having their authority questioned by Hart Security, but none of those idiots had gone around to see who it actually was that had gotten out of the car. How freaking slack could a security force be? Out there in the quiet, relatively deserted desert, they probably had become complacent, but he and his people from LA were not. They had been even more on point ever since the arrival of that taxi.

There were three of them stationed there, him, Drake out back, and Samms on the other side. He had seen Bill McDowell when he arrived, in fact, he had spoken with him. He called Lamb to let him know of McDowell’s presence. A short while later, McDowell had come back out, leaving in the Becketts’ limo with Mrs. Hart, which was being driven by Simon, the chauffeur.

Once they were gone, he remained in that spot for another span of time which proved uneventful, and then he had gone to the back. That was when he missed that other car that had come in. He felt foolish for having missed it, for having trusted the moment to Becketts’ people, and likening himself to them, for having to sweat those resultant nervous bullets he was sweating.

Way up by the house, a car was moving from the back around to the front. He trained his binoculars on it, twisting the dials to bring the car close in to his eyes. It stopped at the front door and Simon got out. He went around, and opened the back door just as Patricia Hamilton, Mrs. Hart’s friend and McDowell’s fiancée exited the front door of the house. She was alone.

“Then where’s J.J.?” He asked aloud despite being in the car by himself.

He reached into his breast pocket for his cell. The limo was pulling out of the gates just as his phone made contact with August Lamb’s.

__________________________________________________________

Essentially left on her own, after putting her clothes away, returning a few phone calls, and changing into jeans and a tee shirt; J.J. found herself at a loss for what to do with herself. She lie down across the bed with the television remote in hand, and quickly flipped through the many assorted channels. Finding nothing that caught her interest, she switched the television off and reached for her CD player. She tried listening to the CD that she had burned for herself before leaving home for the ranch, a composite of many of her favorite tunes, but she soon tired of that. Listening to it made her sleepy, and the last thing she wanted to do was sleep.

Getting up from the bed to get the blood flowing again, she first thought about taking a swim, but the idea of either having to dry her hair in time for dinner or having to eat with wet hair on her back, deterred her from suiting up for that. Instead, she went into the closet and pulled out her riding boots, having made up her mind that a ride in the fresh air would be refreshing and might even ease her restlessness.

______________________________________________________________

Once Dr. Chase left her, saying that he had another meeting there at the hospital, Jennifer stayed behind in the guest lounge of the hospital. Dr. Samuels came in and gave her an update on Jonathan’s condition. What he told her was basically a repeat of what Dr. Chase had reported about there being a virus in Jonathan’s system and that the fever had broken. But Dr. Samuels’ report included the extra detail of Jonathan’s early morning escapade.

Who in the world was he calling at four o’clock in the morning?

Dr. Samuels felt that the excruciating pains Jonathan was experiencing were caused by the infection, combined with the narrowed, actually scarred, arteries leading to his heart, the probable result of a childhood illness. When she asked from where the virus had come, the doctor could offer no definitive point of origin. He said that the germ may have been lying dormant in his system for some the time, but that he didn’t see his present illness causing any permanent damage beyond what Jonathan had been living with for most of his life without knowing it.

That Dr. Samuels didn’t know the cause of the virus becoming active was all right by her. She  had her own strong suspicions, and she had already acted upon them.

Still seated on the couch, she mulled over all the things that both Doctors said to her about Jonathan, comparing and contrasting them with what she knew for herself. Dr. Chase was right about one thing; as much as she loved Jonathan and J.J., she could see past that love to the individuals they were.

Her husband, although easy-going, confident, and generally affable on the surface, was a somewhat different individual underneath it all. To most people, it probably didn’t appear that he got ruffled by difficult, trying, or dangerous things, but she had come to know that to be a defense strategy on his part, one he’d taught himself to call into play to get through them.

Well, at least through the difficult and trying things; the dangerous, he seemed to enjoy.

“Never let them see you sweat.”

How many times had she heard him say that?

Jonathan Hart seemed invincible, and he gave the impression that he shrugged things off. But in reality, he was quite sensitive and could be easily hurt if the source or inflictor of the injury was something or someone that mattered to him. Nevertheless, he didn’t allow those injuries or hurts to stop him. Instead, he used them as learning experiences and grew from them. He also wasn’t one who forgot things, particularly troublesome things. He learned and grew from them, too, but he did not forget them.

Dr. Chase had begun to voice the very thing she had always wondered about Jonathan’s early years. Why had he languished at the orphanage, the same orphanage, until he was a teenager rather than being fostered or adopted out as a child? How much of that did Jonathan actually remember? How much of it was still in his head, but was put so far away that he no longer knew it was there?

It was only that very summer that a strange twist of events caused her to remember things about her own late mother that her mind had unconsciously put away from her to protect itself. Had something happened to Jonathan that was trying to find its way out for some reason after all this time? Had her finding her way back to her mother triggered something in him?

He was quiet about that part of his life. He said that he didn’t really remember much from when he was small. Maybe it was that he didn’t want to remember. It could be that not remembering was his mind’s way of protecting him.

Perhaps his physical troubles were somehow tied to J.J. and her recent struggles. After all, that was his baby, his blood; his past, his present, and his future.

It was all an enigma, a conundrum, one of those things that might never be figured all the way out. Over everything, she was relieved and thankful that he seemed to be getting better and that it hadn’t been any worse. Her hope was that whatever the outcome of all that was happening with him, Jonathan would learn and grow from this experience, too.

A tension headache was trying to gain foothold on her, so she swallowed down two of the Motrin she kept in her purse with what remained of the water Dr. Chase had earlier drawn for her. As she sat back to let them take effect, she wondered if Pat and J.J. were on their way and what was in store for her when she and J.J. faced each other again.

“I know you’re mad at me. I was mad at you, too, but I’m not any more. I’m sorry about my bad attitude with you, but I meant what I said about Daddy. If he hadn’t taught me to fly so well, it might be that neither one of us would have him any more. I really love him a lot, too.

She could picture J.J., thinking it in her head as she was writing: “He’s your Jonathan, but Jonathan is my Daddy.”

Her Daddy.

She was no longer angry with J.J. She still wasn’t exactly pleased with her behavior, but after talking to Bill and Dr. Chase, she thought she was beginning to understand. She could appreciate that all of this was new to J.J. That girl’s behavior could be unpredictable even in the best of times. In a lot of ways, she was still very much a baby even though J.J. Hart would dispute that fact with every fiber of her thin, obstinate, incorrigible being.

By design, she had been sheltered from a great many things, at least as much as they could keep away from her. J.J. had experienced a couple of negative things happening with her mother, but it was through nature’s good grace that she hadn’t had to endure much strife as it related to her father. Faced with it for the first time, and on such a profound level, she had done just as Bill said, she had fought- for her Daddy- and then fled.

But why had she fled from her mother rather than turned to her? Why couldn’t that girl get it through her head….

“My darling, she loves you. And you are right, she doesn’t know what it’s like. Only you do. Justine has always had you in her life, and she doesn’t mean to, but she takes it for granted that you are always going to be there. Children do that. She can’t see and appreciate having or not having a mother in the way that you do. But that doesn’t diminish her respect, her love, her admiration, and her appreciation of you… she loves you, but she isn’t you, Jennifer. She’s who she is because of you, and Jonathan, of course… she knows that you’ll still be there  and that you’ll still love her when it is done. You will, won’t you?”

Her father’s words, spoken to her at Briarwood earlier that summer when he noticed her giving J.J. a dose of the silent treatment over a picture album she and Marnie had put together at the reunion, came back to her. They forced their way in, echoing inside her head as if he was still sitting next to her as he had been that night when he called her into his study, made her sit down and listen as he said them to her.

Of course, she would still love J.J., no matter how ill-tempered, touchy, and irrational she happened to be. How could she not love Jonathan’s child? Her own daughter. Their child together…

Holding her forehead in her hand, she sat back and tried to relax.

To move away from her anxieties, she forced herself to shift her focus to other things and easier, less trying times. Her mind drifted back to the start of it all. It was a most comfortable place, a place she went when she needed to loosen up and get away from her troubles. It was where she could concentrate and not worry about being distracted….

It had essentially been a bar pickup, albeit a higher-toned one since it took place at the bar of the Ritz Hotel in London. Just as it might happen in any situation anywhere when two strangers find themselves attracted to each other, in the beginning, there had been bit of game playing…

He told her about a reporter named Jennifer Edwards hounding him, but he embellished the tale by saying that she broke into his suite to get to him. She pretended not to know anything about him, the reporter, who he described as a “chain smoking, love-starved matron”, or his situation. When he asked if she was there at the bar to meet someone, she faked being stood up. Brash bachelor that he was, a pretty and available woman seated next to him, he wasted no time in taking his shot. Before he even knew her name, he played his hand.

Gazing into her face with those bedroom eyes of his, he asked her to dinner, causing her to have to come up with another name. After all, who was “Louise Tolbin” to turn a look and an invitation like that down? Putty and/or Jennifer Edwards had no will of its/her own.

Behind closed eyes, she was back in his arms, dancing to music she couldn’t hear for following his smooth moves while her heart beat in time with his.

Right from the onset of things, he was charming and handsome, funny, nice… and overwhelmingly sexy….

… he was seated on the side of his bed, and she stood before him….

…allowing that final undergarment to slide down her legs to the floor, stepping out of it, she looked up to find him watching. The shameful bruising had faded, could no longer be seen at all… the timing couldn’t have been better….those eyes said that he loved what he was seeing…

…all the years of dancing, all the toning, training, and exercising… staying fit, watching the diet; it had all been for that moment. At 29, her body was still beautifully in its prime, and she knew it… she took pride in it…

…standing over him, freely mussing his thick chestnut hair between her wandering fingers… pressing kisses to his forehead, to his temples while he fumbled with the buttons of his shirt… his mouth, his teeth, his tongue found her breasts…

Through the faint, but noticeable, throbbing in her head, she took deep pleasure in the vivid memory of that first purely sexual gesture from him. She was still seated, and that was a good thing. It was many years later, but her knees felt weak at recalling it.

