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
… she opened her eyes to look at him… over her so closely, she felt the heat radiating from his brow… but still far enough away to see the look of concentration on his glistening, handsome face… an expression she was so intimately familiar….
… just me… only for me… with me… lucky, lucky me…
In answer, he managed a low, satisfied growl; each powerful thrust of his hips responded to in kind. As much as he gave, she took, and sent back in equal measure. The two of them, a matched set in all ways.
Biting her lip to restrain the feral sounds of ecstasy fighting to escape her throat when she would have loved nothing better than to just open her mouth and let them go, but she couldn’t…
…little ears heard everything; the tongue might keep silent on it, but that fertile, precocious mind undoubtedly made note….
There was not the worry of being walked in on, but one never knew who might be on the other side of those doors, ear pressed to the wood….
… Mama, if you had lived, you would have loved her … the two of you sitting and whispering together… her telling you all of my business as the two of you ride the back fields together when she visited, or as you brush her hair at night in front of your fireplace….
…”Yep. They do it all the time, Grandmama. I hear them.”….
…with no mention at all made of how she nosily and naughtily eavesdropped to do so, and Mama, you wouldn’t even have bothered to ask her how she knew…
… her legs… he released his hold on them, easing them from his shoulders to allow them to slide down his slick torso, back onto the satin sheets, knees bent, while he leaned forward, lowering himself onto her without interrupting their joining.
As she held him, the muscles of his upper arms and broad shoulders flexed beneath her hands as he moved. An expert at lovemaking, he balanced himself so his weight was less heavy and oppressive. Always the man in the pairing, exerting his masculine strength, but mindful of not hurting her in any way.
In the shadowy darkness of the bedroom, the only light that filtered in through the sheers from the outside lamps, he was a panther, fluid and sure, confident, mature, sleek, agile. In the throes of assertive male ardor, accomplished, distinguished, and…. beautiful.
She wrapped her legs around him, desirous of holding his backside for added leverage, but he reached for her hands, intertwining their fingers. Raising her arms, he pressed her them back and down into the pillows under her head until essentially pinning her in place. Now in complete control, he kissed her, his tongue forcefully probing, deliciously mimicking the rhythmic actions of his body. Not always so overtly dominating; sometimes she played the lead, but this night he took total charge, and she loved it.
… passion… pure and sweet… sublime… The circuit completed, she closed her eyes and completely surrendered to him…. to it all….
…escalating, intensifying, becoming more urgent… her back arched to accept more of him until finally, unable to rise any farther underneath him, she peaked and then released, her essence convulsing around his in suffocating spasms that momentarily rendered her senseless… her inner muscles massaging, pulling, drawing him even more deeply inside ….
… at the end of a last downward stroke, he stiffened, shuddered, his hips bucked erratically… and he finally collapsed on top of her, exhaling heavily, loudly groaning her name….
“Mom, can girls have wet dreams like boys have?”
Jennifer woke with a start.
The room was dark, the shadows foreign. Disoriented, the sheets and her nightgown twisted and sticking to her hot, damp skin, she was at first frightened, then panicked by the frantic, almost painful pounding in her chest and ears. An ominous sense of overwhelming dread wasted no time closing in on her.
Instinctively, she reached for him. and she remembered. Both of them were gone from her.
One safe, but the other….
Rolling onto her other side, her eyes blurred by sudden tears, she switched on the lamp. The clock on the night table said it was the middle of the night, but still she picked up the phone.
When the taxi arrived, she was already out front to meet it.
When he could sense she was finally asleep, Bill slowly rolled away from Pat and got up out of the bed. Donning his robe and slippers, he left the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Normally, Duke would have been sleeping on his mat right outside the master bedroom door, but the German Shepherd was absent from his post when he stepped into the hall. There was no need to question his whereabouts. Whenever that particular houseguest showed up, Duke forsook him- and now Pat, too- for that girl. He didn’t even do that for the grandkids when they visited.
He crept down the hall, stopping for a moment at the closed door to that bedroom. Then, deciding against peeking in on her, risking alerting the dog who was no doubt curled up on the floor next to her bed and who, in waking up, might also awaken her; he kept going.
In his den, he switched on the television, made himself a drink at the bar, and then sat down on the couch. For a moment, he considered getting a cigar to go with the drink, but thinking of his best friend in his current predicament, he bypassed the humidor.
He hadn’t slept well for thinking and worrying about Jonathan. He would be grounded if it turned out his ticker was going bad, and if the heart thing didn’t kill him; the being grounded would. Who would have thought? Next to himself, Valentine was the toughest guy he knew.
Valentine’s kid was a tough little number, too. He was glad that she had come to them.
Chuckling to himself at the recollection, he turned the sound down on the television to better concentrate on the events of the previous day. He could still hear Pat, cursing into the phone.
“Pick you up? The airport? What damned airport? J.J., girl, how in the hell? Jen is going to kick the living sh- Stay right there, we’re coming.”
Beautiful, Jr., an interesting little mix of both her parents. Face like her Mama’s and nervy as hell like her Daddy. Being that she was Jonathan’s, J.J. was like his own, and not wanting any pretty teenaged girl of his hanging around alone at a busy municipal airport, he had rushed Pat out of the house so that they could go fetch her.
J.J. and her luggage were waiting at the curb when they got there. He got out first to come around the car and help her with her bag. She was okay until she saw Pat rise up from the passenger side of the car.
Probably figuring that Pat was going to let her have it with both barrels, J.J. first seemed to brace herself. But when Pat only asked her what had happened and if she was all right, the dike burst. Shocked, Pat rushed to her and helped her into the backseat where she stayed with her all the way back to the house. He and Pat knew it was serious, whatever it was. J.J. was no crier.
So Senior and Junior had gotten into it over the Big Fella. How funny was that? Pat said she could not believe that girl fighting her mother over her mother’s man. It made sense to him. Valentine always did have the pretty ladies running after him. Why not his own? Junior had a whole lot more nerve than he had ever given her credit for, to have gone after Beautiful, Sr. like she admitted she had done. Jennifer was no joke when aggravated, but evidently her daughter was shaping up to be a chip off that red brick.
Imagine a kid that young getting it into her head to just hop on a plane and take off like that? Definitely Jonathan and Jennifer’s child- a jet-setter in the making.
With her daddy being who he was, and an unlimited American Express card in her hot little hand, the girl could have gone anywhere on earth. But she hadn’t. Angry and in trouble, she knew where and to whom to come. It made him wonder if Pat hadn’t been there with him, would she have still come to Reno, or would she have had the nerve to fly all the way to New York on her own?
After a few moments’ contemplation, he decided it was probably a toss-up. There was just no way to gauge it with J.J. Maybe she would have come to him in Reno because it was closer to Vegas where her parents were, and part of the problem she had with her mother, as she saw it, had to do with her father teaching her to fly. Flying was his area of expertise.
But, it also stood to reason, that if Pat had been in New York, she might have gone there instead. J.J. was a seasoned traveler. As angry and determined as that girl had to have been when she left Vegas that afternoon, the distance and the possible flight layover wouldn’t have meant anything to her. After all, Pat was a woman, she was her mother’s best friend, and the three of them were all very close.
But would the woman and best friend thing have mattered to her given the circumstances?
As it turned out, J.J. hadn’t really spoken very much with Pat that evening. Most of the talking she had done, the little she had said when she did talk, was with him. The two of them had always been pretty close as well. She’d spoken to him of the joy she derived from flying, of what happened with her father on the plane, and of getting it down safely with her father on board and too ill to really help her.
He knew that she would not have needed the help. Jonathan had a reputation for being thorough, and surely he had been that with his daughter. That was exactly why she had been able to do what she did.
With some satisfaction, he finally decided that it was probably best that he and Pat had been there in Reno together for her. Go right to the source. That was what Valentine would have taught her. After all, he had raised kids; Pat didn’t have any. He was the pilot, and he once had a kid who flew; Pat didn’t fly, and Pat didn’t have a kid who flew, but Pat was a woman, one who understood young girls. He was her father’s best friend, Pat was her mother’s best friend, and on coming to them, J.J. had proven how much she trusted both of them.
He sat back, crossed his legs, and took a long swig from his glass, smiling to himself.
So, the girl was airborne; said she had been flying since she was twelve. He knew it. Valentine hadn’t said. J.J. hadn’t let on, but he knew it all the time. No way would that man have a child anywhere in the world, boy or girl, and not teach the kid to fly. It was in their blood. J.J., like his own late son, T.J., had come into the world with wings pinned to her little undershirt. She had nerve and guts, and she made good sense when she spoke. She was old-person smart, the kind that went beyond books and school.
She said that because her mother would never have let her learn to do it, she and her father had kept the flying a secret from her all that time. He could see that, and he could understand their reasoning, but it had to have been a hell of a way for Jennifer to find them out. However she felt about it, though, Jennifer needed to be grateful that J.J. had known what to do. Knowing Jennifer as he did, he figured she probably already knew about J.J.’s flying, and just hadn’t said. That was just the kind of woman she was. She didn’t play her hand until she was sure she had everything she needed to beat out all the other hands at the table.
Her having taken that unauthorized leave from Vegas to come to Reno, or maybe even because of it, had earned J.J. his total respect. It wasn’t until she had her father and herself safely on the ground, and she was four hundred miles away from her mother, that she finally crashed. She had been mortified that afternoon at falling apart as she had, but as far as he could see, there was no shame in it, none at all. He was proud of her, and he had told her so. J.J. had been very small when T.J.’s plane went down, taking him with it. At that moment he wished, as he did from time to time, that his son had lived long enough for him and J.J. to have gotten to know each other. They were an awful lot alike, and there was so much that T.J. would have taught her.
Funny thing though, Peter, his remaining son, and J.J., both being studious and having a fascination and aptitude for technology in common, were also a lot alike. Peter had always been crazy about her, and J.J. loved being with Peter and his family and learning from him.
Pat had been a little miffed with J.J. about running away from Jennifer as she had, but Pat didn’t understand that wasn’t all there was to it. She couldn’t. Jennifer probably wouldn’t either. J.J., he could tell as he spoke with her earlier, was trying to work it all out in her head, but she didn’t quite have a handle on it yet. All she knew for sure was that she was confused and extremely angry. About what, however, she wasn’t yet quite certain.
But he knew what it was, and Jonathan would know about it, too.
It was still dark outside, but sudden muffled noises and moving shadows right outside the sliding glass doors that led from his den to the patio, caught his attention, startling him a bit. The tiny hairs on his neck bristling, he continued to monitor the doors as his hand reached behind him to pull open the drawer of the table next where he was sitting.
A familiar muffled, “Woof!”, sounded, followed by the dull thumping of what sounded a lot like excited paws on the wood deck.
He heard, “Shhhh! Hush, Duke!” right before the glass slid open just wide enough to allow Duke to run in and J.J. to squeeze through.
Her wet hair plastered to her head, and barefoot, she dressed in a white cover-up with a large towel draped around her shoulders. Upon seeing for sure it was them, he relaxed, pushed the drawer back closed, stood up, and headed toward them.
“Girl, you scared me. What in the world are you doing out there, swimming in the middle of the night?”
“Nothing scares you, Uncle Bill, ” she said as she used the ends of the towel to rub at her hair to squeeze the excess water from her ponytail. “If anything, you were reaching into the drawer, and Duke and I were probably about to catch a case.”
“That you were. You know I have ’em all over the house.”
She smiled, but only a little, “Like my Daddy does.”
“You know you’d better be calling out if you’re coming into this house at this hour.”
“That’s what Daddy says, too.”
Bill locked the door behind her as she and Duke continued into the room.
“What were you doing out there in the pool, J.J.?” he asked again. “Why aren’t you asleep?”
“I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes at home when I have trouble sleeping, and it’s warm enough, I sneak out for a quick swim. It seems to relax me. Afterward, I usually can get to sleep without much trouble.”
“Something bothering you. I mean, other than the obvious?”
She stopped in the doorway to the hall and sighed. “Nothing more than that, Uncle Bill. But then that’s quite a bit, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is, J.” he answered.
“My mother didn’t call back? She didn’t ask for me?”
He shook his head. There was no sense trying to sugar coat it for the girl. Jennifer was probably smoking mad, and J.J. had set it up for it to be like that. Even Pat was surprised that Jennifer hadn’t called back to check on her. The child’s plate was full. She knew it, and so did he and Pat.
“Go on and dry off, J. Try to get some sleep. I won’t let anybody bother you in the morning. You sleep as late as you like.”
“Clara doesn’t like “lay-abouts”, as she calls them.” J.J. said with another weak smile. “She’ll roll me out first thing.”
“I’ll call her off.” Bill smiled back. Then he waved his hand at the dog standing sentry at her side. “Go on, Duke. Put her to bed.”
As if he understood, Duke took off down the hall in the direction of J.J.’s bedroom.
“G’night, Uncle Bill.” She called behind her.
“In the morning, J.” He answered, returning to his chair.
He sat for a moment, got up, refreshed his drink and then selected a cigar from the humidor. Going back to the chair, he sat down his drink, lit the cigar and reclined to savor it. If the situation were reversed, Jonathan wouldn’t have cut out the things he liked to do. In fact, even though Jonathan didn’t smoke nearly as much as he did, they had a longstanding pact that whoever went first, the other would stay behind after the service to share a last drink and a good cigar graveside.
J.J. Hart. Justine Jennifer. His goddaughter. What a fascinating kid.
Even though it might have been murder on his nerves, he couldn’t help thinking that a daughter of his own might have been nice. After the two boys they’d had together, his first wife hadn’t lived long enough for them to even try for one. A widower ever since her passing, he had raised his boys on his own, with Clara’s help, and even after the boys were grown, Clara remained there to see after him, and now Pat.
Until Pat, he feared letting anyone else in close enough to even consider a relationship, much less a marriage or more children. But things had a way of working out. Through Valentine, he as good as had a daughter. J.J. was everything he would have wanted in a girl of his own- mighty smart, pretty, and tough.
Also indirectly through his friend, Jonathan, he had happened upon that very special woman who was currently sleeping in his bed, the one who would be his wife very soon. It had taken them a long time to get there. First casual sex partners, then buddies, now lovers and life partners; it was probably backward the way they had done it. But then he and Pat had never been conventional in any sense of the word.