…so delicious…

Just as she thought when she danced so closely with him that first night, when they first kissed on the ferry earlier in the day, when he asked her to marry him, and she said, “Yes”, and when he kissed her and told her, “I want you.” that night, right after dinner and she allowed him to bring her back to that bedroom; he was a man she could trust to love her.

… he knew how to love her… would never hurt her… could tell from his touch… those eyes… that smile….

Before that night, it had been nearly six months since she last let a man touch her.

She wasn’t a virgin, and she hadn’t been frigid in any sense of the word. There has been a couple of semi-serious affairs and the occasional casual sexual  encounter, but she couldn’t say she had ever been in love with anyone. Then came that incident in Australia and the resulting revulsion, the fear- it hadn’t been that way for her since right after her first time. That experience had been awful as well. It had taken a while to get past it, but she had recovered. Even so, it hadn’t been forgotten, just like with that last thing.

But then there he was, Jonathan Charles Hart; intelligent, handsome, and sexy. Charismatic and unassuming, her Jonathan who was so very, very nice.

… frustrated, he stopped trying to work with the buttons on his shirt and briefly left off his oral ministrations just long enough to pull the shirt, along with his undershirt, off over his head. Reaching for her hand, he eased her down to sit in his lap where he resumed his sensuous attentions to her body.

Never before had she allowed herself to be intimate with a man so soon after meeting him. In fact, making a man wait and eagerly anticipate that which he might not ever get had been a personal rule of her game. But with Jonathan, after that initial match, there had been no more games. Alone with him, there had been no need for them.

He was honest and straightforward about the things he wanted, and it was startlingly evident to both of them that they were meant to be. Until then, she thought such things the stuff of storybooks and fairy tales. But there she was, wantonly naked on the lap of the man who would be her husband, a man whom she had only known for two days, but who felt as if he had always been a part of her. There were no longer any such things as reason, decorum, dignity- they had no place in the context of anything that happened that night….

…so different… so gentle… with him there were no fears, none of the frightening, ugly flashbacks that she imagined there might be….

… the boxers he wore, blue silk, like those eyes and his ways, strained, holding back from her that which she desired so badly… he didn’t remove them right away. Instead he kept them on and returned to her, kissing his way down… first her lips, then her neck, to her breasts, into the bends of her arms, her wrists and each of her fingers, inside her sensitive thighs and behind her knees… his hands squeezed, stroked, and caressed while his tongue danced and his teeth teased.

“So lovely. I love the freckles.”

His whisper generated a private smile. Until that night, she had been a bit self-conscious about her freckles. Being called, “Red” by anyone always incensed her, except when he said it. It was a turn-on when he said it, but in all their years together, she had never let on to him that it was. But he was likely aware of it. The kind of thing he would pick up on.

Trailing his tongue along her body, traveling back up to her navel, he lingered there for a few moments, making her squirm in delight, before finally moving back down to the place she longed for him to reach…

…at the first steamy, probing touch, she was almost instantly shot to the summit, catching herself before being catapulted into the skies.

Who would have thought, a powerful businessman like him, outwardly professional, reserved, and sophisticated could be so carnal and uninhibited, yet tender in private? In public, he radiated an easy confidence that might be misinterpreted as arrogance, as might be expected of a man in his position… until he allowed a person to get close enough to really see.

Like everything else in his life, he knew what he wanted, and how he wanted it, how to personally go about achieving it, and how to treat it once it was his.

So did she…

Liberated by his openness with her, she pushed him away just before reaching zenith. When she did go over that first time, she wanted him to go with her.

He allowed her to guide him onto this back and to pull those boxers from him, revealing to her his proud physical essence. When she straddled his body, he held her, eager to take charge, but she denied him immediate entrance. Instead, she removed his insistent hands from her hips and leaned forward to pay homage to his body, taking pleasure in his scent, the promise of his strength. Returning his kisses, the swollen nipples of her breasts brushed the dark hair adorning his chest, continuing down his abdomen to his lower belly. With her lips, she saluted that hirsute trail all the way past his navel, down to-

“No!”

Undeterred, she resisted his efforts to pull her back up to him. She was where she wanted to be, and it was what she wanted him to have from her. His resultant groans of ecstasy and the gentle rhythmic thrusts of his hips told her he was enjoying having done to him what he had done for her … and that he was impressed by her skills.

In satisfaction, she recalled the many times he told her how much he appreciated that she was such lady to the outside world, but how much he loved the woman she was with him in private.

He had Sabrina to thank for that.

“You lie down that first time with a boy when you are but a girl, both  seventeen only. You are not a virgin, but you are still a girl.  My Jennifer, it take a man to make a girl into a woman. You make love from this time on with men, not boys. Always older, always.”

Twenty at the time, that first real man had been thirty eight, and Aunt Sabrina had been right.

All her aunt taught to her and allowed her to experience during that year they spent living together in Paris had been for the benefit of the last man, Jonathan Hart, and their first night. Everything she experienced before him, had all been in preparation.

… making her stop, he rolled her off and onto the bed where he immediately moved her underneath him.

“I want you,”

…he gazed directly down into her eyes, into her soul… “but I want you my way”

… and he reached down between their bodies to touch her and then to take himself in hand. Opening to him, when they intimately connected for the very first time, for her it was powerfully electric… it must have been for him, as well….

… he tried to hold back… she could tell wanted to take his time, to be gentle and considerate, but who wanted that? The moment had been too hot, too passionate; her own need too strong… she didn’t remember doing it, but she must have cried out…

“Oh God, Jennifer, did I hurt you? Are you all right? I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

He hadn’t hurt her; with that first sudden and urgent plunge of his body into hers, he had healed and completed her. He had done what no one before him had been able to do, filled a chasm within her being that until that moment had never been touched.

She was glad for her long legs that night…. used them to let him know he hadn’t hurt her, they held and kept him there, and with them she urged him to continue…

Like Arthur Pendragon, pulling the sword from the stone, Jonathan Hart had proven himself to be the one, and he had earned his crown: her heart. But unlike her namesake, Lady Guinevere, she would never betray him. Their Camelot was real, and he would have his kingdom forever.

…he fell in love with her legs that night… he still loved her legs….

“Jen.”

..the marriage was consummated on that first night together, under twinkling stars and shooting rockets, bursting on high … well before the actual ceremony could take place… before Pa even knew anything about them or of their being engaged…

They considered that night their private wedding anniversary, and they had celebrated it every year since, six weeks before their public anniversary.

… so good… so hot… all night… in between they’d spoken of so much, as if they had known each other forever… there had been no problems, no illnesses, no worries….

“Jen?”

…please help him through this… to deal with this…. I love and need him so much….

“Jennifer!”

I could stay here in my head forever.

“Jen, I’m here. I can tell by the look on your face. Wake the hell up from that filthy dream.”

Dammit, Pat.

______________________________________________________________

They had gone through the folder and reviewed the sequence of events surrounding Jonathan’s admittance and his stay at the hospital. They made attempts at lining all of that up with what they knew of recent events surrounding both Harts, J.J. and how those things might have physically and mentally affected Dr. Philips. Then they bounced around theories and suppositions about Dr. Philips and his motives until they had exhausted all of what they could come up with as feasible possibilities.

“Can I see the old boy from here?” Bill asked after having gotten up and gone over to that inside door.

“He’s right on that other side.” August answered as he sat rearranging the papers. “We came that back way, so we didn’t pass his room to get in here. That door’s made heavy. Keeps the sounds on this side from disturbing the patient, so brace yourself for the weight, and take it easy when you crack it, if you’re going to peek in on him. He was sleeping when I checked last. I think ducking around Dr. Chase and of what all he was asking him must have worn him out, but you know Jonathan’s got a bat’s sense of hearing.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t boot the shrink right out of the room as soon as he saw who you were bringing in there.” Bill whispered before he eased open the door.

Inside the room, he could see Jonathan lying on his back. The covers had been pulled up to his chest, and although his head was turned toward that door, he didn’t move or open his eyes.

Sleeping hard. Finally.

He was just about to ease the door back shut when he saw Jennifer tiptoe into that room. He stayed there to watch as she quietly approached the bed and peeked over Jonathan’s shoulder, looking into his face. Jonathan still didn’t move and didn’t seem to be aware of her presence. She turned around and placed her finger to her lips, signaling to someone standing just outside the door. A second later, Pat stepped into the room, and at that, Bill closed the door completely.

Everything he and August had talked about took on a whole new relevance and urgency. No way had Pat left Reno to come to Vegas without J.J. That girl was either out there in the waiting room or she was at the villa, but she definitely wasn’t in Reno. Turning around to August who was still at the table, hunched over a cup of coffee and those same papers, he could see that he had his cell pinched between his shoulder and his ear.

“Houston.” Bill whispered over to August. “I think we’ve developed a problem.”

August clicked off and looked up at him.

“I know.”

______________________________________________________________

Lulled by the heat, the stillness, and the quiet surrounding the Beckett place, Bob Smith jumped when the radio he’d placed on the dashboard abruptly crackled to attention.

“Go ahead.” he said into it.

“It’s confirmed.” Ed Drake’s voice replied. “J.J. Hart’s here. She just walked out onto the paddock and she’s taking out a horse. I’m looking at her right now.”

“What kind of horse? What color?”