But, she was exactly the type of independent woman that a man who was largely a loner needed. She had her life. He had his. They were both powerful leaders in their own right, and they managed to come together somewhere in the middle of all of it. Lately, to his surprise and satisfaction, it seemed they were meeting in the middle more often. They’d be married already if it weren’t for Pat insisting upon the wedding itself being a family affair. But he understood that. Not having blood relatives of her own, she treasured the family she had built and was still building for herself, and she wanted them all there at Jennifer’s father’s home for the ceremony which would be held on the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend.
He completely understood her wanting it that way. As quiet as he’d kept it, so did he.
Taking up his drink again, he offered up a silent toast to his best buddy and to the family the two of them had put together, wishing them all a speedy and total recovery.
Having finally calmed and quieted his patient after seeing him through his distress, Dr. Philips reluctantly left him. Actually, he’d been sent out. Back across the hall and in his office, he sat reflecting upon what a paradox Jonathan Hart was turning out to be. According to the notes he’d been left, at his best, Hart was reportedly congenial, charming, and engaging, but being the night shift, he hadn’t had a chance to see that side of him.
On both occasions that he’d had opportunity or cause to interact closely with him, it had been at times that Hart was in pain. When that happened, the man’s disposition went completely bad, and he shut all the way down. He didn’t want to be touched, he wouldn’t speak any more than necessary, and he wouldn’t open his eyes. If urgent medical intervention was warranted, conscious, Hart would be an extremely difficult man to treat.
Dr. Samuels’ notes reported that Hart was better and more at ease with the female nurses and technicians. He seemed absolutely fine when his wife was with him, joking and being much more cooperative. But alone, his mood seemed to deteriorate and when that happened, that was when his physical symptoms were likely to escalate. So far, it was puzzling, but in the morning all the test results would be back and a more definitive picture could be put together. From there, it would be determined what the next step in his treatment would be.
Up to that point, despite being his doctor, he still hadn’t had a real conversation with the man. However. it hadn’t been very necessary. Samuels, being there with him during most of the day, had it covered. Coming on in the evening, he was essentially, even willingly, playing backup for Samuels. In that situation, deferring to his elders hadn’t been such a hard thing to do.
Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think he would be that close to him. Now that he was, after all that time of wanting to be, he didn’t know what to do or how to handle it.
He was going over the data he had pulled from the computer in Hart’s room, when he could hear voices outside at the desk. At that time of the morning, most of the patients were asleep, so it was usually pretty quiet on the floor. His attention drawn, he looked out through the office window, and he could see Jennifer Hart standing on the other side of the counter. A tall man in a plain dark suit stood a short distance behind her, appearing as if he were trying to be discreet although his presence could not be missed.
How in the world had she managed to get past security on the first floor and make it all the way up to the Cardiac Unit at that hour, and what had drawn her there? Hart didn’t have a phone. He couldn’t have called her to tell her of his recent scare. Either she was psychic or there really was some unseen connection between couples who had been married as long as they had been. And once she got there, she probably hadn’t been accepting the word, “No”, from anyone downstairs. Her name alone carried clout, and underneath her deceptively soft exterior, he thought he could detect in her demeanor and carriage a strong will and a forcefulness that could be ugly if made to be. Although he wasn’t as nervous about her, he was a little apprehensive as he got up to go speak with her for the first time since her husband’s admittance.
Out front, he went from behind the desk to extend his hand to her.
“Mrs. Hart, I’m Dr. Philips, your husband’s night physician. I’m surprised to see you. I must say, you’re a little early for visiting hours.”
“I’m very pleased to finally meet you, Dr. Philips.” She answered as she shook with him. “I know that I shouldn’t be here. I’m sorry. I just had a bad feeling- I just felt like- I just needed to see him. Is he all right?”
Briefly she turned her head away from him to look across the hall to the room where she knew her husband was being housed. The curtains had been partially drawn across the front windows- at Hart’s adamant insistence. He took that quick opportunity to look her over. It was late/early, but she was impeccably dressed. Even to his relatively young eye, she was remarkably attractive and fit for a woman who had to be well over fifty. When she turned back to him, he was almost startled by her eyes as they met his. The intensity in them bore clear through him, and he wasn’t ready for that. He dropped his own eyes down to the chart he had in his hand.
“He’s resting now.” He answered, and instantly he regretted having used the word, “now”.
Just as he thought she would, she picked right up on it, “Now? What happened to him?”
“Just some discomfort, Mrs. Hart. But it passed rather quickly. I don’t think it was anything to be upset about.”
“What’s causing his pain?”
“We aren’t quite sure yet. All his test results aren’t back. I stayed with him this last time until he was just about asleep.”
He left off telling her that he had been put out of the room, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to.
Slowly shaking her head, she told him, “Jonathan would pretend to sleep and to be all right just to get rid of you. No offense, but I know my husband. I need to see him. May I?”
“No offense taken, Mrs. Hart. But this is highly irregular.”
“Please.” She said. “It’s important to me. And to him.”
He hesitated, but then wondered to himself, why he was doing that. There was no way that he was going to be able to turn her down, no matter how unorthodox her presence and her request might be. There was something about her that made saying no an impossibility. And Samuels’ notes clearly said that Hart did better when his wife was with him. He could always justify his allowing her to stay with that.
“All right, Mrs. Hart.”
The man in the plain suit, who had been standing off from her, finally spoke. “Mrs. Hart, would you like for me to wait for you?”
“No.” She answered. “Thank you. I’ll be fine from here.”
The man briefly nodded in her direction, then in his, and walked off.
He thought Mrs. Hart might explain about him, but she didn’t. Instead, without waiting for anything or anybody else, she headed across the hall, leaving him standing at the desk.
Back in the room, J.J. didn’t go back to bed. After changing back into her nightgown and braiding, then twisting her wet hair into a knot on top of her head, she pulled the blanket from the bed, wrapped herself in it, turned off the light, and went to sit down in the big chair next to the window. Duke had come over and lie down on the floor by her. Resting her feet on his broad, warm back, she sat staring out into the darkness, thinking over all that had happened.
She was in huge trouble, but for once, she didn’t care. At first, she’d been afraid of her mother’s reaction, but after sleeping on it for a while, and then looking at everything again from a more distant, more calm perspective, she knew that she had done the right thing even if she hadn’t done it the right way. Just like with the flying, if she had asked permission to do it that previous afternoon, she never would have been allowed to do it, and she never would have learned. If she had asked permission to leave, she wouldn’t have been allowed to go, and things would have been worse than they were, as hard as that was to imagine.
Her deep-seated anger was baffling. Along with it, underneath it, she was sad and she didn’t know why.
Well, there was Daddy’s situation to consider. Aunt Pat had called the hospital earlier that evening to check on him, and they told her that he was stable, whatever that meant. Then, there was the fact that her mother was probably going to have her head, but she guessed that was to be expected, considering all that had gone down between them. A beheading was what she had coming, no doubt, but she probably deserved it. When she first got there, Aunt Pat had fussed a little. Not as much as she thought she would, but she was definitely not hearing it about why she had done what she had done. Aunt Pat was clearly on her mother’s side. But that was to be understood. They were best friends, and best friends always stuck together. Two for one, that’s how that was supposed to go. Uncle Bill had listened and he had been of some help, but he was a man. There was only so much she could tell him; there was only so much he could be expected to understand. He could help with the technical stuff, but matters of the heart … well…
Marie had called from home to give her the blues for doing what she did, and for letting her hot temper get the best of her once again. Evidently she and her mother had talked. The two of them were pretty close when it came to her. Marie’s calling like she had reminded her of the time she ran away before. That time Marie had tried to tell her that something was wrong with her mother; she thought she was sick, but she had run off anyway. The aftermath of all that still made her sick and nervous to think about it. She tried to tell Marie that it was different this time, but at that moment, she couldn’t quite explain to her how it was different.
And then there was Pa. He had called her cell, just to check on her. Apparently her mother had phoned him and told him about her father being sick and about her flying the plane. She started not to, but then she went ahead and volunteered to him the information about what she had done and where she was. He said he was a little surprised to find out that she could fly, but he said that he was disappointed in her for running off without permission and worrying her mother more than she already was. She made no attempt to justify her actions with him. He wasn’t one to sit and listen to a whole lot of explaining. With him, things were fairly black and white. Hearing him say that he was disappointed in her had been a pretty bad moment, it really had.
They didn’t understand, none of them. She wasn’t really sure that she understood herself. Confusion was one of those things that she had a hard time working with. J.J. Hart wasn’t often perplexed on such a profound level.
Marnie, in her own way, had been supportive. Two for one. She could almost feel her buddy grinning through the phone when she told her of how she had caught the plane to Reno to be with Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill.
“So like, did Pat kick the crap out of you when you got there? I know she at least threatened to do it, didn’t she? I’m so proud of you, J. That took guts. All of what you did took guts. Chase is here going crazy. He says to tell you that you’re his hero- for saving your father and for being able to fly. We knew you were doing that all along. I’m not even mad that you never did tell me about it yourself; I understand that you couldn’t say. Of course, you do know that on top of kicking your ass for running away, when this is all over, the Duchess is going to wring you and your father’s necks about him letting you fly that plane .”
What Teddy said had helped some, too. He had been a late-in-life child for his father and mother, just as she had been for hers. He said that once when he was depressed about his parents’ divorce and feeling like it was his fault and that he was in the way, his father told him that everyone had a reason for why they were born. When Teddy’s parents split up, it was his choice to go with his father. But he said that it wasn’t until later, after talking to his father, that he realized that if he hadn’t, his father would have been all by himself since the girls, naturally, stayed with their mother. Teddy, Sr. told Teddy, Jr. that his being born a boy after all those girls had made him very happy, and that he had been sent special delivery to keep his father company. That had been such a nice thing for a father to tell his child, especially a boy’s father.
Teddy told her that she had been born to save her father’s life like she had. That if she hadn’t been born, maybe he would have been flying by himself and not made it.
“You did all you could do, J. You did the most important thing. If you get into trouble with your mother over the rest, so be it. You can handle that. Even though she might be mad, you know that you did a big thing for her and your father. She loves you. She won’t be mad forever. Now you need to do what’s best for you. Rest, chill out, think, vent if you need to. You’ve been through some stuff. J. It’ll all be okay. I’m sorry that I’m not there with you, but I know your father will be fine. He’s tough and strong, and he’s got your mother to hold him up. I wish I could be there to hold you up.”
That would have been nice if he could have been there, but it was better that he wasn’t. Her guard was down, and he was way too nice and way too cute to be anywhere near her, holding her up or anywhere else, at the time. When he kissed her through the phone before hanging up, she could feel it all the way from the top of her head down to her toes, just like if he had actually been kissing her lips. She hoped the one she sent him back had done the same for him.
In the way. That’s what it had felt like she was. Like Teddy said, there was nothing else she could do in Vegas- except be in the way. It felt so bad to know that was what she was, but like Daddy had once told her, sometimes the truth hurt.
Where in the world was Tommy?
If she had asked to leave, Jennifer Hart would have said, “No.”, so she hadn’t asked; she just left on her own. Don’t ask, don’t tell; it had almost fit that line of thought. The anger hadn’t subsided, but at least she and her mother wouldn’t be fighting any more, at least not on an hour-to-hour basis like they would have been if she had stayed. Both of them could be bad tempered, she more so than her mother, but her bad attitudes tended to stimulate them in her mother. Her mother didn’t deserve to have that done to her with everything else she had to deal with.
What was wrong? Why were they fighting? Why was she fighting? What was she fighting?
Why did she feel so badly? It was more than just being nervous about Daddy and sorry about what she’d put her mother through. What could it be?
Frustrated, bewildered, and tired, she put her head down on her arms and tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry.
With his eyes closed, floating somewhere between struggling to stay awake and drifting off to sleep, Jonathan was again battling feelings to which he wasn’t accustomed, but which seemed determined to establish some remote outpost within his being. He was just as determined that it was not going to happen. He would not be giving in to- that. To cope, he shifted his thoughts away from focusing directly on himself and his current state of affairs.
It had been too long since he and Jennifer had been together. Even though she had been there with him most of the day, it wasn’t the same. He missed her, and not just sexually. He missed her, being alone with her in their bedroom, which over the years had become their sanctuary away from everything else outside those doors once they were closed. Closed in, on the other side of them, it was just the two of them in that world.
Jennifer had wisely designed it to be that way.
Upon first learning that Jennifer was pregnant, one of his earliest anticipations had been of having their child climb over into bed with them. Lonely, nervous in the darkness of her own room, or perhaps frightened by a thunderstorm, he dreamed of a little girl running in to find them and settling in between them to go back to sleep. That had been a private, but important personal expectancy. That, and raising her on Willow Pond. The main house, which had been leveled by the fire, was only partially restored after Max’s passing. During the time that Max had been so ill, he had stopped the work to concentrate on Max’s treatment. After Max was gone, he and Jennifer went to Montreal to rest. Then suddenly, Jennifer wasn’t well, and his focus had been drawn to her.
It wasn’t until they were told her illness was actually a baby on its way, that he regained the drive to put the house back together. He wanted the three of them to be together in that place that he and Jennifer had chosen to live, and where they had been so happy in their years together.
In the interim, they resided in the large house at the beach, which at the time had been a rental property and was only meant to be temporary residence. After spending those special nine months living there while they waited for the house at Willow Pond to be ready and for their baby to be born, in the end, he hadn’t been able to turn it loose. After some stiff negotiation, the owner agreed to sell. Still in their possession, it, too, was a place that held special meaning for him.
Standing on the upper deck of the house, he could see Jennifer down on the beach below. As she slowly strolled, the rolling surf washed over her bare feet and legs and she raised her dress, bunching it around her thighs to wade in. Even from that considerable distance, he could clearly make out her round, protruded belly.
Her due date was getting closer, and he was becoming increasingly anxious for her. For a woman who had not planned on having a child, she had been way too quiet and accepting of everything that came with the pregnancy. Her quiet was not a calm or overly happy one.
The waves rolled in to meet her, rippling gently against her calves rather than rushing her and risking her losing her balance, as if they knew of her condition.
… such a beautiful woman… so hard to believe that finally….
…please let her be okay with this….
When the baby was born, Jennifer took right to her. But, oddly, she refused to allow the child to stay in their bedroom with them at night. It was baffling, disappointing, and off-putting; but she was adamant about it. She insisted that their baby remain on the other side of those double doors, and he hated it…at first.
It bothered him to have the infant so far away from them, and that Jennifer would have to get up in the night and cross the hall to change and nurse the baby rather than bringing her into the bed with them where she could go back to sleep while the baby fed. It got on his nerves when she would end up falling asleep over there on the nursery daybed, rather than in her own bed with him, which she could have done if only she would have relaxed her position.
They left Willow Pond for the cabin in the mountains to escape the public attention generated by J.J.’s birth, Jennifer wouldn’t let him bring her over into that bedroom either to sleep with them at night. J.J. had a little place her mother set up for her in the front room, just outside their bedroom door- but not inside. They went to her in the night, she did not come to them.
He had never before seen that seemingly selfish side of his wife, and he didn’t know what to make of it. In her, it seemed a very strange reaction, but then, it was their first experience with an infant, so there had been no precedent set to gauge that behavior in her. Not wanting to press her, figuring she was doing all she could do in just being the otherwise good mother she was, he reluctantly went along with her wishes.
Then she went through that bad patch when J.J. was almost six weeks old, which really unnerved him. Almost overnight, Jennifer changed. From her normally pleasant self, she transformed into someone constantly irritable, too emotional, and at times, irrational. With every day that went by, it got worse until he almost didn’t know her any more, and he feared for the baby around her. But her negative behavior was directed at him, and not at all extended to J.J. In a way, he had been grateful for that, but it hurt when she would go into one of her tirades against him or would lapse into one of her confusing crying jags. They had never had problems between them like that, and he couldn’t understand what he had done to her to warrant such abuse except to give her a baby that she appeared to love.
It wasn’t until she finally talked with her doctor and discovered that what was happening with her was likely some hormonal thing connected to having had the baby, that he breathed a sigh of relief. His fear had been that she was emotionally and mentally slipping under the pressure of unexpected motherhood. Worse, he privately worried that maybe in having a baby she never wanted to have, she had fallen out of love with him.
When Kate suggested that she go France alone to see her aunt, her late mother’s twin, Sabrina (the equivalent, Kate confided in him, of her going home to mother), Jennifer insisted upon taking the baby with her. No wet-nurse/nanny would be taking care of her child in her absence, she declared. That girl belonged with her. So, at a little over two months old, off J.J. Hart went to Europe with her mother.
To be parted from both of them almost killed him. At the airport, watching them board the plane, he wanted to cry. But, being a man, of course, he couldn’t. He had to keep telling himself that as long as the problem wasn’t that Jennifer no longer loved him, he could put up with anything.
Those two weeks that Jennifer and J.J. were in France forced him back to the loneliness of his youth. He had never felt so lost in his own home. Without Jennifer, the master suite turned into an echoing chasm, their bed, a fallow wasteland. Max was gone from him, and even though Marie did her best to cater to him and to bolster his spirits, it wasn’t the same. In comparison, Max had filled up more space in the house and in his life. It might not have been so bad if Max had been with him.
J.J.’s room, across the hall, was bright and filled with her things, but somehow, it too, was obscenely quiet, desolate, and empty. No little squirming, warm, cooing pink bundle waited for him in the cradle. Too little to do so, she hadn’t yet slept in that elegant crib her mother ordered for her from England. With nothing of her except her tiny baby scent left behind, after a couple of days, unable to bear going or looking over in there, he closed the door. The next day, he wound up vacating Willow Pond entirely, giving Marie some time off, and taking up residence in one of the impersonal corporate suites that Hart Industries maintained for visiting executives.
Even getting to talk with Jennifer while she was gone had been difficult. Sabrina blocked a lot of his calls to her, and those that got through, she curtailed. It angered and frustrated him to no end to have Jennifer’s aunt putting herself between them. What was her problem? Didn’t she understand?
His wife, his baby, his family, a lifelong dream come true which Sabrina and circumstance were keeping them from him.
From the start he had been determined to make it good for his daughter, for all of them. Maybe childhood hadn’t been altogether right for him and for Jennifer, but it would be right for their kid. She would have a mother and a father. Probably not siblings, though. Jennifer hadn’t said it out loud, but he was certain that J.J. was it for her. For him, it was just as well. He had a child, and it was the girl he wanted. His daughter would have a real life with a real family. Jennifer had been deprived of her mother at an early age, and then her father had dropped her off to be raised at school.
No matter how much old man Edwards tried to justify that to Jennifer, he couldn’t see doing to his own child what he had done with Jennifer. But that was old business, their business. It would never happen to J.J. Hart- ever.
As for him, growing up he hadn’t had- well, he made do with those he had and who had him.
When those two weeks were up, even though he had been involved in intense business meetings that day until late in the evening, he headed straight for the airport. If his pilots hadn’t been ready to take him, he would have commandeered a plane and flown it himself. Wired, and desperate to get to his wife and baby, he remained wide awake and agitated throughout that entire flight. When they touched down, he was out of his seat and ready to deplane before they reached the gate.
Coming down her aunt’s front stairs to him that early morning, Jennifer had been a sight to behold. In a pastel colored sundress, she descended with the sun shining in on her through the staircase windows. It glinted off her auburn hair which was still thick and long from the pregnancy. Her radiant smile relaxed and warmed his nervous heart. She looked rested and confident once again. It had only been two weeks, but she had lost the extra weight over which she had been so distressed. Personally, he liked that bit of fullness on her, but since it upset her to not be her normally svelte self, he was happy for her. For a moment, watching her, he forgot all about the baby.
In his arms, she felt so good. The first kiss they shared was chaste, almost tentative, like a very first kiss. It was like meeting her for the very first time, and like it had been when holding her that first time, he never wanted to let her go.
Sabrina, who had met him at the door and had been standing there with them, sent for the baby to be brought in to him. She allowed him to hold her, but she told him right off that it would only be for a few minutes. As soon as he spoke to her and hugged her to him, J.J. grinned right at him. She hadn’t forgotten her daddy’s face and his voice, and Sabrina had been pleased with her.
“She is smart baby, our Justine.” She nodded confidently at the baby in his arms. “Know the handsome man, even if it is Papa who is handsome. Look, know how to flirt already. Red hair, good smile, charming, like all of us. Yes, she is ours. Blue, blue eyes. She is yours, too.”
Then she took the baby back from him, and proceeded to put him and Jennifer out of her house.
“You go. My driver waits for you in the car. I take care of Justine. You take care yourselves. You have been apart a long time. Go and do not worry about this little one. I tell you, do not call me to ask about her; I will not answer you. Do not come back here; I will not let you in. Go and enjoy the time together by yourselves. You will not have such time to be alone lovers again. Your lives change with this baby, but for these days, you will be just you. My gift to you. Go. Jennifer, I send your things. Go.”
She shoved a paper into his hand. It was the address to a little auberge, not far from her house and right off the Mediterranean. Sabrina had them driven there, and as she said she would, she had Jennifer’s things packed and delivered to her not long after their arrival.
Soon after checking in and having a late breakfast, they left to walk barefoot, hand in hand down the beach. Alone together, in their little suite, there had been a strange tension between them, and although it made him uneasy, it intrigued him as well. As they strolled, they made small talk. He asked what she had been doing and about the baby. She inquired after his well-being in her absence, and then she apologized for having made his life so miserable at the cabin.
Made his life miserable? She was the one inside whom a baby had grown for nearly three months without her knowing it. It was she who continued to carry it to term after the shock of finding out about it. She was breast feeding a child; an act in which he was sure she never thought she would be engaging in her lifetime. In giving him that offspring he always wanted, Jennifer had endured having her body taken over and having her emotions turn on her. She was in the south of France being helped by her aunt to recover from it all, and she was apologizing?
Not knowing what to say to her with words, he could only stop, pull her to him, and kiss her, this time with no aunt looking on and no holding back. It was the only way he could think of to let her know how much he loved and missed her. She felt like a young girl in his arms, and he felt like a very young man in love for the first time.
They went back to the inn.
That Sabrina, she was nothing short of the consummate romantic. She had set up the entire scene for them, allowing Jennifer to come to her, making her rest. Keeping him from her, and not allowing her too much access to him. Sending them to the inn alone, away from her and the baby, she had given him back his wife- the woman she had been.
He could still see himself and her in that room.
Lying on his back, he waited for her in the bed. After a time, she emerged from the bathroom. She still had her hair pulled up from their time on the beach and she was dressed in a filmy, floor length peignoir that he had never seen her wear before. Floating toward him, she looked like the angel he knew her to be.
When he complimented her on the negligee and on her good taste, she told him, “I didn’t buy it. I found it packed in my bag. It was on top of my things that Sabrina had sent from her house. I’ve never seen it before. My Aunt must have sent it to me. To you.”
Standing next to the bed, she removed the robe to reveal the gown underneath. It was cut low, and was sheer enough for him to see the outline of her body and to catch a faint, but arousing hint of the coral aureoles of her bosom.
“I’m not breast feeding any more.” He vaguely heard her say.
That was when he realized that she was watching him as he gazed at her. He didn’t know how long he had been staring.
“Sabrina insisted that I wean her.”
“Why?” He hoarsely whispered as she continued to stand next to the bed.
His body was almost trembling, but he realized that it was with nervousness, more so than desire. It was baffling, and it embarrassed him. The first time ever they made love, he hadn’t been worried at all. Nervousness was not a regular player in his repertoire of emotions, especially not when it came to women and making love with them. Now there she stood, his wife of ten years, and he felt like a schoolboy finally alone with that special girl, and uneasy about pleasing her.
“She said that I needed to get back to being me, apart from the baby, that we needed to get back to us. She’s very wise, my aunt.”
“Yes, she is.” He agreed as he extended his hand to her.
He had to give her aunt her due; with all that she had done for them, taking Jennifer away from him, keeping them apart, sending them to the inn alone to get reacquainted; Sabrina had proven herself the queen of amour. The moment was more than right.
Jennifer took his hand and joined him, sliding across the sheets and into his waiting arms.
With his eyes still closed, the images still playing in his mind, he had to chuckle to himself when he recalled his next memory of that day. He had done it again.
The feel of her body was fresh in his mind, on his lips, and in his hands. In that moment between sleep and waking, he was comforted by the impressions they left with him. At first he thought he was in the corporate apartment and just imagining her, like he had become accustomed to doing since her departure.
Then the unmistakable scent of the nearby sea wafted in through the screens on the open windows and, coming to full wakefulness, he remembered where he was and with whom. The sudden realization that his arms were empty caused him to reach out for her. Finally, opening his eyes, he found himself in bed alone.
The room was dim; it was much later than he remembered it being. When he rolled over, he could see her. She was standing before the window, her body beneath the gown, outlined by the late afternoon sun, and it occurred to him what must have happened.
Getting up and crossing the room, he joined her where she stood, sliding his hands about her waist, hoping that she wasn’t angry or disappointed. Even though her back was to him and she couldn’t have seen him coming, she didn’t seem startled by his touch. Instead, she lay her head back on his shoulder.
She was all right. He relaxed.
“Was it good?” He whispered teasingly into her ear.
“You fell asleep.” She smiled. “Jetlag. Just like before.”
“No rose on my pillow this time?”
“No, this time, just me.” She said, turning in his arms and focusing those soulful eyes on his. “This time I don’t have any hidden agendas, no deadlines to make. This time I only wanted you, so I stayed. I’m your red rose this time.”
“Yes, you are, and I’m glad you did.”
Leading her back to the bed, even though he badly wanted her, he was still nervous about loving her.
It was strange. Even though he was a mature, experienced man of forty plus years, it was going to be a first for him. It occurred to him that his anxiety stemmed from the fact that he had never made love to a woman who had just had a baby. He didn’t know what to expect, and he didn’t want to hurt her. After all, it was his baby this woman had delivered, and he loved her beyond reason. He wanted her badly; to plunge himself into her and to have her meet him like they could before. But he wasn’t sure this time. More than anything, he did not want to hurt her.
Undressing her, he took his time, trailing his hands over her body, savoring the feel of her. Following his fingers with kisses to all the neglected places, that alone set him on fire. Before that time, at the cabin, they hadn’t gone any farther than kissing, afraid if they got started, they wouldn’t be able to stop. Then, it had definitely been too soon after the baby.
He pulled the band from her hair, running his hands over it, through it, letting it fall over her shoulders and down her back. He pleaded with her not to cut it. She wouldn’t commit. Instead she impatiently tugged at his pajama bottoms, easing them down over his hips after he raised them. Then she returned the attentions paid to her.
It had been so long, he wanted her so badly…. as she expertly worked her way down his body, when she got there, it didn’t take much effort on her part to get him close, from the first breathy touch- too close, so he pulled her up to him to make her stop… to slow it all down….
Tentative, gentle, sweet and fulfilling, it was almost better than the very first time, and much more meaningful. This time he knew her, and she knew him. They both knew the places to go, and they took their time getting there.
That first time getting back together, she was eager, and she wanted more than he was comfortable giving. A little worried that having a baby might alter her desire, he had been happy to have her back and so willing, but he couldn’t let her have him the way she wanted him. Holding back had been painful. To be so restrained with her had been difficult, but he wanted to be sure her body was ready to receive him.
That first climax, blinding and draining, put him back under for a while, despite his not giving all he wanted to her. When he woke again, she was there in his arms, awake and waiting….
They remained there for a week. It had been like a second honeymoon. No, it had been more than that. It had been like when they first met in London, as if they were getting to know each other all over again.
During their time away, they fretted a little about their baby, but true to her word, Sabrina would not respond to their calls, and she sent warning via the housekeeper that they were not to come her way. Even though she wouldn’t say anything to Jennifer about J.J., Chloe would always give him a report about her when he called.
“Le bébé est bon et heureux.”