“I don’t know from horses.” Drake answered. “I’m strictly a city boy. All I can tell you is it’s huge, it’s black, and she’s slung herself up on it like it was nothing but a pony. She’s riding off now, heading west.”

Samms, Bob Smith knew, was on their same frequency. He was a nervous but quiet, diligent sort who was always on guard, so he was sure that he had gotten the message that J.J. was headed his way.

“Keep an eye on her.” he said into the radio. “You know how she can be.”

As he was speaking, he could hear a motor. To his right, a beige SUV was slowly approaching. That being the first vehicle to come down that dirt road since Ms. Hamilton’s departure, it immediately drew his notice. When it slowed almost to a stop at the juncture of the main road and the paved one leading up to the house, it commanded his full attention.

From where he was positioned, he could clearly see the truck, but with its tinted windows up, he could not make out the driver. He did, however, have the presence of mind to take down the license plate number.

______________________________________________________________

“You are a beauty,” J.J. said as she patted the horse’s side and stroked its lush mane. “I sure wish you could carry me back to this time last week.”

In rhythm to the slow gait of the steed Mathilda arranged for her to ride as they moved through the side brush of the Beckett estate, she allowed her body to rock in time with it, drawing comfort from the strong, sure movements. The Beckett place wasn’t as large as their ranch in Colorado, but there was more than enough room for her to get a significant distance away from the house and the outbuildings and to be alone. A few other horses roamed loose, a small group grazing in what was actual grass, closer to the stable and the paddock. It was hot out there, but bearable. She was glad she remembered to put the sunscreen on her face and her bare arms.

Just as she hoped it would, she could feel some of her restlessness dissipating as she and the horse quickly became one. She had a way with horses, just as her mother did. The thought took her mind off her present troubles and, for a short time, put it on another path .

Her mother had a natural rapport with animals of all kinds; horses, birds, cats, dogs, lions, whatever; she had a gift for interacting with them. She understood and respected them and their space. In turn, they seemed to naturally trust her. Although J.J. respected animals, too, her personal liking for them wasn’t as broad. She loved horses and dogs. Aside from talking parrots, other types of domesticated animals or pets, like fish. rodents, and birds, she found uninteresting. Housecats were too aloof for her as pets or companions, but she found their behavior interesting. In fact, when it came to studying animals, it was undomesticated feline behavior that most intrigued her.

Through her travels with her parents, visiting their game preserve in Kenya, and her mother’s interest and involvement with several zoos around the world, she had gained some natural insight into the particular characteristics of certain animals. From the time she was old enough to understand, her mother had been teaching her all sorts of things about them She said that paying close attention to the behavior of animals in the wild could help humans better understand their own basic behaviors. In her opinion, humans were arrogant in thinking themselves so much more highly evolved than other species, and they tended to ignore the patterns of animal behavior that are reflected in some human behaviors.

At the time she first told her that, even though it was fascinating to think about, she hadn’t said anything much in response to that. There was nothing she could say; she didn’t know enough about it at the time. However, that had been one of those pearls that Jennifer Hart sometimes threw out there for her to take, cultivate, and make her own. Ever since that conversation, she had been paying attention, researching, making comparisons, looking for contrasts. She had found plenty.

Her father, she had come to liken to a male lion. Just looking at him and watching him, she could see that his outward confidence naturally commanded respect, both at work and in his personal life. He was extremely intelligent and highly observant. He didn’t roar a lot, but the impression that he wasn’t one to be trifled with, came across loud and clear. Symbolically, he circled his pride, keeping protective watch over all that was his. He considered it his role, his responsibility. It was who he was.

Her mother, of course, was a lioness. Although she allowed her mate to be the head of their household, in reality, like an actual female of that feline species, aside from needing to mate with a male, she was pretty self-sufficient. She too, naturally commanded respect and deference, especially in other females. She took seriously her role in raising and instructing the offspring, and she, too, was protective of what was hers.

In their sometimes high profile social circle, J.J. recognized that both her parents were well-liked and popular, but at the same time, they were relatively private, which served to enhance that strong respectability aspect. She liked that about them. She liked that nobody really knew their business outside of the fact that they were still very much in love with each other. Even in this recent crisis with her father, although it hadn’t been possible to keep it completely silent, significant effort had been made to keep things as low-key and out of the limelight as possible.

Still thinking about her parents in those terms, she honed back in on her father, and his relationship with her. She knew that it worried him some that boys liked her and that some of that liking might be sexually oriented. She was growing away from being a cub, and the younger males were beginning to notice that and hang around on the periphery, trying to get to her. Her father had trouble handling that; it made him nervous. She understood that the dominant male in a pride had to always be on the lookout for younger males who would come around to challenge him, attempting to usurp his position and mate with the females. As the dominant male grew older, of course he grew less able to fight back, and eventually a younger male would take his place.

It wasn’t quite the same with humans, but wasn’t the basic premise the same?

She thought back to the thing with Wesley, a young male, hanging out on the fringes of her existence, refusing to be deterred. For her, the situation mostly just got on her nerves. That Wesley wouldn’t listen to her, and that he persisted in trying to get next to her when she’d told him time and again that she wasn’t interested, was aggravating and slightly unsettling. She only told her father about it because she didn’t want things to get too far out of hand and because she didn’t want there to be any trouble on the weekend that Teddy visited. Wesley and Teddy knew each other from school, and Wesley resented the fact that Teddy was seeing her.

Also, she had gotten word from a very reliable source that Wesley was dabbling in club drugs. Knowing that if that panned out to be true, Wesley’s judgment might be negatively affected, she informed her father of Wesley bothering her. But, not knowing for herself, personally, not through hearsay, if he actually indulged; she omitted the detail about Wesley using drugs.

Once she told Daddy about the rest of it, however, she almost regretted having done it. It stressed him out, totally.

When he talked with her about what happened that night, about Wesley thinking that he was following her and Teddy up to the bluff when he was actually trailing him and Teddy’s dad, her father hadn’t mentioned to her that Wesley had pulled a gun on him. That part of it, she had gotten from Teddy whose father told it to him.

What had Wesley planned to do with that gun if it really had been her and Teddy in the car? If she was thinking about that, then Daddy had to have also considered the possibilities- over and over and over.

Wesley was so high on that stuff that he nearly OD’d. He had what amounted to a heart attack while they were all up there. Was that the only reason that nothing more happened? She was sure that her father was carrying a gun of his own that night, and that Teddy’s father probably was, too. Men like them usually did, if not on their person then one would be somewhere close at hand.

Since then, every time she thought about what might have been, it made her anxious and she’d find herself fighting off one of those attacks. Instinctively, in anticipation of one, she had already begun taking in deeper drags of air, but this time nothing happened. There was none of the usual tightness and burning across her chest or the wheezing that she would be struggling to control. She continued to breathe normally and thus, she was able to continue to think things over.

Afterward, Daddy hadn’t been himself, and looking back on it, that was really when he started to change. The couple of times she tried to ask him about Wesley and his physical condition, he had been unusually cold and defensive, so she quit asking. She didn’t like what Wesley had done either; he’d never be considered a friend again, but she did care about his personal welfare. She didn’t bear him any grudges or wish him ill as long as he understood that in the future, he needed to keep his distance.

Apparently, her father felt differently.

He didn’t speak on it with her about it any more. When the police came out to the house to talk with him late the next afternoon, he made the unusual move of taking them into the dining room to talk with them. He even closed the doors. Shortly after the police got there, Daddy’s lawyers arrived, and they went into the dining room as well. She’d hung around, thinking they might need to ask her some things, but they never did send for her.

Had the stress of all of that made Daddy sick? Did he feel that he was having his position challenged by younger males?

She was told that he hadn’t had a heart attack. Then she overheard Uncle Bill talking to Aunt Pat about stress possibly being the cause of his problems. A subsequent investigation via the “Internet Doctor” website revealed to her that stress could indeed cause heart attack-like symptoms in some people, and that it could affect a person’s immune system so that the body turned on itself, summarily shutting a person down. Could that be what was going on?

If so, was that sort of her fault? Was she the indirect cause of that happening to her father?

If that were the case, was Jennifer Hart thinking that maybe if she and her husband hadn’t had a kid to worry about, the two of them wouldn’t be going through any of that?  After all, she never really wanted children…

Teddy tried to tell her that it wasn’t like that. He said that everyone was born for a reason. He said that she had been born to save her father’s life in that plane that day. Daddy always said that everything happens for a reason. Normally, she felt that way, too- but now…

Daddy was an orphan. Did he ever wonder why he was born? Did he ever wonder why he was left alone? And by whom?

Could it be that he was born to have her so that she could get that plane and him down safely that day?

Everything was so wrong and crazy and so confusing. Whatever would she say to her mother to make things right between them again? What could she say if her mother really was thinking that she was the cause of it all? Had she reinforced that sentiment by leaving her alone as Aunt Pat and Clara said she had?

Maybe it wasn’t the silent treatment she was getting. What if Aunt Pat was wrong about her mother caring about being left alone by her? Maybe Jennifer Hart hadn’t called or gotten in touch because she was glad that J.J. Hart was gone.

Perhaps it would have been better to have stayed in Reno, after all.

…or up in baby heaven….

Still wandering toward the west fence and suddenly very fatigued, she leaned forward and lay her body down on the horse’s back to rest her head in its velvet black mane.

______________________________________________________________

Slowing at the front gates of the address on the slip of paper, he could see through them up to the low slung main house where the Harts were staying. It was all that he thought it would be. The house itself sat far back from the traverse road, and it was only because the land was flat that he could see it. The estate itself was vast. A fence ran from the gates, across the front, and he presumed that it enclosed the property all the way around. As he had been approaching, he could see horses grazing along the fence on the side closest to him, and some type of enclosure would be required to keep them inside.