Good and happy, what else could her Daddy want for her when she wasn’t with him and her mother? And like Sabrina said, with a child of their own they wouldn’t have that kind of carefree time they once were able to have at the drop of a hat very much any more.
But Jennifer had insured there would be one place in their world with their child where it would be just the two of them. It was a place where they could be continue to be the friends, companions, and lovers they had been before J.J., and where they remained as such with J.J. It had been difficult for him to see that in the very beginning, but Jennifer and her aunt were right. There was a separation to be made in order to maintain the integrity of the personal relationship. It turned out, as they discovered earlier that summer, that Jennifer had been raised in that manner. Her own parents had maintained two bedrooms: one her mother shared with her husband, and a personal bedroom in which she would spend time with her child.
Because of how Jennifer had arranged it, they had never had to be worried about being barged in on. And as it turned out, J.J., even as a baby, had been unusually self-reliant. She wasn’t very fearful or fretful in the night. There had been a couple of times, when she first graduated to a big-girl bed, that either she must have wanted to be close to them, or more likely, she wanted to demonstrate to them her brand new freedom of movement. Getting up to go check on her, he found her asleep on the floor right outside their door. She hadn’t knocked to ask for them, and she hadn’t tried to come in. She just wrapped herself in the blanket she had dragged off her bed, and she and Freeway Junior set up camp in that spot.
They continued to go to her. One night, when she was very little, he went to check on her during a particularly violent thunderstorm. He found her standing at the window with the curtains pulled back and the shutters open, enraptured by nature doing her thing. A little shaken by the sight, and slightly nervous about her being in the window with so much lightning going on outside, he approached her from behind. Gently so as not to startle her, he picked her up and pulled her away.
J.J. had been quite annoyed with him for doing that.
“Aw Daddy, I just wanted to see the blue light. All the trees and grass and stuff, when the light comes, they turn all white and blue. It’s soooo pretty.”
She was young, but smart. Already, she knew her colors. That she had inherited her mother’s attention to detail and her descriptive abilities were plainly evident in her that evening, but for him, her lack of fear and her fascination with the storm were an indication of something more. He stayed with her that night, telling her about the nature of electricity. As she trained her blue eyes on his, he had gotten his first real glimpse of her enchantment with it. Like father, like daughter. As a kid, thunderstorms, particularly the lightning associated with them, had mesmerized him, as well.
J.J. had not come running to them that night, and she rarely had over the years. When she did have occasion to need them while they were in that room, she knocked, even if the door was open. She understood and respected what her mother had been silently teaching her all of her life; what went on in the master bedroom did not include her. It still sometimes didn’t sit well with him, but he understood and appreciated it.
Since that first visit to France, for two weeks out of every subsequent summer, Sabrina sent for J.J. and kept her in Perpignan to give them some time for themselves, and herself some quality time with her grand-niece. As a result, J.J. and Sabrina, despite the years between them, had established and still maintained a very strong bond. With J.J. turning out to be the kind of young woman it appeared she was becoming, her extroverted great-aunt was proving to be a powerful positive in J.J.’s life.
Jennifer, for her part, often credited her aunt with sustaining her at several difficult points in her life. She said that as a little girl, she had done the two week visits to France, as well, the only difference being that when her visits were over, she would be brought home by Sabrina, who would stay over in Maryland to visit with her sister. Once Jennifer’s mother was gone, Sabrina would still send for her niece, but she would send her back to the States, or to wherever, alone to her father. With J.J., after her two weeks were up, either Jennifer would travel to retrieve her, or the two of them would go together to get their daughter, staying over a few days to enjoy Sabrina’s hospitality.
Life had turned out well. He desperately wanted it to stay that way.
Rheumatic fever. How the hell would he know? That was the distant past, a past he’d put so far behind him that he could no longer retrieve it, no matter how hard he tried. How much else was there that he didn’t know or remember? What else was out there lurking around, waiting to knock him down? And waiting to get to his kid who also didn’t know what was in her past?
J.J. had already witnessed for herself his personal weaknesses: his failure to tell her about herself, his inability to see to her on the day before. She had seen for herself his vulnerability, and she had run from it. A girl should be able to count on her father at all times, shouldn’t she? Jennifer was probably angry and scared about all of it, too. What other damage would there be?
Getting older was trying to be a bitch, but it was one he didn’t intend to let interfere with his quality of life. Age had never meant anything to him. As long as he was physically and mentally fit, felt good, and could still get it up; age was a non-issue. Jennifer was five years younger, and she was a woman with needs- needs that he wanted to continue to completely meet. He didn’t want any surgeries, and he didn’t want to be stuck relying on any medications that would stop him from being a man with his woman. If not doing either was going to end his life, so be it. The business, the success, the lifestyle, even flying or not flying, none of it meant anything if he had to live being less than a real man.
He absolutely could not believe it when a hot tear squeezed its way out from under his closed eyelid and silently mocked him by rolling down the side of his face.
Alone in the darkness, he didn’t bother wiping it away.
Standing silently at the bed rail, Jennifer studied her husband’s features, made shadowy by the dimness of his hospital room. Needing to be close to him, but not wanting to wake him, she quietly pulled up the chair and sat down. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to the side of his face.
The trace of wetness she encountered, surprised her. The salty taste that followed, shocked her. Instantly, the sense of foreboding she had been experiencing ever since waking from that dream, formed a solid, choking mass in her throat.
Instinctively, she pressed her cheek to his.
She had only been witness to his tears twice in their time together. The first time had been when told that Max was gone, and the second the day that J.J. was born.
She felt it as his hand moved, leaving his side, his fingers curling themselves around her hand, which caressed his other cheek.
“What are you doing here?” He whispered to her. “What time is it? How-?”
“Shhhhh.” She answered. “I heard you calling me, so I came.”
Dr. Philips finished his paperwork. With the curtains partially drawn over there, he couldn’t see across the hall into Mr. Hart’s room. The lights were off, so even if the curtains had been open, he probably wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on. With both of them present, going back in there would be even more difficult.
Checking the computer one more time, he closed the file, and slowly slid off the stool. Reluctantly, he left the office to head back over. He wanted to make sure for himself that his patient was still resting comfortably before leaving the floor to get a bite to eat. He was reasonably sure that Hart was all right. If he hadn’t been, Mrs. Hart would surely have been right back across to tell him so.
At the door to the room, he stopped.
She had pulled the chair as close to Hart’s bed as possible, and was sitting leaned forward with her head resting on his shoulder. He had his free arm around her, and they were quietly talking; rather she was talking and he must have been listening. Alone, in their own world, neither of them appeared to notice him standing there. If the bed had been a but few inches wider, he was sure the he would have found her lying next to her husband.
“Must be nice.” He smiled to himself, as he turned away. Despite his being where he was, Jonathan Hart was a lucky man.
At the desk, he requested that a blanket and pillow be taken in to Mrs. Hart. It didn’t appear as if she had any immediate intention of leaving. Then, returning to his office, he wondered to himself, as he had ever since his encounters with her, about Miss J.J. Hart.
As soon as he hung up from the call, August Lamb was out of the bed and on his way to the bathroom. What Zale had discovered was old news, but it was news that had been purposely suppressed. Not having been with Hart Industries as long most of the others privy to such information, Zale had been understandably astonished and upset by his findings. He could be counted upon for discretion, but bringing him into the loop was not something that could be done over the telephone.
Then, too, there was still the nagging question of what all the digging into Hart’s background had been about.
Taking a quick shower, and grabbing a cup of coffee from the automatic coffee maker, which he took with him out of the door, Lamb was in his car and on his way to downtown Los Angeles in less than twenty minutes.
It was just after daybreak.
Jonathan woke, feeling an odd sense of contentment. The weak light from the window to the outside told him that it was very early in the morning. The room around him said that he hadn’t been dreaming. He was still in the hospital, but when he turned his head to the right, the reason for his unusual ease, despite his accommodations, became apparent. With a blanket pulled up to her chin, Jennifer was asleep, curled up in the chair next to his bed.
“Fifteen minutes an hour.” He smirked to himself. “That was never going to fly with that hardheaded woman. Or with me.”
He closed his eyes again, not wanting to wake her and sure that it wouldn’t be long before Dr. Samuels and his entourage were back to worry the hell out him.
The three men were huddled together around the computer in Arnold Zale’s office. August Lamb and Stanley Frieson stood behind Zale who was seated in his desk chair slowly scrolling through the information he had pulled up, allowing the two men behind him to see what he had found.
“I sure am glad you filled me in.” Zale said, the relief loudly ringing in his voice. “I just did not want to believe that Mr. Hart could be involved in anything shady or seedy.”
“There’s nothing really new here.” Stanley said, his eyes trained to the screen. “Basically, it’s the stuff we already knew. Time’s gone by, there’s been some changes- the reasons for which I can only surmise. Some things have been added, but none of it’s anything out of the ordinary.”
“Is- was Mrs. Hart okay with this?” Zale asked without turning around. “I can’t imagine having something like this come up with my wife, real or not, and not having her raise holy hell about it.”
Stanley made a face as, in going to make a gesture to emphasize his upcoming point, he knocked the pencil from behind his own ear and had to bend to pick it up.
“It was years ago, not long after they first got married.” He said on his way back up. Even then, Mrs. Hart wasn’t the average woman, and they didn’t have the average relationship. She and Mr. Hart, together, have always been special. Once the whole thing was over, it was over. She knew him. She didn’t make a big deal out of it. She was more concerned with helping him through it.”
“She’s some woman, that’s for sure.” Zale remarked as he came to the last page of details and moved his hand from the mouse to scratch his head. “Smith said she left out at some godforsaken hour this morning, and went to the hospital to be with Jonathan, AND they let her in when she got there. She stayed the whole night with him even though she’s only supposed to be there for so many minutes on the hour. Smith said he just happened to catch her as she was getting into the taxi.”
“I would have had his ass if he didn’t.” August Lamb grimly threatened. “That other sorry bunch already let a teenager get past them.”
Zale looked up at him. “J.J. still in Reno?”
Lamb, continuing to study the screen, answered without looking away from it, “Yeah, I checked on her again last night.McDowell says he’ll be keeping her there until her parents come for her or he brings her back personally. We don’t have to worry about her getting away from him. She’s fine. Better there than where she was.”
“That’s good.” Stanley said as he left the desk to go over and fix himself a cup of coffee. “Mr. Hart will rest better knowing that she’s with Mr.McDowell.”
“So will Mrs. Hart.” Zale said, stifling a snicker as he watched Stanley drop the paper from the sugar packet into his drink along with the sugar at the mention of Jennifer Hart. The lady always made Stanley nervous, even after all his years of knowing her.
Taking in hand the mouse Zale had abandoned and sliding it across the pad, Lamb continued to peruse the information with which the other two men were obviously finished.
Marcus Borland, second in command under Jonathan Hart, appeared in the doorway.
“Well?” he said, addressing Lamb. “Was it what we thought?”
Lamb nodded, still moving the mouse and studying the screen.
Borland continued on into the room and joined Lamb behind Zale’s desk to take a look at the computer screen himself. Zale started to get up to offer him the seat, but Borland motioned him back into it, telling him, “I’m only going to be here a minute. I only came in this early because you called me down here. I’m actually meeting someone for breakfast before I start my day. I’ll be in meetings for most of the time after that.”
Borland then turned to August Lamb. “So, what’s the problem? We all know that Jonathan has a sterling reputation. His vices, the few he has, are public knowledge. He has nothing to hide, especially nothing like this. I’ve never met a more careful guy. I knew that there was nothing to this the first time around. That was when my father was still here.”
“It’s not Jonathan or his reputation that worries me.” Lamb answered. “But something just doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t know if I like this character being in this position with Jonathan. Anything could happen. Who knows what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling about him? He’s too close and has too much control over that situation for me.”
Borland clapped him on his back. “Stick with it then. You’ve always been the nose around here. J.J. still in place?”
All three of the other men nodded. J.J. Hart, the all knew, was priority. Mrs. Hart was with Mr. Hart, and the two of them were covered. J.J. was the odd man out, but safe with her godfather, she too, was being adequately looked after.
Borland headed toward the door. “The best men are on it, then.” He said, waving behind him.
After a discreet few moments, when he was fairly sure that Borland was out of hearing range, Zale whispered. “Since when does he have a breakfast date? Or any kind of date, period?”
Stanley came back in close to whisper, “He has been a little preoccupied lately. You don’t think-?”
Zale grinned. “He’s the kind that could slide one past us. I mean, who would suspect? But a few of the right people in a few of the right places…”
“And Jonathan will kill you as soon as he gets out of his sickbed.” Lamb concluded. “Do that, and maybe he’ll put the hit out on you before he gets out of it. Marcus is like a younger brother to him, and I’d hate to be either one of you if Jonathan were to find out that you were snooping around in Marcus’ personal affairs. Stick to business. You’ve done well with researching this. Look, I think I’m going back to Vegas, just to put my own mind at ease.”
“Should I order a plane from the fleet for you?” Zale asked, picking up the phone.
Lamb shook his head. “No, I’ll go commercial. Book me on the next earliest flight. I think I want to keep a lower profile this time.”
Pat could feel her goddaughter sneaking peeks at her they sat across from each other at the restaurant table, but she refused to look up from her plate. J.J. had been quiet all the way from the ranch to their lunch destination. In fact she had been abnormally quiet all that morning. Bill thought she might sleep in, but when they got up, J.J. was already up, dressed, and sitting out on the patio, writing in what appeared to be her journal.
At breakfast that morning, she hadn’t said much of anything. Even Clara’s bright and sunny attempts to bring her out had failed. She had fixed all of J.J.’s favorite breakfast foods, attempted to joke with her, and although J.J. made an effort to appear as if everything was all right, it was apparent that her thoughts had been elsewhere. It had only been two days since Jonathan’s sudden hospitalization and the subsequent fallout from it, but already J.J. was taking on that pallid, drained look that she could get when things weren’t quite right with her. It was the same wan look that Jennifer would get when she was operating under emotionally stressful circumstances and trying to conceal her true feelings.