He wondered, as he often did since he’d had a taste of it so long ago, how some people were born lucky and others got left to try to scramble up from the bottom of the heap the best they could. Getting to the top from the bottom could be done; that much had been proven to him, and he was working hard at following that example.

Curious as to how much he could see from his side of the fence, the outside, he rolled past the driveway and continued down the dirt road some distance until he came to another road that would take him along the estate’s west fence. From that angle, he hoped he would be able to see the back of the house, the outbuildings, the horses, and whatever else there was to see out there.

The estate was mostly desert-like with well manicured, but low growing shrubs, plants and desert grass. Impressive and lovely, the Spanish influence of the main house was reflected in the outbuildings and the landscaping. As he slowly traveled that side road, his eyes focused on things in the distance and imagining what it must be like, he was startled by the lone big black horse coming toward him in the foreground, which for his daydreaming he hadn’t seen before that.

His eyes locked on the impressive animal. It must have noticed the truck because he could see the horse shake its head, and he knew that it snorted even though he couldn’t hear it with the windows closed and the air conditioner on. Then a human head rose up from the horse’s back as it continued in his direction, and instinctively, his foot pressed the brake, slowing the truck to allow him to better see who it was. The rider turned the horse to walk it parallel to the fence rather than right at it. She too, had noticed the truck; her face was turned toward him.

Shifting his focus straight ahead, hoping to be incognito, without changing his speed he continued on that road, figuring that J.J. Hart, in the life she led, had to be used to gawkers and sightseers. She wouldn’t think much of someone slowing to take a look.

He was unaware that other eyes had been watching, him, too. Rocky Samms, from behind the brush on the other side of the road, had his attention trained on that girl, the horse, and that truck while his hand rested on his gun.

______________________________________________________________

“Look, I told Simon to wait until I called him back to let him know if he should leave or not. Since Jonathan is sleeping so well right now, why don’t you go on back to the villa and talk with J.J.? She was adamant about wanting to speak with you alone, and this would be a good time. I can stay here with him if you just want someone to be here.”

Standing in the hall outside Jonathan’s room where Pat had pulled her after they both could see that he was deeply sleeping, Jennifer contemplated for a moment Pat’s proposal and then agreed to it.

“All right. You call down to Simon and let him know that I’ll be going back with him.”

She started to tell Pat that Bill had been there with her earlier. But she hadn’t seen him since they parted in the lobby. He wasn’t in the room with Jonathan when she and Pat went in there. She didn’t have any idea if he had been there and gone, or if he even wanted Pat to know that he had come to Vegas, so she decided to keep silent on it.

“What should I tell Jonathan if he wakes up?” Pat asked. “Or I should say when he wakes up. As nosy and spoiled as he is, you know he’s going to come to, be asking what he missed out on and where in the world you are that you’re not right there next to him.”

Jennifer laughed. “Wait until he wakes up and finds you there instead of me. I wish I could be here to see the look on his face.”

“He knows I’m the next best thing.” Pat smirked. “But before he starts reaching for somebody, pretending to be sickly and half asleep, he’d better open his eyes all the way. Because if he starts trying to feel me up, thinking that I’m you, he’s dog meat. He’s not that sick or asleep, probably just horny after all this time.” Pat leaned in to Jennifer. “Or did you two already-“

“Pat! The man is in the hospital.”

“So? I know you and Jonathan. Once they ruled out heart trouble, in your two heads, it was probably, “Well, back to business” and you went for it.”

“Patricia, really.”

“No. Really, Jennifer. I know you. Both of you.”

Pat pulled out her phone and made her call. She hung up with a smile on her face.

“Simon said that he’s had the motor running the whole while. He said that he figured you would be going back with him once you found out that J.J. was at the house waiting for you.”

“You aren’t supposed to use that phone up here.” Jennifer said, sticking her envelope purse under her arm. making ready to leave. “But if J.J. requested to be brought back, I guess the least I can do is go and put her out of her misery. I’ll see you later. When Jonathan wakes, tell him I love him and where I went. That last thing should make him feel a little bit better.”

______________________________________________________________

Upon entering the office, Dr. Kate was seated at her desk and Jennifer was in the chair on the other side of it. Kate motioned for him to take the empty chair next to Jennifer.

His nervous stomach was doing flips. What in the world could be wrong? Looking to Jennifer intensified his agitation; her face was so white, and she looked completely drained. She didn’t say anything, but he could see fear in her eyes. Jennifer was cautious, but not fearful. The news had to be bad.

They had just lost Max. In the few months that followed his death, which hit both of them hard, Jennifer had been gradually slowing. Where he had somewhat recovered from it, of late, she had no energy and no appetite. She’d lost weight and was becoming increasingly lethargic. She’d begun to fall asleep at odd times, in odd places, which was completely out of character for her high energy personality.

Please, God, don’t let anything be wrong with her…

Looking into her eyes, noting the terror reflected in them, he felt like he wanted to puke. But he forced back the salivations that had begun filling his mouth. Ever since meeting her, if she were in trouble or in pain, it was almost as if he could feel what she was feeling. He had to be strong so that she would be.

“What’s the matter.” His voice croaked. “What is it?”

Jennifer shifted nervously in her seat as Kate looked, apprehensively he thought, over to her.

“Want I should tell him?” Kate asked her.

First nodding her consent, when Kate made ready to speak, Jennifer suddenly held up her hand to stop her.

“No. That’s all right. I’ll do it.”

Jennifer turned to him, but didn’t look at him. Instead, she spoke to his hand which had reached over to take hers. “Kate says that I’m pregnant, Jonathan. At least three months along.”

For a moment, he was numb. The words didn’t register right away. He’d expected to hear something else: a virus, a tumor, leukemia, cancer. But what she said was that she was having a baby.

A baby. After all that time, a baby.

A baby. His first inclination was to jump up out of his chair, grab her  and dance her around the room to tell her how happy he was and how much he loved her. A baby. Their child.

But just as quickly, he realized that Jennifer didn’t seem happy about it. She looked sick or afraid, not happy, and then he didn’t know what to feel. She had always made it pretty clear that children weren’t a priority for her. She was a great many things, but maternal she had never been, not even with children of their closest friends or with those who somehow made their way into their lives for brief periods of time. She was cordial and friendly to them, but she kept her subtle distance, allowing him to interact more closely with them. It was as if she didn’t know what to do with or around them, almost like they made her uncomfortable. It was sort of understandable; Jennifer had been an only child, and she led an adult life, one that would not easily accommodate a little one.

Like a sledge hammer to his chest, it hit him; she did not want the child she was carrying.

But… it was something that he wanted… he had always wanted it, but he hadn’t pushed her on the issue… he loved her too much to insist that she do something she didn’t want to do… after their first five years together, on her own, she had stopped taking the pill… he knew she had done that mostly for him… to allow nature take its course, but nothing had come of it… because they were happy with each other, their not conceiving and having children ceased to really matter for him… but somehow, someway, after all that time, it had happened… it was going to happen… three months was too far along to do anything about it, wasn’t it? It looked as if all systems were go. This was a child who someone made sure was going to be born.

Everything happened for a reason. It happened how it was supposed to happen, when it was supposed to happen, and to whom it was supposed to happen. To the bottom of his soul, he believed that to be the truth of his life. Max taught that to him, and it was what sustained him. Truly this baby was happening in that manner. How else could it be explained? Why else was it that Jennifer didn’t know she was pregnant? Why was she was only just being made aware of it… when it was too late to turn back if she had chosen to do so? Because it was what was supposed to be.

Just as Max left their lives, a new life was entering it….

But Jennifer was scared about it, and it was she who was actually going to have to go through most of it. All he would be able to do was support her and make sure that she had everything she wanted and needed… that wasn’t a problem… he was supposed to do that… he had always done that… he was supposed to take care of her… he wanted to take care of her….

… so many things to get done… once she had their baby, she’d love it… wouldn’t she?

When he reached for her, Jennifer’s side of the bed was empty.

“Dammit, she’s gone again.”

Why she wouldn’t bring that child over into the room and put her in the bed with them was beyond him. She just had the baby and she was tired, but she kept taxing her body by getting up in the night, dragging all the way across the hall, over into the nursery. If the baby was in the room with them, like he suggested, she wouldn’t have to do that.

But she flatly refused. She didn’t want her in there with them. Instead, Jennifer stubbornly insisted upon going to her. She even turned down his offer of outside help with the baby.

“No nanny,” she said. “She has a mother and a father,” she said. “That’s all she’ll ever need,” she said.

From the door of the nursery, by the warm yellow glow of the nightlight, he could see her lying on the daybed, but it wasn’t until he was standing over her that he noticed the infant in her circle of her arm. Apparently they had fallen asleep together as Jennifer was feeding her; the nipple of her breast was right at the baby’s milk-moist lips, as if she had released it in her sleep.

He had gotten the daughter he wished for. She even looked as he hoped she would look, like her mother. Two weeks old Justine was a redhead. She had Jennifer’s intelligent forehead, her hairline, her nose, miniatures of her fingers and toes, and  pouty lips, just like her mother’s.

He watched them sleep. They were his to protect… to love… family… his… finally….

Life was so very good. They were all back living in the rebuilt house on Willow Pond. The baby was perfect, and Jennifer seemed to adore her. The worry he carried around with him in the months since that day in Kate’s office had apparently been for nothing. Jennifer was already a good, devoted mother to their baby. It was a side of her that he had never seen, but one with which, just like the rest of her, he had fallen completely in love….

Justine Hart… smart like Jennifer… tough like him… blue eyes like him…like….

“It was a good thing you were there for her, Jonathan. There’s no telling what might have happened… that boy high on those drugs and carrying a gun and all… who can say what his actual intentions were?”

… then she was on the floor, lying at his feet. Her eyes stared up at him, and her lips were moving…

“Jonathan, go. Jonathan, run ! Run!”

But he couldn’t go. Wesley was there and he had a gun…

… not Wesley….

“Jonathan, mon coeur.”

…her heart….

There was nothing else to do…

… except look to Anastasia looking at him with eyes that said she knew things… always thought that she knew things… would sometimes find her watching with eyes that didn’t look at the other boys in that way…

…but too scared to ask her… about her eyes….

“Daddy, don’t worry. I’ve got this.”

Just like she said, she was all over it, calling in an emergency, making the arrangements…

…don’t let me die like this…. I have to take care of her…. not her of me… don’t let her see….

“Hold on, Daddy, just hold on.”

Like always, she set it down so easy he almost didn’t feel it… the big plane, their baby jet… if I don’t happen to die now, Jennifer is going to kill me when she finds out what we’ve done… yet another thing I’ve “aided and abetted” J.J. in doing…. “empowering” her even more….

… but she was already powerful, her character and her will were already strong….

… all over him, taking off his jewelry, shoving him around as she cleaned out his pockets, checking and rechecking, hurrying before anyone could come onboard….

… in another life, if she were being raised as another type of girl, she would have made a helluva good roller or pickpocket…  don’t fall out around her, boys, keep your wits about you… by the time you come to again, she’ll have you picked clean … nothing in your wallet, not a thing in your pockets… watch, jewelry, money, everything missing….

“Gotta have this jacket, too, Daddy. It has your name in it.”

… can’t help her, but she’s got it off anyway… that’s my girl… you take care of Daddy this time… we have to take care… J.J. …. you and I ….

______________________________________________________________

Pat remained in the hall until Jennifer got onto the elevator. Then she returned to the room where she sat down in the chair next to Jonathan’s bed.

She watched him sleep, wryly noting how time tended to be kinder to men than to women. Jonathan was sixty, but looked a lot more like late forties, at most, very early fifties. Age was only refining his handsome features. As he lie there on his back, she studied his impressive profile. He was dignified and composed. Even in slumber, his person strongly radiated self-assurance.

Long years ago when they met, she and he hit it right off. Jennifer brought him with her to New York, right before she made her move to Los Angeles to be married. While Jennifer was busy arranging for the transport of her things to her new home, she took Jonathan over to tour her own growing empire, Hamilton House Publishing.

As they sat together, talking over drinks in her office, her intention had been to conduct an undercover interview and check out his intentions toward her best friend. But within the first few minutes of their exchange, she realized he and those blue eyes had skillfully, almost imperceptibly wrested control from her, and he was trying to grill her for information about Jennifer. He wasn’t that good, though; she quickly caught on to his game and shut it down before it could go too far. Jonathan Hart would have to find out about his fiancée on his own. She and Jennifer did not tell tales out of school, particularly tales about each other.

However, she was immediately struck by how much she and Jonathan were alike. Both of them were leaders, CEO’s of their own companies, hardheaded, independent, and largely loners. They knew all the right people in all the right places, and had many friendly- they would also later find out, mutual- acquaintances, but only a few, very select few people they truly called friends. Both of them had grown up essentially on their own; he an orphan by circumstance, and she one by indifference. But neither of them made that the focal point of their lives or let it be the reason for not skillfully playing the cards they had been dealt.

Because he so loved Jennifer, she loved him. Even without Jennifer, if she had gotten to know him, she might have come to care for him anyway. Jonathan, nice guy that he was, would have been a hard fellow to dislike. At first, she had been just a little bit skeptical about him. Things between he and Jennifer had gone extremely fast in the beginning. But from the first time he told her of his feelings for Jennifer, he never wavered in his tender treatment of her and his unfailing support for her many interests.

“What the hell did he marry you for anyway, Jen? You don’t have to do anything around here. You take off at a moment’s notice. You do whatever want. You shop like you always have; your life hasn’t changed at all except that you’re married and doing your thing here on the west coast instead of out east. Max has done all the cooking since I’ve been here. That’s probably because you still can’t cook worth a damn, and they got tired of gagging. Max does everything for both of you. What the hell did Jonathan need with you?”

“Patricia, I do the things  for Jonathan that Max can’t possibly do. We only need each other. All I need from him is him, And all he wants from me is me.”

He did just want her, and he almost literally gave her the world. They traveled frequently and extensively, having their adventures along the way that provided Jennifer with so much to write about, and they continued to love each other. But finally, Jennifer got that most unexpected package from him.

And so did she. For that she would be forever grateful to him. Jennifer had been their only hope between the two of them for a child. Jonathan was the only man on earth for whom Jennifer would have let her guard down enough to allow it to possibly happen, and for whom she would have gone all the way through with it.

“And hell, Jonathan, as long as it took for that to happen, you almost didn’t get that kid.”

Sitting there, she chuckled to herself, imagining the look he would have given her if she had said as much to him out loud. Reaching out, she smoothed the covers on his chest, brushed back some hair from his forehead, then patted his cheek.

With J.J., she had gotten back that daughter she’d lost. Her own child couldn’t have been any more precious. She loved that girl; so much like her “Daddy”, but also a lot like her mother. J.J. had taken strong traits from both of her parents and had stirred and smoothly blended them with a big dose of herself. Such a fine, crazy little mess….

No matter what a little stinker she was at times, J.J., had been good for all of them.

Despite her initial misgivings, Jennifer proved to be a good mother. She was wise and patient, considering the type of girl she ended up with as opposed to the ballerina/debutante/porcelain doll she anticipated. Bill said he finally got that third child, that daughter to go with those sons of his. She got to shower her godchild with all the love and the worldly guidance she would have given to that natural one, and Jonathan finally got a real family, a blood heir to call his own. Sweet, cute, smart, and a bit spoiled, J.J. was their gem.

Jonathan stirred a bit, and she thought he was waking, but then he seemed to return to his nap. She sat all the way back in the chair to keep from disturbing him. He needed to rest so he could hurry up and get out of there. Their dispositions and takes on life being so much the same, she knew being in that bed and confined to a hospital had to have him nervous, like she would be if their places were exchanged. She could fully understand his having had trouble sleeping. Like Jonathan, she was rarely ill, and when she was, she didn’t handle it well at all. Bill was like that, too. The three of them were an awful lot alike.

She was just about to close her own eyes when the light reflecting into the room from out in the hall was replaced by a long shadow. Looking up to the door, she was surprised, and at the same time pleased, to see Bill standing there. When her mouth opened, he quickly brought his finger to his lips to keep her from calling out as he enteredm walking on his toes to come sit on the arm of her chair.

“How is he?” he whispered after kissing her cheek.

“Okay, I guess. He’s been asleep the whole time I’ve been in here. Jennifer said he hasn’t been sleeping too well. This must mean he’s feeling better, and I’m happy for that. I hate him being sick and in here. Maybe if that fever stays down, those pains will stop, and he can be released soon. What in the world are you doing here, Bill? Is this where you took off to this morning when you left me that note? Why didn’t you tell me? I would have come with you.”

“It was kind of an impromptu thing, Pat. I needed to talk to Jennifer. You know, to explain some things she might not understand about flying and what J. probably has silently gone through on her own. There are some stress-related reactions that are kind of unique to pilots. Just some things I thought Jennifer needed to understand. And how about you? You didn’t know where I had gone, or when I was coming back. But here you are all the way in Las Vegas. You didn’t call me to tell me you were going anywhere, much less this far out of town. So what brought you here? What did you do with J.J.?”

“Jennifer didn’t tell me she talked to you! Not one word did she say to me about that. Wait until I see her. I came to bring J. back. She’s still at the villa. I got up this morning and found her waiting for me in the hall. She said she wanted me to send her back to her mother. I told her I’d bring her back, but I wouldn’t let her come by herself. It seems Jonathan got out of bed, made it around to a pay phone, and rung her up. Can you believe this joker here?”

“Called her? For what? And when? She didn’t say anything about her father calling her last night.”

“It was the middle of the night, or I should say this morning, after I came back from her room from putting her to bed. She said he fussed at her about taking off like she did, but he mostly wanted to tell her to fix things with her mother.”

“So that’s why she wanted to come back?”

“No, coming back to her mother was her idea. She needs Jennifer, and she knows she does. It isn’t going to get better for her until she gets back with her mother. I think she’s depressed.”

“That’s one of the symptoms.” Bill offered. “I could see that coming.”

“Poor Jen’s being pulled in both directions, isn’t she? After she filled me in on Jonathan, I sent her back to the villa to deal with J.J. Since J.J. wants to talk with her mother alone, I told Jen I would stay here with this one.”

“Thanks. I owe you two.”

In unison, their heads turned toward the bed.

Jonathan was still lying with his eyes closed as if asleep, but apparently he wasn’t.

“I really appreciate you both looking after them for me,” he said.

“How long have you been over there awake?” Pat demanded.

With his eyes still shut, Jonathan smiled, lacing the fingers of both hands across his chest.

“Long enough to know how much you love me.” Then he pursed his lips to send her an air kiss.

______________________________________________________________

Bob Smith was in the same spot when that Lincoln that left with Ms. Hamilton returned to the villa. He watched as it pulled through the gates and continued up the long drive to the house. Using the binoculars, once it stopped, he focused in to see that it was Jennifer Hart who was being brought back. Aside from the chauffeur, she was alone. Her presence put him a little more at ease. He felt better knowing that either she or  J.J.’s guardians were on the premises with her.

He picked up his radio and spoke into it. “How is everything?”

“No problems.” he heard Drake report. I saw J.J. riding earlier, but I haven’t seen her in a while. What about you, Samms?”