After breakfast, watching as J.J. ran, doggedly circling the paddock over and over like one possessed, it was Bill who suggested that perhaps she should take their goddaughter out to lunch. He had informed her of J.J.’s and Duke’s activities of the early morning before. He had also told her the little that J.J. had revealed to him about the flying. They both knew that there was more to that running she was doing than her just wanting the exercise. It had almost looked as if J.J. had been running from something. Although she thought it was a good idea to get her out of the house, she was determined that it would be J.J. who made the first move at that lunch table.
It wasn’t until she had finished eating, and J.J. was done moving the food around on her plate, that J.J. broke her silence.
“Are you mad at me, Aunt Pat?”
For the first time since sitting down at the table, Pat looked directly at her .
“Should I be angry?”
J.J. frowned and briefly looked off in a manner that Pat took for annoyance.
“Aunt Pat, can we not play twenty questions?” She asked when she turned back to face her, the tone of her voice confirming her assumption about the body language.
Before responding, Pat took her time draining her water glass. She set it back down on the table, and then fixed her gaze on the girl across from her.
“You brought this to me, J.J. I did not send for you, nor did I ask you to come. You came to me on your own. Now mind you, I’m very happy to have you here with me, just as I always am, but I think it’s you who needs to talk to me.”
Sighing, J.J. replied, “I just want to know if you’re angry with me, that’s all. I just want to know how I should bring it to you.”
Pat maintained her direct stare, her eyes locked on J.J.’s face.
“So what difference does my being mad make, J.? If you have something to say, just say it. Isn’t that how we’ve always done things?”
J.J. hesitated, studying her godmother, and then she slowly nodded in concession.
“Okay, Aunt Pat, okay. Then let me rephrase what I said before. I hope you’re not mad at me. I didn’t just run away.”
Pat sat back and folded her arms. “No? Then what would you call what you did?”
“I left.” J.J. answered. “I thought it was best.”
“You thought it was best. I see. And just how did you reach that conclusion, my dear?”
“I couldn’t do anything else for Daddy. I had done all that I could do. I was being treated like a kid by my mother and those doctors, like I was in the way. So, I left to get out of their way.”
“You are a kid.”
“Not one like they were treating me. I’m more than that.”
“Are you? And just how were they treating you that was so unacceptably childlike?”
“They made me stay in that room all day while I was waiting for my mother to come. They wouldn’t let me see my father at all, and they wouldn’t tell me anything about his condition. Then, when my mother got there, they still wouldn’t let me see him, and she went right along with it. She says to me the same thing that doctor said, “Sit here.” like I was some kind of baby or a nuisance or something.”
Pat smiled, but it was a grim, humorless smile.
“So now, J.J., I want to you sit there. And I want you to try telling me that you didn’t see him anyway.”
J.J. flinched, her eyes widening until she was forced to blink- hard. “W-what?”
“You heard me. I know you. I know that there is no way that you would let anyone get in the way of your seeing your sainted father. That’s something you would disobey even Jennifer over. You took your little behind around there to see him anyway that first night, didn’t you?”
J.J. was silent.
“Oh, no you don’t go clamming up on me now. You started this, Justine Hart. You wanted to bring it to me. So, bring it. Tell me the truth.”
Unfolding her arms, Pat sat forward.
“I, hell, J.J. Answer me. You know what you did.”
“So what in the world is this really about? It is not about your not being allowed to see your father. You saw him. So what is it? Really?”
“Who told you? Nobody knows I went in there except me and Daddy. That doctor. He told you when you called, didn’t he? He ratted me out.”
“Girl, nobody told me anything. Nobody had to tell me. I told you just a moment ago, I know you. You and Jonathan have always been as thick as thieves. Your two brains are tuned in to the same wave length. same damned station; they always have been. If you hadn’t gone around to see him that first night, you wouldn’t be here sitting with me right now because he would have sent for you himself yesterday morning, and nobody would have been able to tell him otherwise, I don’t care how sick he was. He didn’t make a big deal out of not seeing you at all yesterday because he had already seen you the night before. On the other hand, you wouldn’t have left Vegas if you hadn’t already seen him for yourself. I used to write mysteries, girl. I still occasionally edit them. You can’t fool me. You haven’t been here long enough. I have forty years on you of being a big-time sneak and hardhead.”
“I’m not a sneak. I’m not hard- I’m not a sneak. I just wanted to see my daddy and make sure that he was okay.”
“You didn’t believe your mother could do that?”
“I wanted to see for myself. After I did go to him, I was still mad about everything. So, I got out of the way.” J.J. picked up her napkin from her lap and wiped her hands with it. “I admit now that not seeing Daddy was an excuse. But I swear I didn’t realize that it was just an excuse until after I got here.”
J.J. paused at that point, and Pat waited for her to go on. When she didn’t, Pat asked, “Then what made you tee off on your mother if you had already seen him? What did you say to her?”
Hanging her head, her cheeks turning crimson, J.J. didn’t answer.
“What did you say to her, J.? Tell me. We might as well get it all out into the open. You said that you were bringing it to me. Let me have it.”
“I was mad, Aunt Pat.” J.J. murmured. “I didn’t mean it.”
“What did you say?”
“I don’t know exactly why I went off on her, but I told her that she treats me like a baby. That she’s always trying to tell me what to do. I told her off about not taking up for me with that doctor.”
Then drawing herself up, she let the worst thing go in one breath, “And I said to her that she wouldn’t even have a husband right now if it wasn’t for me.”
Dropping her face into her hands, J.J. moaned, “I know, I know. It was a terrible thing to say. I was just so mad. I don’t even really know now why I was so mad. When I said it to her, my mother looked at me like I had slapped her. After that, I just had to leave, Aunt Pat. Before I left her, I said I was sorry, but she knew that I didn’t mean it right then. I do mean it now. I wasn’t running away. I just knew that I had to go. I know I’ve hurt her feelings. Since then, she hasn’t called me or anything. She must be so mad at me.”
“Bad tempered, just like your mother used to be.” Pat thought to herself as watching J.J. she was reminded of Jennifer’s ugly behavior toward her father when they had been girls all those years before at school.
She recalled the times at Gresham Hall that she and Jennifer had been called up to Dean Marchand’s office after some trouble or another, and being made to listen as she soundly chastised them for whatever wrong it was they had done. More than once she’d warned them that one day they would grow up and have girls who were just like them.
The old lady had been right. She and Jennifer had indeed both been sent that little girl across the table. And along with her had come her swift and hot best buddy, that damned Marnie.
Torn between outrage and anger, some pity, and her deep love for that child which overshadowed all of it, slowly shaking her head, Pat got up. Not bothering to wait for their waiter to bring the check, she left on the table more than enough money to cover the bill. Then she went around to the other side where J.J. still sat with her face in her hands.
Pulling her up by the arm, she said, “Let’s go, Squirt. No sense in everybody here knowing our business.”
Walking slightly behind J.J. as they left the restaurant, assessing her appearance, Pat could see her best friend’s stamp all over their girl. From behind, aside from the long ponytail and the slightly different bearing, J.J. looked so much like her mother had looked at sixteen, only J.J. had more hair than Jennifer ever had, and she walked like her father. She thought more like him, too, and neither one of them had a clue.
She had a suspicion about what Jennifer was doing with J.J., and she thought she knew why. She just wasn’t sure how healthy it was for her to do it.
“Mr. Hart, I have some good news for you.” Dr. Samuels announced. “We’re going to be downgrading you this morning.”
“Well.” Jonathan said, looking to Jennifer who was standing by his side. “I must say. It’s been a while since I’ve had that done to me.”
Dr. Samuels took a seat on the stool at the counter. Still looking over the paperwork he had carried in with him, he continued to explain.
“I had an interesting phone call this morning which shed some light on things, and the major test results are back. I’m very happy to say that we couldn’t find any signs of heart disease. However, there is a slight artery thing going, but I need to study a couple of things and research some things just a bit more. I am going to have you moved into a private room. I still want you to remain as at rest as possible until I can complete my study. You’ll still be up here on the cardiac unit until I can figure out just what’s going on, but you won’t have to be hooked up to all of this equipment and you will be able to get up, but only when necessary.”
Jonathan, who had, for all practical purposes, stopped listening after the doctor’s first statement, asked, “Interesting phone call?”
“An old friend of yours.” The doctor answered. “A nun. A Sister Anastasia. She said that she knew you as a child, and that she believed you might have had rheumatic fever as a child. She said that you were so young at the time that you probably wouldn’t remember having been sick, but she did. She’d heard that you were sick and she was wondering if having had that as a child could affect you now. I ran down to her what the symptoms were, and it seems she remembered you exhibiting most of what I mentioned to her. She has an excellent memory to be able to recall that after all this time.”
Looking to Jennifer, suspicion and skepticism narrowed Jonathan’s eyes.
“She just happened to call? She just happened to be wondering?”
Jennifer averted her eyes, ignored his questions, and instead addressed the doctor.
“So what does all of that mean? Why is my husband having so much pain? If he’s still in pain, is it wise to move him?”
“Well, there is still the narrowing of the arteries to the heart, there’s also some inflammation of the heart muscle, but that- Let’s just say, Mr. and Mrs. Hart, that I have some theories, but right now that’s all they are. I need to check out a few more things before I speak on more on them. Mr. Hart, Dr. Philips made note that you had some considerable pain last night. Can you tell me what you were doing at the moment that it happened?”
Jonathan shrugged his shoulders. “It was just a twinge. Nothing all that big.” He lifted his eyes to the machines over his head. “And what could I have been doing? I was just lying here.” With his good hand, he gestured to his chest which had the wires attached to it, and he lifted the arm into which the IV was running. “There’s not much else I can do.”
Dr. Samuels seemed to want to ask more, but he abruptly closed the folder before him, simply nodding to himself.
“I think it will be more beneficial to move Mr. Hart into a more private, quieter setting, Mrs. Hart. The nurses will be in to remove that IV and to disconnect you from the monitors, Mr. Hart. Your new room is all ready for you. It won’t be too long before we can get you moved.”
He gathered his things and went back out.
Turning back to Jennifer, Jonathan took hold of the hand that was resting on the bed rail.
“You have the biggest mouth in the world, Jennifer Hart.”
“To quote someone we both love,” She answered. “Whatever. Dr. Samuels needed to know, and so did I. You were the middleman in that, so I cut you out and went straight to the source.”
“And of course, Anastasia was only too happy to accommodate you.”
“I can’t help it if the lady likes me, Jonathan. We both love you and want what’s best for you.”
Beckoning for her with his finger, he kissed her when she bent down to him.
“I ought to be upset with you.” He told her when he released her.
“And I am upset with you.” She countered.
“For what? I’m sick. Stuck in here, what could I have possibly done?”
“For a myriad of things before you got stuck in here, Jonathan Hart- and after. The most recent thing being having me tailed. I get in the cab to come here to you this morning, and right behind me, out of no where, scaring the life out of me is Bob Smith, who insists upon escorting me here.”
Jonathan snickered, then stifled it when he saw the look on his wife’s face. It triggered his decision to go on the immediate defense. He was already in enough unmentioned hot water.
“I didn’t do that. That had to have been August. After J.J. gave everybody the slip yesterday, I can imagine that he isn’t taking any more chances. He’s probably got Hart security all over Beckett’s place to keep an eye on you.”
She sighed an exasperated sigh. “An eye, I could deal with, Jonathan,” She declared, using her expressive hands to reinforce her frustration. “But an entire six-foot-five bodyguard is a bit disconcerting.”
But her words and what he was reading from her defiant body language did nothing to influence his feelings on the matter.
“If you’re looking to me to be on your side on this, Jennifer, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It was the wee hours of the morning when you arrived here in a taxi that didn’t have to have a legitimate driver when it got to the house to pick you up. It could have been somebody who hijacked a taxi, had the real driver tied up in the trunk, and was looking for an easy mark in the way of a fare- somebody who would get into the backseat without having a clue about what was in store for her. I know you don’t think along those lines, Jennifer, but I do. This is Vegas. While I’m stuck in here and unable to do it myself, I’m happy to know that somebody is looking out for your safety.”
She huffed, folded her arms, and rolled her eyes. He disregarded all of it. There were other, more pressing matters at hand.
“Jennifer, you didn’t say. Did you call Bill’s place when you went to change after Simon brought your bag? Did you speak to J.J.?”
“She was outside running.” She answered.
She left off telling him that she hadn’t asked to speak with J.J. when she called, and that she had sworn Bill to secrecy about her having asked about her. She hoped Jonathan wouldn’t inquire as to if she had spoken with her at all since the blowup. So far, he hadn’t brought it up, and she was glad of that. He would never understand her reasons for keeping herself away from their child. Jonathan spoiled J.J. and tended to overlook her more negative traits. Because he couldn’t see them in her, she could not afford to leave them unaddressed. J.J. had to learn. It had been all she could do to not press “Send” when J.J.’s number appeared in her cell phone display when she went down to the chapel to make her call to Bill and Pat.
“I spoke to Bill. I didn’t ask him to call her in.” She continued. “He said that Pat was planning to take her out to lunch later. But that was earlier today. They’ve probably already gone.”
He only nodded.
He shifted his eyes to look up at her.
“What were you doing when you had that pain last night?”
Again he shrugged his shoulders, and a for the briefest moment she saw passing annoyance turn his eyes a milky blue.
“Just lying here, Jennifer. What else could I have been doing? I’m so tied down, it’s not like I could get up and run around the room or something. I can’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I bet you, when they do unhook all this crap and move me, my plumbing probably won’t even work of its own accord any more. Bet.”
“Don’t try to change the subject, Jonathan. Please, is there anything that you aren’t telling me?”
He reached out and squeezed her hand.
“Darling, you worry too much. They’ll do some more tests or whatever it is they’re planning to do, and they’ll find out what’s wrong. They’ll fix it, and then we can get out of here.”
Jennifer decided against pressuring him any farther. It wouldn’t have done any good. He was not a man to be forced, at times, not even by her, but she was certain there was something he was keeping back. His continued resistance only irritated her, and she was too close to the edge as it was. In looking back on it, she realized that Jonathan hadn’t really been himself for a while. It was one of those things she let get past her while it had been happening, but in retrospect, things she missed or dismissed before were now glaringly apparent and wrong.
She had one more ace to play. He wasn’t going to like it, and it would be taking a huge risk. But then, who was it that taught her that when the stakes were high and you cared about the outcome, it was all right to take a shot in the dark?
For a while, J.J. could only sit on the bed scrolling through the numbers stored in memory on her cell. Everyone had called. Everyone that is, except the one to whom she wanted to speak. She could not believe that she hadn’t had her calls returned.
“She must be good and mad.” She whispered to herself, and then was startled by the sound of her own voice. “Talking to myself. I really am losing it.”
She flopped backward onto the bed to stare at the ceiling. This was the worse it had ever been. Even worse than the time she got sent to Pa’s for getting too many detentions at school. At least that time, she got spoken to on a daily basis.
Then she sat up. The Duchess had her laptop with her. She might be too mad to call, but maybe there was an email from her.
Leaving her room, she could see Bill and Pat in the sunken great room below her; the main house conformed to the side of the hill into which it had been built, and the multi-tiered interior reflected that. She called down over the railing to get permission to use the computer in her uncle’s den.
“I just want to check my email.”
“Don’t be going into any chat rooms or pulling up porn while you’re in there.” Pat warned. “We don’t have a child-proof cap on that internet.”
“We don’t have one at home either.” J.J. answered with a wave of her hand. “Despite my recent behavior, I really can be trusted.”
She heard it when Bill told Pat, “Why don’t you cut the girl some slack.” as she moved away from the rail.
That made her feel a little better. At least one somebody was still in her corner. Aunt Pat still hadn’t said a whole lot since lunch that afternoon, but she was sure that more was coming.
Scrolling through the long list of mails she had not opened, she was disappointed when the first few did not yield the sender for which she was looking. But she stopped, cold with shock, when she came upon, “TJSteele@-“. She sent that one directly to the printer. Taking the paper from printer tray, without looking at it, she folded it, and stuffed the message into the pocket of her shorts.
A stop by her bedroom, then down to the kitchen for some cookies, and she would be headed out to the “back forty” to read her note and write in her journal in peace. Screw the Duchess. Let her be mad. What did J.J. Hart care? Screw it all. One day, in not too long, she’d be grown and gone away for good, and her mother wouldn’t have her to be worried with her any more.
When J.J. made it down there, Clara was in the kitchen by herself. She found the housekeeper seated at the table, looking through an index card file box.
“Hello, Clara. I was wondering if it would be all right for me to grab some cookies to take with me? I’m going to go for walk.”
At first Clara didn’t say anything. Then, starting at J.J.’s feet, her eyes slowly swept upward, stopping at the book in her hand. Finally, patting the table top with her own bony brown hand, she said, “Sit with me, child.”
Having known Clara all of her life, J.J. was very fond of her. She afforded her the same respect as she did the other adults in her life. She sat down, but she was uncomfortable with Clara’s steady scrutiny of her face.
Reverting back to the heavy, melodious Caribbean patois that she normally altered most of the time, but that she knew J.J. loved to hear, Clara asked, “Child, what trouble you so? I know you leave your mudder. Why you do that thing?”
J.J. sighed. “She didn’t need me there with her, Clara. I was in the way. She had enough to do to take care of Daddy without having to be bothered with me.”
“Tell Clara. Do you show your mudder your ugly face?”
Hanging her head even farther, “I was angry. You know I did.” J.J. nearly whispered. “I know Aunt Pat or Uncle Bill told you what I did. That’s why you’re asking me that, aren’t you?”
Clara softly laughed. “Patricia tell me, but she don’t have to. I know when the phone ring and she say you coming that trouble was breathin’ hot breath on you back, girl. You just don’t know, do you?”
“Don’t know what?” J.J. raised her eyes to the woman sitting next to her.
“You don’t know your own merit. You don’t know how you bring joy to others, spreadin’ it out like you throwin’ loose change on the counter. That is you. It is what you do when you come into a place.”
“You, J.J. Hart. But when you leave your mudder, you take her joy with you. You leave her alone with her heavy heart. Heavier, you make it .”
“I know I made her mad at me.”
Clara shook her head. “It’s not mad, you make her. You make her alone. You make her alone at night, J.J. When she comes home from your fadda, she has no one there with her in that house, that house that is not hers. She is alone at night with her worry. You do that to her.”
“I- I- I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t think about it like that.”
“I know. You would not have done it, if you had. You have a good heart, but a hot head and quick feet. You scared, but you don’t think mudder is scared, too?”
“I wasn’t scared, I just-”
Clara’s deep, dark eyes cut her off, and for a moment, the two said nothing. Then finally, J.J. nodded, but just a little.
“I didn’t think of it like that, Clara. I didn’t think of her as being scared. Thank you. May I have the cookies?”
“Take the whole jar, if you like.” Clara closed her hand around J.J.’s. “Just don’t try to run faster than your fears, child. Face them, spit in their eye, and then walk right through them. Don’t let them make you run from those you love. Even if that is not your intention, child, the outcome is the same.”
I know you’re mad at me for being gone even though you said you forgave me. If you are, get over it. It’s not like you can hang up on me this time, and you’re way too nosy to delete this without reading it.
It’s the first chance I’ve really had to get set up, but once I found out about your father, I had to stop and just make the time. My grandmother found out what was up with you and him when she called home to make her arrangements to get picked up from the airport when she got back to LA. She’s leaving here for home tomorrow.
How is your dad? Tell him I’m thinking about him and that I asked after him. I hope it’s not too bad. He’s my boy. I know he’s going to pull through all right.
How are you? That was some trick you pulled. I ought to be mad at you for not telling me you knew how to fly. But I figured you were up there with him, learning even if I didn’t figure you for knowing how so well. I am proud of you, though, for not choking or acting like a girl or anything. I can say that because you’re not here to let me have it for saying it. But it’s true, and that’s what I like about you. It’s what I miss, too.
Have you been out on Chase’s bike yet? I know you probably have at least once or twice in all this time.
I love it here, J. I’ve been everywhere. Right now, we’re working on restoring an old church in Genoa. That’s in Italy- like you didn’t know that. That’s why I haven’t been in touch. We came home to Barcelona tonight so that my grandmother could get packed. She was working with us, too. But she did most of the paperwork, and took care of getting things set up. I took the time tonight to set up my computer so that I could be sure to get in touch with you.
When I first arrived in Barcelona, and my uncle saw my portfolio and how big I am, he decided to flip the script. Instead of me going into the traditional immersion program like some tourist kid, he put me right to work. I work every day, J. I work like a man, and I get paid like one. Every day I’m up at five. We’re on the site by 5:30, and I work until noon. Then I have to stop, and get cleaned up. I have my lunch, and then I have to study with my tutor. His name is Domenec, and I work with him until five in the evening on everything, including the language. He says I’m doing really good so far. I’m not going to go to regular school at all. My uncle wants me to apprentice under him, and stay with the tutor, so that’s what I’m going to do. I actually like school when it’s with a tutor like this, and working with my uncle at the same time, it’s like I’m getting two educations in one.
Right now, it’s kind of hard getting everything done, I get real tired; but so far, I’m loving it. Lately, I’m getting more used to the rhythm of things. In the evening, I get to do what I want, but I usually have to use that time to study and do my homework, and then I need to get to bed so that I can be rested for work the next day. So, for now, it looks like girls are out. But I don’t really care. I’m learning so much so fast.
Guess what? It turns out that my uncle Josef and my grandmother are twins! She didn’t tell me that until we got here. She says that fraternal twins run in my family. There’s been at least one set in every generation going back as far as they can remember, and they can remember way back. One day, I might even have some. What do you think about that?
I like my uncle a lot. He’s a great guy, very talented and very smart. I have a bunch of cousins here, and we all work together. They’re a lot older than me, but they seem to like me a lot. They don’t treat me like a kid at all. I like them, too. They’re all fun, and they teach me so much. It’s nice to have family and to get to spend so much time with them.
I miss you, J. I wish I could be there with you to help you through this thing with your father. I know you’re worried sick about him and probably acting all stupid about it because you hate to tell people how you really feel. Find somebody to talk to, J.J. Get it out. I wish I was there so we could talk about it face to face.
There’s so much I have to tell you, but there’s not enough time and I don’t type fast enough with these two fingers to write so much. Writing this has taken me forever. I’ve had to proofread it a million times to catch the mistakes because I kept picturing you in my mind sitting there, looking for typos and stff, and pointing how bad I write out to me when you wrote back.
When you do hit me back, I might not get back to you right away because, like I told you, I don’t have a lot of free time to the do things I want to do, so don’t get mad about it when you don’t hear from me right away. But know that I think about you all the time. Please don’t worry too much about your father. He’s a tough guy, and you know for a fact that he’s got luck riding with him all the time. Tell your mother, Marie, the crew, and “Ivy League” that I said hello. And tell “Ivy” that if he doesn’t want to have to deal with me when I get back, that he better be treating you right while I’m gone, even if he does live across the country and it’s long distance.
Don’t even try it, J. I know you like him. Just remember the stuff I told you about taking care of yourself. What’s up with the Wesley situation? I hope you remember what I told you about that, too. I’m not messing with anybody myself right now, but I haven’t forgotten what you said to me about it.
Love you, girl,
The email making her smile to herself, J.J. folded the piece of paper and put it between the pages of her book. That had been an awwwwwful lot for him to have written. It probably really had taken him forever to get it done.
She wrote in the journal for a bit, and then when the words would no longer come, she leaned back against the tree to think. Even though Tommy had crossed the line in a couple of places with his wisecracks and those “acting stupid” and “like a girl” comments, it had been so good to hear from him. There wasn’t any more mad left to be upset with him for taking so long to get in touch. He hadn’t mentioned it, but she wondered if he had any inkling about his mother and Uncle Marcus. Maybe there really wasn’t anything to it after all. Maybe they had just been having a casual little talk that evening that she’d seen them together in the atrium at Hart.
Then why had they been holding hands and looking all lovey-dovey? If there was anything to it, Tommy wouldn’t be getting that story from her, that was for sure.
He said for her to talk to somebody. There was only one person in the world she wanted to talk to about any of it, but that somebody was probably still too mad to want to talk to her. Uncle Bill said that she had called earlier to say that Daddy hadn’t had a heart attack. That was good. But he didn’t say that her mother had asked to speak to her. That was bad. She couldn’t even get to Daddy to get his take on it- or for anything. That was even worse.
For a moment, that cut-off feeling sent another painful twinge shooting all through her. Even though she knew there were people all around her who cared, and that any one of them would listen to what she had to say; it wasn’t them she wanted. The things Clara had said to her were enlightening and needed to be said, but they actually made things worse. She hadn’t thought it out like that before she took off. Just like Tommy said, and Clara had, too, in a more roundabout way, she did have a tendency to act stupidly when she was trying to hide what she was feeling. As smart and perceptive as the school tests and things said she was supposed to be, her tendency toward tunnel vision sometimes skewed her ability to see what was right there, and her common sense sometimes let her down.
She just wished someone could tell her exactly what it was she was feeling. The ones who could, had been right there with her in Vegas. But in Vegas, all she wished for was to get away.
Away from what, exactly?
“Be careful what you wish for, sweetie.” She’d been told many times before. “You just might get it.”
“You did get it, J.” She told herself as she pushed off from the ground. “Daddy’s too sick right now to get with you like you know he will over you being rude to his wife. You know she ratted you out to him. And your mother is as crazy as you are, so you’ll just have to live with all of this until he gets better and she gets over it.”
But this one was pretty big. What if Daddy didn’t get better, and what if her mother didn’t get over it?
Shaking her head, negating those thoughts, J.J. headed back toward the house. She’d deal with all of that later.
She needed to email Tommy back to let him know that Daddy hadn’t had a heart attack. That was something that would be worrying his mind if she didn’t. If she couldn’t do it for herself at that moment, she could at least help make somebody else feel a little better.
Finally back at the villa, Jennifer had been met at the door by Mathilda who, despite her protests about not being hungry, insisted that she come right in and eat something.
“Marie, your housekeeper called from Los Angeles, Mrs. Hart. She said that I should make you. She told me that when you worry, you don’t eat, and that when you don’t eat; you get headaches and lose weight. She knew you’d be worried over Mr. Hart and your daughter. I’m supposed to call her if you turn me down.”
So, to keep the peace, she sat down to the meal that had been prepared for her and found that she was actually hungrier than she first thought. Afterward, sluggish from consuming far more than she should have and tired from her long day, she retired to her room. Sitting on the side of the bed, she kicked off her shoes, and then closed her eyes and allowed her body to slowly fall backward into the plush summer comforter. It had been an extremely long day, and it didn’t help that she was alone in a bed, in a room, and in a house that all were not her own.
Jonathan had been disconnected from the larger monitors that were tracking him in the ICU, but he was wearing a smaller, portable device which continued to record whatever might still be going on inside his chest. Since the start of it all, his body temperature had been elevated. At last check, it was still higher than it should be, so the possibility of his having contracted some odd type of virus was now being explored.
She had stayed with him until he was comfortably settled in his new room at the hospital. Even though he had only been moved from the ICU a few hours before, already he was receiving cards and flowers from well-wishers. That seemed to make him feel a little better about being there, but not that much better.
Despite that latest medical supposition about his condition, she still had her own private theories about it. That necessary phone call had been made from the privacy of the car once Simon had come for her. Jonathan would probably be upset once he found out what she had done, but she didn’t care. Their years together had taught that he didn’t always recognize what was good for him or do what was best for himself. He was excellent at seeing to and taking care of others, but he didn’t always do the same when it came to his own well-being. In her opinion, he had become too accustomed to depending upon his phenomenal good luck and his naturally strong constitution to see him through. He was getting older, and after a lifetime of depending upon them, both were probably beginning to wear a little thin. And then, too, sometimes it took a bit more than that.
Which was why he had her in his life. She would not hesitate to do whatever it took to help him get back to himself, no matter how he might feel about it.
Good health and dealing with life came fairly easily to both he and J.J. When personal adversity did come their way, however, neither of them really knew what to do with it, so they struggled. Both of them being private people, they tended to try to fight that battle in silence. He hadn’t said anything to her about it, but she’d noticed the look in his eye when the Dr. Samuels mentioned about him possibly having to take medication for the rest of his life. When told of it, he didn’t even ask what medicine or what affect it might have on him. Knowing him, as she watched him, she could almost see his mind rejecting the entire notion.