“She was over my way, but somebody in a truck came past, lookin’ at her, and she went back toward the interior. It’s been a while since I seen her, too, but she’s still in there. No way she could get out without one of us seein’ her go. Maybe she went back in the house.”

But Smith had honed in the observation that whoever was in the truck was looking at J.J. It could have been that the person was just looking at the place itself; it was a real nice spread. But before he could get to the place to form the thought himself, Samms spoke again.

“The truck kinda slowed down, seemed like, when the driver saw her. Might not be nothin’, but slowin’ down like that made me nervous. The windows were too dark for me to get a good look at who was behind the wheel, but I got the plate number. I went ahead and called it in to Zale. I figure better safe than sorry. Who knows? Lotta sickos out here, and J.J.’s getting to be pretty cute. I ain’t havin’ it.”

“What was that plate number?” Smith asked, holding in his hand the piece of paper upon which he had earlier scribbled.

When Samms repeated the identical plate I.D., he didn’t say anything. The matter had already been handled. Signing off, he told Drake to go and get some dinner and in his absence, he would drive the perimeter until he returned.

Pulling out of his spot, he was thinking how nobody but Jonathan Hart would have given an ex-con like Samms a break. In his previous life, Samms had been a master at B&E. Hart’s theory in hiring him after his release from prison was that it took someone who knew how to get in to keep someone else out. Somehow, some way, when Hart cut somebody some slack, they turned around and gave him their all. Samms had been with them a long time, and he was the best. Samms spoke often of how grateful he was to Jonathan Hart for helping him turn his life around. In turn, he was very protective of the man and his family- as all of them were. Jonathan Hart was good people, and everyone wished him the best.

He expected that Zale would be checking in at any time with the news. Once they knew something for certain, he would know whether or not to get back in touch with Lamb.

___________________________________________________________

A bit disconcerted at having allowed herself to get that close to the fence and be spotted like she had been, J.J. headed back toward the interior of the estate.

“You ought to be used to it.”

But she wasn’t, and after sixteen years of it, she felt  she probably never would get used to it. Prying eyes still unnerved her, and most of the time when she was on home turf, or whatever was considered home for the moment, she did everything she could to stay away from them. That included those of her father’s private security people. Her father didn’t normally use them on the inside of his properties, so she tended to stay closer to the middle of places.

“Can’t even scratch your butt or pick your nose without worrying about who might be looking.”

She wondered if that truck had been somebody from the press. Having been away for a couple of days, she had almost forgotten her father being ill was news to some people. It got on her nerves how nosy reporters could be, but then she would have to check her thinking and her comments on the subject. After all, two of her favorite people had been once reporters.

In a way, reporters were still Aunt Pat’s bread and butter. Her mother also occasionally played the role, sort of, when she was researching for some of her writing. That would make her negativity against the Fourth Estate waver, and if there was one thing J.J. Hart hated being, it was unsure. Trying to walk both sides of a fence was difficult, if not impossible without falling off on one side or the other. If that didn’t happen, then one risked catching splinters in a very sensitive place.

A man made pond had been built within a cluster of palm trees planted to form a small oasis on the estate. Coming upon it, she found it cool and inviting, and decided to stop there for a bit. After tying off the horse near the water, she removed the bottle of water she’d brought with her from the small pocket in the saddle bag. When she left the house, it was frozen solid. It was now melted, but still cold.

Taking a seat under one of the trees, she sat back and took a long drink from the bottle. Then she settled in to continue to do what she had been trying to do when she was lying on the horse’s back- just rest and block out everything else.

______________________________________________________________

Once she found out that J.J. had yet to return from going out to ride, Jennifer took own her time changing into slacks and a blouse. She hadn’t asked her to, but she found that Mathilda had taken it upon herself to have all the things she had taken with her to San Diego, cleaned, pressed, and put away for her.

“Shades of Max.” she thought as, pleased, she looked over all the woman had done while she was gone to the hospital.

She recalled with a warm fondness how with Max, she never had to ask, either. Somehow he always anticipated what she needed done. Marie was like that, too, but she focused most of those closer attentions on her, leaving it for her to decide and say what needed to be done for Jonathan and J.J.

J.J. As much as she wanted to talk with her, she found herself oddly uneasy about getting back with her.

What if she was still defensive? Would that trigger a like reaction in her? Sometimes they had that kind of domino effect on each other. Bill said that J.J.’s running off might have been some post-traumatic thing with her, but what if it turned out that it wasn’t? What if there were some other, real, concrete underlying resentment that J.J. was harboring?

But then, Pat did say J.J. opted to come back; she requested to do so. That had to mean  J.J. wanted to be back. didn’t it?.

“Who would have thought?”

Seventeen years back, having a child of her own and/or missing her so much would have been the farthest thing from her mind. She recalled being so tired, looking down at that brand new, seven pound bundle in her arms, and wondering for a brief, scary moment what in the world they were going to do with each other.

“Just love me.”

That’s was J.J.’s patent response when confronted with the question of what should be done with her after being caught in some type of wrongdoing or when she had exasperated her mother beyond reason.

“Just love me for the girl I am, Mom.”

She did love her, for everything that she was, good and bad. There wasn’t that much time left before J.J. would be gone from home for good. The days they had left together were precious, not be wasted on anger and hurt. This sudden crisis with Jonathan had clearly proven that. Even though he seemed to be out of the deep woods, the initial threat of it having been something much more serious was enough to make her see that they all needed to be more mindful of the quality of their lives together. J.J. needed to be back with her. Whatever it was that was bothering her could be worked out once they were face to face again. They had always been able to work things out.

But it had never been this serious between them before. J.J. had never run that far away before all of this. Although she had initiated and maintained it, she never anticipated that the silence would be so increasingly painful.

Finished dressing, she left her room, and walked down to J.J.’s, assuming that she would be back from her ride. But she wasn’t. That room was just as it had been when she checked it earlier, and when asked, Mathilda confirmed that she hadn’t returned to the house. Disappointed, she returned to her bedroom and went out onto the patio to wait by the pool.

In the meantime, there was someone else with whom she needed to get in touch.

______________________________________________________________

When the radio crackled again, Bob Smith had an eerie feeling that he knew what the message would be. Pulling off to the side of the road from his third slow trip around the perimeter of the Beckett villa, he parked behind some brush and answered it.

Directly after getting the message from Samms, he had his cell in hand, relaying his own to August Lamb.

___________________________________________________________

Jittery, her hands shaking from the uncertainty and worry as well as her advanced age, Anastasia closed the door to her office and walked over to sit behind her desk. After talking to Jennifer, she needed to be alone for a time. It was happening a lot like that of late. Swiveling the ancient wooden chair around to see out of the window, she wondered about everything again as she watched the pouring rain. He had been a man a long time, but he had always been her secret heartache.

Was this really just some odd physical malady from which Jonathan was suffering? Or, since it wasn’t some malfunction of his heart, could it be that he had not left it all behind him, as she had hoped? At that time, he had been such a smart little boy for his age. It stood to reason that somewhere in his mind, he might remember. How could he not? There had been so much to happen to him in such a short span of time in his life. But that was such a long time ago.

When Jennifer came into his life, and he brought her “home”, she feared it might come back to him. It was obvious that they had entered into a love that was real.

But then, he couldn’t have realized. He had been too young when it happened. He was too young to have been aware of it.

But now there was Justine who was much like her mother in appearance, but otherwise so much like her father, who was so much like he had been. Love, there had been so much of it.

Jennifer was in pain because of Jonathan’s distress. That girl still loved him, and he deeply loved her. Theirs couldn’t have been a better match if it had been Divine Order. Maybe it had been. When she phoned late that afternoon, it was in Jennifer’s voice that she wanted to ask something after telling her of Jonathan’s current status, but she hadn’t. They both knew that it would have been futile for her to do so. Whatever was troubling Jonathan, it would have to be handled without any further assistance on her part outside of prayer. She had given all that she could, and even that might have been too much.

Reaching under her habit, she felt for the locket, fingered it a few moments, and then pulled it out to look at it. In the light, the etched initial was nearly worn away from years of her fitfully rubbing it,  unrecognizable now to one who wasn’t aware of what it had been. But that elegant scripted “H” was still clearly engraved on her mind.

At the thought of Jonathan and Jennifer, she snickered to herself at how she once thought that Jonathan might join the priesthood as a man, thus ending the line. His boyhood friendship with the then “Father” Franco had been so strongly positive that she hoped Jonathan might follow in his footsteps. Franco had almost been a father figure to young Jonathan, but it turned out that the path Franco was blazing wasn’t quite what she had in mind. But that probably explained why Jonathan was paying such close attention.

After that incident in the balcony of the local theatre that Saturday afternoon, to her huge embarrassment and Franco’s macho amusement, it was quite clear that their Jonathan would never be a priest. At the tender age of twelve, he had proven that he didn’t have what it took, and that if he ever did have it, he was going to let the girls take it away from him. Jonathan (and Franco, it turned out) loved females, and females loved him. His calling would be a bit more worldly.

With that frisky Justine, the line had continued, and as she was turning out to be as alluring as those before her, it would certainly go on. With her, there had never been the thought that she might consider becoming a nun. That one came equipped with worldly in her hip pocket. As proud as Justine was of her father and his accomplishments, she would see to it that the “H” carried on into the future. The boy to whom Justine had introduced her a weekend or so back, Teddy, seemed very taken with her, and she with him. He was probably only the start of it. If Justine Hart was as like Jonathan Hart as she seemed, then Jennifer Hart definitely had her work cut out for her.

Jonathan had always been strong. She didn’t doubt that he would physically get past all of this, but she wanted him to get over and done with it completely. The awareness that she alone had what could probably make it better for him, was nearly killing her. Ironically, her hands and her tongue had been bound- for his sake.