August Lamb had returned to check on Jonathan. At least that’s why he said he came back, though it seemed as if he had something else on his mind. Before he came to the room, as she had been speaking with Dr. Samuels in the hall, she saw August farther down the hall, talking with a couple of other men she recognized as Hart security. The men to whom he was speaking were nodding in earnest as if what he was saying to them was extremely important.
When he came to the room, August asked Jonathan what he thought of his doctors and the rest of the staff who were seeing to him, but he seemed particularly interested in the young night doctor, the one with whom Jonathan hadn’t had as much contact.. August was pleased that Jonathan’s condition was improved and that he was no longer in Intensive Care, but she got the impression that he was uneasy about the new room’s location. It was around the corner from the nurses’ station, rather than right across from it as the other one had been.
Jonathan tried to insist that it wasn’t necessary, but August said that he would be remaining in Vegas until Jonathan was discharged. When Simon had come to pick her up that evening, he insisted upon accompanying her back to the villa. He had to have overheard the call she made in the car, and she wondered what he made of it. Of course, discreet man that he was, he hadn’t made any comment on it while they were together. When she hung up, August was pointedly looking out of the car window that faced away from her. He, too, knew Jonathan very well; they had been friends long before she came into the picture. After dropping her off, Simon took him on to his hotel, which was located very near the hospital.
Whatever it was all about, whatever August’s real reason was for being there, it was good to know that Jonathan was being looked after so well. So many crazy things had happened to them in their years together that it was probably best to not let their guards down.
The fact that heart disease had been completely ruled out was a very welcome relief. The artery issue could be worked around, the doctor told them. In her own heart, she felt that part of what was happening was that Jonathan was being made to slow down and take a look around himself. The problem with that was getting him to actually look.
And J.J. ….
It had been more than twenty-four hours since they’d last spoken to each other. J.J.’s number came up twice in her cell, but she’d left no messages. Although it had been a hard thing to do, she hadn’t returned either call.
And although it was a struggle not to, she had no immediate intention of doing so.
Rolling over, resting her head on her arms, she tried to suppress that sick, empty stomach, desolate longing she thought she had put behind her ages ago. It had been eons since she’d felt it surge so strongly. How could she feel so hollow inside after having eaten so much just a short while before?
“We interrupt this program with breaking news… Jonathan Hart, CEO of the multi-national conglomerate, Hart Industries, and his daughter, J.J. Hart…”
No matter how hard she tried not to dwell on it, that terrifying scenario would not leave her alone. Even with all that had happened since that Saturday afternoon, that awful sound bite kept repeating in her head. What had the two of them been thinking? All along, in the recesses of her mind, she knew that he had been doing that with J.J. It stood to reason that in all that time that they had been going up together that she had to know how. As thorough a man as he was, surely he had taught her everything she needed to know. But what if she had panicked? What if she’d had one of those attacks she sometimes had when she was nervous or upset?
It would have been both of them gone.
Even though, thank God, it hadn’t played out that way, and the separation wasn’t permanent, still they were all apart from each other.
Turning onto her side, she reached for her cell. Scrolling through to bring up J.J.’s number, she hesitated, then pressed “Send”. But, immediately, reversing herself, she followed that command with “End” and put the phone back on the night table.
It was a hard lesson, one it was nearly breaking her heart to teach, but J.J. needed to learn what her mother already knew firsthand.
Lying there, she wondered for just a moment if her own mother hadn’t been better off not having to go through the teenage thing with her. Most of the time, she prided herself on the strongly positive relationship she thought she and J.J. had forged. It had been quite some time since the last really negative incident, years perhaps, since they’d had one of those sudden flare-ups where if she were a different type of mother she might been the cause of J.J. seeing stars, and not the ones in Hollywood, as the itchy flat of her hand had been tempted to do that previous Saturday afternoon.
But then, if her own father had been a different kind of man, his palm might have been the cause of some celestial sightings of his own. She would be so defiant toward him, and he would be so angry with her, but not once had he touched her.
J.J. Hart was turnabout for all of that, of that she was certain.
Dean Marchand had warned them.
“Jennifer. Patricia. One day you will sorely regret your antics. One day when you’re looking down upon a couple of girls as trying and as impossible as the two of you, you’ll remember the incorrigible things you’ve done and the things I’ve had to say to you.”
Incorrigible. That had been Dean Marchand’s word for her and Pat. It had since become her own word for J.J. Hart, that girl she and Pat had gotten as payback, who instead of being chastened by it, had accepted it and actually had the nerve to embrace it as part of her persona. It fit her, and she knew it. The girl had no shame. It fit her father, too.
She wondered what Pat had said to her or if they had even talked about it at all. J.J. and Pat were extremely close; it made sense that J.J. had run to her, but Pat handled J.J. differently than she did. At times, Pat spoiled J.J. sinfully, indulging her every whim and encouraging some of her more bohemian behaviors. At others, Pat could come down hard on her, especially when it came to J.J.’s relationship with her mother. Having had no real relationship with her own mother and father, Pat was careful and serious about making sure that J.J. knew just how good she had it. Sometimes Pat could be almost brutal with the truth.
Raising herself up, Jennifer reached for her briefcase which was leaned against the night table. She pulled it up onto the bed and popped it open, extracting a small leather pouch. She slid the briefcase back down on the floor. Unzipping the pouch, it actually turned out to be a book of photos. It stayed in her briefcase, and traveled with her, keeping her company wherever she went and she found herself alone.
Inside were pictures of Jonathan and J.J., shots of them together and some of them apart. There was even one with J.J. and that fast, but hopelessly endearing rascal, Marnie, both of them sitting on the wall at school, grinning like two Cheshire cats. Looking at that one picture, she sighed heavily. Two girls- at the last minute, one for her and one for Pat- just like Dean Marchand warned them. Who would have thought?
Next to that particular photograph was a picture of Jonathan. He was smiling, his eyes twinkling, looking directly into hers. It was almost as if he were talking to her.
“They’d better hurry up and find out what’s wrong with me, Jennifer. I’m not attached to anything any more, so there’s nothing to keep me from getting up and walking the hell out of here, hailing a cab, and coming straight to you.”
That was exactly why she had taken his clothes home with her that first night.
He might have been in the Intensive Care Unit, but a man like him? Who knew what he might do if he had the right equipment? Being dressed in only a hospital gown, one that fastened in the back, and not all the way, might have slowed him down just a bit. But out of ICU now, he was in hospital pants, and he did have his robe and slippers. Before leaving, she told Dr. Samuels to inform the floor personnel that they would have to watch him. Jonathan was used to calling his own shots, and he was definitely not used to being bedridden.
Behind that picture of him, she had stuck that note J.J. left for her the other day. Slipping it out, unfolding it, she read it another time.
By the time you read this, I’ll already be gone. I decided to go to Reno with Aunt Pat and Uncle Bill. I took a taxi to the airport, so don’t blame Mathilda or Simon. They didn’t know. I didn’t tell them I was leaving.
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. He is your Jonathan, but he is myDaddy.
Please don’t be mad at him about the flying. It’s not his fault. I made him teach me, and I told him not to tell you because I thought you would make us stop if you knew.
She refolded the note and stuck it back inside the photo album. Jonathan was still grinning. J.J. was on the opposite page, closest to him, grinning at her, too, both of them with those blue, blue eyes.
He was holding her high in the air. She was laughing, her little legs kicking with glee.
“You’re your Daddy’s girl, aren’t you? Aren’t you Daddy’s girl?”
She drooled down on him, catching him right between the eyes, and he was as delighted with it as if she had showered him with diamonds and pearls.
He was lying on the couch, softly humming, “Daddy’s Little Girl”, to her. She was curled up, contented and asleep on his chest, his arm holding her securely to him.
When he got home from work, she was outside playing in her tree house. He went right out of the back door after asking where she was. From the kitchen window, she could see him climbing the ladder, going to her. Easing out there, standing underneath, she could hear them talking.
“It’s under that one, Daddy. The marble is under that cup.”
“Well, so it is. I can never fool you, can I?”
“Nope. I’m smart, just like you. Do it again, Daddy. Mix ’em up really fast. I bet I can still pick the right one. Next time, I’ll do it and you pick. I can do the cups really fast, too.”
From the very beginning….
…the time she found J.J. attempting to pee standing up, and the look on his face when she asked him why that was….
Anything her father did, she wanted to do.
How was it possible that the two people who were her reason for breathing could exasperate her more than anyone else on earth? Jonathan Hart and his child; they were like twins. The term ‘kindred spirits’ had been coined for them.
Both of them knew they had messed up with her; she could read it in their eyes that first night. Since then, they had both attempted to take up for the other, when it was both of them who had been keeping the secret- that secret that really was no secret at all. They kept trying to put things over on her, but they weren’t that slick with anything. He’d had the good sense to not bring it up with her at the hospital, but he had to know that she knew. J.J. had no choice but to bring it up, but there she was in that note trying to take the blame off of her father, even though it probably had been her idea.
She thought J.J. had developed a better hold on that hotheaded impulsiveness, but obviously she hadn’t. She had gotten angry and run, just like she had done that time before. Only she’d done it on a much larger scale this time… and this time, it hurt a lot worse.
Over that summer, before all of this, it seemed as if she and J.J. had become so close. Maybe they hadn’t. J.J. still had that edge to her that seemingly wouldn’t let anybody all the way in. Not even her mother. Saying sorry couldn’t fix every wrong. It wouldn’t fix this one. Not right away, anyway.
And what would happen if Jonathan couldn’t fly any more? She was aware of the FAA rules. If he had a documented heart problem, it would have to be reported, and his license would be pulled. He was born to fly. It was almost symbolic of his entire person. How would he take having that happen to him? Would that be symbolic as well? What if he did wind up on some medication that affected his ability to perform as a man? How would he handle it if both those things came to pass. What if he had to alter his entire lifestyle?
Feeling as if she were worrying herself into a frenzy over her usual what-ifs, she got up from the bed and went to run a bath, thinking that might relax her. Sitting on the side of the large tub, she thought about all the baths they had taken together, the showers, the hot tubs, the Jacuzzis… all over the world… their life together.
As frustrating and infuriating a man as Jonathan could be in his fearless zest for life, she loved him heart and soul. The idea of losing him, or any part of him, scared her in the worst way.
“We interrupt this program with breaking news… Jonathan Hart, CEO of the multi-national conglomerate, Hart Industries, and his daughter, J.J. Hart…”
She loved his daughter, too. She was a part of him.
With the water running in the tub, she hoped nobody would be able to hear her crying through the closed bathroom door.
“Mr. Hart, can I get you anything?” The young nurse asked as she made notes on her chart after checking his vitals for what seemed like the thousandth time that evening.
After talking Jennifer into going home to properly rest, even though he wanted like anything to keep her near, he found himself again fighting to stave off the stifling boredom and the creeping anxiety.
“A brandy.” He answered. “A T-bone steak, cooked medium well. A shirt, a pair of real pants, and a taxi.”
She laughed, a bit too heartily. “If I could, I would, Mr. Hart, but I’m afraid that isn’t my call. You don’t want to get me into trouble, do you?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that to you. But do you think I could at least get a television in here?”
Smiling, she shook her head, making her blonde curls bounce, “Too much stimulation. Doctor wants you to rest.”
“A telephone? A newspaper? A magazine, at least?”
“I’m afraid not. Too much bad news in the world. You’re to be as still and quiet as possible. Completely relaxed. Dr. Samuels did say that if you got bored, you should check your drawer there. He said that there’s something in there for you.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m just telling you what I was told, although if it can fit in a drawer, I can’t see how it could be all that much of a surprise.”
He waited until the woman wheeled all her equipment back over into the corner and had gone from the room before he checked out the drawer. Even though the doctor had relayed the message, his long shot hope was that maybe Jennifer had smuggled in his cell and left it for him. He wasn’t supposed to be using it on that floor; he knew that, but who gave a damn? He was desperate.
There hadn’t been any word at all from Hart, and he was beginning to miss the grind. He knew he could count on Marcus to take care of things, but still it would be nice to know what was going on with his own company. Jennifer hadn’t mentioned a word to him about business, but then, he didn’t expect that she would. Her focus was on Hart, the man. She would leave Hart Industries, the business, to Marcus. August had come back, and had been in to see him, but he only wanted to know what was going on in the hospital. When specifically asked what was happening at the office, August had deliberately turned the conversation to the night doctor, like there was anything more to tell about the guy other than the fact that he showed up when the machines went off at night.
The one good thing about existing within that vacuum in which he’d been living the last couple of days, was he’d had a lot of time to just lie there, think, and to look at things from an objective, more removed perspective. That wasn’t something he normally had a lot of opportunity to do. To keep from worrying about his own personal predicament, he focused his thoughts on his family.
He hadn’t spoken with J.J. since that first night. She was owed a good talking to for what she had done to her mother, but he was also anxious to get inside her head. He drew a hard line with J.J. about stressing Jennifer out, no matter what other problems she might be having. J.J. knew better than to show Jennifer any disrespect, but the fact that she had, told him that there was something else going on with her. He and J.J. were close, but J.J.’s relationship with her mother was more subtly intricate, and went a whole lot deeper. She would never deliberately hurt Jennifer. There was definitely more to it, and he wasn’t sure that J.J. was mature enough to recognize that.
In leaving him and Jennifer, J.J. had run to Pat and Bill. He saw that as a symbolic move on her part. She could have gone anywhere, home even, but she chose to go the people who had been selected by her parents to stand in for them with her in the event that they weren’t available to her. J.J. hadn’t been sent to them; on her own, that was where she had opted to go. That had actually been the equivalent of running to her mother and father. That part of it he understood. It validated her trust in not only Pat and Bill, but also in him and in Jennifer. It also told him that she was still very much a child in need of nurturing and comforting, even though she liked to project herself these days as independent, and so very grown up.
That made him smile. She was still his baby. Would always be. His to protect, keep safe.
Feeling his chest tightening, he closed his eyes and floated way down inside himself for a few minutes. When the sensation eased, he allowed himself to go back to his thoughts.
There was nothing he’d love more than to hear the sound of Jennifer’s voice before he went to sleep for the night- or attempted to, until they woke him up again to see how comfortably he was resting.
A phone could solve a lot of his problems. How disruptive could talking to Jennifer be? He hadn’t had it so quiet and still in in years as it had been those past two days. In his real world, most of the time, all he wanted was for the phones to stop ringing and for people to stop talking to him. But now….
“Be careful what you wish for, Valentine. You just might get it.”
It wasn’t his cell that he found in the drawer. Instead, he pulled out Jennifer’s cassette recorder, the tiny one she used when she was making impromptu notes for herself or when she was interviewing someone and didn’t want the person to be distracted by the presence of a larger recorder. He stared at it for a moment, wondering what in the world she wanted him to do with that little bitty thing.
There was the fleeting, horrible thought that perhaps she’d sent some him of that opera by which she wrote, to listen to while he was there, thinking it would relax him. But then, on second thought, she knew that opera wasn’t high on his list. She wouldn’t do that to him. As unpredictable as she could be, there could be anything, on the tape. With her, all bets were off, so he made sure to turn down the sound before he finally switched it on.
At first there was silence as the tiny cassette reels turned. Then her voice spoke to him.
“Good evening, darling. I’m know that I’m not there with you in body tonight, but I wanted you to know that, like always, I am there with you in spirit. If you close your eyes, I know you’ll be able to see me, as I see you when I close mine.
I’m thinking of you right now, and I’m anxiously waiting for the time that you and I are together again. Do what they tell you, Jonathan. Don’t be obstinate and pigheaded like I know you can be when you’re unsure- frightened even. I know you don’t claim that, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist within you. It doesn’t make you less of a man to fear uncertainty, darling. It makes you human, and it’s the human with whom I fell in love and remain so much in love with to this day.
I know that you don’t like being there, but you’re there for a reason. There are lots of reasons why all of this happened. Some of them have revealed themselves already. The others remain to be seen. We don’t always get to know all of the whys right away, but like I’ve always told you, we aren’t really in charge of it all. No matter how successful we might be down here, we answer to someone higher, someone greater. It was that power that brought us together. It has kept us together all this time, and it is that power that has decided to test us in this way.
I’m up for the challenge. How about you?
I love you, baby. Please do what they say this evening. That way, you’ll be able leave there sooner, then we can all go home.
Good night, my love.”
He switched off the recorder and could only sit, staring at it, for another few moments before pushing the machine under this pillow.
What a woman.
Only she would think of doing that for him, and of making sure that message got to him at just the right time- right when she knew that he would need to hear it.
So, it was no great rocket-science-wonder that he hadn’t strayed from her over the years. Offers had come; they still came, most of them flattering, and a few faintly tempting, but none had been anywhere near worth the risk of losing the love of his life.
He had always been able to tell a good thing when he saw it. ‘Stick and stay’ was his motto when he sensed he had stumbled upon a winner. The feeling had been strong with her right away. He knew she was a keeper, and kept her, he had. The other boys could chase after those young skirts until either they dropped dead or went broke trying to keep them happy and their wives in the dark. He would be hanging onto the real thing- quality and class, like the finest wine- beautiful and the best. Jennifer remained extraordinarily attractive on the outside, but it was what was inside of her that fed his spirit. When a guy had it all at home, by his side, in his corner, and in his bed, why would he need anything else?
The little nurse who just had left him was young and cute; he thought he could detect a play being made, but she might as well save it for the next depressed, vulnerable, wealthy male patient. He wasn’t that depressed, he wasn’t vulnerable at all, and there were only two ladies in the world who got to put their hands on his wallet.
He wished they were there with him. Closing his eyes again, he pictured both of them walking the beach. It made him wonder how long Jennifer was going to give J.J. the silent treatment. Listening between the lines, picking up on what she hadn’t said, he heard her say that was what she was doing.
With nothing else to do, his girls in his head, he switched off the bright fluorescent and decided to try and sleep. Maybe, if he rested, didn’t have another one of those things, and all went well that night, perhaps Samuels would see his way to cutting him loose in the morning. He stuck his hand under the pillow and played the message again, finding that she had put it on loop.
He wasn’t able to sleep, but it was nice listening to the tones of her voice. He wondered what J.J. was doing. He wondered if her mother was sleeping.
It wasn’t until she finished the eighth lap that J.J. finally stopped. Pushing herself over to the stairs, her eyes blinded by the water flooding down into them from her head and hair, she pulled herself up out of the pool and walked to the table, feeling for where she had left her towel. When it was handed up to her, she jumped back in surprise as her hand came into contact with another.
Rubbing at her eyes to clear them, she focused in on the giver.
“Jeez, Aunt Pat! You nearly scared the crap out me. I thought you were asleep. What are you doing out here?”
Pat, dressed in her robe and slippers was seated at the table. She had evidently been there for some time. There was a drink next to her on the table .
“I should be asking you that.” She answered. “It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
She handed J.J., who was rapidly developing visible goose bumps in the cool morning air, her quilted cover-up. “Here, put this on before you freeze to death.”
J.J. finished toweling off and slipped it on over her head. Pat stood, and taking her drink in hand, put her other arm around J.J.’s shoulders, moving her toward the house.
“Come on, here.” She ordered.
Inside, Pat walking slightly behind J.J., nudged her, a bit roughly, toward the couch. “Sit down.”
Duke, who of course had been outside with J.J. and had come in with them, took his place at J.J.’s feet when J.J. fell/sat down on the couch as pushed/instructed. Pat sat down next to her.
“J.J., what in the hell were you doing out there? Bill told me you did this last night, too. Are you sleeping at night? You didn’t look so good earlier today, like you were tired.”
“I sleep.” J.J. answered, but she didn’t look up to meet her godmother’s eyes. “I do this all the time at home. I just can sleep better after I go for a swim.”
“What about before the swim?”
“I woke- I- I just thought I’d do better if I had a swim, that’s all.”
Pat continued to stare her down, and even though she wasn’t looking at her, J.J. could feel it. She was shocked when Pat shoved under her lowered face, the glass that was in her hand, telling her, “This is for you.”
Raising the glass to her nose, J.J. could easily make out the strong, sweet scent. “It’s liquor, Aunt Pat. This is rum and Coke.”
“It’s us in here, J. You and me. Drink it. You need it. It’s not like you haven’t snuck and had it before. Don’t try to play me. I’m not Jennifer.”
Taking an unsure, sideways glance at Pat, J.J. made a couple of polite sips before giving in and taking a healthy swallow.
Pat nodded. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to become a little lush or anything, but I do need you to sleep. You’re starting to look like death warmed over. Clara says you haven’t been eating all that well either, just cookies and junk. Finish all of that.”
Draining the glass to the ice cubes, J.J. set it down on the side table. Then, following her godmother’s hand, which was administering the instructions, she lay her head down on the towel in the woman’s lap. Pat covered her with the throw that was kept on the back of the couch.
J.J. settled in, knowing that the time for the real talk had arrived. The one they’d had earlier that afternoon had only been the preliminary event.
“Have you spoken to Jennifer since you left Las Vegas?”
“I left her a note.”
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about. Did you try to call your mother, J.J.?”
“Twice. She didn’t return either call.”
“I know that bothers you.”
It bothered her a lot. Nodding, J.J. didn’t vocally respond to that.
“Is what’s upsetting you the fact that you haven’t heard from her, or that you think she’s chosen not to answer you?”
Not having considered it from those two very separate angles before, it was a few minutes before she responded to the question.
“Both, I guess, Aunt Pat.” She finally said. “Having not heard from her, I don’t know what’s going on with Daddy aside from what you’ve told me. And I know she’s upset with me, so I figure that’s why she’s not talking to me.”
“Her not talking to you because she’s angry- how do you feel about that?”
Having thought that bit over on her own, but not wanting to say it to her mother’s best friend, J.J. again didn’t respond.
But Pat, not to be put off in that manner, impatiently bounced her head with her legs, catching J.J. off guard and making her momentarily dizzy.
“I asked you a question.”
“You aren’t going to like my answer, Aunt Pat.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“Okay. I think it’s childish of her. I think mothers are supposed to be beyond that. I think she should call me back and go ahead and curse me out if she wants to, but I feel that giving me the silent treatment on her part is immature and selfish. It could be psychologically damaging to me, too, for all she knows.”
“Now who’s being selfish and immature under the guise of trying to appear intelligent and hurt?”
J.J. sat up to face Pat. “Huh?”
“You expect your mother to be so grownup and in control of her emotions. From what I hear you say, she’s not to have feelings because she’s the mother. In your eyes, she’s supposed to not have human weaknesses because she’s older than you, and therefore, more mature.”
“I didn’t say she wasn’t supposed to have feelings or weaknesses. And you’re going to take up for her no matter what I say because she’s your best friend. I don’t blame you for that. That’s the only way you can see it. You’re going to be more partial to her than to me because I’m the kid.”
Pat continued as if she hadn’t said anything.
“But you expect your mother to understand because you’re so young and helpless, she’s not supposed to exercise her emotions when you do things that hurt her.”
“I’m not helpless, and I told you, I didn’t mean to hurt her. I didn’t leave to hurt her. I left to help her. I tried to call her and tell her that, but how can I tell her when she won’t call me back. She won’t listen to me. She won’t talk to me.”
“Shhhh.” Pat said, taking her face in her hands. “Shhhhh. Calm down.”
It wasn’t until she did and said what she said that J.J. realized she had been yelling.
“J., when you were flying with your father on Saturdays, and the two of you kept it from your mother, did you ever stop to think that if something happened while the two of you were up in that plane, it would have left her by herself? When you came along in her life, it was her idea that she and your father not fly together any more. That was done for your sake. She didn’t want you to be left alone without either of them. Did you think about it the other way around when you were up there with your father? Do you see the real reason why this secret might have hurt her?”
Numbed by the truth, J.J. stared in stunned silence at Pat’s face.
“J.J., I need for you to understand something. I’m going to tell you something woman to woman. People in your mother’s past have left her alone at times she needed them the most. Her mother, by circumstance. Her father, by either necessity or unfortunate choice. Sabrina, out of her anger toward your father. Me too, once, even though she told me she didn’t need me with her. Sometimes people think they’ve put things behind them, J., but that doesn’t mean those things leave them alone.
“Your father is away from her right now, sicker than she’s ever known him to be. Then, she turned around, and you were, gone too. Whether you realize it or not, J., she needed you. She needs you now, but you’ve left her. It happened to her the other day just like it’s happened to her before. You say you were getting out of her way. Maybe you were never in it. I think maybe, just maybe, her needing you and your father’s being in trouble were in your way.”
“Your way. It was threatening your cushy little cozy world, the one they’ve provided for you. The one where you lean on them all the time, but you don’t realize they’ve made you strong enough for them to lean on you sometimes. You were right when you said if it hadn’t been for you, Jonathan might not be here. We’re all grateful to you for your skills. But you were wrong to throw it up to Jennifer the way you did. She doesn’t owe you a thing. You only did what you were taught to do. You did what you were supposed to do for them.”
Pat was still holding onto her face and she wouldn’t let go even when the tears insisted upon pushing their way up and out, and she tried to turn away to hide them.
“Cry, Squirt,” Pat ordered. “Go ahead. You need to. You can cry with me, it’s okay. Cry, let that drink take effect, and then go to sleep. When you get up in the morning, you take that good mind of yours, that maturity you say you have, and you figure out how you can fix this. Jennifer is very complex person, but don’t you ever doubt her love for you or her understanding of you. You are just as complex, but I know how much you love her and how much you really do trust her. Let her trust in you, too. Bottom line, J., where there’s love, there’s hope, and you Harts have the lock on that.”
Pat kissed her forehead. “Cry. You’re still my baby.”
Aunt Pat was sweet, but crusty; she wasn’t given to issuing kisses wholesale.
That one drew out the poison.
The sun had only just come up, but August Lamb was already out of the bed and dressed. The phone had rung twice in the last hour. His people were on their jobs, and that made him feel pretty good about things. Bob Smith had just called to report that Mrs. Hart had stayed put for the night. As of that last call, she was still at the villa.
The report from their operative on the inside of the hospital was slightly less comforting. The night doctor had ordered sleep medication for Mr. Hart, whom it seemed was having difficulty doing so. To his mild disappointment, it had been impossible for the inside person to determine whether or not Hart had actually taken the meds once they came up from the pharmacy. It would be like Jonathan to pretend to take it, spit it out once the nurse was gone, and then only pretend to sleep. He didn’t like taking medication. Taking something that was designed to make him do something his body wasn’t naturally allowing him to do went against his nature. In ordering it for Jonathan, he had been told that the doctor had been acting upon a report given to him by the nurse assigned to Hart’s room.
It was strange how it appeared the night physician didn’t seem to want to spend much time with his patient. Dr. Philips reportedly ordered that sleep stuff without even personally interviewing or observing his patient. Since Jonathan had been pretty quiet at night, and extremely defensive when he wasn’t, the doctor hadn’t had to or been able to interact very much with him. He didn’t seem too eager to press the issue, either. Given what he knew so far, Lamb wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
But, in his down time, the doctor was still searching for and printing out more information about his patient. But the most recent things weren’t all directly related to Hart himself. Dr. Philips seemed to have turned his attention to J.J. Hart. Now that was truly disconcerting. Being a doctor, more personal things like her medical records, would be more readily accessible to him, and he would know where and how to look.
What in the world did he want to know about that child? And why? What was he looking for?
Turning it over and over in his mind, Lamb could only see it making sense in one way: J.J. was female, sixteen, and pretty. She had run into the physician in the flesh twice, once had been in his presence, so he knew that young Dr. Philips knew very well what she looked like.
It could be nothing; the Doc could just be nosy. Whatever the case, Lamb was happier than ever that J.J. was far away from there.
Calling down to the hotel’s front desk, he informed the person who answered the phone that he was expecting a visitor who would be carrying Hart Industries identification.
There was no sense in letting his guard, and consequently the Harts, down. He had a job to do, and he was going to see to it being done until they were all back in Los Angeles.