______________________________________________________________

She wanted to go down the hospital, but before doing that, she’d hoped to speak with J.J. Jonathan would be asking after his child, and she wanted to be able to tell him something positive- at least she hoped it would be something positive. Visiting hours would be over soon, and if she could, she wanted to at least try to play by the rules. Although she had seen him earlier that day, she hadn’t spoken with him. He still didn’t have access to a telephone. If she didn’t make it down there, she wouldn’t be able to speak with him at all, unless of course, she played outside the rules later that night, which was what she would do if it came down to it. No way would she be able to close her eyes knowing that he was all alone in that room, wondering about her and J.J.

It was getting close to time for dinner, a dinner which Mathilda was serving later than usual due to the arrival of so many unexpected people. Jennifer was still on the patio, waiting for J.J. to return, thinking that she when she did, she would come out there to her. Out there, next to the pool, would be a good place for them to talk.

After waiting a few more minutes, it occurred to her that J.J. might have returned, but hadn’t asked and didn’t realize that she was there. After all, when J.J. left to go riding, she hadn’t been. It would not be unlike J.J. to have come in from riding, headed straight to her room and stayed there.

Going back into the house, J.J.’s room was still just as it had been when she checked earlier.

In the kitchen, Mathilda was at the stove and Simon was seated at the table, drinking from a teacup. When she entered and he saw her, he politely stood.

His getting up like that drew Mathilda’s attention to her as well. The woman must have seen something in her face. Before she could be asked anything, she reached for the phone on the wall next to her, pushed a button and spoke into the receiver.

“Is Ajax back in the stable? Gone still, huh? Let me see.”

Mathilda put the receiver to her shoulder and looked her way. “The boys say she’s still out with Ajax. They say they’ll go look for her, if you’d like.”

Jennifer held up her hand. “”No. Just ask if someone will please get a horse ready for me. I’ll go myself.”

Simon looked her up and down, his facial expression clearly communicating his mild surprise. “Excuse me, Mrs., but you ride?”

Looking down at what she had on, a white linen blouse and pants set and a pair of slip-on sandals, she understood his look of disbelief.

Amused, she replied, “Yes, I was practically born on the back of a horse. I’ll change and go look for her myself. I think it will be better if I do it.”

Not long after, dressed in a slightly more practical outfit and a pair of J.J.’s sneakers, she was riding out of the stable on another of the Becketts’ fine animals.

______________________________________________________________

I just called to see what was up. So, you’re back in Vegas, but you haven’t seen the Duchess yet. That buys you some time. What’re you going to say to her when you do see her?

“I haven’t thought a whole lot about that. I don’t really want to talk about it. Tell me what’s going on at home. Marnie.”

Okay. Latest development. I got my car taken away for a week.

“How did you let that happen? Playing curfew roulette again?”

My father said be home by twelve, like always.

“And since he didn’t specify whether he meant twelve, twelve-o- seven, twelve- fifteen, twelve- thirty; you took your usual shot. So what time did you finally show up?”

Twelve-fifty-two. You missed it. J.; Shelly’s party was off the hook! I just couldn’t leave in time to get home by twelve. It didn’t get started good until about ten-thirty. Then I had to drop somebody off on my way home. My daddy wouldn’t have said anything about it if he hadn’t still been up, arguing with my stepmother. He was already mad about her, so he took it out on me and put me and the car on lockdown. I think I’m going to leave here and go stay with my mother for the rest of the week. I don’t have to take this off him. He can have that damned car.

“Marnie, he is your father. I told you that messing around with your curfew like you do was going to play out on you, and it finally did. You were wrong, so you should just stay put and do the time.”

Look who’s talking. You hopped a plane and took off for a whole other city when your mother made you mad.

“And that was wrong, too. I shouldn’t have done it. That’s why I’m telling you what I’m telling you. You left your mother’s to go live with your father because you thought she wasn’t doing you right. Now you’re ready to go back over there because your father is trying to get you to do right. Just stay where you are, and do what you’re supposed to do. You might not like it, but it’s for the best, and you know it. Your father loves you. That’s why he gives you a curfew and why he shut you down for blowing him off over it. After all, who bought you the car in the first place?”

You make me sick, J.J. Hart. I hate when you say stuff that makes sense.

“I wish somebody had said some sensible stuff to me before I did what I did and made this mess I’m in.”

I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.

“I don’t. I’m just saying.”

If you had called me, J. I probably would have told you.

“I know. That’s why we’re girls like we are, Marn.”

And we always will be, J. Isn’t it funny how we seem to still always be in Time-Out at the same time?

“I know. It’s weird how that is. Look, tell everybody I said hello. Maybe if Daddy is better in a couple of days, we’ll be home soon.”

I hope so. I miss you. When you do talk to her and get the crap out of the way, tell your mother I said, “hi”, and then give your Daddy a kiss for me. Tell him I said to cooperate with the people. He ought to get a kick out of me telling him that. You know, J., if you were home, I’d have come down there to your house instead of spending lockdown here. I hate my stepmother, and she hates me. Having to be here, looking at her all the time, carrying on like she does- it’s just hell. If it wasn’t for my brothers…

“And once the Duchess found out that you were on the lam, using her place as a hideout, she would have you locked down in your usual cell at our house. So what would have been the difference?”

You. You would have been at your house.

“Yeah, I would have. I’d have slipped you some bread crusts and water when nobody was looking.”

And a cell phone?

“And, a cell. Then, of course, I’d get caught passing if off to you, and just like we are now, we’d be locked down together. I’ll talk to you later, Marn.”

J.J. slipped her phone back down into her shirt pocket and continued to sit there under the tree, thinking about Marnie. Sliding her fingers between the buttons, she hooked a finger through her father’s ring.

She and Marnie had been friends most of their lives. If they lived to grow up to be women like Jennifer Hart and Pat Hamilton, and they remained friends, their friendship would be an even older one than theirs. Hopefully it would be as strong.

Where her mother and Aunt Pat met when they were twelve, she and Marnie went back as far as kindergarten. They got to know each other because both of them were frequently in Time-Out for getting into trouble. Marnie usually got sent there because she said bad words, told the teachers what she wasn’t going to do, or for doing whatever she wanted to do. On the other hand, she was usually there for refusing to cooperate, period. It was a while before the teachers figured out that English was her native tongue, not French, and that she understood every word that was spoken to her even though for those first couple of weeks, she acted as if she didn’t

Somehow Marnie had seen through her performance. One day, while they were sitting in Time-Out together, Marnie whispered her name, calling to her.

“Hey, you. Justine”

She turned around.

“You know what I’m saying to you for real, don’t you?”

She nodded.

“I’m Marnie.”

“I know your name.”

Marnie was the worst little thing in the class, but for her, the most interesting. How could she not know her name? It was getting called all the time.

“Can you talk like me?”

“I don’t say bad words like you.”

Marnie grinned. “I knew you could talk good for real. You’re just fooling them aren’t you?”

“Yes. I don’t like it here. I don’t want to talk to them. I just want my mommy to take me home.”

“Are you five years old?”

“Yes.”

“Well if you’re five, Justine,  you can’t stay home any more. You have to go to school. They make you go when you turn five. That’s what my mother said. But you don’t have to act good just ’cause they make you go to school.”

The concept had been appealing. She grinned back.

“You can call me J.J. That’s the name I really like.”

“Okay, J.J. Where did you learn to talk funny like that?”

“It’s not funny, it’s French. My mommy talks it to me.”

“Well keep talking that French. It drives those damn teachers crazy.”

“You shouldn’t say bad words, Marnie.”

“You shouldn’t say that French, J.J.”

Then they got in more trouble for communicating with each other in Time-Out. But from that day on, they were good friends. Marnie continued to curse and do her own thing. As for her, the French scam ended once Jennifer Hart got wind of it. She insisted upon it stopping, threatening to make sure it did by getting her point across via one end of her or the other. Although she continued to have her off-moments- some of them with Marnie- which resulted in a few more mutual Time-Outs, she was never as badly behaved in school as Marnie Elaine Benson.

Beginning with that kindergarten class, they had always attended the same schools. In elementary, they were even in all of the same classes. That ended in Jr. High, though. Somebody must have sent a note from the elementary school, warning the Jr. High about them. They were in the same homeroom, studied the same courses, but were always assigned to different teachers during the day.

In a week, when school started back, they would be high school juniors. Marnie was still cursing and getting into trouble for doing what she wanted or for not doing what she was supposed to do. Since kindergarten, four, almost five, more languages had been added to her repertoire, and she still didn’t hesitate to switch to one of them when a situation might call for it. But French was still almost as native to her as English.

She was first in their class of 275 students. Marnie was number eleven. She probably would have ranked higher if she hadn’t gone through that bad time with her second stepfather, during which her grades fell way off. Marnie was a scrapper, though. Once the stepfather was out of the picture, she rebounded, and despite the continuing domestic turbulence on her home front, she got right back on top of her academic game.

Marnie’s family life had always been chaotic. One day, when they were in the first grade, she showed up at school crying. She wouldn’t talk to the teacher about what was bothering her, but later on, in private on the playground, she said her father had left her and her mother, and that her parents were getting a divorce.

It was the first time that word had ever come up in her life. Not wanting to pry too deeply into Marnie’s business since Mommy said asking a lot of questions was rude, she waited until her mother came to pick her up to ask what it meant, and what happened to parents who got one.

She could still recall that odd look her mother gave her

“J.J., why do you want to know that word?”

“Marnie’s daddy left them. She said that her mother and father are getting one. I don’t know what that means. You told me to ask when I don’t know what things mean.”

Jennifer Hart got a look on her face that was almost like something inside of her was hurting, and at first she didn’t say anything. Waiting, then thinking she hadn’t made herself understood, she asked the thing that was really on her mind.

“Aren’t daddies supposed to always love the mother and the kids? Why would Marnie’s daddy leave her and her mother? Does divorce mean the daddy doesn’t love his family any more? Is that why he goes away?”

Her mother made her wait until they got home before she talked to her about it. Then she took her into the great room and sat her down on her lap to tell her what it was all about. She said  sometimes mothers or fathers would leave, not just fathers. But it didn’t always mean the two people didn’t love each other any more. It meant for some reason, they couldn’t get along, something went wrong, and living together wasn’t possible any more. She told her it didn’t have anything to do with the children involved, but sometimes the children might think it does. Most of the time, she said, like with Marnie, the children remain with the mother, but sometimes they went with their father.

“Do the kids ever get to see the other parent any more?”

“They get what’s called ‘visitation’, sweetie. The children can visit the other parent either how the parents set it up, or, if the parents have trouble agreeing on it,  the judge at the court will say how often the children get to visit.”

For a long time after that, the idea of divorce made her nervous, but she never told anybody about being scared for her parents. She was always aware her own mother and father loved each other. But she couldn’t forget how upset Marnie had been and how surprised she was about her father leaving, and thinking that maybe Marnie had been under the mistaken impression that her parents were doing okay, too.

At that childhood memory, J.J. kind of laughed to herself. That was one of those things she had put away and forgotten about until then. It seemed kind of stupid and immature to have worried about something like that with the parents she had. A lot of things might happen, she wasn’t one to say “never”, but it would be a freezing cold day in Hell before her parents got divorced. Cold snaps could happen anywhere, but in some places they would be considered utterly freak occurrences.

If her father were to cheat on her mother, which was all she could figure on that might ever cause her mother to think of splitting from him, the Duchess would most likely shoot it off of him rather than divorce him. Then she’d go ahead and stay with him and continue to sleep with him, panty-less, just to torture him and make him remember what he did and what he could never have again.

Yeah, she could definitely see Jen doing that.

Now, if it turned out she was the one who slipped out on Daddy, something like that would probably kill him- dead. Or, he’d shoot the guy -dead- that she slipped out on him with. And then Daddy would have to go to jail.

However it went, though, they’d still be married to each other, not divorced. With them, it was like the book said, “Until death….

With her hand, she gripped that chain about her neck.

…she had been so scared it was.

Daddy looked so bad that day. She had never seen him that wayt before, all gray and sweaty, so sick. He never was sick, not like that. What if he had-

… no J., don’t go there. He didn’t, so stop playing with it….

What would she and her mother have done? How could they have gone back to Los Angeles without him?

…quit doing this to yourself, J….

“…threatening your cushy little cozy world, the one they’ve provided for you…you lean on them all the time… you don’t realize they’ve made you strong enough….”

First she pressed herself back against the tree, digging her heels into the ground as if she could push away from the thoughts.

“… when you were flying with your father… and the two of you kept it from your mother… if something happened while the two of you were up in that plane, it would have left her by herself… do you see the real reason why this secret might have hurt her….”

Her eyes squeezed shut, and she tried to shift to something else, but she couldn’t.

“Whether you realize it or not… she needed you… but you’ve left her… it happened to her the other day just like it’s happened to her before… maybe, just maybe, her needing you… your father’s being in trouble… were in your way….”

Embarrassed, tired, and parched, her head starting to pound, she took another long swallow of water from the bottle. Then she stretched out on her stomach in the prickly grass under the tree, resting her head on her arms to protect the skin of her face from the stiff spines.

… he only needs her…. she doesn’t need me… not then… not now…

Aunt Pat couldn’t possibly understand. Nobody could. None of them were aware of what she knew about her mother and herself. Only she understood how much she had been in her mother’s way.  There was no way to be strong enough to face that. Everything was saying it was only supposed to be the two of them, Jonathan and Jennifer, in Las Vegas; so she had only done what she had been taught to do, cut out the middle man.

August hung up from his call more convinced than ever that something was definitely not right.

Jonathan wasn’t supposed to have outside visitors, but somehow Mrs. Hart had worked it out with the daytime doctor to allow Bill and Ms. Hamilton to be there. With them at the hospital and in the room with him, he’d felt comfortable enough to go back to his hotel room to grab a bite to eat and to get some of his things. But Smith’s call had put a whole new spin on things. He called Bill’s cell, which of course was off due to where he was, and left a message for him to get in touch. Telling Bill was the next best thing to telling Jonathan. Because of his condition, everyone thought it best to leave Jonathan out of the suspicion game unless something more definite came to light.

This was definite, but it wasn’t something Jonathan needed to know right now. Or his wife, for that matter.

Why would this character risk everything he had going for him by going out to that villa? What was even more maddening was that nobody actually saw him; they only saw the truck. Anybody could have been behind the wheel. All that could be confirmed was that the truck was registered to the doctor. But who else would have had access and motive to pull that address?

Finishing his packing, August grabbed his bag and headed for the door. One thing was certain, for the duration, he would have to be there at night.

______________________________________________________________

Jennifer struck out, realizing shortly into the ride that she had no idea where to begin. J.J. was as able a rider as she, so that girl could very well be anywhere on those grounds and, according to Mathilda, she had been gone for some time.

Looking around herself, she could see a good way into the distance in all directions. There weren’t many trees and most of the plant life grew fairly low to the ground. It was getting close to dusk. The sky was becoming rosier and the heat in the air had less Nevada sting than it had earlier in the day. She could see some of the hands riding out to round up the other horses which had strayed away from the stable to graze. Deciding the best thing to do would be to ride the perimeter and work her way in, that is what she did. For a while, she was content with the slow trot as she became acclimated to the feel of the animal, and she allowed it to get used to her. Then desirous of releasing some of the pent up anxiety, she urged it into a gallop.

It had been a long time since she had been able to get in a good, hard ride. For her, the experience had always been exhilarating and cleansing. There were few things she enjoyed more than flying through an open field on a good horse, her heart racing, clean air pumping through her system, the wind caressing her face and whipping through her hair, most likely splitting the ends. But who cared?

Charging west as far as the fence line, she took that west fence almost all the way down to the back end before she slowed the horse to allow it to rest and catch its breath while she caught hers. She patted its sides.

“Such a good baby.”

That horse had no way of knowing how much good it was doing for her.

It was while they were walking along the back fence that she saw the clump of trees in the distance. Inside them, she could make out the moving figure of a horse, a dark horse, and something signaled to her. It was the strong pull of that internal indicator, located deep within her heart, which over the past sixteen years she had come to recognize and trust. Urging the horse back into a faster pace, she headed toward those palm trees.

______________________________________________________________

She was flying, but doing it solo. She wasn’t supposed to be up there alone; she wasn’t ready for that. Daddy was supposed to be with her. He never let her fly alone…

…rattling noise, vibration… shaking… what’s that shaking? Where’s it coming from?

“Hold it steady, J.J. You be in control.”

The seat next to her, where he should have been, was empty…

Daddy?

… the shaking, the vibration, was getting louder, harder and the plane was being physically jarred by it… something burning… a metallic, electrical smell- like overheated wires… instruments starting to go crazy…

“Pay attention, J.J., keep your mind on what you’re doing and you stay in control of the situation”

…I can’t, Daddy. I need you to help me.

Where in the hell was he? He knew better than to leave her up there by herself like that. Jennifer Hart was going to kill both of them….

“You heard me, Justine. JUST DO IT!”

She tried to hold onto it, making adjustments… struggling to stay focused…

It’s not working, Daddy. Nothing’s working. We should have told her where we were. She won’t know. At least if we had told her, she could have been prepared.

…the shaking turned violent… smoke clouded the cabin… her head was slammed against the inside wall of the small plane and for a moment, she saw only pure black, then twinkling stars… but she could feel the dreaded spiral starting and desperately, blindly, she tried to counter it…

…loud and wrong noises all around her… choking on smoke… warning buzzers going off everywhere, red lights flashing all across the console….

Don’t sweat, J. You can do this. Daddy said you can. You can do this. You can… but you didn’t tell her… she doesn’t know… he’s not here….

…in full spiral now, like water down a drain, spinning, being sucked downward… the ground coming up fast… any moment….

Mommy….

“I’m here, J.J.”

Where? You don’t know where I am…. You don’t care where I am… only about Daddy….

“J.J., baby, it’s me. Open your eyes, I’m right here.”

Hands pulled at her clothing, rolling her dead, broken body over so she was on her back.

…even though she hadn’t told her, somehow she had found her…

Don’t worry, Daddy wasn’t with me. He’s okay. I made sure….

“What? “

Daddy wasn’t with me. He’s okay. I made sure…. for you….

“For m-? J.J., sweetie, wake up. You’re scaring me.”

Opening eyes she didn’t know were closed, it took a moment or two for it to register that the voice wasn’t imagined. She really was being shaken by her shoulders, and that the face looming so closely, right over her own, was real. She wasn’t dead after all, and since she wasn’t, she was totally unprepared to feel or to say anything to her mother.

Continue to Part Four

4 Responses to Close to the Hart: Part Three

  1. Cindie neu says:

    Thank you for your note. I just feel this in my bones !!! I hope you hurry and let us all know ! It just has to be…I have read the stories from beginning to end. That’s why I am rereading so much. Can’t wait !

    Like

  2. Cindie neu says:

    I have read and re-read. Sister A has a locket with an H on it…She says she can’t reveal things in Jonathan’s records.l think Sister A is Jonathan ‘s mother !!! It just makes sense from all of the things she says about him. Him not remembering things. I would love to hear from you ? !

    Like

  3. Cindie Neu says:

    You’re amazing Marie. I don’t know what else to say. AMAZING !!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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